Every Now and Then (by Kenda)

Summary:
Category:  Simon and Simon
Genre:  Detective
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  57,000


Part 1

Although I’m still reluctant to admit it, looking back on it now maybe Rick is right. Maybe it was a dumb thing to do. Or at least dumb in the sense that I didn’t confide in him as to where I was going. Nor did I call after I got there and realized I could use his help. If our positions were reversed I suppose I’d be pretty ticked off, too. But a lot of the reasons he’s so upset are exactly the reasons why I couldn’t talk to him about the whole thing in the first place. I knew he wouldn’t understand why I so willingly offered her my help. I knew he’d only give me grief over that decision. And possibly he should have. But regardless of what he would have said I’d have gone anyway. No argument he could have offered would have changed my mind. I’d have gone anyway, and the results would have been the same. And I suppose that’s why he’s so angry.

The last person I was expecting to hear from that night in mid-January, 1997, was Janet Fowler. As in Janet Fowler my ex-wife. Despite the fact our marriage had more or less ended on amiable terms almost two years earlier, I hadn’t seen her or talked to her since I’d departed from Seattle on the Precious Cargo in May of 1995.* I’d returned to the city of my birth, and the only place I’ve ever really thought of as home, San Diego, California. Rick and I reopened Simon and Simon Investigations shortly after my arrival. The first couple months were lean, but within a short period of time we reestablished ourselves with old clients and old contacts while successfully seeking out new clients and new contacts. Our calendar was soon full and our bank account once again growing.

I hadn’t had reason to look back in a long time. Until that night. Until the phone rang and it was Janet on the other end. Her voice was tentative and small, as though she wasn’t sure what my reaction would be.

“AJaay?”

To be honest with you she was the farthest person from my mind when I crossed my kitchen floor and snared the phone on the second ring. She didn’t have to identify herself. Just the way she said my name immediately told me who my caller was. Despite having lived more of her {1995 Reunion Movie – Simon & Simon: In Trouble Again *Precious Cargo – By: Kenda Buxton} adult life outside the state of Florida than within its boundaries, she never had lost that hint of a Southern accent that would occasionally slip through on some words. When she wasn’t consciously thinking about it my name was one of those words. At those times she would emphasize the second letter dragging out the J sound in a way that I’d always found amusing,……and sexy, back in the days when thoughts of sex and Janet were often one in my mind. Although I had no Southern accent to cover, I doubt I was able to keep the surprise out of my voice.

“Janet?”

“Yes, A.J., it’s,….it’s Janet.”

My first thought was something had happened to her father. Myron had stayed in touch with me since the divorce, calling me once or twice a year to see how I was doing and to shoot the bull about Simon and Simon. My former father-in-law, as well as one-time boss, hadn’t lost his love for the P.I. profession. Although he now spent more time at the race track than he did on stakeouts, he still loved to experience the job vicariously. Therefore I was pretty sure Janet would call me if ill health, an accident, or death were to befall the seventy-four-year-old man.

“Is everything okay?” I asked. “Has something happened to Myron?”

Evidently Janet’s thoughts weren’t running in the same direction as mine. She was momentarily confused.

“Daddy? No. No, nothing’s happened to Daddy. Why would you think something’s,…..” She broke off there. I believe she realized then that I was hard pressed to come up with any other reason for her call.

“Oh,….oh, ummm, no. No, A.J. Daddy’s fine. As a matter of fact I just returned from Florida a few days ago. I flew down and spent two weeks with him.”

“That’s nice.” I well remembered Seattle’s winters. “You picked a good time of year to get away.”

She chuckled, and I could almost see her parting the draperies with a hand. “Yes, I did. It’s snowing out right now as a matter of fact. I’d say there’s already three inches on the ground.”

Despite the pristine mental picture her words painted I well remembered having to get up before dawn on many a winter day to shovel our driveway and sidewalks just so we could make it to work on time. It was abundantly satisfying to know if I walked out my door right at that moment I wouldn’t even need to put on a lightweight jacket, let alone a hat and gloves.

It was almost as if she’d read my thoughts when she added, “But I know you don’t miss it one bit.”

It surprised me how much that one sentence hurt. Hurt because, although we hadn’t spoken to each other in almost two years, she still knew me so well. Sometimes it’s comforting to have someone know you in such an intimate way they can anticipate what your reaction will be to every aspect of life. That’s how well Janet had known me. I don’t think I was prepared to find out that’s how well she still knew me.

“No, no I don’t miss it,” was all I said in return.

A long, awkward pause followed. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there wasn’t plenty of questions I could have asked and plenty of topics I could have brought up. After all, we hadn’t spoken in twenty months. But she was the one who made the phone call. I wasn’t about to give her the impression that in any way, shape, or form did this contact on her part mean anything to me.

“So, ummmm…..how are things?” she asked.

“Fine. Things are fine.”

“Is your Mom okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Keeping busy with more activities and projects than I can name. You know Mom.”

I could tell she was smiling when she replied with warmth, “Yes, I know your mother.”

I suspected Janet and Mom still kept in contact with one another just like Myron and I did, but I never asked my mother about it and she had never volunteered any information of that nature. But she and Janet shared a friendship bordering a mother/daughter relationship that went back over twenty years now, therefore it wouldn’t have come as a shock to discover the two of them talked on the phone every so often or exchanged letters and greeting cards.

“And how’s,….how’s Rick?”
Rick had long been a sore subject between us, and I suppose even a portion of why we’d divorced.

“He’s fine, too. Same old Rick.”

She let that one drop, which was just as well. I’m sure she could have come up with at least a hundred smart remarks to my “Same old Rick,” statement.

“And Toby?” She inquired about our basset hound who had come to live with me after the divorce. “How’s he doing?”

I glanced down at the sausage-round dog who was slumbering on the throw rug by the kitchen door. “He’s okay. Sleeping as usual. When he’s not doing that then he’s eating.”

Janet laughed at the joke we’d so often shared in regards to our unambitious hound.

“Doesn’t sound as though much has changed.”

I looked around my house on the Grand Canal. I’d done some redecorating since I’d purchased it back from Rick. As a matter of fact I had just completed giving every room an overhaul. I’d started with the kitchen when I’d first returned, worked my way through the downstairs, and had just finished painting and wallpapering the upstairs the previous week. New carpeting was due to arrive within the coming month, new furniture for the den and living room right along with it.

“Some things have changed,” I said to Janet, “but I suppose more than not they’ve stayed the same.”

There was hesitation on her part before she asked her next question. “And you’re,…..happy? I mean, things are going good for you?”
I thought about that a moment. It’s not very often anyone comes right out and asks you if you’re happy. But after a few seconds of reflection I could honestly say I was. Had I achieved everything I wanted out of life? No. Had I met every goal I’d set for myself? No. Had I experienced some disappointing failures and painful times? You bet. I can’t imagine that any of us don’t. But I had come to terms with all those things in recent months and knew that more often than not, the good outweighed the bad.

“Yes, Janet, I’m happy.”

“I’m glad,” she said, and I could tell she really meant it. “I never,….well I never wanted to cause you pain. You’re the last person I would ever intentionally hurt.”

“I know.”

I didn’t tell her she needn’t take all the blame for our failed marriage, I had caused us just as many problems as she had. I suppose I should have voiced that assurance to her, but right at the moment my mind was occupied with other concerns. It was obvious to me there was more to this phone call than the desire to catch up on old times with the ex-husband. She sounded tired and stressed and worried. As though she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and didn’t know where else to turn for help.

“Janet, what’s wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“You sound upset. Are you all right?”

“Yes, A.J., I’m fine. I just,…..I have sort of a problem and I,…well the reason I called was because I need you to recommend a good P.I. to me. One who lives up here in Seattle, of course.”

Finally something about this phone call made sense. Naturally she’d turn to me for a recommendation regarding a Seattle P.I. Much to my former wife’s dismay I had gotten involved in private investigation work again while employed at the law firm of Bloomdecker, Hershaw, and Clark. I had come in contact with a number of local private investigators during that time. Those that I didn’t know personally I knew by reputation.

I was all business now and presumed her need involved some case she was working on for the D.A.’s office for whom she was the chief prosecutor. I’ll admit I was a little surprised she’d need to call me for such advice. Generally attorneys have a pool of two or three reputable P.I.’s they draw from when circumstances warrant such a move.
“I assume this is for work? For the D.A.’s office? Without breaching any ethics can you tell me what kind of case it’s pertaining to?”

“No, A.J. No. What I mean is, yes I can tell you what the case is about, but no, it’s not for the D.A.’s office. It has nothing to do with work. This is,…..this is personal.”

“Oh. Oh, I see.”

I stopped there, waiting to hear what and how much she was going to reveal to me.

“I,…..A.J., I’m being stalked.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m being stalked.”

I rounded the counter and hiked myself up on a bar stool. I got the sudden feeling this was going to be a much longer conversation than I had originally presumed.

“Start at the beginning,” I said calmly. “Tell me everything that’s been going on.”

“Oh, A.J.,……I, you don’t know how much I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. You don’t know how much I need,…..well how much I need a friend right now.”
“Yes I do, Janet,” I soothed. “If you recall there was a time in my life when I needed a friend and you were the one waiting there to listen.”

Her, “I know,” was quiet and reflective of all that had caused us to travel full-circle. She had been the person I turned to when the pain of Erica Garcia’s murder threatened to be my undoing. Our marriage was a direct result of all Janet had so willingly offered me back then.*

“Let me repay you that debt now,” I said. “Tell me what’s happening.”

She took a deep breath and began. “It started this past fall. On October fifteenth. I recall the date because I came home late from a banquet given in honor of a retiring judge. I was about halfway to the house when I thought I was being followed. I remembered what you and Daddy always told me to do if I found myself in such a situation so I drove around a little bit. Took several different routes, but he stayed with me. I was just getting ready to go to the nearest police station when he passed me and drove off into the night. I thought then that I was mistaken. That he just happened to be someone going my way. But the next morning he was parked outside my house.”

“And it was the same guy?”

“At the time I didn’t know for certain, but I suspected it was. From there it’s escalated. Sometimes he follows me to work or from work, sometimes he parks outside my house, sometimes I’ll be having lunch with a friend and see him standing across the street from the restaurant, and now,…..well lately my phone’s been ringing at all hours of the day and night. When I answer it he,…..he tells me what he’s going to do to me.”

I didn’t ask her to go into detail. I could easily imagine what type of threats the man was making.

“What happens if you don’t answer the phone?”

“He leaves the same type of messages on the answering machine. It’s gotten to the point where I have no choice but to leave the phone off the hook. He’s even started calling me at work, A.J.”
The guy had to be pretty bold, or absolutely stupid, to be calling a district attorney at work and making obscene threats to her.

“What about the police?” I asked. “I assume you’ve talked to them about this?”

“Yes, I have. Numerous times. They think he must have a scanner in his car. Every time I make a complaint about him he disappears before they get here. They’ve had me try calling in on another line so my report won’t be broadcast, they’ve tried staking out my house and office, they’ve tried everything they can think to, but they just can’t seem to catch the guy. He,….he seems to have some kind of sixth sense, some kind of uncanny ability that allows him to know the officers every move. That’s why I went to Daddy’s. I thought if I was a away for a couple weeks he’d tire of his game and leave. Pretty naive, huh?”

“No it wasn’t,” I assured her. ” If nothing else it was worth a try.”

“The police have provided me with an escort to and from work, but he never shows up when one of them is with me. When we call the whole thing off he’s back again.”

“And you have no idea who he is?”

“No, absolutely none. I’ve never gotten a good look at his face, but I don’t think I know him.”

Although it isn’t unheard of, a woman being stalked by a complete stranger is fairly unusual. Generally such a crime is committed by former boyfriends or ex-husbands who can’t come to terms with the end of the relationship.

“I’m to the point where I feel I have no choice but to hire some kind of body guard,” Janet said. “As well as someone who can determine who this guy is in a way the police don’t seem to be able to. That’s why I called you. I need to know what P.I. in the Seattle area would be good at this type of job. I,……..I’m so scared, A.J. I’m so scared.”

She started crying then, letting out all the fear and frustration I knew she’d been keeping bottled up for months. I could easily guess she’d let very few people in on what was happening. She had always been extremely private about her personal life. I doubted her father even knew the trouble she was currently experiencing, later I would find out I was correct.

“Janet, don’t cry. Don’t cry, babe. It’ll be okay.” I didn’t give it any conscious thought when I called her ‘babe’. It was a pet-name that went all the way back to our years together in Florida. For some strange reason using it again didn’t seem nearly as out of place as it should have. It took her a while to calm down. I could hear her blow her nose, then she apologized to me for getting so upset, just as I knew she would.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Hey, if you can’t call and cry on your ex-husband’s shoulder whose shoulder can you cry on?” That made her laugh like I knew it would.

“Oh, A.J.,” she scolded in jest, “what am I going to do with you?”
“Probably the same thing you did with me two years ago,” I joked. “Kick me out.”

“I didn’t kick you out!” she protested, and she was right. She hadn’t. When the time came to dissolve our marriage I left on my own accord.

“I was teasing you, Janet. You’re right, you didn’t kick me out. I found my way to the door all by myself.” There was an uncomfortable pause that spoke of the pain we both still carried within over the demise of our marriage. I quickly used words to cover it over.

“Listen, Janet, I’m coming up there.”

“Oh, A.J., no. No. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask me, I volunteered. That is unless,….unless you’d prefer I don’t.”

“No, no, it isn’t that. It’s not that at all. I just,….well it wasn’t my intention for you to make such an offer. I simply called to see if you could recommend someone.”

“I realize that. And I am recommending someone. Me.”

“A.J., I….,”

“Janet, I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. If it’s okay with you then I’ll fly up tomorrow. If you’d rather I not, for whatever reason, just say so.”

“I,….if you’re sure. If you’re certain I’m not inconveniencing you in any way then yes, A.J.,……yes, I’d like it if you came up.” The relief in her voice was easy to detect. “But only if you’ll let me hire you.”
“Janet,….”

“No, don’t say it. I won’t let you come unless I hire you. Signed contract and all. If you’re coming up here than it’s because you’re working for me. I won’t have it any other way.”
I could see the wisdom behind her words and knew I’d demand the same of her if I was ever in need of her services as an attorney.

“All right. Signed contract and all.”

“And no breaks either. I mean in regards to the fee.”

“Okay, no breaks,” I agreed. How well I suddenly remembered her stubbornness. We hung up shortly thereafter. I could hear her smile when I reminded her to lock all the doors, keep the draperies pulled, set her home security system, and turn on the outside lights. I told her I’d call her the next morning to let her know what time my flight was arriving. I planned to rent a car at the airport, then be waiting to escort her home when she came out of work.

“A.J., I….I don’t know how to thank you.”

“No thanks is necessary, Janet.”

“Somehow I knew you’d say that,” she offered right before she hung up the phone.

And somehow I knew she’d say that.

*****

I stood in my galley starin’ at the phone in my hand and hearing the ‘buzz, buzz, buzz,’ of a line that’s been disconnected. I had no idea what to make of the call I’d received from my brother. I had just poured milk on my Wheaties when the phone rang. For a brief second I thought of lettin’ the answering machine pick it up so my cereal wouldn’t get soggy, but at that time of the morning it was unlikely my caller would be anyone other than Mom or A.J.

“Yo?” I said in way of greeting around my spoon.

“Rick, it’s me. Sorry to interrupt your breakfast.”

“No big deal. Just don’t mind me if I keep right on eatin’. You know how I hate soggy cereal.”

“Go ahead, eat,” A.J. said. “This won’t take long anyway. Listen, I’m going to be gone for a few days so,….”

I had to admire the way he tried to breeze on through relayin’ that information. As though I wouldn’t find it odd that out of the clear blue he suddenly felt the need for a little vacation.

“Where you goin’?” I asked as I bent over my bowl.

“Uh,….to visit a friend. We don’t have much happening at the office right now so I don’t think,….”

“When are you leavin’?”

“Umm,….in a couple hours.”

“A couple hours?”

“Yeah.”

His ‘yeah,’ was nonchalant and carefree as if he always called me on a moment’s notice to say he was leaving in a couple hours and would be gone for a few days. In my best demanding big brother voice I barked, “A.J., what’s goin’ on here?”

And in his best innocent little brother voice he answered, “Nothing. Nothing’s going on. I’m just going to be gone for a few days, that’s all.”

“What about Toby?”

“Mr. Gorman’s going to take care of him for me.”

“Mr. Gorman?”

“Yes.”

“You can bring him over here. He can stay with me and Rex, ya’ know.”

“Yeah, I know. And thanks for the offer, but it’s not necessary. Mr. Gorman walks three or four times a day ever since he had that heart bypass surgery last year so he said taking Toby along was no trouble.”

Now that was weird. Not that old man Gorman wouldn’t take good care of Toby, and overall Toby doesn’t need much taking care of to begin with, but it was weird that A.J. wasn’t bringing the dog over to my place. He always had before whenever he was going to be out of town. I got the distinct impression my sibling didn’t want to see me face to face before he left for wherever it was he was going. That impression was hammered home even more when A.J. quickly said his goodbyes. It was as if he didn’t want to be on the phone with me any longer than necessary for fear I’d ask him questions he had no desire to answer.

I hung up the phone and pushed my cereal bowl aside. I mentally reviewed what little I had learned from our brief conversation. A.J. was leaving in a couple hours to go visit a friend and would be gone a few days. Period. And every single bit of this sudden trip was so far out of character for him I began to wonder if it really had been my brother I was just talking to.

I mulled over gettin’ in my truck and driving to his place before he left, but what the hell was I gonna say? “Hey, A.J., you can’t leave until you tell me where you’re goin’!”

No, I couldn’t say that. In the first place I had no right, and in the second place my kid brother was forty seven years old. Not exactly a kid anymore, and certainly not obligated to answer to me for any reason. Plus we had always respected each other’s privacy. Runnin’ Simon and Simon like we do means we’re together more than we’re not during some weeks. Now we’ve always been close, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we’d both be lyin’ if we didn’t say we need some space from each other as well. And to that extent we rarely intrude on one another’s time away from the office or pry into one another’s personal affairs.

I tried to shrug the whole thing off by tellin’ myself A.J. would explain everything once he returned from wherever it was he was goin’. The nagging questions stayed with me, however, as I washed my breakfast dishes, made my bed, and showered. It’s as I was shaving that revelation dawned.

A.J. had been dating a hell of a sexy gal by the name of Lauren Albright for a little more than year now.* She had two young sons from a previous marriage who were crazy about my brother. For some reason I was suddenly certain this mysterious trip had to do with Lauren.

I bet he’s takin’ her away somewhere to ask her to marry him. He always has been a romantic. Or maybe he’s already asked her and they’re goin’ outta town to get hitched. That’d be somethin’ A.J. would do considerin’ both he and Lauren have already been married once. Yeah, I can picture it now. Some quiet little seaside town, just the two of them for the next few days, and then when they come back he’ll tell me and Mom they tied the knot.

I reached for my toothbrush, totally at peace with my self-made explanation.

It all makes sense. With Mom bein’ gone right now on that cruise to the Bahamas, and then plannin’ to visit relatives in Florida for another three weeks, A.J. can go off and get married without her bein’ the wiser. Not that Mom won’t be thrilled. She loves Lauren, and is nuts about Shane and Tanner, but she’d want to make a big deal over the whole thing and throw ’em some kinda reception filled with family and friends. I know A.J. wouldn’t want that the second time around. I’ve got a feelin’ he just wants something quiet and unobtrusive. Regardless of what he might say, I know he’s still smartin’ from everything Janet did to him. The last thing he’d want is to have some big deal made over another marriage.

I can honestly say it didn’t bother me in the slightest that A.J. didn’t confide his plans in me. I couldn’t blame him and Lauren for wantin’ to make this a private affair. Once Mom got back from her trip we’d take them out for a nice dinner. Maybe she and I could get them a gift certificate to some hotel or resort somewhere and I’d offer to take the boys one weekend so they could make use of it.

I briefly wondered what their plans were in terms of whose house they were gonna live in and the like, then pushed those thoughts aside as I left for work.

A.J. and Lauren crossed my mind on several occasions that day. Each time they did I mentally wished ’em good luck.

*****

I’ve always hated parking garages. These modern multi-level structures with their thick concrete support pillars, deep blind corners, and dim lighting seem to be a breeding ground for men bent on violent assault of women. For just that reason Rick and I continuously caution our mother to avoid making use of them, especially at night. When Janet and I were married I passed the same cautions on to her. Unfortunately that ominous structure I dislike so much is the only available vehicle accommodation for employees of the District Attorney’s Office of Seattle.

The afternoon was giving way to early evening by the time I wound my rental car seven stories up tight curves and sharp bends.

My plane had touched down at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, referred to as Sea-Tac by the locals, at ten minutes after one. I called Janet from a pay phone to let her know I’d arrived and to ask what time she planned to leave work.

“I should be done around six,” my ex-wife told me.

I glanced at the people rushing by me laden with suitcases and

carry-on bags. “I’ll be waiting for you. What level are you parked on?”
“Seven.”

It seemed strange to have to ask her the next question. “You still drive the BMW?”

“I still drive a BMW,” she acknowledged, “but not the one you’re familiar with. I sold it last year.”

I knew the mileage had to have been getting fairly high on Janet’s ten-year-old silver luxury sedan. Sounding more like a husband than I intended to I said, “Smart move.”

If she thought anything of my tone or words she didn’t mention it. “It was giving me problems on occasion. Anyway, I’m driving a black one now. Black with brown leather interior. It’s a ’96. Parked in section D.”

“I’m sure I’ll find it. See you then.”

“Okay. And, A.J.?”
“Yes?”

“Thanks again. For everything.”

I smiled. “Don’t thank me yet. I haven’t done anything.”

“Yes you have,” she responded softly before breaking our connection.

Forty-five minutes later I was leaving the airport’s parking lot in a deep blue Ford Contour GL. I didn’t want anything too flashy, or too expensive, so settled on the comfortable new-model sedan that offered plenty of leg room. I stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant I’d been fond of when I’d lived up here.

The Soup Kitchen was decorated in warm wood tones and dotted with small tables that sat no more than four. They catered to the noon time crowd from local offices with twenty-five different homemade soups on their menu and a variety of cold sandwiches. It was two-twenty when I walked in. There couldn’t have been more than seven people scattered throughout the dining area. I placed my order at the cafeteria style counter. By the time I walked to the other end to pay the cashier my cream of broccoli soup, turkey sandwich, and a Coke were waiting for me on a red tray.

I chose an empty table in front of the wide picture window that faced the sidewalk. I took my time eating while watching white wet stuff spit and drop and flutter as though it wasn’t quite sure if it was supposed to be snow or rain. The sky was a deep slate gray, the afternoon already growing dim. How well I remembered the perpetual gloom and precipitation of Seattle in January. It had been sunny and sixty-eight degrees when I’d left San Diego that morning. Why in the world anyone would want to make their home in a northern climate was beyond this Southern California boy.

Businessmen and women rushed by on the sidewalk hunched into their nondescript trench coats while clutching briefcases to their sides as though their lives depended on all that was contained within. I smiled slightly as I glanced down at my blue jeans, maroon ski sweater, and tennis shoes. When I lived up here I was one of them. One of those nameless, faceless people in an all-weather trench coat. An all-weather trench coat that if it had gotten mixed up in a group of trench coats I’d have had no hope of identifying again as mine. God, I had been so unhappy. So unhappy, and in so many ways unsuited to the white-collar, nine to five lifestyle.

I realize now that revelation came as much a surprise to me as it did to everyone else. Especially my wife.

I wiped my mouth with a napkin and left my dishes stacked neatly on the tray. I grabbed my bulky jean jacket from the back of my chair, slipped into it and snapped it closed. When I stepped out into the cold I berated myself for not having brought a winter parka and hat. Granted, the jacket fell almost to my thighs and with my heavy sweater underneath provided enough warmth for short excursions between the car and buildings. If I found I was going to be out in the elements for long, however, I knew I’d need to stop somewhere and buy something warmer. I’d been in such a hurry to leave the house that morning I never thought to reach in the far recesses of my closet for the winter coat I rarely had a use for. By the time I realized my error the Boeing 767 was passing over Portland. A little too late to ask the pilot to turn around.

The clock in the Contour registered fourteen minutes after three when I slid in. With almost three hours to kill before Janet got out of work I drove around, not really caring too much as to which direction I headed in as I refamiliarized myself with the city. I flicked on the windshield wipers and let them swish slowly back and forth. By four-thirty I was fumbling for the switch that would cause the headlights to awaken from their resting place in the car’s streamlined frame.

At five I paid the parking attendant at the garage that housed Janet’s car. I tried to recall the man’s name, he was the same hulking African-American who’d held the position back when Janet and I were married. I had always wondered how his bulk fit in the narrow booth that protected him from the weather. I smiled at him when I handed him my dollar. I never did come up with his name before he allowed the wooden rail to raise that otherwise hindered my path. I guess it didn’t make any difference one way or another. He didn’t seem to recognize me nor did he return my smile. I suppose I was just another white face in the sea of white faces he’d seen every day for twenty years now.

I was lucky and found an available spot on level seven. Although I had hoped from something close to Janet’s car, I was several sections away. But beggars can’t be choosers so I was satisfied to park and keep a careful, yet subtle watch.

I propped the folded Seattle Sound I’d purchased out of a newsbox at the airport on the car’s steering wheel. I perused the front page without losing sight of what was going on around me. All was quiet in the damp concrete space for the moment. I didn’t see anyone loitering about. As a matter of fact no activity whatsoever was occurring in the garage until I heard a car engine purr to life about ten minutes after I’d arrived. I thought that was rather odd since I could see the elevator from where I was and no one had disembarked from it. But then there was a stairwell around the corner. I knew it was possible someone had come up that way. My current vantage point wouldn’t have allowed me to see a person entering in that manner.

With as dangerous as parking garages are known to be I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to make use of an isolated stairway, but certainly the person might have gotten mixed up and exited the elevator on the wrong level, then chose to race up the stairs to the correct one. Rick’s great for doing that. Regardless of whether it’s a parking garage with brightly numbered levels, or the vast flat parking lot with neon letters that identify each row at Jack Murphy Stadium where the Padres play, the man can never find his way back to his vehicle. I learned a long time ago to pay careful attention to whatever section, level, or block he leaves his truck in. If I don’t we spend hours walking around in circles looking for it, arguing the whole while as to where we each think it’s located.

None of that mattered anyway. The smooth sound of what I identified as a Chrysler moved away from me. I turned to get a glimpse of no more than its tail lights before it vanished around a corner and headed down the ramp that would eventually take it to the street.

The elevator dinged to life shortly after that and kept on dinging as file clerks, secretaries and clerical workers ended their day. For the most part they were women in a variety of ages, sizes, and colors. They usually walked off the elevator in groups of twos or threes, but every so often one would exit alone. Darkness had fallen around us now. The dull yellow lights recessed in the low ceiling cast too-short patches of illumination about the area leaving a fair amount of cars and corners in menacing shadows.

I sat the paper on the passenger seat and watched. No one paid any attention to me. Not one woman noticed the lone man observing her. That scared me. It scared me on Janet’s behalf, on my mother’s behalf, and on behalf of every woman I had ever known and cared about. I realize it was the end of a long working day. Their minds were on picking this kid up from basketball practice, and this one up from day-care, while somehow getting another one over to the library so he could get his school project done before the next day’s deadline. In-between all that she needed to stop at the grocery store, put gas in her car, get supper on the table, supervise homework, and do a load of laundry before collapsing in bed to share some quiet time with her husband.

If she didn’t fall asleep first.

Obviously the last thing any of these women were worried about was me. Which was why it was good my reasons for being there had nothing to do with committing a crime against any one of them. All of them would have made for vulnerable, easy targets.

It was getting close to six p.m. when I once again took a closer look at my surroundings. This time I didn’t care if I was subtle or not as I turned my head and craned my neck. I still didn’t see anyone sitting in a vehicle as though on the lookout for Janet. Nor had any cars entered this level since I’d arrived. At this time of night people were more interested in going as opposed to coming.

Men began exiting the elevator now. I recognized a few as being colleagues of Janet’s. I hunched down in my seat a bit, not having any desire to encounter those I knew. First of all I didn’t want to go through the endless uncomfortable questions that were bound to prompted by my presence. Generally a former husband doesn’t show back up in his ex-wife’s life two years after the divorce. Especially when the union had produced no children, therefore giving the man little if any reason to stay in contact with the woman.

Secondly, it was quite possible Janet’s stalker was someone she worked with. As much as I hated to acknowledge that fact, it’s highly unusual for a woman to be shadowed by someone she doesn’t know. Yes, in the case of celebrities it happens on an all-too-frequent basis, but in the case of private individuals the occurrence is rare. Granted, there’s a lot of nuts in this world, but most of them aren’t going to make a full-time job out of stalking you just because he or she admired you from afar in the produce section of the grocery store.

At the moment, however, Janet’s male colleagues didn’t appear to be interested in anything other than going home. Engines turned over one after another until a fine fog of exhaust fumes settled around me like damp mist off a bay.

It didn’t come as a big shock when Janet’s predicted six o’clock quitting time stretched to six thirty. While staring at the silent elevator door I told myself, No doubt she’s still as absorbed in her work as she was when I was married to her.

I briefly wondered where that bitter thought had rooted its way up from, but decided some things are best left unpondered. Especially the painful happenings that eventually tore our marriage to mix-matched shreds of cloth neither one of us had any hope of piecing together again.

By the digital clock in the Ford it was six forty-seven when she finally emerged from the elevator. Other than appearing to be a bit rushed, she was as together at the end of the day as I knew she must have been at the beginning. Not a hair was out of place and her predictable tan trench coat was precisely buttoned and belted. A silk scarf swirling with bright reds, golds, and greens lay within the folds of the coat’s lapels. Her makeup appeared fresh, but like always, never overdone. I knew no matter how closely I observed I wouldn’t find a run in her stockings or a scuff mark on her expensive high heeled shoes.

Her head turned toward me when she heard the buzz that indicated I’d opened the car door but left the keys in the ignition. She paused and offered me a small, uncertain smile. The same small uncertain smile I offered her in return as I, too, paused.

Those first few seconds were awkward, uncomfortable and painful, just like I had known they’d be. We finally moved toward one another like two twelve-year-olds being forced to cross a school gymnasium and dance. Our steps were small, stiff, and most of all, surprisingly enough, shy.

She appraised me from head to toe while nodding. “A.J.”

“Janet,” I nodded in return. “You look good,” I complimented, and I meant it. Actually she was gorgeous like she always had been. Time hadn’t marred her natural beauty, I doubt it ever will. My mind drifted back over twenty years. I could see both of us the first day we’d met in the Peerless Detective office in Miami. It’s an overused cliche I know, but I fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her. It had only turned me on more, and made me more determined to win her favor, when she played hard to get in the coming weeks.* My tenacity served me well. We’d become engaged the following year.

I reached toward her head, then drew my hand back realizing I no longer had the right to make such a gesture.

“You cut your hair,” I stated the obvious. Her long chestnut locks were gone. Instead her hair was short, styled close all around her head fitting it snug and neat like a bathing cap. It would take me a while to get used to it, but I had to admit it looked darn good on her. It was chic, fashionable, and easily took ten years off her age.

She raised a self-conscious hand, running it over her skull. “Thanks. It took me a long time to decide to do it. But once I finally took the plunge I was thrilled with the results. I should have had it cut years ago. The mornings are a lot less hectic now.”

I smiled with memory. Her hair had always taken the better part of her preparation time each weekday morning. Which meant she usually raced out of the house with a half-eaten bran muffin in one hand and a battered banana peeking up from a compartment of her purse as though begging to be rescued.

I guess since we were talking hair it was only fitting her next comment was, “You shaved off your moustache.”

Much like she had brought a hand to her head, my fingers rose to briefly brush across my bare upper lip. “It’s been gone for quite a while now. I got rid of it the day we set sail for home.”**

I didn’t think about how damning those words might sound. As though I was telling her the minute I was free of her I had gotten rid of something she’d liked. Something she’d encouraged me to grow. Granted, it was a small thing. Just a moustache. But even small things signify special times in our lives.

Something momentarily flickered in her eyes, but whether it was hurt, regret, or just plain weariness I’m not sure. As quickly has it arrived she chased it away.

“You look great,” she said. “Still as boyishly handsome as I remember.”

She laughed when I blushed. It’s hard to imagine after our long history together she could yet evoke that type of reaction from me, but she could and she knew it. She was perfectly aware there’s nothing that causes me more discomfort than to have my looks commented on or fawned over. My parents always taught me one’s looks, be they attractive or otherwise, are simply the superficial trappings of all human beings. What really counts is who we are inside and how we treat those around us. When I reached my teen years and it became apparent the face I’d inherited from my father was an instant attractor of girls, my mother often reminded me, “A.J., the man who builds his life around a handsome face builds that life on unstable ground. His looks can be destroyed in an instant by an accident of some sort or ravaged by an obscure disease. If that person’s whole life has been about nothing more than an attractive face he won’t have very much left to rebuild with, now will he?”

I don’t know how much of that I understood when I was sixteen, but by the time I was graduating from college it made a lot of sense.

I shrugged a shoulder in Janet’s direction. “Boyishly handsome, maybe,” I reluctantly conceded, “but not for much longer. My part’s shorter than it used to be.”

I bent my head just enough so she could see what I was talking about. I’d kill myself before I’d acknowledge it to Rick, but indeed the natural part of my hair on the left side of my scalp was beginning to recede. I’d first noticed it about a year earlier when I was showing Shane and Tanner, the children of the woman I’m currently seeing, some old pictures of Rick and myself when we lived down in Florida. It was then I realized a number of years had passed since that portion of my hair had grown of its own will all the way over my forehead.

Janet laughed again at my words and at the forlorn expression that accompanied them.

“Oh, A.J., if you live to be one hundred you’ll die with a full head of hair. Don’t worry, there’s plenty up here yet.”

I knew she wasn’t giving it conscious thought when she gently ran a hand through my hair, ruffling it slightly as though it had just been kissed by a gentle summer breeze.

We offered each other an apologetic smile when I stepped away from her. At the same time she allowed her hand to fall back to her side.

I covered the awkward moment for both of us by reaching for her briefcase. I escorted her to her car while scanning the surrounding area. Unless her stalker was hiding outside his vehicle there was no one present but the two of us.

“Has he ever been waiting for you up here?” I asked quietly as I took her keys from her and unlocked the driver’s door.

She looked around as if she expected him to jump out from behind the nearest pillar. “Not that I’m aware of. He seems to be on my tail once I’m on my way home.”

“I don’t imagine I need to ask this, but have you changed the route you take?”
“Yes. Many times. Dozens as a matter of fact. He,…somehow he just always seems to know.”

“Okay,” I nodded, “we’ll talk more about it later. You’re tired. Let’s head home.” I swiftly corrected myself. “To your house I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean.” She paused in the act of getting in her car. “There’s not much there in the way of food. I haven’t had an appetite lately so it seems rather pointless to go to the store.”

So it wasn’t just my imagination, her frame did appear too slight underneath her heavy coat. “Janet, you can’t quit eating,” I scolded.

She dismissed my words in the same manner a woman dismisses any unwanted admonishment from her ex-husband.

“I know. I haven’t. I just don’t have much there right now other than some fruit and lettuce. Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care. Some place close is fine.”

She suggested a restaurant we used to frequent on occasion. The food was good, the service quick, and except on weekends the atmosphere quiet. I nodded my agreement, stood by her car until she’d locked the door and started the engine, then made quick strides to the Contour. I was right on her bumper as we wound down seven levels to the street. Of course I didn’t have much choice in the tight confines of the garage.

Once we were on the road I stayed several car lengths back. No one appeared to be tailing her. I even turned down some side streets Janet didn’t take, knowing I’d pick her up again in a few blocks on the main thoroughfare. Again, no one seemed to be doing anything out of the ordinary or taking special interest in the snazzy attorney in the BMW.

Janet had practically grown up at Peerless Detectives, not to mention having been Myron’s office manager for ten years before obtaining her law degree. Therefore she knew the P.I. business inside and out. She never looked over her shoulder when she exited her car and crossed the well-lit street to the restaurant. She didn’t have to look to know I was there.

I pulled the Ford in several parking spots behind Janet’s German made car. I sat there a couple of minutes just watching. Once again I couldn’t detect anything suspicious. Two more cars pulled up shortly after I did, four women on a ‘girls night out’ disembarked from one and an elderly couple, the man shuffling along behind a walker, from another. Obviously none of these people were giving Janet trouble.

A full ten minutes went by before I exited my vehicle and jogged across the street. I found Janet waiting in a secluded corner booth. She’d already been given menus. She was sipping a glass of deep red wine, another one sat across from her. Unless her alcohol consumption had vastly increased since we’d been married that second glass was intended for me.

“Did you see anyone?” She asked as I slid into the wide plush booth. Its back rose up behind me several feet affording us the privacy we needed.

“No, nothing. Unless your stalker is eighty-five and uses a walker, that is.”
“No,” she smiled slightly, “he’s not. I don’t suppose I’d be so damn scared if he was.”

I started to reach across the table to offer her a touch of comfort, but just as quickly snatched my hand back. I wrapped it around my wine glass instead. God knows things were safer that way for both of us.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

I took a long sip of the bitter liquid. I’m not any more of drinker than my ex-wife, but I will admit a chilled glass of wine and a good meal are often just what the doctor ordered after a long, tiring day of travel.

Janet nodded toward my glass.

“I hope you don’t mind that I ordered that for you.”

I smiled as I took another sip and turned my attention to the menu.

“Do I look like I mind?”

I couldn’t see her smile, but I knew it was there. We made quick work of ordering when our waitress returned. I think Janet expected me to question her more regarding her recent troubles, but I decided to forego that until we got back to her home. She needed some distance from the situation so I kept the conversation light. We talked a little about her work, a little about Simon and Simon, a little about her father and my mother, and I told a few amusing anecdotes about Toby. By the time we rose to leave it was nine o’clock and she looked beat. I was glad her home was only a few blocks away.

I reached for my wallet as I stood, but she laid a hand on my arm to stop me.

“No, A.J. I’m paying.”

“But….,”

“Don’t,” she ordered. “Don’t start some trip down ego lane. I told you I’d only allow you to come if I could hire you. You’re on the clock now. This was a business dinner.”

“Janet, no, I…”

She shook her head. “Forget it. If you want to argue you’ll have to pick another opponent. If part of playing security guard for a client means eating dinner out then you bill that client for the meal. You know you do.”

“Not always.”

She rested a hand on her hip. “Like when?”

I almost said, “Like when the client is an old friend, lover, and my former wife to boot.” I had a feeling that wouldn’t be too wise, however, especially the lover part, so I cracked, “Like when Rick forgets to save the damn receipt, that’s when.”

Janet laid down enough cash to cover our bill plus seven dollars for the tip before leading the way to the door. “Then it’s a good thing you left Rick home this trip.”

Knowing fully well how infuriated Rick would be if he found out where I was and why, I couldn’t help but think, In more ways than one, as I followed her out of the building.

Once again, nothing out of the ordinary aroused my suspicions as I trailed Janet to the house. There were a few brief moments when I thought we’d picked up a tail. A car well behind me took every turn we did until we came to Janet’s block. The vehicle finally turned in the opposite direction and disappeared, causing me to assume the driver was one of Janet’s neighbors headed to his or her own home.

Janet hit the button on her garage door opener and guided the BMW to its usual spot. I pulled the Contour in beside her. I had debated leaving it at the curb, but decided against that for now. If Janet’s stalker watched her every move as precisely as she claimed he’d soon enough be aware of my presence. But since, because of his absence this evening, we seemed to have an advantage over him I chose to keep it that way. I wanted nothing more than the satisfaction of sneaking up from the rear of his car, grabbing him by the throat and scaring the bejeezus out of him just like he’d been scaring her. And while I was at it I’d be obtaining his license number, taking note of his physical description, and letting him know quite firmly it would be in his best interest to never be seen by the lady again.

The garage door was already easing its way down behind me as I exited my car. For a moment twin ‘ding ding dings’ sounded as I reached into the back of the Ford for my suitcase and Janet reached into the back of the BMW for her briefcase and purse. We slammed our car doors one after the other, the sounds echoing off the walls of the nearly empty garage like gunshots.

A broom was propped up in one corner, a city recycling bin and a plastic garbage can on wheels lined the north wall. Other than those few items the structure was bare of anything that would indicate a man resided in the house. There wasn’t even a lawn mower anywhere to be seen leading me to conclude Janet hired someone to do her yard work now. When we’d been married we’d done that job together. While I mowed our big lawn Janet tended to the trimming, edging and flower beds. Or at least early in our marriage she did. As time went on and her job took up more and more of our personal lives, she began leaving all the outside maintenance to me. Eventually that became another issue in a long line of issues we fought over. How well I could still recall the senseless arguments that only served to pull us farther apart.

“A.J., it’s not worth fighting over! We’ll hire someone to do the yard work for heaven’s sake!”

“No!” I had hollered back from my position on the other side of our kitchen table. “I don’t want to hire it done! We already have a cleaning lady for chrissake! What the hell’s next, Janet? A goddam chauffeur?”

“You’re being ridiculous and you know it!” She accused. “You tell me you don’t want to spend your entire Saturday working in the yard so I tell you we’ll hire a lawn service. But then you refuse to entertain the notion! I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you!”

“Gotten into me? Nothing’s gotten into me! It’s you and that damn job of yours that’s causing us problems. It’s not the yard work I’m griping about, Janet, it’s the fact that it’s something we used to do together. Something we enjoyed doing together, that you can no longer find time for! Just like you can no longer seem to find time for a multitude of things we used to enjoy doing together.”

“You’re not a child, A.J. You certainly should be able to entertain yourself without me by your side every minute of the day.”

“Oh, I can, Janet. Believe me, I can,” I answered bitterly. “But I shouldn’t have to. We’re married, dammit! I thought spending time together was what marriage was all about. Or at least it used to be what this marriage was all about until someone decided to rewrite the book without asking me how I felt about it first.”

“A.J.?”

“A.J.?”

My ex-wife’s beckoning brought me back to the present. She didn’t question me regarding my momentary lapse of attention. Instead she unbugged her security system and unlocked the door that led into the house.

She paused in the wide back hallway and took her shoes off. She bent down to pick them up, carrying them the rest of the way. I took my shoes off as well, but left them on the rug she had sitting below a row of thick oak hooks. I hung my coat up on one of the hooks, left my suitcase on the floor next to the wall for the time being, and followed Janet into the main part of the house that was lit up with automatic timers. I tried not to be too nosey as we strolled down the long hallway, passing a large bathroom and then a modest sized laundry room during our journey. We emerged together into the vast living room/formal dining room.

Janet had rented this home for several months after the home we owned together sold. Once our divorce was final she purchased this

two-story house that was situated in a quiet, upscale neighborhood full of professional people just a few blocks from the quiet, upscale neighborhood we had lived in as husband and wife. I had been in the home a couple of times back when we were separated, but never for very long and never beyond the living room.

Janet laid her briefcase and shoes by the stairs that led up to the bedrooms. She took off her coat and placed it over the railing.

She turned and offered me a smile. “Would you like some coffee and dessert?”
“Dessert?” I echoed with gentle teasing tone to my voice. “I thought you said you didn’t have anything in the house.”

“I don’t. Or at least not much anyway. I did manage to make a run to the bakery before work this morning to pick a few things up. Just because I’m not eating doesn’t mean you don’t have to.”

I chuckled a bit at that.

“Anyway, I have a small cake here. Would you like a piece?”

“Sure,” I agreed.

I trailed her into the kitchen and helped as best I could considering I didn’t know where anything was at. We carried our plates and coffee cups out to the living room. I sat in one of the easy chairs, Janet sat on the couch. She placed her dishes on the nearby end table and curled into the corner of the sofa, bringing her long legs up to tuck them underneath her. Her movements were inhibited by her skirt, but she made a few adjustments and soon appeared to be comfortable.

I watched her pick at her cake. She never really did anything other than move crumbs around the plate, reminiscent of what a three year old does when she’s more interested in playing with her food than eating it. I didn’t comment on her actions while I ate my piece and drank my coffee.

When I was finished I set my dishes on the end table Janet’s resided on. I’d spent most of the day mentally reviewing everything she’d told me on the phone the previous evening. I now had some additional questions for her.

“Janet, have you ever gotten a good look at the guy’s face?”
“No, not really. The few times he’s come close enough for me to see his features he’s always wearing sunglasses and has the hood up on his coat. Otherwise it’s been at night and too dark for me to see much of anything.”

“What about his size?” I pressed. “Is he a tall man? Short man? Fat, thin, does he limp, does he….”

“He’s tall,” she immediately acknowledged. “At least six foot four. And he appears to be have a big build.”

“Big? Like how? Heavy set?”

Her eyes lifted to the ceiling in thought. “No. Not heavy set as in fat if that’s what you mean. Just big. A sturdy build I guess you’d call it. But again, it’s hard for me to say because the few times I’ve seen him standing outside his car he’s always had on a bulky winter coat. I don’t know if all the bulk is his, or if he’s got himself layered in clothing to mask his true size.”

“And you don’t recognize him at all?”

“No. I don’t have any idea who he is.”

“Think, Janet. Think hard. Could he be someone you tried? Or a family member of someone you tried? Could he in any way be related to a past case?”

“The police have asked me those same questions, A.J. I can’t tell you anything other than what I’ve told them. If he is someone I’ve run across in the capacity of my work, I don’t remember him.”

“Which probably means you never had reason to personally meet him,” I concluded.

“Probably,” she agreed. “But again, I’ve never gotten a good enough look at him to really know who he might be.”

“And you have no idea where you might have first seen him? Or rather, where he might have first seen you?”

“What do you mean?”
“You said you first noticed him when he followed you home from the banquet you were attending. Was he at the banquet?”

Her brows came together with concentration. “No. No, I don’t think he was. But then there were so many people there. Close to two hundred. And the tables we sat at only held eight. I suppose it’s possible he could have been somewhere else in the room and I never noticed him.”
“Would anyone have a list of people who were at the banquet that night?”

“Oh I don’t know, A.J. That’s been over three months ago now. I suppose it’s possible Judge Sheridon’s secretary might still have a list. She’s the one who worked with his wife to arrange the whole affair. The RSVP cards were mailed to her home. I guess I could ask her if she still has a list.”

“If she doesn’t then ask her if she can put a list together by memory. Possibly between herself, the judge, his wife, and you, the four of you can reassemble everyone who was in the room that night.”

She appeared dubious. “I’m not certain we can. I doubt that even between the four of us we’ll come up with all two hundred names.”

“More than likely you won’t. But I bet you’ll come close. Now what about the police? What do they think?”

“They’re frustrated, the same as I am.”

“Do you feel they’ve been doing everything they can to help you?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “They’ve been wonderful.”

That didn’t surprise me. Janet did, after all, hold an important position within their city government and legal community. They certainly didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the kind of publicity that would be generated if Janet’s stalker did manage to hurt her, or worse.

“But they’ve never gotten close to this guy, you said?”’

“No, never. As I stated on the phone, he always seems to be one step ahead of them. They assume he has a portable police scanner, but what other types of access he has they don’t know.” She dug her fingers into the arm of the couch. “He’s smart, A.J. He’s very smart. They have a trace on my phone, but he never stays on the line long enough for them to garner anything from it.”

And if they were able to trace it they’d probably discover he’s calling from a pay phone, was the pessimistic thought I left unvoiced.

“What about his car? What type of car does he drive?”

“It depends on what day of the week you’re talking about.”

“Huh?”

“He keeps changing vehicles. Sometimes he’s in a car, sometimes he’s in a truck, sometimes he’s in a sports utility vehicle. Sometimes they’re old, sometimes they’re new,…..”

“Any particular make or model?”

“No,” she shook her head. “Not that I’ve ever noticed anyway.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve written down what he’s driving on what days?”

“No, I haven’t.” The regret in her voice was plain to hear. “I should have been though, shouldn’t I? That information might have been a help to you.”

I shrugged. “It might have been, then again it might not have been. Don’t worry about it. Just start doing it from tomorrow forward. Write down everything. If he’s following you write down the day and time and the route you’re taking. If he calls, record that as well. If you notice him some place, in a restaurant or store, write it down.”

“I should have been doing that all along,” she berated herself. “I would have advised a client in this same position to do it. I know better than to be so careless.”

I leaned forward and touched her knee. “Hey. Stop it. We can’t go back and reconstruct what’s already happened, but we can start keeping track of it now. Maybe something will make sense once we see it on paper.”

Her hand came down to briefly cover mine. Her flesh was warm and inviting. Too inviting.

“A.J., do you think,…..do you think there’s any hope of catching this guy and getting him out of my hair?”

I smiled at her words while at the same time sliding my hand out from underneath hers. I sat back in my chair, knowing it was best to keep some space between us. “Janet, I promise you, before I leave here I’ll have this guy out of your hair.”

“Really?” The hope in her voice was strong and impossible to ignore. “Do you really think so?”

“Yes, I really think so. He may be able to dodge the police, but he won’t be able to dodge me. In the first place, as far as we know, he’s not even aware I’m here. In the second place he’s not going to be able to monitor my every move like he seems to be doing with the cops. If he wants to play cat and mouse he’s going to find out soon enough he’s playing the game with the wrong guy.”

Janet smiled. She well-knew my tenacity and stubbornness. If I said the guy would be out of her hair before I left for home then I meant it.

Despite my assurances that it could wait until morning, she made me retrieve from my suitcase the contract I’d brought along. We went over it together just like I would have with any client. She reminded me of what I’d agreed to on the phone the evening before and wouldn’t allow me to give her any breaks on the fee. She signed and dated the contract at the bottom, then I carefully separated the two-part form. The white top copy I would return to a thin, zippered compartment in my suitcase. I handed her the bottom yellow one which she slipped into the pocket of her suit jacket for the time being.

When our business was finished being conducted I rose and gathered up our dishes. “Why don’t you get ready for bed. You look wiped. I’ll take care of these things.”

“You don’t have to do that,” she protested as she stood.

“I know I don’t, but I’m going to anyway.”
She didn’t argue with me further, simply pointed through the kitchen doorway to the built-in dishwasher. “Just put everything in there. You don’t need to cycle it. I’ll take care of that in the morning after we’ve had breakfast. The garbage can is in the cabinet under the sink.”

I scraped her cake into the garbage, poured the remainder of her coffee down the sink, then lined everything up in the dishwasher. She was still standing in the doorway when I turned around.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes,” I told her. “Do you have a back door by chance?”

“Just the one that steps out into the back yard from the garage.”

“That will do.”

“Why?”

I started down the hallway that contained my coat and shoes. “Because I don’t want to walk out the front if the guy happens to be parked at the curb.”

Janet turned into the laundry room, flicked on a light and opened a drawer. “I have an extra set of keys I was going to give you!” she called. “I might as well do that now, then you can let yourself back in without knocking!”

“That’s fine.”

I slipped on my coat then took the key ring from her. She quickly showed me which keys would get me in which doors and told me the four digit code for her home security system. She also handed me a small, square device with a button on top that was her spare garage door opener.

I shoved my feet in my shoes without untying them, then bent to straighten the backs.

“Do you want me to turn on an outside light?” She asked.

“No. Just leave everything as it is. Go on upstairs and get ready for bed. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I opened the door that would lead me into the garage.

“A.J.?”

I turned. “Yes?”

“Be careful. Please.”

If we’d been married I would have kissed the fear away I saw in her eyes. But we weren’t married so I settled on giving her a smile and a promise.
“I will be.”

I walked out and heard the lock click behind me. I turned to my right, unlocking the service door that lead into the back yard. I relocked it before shutting it firmly, yet quietly behind me. I shoved her house keys in a pants pocket and clipped the garage door opener to the waistband of my jeans. I’d deposit it in the Contour when I came back from my late evening promenade.

The night was cold despite my jacket and heavy sweater. I shoved my hands deep into the denim pockets and hunched my shoulders up close to my ears, berating myself for not bringing proper winter attire.

I really should stop somewhere tomorrow and pick up a hat and gloves, I told myself as my shoes crunched softly in the brittle snow.

The only light coming from Janet’s back yard neighbor’s home was a muted glow shining through the closed curtains of an upstairs bedroom window. Other homes around the area were in various states of illumination, a living room light on in this one, a bathroom light in that one, a porch light on down the street. One thing was for certain, Janet’s neighbors were sedate people who worked hard and minded their own business. Not one person was about as I strolled around her home then down the sidewalk. Her stalker had evidently chosen to take the night off, or perhaps he had several women on his list that he emotionally terrorized and it just wasn’t Janet’s day. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I simply pitied the man when the time came I got my hands on him.

Janet was waiting for me when I returned fifteen minutes later. I left my shoes and coat in the hallway and reset the security system. I picked up my suitcase, carrying it to the living room where I found her bundled up in a thick, ankle-length plum robe. The slippers she wore matched the robe’s color and looked warm enough to ward off an Arctic chill. I assumed she had a nightgown or pajamas on underneath, but couldn’t tell because of the way the robe enveloped her. I quickly decided the nightgown and/or pajama issue was not one an ex-husband has any business pondering.

“A.J., your hands and ears are bright red!” She scolded. “Don’t tell me you didn’t bring a hat or gloves!”

With all the sheepishness of a six-year-old boy who’s been out to play without dressing as his mother told him to I admitted, “I didn’t think to.”

She shook her head with an exasperation I knew was greatly exaggerated. “You’ll never change. You think if you dress as though it’s seventy degrees outside it will magically be seventy degrees outside.”

It was rather strange, in an oddly comforting sort of way, to be engaging in the same playful argument about me under-dressing for Seattle’s weather. We had often engaged in this exact same exchange during the winter months when we were married. I think Janet was having the same thoughts, but wasn’t nearly as at ease with them as I was. She quickly shifted the subject, rising from the chair she’d been sitting in.

“Come on. I’ll show you to your room.”

“No,” I shook my head. “I’ll sleep down here on the couch.”

“But why?” She pointed the way upstairs. “I have a guest room, A.J. I got it ready for you this morning before I left for work.”

I was well aware the house contained three bedrooms and another bathroom, all on the upper story. For some reason I still can’t explain I felt it best if our sleeping arrangements maintained some distance between us.

“Thank you. I hope you didn’t go to any trouble.”

“It wasn’t any trouble. I simply moved some things aside in the closet so you could hang your clothes up and put an extra blanket on the bed. I know how you hate to be cold when you sleep.”

I smiled at her, but didn’t budge from where I stood by the couch. “I think it would be best if I slept down here.”

“Why?”

“It just would be. This way if the guy is poking around outside I’ll hear him. Or if a car pulls up to the curb in the middle of the night it might wake me up and I can go check it out.”

“But what about your back? You won’t be able to move after a night on the couch.”

I was beginning to hate how well the woman knew me. Hadn’t she been so hurt and angry after the divorce as to forget a single thing?

“I’ll be fine. My back hasn’t given me trouble in years.”

She threw me a skeptical look, but shrugged her shoulders. “Okay. Have it your way.”

She moved off down the hallway I’d just emerged from. I assume she went to the linen closet because when she returned she was carrying a pillow and two blankets. I sat my suitcase down and took them from her.

“Will you be warm enough?” She passed the bundle over to me. “I can bring another blanket down from upstairs.”

“This’ll be fine. Thanks.”

She watched as I put the pillow in place at the head of the couch, then spread the two blankets out. She nodded toward the hallway. “You should find everything you need in the bathroom. Don’t hesitate to make yourself at home.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

She lingered a moment as though not really certain what she was supposed to do next. I wasn’t exactly certain as to what I was supposed to do next either. Our relationship went back too many years to ignore the intimate times and act like strangers. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe I should have stayed in a motel. Though that would have hardly proved beneficial considering what Janet had hired me to do.

“Well,…..good night,” she said when she finally turned for the stairs.

“Good night, Janet,” I called after her.

I watched until she disappeared from sight. The hall light was extinguished right before I heard the soft ‘click’ of her bedroom door shutting.

I made use of the bathroom then turned out the living room light. I took off my socks and sweater, folding them neatly and laying them in my open suitcase. I padded over to the front window and parted the draperies. It was eleven fifteen now, the street in front of Janet’s house was dark and quiet.

By feel alone I found my Smith & Wesson underneath my clothes. I knew it was loaded and knew the safety was on. I left it that way, placing it on the coffee table next to my head.

Just walking around shirtless and barefoot for that small length of time had given me the chills. Leaving my jeans on, I burrowed under the blankets and rested my head on the pillow. Between the current situation and being in a strange house, none other than Janet’s house to boot, I assumed I’d have trouble falling asleep. But the lack of sleep I’d gotten the night before caused by her troubling phone call, combined with rising early this morning to make preparations to catch a plane, had done me in. I was as tired as my ex-wife looked to be. In five minutes I was asleep.

Despite my words to Janet of the contrary, if anyone nosed around her house in the middle of the night I never heard them.

*****

The mahogany smell of perking coffee woke me at six-thirty the next morning. The nearby sound of a heavy metal blade dropping with a hallow ‘thump’, then scraping against blacktop led me to conclude Janet hired her driveway plowed during inclement weather which explained the absence of a snow shovel in her garage.

I rubbed a hand over my eyes and emitted a groan of surprise when I tried to sit up. I couldn’t. Sit up that is. At least not on the first try. I was finally forced to grab the back of the sofa with my right hand and painfully pull myself to a seated position.

The muscles in the small of my back bit with protest. I leaned forward and rubbed a hand over the tight knots.

A voice emoted from above wrought with teasing sarcasm.

“Backache, huh?”

I turned as best I could to see Janet coming down the stairs. I assumed she was fresh from the shower as her hair and makeup were done, though she was still wearing her bathrobe. She padded over to me.

“Scoot forward,” she instructed.

“What?”

“Scoot forward.”

I did as she requested, making enough room on the couch for her to sit. Before I had time to turn or stand her warm hands found my lower back. I closed my eyes at the firm massage that kneaded the kinks out and brought the muscles back to life.

“I’m not hurting you, am I?” She asked when I groaned again.

“No, no. You’re not hurting me.”

The heel of her right hand was now moving from place to place, pressing and turning.

“Are you seeing anyone, A.J.?”

Her question took me by surprise and for a moment I couldn’t help but wonder why she asked it. After all, I was sitting half-naked on her couch while she gave me a back rub. I glanced over my shoulder to see her preoccupied with what she was doing. Her expression was a mixture of innocence and concentration. As though her only intention was to make small talk while she worked.

“Uh,….yes. Yes I am.”

I pulled away from her and turned so I was leaning against the cushions, my back no longer available to her. If she noticed the abruptness of my movements she didn’t comment on them.

“Who is she?”

“Who is who?”

Janet laughed. “You sound like an owl. Who is the woman you’re seeing? Anyone I know?”

“I don’t think so. Her name is Lauren Albright. She’s the public relations director for the city.”

“Mmmm,” Janet nodded, impressed. “Important job.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “it is.”

She brought her legs up and bundled them under her robe as though we were exchanging pajama party gossip.

“So, tell me about her.”

“Tell you about her?”

Admittedly, the last thing I’d expected to find myself doing on this trip was discussing my current lady with my former wife.

“Sure, tell me about her. Tell me everything there is to know. I want to be certain she’s treating you right.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay. Everything there is to know. Well,….she’s thirty-nine,……..”

“Oh, a younger woman,” Janet teased.

“Somewhat,” I responded. “But not so young I can’t keep up with her.”

She gave my arm a light slap of admonishment. “I can’t imagine you not being able to keep up with anyone. Rather, I’d picture it to be the other way around.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, Lauren’s very active. But then she has to be. She’s got two young sons. Shane and Tanner. They’re five and seven.”

“Oh.”

For reasons I didn’t understand her tone changed from one of lighthearted playfulness to one of sadness.

“Are they,…..good boys?”

I smiled at the thought of the two little imps I’ll willingly admit I can’t spend enough time with. “Oh, yeah. They’re great. They were small when their parents divorced, just one and three years old. I suppose that’s why they’re so well-adjusted to their situation. They don’t remember their mom and dad living together. Lauren and Rob, her ex-husband, have shared joint custody of the boys ever since the divorce. They spend one week with Lauren, then the next week with Rob and his wife.”

“It all sounds very amicable and pleasant,” Janet commented neutrally.

“It has been for the most part. Or at least as far as I know. I think Lauren and Rob have their disagreements on occasion yet, but they manage to keep the kids out of them.”

“Do you think the two of you, you and Lauren, will get married?”

“Maybe. We’ve talked about it. The boys are certainly pushing for it.”

She turned her head and looked out the patio doors that faced the back yard. “That’s nice. I’m happy for you. Happy that you’ve found someone who can give you everything you deserve. I,…..I know how much a family means to you. I’m,….I’m sorry I was never able to give you children, A.J.”

“You don’t have to be sorry, Janet,” I stated softly to the back of her head. “No woman should have to give her husband children if she doesn’t want them as well.”

“I know. It’s just that,……it’s just that sometimes I think of the baby we lost. And when I do,……when I do it still hurts as though it happened only yesterday.”

Without thinking about it I moved closer to her and wrapped her huddled figure in my arms. We remained like that, staring out at the falling snow, both of us remembering the pain of that time. True, she was my ex-wife and along with that broken marriage came an abundance of hurt over promises not kept. But as well, she had at one time been my soul mate. We’d shared the joy of making a child, then shortly thereafter suffered together through the loss of that child. We would be forever linked through that one occurrence. No one can better understand the great sorrow that miscarriage caused me other than she. No can empathize with her sense of loss regarding that baby other than me.

It would have been so easy to fall back under her spell. We’d always made great lovers, but time had proven we weren’t meant to be husband and wife. As she sat in my arms the temptation to offer comfort with my lips and hands was too great. The last thing I wanted to do was have us wind up in bed together. Something I feared was about to happen if I didn’t move away from her.

I think she understood why I rose and began to fold my blankets. She looked up at me. “I’m sorry, A.J.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For letting you come here. It was a mistake.”

“No it wasn’t, Janet. It wasn’t a mistake. And it won’t become one if we don’t let it.”

She thought a moment then nodded. “I need to go get dressed.”

I watched her make her way up the stairs. I recalled my words of wisdom from seconds earlier, It won’t become one if we don’t let it, and vowed to live by them for the remainder of my stay.

I returned the blankets and pillow to the linen closet, grabbed clean clothes from my suitcase and made use of the shower. By the time I shaved and brushed my teeth Janet was in the kitchen setting breakfast on the table. She had poured each of us a cup of coffee and remembered

I like to start my day with a glass of orange juice as well. What looked to be blueberry muffins and sliced banana bread rested together on a plate in the middle. Two grapefruits fresh from her recent trip to Florida were halved and resting in cereal bowls. One sat at her place and one sat at the place I assumed was to be mine.

“You never used to eat breakfast except on the run,” I reminded her.

Her hand reached up to her head. “That’s before I got my hair cut, remember? Since then I’ve come to realize why you always took the time for it. There’s something relaxing about starting your day unhurried with the morning paper and a warm muffin.”

“Yes, there is,” I agreed as I joined her at the table.

“I do have milk in the refrigerator and a box of Grapenuts in that

cabinet there by the stove if you’d like a bowl of cereal.”

“That’s okay. This is more than enough.”

I took a warm muffin and a slice of bread, sitting them on the empty plate Janet had sat at my place. Conversation flowed easily between us as we ate. When we finished I shooed her off to get her purse, coat and briefcase. I made quick work of cleaning up the kitchen. From the living room she called instructions on how to cycle her dishwasher.

I followed her down the hall where I slipped into my shoes and grabbed my coat off its hook.

“A.J., didn’t you bring a coat any warmer than that one?”
I smiled at her back as we stepped into the chilly garage. “No. I,….”

“Don’t tell me. You forgot. You really should stop today and pick something up that’s heavier. Put it on my tab.”

“For the time being I don’t need anything warmer than this,” I informed her as we came to our respective vehicles. “And if I decide I do I’m certainly not billing you for it.”

Her protest was cut off by the sound of the Contour’s engine coming to life. I saw her smile in my direction and shake her head at my stubbornness. It was several minutes before I followed her out onto the street. I didn’t see anyone matching the vague description she’d given me of her stalker. Of course, the job was made more difficult by his penchant for changing vehicles. It’s not easy tracking someone if you don’t know what they’ll be driving.

Janet turned left when she came to the city parking garage. I went straight, giving her an encouraging wave as I did so. I had told her at breakfast I’d be waiting for her when her day was finished.

The first thing I did after seeing Janet safely to work was head over to the police station. I had to wait close to an hour in a hard plastic chair that caused my backache to flare up again, but finally I was able to see the man in charge of Janet’s case.

The metal name plate on his desk declared him Detective Earl E. Wilke. His name alone made him sound more like a character out of the movie Deliverance than a cop. He was a grossly out of shape sixty years old and looked like a moody, rumpled teddy bear some little boy had long ago tired of playing with. He reeked of Hai Karate, a God awful smelling cheap men’s cologne made popular in the early ’70’s by nothing other than a series of clever TV commercials. I didn’t even know they still made the stuff. Based on how Earl smelled it would have been blessing if they hadn’t.

He eyed me skeptically through watery blue eyes, as though uncertain as to whether or not I was indeed a private investigator or perhaps Janet’s stalker trying to gain more information about her. Showing him my P.I. license only made matters worse. He leaned back in his spring-supported wooden chair, his big belly causing the buttons on his shirt to pull with the strain of his movements. I caught an unwanted glimpse of a pale stomach coated with curly black hairs and grotesquely swollen as though in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

“Simon, huh?” He brought a hand up and scratched his fingers over chalky grey hair that looked like it had been heavily oiled with Grecian Formula For Men. “Now it seems to me Ms. Fowler once had a husband by the last name a’ Simon.”

I resisted rolling my eyes. “She did. That husband was me.”

“Yer her ex, huh?”

The way he said it made it sound as though divorce was illegal in the state of Seattle.

“Yes, Janet and I were married at one time,” was as much as I would concede to this sewer rat.

He reached for the phone on his battle scarred desk. His eyes held mine as though he was daring me to flee.

“I think I’d better give Ms. Fowler a call.”

Earl E. didn’t react one way or another when I amiably agreed. “Go right ahead.”

He turned away from me and covered the mouth piece of the phone with one hand. Considering his office was roughly the size of a janitor’s closet enabled me to easily hear everything he was saying despite his valiant attempts to the contrary. He was mumbling so softly that Janet must have been forced to ask him to repeat himself on several occasions. Each time he had to talk louder he’d attempt to turn even farther in his chair until I feared he’d end up strangling himself with the phone cord. Which incidentally I didn’t think would be a half bad idea. If this was an example of the lead detective on Janet’s case at his best, she was damn smart to call me.

“No, Ms. Fowler. No,” I heard him say with forced politeness. “I just don’t understand what the point is in bringin’ someone else in at this stage of the game, but if that’s the way you want it, ma’am, then that’s the way you want it. I just wish one of ya’ woulda’ called me first.” He threw me a contemptuous look. “I would have made the young man more welcome had I known you had hired him”

I knew he emphasized the word ‘hired’ for my benefit. The way he said it, along with the glare he gave me, let me know he didn’t appreciate me horning in on his case. I can quite imagine being the detective who snabbed the assistant D.A.’s stalker would be quite a feather in his cap. He certainly didn’t want me taking the potential glory away from him.

Earl untangled himself from the web he was spun into and hung up the phone. He yanked open a desk drawer that contained hanging file folders. He fingered through them before pulling one out. He tossed it on the desk, letting it skid across the marred varnish surface. If I hadn’t reached a hand out to stop it it would have dumped its contents on the floor.

“She said to let ya’ look at my notes on the case so there they are, hotshot.” He rose and grabbed his Styrofoam coffee cup. Evidently he wasn’t going to stick around to answer any questions I might have. “And fair warning, Mr. Ex-Husband, you’ll find yer name in there, too.”

I looked up at him through narrowed eyes. “My name? Why?”

“Some shit-ass detective you are,” he grinned like a shark circling a lone goldfish. “Don’t cha’ know it’s always the ex-husband who’s causin’ the trouble in cases like these?”

He laughed as he walked out the door. “Or haven’t you got to that chapter yet in yer gumshoe handbook, Boy Scout?”

My suspicions that Earl wasn’t going to sit and go over the case with me were confirmed by the slamming of his office door.

I remained unhindered in the little room for the next thirty minutes thoroughly reading everything in the file. No one said a word when I walked out into the squad room and made several copies. Evidently by now they all knew who I was. Not that being a private investigator gave me the automatic privilege to view police files and as well, photocopy them, but evidently being hired by the assistant district attorney did.

Despite Earl’s appearance I had to admit he was thorough in his work. Except for a few coffee stains and what I took to be a dried glob of special sauce from the inside of a Big Mac, his notes were orderly and written in bold, neat block letters. And just like he promised, my name was in his file as well.

‘Andrew J. Simon – Ex-husband of Janet Fowler. Simon now resides in San Diego, his home-town, where he’s self employed as a private dick. Ms. Fowler says she hasn’t seen or heard from Simon since their divorce in May of 1995. Took a closer look at Simon. At this time I don’t have reason to believe or suspect he is Ms. Fowler’s stalker. As well, Ms. Fowler is adamant in her conviction that her former husband is not the man who is bothering her.’

I knew the phrase, ‘took a closer look at Simon’ very likely meant Wilke had tracked down where I was on various dates when Janet reported seeing her stalker. It also meant he had thoroughly looked into my background, and very likely talked to a number of acquaintances about me both here in Seattle and back home in San Diego.

None of that mattered much to me. Actually, for Janet’s sake, I appreciated the fact the guy was on the ball. Although I hate to admit it, if I was in his shoes the former husband would have been the first person I would have suspected as well.

Overall there was very little in the file Janet hadn’t already told me. I wished I could talk to Earl in order to gain his insight on the case, but he had yet to return. I had a feeling he’d left the building altogether and had no intention of coming back until he knew I was gone.

I left the file on his desk and tore a piece of paper off the legal pad by the phone. I wrote a quick note asking him to call me. I signed my name and scribbled Janet’s home phone number below it. I didn’t expect to hear from him, but figured it was worth a try.

Next I drove over to the courthouse. Any case Janet had been involved in since coming to Seattle was a matter of public record. I checked out file after file. I secluded myself in a tiny corner cubicle not unlike the study cubicles I recall spending hours sequestered in during my college days.

I skipped lunch and worked right on through the early afternoon. I made notes on each case and paid for a variety of photocopies, though nothing in particular jumped out at me. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, no one Janet had tried over the past seven years had ever made threats of retribution against her. Or at least not within the hearing of the court reporter. My growling stomach and aching head finally caused me to return the last file to the clerk at twenty minutes to three. I walked across the street to a McDonald’s and bought a Fillet a’ Fish and a Coke. I made quick work of eating, then retrieved the Concord from the courthouse parking lot.

My next stop had nothing do with the case I’d been hired for, but rather dealt with taking care of my client. Thirty minutes later I was filling the back seat of the rental car with grocery bags and heading for Janet’s house.

Although I had no idea where Janet normally kept things in her kitchen, it didn’t take me long to discover that her cabinets in this home were in similar order to the cabinets in the home we’d owned together. I unpacked the groceries and started supper. I placed the honey glazed chicken breasts and wild rice in the oven then washed the few dishes I’d used. While I was at it I unloaded Janet’s dishwasher. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. This type of complete domestic service was not something Simon and Simon offered to just any client.

The phone rang while I was putting the last of the dishes away. I picked up the receiver hoping Wilke would be on the other end, but guessing it was Janet.

She’s probably going to work later than she originally planned, I thought as I tucked the receiver between my shoulder and ear.

“Hello?” I queried while setting a glass on a cabinet shelf.

“Hello? Hello?”
No one answered my repeated greetings so I finally hung up with a shrug.

I grabbed a pair of sweatpants from my suitcase and headed upstairs with the intention of hunting down Janet’s treadmill and working out for a half hour or so. I paused in the process of passing what I easily guessed was her bedroom doorway. It was strange to see the king size four-poster bed we had shared as husband and wife residing within. I shook my head to clear it of the memories that piece of furniture evoked, then moved on down the hall. I passed the bathroom, then came to the guest room. Across the hall from it was what I was looking for. The third bedroom that contained Janet’s desk and computer, a sofa that could be pulled out and converted into a bed, as well as her exercise bike and treadmill.

I took off my shirt and exchanged my jeans for the gray sweatpants. I set the treadmill’s resistance at a higher level than what Janet normally used and spent the next forty minutes running nowhere while mentally reviewing my day. I wasn’t sure if I was any closer to discovering the identity of Janet’s stalker or not. That’s something she and I would have to discuss together later in the evening when we went over the cases she’d tried in recent years and looked at the notes I’d made about them.

The phone rang twice while I was on the treadmill. Both times I answered the cordless residing on Janet’s nearby desk. Again my “Hello’s?” were met with nothing other than silence. I wondered if Janet’s caller was confused and thought they had the wrong number considering an unfamiliar male voice was answering her phone. But since no one said anything I was hard pressed to explain that this was indeed the Janet Fowler residence.

When I was done working out I reset Janet’s treadmill and took a quick shower in the downstairs bathroom. I changed into clean jeans and a navy sweater before checking on supper. I turned the temperature on the oven down to ‘warm’ then headed for the hallway that would lead to the garage.

The doorbell rang as I putting my tennis shoes on. I walked back through the main part of the house. I unlocked the dead bolt and opened the front door, letting frosty air in. There was no one standing there so I walked out onto Janet’s wide front porch. I looked both left and right, then took a few steps forward. The street was bare save for some kids playing in a snow covered yard several houses down.

I scanned the area again, wondering if I hadn’t gotten to the door quickly enough and whoever it was had left. Or was it some kid goofing around ringing neighborhood doorbells before running away and hiding? Though that wasn’t a sport I ever participated in as a child, Rick had gotten tons of enjoyment out of it until one aggravated old lady turned her garden hose on him. He came home looking like a drowned rat and ended up grounded for three days when Mom discovered what he’d been doing.

I glanced around the quiet neighborhood one more time before walking back into the house. I locked the door and leaned against it in thought. First the telephone and now this. Was there more to the phone calls than a person unsure as to whether he or she had the correct number? And the door. Was it kids playing innocent after-school pranks, or Janet’s stalker trying to determine if she was home? Or trying to determine who I was?

I could do no more than ponder those questions as I once more headed for the rental car I’d left in Janet’s garage.

I drove downtown in the heavy, early evening traffic. I pulled the Concord up to the curb across from the parking garage. I got out and fed the meter, then trotted back to the car. I sat there watching cars coming and going while skimming over Earl’s notes. Janet had reported her stalker to be driving such a wide variety of vehicles that it was almost impossible for me to pinpoint any specific one as cars passed outside my window. Unfortunately she’d never gotten close enough to the guy to be able to tell if he had rental plates on the car. It was my guess that, in fact, he was using rental cars. Based on Earl’s notes it was his guess as well. But even that shot in the dark didn’t give either one of us very much to go on.

A few cars turned into the parking garage but by far, more exited. I took special note of what looked to be an ’89 or ’90 white Chrysler New Yorker because that’s one of the cars Earl had jotted down Janet had seen her stalker driving. By the time I paid to enter the garage I had lost the guy. Or maybe it was woman. It had grown too dark to see more than the shadowy outline of a person who could have been of either sex.

The road I was parked on was jam packed with drivers heading home from work. I pounded on the steering wheel, “Come on! Come on!” trying to urge traffic by me. I finally found enough of a break in the flow to gun the Concord’s engine and wheel the car across all four lanes. Horns blared around me as my fellow drivers let me know what they thought of my rude maneuver.

I slowly wound up and down every level in that parking garage but hunting out the elusive New Yorker was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I paused every time I came upon a white car, but none proved to be the luxury model that had once been a big seller for Lee Iaccoca. By the time I’d searched all ten levels without success I came to the conclusion the driver of the car had simply been picking up a spouse from work.

I returned to level seven, and like the previous evening, parked several rows from Janet’s BMW. Nothing and no one caught my eye as I watched and waited. The same women exited the elevator I’d seen exit the night before. The same men soon followed. At six twenty Janet emerged.

She had been sharing the elevator with a man who appeared to be in his early forties. He wore a calf-length gray wool coat that I knew had to have cost four hundred dollars if it cost a penny. His size fourteen black wing-tips were polished to a spit shine and his emerald silk tie knotted neatly at the button down throat of his starched white dress shirt. His neck was as thick as a Virginia ham causing me to instantly surmise his shirts were custom made. He was a powerfully built six foot six with shoulders as wide as an ironing board. His hair was walnut brown and dense with the kind of natural waves every woman envies and wishes for herself. His chiseled features looked like they’d been cast in perfect ivory stone before that stone was painstakingly carved away by a master craftsman.

The elevator doors slid shut behind the pair as they paused to talk. Janet laughed at something her companion said. He made another witty remark while reaching out and placing a hand on her elbow. He guided her toward her car just I as emerged from mine.

Janet gently extracted herself from her admirer’s light hold when I approached. It was obvious she wasn’t sure how to explain who I was or why I was waiting for her.

“Ummm……Lance, this is A.J. A.J. Simon. He’s an……old friend. He’s in town on,….on business for a few days. A.J., this is Lance Gillet. He’s a….a colleague of mine.”

Lance Gillet. Big surprise. Between his name and his movie-star good looks he could have been a character right out of an afternoon soap opera.

Lance was too much of a gentleman not to offer me his hand. He appraised me with ice blue eyes and gave me a tight smile. “A.J. Nice to meet you. I take it you don’t reside in Seattle?”
“No,” I replied as we exchanged a quick, meaningless handshake. In that brief encounter I could tell his nails were professionally manicured. “I’m from San Diego.”

“I see. And what type of business brings a California boy to Seattle in the dead of one of our most miserable winters?”

He smiled when he asked his question, but I caught the barb on the word boy. Granted, I’m still fortunate enough to look several years younger than I am, but it’s been at least two decades since I’ve been referred to as a boy. Especially by someone younger than myself.

“This and that,” was all I offered the man in return.

He arched an eyebrow giving me the indication he found my answer frustratingly incomplete.

“And how is it you know Janet?” He asked in a haughty Ivy league tone as though he was daring me to lie him. “You’re an old……friend?”

I pretended not to see Janet giving her head tiny negative shakes in my direction. She was well-aware my fun had just begun.

I gave the man my best ‘aw shucks’ grin and clothed my tone in boyish innocence. “I guess you could say I’m an old friend. Janet and I go back over twenty years. As a matter of fact we were engaged at one time.”

“Oh,……,” he stated, his voice suddenly flat and deflated, “oh, you were.”

“Yes, we were.” I allowed a lengthy pause to linger in the cold air. “And by the way, did I forget to mention? We were married, too.”

I swear the man turned a sickly shade of honey dew green when he echoed, “Were married?”

Janet shot me a withering glare. I think she was sorely tempted to give me a good swift kick in the shins right about then. She jumped into the conversation before I could offer Lance any further insight.

“Yes, Lance, A.J. and I were married. He’s my,…..ex-husband.”

The soap opera glamour boy glanced down at Janet. In that brief moment it became apparent that an ex-husband was news to Mr. Gillet.

When Janet didn’t offer him any further explanations he turned back to me. “And where is it you’re staying?” He interrogated.

Somehow I knew that was going to be his next question. By the look on Janet’s face she knew it, too. And she also knew how much I loathed people who are swollen with their own self-importance. At any moment I expected Lance to flick his wool coat back as though it were a cape, plant his knuckles firmly against his trim hips, and thrust out his wide chest like Superman while declaring to me he planned to rid the world of all evil, as well as pesky ex-husbands who show up at inopportune times.

“Where is it I’m staying?” I repeated, my tone still wrought with innocence. I turned to Janet and smiled. Needless to say she didn’t smile back. I ignored the desperate plea I saw in her eyes. “Didn’t Janet tell you? I’m staying with her.”

Lance coughed as though choking on a breath mint. “No,….uh no, she didn’t tell me. I must be going now. It’s getting late.” He turned to my former wife. “Janet, I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll call,…..I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I watched Lance climb into a hot little red Jaguar. He gunned the engine and took off with a squeal of rubber.

I turned, expecting to come full face with Janet’s wrath. Instead she was shaking her head and smiling.

“You’ll never change.”

I offered a sheepish grin in return. “What do you mean I’ll never change?”

She nodded toward the now phantom Jag. “The way you chased Lance off. You did that on purpose, Andrew Simon. Really, A.J., telling him you’re staying at my house.”

“Well I am!”

“I know but,…..”

“But what?”

“But the way you made it sound. Like there’s more to it than there really is.”

That sentence hurt, and it shouldn’t have. She was right. I had made it sound like there was more to my staying at her home than there really was. Partly because I thought Lance was a jerk and she deserved better, and I suppose partly because I had fooled myself into believing there was more to it than there appeared to be on the surface.

Which was stupid of me. Hadn’t a broken engagement in 1979 and then a failed marriage in 1995 proven to me that Janet and I were not meant to be anything other than friends?

Yes, those two incidents had proven that to me. Or at least proven it to my head. I sometimes wondered if my heart would ever be convinced.

I felt her fingers on my arm. “A.J.? A.J., are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I offered quickly. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

I walked her over to her car and held the door open until she was settled in the driver’s seat. She gave me a funny look when I said nothing other than, “I’ll follow you out of here.”

“We’d better decide on a restaurant before we leave. I don’t have anything at home, remember?”

“You do now,” was all I said as I locked and shut her car door.

I kept my eyes on my rearview mirror as I followed Janet home that evening. I watched her pull the BMW into the garage and slowed down just enough to make sure she got into the house safely. When she realized I wasn’t going to immediately follow her she hit the button on the garage wall that would allow the door to fall again.

“Good girl,” I mumbled while driving past.

Wet slush splashed up against the car as I cruised the area’s streets. Other than men and women arriving home from work all appeared in order. I drove by Janet’s house twice, but no strange cars were parked at the curb and no figure of a man lingered in the shadows.

The third time I turned down her street I hit the button on the garage door opener I’d placed on the Contour’s dash. I turned into Janet’s driveway and smoothly guided the Ford to rest next to the BMW as though the cars belonged together.

I looked out onto the street on final time as I exited my vehicle. A car slowed to almost a halt in front of Janet’s driveway, but because of the bright overhead light in the garage I couldn’t make out its model or year. By the time I stepped outside it was gone. Once again I was left wondering if the person behind the wheel was Janet’s stalker or simply someone trying to read a house address.

I reached out a finger to unbug the security panel. I halted my movement, taking note the system wasn’t in the alarm mode. When I turned the knob on the door that would lead into the back hallway it wasn’t locked.

I slipped a hand down to the Smith & Wesson that was in a harness clipped to the waistband of my jeans. I left the gun where it was for the time being, but flicked the safety off. I unsnapped my coat as I took a cautious step into the house.

Nothing appeared out of place in hallway. Janet had left the overhead light on for me. The bathroom and laundry room were both dark, just as they had been when I’d exited the house two hours earlier. I absently hung my jacket up, but left my tennis shoes on. Light spilled in from the living room as I quietly proceeded forward.

“Janet?” I called. “Janet?”

The downstairs was cloaked in an eery silence. No noise came from the television or stereo. No sounds of supper preparations drifted out from the kitchen, though Janet had to have known I had something in the oven. The entire first floor was thick with the rich smell of warm honey.

My hand rested on the butt of my gun as I sidled into the kitchen. I kept my body tight to the living room wall. I had no desire to present a six foot tall one hundred and sixty pound target to whomever might be lurking within.

“Janet?”

I peered around the corner before proceeding into the room. The light was on above the gleaming cherry table indicating to me Janet had been there at some point since arriving home. Two places were precisely set with plates, glasses, silverware, and napkins, but my ex-wife was nowhere to be seen.

I whirled around, grabbing for my gun when something battered against a closed door. I crossed the room, gun drawn, and put a firm hand on the knob that led to what I wasn’t certain.

“Come out of there right now or so help me God I’ll blow your brains out!”

When no one answered me and the door didn’t open of its own accord I posed my gun at roughly the height of man’s head and yanked with all my might.

It was right then that I almost shot the mop that bopped me in the noggin before clattering to the floor. For all my cautions all I’d managed to do was plan an assault on Janet’s utility closet.

At that particular moment I had too many other concerns on my mind to waste time feeling foolish over being attacked by an O’Cedar. That would come later. I put the mop back where it belonged, better securing it on its hooks so it wouldn’t fall against the door again. My concern only grew when all this unorthodox noise failed to produce the mistress of the house.

I kept my gun in hand and walked out into the living room.

“Janet!”

Still I got no answer. Again I stayed close to the wall as I took the stairs one at a time. “Janet! Janet!”

“Janet!”

Lights from Janet’s bedroom and home office arced out into the hall.

The only sign of her in the bedroom was the suit she had worn that day hanging neatly from a hook attached to the back of the door. I recalled her habit of doing this when we were married. She’d had me attach a thick hook to the back of our bedroom door which was where we hung the clothes that needed to go to the drycleaners. Every couple of days one of us would see to it that a drop-off of dirty clothes was made in exchange for a pickup of fresh ones.

“Janet! Janet!”

By now my panic was increasing. The unlocked door and unbugged security panel wasn’t like her. Especially given her current troubles. If there was one thing Janet Fowler had never been it was a woman who took foolish chances.

My hand found the bathroom light by feel alone. I flicked it on with gun drawn. The room was clean and orderly like all the rooms in Janet’s home were. White ceramic tiles with ocean swirls of baby blue rode halfway up the wall. The long vanity contained a deep white oval sink with a gold faucet and handles. I carefully slid back the frosted doors on the bathtub but found nothing other than gleaming white enamel and a gold bar draped with thick blue bath towels.

I followed the light creeping from the room that held Janet’s computer and exercise equipment. It was as I cautiously approached the doorway I heard it. An odd little whirling sound I couldn’t identify, but for some reason was naggingly familiar. As though at one time I’d heard it quite often, but for whatever reason had chosen to bury it within the depths of my mind.

This time my beckoning was just above a whisper. “Janet?”

I placed a hand on the knob of the door that was three-quarters closed. I listened hard, but could hear no voices coming from within. Just that damn whirling sound like a hamster running circles in a squeaky wheel.

Janet gave a startled scream when I kicked the door open and jumped into the room with my gun posed to fire. The motion of her feet furiously pedaling her exercise bike slammed to a halt. She yanked the tiny earphones off her head that were attached to her Walkman.

“A.J.! What the hell are you doing? You sacred me to death!”

“I scared you! What do you think you did to me!” I fumbled to holster my gun with shaking fingers while sagging against the wall. I hadn’t been the one exercising, but was willing to bet my heart was pounding far harder and faster than Janet’s. “Where have you been?”

“What do you mean where have I been? I’ve been up here exercising! Where do you think I’ve been?”

I pointed a furious finger downstairs. “For God’s sake, Janet, you didn’t set the security system when you came in! And more important than that, you didn’t lock the damn door! I’ve been in this house for ten minutes calling you and searching every room! Your stupid mop hit me on the head and I almost shot you!”

“I’m sorry,” she apologized from where she sat on the bike in tight black Spandex shorts and an oversized white Nike sweatshirt. “I didn’t think. I knew you’d be coming in soon so with shutting the garage door and all,….”

My anger, fueled by fear, was far from dissipated. “It doesn’t matter if you shut the garage door! Anyone could have easily broken the glass to the service door, reached in, unlocked it, and gained entrance that way! Dammit, Janet, you know better!”

“A.J., look, I said I was sorry! I realize how foolish I was. I won’t do it again. But don’t stand there and chastise me like we’re still married because I don’t like it!”

“You might not like it but it’s for your own good! You could be lying up here dead now instead of sitting perched there on that damn exercise bike oblivious to what’s going on around you!”

“Don’t you dare talk to me in that tone of voice, Andrew Jackson Si….”

To this day I don’t know what made me do it. Maybe it was the way those shorts hugged her lean body. Or maybe it was the fiery anger flashing in her eyes that reminded me of past arguments that often times ended in our bed with a blaze of passion. Or maybe it was just the stark terror gnawing at my stomach. The frightening knowledge that I could have stumbled across her lifeless body somewhere in that house. And had that happened I never would have forgiven myself.

The above and so much more was why I did it. Why I crossed the room, leaned over, took her face in my hands, and kissed her full on the lips.

She didn’t protest. She didn’t try to pull away. She allowed the kiss to run its natural course. When we broke apart I turned on one heel and stomped out of the room with a final, stern admonishment.

“Don’t ever scare me like that again.”

When she came downstairs thirty minutes later I was putting the final touches on dinner. Fresh broccoli and carrots were steaming together on top of the stove.

Janet had showered and changed into jeans and a long sleeved rose colored pullover shirt. The way it was tucked into the waistband of her pants emphasized her recent weight loss from too little food and too many troubling thoughts.

After the liberty I’d taken up in her office I expected things to be stilted between us. Although I was uncomfortable, she didn’t appear to be.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No,” I shook my head. “I’ve got everything under control.”

She looked in the refrigerator then checked a few cabinets. “You didn’t have to grocery shop for me, A.J.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I didn’t mind. I know you work a lot of hours and with everything else going on,……well like you said. Understandably a trip to the grocery store isn’t foremost on your mind of late.”

“I hope you saved the receipt.”

“No.”

She gave me an exasperated look and began digging through the garbage can. “A.J., I won’t let you do this. I won’t let you come here and do things that you’re not charging me for.”

“Ha ha!” She cried with triumph. “Here it is.”

She walked over and took a push pin out of the small bulletin board/mail holder hanging next to the refrigerator. She stabbed the grocery bill with it, affixing it to the cork.

“That stays there until we settle up on what I owe you.”

“Fine,” I agreed, knowing there was no use to argue with her. “Whatever you want.”

I moved supper to the table while Janet opened the refrigerator once more.

“I imagine you want milk, don’t you?”
Just another thing she remembered about me. Even at age forty-seven I generally prefer a cold glass of milk with my supper over just about any other beverage.

“Yes. Thanks.”
She poured milk in my glass and ice water in hers. We sat at the table, passing food back and forth in silence. When our plates were filled she looked over at me and smiled.

“This reminds me of when we were first married. When you were going to school and had supper ready every night when I came home.”

I nodded as I bit into my chicken. Those first months had been so happy for both of us. Happy and carefree. Sometimes I still wondered when our world fell apart.

I didn’t say anything further as we ate. Janet attempted to make small talk until she finally laid her fork down and pushed her plate aside. “A.J., are you all right?”
I dawdled for a moment, then followed suit with my own dishes. I wouldn’t look at her when I apologized.

“Janet,…..I’m sorry. About what happened upstairs I mean. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” she agreed. “But it’s like you said this morning. You being here won’t become a mistake unless we let it.”

“You’re right,” I nodded with conviction. “It won’t.”

I fiddled with my napkin a moment. This next apology was even more difficult. “And in regards to Lancelot?”

She threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, A.J., you’re horrible. I can’t believe you’re jealous.”

“I’m not jealous!”

Her eyes twinkled with merriment. “Yes, you are. It was written all over your face when I introduced the two of you.”

“It’s not that I’m jealous,” I declared again, “it’s just that you deserve better.”

With that one special tone she scolded and warned both at the same time, “AJaaaay.”

I held up a hand in concession. “Okay, okay, it’s none of my business. Therefore I’m sorry if I screwed things up between you and Lars.”

“His name is Lance. And you didn’t screw things up. We’ve only seen each other a couple times. We aren’t anywhere near being serious which suits me just fine.”

That news made it easier to ask the next question on my mind. “How long have you known him?”

“He joined our staff in early October.”

“Early October?”

“Yes, he came highly recommended from,…..No,” she stated firmly. “I can tell what you’re thinking and the answer is no. Lance would no more stalk me than you would.”

“Are you certain? How well do you really know him?”

“Well enough to know he wouldn’t, that’s how well.”

“But you said the guy is big, and Lance isn’t exactly Peewee Herman you know.”

She rose and began clearing the table. “I’m not going to discuss this any further, A.J. Lance is not the person giving me trouble.”

Her tone and stiff back told me it would be in my best interest to let this course of questioning die a quick death.

“Okay, fine. It’s not Lance. Let’s get the kitchen cleaned up and then discuss whom it might be.”

We got ourselves back on an amiable even keel while loading the dishwasher and depositing leftovers in the refrigerator. When we were finished I spread my notes out on the table.

Janet and I spent the next two hours going over everything I’d written down and photocopied throughout the day. I made more notes when a thought came to her regarding a case or some fact Earl had uncovered.

“Oh,” I said in regard to Earl’s findings, “thanks for assuring Columbo I’m not your stalker.”

“Columbo?”

“Earl E.”

Again she laughed at my sarcastic humor. “He’s good at what he does, A.J.”

“I’d like to debate you on that, but if I recall correctly I was on the losing end of most of our disagreements. Besides, I guess you know his reputation better than me.”

“I do. He’s an excellent detective.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that because what I saw today didn’t impress me much.” I looked down at my photocopy of Earl’s notes. “Though I admit that at least on paper he appears to know what he’s doing.”

We leaned back in our chairs. Fatigue was about to do us both in for the evening.

“Oh, one other thing,” I said. “Your phone rang three times this afternoon while I was here. I picked it up but whoever was on the other end didn’t answer.”

She sat bolt upright. Her blue eyes widened with fear. “It was him!”

I kept my voice quiet and calm. “Janet, we don’t know that for certain. The only reason I’m telling you is because it’s important that we keep track of incidents like these just as I said last night. On the other hand it’s quite possible it was someone looking for you who was confused as to why a strange man was answering your phone.”

No man should normally be answering my phone,” she emphasized to let me know Lance didn’t spend as much time in her house as I was assuming he might. “But regardless, no one would have been calling me here at that time of the day. Anyone who’s close to me would know I’m at work.”

“What about kids in the neighborhood?” I questioned. “Do you have any problems with pranks being pulled by any of them?”

“What kind of pranks? You mean phone calls?”

“That. Or ringing your door bell and then running away.”

“Not that I’m aware of. I’ve certainly never had any trouble with any of the local kids. As far as I know no one else has either. Why?”

I didn’t want to scare her any more than she was already scared, but I had to be as honest with her as I’d be with any client.

“Because right before I left to meet you the doorbell rang. When I answered it no one was there.”

“But he’s never done that before, A.J.! He’s never come that close to the house!”

“Janet, don’t. Don’t jump to conclusions. I’m by far not insinuating it was him. I didn’t see anyone. Not a person and not a car. I only saw some kids playing in a yard a couple houses down. Which is why I think it was nothing other than a childish prank.”

She rose and wrapped her arms around herself as if she was suddenly cold. “But what if it wasn’t? What if he’s getting bolder?”

“Then he’s going to run right smack into me.”

She turned to look down at me. “Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do. Maybe he’s trying to determine who you are.”
“Maybe he is,” I conceded. “Certainly just because I have yet to spot him doesn’t mean he hasn’t spotted me. As a matter of fact I hope he has.”

“But I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I stood and rested my hands on her shoulders, kneading the tension I could feel there. “I’m not going to get hurt, Janet. What I’m going to do is catch this guy and turn him over to your buddy Earl E. After I kick him around a bit first that is.”

She chuckled and leaned into my chest. “Oh, A.J.”

I made sure the hug I gave her was the same chaste type a brother would give his sister. When I released her I headed out the kitchen doorway.

“I’m going to walk around the neighborhood again like I did last night. I’ll be back in a little while.”

In a repeat of the previous evening she cautioned me with a, “Be careful.”

“I will be.”

I put on my shoes and coat, locked the door behind me, and bugged the security system. Like the evening before I exited out Janet’s back garage door. And like the evening before I huddled into my coat wishing I’d taken the time that day to stop and pick up gloves and a hat.

Again the neighborhood was dark and quiet. It wasn’t until I spotted a car parked at the curb across the street from Janet’s home that I grew suspicious. I could see the figure of a man huddled over the front seat of the white New Yorker. From my vantage point it looked like he was facing Janet’s house. Facing it and watching it.

I felt for my gun even though I knew perfectly well it was residing in its holster. I left it where it was for the moment, but unsnapped my coat to make for easier access.

The man had positioned the vehicle halfway between two street lights. Clever of him, I thought, realizing it would make it difficult for passersby to get a good look at him. Or for Janet to get a good look at him if she happened to glance out her living room window.

I eased up the side of the car. The windows were fogged up preventing me from seeing inside. I reached out a silent hand for the driver’s door. With one strong motion I yanked it open and grabbed a hold of the man’s coat collar.

“You sonuvabitch!” I swore, wrenching him roughly from the vehicle. “This is the last night you’ll ever,….

“I’m sorry, Mr. Adams! I’m sorry!

The teenager’s eyes were round and filled with terror. I gripped the shoulder of his letterman’s coat with one hand, my other cocked back into a fist. He couldn’t apologize fast enough. Or zip his pants fast enough either, for that matter.

I caught a glimpse of a pretty young woman in the front seat fumbling with the fastener on her bra. She hastily pulled her winter parka around her, ignoring the red and white cheerleader’s sweater tossed carelessly on the dashboard. She moved to poke her head out the driver’s door, her long tawny blond hair cascading in front of her.

“Daddy, please! Don’t hurt hi,…”

She looked up at me, the confusion plain to read on her face. “You’re not my father.”

The boy turned to her. “He’s not?”

“No, he’s not.”

I straightened to my full height while releasing the sex crazed teenager.

“No, young lady, I’m not,” I acknowledged in my most authoritative tone. “But if I was I wouldn’t be very pleased to discover you half naked being groped by this boy for all the neighbors to see. Not only is what you’re doing foolish, it’s also dangerous. Young people have lost their lives to maniacs who prey on innocent victims parked late at night on dark lover’s lanes.”

I waved a hand. “Now go on with both of you. Take this girl home and see her to the door like a proper gentleman does and just maybe, just maybe I won’t tell your parents what I caught the two of you doing tonight.”

The boy gave a series of frantic nods while hastily backing into what was no doubt his father’s car. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” He gave his head a solid whack on the frame but didn’t even flinch. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

The girl squinted up at me as though trying to determine exactly which neighbor I was and how I knew her parents, but I could tell she wasn’t going to press her luck by asking me my name.

The boy fumbled to get the car out of park then drove off with shaking hands gripping the steering wheel. I could just make out the girl working her way back into her sweater as they passed under a street light.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I could have found myself in jail for what I’d just done. Assaulting a minor wouldn’t exactly be favorably looked upon by the cops regardless of my reasons or suspicions. Thank God I hadn’t drawn my gun on the kid.

As I walked back to Janet’s house I had to wonder if I’d let myself become too close to the situation. Maybe I should have let her hire another private investigator. If Rick were here he’d be telling me I was thinking with my heart and not my head. And he’d be right. First I almost shot my former wife right off her exercise bike, and now I was going around pulling teenagers out of cars whose only crimes were trying to cop a feel under the cover of darkness.

No, I can do this jobThe reason I wouldn’t let her hire anyone else to begin with was because I knew no one could protect her the way I can.

My mind played devil’s advocate. That may be true, A.J., no one can protect Janet like you. But on the other hand, if you don’t get your act together you’re going to be directly responsible for her getting hurt or killed.

I’m certain Janet noticed my preoccupation when I reentered the house. She was waiting up for me again, dressed in her robe like she had been the evening before. She asked me twice if everything was okay outside and twice I told her nothing other than yes. I refused her offer of dessert. I sat in the easy chair reviewing the notes I’d made throughout the day while she watched the news. When she shut the television off and suggested I would be more comfortable sleeping in her guest room as opposed to on her couch I didn’t argue.

I retrieved my suitcase from the hallway and followed her up the stairs. I bid her good night at the doorway. She halted my progress into the room by placing a hand on my elbow.

“A.J., you’re certain everything’s okay? Nothing happened outside, did it?”
I could see the worry lines around her mouth and didn’t want to be the cause of them deepening. I gave her a sheepish smile.

“Nothing happened other than me abruptly ending a night of passion for a couple of teenagers parked across from your house. I’m confident I made their evening so memorable that some time around their,……oh thirtieth wedding anniversary, they’ll be able to look back upon the entire incident with at least a small portion of amusement.”

She laughed. “You didn’t?”

“Oh, yes,” I nodded. “I did. Just when the young man was about to slide into home plate, as the expression went when I was in high school.”

She gave me an affectionate shake of her head. “First my mop and now this. Oh, A.J., I’d forgotten how much you could make me laugh.”

“You didn’t think this kind of stuff was very funny when we were married.”

“No,” she stated thoughtfully. By the look on her face I knew she was recalling the incidents surrounding myself, my brother, and the Precious Cargo. “No, I didn’t, did I?”

She gave me a final smile that appeared to be more than a little sad.

“Good night.”

“Good night, Janet.”

I flipped on the overhead light and closed the bedroom door. She must have stood on the other side of it for a few moments because several seconds passed before I heard the soft shuffle of her slippers against the carpeting, and then the click of her own bedroom door.

I rolled the thick quilted comforter rich with teal green ribbons and deep pink flowers all the way to the foot of the double bed, then pulled back the sheet and blankets. The nest I made looked like an inviting haven after the previous night spent on Janet’s couch. I pulled my sweater over my head and sat down on the only chair in the room to remove my socks. Rather than sleep in my blue jeans again I stripped them off, replacing them with my pajama bottoms.

I reached for the gold switch on the old-fashioned hurricane lamp that sat on the bedside table. A soft glow emitted from the glass cover hand-painted with flowers that matched the bed’s comforter. I padded over to the wall and shut off the bright light above. I crossed back to the bed and climbed in-between the blankets. I almost let out a groan at how good the mattress felt. A hundred times as good as the cushions on the narrow couch below. The sheets and pillow cases were crisp as though freshly washed and I could detect the faint smell of lightly perfumed laundry soap. I recognized the scent. Era. The brand Janet had always favored.

I intended to read a few chapters of the book I brought along but never bothered to take it out of my suitcase. I knew I was too tired to get past the first page.

I fluffed the pillows and reached up to shut off the lamp. I laid down and mentally made certain I’d locked all the doors and reset the alarm system. I knew I had, and even if I’d missed something I’d seen Janet go around and double check everything right before we came upstairs.

Oddly enough my mind drifted to my brother as I waited for sleep to claim me. I wasn’t so naive as to think I hadn’t left him wondering where I was going and what I was doing. I’m not normally a spur-of-the-moment guy. That’s more Rick’s style. As a matter of fact I was rather surprised he hadn’t come charging over to my house the previous morning demanding answers before I had a chance to make my escape.

And I was so thankful he hadn’t. He’d be furious if he knew where I was. Although he and Janet had at one time been friends, in recent years his use for her had greatly diminished. Especially since she and I divorced. Like the loyal brother he is, he tends to place the blame at her feet for a good deal of our marital problems. Blame that isn’t Janet’s to take, but no matter how many times I’ve told Rick that he refuses to allow his opinion to be swayed.

But overall, where I was and what I was doing was none of Rick’s concern. Whether or not he’d see things quite that way I seriously had my doubts. Nonetheless I figured I could be gone at least three more days before he got worried. It was Thursday night. If I wasn’t going to be back in the Simon and Simon office by Monday morning I’d have no choice but to call him and let him know what was going on.

My last thought before falling asleep was hoping such a phone call wouldn’t be necessary. I chuckled a bit to myself as my tired brain informed me, If you’re smart, A.J., you’ll just leave him a message on his answering machine. The last thing you want to do is talk to him. He’ll have an absolute fit if he finds out you’re up here working for,…….and staying with, Janet.

Geez, will he have a fit.

*****

I waded through my second day of paperwork without A.J. there to grumble and complain to about such mundane tasks. He’d been right when he’d called the previous morning and said we didn’t have much goin’ on at the office. We didn’t. Which is why I supposed he decided it was an opportune time for him and Lauren to sneak off and get hitched.

I was plannin’ to call it quits early on Thursday bein’ A.J. wasn’t there to monitor my day, but then I got tied up with some phone calls. I no more than hung up from those when a potential client walked in. Since we could use the work, and the person seeking our services was female and attractive, I put my best foot forward and showed her to a chair. By the time I’d determined what she needed us to do for her we’d been hired, and I’d made a date for one evening the following week.

I showed Miss Taylor to the door. I watched her hips sway provocatively in her tight leather skirt all the way to elevator, gave her a smile and wave when she turned around, then reentered the office. I flipped the answering machine on, added the bills that had come in the mail to the pile I’d begun the previous day on A.J.’s desk, then grabbed my field jacket and hat off the coat rack.

I eased my truck into rush hour traffic. I thought about what I had at home in the fridge and decided none of it sounded all that great. I wheeled the Dodge into the parking lot of a strip mall, hopped out, locked the door, and ambled toward a carry-out Italian joint I favored.

I got in line behind a copper headed woman. A copper headed woman who seemed awfully familiar. Before I could get a look at her face I felt two small arms wrap around my waist.

“Hi, Rick!”

I looked down into a pair of bright blue eyes that were capped off by an unruly mop of hair the color of a cardinal. “Hey, Red!”

I reached down and swung the five-year-old up to my hip. His auburn headed brother came runnin’ over from the table they’d been sitting at.

“Hi, Rick!”

I pulled Shane close and patted his back. “Hi, kiddo.”

By now the woman had turned around to see what commotion her children were creating.

“Rick!” Lauren exclaimed her surprise. “What’re you doing here?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

“Getting supper for me and the boys. But how about you? I thought you were with A.J.”

“With A.J.?”

“Yes. On the case he’s working on.”

“Case?”

“Yes.” She hiked her purse strap up on her shoulder. “He called me early yesterday morning to say he’d be out of town for a few days on a case. I just assumed you were with him.”

Although I had no idea what my brother was up to, I acted as though I did. “Uh,….no. I didn’t go with him. We have several cases pendin’ right now so I uh…..I stayed here.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Uh,…no. I don’t. Not for certain. He’d didn’t tell you?”

“No. He just said if it turned out he was going to be gone more than three or four days he’d call me.”

“Oh. Then he probably will.”

She looked at me funny but nodded. “Where is he?”

“Where is he?” My mind cast about for something to say other than, “Beats the hell outta me.”

“He’s,….here and there. Movin’ around a lot. I’m sure he’ll fill you in when he gets back.”

My reply garnered me another odd look as though the woman was tempted to reach out and lay a hand on my forehead to see if I was runnin’ a fever. I gotta admit my answers sounded rather delirious and disjointed even to my own ears.

Thankfully Lauren’s order number was called before she could ask me any further questions. Shane and Tanner stayed with me as she weaved her way forward to pick up a pizza. The boys reluctantly bid me goodbye while Lauren gave me the fast, preoccupied wave perfected by single working mothers who have a hundred chores to complete before the short night comes to an end.

“Bye, Rick!” Lauren called as she struggled to hold the door open for her kids. “Boys, don’t run out into traffic! Wait right there on the sidewalk!”

She turned back to me. “Tell A.J. I said hi if you talk to him anytime soon.”

“I will. See ya’, Lauren.”

As I waited for the opportunity to place my own order I mulled over what just occurred. Obviously A.J. wasn’t off with Lauren gettin’ married somewhere.

So where the hell was he?

For a brief second I wondered if he was sneakin’ around with someone else behind her back. But just as quickly I negated that thought. A.J. would never do that to a woman he was seeing. Never. If the relationship had no future and he was ready to move on then he’d tell her so. But never would he see someone else while allowing Lauren to believe she was the only lady in his life.

I thought over what little Lauren had said. A.J. had told her he was out of town working on a case. While he had told me he was gonna be visiting an old friend. So which explanation was the truth? And why would he feel the need to lie to one or both of us?

When you don’t have nothin’ better to do than return to your houseboat and share a meatball sandwich with your dog you have a lotta free hours leftover to think. By the time I was gettin’ ready for bed at ten thirty that night I had a helluva case of heartburn and was worried to death. The only thing I could figure A.J. would feel the need to keep from both me and Lauren was something to do with his health. By midnight I had myself convinced he was seriously ill, had gone somewhere to get answers or have more tests done, and for whatever reason didn’t want his family to be a part of the process.

Now that all sounds rather stupid I’m sure. I mean, how many people in this day and age run off to die alone? On the other hand, maybe it’s not so stupid. After all, our father did.*

By the time the seagulls were diving for fish the next morning I hadn’t gotten more than two hours sleep. I didn’t know whether to be worried, pissed, or insulted at my brother’s lack of courtesy. I finally settled on all three as I drove to the office.

There was no message from A.J. on the answering machine as I hoped there might be. I didn’t hear from him all day though each time the phone rang I jumped on it as though the caller was about to reveal I was a million dollar prize winner. Because I was so damn angry at my sibling I locked up the office an hour early.

“Serves him right for not bein’ here,” I grumbled to no one but myself. “I hope some client comes to the door after I leave wantin’ to offer us big money to do some cushy job. And when A.J. gets in a snit over it I’ll tell him the next time he gets the urge to hightail his ass outta town without tellin’ anyone where he’s goin’ he’d better think twice about it.”

I met Carlos and group of our buddies at Ollie’s for a couple beers, an Ollie Burger with the works, and a few games of pool. My mind was so far

removed from what was goin’ on all I managed to do was lose ten bucks on the pool games and rekindle my heartburn. As I drove home later that night I decided if I didn’t hear from A.J. by Monday morning I was gonna start lookin’ into his whereabouts.

And for his sake I just hoped he knew I didn’t much care where I found him or how much embarrassment I caused him when big brother showed up unannounced in one helluva toot.

He was sure gonna be sorry for pullin’ this dumb little stunt when I got a hold of him.

*****

While Janet showered and got ready for work the next morning I took a thirty minute run on the treadmill. When my workout was complete I made the bed I’d slept in and straightened the room. I took a quick shower in the downstairs bathroom then shaved and brushed my teeth before dressing in a pair of tan Levi’s trousers, a black turtleneck and a long sleeved tan oxford shirt striped in black, white and red.

Once again Janet had breakfast laid out in the kitchen when I arrived. I filled her in on what I intended to do that day, leaving out one small part I wasn’t sure if I was going to share with her or not. I had a feeling it would be better to wait and see what I uncovered. I also went over a plan I had in mind for that evening when I picked her up from work. She asked a few questions of me then nodded her head in understanding of what I hoped to accomplish.

Like the previous morning I cleaned up the kitchen while she gathered together her shoes, briefcase, coat and purse. Rather than slipping into my tennis shoes I put on a pair of weather-proof ankle high brown suede boots I’d brought along. It was snowing again and I was sick of walking around with cold wet feet.

Janet commented on my wise choice of footgear as we walked out to the garage together, but also reminded me once again that I really needed to stop and buy myself a warmer coat.

“And bill me for it,” she instructed in a repeat of the conversation we’d had the previous morning.

“If I get time,” was how I left things as we climbed into our vehicles.

I saw Janet safely to work, then drove to the courthouse. I spent the morning there reviewing several past cases of Janet’s our discussion from the previous evening prompted me to take a closer look at. Despite my concentration and perseverance nothing jumped out from the documents that gave me the solid lead I was so desperately in search of.

I took a look at a few other documents while I was there. Documents that had nothing to do with any case Janet had ever worked on. I had my first bit of luck in two days when I recognized the name of the lawyer on those papers as being someone I knew well. Or at least someone I had known well when I lived in Seattle.

Though I suppose most of Edward Melton’s clients referred to him respectfully as Mr. Melton, I knew him as Ned. He was one of the few lawyers left in Seattle who wasn’t ‘partnered’ with someone else, but rather ran a small, independent law office out of an old building downtown. We met at some function or the other when I was new to Bloomdecker, Hershaw, and Clark. We’re roughly the same age and come from similar backgrounds. We also shared a number of the same interests and soon began meeting to play racquetball a couple times a week during our lunch hour.

The thing I liked about the guy above all else was the fact he was an honest, straight-shooter who didn’t hesitate to tell it to you like it was. He didn’t beat around the bush, he didn’t care if he impressed you, pissed you off, won you as a friend for life or made you his worst enemy. He never compromised his values simply to gain a new client. As far as I could tell money didn’t matter much to him. He drove around in an old American Motors Pacer, the funny little bubble shaped car manufactured for a brief time in the late seventies that looked like something Neil Armstrong would have traversed the moon in. His clothes possessed no more style than his vehicle. His suits were bought off the rack at Kmart with few concerns one way or another as to how they fit.

I suppose part of the reason our friendship formed in the first place was because, in so many ways, Ned reminded me of Rick. A nonconformist happily marching to the beat of his own drum totally unfazed by the stares and whispers of those who were losing out on so much by judging him on face value alone. Not only was Ned a loyal friend, he was also one of the best attorneys in Seattle.

Ned was either too cheap to hire a secretary or didn’t make enough money to pay one. I had never figured out which. Regardless, when I placed a call to him from a pay phone in the courthouse lobby he answered on the third ring.

“Hello. Ned Melton’s office.”

“Ned, hi. It’s A.J. A.J. Simon.”

“A.J.!” The exclamation boomed through the phone line. “How the hel,…heck are you?”

By the way he’d quickly corrected his vocabulary I guessed he had a client sitting across from his desk.

“Long time no see, my racquetball buddy. My serve’s getting a little rusty without you around to keep it greased up.”

I smiled. “I’m sure you can still take me three out of four. Listen, Ned, I know this is short notice and all, but I need to see you for a few minutes today if that’s possible.”

“You’re here in town?”

“Yes.”

“What brings you way up here?”

“It’s a long story. Maybe we can talk about it over lunch?”

“Sure, sure. That’ll work.”

I could hear him shuffling papers on his desk and got a mental picture of him frantically searching for his appointment calendar.

“Is one o’clock okay? I’m tied up until then.”

“That’ll be fine,” I agreed. “Where do you want to meet?”

“How about right here in my office? You bring the pizza, sausage, mushrooms, extra cheese, hold the anchovies, peppers and onions ’cause I’ve got another appointment this afternoon, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“Great. I’ll see you at one.”

“See you at one, old buddy.”

It was eleven thirty when I left the courthouse. I stopped at a gas station and filled the Concord’s tank then drove over to the other side of the city where I stood in line at a crowded hole-in-the-wall pizzeria to place my order. I sat at a small table in a far corner while I waited for the pizza to cook. I watched people come and go, picking up their carry-out lunches, but didn’t see anyone I knew. Not that I expected to. The part of the city Ned worked and lived in wasn’t exactly an area the lawyers and staff of Bloomdecker, Hershaw, and Clark would have a desire to frequent.

Not unless they could bill a client double for it, that is.

Rather than fight for another parking space I left the Ford where it sat. I juggled the hot pizza box and the bag holding our drinks to one hand and fished in a pant pocket for change. I shoved a quarter and dime in the meter’s slot knowing the time those two coins gave me should prevent a parking ticket provided I wasn’t with Ned longer than I expected.

I walked the three blocks to the stone front building the Melton Law Office resided in. I silently cursed the wet snow that pelted my face and ran down my neck. Because its situated on the Pacific coast Seattle rarely gets enough snow to halt her movements, only enough to make those of us moving about her in the winter time miserable. As I looked up at the slate clouds a snowflake plopped in my right eye. I longed for some San Diego sunshine as I wiped my face and kept walking.

I trotted four flights up a winding wooden staircase that was over a hundred years old and creaked in time to my movements. Ned’s office was as I remembered. Paneled in cheap pale wood that probably wasn’t real wood at all, the only decoration on the walls a crooked eight inch by ten inch picture of his wife and four daughters. It was so out of date the youngest girl, who appeared to be about two in the photo, was now seventeen.

He was alone, sitting sideways at his desk pounding information into a computer keyboard that rested on the heavy extension arm. His shaggy, sandy colored hair fell straight to his shoulders, a stray lock of it swooping down over his forehead. He had left the Kmart suit at home today, choosing blue jeans and a black Hard Rock Cafe – Chicago sweatshirt instead, making him look more like an aging Beach Boy than an attorney.

Law books, legal journals and newspapers spilled over a wide span of bookshelves that ran from the ragged rust colored carpet all the way to the yellowed ceiling that was in bad need of a coat of fresh white paint. Four pock marked metal filing cabinets stood at attention at the end of the shelves. Like everything else in Ned’s office they, too, were mix-matched. One was black, two combat green, and the fourth diarrhea brown. Two chairs sat in front of Ned’s desk, one pumpkin orange the other the bright shade of jungle foliage. Their colors alone left little doubt they were castoffs from some doctor’s office. Their wooden arms were scuffed from years of use, the finish completely rubbed off in some spots. Silver duct tape patched small tears in various spots of the upholstery adding a unique touch only Ned would refer to as classy.

I don’t know whether he saw me first or smelled the pizza first, but either way he rose to greet me.

“A.J.! It’s great to see you!”

He took the cardboard box and paper bag from me, haphazardly clearing a space on his cluttered desk and sitting them down. He grabbed me by the shoulders for a brief moment, studying me at arms length in an effort to see what changes time had brought.

“You look good,” he said. “At peace with yourself. Like you’re back where you belong.”

I had never shared with Ned the spectrum of mine and Janet’s marital problems, not even after I filed for divorce. But he had known I was dissatisfied with my law career and longed to return to P.I. work so I suppose he’d easily put two and two together and come up with four.

“I am back where I belong,” I acknowledged while thinking of San Diego, my family, and Simon and Simon Investigations.

He waved a hand at the stacks of papers, files, and books not only on his desk and the shelves, but also piled on the floor against the walls. “I’ve been meaning to give you a call, but something always seems to be demanding my attention.”

“I know what you mean. Same here.”

He rounded the desk and reclaimed his seat. I hung my jean jacket over the back of the orange chair before sitting in it. We caught up with one another while we plucked pizza from the box and sipped Coka-Cola through straws. Despite the fact we’d only spoken once by phone since my return to San Diego we fell into the easy conversation of old friends.

We wiped our greasy hands on napkins when we were finished and tossed them into the empty box. Ned lifted it up and sat it on the floor behind his chair to get it out of our way. God only knew how long it would remain there.

He leaned back taking a final sip of his Coke before tossing his cup and mine in the nearby garbage can.

“While I’d like to think you returned to Seattle just to get another glimpse of my pretty face, I’m not quite that gullible. What can I do for ya’, A.J.?”

I briefly filled him in on Janet’s troubles before coming to the reason that brought me to his office.

“You handled a divorce case last year for a Deanna Gillet. Do you recall that?”

The springs in his wooden chair squeaked as he leaned back and blindly reached for a drawer in the black file cabinet.

“Yep, I remember that one all right. Nasty from the get go.”

“What can you tell me about it?”

He cocked an eyebrow at me before turning to finger through tightly packed manila folders.

“Since I’d be breaking lawyer/client privilege to tell you much of anything about it, why don’t you tell me what you know.”

I understood his position, therefore had no problem doing as he suggested. I relayed what I’d discovered at the courthouse that morning concerning the legal dissolving of the marriage between Lance Gavin Gillet and Deanna Marie Price Gillet.

Ned must have decided I already knew enough that he wasn’t going to be violating his ethics to fill me in on a bit more.

“I can take an educated guess as to why you’re asking since you said Lance Gillet now works for Janet and is seeing her after-hours. But whatever you do with any information I reveal, you didn’t hear it from me.”

“No, I didn’t,” I assured my friend.

He studied the open file on his desk, refreshing his memory. Within thirty seconds he closed it and pushed it aside.

“Overall it was your classic case of spoiled rich boy meets spoiled rich girl. Deanna’s grandfather started the Price/Waterhouse accounting firm. Her father is currently the CEO.”

I nodded my head in recognition of the multi-million dollar company that now has offices nation wide.

“Lance’s old man, Marcum, comes from family money, too. They lay claim to being among the founding fathers of Seattle. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know. What I do know is Marcum Gillet owns half the buildings in this city and just about any other type of prime real estate in the surrounding area.”

“Making him worth mega bucks,” I said.

“Exactly,” Lance agreed. “Many millions I’m sure. So anyhow, the debutante and the boy born with the silver spoon in his mouth married one month after Lance’s graduation from law school. Fifteen years and a couple kids down the road later she finds herself disillusioned with him, his career, his late hours, the lack of time he spends with the family, the fact he has a mistress, the whole nine yards. So she came to me and filed for divorce.

“Now let me tell ya’, A.J., Deanna Gillet is one hell of a looker. Could a’ been a model right out of a high priced fashion magazine.”

I couldn’t help but think, Like Janet.

“Therefore spoiled rich boy wasn’t too agreeable to giving up his trophy wife. As a matter of fact spoiled rich boy was pissed as all get out.”

“And that’s when the trouble started?”

“Yes. That’s when he slashed a vast and expensive collection of paintings she had. The next thing he did was puncture her car tires one night with a screw driver. As well, after Gillet had moved out the police were called to the house several times because of violent arguments he instigated when he came to pick up the kids for the weekend.”

“Did he assault her?”

“No, but he threatened to. Or at least that’s what she claims. Naturally he maintains otherwise.”

“Naturally,” I agreed with heavy sarcasm. “And what about the stalking incidents? They were mentioned briefly in documentation I saw at the courthouse records room this morning, but not in any great detail.”

He shrugged his shoulders and ran a hand through his hair to push it out of his eyes. “All I can tell you is what Deanna told me. The police never caught him at it. But she alleged she’d look outside at various times of the day and night to see him parked across from the house. Or she’d be in the grocery store and find him standing at the end of the aisle, or tailing her when she left to go pick the kids up from school. The stalking got worse when she began dating another man shortly before the divorce was final. He broke into the house late one night while she and the children were sleeping with no other intention than to scare the hell out of her.”

“And then what happened?”

“As far as I know nothing. I believe once the divorce was final things straightened out. Or at least I’ve never heard anything further about the situation. I advised Deanna to contact me if her problems continued. I told her we’d have a restraining order put out against him if necessary.”

“So what do you think?”

“You want my honest opinion?”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“I think Lance Gillet is a royal asshole who cares about no one other than himself. I also think he’s got a nasty temper and an ego the size of the Grand Canyon, therefore doesn’t take too kindly to being dumped by the woman in his life.”

“Do you think he’s capable of hurting that woman?”

“Do I think he’s capable of it? Yes, A.J., quite frankly I believe he is. If Janet has gotten herself mixed up with him she’d be wise to put an end to the relationship as quickly as possible.”

I left Ned’s office ten minutes later, his words an ominous warning that stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon.

*****

I pulled my rental car into the park garage at twenty minutes to five, a little more than an hour prior to the end of Janet’s working day. I found an open spot on the ground level, locked the car and left it there. I snapped my jacket closed to ward off the permanent chill of the cement structure and headed for the stairwell.

I took my time as I climbed to level seven. I didn’t see anyone other than a maintenance man perched high on a ladder at level four changing a light bulb.

I opened the door a mere crack when I arrived at my destination. I saw no one in the vicinity so exited onto the garage floor. I shoved my hands in my pockets and strolled the entire area as though I had nothing better to do than check out the wax jobs on expensive cars. When I was satisfied no was about, neither in a vehicle or outside it, I secreted myself in a dark corner between the wall and a heavy support pillar that jutted out enough to hide my presence.

No one lingered inside the building that night. It was Friday, everyone was anxious to get a head start on the weekend. I stood quietly and patiently as people bid their co-workers goodbye. Car after car started and exited. I took careful note when Lance came out alone a few minutes before six. For whatever reason he’d changed into casual clothes before leaving the office. His black Armani suit was on a hanger and draped neatly over his left arm. He wore a demin shirt and blue jeans underneath his wool topcoat. His wing tips hung from the hand carrying his briefcase, in their place he wore a pair of hiking boots with soles treaded thick like car tires.

Lance brushed a finger over Janet’s glossy car as he walked by it on the way to his own. My eyes narrowed and I wondered what the gesture signified. Simple admiration of the woman’s vehicle? Or ownership of the woman who drove it?

I watched him stow his things in his vehicle then pull away. It came as no surprise to see him primping in his rearview mirror.

My feet were growing numb from the cold surface of the concrete when Janet exited the elevator alone like I had told her to that morning. By arriving so early and parking the Concord on the ground level I was hoping to catch her stalker up here waiting for her. So far I had struck out on that accord, but I was far from ready to give up. If he didn’t see me anywhere we might just be able to lure him into following her home.

I jogged out and met Janet halfway. I put a hand on her elbow and rushed her to her car. She had her keys ready, making quick work of unlocking it. Within in seconds I was lying down on the back seat completely out of anyone’s line of sight.

She took the route home we had discussed that morning at breakfast. She didn’t talk to me once we exited the garage, but rather appeared to passing drivers as though she was a woman alone.

She stopped at the grocery store she frequented even though she didn’t really need anything considering I’d just stocked her cabinets the day before. I peeked my head up enough to be able to watch her enter and exit the building. She came out with a gallon of milk and a quart of orange juice ten minutes later. If anyone was following her I didn’t see him.

Her next stop was the dry cleaners. This time she had clothes to drop off as well as clothes to pick up. But again, I didn’t see anyone or anything that aroused my suspicions. Though that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching her out of my line of vision. I just hoped he was foolish enough to trail her home.

Like we’d discussed it would be that morning her final errand was at Block Buster Video located a mile and a half from her home. She parked in a dark corner well away from other vehicles and right next to a Dumpster.

Part 2

Using her car as a shield I slid out the back passenger door, my bare hands landing in a pile of frigid snow. I ignored the biting chill and scurried around to the other side of the massive trash container. I didn’t take my eyes off Janet until she’d safely entered the store that was lit up like the Hollywood sign at night. While she was inside I kept a vigilant watch over the parking lot. I saw plenty of people sitting alone in their cars, but time and time again they proved to be waiting for a child, friend, or spouse who had been choosing a movie. If anyone was especially interested in the lone BMW driven by Janet Fowler they were doing a good job of keeping that a discreet fact.

I watched Janet exit the store carrying a small plastic bag in her hand. My body tensed when a man stopped her just outside the doors by coming up behind her and placing a hand on her elbow. I snapped opened my coat and felt for my gun. If his intention was to grab her and run I’d be on his heels before they got three feet from that store front.

But Janet’s posture wasn’t that of a woman in fear of assault. When the man turned so the parking lot lights illuminated his face I recognized him.

Lance.

I watched, wondering what he was up to and just how big of a coincidence it was that he’d turned up here. At a video store in Janet’s neighborhood.

Their conversation didn’t last more than thirty seconds. When they bid one another goodbye he entered the store and she continued to her car.

She did an excellent job of acting as though her ex-husband wasn’t lurking about behind a smelly Dumpster. She got in her car and laid the bag on the front seat. It was when I heard her door lock that I felt reasonably assured of her safety.

I took off running away from the Dumpster, soon leaving the vast parking lot and store behind me. I jogged through a strip mall, past three fast food places and around a gas station until I came to Janet’s residential neighborhood.

I continued my journey but stayed off the streets now, instead racing through a succession of back yards. For once I was thankful for the winter cold and darkness. No one was outside to see me and wonder what a grown man pushing fifty years old was doing sprinting over their property as though he was late for dinner.

I came upon Janet’s house by way of her back yard neighbor’s. I used the set of keys she’d given me to enter into the garage through the service door. I unbugged her alarm system and unlocked the door that would let me into the back hallway.

Her automatic timers had the living room lit up. I didn’t turn on any additional lights as I waited for her to arrive. I took off my boots and left them on the rug next to my tennis shoes then hung up my coat. I made my way into the dark kitchen and looked out at the street in front of her house. I didn’t see any cars in the immediate vicinity, but knew he could just as well be parked down the road or standing on the sidewalk a block away.

I was still winded when Janet pulled up five minutes later. I waited for her in the hallway and took some of her burdens from her when she finally entered the house.

I could immediately tell she was tired and crestfallen.

“I didn’t see him. Not anywhere.”

I carried the milk and juice to the kitchen while she deposited everything else in her hands on the living room sofa.

“Then we’ll just have to come up with another idea,” I stated practically when she came to the kitchen doorway.

“But it was a good plan, A.J. I thought for sure we’d catch him tonight.”

I walked over and placed my hands on her uppers arms, giving them a tender squeeze. “We’ll catch him, Janet. I promise.”

“But you can’t stay here forever. You’ll have to go back home soon and,…”

“Hey. Stop it. I can stay here for as long as it takes and that’s what I intend to do.”

She looked into my face, searching to see whether or not I meant what I said. She must have gotten her answer because she briefly laid her head against my chest and whispered, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

I released her and cocked my head toward the stairs. “Go upstairs, get changed, and relax for a while. I’ll make dinner.”

“You don’t have to do that. You cooked last night. I’ll get supper together tonight.”

I gently shoved her toward the stairs, refusing to take no for an answer. “Go on. I don’t mind cooking and you know it. That’s when I do some of my best thinking.”

She smiled at me as if she remembered that indeed, I do in fact do some of my best thinking when I’m puttering around the kitchen getting a meal together.

Janet threw the plastic bag that contained her dry cleaning over one arm then grabbed her purse and briefcase. She headed up the stairs while I placed the movie she’d rented on top of the TV before returning to the kitchen.

While she rode her exercise bike I made a meatless pasta dish and tossed a salad. When she came downstairs forty-five minutes later she was wearing black leggings, baggy white socks, and a knee-length red sweater. It looked like the perfect outfit for a casual winter evening at home.

Janet set the table while I finished cooking supper. She complimented me on the meal though I don’t think she ate enough of it to really know what it tasted like. She spent more time pushing shell noodles around in alfredo sauce than she did putting them in her mouth. It was obvious to me she’d been counting on our fox being drawn out of his den this evening. Considering the situation had been going on for three months I couldn’t blame her for wanting it to come to a swift end.

We didn’t speak of her troubles until after the table was cleared and the dishwasher cycling. We reclaimed our chairs and exchanged information regarding our day. I didn’t mention anything about Lance right then, just told her I’d looked further into a few of her cases but had come up empty-handed.

“I was finally able to get a hold of Judge Sheridon’s secretary today,” Janet said. “Or his former secretary I should say. She no longer has a list of the guests that attended his party, but after I explained the situation to her and why I wanted it she promised she’d do everything she could to reconstruct it. She’s also going to contact the judge and his wife. I asked her to do as you suggested, put their heads together and write down everyone they can think of who was there. I made my own list while I was on my lunch break and faxed it over to her. She said she’ll get back to me early next week with the names they come up with.”

“Great. That’ll give us another source to draw from.” I folded my hands together on the table and squirmed in my chair knowing she wasn’t going to like the subject matter I broached next.

“I also looked into Lance’s background today.”

“You what?”

“I looked into,…”

Her eyes flashed her anger. “I heard you the first time, A.J. I thought we put an end to this discussion last night.”

“Janet, we have to look into all the possibilities. And in my opinion Lance happens to be one of those possibilities.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to speak to me. It reminded me of how much that gesture had ticked me off when we were married.

“Don’t do that, Janet. Don’t block me out because you’ve decided what I have to say isn’t worthwhile. It just might be, you know.”

“Okay, fine. Talk. Though I can’t imagine what you found out about Lance that will make any difference one way or another.”

“For starters he was stalking his ex-wife while they were separated. He also punctured her car tires and slashed an expensive collection of artwork she owned.”

“And just where did you hear all this?”
“I read about it in some documents I pulled at the courthouse.”

“How did you pull those? Those types of documents shouldn’t have been accessible to the public.”

I grinned at her. “Despite my advancing years my charming smile has still been known to persuade a young lady into letting me see things I’m not supposed to.”

The joke didn’t make her laugh like I’d hoped.

“That’s not funny, A.J. I should make you give me her name. She should be fired for letting you see those papers.”

“Oh, Janet, come on! Get off your high horse. This has nothing to do with what some nineteen-year-old clerk let me see or didn’t let me see. It has to do with Lance. He’s a possessive, jealous man who couldn’t come to terms with his impending divorce so felt the need to scare his wife as retribution. He broke into the house one night, Janet, with no other purpose other than to frighten her.”

“That was documented in what you read today?”

“Well,…..no. But someone told me.”

“Someone? Someone like who?”

“Ned Melton. He was Deanna Gillet’s attorney.”

“Oh, good,” she said with dripping sarcasm. “Ned Melton. The Rick Simon of lawyers.”

I wasn’t about to get into this argument with her. I was well aware she was furious with me and purposefully brought Rick up to fuel my anger. She done it often times when we were married. Despite my sentimental feelings of late, I was acutely reminded as to why our marriage ended.

“I’m not going to debate either Ned’s or Rick’s credibility with you. It’ll be a waste of time and effort and will only cause hard feelings between us. Therefore I’m going to end this discussion by reminding you that I devote myself one hundred percent to every case I take on regardless of who my client might be. And if there’s one thing I learned from your father when I first started working for him over twenty years ago, it’s that a good investigator leaves not one stone unturned. So if you’re upset with me for looking into Lance’s background today then so be it. But I discovered some things you’d better spend time pondering. The possibility of Lance being your stalker is a good one. But even if he’s not, I don’t think he’s a guy you want to get mixed up with.”

I stood from up from the table and headed toward the living room. I paused in the doorway a brief moment. “And just for your information, I’m not saying that as your ex-husband. I’m saying that as your friend.”

Janet must have recognized that we needed some space from one another because while I sat in the reclining easy chair reading the newspaper she remained in the kitchen. I could hear dishes being pulled in and out of cabinets and couldn’t help but smile. Whenever Janet was angry she felt the urge to nest. Cleaning, scrubbing and rearranging seemed to be her way of working off steam while at the same time mulling over her thoughts. Toward the end of our marriage our house practically gleamed.

She joined me in the living room an hour later. I had finished the paper long ago and had gone upstairs to retrieve my book. I laid it on the coffee table when she curled up on the couch.

Her apology was spoken softly. “A.J., I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have flown off the handle regarding what you told me about Lance. I’m still not certain how much of it I believe, but I’ll do what you say and give it some thought.”

“Do one better than that, Janet. Access the court records and read it for yourself. Call Ned if you need further proof.”

She made a face at that suggestion but kept her opinions to herself. She didn’t like Ned any better than she liked Rick.

“Promise, Janet. Promise me you’ll look into this guy before your relationship with him goes any farther.”

She nodded. “I promise. But I want you to know the only reason he was at the video store tonight was because he was picking up some movies for his kids. They’re spending the weekend with him.”

“That’s a viable excuse, but he could have been following you.”

“He could have been,” she reluctantly conceded, “but for some reason I don’t think so.”

I let the subject drop there. She’d promised me she’d check the guy out further so that was all I could ask for the time being. If he proved to be her stalker I had every intention of catching the bastard in the act.

She stood up and crossed to the television set. “You want to watch the movie I rented?”

She held up the box so I could see the cover. I nodded my agreement at her choice. We always did have the same taste in movies.

Janet popped the movie in the VCR and settled back on the couch. I remained in the chair and quickly became engrossed in the storyline. Twenty minutes into the showing her phone rang.

For obvious reasons she had quit acknowledging the phone weeks ago in favor of letting the answering machine screen her calls. The machine was up in her office/exercise room. As she rose to go retrieve the message I reached for the VCR’s remote control and paused the movie’s progress.

I could hear the tremor in her voice when she called down the stairs.

“A.J.! A.J., can you come up here please!”

I shot out of my chair and took the stairs two at a time. She was standing next to her desk. With a shaking finger she rewound the tape, then hit the ‘play’ button.

“You are the rose in my garden, Miss Fowler. The gentle rain that falls upon my face on a hot summer day. The lone shining star in my night sky. And I will make you mine.”

The voice was raspy, like the kind you hear on a campy TV movie when the madman’s trying to hide his identity from the pretty girl he’s terrorizing.

I grabbed a pen and a tablet of paper off Janet’s desktop. I replayed the message, writing down what he said word for word. I dated it and recorded the time he called before returning the paper and pen to their place by the phone. I turned to Janet.

“Is this the kind of thing he always says?”

She looked so small and sick and scared that I wanted to kill the guy.

“Sometimes it’s things like that. Poetry of his own making I guess you’d call it. But sometimes the things he says are very,……..obscene.”

I put an arm around her. I didn’t say anything further about the phone call other than to remind her to report it to Detective Wilke in the morning.

I guided her back to the living room where we finished watching our movie. It ended a few minutes before eleven o’clock. I stood to go outside and make my nightly rounds of her house.

“I’ll slice us some cake while you’re gone,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”

Considering the lateness of the hour and my full thoughts I decided coffee would only make sleep more difficult. “No. No coffee for me.”

“A glass of milk then?”

“That’ll be fine.”

I put on my boots and made quick work of tying the laces. I grabbed my jacket, snapping it closed over my Smith & Wesson. I checked my pockets to make sure I had Janet’s keys.

I looked up to see her standing at the head of the hallway. “I’ll set the alarm and lock the doors when I go out. If anyone comes to the door don’t let them in no matter who it might be.”

“I won’t.”

“And if the phone rings let the machine pick it up. Don’t listen to the message until I come back.”

Again she promised, “I won’t.”

In all my years of knowing her I’d rarely seen this strong woman vulnerable. For the most part Janet is a person who keeps her pain, sorrow, and fears well-hidden. But she stood at the end of the hallway that night looking like a lost child who didn’t know whether she’d ever find her way home again.

I offered her a reassuring smile. “Janet, it’s going to be okay. We’ll get this thing resolved.”

“I know.”

As I turned to go out the door she echoed the concern she’d voiced each night since I’d arrived.

“Be careful, A.J.”

I shot her another grin. “I will be. And tonight I’ll do my best to leave your teenage neighbors alone.”

She chuckled a little at that as I hoped she would. My last sight of her was of the small smile my remark brought to her lips.

*****

I locked the service door to Janet’s garage behind me as I exited into her back yard. Other than the faint light shining through the closed blinds that hung at her patio doors the surrounding area was dark. The moon and stars were covered by mounds of low hanging clouds that were releasing a gentle, yet steady snowfall. I pulled my jacket collar up around my ears to prevent the stuff from finding it’s way inside my turtleneck. It was cold, with the weatherman predicting the night’s temperature would dip to ten degrees. It felt to me like it was already there.

My boots crunched across the snow making it sound like I was walking on Styrofoam. I had just rounded the corner that led me into the dark narrow space between Janet’s windowless garage and her neighbor’s windowless garage, when I heard the soft ‘pop’ of an air gun.

I never had time to turn around or reach for my revolver. The dart burrowed painfully into my left shoulder blade like a dart from a blowgun burrows into the tough hide of an elephant. Whatever it was doused with caused an immediate reaction. My leg muscles melted away and I fell face first into the frigid snow. I tried to throw my arms out as a means of protection but they no longer existed. Or so it seemed. My brain kept sending them signals to extend themselves, but they remained hanging limply at my sides. I had the presence of mind to realize I’d been shot by some sort of tranquilizer gun and recalled the long ago case at the San Diego Zoo where much the same thing had occurred.*

Someone grabbed my shoulder and turned me over. His easy manipulation of my body made me sympathize with how a paraplegic must feel. I opened my mouth to shout for help, hoping Janet would hear me and call 911, but nothing came out.

My attacker bent down on one knee. I felt scratchy wool brush my hand and caught a glimpse of gray. Arctic blue eyes swam into distorted focus as did a massive pair of feet encased in hiking boots with thickly treaded soles. For some reason my vision was rapidly blurring and my hearing seemed to be affected by the drug as well. I could tell his mouth was moving, but what he said I didn’t know. I began to panic then as I laid there helpless in the snow, unable to move, hear, speak, and with rapidly fading eyesight.

I don’t think the big man realized I could still see when hoisted me up on his shoulder as though I was child’s rag doll.

I knew who he was! Damn, I knew exactly who he was! I wondered how I could have been so careless,…..and so foolish. My last coherent thought before my world went completely black was, God, please don’t let him hurt, Janet. Please don’t let him hurt her.

*****

It was three o’clock in the mornin’ when I groped for the ringing phone beside my bed. My concern and anger over A.J.’s whereabouts, plus my Ollie Burger heartburn, had kept me awake until one-thirty. I was by far not ready to have what little sleep I was gettin’ interrupted.

My brain was still so shrouded with slumber that it didn’t even occur to me there were only two reasons behind me receivin’ a phone call at that time of the morning. Either it was a prank bein’ played by some kids, or there was an emergency involving a family member or close friend.

“Lo?” I croaked dry-mouthed into the receiver.

A frantic female voice greeted me from the other end. “Rick, it’s Janet.”

“Janet?”

“Yes. Janet.”

“Janet who?”

She sounded narked off when she replied with indignant force, “Janet Fowler!”

She probably thought I was being a smart-ass, tryin’ to get her worked up on purpose, but I honestly wasn’t. I no more expected my brother’s ex-wife to be callin’ me than I expected to hear from Raquel Welch.

This time my “Janet?”, while still spoken in a question, let her know that I was now fully aware of who I was talkin’ to. I hiked myself up on one elbow and reached for the bedside lamp. Even though I’d turned it on its lowest setting I squinted as the light assaulted my eyes.

“Rick, I need your help! A.J.’s missing and I don’t know who else to turn to. He went out at,…”

I scooted farther upright, becoming more alert with each passing second. “Whoa, whoa. Hold on a second. Back up. A.J.’s missing? What the hell are you talking about? Whatta ya’ mean, A.J.’s missing?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“That he came up here to work on a case for me?

My lips formed a tight, furious line. “No. He didn’t tell me. Maybe you should fill me in.”

Her story spewed forth in sketchy staccato detail but I got the gist of what was goin’ on.

“He went out about eleven to walk around my house. He’s been doing that every night since he got here. But he’s always been back inside within fifteen minutes.”

“And you didn’t see or hear anything suspicious?”

“No. Nothing. I’ve been out in my car five times since eleven thirty, Rick. I can’t find him anywhere.”

“Have you called the cops?”

“Yes. They left here about an hour ago. Because they’re familiar with my case they were sympathetic to the situation, but I’m afraid they won’t be much help.”

I was afraid of the same thing. First of all no police department in the country, that I know of, considers an adult a missing person until they’ve been gone twenty-four hours. Secondly, the Seattle cops had to be pissed that Janet went out and hired a private detective to work her case. Yeah, they probably indicated otherwise to her ’cause of her position with the D.A.’s office and all, but I could easily guess they had no intention of being upstaged by some out-of-state private eye so probably didn’t care too much whether they found him or not. And thirdly, it wasn’t exactly like A.J. and I had enamored ourselves to the Seattle Police Department the last time we’d all come in contact with them, leading me to believe that fact alone would knock him one notch farther down on their priority list.

I was already throwing off the covers and climbing out of bed. “I’ll call you back in a little while. I’m gonna work on making arrangements at gettin’ up there as soon as I can.”

I had no idea what her phone number was so yanked opened the drawer on my nightstand and fumbled for a scrap of paper and a pen. “What’s your number?”

I scribbled as she recited it. I didn’t even say goodbye when I hung up. If I was rude, so be it. She was the last person I felt like offerin’ platitudes.

The good thing about best friends is they don’t hold it against ya’ when you call ’em at ten minutes after three on a Saturday morning. The details I gave Carlos were even briefer than those Janet had given me. It didn’t matter to him, though. I’m sure he heard the urgency in my voice and knew that sooner or later I’d fill in the gaps.

At four twenty-five I met Carlos’s cousin, Emilio, at a private airport ten miles from my boat. I had thrown my razor, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a few changes of clothes in my duffel bag. Remembering it was January in Seattle I carried my heavy winter coat over one arm. In its side pockets I’d stuffed a knit hat and a pair of gloves. I let Rex out between packing and calling Janet back. I filled his food bowl and gave him fresh water right before I ran out the door. Carlos had promised to come over later in the morning to get him. He’d keep him at his house until I returned.

Emilio’s plane was fueled and ready to fly when I arrived. I parked my truck, grabbed my bag and coat from the front seat and took off running. He had the propeller churning by the time I was climbing in the small two seater Cessna.

Emilio gave me a nod as he spoke to the lone man in the control tower. He’d already filed his flight plan meaning there were no delays. In a matter of seconds we were cleared for take-off.

The little plane swayed and rumbled to the end of the runway. She gained altitude smoothly once we were off the ground. Emilio leveled her out when we reached eighteen thousand feet.

“I appreciate the trip on such short notice, amigo. Bill my business whatever’s necessary when you get back home.”

The Hispanic man flashed me a toothy white grin. “No sweat, Rick. If an old friend of the Escobar family can’t ask a favor now and again, who can?”

That was pretty much the extent of our conversation. The noise created within the small plane by turbulence made it almost impossible to hear one another even if we had wanted to talk. I was grateful for that. My mind was on too many other concerns right at the moment.

As we flew north I’d get a distinct whiff of the sweet odor of marijuana on occasion. I didn’t know if that meant Emilio’s cargo hold was full of the stuff, or if it meant it had recently been full of it but the scent still lingered. I prayed it was the latter. The last thing I needed was to be involved in a drug bust when we landed.

Fortunately that was not the case. The Cessna glided smoothly onto a runway cleared of snow at the King County Municipal Airport at ten o’clock that morning. I peeled four twenties outta my wallet and handed them to Emilio as a gesture of appreciation for him comin’ to my aid on such short notice. And at such an ungodly hour. He stuck around only long enough to fuel up for the return trip home. He was just jumpin’ outta the plane when I climbed in Janet’s waiting BMW.

I threw my coat and duffel bag in the backseat. I skipped over the pleasantries as I slid in beside my former sister-in-law.

“Tell me everything that’s happened,” I ordered gruffly. “Start at the beginning.”

She gave me a sidelong glance as she pulled the car into Saturday morning traffic. By the set of my jaw she knew better than to mess with me. She did as I requested, going all the way back to the first night she was followed in October. She filled me in on everything that occurred since, including her phone call to A.J. on Tuesday evening. Her narration ended with his disappearance.

While some of what she relayed she’d already told me over the phone, most of it I was hearing for the first time. I attempted to put it all together just like I was sure my brother had. Janet told me everything A.J. had done since he arrived as she drove us to her home. I couldn’t think of one thing I would have done differently or one person I would have investigated who he hadn’t already looked into. I asked her a number of questions, but her answers didn’t bring me to any firm conclusions.

When we entered her house through the garage thirty minutes later I was frustrated, angry and scared. She led me to the kitchen where A.J.’s notes sat on the table. I picked up the blue two-pocket school folder and began leafing through the papers it contained. Janet told me to sit down while she made coffee.

I pulled out a chair and spread my brother’s notes before me. I paid only scant attention to the coffee, muffins and banana bread Janet sat in front of me. I didn’t feel like eatin’, but figured I’d better have something. I had a hunch a long day awaited me.

By the time I’d downed a muffin and two cups of coffee I had scanned through A.J.’s notes twice. Janet wisely made the coffee strong. Very strong. Strong enough to strip varnish off a gymnasium floor, but I was in bad need of the jolt of caffeine it provided so didn’t complain.

She only picked at the muffin she had taken, tearing off tiny pieces as though she had a baby bird somewhere in the house that was in need of being fed. She didn’t have any coffee either, I noticed she was drinking milk instead which led me to believe she had an upset stomach.

Good, I thought. She deserves a knot in her gut same as the one I got. And while she’s at it she can have a good dose of my headache.

When I’d gleaned all the knowledge I could from A.J.’s notes I gathered them up and stacked them together by lightly tapping them against the surface of the table. I placed them back in the pockets of the folder and shut it for the time being. I had no idea where to start lookin’ for my brother which, by far, did nothing to assuage my fear or fury.

I looked across the table at the woman I had at one time considered to be a good friend. But that had been many years ago now, and too much had happened to cause me to retain much affection for her. This latest turn of events didn’t exactly garner her favorable points with me either.

“Tell me again about what happened last night,” I demanded coldly. “Step by step from the time the two of you came home until A.J. disappeared.”

She went through the story with me for the third time since three that morning. I shook my head in frustration when she finished. My fist came down so hard on her table that my empty coffee cup jumped from its saucer.

“Damn you, Janet! Damn you! You just had to go and do it, didn’t you?”
I’ll give Janet this, she’s never been a shrinking violet. Even my temper can’t faze the woman.

“Do what?”

“The minute somethin’ went wrong in your life you just had to go runnin’ to A.J. cryin’ for help, didn’t ya’? Why the hell couldn’t you just leave him alone?”

She sat up straighter in her chair and her eyes narrowed.

“For your information, Rick, I did not go running to A.J. Yes, I called your brother on Tuesday evening, but it was not with the intention of hiring him. It was with the intention of getting a recommendation from him for a Seattle investigator. I already told you that twice.”

I pointed an accusing finger. “Fine. But you knew, you knew he’d never let you do that. You knew damn good and well A.J. would insist on coming up here himself!”

“I did not! I did not know that, Rick! If I had I wouldn’t have phoned him. I swear I wouldn’t have! Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d want to take the case. We haven’t even talked to one another since the divorce! To tell you the truth I was half expecting him to hang up on me when he heard my voice.”

“Which is exactly what he shoulda’ done! You’re nothin’ but trouble for him, lady. It was that way twenty years ago and it’s that way yet today! Somehow he always winds up gettin’ hurt whenever he gets himself mixed up with you.”

I’m the one who gets him hurt?” She placed a disbelieving hand against her chest. “Me? I think you’d better take a long hard look in the mirror, Rick Simon, before you go accusing me of putting A.J. in jeopardy. It’s you who’s always,…..”

Without intending to we’d become embroiled in an old bitter argument that could last for days. For a few seconds both of lost sight of what was really important. Finding A.J.

Janet came to her senses before I came to mine. She paused in mid-sentence and held up a hand. “This is getting us no where. Your brother needs us to work together right now, not tear one another apart.”

I threw back my head and emitted a heavy sigh. I hated it when she was right, but her words had been like a much needed slap in the face.

“You’re right,” I mumbled. “If we have any hope at all of findin’ A.J. we’re gonna have to work together.”

We silently declared a truce. I asked Janet what the police had done when she’d contacted them.

“They sent a patrol car over. That was a few minutes after two this morning. The young officers I spoke with looked around the house but didn’t see anything. It snowed most of the night, though, so as they pointed out footprints that might have been left behind by A.J. or anyone else were already covered up. When they were finished outside I gave them a description of A.J. and what he was wearing. They promised that all officers on patrol would keep an eye out for him, but that was about it. I drove around looking for A.J. again shortly after they left. It was then I decided I had no choice but to call you.”

I looked around the kitchen. I spotted a phone on the wall behind Janet’s head, but I didn’t see an answering machine anywhere.

“Do you have an answering machine or a means of gettin’ messages while you’re gone?”

“Yes, I have a machine. It’s upstairs in my office.”

“Go check it. Before we decide how to proceed see if the police have left you any messages. If they haven’t you and I are gonna have to figure out where to start.”

“I called all the area hospitals while I was waiting for you to arrive,” she said. “No one matching A.J.’s description was brought in during the night.”

I nodded my head at her wisdom. It was a helluva place to start, but she was the daughter of a private investigator and in one form or another had been around the profession her whole life. She knew what had to be done in a missing persons case. I didn’t have to ask her if she’d called the morgue as well. I could see in her eyes she had, but had no intention of bringing that painful fact up unless I made a direct inquiry of her.

“I also called all the neighbors within the immediate vicinity.”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. No one saw anything.”

“No.” I could hear the deep regret in her voice as though she wished she had more to offer me. “No one saw anything.”

I remained in the kitchen while Janet went up to check her answering machine. I reopened the folder and skimmed A.J.’s notes once more. I knew it was an effort in futility, but I had to do something while I waited for Janet to return. If she thought I was gonna kill time cleanin’ up the dishes she was sadly mistaken.

She musta’ called my name twice before I heard her. I could tell she’d come to the head of the stairs when she called for me again. She came down three steps while beckoning a fourth time.

“Rick! Rick, get up here quick!”

I ran outta the kitchen and tackled the stairway. I woulda’ beat Janet to the bedroom if I hadn’t been forced to let her lead me there. I’d never been in this house and had no idea where the various rooms were located.

I guessed she’d already rewound the tape ’cause all she had to do was hit the ‘play’ button. A deep, clear masculine voice came across strong and loud.

“I have what I came for, my dear Mrs. Simon. So with this, my final contact, I bid you a fond farewell. You have been a grand lady. I extend to you my thanks and my sincere appreciation.”

His speech was distinct without any discernible accent. Right away I surmised he was an educated man. A white-collar professional of some sort, I’d bet money on it. In the distant back ground I thought I could hear a clacking sound, like metal hitting metal. But is was so faint identifying its source was impossible.

We listened to his message three more times without commenting to one another about it. We both knew it was important to gather our thoughts without clouding one another’s opinions.

I crossed my arms over my chest in thought. “Okay, tell me about it. Is this message similar to, or different than the others you’ve received?”

“Different, Rick. Much different. Always before he’s left either very obscene messages, telling me what he wants to do to me in the bedroom, or he’s left messages that are almost in the form of poetry. And the previous times he’s called I could tell he was working to disguise his voice.”

She reached for a pad of paper by the phone. “Here. This is the message he left when called last night around nine thirty. “

I recognized A.J.’s handwriting and could easily guess they’d been up in this room together doing exactly what Janet and I were doing now. Trying to get inside this guy’s head and figure out who he was and what exactly his motives were.

I read the message from the evening before twice. She was correct. The tone and meaning was totally different. I tapped the paper with my index finger.

“He calls you Miss Fowler in last night’s message. Yet this morning he refers to you as Mrs. Simon. Has he ever called you that before? Mrs. Simon I mean?”

“No. Never.”

“Then up until now a person would have assumed he didn’t know you’d been married to A.J.”

“That’s correct. I never gave it a thought that he might be someone who has known me for a long time. Since my troubles with him started in October I guessed him to be someone I’d recently met. Or someone who had recently met me whom I was unaware of.”

That would be a logical assumption on Janet’s part, as well as on the part of the police.

“But now we know that isn’t true,” I said. “Now we know his association with you goes back several years.”

“Unless he’s the one who has A.J., and A.J. told him we’d been married.”

“No,” I shook my head. “A.J. would never do that. He’d never reveal anything that might put you in danger no matter what the guy did to him.”
I pointed to the machine. “Play the message one more time.”

She did as I requested. In those few seconds I was certain.

“He is the one who has A.J., Janet. Or at least he’s the one who’s behind his disappearance. It’s not you he was after. It never has been. It’s A.J.”

I could read a combination of disbelief, guilt and grief in her pale blue eyes.

“A.J.! But, Rick, no. No! Why would he have been stalking me if it was A.J. he was after all along?”

“Because he wanted to draw A.J. here.”

“But how could he have known I’d even call A.J.? We’re divorced for heaven’s sake! And even if he surmised I might phone A.J. there was no guarantee A.J. would show up here.”

“Since neither one of us knows who this guy is I can’t give you any concrete answers. Maybe he was willin’ to take a chance on all that. Or maybe he was hopin’ you’d somehow lead him to A.J. Or maybe his original intention was to hurt you in an act of revenge against A.J., but then A.J. came here and the guy made a quick change of plans. None of that matters right now. What matters is we gotta figure out who he is and where A.J.’s at.”

“How are we going to do that?”

I thought a moment. “When A.J. was workin’ for Bloomdecker, Hershaw and whatever the other guy’s name was, did anyone ever make a threat against him?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“No one? No disgruntled client who was upset over how he handled their case?”
“No. The cases A.J. generally was assigned weren’t the kind that cause people to seek revenge if things don’t turn out their way.”

“So he never tried a murder case? Or something connected to the mob or connected to someone with a lot of power and influence?”
“No. Never. That’s one of the reasons he ended up hating the job so much and sneaking around behind my back doing P.I. work for the firm. He,…..”

Her words came to an abrupt halt as though she’d just slammed the brakes on a speeding car. She grabbed for the phone, frantically punching in a number.

“Whatta ya’ doin’?”

She snapped the fingers of her right hand, trying to call forth a long forgotten memory. “P.I. work, Rick. P.I. work! That’s the key! It’s got to be! When A.J. was working for Bloomdecker, Hershaw and Clark he did some investigation work for Ken Hershaw. The case……”

She punched a button on her phone allowing me to hear the conversation on the other end just as a receptionist answered with a pleasant, “Good morning. Bloomdecker, Hershaw and Clark.”

Janet hung up the receiver and spoke toward the wide grid.

“I need to speak with Ken Hershaw.”

“Just one moment please.”

A secretary picked up the line next and identified herself as Rita. She’d been well-trained at running interference for her boss. She reminded Janet this was Saturday and that the law offices of Bloomdecker, Hershaw and Clark were only open until noon on Saturday and working with minimal staff.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “Mr. Hershaw doesn’t speak with clients on Saturdays unless the meeting has been previously arranged. Would you care to leave a message? I can have him return your call on Monday morning.”

Janet’s rebuttal was firm and authoritative.

“This is Janet Fowler, assistant district attorney for the city. I need to speak with Ken immediately, Rita. Whether or not it’s Saturday is of little consequence to me.”

Upon hearing the words ‘assistant district attorney’ Rita hopped right out of her chair and went in search of her boss. Or so I envisioned when she didn’t give Janet anymore shit but rather requested politely, “Hold the line please, Ms. Fowler.”

Janet turned to me with a rapid explanation while we waited for Hershaw to pick up.

“The case had to do with a prominent anesthesiologist from St. Mary’s Hospital. A number of patients had died while under his care. This had been going on for quite some time when a group of family members of the various deceased parties got together and began to discuss foul play. They took their suspicions and concerns to the hospital, but were basically ignored. The administrator attempted to pacify them with well-scripted answers, but a lot of what he said didn’t ring true. For one thing he claimed all those who died were in poor health to begin with, therefore at high risk for any type of surgical procedure. That in itself was a lie. Two young healthy children had died, one who was in for a tonsillectomy and another for a minor ear operation. A thirty year old man, a professional hockey player, died who was in for nothing other than surgery on a torn tendon. Another victim was a twenty-two year old woman who was having some type of cosmetic surgery.”

“How does A.J. fit into all this?”

“Ten families pooled their facts and money together. They hired Ken Hershaw with the hopes they could have charges of first degree homicide brought against the man. Ken has the reputation of being the best criminal attorney in Seattle, and in my opinion he is.”

She didn’t have to tell me the rest. I could easily guess it.

“He had A.J. do the investigating into the case, didn’t he? A.J. was instrumental in getting criminal charges filed against the guy, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was. Without my knowledge he worked on the case for many months. When I found out about it I damn near rang his neck. When it went before a judge in a preliminary hearing A.J. testified. I only discovered months afterward that Dr. Hewitt, the anesthesiologist, threatened to get even with A.J.”

“What happened to ‘im? The doctor I mean?”

“He was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. To tell you the truth I think someone paid someone to pay someone off, but I could never find evidence of it and believe me, the D.A.’s office tried.”

“His family?”

“No, I don’t believe so. I always suspected it may have been one of his colleagues. Or several of them. While there was a fraction of his co-workers who thought he was guilty, an even larger fraction steadfastly supported him throughout the ordeal. I think there was a great amount of hospital politics at play. Anyway, he was committed to a mental institution for treatment back in the fall of 1993. That was the last I heard of the man or the case.”

Before Janet could say anymore Hershaw came on the line. She cut him off in the middle of his exclamation over how nice it was to hear from her.

“Ken, listen, I need you to tell me everything you remember about the Dallas Hewitt case.”

“Dallas Hewitt?”

“Yes.”

“Certainly, Janet. But it would help if you tell me what it is you need to know. Is the D.A.’s office reopening the investigation into,….”

“No, we’re not. At least not right this minute, though we may very well have reason to in the near future.”

She launched into a quick explanation as to why she was seeking information from him.

“A.J.’s back in town?”

“Yes he is. Though I haven’t seen him since eleven o’clock last night and I’m fearful Hewitt might have gotten a hold of him. Do you have any idea as to whether or not the man’s still institutionalized?”

“No, Janet, I’m sorry. I don’t.”

“Do you recall where he was sent?”

“To the state run institution here in Seattle for a while. But then I heard he was transferred to a private facility by his family. I have no idea, however, what the name of the place is.”

I took a step closer to the phone. “Mr. Hershaw, this is Rick Simon, A.J.’s brother.”

Hershaw made polite sounds as though he recalled meeting me the one time I’d been at A.J.’s office, but I truthfully doubted he did. I could only vaguely remember meetin’ him and had yet to be able to draw a mental picture of the guy.

“Listen, Mr. Hershaw, anything you can tell me and Janet will be helpful. Anything at all.”

“Certainly. Hold on a moment please.”

I heard him tell Rita to bring him the Hewitt file. I got the impression he was talking to her through an intercom.

Hershaw told us what he could ready recall without the benefit of the file. When he finally had it in hand he went into more detail. Janet furiously made notes on the pad of paper A.J. used the night before.

“And he threatened A.J., didn’t he, Ken?” Janet asked.

“Yes, Janet, he did. Several times.”
“Did A.J. seem worried or upset about that?” I asked, trying to gage whether or not my brother perceived Hewitt’s threats to have any validity.

“No. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. He just shrugged it off and said it came with the business. The P.I. business he meant I suppose.”

When Janet and I had asked Hershaw all we could think to we thanked him for his time.

“Oh, one more thing,” he added right before we broke our connection. “Hewitt Chrysler Plymouth over on 22nd and Marshall is run by the doctor’s younger brother Keegan. He might be able to answer some more questions for you as to the man’s whereabouts. I found him to be very cooperative the few times I had reason to talk to him.”

My surprise was evident in my tone. “Cooperative?”

“Yes. He seemed well aware of his brother’s problems. Oh, not in regards to the murders, but in the sense that he had known for a long time Dallas was mentally unstable. He led me to believe this instability dated back to childhood.”

“Thanks, Ken,” Janet said. “I know exactly where the place is. We’ll take a run over there now.”

“Good luck. And please, let me know the outcome of all this. I’d hate to think something has happened to A.J.”

Janet looked at me and swallowed hard. “So would we, Ken. So would we.”

She gave him a final goodbye and thank you.

Janet thrust the pad of paper she’d been writing on into my hands.

“Get ready. I’ll meet you in my car in ten minutes.”

Before I could ask her why she assumed I wasn’t ready, or what she needed to do so damn bad that it was gonna take ten precious minutes away from our search she was gone. She disappeared into a room down the hall I assumed was her bedroom and shut the door.

For lack of knowing what else to do I went down to the kitchen and grabbed the blue folder containing A.J.’s notes off the table. I slipped the pad inside that now contained Janet’s notes and carried the folder to her car.

I opened the passenger side door and placed the folder on the dash board. I leaned across the front seat and fumbled for the switch that would pop the BMW’s back door locks. I finally found what I was looking for, knocking my Panama hat off in the process.

The field jacket I’d worn up from San Diego wasn’t going to offer me the necessary protection against Seattle’s winter air. Although I didn’t know the exact temperature I guessed it was around twenty degrees. My charcoal colored winter coat is bulky, warm, and comes to my thighs. It has a high collar that protects your neck from the cold and a hood for additional coverage if need be. The L.L. Bean Outdoorsmen Catalog I ordered it from promised adequate protection in elements as cold as eighty below zero.

I didn’t bother to remove my field jacket, just put the coat on over it. I left my knit hat and gloves in the pockets for the time being. I plucked my duffel bag up from the back seat. I stepped back into the house only long enough to sit it on the hallway floor. I couldn’t imagine why any thief in his right mind would be interested in an old Marine-issue bag worn and faded with years of use, but God knows if it was sitting around in a fifty thousand dollar BMW some joker would think it had to be worth something.

By the time I was walking back out to Janet’s car she was scurrying around to the driver’s side. She’d been wearing a pair of black leggings, as I think women refer to them, and a long red sweater when I’d arrived. For whatever reason the ten minutes she said she needed proved to be to change her clothes and apply some makeup to her pale face. She was now wearin’ a pair of gray pleated dress trousers, black ankle high boots with wide, sturdy low heels, a white turtleneck, and a black and gray wool tweed blazer with just a hint of pale pink threads runnin’ through it. She wore an unzipped apple red winter parka over the whole ensemble, not that dissimilar to mine, and carried a small gray purse under one arm.

I couldn’t quite figure out why she’d wasted time changing her clothes when A.J.’s life could very well be at stake, but I didn’t ask her. I knew her well enough to guess there was probably some reason for it that would eventually be revealed to me.

It took twenty minutes for Janet to drive us to the car dealership Hershaw had spoken of. The property seemed to spread for miles and ran parallel to a busy intersection. Despite the fact the towering sign declared it Hewitt Chrysler Plymouth/Dodge row after row of every type of car grew before us. The majority of the Plymouths and Dodges were brand new, but the guy evidently did a heck of a used car business as well. Cars, trucks and vans of every make and model dotted the lot.

“That’s how he did it,” Janet mumbled to herself while searching for a place to park the BMW.

“That’s how who did what?”

“Hewitt. Every time I saw him he was in a different vehicle. That’s one reason the police had so much trouble getting a bead on him.”
Janet finally found an empty spot. We barely shut the doors behind us as we exited her car in a rush. Without thinking about it I put a protective hand on her back and ushered her in front of a vehicle that had slowed to let us pass. We walked at a clipped pace all the way to the sprawling building.

The Hewitt showroom was designed like most automobile showrooms are. Glass surrounded us on three sides. Five new cars, ranging from sports to luxury models, and two new trucks were parked strategically on the freshly waxed white floor. I could see my reflection in the vehicles’ high-gloss finishes as easily as if I was lookin’ into a mirror. That distinct odor of vinyl and polish that all new cars contain filled the air. Repeated soft ‘ding ding ding’s’ sounded as customers opened doors and climbed in behind the wheels.

Janet walked up to a countertop where a squat, heavyset woman with glasses stood entering information from invoices into a computer. She smiled at us and stopped what she was doing.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes,” Janet said. “I need to speak with Mr. Hewitt.”

The woman looked across the showroom floor. I followed her eyes where they came to rest on a hulk of a guy who stood six foot nine. He appeared to be in his early forties and had to weigh three hundred pounds if he weighed an ounce. He was large without being fat, dressed in blue Dockers, a blue and white stripped oxford shirt and a blue tie that looked funny laying against the chest that was as broad as a washing machine. His burnished blond hair was short and neatly trimmed in a businessman’s cut. Streaks of gray-gold bleached his temples, that discoloration and its location a painful reminder of A.J., who had been graying for a couple of years now in the exact same location.

Hewitt had one hand on the top of an open car door while a customer bent down to inspect the inside. The ultimate salesman, he kept up a steady stream of conversation with his customer’s butt.

“I’m sorry,” the clerk apologized, “Mr. Hewitt is tied up right now. Can I have another one of our salespersons help you? Or would you prefer to wait for him?”
That’s when I figured out why Janet had changed her clothes, touched up her makeup and added some styling gel to the new short hair cut she was sportin’. Obviously she appeared more professional dressed as she was now.

Janet took her wallet out of her purse and showed the woman her city identification. She kept her voice low and discreet. “I’m the city’s assistant district attorney. It’s imperative that I talk to Mr. Hewitt immediately.”

The woman glanced at Janet’s I.D., then bustled around the counter as though we’d just produced handcuffs and threatened to arrest her.

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll get him right away, Ma’am.”

The clerk pulled Hewitt from his customer. She was talking so softly he was forced to bend down so he could hear her words. She looked at us briefly and pointed. His eyes flicked from me to Janet. He nodded his head and I heard him say, “Show them to my office. I’ll be right there.”

The woman did as Hewitt directed. She led us down a hallway to a large spartan office placed well out of the customers line of vision. She indicated to the two chairs that sat across from a glass and chrome desk free of any clutter save a computer, a phone, a Rolodex, and a hinged picture frame that contained two five by seven inch photos, one of a girl around ten years old, the other of a boy who looked to be twelve or thirteen. A spiral bound appointment calendar lay open to the date and sat to the side of the computer keyboard. The clerk offered us coffee which we both declined, then disappeared with a final promise that Mr. Hewitt would be right with us.

Janet and I stood when Keegan Hewitt entered the room. It’s not often that I’m made to feel short, but the guy was a damn giant. If his brother was anywhere near his size I was beginning to understand how easily A.J. could have been overpowered. Especially if caught by surprise.

The man was polite in a guarded sort of way as he shook our hands. He asked us to reseat ourselves and circled his desk. He pulled the massive maroon leather chair out that was on wheels. The seat was sunken in as though it had long ago given up any hope of retaining its shape against the assault of Hewitt’s three hundred pound frame.

The car dealer folded his hands on his glass desk top and offered us a tight smile. “What can I do for you today?”
Like she’d done with his clerk earlier, Janet pulled out her I.D.

“I’m Janet Fowler, Mr. Hewitt. The city’s assistant district attorney.” She looked to me, stating smoothly, “This is Detective Richards.”

The man nodded in my direction while handing Janet’s I.D. back to her. I was wonderin’ what she was gonna do if he asked to see mine, but he evidently thought Seattle’s assistant D.A. had no reason to lie to him about who either of us were.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Fowler?”

“I need to ask you some questions about your brother Dallas.”

The man swallowed hard and leaned back in his chair. “I see.”

“I know your brother was sentenced to serve time in a mental health facility. Is he still there?”

“No. He was recently released.”

“How recent?”

“Early October.”

Janet kept her features schooled in a neutral mask. She wrote the information down on a small spiral notebook she’d pulled from her purse.

“And where is your brother now, Mr. Hewitt?”

“Where?”

“Yes. Is he living here in Seattle?”

“Yeah. He’s renting an apartment in an old Victorian home that was converted into a two-flat some years back.”

“And the address would be?”

He gave Janet the street name and house number though not without a good deal of reluctance.

“What’s this about, Miss Fowler? My brother has had a difficult time of things. He doesn’t need any further trouble in his life.”

I spoke up for the first time. “If your brother has further trouble in his life it’s his own doing.”

Janet gave me a look that cautioned me to keep the sharpness out of my tone.

The man looked at me. “What do you mean?”

Janet intervened before I could answer. “He means that a man has been reported missing who was hired to investigate your brother’s actions back in 1993. Doctor Hewitt made threats against this man when he testified at the preliminary hearing.”

“And you think Dallas is behind the man’s disappearance.” Hewitt’s words came out in the form of a statement, as though it was a fact he could be made to readily believe.

“Yes,” Janet said. “We have reason to suspect that.”

Keegan brought an enormous hand up to cover his face a moment. “Oh, Dallas,” I heard him mutter in both entreaty and prayer.

His hand dropped away and he let forth a tired sigh. “He,….I was afraid something like this was going to happen. He lost everything, you know. His career, his home, his friends, his family. His wife divorced him not long after the allegations of murder were made against him. They’ve got three sons. None of the boys – they’re practically grown now, all in their late teens – none of them will have anything to do with him. They’re embarrassed to even carry the Hewitt family name. Last I heard they were considering having their last name legally changed to their mother’s maiden name.”

“When was the last time you saw your brother, Mr. Hewitt?”

“This morning.”

“What time?” Janet asked.

“Around eight-thirty, quarter to nine. Somewhere in there. He brought back a van he’d borrowed yesterday afternoon.”

“A van?” I questioned.

“Yeah. A red Ford.”

“Did he have reason to borrow vehicles from you on a regular basis?”

“Yes, fairly regular. He was constantly asking to borrow this car or that. Some new, some used.”

“And you allowed him to do this?” Janet asked.

“Sure. Why not? Granted, it gets a little annoying at times, but as I said, he’s lost everything so I try to help him out in whatever way I can. And besides, I don’t really have much call to tell him no. This car dealership was our father’s before it was mine. It would have been Dallas’s, too, had he chosen not to go to med school.”

Janet pulled a small tape recorder out of her purse, the kind you see professional people dictate into now days. She popped a tiny cassette in it.

“Mr. Hewitt, can I ask you to listen to this tape? It’s a brief message that was received by the missing man’s,…..wife early this morning. I’d like you to tell me if the man speaking is your brother.”

Keegan nodded his agreement. Janet hit the play button. The message we’d heard on her answering machine filled the room. She musta’ grabbed the tape on an afterthought right before she met me at the car.

Hewitt closed his eyes in defeated resignation as the tape ended.

“That’s him. That’s Dallas.”

I allowed the guy a few seconds to gather his emotions. When he opened his eyes I made my request.

“Ms. Fowler and I need to look in the van your brother was driving.”

Evidently he didn’t know about search warrants, or was beyond caring for his answer came quickly and willingly.

“Certainly.”

He swiveled around in his chair and plucked a set of keys off a wrack of small hooks on the wall behind his desk. He hesitated a moment before pushing himself to his feet. I got the impression he could foresee the events to come and wished he could somehow change what had already happened.

We followed him away from the showroom toward a back door.

“Is your brother a large man like yourself?”

If Hewitt wondered why I was makin’ that inquiry he didn’t let on. He seemed spent and resigned, like he’d stood by someone he loved for as long as he could and no longer knew what to do to help that person who had strayed so far from the beaten path of life.

“Yes, Dallas is big. Not quite as big as me, but almost.” He gave a sad smile. “By the time we reached our teens the family joke was that little brother had outgrown big brother. Nonetheless, today he stands around six foot five or so and probably weighs two-fifty to two-sixty.”

Janet zipped up her coat as we stepped out into the frigid air. We walked on either side of Hewitt until he’d brought us to a Ford Cargo Van, similar to the kind you see plumbers and other service people use, that I guessed was a 1983 or ’84.

Although Janet hadn’t told him exactly what I was a detective of, he evidently thought I was employed by the Seattle Police Department because rather than open the van himself he handed me the keys.

I took my gloves out of my pockets and put them on. I didn’t want to leave any fingerprints that could jeopardize the case if, in fact, Dallas Hewitt had driven A.J. away in this vehicle.

I started on the driver’s side but didn’t find anything of great significance other than a crumpled Taco Bell bag. I ran a hand under the seat and console, then did likewise on the passenger side. I leaned between the two seats to repeat that action in the back bench seat. Again, I found nothing.

I climbed outta the van and walked around to the rear. I used the key to open the double doors. The metal floor was scraped and scarred from years of use, its red paint chipped and cracked allowing dull black to show through.

I lifted a thick gray wool blanket that had been haphazardly wadded into a ball. Underneath it sat a blue jean jacket. Underneath that lay a Smith & Wesson handgun.

“Janet! Janet, come here!”

The urgency in my voice caused Janet to bring her conversation with Keegan Hewitt to a quick end. She rounded the open doors and came to stand beside me.

“What?”

Before I could reply she caught sight of the discarded items. Her hand flew to her mouth.

“A.J.’s jacket! That’s A.J.’s jacket, Rick! He was wearing it when he walked out the door last night!”

I was well aware it was A.J.’s jacket. Shane and Tanner had saved a portion of their allowance for the entire year in order to buy it for him for Christmas. When the temptations of candy and baseball card purchases had left them a little short of cash come December I gave each of them ten bucks to put toward it. I’ll never forget how excited they were when they watched him open it Christmas Day at Mom’s house. Shane had been forced to put his hand over Tanner’s mouth to prevent his younger brother from spoiling their surprise.

Janet was rambling now with fright. “I told him it wasn’t warm enough! I scolded him for leaving his winter coat at home! I kept insisting he go out and buy one and put it on my tab, but he wouldn’t do it. Oh why does he always have to be so stubborn?”

I put a hand on her upper arm and squeezed. “Janet, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter now ’cause he doesn’t have it. It’s cold, he doesn’t have his jacket, and we need to concentrate on findin’ him.”

My firm words calmed her down. She nodded, then turned to Hewitt who was standing far enough away so he couldn’t hear our conversation.

“I need to use your phone, Mr. Hewitt. We need to call the police.”

The man craned his head and got his first peek of A.J.’s jacket and gun. He gave a grim nod before leading Janet back to the building.

I went over the inside of the van once more but found no further clues. I studied A.J.’s jacket, but discovered no blood or tears that would indicate a struggle ensued. For that I was grateful, but I couldn’t help wondering what it meant. Why had the guy taken his jacket off him? Did it mean A.J. was dead and his body had been dumped somewhere, his clothes scattered from hither to yon?

I didn’t allow myself to dwell on that thought as I removed the glove from my right hand and checked the jacket’s pockets. All I garnered was a pack of sugerless Trident Spearmint gum, the brand A.J. favors, two dimes and a penny.

A patrol car showed up shortly thereafter. Janet seemed familiar with the young cops. I could only guess they were same ones who’d taken the report at her house at two o’clock that morning regarding A.J.

A rumpled looking old fart arrived a few minutes later. Janet introduced him to me as Detective Wilke. She told me he’d been working with her since Dallas Hewitt had starting stalking her back in October. Since I’d read the copies of the guy’s notes A.J. had I was already aware of that fact.

We stood around the van for a few minutes answering his questions regarding what we’d found there. He looked it over in much the same meticulous manner I had. Ten minutes later he left it exactly as we’d both found it and suggested we all go into the building where it was warmer.

It took far more time than I felt A.J. had for Wilke to finish questioning Janet and Keegan Hewitt. We went back out into the cold when a woman and man from the crime lab showed up to dust the van for prints and further evidence. I knew when they were done it’d be towed downtown and impounded as evidence.

I shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my coat. I stood off to the side watching as more and more cops showed up. Keegan Hewitt came to stand next to me.

“If I had only known,” he murmured with disbelief. “If I had only known I would have contacted someone. The police or the D.A.’s office. I didn’t know Dallas had threatened that man. No one told me. If I’d known I would have contacted Mr. Simon myself just to let him know Dallas had been released. So many people have been hurt because of him. So many innocent people. Our mother passed away before all this happened, thank the Lord, but our father,…….well he died shortly after Dallas was institutionalized. To this day I believe the shame of the whole thing killed him. And now another man’s family is suffering because of my brother’s actions.”

As far as Hewitt knew I was still Detective Richards. I felt it best if things remained that way.

“Listen, Mr. Hewitt, don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know. You’re doin’ all you can now by helping us like you are.” I squinted into the bright winter sunshine. “Can you give me any idea where Dallas might have taken my,…Mr. Simon? Any idea at all?”

“No. No, I wouldn’t know. Maybe his apartment. But I already told Detective Wilke that.”

Though it was a good place to start I highly doubted that’s where they’d find A.J. It was too damn obvious. Especially since the guy literally had neighbors right on top of him.

“Any place else that you can think of? Some place he liked to hang out? Possibly somewhere that’s fairly secluded.”

His brow furrowed in concentration. “No. No, I’m sorry. I just wouldn’t have any idea. I’ve tried to help Dallas as much as I can since his release, but to tell you the truth we haven’t been close in years. Not since we were kids really.”

I assumed his sudden smile had something to do with a childhood memory.

“He’s always had a great fondness for trains.”

“Trains?”

“Yes. As an adult he had numerous models set up in his basement. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment I’m sure. When he was feeling stressed he’d go down there and watch the trains circle his make-believe towns. After he was,…..put away, his wife got rid of all of it. Just trashed it. It broke my heart to have to tell Dallas that when he asked me where everything was a few months back. When we were kids he’d spend hours on end at the train yard down on 5th street just watching the cars being coupled and uncoupled. Watching the big engines pull in and,….”

I grabbed the man’s arm. “What? What did you say?”

“That he liked to watch the engines,…”

“No! Not that! About the cars.”

“Coupling and uncoupling. You know, they’re backed into one another to hook up. Dallas could stand there all day just watch,….”

I never heard the end of his sentence. I took off running for Janet. All the cops were gone, off searching the streets and Hewitt’s apartment I supposed. The only ones who remained was the young officer who had been the first to arrive and the personnel from the crime lab still working within the van.

“Janet! Janet!” My breath was expelled in a cold cloud as I yelled. “Janet!”

Janet looked up from where she stood staring into the back of the Ford.

I took her by the arm and propelled her out of everyone’s hearing range.

“Do you know where the train yard is on 5th street?”

“Not exactly, but I know the general area. Why?”

“Cause I got a hunch that’s where the guy has A.J.”

“In a train yard?”

“Yeah. There was strange sound in the background while Hewitt left his message.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was real faint. You had to listen hard to detect it. I meant to say something to you about it but with everything else goin’ on I forgot. Do you still have the tape?”

She shook her head. “No. I gave it to Wilke.” She turned toward the building. “But I’ll have the dispatcher get in touch with him. He can have the lab techs enhance the sound and see if they can determine what it is.”

I put a hand on her back and steered her in a different direction, for the front of the building and her BMW. “I don’t need them to determine anything. I already know what it is.”

“Rick,….what the…”

I opened the driver’s side door and all but pushed her in. “I’ll explain on the way there.”

I ran around the vehicle and hopped in. While Janet drove I relayed my conversation with Keegan Hewitt and what I thought the sound was I’d heard on her answering machine tape.

“But what if you’re wrong?”

“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Then we do what you suggested and contact Wilke to see if he can have the sound enhanced.” I looked out the window at passing traffic while balling my gloved hands into fists. “But I don’t think I’m wrong, Janet. I don’t think I’m wrong.”

Janet took us west, toward the frosted waters of the Northern Pacific. The four lane highway we were on soon narrowed to two lanes and wound us into the city’s industrial section full of factories, warehouses, and working man’s bars. Smoke stacks coughed diesel fuel as semi-trucks rumbled past us. We came to the intersection of 5th, but weren’t sure which way to turn. I thought I could see a brown box car in the distance to the south so told Janet to hang a left.

We followed a set of railroad tracks until we reached a fourteen foot high cyclone fence. Janet drove until she came to a gated opening ten feet wide. She slowed as the BMW made the transition from smooth pavement to bumpy gravel.

The train yard sprawled before us. I counted five sets of tracks from where I sat and surmised there were more I couldn’t see. Much like a child’s playset, some trains were lined up neatly and ready to pull out while others had cars uncoupled, scattered here and there as though discarded and forgotten.

Janet and I climbed out of the car, pausing to look around. There didn’t seem to be an office, depot, or even a tool shed. We began walking then, in search of anyone who might be in charge or who could answer a few questions for us. But no one seemed to be in the area and I began to wonder if we’d stumbled into a train graveyard of sorts. The only sounds were that of vehicles passing on the nearby road mixed with the snow and gravel crunching underneath our boots.

I pointed to the far perimeters of the yard where boxcars sat ten tracks away. “You start over there. Look through each and every car. I’ll start here. We’ll meet in the middle.”

Janet nodded and took off running while at the same time pulling tan mittens out of her coat pockets and slipping them on her hands.

I started with the last box car in a line of nine on the tracks closest to the fence. I grabbed a metal bar and hoisted myself up on the narrow steps. I looked inside the hallow space. I called A.J.’s name but got no answer, nor did I see him.

I repeated this action time and time again. Sometimes the cars I came to had no steps and I had to thrust myself upward with my legs and arms, propelling myself inside. Other times their heavy doors were closed and I was forced to figure out how to unlatch them before sliding them back in their tracks. Some of the cars were loaded with materials from the nearby factories. I ran across roofing shingles in one, layers of sheet metal in another, and lumber in yet another. I knew this meant the yard was far from abandoned. I shuddered when I considered the possibility of Hewitt leaving A.J. in a boxcar injured to the point he couldn’t cry out for help.

What if a train pulled outta here hours ago bound for God only knows where with A.J. on it? I’ll never find him if that’s what happened. Never.

I pushed those despair-filled thoughts aside and kept on lookin’. My cowboy boots didn’t offer my feet much protection and my toes were growing cold. My exposed ears were even colder, but I didn’t stop to exchange my Panama hat for the knit one I still carried in my coat pocket.

I crossed over from the second track to third. I occasionally caught a glimpse of Janet engaged in her own frantic search. I wondered if she’d been able to open all the boxcars. I hoped if she hadn’t she could remember which ones she’d had trouble with so I could go through them.

I was about to jump off the bottom step of the car I’d just emerged from when I heard her call my name.

“Rick! Rick!”

She stood between tracks seven and eight. “Rick!” She waved her arms in the air like a referee signaling a touchdown. Her repeated cries accompanied by her wild movements led me to believe she found something. I prayed it was more than another piece of A.J.’s clothing.

I raced toward her with every once of speed I had. She didn’t bother to wait for me, but like a runner about to be passed a baton she led the way to a boxcar when I was close enough to follow.

The steel car was dark and cold and empty. Empty except for A.J. who sat propped up in a far corner. If we hadn’t been searching as thoroughly as we had Janet would have never seen him. If someone simply poked their head in the doorway the heavy shadows would have made him impossible to spot no matter what time of day it was.

Right away I knew something was seriously wrong. Janet was running her mittened hands over A.J.’s face trying to get some kind of response outta him. His eyes were wide open but vacant. And though he wasn’t tied up, wasn’t restrained in any way, he didn’t move.

I looked him over thoroughly while speaking to him, trying to garner a reaction.

“A.J.? A.J., come on. Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me where he hurt you, little brother.”

When I was unable to find any type of wounds on his torso or back I took off my winter coat and wrapped it around him. He was so damn cold. The cotton shirt, turtleneck and loose fitting trousers he was wearing couldn’t have afforded him much protection in the metal car that felt like the inside of a meat freezer.

Janet took the weight of his body from me as he didn’t seem to have any type of muscle control. Even though he wasn’t unconscious it was like movin’ someone who was. We continued to talk to him while we worked.

“A.J., I’m gonna put my coat on you. You’re cold, buddy. We’ll get ya’ warmed up as soon as we can.”

“A.J., please,” Janet pleaded. “Please tell us what’s wrong.”
Janet removed her coat next and wrapped it around his legs. I lifted him up enough so she could tuck it under his shins, knees and thighs.

Once she had her coat in place Janet rubbed her hands over his legs in a vigorous attempt to offer him some warmth.

“He’s so cold, Rick. If he’s been here all night it’s nothing short of a miracle that he’s still alive.”

My “I know,” was tight and grim.

I took off my gloves, working them on hands that were stiff, frigid and milky white. Manipulating his fingers was like tryin’ to get a frozen Popsicle to bend. I worried about frostbite and wondered if amputation would be another part of this ordeal. Again, he didn’t try to help in any way while I put his hands in the gloves. He didn’t respond to me at all.

It was when I was gonna put my knit cap on his head that I found a bump on the back of his skull. It was about the size of half dollar, a hard swollen knot surrounded by dried blood. When I gently touched it he winced, indicating to me my action had hurt him, but yet he didn’t cry out or even so much as emit a soft moan.

Because I didn’t know how severe the injury was I decided to forget putting the hat on him. Instead I brought the hood of my coat up over his head but left it untied and loose. I put my hands on his either side of his icy face and looked into lifeless eyes.

“A.J.! A.J., it’s Rick. A.J., come on! A.J., talk to me!”

He didn’t look at me and he didn’t respond. I gotta sinkin’ feeling in my gut when I waved a hand in front of his face and he didn’t so much as blink, let alone follow the movement.

My cries became harsher, sterner, full of force and commanding.

“A.J.! A.J.! A.J., dammit, talk to me!”

Janet must have thought I’d lost my mind when I took my fist and pounded it as hard as I could against the wall of the metal car. The wall right by A.J.’s head. I pounded and called his name until the sound echoed painfully around us like hundreds of horse hooves thundering across a prairie.

“Rick!” Janet demanded loudly. “Rick, what are you doing?”

I ignored her and pounded again while screaming at A.J. to answer me.

Once again my actions evoked no reaction from my brother. But when I looked at his face I could tell one thing. I could tell he knew people were with him and I could tell he was scared. Scared because he couldn’t see us, couldn’t hear us, couldn’t touch us, and didn’t know who the hell we were.

I couldn’t even find any saliva to swallow when I turned to look at Janet.

“He can’t see us, Janet. He can’t see us, he can’t hear us, he can’t move and he can’t talk. It’s like his whole system is paralyzed.”

If the fear I saw in her eyes was anything like the fear I knew she must be seeing in mine we were both dangerously close to being overwhelmed by the ramifications of the situation.

Between the two of us Janet was the first to recover.

“I’ll get my car and bring it to the door. Can you carry him out to it?”

I pulled A.J. close in a tight hug. I hoped that action alone indicated to him who I was.

“Yeah, I can carry him.”

“The best hospital in the city’s only five miles from here. Down on the waterfront.”

She squeezed my arm. “He’ll be okay, Rick. We’ll get him there and they’ll find out what’s wrong and he’ll be okay.”

I nodded numbly. I watched as she quickly removed a mitten and ran a hand over the left side of A.J.’s face. She allowed her upturned wrist to linger under his nose a moment. I wasn’t sure what the action signified, but assumed she might be wearing a perfume she thought he would recognize. Even though her soft words were lost on him she said them anyway.

“You’re going to be fine, A.J. You’re going to be fine.”

Janet disappeared out the door then. I could hear her boots crunch over the snow as she ran to her car.

I couldn’t do much more than hold A.J. in an attempt to offer comfort and body heat. I wondered what Hewitt had done to him that left him in such a state. My medical knowledge is nil, but the possibilities still seemed endless. The guy was a doctor, an anesthesiologist. Who knew what drugs he’d managed to get a hold of? Or maybe the bump on the back of A.J.’s head wasn’t as innocent as it looked. Maybe the guy had known right where to hit him in order to destroy vital nerves. Or possibly when A.J.’s clothes were removed they’d find another form of injury. I was well aware there are various areas of the spinal cord that when severely damaged can cause a large array of disabilities.

I’m not sure why I did it. I knew his hands were cold and the last thing he needed was me removin’ the gloves I’d put on him. But when I looked down into his face all I saw was terror. The terror that came from not knowing what was goin’ on around him or who was with him. For all he knew I could be Dallas Hewitt having returned for more fun and games.

And for just that reason I worked the glove off his right hand. I gave his fingers a gentle, reassuring squeeze. They felt like brittle icicles, yet I could detect a faint twinge of pink around the nail beds and prayed that was a good sign.

I lifted the hand to my face, running his fingers back and forth over my moustache five times. I brought them up to the brim of my hat next, again letting them linger there until I was certain he knew what it was he was touching. His hand moved a little on its own then, the motion as uncoordinated and blind as a newborn baby’s. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing when his clumsy movement pushed my hat back. But I caught on soon enough when I felt his icy fingers on my bald scalp. If that cowboy hat was resting on the head A.J. thought it was he knew he wouldn’t find much hair underneath it.

Although he needed my support in order to hold his hand and arm upright I allowed him to guide us. His fingers journeyed over the scar that’s been under the corner of my left eye for forty years now.* They finished their quest by grazing over my moustache one more time, then brushing across the suede patches on the chest of my field jacket.

I squeezed his hand again and spoke despite the fact he couldn’t hear me.

“Yeah, you know who’s here with you now, don’t ya’, buddy.” I pulled him closer and kept his bare hand encased in mine. “It’s gonna be all right, A.J. It’s gonna be all right.”

For the first time he allowed his sightless eyes to close. I took that action to mean he knew I was with him and no longer had to be on guard.

I heard Janet’s car pull up outside. I slipped my arms underneath A.J. knees and back. I struggled to push myself to my feet without toppling us both into the wall. Janet poked her head into the boxcar as I was carrying A.J. to the door.

“Do you need my help?”

“No, I got him.”

She moved out of the way but stayed close by, verbally guiding me down the narrow steps I couldn’t see because of A.J.’s body. She had the rear passenger door open and I could hear the heater blowing full blast.

I knew I could never climb inside with A.J. in my arms without giving us both skull fractures so I worked to get him in a sitting position on the seat. Janet helped me, usin’ her hands as a shield to protect his head from being bumped into the car’s frame. When I got him seated she held him upright while I ran around to the other side of the vehicle. I climbed in and took him from her, leaning him back in a half reclining position with his head restin’ on my chest.

Janet rearranged the coats around his body, making sure they afforded him as much warmth as possible. She shut the door and raced to the driver’s side. With all the skill of Richard Petty she gunned the engine and wheeled us outta there in a shower of snow and gravel.

It didn’t take us more than ten minutes to reach Shoreland Hospital. A.J. laid limp in my arms the entire trip except for the two times he tried to inch his right hand upward. I helped him like I had in the boxcar, allowing his fingers to travel over my face. I could easily guess he was confused and seeking reassurance that my presence wasn’t merely a dream or wishful thinking on his part. I saw his lips struggle to form my name but no sound came out. I ran a hand through his hair.

“Yeah, A.J., it’s Rick. I’m here. I’m right here, little brother.”

Janet pulled right up to the Emergency Room entrance of a twelve story white brick hospital that appeared to be less than ten years old. It faced the ocean, its immaculate grounds dotted with wooden benches, cement fountains, and towering shade trees naked of their leaves. The quiet setting reminded me more of a park out in the country than it did a city hospital. The name Shoreland tickled the back of my mind. If memory served me correctly this was the hospital Mom and I sent flowers to when Janet had her miscarriage.

We worked together at gettin’ A.J. outta the car the same way we’d gotten him into it. Janet ran ahead of me as I hurried toward the automatic doors with my brother in my arms.

The hospital was private and expensive which might explain why its Emergency Room wasn’t overflowing with activity. A couple people sat waiting to seen by doctors, but there didn’t appear to be any life or death situations goin’ on. Other than ours that is.

Janet seemed to know where she was going so I followed her. She ran right up to the nurse’s station, pulling her I.D. out at the same time. I was beginning to suspect it hadn’t gotten this much use in all her years in Seattle.

A nurse rose and scurried around the counter, intent on determining why I was carrying a grown man in my arms. She called for a passing orderly who was pushing an empty gurney.

Janet looked to the nurse who remained behind the counter. “Is Dr. Zabler on duty today?”

“Yes, Ma’am. But I’m not certain where she’s at.”

“Then I’d like you to have her paged please.”

The woman attempted to ignore Janet’s order. “Doctor Kahir is available. I’ll,….”

Janet reached over the counter and put her hand on the phone’s receiver, preventing the nurse from picking it up. “No. If Doctor Zabler is in the hospital I’d like her paged.”

Janet’s position with the D.A.’s office finally won the woman over. She did as my former sister-in-law requested, picking up the phone and broadcasting a hospital-wide summons. Janet used the phone next, placing a call to the police.

By the time the doctor arrived I had helped the orderly transfer A.J. to an examination table in a trauma room. The nurse who first rounded the

counter was with us, taking his vitals and trying to make sense of all Janet and I were saying.

At first I thought the woman Janet had paged was a candy striper. She was a tiny wisp of a lady no taller than my mother and couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. Her pale blond hair was cut in a short Cathy Rigby wedge and a smattering of sandy freckles dotted her nose. She looked more like a fourteen year old Olympic gymnast than a physician, but the green tag on her white said she was Dr. Leslie Zabler. She wore blue scrubs underneath the coat and white New Balance running shoes on her small feet. The metal stethoscope hanging loosely from her neck and a plain gold wedding band on her left ring finger were the only pieces of jewelry she adorned herself with.

Dr. Zabler examined A.J. while Janet and I tried to explain all we knew and suspected as briefly, yet as thoroughly as possible. The woman seemed to have an amazing ability to focus on several things at once. She never paused in her work and even issued instructions to the nurse while at the same time absorbing all we were tellin’ her. She didn’t ask any questions of Janet when Dallas Hewitt’s name was mentioned leading me to believe she was well aware of who he was and what he had done. But then that made sense, his crime had more than likely been splashed all over the local papers and TV for months. I doubted there was one person within Seattle’s medical community who hadn’t gossiped about him with colleagues.

By the time our story was out two other doctors had been called into the room as well as additional nurses. One of those nurses was given instructions to show Janet and me out the door.

A.J. must have sensed my movement away from the table because just like in the car, he struggled to raise his hand. I touched his face then, running my fingers over his cold cheeks and through his hair in an attempt to let him know I was still there. Offering verbal reassurance came naturally regardless of whether he could hear me or not.

“It’s gonna be okay, A.J. You’re gonna be okay.”

That was as much time as I was allowed before I was forced to join Janet in the hallway. The nurse indicated where the waiting area was located before disappearing within the trauma room once again. I remained standin’ by the closed door, straining to hear what was goin’ on inside while Janet went to move her car to a parking spot that wouldn’t cause it to get towed, or to be rear-ended by an arriving ambulance.

We didn’t make it to the waiting area before Wilke showed up with an entourage of cops. Janet was taken to one end of the corridor and me to another. People eyed us like we were Bonnie and Clyde as they hurried past flicking nervous glances our way. They acted like they were expectin’ us to pull out Tommy guns and spray the hallway with bullets at any moment.

Twenty minutes later the cops left. I heard Wilke give a description of Dallas Hewitt over his walkie talkie that I assumed was being broadcast to all available personnel. While Janet and I were at the rail yard Wilke and several officers had gone to Hewitt’s apartment. He musta seen ’em before they ever exited their vehicles. Wilke told us when they entered the place was empty, but the back door was standing wide open as though someone left in a rush. They’d been scouring the neighborhood for him when Janet’s call came in from the hospital. So far no one had seen him, but Wilke promised they’d continue looking until they had him in custody.

The open lounge we finally made our way to was painted a quiet serene blue, its long windows overlooked the ocean. The furniture was comfortable and well-cushioned, the beige carpeting so recently vacuumed I could see the neat lines left behind by the machine’s attachments. Paintings decorated every wall. Small gold plaques screwed into their frames announced what family they were donated by or who’s memory they’d been given in. The opulence reminded me again that this was a private hospital supported by more than what meager funds the city could throw its way.

The area was long and L-shaped, allowing Janet and me the privacy of a small alcove that contained two chairs with matching end tables. A soda machine hummed from down the hallway, right next to it another vending machine stood holding candy and chips in its silver spirals. I’d always found it kinda amusing the way hospital waiting areas are filled with machines that dispense instant artery clogging food. An oxymoron if there ever was one.

We sat in silence for a long time. I was half turned in my chair, staring out at the ocean struggling to move against patches of ice. We’d lost the sun at some point during the day. The last I recalled it was shining brightly in the frigid winter sky when we were at the car dealership, but when it had disappeared I didn’t know. The horizon was streaked with patches of pewter. It looked like it could snow or rain any minute. Maybe it would even do both as I’d often heard A.J. say happened in Seattle in the winter time.

I glanced at my watch to see it was ten minutes after three. I wondered when we’d have some answers regarding my brother’s condition. For some reason I had a feelin’ we might be in for a long afternoon and evening.

Janet finally broke the quiet we’d cloaked ourselves in.

“I know you’re angry with me, Rick, and I don’t necessarily blame you for that. But,…”

I held up a hand while moving to face her. “Janet, right now I’m mad at you, I’m enraged at Dallas Hewitt, and I’m pissed as hell at A.J.”

“At A.J.?”

“Yeah, at A.J. He took off for up here without tellin’ me where he was goin’ or what he was up to. And now,…..well now that one foolish stunt on his part might cost him everything. His eyesight, his hearing, his ability to communicate and move. I saw stuff like this happen to guys in ‘Nam. Do you know how a person lives with disabilities that severe?”
She didn’t have an answer for me.

“That’s right,” I said. “They don’t, Janet. They don’t live. Or least ways what life is left ’em ain’t much of one to brag about. Can you, in your wildest dreams, imagine A.J. being forced to spend the rest of his days like that?”

Her “No,” was small and quiet. I turned away from the tears I saw trickling down her cheeks.

I choked on my own tears. “I hope,….no I pray, he makes a full recovery. ‘Cause if he does I swear I’m gonna kick his butt all the way back to San Diego.”

I thrust myself to my feet and walked the hallway for a while. When I returned I handed her one of the two Cokes I’d bought from the machine. She thanked me and went back to staring out the window.

I reseated myself and popped the top on my soda can. “So, I take it you know this Doctor Zabler?”

Janet turned to face me. Her voice was soft and like my own, full of weariness and worry. “Yes. When A.J. and I were married Leslie and her husband, Steve, were our next door neighbors. They lived in the house directly to the south of ours. We socialized with them on occasion.”

I nodded, recalling the well-kept mint green Victorian that was even more awesome in its beauty than A.J.’s and Janet’s yellow one.

“And she’s good at what she does?”

“Yes, Rick, she’s good at what she does. I wouldn’t have brought A.J. here if she wasn’t.”

We didn’t exchange more than half a dozen further words for the remainder of the afternoon. Neither of us left the area any longer than to pace the hall for a few minutes or to go in search of a bathroom. Other people came and went, but as darkness fell Janet and I stayed waiting for word on A.J.

I shot outta my chair when I saw Doctor Zabler coming toward us at seven o’clock that night. Around three-thirty a nurse had been sent to tell us A.J. was being moved to another floor for a battery of tests, but requested we wait where we were. Despite our many questions of her she gave us no other answer than, “The doctor will speak with you just as soon as she can.”

Doctor Zabler looked as calm and in control as she had in the trauma room five hours earlier. She gave Janet a hug. When they broke apart Janet introduced me.

“Leslie, this is A.J.’s brother Rick. Rick, this is Leslie Zabler.”

The woman offered me her hand.

“Rick, it’s nice to finally get to meet you, though I wish the circumstances were different. A.J. spoke of you quite often.”

The doctor wouldn’t answer any of our questions until we’d reseated ourselves. She pulled a chair over so we formed a private semi-circle. She started with what we needed to know most.

“A.J.’s eyesight and hearing have returned since the two of you were last with him. He’s also gradually regaining control and use of all his muscles.”

I leaned back in my chair muttering, “Thank God.”

Janet’s thanks came forth in the form of the tears that sprang to her eyes. She quickly wiped them away then questioned her friend.

“What was wrong with him, Les? What was the cause of all this?”

“He was injected with a neuromusclar blocking agent called Tracium. It’s one of several similar drugs used to promote muscle relaxation during surgical procedures.”

“Injected?” I echoed. “But how?”

“From what A.J. has been able to tell us, more than likely the drug was rubbed on the tip of a dart, then shot from a tranquilizer gun similar to the type a large animal veterinarian or zoo keeper might use.”

Janet and I nodded our understanding.

“I would imagine the police will want to question A.J. further when I give the okay. Which won’t be until at least tomorrow. The only other information I have for you, based on what A.J. told me, is the last thing he remembers is walking around the corner of Janet’s house. He heard the sound of the gun being fired, but the dart pierced his shoulder blade before he was able to do anything about it. The drug would have immediately impaired his abilities giving him no chance whatsoever to defend himself.”

“Could this drug have killed him?” I asked.

“Most certainly. Given in a larger dose, it would have prevented his lungs and heart from working.”

“So the guy didn’t wanna kill him,” I mumbled to myself.

“What?” Janet asked. “What do you mean? Of course he wanted to kill him!”

“Yeah, yeah he did,” I acknowledged absently while putting it all together in my mind. “But not right away. If Hewitt wanted that to happen he obviously had the knowledge, the means, and the opportunity. But that’s not what he did. Instead he left A.J. blind, deaf, and paralyzed in a boxcar in freezing weather.”

I looked over at Janet. “Don’t you see? He wanted him to suffer. He didn’t want A.J.’s death to be quick. He wanted him to know exactly what was goin’ on.”

The three of us were silent for a moment, all acknowledging to ourselves what a terrifying situation the ordeal had to have been.

Doctor Zabler was the first to speak again. “As soon as the blood and urine samples we took revealed what it was in A.J.’s system we started treatment. Fortunately there is a antidote that will counteract the effects of Tracium. If Hewitt had used any number of other drugs we might not have been so lucky. Aside from that, A.J. was very cold as I’m sure you both know. His body temperature was 94.2 when you brought him in, which is dangerously low. We’ve been slowly warming him up all afternoon using heated blankets and towels.”

“What about his fingers?” I asked. “Were they frostbitten?”

“Four of them were very slightly, three on his right hand and one on his left, but not enough to cause him any permanent damage.”

“And the bump on his head?” Janet asked.

“Nothing serious. The X-rays we took didn’t reveal anything to cause us concern. After examining it I’ve come to the conclusion he wasn’t hit with anything, but rather his head came in contact with something while Hewitt was moving him.”

“The metal wall of the boxcar,” I offered. I surmised Hewitt had carried A.J. into the car slung over his shoulder. When he bent to put him in a seated position I doubted he cared too much about bein’ gentle. I could easily picture A.J.’s head being thrown back and making painful contact with the thick surface.

“That could very well be,” Doctor Zabler agreed. “I asked A.J. about it, but he doesn’t remember how it occurred. With everything that’s happened to him I’d say that’s understandable.”

“Can we see him?” Janet asked.

“For a few minutes. We’ve got him in Intensive Care for tonight. If no complications arise throughout this evening and tomorrow morning I’ll probably have him moved to a regular room by sometime tomorrow afternoon.”

The doctor led us to a bank of elevators where we climbed in an empty car. She pressed the lit number 6 which I assumed would take us to the Intensive Care Unit. I was relieved when she told us the hospital’s security staff was on alert for Hewitt and a guard would be standing watch outside Intensive Care until either the anesthesiologist was apprehended or A.J. was released. The nurses on the unit had been briefed, as well, as to who was to be in A.J.’s room and who wasn’t. They’d been given a picture of Hewitt by one of Wilke’s detectives and asked to be especially attentive of anyone making inquiries of A.J. by phone.

We exited into a long quiet corridor lined with rooms that looked like they were used as offices and small laboratories. At this time on a Saturday night they were all deserted.

We came to another waiting area similar to the one we’d just left, then passed public restrooms, a pay phone, and another room marked Family Lounge. Doctor Zabler took us straight through to the double doors labeled Intensive Care in bold red letters. She ignored the sign mounted underneath that requested all visitors return to the Family Lounge and use the phone there to call the nurse’s station for permission to enter.

The wide nurse’s counter was right inside the doors. We bypassed it and the three nurses working there. I glanced in some of the rooms as we passed. None of them had doors making for quicker access in an emergency I supposed. Instead curtains hung from rods mounted in the frame where a door would have stood and could be pulled for privacy.

The rooms were only big enough for a hospital bed, a chair, and a nightstand. TV’s were mounted on the walls opposite the beds, but most of the patients were too sick to be interested in having them turned on. A tiny cubicle jutted out from the far wall within each room. Later I would discover this was the bathroom that held a toilet, sink, and narrow shower stall.

I came to an abrupt stop in the doorway of A.J.’s room. Doctor Zabler and Janet weren’t aware they’d left me behind when they entered.

The doctor stayed a brief minute, asking A.J. a couple of questions. His answers were slow in coming, it seemed to cost him a lot of effort to talk. I didn’t know if that was still a side effect of the drug Hewitt had given him or if it was just from the ordeal in general.

Evidently the physician was satisfied with what he told her. Since he spoke so softly I couldn’t hear what he’d said, but I saw her pat his arm and tell him she’d check on him several more times before she went home.

The doctor gave Janet a final hug and told her to call her if she or I had any further questions or concerns. Janet thanked her and assured her we would.

I thanked the woman as well, when she passed me in the doorway.

She smiled up at me. “You’re welcome, Rick. And again, it was nice meeting you.”

I nodded. “Same here.”

A.J. was wearing a hospital gown now, reclining at a forty-five degree angle in a bed with raised rails. He was covered from neck to toe in heavy blankets. I could see a cord running from one and knew it must be plugged in providing constant heat. The covers were pulled off a small portion of his right arm so an IV line could freely flow. Janet bent over his left side and lightly kissed his forehead. She worked her hand under the blankets until it came in contact with his. Her words were quiet and gentle.

“Your hands are still cold.”

I could barely pick up his mumbled, “I know.”

If he was cold anywhere else, like I knew he must be, or in pain of any kind he didn’t mention it.

Janet asked him a few more questions. He answered some and simply nodded his head at others, half the time with his eyes closed.

She looked up and motioned me in the room when her conversation with A.J. was beginning to draw to a close. She shot me a puzzled glance when I refused to move.

Whether he sensed her movement and knew I had to be close by, or whether he was simply wondering where I was I don’t know. I saw his eyes open and heard him ask her, “Where’s Rick?”
Janet looked at me again, but I remained rooted in the doorway. She had no idea what to say to him when I didn’t answer and didn’t step forward. Before she could come up with a reasonable excuse his head turned toward me. Our eyes met and held a long moment. I saw confusion and regret in his. He only saw anger in mine.

I turned on my heel and walked away without ever looking back.

*****

My winter coat waited for me on the counter at the nurse’s station. I snatched it up and kept on walking. I heard Janet’s “Rick!” from somewhere behind me as my hand hit the double doors. If the security guard that was now posted there hadn’t been quite so agile a swinging door woulda’ accidently busted his nose.

Now exactly where the hell I thought I was goin’ since my only means of transportation was Janet, I’m not sure. I kept right on walkin’ though, stomping by the same waiting area, offices and labs we’d passed minutes before.

Janet was forced to run in order to catch up with me. She musta’ retrieved her coat from the nurse’s station, too, because she was thrusting her arms into it when she finally came abreast of me.

She reached out and grabbed my elbow, swiveling me to face her.

“Just where the hell do you think you’re going, Richard Simon?”

“I’m goin’ home.”

“Home? To San Diego?”

“No! Home to your house. I’ll get my stuff and go to a motel.”

“Whoa! Wait a minute! First of all you don’t need to go to a motel, I’ve got plenty of room. And second of all,……..second of all just what the hell was that all about back there?”

I continued walking toward the elevators givin’ Janet no choice but to follow.

“I’m tired and it’s been a long day. I’m ready to go home and call it a night.”

“Without saying goodbye to your brother first?” She voiced her disbelief. “Without taking a few minutes to speak to him? To let him know you’re here and you care?”

“A.J. knows I care.”

“He does? And just how would he know that? He asked for you and you turned and walked away from him. You might as well have whipped him the bird and told him to kiss your ass!”

I stopped and rubbed a hand over my aching forehead. “Look, Janet, I gotta lotta things on my mind. I already told you I’m pissed at A.J. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful he’s gonna be okay because I am. I sat down in that waiting room for five hours givin’ myself an ulcer worryin’ about him. But right now I need a little distance from this whole situation and a little distance from him, too.”

Whether she fully understood how I was feeling I don’t know. But at least she stopped givin’ me grief over it.

“All right,” she nodded, “but just when will you be ready to close this distance between the two of you?”

“I dunno.”

“Well you’d better have an answer for me when I come back here tomorrow afternoon to visit your brother, because I can guarantee you he’ll ask me where you are. I have no intention of lying to him or making excuses for you.”

“Yeah,” I growled, “well we’ll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. That seems to be the way A.J.’s been living his life this week. In total disregard of everyone else but himself, so why the hell should I be any different?”

I stomped off for the elevators once more. Janet followed me with a sigh of exasperation but kept her mouth shut.

We didn’t exchange one word all the way back to Janet’s house. The BMW’s doors slammed simultaneously when we climbed outta the car in her garage.

She unbugged her alarm system and we stepped into the back hallway. She reset the alarm and locked the door. I picked my duffel bag up off the floor where I’d left it, hiking it onto my shoulder. I told her again I’d go to a motel if she preferred, but she just shot me a look that told me to get real. I let the argument drop there. Despite the fact that neither one of us really wanted to share the same living space that night, with Hewitt still on the loose it was probably best if she wasn’t alone.

Janet pointed to a dark room in the hallway as we passed.

“You can use this bathroom. There’s a linen closet in there full of clean towels and washcloths.”

I followed her all the way up the stairs to the room A.J. had been staying in. His suitcase sat neatly beside the long triple dresser and I caught the faint whiff of a cologne he favors.

“You can sleep here for now. When A.J.’s released from the hospital you can move into my office until he’s well enough to make the trip home. I have a couch in there that converts to a bed.

“There’s leftovers in the fridge. You’re welcome to warm up in the microwave whatever looks appealing. Otherwise there’s cereal in the cabinet next to the stove and bread in the breadbox by the sink. I think A.J. bought a sliced turkey breast at the grocery store the other day if you want to make yourself a sandwich. Feel free to search the cabinets or refrigerator for whatever you can find. The only thing I ask is that you clean up the kitchen when you’re finished. I’m not your maid and I have no intention of being.”

Her spiel was quick, impersonal, well-rehearsed and meant to let me know she was angry with me. Before I could say “Thanks,” or “Can I heat something up for you, too?”, or “Where do you keep the potato chips?” she was gone.

Her bedroom door was shut with such a violent slam the pictures hanging on the wall in the hallway rattled. I gave a helpless little shrug of my shoulders before turning to dig through my duffel bag. I pulled out a pair of clean boxer shorts, an undershirt, my toothbrush and paste, and my electric razor. I gathered everything together and headed down to the bathroom she’d told me I could make use of.

I stood under the hot water a long time. I thought of calling the hospital when I was finished to tell A.J. good night, or to ask one of the nurses to tell him for me, but just as quickly decided I was still too ticked off to deal with any of it. He’d almost gotten himself killed, and for what? An ex-wife who had caused him nothing but pain. Not that I woulda’ wanted to see Janet get hurt either. But he knew a lotta good Seattle detectives. He coulda’ recommended any one of them to her. He didn’t have to come here himself.

And most of all he didn’t have to lie to me about it.

It was twenty minutes later before I emerged from the bathroom. If I’d been in the house by myself I woulda’ just come out in my boxers and

T-shirt but decided it behooved me to pull on my jeans, too. Not that I’m all that modest or a prude, but I had a feelin’ Janet wouldn’t appreciate me walkin’ around in front of her in my skivvies.

The extra effort didn’t prove to make much difference. Janet was no where to be seen. I could detect a familiar smell when I entered the kitchen and placed a light hand on the four-slot toaster. It was warm, indicating to me she’d been in here but had either eaten her meal quickly or had taken it up to her room.

And here I was gonna apologize to her and offer to cook her something, I chuckled to myself with both amusement and sincerity.

I didn’t have much of an appetite and was too tired to face cleaning up a big mess so settled on a bowl of Grapenuts and a Florida orange for my supper. Janet had kindly left the dishes we’d used that morning on the kitchen table. I knew she’d done it on purpose and thought of how she told me I was to clean up when I was finished. I reluctantly admitted to myself I deserved her wrath so took care of all the dishes and dumped the leftover coffee down the sink.

It didn’t take me long to figure out how to get her dishwasher goin’. I emptied it first of the clean dishes sitting inside, searching the necessary cabinets until I had them all back where they belonged. I went about reloading it then, found the soap, poured it in the dispenser, shut and latched the door then pressed the ‘start’ button.

Once I discovered where she kept the coffee and filters I even set the coffee maker to start brewing at seven the next morning. I wiped off the kitchen table and put her placemats and centerpiece where they belonged. Satisfied that the room would pass Janet’s inspection come day break I shut the light off, grabbed the newspaper from magazine rack in the living room, retrieved the folded dirty clothes I’d sat at the base of the stairway after my shower, and headed up to bed.

Her door was still shut when I passed by but a light shone from underneath. I thought about knocking and calling good night, but decided better of it. Maybe we needed a little distance from one another as well.

*****

I was dead to the world when I was woken from the depths of sleep by someone callin’ my name. I’d read the paper in the bed in Janet’s guest room, then shut the light out shortly after nine o’clock. It had been a long day and I was beyond exhaustion.

It took me a few seconds to realize where I was. The hall light spilled in through the bedroom door that was now open. Janet stood there with her robe half on.

“Rick! Rick, wake up! We’ve got to get back to the hospital!”

My first thought was that Dallas Hewitt had somehow gotten past the security guard posted at the Intensive Care entrance.

I glanced at the bedside clock radio while struggling with the mattress to rise. It was one forty-two a.m.

I wasn’t too concerned about the fact I was clothed in nothing other than my boxers and T-shirt when I kicked the covers off and jumped to the carpeted floor. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“Leslie just called! It’s A.J.! He’s been having seizures of some sort on and off since eleven. She thinks we’d better get down there as quickly as we can.”
I could hear the tears in her voice. I tried to combat them by projecting a calm I didn’t feel.

“All right, get dressed then. I’ll meet you at the car.”

She brought a trembling hand up to her mouth as her tears began to flow. “Oh, Rick,…..oh what if something happens to A.J.? What if….what if he doesn’t make it? It’ll be all my fault. I’ll never forgive myself. I should have never called him.”

That was the moment I decided there’d been far too much blame placing going on of late. And I was the guiltiest party of all. It was time to put all that shit aside and focus on what was important.

I walked over to Janet and wrapped her in my arms, totally oblivious to the fact that I was in my underwear and she was in a thigh-length purple satin gown with a robe that wasn’t quite on. Just holding her like that for those brief seconds reminded me of what it had been like when we’d been friends. It had been a lotta years now, and a lotta water had run under the bridge, but she wasn’t a bad person and she never had been.

“Don’t cry, Janet,” I whispered into her hair. “Don’t cry. It’s not your fault. No one’s gonna blame you for anything. If anyone’s gonna take on any blame around here it’s me.” I gently pushed her toward her room before she could say anything else. “Go on now. Get dressed.”

I pulled my socks on and jumped into my jeans. I rifled through my bag and came up with a brown corduroy shirt. I hastily worked the buttons into the holes, leaving the last three undone. That fact was hidden when I shoved the shirttails into my pants. My winter coat was layin’ across the only chair in the room. I grabbed it and my wallet on the way out, leaving my hat behind in the rush.

I was tugging my boots on in the downstairs hallway when Janet arrived with tears still streaming down her face. She’d thrown on a pair of jeans and an old bulky green sweater, had untied tennis shoes on her feet and was still struggling into her coat. Without saying a word she handed me the keys to her car. I caught her by the elbow and we rushed out as one.

Because of the lateness of the hour, and my heavy foot, a trip that should have taken us at least thirty minutes took us fifteen. I held her hand as we ran through the dim parking lot for the front entrance.

We were still running when we got off the elevators on the sixth floor. We never stopped as we flew by the security guard and burst through the doors into the Intensive Care Unit.

The nurses at the station looked up, startled, when we barreled in like a couple a’ cops about to make a drug bust. In just scant seconds they recognized us, however, and one rounded the counter to take charge. She told us Doctor Zabler would be right with us. She wouldn’t allow us to continue to A.J.’s room.

The other nurse headed off in that direction. Within seconds she returned with Leslie in tow. The doctor ushered us right on out the doors again, not answering any of our questions until we came to the small room I’d seen earlier labeled Family Lounge.

The private waiting area was about the size of your average bedroom, the walls painted a pale tranquil pink. A white phone was mounted on one of them with instructions hanging beneath that told you how to dial into the Intensive Care nurse’s station. Light pink carpet blanketed the floor. A couch and two chairs made it appear as though it was a calm oasis in someone’s home. Two lamps with white shades were situated on end tables. They were turned to their dimmest setting causing a person to automatically speak in hushed tones as though a baby was sleeping somewhere in the near vicinity.

The doctor indicated for me and Janet to sit on the couch. She perched on the arm of the chair to my left. With one sentence she explained why she’d brought us to this room.

“It’s better if we speak in here so we don’t disturb the other patients.”

“What’s goin’ on?” I asked. “Janet said something about seizures.”

“Yes, though at this point I’m without an explanation as to why. So is the neurologist who’s with A.J. now.”

“I know seizures can be brought on by head injuries,” I informed the woman, “but you said the bump he’s got isn’t serious.”

“And we still don’t believe it is. We did a CAT scan an hour ago and it’s showing nothing that would indicate the cause of what A.J.’s experiencing.”

“So what’s happening?” Janet asked. “Why is A.J. having seizures?”

“We’re still attempting to come to a clear conclusion. It’s possible this is a side effect of the drug Hewitt injected A.J. with. It’s also a possibility it’s a side effect of the entire trauma he suffered including being out in the cold for so long. Or it’s possible he’s got himself so agitated that he just can’t relax.”

“Agitated?” I asked. I recalled A.J. lying quietly in bed, cold and sedated the last time I’d seen him. Several words came to mind that would have described his appearance then, but agitated sure the hell wasn’t one of ’em.

“He’s been upset ever since the two of you left. No matter how much we sedate him he’s not out for long. And even when he is all he does is mumble your name in his sleep.”

She was looking right at me when she said that so there was little doubt as to whose name A.J. was repeating.

I stood up. “Let me see him.”

“Rick, I’m not sure now is a good time. He’s been through a lot. If we don’t get the seizures under control,….well I’m not certain how much more he can physically withstand.”

“You said he’s upset. You said he’s callin’ for me. So let me see him. I think I can calm him down.”

I saw the doctor look to Janet who nodded her head yes. I felt Janet reach for my hand and give it a squeeze right before I followed Leslie out of the lounge.

Other than in A.J.’s room activity on the floor was at a bare minimum. A man I took to be the neurologist was in with A.J., but stepped out when Leslie entered with me. He gave her a raised eyebrow in question as he passed.

“I’ll explain in a minute,” she told me. “Wait by the nurse’s station for me.”

A.J.’s bed had been lowered so he was now laying flat. His wrists were loosely velcroed to the railing in thickly padded restraints which I knew was for his own safety, but that didn’t make it any easier for me to see. His face was the color of diluted putty, his features drawn with the physical strain brought on by the repeated violent contractions of his muscles. Dark circles of exhaustion ringed his closed eyes like smoky bruises. Common sense told me he couldn’t take much more.

Doctor Zabler spoke from somewhere behind me. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Rick. If you need me before then I’ll be at the nurse’s station.”

I nodded my head and heard her walk out. I crossed to the left side of A.J.’s bed and leaned over the railing. I ran the fingers of my right hand through his hair while softly calling his name.

“A.J.?”

It took him a moment to open his eyes and even longer to focus on me. I repeated my actions, combing my fingers through his hair again and calling his name.

He licked at his cracked lips and whispered so low I could hardly hear him.

“Rick?”

I squeezed his forearm, then undid the restraint so I could take his hand.

“Yeah, A.J., it’s Rick. I’m here.”

Although there was little strength to it I felt him squeeze back.

And that was it. There were no apologies, no accusations, and no explanations on either of our parts. There was just two brothers who were always there for one another and always would be.

I stayed by his side all night reassuring him with a touch and quiet words whenever he seemed confused as to where he was or whether or not I was still with him. He didn’t have any further seizures. The doctors were hard pressed to explain that phenomenon, but I wasn’t. All I had to do was look down at his hand encased in mine.

That was all the answer I required.

S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S

I was released from Seattle’s Shoreland Hospital on Tuesday afternoon. Other than feeling like I’d been run over by a semi-truck and dragged behind it for ten miles I was fine.

I spent the remainder of Tuesday and most of Wednesday sleeping and reading in Janet’s guest room. I’m not sure what Rick did except he seemed to spend a lot of time in her kitchen cooking and cleaning. How Janet had managed to make him such a slave to the stove and a sponge was beyond me, but I was certainly anxious to discover her secret.

Leslie allowed Earl Wilke in to see me on Sunday evening. Telling him everything I could recall of my ordeal wasn’t easy. It had been terrifying to be completely helpless like that minus my sense of sight and hearing. At the time I had no clue as to where I was and what Hewitt had planned for me. If I did somehow manage to survive I was left wondering if the blindness, deafness and paralysis would be permanent. To say it’s something I don’t like to dwell on is an understatement.

In the end what I could tell Earl and what I couldn’t didn’t make much difference. I was moved off Intensive Care on Monday morning. When I woke up from a nap in my new room late that afternoon Rick was sitting beside my bed. I thought that was odd, it was right in the time period when afternoon visiting hours had long been over and evening ones had yet to begin.

I reached for the button by the side of the bed that would raise me to a sitting position.

“Rick?”

He allowed the silence to linger before speaking in a quiet voice.

“A.J.,…….A.J., they found Hewitt a couple hours ago. I wanted you to hear this from me before you saw it on the news.”

“Hear what?”

“He’s dead, A.J. He hung himself. He hung himself in the….in the boxcar where Janet and I found you.”

I turned my head on the pillow and looked away from him. He didn’t press me to speak. He seemed to sense the wide range of emotions hammering me for all angles. When I felt his hand on mine I squeezed for all I was worth. He squeezed back and in that one small gesture told me he understood.

Dallas Hewitt had been the cause of a lot of pain. He’d ended fourteen lives before their time and caused the families of his victims unrelenting suffering. Had caused his own family endless pain and suffering as well. And had very nearly succeeded in killing me. Possibly he would have killed Janet, too, had he gotten the chance.

But while I had long ago quit trying to figure out what goes haywire in the minds of people like Doctor Hewitt, that doesn’t mean I took his death lightly and that I don’t feel for the children and brother he left behind. Most people would look at Dallas Hewitt and say he got what he deserved. I look at him and wonder why he didn’t receive the help he needed before his actions spiraled so out of control.

While I highly doubt Rick would agree with my sympathetic feelings for the man, he stayed with me that night so we could watch the news together. I didn’t ask him to, he just stayed. I suspect he knew I had to put the case to rest and didn’t want me doing that alone. When the broadcast was over I shut the television off and with Rick’s help got out of bed. I shouldered into my robe, belting it with clumsy fingers that were numb and swollen from the aftereffects of frostbite. My feet worked their way into the slippers Janet had bought for me the previous day.

My brother and I walked the hallway in silence that evening. When we got back to my room Rick asked me if I wanted to talk. I shook my head no and he let the subject drop there.

When Janet arrived from work Rick was helping me clear the food off my dinner tray. She scolded him for eating what I was supposed to be eating, and scolded me for not eating what I was supposed to be eating. I think she sensed my mood and probably knew the reason behind it. She insisted I put my robe and slippers on so the three of us could walk down to the hospital cafeteria for dinner. Even though Rick had just polished off one supper, he was game for another.

By the time we’d eaten and they walked me back to my room I was in far better spirits. We’d laughed and joked and teased throughout our meal, the light-hearted levity reminding me of what good friends the three of us made when all the other trivial bullshit of life was out of the way.

We flew out of Seattle at eleven o’clock on Thursday morning. Both Rick and Janet tried to convince me I needed another day or two of rest before traveling, but I was ready to leave. Seattle was no longer my home, in many ways it never really had been. San Diego was my home and I was anxious to get back there. I missed Lauren, I missed her boys, I even found myself missing lazy old Toby. After what I’d been through it was going to feel good to return to all that was familiar, welcoming and safe.

Rick had the household up early the day of our flight. He bustled around making breakfast for the three of us, then took out the garbage, changed bed sheets and gathered up the towels and washcloths he and I had used. I heard him ask Janet where her laundry detergent was then heard water running in the washing machine.

I looked at my former wife with amazement. “What did you do to my brother that’s got him scurrying around your house like an employee of Cleaning Maid Easy?”

She chuckled while revealing her secret. “I simply told him if he was going to stay here with me then he was going to pick up after himself.”

“That’s it? I mean you didn’t threaten to do him bodily harm or, heaven forbid, burn his favorite cowboy hat in your fireplace?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

She was amused by my befuddlement.

“But I’ve been trying for years to get him to pick up after himself.”

She gave me a solicitous pat on the back as she walked away. “Maybe you just don’t phrase it right, A.J.”

Janet and Rick had picked the Concord up from the parking garage on Sunday morning. Even though it had to be returned to the airport, thereby giving Rick and myself transportation there, Janet insisted on going into work late that day so she could see us off.

She followed us to Sea-Tac International in her BMW. A half an hour after arriving our luggage was checked in and the rental car had been returned. I paid the remainder of the balance owing on the car with the business credit card. Before I could get the receipt tucked away in my wallet Janet grabbed it from my hands.

“Hey! Give that back to me.”

“No. I need to keep it with the other receipts so I know you don’t leave anything off when I get your bill.”

“Janet, I’m not sending you a bill.”

She planted her hands on her hips in a gesture I well remembered from our married years. “Oh yes you are.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“No,……” I stopped there, realizing we sounded like a couple of kids arguing over a toy.

I steered her away from the rental car counter. Rick followed us, but stayed out of our disagreement.

“Look, Janet, I’m not going to bill you for anything.”

“A.J., I told you when I called you that I wasn’t going to let you come up here if you didn’t treat me like a regular client. Which means I pay you just like a regular client would. No favors. No special treatment. Nothing. Just send me the bill and be done with it.”

I looked to Rick for help. He shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds like the lady means business to me. And I learned a long time ago not to mess with her when she gets in that mood.”

Having gotten no reinforcement from my sibling I turned back to my ex-wife. “If I’d done anything to help you then granted, maybe you would owe me for my services. But the point is, I didn’t do anything. The guy was never after you to begin with. It was me he wanted all along.”

“Maybe,” Janet agreed. “But maybe not. His intention could very well have been to hurt me as a motive of revenge against you. Whatever the reason, we’ll never know now. And besides, every P.I. takes on cases where the results aren’t what he or she expected, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bill their client for their time, effort and expenses.”

“That’s true but,…”

I couldn’t have been more startled than when she leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth right in mid-sentence.

“A.J., just shut up and send me the damn bill.”

I watched wide-eyed, as she moved from me to Rick. She got on her tiptoes to kiss him.

“And don’t forget to add in whatever it cost you to have Carlos’s cousin fly you up here.”

When Rick put his arms around her and kissed her back I realized the two of them had somehow made peace after a long-running, bitter, and hard fought war.

Regardless of how old my brother gets he’ll always be a shameless flirt and a ladies man. He kissed Janet a second time before she pulled away from him laughing.

He cocked an eyebrow at me. “You know, A.J., the lady does have an interesting way of askin’ for her bill. It’d sure be nice if all our female clients would take up her methods.”

Before I could make a reply an announcement went over the P.A. system saying our flight was ready to board. Janet walked with us to the gate. She and Rick exchanged a final hug. I knew he was referring to their frantic search for me when he told her, “You make one helluva partner, lady. You ever decide to give up that fancy job you got, you give me a call.”
She laughed at him again, told him he was and always would be too much of a Peter Pan for her, then sent him on his way.

Rick walked down the concourse that would take him into the plane. I knew he went on ahead without me so Janet and I could have a moment alone together.

Her lips brushed my cheek while at the same time she gave me a strong hug. “I was so worried, A.J. So scared something had happened to you and that you were,…..that you were,….”

I wrapped my arms around her when she couldn’t bring herself to finish that thought.

“I know, Janet. I know.”

She wiped her eyes as we broke apart. She took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

“Thank you for everything, A.J. Everything. Take care of yourself.”

“I will. You do the same.”

“I will. And, A.J.?”

“Yes?”

“If you don’t mind,…..well if you don’t mind I’d like to call you every so often. It’s nice,…..keeping in touch with old friends.”

I smiled at her shy request while bending forward to place a kiss on her cheek. “Yes it is. Old friends are special. Call me anytime you’d like.”

The final announcement for boarding the flight south to San Diego came. Right before I turned away from my former wife I said, “Oh….and, Janet?”
“Yes?”

“You really should look into that Lars character more closely. If you want my personal opinion he’s not the guy for you.”

She smacked my arm and laughed. “Oh, A.J.”

There was a strong, serious undertone to my voice. “Promise?”

She rolled her eyes in exasperation but vowed, “Promise.”

The last sight I caught of Janet was of her standing in front of the large windows watching our flight take off. I knew she couldn’t see me, but I gave her a little wave anyway. But then again, maybe she could see me because she waved back.

On second thought, she probably just knew.

*****

Our return home was uneventful, which was just fine with me. I’d had enough events of late to last me a lifetime.

With Mom being out of town for the next month it wasn’t going to be necessary to explain to her where I’d been or what had happened, which was just as well as she’d only be upset. When I asked Rick not to mention it either he simply nodded his head in agreement.

Toby was excited to see me that Thursday evening, or at least as excited as Toby can get. He pushed his fat body off the living room floor and kind of wiggled his butt in an odd little dance of greeting. Carlos dropped both Rick’s truck and Rex off after work allowing Toby time with his favorite playmate.

Although I wasn’t going to admit it to Rick, he and Janet had been right. I should have waited a couple more days before making the trip home. It was five fifteen before we turned in my driveway. Along with luggage delays at the airport, paying for the Camaro’s stay in the parking lot, and rush hour traffic came a walloping headache and bone-aching exhaustion.

Rick pulled the Camaro into my garage. We both stood and stretched a long moment after climbing out of the sports car, the day had been filled with too much sitting and too little leg room. With renewed muscles we grabbed our luggage from the backseat. By the time we were settled in the house and Rick had gone out to get us something to eat it was six. I was practically asleep on the couch when he got back. It was all I could do to make my way to the table. And even then I was so tired that the food he’d brought home had very little appeal.

I was in bed by seven-thirty. I hadn’t expected Rick to spend the night, but to be honest with you I’d been too exhausted to ask him what his plans were. It came as no big surprise to find him sleeping on the sofa in my den the next morning.

He went into the office later in the day to pick up the mail, listen to the answering machine, and return phone messages before stopping at the grocery store for me. I’d have had to have been heavily sedated to not realize he hadn’t said more than a dozen words to me since we got on the plane to come home. If I didn’t know him as well as I do maybe I wouldn’t have perceived his coolness to be anger. Maybe I would have perceived him to be tired, or just not in the mood to talk. But I didn’t perceive either of those things because he’s been my brother long enough for me to know when he’s ticked at me. I could easily guess that his solicitous behavior toward me both in the hospital and at Janet’s home came from his fear and worry over my health. Now that I was back on my feet I was no doubt going to, at some point in time, be on the receiving end of his deep-seated wrath. I felt kind of like a kid who knew he’d done wrong and knew he deserved the whipping he was eventually going to get. It was waiting for that whipping that was taxing on the nerves.

Rick disappeared early on Saturday morning but left Rex with me leading me to believe he hadn’t returned to his boat. I got the impression he simply didn’t feel like being around me.

Lauren and her boys were coming for dinner on Saturday night. I’d asked Rick to join us, but as it grew closer to the time of their arrival and he still wasn’t back I assumed he’d decided to skip it.

His truck pulled in just ahead of Lauren’s minivan. When he walked into the kitchen he had a boy hanging from each hand.

Shane and Tanner broke free from Rick to run to me. I crouched down to receive their hugs and felt Tanner’s lips smack wetly against my right cheek.

“I really missed you, A.J.!” the five-year-old declared. “You were gone forever!”

“Yeah, A.J.,” Shane echoed, “you were gone a whole week. Where were you?”

From where he stood above us Rick muttered, “Funny. I was askin’ myself that same question on many a night.”

My eyes flicked to the brother who brushed past us to lift the lid on the simmering pot of marinara sauce.

“I was on a case,” I told the boys. “It took me longer than I thought it would.”

Lauren kissed me on the lips as I stood. “You look tired, sweetie. And pale. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, A.J.,” Rick said, “you look pale. Are you okay?”

Why he suddenly decided to be such a shit was beyond me. Perhaps this was his twisted way of extracting revenge. I got the impression he had every intention of making tonight as uncomfortable as possible. He knew perfectly well I hadn’t told Lauren where I’d gone or what had happened. He knew perfectly well I had no plans to tell her now or in the future. Not that Janet was a threat to Lauren. In the year and a half we’d been seeing each other we’d only briefly discussed my marriage. It was natural for Lauren to wonder why it had come to an end so I’d told her. And that was it. We’d never talked about Janet again. I couldn’t see what would be gained, or lost now by telling Lauren what events had occurred in the last week of my life. Just like Mom, I didn’t want her to be upset.

“I’m fine,” I assured them both. “Just came home with a….bit of the flu bug I guess.”

“Ahhh,” Rick nodded. “The flu. That can really knock a guy down, that’s for sure. Can affect his eyesight, hearing, muscles, the whole works. You watch yourself there, A.J. I’d hate like heck for anything that drastic to happen to you.”

If Lauren wondered what Rick was rambling about or why there was such a biting edge to his voice she didn’t comment on it. But it’s quite possible she didn’t even notice as she was busy helping Tanner get his jacket off and reminding Shane to remove his shoes before he walked on my carpeting.

The five of us sat around my dining room table eating spaghetti and meatballs and warm garlic bread. Conversation was kept lively by the boys who were anxious to tell me of the events in their lives over the past week.

Rick was sopping up the remainder of sauce on his plate with a piece of bread. “Sounds like the boys had a busy week. Why doncha tell ’em about your week, A.J.?”

From his seated position Tanner jumped up and down in his chair. “Yeah, A.J., tell us about your week! Tell us about the case you were on!”

Lauren reached over and put a firm hand on his thigh indicating with just that movement he was to calm down. “Sssh,” she admonished softly. “You don’t have to shout. I know you’re excited to see A.J., but he’s not deaf. He’s sitting right next to you and can hear you perfectly fine.”

“I don’t know about that, Lauren.” Rick stood to carry his plate into the kitchen. “Seems to me A.J.’s been havin’ some trouble with his hearing lately. Could be a sign of old age I suppose. But than again, could just be a sign of foolishness.”

Lauren heard Rick this time and gave me a look of confusion. I shrugged my shoulders and said in a jestful stage-whisper, “He didn’t get his nap today.”

She chuckled and let the subject drop there.

We got through dessert without Rick making anymore helpful remarks. He and Lauren loaded the dishwasher while the boys and I cleared the table. Unlike was the norm for the two of them when they shared in kitchen chores, Rick wasn’t teasing Lauren or endlessly chattering about whatever came to his mind. I’m sure she found that unusual, and I know Tanner did.

As he carried the last plate in and handed it to Rick he paused to look up at him. His blue eyes were round and serious.

“What’sa matter, Rick? Why’re you so crabby tonight?”

“Tanner Reed!” Lauren scolded.

Rick chuckled and swung the boy up until he was seated on the counter. He thoroughly tousled Tanner’s fiery hair. “I’m not crabby tonight, pardner. Just tired.” He turned to give me a pointed look. “Takin’ care of A.J. when he has ‘ a bit of the flu bug‘ is more than one man can handle.”

Tanner hopped off the counter and came running over to wrap his arms around my waist. “I’ll help you, Rick. I’ll take care of A.J., too!”

I laughed while patting Tanner on the back. “Well thank you, Tanner. That’s nice of you. I’m sure your disposition outshines Rick’s on any day.”

Rick brushed by both of us, mumbling under his breath.

“Yeah, well maybe if he’d been through with you what I have his disposition wouldn’t be so hot either.”

I watched, mystified, as my brother disappeared up the stairs.

I covered Rick’s sudden departure by taking over the kitchen chores he’d been doing while engaging Lauren and her kids in playful conversation. By the time we were done he’d been out to his truck and returned with a Three Stooges video, a favorite form of entertainment for him and the boys.

Rick seemed to loosen up a bit while he and the kids sat on the couch imitating the antics of Moe, Larry, and Curly. For their own safety Lauren had to finally put an end to their games.

She and I were sitting at my kitchen table enjoying a glass of wine and private conversation. When things started to get too rowdy she called into the den, “Hey, you guys! Cool it! Someone’s going to get poked in the eye if you don’t stop what you’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Rick agreed as though he wasn’t the instigator of all the horseplay to begin with, “listen to your Mom. Someone could get poked in the eye. And not bein’ able to see is no fun, let me tell you. Just ask A.J. about that. He knows.”

That was when the temptation to bean him over the head with the rolling pin was at its greatest.

Fortunately Lauren and the boys left shortly after that. While Rick helped the kids find their shoes, slip into their jackets and say their final goodbyes to Toby and Rex, Lauren rose from her chair and came to wrap her arms around my neck. She leaned close and spoke softly in my ear.

“Rob will be taking the boys to his house after their soccer game tomorrow afternoon. Will you be feeling well enough for an early dinner at my place and then,” she gave a throaty chuckle, “dessert afterwards?”
I looked up at her and waggled my eyebrows. In deference of the boys’ presence I kept my reply quiet and low pitched. “You bet. You know how much I love your desserts.”

“Yes, I do. And if you get to feeling sick again I can just as easily play nurse.”

I laughed. “That would be a fun game, too.”

I lifted my face enough so our lips made brief contact.

I watched Lauren as she gathered up her boys while at the same time teasing Rick.

There was so much about this woman I loved. She had a playfulness and sense of fun Janet was lacking. The word vivacious had been invented just for her. She was a wonderful mother, a wonderful lover, and above all, a wonderful friend. She never expected more of me than I could give her. She was forever tolerant of the time I couldn’t give her because of my chosen profession. The profession Janet hated. And she was a friend to the brother who had often gotten on Janet’s nerves. Lauren once told me Rick was easy to like because he was nothing more than a big kid. “After all,” she’d said with a twinkle in her eye and a laughing lilt to her voice, “I’ve already got two little boys. What’s one more?” Admittedly, Janet had never looked upon Rick and his impulsive ways with that kind of good humor and acceptance.

I walked Lauren and the boys out to their vehicle. I slid open the rear panel door so the kids could scramble in. I shut it firmly, gave them final wave through the glass, then opened the driver’s door for their mother.

“Be careful driving,” I cautioned as Lauren climbed in the van.

“I will be.”

In a few short seconds everyone was buckled up and Lauren was backing onto the street. I stood in the darkness watching until they turned at the intersection.

I reentered the house to find Rick in my den stuffing clothes in his duffel bag. I leaned against the kitchen countertop by the sink and observed.

He didn’t look up from his task. “Lauren and the kids gone?”

“Yes.”

“Me and Rex’ll be goin’ too.” He swung the bag onto his shoulder. “Thanks for dinner.”
I didn’t say a word when he whistled for Rex, nor as he and the dog rounded the snackbar into my kitchen. It wasn’t until he was about to brush past me on his way out the door that I snared him by the upper arm.

He shrugged my hand loose. “Let go a’ me.”

“Hold up a second then.”

When his eyes met mine it was if they were issuing a challenge.

“Why?”

“Why? Because I think you have something you want to say to me.”

I thought for sure he was going to deny that with brusque, “Don’t have nothin’ to say to you, A.J.,” right before he continued out the door.

But that’s not what happened. Instead he stared at me for a long moment, then allowed his bag to slide to the floor by his feet. Just like kids who’ve realized they’ve been given a few more minutes to play together Rex and Toby disappeared into another part of the house.

“Okay, yeah. I do have something to say to you.” He turned his face so I could see him in profile only, his jaw set in a harsh line indicating to me the depths of his anger. “On second thought I don’t have something to say to you, I have something to ask you.”

“Ask me?”

“Yeah,” he swiveled to face me once again. “ask you.”

I tried to interject a portion of humor with a light-hearted wave of my hand. “Ask away then.”

The humor was lost on my brother. His words were tight and terse. “Why did you lie to me, A.J.?”

I didn’t have to inquire of him what he meant. I knew perfectly well to what he was referring.

“Because if I’d told you where I was going and why, you would have been mad.”

He loudly voiced his disgust at my reply.

“Oh for God’s sake, A.J.! That’s the stupidest buncha’ crap I’ve ever heard! You stopped worryin’ about whether or not I was mad at you back when you were four years old! And even then I always suspected the big sad eyes and droopy mouth was nothing more than an act.”

Hmmm. He’s more perceptive than I give him credit for sometimes.

“It’s not that I was afraid of your anger,” I explained, “it’s simply that there would have been little point to it for either one of us.”

“Whatta ya’ mean?”
“I mean I had already made up my mind, Rick. I was going to Seattle to help Janet and didn’t need your approval to do that.”

“No, you didn’t,” he agreed. “But it woulda’ been nice if you’d told me what you were up to so I didn’t spend three days worryin’ and wonderin’ about you.”

“You’re right, it would have been. And I’m sorry I didn’t feel that I could tell you.”

“So what’s that mean? That given similar circumstances you’d do the same dumb-ass thing all over again.”

“If Janet needed my help, yes I would.”

“A.J., she’s your ex-wife! Ex-wife. A term that generally means former. A term that means it’s over. The curtain’s been pulled. The train’s left the station. The geese have flown south.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “The geese have flown south?”

“Whatever. You get my drift.”

I grew serious. “Yes, Rick, I do. But just because Janet and I are no longer married doesn’t mean I can’t offer her my help when and if she needs it.”

“Jeez, A.J.! What is it with you and that woman?” He shouted with arms akimbo. “She’s like a black widow who keeps drawin’ you back into her web!”

“Don’t you think your analogy’s a bit harsh?”

“No, I don’t!” He began to pace the floor. “All right, all right, maybe. I mean,………well Janet’s not a bad person. For a long time I thought she was,…..I blamed her for a lotta your unhappiness,….”

“I know you did,” I quietly stated.

“But I guess I was wrong to do that. I guess it’s like you’ve been tellin’ me all along. Once you get past all the why’s and wherefore’s it just comes down to the two of you making better friends than you made husband and wife.”

“That’s true.”

He stopped pacing and turned to face me. His index finger rose like a harsh pointer.

“But that doesn’t excuse what you did. We’re partners in a business, A.J. Never before has either one of us ever taken a case the other one doesn’t know about and agree to. Never before has either one of us snuck off amidst a buncha’ half-assed lies and half-answered questions. You could have told me, A.J. Regardless of whether I woulda’ agreed with what you were doin’, you shoulda’ told me.”

He was right, I should have. I should have told him exactly where I was going that morning I called him and I should have told him why. Granted, I would have then been forced to listen to him rant and rave and tell me I was ten ways a fool for even considering offering help to Janet, but at least he would have known where I was. If our positions had been reversed I would have expected the same courtesy from him.

His monologue continued without so much as the briefest pause to allow me to interject an apology.

“Do you have any idea how many somersaults my gut did when I got Janet’s phone call at three o’clock last Saturday morning? Do you have any idea how I felt when I got up to Seattle and discovered we had virtually no clues to go on when it came to findin’ you? Do you have any idea what thoughts were racin’ through my head when we stumbled across you in that boxcar unable to see or hear us? Do you have any idea how damn lucky you are to be standin’ here in front of me right now alive and well and whole?”

Before I could say anything he crossed the small space between us. His arms came up and pulled me to him in a fierce, hard hug. He spoke so softly I almost didn’t hear the final words that encompassed so much.

“Do you have any idea?”

And in that short phrase was everything he couldn’t voice.

Do you have any idea how worried I was about you?

Do you have any idea how terrified I was for you?

Do you have any idea how close I came to losing you?

And most importantly;

Do you have any idea how much I love you?

*****

Two weeks have passed since that Saturday night in my kitchen. Rick and I seem to be back on even footing these days. My trip to Seattle and the many reasons for it haven’t been spoken of since, save for one brief moment.

I returned to work the Monday morning after our spaghetti dinner. Rick was already seated behind his desk when I got there. He gave me a curse nod when I walked in the door. We were both quiet as we went through the morning catching up on paperwork and reviewing the case he’d accepted while I was gone. It was like we were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t know quite how to fit together again after having been scattered all over the floor.

At noon I shrugged into my sport coat while Rick grabbed his hat from the corner of his desk. As we walked out the door for lunch I stopped his progress by placing a hand on his arm, forcing him to turn and face me.

“I just want you to know,” I confessed, “that every now and then,……I do think about her.”

He studied me a long time. The twinkle that finally lit his eyes overruled the serious expression on his face. He shot me a “What the hell am I gonna do with you?,” look right before he brought an arm up and loosely slung it over my shoulder. His voice was full of soft compassion.

“I know ya’ think about her, kid. I know ya’ think about her.”

It was as we were walking out the door he added, “And I guess if I’d spent a lotta cold winter nights snuggled up next to her in that little satin nightgown she favors, I’d spend plenty a’ time thinkin’ about her, too.”

I pulled away from him in shock. I knew he and Janet had parted friends, but I didn’t think they’d become that close.

“What? What are you talking about? You saw Janet in her nightgown? Rick! Rick, get back here! Rick!”

All I got in return for my trouble was his laughter. Which was okay with me. We hadn’t laughed together in over a week. It felt good, it felt right, and it only served to remind me that I was indeed, back where I belonged.

***The End***

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