Chapter 19


Friday, February 26th, 1993



     It took Dominique forty-five minutes of searching before she ran across Malachi.  The man was leaning against a wall talking to an old drunk.  When he caught sight of the diminutive woman and the way she was frantically gesturing to him, Malachi excused himself from his companion.


     "Is something wrong, Dr. Dom?"

     Dominique glanced around before pulling Malachi into the doorway of a vacant store.  Without any preamble, she reached into her coat pocket and thrust the picture at him. 


"Malachi, who's the man in this picture?"


     Malachi didn't skip a beat.  "Jack."


     Dominique threw her head back and briefly closed her eyes.  "I was hoping against hope you'd tell me I'm wrong."


     "You're not."  Malachi reached in his own coat pocket.  "Now I have something to show you.  I was going to stop by the shelter in a little while and talk to you about it."  Malachi handed Dominique a light blue piece of paper folded in thirds.  "Will told me a black guy was in Beulah Land yesterday asking about Jack."


     "A black man?"

     "Yes.  He said the guy might as well have been wearing a neon sign that flashed cop."


     "What did Will tell him?"


     "Nothing.  He denied ever having seen or heard of Jack.   The guy gave him that flyer, and asked him to show it around.  In turn, Will handed it over to me."


     Dominique unfolded the paper.  The same photo she held in her hand was enlarged and situated in the center of the paper.  Above it was printed, Andrew J. Simon.  In parenthesis below that were the initials, A.J.


     Dominique read out loud the words the flyer contained. 


"Andrew J. Simon, a San Diego private investigator, was kidnapped on March 14th, 1992.  Recent evidence in this case leads law enforcement officials to believe Andrew Simon is in the San Francisco area.  Mr. Simon is six feet tall, and at the time of his disappearance weighed one-hundred and fifty-five pounds.  He has blue eyes and blond hair, and goes by the nickname A.J.  It is possible Mr. Simon's physical condition is such that he can't speak, and is suffering from amnesia. Please help his family find him."


     At the very bottom Richard Simon's name was listed with a phone number next to it. Underneath that, was a phone number for the San Diego Police Department along with the name of a contact there, Lieutenant Abigail Marsh.


     The nurse stared down at the paper a long time before finally looking at her companion.  "What do you think?  Is all this on the up and up?"


     "Are you asking me if there's a possibility this could be some type of a ploy the cops are using in order to get their hands on Jack?"

     Dominique nodded.  "That, or maybe the black guy Will talked to isn't a cop at all.  And maybe the other guy who came to the shelter last night passing out Jack's picture and claiming to be his brother, isn't who he says he is either.  I don't want to turn Jack over to someone who's going to hurt him again, Malachi.  He trusts me too much for me to be able to do that."


     Malachi softly spoke his agreement.  "I understand, Dominique.  I don't want to betray his trust either.  But, on the other hand, if these men who've been looking for Jack really are who they say they are...well, then at least one of them is a member of his family, Dom.  We can't keep Jack as though he's some kind of lovable stray puppy we saved from the elements."


     Dominique couldn't meet Malachi's gaze.  Although she and Jack had kept their newly forming relationship private and discreet, it was possible Malachi had figured out what was going on.  The man had an uncanny ability to read people.


     If Malachi did know Dominique was in love with the blond man, he kept his thoughts to himself for the time being.  He pointed to the paper Dominique held. 


"You have to admit that flyer describes Jack to a T.  In addition, it's obvious that's a picture of him.  And you've said yourself that you've been wondering if he had done some type of police work at one time or another.  If he was a private investigator that could explain why he's so familiar with police procedures."


     Dominique looked down at Jack's smiling face.  "I know.  Or he could be familiar with police procedures because he's been in trouble with the law."  She brought her head back up and gazed across the street.  "Malachi have...have you ever wondered what you'd do if someone showed up looking for Jack because they wanted to arrest him?  I mean, let's just say that your first scenario is right.  Let's say this flyer and the story it contains is nothing more than an attempt the cops are making to find Jack because he's committed a crime of some sort.  What would you do?"

     "You ask some pretty tough questions, Doctor Dom."


     Dominique smiled and cast her gaze upon her friend once more.  "I know.  Believe me, I've been asking them of myself lately as well."


     Malachi shrugged his shoulders.  "I don't know, Dominique.  I guess it would depend on what he had done.  If the cops are lookin' for Jack because he shoplifts women's underwear from fancy lingerie shops...well no, I wouldn't turn him in.  But neither you nor I are that naive.  If the cops are looking to arrest Jack, and have gone to this much effort to concoct the story that flyer contains, then you know whatever he did was a serious offense."

     "Like murder?"


     "It's a possibility."


     Dominique's words were fierce and protective.  "I don't believe that for one minute.  I don't think Jack has ever hurt anyone in his entire life."


     Malachi put a comforting arm around the nurse's shoulders.  "I don't want to believe it either, Dominique.  But it could very well be true."


     Dominique allowed her head to fall to the black man's chest.  "Oh, Malachi, all I've prayed for month after month is that someone will show up here looking for Jack.  Now that someone has, I don't know what to do."


     Malachi chuckled.  "Didn't anyone ever tell you to be careful what you pray for because it might come true?"


     Dominique couldn't help but chuckle as well. "I thought that was wish.  Be careful what you wish for because it might come true."


     "Wish, pray - same thing, Doctor Dom.  God listens to both."


     "I hope you're right, Malachi.  This is the one time in my whole life that I really need God to listen to my prayers and wishes."


     Malachi gave the nurse's shoulders a comforting squeeze. "He's listening, baby.  He's always listening."  Several comforting seconds passed before Malachi allowed his arm to drop and Dominique pulled away from him.  "So what are you going to do now?"


     Dominique looked down at the flyer and the business card.  "I...I believe I'm going to do some investigating of my own."


     "What do you mean?"


     "I have to find out exactly who these men are before I consider speaking to them about Jack.  I have to know that they're not going to harm him."


     "What if you discover they're here to arrest him?"


     Dominique worried her lower lip with her teeth.  She looked up into Malachi's brown eyes.  "Then I have to know what it is they want to arrest him for."


     "And then what?"


     Dominique smiled.  "You ask some pretty tough questions yourself, mister."


     "I just want to make sure you're thinking this through."


     "I am, Malachi.  Believe me, I am.  Depending on what they want to arrest Jack for, if they even do want to arrest him, I guess I'll have to decide whether or not I'm willing to turn him over to them.  If, for whatever reason, I don't feel I can hand Jack over to these two men, then I can always hide him out at my place for a few days." 


     "You'd better think about what you could be getting yourself into, Dominique.  You could end up being arrested for harboring a fugitive."


     Dominique could hardly believe what she heard herself saying next.  "I know.  But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it." 


     "What can I do to help?"


     "You just got done telling me I could be arrested for harboring a fugitive.  Why are you so anxious to join in the fray all of a sudden?"


     "Just like Jack's your friend, he's mine as well.  And a better friend I haven't had in many a year, Doctor Dom."  Malachi's eyes twinkled with mischief.  "Besides, so what if I do get arrested?  For the first time in years I'll be guaranteed a warm bed, clean clothes, and hot food on a daily basis."

     Dominique smiled at Malachi's humor.  "I certainly hope it doesn't come to that.  And in answer to your question, for now I can't think of anything you can do to help.  I don't even know for sure what I'm going to do yet. Just...keep an eye on Jack for me, will you?  I'm not going to say anything to him about what's going on, but who knows what will happen if those two men show up again looking for him."


     "I'll keep an eye on him, Dom.  On that promise you can rely."


     Dominique wrapped her arms around Malachi's middle.  "Thanks, Malachi.  I really appreciate your advice, and your listening ear."


     Malachi returned the woman's hug. "Any time, Doctor

Dom.  Any time."


     When the two broke their hug Dominique walked back toward St. Jude's. 




     The nurse turned around.  "Yes?"


     "Don't stop praying yet.  Or wishing either.  I have a feeling this is just the beginning, and Jack's going to be in need of all the help we can give him.  Remember, Doctor Dom, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away."


     Dominique gave a thoughtful nod.


     Oh, Lord, I don't even know what to pray for anymore.  I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or not.  I don't want to turn Jack over to those men if they're only going to hurt him.  But yet, if this Richard Simon really is his brother...I love Jack, Lord.  I love him very much, You know I do.  But I won't keep him from his family either.  Just please don't let me hand him over the wrong people, Lord.  Please.



Chapter 20


Friday, February 26th, 1993



     If Jack noticed Dominique was avoiding him after she returned to the shelter he didn't comment on it.  He did ask her again what it was she had wanted to see him about earlier.   She was forced to fib and tell him Father Papanek needed to talk to him about next month's supper menu some time soon.  Well, that in itself really wasn't a fib, Father did want to do that.  It just wasn't what Dominique had planned to discuss with Jack when she'd first entered the shelter that morning.  But given the events that had occurred since that time, Dominique couldn't tell Jack she thought she had a job lined up for him at the hospital.   Dominique wanted to wait and see what she uncovered about the mysterious men who were looking for him.


     Jack was working in the kitchen when Dominique left for the day.  She almost couldn't bring herself to go down and say goodbye to him, but she always did so without fail.  She didn't want to hurt his feelings by not following her routine, or arouse his suspicions.


     She popped her head in the doorway of the kitchen.  "Bye, Jack.  I'm leaving for work now."


     The blond was alone in the room.  The other man who was working with him was out back emptying the garbage.


     Jack crossed the room to come stand beside her.  "Bye, Dominique.  Will I see you some time this weekend?"

     She couldn't meet his trusting eyes.  "I...probably.  I'll probably drop by tomorrow afternoon."


     "I'm glad."


     Dominique looked up at him.  She could tell he wanted to kiss her, and if the truth was told she wanted to kiss him, too.  Unfortunately...or perhaps fortunately, Jack's kitchen partner returned at just that moment.


     Dominique backed out of the doorway.  "Bye, Jack.  I'll see you tomorrow."


     His voice was so soft and full of love that it made her want to cry.  "Bye, Dominique."


      The nurse had to turn away from the blond man when he smiled at her.  Mentally she kept trying the name A.J. out on him for size, but it just didn't seem to fit right.  No matter who he really was, to Dominique he'd always be Jack.


     On impulse, Dominique drove by the Traveler's Rest Motel on her way to work.  It was an older building located on a busy thoroughfare.  She could see why it would appeal to visitors looking for inexpensive accommodations.  It appeared clean enough from the outside, and was within fifteen miles of most of the attractions that brought tourists to San Francisco.  Across the street from the motel was a large shopping mall and a row of restaurants that included everything from fast food joints to eateries where one could sit down and relax while enjoying a home cooked meal.


     Dominique felt like an uncover sleuth as she wheeled her red Toyota Celica across traffic and into the parking lot.  According to the business card she had on the seat beside her the two men who had been asking after Jack were staying in room number 60. 


     The motel was a two story structure shaped like a capital L.  At one end was an office with a neon sign above it that flashed, 'Vacancies.’  Steel stairs painted white rose from both ends of the structure, allowing those with rooms on the upper story to choose the stairway closest to their accommodations.  The walkways of both the upper and lower stories were lined with green indoor-outdoor carpeting.  The hollow metal doors to the rooms alternated being flamingo pink, brilliant blue, pumpkin orange, and an ungodly shade of caution-sign yellow.  Dominique found herself wondering why the motel builders of thirty years ago had a penchant for making their structures look like the inside of a box of crayons.


     The doors were numbered, but even squinting, Dominique couldn't make the numerals out.  She glanced around before parking her car. The parking lot was fairly deserted with only three cars scattered about.  She supposed most tourists would still be out enjoying various attractions at three-thirty on a Friday afternoon.


      Dominique started her investigation on the end of the motel farthest from the office.  She had no idea as to whether or not the manager on duty would give her a second glance, but she didn't want to draw any attention to herself either.  She was thankful she hadn't changed into her nurse's uniform yet.  Some days she did before leaving St. Jude's for work, but on days when she left the shelter a little early, she changed when she got to the hospital.  At least dressed in her blue jeans, yellow T-shirt, and tennis shoes, she could pass for a vacationer. 


     Dominique began on the ground floor.  The very first door she came to was labeled 15 in small, stick-on gold and black letters like a person can buy in the hardware store to label a mailbox with. 


     It's no wonder I couldn't read the darn numbers from the car.  You'd have to have vision like Superman to see these things. 


     Dominique followed the doors as the numbers got progressively lower.  She turned the corner that took her down the shorter part of the L toward the manager's office.  As she expected, the room closest to it was number 1.  She trotted up the steel steps and found herself outside door number 16.  She could hear a vacuum cleaner whining in the distance and circumvented a maid's laundry cart.  She glanced in the open doorway of room number 20 and saw a heavyset woman dressed in white pushing the vacuum across the carpeting.  Two doors down she came to a room that was labeled, Maid's Closet.


     Dominique's journey took her all the way to the other end of the motel until she was above room number 15 where she started.  Now she was standing outside room number 30.


     But I know the guy wrote on the card that he was staying in room 60.


     Dominique walked over to the banister and craned her head around it.  It was then that she realized the motel had rooms on the backside.  Unfortunately, short of climbing over the railing she couldn't get there from here.


     The nurse glanced at her watch and ran down the stairs.   She walked past her car and rounded the building.  This side overlooked more restaurants and several gas stations.  There was a large Dumpster back here as well, resting on the far perimeters of the property.  Dominique made a quick pass of the ground floor.  She never had been able to make rhyme or reason out of how motels worked their number system and found that the room behind room number 15 was room number 31.  She walked the entire length of the ground floor until she was at the back of the manager's office.  She took the stairs up and found herself outside Room 45.


     If I'd have known this I could have went up the stairs at the other end. Oh well, if nothing else I'm getting my exercise for the day. 


     It was getting to the point that Dominique was pressed for time.  If she could have broken into a run without drawing attention to herself she would have.  She settled on a fast walk, barely glancing at the room numbers she passed.  Again, she circumvented a maid's cart on wheels.  A young black woman threw wet towels into the large white pouch and reached for the glass cleaner hanging on its metal rim.  Dominique also noticed a set of keys hanging from the rim, and watched as the woman retrieved them.  The maid flipped through the keys, then picked one out and inserted it in the door of Room 52.


     Dominique's trek led her past another door marked Maid's Closet, before finally leading her to Room 60, the very last room on the upper story.  Its door was yellow and the draperies were open.  Dominique glanced around and saw the walkway was desolate.  Evidently the maid was busy cleaning the room Dominique had seen her enter. 


     The nurse cupped her hands over her eyes and pressed her face against the picture window.  She didn't see anything other than two neatly made beds, one nightstand, two green vinyl chairs, a round table, a dresser with a TV set on it, and at the far end of the room a doorway which she assumed led to the bathroom.   


     Dominique moved over and knocked on the steel door.  As she expected, no one answered.   She glanced to her left, and then down the stairway to her right, before trying the knob.   She assumed it would be locked and it was.


     Darn it!  Why can't anything ever be easy?


     A quick glance at her watch told Dominique she had no choice but to leave.  With one last longing look at Room 60, she trotted down the metal stairs.  She passed two men coming up, one black and one white.  Her thoughts were so far removed from her surroundings that it almost didn't register with her as to who they must be.  The men politely moved to the side to allow her to pass.  The white one tipped his cowboy hat at Dominique and gave her a small smile and nod.  When she was three steps below them, Dominique stopped and followed their progress with her eyes.  The white man glanced back down at her as he reached the top of the steps.  She hurriedly turned away and kept going.  By the time she got to the ground the pair had entered room number 60.


     Dominique let out a heavy sigh.  It's a good thing I didn't manage to get in there.  I'd have been caught red-handed for sure.


     A Jeep Cherokee was parked in the first space by the stairs.  Dominique knew it had to be the vehicle the men were driving, as the back of the motel's lot had previously been empty.  The nurse was well aware she was taking a big risk when she pulled on the driver's side door handle.  The car might possess an alarm, or one of the men might walk out and catch her in action.  But no alarm screeched, nor did either of the men appear.  It didn't make much difference anyway, since all four doors were locked. 


     Dominique's thoughts grew increasingly desperate as she walked to her Celica. 


     I've got to know!  Somehow I've got to discover who these men are, and why it is they want to find Jack.  The one in the cowboy hat looks about as much like Jack's brother as Malachi does. 


     Dominique was forced to remind herself that though she and Justine strongly resembled one another, Mercedes and Vanessa didn't look like either one of them, or like each other. 


     Okay, okay, so maybe that doesn't necessarily mean anything.  I suppose I was getting my hopes up that this...this brother would look so much like Jack that I'd immediately know his story was on the up and up.  Now I have to dig deeper.  But I'm not a private investigator, I'm a nurse.  And if I get caught snooping around their car or room I'm liable to be a nurse without a job.  Or a nurse doing time behind bars.  What the heck do I do now?

     As Dominique approached the Celica she caught sight of the maid on the upper walkway.  She paused in the act of getting in her vehicle and studied the woman.  In that brief moment an idea came to the nurse.  Gone was the despair from earlier, and Dominique was smiling when she pulled her car onto the street.



Chapter 21


Saturday, February 27th, 1993



     Even as a little girl, Dominique Celeste Cascia had possessed a strong sense of adventure.  Her mother said it was because she spent her time reading far too many Nancy Drew mysteries when what she should have been doing was studying her catechism.  Her father laughed and said it was because she'd inherited Grandpa Cascia's high spirits and lack of fear in the face of adversity. 


     Whichever it was, Dominique was a woman who did what had to be done.  And if gaining entrance into Room 60 was what she had to do in order to protect Jack, then that's exactly what she would do. 


     At six a.m. on Saturday morning, Dominique backed her Toyota into a parking space at the Traveler's Rest as far away from the white Jeep as she could get.  She'd arrived home from work at one o'clock that morning, and after letting Adeline out had gone straight to bed.  She hadn't slept a wink, however, as her plan swirled around and around in her mind like clothes being forever agitated by a malfunctioning washing machine.  Sometimes Dominique thought she was a genius, and other times she thought she was just plain stupid. 


     Who do I think I am?  She asked herself as she stared up at her dark ceiling.  Christine Cagney or Mary Beth Lacy?   Thomas Magnum?  Or that character Angie Dickenson played on Police Woman...oh, what the heck was her name, Pepper somebody or the other.  I'm just a nurse.  Just Dominique Cascia, and I don't know the first thing about what I'm contemplating doing.


     But then Dominique would go over her plan once again in her mind and realize it had a good chance of working - if she didn't get caught.


     The alarm rang at four-thirty, but Dominique was already up.  Adeline gave her a mistress a dirty look that seemed to ask, "What in the world is going on so early in the morning that you feel the need to wake me up and make me go outside?"   While Adeline reluctantly went about her business in the backyard, Dominique ate a piece of toast and drank a glass of orange juice.  Despite her lack of sleep she didn't need any coffee to get her going.  Dominique was already so wired that she didn't feel any weariness despite her lack of sleep. 


     Dominique slipped into the clean white uniform normally worn by a member of Mercy's housekeeping staff, that she'd pilfered from the hospital's laundry room.   She'd been forced to baste the legs up four inches, and now added three safety pins to the waistband in order to make it fit her properly.  The nurse hadn't wanted to linger too long in a place she had no reason to be.  She'd grabbed the first uniform she'd come to and scooted out to her car with it.   It wasn't exactly like those she'd seen the two women wearing at the Traveler's Rest.  The top she had buttoned up the front, while theirs were pullover tunics, and her slacks were pleated, while those belonging to the motel's maids weren't.  Nonetheless, Dominique thought it would pass inspection from a distance. She pulled a pair of white tennis shoes from her closet and noticed her hands were trembling slightly as she tied them. 


     As Dominique passed through the kitchen she picked up the bundle of white towels she'd lifted from her visit to the laundry room as well.  She took a roll of paper towels off her own kitchen shelf and a plastic bottle of glass cleaner.  If she was lacking anything in order to make her appear as one of motel's staff members, Dominique didn't know what it was.  She hastily shoved the items in a small zippered sports bag, let Adeline back in the house, shut off the kitchen light, and walked out into the cool morning darkness. 


     Dominique alternated watching the sunrise and watching door number 60 as she sat in her car that morning.  She didn't know what time the maids started their rounds, but assumed it was early.  She was hoping the two she'd seen on afternoon duty the previous day were simply hitting the rooms of those few patrons who were late risers. 


     It was six forty-five when Dominique began to notice activity around the motel's exterior.  Doors squeaked open one by and one and freshly showered visitors emerged.  Some loaded luggage in their cars, some loaded kids in their cars, and others just loaded themselves in their cars before driving away.  No one paid much attention to Dominique as she sat in her car half hidden behind yesterday's newspaper. 


     Over the top of the paper the nurse kept a vigilant eye on Room 60. At five minutes after seven the black man came out of the room, trotted down the stairs, and ambled toward Dominique's car.  Like a periscope, the paper slowly rose until it covered Dominique's face.  She allowed one corner to droop just enough to be able to see the man brush by her car on the passenger side.  When Dominique thought it was safe to do so, she glanced over her right shoulder and watched him disappear around the corner of the building.


     Dominique divided her attention between the direction the black man had just headed and the room he'd just vacated.  Her head rotated back and forth as though she was watching a tennis ball being lobbed across a net.  Five minutes later the black man returned carrying the San Francisco Herald under one arm.  


     Dominique whipped around and buried her face in her paper.  The man glanced in her direction as he passed by, but didn't seem to take any interest in her.  He rested the paper across his forearms and scanned the headlines as he continued his journey, his off-key whistling keeping time with his steps.  Without looking back in her direction, he jogged up the stairs and entered his room.


     At seven forty-two the door to Room 60 opened again.  This time both men emerged.  Although the long wait had tried Dominique's patience, she was thankful the men were running as late as they were.  By now two maids were working the lower floor and one was on the upper floor.  Many of the visitors had already left for the day, leaving the parking lot half empty. 


     Dominique brought the newspaper up to cover her face completely as the men walked down the stairway.  She carefully peered around the side of the sports section and watched the black man unlock the doors of the Jeep.  The white man ducked before climbing in to avoid knocking his cowboy hat off.  So far luck was on the nurse's side.  Neither man had been carrying a suitcase, leading her to believe they either weren't leaving San Francisco today, or that they were headed to eat breakfast prior to the ten o'clock check out time.


     The black man backed the vehicle out of its space, but instead of going around the corner nearest him as Dominique expected him to do he headed straight for her.  In a panic, she dove and pretended to be picking something up off the Toyota's floor. 


     Dominique followed the sound of the vehicle.  She didn't think it had slowed down any as it passed her.  Like a groundhog rising from its hole, her head slowly emerged from the vicinity of the dashboard.  She looked out the Celica's windows.  The Jeep was nowhere to be seen.  The black man must have chosen the far exit because it would take him to a restaurant on that side of the highway.


     Dominique took a deep breath, looked all around her one last time, and then exited her car.  She pocketed her keys, slid her purse underneath the driver's seat, and grabbed her sports bag from the back.  She hoped she looked enough like a maid to pass as one to any patrons who might see her enter the men's room, yet she hoped by carrying the sports bag she looked enough like a patron that any maid who might take notice of her wouldn't think twice about the white clothes she was wearing.  Hopefully, they'd just think she was an out-of-towner on her way to a tennis match.


     Dominique crossed herself and offered up a brief prayer.


     Lord, forgive me for what I'm about to do.  I know the sisters at Our Lady Of The Angels would be praying for mercy on my gone-astray soul if they could see me now.  


     Dominique took the stairs closest to her car.  She didn't run across anyone else until she arrived on the second story landing.  Even then, no one gave her a second glance as she walked past them avoiding eye contact.  She slowed down as she came to the maid outside Room 47.  The same heavyset woman with the tight auburn pin curls Dominique had seen the previous afternoon was using a key from her ring to enter the room.   


      At least that means she'll be in there a while.


     Dominique passed by the woman, then slowed her walk to almost a complete halt.  The maid didn't notice she was being watched as she gathered the supplies she'd need to clean the room.  When the maid entered the room Dominique glanced around, then made a beeline for the cart.  The keys were hanging on a hook beckoning Dominique like the colorful lollipops did during her childhood that had been on display in a neighborhood candy store.


     The nurse gave her surroundings one final furtive glance. 

Her right hand snaked forward in quest of the dangling keys.  Dominique's fingers had just made contact with the rough metal teeth when the maid walked out of the room overloaded with dirty towels.  Dominique toppled forward in fright with a high-pitched "Oh!"  Her body fell onto the rim of the laundry cart.  The bulky cart rolled forward, and Dominique rolled awkwardly with it like a baby taking her first steps in a walker.


     In a rush of words Dominique apologized as she struggled to right herself.  "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."  


     The maid stopped the motion of the rolling cart and assisted Dominique back to her feet.  "Are you all right, miss?"


     Dominique's cheeks flushed bright red.  "Yes, yes.  I'm fine.  Just clumsy this morning is all. "


     The maid smiled.  "I can understand that.  It's early yet.  Why my legs hardly work before I've had at least three cups of coffee."


     Dominique pasted a smile on her own face.  "Yes, I'm sure that's my problem.  I haven't had my morning coffee yet."


     "You're sure you're all right now?"


     "Yes, I'm fine.  Thank you.  Have a nice day."


     "You too," the maid returned as she pulled the vacuum cleaner into the room.  "Enjoy San Francisco now."


     "Oh, I will."


     Dominique swallowed hard and continued in the opposite direction of Room 60 until she reached the stairwell.  She didn't dare look back until she rounded its corner.  She stood on the landing and using one eye, slowly peered back in the direction from which she'd come.  No one was in sight, and she could faintly hear the whine of the vacuum cleaner. 


     Now's my chance.  If I don't succeed this time I never will.


     Like an Olympic race walker Dominique sped toward the cleaning-cart.  She glanced in the room.  The maid was at the far end running the vacuum in the bathroom, her back to the door.  With all the skill of a master shoplifter the nurse snatched the keys from their hook.  Her walk turned to a trot as she headed for Room 60.


     Dominique dropped the sports bag at her feet and kept a watchful eye on the walkway.  For a moment she was afraid she was would have to try every key on the ring, but when she forced herself to calm down and look at them more closely she could see numbers etched in their metal.  They weren't in any particular order, and for a brief second she thought the key to this room was missing.  But then she realized she had run across two keys to room six.  Upon closer inspection, Dominique could tell the zero had been worn off of the 60.


     It only took a second for Dominique to unlock the door.  She left it closed and made a return dash to the laundry cart.  She didn't want the maid to notice her keys missing and come in search of them.  The vacuum cleaner was still whining as Dominique slipped the key ring over its hook.  No one paid any attention to the sound of her footsteps pounding against the walkway as she ran back to Room 60. 


     The nurse picked up her duffel bag, entered the room, and quietly closed the door behind her.  Before she moved any farther into the room she closed the draperies one of the men had evidently opened earlier that morning.  She took the plastic sign hanging on the inside of the doorknob that read, Do Not Disturb, and hung it on the outside.   Now that Dominique felt safe from prying eyes, and the maid down the walkway, she took out her cleaning supplies and towels.  She set them on the dresser in the hope that their presence would fool anyone who might catch her in here. 


     The men who shared this room were relatively neat as men go.  The beds had been left unmade of course, but the towels and wash cloths they'd used for their showers were folded and laying on the back of the toilet tank.  They did lose a few points, however, for the beard stubble left in the sink.  Dominique's ex-husband had always done that, and she'd found it to be a disgusting habit. 


     There was a suitcase in the corner of the room by the bed closest to the bathroom.  A khaki duffel bag rested at the foot of the bed closest to the door. 


     Dominique made quick work of opening all the dresser drawers.  She found nothing in any of them other than the two extra blankets the motel evidently kept its rooms stocked with.  There was a cable TV guide on top of the dresser, several colorful pamphlets advertising San Francisco's attractions, and a handful of flyers advertising the local restaurants. 


     Dominique moved to the nightstand in-between the beds.  All she found on top of it was forty-three cents in change, a telephone, the television's remote control, a pen, and a pad of the motel's stationary.  Inside its one drawer she found a telephone book and the regulation Gideon Bible.


     Dominique tried to think of what she'd seen television detectives do when searching a room.  All she wanted was to find some piece of identification that would tell her Rick Simon was who he claimed to be, a private investigator from San Diego and Jack's brother.


     She ran her hands underneath the mattress of the bed closest to the bathroom, then underneath its pillows.  She had no idea what she thought she'd find in those places, but repeated the procedure with the other bed.  All she got for her efforts was scraped knuckles from a wayward spring.    


     Soon enough Dominique was left with no here else to search except for the men's luggage.  She knew that's where she should have started, but she also knew having her hands in their personal belongings would be the hardest thing to explain if she got caught in their room.    


     Dominique willed her heart rate to slow as she reached for

the military style duffel bag.  She parted the soft white ropes that drew it closed on the top.  The bag was almost as tall as she was. The nurse stood on her tiptoes as she dug her way to its bottom.  All she could feel were clothes.  She realized she was going to have to completely empty it if she had the intention of making a thorough search.


     Just as Dominique was taking out the first layer of clothes and laying them on the bed, she heard the distinct sound of the doorknob turning.  For a brief second she was frozen where she stood, seemingly mesmerized by the slowly opening door.  At the last possible second Dominique shook herself out of her terrified trance.  She dived for the floor and slithered under the bed.


     Dominique's heart pounded like a racehorse's flying down the straight away at full speed.  She held her breath and listened.  She thought she could discern at least one set of footsteps crossing the carpet, but she wasn't sure.


     Please let it be another maid, please let it be another maid, please let it be another maid, Dominique's mind chanted. 


If the person who had entered were indeed, a maid, she probably wouldn't pay any attention to the room's disarray.  After all, the maids had certainly entered rooms before where luggage had been left open and clothing strewn about.  As far as Dominique's towels and cleaning supplies went, she doubted if a maid would pay much attention to those either.  The towels looked the same as the ones the motel used, and the bottle of glass cleaner was the same brand Dominique had seen hanging from the cart the previous day.  Hopefully, the woman would simply think another maid had already starting working in this room.    


     "Well, well, well, Towner, look what we have here.  Either you've started wearin' women's shoes and have been afraid to confess that little quirk to me, or we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and my bed has fallen on the Wicked Witch of the West, or we've got ourselves a visitor."


     Before Dominique could decide what to do next she was pulled out from underneath the bed by her feet.  In her haste and fright she hadn't noticed she'd only hidden herself up to her ankles. She clawed at the short weave of the burnt orange carpet to no avail. The man's grip on her ankles was too strong.


     When Dominique's entire body had emerged from underneath the bed she was gently grasped underneath the arms and lifted to her feet.  The tall white man looked her in the eye.  "You mind tellin' me what exactly it is you're doin' underneath my bed, little lady?"


     Dominique's eyes flicked from one man to the other.   "I...I was cleaning, of course.  You've got a lot of dust balls under there.  I'm you're maid...Alice."


     Oh, great.  I just gave him the name of the maid on the Brady Bunch.


     " maid, Alice," Rick Simon nodded.  "Then how come your uniform says you're Tricia?"


     With a sinking feeling Dominique followed the path Rick's eyes traveled down to her right breast.  Sure enough, sewn into the white uniform in blue stitching was the name Tricia.  She hadn't even noticed it until the man pointed it out. 


     Some detective I turned out to be.


     Town shut and locked the door.  "I think you'd better have a seat, Miss."


     Dominique began to realize how foolish she'd been.  For all she knew these were the men who had hurt Jack in the first place.  Maybe Jack knew something - what she didn't know, but something they were willing to kill him for.  And if they'd kill Jack, then surely they'd kill her, too, simply for getting in the way.  No one knew where she was.  Not even Malachi.  She had the weekend off work, and had made no specific plans with anyone.  No one would realize she was missing until she didn't show up at the shelter Monday morning.


     "Miss," Town said again while indicating to the green chairs by the window, "please have a seat."


     Dominique hugged the bed as she scooted between it and Rick.  When she rounded the mattress she made a desperate dash for the door.  Long before she got there Town was standing in front of it.


     "That's not going to benefit any of us," he said evenly.  "You're not going anywhere until you give us some answers as to what you're doing in our room."


     Dominique jutted her chin out in defiance.  "I already told you.  I'm your maid."  Dominique reached for her sports bag.  "Now if you gentlemen will allow me to collect my things, I'll be on my way.  If I don't get all the rooms finished this morning that my supervisor's assigned me, I'll lose my job."


     Rick stepped in-between Dominique and the dresser, blocking her reach for her bag.  "I think you'd better do like my friend says and have a seat."


     Dominique glanced from Rick to Town.  The black man nodded to the chairs one last time.  "If you don't talk to us, then you can do your talking at the police station.  It's totally up to you."


     Dominique slowly moved for the chair closest to the door.  A small amount of her fear left her.  Would this man really be willing to call the police on her if he and his partner were some kind of criminals themselves?


     Town flipped on the overhead light, but remained leaning against the locked door.  Rick came around to sit on the edge of his bed, directly across from Dominique. 


     "Okay, lady, give it to us straight.  What the hell were you doin' in our room?"


     Now that Dominique was confronted by the men she had no idea what to say that wouldn't reveal she knew Jack.  Fortunately for her, Rick Simon possessed very little patience and didn't seem too intent on waiting for her reply.


     "Look, lady, we already know you've been watching us since yesterday."


     Dominique couldn't help it, her brown eyes widened in surprise.  Her expression was so readable she might as well have exclaimed what she was thinking. You do?


     Town wore an amused smile.  "Let me give you some friendly advice.  Don't peer into the motel room of the people you're casing in broad daylight."


     Rick's mouth curved in a smile as well.   "Yeah, and don't be so foolish as to try the door either.  Not to mention the doors of the vehicle the objects of your interest are drivin’."


     Town smoothly picked up the list of Dominique's indiscretions.  "And don't sit out in the parking lot at dawn hiding behind a newspaper.  That's the oldest trick in the book."


     It was Rick's turn once again.  "Now while we do give you credit for your ingenuity when snagging those room keys from the maid, be sure the uniform you're wearin' is exactly like those of the hired help...Alice.  To a trained eye, you stick out like a sore thumb."


     Town spoke up from his place by the door.  "And don't close draperies that have been left open, or open draperies that have been left closed.  You might as well have walked out on the balcony and sent up smoke signals."


     Rick nodded toward Dominique's sports bag.  "And don't leave your own stuff layin' around someone's room so he spots it the minute he opens the door.  Oh, and about the door.  If it was locked when you entered, then make sure you relock it once you get inside.  If nothing else, it gives you a few seconds more to make your escape or to hide.  And if you're gonna go through someone's luggage, make sure you take it out in such a way that you can get it back in fast, and in the same way you found it. 


     "And most of all," Rick Simon finished with a smile, "if you have to dive for cover underneath a bed, don't leave your feet stickin' out."


     Dominique was forced to swallow back her tears.  These men were making fun of her, and toying with her besides.  She wasn't a criminal who went around trashing people's rooms or stealing things, she only wanted to help Jack.  Didn't God understand that?


     "Now," Rick said in all seriousness. "Are you gonna tell us what you're doin' here or not?"


     Dominique chewed on her lower lip and wondered what her options were.  She was afraid if she didn't say something soon the men would make good on their threat to call the police.  If she were arrested for breaking and entering, she'd lose her job for certain, not to mention most of her friends.  And her family would be humiliated beyond belief. 


     Oh, Lord, what am I going to do?  I have to protect Jack. I have to protect him.


     As if he could read her thoughts, Rick Simon pulled a picture, a business card, and a flyer from the pocket of his field jacket. 


"Would you mind telling me why you had these things in your car, Dominique Cascia?"


     "You guys broke into my car!"


     As if one good turn deserved another, Rick exclaimed with equal indignation,  "Well you broke into our room!"


     Rick took a moment to calm down.  "Look, lady, I'm through playin' games with you.  Now why do you have this picture in your car, and why have you been followin’ me and my friend?"


     Dominique looked from one stern face to the other.  She realized the men weren't going to let her go anywhere until they got some kind of answers from her.  Despite her fear, Dominique reminded herself, Jack trusts you.  He trusts you and you can't let him down.  You've got to figure out a way to bide some time until one of these guys slips up and tells you what their real intentions are. 


     Dominique was well aware of the chance she was taking when she firmly crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture that spoke of her stubborn unwillingness to communicate anything of use.   When she'd done that on occasion as a little girl, her mother hadn't hesitated to issue a sound spanking.  When she'd done it in the third grade, Sister Mary Georgene had rapped her knuckles with a ruler.  When she'd done it when she was sixteen, Sister Catherine Annette Therese had given her three day's worth of detention. When she'd done it once too often during her brief marriage, her husband had walked out in disgust and never returned.  But at least those times, each and every one of them, Dominique knew what to expect in exchange for her defiance.  This time she had no idea as to how these men might retaliate against her obstinacy, but her love of and loyalty to the man she called Jack, caused concerns for her own safety to take a back seat.


     "Call the police," Dominique challenged despite her rapidly pounding heart.    "Call them.  Have them come arrest me.  But nothing they can do will make me talk.  They can put me on bread and water, but I won't talk.  They can put me in isolation and interrogate me for hours on end while shining a bright light in my eyes, and I still won't talk.  They can beat the soles of my feet with rubber hoses, and I still won't talk.  They can tie me upside down and drip water on my forehead, and I still won't talk."


     "Take it from me, the cops haven't used that water torture thing in years," Town quipped.  "The environmentalists got after 'em. You know, the issue of water conservation and all."


      Dominique didn't let the man's smart remark deter her.  "It doesn't matter what they do.  I already told you, I won't talk."


     Despite Town's attempt at humor, and the woman's comical view of police procedure that had evidently been gleaned from year’s worth of watching bad cop shows on TV, Rick Simon was far from amused.  He had already taken an educated guess as to who she might be, and just what it was she might be after.


     Before the nurse knew what was happening Rick flew off the bed and roughly snared her by the upper arm.  Dominique's cry of pain didn't stop him from yanking her out of her seat.  She hung suspended in a bruising grip with just the tips of her toes touching the carpeting.  She tried to pull back from Rick, but that only caused him to jerk her small body forward.  The last time Town had seen such open hostility hardening the private investigator's features had been when Rick was dragging Eduardo Agilar around his patio by the throat.


     "You're hurting me!"  Dominique cried.  "You're hurting me!  Put me down!"


     Rick wrenched Dominique to him until they were nose to nose.  "Lady, I haven't even begun to hurt you."

     Suddenly Dominique was breathing so rapidly she couldn't even speak, let alone defend herself.  As adrenalin flooded her system with terror she felt like she'd been given a shot of Epinephrine.  Every story she'd ever seen on the news regarding a woman's murder rushed to her mind.


     He's going to kill me!  He's going to rape me and kill me.     

     Rick shook Dominique like a rag doll.  "I wanna know who you are, and I wanna know right now!"


     Dominique wheezed like an asthmatic.  In-between her gasps for air she managed to push out weakly, "You already know who I am.  My name is Dominique Cascia.  I'm a nurse at Mercy Hospital."


     "And that damn well better be who you are," Rick growled in the nurse's face.  "Cause if I find out you're working for Agilar, so help me God for the first time in my life I'll beat the shit out of a woman."


     Dominique's single worded question voiced her confusion.  "Agilar?"


"Yes, Agilar," Rick spat as though the mere mention of the man's name was bitter on his tongue.  "Maybe you're tailin' us in the hopes that if we find A.J., you'll find him too."  Rick brutally twisted the flesh on Dominique's upper arm.  "Huh, is that it?  Are you trying to get to A.J. before we do?"

Dominique's head shook back and forth in small spasmodic movements.  "No, I--"


     "Or maybe you're Agilar's sister.  God knows just when we think there's none of you left another one comes crawling out of whatever stinking hole it is you people hide in."


     "But I don't know any Agilar," Dominique pleaded as Rick's

ever-tightening grip threatened to snap her humerus bone.  "Please, I don't.  I really don't."


     Rick's eyes gleamed like ice.  "That better be the truth, because if I find out differently, if I find out you've hurt my brother, or had anything to do with having him hurt, I'll kill you, lady.  I'll kill you."     

     "I haven't hurt anyone," Dominique beseeched with tears in her eyes.  "I haven't."  The nurse turned her head and pleaded her case to Town.  "You have to believe me that I haven't."


     Downtown Brown didn't normally tolerate a man roughing up a woman.  But then, Rick Simon didn't normally treat a lady in that manner.  There was a reason why Town had stood back and allowed Rick to have his say so.  If the woman was working for Agilar like they feared, it was time for the truth to come out.  As Town watched the scene play before him, however, his policeman's instinct told him the woman was who she claimed to be, Dominique Cascia, a nurse at Mercy Hospital.


     "Okay, Rick," Town said softly.  "That's enough.  You've made your point.  Let her go now."


     Rick didn't immediately do Town's bidding.  "Rick..." 


     Rick looked at his friend a moment, then dropped his hand.  


     Dominique tumbled back into her seat.  She brought her left hand up to rub her bruised and tender right arm.  She tried hard to hide her tears from the men.  She wasn't a weak, whiny woman, and she wasn't about to give these two the satisfaction of seeing her in such a light.  But she was scared, and she knew now she was in way over her head. 


     Rick sat back down on the edge of his bed.  He brought his hands up and scrubbed them over his ragged face.   For the first time, Dominique noticed how tired he looked, noticed how his shoulders were slumped with exhaustion and grief, and noticed how bloodshot his eyes were as his hands fell to his side and he gazed at her.


     "Look, Miss...Cascia, I'm sorry.  I don't...well, that's not how my mother taught me is the correct way to treat a lady.  But you've got to understand that I've been lookin' for my brother for eleven months now.  And then suddenly you show up snoopin' around outside our room and our vehicle, and the next thing we know you're in our room.  Then we find my brother's picture and one of the flyers we've been passin' out in your car.  And to top it all off, you refuse to tell me or Town what it is you're doin' here, or why it is you have those things in your possession." 


     "Town?"  Dominique questioned.


     Rick used his thumb to indicate to the black man.  "Lieutenant Marcel Brown of the Los Angeles Police Department, better known as Downtown Brown.  Or to his very close friends, simply Town."


      "And you are?" 


     "I'm Rick Simon, one of the men listed on the front of this business card."


     "Do you have any identification to prove that?"  Dominique's glance took in Town as well.  "Both of you."


     That request set Rick's temper off again and he leapt to his feet.  "Why should we be giving you identification! You're the one tailin' us!  You're the one who broke into our room!  Geez, lady, are you goofy in the head or what?"

     As scared as she was of the man, Dominique held her ground.


     "I just want to see some identification please." 


     Rick looked at Town, who shrugged his acquiescence.  Rick expelled a deep breath and turned away.  "Man, I don't believe this."


     Town pulled his wallet from his back pants pocket, as well as the other small, black wallet out of his front jacket pocket that contained his badge.  He handed them both to Dominique.  She studied them a long time, not sure if she'd know a fake police badge if she saw one.  However, the man did have a considerable amount of identification in his wallet that claimed him to be not only Marcel Proust Brown, but a police officer as well.


     She returned both items to Town.  To Rick's stiff back she requested quietly, "And yours please." 


     Several seconds passed before Rick turned around.   He threw Dominique a look of disgust as he fished in his back pocket for his wallet.  He had it opened to his private investigator's license when he handed it to her.  She studied that, then flipped the vinyl protectors and looked at his driver's license.  The picture it contained was certainly him, and the information on it pertaining to height, weight, date of birth, and social security number, were the same things that appeared on his P.I. license.


     Dominique's progress in ascertaining the man's identification ground to halt when she came to some pictures. 




     Dominique glanced up.  "Do you mind if I look at these?"


     Rick waved a hand in the air.  "Be my guest.  You've already been diggin' through my underwear. What's a few pictures between friends?"


     If the situation hadn't been so grave Dominique would have smiled at the man's sarcastic humor.  As it was, she heard the man called Town give an amused snort.


     The nurse took her time and studied the pictures closely.   One of them contained this man who had so recently been gripping her arm, and Jack, and an attractive, petite older woman.  A woman who, judging by her age, could easily be the mother of the two men she stood in-between.


     The next picture was of Jack, this man named Rick Simon, and a golden retriever, all standing on what looked to be the deck of a boat.


     Dominique looked up.  "What's the dog's name?"

     Rick cocked his head fractionally as though he was hard of hearing.  "What?"

     "The dog," Dominique repeated while pointing at the picture.  "What's the dog's name?"


     Rick's eyes flicked to Town. In that brief exchange Town clearly read his friend’s unspoken words. 


     What's with this crazy broad?


     "Rex," Rick finally replied to Dominique.  "The dog's name is Rex."


     So that's why Jack slipped and called Adeline, Rex.  I knew it had to mean something.  I just knew it.


     "Who does the dog belong to?"


     "Me.  My brother gave him to me as a gift several years ago."


      "I see," was all Dominique said, which left Rick just as confused as he'd been when her questions regarding Rex started. 


       The last picture Dominique came to was of the mustached man with his arm slung across Jack's shoulders.  The two were standing in front of a closed office door that read Simon and Simon Investigations.  In all the pictures Jack was smiling that beautiful smile Dominique had fallen in love with so many months earlier.


     He looks so happy, the nurse thought wistfully.  So much happier than I've ever seen him...even happier than when he's with me. 


     Dominique handed the wallet back to Rick.  She met his unwavering gaze and wondered if she'd be able to tell if he was lying to her.  "Who is the blond man in the pictures with you?"


     "The same man who's in the picture I found in your car," Rick stated softly.  "My brother A.J.  But I think you already know that."


     "Now I do, Mr. Simon," Dominique slowly nodded.  "Now I do."


     Rick returned to his perch on the edge of the bed.  "What do you mean by that?"


     "The man in the pictures I just looked at, as well as the man on the flyer and in the picture you found in my car, is a man I know as Jack.  Just Jack.  Nothing more."


     Rick exchanged glances with Town.  "Is that what that what my brother told you his name was?"


     "Not at first.  When I first came to know him, and more importantly when a friend of mine first came to know him, it was just as the flyer states.  He couldn't talk, or wouldn't.  I'm still not sure which.  Maybe a combination of both.  But then I told him that I had to call him by something.  When he wouldn't answer me, I told him I hated to have to call him John Doe, but if he didn't give me some kind of name that's what I was going to do.


     "That's when he told me his name was Jack."  Dominique shrugged.  "Considering his name is Andrew, where he came up with Jack I don't know."

     Rick slowly nodded.  "I think I do.  Our father's name was John.  He always went by Jack.  My guess is when you told A.J. you were going to call him John, you struck a familiar cord within him."

     "I don't know enough about the workings of the human mind given this type of situation to confirm that, but it could be true," Dominique agreed. 


     Rick sat forward on the bed with such urgency he almost tumbled onto the floor. "Where is my brother, Miss Cascia?  Is he still alive?"        


     Dominique's smile was small and a reflection of her sorrow, as well as of her joy.   "Yes, Mr. Simon, your brother is very much alive."


     Rick bowed his head and shaded his eyes with one hand.  Dominique was certain she heard him whisper, "Thank God."


     It took Rick Simon one full minute to compose himself.  When he looked at Dominique again his eyes were wet with remnants of the tears he'd refused to allow her or Town to see.


"How...when...what....can you...?"


     The nurse realized Rick had so many questions he didn't know where to begin.  She smiled her sympathy and understanding. 


"Perhaps you'd like it if I told you how I came to know Jac...your brother."

     Rick nodded.  "Please."


     And so Dominique's story began.  It started in an alley called Beulah Land with a black man by the name of Malachi.  She told Rick and Town how she volunteered her time three days a week at St. Jude's shelter, and how it was through Malachi that she first came to know A.J.  She thoroughly relayed his physical and mental conditions when he was brought to her, and patiently answered all Rick's questions regarding those things.  In chronological order she told Rick of all that had happened to his brother since.  The only thing she left out was the intimate times she and the man she thought of as Jack had shared.


     By the time she was finished talking, Dominique had a few questions of her own.  Like she had done, Rick started at the beginning.  He gave the nurse a brief background sketch of himself and A.J. and what type of work they did.  He told her of the job they'd taken six years earlier for Elena Monterro, and how it was that job that first caused them to cross paths with the Agilar family.  Then he told her everything that had occurred from the night A.J. disappeared until currently.  Though he didn't go into any great detail surrounding his meeting with Eduardo Agilar, Dominique's sore arm spoke of Rick Simon's fury.  She wondered if he'd killed the man, but didn't ask.  When she recalled the bruises that had been present on A.J.'s back and the needle marks on his arms, she almost hoped he did.


     Dominique had only one question when Rick's story came to an end.


     "Is your brother married, Mr. Simon?"


     Rick shot Town a look that could be interpreted several ways before answering.  "No, Miss Cascia, he's not."

     Dominique was happy to hear that.  Not because she had any hopes of her relationship continuing with Jack once he returned to San Diego, but because, if there had been a wife, she didn't want to be the cause of the woman's further pain should what happened between her and Jack somehow surface.


     Because of his long career in law enforcement and the many things he'd seen over the years, Town had a good idea as to what they might be facing upon confronting A.J.  Probably a much better idea than Rick did.


     "Miss Cascia, in your opinion as a nurse, and as well as someone who has spent a lot of time with A.J. over the past four months, what condition can we expect to find him in?"


     Dominique knew by the word 'condition' the man was referring to A.J.'s mental condition more than his physical condition, but she gave them a rundown on both.


     "Physically he's in good shape right now.  Based on the pictures I've just seen I'd say he's still underweight by ten or twelve pounds, but other than that he's fine.  However, I would advise that he have a complete physical when you get him home, Mr. Simon."


     Rick nodded. 


     "As well, Jac..." Dominique smiled with chagrin.  "I'm sorry.  As well, A.J.'s general practitioner may be the person to give you advice on his mental health.  I know almost nothing about mind-altering drugs, and virtually nothing about brainwashing as you discussed earlier.  That's almost certainly an area that his doctor will refer you to a specialist regarding.  Your brother is a very...scared man, Mr. Simon.  For several months now I've felt...well, I've felt that if pushed he might have been able to tell me more than he's revealed in regards to who he is and where it is he comes from.  But every time I'd back him in a corner on the issue, so to speak, it was plain to see that whatever it was he was remembering was frightening to him.  Very frightening.  I was so afraid that if I pressured him to talk he'd run, so I didn't.  Pressure him that is.


     "At this point your brother trusts no one else but Malachi and myself. He rarely communicates with anyone other than the two of us, and if he does he only speaks when spoken to first.  Obviously whatever message this...Agilar sent to Jac...A.J., he did a good job of it."


     Rick's mutter came out in a low, angry growl.  "Obviously."


     Dominique looked from one man to the other in way of apology.  "It's because of your brother's trust in me, Mr. Simon, that I broke in your room this morning.  As you've already guessed black bag jobs, as I believe they're called in your profession, aren't exactly my forte¢."


     Rick couldn't help but smile.  "Yeah, I already guessed that all right."


     "But I couldn't just turn Jack over to you without knowing your intentions.  As I told you, he trusts me, and that's a trust I couldn't betray.  I was so afraid you might be the men who hurt him in the first place.  I thought maybe you'd returned with the intention of finishing the job you'd started.  Or I thought you might be cops here to arrest him.  And if you were, I had to find out why because...well because depending on what he had done, I might not have turned him over to you.  I had even thought of hiding him.  As I told Malachi, not for one minute do I believe Jack could ever intentionally hurt another human being.  I just don't feel he has it in him."

     Rick smiled at how well this woman knew A.J., or Jack as she called him when she wasn't thinking.  "No, Miss Cascia," he said softly, "A.J. doesn't have that in him.  He's a very gentle man.  And a very good man.  And my brother and best friend.  Which is why I've spent the last eleven months looking for him.  Which is why I've come to San Francisco to take him home."


     Dominique felt she had to be honest with Rick, even though she knew what she had to tell him was going to hurt.  "He might not want to go with you.  He may not even know who you are."


     Rick nodded.  "I understand that.  Based on what I've found out happened to him I've been half expecting it.  But somehow... somehow Town and I are gonna convince A.J. that he's got to come with us."


     "I'll help you," Dominique offered.  "And I know Malachi will, too."


     Rick was grateful to this generous woman for all she had done for A.J., and for her tremendous loyalty to him.  Loyalty that could have gotten her killed had Town and Rick been someone other than who they were.  Rick couldn't say why, but he also had a feeling there was more to the nurse's relationship with his brother than she was revealing. 


     "Thank you."  Rick locked eyes with Dominique.  "I know it's not always easy to let a friend go."


     Dominique couldn't keep the stinging tears out of her eyes.  "No, Mr., Simon, it's not always easy to let a...friend go.  But I've been praying for many months that someday God would send someone to me who was looking for Jack.  And I prayed that someone would be a family member, or a person who loved him very much.  I can see now that God has answered my prayers because you're here, and you're both of those things to Jack."


     "Yes, Miss Cascia," Rick acknowledged softly, "I am."


     "Where can we find A.J., Miss Cascia?"  Town asked. 


     "At the St. Jude's Shelter.  But please, just give me a few hours before you show up there."

     "Why?"  Rick wanted to know.


     "Because I need to find Malachi.   It's my opinion that if we don't handle this very carefully we'll do more harm than good.  Once I find Malachi and he and I are ready, I'll call you."


     Dominique knew she was asking a lot of Rick Simon by requesting that he wait several more hours before seeing his brother.  But she was afraid if he just barged into the shelter and Jack caught sight of him, the blond man would run.  Dominique couldn't allow any of them to take that chance.  If Jack got away from them, they might never find him again.

     Downtown Brown must have come to the same conclusion.   "I think we should give her the time she's asking for, Rick.  As much as I hate to say it, right now she knows A.J. better than we do.  We can't risk him running off on us.  We were damn lucky to find him this time.  We might not be so lucky the next time."


     Rick gave a reluctant nod of his head as he stood.


     Dominique copied the detective's movement and rose from her chair.  She glanced at her watch to see it was already after nine.  "I'll call you here by noon.  If I don't find Malachi I'll call you anyway.  Somehow we'll have to figure out how best to proceed without his help.  But please...don't come to the shelter until I've called you."


     Town had to make the promise for both himself and Rick.  "We won't if you let us hear from by noon like you just said.  If not, we're coming on down."

     Dominique nodded her understanding.  She turned to Rick.  "I can't make you any guarantees as to what will happen after that, Mr. Simon.  Quite frankly, I don't know myself."


     "I understand, Miss Cascia.  Believe me, in the past year I've been makin' it through each day with no guarantees at all.   Somehow both me and A.J. will make it through this one without any as well."

     Dominique saw the same quiet inner-strength in this man that she often saw in Jack.  "I believe you will, Mr. Simon.   I believe you will."


     "Thanks.  And it's Rick."


     Dominique smiled as she held out her hand.  "Nice to meet you, Rick.  And I'm...Alice."

     Rick chuckled, while shaking her hand.  "Nice to meet you, Alice.  And thanks for takin' care of my brother."


     Dominique's eyes never left Rick's.  "You don't have to thank me, Rick.  Your brother's a special man.  God brought him to me for a reason.  It's not only been my pleasure and privilege to watch over him, but as well, to get to know him."


     Town opened the door so Dominique could exit the room.  She walked over to the dresser and quickly packed her sports bag with the items she'd removed from it earlier.   Rick stepped up beside her.  He held out the things he and Town had taken from her car.


     Rick's eyes were full of understanding as he handed the nurse A.J.'s picture.  "I thought you might like to keep this."


     Tears momentarily blurred Dominique's vision as she looked down into A.J.'s smiling face.  "Yes, I would.  Thank you."


      Dominique swiped at a stray tear while brushing by Town on her way out the door.  His eyes followed her as she crossed the parking lot, got in her car, and then drove away.  He closed the door and turned to Rick.  "Do you think she'll call, or do you think we'll end up having to go down there unannounced?"

     "She'll call, Towner," Rick stated with conviction.  "For some reason, I know she'll call.  If I'd had any doubts regarding that fact, she wouldn't have left here without us."

     Town nodded.  "Before she does just, I'm going down to the office.  I think we'd better keep this room for one more night for you and A.J.  By the time we get things wrapped up today I doubt any of us will feel like driving.  While I'm there, I'll see about getting another room for myself." 


     "I was just thinkin' the same thing.  I don't want to just grab him out of that shelter that he evidently thinks of as home and have us hit the road.  It might be too reminiscent of what Baily did to him.  Maybe if A.J. and I have some time together in here tonight...well, even if he doesn't know who I am, maybe it will help calm him down.  Maybe it will help him realize that we're not going to hurt him."

     Rick reached into his wallet and pulled out the amount of cash he knew two rooms for one more night would cost.  "Here."


     Town tried to argue with Rick, insisting he'd pay for his own room, but Rick ignored him while stuffing the money in Town's shirt pocket.  Town had already given Rick so much of his time, the least Rick felt he could do in return was continue to finance this trip by paying for meals, gas, and the motel rooms, as he had been doing since they'd left L.A.


     After Town left Rick sat down in the chair Dominique had vacated.  He reached behind himself and pulled the drapes open.  He stared out over the deserted walkway.  After a moment he sighed, closed his weary eyes, and rested his head against the back of the chair.


     "I don't know what condition I'm gonna find my brother in, God, but please, You gotta make him understand I'm not gonna hurt him.  You gotta make him understand I'd never hurt him, and that I'm only here to help him.  He's gotta understand all those things, and he's gotta be willing to come with me.  Please, Lord, let him be willing to come home with me.  If he's not...well, if he's not I have no idea what I'm gonna do next."


     When Town returned to the room twenty minutes later carrying two large Styrofoam cups of coffee and a bag of doughnuts Rick was still sitting in the chair.  The two men sipped coffee and nibbled on doughnuts while waiting for Dominique's phone call.  At eleven forty-four it came.

     Rick wasn't on the phone with the woman more than thirty seconds.  He grabbed his hat off the dresser and pocketed the room key. 


"She found that guy Malachi.  They're waiting at the shelter for us.  She said Malachi will be outside watchin' for us.  From there, he'll give us instructions as to what Dominique wants us to do."


     "Sounds like a good plan to me," Town agreed. 


The policeman rose and led the way to his Jeep.  Less than two minutes after Dominique's phone call, Town and Rick were on the road and headed for St. Jude's Shelter For The Homeless.



Chapter 22


Early Saturday Afternoon, February 27th, 1993



     Malachi stood leaning against the brick front of St. Jude's while keeping an attentive eye on passing cars.  When he saw a Jeep park across the street that matched the description Dominique had given him of Town's vehicle he straightened.  


     Rick pointed through the Jeep's windows to Malachi.  "That must be him."


     "Probably," Town agreed.  The two men exited the vehicle and crossed the street.


     Malachi approached them as they stepped onto the sidewalk. He held out his hand to the private detective. 


"I'm Malachi.  You must be Rick."


     Rick shook the man's hand.  "Yeah, I am."  He nodded to Town.  "This is Lieutenant Brown."


     Town shook the hand that was offered him.  "My friends call me Town."

     Malachi smiled and nodded.  "Nice to meet you, Town."     


     Malachi talked softly to Rick as he led the way into the shelter and around the receptionist's desk.  "Dominique has your brother in Father Papanek's office.  It's right down this hallway.  Jack...A.J. doesn't know what's going on yet.  We didn't want to tell him until you arrived." 


     Malachi turned around and held up a hand to stop Rick and Town's progress.  "We'd like you to wait out here until I signal you to come in."


     Rick nodded his agreement.  Malachi motioned the two men to follow him another ten feet.  Again, his hand came up right before he entered an open doorway.  Rick and Town remained standing out of anyone's line of vision, yet were close enough to clearly hear the conversation going on within.


     When Dominique left the motel she'd gone home only long enough to let Adeline out, and to change into a pair of blue jeans and a flannel shirt.  She didn't want to arouse A.J.'s suspicions by showing up at the shelter in her borrowed maid's uniform.  Especially since it identified her as Tricia.


     The nurse had been fortunate to find Malachi in the first place she'd looked for him, Beulah Land.  It took her ten minutes of rapid talking to explain all she'd discovered at the Traveler's Rest Motel, and what she needed his help for now.   Dominique's final stop was at St. Jude's.  She found A.J. in the shelter's kitchen.  After her call to Rick, Dominique summoned the blond man, telling him she needed his help in Father Frank's office.  The priest was well known for his less than tidy habits.  Therefore, A.J. didn't question Dominique when she said she thought it was past time the two of them gave the office a thorough cleaning. 


     It was all Dominique could do to be in the same room with the man whose trust she felt she was about to betray.  Granted, in the end what she was doing would only help him, but she feared he wouldn't see it that way.  She prayed above all else that A.J. would recognize his brother and be willing to go with him.


     Dominique looked up when Malachi entered the room.  He gave a silent nod of his head before A.J. turned around to greet him.


     "Hi, Malachi."


     The black man returned his friend's smile.  "Hi, Jack.  I see Doctor Dom's keeping you busy."

     The smile A.J. gave Dominique made her heart constrict.  She could clearly see the affection he felt for her shining from his blue eyes.   "Always," he teased in her direction.


     Dominique swallowed hard and sat her dust rag on the desk.  She moved forward and gently extracted the broom from A.J.'s hands while ignoring his questioning look.  She took one of his hands in one of hers. 


     "Jack, I need to talk to you.  Let's go sit down on the couch."


     A.J.'s blond brows drew together.  "Talk to me?  What about?"




     Dominique led A.J. to the worn tweed sofa that still held a faint musty odor from its years spent in some parishioner’s basement family room.  Malachi remained standing by the door so he could see A.J. and Dominique, as well as the two men in the hallway.


     Dominique moved her small hand over A.J.'s in what she hoped was a calming, comforting caress.  "Jack, you know I would never do anything to hurt you, don't you?"


     A.J.'s expression made it obvious he had no idea where the conversation was going, but despite that fact he nodded his head.  "Yes.  I know that."


     "And, as well, that Malachi would never do anything to hurt you either?"


     A.J. glanced over at the black man.  "No, he wouldn't."


     Dominique took a deep breath.  "So I want you to know that what we've done, we've done because you, and want to help you.  Do you understand that?"


     "What do you mean, what you've done?"


     "Jack, two men came by here on Thursday looking for you and--"


     Before Dominique could say any more, A.J.'s head started shaking back and forth in frightened jerks. 


"No.  No.  No."

     Dominique squeezed his hand.  "Shhh.  Shhh.  No one's going to hurt you.  There's nothing to be afraid of.  Just hear me out, okay?"

     A.J.'s eyes were wide with fear.  His body stiffened as though he would take off running at a moment's notice. 


     "Please, Jack," Dominique repeated.  "Please hear me out.  No one's going to hurt you.  I promise."


      Dominique waited until she sensed the blond had relaxed enough to be paying attention to her words.  "Two men came by here Thursday and left this."


      Dominique took the picture Rick had returned to her out of her shirt pocket.  She handed it face down to A.J.  He looked to Dominique for guidance, and she gave a small nod if her head. 


"Turn it over, Jack."


     There was a long, painful hesitation on A.J.'s part to do the woman's bidding.  Dominique got the impression he already knew what he was going to see on the other side.  The nurse reached out and encased A.J.'s hand in hers.  Gently, she forced him to flip the snapshot over.


     The violent trembling of his hand was the only visible sign of recognition A.J. gave.  They passed the next thirty seconds in silence with A.J. staring down at the picture.


     Dominique reached out and gently stilled his hand.  "The man in that picture is you, isn't he?"


     Again, A.J.'s head gave spasmodic shakes and his words came in short staccato bursts.  "No.  No.  No, he isn't.  No."


     Dominique squeezed A.J.'s hand and bent forward to look into his half bowed face.  "Jack, I know that's you.  So does Malachi.  Both of us recognized you when we saw that picture.  Jack...your brother Rick is looking for you, along with a friend of yours named Downtown Bro--"


     A.J.'s head snapped up.   "Just tell them to go away," he commanded. "Tell them to go!  I don't want to see them! Do you hear me?  I don't want them to know where I am.  They can't know where I am!"


     "But why not?"


     "Because...because, because they just can't.  I can't tell you why.  You know that."  A.J.'s grip tightened until Dominique's hand turned stark white from lack of sufficient blood flow.  "I can't talk about it.'ve always accepted that before.  Why won't you accept it now?"


     The nurse hated the fear she saw in A.J.'s eyes and the desperate, frightened plea that was so evident in his voice.  "I can't accept it anymore, Jack, because now I know your name isn't Jack.  Now I know your name is A.J. Simon."


     "No," A.J. denied.  "He's dead.  Don't you understand he's dead?"


     "Who, Jack?  Who's dead?"




     "But, Jack, that's not true," Dominique attempted to reason.  "You're A.J.  Jack is...well Jack is just a name we called you.  Nothing more.  You never stopped being A.J. Simon."


     "Yes, I did.  I stopped being him a long time ago, and I don't want to ever be him again.  So please...make him go away."

     "Make who go away?"


     " broth...Rick.  Make Rick go away."

     A gentle voice spoke from the direction of the door.  "I'm not gonna do that, A.J."


     Prior to entering the room Rick Simon had heard all his heart could stand.  He ignored the fact he had agreed to wait for Malachi's signal as he rounded the doorway.  Town reached out to grab his elbow, but came up with nothing more than thin air.


     A.J. bolted off the couch.  If Town hadn't been standing behind Rick the blond would have bowled his brother over in an effort to get out of the room.  By the time everyone had recovered it was a sure bet A.J. would have been long gone.


     But Town managed to keep Rick on his feet, who in turn managed to get a firm grip on the struggling A.J.  A.J.'s persistence caused Malachi to join in the fray.  The blond tried to climb over his brother, in much the same way a football player will try to climb over a defensive lineman to get to the goal.  One of A.J.'s elbows caught Rick sharply in the right ear, and someone else's fingers poked him in the eye. 


     "Let me go!  Let me go!"


     Rick's firm order carried over A.J.'s shouts.   "Stop it, A.J.!  Stop it now!"


     With Town pushing Rick from behind, and Malachi holding onto A.J.'s arms and pulling backwards, the three men kept the blond in the office.  With a powerful jerk A.J. freed himself from the suffocating grasps and scrambled for the door once more.  Just as he got there Town slammed it shut.  The black man's full weight was thrown against it, and without turning around he managed to trip the knob on the deadbolt lock.


     A.J. took four steps backwards.  His eyes flicked from one man to the next in a frantic kinetic dance.  His breathing came in short, shallow gasps.   He made Rick think of how a frightened animal reacts when cornered.


      Rick offered his hand palm up like one does to a stray dog, but didn't move.  "A.J., it's okay" he attempted to reassure in a quiet, soothing voice.  "No one is going to hurt you.  All of, Town, Malachi, and Dominique...all of us just want to help you.  But you've gotta let us.  You can't fight us.  You've gotta let us help you, A.J."


      A.J. didn't react to his brother's words.  His eyes continued to leap from Rick, to Town, to Malachi.  A long minute later they settled on Dominique.  The tears the woman saw shimmering in them broke her heart.


     "Why?"  A.J. asked Dominique in that same raspy voice she'd first heard so many months ago.  "Why?  I trusted you.  You told me I could trust you."


     The nurse opened her arms to him in the same way a mother opens her arms to a distraught child.  "Jack...A.J., you can trust me.  I told you I wouldn't let anyone hurt you, and I won't.  I'm not going to hurt you, Malachi's not going to hurt you, and deep down inside I think you know neither Rick nor Town are going to hurt you.  You do know that, don't you?"

     A.J.'s eyes didn't leave Dominique's face.  What answers he was searching for there she didn't know, but finally he gave a slow, reluctant nod of his head.  


     Her hands reached for him. "Please.  Come sit on the couch with me again.  Please.  Just you and me.  No one else."


     A.J.'s arm slowly rose until Dominique could make contact with just his fingertips.  She grasped them and urged him to follow her.  They sat side by side on the sofa once more.  A.J. rested his elbows on his knees and buried his head in his hands.  His long hair fell forward to further hide his features.


     A.J.'s words were soft and muffled.  "I won't go.  I won't go with them."


     Dominique's hand came to rest on A.J.'s knee.  In a tone as soft as his she questioned gently,  "Why not?"


     "I don't want to.  I...I can't.  I just can't."


     Rick spoke from across the room.  "A.J., no one's going to hurt you.  Agilar is--"


     A.J.'s head shot up. "Don't say it!  Don't say it because I don't want to hear it!"


     Quietly, Rick questioned,  "You don't want to hear what, A.J.?" 


     "About him!  About any of it!  I can't talk about it!  I can't talk about it, don't you understand?"




      Town touched Rick's arm to gain his attention.  The black man gave a small negative shake of his head.  "Rick," he said softly, "Let it drop for now."


     A long moment passed before Rick gave a reluctant nod.  Although A.J.'s body had mended from the abuse it had received, it was painfully obvious his mind hadn't.


     A.J. turned pleading eyes on Dominique.  "I want to stay with you. This is my home."


     "Oh no, A.J., no--"


     "Don't call me that!"


     "Jack," Dominique swiftly amended.  "No, this is not your home.  Your home is in San Diego with your brother Rick, and your mother..."


     "Cecilia," Rick supplied.


     "Cecilia," Dominique finished.

     "No," A.J. forcefully shook his head.  "No.  No, I won't go."  A.J. looked over at his brother.  "No one can make me."


     "Then I'm not leavin' here either, A.J.," Rick informed his sibling.  "I'm not goin' home to our mom without you."


     A.J.'s glared at Rick.  "Why can't you get it through your damn thick skull that I can't go with you?"


     For a brief second a small smile flitted across Rick Simon's face.  Whether A.J. realized it or not, he had inadvertently let a part of his former self slip through by accusing Rick of being thickskulled.  Bullheaded stubbornness was a well-known trait among the Simon men.   Rick and A.J. had often taken great delight in tossing that barb at one another.


     "A.J., please," Rick begged.  "Think of Mom.  Think of what all this has done to her."

     A.J.'s jaw clenched and his hands tightened into fists.   "I am thinking of Mom, damn it!  So just go!  I'm staying here!  This is where I belong now."


     Malachi had almost been forgotten as he remained a silent observer in the background.  He could feel the tension in the room increase as the two brothers came to a stalemate.  By the look on Rick Simon's face Malachi guessed the man was about to throw A.J. over his shoulder and storm out of the room, despite the fact that the blond would be fighting him the entire way.  Hardly a promising beginning given the situation.


     Malachi shouldered his way through Town and Rick.  With a flick of his head he indicated to Dominique to vacate her seat.  A.J. clung to her as she rose and his eyes begged her to stay beside him, but she continued to move away until he had no choice but to drop her hands.


     Malachi sat down next to A.J.  He deliberately used a term that he knew would evoke a wealth of memories in the blond.  "Friend," he said, "I'm sorry.  But no, this is not where you belong."


     A.J.'s words were passionate and intense in a way that led Malachi to conclude the blond was trying to convince himself of something he wasn't quite sure of.   "Yes it is, Malachi.  Yes, it is where I belong."


     "No, Jack, it's not."


     "But I don't want to leave."

     "I know you don't," Malachi gently agreed.  "But you have to.  You have to for me, and for Dominique.  It's what we want for you.  And more importantly, it's what your family wants for you."


     "But, and Dominique are my family now.  I don't have any..." A.J. threw a brief glance in Rick's direction.  If he saw the hurt in his older brother's eyes he chose to ignore it.  "I haven't had anyone else for a long time."


     "That's not true, Jack.  You've always had someone else."  Malachi pointed toward Rick.  "That man hasn't forgotten you for one single day since you've been gone.  And neither has your mother.  I'm willing to bet they've cried more tears for you than any of us in this room could count." Malachi paused before confessing,   "You see, Jack, I know...because I have a family, too."


     Malachi silenced whatever reply A.J. was about to make with an upraised hand.  "I've never told anyone what I'm about to tell you, Friend, not even Doctor Dom, but I want you to hear it.


     "I wasn't born to a life on the streets any more than you were.  I had a home and a family.  I had a mother and father who each worked two jobs with the hope that someday they could send me and my two younger sisters to college.  Can you believe that?  A black man and woman from the Deep South, neither one with more than a fifth grade education, and they dreamed of sending their kids to college at a time when only a handful of blacks got that chance. 


     "I was raised in Georgia during the 1940's and '50's, Jack.  Do you know what that means?"

     A.J. gave a tentative nod.

     "That's right.  It meant saying sir and ma'am to white kids my own age.  It meant using a water fountain marked Coloreds.  It meant not being welcome in public establishments.  It meant living in fear of something my parents called the Klan.  It meant riding at the back of the bus.  And sometimes it meant walking when no seats were left and a white man wanted mine. 


     "But I didn't feel sorry for myself.  No siree.  My mama and daddy wouldn't allow such nonsense. And every Sunday we went to church where a man by the name of Martin Luther King preached the service.  When I was thirteen I heard his son preach for the first time about something he called civil rights.  That young preacher was Martin Luther King Jr.   From that day forward he was my idol. 


     "When it came time for me to go off to college my mama pulled out the old gallon jar where she and Daddy had thrown every spare penny they had ever made.  Oh, there wasn't nearly enough to finance my education.  I had to work for that dream, too.  But I made it happen.  I went to college and studied theology.  I fulfilled the dream my mother had for me.  I became a preacher just like Doctor King.  Only I was young and foolish, and looking for the type of excitement I couldn't get from shouting God's word from the pulpit of a Baptist  church.  So I joined the Marine Corps.  Because of my education I went in as a lieutenant.  I was one of the few black men of that rank at the time.  It didn't take long for Uncle Sam to see fit to ship me to Vietnam which, believe it or not, was right where I wanted to be."


     Without intending to, Malachi had the attention of every person in the room.  Dominique's because she had for so long been curious about just who this eloquent man was who lived among the homeless.  Rick's because both he and Malachi had been Marines who had served in Vietnam.  Town's because Malachi was the only other person in the room who knew what it was like to grow up black during an era when a man by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. paved so many roads for African-Americans.  And A.J.'s because right at the moment he felt Malachi was the only family he had in the world other than Dominique.


     "But it didn't take long for me to discover the excitement Vietnam was offering me wasn't the kind of excitement I wanted to partake in.  The day came when I prayed over the last dead body I could.  I turned away from God in anger and despair, just like you're turning away from your brother.  When God tried so hard to extend His hand to me I ignored it, just like you're ignoring your brother's hand.  Then finally the day came when I shouted at God to go away and leave me alone, just like you're shouting at your brother to leave you alone.  And so He did.  But not because He wanted to, Jack, but rather because I turned my back on Him and told Him He no longer had a place in my life.   Just like you're telling your brother."


     A.J. stole a quick glance in Rick's direction.  The only thing he could read in his brother's face before he returned his attention to Malachi was gentle understanding and loving patience.


      "And because I no longer had anyone beside me, not my family, not my friends, and not God, I no longer cared what happened to me.  By the time I came home in May of '71 I had a chest full of medals and was hooked on every drug I could get my hands on.  Heroin, pot, speed, LSD, you name it. Even Elmer's Glue.   If it could be shot up, smoked, swallowed, or snorted, I was doing it.  I had to change planes here in the city by the bay before going on to Georgia.  I never took that plane home, Jack.  I told myself it was because I didn't belong there anymore, just like you're telling yourself, but the truth was I couldn't stand the thought of my mother seeing who I had become. 


     "So I stayed here and lived on the streets with the rest of the junkies and winos.  Though unlike today, I was one of them.  I was high from morning until night.  It's only through the grace of God, and with help from a man by the name of Benjamin Tambry, that I'm still alive today. 


     "Ben was a black man.  A fifty-year-old Unitarian minister who ran one of the few homeless shelters the city had back then.  What Ben saw in me were the same things I saw in you when you first came to Beulah Land.  Somehow he knew I was lost in a world I didn't belong in.   And just like I did to you, Ben offered me unconditional friendship.  It took a long time, close to four years, but with Ben's help I went clean.  I got off the booze and drugs, and came to know God again.  But for all my tenacity, the one thing I couldn't bring myself to do was the one thing Ben wanted most for me. To go home to my family.


     "One day Ben was walking down the street near his church when two homeless men knifed him to death for the five dollars he was carrying in his wallet.  He was killed by the very people he had spent so many years helping, and the sad thing of it was, he would have gladly given them his money had they only asked. 


     "Three days after Ben's funeral his widow came to see me.  Ava was carrying an envelope in her hand.  She'd found it in the pocket of the jacket Ben had been wearing when he died.  On the outside of the envelope he'd written my name.  Inside, I found a bus ticket to Georgia.  Ava told me, ‘Ben was going to give that to you the day he was killed.  It was his wish that you'd go home and see your family, Malachi.’"

     Malachi's gaze never wavered from A.J.'s. "The man died on his way to bring me that bus ticket.  How could I refuse to accept a gift like that?   Nonetheless, it was the hardest thing I've ever done.  It was 1984.  My folks hadn't heard from me since right before I left Vietnam in '71.   I'm sure they thought I was long dead by then. 


     "Two weeks to the day after I'd preached Ben's funeral service I was walking up the sidewalk of the house I'd grown up in.  I didn't even know who I'd find living there.  Before I had a chance to knock on the door it flew open and a white headed woman ran into my arms crying and calling me son."


     A.J. eyes were on Malachi's face with the same rapt attention a child gives to a cherished story teller. 


     "That's right, Jack.  That woman was my mother.  She welcomed me home like I was the Prodigal Son.  She didn't even ask where I'd been.  Can you believe that?  She hadn't heard from me for seventeen years but not once, not once did she ask me why. 


     "Of course, a lot had changed since I'd been gone.  My sisters had grown up and married, and now had kids of their own.  My father was dead.  My strongest memory of the man is of how hard he worked so his children could live in a better world than he did.  Of how his back was always just a little stooped from the heavy boxes he loaded on freight trucks for ten hours a day, six days a week for a rich white man who paid him all of fifteen cents an hour. Of how, after that long day, he worked a few more hours at any odd job he could get in order to bring more money into our home.  He sacrificed so much for me, and I had disgraced his memory. 


     "I stayed with my mother for two months.  Then the day came when I grew restless.  Mama asked me, ‘Malachi, what is it you're wanting out of this life God has given you?’


     "I turned to her and said what I knew would be the hardest thing for her to hear.  ‘Mama,’ I said, ‘I want to go back to San Francisco.  I want to pick up where Ben left off.  There's a lot of people living on the streets who think they have no one.  I want to show them that isn't true.  If I can help just one person, then I will have repaid Ben's kindness to me.’


     "As difficult as I know it must have been for her, my mother gave me her blessing to return here.  She told me she knew from the first moment she held me in her arms I was destined to preach and help others.  ‘Son,’ she said, ‘You don't have to have a pulpit to spread God's word of love and brotherhood.  Jesus preached from the streets, and the Bible tells us he never turned his back on anyone. Not rich man, poor man, beggar man, or thief.  Perhaps this is God's calling for you, Malachi.’


     "So I returned here to San Francisco to give back some of what Ben had given me.  Sometimes that means I help a woman and her children find a safe place to sleep at night.  Sometimes that means I give a man enough money to buy himself a decent meal.   Sometimes that means I help a man get off the bottle.  But the one thing I've never been able to do is buy a man a bus ticket home.  Until now, Jack.  Figuratively speaking, I'm buying you your bus ticket home."


     A.J. covered his face with hands once more.  To Rick he seemed a pitiful lost soul trying to hide from all of them.


     "I...I don't think I can," came the pain-wrought confession.  "Too much...too much has happened I can't...too much has happened I can't talk about."


     Malachi rubbed a hand across the blond's hunched shoulders. "I know, Jack.  I've been there, remember?  But right now your brother's not expecting you to talk.  He just wants you to go home with him.  That's it, nothing more. Just take that first step.  Everything else will fall into place behind it when the time is right."


     "I just...I just don't want anyone to get hur...I don't want to be hurt again."


     "A.J.," Rick said quietly past the lump in his throat,  "no one's going hurt you, I promise.  Town and Abby and I have that under control."


     "That's not who I am," came A.J.'s muffled reply.  "That's not who I want to be.  I'm Jack now."


     Malachi squeezed A.J.'s shoulder.  "It doesn't matter what you call yourself.  Whether that be Jack, or A.J., or Andrew.  The Bible tells us God knows each one of us by name.  He hasn't forsaken you, A.J. Simon.  If He had, He wouldn't have brought you to me."


     A.J.'s face appeared only enough to allow him to make eye contact with Malachi.  "That's why I want to stay here.  This is where I belong."


     "No, A.J. It's as Dominique already told you, you don't belong here.  Beulah Land is not your place of peace and rest.  It was only a temporary respite from the cruelties inflicted upon you.  Your place of peace and rest is in San Diego with your family.  That's where I want you to go now.   That's where Dominique wants you to go now."  Malachi nodded his conviction.  "That's where you belong."


     A kaleidoscope of confusing images assaulted A.J.'s mind.  He saw himself and the life he led prior to Eduardo Agilar's intervention.  He remembered the business he’d nurtured and the family he loved.  He remembered the older brother he called best friend, and the gentle mother who had always put the needs of her children ahead of her own.  He remembered so many many things, among them Agilar's treatment of him, and what he had been told he must never reveal for the sake of his family's safety.


     A.J.'s head was buried in his hands once more.  His anguish came out in a whispered plea.  "I don't know what to do.  I don't know where home is anymore."


     The soft click of the heels of Rick's cowboy boots against the tile floor was the only indication of movement in the room.  His knees cracked as he hunkered down in front of his brother.  He didn't try to pull A.J.'s hands away from his face, but rather with the lightest of touches, reached out and laid his own hands on A.J.'s bare forearms.  He gave his brother's arms a gentle squeeze, then ran his hands up and down them in a comforting caress. 


     "Don't you think home might be with me and Mom, A.J.?"


     Every eye in the room was trained on the blond head.  A long tense minute passed before all in attendance saw the barely perceptible nod A.J. finally gave.


     Upon getting that confirmation, Rick Simon leaned forward and enfolded his brother in his arms.  It didn't matter to him that A.J. wouldn't drop his hands from his face and return the hug.  Rick simply held his sibling and ran one hand over A.J.'s back in an ever-widening circle.   "It's okay," he stated softly.  "You can trust me, little brother.  Everything's gonna be okay now."


     From where he stood by the door, Town gave thanks for the friend he never thought he'd see again.


     From the couch, Malachi gave thanks for this first small step A.J. had finally agreed to travel down the long road toward home.                 


     From the middle of the room, Dominique turned away in order to hide her tears.  Everything she had prayed for had happened.  Yet as she gave thanks, her heart was breaking at the thought of giving up the man she had fallen in love with named Jack.



Chapter 23


Mid-Afternoon, Saturday, February 27th, 1993



     A.J. wouldn't look at Rick when he pulled himself out of his brother's arms.  He rose on shaky legs and walked over to the corner of the room to retrieve his backpack.  Malachi rose from the couch as well, and joined Town by the door.


     Rick stood up and watched as his brother picked up the blue zippered pack.  "What's that?"


     A.J. hiked one sturdy strap over his shoulder.  Without turning around he replied quietly, "My stuff."


     Based on what Dominique had told Rick back in the motel room, the oldest Simon brother was well aware anything A.J. had in that pack was nothing more than second hand clothing provided for him by the shelter.  What little was in there couldn't be much different from the faded jeans, cast-off red polo shirt, and scuffed hiking boots he was wearing.


     "You don't have to take that if you don't want to," Rick offered.  "We can stop and get you some new clothes and whatever else you need when we leave here."


     Though he didn't know why, Rick could immediately tell he'd said the wrong thing.  A.J. threw his brother a scathing look.  "I don't need new things.  These are mine.  I worked for them."


     Regardless of whether or not he understood his sibling's sudden wrath, Rick's acknowledgment was quiet and gentle.  "That's fine, A.J.  No one's going to take them away from you."

     A.J. walked over to Dominique.  He looked down at her tear stained cheeks.  Tears filled his own eyes once again and he whispered, "I don't want to go."

     The tiny nurse reached up and laid a soft hand on the side of A.J.'s face.  "I know you don't.  But I want you to.  I've prayed for this day for many months now, Jack.  I've prayed that a member of your family would come looking for you."  Dominique's thumb rubbed over A.J.'s wet cheekbone.  "The one thing I've wanted since the day I started volunteering my time here three years ago is to see some man I've helped turn his life around.  To see that man walk through the door wearing a suit and tie, and to hear him say always has a warm bed to sleep in and plenty of food on his table.  You're going to be that man, Jack.  You're going to be the one who proves to me all my time here isn't wasted."

     A.J. could barely speak through his tears.  "It's not.  It never has been.  You''ve meant everything to me these last few months, Dominique."


     "I know.  And you've meant everything to me.  But now it's time for us to say goodbye."


     Malachi and Town quietly left the room as A.J. moved to hug the woman.  He pulled her tiny form to him and buried his head in her shoulder.  Even so, Rick could hear his muffled words.


     "I love you."


     When A.J.'s head emerged Dominique wouldn't allow herself to kiss him on the mouth.  Instead, her lips brushed his cheek.  "I love you, too," she whispered.  She gave his arm one final squeeze.  "Now go.  Someday your brother will tell you about all the effort I went through to reunite the two of you.  When he does, I'd better not find out you laughed at me."


     "I won't," A.J. vowed, as though laughing at her was the last thing he'd ever do.


     For the first time that day Dominique smiled.  "Oh, I think you will.  As a matter of fact, I'll be disappointed if you don't.  You've got too good of a sense of humor not to."  The woman gave A.J. a small push in Rick's direction.  "Go on now.  Go with your brother."


     Dominique cried internally as A.J. suddenly looked as scared and unsure of himself as he had the first day she'd met him.


     "It's okay, Jack.  I know you're scared, and I know you're uncertain about a lot things that lay ahead, but the one thing you can count on is your brother's help to get you through all that’s to come."


     A.J. glanced at Rick.  The older Simon didn't do anymore than remain patiently standing by the couch.  He was more than willing to allow A.J. all the time he needed to say goodbye to the nurse who had given him so much.  But it was also apparent Rick had no intention of leaving without A.J. by his side.


     A.J. turned to Dominique.  "Can you walk out with me?"


     Dominique hated herself for what she was about to say.  She felt like a mother abandoning her child to the uncertainties of the first day of school.  "No, Jack, I can't.  I have...I have things to do in here.  We've already said our goodbyes.  Go on now."


     Dominique turned her back on A.J.  She felt his light touch on her shoulder, but she knew he wasn't beckoning her to face him.  Somehow she knew it was his way of saying his final goodbye and thank you.


     She heard his hesitant footsteps as he approached his brother.  She guessed Rick must have reached out to touch A.J., because she heard the blond's sharp retort of, "Don't!"


     Dominique could feel Rick Simon's pain as strongly as she could feel her own.  She heard his cowboy boots lead the way out of the room.  It wasn't until she heard the soft soles of A.J.'s hiking boots exit into the hallway that she broke down and sobbed.






     Malachi walked with the three men as far as the shelter's doors that day.  But then, much like Dominique, he wouldn't agree to walk with A.J. beyond that point.  He accepted the hug of thanks the blond man gave him and returned it in kind.  But then he forced A.J. away from him. 


     "You have to go now."


     A.J.'s eyes lingered on Malachi a moment before he reluctantly turned and followed his brother and Downtown Brown.  He looked over his shoulder three times on his way to Town's Jeep.  Even from a distance, Malachi could see the fear in his eyes. 


     Rick opened the door behind the front passenger seat.  When A.J. hesitated, Rick held out his hand.  "Why don't you give me your backpack so you can climb in."


     A.J.'s grip tightened on the strap.  "It's mine.  Dominique gave it to me."


     Rick's reply was gentle and full of infinite patience.  "I realize that, A.J.  And I have no intention of takin' it away from you.  Nor does Town.  We'll put it on the floor in-between us.  How does that sound?"

     It took A.J. a long moment to do as Rick instructed.  Rick got the impression that from here on out he was going to have to earn his brother's trust.  That hadn't been something the eldest Simon brother had been expecting, but then when he thought about how A.J. had been treated by Agilar for those six long months of captivity, his mind reluctantly acknowledged the reasons behind A.J.'s mistrust.  In almost one year's time the only people who had reached out to A.J., and who had not physically harmed him, were Malachi and Dominique.  Obviously it was going to take A.J. some time to feel comfortable broadening that tiny circle.


     The backpack reluctantly slid from A.J.'s shoulder.  He never took his eyes off Rick's face as he handed the precious bag to him. 


     Rick offered a reassuring smile.  "You go ahead and climb in.  Slide all the way over.  I'll be right behind you."


     Once both the brothers were in the vehicle Town walked around to the driver's side.  The black man hated to make A.J. feel like a prisoner, but he and Rick had already decided this seating arrangement would be best for the time being.   A.J. was sitting behind Town with nothing more than the backpack separating him and Rick.  Town was watching in the rearview mirror as his hand hit the button that would lock all the vehicle's doors.  He saw A.J. flinch at the sound.  The blond tried the door handle.  When the door wouldn't open, he tensed and once again took on the air of a trapped animal. 


     Town's eyes flicked to the oldest Simon.  Rick gave a nod of his head indicating to Town he was seeing the same signs of unrest in his brother. 


     The black man turned around under the pretense of looking out the back window.  While so doing he offered A.J. what he hoped was a calming smile of reassurance.


     "Well, guys, I guess we'd better be on our way.  It's well past lunch, and headed for suppertime as far as I'm concerned.  What do you say we eat before going back to the motel?"


     A.J. didn't answer Town, forcing Rick to pipe up with a cheery, "Good idea, Towner."  Rick looked across the seat at his brother.  "Where do you wanna eat, A.J.?"

     A.J. eyed his brother as though gauging how intent Rick was on getting an answer out of him.   When it became apparent to A.J. that neither Rick nor Town was going to make a decision without his input he offered hesitantly,   "I...I don't know.  I usually eat at the shelter, or sometimes at Dominique's...or sometimes, a while ago...not at all."


     Rick's voice was tinged with anger aimed at Agilar and all he'd made A.J. suffer. "Well, that's not ever gonna happen again."  Rick turned to Town.  "You pick the place, Town.  It doesn't make any difference to me just as long as we can get a good hot meal in this guy."


     Town nodded as he pulled away from the curb.  He drove toward the Traveler's Rest and picked a family style restaurant across the street from it.  He and Rick had eaten here frequently in the past week.  It was clean, inexpensive, the food was homemade, and the desserts plentiful.


     A.J. exited the vehicle on Town's side.  His brother climbed over the backpack and followed him.  Without having to discuss it, Rick and Town were on the alert in case A.J. took off running.


     The three men walked together, A.J. sandwiched between Town and Rick, until they got within a few feet of the door.  A.J. started to lag behind before coming to a complete stop.


     "A.J.," Rick turned and beckoned with his right hand.  "Come on.  We're gonna get something to eat."


     "I...I can't." 


     "Why not?"


     A.J.'s eyes dropped to the pavement as he was forced to admit what his pride would hardly allow.  "I...I don't have any money."


     Rick walked the six steps it took him to get to his brother's side.  "It's okay, A.J.  I have plenty of money.  I'm buyin' for all three of us."


     A.J. looked up at the restaurant.  Rick got the impression that not only was lack of money an issue, but that as well, A.J. was afraid to go inside. 


     He probably hasn't been in a restaurant since last March.  He probably hasn't been in any type of a public place except that shelter.  With the shit Agilar did to him it's no wonder he's scared.


     "I don't have to eat anything.  I can wait for you out here."


     Rick wanted to reach out and pull his brother into a strong hug of reassurance, but after the rebuke back in Father Papanek's office he knew better than to touch A.J. 


     Rick's words were quiet but stern.  "Yes, you do have to eat something, and no, you're not waiting out here.  This is a good restaurant.  It's quiet.  No one will bother us, I promise.  And just forget about the money thing.  You've paid for enough of my meals over the years.  I thought we stopped keepin' track of that kind of stuff a long time ago, didn't we?"


     A.J. chewed on his lower lip.  "I don't...I don't remember."


     "Well, take it from me, we did."  Rick brought his arm up and around A.J.'s back, but held it suspended a few inches away from making physical contact.  "Now come on," he urged.  "Let's go inside."


     Rick was thankful the restaurant was quiet as he promised his brother it would be.  It was two forty-five.  The lunch crowd had long cleared out, and the supper crowd hadn't started pouring in yet.  Other than two couples at two different booths, three telephone linemen at the coffee counter, and a group of women at a round table that sat six, the place was empty.  When the hostess asked the men if they wanted to sit anywhere special, Rick indicated to a booth in a far back corner away from all the other people.  Rick followed the woman as she led the way carrying three menus.  Town waited until A.J. finally followed Rick.  The black man brought up the rear of the little entourage.


     The hostess placed the menus on the table and smiled.  "You're waitress will be right with you."    


     "Thank you," Rick nodded.  Town sat down in the middle of one booth, leaving A.J. no choice but to sit with his brother.  Rick smiled.  "Go ahead and slide in.  I'll sit on the outside."


     Again A.J.'s wary look took in both Rick and Town.  Rick waited patiently for A.J. to do as he requested.  The blond sat down and scooted over until he was hunched against the wall.      


     Rick sat down as well, but didn't move much farther than the edge of the seat.


     He looks so damn frightened.  Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.  I suppose we shoulda’ picked up some kinda fast food and taken it back to the motel to eat.


     By the look on Town's face, Rick could tell he was having the same thoughts.    


     Rick patted the wide empty space between himself and his brother.   "There's plenty of room.  You don't have to sit way over there squished against the wall like that."


     A.J.'s response was succinct and final.  "I'm okay."


     A.J. was oblivious to the concerned looks Rick and Town exchanged as Rick passed the menus around.  The men had a brief minute to study the restaurant's offerings before their waitress arrived with three glasses of ice water.      


     "Good afternoon, gentlemen.  Are you ready to order?"


     Rick smiled up at the cheerful woman he guessed to be about fifty.  "I think so.  I'll have the roast beef dinner."


     The woman scribbled down Rick's choice.  "Gravy on your mashed potatoes, sir?"




     "Your choice of vegetable is corn, carrots, green beans, or peas."




     "Salad or soup?  The soup today is cream of potato or chicken and rice."


     "I'll have the chicken and rice soup."


     "And what to drink?"


     " make that a large glass of milk."


     "Got it."  The waitress reached for Rick's menu and turned to Town.  In a few short seconds she had his order recorded.  The black man handed the woman his menu as she turned to A.J.  "And what can I get for you, sir?"


     Rick could hear A.J.'s breathing speed up, and saw his brother's hand tighten on the edge of the table in a vice-like grip.


     "Sir?"  The woman politely pressed.


     A.J.'s body tensed until Rick could clearly see the veins in his arms.   His eyes flicked wildly about the room as though looking for a means of escape.


     Rick smoothly intervened before the situation could rise to crisis proportions.  "He'll have the same thing I am."


     The woman did an excellent job of acting as though she waited on grown men on a daily basis who weren't capable of ordering for themselves.  But then, Rick figured she'd probably seen her share of strange situations over the years.  Most people who are employed in jobs that service the public do. 


"With corn as his vegetable and the chicken and rice soup?"


     Knowing A.J. liked both those things, Rick replied, "Yes."


     "And a large glass of milk to drink?"


     Rick turned to A.J., but in that brief second could see he was going to get no more response than the waitress had.


     "Yeah, that's fine.  He'll have milk, too."

     Rick reached over and worked A.J.'s menu out from underneath his rigid left arm.  He handed it to the woman.

     "Thank you.  I"ll be right back with your drinks and soups."


     Once the waitress was out of earshot Rick turned to his sibling.     "A.J., are you okay?"

     A.J.'s head was bowed.  His face was partially hidden from Rick by the shaggy hair that movement brought forward to hang in it.




     The blond's words were spoken in barely more than a whisper.    "I'm...I’m sorry."

     Rick leaned forward so he could see his brother's features.  A.J. wouldn't look at him. The blond stared down at the polished surface of the table.   Rick's voice was equally as quiet. 


"You're sorry for what?"


     "For...for embarrassing you like that."


     "You didn't embarrass me, A.J.  You didn't embarrass anyone, so don't worry about it."


     The shoulder closest to Rick lifted in a small shrug.  "It's just that I'm not suppos...I don't like to talk to people I don't know."


     Oh, A.J., what did that bastard do to you?  He took a self-confident man who could charm a snake out of a tree with his smile, and who could so easily converse with anyone, friend or stranger, and made him afraid of the world.  Made him afraid of a waitress for God's sake. 


     For the time being Rick helped his brother in the only way he knew how.  "You don't have to talk to anyone you don't want to, A.J.  It's up to you to decide what you're comfortable with and what you're not.  But I also don't expect you to eat whatever I order for you.  I'm sure you'd rather make your own choices.  So from now on, like when we stop for breakfast tomorrow morning, why don't you tell me before the waitress gets here what it is you want.  Then if you don't feel like talkin' to her I can tell her for you.  Does that sound okay?"


     A.J. gave a slow nod of his head.


     Once again Rick wanted to offer his brother a comforting touch, but once again he held back.  Instead, he confirmed in response to A.J.'s nod, "That's what we'll do then." 


     Unlike in the past when Town and the Simon brothers had shared a meal, the conversation around the table was subdued and stilted.  Rick and Town tried to draw A.J. into their meaningless chatter without success.  If they asked him a direct question he'd answer yes or no, but other than that had nothing to contribute.


     What the hell are we expecting?  Rick asked himself.  What do we think he's gonna talk to us about?  He's just been through a year of hell.  It's not like we can sit around this table and shoot the bull with him about the Padres chances of makin' it to the series, or about an upcoming fishing trip.


     Rick and Town finally settled on discussing what time they wanted to be on the road for home the following morning.  Rick turned and explained to A.J. that they'd be staying in the motel across the street for the night. 


     "Town and I have been stayin' there all week.  It's a pretty nice place."


     A.J. didn't react to Rick's words one way or another.  Before Rick could think of anything else to say the waitress arrived bearing a tray loaded with soup bowls, drinking glasses, and a bread basket.


     The arrival of the food made the situation easier on all concerned.  A.J. didn't pick at his food as Rick thought he might.  Quite the contrary, he was apparently famished for he ate all that was put in front of him.  Under the pretense of getting himself a dinner roll, Rick also sat one on his brother's plate.  When A.J. had polished the bread off Rick repeated the action, only to watch out of the corner of his eye as that roll disappeared as well.


     The main meals were brought to the table shortly thereafter.  Again, A.J. quickly cleaned his plate. 


     Rick watched the food disappear with a speed unlike any he'd ever seen his brother use when eating. 


I wonder if he's that hungry, or is he unsure of where his next meal is comin' from and when it will be?


     Rick didn't ask permission of either A.J. or Town when he ordered peach cobbler, ice cream, and coffee for all three of them. 


     The men lingered over dessert.  Even A.J. seemed to relax somewhat.  He was no longer perched on the edge of the booth’s seat, but had come to lean against its cushioned back.


     Rick grabbed the bill the waitress brought before Town could reach for it. 


     "Come on, Rick," the black man coaxed.  "Let me pay for your meals."


     "No," Rick shook his head.  "I'm buyin’."


     "All right," Town reluctantly conceded.  "It's not necessary, but thank you."  Town lifted his hips and reached for his wallet.  "I'll get the tip," he insisted.


     Rick's head turned with surprise when A.J. hesitantly echoed Town's words.  "Thank you.  I'll...I'll pay you back when I can."

     It was strange how that pitifully sincere statement made Rick want to cry.  He swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat.  "You're welcome, A.J.  And no, you don't have to pay me back.  I already told you we stopped keepin' track of this kinda stuff long ago.  Somehow it always comes out even in the end."


     Rick slid out of the booth.  He stood off to the side while A.J. did the same.  Again, Town brought up the rear as Rick walked up front to pay the cashier.


     In five minutes time Town was parking the Jeep in the motel's lot. A.J. climbed out of the vehicle and slung his backpack over his shoulder.  He paused to look up at the building.  Rick allowed A.J. the time he needed to get his bearings before leading him up the stairs to Room 60.      Town had managed to secure the room next door for the night.  He followed Rick and A.J. into the room he and Rick had previously shared. 


     A member of the housekeeping staff had been in since Rick and Town had left at noon.  The beds were neatly made and the floors vacuumed and mopped.  Fresh towels and washcloths hung in the sparkling bathroom, whose sink was now divested of the beard stubble Dominique had found so offensive that morning.  Town made quick work of gathering up his suitcase and shaving kit. 


     "I'll get settled in my new room while you help A.J. get settled in here."

     Rick nodded as he walked Town to the door. 


     The black man eyed the silent A.J.  The blond stood in the middle of the room observing his surroundings as though he'd never been inside a motel before. 


     Town's voice was pitched low.  "Do you want me to come back over after while?"


     "Yeah, if you don't mind.  I'd like to call Mom, but I'd rather do it from the phone in your room."


      Rick didn't have to say anymore for Town to understand the detective didn't want to leave his brother alone for even a brief second. Nor did Rick want A.J. to be privy to his conversation with Cecilia. 


     "I'll give A.J. a chance to get used to things, then pop back in."  Town glanced at his watch.  "How about in a half hour, give or take a few minutes either way?"

     "Sounds good."


     Rick closed the door behind his departing friend.  Though it was only a few minutes after four o'clock, the sky was growing prematurely dark from the heavy cloud cover that had rolled in off the bay during the afternoon.  Somewhere in the distance Rick could hear thunder rumbling.


     Rick pointed to the bed closest to the bathroom and farthest from the door.  "You can go ahead and have that bed, A.J.  That's the one Town was usin'."


     A.J. laid his backpack on the bed.  He remained standing as though waiting for Rick to issue further instructions.  He took a step backwards when Rick advanced on him.


     Sensing his brother's sudden unease Rick halted his movement.  "Uh...maybe you'd like to unwind underneath a hot shower for a little while, huh?"

     "Yeah I...I guess."  As though he was asking permission, A.J. added hastily,  "If that's okay with you."


     "Fine by me," Rick smiled.  "You go on and take as long as you need."


     A.J. picked up his pack and disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door firmly behind himself.  Rick heard the lock click into place. 


     The lanky man eased down on the end of his bed.  He kneaded his aching temples a long minute before dropping his hands.  Rick leaned forward and supported his weight by resting his elbows on his knees, his hands loosely clasped in-between them.  That's how Town found him twenty minutes later.


     The black man quietly approached the bed.   "How are you holdin' up?"


     Rick's eyes traveled upward until they stopped on Town's face.  "Beats the hell outta me, Towner.  I guess I'm holdin' up about as well as A.J. is right now."


     With a small jerk of his head Town indicated to the bathroom.  "He's in the shower?"


     "Yeah.  I thought the hot water might help him relax a little bit.  He's so damn scared, Town.  He's so damn frightened of me, and I don't know what to do about it."


     Town walked over and took a seat in one of the green chairs by the window.  Rick sat up straight and turned his head so he face Town. 


     "You're doing exactly what you should be," the black man stated.  "You're doing the only thing you can.  You're being gentle, patient, and understanding.  You can't ask anymore of yourself than that, Rick.  Right now A.J.'s not that much different from a frightened child who's been beaten as much as he can tolerate.  It's going to take him a while, maybe even a long while, to learn to trust people again.  Stop and think how isolated he's been for almost a year now.  First with Agilar, then at the shelter.  Not to mention all he's gone through."


     "I know.  And I have been thinkin' about all those things.  To be honest with you, he's even actin' pretty much like I expected he would based on what we discovered happened to him.  But expectin' him to act this way, and actually experiencing it as reality are two different things.  Or so I've quickly come to discover."


     Town nodded in sympathy and understanding as he reached into his pant's pocket.  "Here's my room key if you wanna let yourself in so you can call your mother."


     Rick cleanly caught the key that was tossed his way.  "Thanks.  I'll wait until A.J.'s done in the shower though.  I don't want him walkin' out and findin' me gone."


     Town stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles.  "What are you going to do when you get him home?"


     "Have Joel give him a complete physical like Dominique suggested.  Then from there...well, I imagine he'll recommend therapy of some sort."


     "I would say that's a given."

     "So we'll get A.J. in the best program available.  I know a guy through the VA who's a damn good psychologist.  He works for a private facility now.  After I talk to Joel and hear what he has to say, I imagine I'll be givin' Clay a call."


     "If this guy works for a private organization it'll be costly."


     "Doesn't matter.  Money isn't an object when it comes to A.J.'s well-being."


     Town smiled.  "Somehow I thought you'd say that."


     The two men heard the spray of the shower cease.  Within a few short minutes the bathroom door opened to release a billowing cloud of steam into the room.   Behind the steam A.J. appeared in the same faded blue jeans he'd been wearing earlier, though this time minus his shirt and socks.   His fair skin was tinged pink from the hot water.  His long wet hair was neatly combed and rested on his shoulders.   


     The blond man came to an abrupt halt when he spotted Town.  His eyes darted from his brother to the police lieutenant as though he was trying to guess their intentions.  It had never crossed Rick's mind that even this innocent occurrence would terrify A.J.


     There's somethin' about both of us bein' in this room with him that's reminiscent of what happened to him with Agilar. Or maybe it's just because there's two of us in here now.  Maybe he can handle it okay if it's just me.  Maybe two men pose some kinda threat to him.


     Rick tried his best to ease his brother's fright.  "Town just came over to shoot the bull for a few minutes, A.J.  Listen...he's gonna stay in here with you while I get us a newspaper and some chips and soda in case someone gets hungry later on."

     A.J. eyed Town as though he was afflicted with bubonic plague.  "I don't need a babysitter."


     Rick's reply was quiet and even.  "I know you don't.  He's just here to keep you company while I'm gone.  I'm...I’m going to give Mom a call, too.  She'll want to know we found you.  Would you like to talk to her?"




     For the umpteenth time that day Town and Rick exchanged glances. 


     Rick accepted his brother's refusal as he stood and crossed to the door.  "All right.  But if you change your mind let Town know.  Otherwise, I'll be back in a little while."

     A.J.'s one word question was voiced with sudden panic.  "When?"

     Rick turned to see A.J.'s eyes wide and dilated.  He took several slow steps toward his brother, then stopped when A.J. started to back up.


     He doesn't want me to leave, yet he doesn't want me to get too close either.  Oh, A.J., how the hell am I even gonna begin to help you?

     "A.J., all I'm gonna do is exactly what I told you.  I'm gonna call Mom, then go buy us something to read and get us some stuff to eat and drink.  I won't be gone any longer than a half an hour."  Rick looked at his watch.  "It's twenty minutes to five right now.  I promise I'll be back by five-fifteen.  Okay?"


     A long moment passed before A.J. gave a reluctant nod of his head. By the time Rick had walked back to the door and was exiting the room, A.J. was perched stiffly on the edge of his bed, sitting as far away from Downtown Brown as he could get.




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