A.J. Simon never had time to think about whether or not something was amiss in the school building when his class returned. They'd been playing on one of the ball diamonds on the structure's east side. Bobby and Geneva Masters had come into the building through the main entrance on the south. Bobby never saw A.J. and his pupils. Likewise, neither A.J. nor his class saw the gunman.
Ten minutes before the bell was set to ring in the fifth and sixth grade wing of the school indicating the end of second hour class, A.J. herded his kids toward the building. They walked in sets of twos and threes as they headed for the single door that would open into the east hallway where their classrooms were housed. Sean, the boy who had gotten so much enjoyment out of A.J.'s brownies, led the way carrying the bat. A.J. and the remainder of the class followed hauling the ball and mitts.
The children entered the building laughing and talking and playfully jostling. "Hey, everyone, keep the volume down please," A.J. said. "Other classes are in sessions."
A.J. didn't give it much thought when they passed two empty classrooms. He wasn't familiar enough with the overall schedule to know who might be in gym class. But as they continued down the corridor only to encounter desolate room after desolate room, he began to wonder where the other teachers and students were.
He turned around to look at the kids behind him. "Was there an assembly scheduled for today that one of you conveniently forgot to mention to me?"
The kids looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders. A smattering of them answered him.
"No, Mr. Simon."
Sean slowed in mid-stride. "If there is something going on it will either be in the gym, or in Mrs. Zumeda's and Miss Balinski's room. It's the biggest classroom in the school."
"Well, obviously there's a gathering of some sort that Mrs. Harrington forgot to mention to me," A.J. said. "Sean, you lead the way. The rest of us will follow."
Other than more empty classrooms, the private detective didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. Not that he was looking for anything out of the ordinary either. That an armed man would storm a school building and hold its entire staff and student body hostage was the farthest thing from the blond man's mind.
The door leading to the combined third and fourth grade room was closed. As Sean came upon it from its right side he could see it was filled with students of all ages. He turned to A.J., who was a few feet behind him. "Yep, Mr. Simon, everybody's in here. There must be somethin' special goin' on. I hope they got the same magician to come back in that we had a couple years ago."
A.J. was rather embarrassed to find himself in his current position. He wasn't the one who was normally remiss in being where he was supposed to be and arriving there on time. That was more Rick's style. Despite the fact he could honestly say he hadn't been informed about this gathering, A.J. knew he'd never hear the end of it from his brother.
A.J. paused briefly and spoke to his entire class. "I want all of you to enter this room as quietly and discreetly as you can. It's bad enough that we're late. Let's not disturb everyone in the process."
The kids quieted down as A.J. requested. He nodded to Sean to proceed.
The eleven year old opened the door without looking through the glass. Later, Stacy would wonder if because of his size the gunman mistook him for an adult, or if he perceived the bat Sean was carrying to be a weapon. She remembered screaming one long,"Nooooo!" and hearing another female voice join in, "Bobby, no!" when he raised his rifle and got Sean in his sights.
Stacy remembered the paper white shock that painted Sean's face when he came to an abrupt halt. He stood frozen in place, staring at the firearm with his mouth agape.
She remembered seeing A.J. come in behind Sean looking slightly embarrassed, as though he thought he'd made a mistake of some sort.
She remembered how A.J.'s facial features changed expression in a matter of milliseconds as his eyes took in what was occurring before him, and those visions translated themselves as a warning to his brain.
The last thing Stacy remembered seeing was A.J.'s body fly through the air in an effort to tackle Sean to the ground and out of the man's firing range. It was then that the boom of the rifle rattled the windows and caused Stacy's teeth to grind together on their own accord. The softball A.J. had been carrying bounced across the floor and came to rest in a far corner.
Utter chaos broke out within the room. Some children covered their ears and screamed, while others buried their faces in teachers’ bodies and broke into hysterical sobs. Some jumped to their feet in an effort to get out of the room, only to have that effort thwarted by quick thinking adults who were able to snare the hem of a dress or shirt. They knew further disaster was in store if the kids began spilling out of the room in a frenzied mass.
The fifth graders who had been coming in behind A.J. turned and fled with far more speed than they'd been using on the base-path just minutes earlier. They grabbed the arms of their classmates lagging behind in the hallway and yelled, "Run! Run! He's got a gun!" Baseball mitts were left behind like a trail of breadcrumbs as the kids exited the building from the same direction they'd entered it.
A.J. rolled off Sean's body and came to rest on his back on the cold white tiles. He brought his hand up to his right side in an effort to quell the warm blood he could feel pooling underneath his shirt. He was oblivious to the noise and confusion in the room as shock overcame his system.
Rick Simon had clearly observed the same things Stacy had. Like her, he was ignorant as to the end results because of the children still on their feet blocking his view. Rick ignored the little hands that clung to his arms and waist as he thrust himself upward. The liquid staining the tile grout red told the detective all he needed to know. Sean's frantic beckoning of his brother, "Mr. Simon! Mr. Simon! Are you all right?" only further enhanced Rick's fears.
Bobby Masters waved his rifle in an effort to maintain control of the room. "Shut those kids up! Shut 'em up, do you hear me?"
Stacy pulled Rick's little ones away from him as he began threading his way across the room. The Winchester swiveled to his chest. "Where do you think you're going?"
Rick's eyes narrowed and he pointed to A.J. "I'm going to give that man the help he needs."
Bobby's answer was firm and unwavering. "No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"If you take one more step toward him I'll put a bullet in your gut, too."
"Then you're just gonna have to do that, you bastard, because that's my brother you just shot and I'll be damned if I'll leave him layin' there to bleed to death."
Bobby's eyes flicked from Rick to A.J. then back again. He didn't give his consent, but he didn't try to stop Rick either as the detective hurried past him.
Rick knelt down at his brother's side. A.J.'s eyes were open, but his glazed stare didn't seem to be taking in anything other than the ceiling. Rick laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"A.J. A.J., it's Rick. A.J., I need to move your hand so I can take a look at where the bullet entered, okay?"
A.J.'s head moved toward Rick's voice. His eyes seemed to clear just a little as though he was aware his brother was now with him and was drawing strength from his presence.
"I'm gonna move your hand, A.J.," Rick repeated, "so I can take a look at you. I know it's gonna hurt, but try not to fight me, okay?"
A.J.'s confirmation was barely above a whisper and slow in coming. "Okay." His eyes slid from side to side as though in search of something. "My kids?"
volume in the room was still at such a level Rick didn't have to worry about
being overheard by the gunman.
"They ran outta the room.
I'm sure they got to safety."
"All...all of them?"
"I think so."
A.J. didn't have to say anymore. Despite his pain the relief on his face was evident.
"He's okay, too. He's sittin' right here beside you."
A.J.'s eyes found Sean at his left shoulder. He lifted his left hand a fraction and gave the terrified youngster a ‘thumbs up.’ Sean did his best to smile in return.
Rick's hands moved to cover the blood stained one A.J. had molded to his right side just below his rib cage. Using extreme caution, Rick eased it away from his brother's body, prepared to put his own there if the blood began to freely flow.
A.J.'s head arched back against the hard tiles and he cried out in pain. He was forced to bite down on his lower lip as Rick's probing continued.
"I'm sorry, A.J. I'm sorry. But I gotta take a look at this."
"I know," A.J. gasped in assurance.
Rick gently pulled his brother's hunter green polo shirt free from the waistband of his tan Levi trousers. He brought the shirt up to A.J.'s rib cage so his abdomen was exposed.
The detective was relieved to see the bullet hadn't torn A.J. open, but rather had made a neat round hole in his side. He'd seen enough abdominal wounds in Vietnam to know how nasty, and how deadly, they could be. Especially when internal organs were exposed. But that didn't mean this wasn't serious. Far from it. Rick was in the dark as to the path the bullet had traveled and just what damage it had done.
Bobby Masters was growing more impatient with each passing moment. "Come on, come on. Hurry up over there!"
Rick ignored the man to instead keep his attention on the task at hand.
"A.J., I'm sorry, little brother, but I'm gonna have to roll you on your left side. I need to see if I can determine where the bullet went."
A.J. knew that action was bound to be painful, but did his best to ease the regret he saw in Rick's eyes. "This is...your revenge for...for me taking your...your bike without asking first...when I was eight, isn't it?"
Rick couldn't help but smile as he brought a hand up to his brother's head. He winked. "Yeah, it is. That'll teach ya' to take things that don't belong to you."
The lanky man didn't waste anymore time. He could see the gunman and the woman engaged in heated conversation. He needed to do as much as he could for A.J. while their assailant was otherwise occupied.
Rick looked across A.J.'s body. "Sean, can you cradle my brother's head and shoulders for me while I move him? I'm gonna roll him toward you, son, and it's gonna hurt him. I need you to hold onto him for me. Can you do that?"
Sean's words were spoken with far more confidence than he was feeling. "Yeah...uh, yeah sure. I can do that."
"Good. Now just let me do all the work. Don't pull on him. Just accept his body as I roll it your way."
Rick and Sean worked together like a well-rehearsed team of paramedics. The detective kept a firm hand over A.J.'s wound while he moved him, but that didn't prevent A.J. from crying out in pain again. Rick was peripherally aware of some of the children in the room crying along with A.J., as though in sympathy of his distress.
Rick's brow furrowed into deep lines while he studied his brother's back.
"Damn," he swore under his breath. "No exit wound. Damn!"
Rick regained his composure and nodded to Sean to help him roll A.J. to his back once more. This last bout of pain was too much for the blond and he was now only semi-conscious.
Before Rick could decide what to do next he heard sirens pierce the air.
Thank God. Some of A.J.'s kids must have gotten to a phone and called for help.
Bobby Masters heard the sirens, too. He looked at Rick and Sean, and waved his rifle toward the area Rick had vacated.
"Get away from that door! I want everyone away from that door!"
"I can't move my brother," Rick steadfastly maintained.
The rifle was aimed at A.J.'s skull. "You'll move him or I'll kill him! Get away from that door. Now!
"Sean, go sit over there next to Mrs. Harrington," Rick ordered. "Ask her to have the kids move back a little bit so I can make room for A.J."
Sean nodded and did as Rick instructed. Stacy gave him a hug when he reached her. The chubby boy was forced to fight back the tears of fear and despair that threatened to burst forth as he was held against the her chest. Quietly he told her, "We've got to have the little kids move back some. Mr. Simon is gonna bring Mr. Simon over here."
Stacy followed through on Rick's instructions to Sean. She asked Rick's class to scoot back as much as they could in order to make room for Mr. Rick and his brother. Other teachers jumped in to help the children quickly do as they were told.
Bobby's eyes never left Rick as the detective slid an arm under A.J.'s knees and the other under his neck. Rick didn't tell A.J. what he was up to this time. He didn't think his brother was aware enough to understand.
A.J. gave a weak cry of "Ahhh!" at the movement of Rick standing, and his left hand, which was behind Rick's back, grabbed a fistful of brother's shirt.
"I know, A.J.," Rick comforted as he struggled to walk the ragged path the teachers had cleared for him, "I know it hurts. Just hang on for me, little brother. Just hang on. We'll be there in a second."
In an attempt to calm the kids down teachers had been passing out coloring books, crayons, paper, pencils, Magic Markers, books, board games, puzzles, playing cards, and anything else they could find on the shelves while the mayhem was in progress. A pillow, blanket, and two towels came Stacy's way from the supply closet in the back of the room. She spread out on the tile floor the blazer she'd been wearing to help ward off the chill for A.J. A nearby male teacher saw what she was doing and passed forward his sport coat so no part of A.J.'s body would have to lie directly on the floor. She put the pillow at the head of her blazer and waited for Rick to arrive. Together, they placed A.J. on the makeshift bed then covered him with the blanket. Rick rolled up one of the towels into a thick pad and placed it under the blanket on A.J.'s wound. For the time being he left his hand there in an effort to stop the blood that was still ebbing from the hole.
Geneva remained attached to the bomb while Bobby began to pace the front of the room mumbling to himself. Stacy's eyes traveled from the couple to A.J.
"How bad is it, Rick?"
"I don't know. Bad enough, let's put it that way. I have no idea where the bullet is or how much damage it did. In a way, it's good that it didn't exit his body. That's one less place he's got to bleed from. But in another way, that's bad as there's no tellin' what it's lodged against or how much damage it was doin' every time I was forced to move him." Rick lifted the blanket just enough to peek at the white towel. "At least he's not bleeding too badly. I might be able to get it to stop if I hold this towel here long enough."
"I'll help you," Stacy offered. "Just let me know when you need a break."
Rick nodded. He looked around the room to see calm had somewhat been restored. Most of the children, especially the smaller ones, were absorbed in projects their teachers had gotten them started on. Some were drawing, some were writing, some were coloring, and some were reading. Rick's class was turned sideways and facing one of the other first grade teachers who was softly reading to them.
Like Rick, Stacy, too, was aware of the sirens wailing outside. Instead of dissipating, they seemed to be increasing as though more and more law enforcement officers were arriving.
"What will the police do?" She whispered.
"If they can somehow make contact with this guy they'll try to talk him into letting everyone go, especially the kids. If he refuses...well, if he refuses I really don't know what they'll do. If enough time passes and he doesn't cooperate and they feel he's gonna start...hurting people, they'll storm the room. Probably throw in tear gas first, then send a S.W.A.T. team in. But with all these kids in here that will be the last resort."
Stacy looked around at the children she felt personally responsible for. She envisioned men in black wearing flak jackets and toting high powered rifles entering the room with reckless abandon.
"What can I do to keep the children safe?"
"About the only thing you can do for now is pass a message to the other teachers to be prepared for anything. And I do mean anything. At the first sight of a tear gas canister being thrown in, or the first sound of a gun shot, they've got to get the kids on the floor, stomachs down with their hands covering their heads."
"With almost three hundred children in this room that won't be an easy feat to accomplish."
"I know it. But at least tell them. From there they'll have to do the best they can."
Bobby Masters paid no attention as Stacy passed Rick's message to the closest teacher. It was absorbed and passed on until it had made the rounds of the room. Rick saw some of the teachers whispering to their students. He could only guess they were cautioning the children to be prepared for whatever was to come.
The gunman's mumbles increased in volume and became clearer. After all these months he finally had a live audience to preach to and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. He raised a hand Heavenward.
"And the little children shall lead us out of bondage sayeth the Lord! For whosoever teaches the children must be a righteous man! It is an abomination what is being taught in our schools today and you, men and women of so-called-knowledge, are sinners in the eyes of God! You are to be driven from your pedestals and smote where you stand!"
Rick leaned to Stacy. "I'll be the first to admit it's been a good many years since I've stepped foot in a church, probably close to forty. And the times I was there I didn't exactly listen with rapture, but correct me if I'm wrong. None of what this guy is sayin' is actually in the Bible, right?"
"None that I've ever heard," Stacy confirmed.
Bobby Masters was just getting warmed up. His preaching only increased in intensity and volume until it interrupted all other activity in the room. Fifteen minutes later Rick had to hand it to the guy. Even if everything he said was pure crap, Billy Graham couldn't have outdone him on his best day.
The children began to fidget and get upset as the oration went on in loud rambling sentences that often made no sense. Bobby had moved a teacher's chair over so at least Geneva could sit down. She remained tethered and handcuffed to the bomb, her brown eyes wide and flitting about the room as though looking for a means of escape. For the first time Rick really noticed her. Noticed the split lip and discolored cheek that clearly spoke of abuse. Noticed the dilated eyes and pale face that spoke of her fear. Noticed how young she was, somewhere between seventeen and twenty he'd guess. And noticed the slightly swollen belly that was covered with a maternity top while advertising her condition with one word, BABY. For some reason he couldn’t name Rick was certain the baby was the gunman's, and that this terrified young woman was his wife or girlfriend.
The phone located on the wall behind Bobby began to ring. Rick knew each classroom was equipped with a telephone in the event of a medical emergency or fire. During the school day the phone rang in the main office only. Stacy had told him if in the unlikely event it wasn't picked up there after twenty rings, the system was programmed to then ring the phones in the classrooms until someone answered one of them. Rick seriously doubted that system had ever been tested until right at this moment since he knew one of the secretaries in the office acted as telephone receptionist throughout the school day.
The phone ceased its ringing for a matter of a few seconds then started again. Thirty-five rings later it halted only to begin once more. Rick finally spoke up over the preaching that had yet to abate.
"That'll be the cops wanting to get in touch with you."
Bobby turned to Rick. "The Lord has not deemed it necessary that I talk to the police."
"Look, pal, you're gonna have to do something 'cause if you think standin' up there all day preachin' the good book to this crowd is gonna cut it, you're dead wrong."
When the gunman merely looked at Rick the detective took it as an invitation to continue. "These kids need a bathroom break. All of 'em. If you don't work something out soon in that regard then take it from me, you're gonna have a mess in here. And the little ones will be gettin' hungry. We need food and drinks brought in. The cops can arrange that."
Bobby thought about Rick's words long enough for the phone to cease one more time before starting its pattern all over. He aimed his rifle at the detective. "You pick it up."
"They don't wanna talk to me. They wanna talk to you."
The rifle was now moved to A.J. "I said, pick it up!"
Rick looked to Stacy. She nodded and gently slid her hand underneath the blanket. She gave Rick's fingers a squeeze as their hands traded places on the towel plastered to A.J.'s side.
A.J. was cognizant enough to realize his brother was rising. Through half open eyes he scanned the room. "Rick?"
Rick knelt on one knee and patted A.J.'s shoulder. "I'm here, A.J. Just take it easy. I'll be right back."
Bobby's rifle remained aimed at A.J. as if he knew he'd found Rick's weak spot. The lanky detective snatched the receiver from its cradle, happy for the time being to put an end to the insistent ringing.
A female voice Rick immediately recognized boomed through the line. "This is Lieutenant Abigail Marsh of the San Diego Police Department. To whom am I speaking?"
"Uh...I'm a teacher here at the school, Lieutenant. My name's...my name's Rick Simon."
Rick could hear the woman's screech of surprise before it even came. "Rick? What the hell are you doing in there?"
"It's a long story."
"I imagine it is," came the dry reply. "And if you're in there, dare I presume that the Golden Boy is with you?"
"Yeah, he is." Rick's eyes traveled to the pale, supine A.J. "He's here."
going on in there, Rick?"
Rick looked to Bobby Masters. "It's the police. They wanna know what's going on in here. Whatta ya' want me to tell 'em?"
"Tell them the truth. Tell them the Lord has sent Gabriel to free the children!"
Rick put his mouth back to the phone. "He says--"
heard him," Abby interrupted.
"Tell them I have the entire school in here! God has instructed me to sacrifice this building if Satan, through the police, tries to move against me!"
Rick relayed the message.
"Is he serious?" Abby asked. "Does he have a bomb?"
Not knowing how much information the gunman was willing to let him give Rick's answer was succinct. "Yes."
"I've talked to some of the students who managed to get out, Rick. There seems to be a considerable amount of confusion as to what's going on in there, but they have told me where he's holding you. They also said something about a student being shot. Is that true?"
"No, it's not true. No students have been shot. A...a teacher was."
"How serious is it?"
"Serious. Real serious."
are the chances of convincing the guy to let the teacher go?"
"Not good." Rick eyed the rifle leveled at his brother's left temple. "Not good at all."
"Then I'll need to have someone contact the teacher's family before the media gets a hold of all this. What's his or her name?"
"The family already knows."
do you mean?"
"The teacher's name is Simon, Lieutenant. A.J. Simon."
Rick never heard Abby's reply. Bobby Master's broke their connection before she could formulate one.
After fidgeting began to turn to whimpering among the younger students, and with a good deal of pleading from Geneva on behalf of the children, Bobby finally allowed them a bathroom break. He carefully counted each class as it exited with its teacher. He threatened to kill everyone who remained if even one student didn't return. There was a set of restrooms just down the hall within his view from the doorway. Even if any teacher had thought to try something daring, the gunman would have easily thwarted his or her effort.
It took forty-five minutes for the procedure to come to an end, as one by one each class was forced to exit and reenter before another class was allowed to go. When it was Rick's turn he asked Stacy to take his kids so he could remain behind with A.J. This caused some of Rick's children to begin crying once again at what was out of the norm for them.
"Please, Mr. Rick," Micah sobbed as he clung to Rick's waist, "please come with us."
"Mr. Rick, I don't wanna go if you don't come," Jessica cried. "I'm scared. I wanna go home."
"Please, Mr. Rick. Please," LaKeshia begged, her brown eyes murky muddy pools. "You always take us, and I don't wanna walk by that man without you."
A pitiful chorus erupted as the children cried and pleaded.
Rick rubbed backs and patted heads and wiped away tears while attempting to calm his class in a quiet voice. "Come on now, it's okay. Everything's gonna be okay. No one's gonna hurt any of you. I want you guys to go with Mrs. Harrington for me so I can stay here with my brother."
It was then that Rick felt a hand larger than a six year old's brush his knee. He looked down into his A.J.'s blue eyes.
"Take them." A.J.'s order was weak and raspy, but despite that was firm in tone and conviction. "They need you."
"You need me, too."
"Not as much as they do. Take them, please. I'll be okay."
A.J. managed a small smile. "I'm sure, Mr. Rick. Now go."
Rick smiled in return and gave the hand on his knee an encouraging squeeze before placing it back underneath the blanket. With Stacy's reassurance of, "I'll stay with him, Rick," the detective rose and gathered his class. The children clung to whatever parts of his body they could reach. Like a moving hive clustered with bees, Rick made his way to the bathrooms.
In short order Bobby Masters discovered that allowing the children to visit the bathrooms by far, didn't cure all his problems. Despite his valiant attempt at preaching against the sins of the flesh, the kids were growing hungry. The phone kept on ringing, too, as Abigail Marsh continued her attempts to reestablish contact.
Rick became the unofficial spokesman for the adults, a role Stacy gladly relinquished to him. She knew his vast experience gained from private investigation work, and with the police, could only be a benefit to them.
"Hey!" Rick beckoned over the latest disjointed sermon from where he sat by A.J.’s side. "Hey, these kids need something to eat! It's almost noon. The little ones are used to eating at eleven."
The man paused in mid-sentence. He chewed on his lower lip with indecision, giving Rick the impression he hadn't anticipated such a major inconvenience as having to feed three hundred children.
Bobby scanned the room while Geneva's pleaded. "Please, Bobby, they have to eat. They're just little kids."
"Shut up, woman! Just keep quiet until the Lord calls upon you!"
He turned to Rick and made a solemn proclamation. "God will provide for the children in a way only He knows."
Rick gave a sarcastic snort. "Like how? Is he gonna turn the Elmer's Glue into wine and the crayons into bread?"
"You blasphemous heathen!" The man roared with indignation. "You disciple of Satan!" Bobby raced toward Rick with a snarl on his lips and hatred lighting his eyes. Before the detective had a chance to react the man was upon him. Rather than physically assault Rick, however, Bobby Masters drew back the heavy steel toe of his work boot and drove it into A.J.'s injured side.
The blond man's cry at the unexpected pain was even heard over the screams of the terrified children. A.J.'s body instinctively tried to rise and double over in the middle, only to fall back to the pillow when the effort proved to be more than he could expend. Stacy didn't think she'd live long enough to ever forget the sight of his ashen face and dusky lips as he gasped for breath. The act of breathing normally was impossible for A.J. as hot pain engulfed him, setting his nerve endings aflame.
Rick's hands curled into fists. He began to rise to his brother's defense, just like he had done when they were kids and schoolyard bullies dared to pick on A.J.
"Why you bast--"
Cold steel rested behind Rick's right ear as the end of the rifle took up residence there.
"Sit down, teacher."
Rick's eyes met Bobby's. Like gunfighters challenging each other to a duel, neither one of them was willing to drop their gaze.
It wasn't until Bobby's foot drew back again and it was targeted for A.J.'s wounded side, that Rick did as he was told.
The room was once again in an uproar as children cried and screamed and begged to be taken home to their mothers. Rick was vaguely aware of Geneva pleading with her husband, and then a few minutes later was aware that the school's cooks were being allowed to leave the room. What exactly Bobby had said to the women, or ordered of them, Rick didn't know. As soon as he'd reseated himself his attention had been riveted on A.J.
Stacy scooted out of the way so Rick could sit by his brother's upper body. While Rick offered what comfort he could, the principal gingerly pulled the towel away from A.J.'s side.
The bleeding had stopped some time before. Now Stacy was forced to grimly announce, "He's bleeding again, Rick."
Rick's arms were around his brother's shoulders and he had A.J. propped into a half sitting position to aid his attempts for air. His eyes briefly flicked to Stacy. "How bad is it?"
"It seems to be heavier than it was earlier."
"Just keep your hand there. Maybe you can get it to stop with direct pressure. I don't wanna use the other towel unless we have to. We might need it later."
Stacy nodded her understanding. A.J. moaned when the heel of her hand was pressed into his sensitive side. There wasn't much the woman could do about that fact other than to turn away and hide her tears of sympathy.
Rick gave his brother's shoulders a gentle squeeze. One hand rose to brush through A.J.'s hair. "I know it hurts, A.J., I know. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. If I woulda' known he was gonna--"
A.J.'s head rubbed back and forth against Rick's shirt. "Don't," he whispered. "It wasn't...your fault...so just...don't."
"A.J., if it hadn't been for my smart mouth he never woulda'--"
A.J.'s eyes caught and held Rick's. "I said...don't. Besides your...your smart mouth has been...has been getting me in trouble...for years. I'm used to...used to it by now."
Rick couldn't do anymore than carefully draw his brother closer. He rested his chin atop the fair hair and closed his eyes. The detective retreated into his own private world long enough to gather the strength he needed to face the awesome task of somehow keeping both A.J. and this room full of children safe.
The detective returned to the present when he heard Stacy ask of him, "Is he asleep?"
Rick looked down at the head resting on his shoulder. A.J.'s eyes were closed, his breathing slow and shallow.
"Probably more unconscious than asleep." Rick gently eased A.J.'s body to a reclining position. "I don't know if that's good or bad, but at least for now he's not aware of the pain."
The detective looked up to see Masters on the phone. "Is he talkin' to the cops?"
"Yes, I think so. It sounds like they're trying to convince him to let the children and A.J. go."
Rick nodded, knowing that's exactly what Abby or the hostage negotiator would be trying to do. "Where did the cooks go?"
"His girlfriend, or wife, or whoever she is, finally talked him in to allowing everyone to eat. He told the cooks they had exactly one hour to get it ready and get it up here or he'd kill a teacher."
"Nice guy. Obviously he was absent on the day Mrs. Dunford lectured on manners and respect."
Stacy couldn't help but smile at Rick's sarcastic humor. "Obviously."
The principal sobered as she surveyed the room. An odd calm prevailed, like the quiet unsettling calm that blankets a summer day right before a violent rainstorm moves in. The teachers and other staff members had managed to engross the children in games and books and crayons once more. Many students were even huddled in groups working on things together while talking softly amongst themselves like they could be found doing on any other school day. Stacy wondered how much they really understood about what was going on, and if any of them knew how potentially disastrous the situation was. She hoped not. And as much as she inwardly shuddered at the thought, she also hoped if the volatile gunman decided to end their lives it was over with before any of them knew what was happening.
Rick pulled the blanket up around A.J.'s shoulders while tuning into Bobby Masters' conversation.
"The children shall be released when the Lord deems it so.
"No, the Lord does not want the injured man released. He is a disciple of Satan, just as they are all disciples of Satan."
Rick listened as the conversation went around in circles until the assailant finally slammed down the phone in disgust. He fell to his knees in what appeared to be prayer. He stayed that way, mumbling and swaying until carts could be heard rattling in the hallway and the cooks appeared.
The process of passing hastily made sandwiches around the room was a lengthy one. As Rick worked to get his children situated and fed he discovered there were two choices, peanut butter and grape jelly on white bread, or simply grape jelly on white bread for those children who were allergic to, or didn't like, peanut butter.
Rick handed a sandwich to Emily. He then reached for one to give to Micah. The blond boy passed it over to Stanford.
"Don't tell me, Micah, let me guess," Rick stated with a sigh of mock long suffering, "you're allergic to peanut butter, right?"
Micah smiled and nodded while his classmates giggled. Rick tousled the child's hair as he handed him a jelly sandwich. "Eat yer heart out, tiger."
Cold milk was passed around next. The school staff and Rick were kept busy concentrating on who wanted white and who wanted chocolate. That was no more than settled when bananas and apples made the rounds of the room.
After everyone made sure all the children had gotten a sandwich, carton of milk, and piece of fruit, the adults partook in the meager feast. Rick glanced up at the forlorn girl sitting in the teacher's chair. The chain on the cuffs was just long enough to allow her limited freedom with her left hand. That hand kept up a constant circular motion on her swollen belly, as though she was comforting her unborn child. The doe-eyed girl was all elbows and knees, so skinny that Rick couldn't help but wonder how her body supported the life growing within it.
Bobby and his rifle swiveled as the detective rose.
"Unless you want me to give your brother another kick, you'll sit your butt back down, hotshot."
Rick held out a sandwich and cartoon of milk. "I was just going to ask the girl if she'd like something to eat."
"She doesn't want anything."
"How do you know? Did you ask her? It looks like she's eatin' for two these days, so I expect she's gettin' kinda hungry by now."
"Just sit yourself back down and shut up. Me and the Lord take care of my woman, not you."
"Look, just take the handcuffs off her and let her--"
Bobby's final command was quiet and dangerous. His menacing eyes traveled to the unconscious A.J. "Sit down."
For his brother's safety, Rick had no choice but to do what he was told. Geneva offered him a shy smile as though thanking him for his thoughtfulness and courage. Rick returned the smile and mouthed, "Hang in there."
Rick sat by A.J., nibbling on the sandwich Stacy handed him. He didn't have much of an appetite, but knew he had to eat. He couldn't even begin to guess when they'd be fed again. If this went on as long as Rick thought it might, there was no doubt they'd be here a while. He wondered if he could talk Masters into allowing fast food of some type to be brought in for supper. He knew the chances of Abby being able to work something around that would be good. Possibly some of the younger cops could dress as restaurant employees and gain access to the building when the food was delivered. Rick knew it was a long shot, and certainly a dangerous one, but he also knew it was one Abby would be willing to try if given the opportunity.
One of the cooks threaded her way to Rick with a wide-mouthed thermos filled with ice chips.
"We thought your brother might be able to suck on these, Mr. Simon. I made a sandwich for him, but I don't suppose he should eat it."
"No, he shouldn't," Rick agreed. He reached up and accepted the thermos. "But thanks for these."
In-between his duties with the children, Rick kept a vigilant eye on A.J. He was grateful to the other first grade teachers, Stacy, and one of the secretaries, who had all willing filled in for him whenever he felt he needed to devote time to his brother. Although A.J. had stirred a bit during the lunch period, he had yet to be lucid enough for Rick to consider him conscious. He was constantly checking A.J.'s pulse, respiration, and the towel adhered to his wound like a bandage. The bleeding seemed to have almost stopped once again. While that was a small bit of good news, Rick was all too aware of everything that could be going wrong he knew little or nothing about.
More than likely he's bleeding internally to some degree. How long can that go on before it kills him? And who knows what kinda damage that bullet has done or is doin'? I've got to get him outta here. He's gotta get to a hospital. But how the hell do you bargain with a nut like this? He doesn't seem to want anything from the cops. He just keeps sayin' he wants to free the children, but he's sure goin' about it in an awful peculiar way.
It was as these troubling thoughts were churning in Rick's mind, that A.J. began to regain consciousness. When he finally opened his eyes they were vacant and dull, as though he'd been roused out of a sedated sleep.
"A.J.?" Rick quietly hailed his brother. "A.J.?"
It took the blond man a long moment to find and focus on his brother. "Where...am...what...hap...happened?"
"We're at Stacy's school, A.J. Remember?"
A.J.'s brows met as his sluggish brain tried to make sense of what Rick was saying. "School?"
"Yeah, at Heritage Academy."
Those words appeared to help A.J. get his bearings.
"Your kids are fine, A.J. They're just fine."
Rick fingers slipped to the pulse point on his brother's throat. In Rick's opinion the beat was slower than it should be, but seemed strong. He had no idea what that meant, but prayed it was good.
The detective plucked an ice chip out of the open thermos. "A.J., I've got some ice here for you. I'm gonna put it in your mouth. Can you suck on it without swallowing it?"
A.J. nodded his head and parted his lips to accept the refreshing solid liquid Rick deposited within. His tongue flicked the cold chip from one side of his mouth to the other until it was evaporated. His sudden thirst was far from quenched when he spoke in a husky croak.
"Do you have anymore where that came from?"
"Sure do, little brother."
Rick repeated the process, heartened by the fact A.J.'s voice was a bit stronger and his eyes clearer.
The ice cube danced off A.J.'s teeth and he spoke around it. "What's going on?"
"The guy let the cooks make everyone lunch, peanut butter and jelly on white bread."
Despite his pain and weakness, A.J. found the strength to employ the ever-present Simon sense of humor. "Your favorite," he quipped in reference to Rick's no-fuss culinary tastes.
"Yep. The all-American all-purpose sandwich no doubt. Anyway, he let everyone eat, and he's been on the phone with the cops."
"Are they having any luck?"
"Don't know," Rick shrugged. "He listens for a while, throws in a few references to God, then gets pissed and hangs up on 'em. That's been goin' on for about an hour now. Maybe longer."
A.J.'s vantage point of the room was limited by his brother's body and his reclining position on the floor. "How are the kids holding up?"
"Overall, they're doin' okay." Rick looked around to see the children returning to the activities they'd been pursuing before lunch. Stacy had his class broken into pairs and playing tic-tac-toe on sheets of paper. "They're little troopers, that's for sure. The staff is doin' a great job of keepin' them calm and occupied."
"But how long are they going to be able to do that?"
"I know. I was thinkin' the same thing. If this goes on much longer...well, you can't keep three hundred kids cooped up in a room meant for sixty for very long before you're bound to feel some ramifications. My group alone has too much energy for that."
A.J. had one last concern regarding the kids. "Where's Sean?"
"He's helpin' some of the teachers with the smaller kids."
"Is he okay?"
Without asking Rick knew A.J. meant 'okay' in the emotional sense, as opposed to the physical. "Yeah, he's fine. He’s a great kid. He did a super job of helpin' me with you. He kept his head together despite the fact the poor kid had to be scared shitless."
"Make sure you tell him that. And that I said thanks. It'll mean a lot to him. His classmates tease him because of his size. He needs a pat on the back every once in a while."
"I'll tell him," Rick promised. He couldn't stop the swell of pride that filled his chest. Typical of A.J., he was concerned about someone else when it was only himself he should have been expending energy for.
The blond man's eyes drifted to the front of the room. Geneva was no more than ten feet from him. Bobby paced the limited floor space behind her, nervously thumping his Bible against his thigh. His eyes danced about the room and he'd returned to mumbling to himself. Rick surmised the man was realizing he was in way over his head.
A.J.'s eyes returned to his brother. "Rick?"
"No matter what happens, your first obligation is to the kids in this room, you got that?"
facial expression was carefully guarded. "What's
that supposed to mean?"
"You know what it means. It means if the opportunity arises, you help the kids before you help me."
"Rick, don't waste your breath trying to argue with me. You'd make me promise you the same thing if our positions were reversed, so it's a moot point. Besides, I can take care of myself if need be."
"I know you can."
"So promise me."
"For crissake, A.J.--"
There was a lengthy pause, in which A.J. refused to break eye contact with his brother. It was Rick who finally dropped his eyes from the steady, trusting gaze. "Yeah, yeah, I promise."
"That promise sounds about as firm as the one you gave Mom when you told her you wouldn't sneak out of the house anymore to meet Betty Carol Simmons, only to have her catch you in the act two nights later."
"Yeah," Rick grinned at the memory, "there's nothin' like the sight of Mom waitin' at the bottom of a rose trellis at two o'clock in the morning in her bathrobe and curlers."
"I'm sure not," A.J. agreed. He sobered. "I'm glad she left for Vegas yesterday."
"Yeah, me too."
Cecilia had departed from San Diego the previous morning on a tour bus with her senior citizens group. They were to stay in Las Vegas through the weekend, gambling and taking in shows. Rick had no doubt local media was already outside the school broadcasting about the events occurring within. He imagined they'd make the national news as well, but held out the hope he could be the one to tell his mother about it before she saw it on the television in her hotel room. Whether or not he'd get that chance Rick didn't know. God forbid Cecilia Simon should be witness to one or both of her sons being carried out on stretchers, or worse yet, in body bags.
Rick had a feeling A.J. was having much the same thoughts. His brother fell into a troubled silence that soon gave way to sleep. Rick gingerly checked the makeshift bandage again. As near as he could tell A.J. wasn't bleeding, at least not externally. He wished he had a better idea as to just how serious his brother's injury was, but no one in the room had any more medical knowledge than he.
I gotta hand it to me and A.J., when we do something we do it right. We would have to be here the week the school nurse is away at a seminar.
Stacy sidled up next to Rick. "How's he doing?"
"I don't know, about the same I guess." He reached out a hand and laid it against A.J.'s face. "Is it just me, or does he seem warm to you?"
The woman's slender hand replaced Rick's on the blond man's cheek. "Somewhat. His face is a bit flushed."
"I thought so, too."
"Is the fever caused by the fact the bullet's still inside him somewhere?"
"Probably, but hell, I don't know for sure. All I know is he needs to get to a hospital. I saw too much stuff like this in 'Nam, Stacy."
"What do you mean?"
"Too many bullet wounds that didn't appear to be all that serious, or where the injured guy seemed stable, only to have things turn sour faster than you can say Jack Robinson."
Stacy didn't bother to ask Rick if by 'things turning sour' he meant there was a strong possibility of A.J. dying before their ordeal ended. She didn't have to ask him. The fear imprinted on his face was all the answer she needed.
"Rick, some of the kids are starting to feel sick from the gasoline fumes coming from that container. Could you ask him if it's okay if we open the windows? And the kids really need another bathroom break."
"I think you should ask him." Rick voice was laced with irony. "I tend to get the guy riled up every time I speak to him."
Stacy rolled her eyes in a way that was meant to tease. "So I've noticed."
She stood and cleared her throat until she finally caught the attention of Bobby Masters. "Excuse me, but would you object to us opening the windows and the door? It's getting very stuffy in here, and some of the children are feeling ill."
Bobby glanced around. Indeed, some of the kids did appear to be listless, as though suffering from nausea. He looked Heavenward giving the impression of consulting with a higher deity on the issue.
"The Lord says the children are not to be punished. He has granted his permission for the windows and door to be opened."
"Thank you," Stacy replied politely. "And they are in need of a bathroom break as well."
Masters gave a curt nod and pointed at a teacher. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he waved a hand indicating a class was to be led to the restrooms. He allowed the door to remain open after they'd exited.
Rick rose to help some of the staff open windows. They were square panes of glass four feet by four feet, and pushed outward on hinges. The detective made a mental note that while an adult would never be able to fit through the space, most of the children would.
Squad cars with police officers milling about them lined the playground. Rick was certain the building was surrounded by law enforcement officers just waiting to be commanded into action. Vans with the logos of every television station in San Diego had taken up residence outside the school, too. Men with portable cameras on their shoulders jockeyed for the best angle while reporters spoke into microphones. People whom Rick took to be anxious parents lined the sidewalks across the street, and were being kept back by several uniformed officers planted solidly in front of them.
Rick caught a glimpse of Abby, but doubted she could see him. He hoped she had some sort of a plan because he sure didn't. He thought ahead to what they might need in the event they were still being held captive come nightfall. He spoke softly to Stacy who was opening the window beside him.
"I hate to say this, but we've got to start considering the possibility that we're not gonna get outta here any time soon. If it starts lookin' like we're all gonna be together for supper, I want you to try to convince the guy to let the cops have food brought into us. If he asks for a reason, tell him...tell him the cooks don't have enough on hand to feed everyone. Tell him a supply truck is due to make a delivery tomorrow morning so they're low on everything. "
"Cause it might be the best chance the cops have of helpin' us."
"Rick, if this goes on that long there are other concerns to be thought of as well."
"I've got a janitor with a heart condition, a teacher who's a diabetic, and several children who are asthmatics. All of them are going to need their medication. We've been lucky so far that none of the kids have had an asthma attack due to the stress."
"Then when the time comes you'll have to tell the guy that. Even if the cops can't do much to help us in the way of gettin' us outta here, medication can be brought when the food is."
"And a doctor."
"A doctor for A.J."
"I don't think the guy will go for that."
"He might not, but it never hurts to ask. I didn't think he'd let us open the windows either."
"I guess you've got a point there. I'd rather he just let A.J. go."
"I would, too, Rick. I would, too." The woman paused in the motion of pushing a window open. "Rick...I'm sorry. If I hadn't asked you guys to help me this week this never would have--"
"Stacy, don't. I don't want you blamin' yourself for this, and I can guarantee you A.J. doesn't want you doin' that either. If A.J. and I hadn't been here then an elderly woman who has a husband and grandchildren would be here in my place, and a young woman who has a three-year-old boy would be here in A.J.'s."
"Rick," Stacy scolded, "just because neither you nor A.J. have spouses or children, doesn't mean your lives are any less valuable than anyone else's in this room."
"I know that. It's just my point is, it's not like there would be two less people in this room if A.J. and I weren't here. Either Mrs. Dunford and Mrs. Tarsetti would be here, or there'd be two other substitutes here. So I guess if someone's gotta go through this shit it might as well be us." Rick winked. "Besides, darlin', this is nothing. Remind me later and I'll tell you about the time A.J. and me had to hide out for a week in the home of the most beautiful woman you ever laid eyes on. Her windows got shot out 'cause of us, and my dog was a real bother to her cat."
lifted an eyebrow. "A real bother,
"Oh, yeah. And let me tell you, that little gal wasn't too pleased with us when we finally packed up and left but my point is, all three of us - me, A.J., and that pretty little lady - survived it. Just like I've got a feelin' the three us will survive this."
Stacy leaned into Rick for a brief moment of comfort. "I hope you're right, Rick. I hope we all survive this."
Rick's arm encircled the woman's shoulders and he gave her a reassuring squeeze that belayed what he feared inside.
"We will, Stacy. We will."
Minutes ticked by like long drawn-out hours as the afternoon passed. Despite the best efforts of the school's staff members, the children began to grow bored and restless. Bobby Masters hadn't objected to them moving about the room to retrieve a game off a shelf or to go talk to a friend who might be sitting some distance away with another class, but by far those small amounts of activity didn't begin to expend the high energy levels that needed to be run off on the playground.
On occasion the children's movements brought some of them dangerously close to the bomb, causing Rick's heart to skip a beat. He finally suggested they take a roll of masking tape and mark off a square around Geneva and Bobby so the children would know where they couldn't step.
Stacy made this request of the gunman, emphasizing her concern was for the safety of the children. He prayed about it, then granted his consent. He didn't object when Rick rose to help Stacy. He ignored the pair, opened his Bible, and moved his lips as though silently reading to himself while his finger slid across the paper.
Rick carefully unrolled the tape Stacy was holding anchored by the wall. He secured the wide tan band to the floor, scooted backwards a few inches and repeated the action. From his crouched position he glanced up at the pregnant girl. He spoke softly so as not to draw Bobby's attention.
"How are you holding up?"
The detective couldn't help but think that whatever life had once been in this young woman's eyes had long ago been beat out of her. Maybe even long before she hooked up with the gunman. She appeared to have mentally removed herself from the room, as though what went on didn't matter to her anymore. That worried Rick. It worried him a lot. All along he had felt she just might be the key to their survival. If she was carrying the man's child that fact gave her, as well as Rick, a small portion of bargaining power should the opportunity arise. And even though her efforts had gotten her nowhere, the girl had always spoken up on behalf of the children, echoing Rick's and Stacy's sentiments in regards to lunch and bathroom breaks.
Geneva lifted a dull shoulder of indifference in answer to Rick's question. He gave her an encouraging smile.
"You hang in there for that little one you're carryin'. Things are gonna be all right."
The woman risked a glance over her shoulder. Bobby appeared to be engrossed in prayer and meditation. The phone was ringing again, its jangling nearly drowning out her soft words.
"You don't know him like I do. Things aren't going to be all right."
"What do you mean? What do you think he'll do?"
Geneva rubbed her handcuffed left palm over the baby. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"What doesn't matter?"
The girl refused to say another word to Rick. Bobby snatched the phone off the hook and began shouting something into it regarding the constant interruptions being unpleasing to God.
Rick finished with the tape, having effectively created a barrier ten feet wide by twenty feet long that ran to the open doorway. He encouraged any children who were sitting within that space to move back. The teachers explained to their classes this was a boundary they weren't allowed to cross.
Because of the tight space constraints, A.J. was practically lying on top of the taped line. He was directly in front of the bomb with Rick's class huddled behind him.
Rick crouched at brother's side. He looked around to see if there was some place in the room he could move A.J. to that would increase his chances of survival should the bomb go off.
A.J. had been awake on and off for the past hour. Rick glanced down to find himself under intense scrutiny.
The blond man's voice was so raw and quiet it sounded like he was suffering from a severe sore throat. It took great effort on A.J.’s part, but he managed to get his words to come forth in an even flow.
"Don't even think it."
"Think about moving me somewhere else."
"Rick, just forget it. I'll fight you for all I'm worth, which granted may not be much at the moment, but nonetheless I'll give you hell if you so much as try. I won't allow you to put a child, or anyone else for that matter, at risk because of me."
"I won't be putting anyone at risk."
"Yes you will, and we both know it. With as cramped as it is in here, if you move me someplace else that means a child or adult will be forced to move forward and take my place."
Rick had already come to the same reluctant conclusion, but didn't share that fact with his brother. As much as he loved A.J., Rick couldn't ask another to take his place with the exception of himself. And that was a moot point, as he was already sitting at A.J.'s side. If the bomb were detonated, the force of the explosion would surely kill both of them.
For the time being, Rick didn't know what else to do but change the subject. He lifted the blanket and checked A.J.'s side. The wound didn't appear to be bleeding, but that was about the only good news Rick could come up with. In the past hour the detective had noticed subtle signs that indicated to him A.J.'s condition was gradually worsening. At times the blond detective was mentally alert like he was now, but at other times he was totally out of it and had no idea where he was or what had happened. It was obvious as well, that A.J. was growing weaker. When he spoke his voice was barely more than a whisper, and he constantly asked for ice. Rick had but a few chips left in the thermos and no way of getting them replenished. Stacy had made a valiant effort at trying to talk the gunman into allowing one of the cooks to get more. But Masters had steadfastly denied her repeated requests until he finally grew so enraged that for Stacy's own safety Rick signaled her to stop.
To make matters worse, in all the time they'd been in this room, which was getting close to five hours now, A.J. had yet to indicate a desire to make use of the bathroom. Rick asked him several times if he needed to go. Not that Rick thought his brother could actually make a trip down the hallway, but one way or another he would improvise something and then give A.J. the necessary privacy and dignity to get the job done. But on each occasion Rick inquired of his brother about that particular need he had been told it wasn't necessary. Although Rick realized the ice chips A.J. had been sucking on probably didn't amount to much liquid, he was concerned this could be the first signs of kidney failure.
Rick laid a hand on his brother's forehead. A.J. had gone from being 'a bit flushed' as Stacy put it, to being hot. He couldn't begin to guess what A.J.'s temperature was, but imagined it was around or above one hundred and one. As much as Rick hated to dip into the precious ice chips, he did just that. He wrapped two in the clean handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket and wiped them over A.J.'s face.
we have more of those?"
"Sure, hang on a sec." Rick reached into the thermos. He took one chip out and counted. Four left.
Damn! The only stinking things that are bringing A.J. any kind of comfort and there's only four left, with no hope of getting more any time soon.
Rick looked down at his brother as he let the ice rest on A.J.'s hot forehead for a long moment. The blond's eyes were closed, but by the small movements of his mouth Rick knew he was awake and sucking on the chip he'd just been given.
What makes it even worse is that he'll never complain. Once the ice is gone he'll never say another word about it no matter how thirsty or hot he gets.
Bobby Masters was screaming in the phone, once more rambling about the Book of Revelations and the arrival of the Beast. For the most part the children had learned to ignore him, the way one learns to ignore a boring teacher who drones on long after he or she should have shut up.
Rick's eyes narrowed as he took in the man while feeling A.J.'s hot flesh scorch his hand.
You bastard. You damn bastard! So help me God if I get the chance I'll take you out in a deserted field somewhere, chain you to that bomb and detonate it myself.
The detective didn't know how long his thoughts were focused on the various ways he was going to dismember the gunman's body. All he knew was that he enjoyed each and every thing that came to mind until A.J.'s tired voice beckoned him.
Rick smiled down into the drained gray face.
For just a second Rick thought of telling A.J. no, that they needed to ration the ice now, but he found he couldn't do it. He couldn't deny his brother the only thing he had left to give him. For whatever reason it all suddenly became too real for Rick. No matter how often Rick had worried that A.J. might not make it through this ordeal, he had never really acknowledged the thought deep in his heart. When it threatened to get too close and too painful, he'd pushed it aside with a flip, We'll make it through this. We've made it through worse shit, we can make it through this as well.
But now Rick knew that wasn't true. He looked down into A.J's face, devoid of all color except for the cheeks streaked with ruby lines of fever. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, though Rick didn't think that was from the high temperature. Instead, he was fairly certain it was from shock. A.J.'s pulse was thready as well, and when his hand moved up to take the ice from Rick it had a slight tremor to it.
He's gonna die! If something doesn't happen and happen soon, if Abby doesn't somehow talk this guy into lettin' us go, A.J. will die here. He'll never make it through the night.
Rick's offered up a brief prayer.
Lord, I know I don't call on you much, or at least not nearly as often as you'd probably like me to. But you gotta understand, I'm outta ideas, plans, suggestions, and I'm down to three ice chips. I don't know what else to do in order to keep my brother and these children safe. You're gonna have to do it for me, God. I need your help. Actually, what I need is a goddam...a uh...miracle, and if I remember correctly from my Sunday School days you're pretty good at those on occasion, so please throw a few my way. I could sure use them, Lord. I could sure use them.
When Rick's prayer ceased he found Emily resting against his knee. He looked down into her eyes and offered her a smile. His free hand ran through her hair.
sweetie. How ya' doin'?"
"I'm okay." She wrinkled her nose as she looked at Bobby Masters. The gunman was no longer in contact with the police and was once again preaching to the room. "I don't like his stories much, though. They're loud, and they don't sound very nice. I don't think anyone is happy in them, do you, Mr. Rick?"
Rick glanced up at the Bible thumping Masters. "No, Emily, I don't think anyone is happy in them."
Rick, it's time for you to tell us the rest of our story."
"The rest of our story?"
"Yeah, you know, the one you've been telling us all week." Emily's hand motion encompassed her classmates who were all seated nearby. "The one with us in it."
"Oh. Well, I don't know, kiddo. I'm kinda busy right now with my
brother. I bet Mrs. Harrington will
tell you a story if you ask her."
"But it won't be the same," Emily whined. "It won't be like the story you're telling us 'cause your story goes on and on day after day and you said today would be the end because it's Friday."
Emily's sentiments were echoed by her classmates, who all began to beg Mr. Rick to finish their story.
A hand brushed Rick's elbow. He turned his gaze to A.J.
"Go ahead," the blond whispered, "finish the story for them."
"Yes...I'm sure." A.J.'s eyes drifted closed. "I haven't heard one of your stories...in a long time. I'm kind of...kind of looking forward to it."
Rick's thumb stroked over A.J.'s cheek. "Okay, kid, whatever you say."
"But before you...start...can I have more...more ice?"
Despite the fact Rick's mind taunted, three, three, only three pieces left, he readily submitted to the request.
He unscrewed the thermos top and reached inside. He took an ice chip out and gently worked it in-between A.J.'s loosely closed mouth. His voice had a preoccupied tone to it as he cautioned while staring into the thermos, "Be careful, A.J. Don't swallow it. I don't want you chokin' on it."
Huh. That's weird. I musta counted wrong the last time. I thought there were only three chips left, but I just gave A.J. one and that still leaves three. Guess I shouldn't complain. Every little bit helps at this point.
When Rick was satisfied A.J. was as comfortable as he could possibly make him, he gathered his classroom around him. He sat sideways so he could see both his kids and his brother. His handkerchief still held some ice and he kept it roaming over A.J.'s face as he resumed the saga that had begun on his first day of teaching. In effort to bring some excitement to the story, an evil prince had ridden into the kingdom on Wednesday, and by Thursday held many of its loyal subjects hostage in Lady Emily's tower. Given the current circumstances, Rick wasn't sure if this was the best storyline to continue with. Before his mind could come up with a way to turn the story in another direction, the kids all too willingly reminded him in great detail of where he'd left off. Rick finally concluded they hadn't tied in the similarities between his story and their current situation, and were probably too young to do so. On the other hand, Rick knew they were smart little buggers, far smarter than he'd ever imagined six-year-olds to be. It was quite possible they had tied the two situations together, and needed reassurance from him that things were going to turn out okay in both the fictional and real worlds.
Twenty little faces were turned upward with rapt attention as Rick quietly began. "Prince Bakar, King Micah's evil cousin, wanted to rule the land. But he was a bad man who ate live snakes for breakfast and had long ago been exiled by King Micah. Now Prince Bakar was back and had much of the Kingdom locked in Lady Emily's tower. Lady Emily fled to her window and cried for help. At that very minute, a man riding a white stallion was gallopin' by. And whatta ya' think happened next?"
The children loved this part of Rick's story. He allowed them to offer up their own ideas, some of which he used and some of which he didn't.
Rick chuckled when Grant guessed, "He sold them a car and they all drove away and lived happily ever after."
"No," Rick disagreed, "I don't think so, buddy. Remember, this happened a long time ago. There weren't any cars yet."
LaKeshia's eyes rolled upward with concentration. "He kept right on going until he was clean outta town. He didn't want to mess with Prince Bakar either."
"That would have been a smart move on his part," Rick agreed, "seeing what an ornery dude Prince Bakar was and all. But no, that's not exactly how it happened."
Emily had her own suggestion to offer. "He was a brave man who rescued Lady Emily, married her, and brought her all the chocolates she wanted for the rest of her life."
Again Rick chuckled. "Well, kiddo, as to whether he married Lady Emily and brought her chocolates I don't know. But you are right when you say he was brave man. As a matter of fact, he was the bravest man in all the land. He was King Micah's most favored knight, and his name was Sir Andrew."
Rick didn't miss the tiny smile that touched A.J.'s lips, or the way his head moved back and forth slightly on his pillow in a gesture of affection. He didn't open his eyes when he mumbled, "I didn't expect...to find my...myself making an...appearance in your...your story."
"All the important people in my life make an appearance in my stories, kid."
Rick continued on as though he hadn't been interrupted. "Now, Sir Andrew didn't take too kindly to men like Prince Bakar. Men who take things that don't belong to them. Men who hurt other people just for the fun of it. Men who lock people in towers and won't let them out."
"What did Sir Andrew do, Mr. Rick?" Jessica asked. "Did he save everyone in the tower? Did he save Lady Emily, and the Princesses Three, Jessica, Olivia, and Autumn, and the shoemaker Patton, and--"
"Yes, Jessica, he saved them. But you're gettin' way ahead of me, pumpkin, so slow down there a minute."
Rick's story progressed with only an occasional interruption. Whenever A.J. needed his attention he'd ask the kids for their ideas as to what was going to happen next. That ploy kept them occupied long enough for him to meet his brother's needs. Time and time again A.J. asked for more ice, and time and time again Rick would retrieve a piece from the thermos for him. He put more in his hanky as well, and continued to bathe A.J.'s face with it. It crossed Rick's preoccupied mind on several occasions that he should be out of ice by now, but his attention was being demanded in so many different areas that he never had time to give this latest phenomenon much concentration.
A few minutes after Rick had put another piece of ice in A.J.'s mouth, the blond began to choke and gasp for breath. The lanky man halted the story in mid-sentence and shot to his knees. He wrapped his arms around A.J.'s shoulders and brought him to a half sitting position. The blond detective's right hand clamped onto his brother's forearm. The way he squeezed each time he coughed was mute testimony to the intense pain the action caused him.
The coughing didn't stop, causing Stacy to rush over and drop to her own knees. Her question came out in a frantic jumble.
"What can I do, Rick?"
"Can you support his back? Can you hold him just like I am right now?"
"I think so."
Rick quickly but carefully eased A.J. from his arms to Stacy's. He scooted around to the side of his brother and with one quick thrust had his right thumb and forefinger down A.J.'s throat. In a matter of seconds he retrieved a jagged piece of ice.
A.J. gagged around Rick's fingers and his body attempted to throw up after they were gone. Nothing came forth, however, and the act of his stomach muscles contracting only caused the blond more pain.
Stacy moved aside as Rick took his brother back in his arms. He stroked a hand over A.J.'s forehead and then up through his hair. Stacy didn't miss the desperate note in Rick's voice, as though he was pleading with A.J. to be all right.
"It's okay, A.J. It's okay. You're gonna be okay, little brother. Everything's gonna be okay."
Rick caught a glimpse of tears in A.J.'s half open eyes. He didn't know if they were caused by the violent gagging of moments earlier, or by the violent pain occurring now. Either way, Rick didn't care. He looked at Bobby Masters, who was pretending to be oblivious to the whole scene. Rick swore right then and there that one way or another the man would pay for what he was putting A.J. through.
A.J. was finally able to speak he offered an almost inaudible, "I'm...sor...sorry."
Rick's hand continued its movement. "Shhh. Shhh. Don't say that. You don't have anything to be sorry for."
Stacy wrapped more ice in Rick's handkerchief for him. The detective alternated between running it over his brother's warm face and dry lips. He held it in front of A.J.'s mouth every few seconds and encouraged him to lick it with his tongue.
"Do you want me to put a piece in his mouth?" Stacy asked.
"No, he'll only choke on it again. I think he's getting too weak to suck on it. Besides, I don't think there's any left."
looked into the thermos. "Sure
"Yes. Four pieces."
Before Rick had time to assimilate that news, the children were demanding his attention again. Emily pointed to the clock.
"Mr. Rick, it's three-thirty. It's time for us to go home."
"Sweetie, I don't think we'll be going home right--"
It was as if Emily was all too aware of what Rick was going to say and why. It was as if she thought if she could keep him from saying it, it wouldn't be true.
"It's three-thirty," she repeated matter-of-factly. "We go home at three-thirty. Our buses are here at three-thirty, and my mom will be waiting for me. She'll be waiting for me at the corner, Mr. Rick, like she does every day. She'll be waiting with my baby sister in the stroller and my little brother on his Big Wheel."
kept one arm around A.J. while he reached out for the girl and pulled her
close. "Honey, I know you want to
go home, but we can't right now. Your
mom knows where you are, Emily, and she understands why you won't be home on
Emily couldn't stop the tears that spilled over to run down her round apple cheeks. Her words came out in hiccupped sobs. "But...but...but I wanna go home, Mr. Rick. I don't wanna...wanna...wanna...stay here any...any...more. Today...to...day was...was supposed...supposed to be...a...happy day. We...we...we were sup...sup...supposed...to have...a party. But that man...that man ruined it. He's...he's a bad...man, Mr. Rick. He...he...he's...bad like...like Prince Bakar."
Rick gave the child a strong one-armed hug. "I know, sweetie, I know."
Emily's tears prompted other members of Rick's class to begin crying. Stacy opened her arms to them, offering what comfort she could. Sean moved in and took Micah and Chandler in his lap. He worked hard at hiding his own tears while talking softly to the little boys.
As the other children in the room began to realize three-thirty had come and gone many of them broke into sobs.
Rick looked around in despair.
How will we ever survive the night if it comes to that?
Despite Rick's hushed words of comfort, Emily remained hunkered into his right side crying. A.J.'s head was resting on his left shoulder, Rick's left arm loosely wrapped around his brother's chest. Without realizing it, the detective began to gently rock back and forth with both his burdens.
He had no idea who he was talking to, Emily or A.J., as he repeated a soft litany.
"It's gonna be all right. Everything's gonna be all right. Be strong for me. I need you to hang in there and be strong for me. I won't let anything happen to you, but I need you to be strong for me. Please be strong for me. Please."
The hands on the wall clock were rapidly approaching five p.m. The children were restless and hungry, all in need of their normal routine of after-school snacks and outdoor play. It was increasingly difficult for the staff to keep them calm. The little ones were weepy and whiny, their noses a runny mess and their eyes red and puffy. Some had taken to sucking their thumbs while rocking their small bodies back and forth in comforting rhythm. On A.J.'s behalf, a portion of the older children he had taught grew surly and rebellious. Two teachers were forced to separate Jake, Tyler, Brian, and Matt, who were plotting a harebrained escape plan in an effort to get help for A.J. Carrie huddled by herself in a far corner sobbing for all that had happened to Mr. Simon. She kept the little cardboard box that contained her egg baby, Andrew, held tightly against her chest and wouldn't allow it to leave her sight.
Bobby Masters seemed to sense the rapidly increasing discord within the room. His demands of the police became more unreasonable and incoherent with each passing moment. Abby asked him several times to allow her to speak to Rick Simon, but he continuously refused the request. When she told Bobby it would be in his best interest to release the wounded teacher he also refused.
"No one's leaving here until the Lord deems it so!" The crazed man screamed into the phone.
A small portion of ground was finally gained when the gunman agreed to speak with the male hostage negotiator. Abby didn't know what caused his change of heart. He'd flat out refused the suggestion each time she'd previously made it throughout this long day. Of course, she didn't have to be inside that school room to know that now, eight hours into the ordeal, the gunman had frightened, tired, cranky, restless, hungry children on his hands. His voice had a hysterical edge to it that hadn't been present earlier in the day. That scared Abby. Past experience taught her an upset assailant was a dangerous assailant. The slightest disturbance could set him off, be it a child who cried too loudly, or a phone that rang when he wasn't expecting it to.
Abby looked across the street at the distraught parents lining the sidewalk, and then thought of the injured A.J. inside the building. She had no idea whether her friend was alive or dead. She had no idea as to whether or not anyone else had been hurt since she'd talked to Rick at eleven that morning. She listened as the hostage negotiator, Ryland Kamm, spoke with the gunman. Kamm, a police officer with a degree in criminal psychology, kept his voice neutral and calm. His soft, reasonable tone was in sharp contrast to the assailant's wild pitch and frenzied energy. Abby hoped Ryland could somehow convince the man to lay down his gun and walk out of the building. Instinct told her, however, the chances of that happening were pretty remote.
Abby looked over several rows of cars until her eyes spotted the SWAT team. For now, those eight men and two women didn't appear to be anyone other than additional police personnel. That would all change if Abby gave the order for them to move in. Then they'd suit up in their dark caps and thick flack jackets in preparation of storming the building. She prayed it wouldn't come to that. The risks were enormous. If the gunman detonated the bomb before the sharpshooter could take him down, everyone in that classroom would most likely die. Things wouldn't be much better if the bomb didn't go off. No doubt the children would flee in panic at the first hint of trouble. How many would accidentally be killed or seriously injured by flying bullets the lieutenant couldn't even begin to guess.
Abby's only other option was to continue doing what she'd been doing all day. Waiting. Waiting and listening to the ramblings of a gunman whose name they didn't even know. In situations such as this patience was indeed, a virtue. Quite often the police could wait an assailant out until he finally realized the hopelessness behind his actions. Many times everyone involved walked away physically unscathed. Yet Abby couldn't help but remind herself that many times they didn't. Just last year she'd been involved in a situation where a man was holding his girlfriend and her two young children hostage in the woman's home. Eleven hours later the woman and children were dead, all shot in the head by their assailant. The man now awaited death in a California prison. But even that hardly seemed harsh enough punishment for what he had done. Abby had been the one to find the ten-month-old baby with half her skull missing, still clutching a pink stuffed bunny in her chubby arms. It was a heartbreaking sight she'd never forget, and Abby often lay awake at night wondering if she'd made a mistake. Wondering if instead of waiting, she should have ordered her officers to overtake the house long before the tragedy occurred within.
Now Abby found herself in the same situation all over again while mentally weighing the same dilemma. To wait or to command her people to make a move. Either way, the responsibility of the decision was hers. Either way, the end results could be disastrous.
Abby looked from the parents, to the media, to the ambulances and fire trucks, to her own personnel, and finally to the school building. The enormity of it all weighed like an anvil on her shoulders as she shaded her eyes with one hand and studied the windows of the classroom where the children and staff were being held. Her mind gave a sigh filled with weariness and fear.
Why the hell didn't I listen to my mother when I was seventeen and she told me nice girls don't spend their Saturday's at the local firing range and their Sunday's cleaning their guns?
A.J. Simon lay limp in his brother's arms. He was only
semi-conscious now. What few words he mumbled were barely audible, and most times made no sense to Rick.
Stacy knelt nearby and continued to fill Rick's handkerchief with ice and wipe it over A.J.'s face. Both Rick and Stacy had long ago quit wondering why the ice still remained plentiful, their minds absorbed with too many other concerns.
Rick wrapped the blanket more securely around A.J.'s shoulders and pulled him closer. Despite the high fever, the blond man was shivering as though suffering from a terrible chill. If the police didn't do something soon Stacy knew it would be too late. She was certain A.J. would die in Rick's arms before the next hour passed.
Rick feared the exact same thing, but steeled his features into a neutral mask. Only by looking at his eyes could one see the torment in his soul. A large palm gently caressed the side of A.J.'s face. It was woefully inadequate, but there just wasn't anymore Rick could do for his brother without putting the children's lives at risk. Stacy had pleaded with the gunman on several occasions to let A.J. go. She'd been forced to stop when he snared a kindergarten child from the crowded room and placed his rifle against the little boy's skull. It was the first time the man had displayed his willingness to harm one of the children. As much as Rick loved his brother, he couldn't allow the gunman to hurt or kill any of the kids if it was within his power to stop it. After things calmed down and the terrified boy had been returned to his teacher, Rick told Stacy not to try anything on A.J.'s behalf again. She swore she saw tears in Rick's eyes when he made that request, but by the firmness behind it there was no doubt he meant every word he said. Rick's order ended in a broken whisper.
"A.J...A.J. wouldn't want....wouldn't want any of the kids to be hurt because of him, Stac." Rick looked down at his unconscious brother and stroked a hand through sweat-matted hair. He stumbled over his words in a voice choked with tears.
"A.J...A.J.'d be awful...awful mad at me if I...if I let that happen."
The moan A.J. Simon emitted as his brother eased him back to a reclining position on the pillow was so weak Rick didn't hear it. He felt Rick pat him on the shoulder and pull the blanket into place. His older brother said something to him, but the soft words were lost on the blond. A.J. could feel a tension in the room that had been missing earlier. But no matter how hard he tried, A.J. couldn't force his mind to focus on it.
Rick sat by A.J.'s side and observed Bobby Masters pace in a tight circle. His movement was restricted to the length of the telephone cord. He was holding the receiver to his ear and shaking his head.
"No! No, I don't want you to come in!"
Rick couldn't hear the other end of the conversation, but was aware the man was in contact with the hostage negotiator. Despite Bobby's agitation, Rick looked upon this as a positive occurrence. The two men had been engaged in ceaseless conversation for the past thirty minutes. In that half hour time period the negotiator seemed to be gaining the gunman's trust.
Or perhaps Bobby Masters was as weary as the rest of them and just wanted to go home.
Geneva had sat silent and pale all afternoon. She hadn't been allowed anything to eat or drink. Twice Stacy suggested she be released from the contraption she was attached to and allowed a trip to the bathroom. Bobby refused the suggestion both times by saying she was the mother of Gabriel, the child who was to be God's right hand, and wasn't bothered by the urgings of human kind.
Now silent tears began to run down the girl's cheeks in her first show of emotion all afternoon. Her throat was parched and her voice drained of strength. Her brown eyes had grown dull like a scuffed wooden floor, leading Rick to believe she was ill.
"Please, Bobby," she whispered to her husband who was hanging onto the phone's receiver but refusing to speak to the hostage negotiator, "please talk to him."
When the man didn't respond to her, Geneva tried the only idea she had left. "Bobby, please. For the sake of Gabriel, talk to the man. God...God wants you to. He told me so."
The enraged gunman flung the receiver against the wall and raced forward with an upraised hand. "He only talks to me, harlot! He doesn't talk to the likes of you! Only me!"
The back of the man's hand struck the woman's face with a resounding smack. Her head was whipped to the side by the force of the blow. There was a collective gasp in the room made by staff members who were certain the next thing they'd hear was a blast of deafening proportions. Children screamed and broke into fresh sobs. In an oddly detached manner, Stacy wondered if you felt anything when you died in an explosion.
Without thinking about it, Rick was on his feet and rushing to the pregnant woman's defense. The rifle quickly found Rick's midsection.
"Stop! Stop!" Bobby's commanding scream sounded like it came from a hysterical woman, as opposed to a man in control of the situation at hand. "Stop right there!"
Rick held up his hands. "Look, it's over. It's over, okay? The kids are hungry and tired, some of them are in need of medication, and my brother needs to get to a hospital, as does this young lady."
Bobby looked down at his wife. Purple, blue, and sallow yellow were the only colors visible on her milky face. She didn't look nearly as frightened as she looked defeated. As though Geneva knew there was no hope left that any of them would leave this school building alive.
The gunman's eyes traveled the room. Frazzled staff members worked to calm children who were beyond being comforted. Some wailed for their mothers, while a number of the older boys balled their fists and eyed him with disdain. An eight-year-old boy began to gasp from the beginnings of an asthma attack, and the teacher who suffered from diabetes was glassy eyed and shaky, in growing need of her long overdue insulin injection.
Bobby's cries sounded as though he was trying to convince himself of something he no longer believed in. "It's not over! It's not over! The Lord has not said it is so!"
Rick could faintly hear the hostage negotiator calling from the phone receiver left dangling upside down against the wall. Bobby ran and snatched it up.
Ryland Kamm's voice was a soothing balm to the wild man. "What's happening in there?"
Bobby's eyes traveled the chaotic room one last time. "I...I...I need to talk to you."
Rick let out the breath he was holding and gave a silent prayer of thanks. It might not be much, but at least it was a step in the right direction.
The detective stepped back and seated himself at A.J.'s side once more. The blond's open eyes slowly shifted from side to side as though the disturbance in the room had brought him out of a deep sleep. Rick didn't think A.J. felt the hand he laid on his head, or heard his words of, "Hang in there for me, little brother. Just hang in there," before his eyes slid shut again.
Once Ryland Kamm entered the building it was like watching a play from behind a closed curtain for the adults in the classroom. Bobby met the man in the hallway and wouldn't allow him to come any farther. From his vantage point Kamm couldn't see in the room, but his voice carried that far, allowing the people within to hear everything being said.
Ryland Kamm was experienced at what he did. He immediately recognized Bobby Masters was at his breaking point. Possibly he'd even surpassed it.
Although the police still didn't know the gunman's last name, Ryland had been able to get his first name out of him some time ago. He stood fifteen feet down the hall from Bobby with his arms slightly spread from his sides and his hands open, palms facing outward. He wore nothing other than blue jeans, a black T-shirt and tennis shoes. He wanted it to be apparent to Bobby he wasn't armed, and therefore posed no threat to him.
Kamm spoke first, tossing the ball in the gunman's court.
"Where do we go from here, Bobby?"
"I...I...God has not told me that yet."
"Just what is it God is telling you?"
"To free the little children."
"That's good," Kamm nodded. "I'm sure that's what God wants you to do. Free the children, Bobby. Let me lead them out of there along with the injured man."
"No! You don't understand! God wants me to free the children from their teachers. Their minds are being poisoned. God's laws are not being obeyed!"
"That may be true, but I don't think this is the place to debate it. And the teachers are just doing their jobs, Bobby. Just doing what they're paid to do."
"No! They must be stopped! They will ruin the children! They...they...they ruined me!"
"How is that so?"
"They said I was stupid! They laughed at me! They called me lazy! They ridiculed me in front of my classmates! They said I'd never amount to anything!"
sorry to hear that, Bobby, really I am.
Your teachers shouldn't have said those things to you. I can tell it was a painful time in your
life, and that the memories still pain you yet today. But the teachers you're speaking of aren't the same teachers who
are in that classroom down the hall.
These are different people. It's
not fair for you to punish them for something they had nothing to do
"But they're all alike! They think they're so high and mighty because we put them in charge of our nation's youth! But we shouldn't, don't you see? God should be in charge of the children. He told me so. That's why he sent me here today. So I could spread his message until Gabriel himself comes to take over my work."
"Who is Gabriel?"
"He will be my son, and God's messenger. He shall sit at the right hand of our Lord."
"And God has told you this?"
"Yes. Many times."
"Then you must give yourself up to me now, Bobby, so that your son can have a father. So that your son doesn't have to grow up without--"
"It doesn't matter! Even if something happens to me, my son will always have a father! God will be his father!"
true, God will be his heavenly father.
But the Lord meant for our children to have fathers here on earth, as
well. That's why he gave humans the
power to reproduce."
The conversation continued. For every matter of fact statement Kamm made, Masters countered it with something far less than rational. Ryland maintained his calm composure and continuously steered the gunman back in the right direction when his mind threatened to veer off course. The only thing Ryland Kamm cared about was getting everyone in that classroom out alive.
From his place by A.J.'s side, Rick could hear the sincerity in Kamm's voice. He'd never met the man before, never even heard of him, but he could tell the guy was damn good at what he did. If Rick didn't know better he'd almost believe Ryland's only intention was to take Masters somewhere for coffee so they could talk things out. The detective knew that wasn't true, however. If and when the gunman relented, cops would appear out of nowhere and pounce on Bobby Masters like hungry tigers on a trapped gazelle.
A hushed silence prevailed in the room. The adults strained to hear what was being said in the hallway and took little notice of the children around them other than to absently stroke a head or pat an arm. The children who were old enough to understand what was happening listened hard, as well, in an effort to determine when they might achieve their freedom. The younger ones returned to their coloring books and games. Rick noticed some movement in the room, but didn't pay much attention to the kids who were weaving their way toward the back. When Emily, who was sitting closest to him, rose and took Micah by the hand Rick didn't try to stop them. He assumed they were in search of a different game or more paper and allowed them to go without question. A.J. stirred and his eyes opened. Rick looked down into the glazed orbs and mustered up a smile for his brother's benefit.
"It won't be long now, A.J.," came Rick's soft-spoken promise. "We'll be gettin' you out of here real soon."
The blond detective didn't acknowledge his brother. Rick was afraid A.J. was so near death he was no longer aware his brother was with him. Rick’s fear increased when A.J.'s eyes traveled to the far upper corner of the room near the door. Through parched lips the man whispered, "Dad?"
"A.J.?" Rick gave his brother's shoulder a light squeeze. "A.J., it's Rick. I'm here, A.J. I'm right here."
Rick was unable to take A.J's attention from the vacant corner ceiling of that classroom. He whispered, "Dad," one more time, and then nodded his head as if agreeing to some sort of instructions. Or so it seemed to Rick. Before he could say anymore A.J.'s eyes drifted closed. With the back of his hand Rick swiped at the sudden tears in his own eyes. He knew now, that A.J. would never leave this school building alive. If his brother was seeing their long deceased father in some form of hallucination...well, though Rick couldn't explain why, but he felt this meant A.J.'s life was precariously close to ending. He squeezed his brother's shoulder one more time and whispered, "Please," begging whoever it was in charge of such things as life and death to spare A.J.
The conversation in the hallway dropped and then rose in volume at sporadic intervals. One moment Masters' voice would be so soft he couldn't be heard in the room, and the next he'd be screaming at something Kamm had suggested that he didn't approve of.
"No! No! No, I won't let them go! I can't! Take the children and make them whole, sayeth the Lord! Teach the children as if they have sprung from thy own loins!"
"Bobby!" Ryland was forced to shout, "Bobby, come on now! God does not approve of what you're putting these children through!"
"Don't you tell me what God approves of and what He doesn't! Don't you dare to insinuate you know God!"
"But I do know God, Bobby! I know Him and I know He--"
"No! No, you don't know him! You don't!" Bobby waved his rifle in the air, beseeching the heavens above. "You don't know him! You don't! He's my God! He's mine! He speaks to me and me alone!"
At that same moment Geneva Masters felt something warm running between her legs. She looked down to see blood staining the inner thighs of her white slacks crimson. She felt the cramps again, but now knew they weren't from stress and lack of food. She hadn't felt the baby move since that morning. She hadn't felt the baby move, and now her dead fetus was trying to abort itself.
Geneva's screams mingled in with her husband's. "He's dead, Bobby! He's dead! You've killed our baby!"
For a brief second Bobby Master's face appeared in the doorway. Geneva rose to her feet on shaky legs, totally oblivious to the dangers the bomb presented. "You've killed him, Bobby, do you hear me? You've killed our baby! You've killed Gabriel!"
Geneva threw back her head in hysterical merriment. Through no power of her own, she'd finally found a way to get back at her husband for all the cruelties he'd inflicted on her.
"You're such a fool! You've killed the right hand of God, Bobby! You've killed his messenger! You've killed your precious son!"
Bobby Masters' cry came out in a long pitiful wail. "Noooo! Noooo! Nooooooooo!"
Ten seconds after that wail began it would all be over.
Rick needed to get to the woman before she accidentally detonated the bomb. A chill ran down his spine when she looked out over the classroom. Her eyes were empty and her face blank. The detective didn't know what she was seeing, but he knew it wasn't three hundred innocent children. As if in slow motion, he saw the movement of her wrist - the one that was attached to the cord, that was in turn attached to the bomb's detonator.
Rick's last thought was a frantic, She's gonna set it off!
Before Rick could jump forward in what would have been a futile effort to halt Geneva's wrist, A.J.'s body sprung off the floor. With arms and legs outspread he slammed into Rick and Stacy with a force far beyond what strength he had left. In turn, Rick and Stacy's bodies fell onto the children behind them, knocking them over like pins in a bowling lane.
The blast of the homemade bomb blew out windows and tore the door off all its hinges but one. It dangled askew like a loose tooth about to be released from a seven-year-old's gum. Over the loud ringing in his ears Rick heard a gunshot echo in the hallway.
Thick black smoke filled the room making it nearly impossible to see. Gasoline fumes hung heavy in the air, causing people to cough and gasp for breath. The American flag in the corner was on fire, as was the paper alphabet chart on the wall. Children screamed and scattered like barn mice whose home has just been invaded by a marauding cat. Adults scooped up those they could grab and shoved them out the windows into the waiting hands of rescue personnel.
Rick pushed himself to his feet and joined in the effort, Stacy right beside him. He squinted into the gloom as he handed Chandler out to a police officer. He knew A.J. had to be in the room somewhere but couldn't see him. He remembered his promise to his brother and resisted the urge to look for A.J. and leave the rescue of the children to someone else.
Rick deposited child after child into the arms of the men and women lining the outside of the building. Firemen were in the room now and urging everyone left to evacuate. A man in a heavy coat and red helmet grabbed Rick's elbow, but he yanked himself free of the grasp.
"A.J.!" Rick called over the din of crackling fire, wailing sirens, and loud voices issuing commands. "A.J.! A.J.!"
Rick recognized Stacy's voice from across the room. "He's over here, Rick! He's over here!"
Rick traversed the distance, dropped to his knees and gave Stacy a shove. "Go on! Get out! We're right behind you!"
The lanky man shoved one arm under the unconscious A.J.'s neck and the other under his knees. He pushed himself to his feet and stumbled out of the room with A.J. held firmly to his chest.
Halfway down the hall Rick was met by running paramedics pushing a clattering gurney. Rick deposited his brother on the rolling bed and ran along beside the men as they wheeled it out of the building. He quickly brought the men up to speed regarding A.J.'s gunshot wound. It was then Rick realized he didn't know if his brother was alive or dead.
He had an answer soon enough. A doctor was waiting outside the building and did a quick evaluation of A.J.'s condition. Rick was no more than assured his brother was still living, before A.J. was whisked off to the Flight For Life helicopter Abby had standing by on the vast playground.
Rick ran by A.J.'s side all the way to the chopper. It was there that he was forced to part with his brother. There wasn't enough room inside the medically equipped emergency vehicle for anyone other than the pilot, the doctor, and one paramedic.
The detective stepped back as the helicopter's engine whirled to life. He bent low to protect himself from the turbulence caused by the blades. Grains of dirt pelted his face like driving snow. Rick watched until the chopper was nothing other than a tiny speck in the sky headed for County General Hospital. His prayer was no more than a fervent, "Please, God. Please."
Rick turned around to run back to the school building. He was certain Abby had someone there waiting to take him to the hospital. If she didn't, he had a key to A.J.'s Camaro on the key ring in his pocket. One way or another he'd get to County General regardless of how many traffic laws he might break doing so.
Before the detective ever got that far a child raced toward him with her arms outstretched. She was soon joined by another and then another. Emily threw herself into Rick's willing embrace and wrapped her arms around his neck. Micah's arms were next and then Chandler's. The boys were soon forced to move over to make room for LaKesha and Autumn. The girls were then pushed out of the way by Nicholas and Stanford. The process repeated itself time and time again as one child was replaced by another in Rick's arms.
There were tears in Rick's eyes as he did a mental head count. They were all present. All twenty of them. All present and safe and whole and beautiful.
"Oh, Mr. Rick, we were so scared!" Emily cried. "So scared something bad happened to you."
Rick pulled the little girl to his chest and let her tears soak his shirt. "No, sweetheart, nothing bad happened to me. I'm fine, kiddo. Just fine."
Rick spent the next few minutes reassuring the children. He accepted their hugs and kisses, allowing them to clamor all over him like frightened puppies. When he finally rose Micah was on his back and three children apiece were clinging to each of his hands. The rest held onto his waist as they made slow progress to the school's parking lot. Once there, the children left Rick's arms for the safe haven of their parents' arms.
Five minutes later Rick was being raced to County General in a squad car with lights flashing and siren screaming.
The last sight Rick saw as the vehicle pulled out of Heritage Academy's parking lot was of Bobby Masters being carried from the school in a body bag.
A soft knock rapped against the wood of the hollow door. Before Rick could rise from his chair, the door was pushed open just enough to allow Abigail Marsh's upper body to appear.
"Hi," she mouthed quietly.
"Hey, Abby," Rick returned.
The woman stepped into the dimly lit room. She nodded toward the hospital bed with its raised rails and the sleeping man who lay within. Her tone was carefully hushed.
"I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes, Rick. Would it be better if we went out in the hallway?"
"Nah, we can talk in here." Rick stood up and pulled the only other chair in the room next to his. "According to Joel, they've got A.J. sedated to the point a freight train could roar through here and he wouldn't so much as flinch."
Abby stopped by A.J.'s bedside on her way to the chair. She'd seen him briefly very late the previous evening not long after he'd come out of surgery. He'd been sleeping heavily then as well. Now, nineteen hours later, she thought he looked a little better. At least his face was no longer the color of school paste. An IV was inserted in a vein in his left arm, and another in the top of his left hand. She knew that underneath the hospital gown A.J. wore his right side and rib cage were heavy bandaged. A suction tube ran through the bandages and was draining into a collection cup hung on the side of the bed. The blood and oxygen he'd been receiving the last time she saw him had been removed, however, which Abby took to be a sign that things were progressing well. Rick had also told her A.J. had more tiny cuts and abrasions on his back than the doctors could count as the result of flying shrapnel from the bomb blast. But thankfully those injuries weren't serious. They were bound to cause the blond discomfort until they healed. but considering how he obtained them things could have ended much worse.
Abby took the seat next to Rick. His face was drawn and the whites of his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion. Since Abby had last seen him, Rick had allowed someone to clean and place Band-Aids on the cuts he'd incurred from the shrapnel. One was above his left eyebrow, the other on his right cheek. The tan bandages stood out in stark contrast to his pale features.
"You look like you could use some uninterrupted sleep as well," the policewoman observed. "Have you been home at all since A.J. was brought in here?"
"Yeah, I went home about three o'clock this morning."
Abby knew Rick well enough to easily make an educated guess. "But you didn't sleep, did you?"
"No. I tried but I was...too keyed up, I guess. I ended up doin' some things around the boat, took Rex for a walk, ate breakfast, and got back here around noon."
"Are you going home soon?"
"Yeah, probably." Rick flicked his wrist and glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes short of being seven p.m. "I'm beat, and the nurse said A.J. won't wake up for the rest of the night anyway."
"Was he awake today?"
"Yeah, on and off for short intervals. They made him eat some soup and take a few bites of something they called pudding, that looked more like wallpaper paste to me. By the look on A.J.'s face as it was goin' down I'd say it tasted pretty much like wallpaper paste, too. They plan to unhook him from the rest of this stuff tomorrow and get him out of bed for the first time since the surgery. I'm gonna be here when they do that so I can give him a hand."
"When will they release him?"
"Middle to the end of the week it looks like. Or at least that's what Joel thinks right now. It all kinda depends on how he's doin' I suppose."
"He was lucky," Abby stated.
Rick stared at his brother and shook his head in disbelief. "He wasn't just lucky, Abby. He was damn lucky."
The detective thought back to the previous evening. Twenty minutes after he'd arrived at County General they were rushing A.J. to surgery. He was bleeding internally like Rick had suspected and in deep shock, but other than that they couldn't tell the eldest Simon much. Abby joined him in his vigil late that night. It was after eleven before A.J. was out of surgery and a doctor came to talk to them. Remarkably, the bullet hadn't done extensive damage. It had skidded by A.J.'s vital organs and came to drill itself into a rib. The surgeons stopped the bleeding, removed the bullet, and got A.J. stabilized. The doctor warned Rick his brother was very weak due to the circumstances of the day, but he was optimistic that given time, A.J. would make a complete recovery.
you get a hold of Cecilia?"
"Yeah, early this morning. Thankfully she hadn't heard anything about it on the news. She was out all day yesterday and didn't get back to her hotel room until around midnight. She went to bed without ever turning on the TV."
"How'd she take it?"
"Oh, you know Mom, she's a pillar of strength if there ever was one. She was upset, of course, but once I assured her A.J. was gonna be okay she calmed down. She called here this afternoon and was able to talk to him for a few minutes, so I think that helped her peace of mind considerably. She had been talkin' about renting a car and driving home today, but I convinced her not too. Her bus pulls out of Vegas right after breakfast on Monday morning. I figured it was best if she just waited and came home on it."
"You're probably right. She shouldn't drive that distance by herself after receiving this kind of news."
"That's what I thought, too." Rick gave an affectionate smile on his mother's behalf. " ‘Course she told me she wouldn't have any fun now, and that it was a waste of her time to stay there, but I told her that's what A.J. wanted. Which was true. So that kinda put the subject to rest."
Rick shifted the discussion to a new direction. "How's the investigation goin'?"
"About as far as it's going to."
"Whatta ya' mean?"
"Although we have some more information to gather and piece together yet, I believe we've drawn our main conclusions."
"And they are?"
"That Bobby Ray Masters Jr. was a paranoid schizophrenic among other things. He had a long history of mental illness dating back to high school. In reviewing his grade school records and the things his teachers wrote about him, it's apparent his problems were present even then but sadly, grossly misdiagnosed. Some called him hyperactive, while others referred to him as lazy, while others simply called him a troublemaker. The all-purpose word, 'underachiever,' appears time and time again as well. He never finished high school. He joined the Army not long after he dropped out. You probably won't be too surprised when I tell you he served in a demolitions unit."
Rick shook his head at the irony of it all. "Which is where he learned everything he needed to know about making a bomb outta the innocent kinda stuff most of us keep in our garages."
"More than likely," Abby agreed. "But his military stint didn't last long either. He was constantly being written up for misconduct. When he was twenty he was given a medical discharge."
"Medical discharge as in relationship to mental illness?"
"Yes. Or at least that's what his former commanding officer told me on the phone today. I've got to untangle some more red tape before I can actually get my hands on his military records and review them."
"Did he ever undergo treatment?"
"For a while. At a VA hospital, which is where he was first diagnosed. After that things get sketchy. He disappeared from the hospital one day and never returned. He had a succession of low paying jobs he didn't hold onto for long. He was constantly fighting with his co-workers among other things. He lost his latest job two months ago. I'm planning to talk to his supervisor on Monday. I assume I'll discover the same scenario that caused him to be fired from his previous jobs, caused him to lose this one was well.
"We do know that a little over a year ago, in May of 1988, he married an eighteen-year-old girl by the name of Geneva Kimbal. Her remains were positively identified by the medical examiner this morning."
"She was the one chained to the bomb."
"Yes, she was."
"What about the baby? Was it dead before the bomb went off?"
"We'll never know that, Rick. What little they found of it isn't enough to draw any conclusions. We don't even know what sex it was, and probably never will."
Rick shook his head in despair of all the things they would never know for certain, or completely understand.
"I talked to some of the Masters' neighbors this morning," Abby said. "According to what they told me there was no doubt Geneva was being physically abused."
"Based on what I saw, I'd say that's a given."
"One of my detectives talked to Geneva’s family this afternoon. It sounds as though this type of life is all the girl ever knew. Her father died when she was four, and her mother remarried a few years later. Though no one would come right out and say it, an aunt of the girl's insinuated the stepfather sexually abused Geneva and her older sister. Or as the woman put it, "Had himself some hanky panky goin' with them little girls every now and again."
"No wonder the poor kid went from one bad situation to another."
Although Rick knew it wouldn't make much difference one way or another, he felt it important to speak up on Geneva's behalf. "I'm certain she was there against her will, Abby. She was just a kid, and scared out of her wits. I don't think she intended to hurt anyone. I'm not sayin' what she did was right, but she detonated that bomb because she just couldn't take anymore of the life she was being forced to live."
"I know. I've interviewed Stacy and several other teachers today. Their observations are similar to yours - that Geneva Masters was her husband's unwilling accomplice."
The pair fell into silence as Rick's mind traveled back to the previous day. The gunshot he'd heard in the hallway right after the bomb went off was a result of Bobby Masters putting his rifle to his chin and pulling the trigger. The high velocity bullet had effectively scalped him as it rocketed upward through his brain and out the top of his skull.
Rick was long gone from the scene of the disaster by the time the police officers, fire personnel, and other investigators were finished. It was only this morning on the television news that he had learned no one other than Geneva and Bobby Masters had lost their lives in the carnage. Every child and adult in that classroom had gotten out safely. Other than minor cuts and bruises, no one but A.J. was seriously injured.
Rick stared at his brother and murmured with astonishment, "It was the miracle I asked for," as the wonder of it all dawned on him for the first time.
"I uh...I was just thinking out loud. It was a miracle no one was killed when the bomb went off. I mean geez, Abby, there were over three hundred people in that room. How the hell do you explain that other than to call it a miracle?"
"I don't explain it any other way, though the arson investigators have come up with a few scientific reasons as to why no one was killed or seriously injured."
"Understand, these are only preliminary findings, but Masters made several key mistakes when he put his bomb together. According to one of the investigators, it wasn't nearly as powerful as it could have been."
"Yeah," Rick agreed dryly, "tell that to those of us who were in that classroom when it went off."
Abby thought back to what the blackened, destroyed room looked like when she'd first seen it. "I know what you mean, but that's what they tell me. For whatever reason, when the bomb did go off its blast didn't project forward as is the norm. The main thrust of the explosion was felt on the east and west sides of the room. Because of that, and because the windows and door were open, a good deal of the blast dissipated outward instead of forward."
"Forward, as in where we were all sitting?"
"That's correct. Whether we'll ever have an answer as to why that happened I don't know. The experts are stymied by it at this point." Abby paused before adding, "And there's on more odd occurrence no one can explain."
"Some of the children are claiming..."
The woman broke off there, almost as if she was too embarrassed to continue.
"Are claiming what? Some of the kids are claiming what, Abby?"
"Do you recall telling me last night that right before the explosion occurred you noticed some of the children moving to the back of the room?"
"Yeah. That's why I think so many of them survived the blast free of injury."
"Yes, well several of the other teachers noticed the children's movements also. Now those same kids are saying that shortly before the bomb went off an...an angel appeared in a corner of the room and urged them to move back."
Rick raised a skeptical eyebrow. "An angel?"
"Yes. Or at least that's what I'd guess you'd call it. Some of the children described it as a glowing, formless light that was warm and friendly. Others said it was someone they knew."
"Someone they knew?"
"Yes. For example the little girl in your class, Emily Spraten?"
"She says the angel was her grandmother."
Abby nodded. "Her grandmother. Her mother tells me Emily's paternal grandmother died last year. She and the little girl were very close. Emily swears her grandma appeared in the corner of the room and told her it was important that she move to the back. A boy in one of the third grade classes claims the angel was a deceased cousin of his who told him the same thing. A fifth grader claims it was her favorite uncle who--"
"Don't tell me, let me guess. Is deceased."
"Yes. The man died in an automobile accident two years ago."
Rick mulled over Abby's words before giving a long slow nod of comprehension.
"I know it sounds weird,” Abby stated. "As a matter of fact, it sounds more than weird."
"No, Abby, it doesn't sound weird.” Rick thoughtfully studied his slumbering brother. “Believe it or not it doesn't sound weird at all."
A.J. was released from the hospital the following Thursday morning. He was far from recovered, and it was a struggle for him to make it up the stairs to his bedroom even with Rick's help. But he was glad to be home, even if home meant he'd be moving no farther than from the bedroom to the bathroom for the next few days.
Cecilia carried in the sports bag containing the few personal items A.J.'d had at the hospital. Tucked under her other arm she held three large manila envelopes bursting at the seams with get-well cards. Although A.J. had received his fair share of cards purchased in stores and sent by friends and relatives, the majority of the cards were made by childish hands and colored with crayons.
Despite the damaged classroom, school resumed as normal on Monday morning with counselors on hand for the students and staff. It was by far a difficult day for everyone to get through, and there would be many more difficult days ahead. While some of the children would come through the incident relatively unscarred, others would be plagued by it to various degrees for the rest of their lives. For now, their parents and teachers were offering them the only thing they could, their love, their patience, and their time.
Mrs. Dunford's first graders wanted to do something nice for Mr. Rick's brother. Therefore, it was the elderly teacher who suggested the whole school make get-well cards for A.J. Emily sent one with a hand drawn picture of Rick, A.J., and Rex on the front. Inside she had scrawled,
To Mr. Rick's Bother. I Hop u Fel Beter Soon.
The fifth and sixth grade classes A.J. had taught worked together to construct a ten foot long get-well banner for him. They each wrote a message on it and signed their names. Carrie's message told him that baby Andrew was hale and hardy, and had come through the bomb blast unscathed. Sean's message didn't say anything other than, 'You're one of the best teacher's I ever had, Mr. Simon. Thank you for saving my life. I'm glad you're going to be okay.' Rick couldn't help but laugh at Jake's message. 'Get well soon, Mr. Simon. P.S. Everything I know about sex I learned from you.'
Now the banner hung in A.J.'s bedroom at home. At A.J.'s request Cecilia hung the rest of the children's cards up, too. Although it was a well kept secret from the blond man, Stacy had contacted Rick and told him when A.J. was once again on his feet the students he had taught intended to invite him back to the school for a day. With the help of their teachers, they planned to host a luncheon for him in an effort to thank him for what he'd done to keep Sean free from harm.
By the following week A.J. was getting around the house fairly well on his own. He was sore and tired easily, but hoped within the next two weeks to at least be allowed to return to work part-time.
It was after six o'clock on Wednesday evening when Rick entered carrying a bag of groceries. He'd been staying with his brother since A.J.'s return home. He deposited the bag on the counter top and peered through the space between it and the upper cabinets. A.J. was sitting on the couch dressed in blue jeans and a bulky sweater. He had the arms of the sweater pushed up to his elbows and was engrossed in the newspaper.
Rex squirmed out from where he'd been laying underneath the coffee table, greeted Rick, then stood at the door. Rick let the dog outside with a warning of, "Stay off ole' man Gorman's lawn."
A.J. looked up from his newspaper. "Do you really think he understands you when you tell him that?"
"Sure he does."
how come within five minutes time Gorman is calling you to come over and get
him out of his rose garden?"
"Hey, that's not Rex's fault. I think the ole' guy is enticing him."
"Yeah. I haven't caught him at it yet, but I think he purposely lures Rex over there just to get him in hot water."
A.J. rolled his eyes while rising from the couch to help his brother put the groceries away. Rick waved a hand. "Sit down. I can do this."
The blond man ignored the command and pitched in to do his fair share of the work. When they were done, Rick grabbed a beer out of the fridge for himself and asked A.J. what he wanted.
"Nothing." A.J. walked around the counter and sat on a bar stool. "Supper's almost ready anyway."
"Did you cook?"
"Yes, I cooked. What did you think, the culinary fairy magically appeared while I was napping this afternoon and put together a meal for us?"
"No, smart-ass, I figured Mom dropped something off."
A.J. shook his head. "I told her it wasn't necessary anymore. I can handle it myself now."
"I'm sure. Believe me, there isn't much involved to peeling potatoes and carrots, dicing onions, and throwing everything on top of a pot roast."
took a full whiff of the warm spicy air. "I
thought something smelled darn good in here.
That's what we're havin' for supper, huh?"
"That's it. If you want something else, you're on your own."
"No, no. I don't want anything else. That sounds great."
Rick took a sip of beer and nodded at the folder he'd laid on the counter when he'd brought in the groceries. "I brought the mail and some other papers home in there for you to look at."
"Thanks." A.J. reached a hand out and slid the manila folder across the Formica counter top. He studied the contents while Rick drank his beer.
When the last of the liquid was drained, Rick deposited the can in the garbage. He busied himself pulling out plates, glasses, and silverware, while A.J. opened the mail with his thumb.
blond barely looked up from his task.
I ask you something?"
"Sure." A.J. lifted a shoulder in a puzzled shrug. "Why not? What do you want to ask me?"
Rick's eyes had an uncharacteristic seriousness about them. "It's about the bombing at the school."
Silence prevailed in the room as A.J. broke eye contact with his brother. They had yet to really discuss the incident, though Rick couldn't pinpoint as to why. He supposed, overall, the memories were simply too painful for both of them. Rick recalled all too clearly how he felt when he was certain A.J. was going to die in his arms and would just as soon avoid traveling that road again. He supposed A.J. had some feelings like that of his own to deal with. Maybe he wasn't anymore ready to get them out in the open than Rick was. Maybe he never would be.
that you know what the subject matter is, is it okay if I still ask my
A.J.'s reluctant tone was in contrast to his words. "Uh...yeah, sure. Go ahead."
"I know you weren't aware of this, but shortly before the bomb went off some of the kids who were sitting near the front of the room got up and moved to the back, taking their friends with them. That action on their part probably saved their lives."
"And Abby told me that after the kids were questioned about that they claimed...all of 'em claimed, that an...an...an..."
Rick wasn't sure how to say what was on his mind. It was funny, really. He'd accepted it so willingly when Abby told him about it that evening in A.J.'s hospital room because he'd truly believed it. He believed that, in an indirect way, he'd been witness to it even. But now it sounded absolutely absurd to his ears. Looking at his brother's expectant face made Rick wish he'd never brought the subject up. Obviously the kids had...well maybe not made it up, but heck, they were just little kids and had spent a long, terrifying day being held hostage by a goofball with a gun and a bomb. Who really could know or understand what their minds had fabricated to protect them? And A.J. had been close to death. Now that Rick had put himself in the position of admitting it out loud, it was a lot easier to believe what he had when it was occurring - that A.J. was hallucinating.
Before Rick could figure out a way to drop the subject, A.J. asked, "The kids claimed what, Rick?"
Rick swallowed and tried again. "See, I know this sounds dumb, but some of the kids say that an...well an...an..."
A.J. softly finished the sentence for his brother. "That an angel appeared before them and told them they had to get back."
Other than through Abigail Marsh, Rick knew of only one other way A.J. could have been privy to that information.
"Did Abby tell you that?"
"No, Abby didn't tell me that. I just...know, that's all."
"How do you know?"
"I just do, Rick, okay? Let's leave it at that."
are you gettin' so pissed about?"
"I'm not pissed. I just...I just don't want to talk about it."
it couldn't have happened," A.J. murmured almost inaudibly, "that's why not."
The blond eased himself off the bar stool and returned to the couch. Rick rounded the counter and sat down next to him in the easy chair.
what couldn't have happened?"
When his brother didn't answer him, Rick reached out a hand and placed it on A.J.'s knee. "A.J.?"
A.J.'s gaze remained fixed on the carpeting. "I...I guess it's not that it couldn't have happened. It did. I know it did. It's just...it's just not something I planned to discuss with anyone. Not even you."
"Because I'll think you’re nuts?"
A.J. smiled at his brother's forthrightness. "No, not because I'm worried you'll think I'm nuts. You've got the market cornered on that in this family, big brother."
A.J. smiled again, but didn't say anymore. Rick kept his peace for a long moment before deciding to trudge ahead. He was way too curious now to let the subject end here.
"A.J., there's a lot of things I don't understand about that day. A lot of things the various 'experts' are tryin' to explain away with scientific fact. Problem is, they can't. I've been thinking a lot about what happened in that classroom and right from the start I guess there was a higher being lookin' out for all of us. An eleven-year-old boy would have been killed had you not walked in right behind him, and in just a matter of a fraction of a second, figured out what was happening. You took the bullet for that boy, and then laid there all day with it inside you. Yet somehow you survived, A.J.
"Then we opened the windows and door for no other reason than it was getting hot in there and some of the kids were gettin' sick from the gas fumes. Later we find out that by doing those things we might have saved everyone's lives.
"Then we discover Masters was part of an explosives team while in the Army, but by some odd twist of fate screwed up when he was puttin' the bomb together. Because of that, its blast wasn't nearly as powerful as it could have been.
"You might not remember this part either, but as the day wore on you were runnin' a pretty high temperature. One of the cooks had given me a thermos full of ice for you."
"I remember that. I mean, I recall you giving me ice chips."
Rick nodded. "Well, long before the day was over those ice chips shoulda' been gone, A.J. Stacy asked Masters several times if she could get you more but he wouldn't allow it. We were finally down to our last four ice chips, but they never ran out."
do you mean?"
"I mean that both Stacy and I counted 'em several times as we gave them to you and each and every time we always had four left. We never ran out, A.J., long after we knew we should have."
Any other time A.J. might have scoffed and chided Rick by telling him he'd never been able to accurately count anything in his life, but not this time. This time A.J. knew there were things at work in that classroom none of them would ever be able to explain.
Rick resumed the conversation. "And then a bunch of kids move to the back of the room because they say an angel told them to. Some of them describe it as being a glowing light that was warm and friendly. Others say it appeared to them in the form of someone they had known. A family member who is deceased."
eyes fell to the carpeting again. When
he didn't say anything, Rick pressed on.
was Dad, wasn't it, A.J.? Our dad told
you to get back, didn't he?"
A.J.'s voice was tight and choked. "No." He looked up at Rick and tried to blink away the tears in his eyes. "No, Rick," he said with more strength, "Dad didn't tell me to get back."
what did he tell you?"
"He told me to get both of us back. I...I can remember what he said as clearly as if he was standing right here in front of me saying it now."
"And what was that?"
"He said, 'Andy, that bomb's going to explode before this ordeal ends. It's up to you to protect yourself and Richard."
Rick smiled. "Sure sounds like Dad."
A.J. smiled in return. "More than you can ever imagine. And then he told me, 'I'll let you know when the time comes, son. I'll give you the strength to do what needs to be done.'
"And he did, Rick. Just seconds before the explosion occurred I heard him order as though he was shouting in my ear, 'Now, son! Now!' And...and I guess he did somehow give me the strength I needed to tackle you and Stacy. I can't explain it any other way. God knows up until that point I was so weak I could barely move my head on the pillow."
"Yeah," Rick readily acknowledged, "yeah, you were."
A.J. offered his brother a sheepish grin. "So...uh...now that you've heard my story, do you think I'm a few bricks short of a full load?"
Rick laughed and scooted forward to perch on the edge of his chair. He pulled his brother's head to his shoulder and wrapped his arms around A.J.'s back.
"A.J., I've always thought you were a few bricks short of a full load. But no, I don't think you're crazy. I don't think you're crazy at all. 'Cause you see, there came a time in that classroom that day when I prayed for a miracle. Lookin' back on it now, I think God answered me several times over."
A.J. returned the hug he found himself enfolded in as he thought of how every single child and staff member had made it out of that school building alive. "I think so, too, Rick. I think so, too."
After a long moment the blond man gently extracted himself to go check on supper. From the den Rick called, "Hey, A.J.?"
"Next time you decide you're just itchin' for some excitement?"
"Leave me out of it."
A.J. chuckled and tossed a wadded up dishtowel at this brother, hitting him squarely on his bald spot. "Believe me, Rick, next time I'm itching for excitement, I plan to leave the thought unvoiced."
"I'd say that's a heck of a good idea, little brother. A heck of a good idea."
It was the following spring before Rick was able to make arrangements for his former first grade class to tour the Simon and Simon office like he had promised Emily so many months before. Of course, considering the size of the office and the nature of the business it wasn't much of a tour, but the twenty children who had fallen in love with Mr. Rick were simply thrilled to be reunited with him, and thrilled to see that their get-well cards had aided in Mr. Rick's brother's recovery. Or so A.J. told them.
Afterwards the kids were loaded back onto their school bus along with Mrs. Dunford, Stacy, and Emily's mother, who had volunteered to come along as an additional chaperone. The bus driver followed Rick and A.J., in Rick's truck, to the marina's beach. Because it was a weekday the beach was deserted of all but two sunbathers. The kids stripped down to the swimming suits they'd been wearing underneath their clothes. They raced for the water to splash and frolic in its waves. They all remembered Rex and were overjoyed when he joined in the fun. This time Rick was wise enough to keep Micah away from him. The last thing he needed was another nasty note from the boy's mother.
The Simon brothers treated their guests to lunch that day. A.J. flipped hamburgers and rolled hot dogs on a grill while Rick sat cold soda, ketchup, pickles, mustard, relish, buns, and potato chips on four picnic tables. Stacy, Mrs. Dunford, and Emily's mother had brought a wide variety of other foods to round out the meal. When everyone was gathered together they partook in a long lazy enjoyable feast.
A.J. was amused as he sat back and watched Rick interact with Iva Dunford. They were quite a contrast in character study, with Rick in one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, cut-off blue jean shorts with ragged hems, and bare feet, while the tiny proper Mrs. Dunford wore nylons under her pale yellow Bermuda shorts, clean white sandals, a loose fitting white cotton blouse, and a large brimmed yellow straw hat to keep the sun off her nose. Nonetheless, the two got along fabulously, and spent the thirty minutes after lunch discussing each of the children at length.
"My goodness, Mr. Simon," A.J. overheard the older woman say at one point, "the first two weeks after my return all I heard was ‘Mr. Rick this’ and ‘Mr. Rick that.’ I believe you missed your calling as a teacher."
As much as Rick had loved those little kids, he was forced to assure the woman that no, he hadn't missed his calling as a teacher. All he had to do was recall the endless bathroom breaks needed and the astounding energy level those six year olds possessed.
Rick's words were gracious and sincere. "Mrs. Dunford, my hat's off to you and all the other teachers who work with kids day in and day out. It takes a very special person to tackle that kinda responsibility."
Stacy was sitting in-between Rick and A.J. at the picnic table when Rick made that remark. She linked arms with both brothers and leaned sideways to first give A.J. a hug, and then do the same to Rick. "Yes, it does," she agreed. "It takes a very special person." Stacy’s eyes shone with tears of remembrance as she thought back to the harrowing day she'd been working so hard to forget. "As a matter of fact, sometimes it takes two very special people."
Neither brother needed to ask Stacy to elaborate. They both knew perfectly well what she meant. She laughed when she felt Rick's kiss on her right cheek, then A.J.'s on her left. The brothers took off running soon thereafter, playfully shoving and teasing one another until they reached the water. They jumped in with the kids, splashing and frolicking right along with them until it was time for the children to get out and dry off in preparation of the trip back to school.
The children wrapped up in their beach towels and sat in the sand with the Simon brothers. Emily's mother and Mrs. Dunford passed around cookies and juice.
Between bites of her cookie Emily said, "Mr. Rick, this is just like the party we were gonna have--"
" ‘Going to have,’ Emily," Mrs. Dunford gently corrected. "This is just like the party we were going to have."
"I know, Mrs. Dunford. But that's the way Mr. Rick talks."
Rick blushed underneath Mrs. Dunford's disapproving gaze and her "tssk, tssk, tssk," that went along with it. A.J. and Stacy couldn't help but laugh.
"Anyway," the little girl continued, "this is just like the party we were going to have that day back at school. Only better."
Rick reached out and gently yanked on a wet pigtail. "You bet it is, kiddo. It's a lot better party than we could have ever had at school."
"And now you need to finish the story, Mr. Rick."
"Yeah," the other children echoed, "finish the story, Mr. Rick!"
"Gee, guys, that was a long time ago. I don't know if I remember where we left off." He looked to Stacy. "Besides, I don't think we have time."
Stacy glanced at her watch. "If you can finish it in half an hour we have time."
Emily bounced up and down in the sand. "Come on, Mr. Rick. You can finish it in half an hour. Pleeeease! Please tell us the rest of the story."
A chorus of drawn-out "Please's" soon joined the girl's.
"Well, okay. But you guys are gonna have to give me a hand and help me remember."
Emily competently informed Rick of the facts as though she'd been reviewing the story in her mind ever since the last time she'd heard him tell it almost five months ago now.
"We left off with the brave knight Sir Andrew riding into the kingdom to rescue everyone the evil Prince Bakar had trapped in the tower."
It was A.J.'s turn to blush. It was one thing to end up being the brave knight in your brother's story when you're lying with a bullet in your side and your brain is so foggy that what's going on around you is unclear. It was quite another to find yourself in the role when you're cognizant, and at the mercy of eleven six-year-old girls who were smiling up at you with unabashed adoration.
But despite A.J.'s embarrassment at finding himself the hero in Rick's story, the tale was told with dramatic flourish. Much like Alfred Hitchcock, Rick had a cameo role in his story and appeared briefly as the crafty wizard, Richard The Wise. A.J. thought he'd be better suited as Richard The Court Jester, and didn't hesitate to interrupt with that suggestion. The kids laughed as Rick grabbed his brother in a wrestling hold and pretended to pin him to the sand. When the horseplay was done the story continued. Rick got back at his brother with his closing sentences.
"And the next day King Micah hosted a glorious wedding at the palace. Everyone in the land came to see Lady Emily and Sir Andrew united in holy matrimony."
Emily's gaze dropped and her cheeks were tinged pink like a proper blushing bride as her classmates clapped and cheered. The big smile she tried to hide broadcast her delight at this fairy tale ending.
"And from that day forward Sir Andrew brought her all the chocolates she desired."
head rose. "And chocolates for
their babies, too, Mr. Rick?"
"Sure. Lady Emily and Sir Andrew would have lots of children. Twelve, I think."
Emily's mother, Stacy, and Mrs. Dunford laughed, while Rick contemplated this turn of events.
"You're right, Emily, I think they would have lots of babies. At least twelve. Maybe even thirteen." His eyes slid to his brother. "You hear that, Sir Andrew, you're going to be the proud papa of a big family. A very big family. I think you'd better get busy lookin' for a better paying job, buddy. I don't think rescuing damsels in distress brings in a heck of a lotta money."
A.J. joined in the good-natured laughter. "I don't think so either. Emily, you and I are going to have talk about that number. I believe we'd better scale it down to no more than six."
Emily took the blond man's words to heart. "Okay, six is fine with me." Her finger came up in stern warning. "But you have to remember the chocolates. That's the most important part."
A.J. bowed at the waist from his seated position and sincerely promised in his best Shakespearean accent, "Oh no, me' lady, I shan't forget the chocolates for one as lovely as yourself."
Stacy clapped her hands together as a school bus pulled into the parking lot. "Come on, kids! Everyone get your shoes on. It's time to go!"
The adults ignored the collective groan emitted by the children as they hurried to help get shoes on the correct feet and to gather up stray clothing. The women looked around one final time to make certain they had everything and everyone. Before they headed to the bus, Stacy told the kids to say a final goodbye to Mr. Rick and Mr. A.J.. as they'd taken to calling the blond man that day.
The two men accepted hugs and kisses from every child. It was as Micah was wrapping his arms around Rick's neck that he whispered something in the detective's ear. Rick whispered back, then straightened.
"Listen up, everybody! Micah just reminded me that my story isn't quite finished."
The kids looked up at Rick giving him their full attention. He slung an arm over the startled A.J.'s shoulders.
Rick grinned as he made his final proclamation. "And everyone lived happily ever after!"
Rick's audience clapped and cheered once again in acknowledgment that this was the most perfect and final ending to what had been a perfect story.
A.J. smiled at his brother. "You're sure about that, huh? Everyone lived happily ever after?"
Rick pulled his brother to him in a loose sideways hug. "Yep, A.J., I'm sure about that. Happily ever after is the only way my stories end, little brother." Rick's hand came up to tousle the blond locks. "It's the only way I allow them to end."
Rick looked from the robust healthy children before him, to the robust healthy brother beside him, and grinned with firm declaration.
"It's the only way I allow it."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*School Days is loosely based on an incident that occurred in an elementary school in the small town of Cokesville, Wyoming in the mid 1980s. A gunman and his girlfriend, who unlike Geneva in the above story was a willing accomplice to the crime, took over the small school. They held all 200 children and faculty members hostage in a classroom with a rifle and homemade bomb. The siege ended seven hours later when the bomb was accidentally detonated. The man and woman were killed instantly, but miraculously none of the children or staff was harmed. Prior to the bomb blast, some of the children moved to the back of the room on their own accord. Later, they claimed they had been urged to do so by a being that appeared in an upper corner of the room, which they each described as an angel.