SIMON, SIMON AND CHARLES
*As with many of my S&S stories, Simon, Simon and Charles is written under the assumption that Jack Simon wasn’t killed until A.J. was approximately ten years old, as alluded to in the aired episode, Revolution Number 91/2, and based on a work of fan fiction entitled Journey Into The Past by Brenda A.
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Cecilia Simon shut the front door on the departing man - the agoraphobic she had been hiding for her sons, who had just spent the past three days in an upstairs closet eating doughnuts.
Cecilia turned to face her sheepish offspring with hands planted on her hips and her mouth set in a grim line.
A.J. attempted to rectify the situation while making a hasty retreat for the door. "We owe you one."
"Oh, you owe me more than that," Cecilia informed her son, blocking his path to the door.
"Uh...yeah, we do," A.J. agreed, licking the sticky glaze from a cinnamon doughnut off his fingers. "We'll go up and clean out the closet right now."
Cecilia stopped her sons' progress toward the stairway. "Not yet. Your Aunt Marion called from San Francisco. She's worried about Elizabeth."
Rick held his hand waist high in remembrance. "Cute little kid with freckles and pigtails who used to beat the pants off A.J.?"
The indignant A.J. disputed, "She did not!"
"She did so," Rick all-too-willingly pointed out.
Cecilia interrupted her arguing sons. "She always did look up to you two. That's why Marion thinks she did it."
"Did what?" A.J. asked.
"Elizabeth is opening a detective agency. Marion is beside herself."
"Bet there's no room on the sofa," Rick mumbled in reference to his aunt's ample figure.
A.J. smiled eagerly. "You want us to go up there and make sure she gets off on the right foot?"
"No," Cecilia shook her head. "Marion wants you to go up there and make Elizabeth open her eyes and see exactly what kind of a job this is."
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* The above conversation is from the 5th season aired episode - Reunion at Alcatraz
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
Cecilia Simon stood at her kitchen stove with spatula in hand on this Thursday morning, dishing up scrambled eggs and bacon. She lifted her cheek for a kiss when her freshly showered and shaved husband walked by with the morning newspaper.
"Smells great, hon," Jack complimented as he took his seat at the table. He hung his suit coat over the back of his chair, then began scanning the day's headlines.
"Rick! A.J.!” Cecilia yelled in the direction of the stairway. “Breakfast!”
Running footsteps hailed the arrival of eight-year-old A.J.. The boy was dressed for a day of summer play in shorts, a T-shirt and well-worn Keds.
"Good morning, sweetheart."
"Morning, Mom," A.J. replied with a smile. He walked by his father, gaining Jack's attention by giving the paper a whack with his palm.
"Morning, tiger," a preoccupied Jack said from behind his newspaper.
"A.J., please get the juice out and pour a glass for everyone," Cecilia instructed. “I suppose your brother's still lying up there in bed."
"Rick! Richard, come on now!” Cecilia called once again. “Breakfast!”
When no footsteps or other movements were heard coming from above, Jack added his voice of authority. "Richard! Get a move on right now! Breakfast is ready!"
In mere seconds Jack and Cecilia heard the bed springs creak from the room above their heads, then the sound of bare feet shuffling across the carpeting. A tousled and sleepy Rick appeared soon thereafter, dressed yet in pajama bottoms and a white undershirt.
"What time's it?" the bleary eyed thirteen-year-old mumbled through half closed eyes as he groped his way to the table and took his seat.
Annoyed, Cecilia replied, "It's seven thirty. The same time it always is when we eat breakfast in this household."
Rick rubbed a hand through his tangled brown hair. "That's too early ta' have ta' be up on the first day of summer vacation."
Jack sat his paper aside as a steaming plate of food was put in front of him. "This is the time we'll expect you up throughout summer vacation. Just as always, this family eats breakfast and supper together."
"But, Dad--" Rick tried to protest as he did at the beginning of every summer vacation.
"No buts, Rick. I will not have any son of mine sleeping his days away like a lazy hound dog. There are enough chores and other activities for you to do that warrant you being out of bed by seven-thirty. Besides, we allow you to sleep late on Saturday and Sunday. That's enough for one week."
Rick knew further argument would get him nowhere, so grudgingly accepted his parents' rules as he buttered a piece of toast.
His mother smiled brightly. "We need to get an early start today anyway, boys."
"Why?” Rick asked suspiciously, not sure he wanted his first day of summer vacation planned for him. “What are we doing?”
"You're going to mow the lawn, and A.J.'s going to sweep and hose off the patio."
"Mom!" Rick exclaimed in protest.
"Mom!" A.J. echoed.
Cecilia went on, ignoring her sons. "Then we're going grocery shopping, and you're going to get a hair cut, Rick."
"A hair cut! On the first day of summer vacation? No way!"
"Yes way," Cecilia negated firmly. "We have company arriving this weekend and I want everything in tip top shape. Including you."
"Company?” Rick asked between mouthfuls of eggs. “Who?”
Cecilia smiled at both her sons. "Your cousin Elizabeth is coming to stay with us next week."
A.J. coughed up his eggs, while Rick exclaimed, "What!"
"Your cousin Elizabeth is coming to stay--"
"But why?" Rick asked. "And what about Marty and Greg? Are they coming too?"
Marty and Greg were Elizabeth's older brothers. Marty was a year younger than Rick, Greg a year older than A.J. Although the Simon brothers didn't see their San Francisco cousins more than twice a year, the four boys were great pals.
"No, Marty and Greg won't be coming along. They'll both be away at Boy Scout camp next week."
"Then why's Elizabeth coming?" A.J. wanted to know.
"Because your father and I invited her. Your Aunt Marion and Uncle Martin have never had a vacation away together without your cousins. It's their fifteenth wedding anniversary next Wednesday. Dad and I decided to say happy anniversary by having Elizabeth stay with us."
Under his breath Rick mumbled, "I wish you wouldn't have."
"What was that, Rick?" Cecilia asked.
Cecilia smiled. "That's what I thought. Anyway, your aunt and uncle are going to drop Elizabeth off here on Sunday on their way to Arizona. They'll pick her up the following Saturday on their way home."
"A whole week?” The traumatized A.J. questioned. “Lizzard’s coming for a whole week?”
"Andrew Jackson Simon, you are not to call your cousin Elizabeth, Lizard," Cecilia admonished, though she knew perfectly well where he'd picked that nickname up from. Rick and Marty had pegged it on the little girl several years back. "A.J., I'm surprised at you. That's not like you at all."
"Well, Mom, she deserves it," A.J. defended himself. "She's always hitting me and--"
"Andrew, I don't want to hear it. You're always making up stories about Elizabeth. Why that little girl is so sweet she wouldn't harm a fly. Really, I don't know what it is that you boys have against Elizabeth," Cecilia shook her head as she began clearing the breakfast table.
Rick began listing several of his cousin's more annoying virtues. "She's spoiled, she whines, she follows us everywhere we go and nags us to play with her, she hits A.J.--"
Cecilia turned from the sink, hands on her hips. "That's quite enough. Both of you. While Elizabeth is here she is a guest in our home. I expect her to be treated as such."
"Fine,” Rick shrugged. “A.J. can play with her next week. I got things to do."
"No! No way!" A.J. protested. "I'm not going to play with her all by myself."
"You'll both play with her,” Cecilia stated. “And as far as you having things to do goes, Richard, you can cancel your plans. While Elizabeth is here both you and A.J. will be in charge of keeping her entertained."
Jack stepped in and put an end to Rick's protests. "That's enough, boys. You heard your mother. It's not going to hurt you to entertain your cousin for one week. Besides, you might even surprise yourselves and find you're having fun if you just give it a chance."
Both boys rolled their eyes. Sarcastically, Rick agreed, "Yeah, right, Dad."
Jack stood up to leave for work. He gave his wife a kiss, and tousled the hair of each son. "Regardless of whether you boys like it or not, believe me, you'll live through it. After all, Aunt Marion is my younger sister and I lived through her pesky childhood."
"Jack!" Cecilia admonished as the boys laughed.
Jack knew when he'd overstayed his welcome. He called goodbye to his family one last time before the front door was heard to shut firmly behind him.
"Rick, go upstairs and get your bed made and your room picked up. A.J., you can dry dishes for me. When those chores are finished you can both start on your outside work."
"Jeez, some summer this is gonna be. First, all there is, is work, then we're stuck spendin' our days entertaining a little girl."
"If you'd quit complaining and get a move on you'd find that you'll have plenty of time left in each day to enjoy doing all the things you like," Cecilia offered wisely to the grumbling back of her retreating teenager.
It was early on Sunday afternoon when Marion Charles and her husband Martin arrived on the Simons' doorstep with seven-year-old Elizabeth in tow.
Jack called the boys to come in from the backyard while Cecilia greeted their houseguest.
Hugging the blond, pigtailed girl to her, Cecilia exclaimed, "Elizabeth! My how you've grown since Christmas! We're so happy to have you here with us for the coming week. It's all Rick and A.J. have been talking about."
One look at the faces of Rick and A.J., who had just arrived from outside, would have told a close observer that Cecilia was stretching the truth more than just a bit.
Jack gave each of his sons a subtle little shove. "Boys, say hello to Elizabeth."
"Hi, Elizabeth," Rick mumbled.
Elizabeth smiled brightly, puppy love written clearly on her face for her tall, gangly cousin. She rested her head on her right shoulder and swayed shyly back and forth. "Hi, Rick."
A poke from Jack prompted A.J. to say a quick, "Hi, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth's puppy love demeanor from the moment before changed. She walked up to A.J. and punched him in the shoulder. "Hi ya,’ A.J.!"
"Elizabeth Jane! Really!" the girl's mother scolded. "That's no way for a young lady to act. Now you apologize to A.J. for hitting him like that."
Another poke from Jack led to the humiliated A.J. mumbling, "That's okay."
The children stood together as the adults took a few minutes to catch up on the latest family happenings. Elizabeth shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot in her too tight white patent leather shoes and scratched where the ruffles on her pink organdy dress made her itch.
The girl interrupted the grownups' conversation. "Please, Mom, can I get changed now?"
"Oh, Elizabeth, can't you stay like that for a little while yet? Aunt Cecilia likes to see you all dressed up."
"Yes, Elizabeth, you look absolutely lovely," Cecilia smiled. "Doesn't Elizabeth look lovely boys?"
Once again Jack had to give Rick and A.J. subtle pokes between their shoulder blades.
"Yeah, you look nice, Elizabeth," Rick managed to say.
"Yeah, you look nice," A.J. echoed in a mumble.
Elizabeth sided up to her oldest cousin. "Do you really think I look nice, Rick?"
Rick's face reddened. "Uh...yeah. Yeah sure."
"Then maybe I'll wear this dress for you again sometime. But right now I want to get changed." Elizabeth turned to her mother. "Please, Mom, can I?"
Knowing she was fighting a losing battle, Marion gave her consent. "Go on then. But before you leave let Daddy and me kiss you goodbye. We'll be on our way in just a few minutes."
Elizabeth skipped over and gave both her parents a hug and a kiss. She received final instructions from her mother to behave herself and act like a lady in the coming week.
"You boys take Elizabeth's suitcases up to the guest room," Jack instructed. "Then you wait outside on the patio while she changes her clothes. Don't be wandering off anywhere without her."
"Yes, Dad," Rick acknowledged in a downcast tone as he picked up one suitcase and headed for the stairs, Elizabeth following at his heels.
A.J. picked up the smaller suitcase, also replying, "Yes, Dad," as he fell in line behind his brother and cousin.
"I do hope she's not any trouble for you this week, Cece," Marion stated while the men talked.
"Oh, she won't be a bit of trouble. She's such a sweet little girl."
"Now, she can be a handful at times," Marion warned. "When she was born I thought I was finally getting the dainty little girl I had dreamed of for so long, but she's grown into quite a tomboy. I always seem to be bandaging her knees and elbows, just like I am the boys. I just don't know what I'm going to do with her on some days. It was all I could do to get her to put on that dress this morning."
Cecilia chuckled at Marion's woes. "I have two older brothers myself, Marion. I know just what it's like to be a little girl in Elizabeth's shoes. You're always trying to keep up with the boys, much to the chagrin of your mother. I'm sure things will go wonderfully this week. so don't you worry at all. You and Martin go off and have good time. Don't even think about the children."
Martin moved to put his arms around his wife's full waist. "That's what I've been telling her too, Cece. This is a week to enjoy without the children. The boys are safe and happy at camp, and Elizabeth will be safe and happy here with you and Jack."
Cecilia nodded. "She certainly will be."
The adults said their final goodbyes, Marion called one last goodbye up the stairway to Elizabeth, then she and her husband climbed into their car and headed for the Southwestern United States and their long awaited second honeymoon.
Rick and A.J. had done as they were told and waited on the patio while Elizabeth changed her clothes. It didn't take long before the whirlwind appeared, running through the kitchen and throwing open the patio doors.
"Hi, guys. What are we gonna do now?" the girl asked, dressed for play in a pair of Greg's castoff jeans, T-shirt, and cowboy boots.
Rick began walking away from the two younger children. "I don't care what you twerps do, Lizard. I'm gonna make like a tree and leave. See you guys later."
"Rick!" A.J. called in desperation. "You can't. Dad said."
"I don't care what Dad said."
Rick was stopped in his tracks by Elizabeth's, "I'll tell Aunt Cecilia if you don't play with me, Rick."
Rick turned around, gauging as to whether or not the girl would make good on her threat.
Hands on her hips she taunted, "I wiiiiiiiill."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud! You haven't even been here a half an hour and you're already bein' a pain in my side," Rick grumbled. With a disgusted wave of his hand he beckoned, "Come on then. But stay outta my way. I don't want to spend my summer vacation wipin' the tears of some crybaby girl when she gets hurt playin' with the guys."
Elizabeth and A.J. had to run to catch up with Rick's long strides.
"I won't get hurt, Rick. And I'm not a crybaby," Elizabeth emphasized. "I can keep up with any boy. Just you watch and see." With that the girl gave A.J. another firm punch in the same shoulder she had hit earlier. "Isn't that right, A.J.?"
A.J. reached up, rubbing the tender area that was beginning to bruise. "Yeah, Elizabeth, that's right," he sighed, already growing weary of his cousin's visit. Though he was sorely tempted to give her a dose of her own medicine and punch her back, A.J. knew he'd end up in big trouble with his mother if he did.
The Simon boys headed down the sidewalk toward a vacant lot at the end of the street. Elizabeth followed eagerly, chattering on about the unfamiliar sights and sounds in her cousins' neighborhood.
Rick leaned over to A.J. whispering, "I wonder if she ever shuts up?"
Whispering back, A.J. agreed, "I know. What a blabbermouth. I sure wish Aunt Marion woulda' shipped her off to camp and let Marty and Greg come to visit us instead."
Elizabeth stopped her one-sided monologue. "What are you guys whispering about?"
"Nothing," A.J. shrugged.
Elizabeth's fist drew back, poised to strike a blow to A.J.'s tender shoulder. "Come on, tell me. If you guys are keeping secrets from me I'll tell Aunt Cecilia."
Rick smiled sweetly. "We're not keeping secrets from you, Lizard. A.J. and me were just saying how much fun we're having with you already, and how glad we are you came to visit us."
Elizabeth's fist dropped to her side. A smile slid across her face. "Really? You really said that?"
"Sure," Rick acknowledged.
"I'm glad. 'Cause I really wanted to come visit you guys, too. Mom let me pick who I wanted to stay with this week, and out of all my cousins I picked you."
"Lucky us," A.J. said just loud enough for Rick to hear.
As Elizabeth skipped ahead of her two cousins, Rick and A.J. gave each other a ‘thumbs up’ sign and a smile. In the ever-constant battle of wits with Elizabeth, they felt like they'd at least won a minor victory.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent playing vacant lot baseball with a group of neighborhood boys. A few protests were voiced at the presence of the seven-year-old girl, protests that swiftly fell silent when Rick and A.J. told their friends that they couldn't play if Elizabeth wasn't allowed to stay.
Rick tried his best to convince the girl that she wanted to be a sideline cheerleader. The tomboy would have no part of that. She told her cousin that she was a better ballplayer than any seven-year-old boy there, and just as good as the eight and nine-year-olds. To emphasize her point, she gave A.J. another whack on the shoulder.
"Let her play, Rick," A.J. begged, hoping his sore shoulder would allow him to still swing a bat.
Finally it was agreed that Elizabeth would be allowed to play. Rick and Carlos were named captains and quickly went about choosing their teams, trying to obtain a good mix of teenagers and younger boys. Elizabeth jumped up and down yelling, "Pick me, Rick! Pick me!" throughout the entire draft. By process of elimination Rick ended up with her on his team. She was the last child left to be chosen and it was his turn to pick.
"Figures," Rick grumbled. A.J. was on Carlos' team so Rick retrieved his brother's mitt, threw it at Elizabeth and ordered, "Go out in right field."
"Right field! There's no action there!"
Rick was surprised that Elizabeth knew this, but maintained his captain's face and waved her out toward the over grown weeds. "Go on. That's where I want you."
The girl begrudgingly did as she was told, going to stand in grass and weeds that came up to her waist.
A competitive game of baseball ensued. Elizabeth earned a reluctant amount of respect from all the boys when she continuously made it to first base on each of her times at bat. She also caught two fly balls that came her way, and made an excellent throw to second base, her efforts causing a runner to be tagged out.
When at one time at bat some of the boys on Carlos' team started chanting, "Lizzy, Lizzy, you make me dizzy," and the catcher gave her a shove toward the plate, Rick stepped in.
"Hey, you guys, cut that out! That's my cousin you're talking to! And don't you be shovin' her around, Todd. She's just a little girl."
Although this treatment wasn't anything different from what she suffered when she played with her brothers' friends, Elizabeth gave Rick a smile she reserved strictly for knights in shining armor.
It wasn't until mothers throughout the neighborhood began to call their sons home for supper that the baseball game broke up early that evening. Several admiring young lads from A.J.'s crowd even invited Elizabeth back to play again.
"Yeah. I'll be back," Elizabeth agreed. "You guys are fun. Right, A.J.?" she finished with a punch to A.J.'s shoulder.
"Yeah, we'll bring her back," the long-suffering A.J. agreed. And maybe we'll get lucky and she'll get lost and not be able to find her way home again, the eight-year-old hoped.
When the three children arrived back at the Simon house Cecilia was pleased to hear all about their afternoon of fun. She gave her sons a look that said, ‘See, this isn't so bad now, is it?’
The boys chose to ignore their mother's smile, heading upstairs to wash and change their clothes as they had been instructed. Elizabeth was sent upstairs to wash as well, then coaxed into a dress by her Aunt Cecilia. Cecilia took great pleasure in combing out Elizabeth's pigtails, French braiding her hair, then tying a fresh ribbon in it. Jack piled the whole family in the car, treating them to dinner out and a late movie.
Much later that evening when the Simon household had retired to their respective bedrooms, Jack and Cecilia agreed that Elizabeth's first afternoon with them had gone well. Right before he reached up to shut out the bedside lamp Jack remarked, "For all their moaning and groaning about Elizabeth's visit, I do believe the boys are having a good time with her."
Cecilia smiled. "So do I. The three of them seemed to play well together this afternoon. And we only had to breakup two arguments during dinner. That wasn't so bad."
Down the hall in the privacy of their own room, Rick and A.J. conversed about their visitor as well.
"Man, this is gonna be a long week," A.J. groaned when he accidentally rolled over onto his sore shoulder.
"No kiddin'," Rick agreed. "But I've got an idea."
A.J. hiked himself up on one elbow. "What?"
"We're gonna dump Lizard somewhere tomorrow."
"Dump her? What do you mean?"
"Lose her. Say adios. Sionara. Arevaderche. So long. Bon Voyage."
"How are we gonna do that? Mom will get really mad if we run off without her."
"We're not gonna run off without her," Rick assured. "We're just gonna occupy her attention with something else and then sneak away. Don't worry, I've got a plan."
"Okay," the tired A.J. agreed. He fell asleep and dreamt of hoards of pigtailed little girls who derived great pleasure from punching innocent blond boys in the shoulder.
After morning chores were done the next day the boys tried to unsuccessfully sneak off, leaving Elizabeth playing with their equally annoying eight-year-old neighbor Mavis.
This was not to be, however, as their cousin caught a glimpse of them slinking through the back hedges in Mavis' yard.
"Hey, where are you guys goin’?" Elizabeth called. She quickly said goodbye to Mavis, then ran to catch up with Rick and A.J.
"You guys better not be goin' somewhere without me or I'll tell--"
Cecilia," Rick finished with disgust.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. We've
heard it before."
"So, where are you goin?"
"Nowhere exciting," Rick replied. "We're just walkin' to the store for our mom to get some milk. You can go back and play with Mavis. We'll pick you up later."
"Huh, uh. You guys will leave me there. I know you will. Marty and Greg are always sneakin' off and leavin' me places."
"I can understand why," A.J. mumbled.
The boy was immediately rewarded with a punch to the shoulder. "What was that, A.J.? I didn't hear you."
The youngster rolled his eyes, rubbing the sore appendage. "Nothing. I didn't say anything."
The three children walked toward the corner market, the boys doing their best to completely ignore their cousin. Rick stopped abruptly when they came upon a cardboard sign nailed to a telephone pole.
"Reward," he read out loud. "Lost tabby kitten. Answers to the name of Latisha. See Mrs. Cole. 20087 Palm Street. $25 dollar reward."
"Wow!" Rick exclaimed. "Did you guys hear that? Twenty- five dollars for a stupid kitten! I'm gonna find that cat."
"And we can help you," Elizabeth declared.
"Yeah, Rick, we'll help," A.J. nodded eagerly.
"No, I don't need your help. We'll get the milk for Mom, then you guys can go play baseball, or do whatever you want to. I'll do this by myself."
A.J. wasn’t about to be left out of the fun. "But, Rick, I want to help. Why can't I help?"
"Because you're just a kid and you'll get in the way. Besides, whoever heard of a detective with a side kick? That's only cowboys."
"We can help, Rick," Elizabeth added her two cents worth. For once, she and A.J. were on the same side. "Besides, if you don't let us help I'll tell Aunt Cecilia that you're having fun without me and A.J."
Rick turned away, stomping off in the direction of the store. "You know, Elizabeth, you're startin' to sound like a broken record with that 'I'll tell Aunt Cecilia' shit."
"Richard Lawrence Simon! I'll tell Aunt Cecilia you said a bad word and she'll wash your mouth out with Ivory soap, and probably paddle your behind too!"
Rick turned around, giving the little girl his best glare. He knew he had just lost another battle to his cousin. He had no doubt his mother would do just what Elizabeth had said if she told on him.
"Okay, okay. You twerps can help me. But I'm in charge of this investigation. Do you understand me? What I say goes."
The younger children nodded their heads in agreement, just happy to be allowed in on Rick's fun.
The milk was quickly bought and delivered back home. A.J. was sent upstairs by Rick to retrieve a small note pad and a pencil, then the three children rushed out the door with barely a goodbye to Cecilia. She smiled after them; happy to see they were having such a good time together.
The children walked several blocks west until they came to Palm Street, then watched carefully for the number 20087. A pretty Mediterranean style bungalow was nestled back in a manicured front yard full of flower gardens. Rick rang the doorbell while A.J. and Elizabeth stood on either side of him.
It took a few minutes for the elderly Mrs. Cole to come to the door. She opened it, smiling when she saw that it was children on her stoop.
"Hello, children. And what can I do for you today? I bet you're selling something for school or Boy Scouts, is that it?"
"No, ma'am," Rick negated. "I'm Rick Simon. This is my brother, A.J. And this is our cousin, Elizabeth Charles."
Mrs. Cole chuckled a bit at Rick's politeness. "Hello, Rick Simon. And A.J. And Miss Elizabeth Charles. What is it that I can do for you?"
"Well, ma'am, me and A.J. and Elizabeth would like to look for your missing kitten."
Mrs. Cole's expression changed to one of sadness. "Oh, my Latisha. Such a tiny little thing. I'm so afraid she won't be able to take care of herself. She's just a young one, you know."
"Yes, ma'am, we know," Rick acknowledged. "That's why we want to look for her. Could you tell us about her? What she looks like and stuff like that?"
Mrs. Cole opened the door wider. "I most certainly can. Come on inside, children."
The elderly lady led the way through a cozy living room and into a pretty blue kitchen. She invited the children to sit down, then filled a plate with cookies.
She soon joined them at the table, putting the plate of treats in the center. "Go on, boys, Miss Elizabeth, have yourselves a little snack. These cookies are favorites of my grandchildren. I hope you like them, too."
The children each took a cookie, thanking Mrs. Cole as they did so. Rick then motioned for A.J. to pull the note pad and pencil out of his shirt pocket.
In his best Perry Mason voice Rick began to question, "Now, Mrs. Cole, when was the last time you saw Latisha?"
"Three days ago. No...it was four days ago. Friday afternoon it was."
A.J. quickly erased the number three on his paper, replacing it with a four and scribbling Friday Afternon next to it.
"I let Latisha out into the backyard with her mother. She's always stayed right with Maya before. She's never run off like this. But when I went to let them back in a short time later, Latisha was gone."
"Do you think someone might have stolen her?" A.J. asked, hoping for a really big adventure.
"Oh no, sweetheart, I don't think so. Surely not. I can't think of anyone who would. This is such a quiet neighborhood. No one ever causes trouble here."
"Well, we'll have to check out all the possibilities," Rick mused out loud. "Someone could have stolen her."
"I suppose they could have. But more than likely she just wandered off," Mrs. Cole said. "Regardless of what happened, I'd just like her back. I miss her, and so does her mother."
"What does Latisha look like, Mrs. Cole?" Rick asked. "Do you have a picture we can show to people?"
"Why, yes, I do. You're quite a smart boy, Rick Simon."
Rick beamed with pride.
"As a matter of fact, why don't you all come into the bedroom with me. I can get you a picture of Latisha, and introduce you to her mother as well. Latisha looks just like Maya."
The children scooted back their chairs, following the older lady down the hall past one bedroom and into another. There, in the middle of an old iron bed on a white chenille bedspread, was a fat tabby cat curled up in a ball taking her morning nap.
The cat opened one eye, stretching and yawning contentedly as the children took turns rubbing their hands over her thick soft fur and scratching her head.
"Maya's getting old," Mrs. Cole said as she pulled a photo album out of a dresser drawer. "Her last litter of kittens came as a surprise to both of us. She had three. I gave two away and kept Latisha for myself. She looks almost exactly like her mother, except she's not nearly as big, of course. She's four months old. And she has a patch of orange surrounding her right eye."
A.J. was fast and furiously writing all this information down, attempting to get his pencil to keep up with the pace of Mrs. Cole's words. "Kind of like a prize fighter?" the blond boy asked.
Mrs. Cole laughed. "Well, A.J., I never thought of it in quite that way, but yes, I suppose you're right. She does look a bit like a prize fighter who has gotten a black eye in the ring."
The children passed around the small black and white photo the elderly lady handed Rick.
"My son took that picture just a month ago. She's a little bigger than that now, but otherwise that's what she looks like. You can keep that picture to show to people around the neighborhood. I have several others."
Rick nodded, stuffing the picture in his shirt pocket. "Thank you. This will help a lot I'm sure."
Mrs. Cole smiled fondly, joining Elizabeth on the bed where she was engrossed in petting Maya.
"Now I don't want you children to be disappointed if you can't find Latisha. I just appreciate the fact that you want to look for her. I'd look myself, but I don't get around too well anymore. Arthritis. San Diego's a big city. Wherever she is, I just hope someone has found her and is taking good care of her."
"We'll see what we can do, Mrs. Cole,” Rick said. “We want to try to find her."
"That's sweet of all of you," the woman replied, leading the way to the front door.
The children exited the woman's house with a final goodbye and Rick's promise to be in touch in the next day or two. It was almost noon, so the threesome decided to head back to the Simon home where they knew Cecilia would be expecting them for lunch. Rick declared that as soon as they were done eating, they'd begin their investigation.
The three hurried through their sandwiches and fruit salads, Cecilia admonishing them several times to slow down. Without a word to her as to what they were planning, they rushed to clear the table and then were given permission to go out and play. They took off running down the sidewalk, Cecilia shaking her head with amusement as she watched from the kitchen window.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent canvasing Mrs.
Cole's neighborhood. The three children went door to door showing the picture of Latisha and describing the kitten. At each residence A.J. would write down the house number, then put a check next to it if they'd found someone at home. He also wrote behind it yes or no if they'd seen the kitten. So far all he had was no’s.
After three hours of knocking on doors the children took a break, sitting down on the curb. Rick studied their list.
"Tomorrow we'll try all the places where no one was home today," he decided.
Elizabeth rested her elbows on her knees. "We're never gonna find Latisha."
"We can't give up yet," Rick countered back. "We've only just begun. Besides, a good investigation can take weeks to produce any big leads." Rick had heard that said once on Perry Mason. "We just gotta keep lookin' for clues."
"Yeah," A.J. agreed. "It's just like the Hardy Boys. They look and look and look, then all of a sudden they stumble onto something really big and solve the mystery."
"Well, I don't like it,” Elizabeth complained. “It's boring, and it's hot, and I'm tired."
"Fine,” Rick shrugged. “Then don't come with us anymore. We don't care, do we, A.J.?"
"No, we don't care."
"Then I'll tell Aunt Cecilia you guys aren't playing with me."
Rick smiled with victory. "But now that wouldn't be true, would it, Lizard? You're the one that doesn't want to play with us this time. You're the one that doesn't want to help look for the kitten."
Elizabeth scowled, thinking this over. She didn't like being outsmarted by a dumb old boy.
"Okay, I'll help a little while longer."
Rick rose. "We're gonna quit for today anyhow. It's already after three, and I wanna play some baseball yet. We'll start again in the morning."
The two younger children were agreeable to this. They walked back to the Simon house. A.J. deposited his notebook upstairs, then, helped his brother collect mitts and bats before all three disappeared out the back door once more.
Tuesday morning was spent much like Monday afternoon had been. Rick, A.J., and Elizabeth walked over to Mrs. Cole neighborhood, going door to door once again asking questions and showing Latisha's picture.
Elizabeth and A.J. were both beginning to whine about being hungry as noon swiftly approached.
"We'll go to this one last house, then we'll head home," Rick promised. The twenty-five dollar reward Mrs. Cole was offering was all the incentive Rick needed in order to ignore his own hunger pains.
I'll be able to get that new model car I've been wantin,’ and the new Elvis record, and me and Carlos can go to the fair when it comes to town next month, and down to the arcade, and... were Rick's thoughts as the children approached the last house on their morning rounds.
Rick knocked on the front door. A.J. stood off to one side with note pad and pencil ready, while Elizabeth simply looked bored. She amused herself by counting how many ladybugs were on the porch railing while they awaited an answer to Rick's knock.
The front door was finally opened by a busy young housewife. She had a crying baby in her arms, two look-a-like toddlers hanging onto the hem of her skirt, and a four-year-old peeking out behind her legs.
"I'm sorry, children, but I don't have the time to buy anything today," she dismissed, beginning to close the door.
"No, ma'am, we're not selling anything," Rick hurried to inform her. He had to shout in order to be heard over the baby's wails. "We only need just a minute of your time. I promise. This will only take a second."
A.J. admired his brother's smooth, polished style as he listened to Rick explain what had brought them to this busy woman's doorstep.
The harried woman perked up a bit at the name Mrs. Cole. "Oh, she's such a nice little lady. Always has a smile and a treat for the children. She occasionally baby-sits my tribe here when my husband and I can find time to go to a movie, or have dinner out. You say she's missing a kitten?"
"Yes," Rick confirmed. "Latisha. This is what she looks like." He handed the woman the photo. "Have you seen her?"
The young mother studied the photo for a long moment, swiveling in order to keep it out of the grasp of her curious two-year-old twins.
"Let me see, Mommy. Let me see," the woman's four-year-old daughter begged, jumping up and down with excitement.
The woman handed the picture to the youngster. "Be careful, Lori. Don't let Timmy or Tommy get a hold of it. They'll tear it."
"This is Latisha," the little girl with the serious brown eyes stated.
"That's right," Rick praised, bending over so he could be at eye level with the child. "Have you seen her?"
"At Mrs. Cole's," Lori replied. "She's a nice kitten. And I saw her on the sidewalk one day, too."
"By herself?” Rick asked with anticipation at what could prove to be his first lead in two days. “Without Mrs. Cole or Maya?"
"Yes, she was all by herself," Lori confirmed. "Right out there in front of our house." The child pointed to the sidewalk. "I called her and called her, but she wouldn't come to me. Then she just walked away."
A.J. didn't take the time to look up from the note pad he was hastily recording this information on. "Did you see which direction she went?" he asked.
The little girl pointed west. "That way."
"Do you know what day it was?" Rick asked.
"The day Tommy and Timmy both threw up their lunch. I was out here on the porch 'cause our house stunk!"
The embarrassed mother supplied, "That would have been last Friday afternoon. The twins had the stomach flu. Lori played outside by herself for most of the afternoon."
"Friday, huh?" Rick mused. "That was the last day Mrs. Cole saw Latisha, too. Do you know if any of your neighbors might have taken her in? Are any of them cat lovers?"
"Oh, that I don't know, son. I suppose it's very likely that anyone who would have seen a kitten that young walking around by itself might have taken it in."
"That's what I figure, too," Rick agreed.
The woman thought a moment, swaying back and forth with the now quiet baby sleeping in her arms. "But you know, there is a man that lives about six blocks from here, on Locust Street I think it is. I don't know his name, but his place is rather...unkempt. He collects...junk, for lack of a better way to put it. There are always a lot of cats wandering around in his yard. You might want to go take a look over there. I know he feeds all the stray cats that hang around his place. Maybe Latisha found her way over there."
"That'd be awfully far for her to walk, don't you think, Rick?" Elizabeth asked. Her feet were already aching from their day's trek. She couldn't imagine a small kitten getting that far on its own.
"I don't know," Rick shrugged. "I don't know how far a cat can walk. Me and A.J. have only ever had dogs."
The teen turned his attention back to the woman. "Thank you for your time. And all the information, too. It's been a big help."
The woman smiled. "Lori and I are only too glad to assist. As I said, we think Mrs. Cole is a special lady, don't we, Lori?"
Lori nodded. "Yeah, we do. And I love Latisha. She plays with me. Are you gonna find her?"
"I hope so, Lori," was all Rick could promise.
Rick, A.J., and Elizabeth hurried home to the lunch that they knew would be waiting for them. The boys excitedly discussed their plan of action for that afternoon, while Elizabeth seriously debated as to letting them proceed with their investigation on their own. She wasn't particularly looking forward to traversing more miles in her cowboy boots.
Cecilia rushed the children through lunch, only half listening to their eager chatter regarding their morning adventures.
She did overhear Elizabeth moaning about her feet hurting her, and how she didn't want to do any more walking.
Cecilia turned from the sink, smiling. "Why don't you stay here with me this afternoon, sweetie? My garden club is meeting on the patio at two o'clock. We'll have finger sandwiches, cake, and iced tea."
Elizabeth wrinkled up her nose, asking with misgiving, "What does a garden club do?"
"Well, we talk about different types of flowers, different gardening techniques. Things we'd like to do to beautify the neighborhood and the local parks. Sometimes we have a guest speaker. Sometimes we look at seed catalogs and order things. Then we enjoy our refreshments. You could wear that pretty pink dress you arrived in on Sunday. And your white shoes. I'll brush your hair out for you and put a pink ribbon in it. We could even polish your nails. I know all my friends would love to meet you, Elizabeth, and I'd certainly love to show you off."
Elizabeth shook her head, deciding a garden club meeting was less to her liking than sore feet. "I don't think so, Aunt Cecilia. But thanks anyway."
The breaths Rick and A.J. had been holding in anticipation of finally getting rid of the responsibility of their cousin were let out in the form of disappointed sighs.
Cecilia accepted Elizabeth's choice to decline the invitation. "Then before you children run off to play again you take Elizabeth upstairs, A.J., and find her a pair of your tennis shoes to wear. Maybe then your feet won't hurt, sweetheart."
"Thanks, Aunt Cecilia," Elizabeth smiled.
As the children brought her their dirty dishes, Cecilia reminded the boys that they weren't to interrupt her during her meeting unless it was a dire emergency.
"What's a dire emergency?" A.J. wanted to know.
"Someone's bleeding," Cecilia replied. "If you need to come in the house for something, do so quietly. No arguing, no yelling, and no friends over until the meeting is finished. We should be done by four."
"We got things to do anyway," Rick dismissed. "We won't be around until supper time."
"It's, 'we have things to do,' Rick," Cecilia automatically corrected. "And exactly what things are occupying all your time these past two days?"
"The kitten, Mom. We're looking for the kitten," A.J. supplied as he brought his mother the last dirty dish before running for the stairway, Elizabeth at his heels.
"What kitten?" Cecilia asked her eldest.
"The missing one. The one we were telling you about at lunch."
"Oh," was all Cecilia replied, ashamed that she hadn't been paying proper attention to her children as they ate their meal, and not wanting to admit that to Rick.
"Well, the three of you be careful and don't wander too far," Cecilia said. "You keep an eye on Elizabeth and A.J. until my meeting is over."
Rick grabbed enough cookies from the cookie jar to share equally with his brother and cousin. "I will. And we aren't going too far."
"I want the three of you back here by five, Rick. And help A.J. find Elizabeth a pair of shoes to wear!"
From halfway up the stairs Rick called, "I will!" and "We'll be back by five!"
Cecilia returned to making of her delicate sandwiches, happy that the children were going to be occupied for the remainder of the afternoon, and that she wouldn't have to worry about any unexpected interruptions during her meeting.
The threesome munched on cookies as they exited the Simon house that afternoon and headed west. The old pair of tennis shoes borrowed from A.J. that Elizabeth wore cut down on her complaining considerably. Because of that fact, and the fact that Rick was feeling so confident that within just a few hours he'd have twenty-five dollars in his pocket, the teen stopped at a corner gas station and treated himself, his brother, and his cousin to ice cold bottles of soda. The children leaned against the cooler, enjoying their drinks and discussing what they'd do when they found Latisha.
When the sodas were gone and the empty bottles placed in the crate, the three proceeded toward Locust Street to follow up on the only real lead they had. They soon found out just how difficult the life of a detective can be when, after traveling for a half an hour and arriving at Locust Street, they could not find the home that the young mother had described to them. The children walked up and down the sidewalk three times, looking for an unkempt place with a lot of cats.
Rick finally came to a halt in the middle of the block. "This can't be the right street."
A.J. and Elizabeth looked up and down the street for what seemed like the one-hundredth time. Every home was freshly painted, every yard well kept.
"I don't see any place with a lot of cats out front," A.J. said.
"What are we going to do now?" Elizabeth asked.
Rick looked around, finally spying an elderly gentlemen working in his yard. The three children crossed the street, Rick hailing the man with, "Excuse me, sir, but we're looking for a home that we were told is on this street."
The man struggled up off his knees from where he'd been weeding a flower garden. "And who is it you're looking for, son?"
"I don't know his name. I was just told his place is messy, and that he has a lot of junk around," Rick recited from memory.
"And cats," A.J. added.
The man stroked his goatee in thought. "Oh, that would probably be Hoover Redlin over there on Dell Street. He makes his living fixing up other folks' junk and then reselling it."
"Where's Dell Street?" Rick asked.
The man used his thumb to gesture behind himself. "Over that way three blocks."
"Three more blocks?" Elizabeth moaned.
"Can't miss it," the man said. "His front yard's full of old washing machines, engines, lawn mowers, tires, and the like. And cats. Just like the young lad here said."
Rick gathered up Elizabeth and A.J., heading for Dell Street without delay. "Thanks, Mister!" he called over his shoulder.
The man gave the children a wave before returning to his yard work.
This time the Simon brothers and their cousin had better luck, easily finding Dell Street. The past nine blocks had been totally unfamiliar to Rick. He didn't know how far they were from home, but was guessing at least four miles.
Farther than Mom would want us to be without her knowin' where we're at, Rick thought fleetingly.
Dell Street wasn't nearly as attractive as the other neighborhoods the children had trekked through during their travels over the past two days. The homes had an unkempt air about them with peeling paint and missing shingles. Junk cars sat in many of the driveways. Even given those circumstances, it didn't take the children long to figure out which house belonged to Hoover Redlin. The house itself was in bad need of paint and shingles, just like the neighboring houses, and there was a junk car in the driveway. What set this home apart from the others, however, was the front yard. The unmowed lawn was covered with car parts, engines, two washing machines, a multitude of bicycles in various conditions, old tires, car batteries, bed springs, a bathtub, and several other things Rick couldn't identify.
"Look!" A.J. pointed. "Cats!"
And cats. Cats everywhere. On the front porch, the porch railing, the windowsills, the two washing machines, the bed springs, and scattered about the front lawn and driveway.
"I think I see her!" Elizabeth shouted. The excited girl darted across the street without bothering to look for traffic.
Rick and A.J. followed her, Rick shouting, "Elizabeth, come back here! Wait a minute!"
Elizabeth ignored Rick, barging into an open garage that was set back from the house.
"Here, Latisha. Come here, Latisha. Here, kitty, kitty," the girl called softly.
The boys arrived in mere seconds. Rick didn't have time to scold his cousin for darting across the street, or for not waiting for him to tell her how to proceed, because Elizabeth was pointing to a corner of the garage where Latisha cowered.
"It's her!" A.J. cried, advancing on the kitten.
Rick tried to contain some of the younger children's enthusiasm. "Hey, you two, cool it. You're scarin' her. Now just get back here for a minute and let me think about how we're gonna handle this."
Before Rick could say anymore, two beefy hands grabbed him from behind.
"What the hell are you punks doin' in here?" was growled into Rick's left ear. The teen was spun around to find himself face to face with Hoover Redlin. The man was dirty, and smelled as though he hadn't bathed in a month. His oversize belly was visible from where his T-shirt couldn't stretch to cover it. The pants that had once been tan were covered with grease stains. A little boy of about three stood in the corner of the garage behind Redlin. The child was just as dirty as his father. His pants were stained in an area that led Rick to the conclusion that he had wet them. One good inhale told Rick he was right.
Elizabeth and A.J. stood immobile, eyes wide with fright, unable to find their voices.
The man gave Rick a rough shake. "I said what the hell are you punks doin' nosin' around my place?"
Rick shook his head. "We're not nosin.’ Honest. We're looking for a kitten. A kitten that wandered away from her owner. We were told we might find her here."
"Well, you ain't gonna find no damn cat here, so just go on with ya'! All of ya’s!"
Elizabeth found enough of her voice to say as she pointed, "But she was right over there. We just saw her. Her name's Latisha."
The man released Rick and advanced on Elizabeth. "Ain't got no cat by that name, missy."
A.J. bravely stepped in front of his frightened cousin. "But we just saw her. We just want to take her back to Mrs.--"
"You're not taking her back to anyone! A cat comes on my property; it's mine to keep! And I don't need no nosey kids hangin' around tellin' me otherwise. Now git! All of ya’s! Go on with ya'!"
Rick was frantically beckoning the frightened Elizabeth and A.J. to his side. The younger children were frozen to their spots, however, until the man waved his arms, barely missing A.J.'s head. A final shout of, "Go on before I turn all of ya’s over my knee and whip the tar out of your behinds!" prompted A.J. to grab Elizabeth's hand and run for Rick.
Rick put a hand on A.J.'s back, urging his brother and Elizabeth to keep running. The threesome ran as fast they could down the driveway and out onto the street.
"And don't come back here again!" They heard as they rounded the corner onto the next block.
When Rick felt they had run a safe distance he glanced over his shoulder. No one was following them so he stopped. The younger children were ready to stop for a rest, both of them leaning over to lay their hands on their knees as they gasped for breath.
"Man...he was...mad," A.J. finally managed to get out.
"And he...smelled...bad...too," Elizabeth panted.
Rick kept watch over his shoulder. "He was more than mad, he was crazy. There’s something wrong with that guy."
A.J. looked up at his brother, squinting into the afternoon sunshine. "What do you mean?"
"Why the heck would he get so mad over one dumb kitten? I counted at least fifty other cats of all sizes and shapes while we were there. He just didn't want us around for some reason."
"Maybe he doesn't like kids," Elizabeth contributed.
"Maybe,” Rick agreed. “But it's somethin' more than that I think."
"What are we gonna tell Mrs. Cole?" A.J. asked. "We know where Latisha is, but we can't get her back. Mrs. Cole will be real sad."
Rick, who hadn't gotten a good look at the kitten before being accosted from behind, asked, "Are you two sure that was Latisha?"
"Sure we're sure," Elizabeth confirmed. "Why?"
"'Cause if it was Latisha, then we're going to get her back," the teenager stated with conviction. "She belongs to Mrs. Cole, not to that jerk. Besides, if you were a kitten would you want to live in that dump?"
A.J. shook his head. He thought of Mrs. Cole's clean, cozy bungalow in contrast to the dirty, cluttered residence of Hoover Redlin. "No way. But how are we going to get Latisha out of there, Rick? We can't go back. That guy will kill us if we show up on his property again."
Rick chewed on his lower lip deep in thought. He began to nod his head after a moment. "We'll get her back. I've got a plan."
"What kind of a plan?" Elizabeth asked.
"I'm gonna set my alarm for midnight, sneak out of the house, go back to Redlin's, and get the kitten."
Elizabeth's eyes grew round in admiration of her cousin's bravery. "What if he catches you?"
Rick shrugged nonchalantly. "He won't. He'll be asleep. Everyone's asleep at twelve-thirty on a Wednesday morning."
A.J. spoke his misgivings. "Rick, I don't think Mom and Dad would want you to be doin' this."
"'Course they won't want me to be doin' this. That's why I have to sneak outta the house, dummy."
A.J. shook his head. "Rick--"
"Look, you want Mrs. Cole to have Latisha back, don't you?"
The blond boy looked down at the sidewalk, knowing he was being led right into a trap. "Well...yeah."
"And you don't want her to be sad anymore, do you?"
"No. But, Rick--"
"Well, then this is the way it's gotta be done. Don't worry. It'll be a piece a' cake."
A.J. looked up at his brother. "I'll come with you then."
"And me too!" Elizabeth volunteered.
"No way! Absolutely not! I can't sneak outta the house with you two following me. A.J., you can't even sneak down to the kitchen for some cookies without Mom catchin' you."
Rick put a quick halt to any further protests the two blond children were about to launch by saying, "Besides, I'll need you two at home. You'll have to cover for me if Mom and Dad find out I'm gone."
"Cover for you? How?” A.J. asked. “What am I supposed to say?"
"I haven't figured that part out yet, but I will on the way home. Come on, we got a long walk ahead of us yet."
Thinking of that long walk prompted A.J. to complain, "I'm hungry, Rick."
"And I'm thirsty," Elizabeth added.
Rick's generosity was once again prompted by the vivid imagination that allowed him to feel that twenty-five dollars warming his palm. "Come on, then. There's a store a few blocks up from here. I'll buy you guys sodas and ice cream bars."
The thought of those treats spurred the tired young blonds along. A.J. and Elizabeth discussed the afternoon's scary, yet exciting adventure all the way to the store. Rick, on the other hand, was quiet and lost in thought as he formulated his plan for retrieving Latisha.
Later that evening Rick Simon came to the conclusion that someone in the heavens above deemed it necessary for him to rescue Latisha. Things couldn't have gone better had Rick had the power to control the happenings of the universe himself.
The first sign that indicated to Rick that things were going his way came when his father arrived home from work with a migraine headache. Jack Simon ate just a few bites of supper, washed two pain pills down with a glass of water, said good night to his family, grabbed an ice pack out of the freezer, and went up to bed. Rick knew that the medication his father took for these occasional severe headaches would bring Jack a minimum of twelve hours of heavy, restful sleep.
The second sign that indicated to Rick that his plan might just work came when they got through supper without Elizabeth or A.J. slipping up and telling Cecilia about their eventful afternoon. There were a few close calls when Rick feared the secret was close to spilling out of a young mouth, but fortunately he was sitting between his cousin and brother, and was able to give them a kick in the shins when necessary.
The third sign came at nine-ten that night, when Rick's mother came down the stairs to tell the teen, who was watching T.V., "Elizabeth and A.J. are both in bed, Rick. Elizabeth is sleeping; A.J.'s reading a book. I’m going to bed, too. I'm worn out from spending the morning preparing for my meeting, and then spending this afternoon cleaning everything up. Please shut the T.V. and lights off at ten o'clock and go on up to bed. If your brother's still reading make him put the book down and go to sleep."
"Sure, Mom. Don't worry. I'll take care of everything. Good night."
"Good night, honey."
Rick lowered the volume on the T.V., following his mother's footsteps as she moved down the hall to the master bedroom. He smiled when he heard the door close.
At ten o'clock Rick did as he was told, shutting off the television, the lights, and going up to bed. He smiled once again when he saw that there was no light coming from underneath his parents' bedroom door. He knew his father would be sound asleep by now, and figured his mother was as well.
A.J. was sleeping with an open Hardy Boys book on his chest when Rick entered their room. The teen quietly closed the door, then moved about the room collecting the things he needed for his night time excursion. He set his alarm clock for midnight, though he doubted that he'd sleep. Rick placed the clock under his pillow so that the shrill alarm wouldn't be heard by his mother.
When Rick removed A.J.'s book from the sleeping boy's chest he awoke.
"Huh? Are you leaving now?" the disoriented blond whispered.
In a hushed tone Rick said, "No, go back to sleep. It's only a couple of minutes after ten. I'm gonna take a quick shower, then get in bed for a while."
"Wake me up when you go."
"I will," Rick promised, exiting the room with clean clothes.
A.J. never awoke when Rick returned fifteen minutes later. All was quiet in the master bedroom, as well as in the guest room. Rick turned his bed down and climbed in wearing clean jeans and a T-shirt. The teenager laced his fingers behind his head, relaxing against his pillow as he awaited the clock to strike midnight.
The muffled ring of the alarm clock startled Rick, waking him from a sound sleep. It took the youth a moment to realize where the noise was coming from, then another moment to remember why. He quickly reached a hand under his pillow, silencing the bell. Rick lay perfectly still, listening to the sounds within his household. All was quiet as Rick rose from his bed, silently opened the door, and peered down the hallway. His parents' door was still shut and no light could be seen coming from underneath it. Rick craned his head in the other direction, looking down the stairway. All was dark on the lower level of the house as well. That meant both of Rick's parents were asleep. Rick knew that when one or the other of his parents suffered from occasional bouts of insomnia the restless spouse often went down to the living room to read.
Rick silently closed his bedroom door once more. He slipped his tennis shoes on, turned on his flashlight, and woke A.J.
"Huh? Wha' doya' want?"
"Shhh," Rick cautioned. "I'm leaving now," he whispered.
That woke A.J. up. "Is it midnight?"
"A few minutes past."
"You got everything you need?" A.J. whispered, trying to make out in the darkness what Rick carried in his hands.
"Yeah. My flashlight and my backpack. That's about it, I guess."
The three children had agreed earlier that it might be easier for Rick to get back home if he had something to carry Latisha in. For lack of a better idea, they chose a small backpack that was used for camping trips. Rick figured he could put the kitten in it and zip it up so that there was only a big enough space for air to get in, but not a big enough space for Latisha to get out.
"Be careful," A.J. cautioned, suddenly not so sure once again that this was such a great idea. He could still see the angry face of Hoover Redlin.
"I will be. This will be easy."
"What time will you be back?"
Rick thought a moment. "Give me forty-five minutes to get over there, and forty-five minutes to get back, and a half hour in between in case I have trouble finding Latisha. So that means I should be back around two thirty, quarter to three at the latest."
"And what am I supposed to say if Mom and Dad find out you're gone?"
Rick had never actually come up with an answer for that potential problem, so simply assured, "They won't."
Panicked, A.J. pleaded, "Rick..."
"Look, A.J., I'll be back by three. There's no way Mom and Dad will ever know I've been gone. Dad went to bed sick. You know he sleeps like a rock when he takes those pills for one of his headaches. And I don't think Mom will wake up either. She was real tired. But if she does, and if she happens to come in here and check on us, you just pretend you're asleep. See how I made up my bed?"
Rick shined the flashlight in the direction of his twin bed. The sheet and blankets were pulled up over several pillows, making it look like a thirteen-year-old boy was curled up in a ball sound asleep with the covers over his head.
"She'll never know. It'll be too dark for her to see even if she does turn on the hall light."
A.J. reluctantly nodded his agreement.
"I'm gonna go now. See ya' later."
Rick turned around. "Yeah?"
"Be careful. Okay?"
Rick smiled. "Sure thing, kid."
A.J. got out of bed, quietly following his brother to the door. The young boy watched as Rick silently made his way toward the stairs. With the stealth of a panther, Rick crept along the hallway and down the stairs. The teen knew just what ones creaked and carefully stepped over those until he was in the living room. A.J. didn't hear the front door open, but did hear a very faint ‘click’ that indicated Rick had made it safely outside.
The blond boy shut the bedroom door without a sound, then crossed to the windows that looked out over the street. He caught glimpses of his brother whenever Rick's figure became visible underneath the streetlights. A.J. followed Rick's progress until the older boy was out of sight. The eight-year- old breathed a sigh of relief; happy they had gotten this far in their plan to get Latisha back for Mrs. Cole. Now came the hard part. A.J. hoped Rick would make it back home safely from Hoover Redlin's.
A.J. crept back to bed, listening for a little while to make sure all in his house were still asleep. Without his consent, the Sandman soon beckoned A.J. back into dreamland as well.
Cutting through back yards shaved time off of Rick's trip to Dell Street. He crouched behind a tree in front of Redlin's house, happy to see that he'd made it in just thirty-five minutes. The only potential trouble the teen had encountered was a patrolling police car. Rick caught a glimpse of the car headed his way as it passed underneath a streetlight, and was able to avoid a confrontation by ducking into some bushes just in the nick of time.
Rick weighed his options now from his secluded spot. He came to realize that he hadn't been completely correct when he'd told Elizabeth earlier that, "Everyone is in bed at twelve-thirty on a Wednesday night." Lights were on throughout Redlin's house, and cars were parked in the driveway and out on the curb. Through the curtainless windows Rick could see approximately ten men in the kitchen playing cards and drinking beer. At first this worried the teen, but the longer he observed the goings on, the more confident he became in his ability to retrieve Latisha. The men were noisy and half drunk. Rick doubted they'd hear any misstep he might make in the darkness, or the bark of a neighborhood dog that might be alerted to his presence.
Rick spent a few minutes looking around the front yard, keeping his flashlight beam low and staying well away from the windows. He didn't see any cats in any of the spots that he had observed them earlier that afternoon.
Rick wasn't too versed in the likes and dislikes of felines, but imagined that for the evening hours they sought shelter. Especially a small kitten like Latisha. He decided the most logical place to start was the garage where A.J. and Elizabeth had spotted the kitten in the afternoon.
The garage was a crooked old wooden structure that didn't possess any windows or a back door. After walking around the building once Rick came to realize he'd have to enter through the doors that faced the street. He crouched low, circled around the streetlight's glow, and made a dash for the doors. He was disheartened when he caught sight of a padlock, then smiled a bit when he discovered it hanging open in the bracket.
The teen gritted his teeth at the squeak that was emitted as he rolled one of the double doors open just a crack. Turning sideways and holding his breath, Rick slipped inside the structure. He stood for a moment, listening carefully. Evidently the squeak hadn't been heard inside the house since no one came out to investigate.
Rick turned on his flashlight, arcing the beam around the garage. He was puzzled when he realized that lining the garage floor was row upon row of what looked like new television sets. When he had been in here the previous afternoon with his brother and cousin, things had happened so fast that Rick hadn't had time to be observant. He had thought at that time that the televisions were old junkers, just like everything else Redlin owned. Rick ran his hand along rich maple cabinets, shining his flashlight on price tag after price tag.
Rick shrugged, still not fully aware as to what he had stumbled upon. He returned to the business at hand, finding Latisha. The teen shined his flashlight around the interior of the garage again. He observed cats of various sizes and shapes, but none that matched Latisha's description.
"If A.J. and Elizabeth were wrong about this and I came here on a wild goose chase I'll kill 'em," the teen vowed. Just when he was about to give up and head home, Rick's light came to rest upon one small kitten hiding under a T.V. set.
"Latisha?" Rick whispered.
The teen got down on his knees, laying his head sideways on the garage floor. "Here, kitty, kitty. Come here, Latisha. Come on. That's a good girl."
The kitten moved several steps toward Rick. The boy slowly reached out a hand and pulled her from underneath the T.V. He stood, cradling the shaking kitten in his arms while soothing, "There, there, kitty. It’ll be all right. You'll be back with Mrs. Cole later this morning."
Rick jumped back with surprise when the garage door was rolled open. Before he had a chance to hide, the overhead light was flicked on.
For a moment Rick didn't know who was more startled, himself, or Hoover Redlin. Later, the teenager would berate himself for not having the presence of mind to make a mad dash for the door. He thought he probably could have made it out to the street while Redlin was off guard. As it was, by the time Rick's mind and body were ready to work as one Redlin was advancing on him with a sinister smile.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't the little savior of cats come back to visit me." Redlin grabbed a fistful of Rick's T-shirt. "What ya' doin' here, boy? I thought I made it clear to ya' that I didn't ever want to see your ass around here again."
Rick's eyes were wide with fear as he was picked up off the ground. Frantically, he stated, "I know, sir. And I do apologize, sir. But see, I had to get this kitten back for my grandmother. It's hers, and she's real sick, and it wandered away from home, and she misses it. The family's afraid she'll die if she doesn't get this kitten back."
Redlin turned to face the doorway, saying sweetly, "Hear that, Pete? His Granny's sick. She misses her kitten."
Just that quickly Redlin's mood changed. He took three steps backwards, slamming Rick against the garage wall. "I don't give a damn about your granny, sonny. I told ya' I didn't wanna see ya' around my place again. Now me and Pete is gonna haf ta’ hurt ya'."
Rick swallowed hard, his eyes darting from Reldin to the equally large and dirty Pete.
Pete spit tobacco juice onto the garage floor, then belched. "Yep, I guess that's what we gotta do."
"What's your name, kid?" Redlin asked.
When Rick didn't answer his head was slammed against the garage wall. "Your name, punk?" was shouted in his ear.
Through the stars that were swirling in front of his eyes, Rick stammered, "Greg. Greg...Martin."
"Well, Greg Martin, we'll just have to put an end to your snoopin' days, won't we, Pete?"
"Sure, Hoov. Whatever you say."
"Now me and Pete is gonna go inside and tell the rest of the boys we found a no good sneakin' little thief out here. We'll let 'em help us decide how to deal with ya'. Golly, the last time we found a guy snoopin' around my place we burned his eye out with a hot poker, didn't we, Pete?"
Pete spit again, scratched his belly, then nodded. "Yep. I guess that's what we did."
Redlin released Rick, letting him tumble to the floor. He put his face in Rick’s, his rancid breath washing over the teen. "We'll be back, boy. Just keep thinkin' that thought. We'll be back."
With all the bravado he could muster Rick stood and called after the men, "Hey, my dad's a cop! He'll be looking for me! He knows I came here to get Grandma's kitten!"
Redlin just laughed. "Daddy's a cop, huh? Good. We'll have to hurt you even worse for that, sonny boy. Maybe burn out both your eyes."
The garage door was rolled shut. Rick heard the distinct click of the padlock snapping into place.
Rick's shaking knees forced him down to the concrete floor. He leaned back against the garage wall, willing his heart to stop pounding. He wiped a cold sweat from his brow, asking the small tabby kitten he still held in one hand, "Oh, man, Latisha, what have I gotten myself into now?"
Once out of Rick's hearing range Pete asked, "You're not really gonna hurt the kid, are ya', Hoov?"
"Nah, I won't hurt him. At least not no permanent damage. I'm gonna let him sweat it out a while, then come back and scare him enough soes he'll keep his mouth shut. We don't need him blabbin' about what he's seen. I'll bruise him up a bit, but not enough that it'll be noticed by his folks. Maybe let him feel my belt on his backside for a while."
"Yeah, that outta do the trick," Pete agreed as the two men entered the noisy house.
A.J. was dreaming that he was being punched in the arm. His cousin Elizabeth was tormenting him again, whispering, "Wake up, A.J. Wake up!"
The dream became reality when A.J. reached up to push the phantom figure aside, only to encounter the flesh and blood little girl.
"Wake up, A.J.," Elizabeth whispered urgently, throwing in another punch for good measure.
"Whadda' ya' want?" A.J. mumbled into the darkness.
"Is Rick back yet?"
That question brought A.J. wide-awake. He reached over and clicked the bedside lamp onto its lowest setting. Dim light shown around the headboards of both twin beds. Rick's was still empty.
A.J. looked at the alarm clock, seeing that it was now three a.m.
"Is he back yet?" Elizabeth repeated.
"No," A.J. answered. He threw the covers off himself and padded over to the windows. He and Elizabeth each took a perch on a windowsill, keeping watch for the overdue Rick.
By three-fifteen A.J. was beginning to grow worried. "I guess I better go look for him,” he whispered.
"I'll go with you," Elizabeth whispered back.
A.J. didn't protest that suggestion in the slightest. He wasn't too crazy about roaming strange neighborhoods at night by himself. As a matter of fact, he wasn't too crazy about roaming his own neighborhood at night by himself.
"Go get changed and meet me in the hall in five minutes. Hurry! But be quiet."
Elizabeth nodded, exiting the room as silently as she had entered.
In five minutes time both children had gotten out of their pajamas and into jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes. A.J. grabbed his Cub Scout flashlight out of his dresser drawer before meeting his cousin in the dark hallway.
Copying Rick's movements from earlier, A.J. made his way to the stairs. In Elizabeth's ear he whispered, "Follow me. And only step where I step."
"Okay," Elizabeth whispered back.
The two children made it down to the living room without any mishaps, even managing to step over the stairs that creaked. As quietly as he could, A.J. opened the front door, then shut it behind himself and his cousin. Once the children were safely outside they made a dash for the sidewalk, Elizabeth following closely at A.J.'s heels as he took short cuts through neighbors' yards.
A noise she couldn't identify awoke Cecilia Simon at three twenty-seven that morning. Her husband was sleeping soundly at her side. To the best of her knowledge the medicated man hadn't shifted position all night.
Cecilia listened carefully, waiting for the sound to repeat itself. When it didn't she rose, threw on her robe, and padded across the carpeting to the bedroom door. She opened the door wide, peering down the dark hallway. The guest room was at the east end of the hallway. Its door was closed.
Cecilia glanced in the other direction to see that the door closest to the stairway, the door that led to the boys' room, was tightly closed as well. She took note that the bathroom door directly across the hall was open.
She stood there listening and observing a few seconds longer, then finally gave a little shrug before shutting the door once again, throwing her robe back over the foot of the bed, and climbing in between the covers.
It looks like the boys and Elizabeth are sleeping soundly. I bet I heard the Tylers’ dog again. I hope he didn't get in our garbage cans, was the last thought Cecilia had before falling back to sleep.
It was ten minutes after four when a breathless A.J. and Elizabeth arrived in front of Hoover Redlin's home. The house was lit up as brightly as it had been when Rick arrived three hours earlier. The cousins ducked down behind the first car they came to, A.J. occasionally popping up to peer over the hood and survey their surroundings.
"Do you see Rick?" Elizabeth whispered.
A.J. craned his head over the old Studebaker. "No. But it's dark. I can't see much of anything."
"What's goin' on in the house?"
A.J. sat down next to Elizabeth. He leaned back against a big whitewall tire. "I don't know. It looks like they're playing cards."
"Why would they be playing cards at this time of the morning?"
"I don't know," A.J. replied again. "I just hope Rick's not in there. I don't know how we'll get him out if he is."
Elizabeth rose. "Let's have a look around."
A.J. reached up and grabbed hold of his cousin's shirt, pulling her back down behind the cover the car provided. "Stay down," he ordered.
"We have to do something, A.J.! We can't just sit behind this car until the sun comes up."
A.J. threw the girl a look of disgust. "I know that! Just let me think a minute!"
"I say we go have a look around the garage. Maybe Rick's in there."
A.J. was cross, because that's just what he was going to suggest. He didn't appreciate dumb old Elizabeth beating him to it.
The blond boy rose, brushing dust from the seat of his jeans. "All right. Come on. But be quiet and stay low. Follow me."
Elizabeth didn't appreciate being assigned the role of the cumbersome female burden. "I know, Aaaaa Jaaaay," she retorted angrily, throwing a punch to A.J.'s arm for good measure. "Don't cha' think I know what I'm doin' by now?"
A.J. chose not to answer his cousin. He hushed her with a wave of his hand.
Elizabeth followed A.J.'s lead, peering cautiously around the corner of the car before running for the garage in a crouched position like a soldier scurrying over a battlefield.
The cousins breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived safely on the side of the garage that faced away from the house. A.J. flattened his body up against the building, creeping along carefully to the corner. When he felt sufficiently brave enough, the eight-year-old chanced a quick look at the house. He drew his head back and smiled in Elizabeth's direction whispering, "No one saw us."
A.J. turned on his flashlight. He and Elizabeth conferred softly as they walked along the building's perimeter trying to find a way to gain entrance other than through the padlocked front doors.
A voice from out of nowhere summoning with a strangled, "A.J.! Hey, A.J.!" startled the two young cousins so much that they almost took off running. Only when Rick repeated his call for help did A.J. recognize his brother's voice.
A.J. looked around, trying to see into the darkness. "Rick?" he whispered back.
and Elizabeth began walking the length of the garage once more, trying to
determine where Rick's voice was coming from.
"Rick! Where are you?"
"I'm in the garage!"
A.J. pressed his nose against the garage wall, having finally found Rick's exact location. "What are you doing in there?"
"Taking a nap, dummy, what do you think? Redlin locked me in here!"
"He caught you?" Elizabeth asked with astonishment.
"Elizabeth's out there, too?" Rick asked.
"Yeah." A.J. acknowledged.
"Are you guys by yourselves?"
Again, A.J. acknowledged, "Yeah."
"Oh, brother," Rick moaned. He was counting on A.J. realizing he'd run into trouble at some point in time, but had assumed his brother would wake up their parents and tell them the whole story. Rick knew his chances of being rescued had just dropped considerably if all he had to rely on was his eight-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin.
"Do Mom and Dad know you're here?" Rick asked hopefully.
"Of course not!" A.J. replied with indignation.
"That's what I was afraid of," came another moan.
"Rick, did you find Latisha?" Elizabeth asked.
"Yeah, she's right here in my arms."
Elizabeth began clapping her hands, jumping up and down with excitement. "Goody! Goody!"
"Shhh!" A.J. shushed.
"Elizabeth, be quiet!" Rick ordered from his holding cell.
Elizabeth stopped her jumping and clamped a hand over her own mouth, realizing her error.
"A.J., you guys gotta go home and get Dad!"
"I can get you out, Rick!" A.J. insisted.
"No, you can't! There's no other way in except for the front doors. and Redlin's got those locked."
"I know. I saw. Just let me look around for a minute."
"A.J., this is no time to be a hero. You and Elizabeth go get Dad! This garage is full of stolen televisions. That's why Redlin locked me in here. He knows I saw them. If he catches you guys he'll hurt you, and then lock you in here, too."
"Did he hurt you?" A.J. asked with concern.
"Nah, not too bad," Rick brushed off. "I'm okay. But you go on home and get..."
the time Rick had been talking, A.J. had been walking along the dilapidated
garage shining his flashlight here and there.
"Rick, I found a loose board!"
A.J. lightly pounded on the board with his fist. "Here."
Rick followed the sound. He hadn't detected the board earlier in his own search for a way out of his prison because it was blocked from his vision by two television sets.
"See if you can make it looser!" Rick ordered.
A.J. struggled with the old board, trying to pry it loose with his fingers. Elizabeth joined him, but the cousins didn't have the strength to get the job done.
"I can't get it!" A.J. said with a cry of despair.
"Okay. Don't panic. Listen to me. I'm gonna move these TV’s outta the way and see if I can help you. In the meantime, you look around for something you can use as a crowbar. Redlin's got enough crap layin' out there that you should be able to find something. But be careful."
A.J. nodded. "Okay."
The blond boy indicated for Elizabeth to stay where she was. He went to the back of the garage and peered around the corner. The area appeared to be dark and quiet, so A.J. got on his hands and knees and crawled out into the open space of the backyard. With one eye on the house, A.J. kept his flashlight beam low as he searched for something that might help him free Rick from his confinement.
It took a few minutes of looking, but A.J. finally ran across a long metal pipe that he thought might serve the purpose. He pulled it out from underneath a pile of old bicycle parts. A.J. froze right where he was, when the act of moving the pipe caused the bicycles to shift position and fall against each other like a house of collapsing cards. The boy was sure the ungodly clatter they made could be heard for miles.
The frightened A.J. didn't even allow himself to breathe as he watched the back door for any sign that he'd just been discovered. When no one came out after a full two minutes had passed, the blond boy gave a sigh of relief and made a dash for the safety of the garage once more.
"I’ve got something," A.J. whispered to Rick.
"Good. I think I can help you from this side. Now just--"
"Somebody's coming!" Elizabeth interrupted.
"Hide, you guys!" Rick ordered with a strangled yell. “Hide!”
Rick moved away from his only means of escape. If Redlin entered the garage for some reason he didn't want to give his secret away to the man. He pressed his ear up against the garage wall, listening. Indeed, Elizabeth had been right. Rick could hear Redlin's voice, as well as Pete's.
"I don't know why you dragged me out here, Hoov. I had a good hand."
"'Cause I told ya' that I heard somethin', ya' ass of a fool."
Rick could hear the padlock being pulled on as if to check that it was still in place.
"Hey, sonny boy, you still in there?" Redlin called.
In an attempt to cover for the younger children, and give them a chance to hide, Rick answered in a tone filled with fear, "Yes, sir, I'm still here. Please let me go home."
Redlin laughed. "Oh, now you just quit your fretin'. We're gonna let you go home all right. Me and Pete will be back when the card game's over. Then we'll be talkin' about just when you can go home. 'Course now, we don't wanna send ya' home without somethin' to remember us by. I told ya' we was gonna haf ta’ hurt ya', boy. You ain't forgot that now, have ya'?"
"No, sir, but please. I won't tell anyone. Just let me go," Rick begged, using all the drama skills he possessed to sound overwrought with fright.
The only answer Rick got to his pleadings was an ominous laugh.
Crouched in the bushes along the lot line that divided Reldin's property from his neighbor's, were A.J. and Elizabeth. Totally oblivious to the animosity that normally existed between them, the two had their hands tightly clasped together. Neither child dared to breathe when Hoover Redlin walked right in front of them, passing so close that had A.J. reached out he could have laid a hand on the man's shoes.
"Come on, Hoov. Let's go back in the house. We'll deal with the kid later. He ain't goin' nowhere."
"I just wanna check around out here. I know I heard somethin'."
Redlin began walking along the side of the garage. It was still too dark to see, but A.J. knew if the man went much farther he'd trip over the pipe the blond boy had inadvertently left behind when he'd grabbed Elizabeth's hand and divided for the cover of the bushes. And if Redlin found the pipe, he was sure to see the loose board and know that someone was lurking about his property in an attempt to aid Rick.
A.J. grasped Elizabeth's sweaty palm even more tightly, his young body poised to run if necessary. He just hoped his cousin could keep up.
From out of the darkness Pete said, "Come on. It was just a cat. You got enough of 'em around here. Let's go before those guys finish the rest of the beer."
Redlin looked around with uncertainty. His gaze came to rest on the overgrown bushes. A.J. was sure the man was looking right at him and Elizabeth.
Redlin reached up and scratched his greasy head. "I don't know. I was jus' sure I heard somethin' and it didn't sound like no cat to me."
"Forget it,” Pete urged. “Let's go inside."
When all remained quiet outside, Redlin finally agreed to return to the house. With a final, "See ya' soon," called to Rick, the two men disappeared around the front of the garage. A.J. didn't start breathing again until he heard the back door slam.
At that sound Elizabeth began to rise, only to be pulled back down by A.J. who whispered, "Just wait a minute."
It wasn't until Rick's hushed voice called, "A.J.!" that the youngster came out of his hiding place, pulling his cousin along with him.
"Yeah!" A.J. whispered back as he approached the garage.
"You guys okay?"
"All right then. Let's get me outta here."
A.J. inserted the pipe behind the loose board like he'd seen his father do at home with a crow bar. He instructed Elizabeth to grab onto the pipe as well, then told Rick they were ready.
"Okay. I'm gonna count to three. When I say go, you guys lean on that pipe with everything you’ve got. At the same time I'm gonna push on this board from the inside."
Rick heard two, “Okays,” before be began counting, "One...two...three...go!"
The two younger children leaned on the makeshift crowbar, straining until they were red in the face. At the same time, Rick pushed from the inside. When that technique didn't prove worthwhile, the thirteen-year-old dropped down on his rear end and kicked the board with both feet for all he was worth.
Elizabeth and A.J. were sent sprawling onto their bottoms when the board finally came loose with one last violent kick from Rick. The younger children scrambled to their feet, running to the garage as Rick's head poked through the narrow opening.
"Here. Take Latisha," the teen said, shoving the kitten into Elizabeth's hands.
Next came Rick's backpack and flashlight. "Here's this stuff."
A.J. retrieved those two items. He put Rick’s flashlight in the backpack along with his own Cub Scout flashlight, then had Elizabeth add Latisha. A.J. zipped the bag up, leaving just enough of an opening to allow the kitten sufficient air flow.
Rick struggled to come out between the two-by-fours next. He turned sideways, wriggling out of the opening, his jeans ripping on a nail as he finally emerged into the dawn.
"Rick, are you all right?"
Rick reached out to tousle his brother's hair. "Yeah, kid. I'm okay. You and Elizabeth really came through for me."
A.J. smiled proudly. Those few words of praise from his brother made him the happiest eight-year-old in the state of California.
Rick took his backpack from A.J. and slipped his arms into it, settling it securely on his shoulders.
"Come on, let's get outta here," he said.
Before the threesome had a chance to move Hoover Redlin appeared from around the front of the garage.
"Hey! What the hell's goin' on out here?"
Rick grabbed each youngster by the hand. "Run!" he ordered taking off as fast as his legs would carry him.
The three children never looked back as Rick led them around the back of the garage, through the back yard, across the side yard, and out into the street.
Redlin's drunken legs carried him back to the house. "Pete! Pete! Get your ass out here!"
Fortunately for the Simons and Elizabeth, the card players were too drunk to be of much use to Hoover Redlin. Those that weren't passed out in various places around the house weren't sober enough to make heads or tails of what Hoover was yelling about. Pete was the only one who knew of Rick's existence, and was therefore the one that got pulled up by the arm and dragged outside to Redlin's car.
Rick heard the car engine rumble to life somewhere behind them. He pulled his brother and cousin off the street and into a yard. From there the children ran through a succession of yards, finally stopping to rest behind a garage when Elizabeth and A.J. could no longer go on.
The two younger children bent over at the waist and gasped for air while Rick kept a careful watch of the street. Dawn was just beginning to break. Rick knew it would be harder now for him, A.J., and Elizabeth to stay hidden.
Rick flattened himself against the building and told his brother and cousin to stay put when he heard a car drive slowly up and down the street four times.
"Is that them?" A.J. asked wide-eyed.
"I don't know. We'll just sit tight a few minutes. If it is them, they'll keep goin' if they don't see us."
"How are we gonna get back home, Rick?" Elizabeth asked.
"We'll just keep cuttin' through people's yards and stay offa' the streets."
The children looked up at Rick with fear plainly evident on their faces.
gave them a smile of encouragement.
"Don't worry. We'll make
it. You guys just do exactly what I
tell you, okay?"
Two blond heads nodded in agreement.
A few more minutes passed with no signs of the passing car. "Stay right here,” Rick instructed.” “I'll be back."
"Where you goin'?" A.J. asked.
"Just stay here. Both of you. I'll be right back."
The teen cautiously peered around the corner of the garage, then made his way to the street. He looked in both directions. When he deemed it safe, he motioned for Elizabeth and A.J. to come out of their hiding spot. He grabbed the children’s hands again as he led them swiftly and silently across the road.
This scenario repeated itself time and time again as the trio made the trip to the Simon house by taking short cuts through people's yards and vacant lots. Each time they came to a street they had to cross Rick would make sure Elizabeth and A.J. were well hidden, then creep out to the road to check and see if the coast was clear. Rick didn't let his guard down until an hour later when they finally entered the neighborhood the Simon boys had grown up in. The teen doubted that Redlin would look this far for them.
Rick stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and slid his backpack off. He set it gently on the ground, unzipped it, and freed Latisha. The kitten was a bit wobbly and disoriented from her wild ride on Rick's back, but calmly went to A.J., allowing him to cradle her in his arms the rest of the way home.
Jack and Cecilia Simon couldn't have been caught any more by surprise when the kitchen door flew open at six-thirty that morning than if the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, had entered their home. As it was Rick, Elizabeth, and A.J. - carrying a kitten, spilled in, all talking at once in high pitched, excited chatter.
The spoon Cecilia held in her hand dripped pancake batter all over the countertop as she stood open mouthed, gaping at the children. Jack, still dripping from the shower he had just gotten out of, was oblivious to the fact that he was standing in front of his niece with nothing more than a towel wrapped around his hips.
Cecilia was the first to recover from the shock of the children’s sudden appearance; the same children whom she and her husband thought were still upstairs asleep. She let the spoon drop back into the batter and wiped her hands on her apron.
"Where in the world have the three of you been?"
With that, the children tried to outtalk one another. The only sense either parent could make out of the words was "kitten", "garage", and "crazy man."
"Okay, okay! Quiet!" Jack silenced with a shout and a wave of his hands. "Everyone just be quiet for a minute. We're going to sit at this table and you three are going to explain what's going on one at a time." Jack looked down at himself, suddenly taking note of his state of undress. "But I'll go put some pants on first."
Like a mother hen, Cecilia spread her arms and ushered her three chicks over to the kitchen table. She observed the grass stains and dirt spots dotting all their clothing, and the flush of their faces indicating to her that they'd been running. She poured three tall glasses of cold orange juice and set one in front of each child. The brood drank gratefully as they awaited Jack's return from upstairs.
Jack reappeared shortly, having hastily thrown on a pair of underwear, khaki trousers, and a blue Oxford shirt he was still buttoning.
He and Cecilia sat down across from their sons and niece, Jack ordering, "Okay, Rick, you start. What's going on?"
From there the children took turns telling of how Rick had seen Mrs. Cole's sign several days earlier. How they had interviewed the elderly lady and promised to search for her kitten. How they had spent two days interviewing people in Mrs. Cole's neighborhood before they came upon their first solid lead. How they eventually ended up at Hoover Redlin's. How Mr. Redlin, who according to A.J. had hundreds of cats of his own, wouldn't let them return Latisha to Mrs. Cole. How Rick came up with a plan to get Latisha back that involved going over to Redlin's in the middle of the night, only to stumble upon what were stolen television sets, and then to be caught by Redlin and detained in his garage. How when Rick hadn't returned by three a.m. A.J. and Elizabeth had set out to find him. How they had rescued Rick from his confinement, run from Redlin, and had to sneak through back yards and vacant lots in order to make it safely home again.
At the end of this rather lengthy tale A.J. held up Latisha. He smiled with triumph. "But see, we got Latisha back."
Jack began massaging his temples with earnest. "I think I'm getting another migraine."
"Jack, we'd better call the police," Cecilia stated.
"Just what I was thinking, dear," the blond man agreed as he stood to cross to the phone.
Jack Simon made two phone calls that morning, the first being to the police, the second to his boss, Matt Haskell. Jack simply told Matt that he had a family emergency that needed attending to and would not be able to make it in to work that day. After Matt was assured that neither Cecilia nor the boys were sick or injured, he told Jack to take all the time he needed and not to worry about work.
Cecilia kept the children at the table while Jack went back upstairs for socks, shoes, and a belt while tucking his shirttails into his trousers. He had just finished dressing when a policeman arrived.
The rookie officer listened to the children’s story with astonishment. He called for backup, wanting some advice from a more seasoned veteran. Twenty minutes later another squad car pulled up in front of the Simons' home. That officer, as well, sat and listened to what the three children had to say.
The man nodded his thanks as Cecilia refilled his coffee cup. "Yes, that sounds like Hoover Redlin all right."
"So what will you do now, Officer Watkins?" Jack asked.
"Well, Newman and I will get a search warrant, then go over to Redlin's place to have a look around. We've suspected him of various types of criminal activity for quite some time now, but have never been able to catch him at it. If what your boy says is true, we'll finally have something we can pin on him. We may need the children, or at least Rick, to pick him out of a line up."
Cecilia shook her head. "Jack, no."
Officer Watkins assured, "Mrs. Simon, if that is necessary Redlin won't be able to see, Rick. We'll make sure the boy's identity is kept a secret. And it may be possible, because of Rick's age, as well as the ages of the little ones here, that I'll be able to bring some mug shots over and see if the children can identify him from those. That would be a decision the district attorney will have to make."
"I would prefer that," Cecilia stated.
"I'll see what I can do," Watkins promised. "You folks also need to think about pressing kidnapping charges against Redlin."
"Kidnapping!" Cecilia exclaimed.
"Yes, ma'am. That is what happened. Redlin detained a minor on his premises without the permission or knowledge of that minor's parents. He roughed your son up and threatened him. All of this constitutes kidnapping and assault."
Jack and Cecilia exchanged glances. Jack finally said, "I'm very angry about what Redlin did to Rick, but on the other hand, I don't know if I want my son to have to testify against the man in a court of law. At this point, because Rick gave him a false name, Redlin doesn't know who Rick is or where we live. I'd like to keep it that way. I travel for my place of work at times. My wife and sons are here alone several days and nights out of each month. I'm sure you can understand my concerns. I think my wife and I need to talk to our attorney before we make any further decisions regarding this matter."
Officer Watkins nodded. "I understand, Mr. Simon. I'll be happy if we get the opportunity to pull Redlin in on nothing more than charges of possession of stolen items. If we can get a search warrant for his premises, I wouldn't be surprised if we come up with a variety of other charges as well. As I said, we've been watching the man for a long time."
The two officers left soon thereafter, promising to be in touch as soon as they had any information for the Simons.
Jack saw the men to their cars, then, retreated to the room he used as a home office, shut the door, and dialed his attorney and friend, Michael Wells.
By this time the hungry Latisha was meowing loudly, circling the legs of the children, getting underfoot, and in general being a nuisance.
"I think she's hungry," Cecilia said. She pulled two shallow bowls down from a cupboard and instructed Rick to fill one with milk while she filled the other with tuna.
Cecilia had been right. Latisha was hungry. She devoured both the tuna and milk, then curled up in a ball on the throw rug in front of the door and went to sleep.
"We have to take her back to Mrs. Cole," A.J. stated. "She'll be so happy to see Latisha."
"We'll do just that later today. But first I want all three of you to wash your hands and then help me get breakfast on the table. It's already ten o'clock."
The children ran upstairs to wash, then returned to do whatever Cecilia instructed them to. Jack rejoined his family just as the children were sitting down to a pancake breakfast.
long ago lost their appetites, Cecilia and Jack simply drank hot coffee and
shared a piece of toast while they watched the children eat pancakes and
sausage. When Cecilia commented that
she couldn't believe the three of them still had an appetite after all they'd
been through, A.J. replied, "Bein' a detective makes you hungry,
When the last plate was clean Cecilia sent the brood upstairs to make their beds, brush their teeth, and instructed each to take a turn in the shower. Jack helped her clear the table and do the dishes, filling her in on his conversation with Michael as he did so.
"Michael feels we should hold off on filing kidnapping charges at this point, Cece. He said to wait and see what else the police uncover. If Rick's story is correct, then the man detained Richard for what he discovered, not because he had any intention of kidnapping Rick, or other children in the future for that matter. I know that's a fine line, but Michael feels as I do. Redlin doesn't know who Rick is, and it's probably best if it stays that way."
Cecilia agreed. "I think it's best if we wait and see what the police find out. If they have enough evidence to convict the man without getting Rick or A.J. involved, I'd just a soon have it that way."
Jack began shaking his head. "Of all the messes our sons have gotten into, this one has to take the cake."
"I keep wondering what we're going to tell Marion."
Jack thought a moment. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," was all he had to say on the matter.
Shortly after noon that day Jack piled his family and Latisha into the car. He followed Rick's directions to Mrs. Cole's house.
The sound of slamming car doors brought the elderly lady out to the front porch. She looked slightly puzzled when she first caught sight of Jack and Cecilia, then smiled broadly when Rick, A.J., and Elizabeth emerged from the backseat of the automobile.
Elizabeth ran toward Mrs. Cole with Latisha in her arms. "We found her, Mrs. Cole! We found Latisha!"
Tears filled Mrs. Cole's eyes as she reached out for the kitten. "Oh my goodness, it's my Latisha! You children found my Latisha.” The woman invited the Simons and Elizabeth into her home as she rubbed a wrinkled cheek against Latisha’s soft fur. “Come in, everyone. Please, come in.”
Latisha was lavished with kisses and strokes of love by her owner. Maya circled Mrs. Cole's legs joyfully, looking up and meowing loudly for her wayward child.
Mrs. Cole sat the kitten down so mother and daughter could have a reunion. The two cats meowed, purred, and nuzzled, then Maya struggled to pick Latisha up by the neck. Just like a mother who was relieved to find her child was safe but still in need of a scolding, Maya carried Latisha to a sunny corner of the living room. From there, the mother cat alternated between cleaning her kitten and meowing at her as if to say, "Don't you wander off like that again, young lady."
The cats finally curled up together in a ball of contentment, Maya's paws wrapped around her offspring.
Mrs. Cole was introduced to Jack and Cecilia. She insisted that everyone come into the kitchen for lemonade and cookies while she listened to the story of how the children had recovered Latisha.
The elderly lady shook her head in disbelief as the tale grew to a close.
"My goodness, children, I had no idea as to what lengths you'd go to in order to retrieve Latisha for me. I must apologize to you both, Mr. and Mrs. Simon. It was never my intention that the children should place themselves in danger while looking for my kitten. Goodness, I never dreamed they'd even find her, let alone put themselves in jeopardy doing so."
"You don't need to apologize, Mrs. Cole," Jack assured. "It wasn't your fault. My sons didn't use particularly good judgment throughout this little...escapade. That's something we'll be discussing further when we get home."
Rick and A.J. exchanged glances, well aware of what that phrase meant.
In an effort to change the subject, Rick retrieved Latisha's picture from his shirt pocket. "Here's the picture of Latisha back, Mrs. Cole. We won't be needing it anymore."
Mrs. Cole shook her head. "No, Rick, you keep that. And I'll go get another picture of Latisha for you, A.J., and one for you as well, Miss Elizabeth. That way each of you will have something to remember your adventure by."
"Oh, I think a remembrance is going to be arranged for all of them, all right," Jack said with a grin.
Again Rick and A.J. exchanged nervous glances, suddenly losing interest in their cookies and lemonade.
Mrs. Cole shuffled off into the bedroom, returning shortly with two more snapshots of Latisha, which she handed to A.J. and Elizabeth.
"And here's the reward money I owe you. Who's going to take charge of this?"
Rick's hand shot out to snag the currency. "I will."
Jack grabbed his eldest son’s wrist, stopping the eager arm in mid-motion. "How much was the reward you were offering, Mrs. Cole?"
"Twenty-five dollars. But with all the trouble the children went through to get Latisha back for me, if you don't think that's enough, Mr. Simon, I'd be happy to give them more. I'll have to wait until the beginning of the month, though, when my social security check arrives."
"No, no, that won't be necessary," Jack assured. "As a matter of fact, I was thinking that twenty-five dollars is far too much for you to pay to have Latisha returned."
"But that was the agreement I had with the children," Mrs. Cole disputed.
"Yes, I understand that, but my wife and I think that it's too much money. We wouldn't feel comfortable allowing them to take it from you."
"But I must pay them something," the elderly lady stated. "The children came by in the first place because I was offering a reward to anyone who returned Latisha to me. It's only fair that I make good on my offer."
"No, Mrs. Cole, I don't think--"
The elderly lady all but stamped her foot. "Mr. Simon, you are going to offend me if you don't allow me to give the children their reward."
Jack and Cecilia exchanged amused glances at the spitfire before them. Cecilia gave a tiny nod of her head.
"I apologize, Mrs. Cole," Jack said graciously. "It certainly wasn't my intention to offend you. If you feel you must reward the children, my wife and I will go along with it, but we will not allow them to accept twenty-five dollars. That's just too much."
"Twenty?" The woman questioned.
"No, that's still too much," Jack negated.
"Dad!" Rick exclaimed in a strangled whisper. An exclamation he received a stern look for from his father.
"Fifteen. And that's as low as I'll go," Mrs. Cole stated firmly.
"All right. Fifteen it is. But under protest."
Mrs. Cole smiled. "Mr. Simon, you're a hard man to strike a bargain with." She turned to Rick and counted out three five dollar bills. "Five, ten, fifteen. There you go, children. And I do thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the time and effort you put in to finding Latisha for me."
The children thanked Mrs. Cole for the reward money, said goodbye to Maya and Latisha who were still sleeping in a corner of the living room, promised they'd return again to visit, then walked out to the car with Jack and Cecilia.
Jack didn't even start the car before turning to face the back seat. "Okay, Rick, now split that money up with Andy and Elizabeth."
"I will when we get home, Dad. I gotta get some change."
"What do you mean, you've got to get some change?" Jack asked.
"So I can give them what I promised them. Two fifty a piece."
"Two dollars and fifty cents a piece? For all their hard work?" Jack asked for clarity.
"No. I don't think so. You give Andy five dollars, and you give Elizabeth five dollars."
Over Elizabeth's and A.J.'s excited cries of, "All right!" Rick protested, "But, Dad! I made a deal with them!"
"Sorry, buddy, but that deal's off. When you go into partnership with someone you split the profits evenly. Especially when that partnership is made up of relatives."
"I'll keep that in mind," Rick mumbled as he reluctantly gave both his brother and cousin a five dollar bill.
"Man, five lousy bucks for all I went through," Rick complained from the back seat.
Jack looked into the rear view mirror, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "I'll give you a free piece of advice, Rick. The next time you want to play detective, make sure the final outcome is worth all the effort you put into the job."
"I will, Dad,” Rick vowed. “Believe me, I will."
When the Simon family returned home from Mrs. Cole's that afternoon Jack sat the three detectives down on the sofa and spent the next fifteen minutes lecturing them on the waywardness of their deeds. While he praised their desire to help the elderly lady at all costs, and praised their perseverance, he reminded them of several wrong doings. First, he pointed out to his sons that they had wandered farther from their neighborhood than their mother allowed without permission, then he told them that they should have had enough common sense to stay away from Hoover Redlin after their first encounter with him. Jack grew particularly stern while lecturing his sons and niece over the fact that they had snuck out of the house in the middle of the night.
"Do you three realize how much danger you put yourselves in? Do you have any idea as to what could have happened if that Redlin character had gotten his hands on all of you?"
The three wrong doers stared at their tennis shoes, refusing to answer Jack.
"Richard? Andrew? Elizabeth? Does each of you understand?"
"Yes, Dad," Rick finally acknowledged.
"Yes, Dad," A.J. managed to choke out.
Elizabeth chanced a look at her angry uncle. "Yes, Uncle Jack."
"Okay. Enough said," Jack agreed when his temper had cooled down a bit. "Tomorrow the three of you are grounded. No leaving the yard. I'm sure Mom can find plenty of chores to keep each of you busy. Now I want the three of you to go upstairs and lie down for a while."
Rick looked up in astonishment. "What? You mean take a nap?"
"That's exactly what I mean, Richard. None of you has had more than four hours of sleep. You all need the rest. Now go on, all of you. Upstairs. I don't care if you nap, read, or work a puzzle. Just do it quietly and don't disturb each other. I don't want to hear a peep out of any of you for at least an hour."
Rick and A.J. knew better than to argue with their father at this point. Elizabeth had never seen her Uncle Jack angry before, and decided now was not the time to argue either. The three trooped upstairs like they'd been ordered, the closing of bedroom doors signaling that they'd reached their final destinations.
Cecilia collapsed on the sofa next to her husband. He pulled her to him, the two snuggling together knowing they'd have at least an hour of peace.
"Every time I think of what that man could have done to
Rick I get sick to my stomach," Cecilia stated. "And then A.J. and Elizabeth taking off after him at three in the morning! I shudder to think of all the things that could have happened to them! We're so lucky that they all managed to get home safely."
Jack rubbed his wife's shoulder. "I know, Cece. I know. The adventures our boys seem to wander into are going to be the death of me yet."
"At least I can guarantee you that for the next few days their adventures are going to be extremely limited. I'm not taking my eyes off those two until Elizabeth is safely home."
"Good idea, dear,” Jack agreed with a laugh. “Very good idea.”
The next day the three young detectives were kept very busy, just like they'd been promised. Cecilia had them give the basement a good cleaning, then had Rick mow the lawn while A.J. and Elizabeth were assigned to pull weeds from the flower beds and wash the patio furniture. After lunch Cecilia assigned them the task Jack had written down, cleaning out and sweeping the garage.
It was four o’clock by the time the tired, dirty children were allowed to call it a day. Cecilia handed out Popsicles while reminding them they were not to leave the yard.
Rick plopped on the front steps, Elizabeth and A.J. following suit. Mouths and lips slowly turned orange as the three enjoyed their treat.
In between licks of her Popsicle, Elizabeth commented, "You guys are a lot of fun. I'd like to come back here next summer."
Rick and A.J. exchanged glances of doom over the top of Elizabeth's head.
"Nah, you don't wanna do that," Rick dissuaded.
Elizabeth looked up at her cousin. "Why not?"
"Well, look at how much trouble you got into hangin' around with me and A.J. this week. Your feet hurt 'cause we made you walk so far, you got yelled at by a crazy man, you almost got caught and locked in his garage with me, you had to run four miles at six o'clock in the morning to get away from him, and then to top it all off you got in trouble with our folks and got grounded."
Elizabeth shrugged. "So? It was fun. And besides, we found Mrs. Cole's kitten, didn't we? That was the important thing."
Rick shook his head. "All I know, Elizabeth, is that if two guys got me in as much trouble as A.J. and I got you in this week, I'd sure never want to come back and visit them ever again."
"Me either," came A.J.'s resounding agreement.
"Well, I don't mind," Elizabeth said. "You guys are a lot more fun than Marty and Greg. They never have the kind of adventures you do. Heck, if some guy locked Marty in a garage he'd wet his pants, he's such a scaredy cat. And Greg would never sneak out of the house at three o'clock in the morning like me and A.J. did. He still whines if Mom forgets to turn the night light on in the bathroom. He's afraid of his own shadow."
Elizabeth gave her Popsicle a final lick. "Yep. I'm gonna tell my mom I wanna come back here next year. Maybe I'll even get to spend the whole summer with you guys."
A.J. rolled his eyes. "Yippee."
Elizabeth turned on her blond cousin, fist drawn. "What was that, A.J.?"
"I said goodie,” A.J. swiftly amended without enthusiasm.
“That'd be great."
The little girl smiled sweetly. "That's what I thought you said. Hey, do you guys wanna play some ball in the front yard?"
"Yeah, sure," Rick agreed for lack of anything better to do. "But not in the front yard, in the back. You go get the mitts from in the house and A.J. and I will get the bats. They're out in the garage."
"Okay," Elizabeth agreed, skipping into the house.
"Why can't we play in the front yard, Rick?" A.J. asked as he tagged along after his brother.
"It's bad enough that we're grounded for the rest of the day with no one to play with but Elizabeth. I sure ain't gonna be seen in the front yard playin' ball with some dopey little girl."
A.J. liked his brother's logic. "Me either. Rick?"
"What?" Rick answered from a dark corner of the garage.
"Do you really think Elizabeth will come back for the whole summer next year?"
"I sure hope not. If she does, I ain't gonna be here. I'll actually volunteer to go away to camp if I find out she's comin' again."
"Yeah, me too."
"Rick! A.J.! I’m waiting! If you guys are hiding on me I’ll tell Aunt Cecilia!”
"Come on. Let's go," Rick sighed with resignation. "She'll just come lookin' for us if we don't show up."
A.J. sighed heavily as well, dragging a bat belong behind him while mumbling, "I can't wait until it's Saturday and she goes home. Boy, I'm sure glad I don't have any sisters. Girls are really a pain."
True to her word, Cecilia did not let the youngsters out of her sight until Elizabeth's visit came to an end. On Friday morning she and the children hurried through the necessary household tasks, then packed a lunch and spent the day at the beach. That evening Jack treated his family to dinner out and miniature golf at Bud Krelman's Putt and Stuff. On Saturday morning Jack took the kids back to the beach, giving Cecilia a chance to do laundry and get her household back in order. After burgers and milkshakes at Big Don's Drive-In, Jack returned home with the children shortly after one to await his sister and brother-in-law's arrival.
Elizabeth was packing her clothes when her parents pulled in the driveway. She ran out the front door, greeting both her mom and dad with hugs and kisses.
With his arms around his daughter, Martin Charles teased, "We should leave you places more often, princess. I don't think I've gotten a hug like this from you since you were four years old. Did you miss us?"
Elizabeth walked toward the house, hanging onto the hands of both parents. "Yeah, I missed you. But I had a good time with Rick and A.J. We played baseball, and went swimming, and Uncle Jack and Aunt Cecilia took us to the movies, and mini-golfing, but the best part was when we played detective. Rick was held prisoner in a garage by a crazy man, and me and A.J. had to sneak outta the house at three o'clock in the morning and go rescue him!"
"Oh, Elizabeth, you do make up such stories," Marion chuckled.
As the Charles family climbed the front steps Jack confessed uncomfortably, "It's not a story, Marion. Martin. I think you'd both better come in and sit down."
Marion and her husband were led to the couch where Cecilia served them iced tea and cookies. Trying to stall the inevitable, she put on her best hostess smile. "I'm sure it's been a long trip. I know you'd both like refreshments."
Jack's brother-in-law gladly partook in the offered treats, but his wife waved them aside. "Just what is it that you need to tell us about, John?"
Oh, no, I'm in trouble now, Jack thought with chagrin.
Jack cleared his throat then began, with help from Cecilia, relating the events that started when the children met Mrs. Cole. The children couldn't contain themselves as the tale built to its climatic conclusion, all three jumping in at once and contributing to the story. A warning look from Jack finally quieted them down. Their enthusiasm and the unbridled truths they told did not help Jack's cause any in regards to his sister.
In a gesture very much unlike him, Jack nervously rubbed his hands over his cotton trousers. "So, I guess that's about it," he concluded.
Martin's only reaction was to chuckle a bit as he reached for another cookie. "Well, kids will be kids. As long as no one was hurt and Elizabeth had a fun week, that's all that matters."
"That's all that matters? That's all that matters!" Marion exclaimed. "Martin Charles, do you realize what could have happened to your daughter during this little...little...fiasco?"
Martin thought his wife was overreacting, but then again, she was prone to it. "I suppose so. But it didn't. And she obviously had the time of her life, so all is well that ends well. That's all I have to say on the subject."
"Well," Marion huffed with indignation. "That's not all I have to say on the matter. First of all, Cecilia, I would have expected you to watch my daughter more closely. It's bad enough that you let your sons run around San Diego like wild Indians, but my little girl--"
Jack rose from his seat, his temper beginning to simmer. "Marion, I--"
Before the entire situation could get out of hand and cause a major family rift, Martin rose, bringing his wife with him.
"Marion, we really do need to be leaving. It's an eight hour ride home yet, then we have to get up early in the morning to drive another two hours to pick up the boys. I think you'd better help Elizabeth collect her things."
Marion opened her mouth to say more, then upon seeing the look on her husband's face, shut it once again. "Come on, Elizabeth," she urged, clasping firmly onto her daughter's hand before stomping past her brother and sister-in-law in a huff.
"Rick, Andy, go with your aunt,” Jack ordered. “Carry down Elizabeth's suitcases for her."
Rick and A.J. had been enjoying the family conflict and didn't want to miss out on any of it. "But, Dad--" Rick attempted to stall.
Jack pointed toward the stairs. "No buts. Just go. Both of you."
"Oh, all right," Rick sulked, A.J. following behind him.
"Marty, I'm really sorry," Cecilia sincerely apologized when the boys were out of hearing range. "I didn't realize what the children were up to. If I had, I never would have allowed them--"
Martin waved Cecilia's apology aside. "Don't worry about it, Cecilia. You have nothing to apologize for. As I said, kids will be kids. You can't watch them every minute of every day. Marion knows that. She's just a bit over protective of Elizabeth. You know, with Elizabeth being the youngest, and the only girl...well, it tends to make Marion's maternal instincts come on a little too strong at times. You know how Marion can be. She'll cool down in a little while."
"Yes, I definitely know how Marion can be," Jack agreed with a smile. "And she comes by the Simon temper honestly."
"That she does, Jack,” Martin laughed. “That she does."
True to her husband's words, Marion had cooled down considerably by the time she returned from upstairs with her daughter. Rick and A.J. followed their aunt, each with a suitcase in hand.
"Tell Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Jack thank you for letting you stay this week," Marion instructed her daughter.
Both Cecilia and Jack received a hug and a kiss from their niece. "Thank you for having me," they were both told. She went on to whisper in her uncle's ear, "I don't care if Mom is mad, Uncle Jack. I had the best time ever."
Jack chuckled, whispering back, "I'm glad to hear that, Elizabeth. You come back and stay with us again some time."
"I will," Elizabeth promised her favorite uncle.
"Now say goodbye to Rick and A.J.,” Marion urged. “Hurry. We have to get going."
Elizabeth approached Rick, beckoning him down to her level by crooking a finger at him. The puzzled Rick bent down. Elizabeth wrapped her arms around his neck, giving him a quick, shy peck on the cheek. "Goodbye, Rick. You're really brave. I'll never forget this week."
Rick blushed bright red in the wake of the adults' laughter. "Oh, jeez," was all he could think to say.
As the girl approached A.J. the blond boy took a step back, not wanting to be a recipient of Elizabeth's affections. He need not have worried though. Rather than a kiss on the cheek, A.J. received a resounding punch to his shoulder.
"See ya', A.J. Thanks for having me."
Marion flapped her arms in distress, gathering up her daughter as she did so. "Elizabeth! My goodness gracious will you ever learn to act like a young lady? Now apologize to poor A.J."
Elizabeth smiled at her cousin. "Sorry, Aaaaay Jaaay."
A poke in the back from his father forced the tormented A.J. to mumble as he had the first day of Elizabeth's visit, "That's okay."
A final round of goodbyes and thank you’s was said before Martin rounded up his women and headed them for the car. From their front porch the Simon family caught snatches of conversation between Marion and her daughter as Martin put the suitcases in the trunk.
"Mom, can I come back here next year and spend the whole summer with Rick and A.J.?"
"Absolutely not," came the firm answer.
"But, Mom, Rick and A.J. are fun. A lot more fun than Marty and Greg. And Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Jack--"
"Elizabeth, the only place you're going next summer is to a camp that teaches little girls how to act like young ladies. My goodness gracious look at you! Cowboy boots, blue jeans, bruises on your arms, and dirt under your fingernails. What am I going to do with you, Elizabeth Jane?"
"But, Mom, I don't need to go to no camp for young ladies. I want to be a detective when I grow up."
Marion leaned out the car window. "Did you hear that, Martin? A detective! Now your daughter wants to be a detective! See, this is what happens when she spends all her time playing with boys. A detective! Whoever heard of such a thing? A girl wanting to be a detective!"
Marion's head disappeared inside the vehicle once again as she lectured her daughter. "Let me tell you something right now, young lady. When we get home I’m throwing all the blue jeans away. It's dresses for you from now on. It's high time you start looking and acting like a little girl. A detective! Well, I never! I should have known if she spent the week at Jack's that she'd come away with some crazy notion in her head. He was always up to no good, into trouble constantly, and so are his boys. Especially that Rick. Why I ought to--"
Martin gave a small wave and wane smile as he backed the car out of the driveway. The Simons waved goodbye until their relatives were out of sight.
Jack couldn't help but laugh. "I bet that's going to be one heck of a long ride home."
"Jack," Cecilia scolded as Rick and A.J. laughed along with their father. "You boys go play now," she urged. "And don't leave the neighborhood," came the final warning.
The boys ran off, glad to finally be relieved of the albatross that had hung around their necks all week in the form of their cousin.
Jack wrapped an arm around his wife's shoulders, walking with her into the house.
"I suppose it will only be a matter of time before your entire family hears this story," Cecilia stated with chagrin.
"You're right about that. You know Marion's mouth. It's as ample as her waist line."
Cecilia playfully swatted her husband's chest. "Jack! Or should I say John?"
"Please don't," he moaned.
"I imagine when this story gets repeated Marion will make me out to be some kind of an unfit mother who doesn't pay enough attention to her children’s whereabouts."
"Don't worry about it, hon. First of all, no one in my family puts much stock in Marion's ranting and raving. She's been like that ever since she was a kid. And second of all," Jack took his wife in his arms, kissing her deeply. "I think you're the best mother on the face of this earth."
"Oooooh, I guess you do," Cecilia agreed. "How long do you think the boys will be gone?"
Jack gave a throaty chuckle as he scooped his wife up in his arms and headed for the stairway. "Long enough, babe. Long enough."
Rick and A.J. walked to the vacant lot where a neighborhood baseball game was already inderway.
"Man, I'm sure glad Lizard's gone," Rick said.
“Me, too,” A.J. agreed while rubbing his shoulder. "Hey, Rick?"
"It was fun lookin' for Mrs. Cole's cat, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, it was."
"Even if we wouldn't have found Latisha, I still had fun lookin', didn't you?"
"Yeah. I guess I did."
"Bein' detectives was fun. I liked that. Maybe we could do it again sometime."
Rick shrugged. "Yeah. Maybe."
"But not with any girls again. Especially not Elizabeth," A.J. stated emphatically. "Girls aren't cut out to be detectives. Their feet hurt 'em too much."
"Yeah,” Rick chuckled. “That's one problem all right."
"But you and me make pretty good detectives, don't we, Rick?"
"Yeah, A.J. We sure do. Real good detectives," Rick agreed. The lanky teen took off running for the field. "Come on. Let's go play ball!"
A.J. ran after his brother, wondering what their next adventure would be as the endless summer lay stretched out before them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~