Can I Trust You With My Heart

 

 

By: Kenda

 

 

Can I Trust You With My Heart was inspired by the aired episode, Nuevo Salvador.  Can I Trust You With My Heart disregards the events depicted in my Simon and Simon novel, Precious Cargo, and is instead a ‘stand-alone’ novel. 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

Monday, October 26th, 1992

 

 

     He sat apart from the others, huddled miserably into a thin jacket that didn't begin to fight the damp air blowing in off the bay.  The zipper was broken, forcing the shivering man to hold the jacket together with numb fingers. A bone jarring coughing spasm left his undernourished body aching.  He knew he was sick, maybe even seriously so.  But he had no money for medicine, and no one to turn to for help.

 

     Sometimes he wondered if things had always been this way.  If he had always lived by his wits on the streets.  He thought not. He thought that at one time he had belonged to someone. To a family.  He seemed to think people had actually cared about him when he was cold and sick and hungry.  But when he tried to recall their names or their faces, he couldn't.  Everything about him, who he was and where he came from, was one big blank.  A big empty spot that seared his soul like a hot branding iron sears the skin of a helpless calf.

 

     When the coughing subsided he laid his head back against the rough brick of the abandoned building. He pulled the jacket even more tightly around his shaking body.  He had found it several weeks back when the weather had first started to turn cold in a garbage can behind someone's house.  He was forging for food, but had been just as happy to run across this light blue jacket, even though the zipper was broken and the front stained with grease.  He wondered if he'd get lucky enough to find a winter coat.  A hat and gloves to go along with it would be heaven.  He didn't know where he was or what month it was, but by the nip in the air in the mornings now he instinctively knew it was going to get a lot colder before warm weather reappeared.  He didn't suppose the worn out tennis shoes on his feet were going to provide much warmth either once the temperatures started to drop.   The sole of the left one was ripped and flapped against the street like a leather thong when he walked.

 

     He observed the other homeless people like himself sitting together in groups of three's and four's.  Most were men, but there were a few women here and there, and even a handful of forlorn children.  But he didn't belong to any of them either.  As clear as he could remember, he didn't belong to anyone.

 

     And deep down inside he cried for himself, while wondering who he was, where he was, and how he'd come to lead such a miserable existence.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Thursday, October 29th, 1992

 

     Four weathered and tattered men sat around a battered wooden milk crate, playing a game of cards and sharing a bottle of cheap whiskey.  One nodded toward a solitary man with shaggy hair and a scraggly beard wearing a light blue jacket.

 

     "Hey, looky there," Shorty said.  "He's back."

 

     Another of the card players glanced over his shoulder.

 

     "Who?  Oh, him.  Yup.  He shows up ever few days and juz kinda sits there and watches everbody."  The man gave an exaggerated shudder. "Gives me the creeps."

 

     A dried up prune of an old man by the name of Will asked, "Who is he?"

 

     "Don't know," Shorty shrugged.  "He don't talk."

 

     Will cocked a bushy gray eyebrow.  "Don't talk?  'Cause he can't?  Or 'cause he won't?"

 

     "Beats me," Shorty replied.  "Alls I know is he never says a word.  No one knows anythin' about 'im.  Not his name, not his story, nothin.’  Not even Malachi.  And if Malachi don't know, then I don't a' reckon none of us ever will."

 

      Will studied the loner in the dim light cast off from a nearby street lamp.  "Well, if you ask me, he ain't one of us."

 

     Shorty studied the hand he'd been dealt.  "Whatta ya’ mean he ain't one of us?  'Course he's one of us.  He's sleepin' in an alley, ain't he?"

 

     "No," Will shook his head.  "He's different.  He don't belong here.  He...at one time I bet he was somebody."

 

     The remainder of the card players laughed.

 

     "Somebody?  Like who?  The Prince of Wales?"

 

     "Or maybe the King of Germany!"

 

     "Germany don't have a king, stupid."

 

     "Whatever.  Then the King of...of...of whatever countries have kings."

 

     Will didn't allow himself to be intimidated by his friends. 

"You guys laugh your asses off for all I care. But I can see it in his eyes - the pain and the confusion."

 

     One of the men leaned across the small crate.  "Hey, Will, look into my eyes and tell me what you see."

 

     Will gave the lonely stranger one last long look before brushing the teasing and mockery aside. 

 

"Knock it off, wiseguys, and let's play cards."     

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Saturday, November 7th, 1992

 

     Rick Simon sat on the couch in the living room of his houseboat.  His dog, Rex, lay next to him.  As if sensing his master's deep deep sorrow, Rex placed his head on Rick's knee and gave the man a soulful look.

 

     Rick smiled softly and reached down to caress the dog's head.  He turned his attention back to the TV screen, and watched the eleven-month-old baby toddle across the room to his big brother.  When the baby had almost reached his destination he tripped and fell forward.  He let out a shrill laugh of delight when the older boy caught him and hugged him close.  Off camera you could hear a woman's voice praising, "Thank you for catching him, Rick.  You're such a good brother."

 

     Rick saw his six-year-old self turn toward his mother's voice and beam at her compliment.  He watched as his little brother squirmed out of his arms and ran with uncoordinated steps to a large ball sitting across the room.  A.J. bent down and picked it up.  He wobbled unsteadily a moment and almost toppled backwards onto his diaper-clad bottom.  Rick could hear his father's laughter in the background, as well as his own, as they observed the baby's antics.  A.J. regained his balance, and with a toothless grin, tossed the ball to Rick with all the dexterity his chubby arms would allow.  Their father filmed a few minutes of their game before the sequence moved on to A.J.'s first birthday, and then Christmas 1950.

 

     Rick had watched the tape often enough to know it by heart.  The birthday parties, holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and the first day of school recorded year after memorable year, the passage of time and the growth of a family marked faithfully by Jack Simon's movie camera.  After his death Cecilia had taken over the duty of archiving her sons' lives through their teen years.  First Rick's high school graduation, then A.J.'s.  A goodbye party for Rick held in the Simons' backyard the night before Cecilia and A.J. saw him off to boot camp.  And then A.J.'s college graduation ceremony four years thereafter. 

 

     Rick rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and turned away from the screen.  The home movies that had once been such a joy to view now brought nothing but pain.  A pain so sharp and deeply penetrating Rick didn't know how to begin to abate it.

 

     "Rick...Rick?"

 

     Rick jumped at the sound of the voice behind him.  Even Rex hadn't detected their visitor's presence.

 

     "Sorry, man.  Didn't mean to scare you."  Downtown Brown slid the patio doors open wider and stepped inside.  "I knocked, but I guess you didn't hear me."

 

     Rick reached for the remote control and hit the pause button, effectively freezing the action of Christmas morning 1950 for the time being.  He rose and rounded the couch.  "Hey, Towner."

 

     Town stepped into his old friend's open arms, readily reciprocating the hug he found himself enfolded in.  "Hi, buddy," he quietly greeted.  "How ya' doin'?"

 

     Rick stepped out of Town's embrace.  He couldn't meet the black man's gaze when he shrugged and stated half heartedly, "I'm doin' okay."

 

     Town surreptitiously studied the detective.  Rick had lost even more weight since Town had last seen him two months earlier.  The dark circles under his eyes, and the bloodshot lines that streaked the whites, gave clear testimony as to how little sleep Rick was getting each night.

 

     "Can I get you something?"  Rick offered.  "A beer?  Soda?"

 

     Town crouched down to pet Rex, who had jumped off the couch to come greet their guest.  "A beer would be fine.  Thanks."

 

     Rick pulled two cold bottles of Budweiser out of the refrigerator and rummaged around in the silverware drawer for the opener.  "Where's Temple?  You didn't drive down here by yourself for the weekend, did you?"

 

     Town gave Rex a final pat on the head before rising.  "No, she came with me.  I left her at your mother's house.  I stayed long enough to say hi to your mom before coming over here.  You and I are supposed to pick the ladies up at seven."

 

     "At seven?  Why?"

 

     "Because Temple and I are taking the two of you to dinner, that's why."

 

     Rick rounded the counter with the beer bottles in hand.  He gave one to Town while leading the man into the living area.  With a nod of his head he indicated for Town to take a seat.  The policeman settled himself in the easy chair, while Rick retook his former place on the couch.  Rex plopped at his master's feet. 

 

     Rick took two swigs of cold beer, then settled the frigid bottle between his blue jean clad thighs.  "I hope you two didn't drive all the way down from L.A. just to take me and Mom out for supper."

 

     "So what if we did?  Is there any crime in us wanting to spend the afternoon and evening with two close friends that we don't get to see often enough?"

 

     Rick smiled softly in appreciation.   He knew fully well that was only a small portion of the reason why the police lieutenant and his wife had made this spur of the moment visit. For eight months earlier Rick Simon's world had come apart at the seams. 

 

His brother had vanished without a trace.

    

_________________

 

 

     It had been the second weekend in March.  Rick had puttered around the boat that Saturday morning, then went grocery shopping.  He stopped to shoot the bull with Carlos for an hour before returning home. After putting his groceries away, he took Rex for a long walk and a game of Frisbee on the beach.  When they got back to the houseboat Rick had just enough time to shower and shave before leaving to pick up his girlfriend, Nancy.  The couple were meeting a group of friends at the bowling alley, and then going out for a late dinner afterwards.   

 

     Rick didn't return home that evening, instead accepting Nancy's invitation to spend the night with her.  He lightly kissed the sleeping woman as he crawled out of her bed early the next morning.  He would have liked to linger longer, but was well aware of the dog he had left on the houseboat, who would by now be in bad need of a bathroom break.

 

     Rick let himself in his home a few minutes after seven that Sunday morning.  Rex danced at his feet in enthusiastic greeting before bounding out the open door. 

 

     Rick walked into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee brewing.  He took note of the blinking light on his answering machine and reached a hand out to rewind the tape.  He opened a cabinet door to retrieve a cereal bowl and a box of Cheerios while he listened to his messages.  The first one was from Surplus Sammy in regards to the arrival of a new video surveillance camera Rick had ordered that A.J. knew nothing about.  Rick was still puzzling over how he was going to gently break the news to his brother of that twelve hundred dollar expenditure, when the second message played.

 

     "Rick?"  A feminine voice inquired,  "This is Dianna.  It's six-thirty on Sunday morning.  I'm looking for A.J.  Is he with you?  If he is, would one of you guys please call me?  If he's not...well, if he's not, please call me as soon as you get this message, Rick."

 

     Rick frowned.  He tried to recall if A.J. had mentioned anything of his weekend plans as the brothers left the office together on Friday evening.  He couldn't remember anything specific being said.  He had just assumed some part of A.J.'s weekend would be spent with the girlfriend he'd been steadily dating for two years.  Just as it was generally a given Rick would spend a good portion of his weekend with Nancy, whom he'd been seeing for about the same length of time.

 

     Rick grabbed his address book out of a kitchen drawer and looked up Dianna's number.  To begin with he was confused as to why she might think A.J. was with him at six-thirty on a Sunday morning.  And he hadn't liked the way she sounded.  Not exactly upset, or at least not upset at A.J., as much as she sounded worried and unnerved.

 

     Dianna picked up the phone on the first ring.  "A.J.?"

     "No, Di, it's Rick.  What's goin' on?"

 

     "A.J.'s not with you?"

     "No.  Is he supposed to be?"

 

     "Well...I'm not sure.  I thought maybe he was.  He was supposed to pick me up at seven o'clock last night.  We had seven-thirty reservations at the Harborside Dinner Theatre.  We were supposed to eat and see a play.  But at six he called and said something had come up and that he was going to be late."

     "Did he say what it was?"

 

     "That's the weird thing, Rick.  He didn't.  And that's not like A.J.  When I asked him what he had to do he said not to worry and that he'd call me later.  He sounded...upset, Rick.  Almost frantic.  Like he had to be some place in a hurry.  Before I could get any more of an explanation from him, he hung up."

 

     Though Rick could already guess the answer to his next question, he asked it anyway.  "Did you try callin' him this morning?"

 

     "Yes.  I've been trying on and off since ten o'clock last night.  I've left a half dozen messages on his answering machine, but have yet to hear from him."

 

     "I'm certain everything's okay," Rick assured with false confidence.  "Don't worry.  I'm gonna get in the truck and drive over to his place and see what's goin' on."

 

     "But, Rick," Dianna's voice rose an octave, "how can everything be okay?  Where could he be?  And why wouldn't A.J. tell me what was going on?  Why wouldn't he tell me why he had to break our date?"

 

     "I don't know, Di.  But I'll find out.  Just...try not to worry.  I'll call you as soon as I know something.  Maybe...well maybe he got a call from one of our clients.  We do have several jobs goin' on right now.  Maybe he ended up pullin' a stakeout or something."

 

     "But wouldn't he have at least tried to get a hold of you?  Wouldn't he have left a message on your machine if that's what he was doing?"

 

     Yeah, he would have, Rick's mind acknowledged.  That was not the response he made, however.  

 

"Maybe not.  Or maybe he tried to call me, and when I didn't answer he figured I was with Nancy so didn't bother to leave a message.  Until I talk to him I don't know."

 

     Dianna's tentative reply of "Okay," was small and full of fear.  "But you'll call me?  As soon as you know anything, I mean?"

 

     "I'll call you," Rick promised.  "I"ll even do better than that.  I'll have A.J. call you."

 

     Rick could hear the tiny smile that remark got out of A.J.'s girlfriend.  "Thank you, Rick."

 

     "Just don't worry, darlin.’  I'm sure there's no need to.  One of us will call you in a little while."

 

     Fifteen minutes later, with Rex in tow, Rick pulled into A.J.'s driveway.  He peered in the garage window as he passed and immediately took note of the absent Camaro.  He used his key to gain entrance into the house.

 

     "A.J.!"  Rick shouted from where he stood in the middle of his brother's kitchen.  "A.J.!"

 

     Though he had already guessed a search of the house would prove to be an effort in futility, Rick did just that.  More to steady his own nerves than anything else, he called A.J.'s name as he went from room to room with Rex at his heels.  As was normal for his brother, each room was in impeccable order.

 

     Rick stopped short when he came to the doorway of A.J.'s bedroom.  A charcoal gray suit and white dress shirt were neatly laid out on his queen size bed along with a tie.  As Rick stepped into the room he could see a dresser drawer had been left wide open.  He walked over to find it contained blue jeans and polo shirts.  He moved on to the master bathroom.  A wet towel had been wadded up in a haphazard ball and left lying on the vanity top.  Next to the towel sat A.J.'s electric razor.  The sliding shower doors were wide open.  Beads of water still clung to the ceramic tile that lined the walls of the tub, and the cap had been left off the shampoo.

 

     None of the disarray was like Rick's brother.  Thinking back to everything Dianna had relayed to him on the phone caused Rick to deduce that whatever had come up to prompt A.J. to leave the house in such a rush had come up while he was in the shower, or just after he’d stepped out of it.  The dress clothes so carefully laid on the bed indicated to Rick that A.J. had been getting ready for his evening with Dianna.  The open dresser drawer and the wet towel left in the bathroom caused Rick to guess A.J. had made a quick change of plans. 

 

     But why? Rick had pondered.  Why didn't he at least leave a message on my machine?  We've always made it a point to check in with one another when something comes up regarding a case.   

 

     Rick walked back into the bedroom and headed for A.J.'s nightstand.  He opened the drawer it contained, only to find it devoid of what he was looking for.  A.J.'s gun.  Whatever it was that caused A.J. to leave the house in such a rush had given Rick's brother reason to believe he had a need to be armed.  Rick shut the drawer and picked up the hardcover novel resting on top of the stand.  It fell open to the place A.J. had left off and marked with a bookmark - chapter eighteen.  Rick stared down at the pages a moment, then shook his head in frustration.  He wasn't going to find any clues here.

 

     Rick headed back down the stairs.  The only place he could think to start was to head to the office and look up the phone numbers of the three clients they presently had cases for.  Hopefully it was as he had assured Dianna, that A.J. had gotten a call from one of those clients in need of his help.  Rick couldn't quite figure out why, however, if that were the case, that A.J. would have sounded frantic and upset on the phone when he spoke to Dianna. But possibly the woman had just misread his tone. 

 

     The ringing of the telephone made Rick run the rest of the way down the stairs and through the den to the kitchen.  He snared the hand piece before the answering machine could click on.   

 

"A.J.?"

 

     "Rick?"

 

     "Mom?"

 

     To say it was a confusing beginning to a conversation was an understatement.  There was a significant pause as Cecilia Simon tried to figure out if she'd dialed her oldest son's phone number by mistake.

 

     "Rick?"

 

     "Yeah, Mom, it's me."

 

     "You're at A.J.'s?"

     "Yeah.  Why?"

 

     "Oh...nothing.  I just thought maybe I dialed...well, never mind what I thought.  I was going to call you as soon as I got off the phone with him anyway.  But as long as you're there you can tell your brother for me."

 

     "Tell him what?"

 

     "Now I don't want either one of you to be upset, honey.  I'm perfectly fine.  I wasn't home when it happened."

 

     "When what happened, Mom?"

 

     "The break-in.  I was out with Doug yesterday afternoon and evening."

 

     By Doug, Rick knew his mother meant Douglas McKenna, the lawyer she was engaged in a semi-serious relationship with. 

 

     "Doug brought me home around two this morning and that's when we discovered someone had broken into the house and ransacked it."

 

     "Was anything taken?"

     "That's what's strange, Rick.  Absolutely nothing is missing.  No money, no jewelry, not the TV, VCR, or microwave.  But every drawer and closet has been turned inside out, and practically every piece of furniture overturned."

 

     "Are the police still there?"

 

     "Just Abby.  She's getting ready to leave, too."

 

     "Mom, I'll be right over.  Don't let Abby go.  I need to talk to her."

     "What about?"

 

     "Just don't let her leave, Mom."

 

     And that was the beginning of a number of odd coincidences and unexplained happenings that all centered around A.J. Simon's disappearance.

 

 

_________________

 

    
     Rick looked across the room as Town drained the last of the beer in his bottle.  When all the logical places to look for A.J. had been exhausted that Sunday back in March, the police recorded him as an official missing person.  Someone from the station called Town up in L.A. to let him know what was going on.  Four days later he took a week of vacation and showed up on Rick's doorstep to aid the detective in his own private search for his brother.  What few leads the men had, evaporated as quickly as water against hot asphalt on a sunny day.  The only thing they had to go on was the phone call A.J. made to Dianna at six p.m.  Abby sought information from the phone company and did determine that a call came into A.J.'s house at 5:48 that evening.  Rick's fear in regards to his brother's fate was only heightened when he learned the call had been made from a pay phone.  Rick, Abby, and Town could only guess that phone call was the reason behind A.J. so abruptly changing his plans with Dianna.

 

     Rick fiddled with the half full bottle that rested between his thighs.  He finally sat it on the coffee table and pushed it aside.  "I still think there's got to be some connection between Mom's house being ransacked, that phone call to A.J., and A.J. leavin' like he did.  I just wish to God I could figure out what it was."

 

     Town simply nodded in agreement.  He and Rick had been over this a hundred times in the past eight months.  Maybe even a thousand.  His instincts as a twenty-two year veteran of the police department told him that indeed, those three things were connected in some way.  Unfortunately, there just hadn't been enough clues left behind from which to draw any firm conclusions.  Whoever ransacked Cecilia's house was a professional.  He'd disabled her home security system, something Town was well aware happened in only two percent of home break-ins.  The average burglar didn't have that kind of knowledge, nor did he want to expend that kind of time.  But this guy wasn't an average burglar.  Nothing had been taken.  Yet by the conditions of the rooms, it was quite apparent that the person, or persons, had been in Cecilia's house for a lengthy period of time.  Why was their only intent to create utter chaos? 

 

      Rick had a theory about all this, but it was a weak one at best.  While none of Cecilia's neighbors had observed anything suspicious going on around her house that afternoon or early evening, one very elderly man thought he remembered seeing A.J.'s Camaro in the driveway about six-fifteen.  Unfortunately, he had no idea how long the car was there, nor was he even certain it was Saturday night that he had seen it. It wasn't unusual for the neighbors to see either Rick's truck or A.J.'s car in their mother's driveway at various times throughout the week, so the man hadn't paid much attention to it.     

 

     "I still think I'm on track with my original theory," Rick stated as though he could read Town's mind.  "Someone called A.J. and told him Mom's house had been broken into.  The same someone who has the answers as to A.J.'s whereabouts."

 

     "Rick, you can't know that for sure."

 

     "But Mr. Ogden saw--"

 

     "Mr. Ogden is ninety-two years old and half blind," Town gently reminded.  "And besides, he never has been able to say for certain it was Saturday night when he saw A.J.'s car.  Your mother herself said A.J. stopped by after work on Friday evening.  More than likely that's when Mr. Ogden remembers seeing the Camaro."

 

     Rick wanted to argue the point further, but he knew it would do him little good.  He and Town had overturned this stone more than once since A.J. had been gone.  Deep down inside Rick knew Town was probably right when he speculated Mr. Ogden actually saw A.J.'s car in their mother's driveway on Friday evening.  But if Rick admitted that to himself, or even out loud to Town, it would be like admitting defeat.  It would be like admitting that he might as well give up his search for his brother for lack of any other place to look.  And he just wasn't ready to do that. 

 

     The frozen frame on the TV screen kicked back into motion as the 'still' feature on the VCR reached its time limit.  Town watched with Rick for a few minutes as the Simon brothers' boyhoods played out before their eyes.

 

     "Where'd you get this?"  The black man finally asked.

 

     "Without Mom knowin' it A.J. and I took the old eight millimeter movies from her house and had them put on video cassette over the winter.  It was supposed to be her Mother's Day present.  But then...well, after everything that happened I just couldn't give 'em to her."

 

     "So you sit here by yourself day after day and watch them over and over again."

 

     Rick looked up at Town's sharp statement of reprimand.  "So what if I do?"

 

     "Rick...it's not healthy.  You know it's not.  The last thing you need to be doing right now is sitting here all alone watching old home movi--"

     "I'll decide for my ownself what's healthy and what's not!" 

 

     Rick's sudden eruption startled Town, the slumbering Rex, and even Rick himself to a certain extent.

 

     A long, uncomfortable silence prevailed in the room until Rick finally reached for the remote control, stopped the tape, then clicked off the TV.  He sighed heavily and laid his head back against the couch.

 

     "I'm sorry, Towner.  You didn't deserve that."

 

     "Forget it, Rick.  And I'm the one who should apologize.  You're right.  It's not for me to decide what's healthy for you and what's not.  Only you can know that."

 

     Rick brought his head up and looked across the coffee table at the black man.  In that instant Town saw nothing but unspeakable anguish in Rick's bloodshot eyes.  Unspeakable anguish, and unshed tears.

 

     "It's just that...that I'm so afraid this is all I've got left.  Just a shoe box full of his personal stuff and these old movies."  Rick shaded his eyes with his left hand.  That movement effectively hid his tears from the police lieutenant, but it couldn't keep them out of his voice. 

 

     "And it's just not enough, Towner.  It's just not...not enough."

 

     Because he understood Rick Simon almost as well as anyone could hope to understand Rick Simon, Town allowed the man the space and time he needed to silently grieve.  As emotion overtook him, Rick brought his right hand up to join his left in covering his face.  Town didn't miss the faint tremors that coursed through those hands like a gentle breeze causes faint tremors to course through hanging leaves.

 

     Cecilia had been correct when she told Town that she feared her oldest son was on the verge of collapse.  Not that Cecilia herself was doing much better, Town thought.  She had aged ten years in the past eight months, as had Rick. 

 

     Rick finally scrubbed his hands over his face before letting them drop to his lap.  The only trace of tears to be seen was in the overly bright eyes and the spiked, wet lashes.  Minutes passed before either man spoke.

 

     Rick's voice was husky and quiet.   "I dream about him almost every night.  Sometimes I'm in a maze and I know if I can get to the end of it I'll find him.  That somehow the end of that maze holds the answers I'm lookin' for.  But I never make it.  I just keep runnin' into one dead end after another like a mouse lookin' for that elusive piece of cheese."

 

     Town nodded in sympathy.  No doubt Rick's dream was his mind's way of acting out the frustration the elder Simon had been living with in regards to his fruitless eight month search for his brother.

 

     "And sometimes I hear him callin' me.  His voice is so clear, Town, it's like he's standin' right next to me.  He's callin' me, and I know he needs my help, only I can't find him. 

 

“And sometimes...sometimes I'm walking down a highway that seems to go nowhere.  Like a highway in the desert.  I'm stumblin' along, hot and looking for water, and I come across something layin' face down in the road.  At first I think...at first I think it's an animal, but as I get closer...as I get closer I see that it's a man."

 

     "Rick...don't."

 

     "It's a man," Rick went on as if Town hadn't spoken.  "I turn him over to see if I can help him.  And when I do...when I do, it's A.J., Town.  It's always A.J.  And he's always dead.

 

     "And I guess if I'm gonna be honest with myself, I have to face the fact that dream is tryin' to tell me what my conscious mind won't accept.  That A.J.'s dead."

 

     "We don't know that for sure."

 

     "But everyone thinks it.  You...Abby...and every other cop that has worked this case.  Not to mention our family and friends.  It's been eight months, Town.  I'm not stupid.  A grown man usually disappears for only one of two reasons.  Either he's running from the law, which rules A.J. out completely, or he's met with foul play."

 

     Town knew even a well-intentioned lie at this point would be a disservice.   "That's true," he reluctantly conceded, "but sometimes there's still a chance--"

 

     Rick's voice was so soft Town had to strain to pick up his words.

 

     "I have a feelin' our chances ran out long ago, Towner.  I have a feeling that's a fact both Mom and I are gonna have to face.  It's just the not knowin' that's hell.  Not knowing if he really is alive somewhere and needs my help, or if he's...beyond that.  Not knowing if it was quick...or if he suffered."  Rick hid his head in his hands once again.  "God, Town, I pray every night that whatever happened he didn't suffer.  I couldn't bear to find out he did."

 

     Town had heard these exact same words so many times in his long career.  Every time he spoke with the parents, or spouse, or brothers, or sisters, of a victim of foul play.  And every time he'd been forced to detach himself from their pain, because he had to in order to go on doing his job.  But this time Town couldn't do that no matter how hard he tried.  He'd been as close to A.J. as he was to Rick.  And that's what made it all so difficult.

 

     Town leaned forward in his chair and laid a hand on Rick's left knee.  He gave it a light squeeze. 

 

     "I know, Rick.  I know.  Because I couldn't bear to find that out either."      

    

 

Chapter 3

 

(6 Months Earlier)

 

May, 1992

 

     He tried so hard not to scream.  He bit his lower lip until blood seeped through his front teeth.  He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction they derived from his pain.  But he knew his stubbornness would ultimately do him no good.  They'd just keep on kicking him, and slapping him, and beating the already bruised and broken spots with their fists and booted feet.  They'd just keep on until he passed out.  And when he came, to he might find brief respite or he might not.  It just depended on what their orders were.

 

     He didn't know how long he'd been here, or even where he was other than in a basement of some kind that had no windows and a heavy steel door that was always bolted.  All he knew was that between the repeated beatings, and the lack of food and water, he was slowly losing his grip on reality.   He no longer knew for certain who he was. And the person he thought for so long would come to his rescue, was becoming a vague figure in the back of his mind as well. 

 

     Two floors above the captive a handsome man with dark hair and olive skin, walked out onto the sun-drenched patio of the expansive hacienda. He played with the thick silver band on his right ring finger.  The raised head of a black wolf stood up from the surface of the expensive ornament. 

 

     The man didn't turn around when the sound of boot heels lightly scraped the patio's cement surface.  He barely glanced at the burly man who joined him at the smooth white railing.  They both squinted as they looked out over the barren, bleached desert.

 

     The burly man finally shifted position.  He turned around and leaned his bulk against the marble railing.  "What are you going to do with him?"   

 

     The reply was so crisp and eloquently spoken that it made one realize English was not the handsome man's native language.

 

     "That is my concern."

 

     "You can't keep him forever, Eduardo.  The longer he's here...alive...the bigger the risk of someone finding him."

 

     "No one will find him."

 

     "But I was just thinking--"

 

     Eduardo spun around. His voice was tight and hinted a warning.  "I do not pay you to think, Baily."

 

     Carson Baily waited until the glint of rage left Eduardo's eyes.  He had long experience with the Agilar family.  He had worked for Eduardo's father, Androu, for twenty-five years.  And, as well, had worked for Androu's oldest son, Roberto, when Roberto had reached manhood and began to help run the family business.  But now both Androu and Roberto were dead.  They'd been killed five years earlier. Androu’s death had been caused by the brother of the blond man being held captive in the cellar.  The bullet that killed Roberto came from the rifle of the blond captive.  The blond captive Baily and three accomplices had kidnapped ago months back on instructions from Eduardo.

 

     Some would say Carson Baily was a hired gun.  A henchman who disposed of undesirable persons or situations for a wealthy Salvadoran family.  And Carson supposed, in truth, they'd be correct.  But he'd been doing the job far too long to walk away from it now.  Besides, one didn't walk away from a position like his.  It wasn't an option.  Androu Agilar had made that clear many years earlier.  And for as much as Baily had respected Androu, and even Roberto, he had long ago come to fear Androu's youngest son, Eduardo.  Carson wasn't so sure Eduardo wasn't half loco.  He'd never met anyone so cold and calculating.  Never met anyone so devoid of feeling and bent on revenge.

 

     The intense afternoon Mexican sun caused Baily to seek shelter underneath the patio's overhang.  Just the few short minutes he'd exposed himself to the sun’s direct light had left his shirt clinging to him like a wet dishrag.  He dipped his six foot five inch frame to the side to avoid walking into a hanging plant.  When Baily turned to face Eduardo once again he no longer had to squint.  Even though the temperature was one hundred and twenty degrees, Carson noticed the Salvadoran didn't have so much as a bead of perspiration on him.  His black cotton shirt and pants were crisp and dry, and lacking even the slightest of wrinkles.  For some reason Satan came to mind as Carson Baily stood looking at Eduardo Agilar.   

 

     "I'm simply saying that I need to know what you're going to do with him," Carson stated.  "He can't take many more beatings.  If you intend for him to die, then so be it."

 

     Eduardo's smile was both evil and full of pleasure.  "Oh, I do not intend for our guest to die, Carson.  His suffering has only just begun."

 

     Carson didn't succeed in keeping the impatience out of his voice.  "But I just finished telling you he's not long for this world.  Not if you want us to keep working him over every few hours.  This has been going on since March.  Quite frankly, I'm surprised he wasn't pushin' up daisies three weeks ago."

 

     "That's the joy of Mr. Simon, Carson.  He has guts, as you Americans say.  I admire that in a man.  Unfortunately, in the long run his perseverance will do him no good.  By the time he leaves here I intend to see to it that he is nothing more than a babbling idiot."

 

     "Leaves here?"

     "Yes.  Leaves here.  Why would I want to keep him?  However, he cannot go until I have derived all the fun I can out of him. That may take the better part of the summer.  Maybe even on into the fall."  Eduardo shrugged.  "Only time will tell."

 

     "But you said he was leaving here.  Where's he going?"

 

     Eduardo chuckled softly.  "I do not know, Carson.  And that is where the fun really begins.  When the time comes you will dump our guest on the side of the road somewhere far away from here...and far away from San Diego."

 

     Carson Baily couldn't believe what he was hearing.  "But as soon as we let him loose he'll go to the cops.  He'll be able to tell them everything.  Who we are, where he was, how--

 

     Eduardo pushed himself away from the railing.  He walked over and placed a solicitous arm around Carson's shoulders.  "You overestimate Senor Simon, Carson.  While his stamina is to be admired, I will eventually break him.  Trust me, A.J. Simon will not know his own name when he is finally allowed to leave here.  Nor will he be able to relay what happened to him.  I shall see to it that his mind is scarred for the rest of his days on this planet."     

 

     Carson Baily still thought it was too much of a risk to take.  Who really knew what would happen once Simon's mind and body were given a chance to heal? 

 

     "Why not just kill him, Eduardo?  Just kill him and get it over with."

 

     "Kill him?  Kill him you say?  Oh no, Carson. That would be much too good for him.  And too good for his brother.  You see, Carson, A.J. Simon permanently separated me from my brother, and now I intend to permanently separate him from his.  And Rick Simon will suffer, as well, for all the pain he has caused me.  So help me God, Rick and A.J. Simon will pay for what they did to my family for the rest of their lives.  Rick Simon will pay by dreaming of his brother's face night after night in his sleep.  He will pay by wondering what happened to his beloved baby brother each and every waking hour.

 

     "And A.J. Simon," Eduardo smiled like a sly fox,  "A.J.  Simon will pay by wandering the streets of some strange city for the remainder of his days.  To anyone who bothers to notice him, he will be nothing more than another of the indigent homeless."

 

     Carson attempted one last argument.  He hadn't been in the business of silencing people for as long as he had without knowing there was safety in death. 

 

"But you can't be sure, Eduardo.  You can't be sure what you have planned for Simon will disable his mental facilities on a permanent basis." 

 

     Eduardo's hand tightened painfully on Baily's shoulder.  The sun glistened ominously off his silver ring.  "Ah, but you are so wrong about that, Carson.  For that is the one thing I know as fact.  Trust me.  A.J. Simon will be muy loco when he finally leaves us.  Muy loco."

 

     Eduardo looked out over the sun-glazed desert with a satisfied smile.  "Very crazy."   

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 1992

 

     The eastern sky was streaked with the first pastels of dawn when the man coughed himself awake.  The effort it took to clear his lungs hurt so bad that he had to bite back a cry of pain.  His rib cage was tender, as if bones there had been cracked or broken in recent months.  When he recalled bits and pieces of what atrocities had occurred to cause him such discomfort a searing pain sliced through his forehead, reminding him that some things were better off forgotten. 

 

     The aggravated coughs woke the black man sleeping against the brick wall across the alley.  Malachi studied the isolated stranger a long moment, then pushed himself to his feet with a groan.  Other sleepers were stirring a bit underneath the old coats and rags they were using as blankets, but none did more than roll over and fall into a deeper slumber.

 

     Malachi crossed the twelve foot wide alley.  He stood over the stranger until the man looked up at him.  Like the rest of the homeless sleepers sharing this alley, Malachi had a checkered past.  But he wasn't a cruel man and never had been.  Not since Vietnam had he ever willingly hurt another individual.  And even then he didn't want to do it.  Funny thing though, Uncle Sam didn't leave him much choice if he desired to survive another day.

 

     Malachi hated what he saw in the blue eyes that now looked up at him.  A mixture of pain, fear, and confusion.  But oddly enough, he also saw stubborn resilience.  The man's body was taut as a bowstring, giving Malachi the impression that he wasn't going to roll over and play dead if confronted.  Whatever this guy's story, he was a fighter, there was no doubt about that.

 

     Malachi eased himself down the wall.  He was a lanky man of six feet three inches tall with the broad nose, full lips, and dark ebony skin of his African ancestors.  He kept his coarse hair cropped close to his skull.  Flecks of gray dotted it like snow, making it easy for an outside observer to accurately guess Malachi's age at somewhere between forty-eight and fifty.  He slowly came to rest his butt on the blacktopped pavement.  Its chill penetrated his thin khaki trousers.  He was careful not to move too quickly.  It wasn't his intention to scare the stranger.

 

     "Hey," Malachi said in quiet greeting.  "How are you doing?  I've seen you around, but I don't believe we've been properly introduced."  Malachi held out a large hand. "I'm Malachi."

 

     The blond didn't do any more than stare at the offered hand.  After a long moment of silence the black man let the hand drop.

 

     Malachi's tone was light, his ever-ready sense of humor prevalent.  "How this is supposed to work, see, is that I introduce myself to you and offer you my hand.  Then you shake it, while introducing yourself to me.  Should we try it again?"

     Malachi held out his hand once more.  Again, the offer of friendship was ignored.

 

     "Okay, so where you come from there's some sort of taboo against shaking hands.  I can respect that.  But how about your name?  You must have one of those."

 

     The quiet man simply stared at his new companion.

 

     Malachi didn't let the man's unwillingness to communicate deter him.  He had a feeling the guy was in bad need of a friend. 

 

"As I said, Malachi's my name.  Malachi Isaiah Calwell.  What a handle, huh?   My mama christened me such with the hope I'd grow up to save misguided souls from the fires of hell.  Believe it or not, I even entertained the notion of becoming a man of the pulpit many years ago.  But a trip to the jungles of Nam sidetracked that ambition."

 

     Malachi didn't miss the sharp look that was thrown in his direction.  Nor the pale brows that furrowed together in puzzlement.  Obviously something about Vietnam struck a cord with the reclusive stranger.

 

     "Yeah, I was there.  Marine Corp., third division.  How about you?  Did you put in some time fighting Charlie?"

 

     Again, Malachi received no answer.  But then he wasn't really expecting one.  "Maybe you did and you just don't remember.  I've heard of that happening to other vets.  Or maybe you don't want to remember. There's nothing wrong with that either.  There are a good number of days when I don't care to remember the experience myself."

 

     The man's harsh, tight cough interrupted Malachi's monologue.  When it subsided, the blond pulled the thin jacket closer around his torso and brought his knees up to huddle in a curled ball of misery.

 

     "Say, I bet you’re not aware of the homeless shelter a few blocks from here, do you?  A pretty little gal I know volunteers her time there three days a week.  She's a nurse over at Mercy Hospital.  I think we should have her take a look at you.  And we can get you a warmer coat there, too.  And if we're lucky maybe even another pair of shoes.  Ones that won't leave your toes hanging out.  How about it?   You up to taking a little walk with me in a few hours?"

 

     In the long pause that followed, it seemed to Malachi as though the man was weighing whether or not he could trust him. 

 

     "Hey, buddy, I won't steer you wrong.  Promise.  See, I'm more or less the man in charge of this alley.  I watch out for the people here.  And even though you wandered in on your own without an invitation, I still feel an obligation toward you.  Now I know you're not feeling well, and I know you're cold.  I promise you no one will hurt you, or try to take anything from you that's yours."  Malachi knew that was an important issue amongst the homeless.  They were very possessive of what few things they managed to collect and call their own.  That's why they usually carried their meager possessions in bags or in packs slung over their shoulders each time they left the alley.  Not that the blond fell into that category.  From what Malachi could tell, about all he had to call his own were the clothes on his back.  Besides the worn jacket and tennis shoes, that seemed to include nothing more than the torn blue jeans and tattered, blood stained slate gray polo shirt he was wearing.   "So what do you think?  Will you come with me?"

 

     The stranger gave Malachi's offer lengthy consideration.  A minute passed before he finally nodded his head.

 

     "Good," Malachi nodded with satisfaction. "I'll let you know when I'm ready to go.  She doesn't get there until ten o'clock, so there's no use in leaving too soon.  It's early yet.  I think I'll try to get some more shuteye.  You'd better do the same."

 

     Again the stranger nodded.

 

     As Malachi started to rise to return to his makeshift bed of a cardboard box and discarded blanket, he felt the back of a hand lightly swat his forearm twice.  He looked down to see that hand extend upward toward him. 

 

     Malachi smiled as he took the offered hand and shook it. 

 

"Hi, Friend.  Nice to meet you."

 

     The blond man didn't say anything in return, but Malachi saw the barest hint of a smile light his otherwise dull eyes.  Malachi had a feeling this was the first time in a long time, that anyone had made an offer of friendship to this silent stranger. 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 1992

 

     Dominique Cascia was a diminutive woman of thirty years old and as Latin as her name implied.  Not Latin as in of Spanish decent, but Latin as in a decedent of the Roman Emperors.  Or so Dominique's father liked to claim.  As far as Dominique was concerned, her family was as American as any other family in the affluent San Francisco suburban neighborhood from which she hailed.  She and her three sisters were the fourth generation to be born in America on her mother's side, the third on her father's. Nonetheless, her parents had kept alive many of the Roman Catholic and old-world Italian traditions that had steeped their childhoods, when raising their brood.

 

     Dominique and her sisters attended a Catholic grade school before advancing to an all-girls Catholic high school.  To say none of the Cascia daughters were pleased by this turn of events was an understatement.  Each one of them, in her own way, had tried to convince their parents to at least allow them to attend a Catholic high school made up of both girls and boys.  But the notion wasn't so much as entertained for even a brief second, so from Dominique, the oldest, all the way down to Vanessa, the youngest, the Cascia daughters spent their teen years at Our Lady Of The Angels all-girls prep school.

 

     Dominique broke away from what she, at eighteen, perceived to be the rigid discipline of her parents by going south to attend college at U.C.L.A.  Her parents would have much preferred she stay in San Francisco and attend the small private Catholic college they had already earmarked for their daughters’ continued education.  But Dominique was ready to test the waters of adulthood and used the argument that U.C.L.A. was known to have the best nursing program in the state.  After much thought, her parents reluctantly conceded to her choice.  Now, twelve years later, Dominique felt it had been the best thing for all of them.  Little by little her parents had learned to let go and allow their daughters to make their own decisions, to the point that Dominique's youngest sister was attending college clear across the country in South Carolina on a volleyball scholarship.

 

     Dominique worked nights as a nursing supervisor in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital located in the heart of San Francisco.  Granted, there were many less stressful positions available within the medical community to a woman of her ambitions, intelligence, and education, but Dominique thrived on the fast-paced, critical care environment of her floor.

 

     The young nurse had married her college sweetheart upon graduation, but the marriage lasted just two years.  Dominique thought of the ill-fated union as the one big failure of her life, and it was something she rarely discussed.  All she ever said when asked was that she and her ex-husband had been swept away in the tide of strong emotions first love brings, and didn't stop to think as to whether or not that love was meant to survive a lifetime together.  It quickly became apparent it wasn't.

 

     For the time being Dominique was happy with her life and the rewards it brought her.  She owned her own home in a quiet suburb not far from her parents, where she lived with her cocker spaniel, Adeline.  She occasionally saw a young intern who worked at another hospital, though she didn't consider the relationship to be a serious one at the moment and neither did he.  Their busy and often conflicting schedules caused their dates to be sporadic at best.  Therefore, Dominique divided most of her time between Mercy Hospital and the St. Jude's Shelter for the Homeless on 7th and Hallwell.

 

     The shelter was the pet project of the church Dominique had attended since birth.  When her priest, Father Francis Papanek, had mentioned to her that he could use her nursing skills at the shelter on occasion she was at first hesitant to volunteer.  The inner-city world of poverty was foreign to her and truthfully, not something she'd ever paid much attention to.  But from her first morning there as a rookie, Dominique had fallen in love with the work the shelter did and the people who came there seeking aid. 

 

     Dominique could be a harsh critic of the junkies and alcoholics who couldn't seem to get off the drugs and booze long enough to turn their lives around.  But she came to have an abundance of sympathy for the families who were homeless because the father or mother was out of a job, or for those whose mental facilities weren't what they should be.  The latter were the people Dominique felt the most sorrow for.  So many of them had been abandoned by their families.  They were left to wander the streets without adequate food or shelter, or the ability to take care of themselves simply because a parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, couldn't bear to acknowledge the person as one of their own.   Dominique couldn't imagine how such a shameful thing could happen when she thought of her own loving family, and how much they'd each sacrifice to help one another.

 

     The building the shelter was housed in had been purchased by Dominique's church ten years earlier when its members were looking for a way to support the community through good works.  It was an old two story brick front structure that had at one time been a neighborhood grocery store.  The entire block was lined with similar buildings, most abandoned now as this once quaint area was no longer considered to be a desirable part of town. 

 

     On Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, Dominique volunteered her time at the shelter from ten a.m. until three p.m., when she had to leave to report to work for the start of her four to midnight shift.  In the event she was off-duty from the hospital one of those days, she stayed even longer if someone was in need of her assistance.  For the most part Dominique provided the only medical care the majority of the homeless people would ever receive.   She was a cross between doctor, nurse, sister, mother, teacher, and friend.  She did everything from immobilizing sprained fingers, to cleaning and bandaging minor cuts, to getting someone to Mercy's emergency room if the care he or she needed was more than Dominique could provide. She didn't hesitate to scold those who didn't follow her prescribed treatment, or those who'd turned back to the bottle for relief from their day- to-day existence.

 

     When Dominique climbed in her warm bed every night she often thought of the homeless she ministered to and wondered if it was really worth it. If she really made a difference.  If any of the volunteers did.  After all, it wasn't as though, through their efforts, she saw the numbers of the homeless decrease.  But rather, they only seemed to keep increasing and that upset her.  It was like trying to empty the ocean by draining it with a teaspoon.  Sometimes Dominique found herself praying that God would show her she had indeed made a difference.  That just one person would walk in the shelter someday whom she didn't recognize because he was clean, and wearing brand new clothes, and sporting a fresh haircut.  That person would walk up to her and shake her hand, and tell Dominique he had a job and a wonderful new life.  It was then that Dominique would recognize the person as Will, or Cal, or Shorty, or Sam, or any one of the others she'd come to think of as her friends.

 

     But nothing like that had happened in the three years she'd been volunteering her time at the shelter, and Dominique feared, short of a miracle, nothing like that ever would.  Ironically enough, at those times she'd think of who the shelter was named for, St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.  She'd wonder then if all she'd bought into was nothing but a hopeless cause.

 

     For some reason that didn't stop Dominique from returning right on schedule every other day, and often on weekends as well, if the weather was especially chilly and the shelter was short staffed.  If no one needed her in the capacity of nurse, she helped cook, serve food, or made up beds.

 

     The central room of the shelter was a wide-open area containing two tattered couches and a few cast off chairs provided by members of Dominique's parish.  A black steel desk with pock sized dings in its metal sides resided here as well.  Usually a volunteer manned the desk, helping those that entered St. Jude’s obtain food, clothing, or a place to sleep.  If the beds in this shelter were full, as they usually were from December through March, then the volunteer called other shelters in the area with the hope of finding someone in need a warm place to spend the night. 

 

     Malachi entered the shelter a few minutes after ten that morning with his new friend in tow.  Because it was so early in the day things were quiet.  The volunteer receptionist pointed the way down the hall when Malachi, a familiar figure to her, asked for Dominique. 

 

     The hall contained a linen closet, a broom closet, and a room Dominique used as an exam room that held medical supplies, but also doubled as the cluttered administrative office of Father Papanek.  The priest was also the administrator of the grade school Dominique had attended, so from September to May didn't appear at the shelter as often as he would have liked.  He was doubly grateful then, for capable and reliable volunteers like Dominique.

 

     At the end of the hall was a door that opened to the men's communal showers and bathroom.  At one time it had been half of the warehouse portion of the grocery store.  On the other side of the building was another hall that held a small bathroom with two shower stalls for women and children.  It wasn't nearly as large as what was available for the men, but then the men who were living on the streets far outweighed in number the women and children.  Of that, Dominique was thankful.

 

     The basement had been converted into a kitchen, cafeteria, and laundry room.  The second floor above the reception area was one massive open room with rows upon rows of cots, again for the men.  The shelter preferred not to house women or children unless it was an emergency.  They didn't have the space or the staffing to feel secure in providing the women safety from any men who might have less than desirable intentions.  There were two other shelters in the city that catered to women and/or families, so St. Jude's directed them there.  In the event those shelters were full, cots were set up in the basement until something else could be found.

 

     It was in the administrative office that Malachi found Dominique that day.  She was dressed in black leggings, a black turtleneck, and a knee length San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt.  Her back was to the door as she took inventory of the medical supplies in the one cabinet allowed her.  Her dark hair was clean and glossy, and shone like black shoe polish.  It was bobbed all the way around her head, similar in style to a little boy's cut, and made her look all of twelve years old.  Her eyes were as dark as Malachi's, umber orbs with flecks of cinnamon around the pupils.  She was on her tiptoes trying to take inventory of a top shelf her five foot one inch frame made it difficult to see. 

 

     Malachi walked up behind her.  "Can I give you a hand, Doctor Dom?"

 

     Dominique didn't have to turn around to know who had entered the room.  Among the homeless she'd met in the last three years, Malachi was the one she'd grown closest to.  And the first one who'd begun referring to her as Doctor Dominique, and then later, simply as Doctor Dom.  He was also the one who left her the most puzzled.  He didn't drink or do drugs as far as she knew.  And he'd mentioned at one time that he was college educated.  He was always as neat and clean as possible, considering his living conditions.  Malachi also took seriously what he deemed his responsibilities when it came to the other homeless people in the area.  He looked out for them, and helped those who were unable to help themselves.  He couldn't stand to see another human being suffering, and was very protective of the people who sought shelter in what he referred to as Beulah Land.  In other words, the alley he called home.  Dominique had asked Malachi once why he called the alley Beulah Land.  He told her a passage in the Bible referred to Israel as such, and that in the book, Pilgrim's Progress, Beulah Land was thought to be a place of peace and rest near the end of life's journey.

 

     Dominique smiled now as she looked up into Malachi's dark face.  "Hi, Malachi.  Nice to see you.  And yes, I could use your help.  Would you please write down what's on that top shelf for me?"

 

     Dominique passed her clipboard and pen off to Malachi and took a step backwards. She gave a little cry when she bumped into the grimy man standing behind her.  He was so quiet she hadn't even heard him come in with Malachi and wasn't sure at first, if they were together.

 

     "I'm sorry," she apologized. 

 

     The man looked down at her, but didn't say anything. He did, however, take a step backwards to give her more room.

 

     Malachi turned from his work.  "This is...my new friend, Doc.  Friend, this is Doctor Dominique."

 

     Dominique held her hand out to the man.  He backed away from her again, staring at her hand as if he wasn't sure of what she intended to do with it. 

 

     Over his shoulder Malachi said,  "He's not much on shaking hands."

 

     "Oh."  Dominique's hand dropped and she gave the stranger a welcoming smile despite the fact his silence unnerved her.  "Well, nice to meet you anyway.  How'd you come to know Malachi?"

 

     Malachi finished the inventory for Dominique and laid the clipboard and pen on Father Papenek's desk.  "He's not much on talking either."

 

     Dominique threw Malachi a look that broadcast a number of questions.  

 

     "I'll tell you about it in a little while.  First off, I was hoping my friend here could get a shower and maybe some clean clothes and a new coat.  The nights are getting pretty cold."

 

     Dominique had no doubt the man was in bad need of a shower.  If her years in nursing hadn't given her such an inhibited gag reflex she'd have been in the ladies room by now.

 

     "Then I'd like you to take a look at him, Doc.  I think he's feeling a little under the weather."

 

     Just then, the strange man coughed a tight, unproductive cough that caused him to grimace and grasp his rib cage.

 

     "Yes, I can see that," Dominique agreed.  "All those things sound like good ideas, Malachi.  Come on, you two.  Follow me."

 

     Dominique brushed past the silent man.  It wasn't lost on her that he waited for Malachi to exit the room before trailing both of them down the bright yellow hall.  They passed the showers and walked out a metal door that led them to another part of the old warehouse that had been left in its original state.  It was a chilly, vast room with a concrete floor and metal walls.  Clothing of all kinds was hanging from metal racks on wheels, or folded neatly on tables.  Row after row of shoes lined the floor underneath the tables.  More clothing and shoes were in cardboard boxes and paper grocery bags waiting to be gone through by the volunteers who came in over the weekend.  Dominique's church held two large clothing drives each year for the benefit of the men, women, and children who used the shelter.  They were in the midst of their fall drive now, encouraging parishioners and others in their well-to-do neighborhood to clean out their closets and donate warm clothing, shoes, and coats of all sizes, or spend a few dollars on new hats, gloves, and mittens to be donated as well.  People not familiar with San Francisco didn't realize how cold the temperatures could dip in the winter.  And while thirty-five degrees might not sound that frigid to a hardy mid-westerner, try sleeping outside in nothing but a thin pair of pants and a flimsy cotton jacket on such a night. 

 

     "I can get you started,” Dominique said to the man as though she often carried on detailed conversations with people who chose not to give her a verbal response.  "And we'll always help you out in the event of an emergency.  No one is ever turned away from St. Jude's.  But after today you'll have to pay for what you take from here, either in money or work tickets."

 

     Dominique turned to Malachi.  "Did you explain our system to him?"

 

     The black man shook his head.  "Not yet."

 

     St. Jude's benefited the homeless, while at the same time encouraging them to make an effort at helping themselves.  As Dominique said, no one in need was ever turned away, and the two meals they served each day were always free.  However, the staff encouraged those that were able to find work so they could pay a small price in order to receive the clothing, toiletries, and shelter St. Jude's provided.  What little money the shelter raised this way, in the end, only benefited the men who used it by being put back in the shelter’s modest treasury. 

 

     For the men who couldn't secure outside employment for whatever reason, St. Jude's offered them jobs in the kitchen, or laundry room, or as janitors or clothing sorters.  In exchange, the men received tickets they could use as currency at the shelter in order to purchase things ranging from a toothbrush to a new coat.  It wasn't a perfect system; Dominique would be the first to admit that.  She had yet to see very many men show up and work on a frequent basis.  More often than not they worked until they earned enough 'money' for a new pair of gloves, then you didn't see them again until they needed another a pair.  But, the overtaxed shelter's volunteer staff could use whatever help they could get, so the system had stayed in place and been perfected over time.

 

     Dominique explained all this to the quiet stranger.  When she was done she asked him if he understood.  A small nod of his head indicated he did.  Dominique pointed to three racks of clothing.  "Feel free to pick out a new pair of pants, a shirt, and a pair of shoes.  You can leave what you have on here.  I can tag them for you and put them in with the rest of the laundry. You can pick them up the day after tomorrow."

 

     Dominque studied the man's ragged shirt and blue jeans.  She had serious doubts the clothing would survive the rigors of the washing machine.  She wondered how many months he'd been wearing them, and how they'd come to be spattered with what looked to be dried blood.  "Or you can simply throw them away if you prefer."

 

     The man looked at Malachi.  The black man nodded as if to tell his new friend everything Dominique explained was on the up and up. 

 

     "Malachi, why don't you help him pick out the clothes he needs.  I'll be back in a minute."

 

     Malachi moved along with the silent man until they came to a section of pants that looked like they'd fit him.  In short order he retrieved a pair of blue cotton trousers, then moved over to a rack of shirts.  Again, he didn't ask for Malachi's assistance, but quickly found a long sleeve plaid oxford shirt that appeared to be his size.  He then tried on a several pairs of shoes before settling on a pair of ankle high lace-up hiking boots that looked like they'd barely been worn.   Malachi nodded his approval of the choice, and said they'd weather the winter rains quite nicely.

 

     Dominique returned with a sturdy white plastic bag in her hand.  It contained three new pairs of jockey shorts and two new pairs of socks, two new handkerchiefs, a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a plastic bottle of shampoo, a package of disposable razors, a can of shaving cream, a can of deodorant, fingernail clippers, and a comb.  

 

"I see you've picked out your clothes.  Here are a few other things to help get you started."

 

     The man hesitated.

 

     Dominique smiled.  "It's okay.  You can take it.  Everything that's in here is yours now."

 

     The man studied her a long moment before reaching out and taking the bag from her.  It seemed to Dominique he feared she'd take it away from him.  Feared that she was toying with him for some reason.  She began to wonder what had happened to this man to make him so silent and skittish.

 

     Dominique's eyes lingered on the stranger before traveling to Malachi.  "Please show him where the showers are, Malachi.  I'll go convert the office to an exam room while he's cleaning up.  When we're finished, he can come back here and pick out a coat, hat, and pair of gloves."

 

     "Okay, Doc," Malachi agreed.  "Come on, Friend."

 

     The man followed Malachi back out the door and down the hall, Dominique in their wake.  Ten minutes later Malachi joined the nurse in the office.

 

     "Where's our new friend?"  She asked.

 

     "Still in the shower.  And from the sounds of things he doesn't plan on coming out anytime soon."

 

     Dominique chuckled.  "From the way he smelled I'd say that's a good idea."  She crossed over to sit on the corner of the wooden desk whose old top was marred with carvings from a pocketknife and stained with coffee rings.  Malachi took a seat in the only chair in the room, which sat behind the desk. 

 

     "What do you know about him, Malachi?"

 

     "To tell you the truth, little lady, about as much as you do.  He showed up in Beulah Land two weeks ago.  He doesn't talk to anyone, but he doesn't make any trouble either.  He just keeps to himself.  Lately he's been coughing a lot and not looking very well.  Now you know, I take pride in the fact that no one's ever gone to meet his maker while finding shelter in my alley.  I didn't want this guy to be the first.  So this morning I struck up a conversation with him."

 

     "He talks to you?"

 

     "No," Malachi shook his head.  "He hasn't said a word to me.  As I said, I struck up a conversation with him.  I never said he conversed back."

 

     Dominique smiled at Malachi's humor. 

 

     "So I told him about this place, and about you.  I asked him if he'd come with me if I brought him here.  He nodded his head yes, so here we are."

 

     "Is he an alcoholic?"

 

     "Not that I'm aware of. At least I've never seen him with a bottle, or acting drunk."

 

     "How about drugs?"

 

     "Not that I've seen.  And I've never seen him acting like he's stoned, or on a trip or anything."

 

     "Then mentally?"

 

     Malachi wrinkled his brow in thought.   "I don't know about that either.  A week ago I would have told you I didn't think the guy had all his marbles, but now I believe I'd be wrong about that.  He seems to understand everything I say to him.  And everything you've said to him, as well.  And he sure hasn't done anything yet that would lead me to think he's got bats in his belfry."

 

     Dominique smiled.  "Except show up in Beulah Land and not speak to anyone."

 

     "Bingo.  So I suppose that proves something isn't connecting right in that noggin of his, doesn't it?"

 

     "I don't know," Dominique shrugged.  "You live there.  So far the only difference I can discern between you and your new friend is that you smell better and talk more."

 

     Malachi laughed, but didn't take the bait.  In the three years Dominique had known him, she'd tried to get him to tell her about his past on more than one occasion.  So far her efforts had proved futile.  What little she knew about Malachi were the every day surface things that were plain to observe.  Where he came from, what brought an educated, eloquent, caring man such as Malachi to an alley full of homeless people in San Francisco she had no idea.  She wondered if she ever would.

 

     Before the nurse could probe any further Malachi rose.  "I'd better go see how my friend's doing.  I wouldn't want him sneaking out the back on us."

 

     It was another ten minutes before Malachi reappeared in the office.  His friend hesitated in the doorway.

 

     Dominique turned around at the sound of their footsteps.  She had to swallow back a gasp upon catching sight of the stranger.  Freshly showered, in clean clothes, and divested of the dirty beard and moustache he'd been sporting, made it easy to see he was an extremely handsome man.  Far better looking than Dominique would have guessed him to be only forty-five minutes ago.  His wet hair was neatly combed and hung thick and heavy to the middle of his neck.  In the back it fell below his shirt collar.  She could see strands of it drying to become the color of sun-bleached oats. Its earlier appearance had led her to believe he was a brunette.  Now she realized that was nothing more than God only knew how many weeks worth of caked in grime.

 

     And now that his hair was off his face she could see, as well, the flaxen lashes and eyebrows that framed his startling sky blue eyes.  He almost seemed to be a different man entirely, and for just a brief second Dominique thought of asking Malachi if this was a joke.  Thought of asking Malachi what he'd done with the man he'd come in with. 

 

     However, the blond's silence, punctuated by harsh intermittent coughs, and his coltish demeanor did, in fact, mark him as the man Malachi referred to simply as Friend.

 

     Malachi sat the white bag of toiletries the blond had used on top of a filing cabinet for the time being.   "There's no need to worry about washing his other things.  He decided to throw them away."

 

     Dominique nodded.  "That's fine." 

 

     The nurse had cleared off the desk while the men were gone.  She looked at the blond, then indicated to the desk with a nod of her head.  "For lack of anything better, we'll use this as an exam table.  Come on over and have a seat."

 

     When the blond didn't move from the doorway Dominique crossed the room.  She reached out a hand and gently grasped his upper arm.  She could feel his body stiffen and he pulled back slightly. 

 

     "It's okay," she said in the same soft tone she used with frightened children.  "You can trust me, I'm not going to hurt you.  I just want to listen to your lungs and heart.  Maybe take your temperature and look in your ears and throat.   But nothing more.  I promise."

 

     The man's eyes flicked to Malachi.

 

     "Go ahead, Friend," the black man gently encouraged.  "Let Doctor Dom take a look at you.  Like she said, she's not going to hurt you.  No one is."

 

     After another long moment of indecision, the blond finally allowed Dominique to lead him to the desk.  She turned her back to him as she sifted through her medical bag, pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and asked him to remove his shirt.

 

     Malachi's sharp intake of breath made the nurse swivel around.  She couldn't hide her shock as her dark eyes widened.

 

      "Who did this to you?" Came her automatic question.

 

     The automatic question she, of course, got no answer to.  The man's chest and shoulders were covered with tiny molten bruises that could only leave Dominique guessing as to what his body had looked like a few weeks earlier.  She walked around to observe his back, only to discover it in the same condition.  Small round discolored splotches the sizes of nickels, dimes, and quarters were just beginning to fade, and ran from his neck to his waist.  She supposed in a few more weeks the places would be healed over completely, leaving no signs of the torture the man had evidently endured.  She looked over at Malachi to see him shaking his head in despair.

 

     Dominique walked back to stand in front of the blond.  She gently grasped his wrist and studied his left forearm.  It, as well, was dotted with small bruises.  When she looked closer she discovered needle marks.  A quick glimpse of his right arm found it to be in the same condition.

 

     She stood back and looked him in the eye.  "I'm going to ask you something and I want the truth.  But only because I need to know in order to help you, not because I'll go to the police.  Are you a drug user?"

 

     For the first time the blond man met and held Dominique's eyes.  It was as if with that contact he was trying to tell her what he couldn't say. 

 

     "You're not, are you?"  She guessed.

 

     He shook his head back and forth in a negative gesture.

 

     "Then someone did this to you?  Someone purposefully hurt you for some reason?"

 

     This time Dominique got no answer, and the blue eyes dropped to the man's lap.  For some odd reason Dominique didn't think his eyes dropped in fear, but rather that they dropped in shame.

 

     Dominique could barely stand to be a part of the sorrow and hopelessness that suddenly seemed to radiate from the man.  She cleared her throat and got down to the business at hand.  She listened to his heart and lungs, took his temperature, and looked in his ears and throat.  She didn't bother to ask him to say 'ah' when doing the latter because she assumed he wouldn't.  Although she was no dentist, she noticed his teeth were well cared for.   She assumed that meant he had, in the recent past, lived a lifestyle that afforded him the luxury of proper dental hygiene and regular dental checkups. 

 

     When Dominique was done she sat her instruments aside and gently probed her patient's ribs.  He pulled away from her in pain.  She wasn't positive if he had some cracked ribs, or if some had been broken at one time and were just beginning to heal.  He did the same when she touched his right shoulder.  She couldn't detect anything broken there, but thought the joint seemed loose in its socket, as though it had been dislocated within the past few months.

 

     When she was finally finished, Dominique took a step back so she could look him in the eyes once again. "So, what's the deal here, fella?  Did you get in the losing end of a fight with a raging bull or what?"

 

     She didn't expect the reaction she got.  The blond man smiled at her and nodded his head yes.  Dominique looked over at Malachi.  "Well, Malachi, looks like your friend is our kinda guy.  He's got a good sense of humor."

 

     "I see that," Malachi acknowledged from where he'd been quietly watching the medical exam from the far side of the room.  He'd been on the alert at first, not knowing if his strange new friend would try to bolt the minute Dominique attempted to touch him.  But as the exam progressed, and the blond sat passively through it, Malachi relaxed and observed.  "How is he?"

 

     "I'd say he's definitely got bronchitis.  He’s running a slight temperature, but nothing to be too concerned about.  And his ribs have been broken or cracked at one time or another.  As well, his shoulder has been dislocated.    He should go to the hospital for X-rays--"

 

     Malachi groaned, knowing what a trip to the county hospital meant for a homeless person.  Most would rather die than do go there.  It was nothing but endless hassles, prolonged waiting in a room crowded with gunshot victims, drug addicts on bad trips, drunks, and cops, not to mention the rudeness on the part of a good deal of the staff.  He hardly thought his skittish friend was up to dealing with such an atmosphere.

 

     "Can't you just patch him up here?"

 

     "I'll see what I can do," Dominique reluctantly promised.  "I'll tape his ribs for the time being and check him again next week.  If they're still as tender as they are now...well, I'll figure something out.  Maybe I can sneak him into Mercy under the guise that he's my brother."

 

     Malachi looked from the olive complexioned, dark headed Dominique, to the fair skinned blond stranger.  "Yeah," he deadpanned.  "And you can tell them I'm your cousin."

 

     Dominique laughed.  "Okay, okay.  I see your point.  Whatever. I'll figure something out if need be.  I'll also get Dr. Havshall to write a prescription for this bronchitis."

 

     Dr. Kevin Havshall was a member of Dominique's church, and on staff at a hospital in Oakland.  He volunteered his medical services at St. Jude's one Saturday a month.  In-between times, Dominique touched base with him if a patient needed something   like an antibiotic.

 

     "He'll probably give me penicillin and a cough syrup of some type.  I'll see if I can get them yet today.   If I can't, I'll drop them by here tomorrow morning on my way home from wo..."

 

     Before Dominique could finish her sentence she felt the barest of touches on her arm.  She turned in surprise to see the stranger shaking his head.

 

     "What?"  She questioned gently.  "I'm not sure what you're trying to tell me."

 

     Malachi spoke up from his observation point across the room. "He started shaking his head when you mentioned Dr. Havshall giving you penicillin." 

 

     Dominique turned back to face her patient.  "Are you allergic to penicillin?  Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

 

     The head nodded yes.

 

     Dominique exchanged a quick glance with Malachi before focusing on the blond man once more.  "Good.  That's very good.  I'll make sure he doesn't give you that, or anything related to it." 

 

     Dominique moved to the cabinet and returned with a long, wide strip of bandage.  While she went about taping the man's ribs she gave him stern instructions on how he was to take care of himself over the next week.  Whether those instructions would do any good Dominique didn't know.  In her past experiences with other homeless men more often than not they hadn't, but that didn't keep her from trying.

 

     Dominique also decided to draw blood on the man just to make sure there weren't any other nasty infections floating around in his system, like AIDS.  With the needle marks on his arms it was a very real possibility.  She asked his permission to do the procedure, though she didn't mention AIDS when told him what she was going to have his blood tested for.

 

     The blond gave a reluctant nod of his head.  Dominique didn't blame him for the fear she saw in his eyes, or for the way his body tightened like a taunt guitar string as she tied a rubber strap around his arm to make a vein more prominent.  Whatever someone had recently done to the man that caused the needle tracks on his arms had surely left a lasting impression with him.

 

     The nurse made certain her patient saw her remove the brand new needle and syringe from a sealed packet.   She shuddered to think what the conditions were of the needles that had been used on him before.  She could only pray they'd been halfway sanitized.  

 

     Dominique held the syringe up.  "See," she said with a smile of reassurance,  "it's empty.  I'm not going to inject you with anything.  I'm simply taking a sample of your blood like we just discussed."

 

     Dominique talked softly to her patient so he wouldn't bolt on her, and in the process cause her to accidentally hurt him. 

 

"You've got nice fat veins.  That will make this job easy and quick.  Of course you'll feel the prick of the needle, but after that it’ll be downhill.  I'm going to avoid these bruises.  I don't want to cause you any undue pain."

 

     The blond watched her every move, but didn't pull away.  Dominique got the impression her honesty and gentleness with him earned her a small portion of his trust.  When she was finished she labeled the vial of blood, secured it in a plastic container, and put it in her medical bag.  She'd get one of the lab techs at Mercy to run the tests on it she wanted done, and would pay for it out of her own pocket. 

 

     The nurse turned her attention back to her patient as she placed a Band-Aid over the tiny puncture wound she'd just made in his arm.  "Now I want you to eat here twice a day.  Breakfast is at seven and supper's at six.  Malachi will come with you."

 

     Dominique occasionally saw Malachi eat at the shelter, but not very often.  Usually he only brought someone in who was in need of help like this stranger.  Where he ate, showered, and sought shelter when he needed it Dominique didn't know.  That was yet another mystery surrounding the black man.

 

     "Oh, Doc," Malachi protested.  "Now I don't have any reason to eat here.  There are others who need it more than me."

 

     "That's right, Malachi.  There are," Dominique stated sternly.  "Such as your friend here.  I'd say he's at least twenty pounds underweight for his height.  But I'd also guess he won't come here unless you come with him.  So how about it?  At least for a little while?  At least until he's comfortable coming on his own, or with some of the other men?"

 

       Malachi looked into the blue eyes that seemed to waiting for his answer.  He had the feeling if he said no, he wouldn't come, then his new friend wouldn't either.

 

     "All right.  I'll bring him twice a day for a while.  At least until he learns the ropes for himself."

 

     Dominique smiled.  "Thanks, Malachi.  And while you're here, let's sign you two up for a couple of beds tonight."

 

     "Doctor Dom!  You know I don't like to sleep outside of Beulah Land."

 

     "Malachi, he needs a warm bed tonight.  And for a few nights to come."

 

     Malachi gave a heavy sigh and acted as though he was going to leave a mansion full of valuables unattended.  "Okay, okay.  I suppose I can put Will in charge of things for a few days."   

 

     Dominique smiled to herself at this man's loyalty to a band of homeless people who lived in an alley.  More people should care as much as he did.

 

     The nurse completed her work and told her patient he could put his shirt back on.  When he finished buttoning the last button he stood.  Malachi grabbed the white bag off the filing cabinet. 

 

     "Thanks, Doctor Dominique."

 

     "My pleasure."  Dominique led the way out the door. "Let's go back and have a look through the coats and hats.  Pick out something for yourself as well, Malachi.  This one's on the house."

 

     Dominique wasn't surprised by her friend's reply.  "No, thanks.  I've got all I need.  But maybe I'll take a rain check on that offer.  I'll probably run across someone else one of these days who can use a warm coat."

 

     The nurse didn't hide the affection in her reply.  "Knowing you, Malachi, I wouldn't doubt it."

 

     They entered the warehouse again, Dominique flipping on the light switch as they passed.  She led the two men to a long rack of coats.  Hats, gloves, and mittens, in sizes ranging from children's to men's, lined a table near the coats.

 

     With a wave of her hand Dominique offered the blond man,  "Have at it." 

 

     She stood back and watched as he carefully went through the rack.  There was no doubt he was an intelligent man.  His effort to communicate to her that he was allergic to penicillin proved that.  And now he was looking over each and every coat as if trying to decide which would be the best choice for the upcoming change in weather.  He finally chose a water-repellant winter coat with deep kangaroo pockets.  The coat zipped up the front and had snaps over the zipper for additional closure and warmth.  It contained a hood and came to almost to his knees in length.  Although Dominique knew it had been donated, she doubted it had ever been worn before.

 

      How fortunate those of us are who have more than we need, she thought fleetingly.  And the sad thing is we don't even realize it. 

 

     "Good choice," Dominique praised.  "Now find yourself a hat and gloves."

 

     The blond man shook his head as if trying to say he'd already been given too much.  Dominique was touched.  So many people from all walks of life did nothing but take, take, take, and never gave back.  But here this man was already trying to tell her she'd done too much for him, when she knew she hadn't done nearly enough.    

 

     "Go ahead," she encouraged.  "Remember I told you this was your one and only chance at a freebie.  Go for it."

 

     There it was again.  His smile.  It was a beautiful smile.  She wondered where his family was.  How could anyone allow this to happen to such a sweet and thoughtful man?  He must have someone somewhere. A mother or a father. A sister or a brother.  How could they have abandoned him?  It made Dominique furious to think about. 

 

     While the blond tried on a pair of gloves to make certain they fit, Dominique talked softly to Malachi.  "Do you think I should go to the police about his condition?"

 

     Malachi had seen too many homeless people in similar shape to know that the police wouldn't give Dominique the time of day. 

 

"What good would it do you?  It's not as if he can tell them what happened to him, and even if he can. I have a feeling he won't.  Look how jittery he was with you.  If you try to take him to the cops I'm afraid he'll simply run away."

     Dominique sighed.  "You're probably right."

 

     In short order the quiet man had found himself a pair of gloves.  Dominique wondered what he was doing as he searched through the hats while being careful not to disturb their order.  A knit winter hat was a knit winter hat, wasn't it? 

 

     When he came up with one that was maroon she realized the reason behind his meticulous quest.  He had been looking for a hat that matched the color of his coat, and he had indeed, found one.  Again, Dominique wondered about this man and where he'd come from.  He might even prove to be more puzzling to her than Malachi was.

 

     The blond came to stand by Dominique and Malachi when he was finished. 

 

     "Do you two have everything you need?"  The nurse questioned.

 

     Malachi looked over the clothes the blond held, and then down at the bag he was carrying for his new friend.  "Yep, Doctor Dom, it looks like we're ready to go.  Thanks for your help.  My friend thanks you, too."

 

     Dominique gave it one last shot at getting this stranger to talk.  The exam she'd done of his throat hadn't revealed any damage that would lead her to believe he couldn't speak for physical reasons.  But the final word on that would have to come from a specialist, and she doubted one would ever be willing to look at him.  To many doctors this silent blond would be just another homeless man who was mentally ill. 

 

     "I like to call my friends by name," Dominique said.  "So does Malachi.  Now I'd hate like heck to call you John, as in John Doe, but if you don't give me a better suggestion I guess that's what I'm going to have to do.  How about it?  Do we call you John, or is there another name you go by?"

 

     The blond's brows etched together as he contemplated Dominique's words.  She didn't know if it was she who was more caught by surprise, or Malachi, when a raspy voice in barely above a whisper offered, "Jack."

 

     "Jack?"  Dominique questioned.  "Your name is Jack?"

 

     There was a long moment of hesitation before the blond man nodded his head.

 

     "Jack what?"

 

     It appeared to Dominique as though the man was concentrating hard in an effort to answer her question.  Finally, he gave a disheartened shrug of his left shoulder.

 

     "I don't...know.  Just Jack.  My name is...Jack."

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Early January, 1993

 

 

     No matter how hard he tried to avoid getting so much as a glimpse of a calendar, Rick Simon was all too aware of each passing day.  Aware that they were rapidly approaching the tenth month of A.J.'s absence as he turned the calendar in the Simon and Simon office from December of 1992, to January of 1993. 

 

     Rick sat back in his chair and emitted a heavy sigh.  He ran a hand over eyes that felt like they never got enough sleep anymore, and caressed the temples that always seemed to be nursing a headache.

 

     In the months since A.J. disappeared, Rick had kept Simon and Simon Investigations afloat, but that didn't mean there weren't plenty of days when he would have preferred not to.   Some days A.J.'s presence seemed to be so strong within the office that Rick had to race out the door to get away from the reminders he couldn't bear to run across.  All it took was for him to find a handwritten note of A.J.'s in a file, or for a piece of mail to arrive addressed to Mr. Andrew Simon, or for a salesman to call asking to speak to A.J.

 

     Two weeks earlier Rick had accidentally knocked his brother's coffee mug off the ledge behind A.J.'s desk.  Rick had given it to him years ago. It was the only one A.J. used at the office.  It was navy blue, and had a large A. and large J. embossed on the front in gold.

 

     Rick's elbow sent the mug sailing into the brick wall, causing it to shatter into a multitude of little pieces.  The detective slowly crouched down to assess the damage.  He carefully shuffled an index finger through the remains.  It was obvious the mug was beyond repair.  The detective pulled the garbage can over and began to carefully discard the broken ceramic.  Each time a piece of the mug pinged off the bottom of the metal can it was as if to Rick, he was throwing away a part of A.J.  He realized the thought was foolish, but that didn't stop his throat from swelling, nor did it prevent hot tears from welling up in his eyes until everything before him was a blur.  When his eyes could hold no more moisture, tears splattered onto the shattered pieces of the mug like gentle raindrops. 

 

     Rick's knuckles turned white as he gripped the side of the garbage can to steady his swaying body. His head fell to his chin, and his chest heaved in and out like a bellows.  His racking sobs were so strong and deep they caused his rib cage to ache in protest.   This was the first time Rick had completely given into his despair since A.J. disappeared all those long months ago.   He dropped to the floor and allowed his forehead to rest on the hand still gripping the garbage can.  Between his tears he beseeched, "Oh, God, why?  Why?  Just tell me why, damn it!" until he didn't have any tears left. 

 

     Rick was certain that was the day he would have walked out of Simon and Simon and never walked back in, if it hadn't been for one thing.  His mother.  His mother, and the promise he'd made to A.J. a short time after they'd opened the business.  That promise being, if the dangers sometimes inherent to P.I. work ever caused anything to happen to A.J., Rick wouldn't take off for parts unknown in an effort to run from his grief.  That Rick would stay in San Diego, where he would receive the support he needed from their mother and extended family members and friends.  Likewise, Rick would be available to give Cecilia the support she needed. 

 

     It was because of that promise Rick Simon appeared at the office every morning promptly at nine, and didn't leave until five, if not later.  He continuously had all the cases he could handle, and on occasion had to turn some down when he was either overbooked, or the job someone wanted him to do required two men.  Rick supposed he could have gotten Carlos to help him out at those times, but A.J. was the only partner he'd ever had, and the only one he ever wanted.  If A.J. was no longer there to work beside him, then Rick Simon was now a solo act.   

 

     For the first three months A.J.'s house sat empty the business earned enough money to pay his mortgage.  But it quickly became apparent to Cecilia how taxing it was on Rick to try to earn the income of two men in order to pay all his own bills, the bills the business generated, as well as A.J.'s bills.  She mentioned taking out a mortgage on her home and using the money to pay off A.J.'s mortgage, but Rick wouldn't hear of it.  Although they never said anything to one another, both Cecilia and Rick were aware the day would come that they'd have to have A.J. declared legally deceased so they could sell his home and process his will.  For the time being, that subject was too painful to discuss.  Cecilia finally came up with a temporary solution to their problem.

 

     Margaret Wells' son, Randy, was moving back to San Diego from Colorado.  He had recently divorced and was in the process of relocating near his elderly mother, who was beginning to be in need of assistance.  Cecilia and Rick discussed the matter at length before Cecilia placed a long distance call to Randy, inquiring as to whether or not he was interested in renting A.J.'s house, fully furnished, on a month to month basis.  Randy hesitated a few moments before saying yes.  By virtue of their parents' friendship, Randy, A.J., and Rick had been boyhood pals.  Because he was an only child, Randy had come to look upon A.J. and Rick as the brothers he never had.  He and A.J. had formed an even stronger bond while attending college together.  Therefore, Randy was grieving as well over A.J.'s unexplained disappearance, and he wasn't sure how he felt about moving into his old friend's home.   

 

     In the end, Randy's reluctant agreement to rent A.J.'s home proved to be a good solution for both him and the Simons.  Randy was at a crossroads as he adjusted to being single again after twenty years of marriage.   Renting A.J.'s house afforded him the time he needed to settle in and reacquaint himself with the hometown he'd left twenty-five years earlier, before making any permanent decisions.  Likewise, Cecilia and Rick were comfortable leasing the home to Randy.  They knew they could trust Randy, and his fifteen-year-old son who would be spending part of the summer with him, to take excellent care of A.J.’s house.   By the time fall came Randy spoke privately with the Simon brothers' attorney, and told him whenever Rick and Cecilia were ready to sell the home he'd buy it. 

 

     The weekend before Randy was slated to move in Cecilia and Rick emptied A.J.'s bedroom closet and bureau drawers.  They moved everything into the closet and chest of drawers in the small third bedroom A.J. had used as a home office.  Randy had assured Cecilia that arrangement was fine with him, and that neither he nor his son had reason to be in that room.  Rick removed all the personal mementos of A.J.'s from the house as well.  Some he took, some his mother took, while others were boxed and stored in a corner of the garage for the time being. 

 

     Rick kept a watchful eye on his mother that day as they moved, boxed, packed, and stored A.J.'s things.  Cecilia put up a good front of being all business until she was emptying out A.J.'s closet and pulled a double-breasted suit off the clothes rod that had been a favorite of hers.  She'd always said A.J. looked just like his father when he wore it.  As she held it in her hands and got a whiff of her youngest son's cologne where it still lingered on the lapels, her face crumpled and she began to sob in ragged, gulping breaths.  Rick took her in his arms and led her over to sit on the edge of the bed.  He had no words of comfort to offer, and he felt so damn inadequate.  As if somehow he'd let her down.  When Cecilia's tears subsided she kissed Rick and told him how much she loved him.  Then they returned to their work as though nothing had happened, because they both knew they had no choice but to go forward as best they could and be strong for each other.

 

     The holiday season was hell on Rick and Cecilia.  Well meaning friends tried to ease their pain from Thanksgiving right on through Christmas.  While each and every effort was sincerely appreciated, no one could give the Simons the one and only gift they wanted.  A.J.  If not A.J. alive, and whole, and well, then at least the gift of knowing what had happened to him.

 

     That was the gift Rick most wanted to give his mother that Christmas.  The gift of answers.  But it was also a gift that didn't materialize underneath the tree.

 

     Since March, Rick had spent the year probing, and questioning, and following up on leads regarding his brother's disappearance.  Trouble was, time and time again his probing and questioning proved to be nothing more than an effort in futility.  What few leads came Rick's way never seemed to do more than run him around in circles until he wound up back where he'd started.  He kept a spiral notebook in which he'd recorded what he knew about the events that occurred the night A.J. vanished.  Every question he had about that fateful night was written down.  If he'd gotten answers to any of those questions those answers were recorded.  He'd written down every person he'd talked to about the case, from Abigail Marsh to Hiram Ogden, and what they'd told him.  He had copies of the police reports regarding the break-in at his mother's home, and the subsequent filing they'd made listing A.J. as a missing person. 

 

     As much as Rick loathed the media, he had appeared on the Channel 3 evening news a week after his brother vanished and asked any citizen to come forth who might have seen anything suspicious the night A.J. disappeared.   He also took his story to the two local newspapers and endured endless interrogation that tried his patience.  But Rick figured the reporters' ignorant questions were worth putting up with if they brought him the answers he was so desperately seeking.

 

     For a brief period of time, Rick and Cecilia were offering a twenty thousand dollar reward to anyone who gave them information that led them to A.J.  Within a month's time they pulled that offer, however.  They received so many crank calls in relationship to it that it soon proved to be more heartbreaking than Cecilia could stand.  Abby assured both the Simons that reward money offered in the disappearance of either a child or an adult almost never resulted in any discoveries, positive or negative.   It generally just resulted in a lot of false leads, as Rick and Cecilia had already so painfully discovered.  

 

     By far the most gut-wrenching thing Rick had to do after A.J. vanished was provide his dental records to Jerry Reiner.  Rick knew without asking that meant a decomposed body roughly matching A.J.'s general description had shown up somewhere in San Diego.  Rick didn't ask any questions the day he dropped those records off at Jerry's office, and the coroner offered no explanations.  He accepted the legal sized manila envelope Rick handed him while squeezing his friend's shoulder.  In a harsh, choked voice Rick asked,  "You'll call me if..."

 

     When Rick couldn't bring himself to finish his sentence, Jerry nodded.  "I'll call you."  Though in truth, Jerry Reiner would have visited Rick personally if the unidentified corpse that had been brought in the evening before did indeed, turn out to be A.J.   But it didn't.  

 

     In the coming months Jerry referred to A.J.'s dental records on several other occasions.  He never notified Rick when such an action was necessary.  He felt it would serve no purpose to put the Simon family through heartache each and every time an unidentifiable Caucasian male crossed his path.  If the day came that those dental records did tell Jerry Reiner that the remains lying on his autopsy table were those of his friend A.J. Simon, then he would visit Rick just as he had planned to do the day the detective turned those records over to him. 

 

     But despite all Rick’s many efforts, in ten month's time his diligence and skills had taken him down nothing more than one dead end street after another.  It didn't help matters that A.J.'s car had never been found.  Nor had there been any trace of the Smith & Wesson revolver he was carrying that night.    

 

     Now Rick sat staring at his desk calendar.  He knew all too soon it would be March and the one year anniversary of A.J.'s disappearance would be upon them.  He wondered how he and his mother would mark that day.  There was no grave to visit to pay their respects to, and Rick had given up hope A.J. would be with them in the flesh to hug in relief that the nightmare was finally over.  Numerous friends and relatives had told Rick and Cecilia they intended to hold a candlelight memorial service on that painful anniversary date in honor of A.J. at the ocean side he had loved so much, but Rick wasn't sure whether or not he or his mother could bring themselves to attend the event.

 

     More than likely we'll each grieve silently and in our own way, Rick thought.  And Mom will probably come to the same conclusion that I have.  That after the one year mark has come and gone we have no other choice but to have A.J. declared dead, so we can probate his will.  Somehow she and I have got to figure out a way to go on.  Neither one of us can take another year like this last one.  She's lost so much weight.  Hell, so have I.   We can't take the stress anymore, or the sleepless nights.  Somehow we're gonna have to come to terms with all this.  Somehow we're gonna have to lay A.J. to rest. 

 

     It all sounded logical to Rick.  Deep down he knew they had no other option but to start the long process it would take to have A.J. declared legally deceased.  But it wouldn't be an easy step, and Rick knew he'd hate himself for initiating it.

 

     "I'm sorry, A.J."  Rick's voice was thick with tears as he apologized out loud to the empty office.  "I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you.  I hope you knew how much I love you.  You were my best friend, and I'm just so damn lost without you, little brother."

 

     Rick scrubbed a hand over his wet eyes and whispered, “I’m just so damn lost without you.”

 

 

 

Chapter 7

      

Thursday, January 14th, 1993

 

 

     At ten minutes after one on a Thursday morning in mid-January, Rick was woken from a restless sleep by a sharp, 'rap, rap, rap,' on the houseboat's patio doors. 

 

     Caught between the world of sleep and wakefulness, Rick's mind screamed, "A.J.!,” as it had done every time in the past ten months when the phone rang at an odd hour, or when Rick had an unexpected late night visitor.  But in the few seconds it took Rick to become fully alert he chastised himself for his foolishness, while silently rolling over and retrieving his gun from the nightstand. 

 

     Rex sat up from where he'd been laying on the floor beside Rick's bed.  His ears rose and his body tensed.  He growled when the knocking repeated. 

 

     "It's okay, boy," Rick's quiet voice soothed in the darkness.  Rex stood and followed his master out of the bedroom.

 

     Rick had left the light on over the sink when he went to bed, as was his habit. Its soft glow illuminated the galley.  Rick didn't turn on any additional lights as he soundlessly made his way through the living room.  He took up a stance by the patio doors.  His Magnum was firmly gripped in his right hand, his finger poised on the trigger. 

 

     Rex's guttural snarl sounded again as Rick called through the glass, "Whatta want?"        

 

     The voice was so quiet Rick had to strain to hear the man's muffled words.   "It's me, Rick.  Jose¢ Baronez."

 

     Rick drew back the blinds and unlocked the door.  "Jose¢?"

 

     Jose¢ was a colorful character who owned a bar/restaurant in a Hispanic part of the city.   Rick had met him thirty years earlier in Mexico, when they were both much younger men.  Rick had saved Jose’s life, and for that Jose¢ owed Rick, but had yet to have the opportunity to pay him back.  Not that Rick Simon kept track of such things, but the issue seemed to be an important one to Jose¢.  Jose¢ also had his fingers on the pulse of San Diego's Hispanic community.  As Rick was fond of telling him, "If it moves and speaks Spanish, you know about it."

 

     The balding Mexican stepped inside.  "Be quiet," he cautioned.  "Close the door and lock it again.  Leave the blinds as they were.  And don't turn on any additional lights."

 

     "What?"

 

     "You heard me.  Just do it."  Jose¢ peered out the doors into the blackness of the night before allowing the blinds to fall back into place.  "I don't think I was followed, but I don't want to take any chances.  No one can know I've talked to you."

 

     "Talked to me about what?"   Rick's thinning hair was sticking out from his head in sleep-mussed spikes.  He ran a hand through it to smooth it in place.  "Can't it wait?  I don't usually entertain visitors in my skivvies at quarter after one in the morning.  At least not male visitors.  I'll be in the office around nine.  Come by then and we'll--"

 

     Jose's dark eyes bore into the detective's in silent urgency.  "It's about A.J., Rick."

 

     "A.J.?"

 

     "Si¢.  About your brother.  But first, lock the door."

 

     Rick did as he was told, then indicated for Jose¢ to have a seat at the kitchen table.  He disappeared into the bedroom only long enough to return his Magnum to the nightstand, and to pull on the jeans and shirt he'd discarded on the end of the bed several hours earlier.  Rick was barefoot yet, and his shirt was unbuttoned as he joined Jose¢ in the dimly lit kitchen.  Rex had already made friends with their guest, and was now slumbering at his feet.     

 

     Rick didn't allow himself to get too anxious over the purpose of Jose’s visit.  Plenty of people had come to see him since March about A.J., and nothing they had told him proved useful.  He doubted what Jose¢ had to say would be any different.   Never mind that the man felt the need to show up on Rick's doorstep in the middle of the night.  Jose¢ always did have a flair for the dramatic.

 

     The sharp, pungent smell of beer, and the stale odor of cigarettes and cooking grease, wafted across the table at Rick.   "What is it you wanna tell me about my brother, amigo?"

 

     Jose¢ leaned forward, bridging the space between himself and Rick.  He crossed his legs at the ankles and shoved them far back under his chair.  He laid his arms on the table, rested his weight on them, and folded his hands. 

 

     "A couple of hours ago, when my bar was empty of most of its patrons, I took a break from my work in the kitchen.  There was a group of men sitting at a table shooting the bull, so I pulled up a chair and joined them.  Some I know fairly well, some I know by sight only, and some I know not at all.  A compadre¢ I've never seen before was very drunk.  Very drunk and talking, Rick."

 

     Rick nodded his understanding.  "Go on."

 

     "He was bragging about a job he'd done last year for a man called, El Lobo Negro."

 

     It was a phrase Rick had never expected to hear again. It brought back a flood of nightmarish memories surrounding the case he and A.J. had taken over four years earlier for Elena Montero. 

 

     Softly, Rick uttered, "The black wolf."

 

     "Yes."

 

     "But El Lobo Negro is dead, Jose¢.  I know.  I killed the guy myself."

 

     "That's right, Rick. You did.  And A.J. killed his son, Roberto. But apparently there's another wolf in the Agilar den.  A wolf bent on revenge.  A wolf by the name of Eduardo."

 

     "Eduardo?"

 

     Jose nodded.  "Eduardo Agilar.  The youngest son of Androu Agilar, and the younger brother of Roberto.  According to what I was told tonight, Eduardo Agilar is behind A.J.'s disappearance."

 

     "How?"

 

     "The compadre¢ said he and two other men were hired by an Agilair...associate, shall we say, named Carson Baily.  Wearing the uniform of a telephone repairman, Baily broke into your mother's home and ransacked it.  Then he placed a call to A.J. and told him he was holding your mother hostage.  He told A.J. he wasn't to call the police or you, or your mother would be killed.  He gave A.J. the address of an abandoned building somewhere here in San Diego and told him to come alone.  Baily told A.J. when he arrived he - Baily - would explain exactly what it was he wanted from him."

 

     As Rick listened to Jose's words he knew he was at long last finding the missing pieces to the puzzle surrounding A.J.'s disappearance.

 

     That's why A.J. left his place in such a hurry that night.  Mr. Ogden did see his car at Mom's.  He musta went there first in order to check out the guy's story.   And a threat to Mom would be the only thing that would cause A.J. to go charging off like that without contacting me first.

 

     "What happened next?" 

 

     "Once A.J. was in the building, Baily and his three hired guns jumped him before he had a chance to realize what was happening.  They knocked him unconscious, threw him in the back of a car, and took him across the border."

 

     "To Mexico?"

 

     "Si¢."

 

     "Why?"

 

     "The Agilar family has an estate in the Mexican desert.  I'd heard at one time some years back that it's approximately a hundred miles south of Durango.  Supposedly it's a favorite spot of Eduardo's.  That's where A.J. was held after he was kidnapped."

 

     Rick's questions couldn't tumble out of his mouth fast enough.  "What happened to him?  Is he still alive?"

 

     Jose¢ held up a hand to calm his anxious friend.  "I'm getting to that part.  What happened to your brother, Rick, is that he was beaten on an almost daily basis.  He was deprived of food, and water, and sleep.  Eventually, he was drugged."

 

     "As in addicted to drugs?"

     Jose¢ shook his head.  "I don't know for certain, but I don't think so.  From the sounds of it, he was repeatedly given some type of hallucinogenic that distorts the victim's perception of reality.  Makes the person open to suggestion."

 

     Rick could easily guess what was coming.  He knew the Vietcong had done similar things to some of the American P.O.W.'s in Vietnam.  His words were clipped and grim.  "In other words, he was brainwashed."

 

     "That's my guess.  From what the compadre¢ said, by the end of the summer A.J. no longer knew who he was.  He could no longer speak. Whether that was a result of the drugs, the brainwashing, or his physical injuries, I don't know.  The compadre¢ didn't say."

 

     Rick turned away from Jose¢.  He pushed a breath out between clenched teeth.  "That bastard."   Rick's fist slammed down on the table with so much force it rattled the kitchen wall clock.  "That goddamn sonuva bitch!  When I get a hold of the bastard there won't be enough left of him to sift into an urn."

 

     Rick took a calming breath and faced his friend.  "Exactly how can I find Agilar's estate?"

 

     "It doesn't matter, amigo.  A.J. is no longer there."

 

     "What?  Where is he then?"

 

     Jose¢ shook his head with regret.  "I don't know."

 

     "Whatta ya' mean you don't know?  You just got through telling me this drunk told you about what happened to A.J.  You just said--"

 

     "The man doesn't know where A.J. is, Rick."  Jose's dark eyes clearly reflected Rick's Simon's frustration and pain.  "He said at the end of the summer Agilar instructed Carson Baily to drive A.J. somewhere far away from San Diego and dump him there."

     "Dump him?"

 

     "Yes."

 

     "You mean to tell me my brother was beaten, brainwashed, and drugged before being left to wander the streets of some strange city?"

 

     "That's what I mean."

 

     Rick momentarily closed his eyes and sagged back against his chair.  "Oh, man.  I can't believe this.  I just can't believe it.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we'd be facin' something like this.  It sounds like the plot of a bad movie."

 

     "Believe it, Rick.   Think about what you know of the Agilars, and then believe it.  I would stake money on the fact that my compadre¢ with the liquored tongue spoke the truth."

 

     Rick nodded.   He didn't doubt the validity of Jose's story.  His past encounters with the Agilar family had shown him how ruthless and violent they were.  How little regard they had for anyone other than themselves.   How full they were of their own imagined power and their own self-importance.  

 

     "This guy...this Carson Baily.  What do you know about him?"

 

     "Just what I've heard on the streets.  That he worked for Androu Agilar for many years.  Apparently he continues to work for Eduardo."

 

     "Where can I find him?"

 

     Jose¢ smiled.  "Now that's the easiest question you've asked me all night, amigo.  You can find Mr. Baily in La Jolla."

 

     Rick's eyebrows rose.  "La Jolla?  How convenient.  I think I'm suddenly feelin' the need to take a drive in that direction."

 

     Jose¢ rose from the table.  Rick followed suit and extended his hand. 

 

"I can't thank you enough, Jose¢, for comin' here and tellin' me all this.  I really appreciate it, man."

 

     "There's no need to thank me, Rick.  I think I've finally found a way to repay you for saving my life all those years ago."

     Rick chuckled.  "Yeah, Jose¢.  I think you finally have."

 

     "I don't believe the man with the loose tongue can ever tie me to you, Rick, nor can anyone else that was sitting at the table tonight that I'm aware of.  But to be on the safe side, I'm going to lay low for a while.  Maybe take a little vacation with one of my senorita’s.  I hear the fishing in the Caribbean is excellent this time of year."

 

     Rick nodded.  "That's probably a wise idea."  

 

     Rick walked Jose¢ to the door.  The Hispanic man halted at the threshold.   "There's one more thing you should be aware of.  One thing that may give you a better picture as to what condition A.J. will likely be in should you find him."

 

     "I'll find him, Jose¢.  You can bet money on that."

 

     "I don't believe I'll do that.  I have a feeling I'll lose.  Regardless, my compadre¢ said he overheard a conversation between Agilar and Carson Baily.   I'll quote you his words.

 

      "El Lobo Negro says even if Ricardo Simon does find his brother someday, the blond one will be so loco that Ricardo Simon won't want him back."

 

     Rick didn't hesitate for even a fraction of a second when forming his reply. "El Lobo Negro has greatly underestimated Ricardo Simon, and just what lengths Ricardo Simon will go to for his brother."

 

     Jose¢ smiled.  "That's what I thought you'd say.  If I could have told the man that I would have."

 

     Rick's vow was cold and menacing.   "I'm gonna do one better than that, Jose¢.  I'm gonna tell Eduardo Agilar that in person."

 

 

Chapter 8

 

Monday, January 18th, 1993

    

 

     Four evenings after Jose's late night visit, Rick felt the need to do a little late night visiting of his own.  It had taken nearly all his detective skills to discover exactly where it was Carson Baily lived in La Jolla.  A man like Baily, who certainly had his share of enemies, didn't exactly list his address in the phone book. 

 

     Rick was discreet in obtaining the information he needed.  The last thing he wanted was someone tipping off Baily that a man named Rick Simon had been asking questions about him.  Fortunately for Rick one of Carlos's many cousins owned a lawn maintenance service.  Although the cousin wasn't the man contracted to trim Baily's hedges and mow his grass, he knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone, who was.  Through this twisted vine of communication was how Rick finally obtained what he needed to know.

 

     Rick drove by Baily's house twice on Saturday in a red Jaguar borrowed from one of Carlos's shops.  He wanted to get a good look at the neighborhood and home he'd be seeing again after dark.  The Jag made Rick a lot less conspicuous in this upscale suburb.  The people that inhabited it weren't exactly a pickup truck crowd.

 

     It was one-thirty on Monday morning when Rick parked his truck a mile from Carson Baily's home in a remote dark corner of an all-night grocery store's lot. 

 

     No one was around to pay any attention as Rick quietly shut the truck door and pocketed his keys.  He briefly looked up at the sky. The detective was happy to see the heavy cloud cover was still hanging low over southern California, as the weatherman promised it would for the next two days.  The thick clouds veiled the moon that was three quarters full.  They allowed only the barest amount of its light to sneak through every now and then, before covering it up once more like a child playing peek-a-boo with a blanket. 

 

     Rick walked in the direction of Baily's house, being careful to stay within the shadows of the privacy hedges that lined the sidewalks of almost every home he passed.  He saw only one car, but its driver didn't see him.  Rick's dark clothing and camouflage cap caused him to blend into the night.  Before the car's headlights could shine on him, Rick was safely sheltered behind the enormous trunks of two aging oak trees that long ago had intertwined and grown together.

 

     Like many of the homes in the prestigious neighborhood, Baily's was secluded behind hedges in the front, as well as on both sides.  Those six foot high hedges would seclude Rick's movements from Baily's neighbors, and for that the detective was grateful.

 

     Rick closed his eyes and held onto his cap as he slipped sideways through a set of those scratchy hedges and into the edge of the front yard.  The home was a massive three story brick structure on an acre of ground with a circle drive and a four car garage.  When Rick had driven by it in the daylight he hadn't seen any signs that advertised it being wired with a home security system.  He knew he could get around one, but depending on its design it could take him some time.  Regardless, he would be forced to exercise caution before entering the house.  He certainly didn't want to get caught by surprise and assume the home didn't possess a security system, only to find out too late that it did.

 

     Rick looked up at the dark house towering before him.  He guessed the property was worth eight hundred thousand dollars if it was worth a penny. 

 

     Evidently bein' the Agilars' hired man pays well.  

 

     Rick pulled a flashlight and a pair of black gloves out of one of the deep pockets of his camouflage field jacket.  From under the jacket he took his loaded Magnum out of its holster.  He crouched low and silently raced across the wide manicured lawn to the south side of the house.  His shoes crunched softly on the ornamental bark that blanketed a row of shin-high shrubs.   The scent of fresh pine floated upward as the legs of Rick's jeans disturbed the shrubs' placid branches.  He ducked down to circumvent each window he came to.

 

     Somewhere in the dark neighborhood a dog began to bark a warning.  Rick paused, trying to gauge where the sound was coming from.  By the time the detective determined the dog was several blocks behind him, the animal's barking had ceased.

 

     Rick scanned the immediate vicinity.  Baily's home and the homes of his adjoining neighbors remained serene and blanketed in darkness.  Rick continued his forward motion through the shrubs.  Five cautious footsteps later an overhead light popped on.  The detective dived for cover as the yard was flooded bright white. 

 

     Rick lay on his belly in the bushes with the sharp edge of a piece of redwood bark poking him in the stomach.  He cocked his semi-automatic in preparation as his eyes roamed his surroundings.  He listened hard, but didn't hear any doors open.  He carefully rolled on his side and looked up.  No lights had come on in any of the rooms of the house either. 

 

     As the seconds passed and the house and neighborhood remained quiet, Rick came to the conclusion he'd triggered a motion sensor light.  Just like he'd been taught in boot camp so many years earlier, Rick slithered along through the bark on his stomach until he felt he was out of the light's range.  Five minutes later it flicked off. 

 

     Rick slowly rose to his feet.  He brushed a few clinging pieces of bark off his shirtfront and jacket.   He was now at a corner of the house that overlooked the backyard, and he was hidden behind an evergreen shrub as tall as himself.  He stayed where he was another ten minutes.  During that time the house remained dark and silent, leading Rick to believe Carson Baily had slept through the light coming on.  Or perhaps he was accustomed to that occurrence considering wandering dogs, cats, or other small animals could have triggered the same result Rick had.

 

     When Rick felt it was safe, he slid smoothly along the brick wall and rounded the corner of the house.  An in-ground swimming pool dominated the backyard.   A glass table complete with four chairs sat at one end of it.  The other end held a smattering of deck chairs and chaise lounges.  A diving board protruded like a tongue over the far end.  Closer to Rick was a blue curved slide that would dump its occupants into four feet of water.  An eight foot high wooden fence separated Baily's property from his backyard neighbor's.   The fence and the hedges created a fortress-like atmosphere around the house.  Rick smiled slightly.  He began to think that just maybe this was his lucky night.

 

     Rick made his way toward the wooden deck attached to the back of the house.  French doors opened onto the deck.  The arrangement reminded Rick of A.J.'s home on the Grand Canal.  For a moment he was forced to pause as he thought of his brother.  Just as quickly, Rick shook his head as if to clear it.  He couldn't afford to think of anything other than the job at hand.  Even the smallest misstep could obliterate his chances of finding A.J.  And those chances were already slim enough as it was.  

 

     The lanky man took the steps without a sound.  He was glad he'd exchanged his cowboy boots for tennis shoes before embarking on this evening's journey.

 

     Rick paused when he came to the doors.  Again, he saw no seal that claimed this residence harbored a security system.  He craned his head upward, then to the left and right.  The house remained dark.  He spent a long moment clothed in indecisiveness before turning his flashlight on.  Rick saw himself reflected off the light's beam when it hit the glass of the doors.  He made quick work of traveling the beam around the perimeter of the doors where their wooden frames met the glass.  He didn't see any minute wires or sensors that led him to believe the house possessed an alarm.

 

     Rick reached out to try the doorknob on the off chance someone had forgotten to lock up before going to bed.  Nothing more than his index finger came in contact with the door when it slowly swung open.  Rick realized that, aside from the door being unlocked, it also wasn't latched.  That seemed rather odd to the detective.  It was with extreme caution that he proceeded into the house.

 

     Rick looked again to his left and to his right, as he crossed the threshold.  He immediately knew he'd entered a family room.  A fifty-three inch television screen dominated one wall, and a massive stone fireplace another.  As well, the room possessed a stereo system even the Rolling Stones would envy.  Rick was thankful it was dry outside as he made his way across the plush carpeting.  The last thing he wanted to do was leave behind a muddy footprint. 

 

     The detective kept his flashlight beam on low and pointed at the floor as he crossed from the family room into the wide-open kitchen.  The room was large and immaculate, the refrigerator beckoned with a soft warm hum.  Rick stepped around the raised stools that sat at the breakfast bar and walked past the center work island.  Shiny copper pots and pans hung from overhead.  The rubber soles of Rick's shoes made no noise against the white ceramic tiles of the floor.

 

     Rick moved quietly yet quickly through the remainder of the downstairs.  He checked the bathroom and laundry room that were in a hallway to the side of the kitchen.  Both rooms were dark and unoccupied.  He turned the knob of a closed door in the same hallway, but it was locked.  He didn't bother to try to get on the other side of it.  He had already guessed it led out to the attached garage. 

 

     Rick made his way back to the kitchen and proceeded to the formal dining room.  It sat in front of the kitchen, and faced the street.   A crystal chandelier that Rick estimated was worth at least five thousand dollars was suspended above the gleaming cherry table that sat ten. 

 

     The detective took three more steps into the room.  He didn't sense anyone else's presence, nor did he hear anyone breathing, or hear the faint shuffle of shoes against the carpeting, but out of the corner of his eye Rick caught a  glimpse of an armed man to his left.

 

     In a split second's time Rick's heart rate accelerated to the speed of a Thoroughbred's thundering toward the finish line.  Adrenalin flooded his veins, and in one fluid motion he pivoted with the dexterity of an NBA pro and brought his gun up to a firing position.

 

     The only sound in the dark room was the deep, calming breaths Rick forced himself to take.  He slowly allowed his gun to drop back to his side.  For the man he had seen was no one other than himself.  His reflection had been bounced off his flashlight beam and magnified against the glass front of the china cabinet.

 

     Calm down, Simon, Rick mentally chastised himself.  You damn near blew that cabinet to smithereens along with all the dishes in it.  That woulda' been a helluva an effective way to wake Baily, not to mention the entire neighborhood.   

 

     Rick didn't rush himself.  He knew impatience could prove fatal, and he felt he'd already made enough mistakes for one night.  He stood in the middle of the room until his breathing and pulse returned to their normal rates.  When he slowly continued forward he arrived at the foyer.  A wide oak staircase wound and curved to the upper levels.  The ceiling of the foyer itself rose the entire three stories without interruption.  Far above Rick's head he could detect another light fixture.  He couldn't clearly see it, but assumed it was as expensive and as fancy as the one hanging in the dining room.  Across the wide corridor was the formal living room.  It dominated the remainder of the front of the house.  It was dimly illuminated by an arc of light from the street that was just barely able to reach over the hedges and swim the width of the lawn.  Except for its lavish furniture and a baby grand piano, the living room was empty, and like the rest of the home, in impeccable order.

 

     Rick paused and listened before proceeding up the stairs.  The upper level was silent.  He assumed its occupant was asleep. 

 

     The detective was cautious as he climbed the stairs.  He tested each carpeted plank like a person tests their first step in a lake with unknown water temperature.  The last thing Rick needed after having gotten this far was to have a creaky stair step give his presence away.

 

     It was as Rick climbed the stairs that he came across another mistake on his part. Hanging on the walls on the second floor landing were pictures.  Pictures of a family.  Evidently Carson Baily had a wife and children.  Rick had naively assumed a man in Baily's line of work lived alone.  The detective had been so concerned with not asking too many questions about Baily for fear his inquiries would get back to the man, that he'd let himself become careless.  Or at least that's how Rick perceived it as he mentally cursed himself out. 

 

     Rick didn't let the pictures deter him, however.  He took a moment to study them.  From what Rick could tell Baily had two daughters.  By the age of the pictures that displayed the girls in caps and gowns he guessed they were long grown.  He hoped that also meant they were living elsewhere.  There were pictures of younger children, as well, that appeared to be much more recent.  Rick assumed these babies and toddlers were Baily's grandchildren.  He hoped so.  If the house was occupied by too many people Rick would be forced to leave without getting what he came for.

 

     The detective moved down the wide hallway.  There were two bedrooms on the right side and one on the left.  All three were empty with neatly made beds.  They all had an air about them that labeled them as guest rooms.  Rick couldn't detect any personal items in them that indicated someone resided there full-time.  That meant no daughter out on a late night date should be walking in on him.  So far Rick's luck was holding.  The bathroom that floor contained was dark and empty as well.

 

     Eight more steps led Rick to the third and last story.  Either no one was home, and all Rick's cautions had been for nothing, or it was this floor that held the master suite and its occupants. 

 

     Rick stepped onto the landing.  He didn't see her until his flash light beam traveled the floor ahead of him.

 

     The huddled form of a woman was lying on the carpet in a semi-fetal position.   Her back was to Rick, and her satin nightgown was bunched around her knees.  One leg was lying in front of the other in a sprinter's stride, as if she'd been running from someone when caught.   

 

     Rick swallowed hard and knelt down beside her.  One finger remained poised on the trigger of his gun.  He laid his flashlight at his feet and reached down for her wrist.  As he suspected, there was no pulse.  Her skin was warm to his touch and her body supple.  She hadn't been dead long.

 

     Rick rolled the woman onto her back and cringed at the sight.  Her neck flopped to the side as though it belonged to a neglected, broken doll.  Rick could only guess that her neck had been twisted until it snapped by someone who knew what he was doing.  If she'd tried to scream for help, as Rick suspected she had, her calls were silenced before they permeated the quiet of the night.  She was the same copper headed woman Rick had seen in some of the pictures below.  He guessed her to be in her mid-fifties, and knew she must have been Carson Baily's wife.  Her blue eyes were wide open and spoke of her last few seconds of terror.  They seemed to be accusing Rick of wrongdoing. 

 

     Did I walk in right after a lover's quarrel of some sort?  Were the doors open because Baily fled out the back? 

 

     Rick surveyed the area from his crouched position beside Jeanette Baily's body.   The house was still as dark and quiet as it had been when he entered, but now that darkness seemed to hold an ominous presence.  Rick's grip tightened on his gun.  He picked up his flashlight and stood. He stepped over Mrs. Baily's body and crept along the hall into the master bedroom.  A king size bed dominated the center of the room.  In total contrast to the dead woman in the hallway who had met with such a violent end, a man was lying peacefully asleep on his back, the covers pulled up to his chest.  Just from his length and girth Rick knew the man was Carson Baily.  Carlos's cousin told him Baily stood six foot five and weighed somewhere in the range of two hundred and eighty pounds. 

 

     Rick silently crossed the floor to the sleeper's side.  He tilted the Magnum's muzzle down and rested it against the man's temple, while at the same time raising the flashlight and shining it in Baily's face. 

 

     Rick's arm collapsed to his side, the weight of his gun suddenly too heavy for his wrist.  He took a stumbling step away from the bed.

 

     The detective wouldn't be getting any answers from Carson Baily tonight, or any other night for that matter.  Blood still seeped from Baily's carotid artery and trickled downward to stain his pillowcase crimson. 

 

     Carson Baily's throat had been slit all the way to his spinal cord.

 

 

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