________________________________

           

            A.J. wished they'd leave him alone so he could sleep.  When he was dreaming, he couldn't feel the pain.  Couldn't feel the violent throbbing in his skull, as though his brain had been replaced by a rapidly beating heart that was trying to burst through his head.

 

            His left arm ached, too, and his side.  His side felt raw and tender, like a piece of mangled meat that had been beaten by a spiked mallet.  If he shifted even the slightest degree so that the mattress came in contact with that portion of his body, the pain was so incredible it made him cry out.  Or he thought he cried out.  At least in his mind, he did.

 

            The dreams beckoned him to return to them.  Some were nice, odd surreal replays of events that had occurred when he was a boy growing up with Rick.  But some of them he didn't understand.  And some were downright terrifying, though he didn't know why.

 

            First there was the hockey puck.  It came sailing across the ice toward him, but he didn't have a stick with which to hit it. Instead, he scooped it up with his bare hands.  It was funny, the ice wasn't cold, but yet he was gliding on skates.  And that was funny, too, because he didn't know how to ice skate.  Had never played hockey.  A boy growing up in San Diego, California didn't have the opportunity for such a sport unless his parents paid for a membership at the local ice rink. Since neither he nor Rick had ever expressed interest in skating as kids, the Simon family had never belonged to a rink. 

 

            A blond headed man played hockey with A.J. in his dreams.  His hair wasn't really blond, though. It was actually so light it was white.  And white - that made him think of another word.  Wyatt.  Like the gunfighter at the OK Corral.  But it was rather stupid for A.J. to dream he was playing hockey with a white headed man he didn't know, and a sheriff from the old West.

 

            And then came the frightening part of his dream that seemed to go on and on and have no real end.  There were the bees first - thousands of them swarming him, chasing him, buzzing in his ears, and getting tangled in his hair.  They made him run straight for the hulking black shark with big shiny teeth that he knew was going to devour him in one mouthful.  He tried to turn away from it, but before he could, it snared him around the middle.  Its razor sharp incisors tore into his flesh until he screamed in agony.  When it had gotten all the enjoyment it could out of him it carelessly flipped him in the air like a trained seal flips a ball.  He landed so hard on the ground fireworks exploded in his skull.  Which is why A.J. thought his head hurt so much now.  It had something to do with playing hockey, and bees, and a shark, but when he tried to focus on all of those things he couldn't.  They were one huge jumbled kaleidoscope swirling around in his brain until the glaring images made him sick to his stomach.

 

            And now all he wanted to do was go back to sleep, but someone kept pinching the skin on his right forearm.  He knew it was a woman, he could tell by her voice.  But he didn't recognize who she was, and couldn't imagine what it was this stranger thought was so important that she needed to hurt him in order to tell him.  Didn't she know he was hurting enough right at the moment?  He tried to raise his right arm.  He wanted to pull it away from her.  Better yet, he wanted to pinch her back, but he couldn't.  He told his brain to move his arm, but nothing happened.

 

            Then another voice joined the first.  This one was a woman, too.  A woman A.J. recognized.  He could recall her face so vividly.  She was gentle, loving, and had always been there for him whenever he needed her.  But she was tough, too.  Somehow he knew that all his life he'd obeyed her - that he respected her too much not to.  A.J. remembered a blond man who looked very much like he did now.  The man used to laugh while calling the familiar woman, ‘The Little General.’  A.J. knew she had another name he himself called her.  He thought Rick called her that same name also.  But, he couldn't think of what it was.   It should be so easy, he kept telling himself.  He'd been calling her that since he'd first learned to talk.  It was a little word with only a few letters.  He could even see it in his head, but why couldn't he say it?  Why couldn't he remember it?

            She was crying again.  He could hear her sobs.  Could feel one of her tears gently splash on his face like soft rain.  It tore at A.J. to realize he was the source of her sorrow.  Even though he didn't know what to call her, he somehow knew he never wanted to hurt her.  Never wanted to cause her pain.  He loved her too much to do that to her.  He wanted to beg her to stop crying, even thought he opened his mouth to do so, but if he did, no words came out.  No words came out because he couldn't recall which ones to use. 

 

            So, overall, it was just easier to ignore these women and go back to sleep.

 

________________________________

 

            Rick walked Brendan to his front door that night.   The boy peered through the foyer before stepping into the living room, giving Rick the impression he was scouting for someone he didn't want to see. 

 

            "Where's Mark?"  Brendan asked his mother as she came to greet her son and cousin.

 

            "He went to wait for Cory." 

 

            Linda looked up at Rick, offering an explanation.  "Mark's ex-wife harbors a lot of animosity toward him.  She refuses to pull in my driveway to drop the boy off.  Isn't that ridiculous?  It's not as if I had anything to do with their marital breakup. She and Mark were divorced long before I knew him.  So, Mark has to rendezvous with her somewhere in the neighborhood, as though the poor little boy is a parcel she's dropping off, and not a child."

 

            Rick nodded sympathetically, though didn't miss the relief on Brendan's face.  As though he was glad he didn't have to deal with his stepfather any more this evening.

 

            "Go get ready for bed, sport."  Linda ran a light hand through her son's hair.  "It's late, and it's been a long day.  But keep the noise down.  Heather's asleep."

 

            "Okay, Mom."

 

            Brendan took three steps away from his mother before turning back to wrap his arms around her waist.  "I'm sorry, Mom.  For everything.  I'll try harder now.  I really will."

            Linda kissed the top of his head.  "You can't imagine how happy I am to hear that.  Now you go on.  We'll talk in the morning.  I'll be up to say good night in a few minutes."

 

            Brendan moved from his mother's waist to Rick's.  Rick patted the boy on the back while receiving a final, "Thanks, Rick."

 

            After the twelve-year-old was out of earshot, Linda turned to her cousin with astonishment.  "How much do you charge for the miracle work you perform, Richard?"

 

            "Don't give me any of the credit.  Brendan's doing this all on his own."

 

            "I just hope it lasts."

 

            "I think it will.  He got a hard look at reality yesterday, and a hard look at some of those consequences you've been tellin' him about.  I don't think he liked what he saw."

 

            "I can imagine not.  I just wish it hadn't come to this for A.J.'s sake."

 

            Rick's words were quiet and subdued.  "Don't we all." 

 

            The lanky man quickly chased away worried thoughts of A.J.  He took a few brief minutes to fill his cousin in on his discussion with Brendan.  He didn't go into too many details surrounding what the twelve-year-old had seen happen the previous day, though he did mention the dead man so Linda was aware of that fact in the event the boy suffered nightmares.

 

            "But Brendan didn't actually see the man get shot?  Or who shot him, for that matter?"

            "No.  We believe A.J.'s the only one who has that information."

Although Linda didn't say "Thank, God," she thought it.  She didn't want her twelve-year-old to be end up being a star witness in a murder investigation.

 

            Rick easily read her unvoiced thoughts.  "Don't worry, Lindy.  As much as I hate to say it, I highly doubt anything will come of all this."

 

            "You mean a man's going to simply get away with killing another man, and no one will ever know why?"

 

            "Someone knows why," Rick said quietly, thinking of A.J.,  "but whether or not he'll be able to tell us is another matter."

 

            Linda had no magic words of comfort to offer her cousin.  Instead, she gave him a kiss on the cheek.  "Take care of yourself.  Get some sleep."

 

            "I will.  I'll call you tomorrow to see how Brendan's doing.  I promised him I'd keep in close touch."

 

            "Thank you, Rick.  He needs a man like you in his life right now."

 

             Rick's smile was guilt-ridden and sad.  "I'm not sure anyone needs a man like me, but I'll do my best to help him."

 

            Before Linda could say anymore, Rick turned and disappeared into the darkness.  She saw him get in Lieutenant Marsh's car, then watched as it backed out of her driveway, its headlights sweeping over the side of the house next door.

 

            Linda brushed at her tears as she reentered her home.

 

Poor Rick.  He blames himself for what's happened to A.J.  Please, God, be with both of them tonight.  Stay close.  They both need you so much.

 

            Across the street and two blocks down, Lucas Bentz sat on the front passenger side of the Chevy Cavalier.  Cory was occupied in the back with his plastic Ninja Turtles, seemingly oblivious to the adults' conversation.

 

            The man watched as the Diplomat drove by, then, turned at the next intersection. 

 

            "Whatta ya' suppose the kid told them?"  Natalie asked.

 

            "I don't know," Luke opened the door, resting one leg on the sidewalk,  "but I intend to find out.  The last thing we need is for that nosy little sonuvabitch to be spyin'

on me for the cops."

 

            The man half turned to look behind him.  "Come on, Cory, get your things together.  We have to get going or Linda will wonder where we are."

            "Okay, Uncle Luke."

            "Hey, hey, hey," the man gently admonished.  "Who am I?"

            Cory grinned.  He loved to play pretend just as much as his Uncle Luke and his Mom did.  "I mean, Daddy.  Okay, Daddy."

 

            Lucas Bentz, alias Mark Ecklund, reached around to tousle the child's baby soft curls.  "That's my boy."

 

            Luke and Cory climbed out of the car as one, Cory shouldering the backpack with his clothes and toys.  And even some of Brendan's toys he'd stolen last weekend that he intended to put back on the sly, so that when Brendan finked on him to Linda, it would make the older boy look like a liar.  Just like Uncle Lucky had taught him to do.

 

            The man took the little boy's hand in his, steering them down the sidewalk toward Linda's home.  He smiled at the child as though he could read Cory's thoughts and intentions by simply looking in his innocent blue eyes.

 

            "When you learn from your Uncle Lucky, kid, you're learnin' from the best.  Don't you forget that now, ya' hear?"

 

________________________________

 

            Rick had no more than pushed open the doors that led to Intensive Care late that night, when he saw his mother running toward him.  He swore his heart stopped at that moment. He was certain she was coming to tell him A.J. had taken a turn for the worse while he was absent.

 

            But then he focused on her face.  She appeared agitated, yet excited all at the same time.  Mindful of where she was, Cecilia's cries came out in a hushed, "Rick!  Rick!" 

 

            Rick caught his mother by the arms.  "Mom, slow down.  What is it?  What's goin' on?  Is A.J. all right?"

 

            "Honey, he heard me.  He heard me when I spoke to him."

            "He heard you?"

 

            "Yes.  Right after you left.  I was speaking to him, telling him how he had to work hard to get better for you, then he squeezed my hand."

 

            Rick's face dropped.  "Mom...Mom, don't you remember Joel tellin' us that A.J.'s body might make involuntary movements like that?"

 

            "Rick, it wasn't involuntary," Cecilia insisted.  "He understood what I said.  I talked to him again, asked him to squeeze my hand again, and he did.  Even Gina saw him do it.  She called Doctor Cho.  He came up to examine A.J.  He's fairly certain your

brother is coming out of his coma, honey."

 

            The detective pulled his mother to him, bending to rest his head on her shoulder.  "Thank God," he whispered with closed eyes, "thank God."

 

            Cecilia took her son by the hand when he released her.  "He hasn't responded to me since then, but the doctor said that isn't unusual.  He's hopeful A.J. will emerge from this gradually over the next few days."

 

            Rick allowed his mother to lead him to A.J.'s room.  He certainly couldn't tell anything profound had happened here this evening.  A.J. looked exactly like he had when Rick left five hours earlier.  But, for his mother, the detective was willing to try.

 

            Rick bent over his brother, picking up A.J.'s right hand.  He rubbed his thumb over the top of it, making sure to keep his grip loose and unrestrictive.

 

            "A.J., I'm back now.  I came back to tell you good night.   Do you remember me tellin' you I'd come back?"

 

            Rick waited a long time, but A.J. didn't squeeze his hand.  Didn't so much as move his fingers. 

 

            "A.J., it's Rick.  I'm here now.  It's gettin' late, so Mom and I will be leavin' soon.  I need to drive her home.  You wouldn't want her drivin' home by herself, would you?"

 

            It was then that Rick saw it - the tiny, negative shake of A.J.'s head that was immediately followed by a shallow gasp of pain.

 

            "Did you see that, Rick?"  Cecilia questioned.  "He tried to shake his head!"

            Rick glanced over his shoulder.  "Yeah, Mom, I saw it."  The detective returned his attention to his brother.  "A.J., don't try to move your head.  I know it hurts, so don't try to move it.  Squeeze my hand instead."

 

            Rick gave his brother's hand a light squeeze, demonstrating what he wanted A.J. to do.  "I've got your hand in mine, A.J., so you can squeeze for all you're worth.  You won't hurt me.  Can you do that for me?  Can you squeeze my hand?"

 

            Though it felt more like feathers tickling his palm than a squeeze, Rick knew what the weak movement of A.J.'s fingers signified.  He lavished his brother with well-deserved praise.  "That's great, A.J.  That's great.  You did exactly what I wanted you to."

 

            Cecilia ran down the hall in search of Gina.  She'd been told by Doctor Cho to let one of the nurses know whenever she or Rick perceived themselves to be getting some type of response from A.J.

 

            Rick was still praising his brother while running a light hand through A.J.'s hair, when the women returned.

 

            Gina crossed to A.J.'s left side.  She lifted his closed eyelids one by one with her thumb, shining a penlight into each of them.   Rick was certain he saw A.J.'s eyes react to her ministrations.  The lids fought her as though her thumb forcing them open annoyed him, while at the same time A.J.'s eyes tried to trace the tiny beam that moved from left to right then up and down. 

 

            The woman  allowed A.J.'s lids to fall.    "See if you can get him to open his eyes, Rick."

 

            "A.J., can you open your eyes for me?"

            Rick saw Gina nod at him to try again when A.J. didn't respond to the request.

 

            "A.J., come on, open your eyes for me.  I know this one's a little harder, but try for me and Mom, okay?"

 

            It was almost painful to watch A.J.'s eyelashes flutter like tiny, crippled butterfly wings.  Rick could tell his brother was valiantly attempting to do as he asked.  Seconds ticked off the clock before the eyelids themselves finally began to move.  Like rusty hinges that hadn't been used in years, they'd open a fraction, then fall closed again.  Open a little wider, then close.  Open a bit more, then shut.

 

            Rick wasn't sure how long they watched, but knew several minutes passed.  Several minutes in which he never stopped offering A.J. encouragement and praise. 

 

            When A.J.'s eyes opened all the way it wasn't like Rick thought it would be.  His brother didn't immediately follow the sound of his voice, or that of their mother's voice, either.  Instead, A.J.’s eyes were as watery and unfocused as a newborn infant's.  They lazily drifted from one object to another, from one person to another, without sign of recognition.

 

            Rick reached out, lightly touching the end of A.J.'s nose with the tips of two fingers to gain his attention.  "A.J., look at me.  A.J.?"

 

            A.J. lethargically tracked the familiar voice.  Although the man's features were blurred, he could see the gentle smile underneath the trademark moustache.

 

            "A.J.?"

            A.J.'s mouth moved.  Cecilia could tell he was trying to say something, but it was like watching the Tin Man attempting to force his jaw to work after years spent out in the rain.

 

            Rick beckoned again.  "A.J.?" 

 

            A.J.'s head lifted from the pillow a fraction of an inch, his face scrunched in effort.  When what he was working so hard for finally came out, it was stumbled over in one raspy syllable.

 

            "Ka-----Ka----Ka------Ka------Kee."

 

            Rick looked to his mother.  She gave a small shake of her head, indicating she didn't know what A.J. was trying to say any more than Rick did..

 

            Gina moved closer.  She placed a hand on her patient's shoulder, gently urging him back.  "A.J., you need to relax.  Don't work so hard.  There'll be plenty of time for that later."

 

            A.J.'s head rested back against his pillows, but his eyes never left Rick.  He became more insistent with each attempt to communicate.

 

            "Ka-----Ka-----Ka-----Kee.  Kee."

 

            Rick offered the only thing he could think of.  "Yeah, A.J., I've got your keys.  To your house and car both.  Don't worry about them."

 

            The next word came out loud and clear.

 

            "No!"

 

            Figures, Rick couldn't help but think with affectionate amusement.  He caught his mother's smile as well.  That would be the first word he uses.

 

            Rick had nothing but gentle patience for his brother.  "Okay, I understand.  You're not trying to tell me about your keys."

 

            "No.  Ka----Ka-----Kee."  A.J.'s eyes focused on Rick.  He awkwardly loosened his hand from his brother's grip, bringing it to rest on Rick's forearm.  He had to think hard in order to make his right index finger tap a weak rhythm against the cloth of Rick's field jacket.

 

            "Kee.  Kee."

 

            Rick's eyebrows met in concentration.  A.J. was desperately trying to communicate something to him, but what the hell was it?  He felt the finger tap on his arm again.  At that moment, Rick realized that what A.J. was doing was pointing.  Pointing at him.

 

            "Kee.  Kee."

 

            Rick took A.J.'s hand.  He laid it against the middle of his own chest, right atop his beating heart.  "You mean me, A.J.?  Rick?  You're saying Rick?"

 

            A.J.'s eyes closed in exhausted triumph.  "Esss.  Kee.  Kee."

 

            Yes.  Rick.  Rick.

 

            It was then that Rick knew with heartbreaking certainty everything Doctor Cho had predicted was about to come true.  It was then that he knew the likelihood of A.J. being able to give Abby any useful information regarding what he had witnessed the previous day was nonexistent.  By the tears streaming down Cecilia's face, Rick was aware his mother knew these things, too.  But because they were a family who had always loved and supported one another, Rick hid his distress from A.J., as he would do many times in the months to come.  Instead, he squeezed his brother's hand in quiet confirmation.

 

            "Yes, A.J.  It's Rick.  It's Rick."
           

 

Chapter 10

 

 

            Three and a half weeks passed in which A.J.'s injuries slowly but steadily healed, allowing him to be moved off Intensive Care eight days after the accident.  Not that he didn't have major hurdles to leap, he did.  Many of them.        

 

            Two days after he responded to his family, the nurses had A.J. out of bed along with Rick's help.  As anyone could have easily guessed based on the massive amount of bruising he suffered, the trips A.J. was forced to make up and down the hall were horribly torturous for him.  Torturous to the point he'd turn away to hide his tears from his brother, though Rick was fully aware they were there.  Internally, he cried along with A.J. at those times, adding to the layers of sorrow and guilt weighing heavier on his heart with each passing day.

 

            It was during those early days after the accident that the doctors realized the brain damage A.J. suffered extended to the use of his right arm and leg.  He had a difficult time controlling that side of his body.  Like a stroke victim, he had weakness in the major muscle groups.  He walked with an awkward limp, as though at any moment his knee might give out from under him.  It was difficult for him to hold anything with his right hand, be it a cup of water, a fork or his toothbrush.  Since his left arm was in a cast, A.J. was often dependent on his family, or the nursing staff, for his daily needs.  It was obvious to Rick his brother hated that dependency.  More than once he'd had to duck when A.J.'s toothbrush or razor was sent flying across the bathroom with frustration, because the blond man couldn't make his right hand perform what once had been simple tasks. 

 

            Because of his right leg, they started A.J. out using a walker.  Maneuvering it was no easy feat because of the weakness in his right arm and his useless left one, but Joel insisted it was for his own safety.  A.J. hated that, too, and as Cecilia had predicted might happen, Rick was forced to bawl his sibling out when A.J. tried to make a trip without the hated walker and ended up falling.

 

            But the thing Rick knew his brother abhorred most was his inability to communicate.  A.J.'s verbal skills were extremely slow in improving.  Now, nearly a month after the accident, he couldn't say more than two dozen words, few of them clearly.  Rick was still 'Kee' and Cecilia - well Cecilia he didn't refer to by name at all. 

 

            A.J.'s first frustrating try at 'Mom' had ended with both him and Cecilia in tears.  Cecilia couldn't understand why he was so upset when he finally managed to get out the M A sounds that formed the word Ma.  She praised him, telling him he'd done wonderful.

 

            "No!  No!  Ma-----Ma------Ma------"

 

            It was as Cecilia watched A.J.'s mouth that day she realized he was trying to form the vowel O, though it kept coming out as an A.  That what he really wanted to do was call her Mom, as opposed to Ma. 

 

            She reached out a hand, running it over his cheek.  "Honey, you've got it.  Ma.  Ma or Mom, they mean the same thing.  It doesn't make any difference to me."

 

            "No!  No!  Na--------Na------No--------Ma."

 

            It was then that the woman finally understood.  When her sons were young, Rick used to tease her by calling her Ma.  For whatever reason, Cecilia didn't like to be referred to in that manner, and would refuse to answer him.  "I'm Mom," she would tell Rick firmly while eight-year-old A.J. laughed at his brother's joke.  "Mom or Mother.  But not Ma.  I don't like that, Rick.  It makes me sound like an old mountain woman with no teeth."

 

            And now A.J. was telling her he remembered she was not Ma, but rather Mom - as he had called her all his life.

 

            "Sweetheart, it's okay.  You can call me Ma for now.  I'll answer you, I promise.  Later, in a few weeks, we'll work on Mom again."

 

            A.J. slammed his fist against the bed railing that morning, letting his mother know how frustrated he was with himself.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he repeated in the halting speech pattern that his family was slowly growing accustomed to,  "Na----Na-----No-----Ma!  No----Ma!"

 

            That was the last day A.J. had attempted to verbally identify his mother.

 

            Friends and relatives were another challenge.  A.J.'s doctors encouraged visitors once he was out of Intensive Care.  Joel told Cecilia and Rick it would be too easy for A.J. to shut himself down socially, if he wasn't made to at least attempt to communicate with the people he'd been close to before the accident. 

 

            "Besides," Joel pointed out,  "you can't allow A.J. to become dependent on just the two of you for his every need.  You'll only hurt him further if you do that, and hurt yourselves in the process.  I know this is going to be hard for him; facing his friends and family members, but he has to."

 

            Rick wasn't sure how successful that project was proving to be.  A.J. was a sly son of gun; there was no doubt about that.  It wasn't lost on Rick that his brother feigned sleep, or even amnesia, when someone visited with whom he wasn't comfortable.  The circle of people with whom A.J. was comfortable was few and far between, but Rick quickly picked up on why.  Those that came and carried on a normal conversation with A.J., treated him as an equal, allowed him time to try to voice what he was thinking, even though nine instances out of ten they couldn't understand him, were not a threat, but were welcomed with the old familiar A.J. Simon grin.  On the other hand, those visitors who were obviously uncomfortable with A.J.'s disabilities, who shouted at him as though he was deaf like Uncle Bud tended to do, or who never shut their mouths in an effort to cover up his awkward words and pauses like Aunt Edie did, were not welcome.  A.J. made that perfectly clear. 

 

            So along with a small handful of A.J.'s friends, and a select few relatives such as Linda, his list of favored visitors was limited to Abby, Carlos, Jerry Reiner, and Downtown Brown, who'd traveled twice since the accident from his home in L.A. in order to offer his support to both Simon brothers.

 

            Almost everyone else A.J. refused to see in one fashion or another, be it by pretending to be asleep, or by disappearing with his favorite nurse, Ellen, who was always willing to spirit him away to the employee's lounge if nothing else.  Or stow A.J. in a closet, as Rick once found him.  The black nurse was in the closet beside her patient, both laughing themselves silly, though these days A.J.'s laugh sounded more like the cough of a machine gun.  Rick could only shake his head while smiling and pretending to scold them for hiding A.J. from Aunt Marion, who had driven all the way down from San Francisco to see him.  Truthfully, neither Rick nor Cecilia could be angry with him for any of the little tricks he pulled.  Though they supposed they should have been, quite the contrary, they silently applauded A.J. for his ingenuity.  And for his fun.  God knew he was getting very little of that.

 

            For along with physical therapy on his weak right side, and the therapy he would soon engage in once his cast was removed, came therapy of another sort.  The therapy required to help A.J. regain his lost mental skills.  Unfortunately, Rick found what County General had to offer to be lacking in structure and goals.  So did A.J.  According to Joel, this was because a patient who had sustained the type of injury A.J. had wasn't meant to receive long term care at County General, but rather would need to be transferred to San Diego Rehabilitation Hospital, more commonly referred to as San Diego Rehab, for further assistance.  Which was exactly where A.J. was going as soon as his doctors felt he was physically able.

 

            In the meantime, they'd made do with what County General had to offer.  Which was how Rick found himself sitting on his brother's bed just three days before A.J. was scheduled to be admitted to the rehab center. The evening supper dishes had been cleared away, and had been replaced with children's wooden blocks.  Rick scattered them over the small rolling tray/table that served as a stand for A.J. to eat on, among other things.

 

            Colors, A.J. was good at.  He had no trouble pointing out which block was blue, which one was red, which one was yellow, and so forth.  They'd abandoned that game within a few minutes the first night they'd tried it.  Numbers and letters were another story, however. Another bridge A.J. had to cross that seemed to wobble every time he stepped on it.

 

            Rick shuffled the blocks around on the tray until they were in random order.  The brothers were alone, A.J.'s most recent roommate having been released the previous day.

 

            "Okay, A.J., pick up the number two and give it to me," Rick said from his position on the opposite side of the short table. 

 

            What was difficult about this for Rick to watch; was the fact A.J. never hesitated.  He appeared to know exactly what he was doing, appeared to have great confidence in his abilities, when he handed Rick the number five. 

 

            "No, that's a five.  See."  Rick turned the block so A.J. could view the red number.  "Five."  Rick traced it with his fingers.  "See, it's shaped like this.  Almost like an S."

            Rick returned the block to the tray.  He surreptitiously studied his brother, already seeing A.J.'s jaw clenching.  They'd been doing this for two weeks now, and making little headway.  Rick wondered how much longer his brother's temper would hold.

 

            "Let's try a different one.  How about an eight?  Hand me the eight."

 

            A.J. plucked the blue number six from the pile. 

 

            "No, that's a six.  It kinda looks like a raindrop, doesn't it?  Here, we'll try again.  Find me the four."

 

            A.J. grabbed the green nine, violently shoving it in his brother's sternum. 

 

            Rick took a deep breath.  "You're not trying very hard tonight, A.J.  Now come on, focus.  Find the seven for me."

            Rick was rewarded with a hastily chosen two flying by his head.  He had to swerve to his left in order to avoid being clipped by a sharp corner.

 

            "A.J., knock it off!   Mom and I have told you before that throwing things doesn't do any good.  It only makes things harder on all of us." 

 

            Rick allowed himself a few seconds to calm down.  A.J. sat back against his pillows, eyes averted, a permanent scowl etched on his features. The look of displeasure on the blond man's face made Rick feel like a coldhearted headmaster who belonged in the pages of a Dickens' novel.

 

            Rick hid the smile that threatened to burst forth.  A.J.'s lower lip was jutting forward in a pout, and despite his cast, his arms were crossed over his chest.

 

            "Okay," Rick said, calm and in control once more,  "let's skip the numbers and go to the letters.  Let's spell your name.  Hand me an A."

 

            The detective knew his brother recognized the letter A.  That's why he started with it, to give A.J. a chance to succeed. 

 

            The blond man studied the blocks.  His brows knit together in deep concentration as he searched.  He finally retrieved what he was looking for, handing it across the tray.

 

            Rick kept the sigh out of his voice.  "No.  That's an L."

 

            "L."

 

            "Yes, an L, you're right.  It's an L.  But I asked you for an A.  As in Andrew.  Find me the A."

 

            Again, A.J. scrutinized the letters in front of him. Rick briefly closed his eyes when his brother's hand came to rest on the B.

 

            "No, A.J., that's a B."

 

            "Ba----Ba-----Bee."

 

            "Yeah, that's how the sound is made, but I thought we we're gonna start with an A."

            A.J. shook his head.  He pointed to the block Rick still held in his hand.

            "No, this isn't an A.  It's an L."

 

            "L."

 

            "Yes, an L.  Not an A."

 

            A.J. began to bang the block he held under his fingers.

 

            "No, that's not an A either, it's the second letter of the alphabet.  It's B."

 

            "B."

            "Yes, B.  But what did I ask you to get for me?  I asked for an A, remember?"

 

            "B!  B!"

              Rick was starting to feel like they were participating in the old Abbott and Costello comedy routine, 'Who's On First.  Though someone had definitely forgotten to add the laugh track, because Rick was hard pressed to find the humor in any of this.

            "El-----bee."

 

            "A.J., damn it, quit foolin' around!  It's been a long day, and I'm tired.  You know perfectly well what I asked you for."

            A.J. viciously pounded, his teeth clenched with frustration. 

 

            "El----bee!   El-----bee!  El-----bee!"

 

            Rick reached over, placing his hands firmly atop his brother's.  "Stop it!  It's not doing either one of us any good for you to have a temper tantrum like a spoiled three-year-old!  Now knock it off!"

 

            With more strength than Rick thought his brother currently possessed, A.J. grappled his hands free and wiped the tray clean.  Blocks sailed in every direction like small square missiles.  The last thing to go down was the tray itself.  It banged the floor twice with a repetitive clatter.

 

            Rick flew to his feet.  "Now look what you've done!  If you think I'm gonna pick this mess up by myself you've got another think...A.J.? A.J., what's wrong?"

 

            It was the look of shock on A.J.'s face that first caused Rick to cease his short-tempered tirade.  His brother's eyes were wide, first with surprise, then with shame.  Rick didn't know how long it would have taken him to figure it out if he hadn't caught the whiff of urine.  He looked down to see the wet stain on the sheet that was covering A.J.

 

            The lanky man quickly took the situation in hand, his tone and demeanor instantly changing.  "It's okay," he soothed quietly.  "It's okay.  I'll help you."  Rick reached for his sibling's shoulder.  "Come on, let's get you outta that bed and--"

 

            "No!-------No!" 

 

            The closer Rick tried to get, the more A.J. pushed him away.

 

            Rick kept his voice low pitched and calm.  "A.J., it's all right.  We'll take care of it together.  Now just let me help--"

 

            "No!  No!  Go!--------Go!"

 

            Before Rick could decide how best to proceed, Ellen entered the room.  A.J.'s cries had summoned her from halfway down the hall.  The woman's ever-present sense of humor was in motion before she was two steps in the door.

 

            "What are you pale rent-a-cops doin' in here?  Sounding the battle cry for the start of the third World War?"

             There was no need for Rick to explain.  The second Ellen got close to the bed her nose told her what had happened.  She immediately understood the situation.  By A.J.'s continuous shouts of "Go!  Go!" she knew he wanted Rick out of the room.

 

            The black woman gently pushed the detective to the door.  "Rick, go down and get yourself a cup of coffee.  I'll help A.J.  By the time you get back we'll be done."

 

            Rick looked back at his brother.  A.J. was still sitting in the wet mess, his eyes clenched shut and his cheeks stained ruby red with mortification at what he'd done.

            "But--"

 

            "Go! ------Go!--------Go!"

 

            "Go on, Rick.  It'll be better this way."

            The woman shut the door behind the departing man.  He stood there until A.J.'s shouts faded away.  He could hear the murmur of Ellen's voice, soft now with sympathy and understanding, but couldn't tell what she was saying.

 

            Rick was gone for thirty minutes that night.  He sat in the cafeteria sipping coffee while rubbing a hand over his grainy eyes.  He still wasn't sleeping well.  Between that, his many worries surrounding A.J., keeping Simon and Simon afloat, and spending every evening at the hospital – well, it was all taking its toll on him both mentally and physically.  Those factors, and probably a dozen others he hadn't thought of, accounted for his short temper with A.J. tonight. 

 

            The detective replayed the scene he'd just lived through.  He knew without a doubt A.J. recognized the letter A.  But then why did he insist on picking out the L and the B?  Why was he so adamant about it?  Was he trying to tell Rick something, or was he simply having a bad night, too?  Maybe he was just as tired and short tempered as his big brother.

 

            And the accident.  Wetting the bed like that.  It forced Rick to recall Brendan's question about diapers. 

 

            Oh, A.J., what have I done to you?  the man beseeched with dark despair.  In his mind's eye he saw again what he saw every time he was by himself in a moment of quiet reflection.  He saw A.J.'s body bounce off the grill of his truck.  Now, to add to that scenario, was the picture of his brother sitting in urine soaked bedclothes, horror and embarrassment lining his handsome features.

 

            Oh, Lord, what have I done? 

 

            Rick gave a weary sigh when he finally stood to head back to A.J.'s floor.  He tossed his half full coffee cup in a trash barrel right before he climbed on the elevator.

 

            Ellen closed the door behind her as she exited A.J.'s room   She paused when she saw Rick approaching.   "I was just coming to look for you."

 

            "How is he?"

            "Upset, Rick.  Very upset, just like you or I would be if the same thing happened to us.  I helped him shower and put on clean pajamas, while one of the aides stripped and remade the bed.  He's settled back in it for the night."

 

            "What caused this, Ellen?  They took the catheter out the fourth day he was here.  That's been almost a month ago now.  He's never had a problem makin' it to the bathroom when he has to get there.  Granted, he's needed help makin' the trip, but he's always told someone in plenty of time."

 

            The woman drew on twenty years of medical knowledge and first hand nursing care in order to answer the detective.  "Rick, you have to keep in mind A.J. has suffered brain trauma that he's far from overcome.  As to what might have caused this accident tonight, my best guess tells me he was concentrating so hard on what he was doing that he wasn't able to pay attention to the other signals his brain was sending him."

 

            "Like he needed to go to the john."

 

            "Exactly.  Or maybe his brain wasn't telling him that as clearly this time as it has at other times.  I've noted it on A.J.'s chart.   Doctor Cho will review it in the morning.   I'm sure he or Joel will speak with you about it tomorrow."

            "Do you think it will happen again?"

 

            "I don't know.  It might, or it might not."

 

            "Did he say why he didn't want me in there with him?  I woulda' helped him, you know.  I coulda' got him cleaned up without ever bothering you."

 

            "I know that.  And so does A.J.  But you have to understand, Rick, that sometimes it's easier to lose your dignity in front of strangers, than it is to lose your dignity in front of your family.  Especially when that family member is your older brother and best friend."

 

            Rick gave a reluctant nod.  "Yeah.  I see your point."   He indicated to the closed door with his thumb.  "Is it okay if I tell him good night before I leave?"

            "I think so.  I told him you'd probably be in to say goodbye to him.  He didn't comment on that one way or another."

 

            Remembering what Ellen had said about dignity, Rick knocked on the door before entering the room.  He opened the swinging door just enough to allow his upper body to be visible to his sibling.  "A.J.?  Is it okay if I come in for a minute?"

            A.J. turned away from Rick, shading his eyes with his right arm. 

 

            Rick noted the absence of the blocks that had been scattered on the floor the last time he was in here.  He assumed the nurse's aide had picked them up and put them back where they belonged.

 

            The detective sat his hat on the nightstand, then perched a hip on the edge of his brother's bed.  It was still raised to a forty-five degree angle like it had been when they were working with the blocks.  Over one hundred get-well cards covered the area behind it, literally serving as wallpaper of mismatched sorts.  Heather's was right in the middle of the bunch, causing a smile to touch Rick's lips.  It disappeared as he studied the withdrawn blond man.

 

            "A.J.?"

            A.J.'s head burrowed deeper into his pillow.

 

            "A.J...A.J., it's okay.  It wasn't your fault.  It was an accident.  That kinda stuff...well, it happens sometimes.  To all of us."

 

            Rick quickly realized this was one time when big brother didn't have all the answers, or the right words to make an embarrassing situation better.  He gently tugged on A.J.'s arm, only to have it yanked away from him.

 

            "No!"

 

            "A.J., come on.  Really, it wasn't a big deal."

 

            That's when A.J.'s arm flew down.  He turned his head, glaring up at his brother.  Tears and anger mixed as one in the blond's eyes.

 

            "Esss!  Dee----dee---dee----deal!   Deal!  Ba----Ba----bic-----deal!"

 

            Out of everyone, from those hospital staff members who worked with A.J. on a daily basis, to the close friends and family members who visited him regularly, Rick was the one who most often understood his halting speech and garbled words.  No one who knew the Simon brothers well found that to be a surprise.  As a matter of fact, they expected it to be so, and often turned to Rick for help with interpreting what A.J. was trying to tell them.

 

            Rick had no trouble interpreting now, or filling in the words A.J. wasn't able to say at all.

 

            ‘Yes, Rick, it is a big deal.  It didn't happen to you, it happened to me.  And to me, it's a big deal.’

 

            When A.J.'s eyes could no longer contain his tears they spilled over to run down his face.  He hated that even more, pounding his fist on the mattress at his lack of control - the lack of emotional control that was another result of the accident.  Doctor Cho claimed it was a common affliction among brain injured patients, especially during the early months following the initial trauma.  Therefore, Rick had seen A.J. cry out of frustration several times over the past three weeks, but he'd never seen him cry for this reason.  Cry because of the humiliation he felt over the way his body and his mind had failed him.

 

            Rick had no further words to offer that would be of help to either one of them.  Instead, he reached out, engulfing his brother in his arms.  He expected A.J. to fight him, to struggle to pull away from him, but he didn't.  The blond man sunk into Rick's chest.  For the first time since the accident, A.J. sobbed for himself and all that had been changed in a heartbeat.

 

            Rick held his brother, rubbing a hand over A.J.'s back while crooning soft words of sympathy.  "It's okay, buddy.   It's okay.  I know.  I know.   It's okay."

 

            Not for the first time in recent weeks while in the midst of an emotional storm, A.J. asked what brought him to this point.  Although the words were muffled against his shirt, Rick heard them.

 

            "Ow-----Kee?   Ert?------Ow?"

 

            ‘How, Rick?  How was I hurt?’

 

            And, not for the first time, Rick's answer was vague and choked.  In many ways, the oldest Simon brother wanted nothing more than to purge his soul.  He wanted nothing more than to pour out the tremendous guilt and heartache that knotted his stomach every time he watched A.J. try so hard to say a simple, one syllable word, or to identify a single digit number.   He wanted to cling to his little brother at those times and beg his forgiveness.  But the doctors had told Rick and Cecilia that for now it was best not to go into any great detail surrounding the accident.  It had become obvious weeks ago A.J. remembered nothing about that fateful afternoon.  He didn't remember looking for Brendan, he didn't remember what he witnessed inside the old building, and he didn't remember everything else that followed.  Therefore, Joel often reminded Rick,  "He needs your support right now, not your guilt.  I know A.J.  If he senses how difficult all this is for you, he, in turn, will feel guilty.  It was an accident, Rick.  An accident.  It wasn't your fault, and it wasn't A.J.'s fault.  Neither one of you needs any more monkeys on your backs, so just let it go for a while.   Let's see how much progress he makes before we pile anything else on him.  When the time is right to tell A.J. the whole story, and when he's ready to hear it, you'll know it."

 

            It was in the middle of Rick's thoughts that A.J.'s question was spoken again.                

            "Ow-----Kee?   Ert?   Ow------ert?"

 

            Rick's hand rose to the back of his brother's head.  He lightly raked it through the blond hair, making the transition from long layers to short.  The bandage was gone now, the scar from the surgery almost hidden by a thick growth of short, spiky blond stubble.  When the bandage had first come off for good Cecilia asked A.J. if he'd prefer to have his hair the same length all the way around.  She reminded him that he had a cousin who was a stylist.  Karen could easily give him a crew cut if he desired.  Cecilia received an adamant, "No!" to that question, which made her laugh, but she complied with her youngest son's wishes, even though he looked like he'd just barely escaped a marauding band of Indians intent on having his scalp.

 

            "A.J.," Rick said now,  "you were hurt in an accident."

 

            If A.J. could have voiced his thoughts it would have been to say, “No shit.  I figured that out a long time ago, Rick.  What I want to know is, what kind of an accident.  Did I have a car accident, or did someone shoot me in the head, or did I trip and fall over one of your stupid cowboy boots?”   But those words were beyond A.J.’s ability to master at the present, so he settled on something shorter, easier, and far more dear to his heart.

 

            "Kee------ert?"

            "Was I hurt?"

            "Esss."

 

            Though A.J. didn't understand why, he felt his brother's hold tighten.  He also thought he could hear tears in Rick's voice, but knew he had to be mistaken.  After all, why would Rick be crying?

            "No, A.J.," Rick whispered.  "No.  I wasn't hurt."

 

            "Ot----ter  pee----le?"

 

            The best Rick could do with that phrase was to decipher it as 'Otter Peel,' which aside from making no sense, didn't fit into the context of their discussion.  He eased A.J. back on the bed so he could see his mouth.  He'd found that sometimes he had a better chance of figuring out what his brother was trying to say by watching how his lips moved.  He handed A.J. a Kleenex from the box on the nightstand, waiting while he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.  Rick lifted the room's small plastic garbage can from the floor so A.J. could deposit the used tissue in it. 

 

            "Ask me that again, A.J."  Rick leaned over, putting the can back where it belonged.  "I'm not sure what you said."

            A.J. tried harder this time, as though he was fully expecting the words to come out in a way that was understandable to both of them.  He used his right hand to gesture as if taking in a vast amount of space.

 

            "Ot---ter  peeee-----le?  Otter-------peee----le---------ert?"

 

            Otter peel hurt?  Otter peel hurt?  Rick silently repeated over and over until it came to him.  "Oh, other people?  Is that what you're asking me?  Were other people hurt?"

            "Esss."

 

            "No, A.J.  No one else was hurt."

            A.J.'s "Good," came out "Goot" giving it a distinctly German sound, but Rick knew what he meant.  He gave his brother a soft smile. 

 

            You care so much about others, don't you?  You always have.  Here you are facing the biggest challenge of your life, and yet you're worried about the possibility of someone else having been hurt.

 

            The detective pushed his thoughts aside and fiddled with the blankets, helping A.J. get settled for the night.  "Your cast comes off tomorrow.  I bet you're pretty happy about that, huh?"

            "Esss."

 

            "And then, two days after that, on Thursday, we'll be takin' you to San Diego Rehab."

 

            "No!"

 

            "Whatta ya' mean, no?  We talked about this last week.  You and I filled out the papers together; remember?  We had to list your occupation, your hobbies, what sports you like to play, what--"

 

            "No!"

 

            "Yes we did, A.J.  We did it on Friday night."

 

            "No!  No---------go!"

            It was then Rick realized A.J. wasn't trying to deny they'd done what he said, but rather, was informing his older brother he wasn't going to another hospital.

 

            "Home!"

 

            "No, you can't go home.  You're not well enough to yet."

 

            "Esss!"

 

            Oh, geez, here we go again.  Another battle of the wills.  I don't know how you got to be so damn stubborn.  You musta' gotta double dose from both Mom and Dad.

 

            "A.J., you can't even climb stairs right now.  How're you gonna get up to bed if you go home?"

 

            "Couch!"

 

            Well, if nothing else, couch was a word Rick hadn't heard his brother say before.  If they hadn't been in the midst of the present disagreement he would have praised A.J. for it, but at the moment that was the furthest thing from his mind.

 

            "You have an answer for everything, don't you.  No, you can't sleep on the couch.  First of all, it would be too uncomfortable for you, and second of all--"

 

            "No."  A.J. tapped a finger against Rick's chest. "You."

 

            "Me?"  Rick smiled.  "I'm the one who's supposed to sleep on your couch?"

 

            "Esss."

 

            "Do you remember when I used to do that?"  Rick asked, knowing his brother often experienced large gaps in his memory as a result of the accident.  "When I lived at your place on the Hole In The Water?"

            A.J. nodded, while the expression on his face said, ‘Of course I remember it, bozo.  Heaven help me if I ever forget it.  The power tools being kicked into high gear at six o'clock in the morning, my stereo blasting so loud the house shook, Marlowe infesting my living room furniture with fleas, not to mention the wild parties you hosted for your groupies every time I went away for more than twenty-four hours.’

 

            "You------couch.  Me------up."

 

            Rick understood the meaning behind this latest directive.  "Yeah, A.J., eventually that'll be what happens.  You'll go home to your place. and if you need me there, I'll stay with you.  I don't have a problem with that at all.  But the thing is, buddy, you're not ready to go home yet.  There's a lot of stuff you still need help with.  A lot of things the therapists at the rehab hospital are gonna work on with you."

            "No!------Home!-------Now!"

 

            "I'm sorry, but no, that's not what's going to happen."

 

            Rick would have no part of it when A.J. turned away from him, jaw firmly clenched.  He gently turned his brother's head until the blond man was forced to make eye contact with him.

 

            "A.J., I'd be lying to you, and you'd be lying to yourself, if we both don't admit you've got a tough road to travel in the coming months.  You know you've suffered a brain injury. I've talked to you about that, and so have your doctors.  I know you understand all it encompasses.  But I don't know if you understand what it can or can't mean."

            A.J.'s brows knit together, trying to decipher where Rick was going with this conversation.

 

            "It can mean you can be re-taught what you've lost.  It can mean little things that are hard for you right now, like identifying numbers and letters, won't be hard given time.  It can mean that all the words you've got stored up here," Rick lightly tapped a finger against his brother's forehead,  "can once again come out here."  He ran that finger down to A.J.'s lips, then let his hand fall to rest on his brother's shoulder.

 

            "Or, what it can't mean, is that you can't do any of those things any longer.  That you won't be able to read, put sentences together the way you want, can't play the sports you like, can't drive, and can't work with me at Simon and Simon."

 

            Rick had said the right thing just as he'd hoped.  He threatened to take away what meant the most to his brother.

            "I---------can!  Siiii------mon-----Siiii------mon.  I-------can!"

 

            Rick smiled at A.J.'s emphatic declaration.  "Yes, you can.  I don't just believe you can, I know you can.  But not without help.  Not without the right teachers."

 

            "You--------Kee."

            "Me?  Be your teacher, you mean?"

            "Essss."

 

            The detective chuckled.  "We'd be doing nothin' but picking blocks up off the floor, don't you think?"

            For the first time that night Rick got a smile out of his brother.  A smile and a look of chagrin, that indicated A.J. was acknowledging the loss of his temper from earlier.

 

            "A.J., I'll go on helping you as much as I can, I swear I will.  That's one reason Joel recommended San Diego Rehab.  Aside from bein' one of the best facilities in the state for your type of injury, it also emphasizes family involvement.  But, you know as well as I do, that I don't have the knowledge or skills to give you everything you need without help from someone else.  A professional.  That's why you have to be willing to go there and do the very best you can.  You've got do it for Mom, and you've got to do it for me.  But, most importantly, you have to do it for yourself."

 

            Rick allowed the silence in the room to linger as A.J. thought.  He gave an internal sigh of relief when his brother finally nodded his head.

 

            "I---------go."

            "Good.  And you'll try your best?  Your hardest?"

            "Or---------you."

            "No, not for me.  For yourself."

 

            "Bof-------us."

            Rick smiled, enveloping his brother in a hug.

 

            "For both of us.  That'll be dandy, A.J.  You try your best for both of us.  You can't go wrong doing that, kid."

 

________________________________

 

 

            A.J.'s dreams that night were filled with the same images they had been ever since the accident.  He was playing hockey with a white headed man, when he caught the puck and ran.  Next thing he knew he was chasing Wyatt Earp, only to be swarmed by bees.  But then the bees turned to blocks.  Children's wooden blocks with brightly painted numbers and letters on them.  Numbers and letters he wanted so badly to identify, but couldn't.   Except for two of them.  The L and the B.  Elbee.  The white headed man skated by him and said, "Elbee."

 

            Before A.J. had a chance to figure out what or who an Elbee was, the shark was in front of him.  Only this time Rick was riding on its back.  A.J. screamed when the shark's teeth gouged his flesh.  As his blood stained the water bright red, A.J. couldn't understand why Rick didn't help him.

 

________________________________

 

 

            In a quiet suburban neighborhood across town from County General, Linda Ecklund's household lay dreaming as well - all but her husband, that is.  He eased out of bed, being careful not to disturb his slumbering wife.  He reached for the pajama bottoms that lay across her wooden hope chest. That's where she'd thrown them hours earlier, right before they'd fallen to the mattress and made love.  That was the one thing he was going to miss about Linda.  She knew how to keep her man happy in the only way that counted, as far as he was concerned.   He'd been with plenty of women in his life who didn't, that was for sure.  More than he could remember, now that he gave it serious thought. 

 

            Luke padded barefoot across the bedroom carpeting, opening and closing the door without making a sound.  But, then, he'd had years of practice when it came to sneaking around after dark.

 

            He passed the closed doors of the children's rooms, Heather's on the left, Brendan's on the right.  He paused in front of Brendan's, listening for a long moment.  He silently turned the knob, opening the door only wide enough to confirm the boy was sleeping on the lower bunk.

 

            The man continued his journey down the stairs.  He poured himself a glass of orange juice, being guided by the light that was always left on over the kitchen sink.    

 

            Across from the kitchen's central work area sat Linda's desk.  It wasn't big, just a three foot long by four foot wide Formica counter top square that contained a middle

drawer and was mounted against the wall.  Above it hung half a dozen two inch wide maple slots that held mail and other household papers, a row of small hooks for keys, and a bulletin board filled with reminders regarding upcoming doctors' appointments and school events. 

 

            Luke wasn't interested in any of those things, however.  He pulled the chair away from the desk, being careful not to allow its legs to scrape against the vinyl flooring.  Like the rest of Linda's household, her desk drawer was neat and organized, making it easy for him to find the bank books.

 

            He liked to come down here late at night when no one was awake to see him, especially that nosy boy of hers.  He liked to look at the balances in the books, even though, as of yet, he didn't know how he was going to get his hands on the money.   He hoped she would make it easy for him.  He hoped Linda trusted him enough to soon have his name added to the accounts.

 

            Luke removed the plastic sleeve from the first passbook.  Heather Joan Nash was typed in a straight line on top.  Smart move, usin' the old lady's first name as the kid's middle name, Luke thought.  After all, Grandma Joan was loaded. Everyone knew that. 

 

            The man noted the most recent entry in the book.  He turned in the chair, holding it up to the light so he could see the tiny print better.  He smiled.  The kid wasn't even seven-years-old yet, and already she was worth fifty grand.  He didn't bother to look at Brendan's book.  He knew he'd see the same thing.  Whenever an entry was made into one, it was made into the other.  He'd discovered that many months earlier. 

 

            Luke smiled while thinking of his good fortune.  It had actually been the old broad he'd had his eye on.  Joan Simon Palmer, Linda's mother.  Granted, she was pushing seventy, but she took good care of herself, there was no doubt about that.  If you didn't know her age you wouldn't peg her for a day over fifty.  She'd been a helluva looker, too, when she was younger.  Just like Linda.  But, then, they said the Simon side of the family was known to be quite handsome.  Luke shrugged his shoulders.  He guessed women would think that A.J. guy was good looking.  He smirked.  But, hell, not any more.  Now the so-called detective was nothing but a nitwit who couldn't even tell the difference between the number two and the number four.  Or so he'd heard Linda say to one of her sisters on the phone a few days earlier.

 

            And the bald one - Rick, he wasn't anything to write home about when it came to looks as far as Luke was concerned, though the guy sure thought he was something special.  Luke didn't like the fact that suddenly this Rick asshole seemed to be spending a lot of time with Brendan.  He'd taken him to the movies the previous Saturday, and Linda had even allowed the kid to spend the night on Rick's boat.  There was another day when Rick had picked the boy up after school and took him to the Simon and Simon office for a while, then, two nights ago, Rick had taken Brendan out to supper. 

 

            Luke didn't approve of any of these outings, and he had told Linda so.  Of course, he couldn't tell her the real reasons behind his negative feelings, so had to lay on the old, "How can I become a good dad to Brendan, foster a relationship with him, if he's always with your cousin?"

 

            Linda had kissed him on the cheek that night, telling him how much she loved him and how much, one day soon, Brendan would come to love him, too.  "But you have to understand, Mark, that Brendan's going through a very difficult time.  He's absolutely crushed over A.J.'s accident.   He feels so guilty about it.  He needs Rick right now, and if Rick's willing to be there for him I'm not going to stand in the way of the friendship they're forming.  Your turn will come, sweetheart, I promise."

 

            Not that Luke gave a shit one way or another if his turn ever came.  Yeah, it woulda' been easier if the kid had taken to him the same way little Heather had, but he hadn't.  Instead, Brendan had been a pain-in-the-ass since day one.  But, no matter.   It wasn't like he signed on for this trip with the purpose of being anyone's daddy.  Far from it.

 

            Hell, maybe he’d really screwed up right from the start.  The old lady was supposed to be his catch.  Joan.  She met his criteria.  Female, wealthy, and unattached.  Age didn't matter.  Heck, he'd had older ones than her during his long career.  That's why he'd hired on at Palmer Manufacturing to begin with.  The woman was reportedly worth ten million dollars if you included the building her business was housed in, its equipment and vehicles, plus her home and investments.   He hadn't counted on meeting Linda just three days after he started working for her mother.  Natalie hadn't been too happy with him for that.  She said a woman with young kids would only be trouble.  That he should stick with the old bitch like they'd planned, because she was a sure thing.  That he was thinking with his cock, and not with his brain. Which, admittedly: maybe he had been.

 

            He looked around the kitchen.  The house Linda had been awarded in the divorce settlement with Greg Nash was okay. It was decorated nice enough and always clean, but it wasn't anything special.  Just an average seventeen hundred square foot bi-level nestled in a neighborhood full of similar houses.  He supposed he'd been foolish.  He'd been certain given Joan Palmer's wealth and the sumptuous home she lived in, that surely she'd give her daughter something of similar grandeur on her wedding day.  But the old lady hadn't come through for Luke, nor had she come through since.  The money he imagined to flow through Linda's hands, courtesy of her mother, never materialized.  The trips he planned on the two of them taking thanks to Grandma Joan never happened either.  He'd actually been ready to skip out for good a few months back, but then he'd run across these bank books.  He knew where the money was coming from.  Grandma was putting it there.  Linda sure didn't make that kind of dough at the office where she was employed, and her ex-husband never sent more than what the courts demanded of him each month.  Well, except for the cash he put in the kids' birthday cards, but that was never more than twenty-five dollars.

            Luke pawed through the drawer some more.  His fingers grasped a stapled grouping of papers he'd never seen before.  He pulled them out and walked over to the sink to utilize the light there to read by.

 

            "Holy shit,”  he whispered, his eyes scanning the legal documents.  "Hoooly shit!  I'm gonna be frickin' rich."

 

            He smiled when he returned the papers to their proper place many minutes later.  This just might work out after all.  For the first time in his life, he might permanently settle in.  Natalie might not like it too much, but as long as he kept throwing wads of money her way she'd be pacified.  And Brendan was still going to be a problem, but hell, money was no object now.  A boarding school somewhere on the East coast would take care of that little thorn in his side.  Heather was a good enough kid, he could put up with her.  And Linda, well in time, Luke might even learn to love her. 

 

            He could see it now.  No more Palmer Manufacturing, but rather, Bentz Manufacturing.  Or, perhaps, Lucas Manufacturing.   Or, better yet, simply L.B. Manufacturing.  Yeah.  L.B. Manufacturing.  He liked the sound of that. 

 

            Yes, indeed, he certainly did like the sound of that.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

            Ellen had switched shifts so she could say goodbye to A.J. on Thursday morning.  Cecilia and Rick hadn't arrived at the hospital yet as she helped the blond man pack his clothing and personal items.  The previous afternoon, Cecilia had brought jeans, socks, a red polo shirt, a jacket, and tennis shoes for him to wear on his first official day out of the hospital.  Granted, A.J. was only going to be 'out' of the hospital for as long as it took them to drive him to another one, but even that was a small reason to celebrate.  He'd been at County General exactly one month, and was glad to finally be free of the ever-present pajamas and robe.  His mother had told him the rehab hospital wanted their patients dressed in street clothes on a daily basis, no pajamas were allowed after seven a.m., which was just fine with A.J.   It always made him feel sick and lazy to be dressed like that once the sun had rose.  He could put up with such inconveniences for one or two days, but as far as he was concerned, this whole confusing ordeal had already dragged on a lot longer than he wanted it to.

 

            A.J.'s cast had come off on Tuesday, but his left arm was currently of little use to him.  Between that, and his weak right one, dressing was difficult.  Ellen helped him, tying his shoes for him and zipping the zipper on his pants.  He didn't like it that she had to assist him with that job, but somehow Ellen always made even the most uncomfortable moments funny.  She laughed as she discreetly tried to close his jeans without touching him in a way that would embarrass him. 

 

            "I've never zipped a white man's pants before.  Now just what do you think of that, Mr. Simon?"

            A.J. couldn't help but laugh with her.   It was just like the day she'd hidden with him in the closet, they both started laughing so hard she couldn't complete her task.  When she finally calmed down she teasingly admonished A.J. to do the same, then quickly tugged the zipper up before they could start laughing all over again.

 

            She winked at him.  "I guess what they say about you white guys is true."

 

            A.J. laughed again at her subtle sexual innuendo.  She was a lot of fun.  He was really going to miss her.  He wished she come with hi,m and he struggled to tell her so.

 

            Like Rick, Ellen had gotten pretty good at deciphering A.J.'s words.  Although his desire was voiced by saying nothing more than,  "Wif----me-----Len," she knew he was saying, ‘I wish you could come with me, Ellen.’

 

            She turned from where she'd been folding his pajamas.  A.J. was perched on the edge of his bed, his sports bag sitting beside him.

 

            "I know you do, A.J.  And, in a lot of ways, I wish I could come with you, too.  Every so often I have a special patient who I really, really miss when he or she is released.  You're one of those patients.  But it's time for you to get your pale behind outta here.  I've watched you improve in leaps and bounds over the last couple of weeks.  You'll improve even more at rehab.  And, one of these days, you'll come back and see me, won't you?  Not as my patient, but as my friend."

            "I----ummm-----eee-----you."

 

            "I'll hold you to that."  Ellen reached out and gave him a hug.  "And maybe you'll even propose marriage because I zipped your pants for you."

 

            A.J. laughed.  "Son------goot-----me."

 

            "It sounds good to me as well, handsome.  Only thing is; we'll have to be very careful when we break the news to my daddy.  He gets one look at that washed out complexion of yours, and then finds out you're courting his only daughter, why you just might end up right back in here."

 

            The pair laughed together again at the woman's teasing while she opened the only drawer on the small nightstand.  Ellen ran her hand around inside of it to make sure it was empty. 

 

"Here are your sunglasses.   Don't forget to take them with you."

 

            Before A.J. could tell Ellen the sunglasses weren't his, she disappeared into the bathroom to collect his toothbrush, comb, and razor.  He turned the glasses over in his hand, studying them.   His mind produced a brief picture, like a slide being flashed through a projector.  He was running down a hallway, a hallway in a building that was familiar to him, though he couldn't quite place it.  But, he was running down this familiar hallway when a black object sailed toward him.  Sunglasses.  He even remembered bending to pick them up.   But where had he done that, when had he done it, and most importantly, why had he done it?

 

            A.J. turned the glasses over once more.  No, they definitely weren't his.  He wondered how they'd followed him this far.  They must have been in one of his pockets when he arrived at the hospital.  An emergency room nurse had given Rick his watch, keys, loose change, and wallet, that much A.J. had been assured of on several occasions.  Other miscellaneous items he'd been carrying like a client's phone number, a handkerchief, his pocket knife, and a pack of gum, had been deposited in the drawer of the nightstand next to his bed on the Intensive Care floor.   He vaguely remembered his mother telling him she was going to take those things home for him.  Evidently, she hadn't taken the glasses because she knew they weren't his.  She probably assumed the glasses had been left behind by another patient.  And, when Gina helped an orderly move A.J. down to this room, she'd probably brought the sunglasses along, assuming in error that they were his. 

 

            A.J. held the glasses up to the light.   The frames were solid and chic, like the kind you got from an eye doctor.  He brought them to his eyes next.  His vision didn't blur when he looked through them, so he knew they didn't possess corrective lenses.   More than likely someone had purchased them for the styling and dark tinted glass.

 

            The detective opened the earpieces.  He squinted, seeing tiny white lettering on the inside.  It was odd. He recognized roughly six letters of the alphabet of late, and these glasses contained two of them.  An L and a B.  The letters L.B. were engraved in the frames in white.  Like the word he sometimes saw in his mind, Elbee.  Like the word he'd been trying to tell Rick about on Monday night.

 

            A.J. was still sitting with the glasses in his hands when Ellen returned.  She tucked the things she'd retrieved from the bathroom in a zippered side compartment of his bag.  "Do you want me to put your glasses in here, too, A.J.?"

 

            "Esss."

 

            When A.J. handed the sunglasses to the woman he indicated to a different compartment by tapping his fingers against it.  This small pocket was secreted inside the bag with nothing else in it. Therefore, no one would probably open it should anyone but A.J. unpack his belongings.

 

            "Air."

            "You want me to put them in there?"  Ellen asked.  “In this little inside pocket?”

            "Esss."

 

            "Looks like a good place to me.  That way you won't lose them, will you?"

 

            A.J. smiled at the nurse.

 

            "No."

________________________________

           

 

            The black man peered around the corner.  His eyes tracked Ellen's movement toward the nurses’ station.  He reached for his waist and felt the hard metal of the gun butt.  His loose fitting white uniform smock hid the bulge created by the Colt .45 revolver. 

 

            He whistled to the nonexistent tune coming from his Walkman while pushing the empty wheelchair toward A.J.'s room.

 

________________________________

 

            Cecilia waited in her car while Rick went up to get A.J.  He found his brother dressed, packed, and ready to go.  He was being helped into a wheelchair by one of the orderlies, Geoffrey.  As usual, the man's shoulder length cornrow braids were swinging back and forth in time to whatever tune his Walkman was playing in his ears.

 

            The black man glanced up as Rick entered.  The detective could have sworn a fleeting scowl touched the orderly's dark features, but he must have been mistaken.  What difference did it make to this guy what time Rick arrived?

            Geoffrey was gentle as he helped A.J. sit in the chair.  He took the sports bag from the blond, holding onto A.J.'s right elbow while the detective eased himself down.  He returned A.J.'s bag to him, then, bent and placed the blond man's feet on the silver foot rests.      

 

            His voice was clipped in a heavy Jamaican accent. "D’are you go, mahn.  You on your way to the big house now, Andrew J."

 

            Rick smiled and rolled his eyes.  He'd always found Geoffrey to be a little weird, but A.J. didn't seem to mind him, so that was all that mattered.  Rick moved up to grip the rubber hand rests.  "Thanks, Geoffrey. I can take over from here."

 

            "Sure, mahn, sure."

 

            A.J. turned around, giving his friend a little wave.  "Bye-----Joff."

 

            "Bye, Andrew J.  Good luck to you, mahn.  Oh hey, I must know before my curiosity gets the best of me.  What does the J stand for?"

 

            Rick allowed A.J. the time he needed to answer.

 

            "Jack------son."

 

            Geoffrey's eyebrows disappeared into his cornrows.  "No kidding, huh?  Jackson.  Like the president, you say?"

            "Yeah," Rick agreed dryly,  "like the president.  And the First Lady is waiting in her Mercedes, so we'd better get going, right, A.J.?"

            "Esss."

 

            Geoffrey followed Rick to the door.  Instead of stripping the bed like he'd been instructed, he watched until the Simon brothers were swallowed up by the elevator.  He stepped back in the room, heading for the phone.  He punched in a number, let it ring once, then hung up.  As soon as he had a dial tone again, he repeated his action, this time staying on the line until a familiar voice picked up at the other end.

 

            "Yes?"

 

            All traces of the Jamaican accent were gone.  "They're on their way.  It's up to you guys now."

            "Did you find anything out from him?"

            "No.  No luck at all.  I was planning on cornering him a few minutes ago.  Everything finally seemed perfect - no roommate, no friends, no family, no nurses, nobody.  But then the damn brother showed up and I was screwed.   I'm telling you, this guy must have been voted Mr. Popular in a former life.  I couldn't ever catch him alone.  It took me fifteen minutes to get all his cards off the wall.  I counted a hundred and three of the stupid things."

 

            "Never mind.  He probably couldn't have told you much anyway, based on the way you said he talks."

 

            "Unless it's an act."

 

            "If it's an act, it'll be the last game of pretend Mr. Simon ever plays.  One way or another, I intend to discover what we need to know."

 

            "It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.  Oh, hey.  Tell Vlad I found out the guy's middle name."

 

            "What difference does that make?"

 

            "It doesn't make any difference, except that it'll make Vlad feel better about his own name."

 

            "How can you make someone feel better about Vlademar Otto?"

 

            "By telling him there's a guy here in San Diego stuck with Andrew Jackson."

            "Oh, God.  No wonder they call him A.J.  I'll be sure to pass the message on."

 

            "Thanks.  See you tonight."

 

            "You bet."

            Mitch hung up the phone.  He left the room without anyone being the wiser.  He exited the building via the stairs, tossing his wig and Walkman on the front seat of his rental car as soon as he entered it.

 

            Ellen returned to the room a few minutes later.  She put her hands on her hips in disgust. "Now just where did Geoffrey hightail his butt to?   Crimity sakes, you can't get decent help these days even when you are willing to pay for it."

 

________________________________

 

 

            Rick wasn't certain just what he'd been expecting the inside of the San Diego Rehabilitation Hospital to look like, but it wasn't this - a cavernous nursing home-like atmosphere that was in bad need of bright colors and sunlight.  The halls were dark and windowless, lit only by artificial means.  What few patients they passed were elderly, and being pushed in wheelchairs or helped by a nurse as they shuffled along behind a walker.  But it was their eyes that stood out the most to Rick.  Vacant orbs that seemed to say they no longer knew where they were, and no longer cared.  That regardless of what this place had to offer them, they were far too old to return to society the productive members they once were.

 

            By the look on his mother's face, Rick knew her thoughts were similar to his.  He was pushing the wheelchair he'd retrieved for A.J., Cecilia walking beside him.  He could see the regret in her eyes.  The regret mirrored in Rick’s own eyes over the fact they'd taken Joel at his word when he said this was the best possible facility available for A.J.'s current needs.  Not that Rick didn't trust and respect the doctor's opinion, he was simply wishing he and his mother had checked the place out first before signing the necessary admission papers.

 

            If we'd seen it, we never would have brought him here.  I would have known A.J. would hate it from the very moment I walked in the door.

 

            Cecilia seemed to be reading Rick's mind when she offered him a weak smile and quiet words A.J. couldn't overhear.

 

            "We can't judge a book by its cover, Rick."

 

            A.J.'s eyes roamed the hallway, not missing one sight, sound, or person.  He looked up at Rick several times, trying to gauge his brother's reaction to this depressing place, but only got an encouraging smile in return.

 

            A woman approached the trio as Rick pushed the wheelchair off the elevator and onto the third floor.  She was wearing a white nurse's uniform with so much starch Rick wondered how she even sat down.  The rigidly pressed seams of the dress formed small but well-defined points, causing the material to stand out from her breasts like soldiers at attention.  Her coal black hair was pulled up in a severe bun and bobby pinned to the back of her head.  Heavy black brows in bad need of thinning arched against her pale forehead, giving one the impression she was a direct descendant of Groucho Marx.  Even the old-fashioned cat-eye glasses she wore, that had an equally out-of-date chain dangling from the earpieces, couldn't hide the bushy, masculine brows.

 

             Her white shoes squeaked against the tiles as she walked, their soles as thick as a Goodyear Radial.  Not so much as a small snag marred her white opaque stockings, and something Rick hadn't seen in years, a prim nurse's cap, was fastened to the top of her head.  Her rich blue eyes, narrow face, and high cheekbones, led Rick to believe there just might be a beautiful woman hiding under the many layers of propriety she had herself mired in, but heaven help the guy who tried to break through all that starch and white cotton.

 

            She didn't smile at any of the Simons, but, rather, gave them a terse nod.  Her lips were pursed in a tight knot as though she was the victim of chronic constipation. 

 

            "Mr. Simon, Mrs. Simon, I'm Nurse Finster.  Dagmar Finster.  I'll be Andrew's main care provider during the day time hours."

 

            Dagmar Finster?  What a name.  No wonder she's such a sourpuss.

 

            The woman gave first Cecilia's hand a brief shake, then Rick's.  She ignored A.J. completely, that action causing Rick's blood pressure to climb.

 

            Without another word, the nurse wormed her way in-between Rick and Cecilia.  Rick had no choice but to relinquish the handles of the wheelchair to her.

 

            "If you'll wait right here, Miss Perez from public relations will be with you shortly.  She'll give you a tour of the facilities, then take you to Doctor Yeager's office."

            "Doctor Yeager's office?"  Cecilia questioned.

 

            "Yes.  Doctor Yeager will be in charge of Andrew's rehabilitation program.  In the meantime, I'll get him settled in his room."

 

            A.J. turned to look at his family as the woman began pushing the wheelchair away from them.  His hands shot up to clutch the canvas back of the chair, his grip so desperate his knuckles turned white.  Rick could see the terror in his brother's eyes, and hear it in A.J.'s frantic,  "No!"  The lanky detective stepped in front of the chair, stopping its progress with a sturdy boot. 

 

            "Wait a minute.  Why can't A.J. stay with us and get a tour of the building, too?  After all, he's the one who's gonna be stayin' here."

 

            Nurse Finster pulled herself up to her full height, her chin jutting forward with authority.  "Kindly remove your foot from the front of the chair, Mr. Simon, or I assure you, I will run it over."

 

            "Look, lady--"

 

            "Mr. Simon, your brother will see the facilities yet this morning, but with me, not with you and your mother.  While the two of you take your tour, Doctor Yeager will be meeting with Andrew.  Then, while you and Mrs. Simon converse with the doctor, I will take Andrew on his--"

 

            "It's A.J.," Rick interrupted.  "He prefers to be called A.J."

 

            The woman continued as though Rick was nothing more than a pesky fly buzzing overhead.  "I will take Andrew on his tour.  That's the way things are done here, sir.  We don't deviate from the normal progression of our day simply to please one man."

 

            Before Rick's temper ignited like a hot oil spill that's had a match thrown in the center of it, Cecilia cleared her throat.  She shook her head at her son, mouthing, "Not now."

 

            Cecilia put on her best smile while bending to kiss A.J.'s cheek.  "We'll see you later, honey."

            The blond clawed for his mother's arm.  "No!  No-------go!"

 

            "A.J., we won't leave without seeing you again," the woman promised.  "After we've all had a chance to speak with Doctor Yeager the three of us will talk.  Okay?"

            Cecilia's gentle demeanor appeared to calm her youngest down.  At least he knew he wasn't being abandoned.  By her words, and the tone behind them, A.J. was assured he wasn't going to be forced to stay here if he really didn't want to.

 

            Rick gave his brother's shoulder a squeeze.  "See you in a little while, kid."  He looked at the nurse staring coldly back at him.  "Don't give Nurse Finster too many problems, ya' hear?"

            A.J.'s eyes appeared enormous to Rick when they cast themselves upward.  "Kee?"

 

            Rick crouched down beside the chair, patting the blond man's right knee.   "It's okay, A.J.  We won't be gone long."

            A few seconds passed before A.J. finally gave a nod of consent.  Rick stepped aside, allowing the nurse a clear path.

 

            "Really," the woman grumbled under her breath as she passed him,  "you shouldn't baby Andrew like that."

 

            A.J.'s head remained turned, as though pleading with his family not to make him go with this stranger, until the woman rounded a corner and pushed him out of sight.

 

            "If she's the best this place has to offer, Mom, then he's not staying here."

 

            "Rick, just be patient, please.  I'll admit, as first impressions go, I'm not enamored right at the moment, either.  But, let's trust Joel's opinion for the time being.  He said this was the best rehab hospital in the state.  Let's reserve further judgment until after our tour, and until after we've met with Doctor Yeager."

 

            "Fine.  But the guy better do more for me than his hired help does."

 

            "He'd better do more for me as well, honey," Cecilia agreed.

 

            Before the pair had time to converse further, Ernesta Perez from public relations appeared as promised.  She proved to be everything Nurse Finster wasn't - outgoing, pleasant, and thorough when it came to answering the Simons' many questions.  The tour took an hour.  As much as Rick didn't want to come away with an elevated opinion of the facility, he was forced to.  As his mother had said, they couldn't judge a book by its cover.  Granted, the six story building was five decades old and showing every year of it, but each room was neat, clean, and well-maintained.   The facility housed a large gymnasium filled with equipment meant to aid in the rehabilitation process, as well as offer fun.  An indoor swimming pool was in use in the gym, some patients making slow laps by themselves, while others were aided by life vests and therapists.  Outside was a cinder track, each lap around representing a quarter of a mile.  Two young men circled it together laughing and joking.  It was only the awkward gait of one, and the way he held his left arm curled against his chest, that indicated they were patient and therapist, as opposed to simply being friends sharing a late morning jog.

 

            Cecilia and Rick were allowed to observe the many therapy classes in session that morning.  They were both impressed.  What San Diego Rehab had to offer, by far, surpassed what little help A.J. had been getting at County General.  The therapists appeared to be dedicated to their patients, cheering each small accomplishment, and offering only gentle words of encouragement when failure came.  And although many of the patients were older men, for the most part the victims of crippling strokes, there was a smattering of elderly women and younger people, too.  A sixteen-year-old who had been severely brain injured in a car accident played a board game with his therapist, while another therapist helped a thirty-seven-year-old construction worker injured in a fall use a hammer to pound nails in a board.  As well, the Simons observed a twenty-five-year-old woman learn to walk on a prosthesis after having lost a leg to bone cancer, and observed a forty-year-old fireman rehabilitate hands that had been horribly burned the day he rescued two small children from a house fire.

 

            Although every tale had a tragedy behind it, you'd never know it by the smiles and laughter coming from each room.  Certainly Cecilia Simon did not wish misfortune upon anyone, but she was happy to see A.J. would have some contemporaries amongst the patients.  Rick was pleased with that as well, but, even more so, was pleased to see the majority of the staff appeared to genuinely enjoy their work with each and every resident regardless of gender, age, or disability.  Unlike Dagmar Finster, whom he'd already dubbed Nurse Kratchet in his mind, after the wretched character from the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

 

            As they walked down the fourth floor hallway that was lined with therapy rooms, Rick could hear the distant whine of electric saws and the 'thump, thump, thump,' of hammers coming from above.  Miss Perez caught the questioning gaze he threw toward the ceiling.

 

            "We're currently undergoing extensive remodeling," she said in explanation of the racket.  "We anticipate the entire project will take a year.  Maybe even two.  We're adding more therapy rooms, as well as updating the ones we already have.  With the current technological advances in the area of personal computers and such, we're woefully out-of-date.  Eventually all the patients' rooms will be given face lifts, as will the rest of the building."

 

            Cecilia knew the time frame the woman quoted in regards to the completion of the remodeling project meant A.J. wouldn't benefit from any of the changes.  Nonetheless, she was happy to hear the hospital's administration wanted to offer future patients the best possible care.

 

            As the tour drew to a close Ernesta Perez led Rick and Cecilia to Doctor Yeager's first floor office.  She indicated to two chairs across from the doctor's ancient, steel-frame desk, that looked like it had been in residence here since the first day the building had opened in 1938.

 

            "May I get either one of you anything?  Coffee, or a soft drink perhaps?"

            "No, thank you," Cecilia said.

 

            Rick echoed his mother's sentiments.

 

            Miss Perez smiled a final goodbye.  "The doctor will be with you shortly then.  It was nice meeting both of you."

 

            Rick looked around the room they'd been left in, trying to get a feel for the man they were about to meet.  The other offices they'd passed were drab compared to this one, leading Rick to believe the guy was pretty important.  The walls were the color of buttermilk, the paint so fresh Rick swore he could detect the slight odor of it yet.  A long, thin window was situated in the corner behind the desk and faced the green grounds behind the building.  A basket holding a fern hung in front of the window, the plant flourishing in the late morning sunlight.  A metal credenza that Rick assumed held patient files lined the wall along side the window.  The wall to Rick's right had nothing adorning it other than a framed inspirational poster of a blond man, dressed in running shorts and shoes, jogging down a steep hill only to be faced by another one ahead.  The words underneath the man's feet read; How far I go, how much I see, how I reach, depends on me.

 

            Cecilia was studying the poster as well.  She wiped tears from the corners of her eyes.  "That reminds me of A.J.  Of how he's always lived his life."

 

            Rick squeezed his mother's hand.  "Yeah.  It reminds me of A.J., too, Mom."    

 

            When the detective could no longer stand to look at the poster of the vibrant runner his eyes traveled to his left.   The wall on that side of the room held three rows of shelves filled with medical books, manuals, four more plants, and an eight by ten inch photograph of a pair of hands playing a baby grand piano.

 

            Curiosity got the best of Rick, causing him to stand and cross the few steps it took him to reach the picture.  The hands definitely belonged to a man, you could tell that from the long fingers and square knuckles.  You could also tell the player’s gender by the thick wedding band that gleamed gold in the photo that otherwise appeared black and white because of the dark piano and light keys. Why someone would have a picture of nothing but hands on a keyboard Rick didn't know, but he supposed it meant something to the doctor.

 

            It's probably the guy's idea of art, the detective thought with mild sarcasm as he rounded the doctor's desk.

 

            A computer sat on one corner of the old desk, a spiral appointment book next to it.  A phone was on the opposite corner, a grouping of family pictures surrounding it. 

 

            "Rick," Cecilia admonished lightly as her son bent to view the photos,  "don't be so nosy."

 

            Rick smiled.  "It's what I get paid to do, Mom."

 

            "May I point out to you that you're not on the clock now, Sherlock."

 

            Cecilia gave up with a sigh when Rick ignored her while lifting one picture after another.  The first held a man with a shock of silver-gray hair that Rick assumed was Doctor Yeager.  He appeared to be in his mid-sixties and hadn't lost the sharp, handsome features, bright denim-blue eyes, or lean build that had surely defined his youth.  He sat next to a tiny, frail woman, whose pale complexion and bony shoulders spoke of illness.  Rick thought he could detect dark circles under the makeup around her eyes, but it was her smile that caught his attention.  A smile that seemed to say she was making a gallant effort to appear healthy and happy.

 

            Rick replaced the picture, briefly picking up the one next to it.  A strikingly beautiful woman and her family smiled out at him.  A man stood behind the dark headed woman with his hand on her shoulder, two teenage girls were seated on either side of her.  Rick compared this woman to the one in the photograph he'd just been studying.  Despite the younger being robust and glowing with life, while the older was bird-like and fragile, he came to the conclusion they were mother and daughter. 

 

            The remaining photo on the desk was the most puzzling, because it was so out of date.  At least thirty years old, if not more.  Two children about five years of age, a boy and a girl, stood in front of an enormous sand castle, plastic buckets abandoned by their bare feet.  The boy's navy blue swim trunks had the emblem of a white and red anchor stitched on one leg, while the girl's navy bathing suit had the same emblem stitched on the right side of her tiny chest.  Their hair was the exact same shade of sun-bleached white blond, and their eyes the same denim blue as the doctor's.  One would have to be blind, or at least not a private detective, to miss noticing how amazingly similar their facial features were as they held hands and smiled for the camera.

 

            The voice from the doorway was husky, yet startling feminine.  "Do you approve of my family, Mr. Simon?"

            Cecilia threw her son a look that said, See, this is what you get for snooping into things that are none of your business.

 

            Rick cleared his throat while fumbling to return the old photo to its proper place among the trio.  "Uh, yeah.  Yeah.  You have a very attractive looking family here."

 

            The woman was obviously annoyed with her snooping visitor as she came to stand behind her desk.   Her words were cool, without a hint of humor behind them, making Rick's embarrassment keener. "I'm glad we pass your inspection."  She held her hand out to Cecilia.  "I'm Doctor Troya Yeager."

 

            Cecilia stood long enough to exchange handshakes with the statuesque beauty.  "It's nice to meet you, Doctor."

 

            The woman turned her attention to Rick.  Her deep-set eyes bore into the detective, making him feel as though she could see all the way to his soul, and read every thought on his mind.

 

            "Perhaps you'd be more comfortable in the chair, Mr. Simon, as opposed to standing behind my desk.  Generally, this is where I sit."

 

            It wasn't very often that a woman had the power to make Rick Simon blush, or stumble over his words.  "Yeah...yeah, I guess...I guess I would be."

 

            He scurried around the desk without bothering to exchange handshakes with the doctor.

            Doctor Yeager seated her tall, lean frame behind her desk.  There was no doubt she was a woman of class and style.  Her pale pink oversized suit jacket hung open and loose to reveal a white silk blouse.  The trousers that matched her jacket were neatly pressed and pleated.  A delicate scarf in shades of pink, gray, and blue added color to her ensemble and draped down the lapels of her jacket.  The woman's shoulder length hair reminded Rick of the inside of a sea shell, its color a streaked combination of milky cream, translucent pearl, and tawny ivory.  Her brows and lashes matched the paleness of her hair, her straight, aristocratic nose a perfect compliment to her oval face and strong chin.  A ‘stubborn chin,’ as Rick's mother would refer to it.   

 

            Without further conversation, the woman reached in her top desk drawer and pulled out a manila folder.  She spread its contents out in front of her, reviewing the papers while she talked.  "I've had consultations with both Doctors Lankey and Cho this week regarding A.J.'s condition.  As well, I've just come from speaking with A.J. myself."

 

            The doctor looked across her desk at the Simons.  "Let me explain first, what my role will be in regards to A.J.'s care.  I personally map out the therapy schedule for every patient admitted here.  Of course, that schedule may be adjusted from day to day depending on the patient's improvements.  I oversee the work done with each patient; review the reports given me by my therapists, as well as consult with them personally.  In some cases, depending on the patient's disabilities, I may work with him or her directly.  A.J. is one of those cases."

 

            "If you don't mind me askin'," Rick said,  "why is that?"

            "Because before I went back to school for my doctorate, Mr. Simon, I was a speech therapist here.  That's the area I cut my teeth on, and it's still a great love of mine.  I can't imagine anything more frustrating than having ideas and thoughts locked up inside your head that you can't get out because your brain is no longer sending you the correct signals."

 

            "Like A.J."

 

            "Yes, like your brother.  After meeting with A.J., I'm forced to tell you he has a long, hard road to travel.  How successfully he'll make that journey even I can't predict, but together he and I have already taken the first step."

 

            "What's that?"

            "I don't like to speak ill of any of our local hospitals, but unfortunately what many of them have to offer patients like A.J. falls far short of what he needs.  The first thing we're going to do is correct what I call the lazy speech patterns he uses.  Granted, many letters, sounds, and words, are impossible for him to pronounce correctly right now, but many aren't.  For example, the way he says yes."

 

            Cecilia and Rick nodded, knowing A.J.'s 'yes' had come out only as 'esss' since the accident.

 

            "I worked with A.J. for a few minutes, teaching him the proper way to shape his mouth to get 'esss' to come out as 'yes.’  On the third try he got it right."

 

            Cecilia was forced to blink back tears at the woman's words.  Tears the doctor clearly saw.

 

            "I don't want you to think I'm a miracle worker, that's only a very small accomplishment on a long list of accomplishments A.J. has yet to master.  I used it as an example, however, to illustrate just what he can learn to do here.  I'll warn the two of you of the same thing I warned A.J.  I'm not an easy taskmaster.  I've been told by some of my patients I'm a cross between Florence Nightingale and Benito Mussolini.”

 

            Cecilia and Rick exchanged smiles.

 

            "I expect my patients to work hard. If they don't put forth one hundred percent of their effort, they're asked to leave."  The doctor gave the Simons a conspiratorial smile.  "In truth, I have yet to send anyone home, though I have packed a bag or two in my day with that intention in mind.  It's amazing how quickly that action can bring a person around."

 

            "You said A.J. has a hard road ahead of him," Cecilia stated. "Can you give us an idea of what you mean by that?"           

 

            "Yes, Mrs. Simon, I can.  First of all, A.J.'s therapy schedule will be quite intense.  By far more intense than what he's been used to receiving at County General.  Our classes, or sessions, as we refer to them, begin at eight in the morning and run until five in the evening Monday through Friday.   We try to simulate the hours of a regular working day for those patients who are physically capable of handling such a schedule.  Lunch is served from noon to one.  From one to two the patients are allowed free time that enables them to relax, rest, or work on a variety of the skills they're relearning.  I imagine the first week or so A.J. is with us, he'll nap during that period simply because his body's still mending and he's not used to such a rigorous regime.

 

            "Supper is served from five to six.  You can eat with him any night of the week provided you make reservations with the kitchen staff by noon the same day.  From six until ten p.m. the patients are free to pursue whatever activities they please.  Aside from weekends, this is the time period during which we encourage family involvement.  I was told by Doctor Lankey that the two of you have been working with A.J. every afternoon and evening at County General.  I'm glad to hear that.  I can't stress enough how important family support can be in these situations."

 

            The doctor glanced briefly at her notes.  "The most promising factor in regards to the damage A.J. suffered is that he's retained his ability to identify people, objects, numbers, and letters."

 

            "But he only recognizes a few letters," Rick offered, "and no numbers at all."

 

            "I understand that, but he does realize those objects you're putting in front of him are characters of the alphabet and numerals.  He may not be able to identify them exactly, but he knows what they are...if that makes sense."

 

            "Rather like being able to identify a dog as a dog," Cecilia mused, "but not being able to name the breed." 

 

            "Correct, Mrs. Simon.  That's a good comparison.  I'll have to remember it for future consultations.  If A.J. had lost his ability to identify those simple things, the chances of him relearning much of anything would be slim.  But he's one of the lucky ones.  In his case, there is definitely hope."

 

            Rick asked the woman the same thing he'd asked Doctor Cho one month earlier.  "How much of what my brother lost will he regain?"

            The doctor's eyes met the detective's with an icy stare Rick didn't understand.   "Why?"

            "Why?"

            "Yes, why, Mr. Simon?  Why is that so important to you?  Do you look upon your brother as a freak now because he can't function in the way most of us can?  Because, quite frankly, he can't function in a way that most members of our society deem acceptable?"

 

            "Of course not!  Look, I don't know who the hell you think you are to go callin' my brother a freak, or to accuse me of referrin' to him in that way, but I'll tell you right now, lady, I don't need your shit and neither does he!"

 

            Rick stood, reaching for his mother's hand.  "Come on, Mom.  Let's find A.J. and get outta here."

 

            "Rick..."

 

            "Mr. Simon, sit down please."

 

            If it hadn't been for Cecilia's second plea of, "Rick," the detective would have made good on his threat to collect A.J. and leave the premises.

 

            "Rick, please," Cecilia implored, "let's listen to what Doctor Yeager has to say before we make any hasty decisions."

 

            Rick scowled at the woman behind the desk, her beauty no longer something he took notice of. 

 

            "Mr. Simon, please. It was not my intention to offend you, but rather to be honest with you."

            Rick slowly retook his chair, his posture stiff and guarded.  "To be honest with me?  How?  By implying that I can't accept my brother's limitations?"

 

            "Can you?"

 

            It was the first time someone had asked that question of Rick.  He didn't hesitate to give the doctor a heartfelt, honest answer while looking her right in the eye.

 

            "Yes, if it comes to that, I can.  I can accept A.J. in whatever manner I have to.  He's my brother.  My mother and I love him regardless of whether he can pronounce words correctly, remember the letters of the alphabet, or count to ten."

 

            "I'm glad to hear you say that.  Not every man can."

 

            "Well, I can, and A.J. knows it."

 

            "Good, because I'm sure that knowledge will help get him through a lot of tough days ahead."

 

            "What about the answer to my question?"

            "Regarding how much he'll regain?"

            "Yes."

 

            The woman smiled with mild amusement.  "Mr. Simon, if I had an answer to that I'd be earning my living as a psychic, not a therapist.  It will quite likely be several months before any of us has an indication of how far A.J. will come.  It's going to take a lot of hard work, determination, and commitment on his part.  And, all of those things on behalf of yourselves, as well.  The most difficult aspect of this job is watching a patient put every ounce of effort toward his recovery, only to have that recovery fall short of his expectations.  And his family's expectations, too.  That's a hard day for everyone to face.  Whether A.J. will have to face such a day, or whether he'll eventually walk out of here the man he once was, I can't predict.  What I can tell you, is you'll both play a large role in how well A.J. accepts any disabilities his injury won't allow him to overcome."

 

            "We'll help him in every way we can," Rick assured.

 

            The doctor's eyes fell upon the detective.  Rick swore he saw a flicker of pain cross her features, as though his promise reminded her of someone else's, but it was wiped away as quickly as it came.  "I hope you do, Mr. Simon.  I have a true story I share with every family I consult with that illustrates how important your help can ultimately be.

 

            "Several years ago I worked with a young man just twenty years old who had suffered severe head trauma as a result of a skiing accident in the Rocky Mountains.  Jared was a college student majoring in physical education, but his first love was downhill racing.  Sports writers were predicting he'd represent the United States in the 1984 winter games.  And he might have, too, had it not been for a blizzard, a bumpy course, and a two hundred year old pine. 

 

            "Because he was born and raised in San Diego, and because his parents and younger sister still resided here, Jared became my patient when his injuries allowed him to be flown from Colorado.  His initial disabilities weren't that dissimilar to A.J.'s.  He was young and strong, therefore, I had great confidence he would eventually relearn all that had been lost up on that mountain.  Like A.J., one of Jared's biggest obstacles was his speech.  His words and thoughts were slow in coming. He had to work hard to get out what little he could. 

 

            "Jared's parents and sister were very supportive.  There wasn't an evening or weekend when one of them wasn't here working with him.  He had an older brother as well, Seth, who was married and lived in Maine.  Seth had been with the family in Colorado the first week after the accident when Jared's condition was so critical, but once he began improving, Seth had to return home.  When Jared had been with us for a month Seth made plans to come out here and stay for several weeks with the promise of becoming as involved in Jared's rehabilitation as their parents and sister were."

 

            Troya smiled at the memory of her former patient.  "Jared was so excited.  All he could talk about was his big brother.  At the beginning of each of our sessions he reminded me Seth was coming to visit.  We even made a calendar together to mark off the passing days.  When it finally came time for Seth to arrive, Jared could hardly contain his enthusiasm.  His mother told me the two boys had always been close, each other's best friends.

 

            "I'll never forget the grin that threatened to split Jared's face in two when Seth entered the building.  Jared hadn't wanted to greet his brother sitting in a wheelchair, so had me walk along with him supporting him on his left side.  Seth stopped before he even made it halfway to us, staring as Jared struggled to hold himself upright.  Not understanding his brother's reluctance, or maybe not noticing it, I'm still not sure which to be honest with you, Jared cried, "Ef!  Ef!"  with all the glee of a young boy whose greeting someone he's sorely missed."

 

            The woman's eyes lingered on Rick.  "And that's when Seth turned around and walked out the front door.  He never came back.  He told his parents he couldn't face what the accident had done to Jared.  Of all things, he couldn't face how the accident had changed his brother.  Couldn't face that his brother was now different, or a weirdo, as Seth referred to him.

 

            "Jared never tried again after that.  I had no choice but to let his parents take him home four weeks later.  He's the only patient I've ever cried over, because he could have gone so far, but one careless act by a selfish man changed all that."

 

            Troya's voice was so quiet when she finished her tale Rick and Cecilia had to strain to hear the ending. "A year later, Jared committed suicide.  He took his father's gun into his bedroom, held it against his temple, and pulled the trigger.  There's been few times in my life when I've received news that has caused me the type of heartache that young man's death brought.  Which is the reason I'm being so tough on you today, Mr. Simon."

 

            "And just why is that?"

            "Because I've been told by Doctor Lankey you and your brother are very close.  Best friends, just like Jared and Seth were.  Therefore, I want you to know what's ahead before you make a commitment to A.J. you can't keep."

 

            Rick's reply was short and sharp.  "I've never made a commitment to my brother I can't keep, Doctor Yeager.  I don't intend to start now."

 

            "I'm glad to hear that," the woman nodded.  "I don't intend to make a commitment to him I can't keep, either.  And, along those lines, I'll share with the two of you the promise I made to A.J. a little while ago.  I asked him what he wants to accomplish first.  Though it took me a minute to decipher what he was trying to tell me, I finally figured it out based on the notes his nurses and doctors have made on his chart."

 

            "What was that?"  Cecilia asked.

 

            Doctor Yeager smiled.  "He wants to call you ‘Mom,’ Mrs. Simon.  And you, Mr. Simon, he wants to call Rick.  As he said to me, 'buther no Kee'."

 

            Rick took his mother by the hand.  They both had tears in their eyes.

 

            "That's sounds like a good place to start as far as we're concerned, Doctor."  Rick smiled at his mother.  "As a matter of fact, it sounds like the best place to start."

           

 

Chapter 12

 

 

            Wyatt parked the patrol car three blocks away.  He slipped his sunglasses on and reached across the seat for his nightstick.  He leaned over, popping the lock on the glove compartment.  He took out the gun, exchanging it for the department issue semi-automatic pistol in his holster.

 

            He exited the car, depositing the heavy Billy club in its leather ring at his belt.  He carefully sat his hat atop his sandy spikes, adjusting it until it was perched at just the right angle.  He walked tall and straight through the rundown neighborhood, enjoying the feel of the hard Billy club as it bounced off his thigh. 

 

            Because it was ten twenty-five on a weekday morning, the neighborhood was quiet.  What few people he saw averted their eyes or scampered into their ramshackle houses.  Whatever the gringo cop wanted was of no concern to them.  They'd learned a long time ago it behooved them to mind their own business.

 

            Wyatt smiled as even the smallest of children littering the sidewalks pedaled their tricycles fast and furiously out of his path. 

 

            That's right, you baby beanheads.  Keep your dirty little Mexican asses away from me.

 

            He trotted up the front steps of a stucco tan bungalow.  He knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door twice, but got no answer.  He took off his sunglasses, and using a hand to shield his eyes, peered into the home.  The living room was empty except for a few pieces of mismatched furniture bought at a succession of yard sales no doubt.  A nineteen-inch Sony sat on a TV tray, its rabbit ear antennas pointing in two different directions.  A brightly colored homemade afghan was thrown over the back of the sofa.  Scatter rugs that didn't match much of anything, or each, other attempted to hide the scared surface of the wood floor. 

 

            "Yo, Manuel!  Hey, Manuel, you in there?  I need to talk to you, amigo!"

 

            Wyatt had been in the home once before.  He knew it contained nothing other than the living room, a small kitchen, a bathroom the size of a closet, and two bedrooms.  If he stood in the living room to take a whiz he'd be able to hit the back door with his stream.  Therefore, if Manuel were inside, he'd have heard Wyatt calling him by now.

 

            The deputy looked at the curb, seeing the battered white Buick Regal with rust spots dotting it like sunflowers.  The car, and the open front door on the house, gave him the indication Manuel was somewhere in the near vicinity. 

 

            He walked down the steps, looking both left and right.  Manuel's small yard was separated from his neighbors' homes by a seven foot high wooden fence in bad need of a coat of paint.  Wyatt had a good idea as to where he might find the man.  He slipped his sunglasses back on and strolled around the west corner of the house.  Sure enough, the security guard was in his garden tying up a drooping tomato vine.

 

            The patch of vegetables took up most of the back yard that was barely bigger than a postage stamp, hardly qualifying it as a yard at all.  Wyatt stopped when he reached the edge of a neat row of cucumbers.  He couldn't spot so much as a stray bug, let alone a weed. 

 

            Manuel turned when he felt someone behind him.   He didn't seem to notice that the involuntary step he took backwards caused him to squish a plump red tomato ripe for picking.  The juice stained his work boots and squirted up his pant leg.  Wyatt smiled slightly at the fright he saw on the man's face.  He loved the power he had over people when he was dressed like this.  He rubbed a hand over the long, smooth nightstick.  It was how God intended the white American male to feel, of that he was certain.

 

            The policeman gave a tight nod.  "Manuel."

 

            "What is it you want?  I did what you instructed like I always have.  I unlocked the exact doors you told me to, then, I left.  I kept my side of the agreement just like every other time."

            "And I haven't accused you of anything other than that, now have I?"  Wyatt smiled.  "So why are you so nervous, my friend?  Pardon me for saying this, but you're as jittery as a Mexican jumping bean today."

 

            "I am not nervous.  There have just been too many people around asking too many questions.  You did not tell me this was going to happen."

 

            "Because I didn't know."  Wyatt held an arm out to the man, ready to encircle him like they were old and dear friends.  "Come on.  Step out of there a moment.  I need to talk to you."

 

            "It is not right."  The man shook his head while gingerly making his way over his plants.  "I did not know someone was going to get killed.  I would have not agreed to help you if I'd have known someone was going to die."

            Wyatt placed a solicitous arm around the old man's stooped shoulders.  "And I wouldn't have asked you to help me if I had known someone was going to be killed.  But, who died?"

 

            "I do not know.  A police officer, she come talk to me.  She wants to know why I was not at work like I was supposed to be.  I tell her my wife was sick.  That my wife call me to come home, but I do not think the police officer believe me."

            "Did your wife back up your story?"

            "Yes.  But then the lady officer says she has already talked to my wife's boss.  She knows my wife was at work that day and did not leave.  We told her the boss was mistaken."

 

            "And what'd she say to that?"

 

            "She say nothing.  But she looks at us like we are liars."

            "What was this police officer's name?"

            "I do not remember for sure.  Marshall, I think.  Lieutenant Marshall."

            "Manuel, its very important that you tell me everything this woman said."

            The man rubbed a hand through his droopy salt and pepper mustache.  "She does not say a lot.  Just asks me many questions, wanting to know why I was not on duty like I was supposed to be.  She asks me if I let the boys skateboard there, and I say yes."

 

            "Boys?  What boys?"

            "Just school boys.  Twelve, thirteen-years-old, maybe.  Just boys having fun.  They like to ride their skateboards in the underground garage.  We are supposed to chase them away, but I never do.  They are nice boys.  They do not hurt anything."

 

            "Did she say anything else?"

 

            "Just that there was a man killed, and another man hurt.  She seemed worried about the man who was hurt."

 

            "Was he a police officer?"

            "I do not know.  She did not say."

 

            "How was he hurt?"

 

            "The woman did not tell me.  But I talked to another guard later.  A friend.  He has heard rumors.   He said the man who was hurt was hit by a truck."

            "That's it?"

            "Si¢."

 

            "Who was driving the truck?"

            "I do not know."

 

            Damn.  Damn!  They must have been cops!  That damn place was probably crawling with cops.  Or at least the guy hit by the truck was a cop, otherwise, why would this Marshall bitch be so worried about him?  The truck, well, who knows where that came from.  Coulda' been driven by another undercover cop, or could have just been someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Either way, lucky for us, that's for sure. 

 

            "What about my money," Manuel was saying.  "You have not paid me yet for keeping my side of the bargain.  And I lost my job because of this.  They fired me.  What are you going to do about that?"

            Wyatt's lips curled into smile.   He patted the old man on the back.  "Manuel, you worry too much, you know that?  You can set your mind at ease, because I'm going to take care of all your concerns right now."

 

            Manuel saw his own terror reflected in the deputy's sunglasses as the man unholstered his gun.  He tried to run, but was pulled back to Wyatt by a violent jerk of his arm.  Before Manuel was able to cry out for help, the gun was shoved into his abdomen.  The silencer made it sound like the five bullets were being pumped into a soft feather pillow as they were expelled one after another with a muffled ‘ping.’   

 

            The Mexican's body landed face down amongst his tomato plants.  Wyatt stood back, holstering his gun. 

 

            "I hate to break the news to you, Manuel, but it doesn't look like it's going to be much of a growing season."

 

_______________________________

 

            Despite his seventy years, Lowell Brooks had the trim, firm body of a man half his age.  Arthritis in his left knee didn't keep him from running five miles every morning, doing one hundred sit-ups when he returned home, swimming twenty laps in his backyard pool every other day, playing singles tennis three times a week, and biking through the quiet streets of his well-to-do neighborhood each evening after supper.  He believed there was a direct correlation between a sound body and a sound mind. He'd seen too many older people give into the myth that with advancing age, came the inability to take care of oneself and make one's own decisions.  He'd die at his own hand before anyone, even his children, lived his life for him.

 

            Lowell also believed in hard work.  He'd never shied away from an eight hour day in his life.  And, more often than not, worked ten to twelve hours per day when he had a wife and children to support.  But, his wife had passed away several years ago, and the children were long grown and gone from home with lives of their own.  So now he found himself turning to his work once more.  Nothing got the blood pumping through his veins like a hard sought after deal.  Like something someone told him was out of his reach. 

 

            Well, bully to them, Mr. Brooks thought often thought, no one, no one told him what he could and couldn't have.  Those choices he made of his own free will.

 

            He studied his reflection in the mirror, tugging on the cuffs of his black suit coat.  He was lean and fit, his shoulders still wide and straight, his posture still tall and erect, his biceps still firm and muscular, his stomach as hard and flat as it had been when he was twenty.  He cut a dashing figure, if he did say so himself, though the Board Room was hardly the place to dine if one was looking for a woman to cozy up to.  But, he wasn't looking for a woman tonight, though he'd bedded plenty young enough to be his granddaughters since the death of his beloved Aubrey, just to prove to himself he was still appealing to the fairer sex.  Tonight, however, it wasn't soft flesh and firm breasts he was after, but rather to finalize the sale that would bring him millions.  Not that the money mattered.  He'd amassed far more than he'd ever spend before his life came to its natural end.  It was playing the game that was so appealing now.  It was seeing if he could still win.  It was watching the light in the other guy's eyes fade when he realized he'd just been sucker punched by an old geezer who had come to adulthood during the Great Depression.

 

            Lowell pulled his hat off the closet shelf.  He placed the fedora on his head, bringing it down low over one brow in the way Aubrey had always told him gave him a rakish, slightly dangerous appeal.  His son would make fun of him for wearing the hat.  But, no matter.  The problem with this younger generation was that they didn't know how to properly present themselves in public.  There was more to life than blue jeans and T-shirts, and they'd do well to discover that before the entire country existed in nothing but denim.

 

            Mr. Brooks ran two fingers over the smooth brim of his hat as he trotted down the stairs like a vibrant twenty-five-year-old. 

           

Yes, indeed, there was more to life than meets the eye.

           

________________________________

 

 

            Abigail Marsh watched as Manuel Homera was zipped into a body bag.  She could hear his widow softly weeping somewhere behind her.  The woman had found her husband lying dead in the garden from multiple gunshot wounds when she'd returned home from work at six p.m.  The medical examiner at the scene estimated the time of death to fall between ten a.m. and noon.  They'd have to wait for the autopsy results to pin it down more specifically than that.

 

            Abby and her detectives had been through the house twice.  Nothing was disturbed as far as they could tell.  Robbery certainly wasn't the motive, not that these people had much to steal.  But, to someone in bad need of a drug fix, that wouldn't have made much difference.  The TV remained in the living room, and the bedroom where the couple slept still contained their clock radio and the fifty dollars Mrs. Homera kept hidden in a dresser drawer underneath her white cotton underwear.

 

            The house was being dusted for fingerprints now, though Abby doubted any would be found that didn't belong to the owners. 

 

            She walked over to Estella Homera.  With a nod of her head, Abby waved away the young officer who had been standing with the older woman.

 

            "Mrs. Homera, I know this is a difficult time for you, but I need to ask you some questions.  Are you up to talking to me?"

 

            The woman dabbed at her eyes with the shredded Kleenex she held.

 

            "Si¢, Lieutenant.  Si¢."

 

            Abby pulled the same notepad she'd used when questioning Brendan out of the pocket of her blazer.  "Are you aware of anyone who might have been coming to see your husband today?"

            "No.  No one.  When I left the house this morning Manuel said he was going to work in the garden all day."

            "And that was it?  That's all he said?"

            "Si¢."

            "Mrs. Homera, has your husband said anything to you at all about what happened the day he was supposed to be on duty at the coroner's building?  About where he was, or why he left?"

            "He was here.  He was here with me.  I was sick.  We told you that."

 

            Abby looked at the woman through her lashes.  "Estella, both you and I know that's not the truth.  Your husband is dead.  Murdered.  Don't you think it's time for some honesty between us?"

            Mrs. Homera twisted the tissue into a tight knot.  "I do not...he was my husband.  You must understand; he was my husband."

 

            "I do understand that.  I understand you have great loyalties to him.  But, the fact remains he wasn't at work when he was supposed to be, and for whatever reason he felt the need to lie to me about that.  Perhaps he lied to you as well.  Regardless, it's important that I know what he told you."

            "He did not tell me anything.  He instructed me only to say I was sick and called him to come home."

 

            "But you weren't sick, were you?"

            "No."  The woman hung her head in shame.  "No, I was not."

 

            "Do you know why he left work that day?  Why he wasn't on duty like he was scheduled to be?"

            "No."  The woman looked up again, meeting Abby's gaze.  "The only thing I know is, he was very upset after you talked to us.  He kept saying he wouldn't have done it if he had known someone was going to be killed."

            "He wouldn't have done what?"

            "I do not know.  But..."

            "But, what, Mrs. Homera?"

 

            The woman hesitated, looking at the imprint her husband's body had made in the soft dirt of the garden.

            "But, in the last year, Manuel has come home several times with more money than he would have earned on his paycheck."

            "Large amounts of cash, you mean?"

            "Yes."

            "How large?"

            "Two hundred dollars."

            Abby didn't think of two hundred dollars as being a large amount of cash, but to these people in their early sixties who were struggling to get by on jobs that didn't pay much more than minimum wage, she supposed two hundred dollars of tax free money seemed like a windfall.

 

            "How often did he come home with money like that in the past year?"

 

            "Three...maybe four times."

 

            "And you never questioned him as to where he got it?"

            For the first time all evening Mrs. Homera stood straight and proud.  "Mexican women do not question their husbands, Lieutenant.  We trust them to provide for us, and do not make useless inquires when they do."

 

            When it became obvious the woman wasn't going to offer Abby any more, the lieutenant folded her notebook and returned it to her pocket.  "Thank you, Mrs. Homera.  If you think of anything else, please contact me."

 

            "May I go in the house now?  I would like to call my daughter."

            "Yes, you can go in."

            Abby watched the woman enter the home through the rear door.   Then she walked around front to check on the progress of the officers canvassing the neighborhood on foot for potential witnesses.  Those findings proved to be dismal until a young cop came pounding down the sidewalk.

 

            "Lieutenant Marsh!  Lieutenant Marsh!"

 

            Abby waited until the man approached.  "What is it, Ivers?"

 

            "I just talked to a man who said he saw a cop knocking on Homera's front door around ten-thirty this morning."

            "A cop?"

            "Yeah."

            "Could he ID the guy?"

            The young officer smiled.  "Oh sure.  Said he looked just like me."

            Abby couldn't help but smile, too.  Of course he looked like Ivers to the Mexican witness; which meant he was Caucasian, of average height and build, wore a dark uniform and sunglasses, while carrying a holstered gun and Billy club.

 

            "Do you think it means anything, Lieutenant?"

            Abby thought back to Brendan's words about the squad car fleeing from the morgue the day A.J. was hurt.

 

            "I don't know, Ivers," she said while climbing in her vehicle.  "But it might.  It just might."

 

________________________________

 

 

            Wyatt stopped the patrol car in front of a pay phone outside a

7-Eleven.  Night had long ago fallen.   He dialed the number, making a request of the man who picked up on the other end.

 

            "I'd like to speak with Mr. Brooks, please.  He's expecting my call."

            "Yes, sir."

            The deputy could hear the thunder of men's voices in the background.  Someone picked up the phone, but walked with it to a private location before answering.

 

            "Hello?" 

 

            "It's me, L.B.  He's been taken care of."

            "Excellent.  What did you discover?"

            "Not much.  We'll have to talk later.  I've got a few leads to follow up on, though."

 

            "And those leads would be?"

            "For one thing, Taylor's dead."

            "I already guessed that."  The reply was heavily laden with sarcasm meant to make Wyatt feel as though he'd said something stupid.  It served its purpose.

 

            The deputy's tone was sharp and clipped.  "Fine.  You already guessed that.  To coin one of your favorite expressions, bully for you.  What you don't know is that the guy who was following you was hit by a truck."

 

            "By the truck I saw?"

            "I would assume."

 

            "Who was he?  A cop?"

            "I have no idea, but I intend to find out."

 

            "What about the kids?"

            "Just skateboarders skipping school.  We don't need to worry about them.  The gunshots are probably what sent them sailing outta the building like little chicken shits."

 

            "The guy who got nailed by the truck had to have been a cop, don't you think?  I can't imagine any other reason for this to be kept so hush-hush.  By now we surely would have read something in the paper about it.  After all, we left them one dead body, and one nosy fool who evidently had his insides scrambled by a pickup."

 

             We?  Wyatt thought.  We left them one dead body?  I think not, L.B.  I truly think not.

 

            The deputy smiled at the shadow of fear he heard in this powerful man's voice.  Without L.B. realizing it, they'd just switched roles.  Granted, the moment wouldn't last long, but Wyatt would grab onto it while he could.

 

            "As I said, I'll look into it.  It's possible he was undercover, but there's a thousand other possibilities, too.  I do have a name to start with, however."

            "What name?"

            "Manuel mentioned he'd been questioned by some broad named Lieutenant Marshall."

 

            "That's a bit vague, don't you think?"  There it was, the subtle sarcasm again.

 

            "Not really.  There aren't many women in law enforcement who attain that rank."

 

            "Slept her way to the top, huh?"

            "No doubt.  Don't they all?"

            L.B. snickered.  "A number of them have tried with me."

            "Yeah, I saw the way that new little file clerk was eyeing you the other afternoon."

 

            "You should have seen how she was eyeing me when I dropped my pants for her in my office about two hours later.  I think she was surprised a guy my age could still get it up."

            "Geez, L.B., is she even out of high school?"

 

            "Graduates in June."

            "Don't tell me that.  I'm a cop, you know."

            "Right," the man snorted.  "Since when did you turn moral on me?  If I remember correctly, you have an eye for tender, unblemished flesh as well."

            "Yeah, I do.  But I make sure they're over eighteen before I ram through the front door, if you get my drift.  I'm just telling you to be careful.  You get caught, or she tells her folks, you're looking at charges of statutory rape."

 

            "Let's not worry about that right now.  If you don't find out what this Marshall woman knows, we're looking at a hell of a lot more than that."

            He always does that.  Somehow it always comes back to ‘we’ and ‘us’ when it started out just being him.

 

            Wyatt didn't argue, however.  He'd discovered many years ago a poor boy from L.A. housing projects couldn't partake in the lifestyle of the rich and famous without playing by the rules they set forth.

 

            "I'll take care of everything," Wyatt assured right before breaking their connection.

 

            As he climbed in his patrol car, Wyatt's mind traveled back to that stormy night eight years earlier.  He hadn't thought of it in a long time.  In fact, he'd almost forgotten the first man he and L.B. had been forced to silence.

 

            There was a hint of resigned weariness in Wyatt's tone as he mumbled to no one but himself,  "I'll take care of everything just like I always have."

           

________________________________

 

           

            The first week at San Diego Rehabilitation hospital was a struggle for A.J.   Doctor Yeager warned Rick and Cecilia he might have difficulty adjusting to the change in his routine.  The blond detective proved her right.

 

            The intense therapy sessions A.J. started the day after he was admitted, were taxing on him both physically and mentally.  He became easily frustrated when things didn't work out the way he wanted them to, though his therapists couldn't have been more patient or encouraging.  The challenges he was having were no different than the challenges every resident faced when first starting the rehab program.

 

            Like the doctor had predicted, A.J. was exhausted by this new schedule and slept every day after lunch until Nurse Finster came to wake him for the start of his next session.  By eight o'clock in the evening he was in bed for the night, often plagued by debilitating headaches of an intensity he hadn't experienced since his first week in County General.  Again, Doctor Yeager assured Cecilia and Rick this was normal, and probably caused by stress more than by any other reason.  She talked to Doctor Cho, who came to see A.J.  After a thorough examination, Doctor Cho's diagnosis concurred with Troya Yeager's. He then prescribed a pain killer that brought the blond man welcome relief. 

 

            Cecilia had been given a list of items A.J. would need, including his swim trunks, and brought them in for him on Saturday afternoon.  He made a face at the shirts, pants, boxer shorts, pajamas, and shoes, she'd purchased at a medical supply store for the disabled.  The shirts and pajama tops were tailored like bowling smocks and closed with Velcro fasteners, as did the flies of the various pants.  All the pants had elastic waistbands, making them easier to pull on and off. The tennis shoes slipped on A.J.'s feet, as well, and also fastened with Velcro.  The fly area of the boxer shorts closed using the same method.  Because of their loose styling they, like the trousers, were easier to get into and out of, as opposed to the traditional men's briefs the blond detective favored.

 

            A.J. sat on the edge of his bed that Saturday with Rick, watching as their mother pulled every item out of the shopping bag.  She held the clothing up piece by piece for his inspection.  The blond wrinkled his nose. "Don-----like."

 

            Cecilia sympathized with her youngest.  In truth, she thought the clothing pretty miserable herself.  It lacked style of any sort, and the colors were limited to washed-out blue and diarrhea tan. 

 

            "Honey, I know you don't like them, but for now you have no choice.  You have to be able to dress yourself every day."

 

            "Yeah, A.J., you don't want Nurse Finster helpin' ya' do that job, do you?" Rick teased.

 

            "No!  Don-----like er."

 

            I don't like her either, kid, Rick thought.  But, for now, he voiced only positive thoughts.

 

            "Aw, she ain't that bad.  She just needs some of that old A.J. Simon charm laid on her.  Whatta ya' think about that?"

            Cecilia and Rick laughed at A.J.'s reply.

 

"No------ay!"

 

            A.J. voiced his displeasure as his mother laid the last pair of trousers on top of the pile she'd started on the dresser. 

 

            "Ole-------ma-------ants."

 

            "What, sweetheart?  What did you say?"

            A.J. repeated himself as distinctly as he could, but his words came out the same.  "Ole------ma-------ants."

            Rick never interfered with A.J.'s attempts at communication until it became clear to him his brother was ready for him to step in.  He saw A.J.'s slight nod in his direction.

 

            "He's saying they look like old man pants, Mom."

            "Essss." The blond slowly corrected himself.  "No----Ye---ye---ye-----yes."

 

            Cecilia understood exactly what he'd done.  She walked over and gave him a warm hug.  "That's right, A.J.  The word is yes, isn't it?  That's wonderful, honey."

 

            A.J. gave his mother a hug in return before pawing awkwardly through the remainder of the shopping bag.  He looked like he'd bitten into a sour ball when he pulled out the boxer shorts.        "Yuk!"

 

            Rick chuckled at the clear expression of distaste.

 

            "Kee's."

 

            "Sure, A.J., that's right.  Mom went to my boat and brought you a dozen pair of my boxers.  Which means I'm not wearin' nothing under my Levi's today."

 

            "So----at's----chain?"

            Although Cecilia had no idea what A.J. meant, Rick understood he was being teased in return.

 

            ‘So what's changed?’  A.J. was asking him.

 

            Because A.J.'s skull was still healing, Rick didn't roughhouse with him as he might have in the past for a remark such as that, but rather put an arm around his neck.  He gently pulled his brother to him in a sideways hug.

 

            "Hey, smart mouth, you watch it there.  You watch it."

 

            Troya Yeager quietly moved on down the hall.  She often showed up on Saturday afternoons to silently observe her patients interact with their families.  Jared's memory had left a deep scar.  A scar still so tender and fresh that Troya vowed she'd never watch a another person she cared about go through the pain and humiliation of being denied by a family member.  There was no room in San Diego Rehab for people who couldn't face the disabilities of their son, daughter, brother, sister, or spouse, and the doctor didn't hesitate to tell them so.  Which was why she could often be found prowling the hallways on her weekends off, and at night, long after she should have gone home.

 

            The woman smiled to herself as she moved on to another room.  A.J. Simon had only been with them two days.  She hardly knew him or his family, but so far she liked what she saw, despite the older brother she perceived to be a hot-headed troublemaker. 

 

            Troya skirted around a hulking janitor carrying a ladder, narrowly missing having a wooden leg driven into her ribs.

 

            "Sorry, ma'am."

 

            She squinted up to read the name patch on the man's tan uniform shirt.

 

            "It's doctor, Mike.  Doctor Yeager.  And please, watch where you're going.  Our patients have enough challenges navigating the hallways without being plowed over by a ladder."

            "Yes, Doctor Ma'am," the man answered dully.

 

            Troya rolled her eyes as she watched the janitor struggle to set the ladder up in front of A.J.'s room. 

 

            Heaven help us.  Another new member of the custodial staff.  I wonder how long this one will be around?

 

            A.J.'s room was bare of anything but the necessities, and about the size of a cut-rate motel room.  There were two hospital beds, one for himself and one for the elderly man who shared the room with him.  A nightstand separated the two beds; a lamp, phone and a digital alarm clock were resting on top of it.   Across from the beds a green Formica counter top lined the wall at waist level, above it hung a row of cabinets with sliding doors.  Two chairs sat at the counter, enabling the occupants of the room to work on whatever projects their physical therapists assigned them.  The room's one window was large, so at least let a fair amount of light in when the heavy green draperies that hung there were open.   The bathroom contained a shower stall, toilet, sink, and mirrored medicine chest, and was wide enough for a wheelchair or walker to travel about it.  A closet four feet wide by two feet deep sat between the entrance to the bathroom and the Formica workstation.

 

            No TV's were allowed in the rooms. Instead, each of the two floors housing patients contained a large lounge that included a television and VCR, as did the lounge in the main lobby.  The purpose behind this was to keep patients from seeking refuge in their rooms.  It was important that the residents practice their communication skills on each other, and become a family of sorts during their stay.  As well, the staff felt televisions in the rooms only discouraged people from concentrating on the work the therapists assigned, even if that work was simply playing a game of Scrabble with a night time visitor.

 

            A.J. had no trouble adjusting to the absence of a television.   He'd never watched that much of it anyway.  When he wanted to see the news or a favorite program, he was quite willing to make the trip to his floor's lounge.  He did, however, miss reading.  The written word had always been a great love of the detective's.  If anything depressed him now, it was his inability to bury himself in a good novel.

 

            Cecilia attempted to combat that for A.J. by purchasing several books on audio cassette.   Rick had already brought in A.J.'s Walkman and a large variety of music, which he seemed to get enjoyment out of.  Although A.J. thanked his mother for the cassettes she brought, he set them aside while touching her arm.

 

            "You-------eed."

            "No, honey, I don't need them.  They're yours.  I thought you might enjoy listening to them when you have free time."

            "No."  He tapped his fingers on her arm.  "You------eeeed------me."

 

            "Well, of course I need you, sweetheart.  What would make you think I don't?"

            The blond man picked up a book cassette.  He pointed to his mother, "You--”

then ran a finger back and forth over the plastic cover of the cassette,  "eed-----"  then pointed to himself,   "me."

            "Oh.  Oh you want me to read to you, A.J.?  Is that what you're saying?"

            A.J. smiled.  "Es----Ye----Yes."

 

            As children, both A.J. and Rick had loved to be read to.  It was a ritual in the Simon household, done faithfully at bedtime by either their mother or father.  Cecilia recalled the small pain she felt when the boys grew too old for that custom - when her voice was replaced by their own inner voices as Rick buried his nose in comic books, and A.J. lost himself within the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy.

 

            Cecilia ran a hand through her son's hair.  "It's been a long time since I've read to you.  Are you sure you're up to hearing your old mother's voice blabbering at you that much?"

            A.J. pulled his mother to him that evening in an awkward hug.  "Es-----Ye-----Yes.  Na------no-------ole."

            "I'm not old?"

            "No!"

 

            "I certainly can't refuse a man who pays me that type of a compliment, can I?"

            "No."

 

            And so the ritual was resurrected that included no one other than Cecilia Simon and her son.  As time went on, and A.J. began to recognize simple words again, she brought in books he'd loved as a young child.  She didn't know how he'd feel about reading things written at a first grade level, but he didn't complain.  He was so proud of each new accomplishment that it was a joy to listen to him, even though he often stumbled his way through the pages.

 

            A.J. had been at the rehab center six days when Rick got a phone call at nine-fifteen on Wednesday morning.

 

            "Simon and Simon Investigations."

 

            A clipped, female voice was on the other end of the line.            "Is this Mr. Simon?"                   

            "Yeah, this is Rick Simon."

            "Mr. Simon, this is Dagmar Finster. Andrew's nurse at San Diego Rehabilitation Center."

 

            "Yeah?"

            "Mr. Simon, I'm going to have to ask you to come down here."

            "Come down there?  Why, what's wrong?"        Rick glanced at his watch.  He was well aware A.J. should already be in his second therapy session of the morning.  Family members and other visitors weren't allowed in the building during the week until six in the evening unless an emergency arose, or unless they had a previously scheduled dinner reservation.

 

            "Andrew is being very uncooperative today," the woman said, as though A.J. was a mischievous six-year-old she couldn't discipline.  "I don't know what's gotten into him, and Doctor Yeager isn't available to consult with at the moment. 

            "Uncooperative how?  In what way?"

            "He's refusing to get out of bed, for one thing.  Refusing to eat, for another. And refusing to leave his room.  He won't even look at me when I speak to him.  Some of his therapists have been in to see him, but he won't have anything to do with them, either.  Really, Mr. Simon, this behavior can't continue.  Doctor Yeager will surely ask him to leave if it does."

 

            "I'll be right there."

 

            Rick locked up the office and headed for the stairwell.  He could reach the ground floor quicker this way than by waiting for the ancient elevator.  He worried about his brother the entire drive to the hospital.  Was A.J. sick, and for some reason unable to communicate that to someone?  Or had he wet the bed again and was too humiliated to confess the problem?  Rick hoped the latter wasn't true.  So far, the only time that had happened was the night at County General over a week ago now.   The detective prayed such an accident hadn't occurred again.  He didn't know how A.J. would cope with it if it had.

 

            Dagmar Finster didn't try to stop Rick as he rushed by the nurses’ station.  She simply looked up from her work and called after him,  "Andrew really should be in therapy now!  He's throwing everyone's schedule off!  I hope you can talk some sense into him!"

            "Bitch," Rick muttered under his breath as circled around the large janitor slowly swishing a mop back and forth across the floor outside A.J.'s room.

 

            A.J.'s bed was the farthest one from the door.  Rick slowed his footsteps as he approached his brother. The blond man was still dressed in his pajamas, and had his head turned toward the wall.  He was clutching the covers to his neck as tight as he could with his right hand. 

 

            Rick's voice was soft and quiet.  "A.J.?"

 

            A.J. didn't respond to his older brother.  His face remained averted, his eyes staring blankly at the bright sky outside the third story window. 

 

            "A.J., it's Rick."  When Rick got close enough he reached out a hand, only to have A.J. yank his arm away with a frightened gasp.

 

            "A.J., what's wrong?  Are you sick?  Do you have a headache this morning?  A.J.?"

 

            Before Rick could do any more Nurse Finster bustled into the room. "Oh, you haven't gotten him up yet.  Well really, you need to hurry.  The housekeeping staff wants to clean this room and he's--"

            Rick spun on his boot heels.  "He's throwing everyone's schedule off!  I know, Goddammit, I know!  You already told me that!  But right now I'm not concerned about your damn housekeeping staff, or your damn schedule! I'm concerned about my brother, so get the hell outta here and leave us alone!  If I need you I'll let you know!"

 

            Like a chicken scratching the barnyard for corn, the nurse's head bobbed back and forth in jerky, offended movements.  "Humf.  Well.  Hmmmm.  You don't need to curse at me, sir.  That certainly does not make for a happy day."

 

            "If you don't want to be cursed at, then get out!"  Rick roared, the veins in his neck straining with effort.

 

            The janitor peered in the room, curious as to what the yelling was all about.

 

            "Fine, Mr. Simon, fine.  I'll leave."  Nurse Finster turned toward the door.  "But I'll be forced to mention these indignities to Doctor Yeager."

 

            "Go right ahead."

 

             Rick watched the woman exit in a huff.  He stomped over to the door, shutting it firmly in the janitor's face.

 

            For all the anger that boiled within, Rick Simon he had nothing but gentleness for his sibling.  He approached the bed again, noticing A.J. had never turned his head or taken interest in the commotion.  That scared Rick.  Not knowing what else to do, he spoke quietly to his brother once more.

 

            "A.J.  A.J., listen.  There's no one else in here now but you and me.  I've got the door closed.  It's important that you let me know if you're not feeling well, or if there's something else wrong that I can help you with."

 

            When A.J. still refused to respond, Rick repeated his question from earlier.  "Are you sick?   Or do you have a headache?"

 

            Finally Rick saw a slight negative shake of his brother's head. "Okay, good."  Rick hated to ask his next question, but perhaps this was the only way A.J. could tell him.

 

            "Did you...did you have an accident?  Cause if you did," Rick rushed on, trying to race over any embarrassment A.J. might be feeling, "I'll help you get cleaned up.  I don't mind, and no one else needs to know."

            In his first verbal response A.J. replied,  "No."

 

            "No, you didn't have an accident?"

 

            "No."

 

            "Then what is it, A.J.?  What's wrong?"

             Rick watched two full silent minutes click off on the digital alarm clock.  For lack of a better idea, he finally brought one hand to A.J.'s shoulder, the other to his arm.

 

            "Come on.  Let's get you up.  I'll help you shower."

 

            A.J. didn't fight his brother as Rick threw the covers back, then helped him swing his legs over the bed.  Rick moved to the dresser A.J. shared with his roommate, bending down to the bottom drawers where he knew a portion of his brother's clothes were stored.  He pulled out socks and boxer shorts, then crossed to the closet where he retrieved a blue shirt and a pair of tan trousers.  He sat everything on the small vanity top in the bathroom, then returned to get A.J.

 

            Though the blond man was now maneuvering fairly well on his own with the help of a tripod stainless steel cane, this morning he allowed himself to lean heavily on Rick for support.  Rick didn't like this turn of events any more than he liked A.J.'s withdrawn silence.  Every tiny step toward independence A.J. had taken in the past month he'd fought hard to achieve.  Never before had he willingly given up ground.

 

            Rick steered A.J. toward the toilet and helped him turn to sit on the closed lid.  When the blond didn't make a move to undress himself, Rick carefully pulled apart the Velcro closures on the pajama top, lightly teasing as he did so.  "You've got to take these off, kid.  You can't shower with 'em on unless this is your new way of gettin' your clothes washed."

            Rick eyed his brother.  A.J. didn't so much as offer him a tiny smile, let alone any other type of a response.  His head was bowed, eyes glued to the floor.

 

            Not knowing what else to do, Rick worked A.J.'s arms out of the top until all that remained of his clothing were the pajama pants.  It was when he reached for the Velcro closure at the thin waist that he got a reaction.  A.J.'s hands grappled with Rick's, repeatedly shoving them away.

 

            "No!------No!  Don!------Don!  No--------uch!"

 

            No! No!  Rick's brain quickly translated.  Don't!  Don't!  No touch!

 

            The detective brought his hands up to his brother's face, cupping A.J.'s cheeks between his palms.   He crouched down on his knees so they were at eye level.

 

             "A.J., come on.  It's okay.  It's just me.  It's Rick.  I'm not going to hurt you.  Come on, kiddo, it's okay.   Calm down now and tell me what's wrong."

 

            Rick watched with confusion as tears brimmed over to run down A.J.'s face.  When racking sobs began to heave his diaphragm in uneven spasms Rick cradled him against his chest.  He ran his right hand up and down A.J.'s bare back, alternating between that movement and rubbing in a circular motion.

 

            "It's okay.  Shhh, whatever it is it'll be all right, I promise.  I'll take care of whatever's wrong, but you have to tell me.  Shhh.  Shhh.  It's okay.  Everything's gonna be fine, A.J.  Everything's gonna be fine."

 

            The detective continued to offer quiet reassurances until A.J. pulled away from him on his own accord.  Rick handed his brother a tissue from the nearby box, waiting until A.J. had made use of it and was able to speak.  He laid his hands on the blond's knees.

 

            "Can you tell me what happened that's got you so upset?"

            A.J.'s eyes were red with tears and fatigue.  He dropped them to the floor again as if in shame.

 

            "A.J.?"

            "He-----he--------he-----uch-----me."

 

            "Who touched you, A.J.?"

            A.J.'s right hand motioned toward the room.  "He."

 

            All Rick could think of was that nosy janitor who always seemed to be lurking somewhere nearby, like he had been just a few minutes ago.

 

            "The janitor?  That big guy?  Did he touch you?"

            "No.  He."  A.J. pointed toward his roommate's empty bed.  "He."

 

            "Your roommate?  Mr. Middleton?"

            "Esss."

 

            Rick didn't bother to correct the faulty speech.  He had more important concerns on his mind.  "When did this happen?"

            "Nigh."

            "Last night?"

 

            "Esss."

 

            "After I left?  After you had gone to bed?"

 

            "Es------Yes."

 

            "Where did he touch you, A.J.?"

            A.J.'s face colored red.

 

            "No, don't be embarrassed.  It wasn't your fault.  You didn't do anything wrong.  Now I have to know.  Where did he touch you?"

 

            A.J. wouldn't say the words, but gestured toward the fly of his pajamas.

 

            "That queer old bastard," Rick muttered, lips tight with fury.  "Did he do anything else?  Did he...assault you in any other way?"

            "No.  Juz--------uch."

 

            A.J. finally made eye contact with his brother.  This time the tears were replaced with anger.  Anger at his own inability to defend himself.

 

            "I---------tie---------top, Kee,------but-------I--------coot."

 

            ‘I tried to stop him, Rick, but I couldn't.’

 

            Rick ran a hand through A.J.'s hair.  "I know.  I know."

 

            The blond man displayed his weak right hand.  "Wan------it-------im-------but---------an------no------ston-----uf."

 

            ‘I wanted to hit him, but my hand's not strong enough.’

 

            Nor did A.J. have much strength in his left hand at the moment.  That arm had been out of the cast just a week, and was still stiff and of little use.  He'd only begun physical therapy on it since arriving here on Thursday.  Rick could easily imagine that whatever occurred in the room the night before had probably started while A.J. was asleep.  He'd woken to find some old pervert pawing him, and had been totally helpless to defend himself.  Rick saw red with an anger more intense than any he had ever felt in all his forty-three years.  For now, he kept his fury hidden.  The last thing he wanted to do was give A.J. the impression the anger was directed at him.

 

            "A.J., you did the best you could, you got that?"  Rick squeezed his brother's shoulders in a gesture of reassurance.  "I know you couldn't hit him, but you wanted to, and that's what counts.  You didn't like what he was doing, and you wanted him to stop.  I understand that.  I don't want you to be upset about it anymore.  I'm gonna take care of it."

            "You--------it------Kee?"

 

            Rick smiled.   "No, I'm not gonna hit him, but I'd sure like to haul off and pop him a good one.  How about you?"

            A.J.'s mouth curved into a small smile of its own.  "Yes.  I-----wan-----pop--------im."

            Rick laughed, bringing A.J's forehead to briefly rest against his. "Come on.  Let's get you in the shower.  While you're at therapy I'm gonna get this mess straightened out."

 

            A.J.'s latched onto his brother's arm with desperation.  "Home-------Kee.  No--------tay."

 

            "Yes, you have to stay.  You're not ready to go home yet.  But, I promise you that what happened last night won't happen again.  I'll take care of it, A.J."

 

            It was hard for Rick to refuse the plea being broadcast from his brother's eyes.  "Pleee--------home."

 

            "A.J., have I ever broken a promise to you before?"

            A.J. gave a solemn shake of his head.

 

            "No, I haven't, have I.  And I'm not about to start now."  Rick pulled A.J. to his chest for one final hug.  "You'll be safe here, little brother.  You'll be safe here, or I promise you I will take you home."

________________________________

 

            Rick helped A.J. shower, dress, brush his teeth and shave, then walked with him up to the fourth floor room he was due to be in.  After leaving him in the capable hands of a physical therapist, Rick turned on his heel and marched for the nearest elevator.  So intent was the detective on the problem at hand that he never noticed the janitor who had been mopping outside A.J.'s room was now washing office windows just down the hall from where he'd left his brother. 

 

            Rick's boot heels clacked heavily against the tile floor.  His fist came down hard on the counter at the nurses’ station.  The papers Miss Finster was writing on ruffled in the breeze his movement created.  The woman never lifted her head or stopped the motion of her pen, but simply looked over the top of her glasses at Rick as though she perceived him to be the biggest annoyance of her day.

 

            "Yes, Mr. Simon?  What is it you want?"

            "What I want is for my brother to be moved to a new room immediately.  A private room."

 

            The nurse met Rick's eyes, perching her spectacles more firmly on her nose.  "You know the rules, Mr. Simon.  No patient, regardless of how important he or she thinks he or she is, is allowed a private room until he or she has been here at least one month.  Your brother has to learn to communicate with people regardless of his limitations.  Having a roommate is the best way that goal can be achieved."

 

            "First of all, Nurse Finster, you have more limitations than my brother could ever hope to have.  And second of all, I don't give a damn about your rules, I want him moved!"

 

            "Mr. Simon, I am growing quite weary of your temper, and of your foul language."

 

            "And I'm growing quite weary of you, lady!  Now arrange to have my brother moved, or I'll move him myself."

            "Perhaps you should first explain to me why this move is necessary."

 

            "It's necessary because the old coot he's supposed to be communicating with, sexually assaulted him last night!"

 

            The woman's head swiveled as she made sure no one was within hearing range.  "Mr. Simon, lower your voice, please.  You cannot go around making such accusations--"

 

            "I'm not making accusations!  If A.J. says that's what happened, then that's what happened, damn it!"

 

            "Mr. Simon...how can I delicately phrase this?"  The nurse hesitated a moment in discreet thought.  "You have to understand, sir, that your brother has experienced a severe head injury.  An injury that is quite likely distorting his perception of reality.  Now, I'm sure Andrew thinks Mr. Middleton did something to him that was, shall we say, inappropriate?   But really, both you and I know the truth now, don't we?"

            "You're Goddamn right I know the truth, and if you're not going to do something about it then I'm gonna talk to someone who will!"

 

            A tight smile of triumph touched the corners of the nurse's mouth.           "Then I guess you're out of luck, aren't you, Mr. Simon.  For you see, whether you or like it or not, I'm in charge of this floor.  Nothing happens here that I do not give full approval of.  And, I do not approve of Andrew being moved.  Period.  End of discussion."

 

            Rick had to grab his right hand with the left one to keep from landing a punch to the woman's jaw.  He swore if she were a man he would have sent her sailing over the counter with no regrets.

 

            A vein in the detective's jaw twitched, silently conveying his burning rage.  "Take my word for it, Nurse Finster, Andrew will be moved before he returns to his room this evening, or he'll be going home with me."

 

            Rick spun around, stomping for the elevator once more.  He paid no attention to the calls coming from behind him.

 

            "Mr. Simon!  Mr. Simon, just where do you think you're going?  Mr. Simon!  Mr. Simon, get back here!  I don't know what makes you think you're above the rules, mister, but soon enough you'll find out you're not!"

 

            Rules one way or another had never made much difference to Rick Simon. He wasn't going to start worrying about them at this last stage in the game.  He rode the elevator to the first floor, exiting onto a long hallway that led to the building's main entrance doors.  He passed administrative offices on his right, and the gymnasium on his left without paying attention to either the staff members or patients moving about.   He knew exactly where he was going, making a sharp right when he came to the hall that ran along side the large open lobby/family lounge area.

 

            Rick passed three more offices before reaching his final destination.  A fresh faced secretary no older than twenty looked up in greeting.    "Good morning.  How may I help--"

            "I need to see Doctor Yeager."

            "Do you have an appointment?"

            "No, I don't have an appointment!  But I wanna see her and I wanna see her now!"

 

            "Sir, I'm sorry, but she's unavailable at the moment."

 

            "When will she be available?"

            "I'm not sure.  It may be a while.  She's meeting with the board of directors this morning.  If you'll leave your name and phone number with me I'll be certain to have her get in contact with you just as soon as she--"

            Rick's eyes lit on the closed door down the hallway.  Even from a distance he could clearly read the placard.  BOARDROOM.       

 

            Rick rounded the secretary's desk.  The direct path he took left no doubt in regards to his intended destination.

 

            "Sir!  Sir, you can't go in there!"  The girl hobbled after Rick on her thin high heels.  "Sir, please!  Doctor Yeager's with the directors right now.  She can't be disturbed!"

 

            The detective shook the woman off as easily as if she were child.  He turned the knob on the door, not bothering to knock before thundering into the wood paneled boardroom with the violence of a storm trooper. 

 

            The doctor looked up from the head of the table, annoyance clearly written on her face at the intrusion.  "Mr. Simon!  What is the meaning of this?"

 

            Ten men in dark business suits swiveled in their seats.  By their dour expressions one could easily see they weren't anymore pleased by the interruption than Doctor Yeager was.  Raised eyebrows were exchanged all the way around the table at the unorthodox man now standing amongst them in faded jeans, scuffed boots, a well-worn denim work shirt, and with Panama cowboy hat perched on his head.

 

            Rick's eyes locked with Troya Yeager's.  "I wanna talk to you now!"

 

            "Now, is not possible, Mr. Simon.  I will speak with you when I--"

            Rick didn't care that his next words came out in a belligerent roar. "I said now, doctor, and I damn well mean now!"

 

            The young secretary teetered in, babbling a hysterical apology.  "Doctor Yeager, I'm sorry!  I'm so sorry!  I told him you were unavailable, but he wouldn't listen!  I told him he couldn't come in here, but--"

 

            "It's all right, Dana."  The doctor rose from her seat.  "It wasn't your fault.  Please return to your work."

            The secretary gave a small nod of her head before turning to make a quick and grateful exit.

 

            Doctor Yeager looked at the board members.  "Gentlemen, please carry on without me.  I'll be back shortly."  The woman met Rick's eyes, paying no attention to the fury she saw there.  A fury that matched the white-hot anger she knew was burning in her own eyes.  She couldn't fathom what in the world Simon thought he was doing, and she really didn't care.  This was the last time he'd ever interrupt her, regardless of the reason. 

 

            With a tight flick of her head Troya indicated for Rick to follow her out of the room.  She didn't say anything to him as she led him further down the hallway.  A small conference room empty except for a round table and four chairs was nestled between a janitor's closet and a door marked Fire Exit.

 

            The doctor shut the door firmly behind them, then spun around. 

 

            "What the hell do you think you're doing, Mr. Simon?  How dare you barge in on me when I'm in the middle of a board meeting!  I can't even begin to tell you how furious I am with you right at the moment!"

 

            "Furious?  You're furious?  You wanna talk furious, lady, then you've come to the right guy!  Two hours ago I gotta call from one of your nurses tellin' me my brother was refusing to get out of bed, eat, or attend his therapy sessions!"

 

            The doctor was momentarily taken aback."Pardon me?"

            "You heard me!  But I guess you didn't know that, did you?  You didn't know that, because you were too Goddamn busy to be disturbed!  So I did your job for you.  I came down here to see what was wrong, only to have A.J. tell me he was sexually assaulted last night right here in your precious building!"

            "He was what?"

 

            "Sexually assaulted, Doctor.  Though, fortunately, for you and your staff, the worst the guy did was put his hands inside my brother's pants.  Not that that isn't bad enough, but you're damn lucky A.J. wasn't raped, 'cause if he had been I'd have torn this place apart brick by brick until I got a hold of everyone who was negligent when it came to knowing what was going on in that room last night!"

 

            "Mr. Simon, please, sit down.  Let's both sit down."

 

            Rick jerked his arm out of the woman's grasp.  He paced the floor five times with narrowed eyes and flared nostrils before finally yanking a chair away from the table and sitting.  Troya gave him a moment to calm down before making further inquires.

 

            "Tell me exactly what it is A.J. relayed to you."

 

            "That his roommate had touched him in a way he didn't like.  That he woke up to find the old guy's hands inside the fly of his pajamas."

            "And you're certain that's what happened?"

            "If A.J. says that's what happened, then that's what happened.  He was upset, Doctor.  So upset he was layin' in bed facing the wall while refusing to communicate with anyone, not even me.  Regardless of what your Nurse Finster might say, my brother did not fabricate, or hallucinate, what occurred."

 

            "No, Mr. Simon, I doubt he did."

 

            "I know he didn't, which is I why I want him moved to a private room today.  The last thing A.J. needs right now is some old queer for a bunkie."

 

            Troya bit back the small smile Rick's words evoked.  "Mr. Simon, I can assure you George Middleton is not an 'old queer' as you put it.  He's been married fifty-four years, is the father for five children, the grandfather of sixteen, and the great-grandfather of how many I don't recall, but several."

            "Look, I personally don't care if the guy's your grandfather and gets his jollies outta doin' it with a monkey.  What pleasures people find in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and with who, doesn't concern me provided they're doing it with a consenting adult.  But, in this case old man Middleton wasn't in his own bedroom, and he was doin' it with my brother, who definitely did not give his consent!"

 

            "I understand that, but please, calm down and let me explain something to you."

            Rick's reply was short and sharp.  "Something that's going to change what happened?"

            "No," the woman answered honestly,  "but something that might help you understand why the incident occurred.  You see, Mr. Simon, it's not unusual for stroke victims like Mr. Middleton, especially male stroke victims, to incur damage to the portion of their brains that controls sexual impulses.  It happens sometimes to men who have been brain injured, as well.  Their brain isn't telling them that what they're doing is wrong, it's simply broadcasting desires they no longer have the capability of controlling.  I'm truly sorry about what happened to A.J. last night, and even more regretful that I wasn't informed this morning that he was upset about something.  Had I known, I would have personally placed the phone call that summoned you.  I promise you the staff will be spoken to about this incident.  The mistakes that were made surrounding how it was handled will be rectified for the future."

 

            "That's fine, I guess," Rick grudgingly agreed.  "But I want A.J. moved to a private room.  Regardless of whether or not Middleton meant to do what he did, my brother is not going to be his play toy.  It's not A.J.'s problem that the guy can't keep his hands to himself."

 

            "No, it isn't.  I'll see that A.J. is moved to a new room."

            "A private room."

            The doctor hesitated.  "Mr. Simon, there are reasons why it's beneficial for A.J. to have a roommate right now.  I'd like to you reconsider your request until--"

 

            "No.  I'm not reconsidering.  He's moved to a private room, or I take him home with me today."

            "And just how would that help him?"  The doctor challenged.

            "It would keep him safe, that's how it would help him!"  Rick took a deep breath.  "Look, Doctor Yeager, A.J.'s always been as stubborn and independent as hell.  He's always been able to take care of himself, but right now he can't, and after last night that scares him.  He's mad because he couldn't defend himself.  He's mad, he's frightened, he's ashamed, and he's embarrassed.   I just got done holding him while he cried because of what that asshole did to him.  Now let me ask you something.  Do you have a brother?"

            The doctor's confusion over this question was broadcast on her expressive face.  "Yes...yes, I do."

            "Then you tell me what you would do if our positions were reversed.  If it was your brother who'd been assaulted last night.  If it was your brother who was unable to defend himself from even the smallest of threats.  Would you stand by and let it happen, or would you fight for him, because right at the moment he can't fight for himself?"

            There was no hesitation in the woman's answer.  What appeared to be remembrance of a long ago struggle on behalf of someone she held dear flickered in her large, expressive eyes.  For some odd reason Rick got the impression she could all too easily put herself in his shoes.

 

            "Yes, Mr. Simon, if our positions were reversed I'd run defense for my brother, just like you're running defense for A.J."

 

            "Then you'll see to it he's moved to a private room?"

            "Yes, I'll personally see to it before he returns from lunch for the rest period."

 

            "Thank you.  And if you wanna make this incident up to me and my brother, you can do one more thing for us."

            Troya's response was a wary, "What's that?"  She envisioned Rick Simon giving her a list of special requests and privileges on behalf of his sibling, with the threat of a hefty lawsuit and bad publicity to back those requests up.

 

            "You can make sure Middleton doesn't have any other roommates for the remainder of his stay.  I don't want what happened to A.J. to happen to another man.  I know my brother doesn't want that either.  And while you're at it, inform your staff to keep an eye on the old goat. The last thing anyone needs is for him to wander from room to room in search of a little fun."

 

            A fleeting expression of surprise crossed the woman's face, as though she was being forced to acknowledge a small amount of respect and admiration for someone she really didn't care for.            "Yes, Mr. Simon, I can do that.  As a matter of fact, I was thinking along those same lines."

            "Good.  Thanks."

 

            Rick rose and offered the woman his hand.   Again, she was surprised at how wrong she'd pegged him.  He obviously wasn't the unreasonable, hot tempered jerk she'd thought him to be, but rather someone who simply loved his brother and didn't want to see him hurt.

 

            "I appreciate your help," Rick said as the woman stood and shook his hand.  "I'm sorry about breakin' up your meeting that way, but that Nurse Finster of yours tends to get my blood boiling."

            The doctor's mouth curved into a small smile.  "She is a stickler for the rules, I realize that.  But I can assure you, she's also good at what she does.  A.J. couldn't be in better hands."

            "Both he and I could debate that with you, but since we've already won a round today we'll let it drop."

 

            Troya saw the spark of humor twinkling in Rick's eyes.  A spark that was matched in her own.  "I'm glad to hear that since I left my boxing gloves at home this morning." 

 

            The woman led the way from the office.  "I'll have A.J.'s room changed right now."  She glanced at her watch.  "It's almost lunch time.  Perhaps you'd like to meet your brother in the cafeteria.  I'll have Dana call and let the kitchen staff know you'll be there.  You can eat with A.J., then bring him back to his floor.  By then we should have him moved."

 

            "Thanks."

 

            "You're welcome."

 

            The pair split up when they came to intersecting hallways.  Rick headed for the cafeteria while Doctor Yeager headed for A.J.'s floor.

 

            "Oh, and Mr. Simon?"

            Rick turned.  "Yeah?"

            "Don't worry about interrupting my meeting.  As usual, it was rather on the dry side.  Your unorthodox entrance brought a spark of life to the room most of those men haven't seen in years."

 

            Rick smiled and touched two fingers to the brim of his hat in a salute.  "Glad I could be of help.  You keep makin' me cross paths with that Finster broad and I wouldn't doubt but it'll happen again before A.J.'s stay here comes to an end."

            Troya gave a throaty laugh.  "Let's hope not.  I don't think the coronary systems of most of those men could take it."

 

            Rick watched the woman walk away from him.  Despite her lofty position, she was down-to-earth and honest.  He liked that.  He liked it a lot.  Rick moved toward the cafeteria, satisfied for the first time since his brother had arrived here that A.J. was, indeed, going to receive the best possible care available.

                                                  

Part 4