School Dayz (by Kenda)

Summary:   The brothers Simon find themselves back in school.
Category:  Simon and Simon
Genre:  Detective
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  47,000


A.J. Simon’s hand groped for the ‘Off’ button on his clock radio. He gave it three whacks before realizing it wasn’t his alarm that was ringing, but rather the telephone at his bedside. As he struggled to raise himself onto one elbow his eyes caught sight of the bright red digits that told him it was five thirty-seven a.m.

Who the hell could be calling me this early on a Tuesday morning?

A.J.’s mouth was dry and his tongue thick with sleep. “Lo?”

The voice on the other end was just a bit too perky for the blond man’s tastes this early in the day.

“A.J.? Did I wake you?”

Although A.J. wasn’t sure who the female person was he was now engaged in conversation with he had the good grace to be polite. “No, no. You didn’t. I was lying here dozing waiting for the alarm to go off.”

A melodious infectious laugh tickled the phone line. “You liar. I can tell by your voice that you were sound asleep. What happened? With me no longer in the neighborhood to be your running buddy have you given up doing your four mile circuit each morning at dawn?”

A.J.’s brain became more alert upon assimilating the clues the woman dropped. “Stacy?”

“Yes, it’s me. Your old neighbor and running partner Stacy Patterson.”

“How are you?” A.J. automatically asked. It had yet to dawn on the private detective this early morning phone call was totally out of the ordinary. Although he and his former neighbor had indeed jogged together they had never been more than friends who parted ways each weekday morning as they came to their own doorsteps. A.J. had been sorry to see Stacy leave the Grand Canal a year earlier. Among other things she had been a loyal neighbor who watched over his house whenever he was involved on a job that kept him away several nights in a row.

“I’m fine, A.J. How about yourself?”

“I’m okay.”

“I read about you and Rick every now and again in the papers. How is my favorite cowboy?”

“He’s fine. I’m sure he’d still be trying to convince you to go out on a date with him if he could get me to tell him your new address.”

Stacy laughed. “Let’s both keep him guessing then. Especially because along with my new address there’s now a new husband who probably wouldn’t appreciate the undivided attention Rick was always willing to lavish on me.”

“Really? Congratulations, Stacy. That’s great.”

“Thank you. Paul and I are very happy. But now that we’ve gotten caught up with each other I need to get to the reason for my call.”

“I was wondering about that.”

“Listen, A.J., do you remember, ooooh, about four years ago when I let you and Rick hide out in my house for a week?”

A sudden feeling of trepidation overtook the blond man. “Ummm,….yes. Yes, I do.”

And then that guy shot all the windows out of it when he discovered where the two of you were?”

“Uh,……yes, I seem to recall that incident.”

“And do you remember that despite the fact I’m deathly allergic to dogs I allowed Rick to bring Marlowe with him only to spend the whole week with a horribly runny nose and watery scratchy eyes?”

“Well,…..uh,…..yeah, I seem to remember you were pretty miserable.”

“And do you remember how Marlowe chased my cat Pebbles all around the house and worked her into such a frenzy that she spent the next month hiding in my wicker clothes hamper?”

“Mmmmm, yes, now that you mention it I do remember that being a problem.”

“And do you remember how you and Rick told me you’d repay me in any way you could any time I asked a favor of either one of you?”
Suddenly there was nothing A.J. Simon hated worse than a woman on the phone early in the morning looking for he and his brother to repay a favor.

“Uh, yes. Yes, I do recall Rick saying something to that effect.”

“No, mister, not just Rick. You said it as well. You both said it. Which is why I’m calling. I need a favor.”

The brightness A.J. managed to muster could have lit up the New York skyline. “Sure, Stacy, no problem. What do you need us to do?”

“Substitute teach.”

What?

“Substitute teach.”

Stacy Patterson, now Stacy Patterson Barrington, was the thirty-nine year old principal of a small private elementary school called Heritage Academy that housed grades kindergarten through sixth. A.J. was vaguely aware of its reputation based on things Stacy had told him in the past and articles he occasionally read in the paper. If he ever married and had children it would be a place he’d seriously consider looking into. While tuition was fairly expensive the school prided itself on the small size of its classrooms, the individual attention the teachers were able to give the students, its outstanding academic program, and the standards of discipline set forth by the parents and staff.

For now A.J. wasn’t too concerned about those issues. “Stacy, I’m not a teacher! And Rick certainly isn’t either.”

“You don’t have to be a teacher to substitute teach, A.J. All the state of California requires is that you have a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t make any difference as to what that degree is in. It could be in Foreign Cuisine for all it matters in terms of being able to sub.”

“That’s fine in terms of myself then I suppose. But Rick doesn’t have a college degree at all.”

“I know that. But if you don’t tell anyone I won’t. Please, A.J., I’m desperate.”

“What do you mean you’re desperate? What’s going on?”

“Have you heard about the flu virus that’s been going around the country?”

“Yes. There’s been quite a lot on the news about it this past week.”

“More than a quarter of my teachers are out sick with it. And yet amazingly enough, the kids seem to be fairly resilient to it as very few of them have been ill. If we had a lot of absences amongst the children I’d close the school for a few days, but since they’re all healthy and able to attend I hate to force us to deal with make-up days at the end of the year. Please, please, please, you guys would be doing me a huge favor by showing up in my office at eight o’clock this morning. And you do owe me one.”

“Yes, we do,” A.J. reluctantly agreed. “I’ll get a hold of Rick and we’ll be there at eight.”

“Thanks, A.J. Thanks a million! I love you guys! See you at eight.”

The connection was broken before A.J. could voice the numerous doubts running through his mind. He laid back against his pillows and punched a number into the pad on the phone’s push-button receiver.

Rick’s voice sounded just as sleepy as A.J.’s own had five minutes earlier.

“Hey, Rick. Up and at ’em! Rise and shine! I’ll be over to pick you up at seven-thirty. I just got a call about a job. We’ve got to be there at eight.”

“A job?” Rick questioned around what sounded like a mouth full of sock fuzz. “What job? I donno nothin’ about no job we had scheduled for today.”

“You’d better brush up on your grammar there, big brother. Double negatives in one sentence will never do for this job.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about? What job?

“Just be ready at seven-thirty.”

Rick was doing nothing more than yelling into a dial tone as he shouted, “A.J.! A.J.! A.J., what the heck is this all about?”

Despite Rick’s insistent pestering A.J. wouldn’t reveal any details about their spur-of-the-moment job nor where they were going. When they pulled into the Heritage Academy parking lot at seven fifty-five Rick looked around with puzzlement etched on his hawkish features.

“What are we doin’ here?”

“This is where our job is.”

“Job?” Rick snorted. “As what? Teachers?”

A.J. shot his brother a sly smile as they climbed out of the Camaro.

Rick paused in the act of following his sibling. “A.J., no. You’re not serious.”

A.J. led the way to the building’s main entrance. Children’s shouts and cries echoed from the school’s nearby playground. “I didn’t even say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. What other kinda job could we possibly be takin’ in a school?” Rick’s hand shot out to snare his brother by the upper arm. “Come on. What’s going on here?”

“You remember my old neighbor Stacy Patterson?”

Rick’s eyes lit up. “Sure I do. She was one hot chick. Man, I tried my darndest to get a date with that woman.”

“Yes, you did. And if they gave a grade for effort you’d have gotten an A plus. Regardless, if you recall she’s the principal here.”

“Oh yeah. I guess she is.”

“Well, at the moment she’s in need of substitute teachers.”

“Substitute tea,……! A.J., we’re not teachers! I don’t know the first thing about…….”

A.J. freed his arm, grabbed his brother by the shirt front and pulled him along. “Neither do I. But it looks like we’re going to get our first lesson shortly.”

“But I can’t,….”

“Rick, think back about four years. Stacy let us stay in her house for a week. All the windows were shot out. She was allergic to Marlowe. He chased her cat all over practically giving the poor thing a nervous breakdown and,……”

“And we told her we owed her a favor,” Rick finished lamely. “Great. How come every time we owe someone a favor it turns out to be something like this? I mean we’re private investigators for cryin’ out loud! Why couldn’t she just ask us to investigate something?”

“Because this is what she asked us to do, therefore we’re going to do it.” A.J. dropped his hand from Rick’s shirt only to turn and give his brother a meaningful stare. “And to the best of our abilities. No fooling around on this one, Rick. I don’t want you to be the cause of any trouble for Stacy.”

“Me? The cause of trouble? What makes you say a thing like that?”

“Because ever since you were five years old you haven’t been able to enter a building of education without causing trouble of some kind.”

“You’re right on that account, little brother,” Rick smiled in fond memory. “Did you know my kindergarten teacher took early retirement because of me?”

“No, I didn’t know that. But for some reason the news doesn’t come as a big surprise.”

A.J. straightened the collar of Rick’s khaki work shirt in an attempt to make him look as presentable as possible before they entered the building. “Oh, and by the way, Stacy’s married now.”

Rick rolled his eyes as A.J. pulled open the double doors.

“Figures.”

The brothers entered a sparkling spacious foyer that smelled of floor polish and Lysol. Hallways painted bright yellow branched off in three directions and were alive with children’s artwork. Stacy was waiting outside the school office that was located to the left of the entrance. She stood five foot six in her low heeled cranberry pumps and was just as attractive as Rick remembered her being. Her platinum hair was naturally curly, falling in tight ringlets to the middle of her back. Her clear complexion was as light as her hair and she possessed the high prominent cheekbones and pale blue eyes of her Norwegian ancestors. She was stylishly dressed in a long skirt and flowing tunic blazer that matched the color of her shoes.

Stacy exchanged warm greetings with the two men then led them toward her office. “I really appreciate you guys showing up this morning. Especially on such short notice. I hope it doesn’t cause problems at your business.”

“No,” A.J. assured, “it doesn’t. We’re between cases right now and just in the act of cleaning up some paperwork. School gets out at what?”

“Three thirty.”

“Three thirty,” A.J. repeated. “That will allow Rick and me plenty of time to stop at the office and put in a few hours work if necessary.”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me?” Rick moaned. “You expect me to work here and then go to the office, too?”

Stacy shook her head and chuckled. “I can tell not a whole lot has changed since the last time I saw the two of you.” She indicated for the brothers to have a seat across from her desk as she shuffled through some papers. “If it helps any you will of course, get paid for the time you put in here. The going rate for subs is twelve dollars an hour.”

“Geez, if Id’a known you get paid that good for substitute teaching Id’a looked into it a long time ago.”

The principal glanced over at the lanky detective. “Don’t let yourself be fooled, Rick. It’s not an easy job. You’ll be thrust into a classroom full of little faces whose names you can’t remember while at the same time trying to figure out where they are in their lessons and what their normal routine is.”

“Yeah, well, I kinda figured you wanted me to be the gym teacher so what’s the big deal about havin’ a buncha kids do a few jumpin’ jacks and take a couple laps around the basketball court?”

“More than you can imagine but that’s beside the point. The gym teacher is healthy.”

Rick couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. “He is?”

“She. Miss Witt is a she. And yes, she’s one of the few healthy teachers I currently have on staff.” Stacy stood back and grinned like the Cheshire cat. “No, Rick, I have something better in mind for you. Much better.”

Rick’s “What?” was wary and small.

“You’re going to take over Mrs. Dunford’s class.”

“Mrs. Dunford?”

“Yes, Mrs. Dunford. She’s one of our first grade teachers.”

“First grade! Oh, no. No. Now look here, Stacy, I don’t know anything about first graders. I mean they’re just little kids.” Rick used a big hand to gesture low to the ground. “Just tiny little kids. I might hurt ’em or somethin’.”

“For heaven’s sake, Rick, they’re children, not china dolls. You won’t hurt them. Besides, they’ll love you.”

“Love me?”

“Sure, Rick,” A.J. grinned as he gleefully agreed with Stacy, “they’ll love you. All little kids do.”

“I don’t need any help from you,” Rick growled at his brother. “And speaking of you,….” The detective looked to Stacy once more. “If I’m teachin’ first graders what exactly is A.J. teaching?”

“Fifth and sixth grade health classes.”

“Health class?” A.J. questioned. “You mean like first aid or proper nutrition, things of that nature?”

Stacy’s answer was brief and vague. “Yes, exactly. Things of that nature.”

“Well,….I suppose I could do that.”

Despite A.J.’s words of agreement doubt was clearly etched on both brother’s faces.

“Look, guys, I realize neither one of you are teachers. But I also wouldn’t have called upon you if I didn’t have confidence you could do the jobs I’ve just outlined for you. You guys are smart. You’re used to winging it. Playing all kinds of roles. Just think of this as another P.I. job. Please?”

Neither Rick nor A.J. had ever been able to refuse a damsel in distress. Especially one to whom they owed so much.

“All right,” A.J. reluctantly conceded, “I’ll do my best.

“Yeah, me too. I’ll give it a go.”

“Great,” Stacy smiled. “And really, I promise, it won’t be difficult. On the whole our kids here at Heritage are very well behaved. I don’t foresee them giving you too many problems.”

Stacy looked up to see more substitutes milling in the outer office amongst the secretaries. “Listen, guys, I hate to rush you like this, but I’ve got some other people I have to talk to before classes start at eight-thirty. I need to show you to your rooms. You’ll find the teacher’s lesson plan book in the top desk drawer. That should give you a good start in terms of what things the class is currently working on.”

Stacy ushered the hesitant men out the door. With a quick glance over her shoulder told her secretary, “I’ll be right back.”

Rick and A.J. asked a few hurried questions as they scampered along behind the woman. She quickly answered them while at the same time indicating where the rest rooms were located and in which direction the cafeteria could be found. She left Rick outside his classroom and did no more than point the way down the hall for A.J.

“Hang a right at the end of this hallway, A.J., then a left at the next corridor. You want room 203, it will be the third one on your right. The fifth and sixth graders rotate classrooms like kids do in junior high and high school so you don’t need to go get them, they’ll come to you. However, you do have a homeroom.”

“You mean a group of kids who will report to my class first thing for attendance?”

“That’s correct. They will also be your first class of the day.” Stacy gave both men an encouraging smile. “I need to get back to the office. Good luck.”

“Wait, Stacy!” Rick called.

“Stacy!” A.J. echoed. “Stacy, wait!”

The woman waved over her shoulder before turning a corner and disappearing from sight. The detectives stared after her in dismay.

Right before he stepped into his classroom Rick said, “A.J.?”

“Yes?”

“The next time your phone rings early in the morning?”

“Yes?”

Don’t answer it.”

With a heavy sigh A.J. turned and headed for his own classroom.

The girl’s agitation was plain to read as she twisted a long strand of her thick walnut hued hair around one finger and brought it to her mouth. The powerful gasoline fumes caused her head to ache and her stomach to roll.

“Bobby,…..Bobby, please let me open the garage door.”

The wiry man’s dirty blond hair stood up on his scalp in greasy spikes. A three day growth of beard circled his mouth like fuzzy caterpillars and his eyes were puffy and rimmed red from lack of sleep. He was bent over a work bench in the narrow garage carefully transferring gasoline from a bright red container to an empty plastic gallon milk jug.

“No, goddamn it! How many times do I have to tell you no!”

Bobby’s fury caused the girl to take a step back. She rubbed a hand over the small protrusion around her midsection. “Please, Bobby, the baby.”

Even the mention of his unborn child couldn’t bring serenity to the thirty-three year old man. “Then git your ass in the house for all I care! Git the hell outta here! I’ll do this myself if I have to! Dammit, the last thing I need is you whinin’ at me right now, Geneva! You got that?”

Geneva Masters reached out a tentative hand and lightly touched her husband’s shoulder. “Please, sweetheart. Come inside and get some rest. Just take a little nap. You’ll feel a lot better if,…..”

“Leave me alone!” Bobby jerked out of his wife’s reach. His arm swung upward so fast Geneva didn’t have time to duck. The back of his hand crashed against her cheekbone causing her vision to momentarily blur. At five foot seven inches tall and one hundred and thirty five pounds Bobby Masters was far from a large man. But years of hard labor in factories had left him lean and strong. His powerful blow sent Geneva reeling into his tool bench with a pain filled cry. The set of wrenches that fell to the concrete floor with a resounding clatter seemed of more concern to Bobby Masters than the fact he’d just struck his pregnant wife.

He looked up from where he was crouched down gathering the tools and pointed a stern finger. “Now don’t you go cryin’. I don’t wanna hear it, Geneva. I warned you! You made me do that, dammit! I warned you to leave me be but you didn’t listen, did you? The Lord sayeth, Wives obey your husbands. Now git yourself in the house like I said and leave me the hell alone!”

Geneva cupped her swelling cheek as she scampered out of her husband’s sight. She ran into the one bedroom bungalow they were renting through the door that connected the home to the garage. When she reached the safety of the bathroom she slumped down on the lip of the tub and began to sob. She massaged her belly as though trying to offer her five month old fetus solace from all that was going wrong in their world.

“He…he….he told me things would be different,” the girl confided to her child in a voice made uneven and shaky by her tears. “He said he was….go…..go….going to take me a…a…away from the beatings my step……stepfather was always giving me and the…..the….the things he was always make….make…..making me do. But no matter how hard I try to be….be…..be a good wife to him noth…..noth……..nothing changes. He’s….he’s…..he’s just like Hank.”

When she’d cried until she had no tears left Geneva rose to wash her face over the white sink stained orange from rusty water. She studied herself in the mirror seeing the ugly discoloration of her cheek. She wondered how at nineteen she could look so old. She’d been pretty once. Or at least she remembered thinking she was until her mother married Hank when she was eight. From then on she’d simply felt dirty. Dirty and cheap just like Hank was always telling her she was whenever he made her come into his bedroom while her mother pretended to be ignorant of what was going on behind the closed door.

Bobby had promised Geneva he’d make her feel pretty again and sometimes he did. But lately the temper he’d always possessed had a frightening edge to it and seemed to have magnified itself into proportions even he couldn’t control. He went around the house mumbling strange things, too, verses from the Bible he claimed, while talking of something called the Apocalypse and Armageddon.

Geneva ran a hand over her stomach one last time and felt the baby kick. Despite the pain radiating from the right side of her face she smiled at the little life that meant so much to her.

“It’s okay, baby, your mama’s here. Mama loves you, baby. Mama loves you.”

Rick laid his cowboy hat on a corner of the teacher’s desk then stood outside his classroom awaiting the arrival of his little pupils. At eight twenty-five a bell rang that echoed throughout the hallways and onto the playground. In short order Rick could hear the children spilling into the building. Like well-trained cattle the kids herded themselves in the direction of their classrooms. If need be they broke off from various friends with a quick goodbye and a promise to see one another at lunch time.

Rick hadn’t gotten any farther into Mrs. Dunford’s itinerary than to determine he had twenty six year olds in his charge. He stood tall and straight against the open door leading to his classroom. The first of the children slowed as they approached this strange man who looked so much different from the elderly teacher they were used to. Mrs. Dunford barely tipped the scales at ninety pounds and in her orthopedic shoes stood no more than four foot ten. At sixty-four years old she still possessed a rich peaches and cream complexion and was as soft spoken and proper as an English nanny.

Three little girls grouped themselves in a tight triangle as though they had velcro sewn on their clothes. Their eyes rose up with trepidation. They slid past the unsmiling Rick then raced for their desks as if being chased by the big bad wolf. They cupped their hands around their mouths and whispered to one another.

“He’s a man.

“He’s a giant.”

“His hair’s not white like Mrs. Dunford’s.”

“He doesn’t have any hair and I think he looks mean.

The other children arrived in two’s and three’s as well. They all blended together in Rick’s mind in a blur of confusing brown faces and yellow faces and white faces. Eyes in all shades of blue, brown, green, and hazel had looked up at Rick with a mixture of fear and curiosity.

Five minutes later the eight-thirty bell rang signaling the start of classes. Rick nervously cleared his throat and glanced down the hall two more times with the hope Stacy would magically appear and tell him he could go home. When that action was not forthcoming Rick had no choice but to enter the classroom and close the door.

Rick crossed over to the teacher’s desk and stood behind it. He looked out over the classroom. The children stared back at him in silence, their little hands folded on top of their desks like Mrs. Dunford had taught them to do while awaiting her instructions. The tiny children seated before him in their minature desks made the six foot two inch Rick feel like a giant in Lilliput.

The detective was finally forced to break the unnerving silence. He cleared his throat one last time. “Uh,……uh,…..good morning, class.”

As one, the children chorused, “Good morning, Mr.,……”

That was as far as they got before trailing off in confused chaos. Some of the children stopped there for lack of knowing what else to say while some kept repeating the word mister as though trying to give Rick the hint that he needed to supply them with his name, while two others simply finished their greeting by calling him Mr. Dunford.

Giggles erupted amongst the children at that guffaw and for the first time Rick smiled and relaxed a bit. “No, no,” he said, “my name isn’t Mr. Dunford. My name is Rick.”

Before Rick could say anymore a little girl’s hand shot up in the air.

It took Rick a moment to realize she was waiting for him to call on her. He pointed a finger. “Uh,….yes?”

“Mrs. Dunford says it’s not polite to call adults by their first names.”

“Oh,….uh,…..she does, does she?”

“Yes,” the pigtailed blond nodded authoritatively, “she does. So you need to tell us your last name.”

Rick Simon wasn’t much on formality and hardly thought he could stand having twenty six year olds referring to him as Mr. Simon for the remainder of the day. But on the other hand he didn’t want to get Stacy in any trouble like A.J. had suggested so reached a happy medium. He walked over to the blackboard and picked up a piece of clean white chalk.

In large block letters he printed Mr. Rick.

“There.” Rick turned around, swiping his hands together to free them of chalk dust. “How about if you kids call me Mr. Rick while I’m here today?”

Some of the children gave eager nods while others exchanged confused glances or dubious shrugs. But since Rick heard not a word of protest he came to the conclusion all were in agreement.

He leaned back against the desk and crossed his long legs in front of him only to see another hand fly up in the air. He pointed to a redheaded boy in the third row.

“Yes, son?”
“Are you a real cowboy, Mr. Rick?”

Rick chuckled. “No, I’m not a cowboy.”

Another hand shot up.

“Yeah?”

“Then how come you wear cowboy boots and have a cowboy hat, Mr. Rick?”

“‘Cause I like ’em, that’s how come.”

A black girl raised her hand next.

“Yeah?”

“How come you don’t wear a tie, Mr. Rick? I thought all man teachers wore ties.”

“I don’t like ties, that’s how come.”

Before anymore questions could be asked Rick took charge of the room. “Okay, now you guys know my name so it seems only fair that I get to know yours.”

The detective indicated to the first child in the first row. “We’ll start here and go around the room. What’s your name, sweetheart?”

The ebony skinned little girl dipped her eyes and barely above a whisper answered, “LaKesha.”

“LaKesha,” Rick repeated. “Okay. Next.”

The boy behind LaKesha said, “Stanford.”

“Stanford,” Rick echoed. Mentally he repeated, LaKesha and Stanford.

“Okay, next.”

“Emily.”

LaKesha, Samuel,….no it wasn’t Samuel, what was it? Stanley? Damn! Oh, well, I just won’t call on the kid. LaKesha and Emily.

“Next. Just keep going kids, don’t wait for me to ask you.”

“Autumn.”

“Zeke.”

LaKesha, Emily, Zeke,…….wait a second I’m missing one. What did she say her name was? Spring….Summer…..Fall?

“Anisley.”

LaKesha, Emily, Zack,….no Zeke I think, and,…….Amy?

“Jedidiah.”

“Jeremiah.
Great. Just what I need. Identical twins.

“Chandler.”

“Jessica.”

LaKesha, Emily, Zeke or maybe Zack, the twins, Chance,…..Charles,……? Jessica,…..

“Nicholas.”

Soon the children got in a rhythm that Rick’s brain had no hope of keeping up with.

“Olivia.”

“Micah.”

“Patton.”

“Sharrae.”

“Grant.”

Rick’s head was spinning and he waved his hands in defeat. “Hold it, hold it. Stop right there.”

Geez, don’t people give their kids normal names anymore?

Rick looked around the room until he spotted a grouping of brightly colored plastic trays stacked on top of one another and lined up on a shelf by the windows. Each tray was filled with paper. Some trays contained lined writing paper, while others contained construction paper, while others held paper of various colors, textures, and thicknesses. Rick walked over until he found what he was looking for.

The little pigtailed blond who first pointed out to Rick that it was disrespectful to call adults by their first names and whose name Rick thought was Emily raised her hand.

“Yes,….uh……Emily?”

“That’s Mrs. Dunford’s special paper. She doesn’t let us use it.”

Rick eyed Emily as he began laying a sheet of the thick white paper on each desk. It had a glossy finish and was sturdy yet flexible like thin cardboard. “You know, Emily, you keep this up and you’ll make a great snitch for the CIA some day.”

Rick’s words were lost on the little girl which he thought was just as well. “Look, kids, I want you to take out your crayons. You do have crayons don’t you?”
Twenty little heads nodded and a smattering of “Yes’s,” were given.

“Good. So anyway, I want you to take out your crayons and write your names,….”

A familiar hand was raised. Rick sighed, “Yes, Emily?”

“We don’t know how to write.”

“You don’t?”

“No. We only know how to print.”

“Okay, then print your names on the paper and decorate it any way you want. Then we’ll fold it over and set it on your desks like this.”

Rick demonstrated by folding the paper in half and setting it on the child’s desk he was standing nearest to. The sturdy paper held its shape and gave the appearance of a makeshift nameplate.

Emily’s hand wasn’t even all the way in air this time. “Yes, Emily?”

“Micah eats his crayons.”

Rick looked around. “Which one of you is Micah?”

The children pointed to a cherubic boy in the second row who was all blue eyes and thick white hair. Rick couldn’t help but think of A.J. at the same age.

“Don’t eat your crayons, Micah,” Rick instructed.

As little heads bent diligently over their desks Rick turned toward the front of the room with the intention of parking his butt in Mrs. Dunford’s comfortable looking chair and putting his feet up. Maybe he’d even take a little snooze. Now that he had the kids occupied they’d probably never notice.

I ain’t gonna say nothin’ to Stacy about it, but heck, twelve bucks an hour seems like a lotta money to pay a sub. All you gotta do is keep the little buggers busy and it’s a piece a’ cake.

Rick hadn’t even reached the front of the room before finding out his thoughts were laughingly naive. In a matter of seconds the detective discovered that what seemed like a simple project to him was a major undertaking for six year olds. They slowly and laboriously worked at printing their first names while constantly looking to him for guidance. “Mr. Rick? Mr. Rick?”

The detective swiveled around until he found the source beckoning him.

“Yeah?”

“Can I print some of my name in capital letters and some of it in small letters?”

“Sure, I guess so.”

“Mr. Rick?”

Rick didn’t even have to turn around to know who was hailing him now. “Emily, we’ve got to quit meeting like this.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” Rick turned and faced the child. “What did you need?”

“Mrs. Dunford says capital letters are only for the first initial of our first names, middle names, and last names. The rest should be in small letters.”

“Emily, do I look like Mrs. Dunford to you?”

The girl gave her head a solemn shake back and forth.

“That’s right, I don’t. ‘Cause I’m not. So as far as the letters go in your names, you guys do whatever your little hearts desire.”

“Mr. Rick?” A another girl questioned.
“Yes?”

“Can we put our middle names on the paper, too? Can I print Autumn Nicole on mine?”
“Fine by me. You can print George Washington on there if you want to, kiddo, just as long as you answer me when I call on you.”

Rick attempted to make it to the teacher’s chair once again only to be called upon by a boy in the back of the room.

“Mr. Rick? Mr. Rick?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I make every letter of my name a different color?”

“Sure, kid. You do what you want. You can make it every color of the rainbow if the mood strikes ya’.”

“Really? Neat!”

“Mr. Rick? Mr. Rick?”

Rick did a three hundred and sixty degree turn. “Yeah?”

“Can I make my name different colors, too?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” Rick looked out over the classroom. “You can all make your names different colors if you want. Whatever. It makes no difference to me.”

“Mr. Rick?”

Rick refrained from rolling his eyes. “Yes, Emily?”

“But will we get a better grade if we don’t use a lot of different colors? Don’t you think our names will look better if we just use one color?”

“Emily, don’t get your knickers in a knot over this, okay? It’s just for fun. Just so I can learn your names. I’m not going to give you a grade.”

“You’re not?”

“No, I’m not.”

The little girl’s pale brows drew together and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Just what kind of a teacher are you if you’re not going to give us a grade?”

“The kind every kid dreams of, Emily. The kind every kid dreams of.”

Emily eyed the detective a few seconds longer before reluctantly returning to her work. Rick got the feeling that before the day was over she was going to march down to Stacy’s office and report him as an imposter.

The children finally seemed satisfied with their assignment allowing Rick to give an internal sigh of relief as he headed for the chair behind Mrs. Dunford’s desk.

“Mr. Rick! Mr. Rick!”

Oh, no.

An elfin dark headed beauty who Rick thought might be Jessica, but then again she could be Olivia, pointed toward a classmate.

“Micah’s crying.”

Rick walked toward the blond boy who he had earlier instructed not to eat his crayons. The child’s head was bent down so low over his desk that Rick had to crouch on his hunches in order to see the boy’s face. He looked around and noticed the other children staring.

“The rest of you get back to work,” Rick ordered sternly. “This doesn’t concern you.”

The detective waited until the children did as ordered. He then brought a gentle hand up and laid it on the boy’s arm. “Micah?” He softly beckoned. “Micah, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

A small hand reached up to swipe at a stray tear.

“Micah? Come on, buddy, tell me what’s the matter.”

The boy pushed out between the sobs he was trying to contain, “I,….I,…..I printed too big an….an…..an….now my name won……won’t…..fit on the paper.”

Rick smiled and reached out to tousle the boy’s thick hair. “Is that all? Well that’s nothing to cry over, pal. I’ll just get you another piece and this time you can print a little smaller.”

“But,…but,….but it’s Mrs. Dunford’s spec…..spec…..special paper.”

“That’s okay. I’ll buy Mrs. Dunford more paper when she gets back.”

Rick patted the boy’s back as he rose and crossed over to the shelf where he retrieved another piece of sturdy paper. He laid it on Micah’s desk. “There you go, buddy.”

The boy sniffled away his remaining tears and looked up with admiration. “Would you help me this time, Mr. Rick, so I don’t do it wrong again?”

Rick dropped to his knees beside the small desk with a smile. “Sure I will. We’ll do it together.”

It was close to thirty minutes later before all the children were finished creating their nameplates. Rick quickly discovered he needed to have other assignments prepared for those who finished early otherwise they tended to get up and wander the room, talk, giggle, and engage in horseplay.

I guess six year olds don’t have a very long attention span. Geez, who woulda’ thought they have so much damn energy.

Rick’s first attempts at gathering up his class and getting the wanderers back to their desks failed. He’d no more than get one seated when another one would be on the move. He finally clapped his hands together three times and barked orders like a drill sergeant. “Everyone back to their seats now or you guys can forget about recess today!”

The children pushed and shoved as they scampered to their desks in fear of Rick’s wrath. “Hurry! Hurry!”
From there Rick had to demonstrate how to fold the paper so the names showed. He soon found himself occupied with helping those children who didn’t quite understand what he meant.

Ole’ Mrs. Dunford’s gonna blow her cork when she finds out these kids spent all day making nameplates for me. Oh well, it ain’t like I’m gonna be here to deal with it.

The detective glanced up at the clock when he was finally able to reach the teacher’s desk. He looked down at her lesson plan book to see he was already an hour behind schedule. The children were to say the pledge of allegiance right after attendance was taken then the day began with math class.

“Okay, kids, we’re gonna get our day started. Everyone stand and face the flag.”

The children rose with practiced ease and faced the four foot by four foot stars and stripes that hung from a thin pole in the upper front corner of the room.

“Mr. Rick! Mr. Rick!”

What now?

“Yes, Emily?”

“It’s Jeremiah’s turn to lead us in the pledge.”

“Thanks for the pointer, kid.” Rick’s eyes scanned the multicolored papers perched on the front of the desks until he came to Jeremiah. “Okay, Jeremiah, you start us off.”

The children put their hands over their hearts as Jeremiah’s voice began. “I pledge allegiance……,”

Rick and his little class joined in as one. Some of the boys copied Rick’s movement when they saw that rather than place his hand over his heart the former Vietnam veteran chose to salute the flag as all military veterans have the right to do.

As the pledge drew to a close Rick looked out over his classroom of twenty.

It’s times like this I know what I was fightin’ for, was Rick’s brief thought before instructing the children to pull out their math workbooks.

Upon the clanging of the bell signaling the start of the school day A.J.’s class filled with students just as Rick’s had. Though at twelve years old the blond detective’s students were far less intimidated by the presence of a strange man.

A.J. well remembered his own school days and the pandemonium that often ensued as a result of a substitute teacher. Therefore it didn’t surprise him when a portion of his eighteen students refused to settle into their desks. Loud talk and laughter dominated the classroom prompting A.J. to immediately close the door. Wads of balled up paper flew back and forth across the room as four boys engaged in battle. Three girls giggled together in a tight knot, their eyes never leaving the handsome detective.

A paper airplane took off from the back of the room and landed neatly on the middle of A.J.’s desk much to the delight of the air traffic controllers who sent it on its way. They clapped and cheered as though they’d just landed a 747 on a rooftop.

A.J. folded his arms over his chest and watched as the adolescents frolicked liked hyperactive monkeys just released from the zoo. Five minutes passed in which they chose to ignore his silent presence. When he decided it was time to show them who was really in charge A.J. placed the thumb and forefinger of his right hand between his lips. The whistle was shrill, piercing, and prolonged.

“All right, everyone, you’ve had your fun! Now take your seats.”

The kids took in A.J.’s stern stance and did as they were told. The detective made no reference to their misbehavior as he came to stand behind the teacher’s desk.

“Good morning. I’m Mr. Simon and I’m here today in place of Mrs. Tarsetti who’s ill. I’ll take attendance then we’ll spend a few minutes getting to know one another before we begin class.”

A.J. went down the attendance roll he’d already pulled out of Mrs. Tarsetti’s desk drawer. He received well-mannered ‘here’s’ in response to his calling out the first five names on the list. When he came to number six he said, “Tyler Graffton?”

A gangly brunette with braces answered a little too politely, “I’m here, Mr. Simon!”

“Jake Hanley?”

A blond boy wearing wire rim glasses responded with a prompt, “Here!”

A.J. looked up at the two boys. His words were pointed and stern. “Unless you two have a good reason for assuming one another’s identity vast experience will lead me to tell you such a move is not wise. I’d also advise you to switch seats so that you, Jake,” A.J. looked at the brunette, “are sitting in the correct place.” The detective next turned to the blond. “And as well you, Tyler.”

The boys exchanged glances that clearly said, How’d he do that? while in the process of switching desks A.J. smiled inwardly at their naivete. Out of the corner of his eye he’d seen them snickering during the earlier mayhem while they’d traded seats. He didn’t have to be a private detective in order to know what they were up to.

A.J. didn’t comment when saw two other boys on the opposite side of the room discreetly changing seats as well.

Role call was finished without further incident. A.J. stepped out from behind the desk to perch a casual hip on the left front corner. With a nod of his head he indicated to the first child in the first row. “Carrie, we’ll begin with you. Tell us something about yourself.”

“Like what?” There was no doubt the mossy headed girl was in the throes of adolescence. Her facial features were nondescript and braces filled her mouth giving her lips the puffy appearance of having gone five rounds in the boxing ring. She was as skinny as the pictures you see of emancipated children in Ethiopia with no indication that womanhood was going to grace her doorstep anytime soon. Even at a distance A.J. could faintly detect the antiseptic smell of Clearasil and he wondered how much attention, good or bad, Carrie received from her classmates.

“Anything at all. Perhaps something no one else knows, a hobby you enjoy or something about your family that you wouldn’t mind sharing with the class.”

The girl hesitated a long moment. A.J. flashed her a reassuring smile. “It doesn’t have to be anything profound, Carrie. Just whatever comes to your mind. Just so I can get to know each one of you better.”

“Weeeell, I like to draw pictures of horses. And,….and someday I’d like to travel the country and make my living as an equine artist.”

“That’s great, Carrie,” A.J praised. “Good for you. I have no talent whatsoever when it comes to art so I envy you your ability. Keep up the good work.”

The florescent lights gleamed off Carrie’s braces as she threw A.J. a one-hundred watt smile of appreciation. He smiled back before his eyes traveled to the boy behind her. With just a little mental searching he came up with the kid’s name. “Matt, how about you?”

The pattern continued until A.J. had learned at least one thing about all the children in his homeroom class. Some didn’t offer anything other than, “I like to play baseball,” or “I babysit for my little brother every day after school,” but regardless of what was said A.J. made a positive comment and showed genuine interest. Without realizing it he was already endearing himself to the kids.

When the last child was finished it was A.J.’s turn. “Now that I know something about each one of you I’ll tell you something about myself. My name is A.J. Simon and your principle, Mrs. Harrington, used to be my neighbor. When we’re not…..uh,……substitute teaching my brother and I run a private detective agency called Simon and Simon.”

A.J.’s class was impressed. The girls found the notion of a private investigator for their teacher a romantic one while the boys found it exciting.

“Wow! A real detective! Just like on TV!”

“Mr. Simon, have you ever been shot at?”

“Mr. Simon, have ever been in a car chase?”

“Hey, Mr. Simon, have you…..”

A.J. held up his hands. “That’s enough for now. We need to start our day. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have after class or during lunch break.”

The blond man picked up Mrs. Tarsetti’s spiral bound lesson planner. “All right. To begin with I can see that last night you were to read chapter six in your health books which we’re going to discuss today. Now since Mrs. Tarsetti evidently has her book at home I’m without one. Therefore I need to ask one of you to tell me what chapter six is all about.”

The kids looked from one to another. Some let forth nervous giggles, some bowed their heads in embarrassment, while some willingly volunteered their friends.

Jake half rose in his seat and indicated to Tyler by shaking a pointed finger at the top of his head. “Mr. Simon, Tyler wants to tell you what chapter six is all about!”

“I do not!” Tyler turned around and swiped an arm at his friend in protest. “Jake does!”

“Oh no I don’t. Brett does.”

“Huh uh,” came the denial from the back of the room, “Jonathan does.”

Before the dark skinned Jonathan could pass the buck A.J. put a stop to the nonsense that he realized could take up the remainder of the thirty-five minutes left in the period.

“Okay, okay, that’s enough. Now would someone please tell me what’s so difficult about giving me an answer to my question? Matt?”

A.J. waited expectantly but Matt did no more than gnaw on his lower lip.

“Jennifer?

“Brian?”

“Heather?”

When A.J. still got no response he glared out over his students and played his trump card. He picked up Mrs. Tarsetti’s grade book and a pen. “Evidently none of you has completed your assignment. Therefore I’m going to have to give all of you F’s, leave a note for Mrs. Tarsetti, and send notes home to your parents.”

A.J. surreptitiously watched through his eyelashes. Like a series of falling dominos one child nudged the next in an effort to convince at least one classmate to speak up. He had to hide his smile as he listened to their frantic whispers.

“You tell him!”

“No, you tell him!”

“Come on! Go ahead, Matt, you tell him. You’re the one who gets straight A’s. You don’t want him to give all of us F’s.”

“I don’t care if I get an F or not! I’m not gonna tell him, have Lindsay do it. She blabs everything else.”

“I do not blab! And just for that remark, Matthew Meiers, I’m not going to tell him either. Have Sarah do it.”

“I’m not going to do it!”

A.J. let them wage their hushed furious battle until finally one hand was reluctantly raised at half-mast.

“Yes, Carrie?”

“About,….about chapter six, Mr. Simon?”
“Yes, Carrie.”

“We read it.”

“I see. All of you?”
Eighteen heads nodded up and down.

“Good. Then perhaps you, Carrie, would like to fill me in on behalf of your classmates. What is chapter six about that’s causing such unrest amongst you?”

“It’s,…it’s….it’s……”

“Yes?”

“Well,…it’s…..”

“Yes, Carrie?”
“It’s about safe……”

“Safety in the home?” A.J. guessed.

Carrie shook her head no.

“Safety at school?”

Carrie’s head moved in a negative direction once more.

“Fire safety?”

“No.”

A.J. gave the girl a reassuring smile. “Come on, Carrie, you can tell me. Safe what?”

A.J. had to strain to hear Carrie’s last word on the subject. The girl’s head was bowed, her cheeks aflame, and her voice barely above a whisper.

“Sex.”

The blond detective sank back against the desk. “Oh. Safe,…….oh. I see.”

When A.J. looked out over his class he saw eighteen pink tinged faces that he knew matched his own.

Thanks, Stacy. Thanks a lot.

A.J. lips curved in the best smile he could manage considering the circumstances. “So,….uh,…..safe,…….safe…….yes, that’s a good subject for us to discuss today. I’m glad each one of you read the chapter. I,…uh……I…..I……”

A vague idea suddenly formed itself in the back of the detective’s mind. He clapped his hands together with satisfaction. “Okay, everyone, we’re going on a little field trip.”

Several of the children echoed their bewilderment. “Field trip?”

“Yes, a field trip. We’re going down to the cafeteria so I expect you to be quiet and orderly in the hallways so we don’t disturb the other classes.”

The kids shrugged with confusion but did as they were told. They grouped together with their friends and walked behind A.J. as he led them to the cafeteria with an odd spring to his step.

Geneva sat on the chenille bedspread allowing her eyes to briefly fall to its surface. The worn fabric had at one time been white but was now the dingy gray spoken of in laundry soap commercials, a victim of too many washings. She’d gotten it at the second hand store where she purchased all their clothing and household items. She was living far from the luxury her husband had promised her so many months before.

A violent round of lovemaking had left her sore and fearful that Bobby had damaged the child growing inside her. Now he paced back and forth in front of her, naked, with a closed Bible in his hand. Like a perverse version of a TV preacher he thumped and pounded and jumped up and down for emphasis as he quoted what Geneva believed were passages made up by no one other than himself.

“And the Lord God has spoken to me saying, Bobby, you are to go forth and spread my message. Disciples of Satan are poisoning the minds of our children and our children’s children! You must rise up and slay them even as they stand before the innocent. Let no more evil words spew forth from their throats!”

Geneva’s mind wandered as the man rambled on. When Bobby got like this he expected her to be an attentive audience until he was finished. That could be minutes or it could be hours. Sometimes he ‘preached’ until he lost his voice or until he collapsed in a heap of exhaustion. Sometimes it seemed to work him into such a sexual frenzy that he forced her to make love again. If she was lucky that wouldn’t happen today. She didn’t think her body could accept anymore of his careless bruising thrusts. She wrapped her bathrobe more firmly about her nakedness as though the thin cloth would somehow shield her from his desires.

Bobby turned so his back was to his wife and made a round of the room preaching to an audience Geneva couldn’t see. Her eyes traveled the small interior. She wanted to paint the walls before the baby came. They were lime green and smudged with dirty finger prints and scuff marks from the previous tenants. She thought bright yellow would be a nice color. It reminded Geneva of the sun, warm and friendly. She wanted to let the baby know it was welcome in its new world and repainting the walls seemed as good a place as any to start.

She hoped by then she could convince Bobby to get rid of the guns. Much to Geneva’s displeasure the bedroom had taken on the look of an arsenal. Hand guns littered the top of the dresser like discarded change and rifles were lined up like soldiers along two walls. Bobby had even gotten hand grenades from somewhere. For now they were safely cocooned in a drawer amongst his socks, but Geneva shuddered to think as to what might happen if a toddler accidently stumbled upon them someday.

She had tried to point that out to Bobby two weeks ago at a time when he appeared to be calm and rational. In short order she discovered her mistake. He struck her again and again and told her such concerns were not for women. The bruises were still evident when she went to the free clinic three days later for her monthly doctor’s appointment. She could tell Dr. Qualyn didn’t believe her when she said she’d slipped on the wet kitchen floor after mopping it, but there wasn’t much else he could do as long as she stood by her story. In the end he gave her arm a sympathetic pat and handed her a small business card with the name, address and phone number of a women’s shelter on it.

“If you ever feel the need to,…..leave your situation, Mrs. Masters, the Horizon Center is open twenty-four hours a day. They’ll offer you a place to stay and give you whatever help they can.”

Geneva dropped her eyes as she accepted the card. She stuffed it deep in a side pocket of her sweater then hid it underneath the tissue paper lining of shoe box in a far dark corner of the bedroom closet. A year ago the idea of leaving Bobby would have been foreign to her. But a lot had changed in twelve months time and now she caught herself wondering if she wouldn’t be better off to get out before the baby was born. Bobby no longer had a job, they were living on welfare and food stamps just the same as she’d be living if she were alone with a newborn child.

She thought back to the day two months earlier when her husband had called her from work and told her to come pick him up. His shift didn’t end until five but it was only a few minutes after two when the phone rang. He sounded upset and furious.

“Geneva, I need you to come get me right now.”

“What’s wrong, Bobby? Are you sick?”

“No, I’m not sick! Just git your ass down here and pick me up!”

“Okay, I’ll be,….”

The connection was broken before Geneva had a chance to finish her sentence. She’d grabbed her purse and rushed out to their dilapidated 1977 station wagon, the only car they owned. When she arrived at the factory where Bobby worked he was pacing the loading dock. As soon as he saw her he jumped down and marched toward the car. By the cuts above his left eyebrow and the bruises on his right cheek Geneva knew he’d gotten into another fight. She also knew he’d been warned just four days earlier if it happened again he’d be fired.

He threw his jacket and metal lunch bucket in the back seat as he slid in on the front passenger side. His order was short and succinct. “Drive.”

Geneva knew better than to ask for any details. She watched as he repeatedly squeezed his hands into fists while staring tight lipped out the window. She drove toward the open gates made of silver cyclone fencing. As she applied the brake and paused to look for traffic she overheard through her open window the conversation of two men she recognized as Bobby’s co-workers. They were on their afternoon coffee break, leaning against the fencing smoking cigarettes. One nodded toward the car.

“That Bob Master’s is a frickin’ kook. Mark my words, he’s gonna hurt somebody someday.”

“No kiddin’, man. I’ve never been ’round anyone as nuts as him.”

Before their conversation could go any farther Geneva pulled out onto the road. Bobby had never spoken of that day and didn’t seem inclined to look for work. He’d faked a limp and complained of excruciating back pain when he’d gone to the free clinic to get medical papers to certify he was disabled so he and Geneva would qualify for welfare. Things had only gone from bad to worse since that time.

Bobby now had the Bible open and appeared to be reading from it though Geneva knew that wasn’t so. Amongst other things she’d come to discover about him recently was the fact his reading skills weren’t much above the second grade level.

“And ye, I shall send to you a son who shall sit at the right hand of God and you shall call the child Gabriel.”

He looked up and pressed a finger into the delicate tissue paper page. “Do you hear that, Geneva? God has spoken to me. We are to call our son Gabriel and he is to be the right hand of the Lord.”

“But, Bobby, you know I plan to name the baby after my father if it’s a boy. I’m going to call him Thomas Ross.”

Geneva’s father had died when she was just four years old leaving behind her mother, older sister, and two younger brothers. Although her memories of the man were vague her heart warmed each time she thought of him. She knew he had brought happiness into their household and could recall weekends at the beach with a big strapping man who loved to run with his children into the surf. They were the only happy times she’d ever known and were now a distance memory. She’d hoped by naming her child after her father she could somehow recreate those sunny days.

Bobby’s hand flew out and snared Geneva by her upper arm. He yanked her off the bed and held her so tight and close she could feel his hardness against her thigh. “Our Lord has decreed the child be called Gabriel Emmanuel, Geneva. Gabriel, because the name means God’s messenger. Emmanuel because it means God is among us. Therefore Gabriel Emmanuel, or the Lord’s messenger is among us. That is what we shall call him, Geneva, for I have said it is so.”

Geneva wanted to ask him just who he thought he was telling her what she was going to name the child she carried within her, but the crazed look in his eye and the bruising grip on her arm made her think better of the it.

“And God tells me our Gabriel shall lead the little children out of bondage.”

Bobby rubbed a tender hand over Geneva’s abdomen and for just a moment she saw the man he used to be. But just as quickly his mood changed. He shoved her down on the bed and ripped her bathrobe from her body. The Bible came to rest beside her head as he savagely thrust himself between her legs.

She turned her face away from him to hide her tears. She reached out and laid a hand on the Bible while silently asking God why.

By ten fifteen that morning Rick’s young class was so devoted to him they would have followed him to hell and back without questioning where he was leading them. Dull old math had come alive under Mr. Rick’s tutelage. When he made them each take a turn at coming up to the chalkboard to work their sums he showed them how to make animals out of otherwise boring numbers. The number 10 was transformed into an owl, a 6 became an ape hanging upside down in a tree, and a 9 was the beginnings of a puppy with a happy face.

Phonics was fun, too, when taught by Mr. Rick. He looked in Mrs. Dunford’s workbook to see what sounds and new words the kids were learning. From there he incorporated those things into the kind of silly limericks and rhymes young children immediately fall in love with and quickly memorize. As his little class delightfully recited a slightly dirty ditty that was beyond their understanding Rick briefly wondered if he made an error in judgment then just as quickly dismissed the thought.

Awe, who cares? It ain’t like I’m gonna be here after today anyway.

Rick looked through Mrs. Dunford’s plan book to see what the next subject was to be covered while his students finished their phonics lesson. He smoothly moved them on to their reading textbooks while taking minimal notice of a lot of squirming bodies and dancing feet. He shrugged it off as childhood wiggles until Emily’s hand went up. Rick attempted to ignore her as Jessica read out loud, but the blond girl grew more and more insistent until she was practically jumping out of her seat. Emily’s movements only distracted the rest of the class causing Jessica’s voice to die away.

“Emily, what is it?” Rick questioned crossly. “We’re behind schedule so make it quick.”

Whatever it was Emily needed to tell Rick she evidently deemed it be done in private. She walked up to the front of the room and indicated to him to bend over by crooking her finger at him. He felt her warm breath flutter on his ear. “We go to the bathroom when the big hand’s on the 12 and the little hand’s on the ten, then we get a fifteen minute recess. The little hand’s on the ten right now, but the big hand’s on the 6 and sometimes Nicholas wets his pants.”

Suddenly the squirms and wiggles and dancing feet made sense to Rick. He eyed the little boy named Nicholas and could tell the child was in obvious discomfort. “Thank you, Emily,” he whispered back before straightening to his full height.

“Okay, kids, let’s hit the johns and then go outside and play for a while.”

Emily helpfully offered, “Mr. Rick, Mrs. Dunford’s makes us line up boys on one side and girls on the other. Then we file out in an orderly line.” She pointed a stern finger upward. “No talking in the hallways either.”

“You know what, Emily?”

“What?”

“Mrs. Dunford sounds like a real drag.”

The children lined up just as Emily described. The blond girl pushed Rick toward the front of the two lines before taking her own place with the girls.

“You have to lead us there. That’s how Mrs. Dunford does it.”

“Lead you there?”

“Yeah, you know, lead us there. Like soldiers.”

“Oh, like soldiers, huh? Sure thing, kid. You got the right guy for this job ’cause I do know a thing or two about soldierin’.”

Rick stood ramrod straight at the front of the children in-between their two lines. “All right, troops! Aaateeeeeeention!”

Giggles burst forth as the children copied Rick’s body language. Stomachs were sucked in and little chins and chests jutted out.

Rick turned toward the door and marched in place until twenty pairs of feet picked up his rhythm. “Hup two three four, hup two three four, hup two three four.” He looked over his shoulder. “You guys ready?”
“Ready, sir!” Emily barked much to Rick’s amusement.

“Okay, troops. Let’s move out!”

The children brought their knees up high and their feet down hard as they followed Rick out of the room. The detective well remembered from his long ago days in the Marine Corps. how words were said in cadence to a march. His quick mind made some up to fit this particular moment. “All right, troops, repeat after me.

“Now it’s time to go and play!”

Twenty voices called back in unison, “Now it’s time to go and play!

“On this good and quite fine day!”

“On this good and quite fine day!”

“We will run and have some fun!”

“We will run and have some fun!”

“Beneath the California sun!”

“Beneath the California sun!”

Rick and the children were able to repeat the rhyme three more times before reaching the bathrooms. Other teachers, curious to see what the commotion was all about, came to stand in their doorways. A few smiled with amusement while others shook their heads and shut their doors on the disturbance. Stacy peeked her head out of the second grade classroom she was substituting in. She couldn’t help but laugh at Rick and his little army then gave him a thumbs up before returning to her own duties.

It took more time than Rick would have thought possible for all twenty of his kids to make use of the facilities. But when they were finally all present in the hallway once again he led them out to the playground at a full gallop with a cry of “Yea! Recess!”

The detective played ball and jumped rope and threw stones for hopscotch right along side his charges. He let the fifteen minute recess stretch to twenty-five minutes before gathering up his group and heading them indoors. They clung to his hands and waist, pushing and shoving as they all tried to jockey for a coveted position next to Mr. Rick.

Stacy was waiting for them at the building’s main entrance. “Hurry, children! You’re ten minutes late for lunch period.”

The kids dashed off in the direction of the cafeteria. Chandler turned around and tugged at one of Rick’s hands. “Come on, Mr. Rick! Aren’t you going to eat with us, too?”
“I’ll be there in a minute, pal. You go on ahead.”

“I’ll save you a seat!”

“You do that.”

Stacy smiled and arched an eyebrow. “Mr. Rick?”

Rick waved a hand in dismissal. “You know me, I don’t take to that formal razmataz too much. So the kids decided to call me Mr. Rick.”

“You’re a hit with them, that’s for certain.”

“Anyone can be a hit with little kids for one day. It’s bein’ able to do it year round like your teachers do that takes skill.”

“If nothing else you’ll get your chance for a few more days.”

“Whatta ya’ mean?”

“While my class is at lunch I’ve been making phone calls to my sick staff members to see if I can get an idea as to who will be in tomorrow and who won’t. Mrs. Dunford went to see her doctor this morning. He’s given her orders that she’s not to return for the rest of the week.”

“I see.”

“Likewise I’ve talked to Mrs. Tarsetti, the teacher for whom A.J. is substituting. Not only does she have the flu, but her three year old son broke out with chicken pox a few hours ago.”

“So she won’t be in the rest of the week either, huh?”
“That’s about the size of it. Therefore I hope you don’t mind me asking you and A.J. to stay with us until Friday.”

Rick was surprised to discover how willing he was to meet Stacy’s request. “I guess that would be okay. I mean it’s not like we have anything else goin’, and what the heck, twelve bucks an hour is twelve bucks an hour. But as far as A.J. goes I can’t answer for him. You’ll have to check with him yourself.”

“I already have. I caught him between classes a few minutes ago. He basically said the same thing you did.”

“Okay, then it looks like we’ll both be back tomorrow morning. And hey, how’s A.J. doin’ anyway?”

Stacy shook her head and smiled. “Let’s just say that like his older brother, A.J. has a teaching style all his own.”

A.J.’s homeroom class returned with nine fresh white eggs donated to them by the cooks in the cafeteria. The blond knew he was lucky in regards to this class. It possessed an equal number of boys to girls. How he’d deal with his two other sixth grade classes that were bound not to have the sexes matched up so perfectly he’d worry about later.

The children showed A.J. where the school supply/storage room was on their return trip. He had the kids help locate two dozen small cardboard boxes not much bigger than his hand. His eyes scanned the shelves until he came across unopened rolls of paper towels. He grabbed one of those then led the way back to class.

The kids piled the boxes on top of his desk. A.J. placed the paper towels and carton of eggs next to them. He looked out over his dumbfounded class.

He cleared his throat and plunged right in. “All right, everybody, you’re about to have your first lesson in safe sex.”

A.J. ignored the laughter that rippled through the classroom like a wave washing on shore. “I’d like to tell you the decision to have sex or not to have sex is strictly an adult one. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Before most of you are out of high school you will encounter situations that force you to make the choice as to whether or not to engage in sexual activity. Now, can anyone tell me what you learned about safe sex in your textbooks?”

The ease in which A.J. approached the subject, and his class’s curiosity in regards to the eggs on his desk, caused a few hands to be raised.

“Yes, Brian?”

“We learned that unprotected sex can cause AIDS.”

“And can anyone tell me what AIDS is?”
From there the discussion picked up steam with the kids volunteering what they’d read the night before or what they knew from watching television or reading the newspapers. Not having seen the children’s textbook caused A.J. to be careful about what he said. By far he didn’t want to engage in a discussion of morals that was bound to enrage some parents.

The bell was due to ring shortly causing A.J. to regretfully wrap up the twenty minutes of productive talk. “I don’t know whether I’ll be back again tomorrow, but in the event I’m not I trust you’ll fill Mrs. Tarsetti in on what we talked about today.”

The class nodded their agreement and there were smatterings of “Yes, Mr. Simon,” and “Sure thing, Mr. Simon.”

“Now, as for your assignment. I’m going to call you up in pairs to retrieve some paper toweling, a box, and an egg.”

The kids were too busy wondering what A.J. had up his sleeve to ask any questions as they were called up two by two, a boy always matched with a girl. The detective had been watching his class interact during the discussion period and was quickly able to pick out the popular kids from the unpopular ones, the studious ones from those more lax regarding their schoolwork. He paired them up accordingly forcing them to move outside their normal circles of friends.

The popular Matt was called to come forward with the awkward Carrie. A.J. gently cradled an egg in a nest of paper toweling and placed it in a box. “Congratulations Matt and Carrie. You’re married and have just become the proud parents of a bouncing baby egg.”

Both students blushed as their classmates catcalled and teased. A.J. let the kids have their fun for a few seconds then held up a hand. “All right, that’s enough now. Don’t give Matt and Carrie a hard time because each one of you is going to become parents before you leave here today. We’ve talked about many of the consequences of sex this morning, all of them very real and some of them deadly. Well, another consequence of sex is an unwanted pregnancy. These eggs will represent the result of that fictional pregnancy. They’re fragile just like real babies are. If you drop them you’ll hurt them or worse, kill them. They have to be taken care of and taken everywhere you go. I expect you boys to take as much responsibility for the eggs as the girls do. You can draw a face on them, name them, dress them, do whatever you want with them. But most of all think of them as a newborn baby who depends on you to provide for its care.”

Despite the fact some of the children weren’t thrilled with the ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ A.J. paired them with they all showed enthusiasm over this unique project. They spent a few minutes working together to make their babies comfortable in the boxes that were meant to represent cradles and with the paper towels meant to be used as cushioning and blankets. A.J. sat aside the remainder of the boxes and paper toweling with the intention of using them for his other classes. He’d already been promised the remainder of the eggs he needed by one of the women on the kitchen staff.

A.J. glanced at the clock and saw he had just one minute left before the bell rang signaling his students were to move on to their next class. “When we come together again tomorrow we’ll talk about your first day with your new babies. Whomever amongst you takes care of the baby today gets tomorrow off. That means your partner takes over when you walk in the building tomorrow morning.”

Some of the boys groaned. “That’s right, guys,” A.J. stated, “I meant it when I said you’re going to take responsibility as well. If I hear differently from your wives I will personally rectify the situation.”

Jake’s hand went up and A.J. nodded at him. “But what if you’re not here tomorrow, Mr. Simon?”
“Don’t worry, Jake, I’ll be sure to let Mrs. Harrington know what your assignment is. I have a feeling she’ll see you properly carry it out.”

“Darn!”

“Well, Jake, that’s the price you pay for Jake Junior over there.”

Jake blushed as his buddies laughed.

The bell rang causing the children to gather up their books and their eggs. A.J. smiled as he watched the new parents carefully juggle their little charges amongst their other possessions. He wondered how long it would be before the novelty wore off and the eggs were nothing more than yolks.

By the time the bell rang again three minutes later A.J.’s classroom was filled with fifth graders. Although he thought his impromptu discussion on sex went well he was thankful to learn this age group was studying the effects of exercise and a healthy diet versus a sedentary lifestyle and a diet saturated with fats and sugars. That subject matter gave A.J. an excuse to take his class out in the sunshine for a few minutes and allow them an impromptu recess. When one boy helpfully pointed out to him that fifth and sixth graders don’t get a morning recess like the younger children do A.J. smiled.

“This isn’t a recess, Tim. This is class. You’re learning about the healthful benefits of exercise. Now come on, pass me the basketball.”

It was late in the school day when Rick’s little ones gathered around him on the floor. Emily informed him this was story time and provided him with the book Mrs. Dunford was reading to them. The detective flicked through it then tossed it over his shoulder. “Boring.”

The children giggled at this funny teacher’s ways.

“But this is our story time, Mr. Rick,” Emily stated with just a hint of annoyance.

“Emily,…..”

“I know, I know. Don’t get my knickers in a knot.”

Rick laughed then reached out and gently pulled on one pigtail. “That’s right, kiddo. Unknot them knickers. You’re gonna get yourself a story all right. A story Rick Simon style.”

Rick paused in thought a moment, then began weaving a tale filled with princes named Jeremiah and Jedidiah, knights named Zeke and Nicholas and a king named Micah. There was a queen named LaKeshia and princesses three as Rick put it named Olivia, Autumn and Jessica. A little girl named Lady Emily lived way up in the tallest tower in the land and oversaw all that went on there and reported those events to the king. Every child in the room fit into Rick’s story somewhere. Each one listened with rapt attention and smiled every time his or her name was mentioned. The bell rang signaling the end of the school day long before Rick finished.

“But you’re not done,” Emily moaned, “and we hafta go.”

“Yeah,” other little voices echoed in despair, “you’re not done and we hafta go home, Mr. Rick.”

“That’s the best part of a story like this, guys. It’s continues day after day. We’ll hear more of it tomorrow.”

Emily leaned forward and stared up into Rick’s eyes. “Promise?”

“Sure thing, kiddo. I promise.” Rick pushed himself to his feet, his class following suit. “Okay, guys, gather up your things so you can get to your buses.”

Rick envied the dexterity of the young ones as they ran with ease to their desks and began filling backpacks. He limped behind them until his legs were once more accustomed to supporting his weight. He helped those children that needed assistance so everyone could get out the door on time. He didn’t know if it was necessary to walk them out to the front or not. He supposed by now, two months into the school year, they were used to the routine but he followed them anyway just to be on the safe side. The children waved and called goodbye to him as one by one they climbed on the bright yellow buses that would take them home.

Fifteen minutes later A.J. found his brother picking up stray pieces of paper and straightening desks that sat askew from an active day.

“Gee, I could never get you to pick up when the Hole In The Water was anchored in my yard and you practically lived on my couch. I guess until now I never knew the secret. I should have filled my home with a class full of six year olds.”

“Don’t count on it, little brother. Believe me, the thrill woulda’ worn off fast.”

Rick placed a hand at the small of his back and grimaced as he stretched. “I’ll tell ya’ something, kids can do a guy in. I’m ready for a nap.”

“Well you’re not going to get one. We’re going to the office for a couple of hours.”

“A.J.!”

A.J. put a hand on his brother’s back and led him out of the room. “If nothing else we’re going to look through the mail and listen to our messages.”

“Man, this having two jobs is for the birds. You know, I’ve been thinking, this teacherin’ thing might not have been such a bad profession to pursue. Heck, you get three months off every year and all major holidays.”

A.J. gave his brother a sidelong glance. “So you really like it, huh?”

Rick shrugged. “It has its moments, both good and bad. How about you? How did your day go?”
“Pretty good. I wasn’t exactly ready to engage in a discussion on safe sex with a bunch of twelve year olds but I got through it I guess.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Man, I woulda’ liked to have been a little mouse in that class.”

“And I would have gladly traded you classes at that moment, believe me.”

“I’m sure you would have, little brother,” Rick chuckled. “I’m sure you would have.”

The men exited the building after saying goodbye to Stacy and promising they’d see her the next morning. They put an hour and half in at the office then A.J. bought them both dinner at the restaurant housed on the ground floor. The blond dropped his brother off in front of the houseboat at seven thirty. Neither of them could help but laugh when A.J. promised to pick Rick up for school the next morning.

Wednesday was an easier day for both Rick and A.J. and by Thursday they were practically old hands at the teaching profession.

Rick possessed almost as much energy and enthusiasm as his six year olds. He was forever coming up with innovative ideas that ignited the learning process within their little minds. He brought his guitar to school with him on Wednesday and made use of it during the daily phonics lesson much to the delight of the children. When he decided the kids had earned a well deserved break from their studies later in the day he pulled the instrument out again. The children sat around him in a semi-circle and called out song requests. Rick played while the kids sang everything from Michael Row Your Boat Ashore to Puff The Magic Dragon to Bingo.

The class had been studying the animal kingdom prior to Rick’s arrival as their substitute. He’d got permission from Stacy to have Cecilia bring in Rex after lunch on Wednesday. The gentle young dog stayed forty-five minutes and was lavished with more hugs and attention than one dog deserved. Although Rex’s array of tricks didn’t extend beyond sitting on command, coming when Rick called him, and begging for a Milk-Bone, the kids claimed he was as smart and well-trained as Lassie.

On Thursday Rick arranged for a friend who owned a bird and reptile store to come in with a parrot, a cockatiel, a boa constrictor and an iguana. Those children who wanted to got to help hold the twelve foot boa constrictor named Milo while Rick’s buddy told the children all about snakes. The parrot, Odie, had five phrases he could say. The kids never seemed to tire of hearing him repeat them over and over while they fed him crackers and sunflower seeds.

By the time Rick’s third day drew to a close he had even won over the formidable Emily. As the children were getting ready to board their buses she ran up to him and threw her arms around his waist. A gentle hand patted her back in return.

“What’s that for, kiddo?”

A little heart shaped face gazed upward. “Cause the week’s almost over.”
“That it is,” Rick smiled. “But we’ve got one more day yet. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“But after that you’ll be done. Mrs. Dunford will be back on Monday.”

“Yep, she will be.”

“But I don’t want her to come back. I want you to be our teacher. Everyone does.”

Rick bent his knees and hunched down in front of the girl so they were eye level. “And as much as I’d like to go on being your teacher, Emily, I can’t. I’m just substituting while Mrs. Dunford is sick. Remember how I told you guys yesterday that my brother and I are private investigators?”

Emily nodded. “Yeah. You said you find things for people and sometimes you help put bad men in jail.”

“That’s right, that’s what we do. And that’s what we have to go back to doing next week.”

Emily’s eyes dropped so Rick wouldn’t see her tears. A small hand reached out to idly play with a button on the front of his shirt. “But why?”

“Because for as much as you’ve enjoyed me bein’ your teacher this week, and for as much as I’ve enjoyed bein’ your teacher, I’m not all that good at it. I’m better at bein’ a private investigator just like Mrs. Dunford is better at bein’ a teacher.”

“But you’re a good teacher, Mr. Rick. You’re the bestest teacher I ever had.”

“Well thank you, Emily,” Rick chuckled, “that means a lot to me. But I’m really not as good as you make me out to be. I haven’t gotten you guys to lunch on time yet which is pis,….tickin’ off the cooks to no end, and according to Mrs. Cameron across the hall it sounds like Mardi Gras is goin’ on in here on a daily basis. And Mrs. Whithers says I let you guys take too long of a recess causing her class to be mad at her and demand the same amount of time, and Mr. Samuels says we disturb the other classes when we take our bathroom breaks. Plus I forgot to find out if anyone was allergic to dogs before Rex came to visit us the other day. Micah ended up sneezing all night long and his mother wrote me a pretty nasty note about the whole thing.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “Take it from me, Mr. Rick, I’ve been goin’ to school with Micah since kindergarten and he’s got lots of problems. What do you expect from a kid who eats his crayons?”

Rick couldn’t help but laugh as he drew the child to him. He gave her a quick hug. “Emily, you’re quite a girl, you know that?” He released her and tousled her long thick locks. “You may not realize it now, but you’ll enjoy the peace and quiet Mrs. Dunford is gonna bring back to your classroom. And hey, listen, I’ll talk to Mrs. Harrington about you guys taking a field trip to the office where my brother and I have our business.”

“Really? You promise?”

“Sure I promise. It won’t be all that exciting I don’t suppose, but A.J. and me can show you guys first hand what private investigators do. Then maybe we can go on a picnic at the marina where I live.”

“Wow! That would be great, Mr. Rick.”

Rick rose and gently pushed the little girl on her way. “Okay, it’s a deal then. You go on now. You don’t wanna miss your bus.”

All traces of tears were gone. A smile now dominated Emily’s face. “Bye, Mr. Rick. See you tomorrow!”

“Bye, Emily. See ya’ tomorrow.”

Halfway down the hallway the little girl turned around and scampered back into the room. “Hey, Mr. Rick?”

Rick pivoted from where he’d been straightening desks. “Yeah?”

“If I get my mom to make cupcakes and cookies tonight can we have a party in here tomorrow? You know, ’cause it’s your last day.”

“Sure, kiddo, why not? Everyday’s a party in here anyway. If you get your Mom to do that I’ll spring for the apple juice, how’s that sound?”

All right! But you’d better bring some grape too, cause Micah’s,….”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. Micah’s allergic to apple.”
“Yep!”

“Okay, apple and grape. Now go on with you. It sounds like you have a lot of baking to do.”

“I do! Bye!”

Rick shook his head and chuckled. “Bye, Emily.”

A.J.’s popularity with his students mirrored Rick’s. Because of the ‘learning recess’ he was allowing all his fifth grade classes he gave up wearing a sport coat and tie on Wednesday in favor of a casual shirt, cotton trousers, and deck shoes. As well on Wednesday he brought two electric skillets from home and the necessary ingredients to make a low fat chicken and rice dish. His three fifth grade classes thought it was great to get the opportunity to cook and eat during the school day. In contrast on Thursday A.J. brought in homemade brownies and a cooler full of soft drinks. The kids talked and laughed with the blond man as they ate their way through the treats. They gave good natured moans when, as he licked chocolate frosting off his fingers, he told them, “Okay, you guys, now you’ve had a day of low fat nutritional dining, and a day of high fat high sugar dining. I want everyone to go home this evening and write me a two page report on both these experiences. There’s no right or wrong answer. I just want to know what you liked about our chicken dish versus our brownies, and vice versa. As well you can tell me what the health benefits are to eating a diet low in fat versus the health detriments of high fat diet.”

A hand went up in the back of the room.

“Yes, Derrick?”

“But, Mr. Simon, if brownies and soda are so bad for us how come you brought them in today?”

A.J. grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “Because they’re fun.” When the kids finished laughing at that remark the investigator grew serious. “Although your health books may disagree I believe there’s a place for ‘fun’ eating in all of our lives. What’s important is that we temper the urge to eat too many sweets and as well, offset that urge with lean meats and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

One overweight boy cupped his full double chin in his pudgy hand and groaned. “But I like the sweets best.”

A.J. laughed. “Believe me, Sean, so does my brother.”

A.J. made sure he’d brought enough brownies and sodas to share with his sixth graders that Thursday. While the students ate and drank they reported to their classmates and A.J. their latest triumphs or woes in parenthood.

One baby had become the victim of an after school football game. His father had sat him on the sidelines thinking he was out of harms way only to have a defensive line man fall on him in the process of making a tackle. No not only did Jake have to report the mishap to A.J., but as well his ‘wife’ was no longer talking to him.

A.J. chuckled as the boy related the story. Across the aisle Jake’s ‘wife’ sat half turned in her seat with her back to him and her arms folded over her chest. Her posture was as unforgiving now as she had been on the bus ride to school when Jake explained where their child was.

“Although I’m sorry to hear about the demise of Jake Junior that’s a good lesson for all of us. Like eggs, babies are quite fragile. As Jake learned it wouldn’t be wise to bring one to a football game and leave it forgotten on the sidelines.”

“But it was my turn to take care of him, Mr. Simon, and I didn’t want to miss the game,” Jake defended himself. “I tried to get my Mom to watch him for me but she said no, that he was my school project and my responsibility.”

“And he was,” A.J. agreed. “If he’d been a real child, Jake, you would have had to make the choice to miss the game if you couldn’t have found someone else to care for him. Or at least that’s what I hope you would have done.”

“Yeah, I guess so. ‘Cause otherwise he’d have a cracked skull right about now.”

“So did you learn anything from this?”

Jake gave an emphatic nod of his head. “You bet. I sure don’t want to be a dad for a long long time to come.”

A.J. smiled. “Good for you, Jake.” He looked around the room for volunteers. “Does anyone else want to fill the class in on how your parenting duties are going? Carrie, how about you and Matt? How are you two doing?”

Carrie’s artistic skills were evident in the bright blue eyes she’d given her baby and the fringe of blond hair painted on his elongated head. A.J. had been surprised to learn Matt had gone over to her house on Tuesday afternoon and helped her fashion a bonnet out of some material scraps. The next morning she had shyly asked A.J. what his initials stood for. In short order her and Matt’s offspring was christened Andrew.

“We’re doing fine, Mr. Simon,” Carrie reported. “Matt and I take turns with Andrew. We take him everywhere we go.”

“What about when you had basketball practice after school yesterday, Matt? What did you do with him?”

“I paid my little sister two Hershey bars and a MilkyWay to take care of him for me.”

“Very ingenious of you, Matt. I’m glad to hear Andrew’s got two such attentive parents.”

A.J. polled the remainder of the class. One egg had a Band-Aid running its length that covered a crack caused by jostling on the school bus. Another student was forced to report that her father had scrambled her baby for his breakfast not realizing it was part of her homework assignment.

The girl finished with a downhearted, “My mother says he took just about as good a’ care of me and my sister when we were babies.”

A.J. couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s okay, Sarah. This isn’t for a grade. It’s just for the experience.”

By the end of the day A.J.’s homeroom class was as morose over the thought of Friday being his last day as Rick’s first graders were. A.J. was flattered by the kids’ compliments, but as much as he was enjoying his teaching experience he was ready to get back to the Simon and Simon office full time. As he told Rick later that afternoon when they were going through their business mail, “This teaching stint has been interesting, but I miss the excitement of P.I. work.”

Rick arched a skeptical eyebrow. “What excitement? All we were gonna be doin’ this week was paperwork.”
“I know. But it’s not like that every week. I’m looking forward to a real involved missing persons case or, heaven forbid I should say this, maybe a repo job or two.”

“You? Wishing for a repo job? A.J., I think bein’ stuck in that classroom all day is affecting your thought process.”

“No, it’s not. It’s just too repetitious, that’s all.”

“Too repetitious?”

“Yeah. I mean I’ve got three classes of fifth graders to whom I teach the exact same things, only to do the same with three classes of sixth graders. There’s not enough variety for my taste. So like I said, I’m in need of a little excitement.”
Rick shut the door behind them as they exited the office and headed for home. “I sure never thought I’d live to see the day when A.J. Simon said he was in need of excitement. Usually you’re screamin’ the exact opposite when we’re in the middle of a high speed car chase or runnin’ for our lives from some maniac wavin’ a gun.”

“Usually,” A.J. conceded, “but not at the moment so enjoy it while it lasts.”

“I plan to,” was the last thing Rick said before the brothers climbed

in A.J.’s Camaro. Twenty minutes later A.J. was dropping Rick at his boat with the promise of picking him up the next morning for what would be their last day of school.

Geneva had never seen her husband so agitated. He worked with reckless abandon in the garage that entire day mumbling incoherently as he did so. She wasn’t sure what he was doing but he seemed to be intent on building something. She’d gone to the door to check on him several times but on each occasion he yelled and cursed and told her to get out. She hadn’t even been able to get him to stop for a sandwich at lunch time or to come in and eat the supper she’d prepared.

The sun had long since given up its position to the moon. Geneva sat on the one cushion of the old battered sofa that would support her weight and knitted by the dim light of a nearby lamp. Her maternal grandmother had taught her what was now becoming a lost art among most young women her age. But Geneva enjoyed the soothing ‘click click click’ the smooth steel needles made as they lightly tapped against one another. A neighbor had given Geneva a discarded box of yarn from which the girl had picked out the blues and pinks and yellows and greens. She was now in the process of knitting her baby an afghan. She couldn’t afford to buy a pattern so drew what she pictured in her head on a piece of paper and copied it as best she could. She wanted her baby to have something pretty and new to come home from the hospital in and not just the second hand clothing she knew she’d be forced to buy from the Thrift Shop down the street.

Her hands paused in midair, her needles silent, when she heard Bobby come in the house. He walked down the hall to the bathroom and turned the water on at the sink. When he appeared in the living room he was still wearing his grease stained shirt and trousers that reeked of gasoline. Geneva gave an inward groan when she saw he had his Bible in hand.

She attempted to sidetrack the sermon she had no desire to partake in. “I’ve been keeping your supper warm in the oven, Bobby. Let me fix a plate for you.”
Bobby held up a hand like an authoritative minister and indicated for Geneva to remain where she was. He opened the Bible and began crisscrossing the room.

“The Lord has said for they that spread evil are evil! For they that lie are liars! For they that curse Him shall be cursed! For they that dare to defy the word of the Lord shall die at the hand of Gabriel!” Bobby’s voice softened for dramatic effect. “And Gabriel shall set the children free. For the vermin influence the children in the ways of Satan and the Lord has decreed this disgrace unto Him must be halted.”

“Bobby,….”

“It shall be halted and Gabriel shall sit at the right hand of God.”

Geneva’s mind wandered as Bobby rambled on about things that made no sense. When he was done he threw his head back and spread his limbs, the image reminding Geneva in an eerie way of pictures she’d seen depicting Christ hanging on the cross. He remained in that position a long time before allowing his arms to drop to his sides.

“The Lord has told me tomorrow is the day, Geneva.”

“The day for what, Bobby?”
“That is not for you to know. The Lord has told it to me and only me, his faithful servant and the father of Gabriel. But you will come with me for the Lord has said it is so.” He held a hand out to her. “Come.”

“Where are we,….”

His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened indicating to Geneva now was not the time for questions.

She left her knitting in a pile on the couch and reluctantly took her husband’s hand. He led her to the bathroom where he stripped her of her clothing, then did the same to himself. He turned the faucet on in the bathtub then pulled up the knob that would activate the shower. He regulated the water until billows of scalding steam rose from behind the vinyl curtain. He climbed in, then held out a hand to Geneva. She drew back when the first droplets singed the skin of her right foot and splotched it with fiery red dots.

“Bobby, this water is too ho….”

He yanked her forward causing her shins to solidly connect with the side of the porcelain tub with a dull ‘thud’. Geneva had no choice but to climb in before Bobby toppled her over head first. Her shins were alive with biting pain and already beginning to bruise.

Geneva stood in front of her husband with her back to him. She sucked her breath in-between in her teeth as the scorching water pelted her rearend. Bobby was standing closest to the shower head receiving the full force of its flow yet not indicating in any way that it bothered him. Geneva wondered how he stood it and hoped he wasn’t stupid enough to be giving himself first degree burns.

Bobby picked up a washcloth and lathered it with soap. Geneva jumped when she felt him run it between her legs.

“We must purify ourselves for the Lord tonight, Geneva.”

The act of him washing her was not sexual in nature though there was not one part of her body he didn’t touch and linger over. When he was through he made her do the same to him. She was surprised when her washing didn’t cause him to become erect. In fact, completely uncharacteristic for him, he seemed quite proud of his self-control.

When Bobby decreed them finished he methodically brushed his teeth and shaved. Geneva couldn’t recall when the last time was he’d been so concerned about his personal hygiene. She would have welcomed this change had it not been accompanied by so many other bizarre behaviors.

He led her to the bedroom and pulled back the spread and sheets. When Geneva moved to retrieve her nightgown he stopped her. “The Lord has said we must sleep tonight as we came into the world. We must be as pure and innocent as new born babes just as His son was pure and innocent. Just as innocent as our own son will be.”

Out of fear Geneva did as her husband instructed. She knew to defy him was to invite a beating. She had to think of the baby. It was getting too big now to withstand his brutal treatment of her.

The young woman didn’t know what to expect when her naked husband climbed in beside her. She assumed a round of unwelcome rough sex was to follow, but that was not to be the case.

“The Lord has said we are not to come together has husband and wife tonight, Geneva. I am not to be influenced by Eve.”

“Bobby, what….”

He clamped a crushing hand over her lips and pressed her head into her pillow. “Shut up, woman! Since the day of Creation you are all alike! But there will be none of your tricks tonight. None of your harlot ways, Eve! Do you understand?”

When Geneva didn’t answer he applied more force until she feared the act of him pushing her head against the pillow would break her neck. She gave a tight nod.

“Good. For it is imperative you understand and obey. For the Lord God has said, women obey your husbands and you shall be rewarded in Heaven.”

Bobby didn’t seem to want a response and Geneva couldn’t have given him one had he asked it of her. Everything she wanted to say, every question she wanted to ask, would only work him into a frenzy. At least he was relatively calm at the moment and no longer hurting her.

Sometimes that’s all she could ask for.

The sun was trying to outshine itself in the Southern California sky on Friday morning. Rick’s class was absorbed in their mathematics, all twenty heads bent diligently over their workbooks. Pencils scratched against paper as Rick strolled the aisles offering help to those who had questions. The detective looked over the work when a child indicated he or she was finished. The reward for a good math paper was being allowed to draw pictures on the chalkboard with the colored chalk Mr. Rick had brought in. That was something Mrs. Dunford neverallowed them to do as she liked her boards clean and free of childish scribble. Under Rick’s tutelage no child went without at least a few minutes to draw on the board. He coached those who got hung up on their problems until the correct answer was finally given.

Rick glanced out the window to see A.J.’s second hour class of fifth graders on the playground. His brother had evidently borrowed a bat, mitts and a baseball from the gym teacher and now had a game underway. A.J. was up to bat and although the kids’ shouts were far away and vague Rick could tell they were teasing him as one of the girls pitched to him.

The lanky detective smiled as he turned away from the window. Although he hadn’t started this job with much enthusiasm it had proven to be an enjoyable week. The table in the back of the room was lined with the cupcakes and cookies Emily had promised to bring. Added to that were another four dozen cupcakes and cookies Rick had purchased at a bakery the evening before. He figured he needed to make amends to the other teachers in his wing of the school who had complained about his unorthodox ways all week so had brought enough treats for all the kindgergarten and first grade youngsters. He planned to invite the classes in shortly before the school day ended. In a cooler underneath the table Rick had the promised grape juice and apple juice. Two packages of paper cups rested on top of it.

It’ll be a good time, Rick thought. The kids will really enjoy it. Maybe I’ll even let ’em skip their afternoon lessons so we can do some singing and then finish the story I’ve been tellin’ ’em all week. I suppose that’ll get ole’ Mrs. Dunford’s girdle in a grip, but what the heck, these are a buncha’

A-one little kids in my opinion. They deserve a fun afternoon free of school work once in a while.

Geneva sat on the passenger side of the station wagon, her eyes averted. Her lower lip was split open and she was certain Bobby’s hand print was still discernible on her left cheek.

She didn’t know if he’d slept at all the night before. In-between bouts of her own restless sleep she was aware of him tossing and turning and mumbling as though troubled by fever. It was midnight when he rose and left the bedroom. For the remainder of the early morning hours Geneva heard him pacing between the kitchen and the living room while preaching to the vacant furniture. She had no idea what was going on in his mind, but she possessed an ominous feeling about the day ahead. When Bobby’s voice began to rise and fall in the same wild rhythm made by a roller coaster while he preached to no one but himself, Geneva quietly slipped out of bed. Without turning on a light she crept over to the closet. She waited until Bobby’s shouts grew thunderous in proportion then eased the door open. She crouched down on the floor and carefully felt for the shoe box in the far back corner. She stayed like that, with her hand on the box, until his voice picked up again. She used his volume to mask the rustling of the tissue paper as she dug for the card Dr. Qualyn had given her.

It was too dark in the bedroom for her to read the writing on the card but she could feel the raised letters that spelled out Horizon Center in gold. Silently she closed the closet door and made her way back to the bed. She shoved the card under her pillow for the time being. When the day was fully underway she’d pack a bag and sneak out of the house. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d do that, Bobby hardly let her go anywhere these days without him, but maybe she could feign illness and convince him to go to the drugstore for her. Without Bobby’s knowledge she had managed to put away a little money. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for bus fare and a few meals. She could certainly get as far as the Horizon Center. After that, well after that she’d just have to see what kind of help they could give her. She’d do anything, work any kind of a job to pay her way if they’d just offer her shelter and protection until after the baby came.

Despite Bobby’s roars coming from the other room Geneva finally dropped off to sleep. The sun was just lighting the eastern sky when she felt his tug on her arm.

“Wife! Wife, get up I command thee!”

Now what? Geneva couldn’t help but inwardly moan as she buried her face further into her pillow.

“Rise yourself from thy bed, woman! We have the Lord’s work to do today!”

Before Geneva could fully get to a sitting position on the mattress Bobby yanked her to her feet. Her pillow skidded across the bed leaving in its wake the business card with gold letters that now seemed to be flashing brighter than a neon sign. Geneva’s eyes fell to it, then quickly flicked away.

Bobby reached around her. “What is this?”

“It’s nothing.” Geneva made an aborted attempt to snatch the card from. “It’s just the card they give me at the clinic that tells me when my next doctor’s appointment is.”

Bobby’s cold eyes studied the card. She hoped his reading skills wouldn’t allow him to discern what it said.

“This doesn’t look like no doctor’s appointment card, Geneva. I’ve seen them before. You always hang them on the refrigerator.”

Geneva hoped her voice sounded steady and matter of fact. “Well, that’s what it is.”

His hand flew up with the speed of a striking rattlesnake. “Don’t lie to me, woman!”

The force of Bobby’s slap threw Geneva into the nightstand. It tumbled sideways taking the lamp and alarm clock with it. The girl was vaguely aware of the bells on the clock ringing with the same intensity the bells were ringing in her skull from Bobby’s blow. Before she was able to recover he had her back on her feet. He gave her a series of violent shoves causing her to stumble into and over furniture.

“Bobby,…..the baby! Please, Bobby, the baby!”

He grabbed her bare arm and twirled her into the wall. “Shut up! Shut up you disciple of Satan! Now tell me what that card says!”

Geneva’s arms came up to cradle her head in protection as she sobbed.

“Thou shalt not lie, Geneva! Thou shalt not lie! Now tell me what that card says!”

When Geneva didn’t answer a fist slammed into her stomach. She doubled over and felt the baby kick in protest.

“I already told you!” she cried. “The doctor’s office gave it to me!”

He grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her into an upright position. “I know better, woman! Why would you hide a card from the doctor’s office unless it had something on it you didn’t want me to see?”

“I wasn’t hiding it!” she pleaded. “It must have gotten left in one of my pockets and fell out while I was folding clothes on the bed the other day.”

Even to her own ears the excuse sounded lame.

His eyes were wild and the whites streaked with angry red as he came nose to nose with her. “That’s blasphemous, spawn of Eve, and you know it! What does it say?”

Geneva’s steady sobs prevented her from answering Bobby which only further enraged the man. When his fists began to pound into her abdomen again like a boxer’s going after his opponent she begged, “Please, Bobby, please! Stop it! Please! You’re hurting the ba,….you’re hurting Gabriel! You’re hurting Gabriel, Bobby!”

As quickly as his rage had overtaken him it now vanished. Tranquility bathed Bobby’s features and his hands grew gentle. He caressed his wife’s naked bulging abdomen and even bent and gave it a kiss.

It was as though Geneva was no longer present as his lips traveled over her belly. “My Gabriel,” he crooned, “the right hand of God. God’s messenger. The son God has sent to me.”

When he was finished loving the child he had only seconds earlier been harming Bobby rose to his full height. The business card and the uproar it had caused was now apparently a thing of the past.

“Get dressed, Geneva. The Lord has spoken to me telling me today is the day of deliverance.”

“Where are we,….”

He pressed her back into the wall with promises of more rough treatment to come if she didn’t comply.

“Silence, woman! Obey me now! Git yourself dressed. We have much work to do!”

The girl cried as she slipped into the first set of maternity clothes she’d had to wear. A neighbor lady had recently given Geneva the clothing she used during her pregnancies. Geneva had been grateful for the gifts of oversized slacks, tops, and two dresses, and couldn’t wait until she was big enough to have to wear them. Rather than this being the happy day she’d envisioned, however, Bobby had turned it into a nightmare. Another nightmare in what was becoming a succession of nightmares.

Geneva’s thoughts were gray and full of despair as she ran a finger over the word BABY that was stitched in happy quilted letters on the pale blue shirt. A large arrow pointed downward to her protruding belly.

She didn’t even shudder when she found herself wondering if both she and her child would be better off dead.

It was as though Geneva Master’s mind had removed itself from her body as she helped her husband load the old station wagon that morning. She didn’t question him about the unfamiliar paraphernalia he carefully laid in the back nor about the loaded rifle he carried from the house. His pockets were bulging with ammunition and hand grenades were clipped to the waistband of his Army issue trousers as though he was about to overtake a small country.

Geneva could hardly bring herself to care anymore. Her face hurt, her lip was so swollen she wouldn’t have been able to eat had she wanted to, and she hadn’t felt the baby move since she’d gotten dressed an hour earlier.

Geneva paid only a minimal amount of attention as Bobby drove them through one neighborhood and into another. What or who he was looking for she didn’t know. It wasn’t until after the third time they slowed to almost a stop in the middle of a residential street did she take note of the fact that for some odd reason his attention seemed to be focused on school buildings.

He looked at the sign with the large black cat on it poised to strike. Home Of The Grant High School Panthers it read.

“No good,” he shook his head and mumbled as his foot pressed down on the gas pedal once more. “Those kids are too old. They might cause us trouble.”

Geneva wanted to ask him what kind of trouble he was referring to but her split lip made her think better of it. An elementary school a few blocks away caught his interest next. He parked at the curb and stared at it a long time. But then what seemed like the entire student body spilled out its doors. Bobby waited until it became apparent this wasn’t recess but rather some type of track and field day in which the children were going to be allowed to remain outdoors until it was time to go home.

Bobby’s head gave a negative shake again as he eased the car back into the flow of traffic.

Several miles later he spied a junior high school. For a brief moment he became engrossed with its facade only to keep on driving when he realized it was across the street from a police station.

They drove for another twenty minutes. Geneva couldn’t see any particular pattern to Bobby’s route and the schools they came upon seemed to be more by chance than by plan. It was when he turned the corner of a residential street in a well-to-do neighborhood that he spotted it. The building looked new and clean, less than ten years old and made of white brick. Its playgrounds were wide and filled with the type of equipment children love to swing and slide and climb on. Its playing fields were lush green and well manicured. The plexiglass sign in the front read HERITAGE ACADEMY. GRADES K TO 6TH. THROUGH LEARNING THERE IS KNOWLEDGE.

“Yes, yes,” Bobby whispered. He drove past the front of the quiet school three times. He reached across the car seat and gave Geneva’s hand a squeeze. “This is it, Geneva. This humble place is the center of God’s plans for us today.”

“What plans?”

He brought a finger up to her lips. “Ssssh. It is not for you to know all that God has told me. Suffice to say this is the beginning of Gabriel’s reign.”

“Gabriel’s reign? Bobby, what…..?”

He ignored her as he parked the car in the visitor’s lot. He motioned for Geneva to get out and help him. When he started to unload the rifle Geneva’s eyes widened with fright. She turned to look at the building that housed so many innocent children then looked back at him.

“Bobby, you can’t! You,…….”

The barrel of the rifle was jammed into the young woman’s sternum.

“You’ll do as I say, woman, do you hear me? You’ll do as I say for this is what God has commanded.”

“But the children,…..”

“No children will be hurt here today, Geneva. No children will be hurt unless they do not do as I instruct. For it is not the children who the Lord is angered with. His wrath is with their teachers. The Lord has sent me to spread His message before ridding the earth of these misguided leaders of Satan.”

Rick Simon looked up at the clock to see it was nine forty-six. Most of the children were at the board drawing. The detective was helping the last few who remained in their seats yet so they, too, could have a turn before it was time to move on to phonics.

“Hey,” Rick warned two of the boys at the chalkboard, “no fighting up there or you’ll both come back to your seats.”

“But I want the blue piece, Mr. Rick, and Jeremiah won’t let me have it.”

“But I had it first, Mr. Rick, and Jedidiah keeps trying to take it away from me.”

“Then break it in two and share it.”
“But Mrs. Dunford gets mad when we break chalk.”

“Well I don’t. I only get mad when you guys fight. So go ahead, Jeremiah, break it in two and give half of it to your brother.”

The chalk was broken in two pieces like Rick instructed. Calm was soon restored and the boys were best friends once more.

Just like me and A.J. when we were kids. Bickerin’ one minute and each other’s best buddy the next. Rick chuckled to himself. Hell, just like me and A.J. now.

Rick was hunched down on his knees absorbed in helping Autumn and Chandler with their last two problems. In a preoccupied sort of manner he was aware of a clattering in the hallway, but between the children talking at the front of the room and his concentration on the two he was helping Rick dismissed the noise as a janitor’s cart. Even when he heard the first shouts Rick didn’t rise, nor did any of his students seem disturbed by them. The detective assumed the gymnasium doors were open and what he was hearing was the sound of a class in session.

What finally caused Rick to focus in on the shouts he didn’t know. Perhaps it was the duration of them or the fact he finally heard them clearly enough to realize they weren’t the shouts of children at play but rather the agitated cries of a grown man.

Rick spoke to Autumn and Chandler as he rose. “I’ll be right back. You guys work on that last problem together.”

The detective walked to the door. Perhaps if he’d heard the children’s screams prior to stepping out in the hallway he would have realized something serious was amiss and could have gotten his classroom to safety. Rick never had the chance to find that out, however. As soon as he stepped out his door he saw Stacy coming toward him. Her eyes were huge blue orbs turned dark with fright and set within a face now bleached as white as the chalk each classroom contained.

“Stacy, what the heck is goin’….”

It was then that Rick became aware of the man behind her. The space that separated the principle’s body from the man’s was occupied by a rifle the detective recognized as a high powered Winchester. A sight he never expected to see after leaving Vietnam were the grenades he spotted clipped to the waistband of the gunman’s pants.

Rick held up his hands in what he hoped the guy interpreted as a gesture of peace. “Look, buddy, you don’t wanna do this. There’s little kids,….”

“Shut your goddamn mouth!” Bobby rammed the gun into Stacy’s back. “Tell him what he needs to do.”

“Rick, please get all your kids together and take them to Miss Balinski’s and Mrs. Zumeda’s room.”

“Stacy,…..”

The woman’s eyes pleaded with the detective. “Rick, please. He’s got most of the kids and staff in there now and there’s a woman in there with a bomb. They’re going to blow up the school if we don’t do as they say.”

Rick eyed the man one last time only to be shouted at with impatience.

“Do what the lady says or I’ll kill her right now!”

By this time the man’s shouts had drawn the other two first grade teachers to their classroom doorways as well as the kindergarten teacher. Stacy repeated her instructions and pleaded with everyone to hurry.

For now Rick had no other choice but to gather up his students. A few had been drawn to the doorway by the commotion, but most were as he had left them.

The detective remained calm and matter of fact. “Everyone line up at the door. Pick a buddy and take his or her hand.”

“But it’s not recess time, Mr. Rick.”

“No, Emily, it’s not.” Rick hurried amongst the children helping the stragglers to quickly pair up with someone. “We’re going down to Miss Balinski’s and Mrs. Zumeda’s room for a while. Now come on, let’s hurry. But no running in the hallways and stay with me.”

By the time Rick’s class entered the hall in the fashion he instructed the remainder of the classes in his wing of the school were doing the same. Stacy led the way followed by her assailant, his firearm never leaving the space between her shoulder blades.

Rick stayed ahead of the children hoping his body would block their view as to what was happening up ahead. Whether he accomplished that or whether they were just too young to absorb what was going on he didn’t know. He was simply thankful all of them, his class as well as the others, didn’t cause any problems and did as their teachers told them. The last thing he wanted was this guy shooting Stacy or turning on one of the kids.

The classroom they were ushered to was the biggest room in the school outside the gymnasium and cafeteria. Sixty third and fourth graders shared it along with two teachers in a combined effort of team teaching. The desks had already been moved out into the hallway on the instructions of Bobby Masters leaving the floor space wide open.

Rick walked into a sea of faces awash with fright. A young woman stood at the front of the room. Now Rick knew what the clatter was he’d heard early. A two wheeled metal cart rested next to her. It was silver and a cross between a dolly and a grocery store cart. A clear gallon jug that Rick could see was filled with gasoline stood on one of its shelves. Elaborate wires and a blasting cap confirmed Stacy’s words regarding a bomb. It was crude and homemade, but Rick had seen too much of the same sort of thing in Vietnam not to have a healthy respect for its potential power. The young woman was attached to the cart by what looked like a severed electrical cord encircling her right wrist. Rick thought that odd at first until he saw the other end of the cord was attached to what he guessed was the device’s detonator. A jerk of her wrist would cause the thing to explode. Her other wrist was chained to the cart with handcuffs. By the look on her face alone Rick knew she was an unwilling victim in the gunman’s scheme.

Her soft brown eyes looked to the man. “Bobby, please…”

His rifle moved from Stacy’s back to be aimed at his wife’s head.

“Obey me, woman, or you die now! I don’t need you in order to free these children!”

He whipped around to Rick. “You git your kids over there and have ’em sit down. The rest of you fill in to the side of him.”

Rick laid his hands on little backs and guided them to where the gunman pointed. He hated the fact that his children were seated closest to the bomb but had no choice. The classes that had arrived ahead of his had already filled up the room starting at the back for which Rick couldn’t blame them. If he’d been one of the first teachers in here he’d have wanted his kids in the back as well.

Rick’s class sat down in the front of the room only feet away from the woman and explosive. The other first graders and the kindergarten class crammed in on the west side of him until they could go no farther because of the wall and windows above it. The detective sat down in front of his students, deliberately placing his body between the bomb and the children. The gunman pushed Stacy in Rick’s direction indicating she was to sit next to him.

The lanky man’s eyes scanned the room. As near as he could tell most of the teachers and their classes were present, as were the school’s two janitors and three cooks. The fourth grade gym class that had been in session was there as well, the children still in their uniforms of shorts, T-shirts, athletic socks and shoes. Some were shivering, though Rick didn’t know if it was from the perspiration that was drying on their bodies or from fright. The murmur of children’s voices filled the room as some talked to each other, some asked their teachers what was happening, and some cried.

Rick turned so he was sitting sideways and gathered Micah, Jessica, Chandler, and Autumn in his arms. Tears streamed down their faces and by looking at his other children he knew it was only a matter of time before mass hysteria ran through the room like a rampaging bull. The last thing they needed was the kids upsetting the gunman and the woman with the bomb.

Rick rocked back and forth with the children who sat in his lap. His hands reached out to give encouraging pats on the head or a light caress of a cheek to the remainder of his class. “It’s gonna be okay, guys. No one needs to cry,” he crooned softly, “everything’s gonna be okay.”

Emily’s eyes met her teacher’s. “What’s going to happen to us, Mr. Rick?”

“Nothing’s gonna happen to us, Emily. Absolutely nothing at all. We just need to stay calm and quiet and pretty soon we’ll all get to go home. Can you guys do that for me? Can everyone dry their tears and calm down?”

One by one Rick’s class gave tentative nods. He could tell they were valiantly trying to do as he requested, but how long they’d be successful at it was anyone’s guess. All the other teachers had their hands full with upset children as well.

To all appearances Rick remained attentive to his class while he mentally calculated how many people were in the room. He knew the school had a student body of three hundred pupils and guessed that including secretaries, cooks, and janitors the staff totaled somewhere around thirty to thirty-five members. He wasn’t quite sure if the gunman had everyone present yet or not but was certainly aware of one notable absence, A.J. Rick hoped that meant his brother had somehow realized what was happening within the building and managed to get himself and his fifth graders to safety.

If A.J. knows what’s goin’ on then he’s already got the cops on their way. If he doesn’t,……well if he doesn’t then he’ll realize something’s wrong as soon as he enters the building. He’ll get his kids out of here before this guy knows what’s happening. Rick’s mind was pleading with itself as his thoughts finished with, He’s gotta realize something’s wrong when he comes back in. He’s just got to.

A.J. Simon never had time to think about whether or not something was amiss in the school building when his class returned. They’d been playing on one of the ball diamonds on the structure’s east side. Bobby and Geneva Masters had come into the building through the main entrance on the south. Bobby never saw A.J. and his pupils, likewise neither A.J. nor his class saw the gunman.

Ten minutes before the bell was set to ring in the fifth and sixth grade wing of the school indicating the end of second hour class A.J. herded his kids toward the building. They walked in sets of two’s and three’s as they headed for the single door that would open into the east hallway where their classrooms were housed. Sean, the boy who had gotten so much enjoyment out of A.J.’s brownies, led the way carrying the bat. A.J. and the remainder of the class followed hauling the ball and mitts.

The children entered the building laughing and talking and playfully jostling. “Hey, everyone, keep the volume down please,” A.J. said. “Other classes are in sessions.”

A.J. didn’t give it much thought when they passed two empty classrooms. He wasn’t familiar enough with the overall schedule to know who might be in gym class. But as they continued down the corridor only to encounter quiet desolate room after quiet desolate room he began to wonder where the other teachers and students were.

He turned around to look at the kids behind him. “Was there an assembly scheduled for today that one of you conveniently forgot to mention to me?”

The kids looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders. A smattering of them answered him. “No, Mr. Simon.”

Sean slowed in mid-stride. “If there is something going on it will either be in the gym or in Mrs. Zumeda’s and Miss Balinski’s room. It’s the biggest classroom in the school.”

“Well, obviously there’s a gathering of some sort that Mrs. Harrington forgot to mention to me,” A.J. said. “Sean, you lead the way. The rest of us will follow.”

Other than more empty classrooms the private detective didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Not that he was looking for anything out of the ordinary either. That an armed man would storm a school building and hold its entire staff and student body hostage was the farthest thing from the blond man’s mind.

The door leading to the combined third and fourth grade room was closed. As Sean came upon it from its right side he could see it was filled with students of all ages. He turned to A.J. who was a few feet behind him. “Yep, Mr. Simon, everybody’s in here. There must be somethin’ special goin’ on. I hope they got the same magician to come back in that we had a couple years ago.”

A.J. was rather embarrassed to find himself in his current position. He wasn’t the one who was normally remiss in being where he was supposed to be and arriving there on time. That was more Rick’s style. Despite the fact he could honestly say he hadn’t been informed about this gathering he knew he’d never hear the end of it from his brother.

A.J. paused briefly and spoke to his entire class. “I want all of you to enter this room as quietly and discreetly as you can. It’s bad enough that we’re late. Let’s not disturb everyone in the process.”

The kids quieted down as A.J. requested. He nodded to Sean to proceed.

The eleven year old opened the door without looking through the glass. Later Stacy would wonder if because of his size the gunman mistook him for an adult or if he perceived the bat Sean was carrying to be a weapon. She remembered screaming one long,”Nooooo!” and hearing another female voice join in, “Bobby, no!” when he raised his rifle and got Sean in his sights.

Stacy remembered the paper white shock that painted Sean’s face when he came to an abrupt halt. He stood frozen in place, staring at the firearm with his mouth slightly agape.

She remembered seeing A.J. come in behind Sean looking slightly embarrassed as though he thought he’d made a mistake of some sort.

She remembered how A.J.’s facial features changed expression in a matter of milliseconds as his eyes took in what was occurring before him and those visions translated themselves as a warning to his brain.

The last thing she remembered seeing was A.J.’s body fly through the air in an effort to tackle Sean to the ground and out of the man’s firing range. It was then that the boom of the rifle rattled the windows and caused Stacy’s teeth to painfully grind together on their own accord. The softball A.J. had been carrying bounced across the floor and came to rest in a far corner.

Utter chaos broke out within the room. Some children covered their ears and screamed while others buried their faces in their teacher’s bodies and broke into hysterical sobs. Some jumped to their feet in an effort to get out of the room only to have that effort thwarted by quick thinking adults who were able to snare the hem of a dress or shirt. They knew further disaster was in store if the kids began spilling out of the room in a frenzied mass.

The fifth graders who had been coming in behind A.J. turned and fled with far more speed than they’d been using on the base-path just minutes earlier. They grabbed the arms of their classmates still in the hallway and yelled, “Run! Run! He’s got a gun!” Baseball mitts were left behind like a trail of bread crumbs as the kids exited the building the same way they’d entered.

A.J. rolled off Sean’s body and came to rest on his back on the cold white tiles. He brought his hand up to his right side in an effort to quell the warm blood he could feel pooling underneath his shirt. He was oblivious to the noise and confusion in the room as shock overcame his system.

Rick Simon had clearly observed the same things Stacy had. Like her, he was ignorant as to the end results because of the children still on their feet blocking his view. Rick ignored the little hands that clung to his arms and waist as he thrust himself upward. The liquid staining the tile grout red told the detective all he needed to know. Sean’s frantic beckoning of his brother, “Mr. Simon! Mr. Simon! Are you all right?” only further enhanced Rick’s fears.

Bobby Masters waved his rifle in an effort to maintain control of the room. “Shut those kids up! Shut ’em up, do you hear me?”

Stacy pulled Rick’s little ones away from him as he began threading his way across the room. The Winchester swiveled to his chest. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Rick’s eyes narrowed and he pointed to A.J. “I’m going to give that man the help he needs.”

Bobby’s answer was firm and unwavering. “No you’re not.”

“Yes I am.”

“If you take one more step toward him I’ll put a bullet in your gut, too.”

“Then you’re just gonna have to do that, you bastard, because that’s my brother you just shot and I’ll be damned if I’ll leave him layin’ there to bleed to death.”

Bobby’s eyes flicked from Rick to A.J. then back again. He didn’t give his consent, but he didn’t try to stop Rick either as the detective hurried past him.

Rick knelt down at his brother’s side. A.J.’s eyes were open but his glazed stare didn’t seem to be taking in anything other than the ceiling. Rick laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“A.J. A.J., it’s Rick. A.J., I need to move your hand so I can take a look at where the bullet entered, okay?”

A.J.’s head moved toward Rick’s voice. His eyes seemed to clear just a little as though he was aware his brother was now with him and was drawing strength from his presence.

“I’m gonna move your hand, A.J.,” Rick repeated, “so I can take a look at you. I know it’s gonna hurt but try not to fight me, okay?”

A.J.’s confirmation was barely above a whisper and slow in coming. “Okay.” His eyes slid from side to side as though in search of something. “My kids?”

The volume in the room was still at such a level Rick didn’t have to worry about being overheard by the gunman. “They ran outta the room. I’m sure they got to safety.”
“All…..of them?”

“I think so.”

A.J. didn’t have to say anymore. Despite his pain the relief on his face was evident.

“What…. about…….Sean?”

“He’s okay, too. He’s sittin’ right here beside you.”

A.J.’s eyes found Sean at his left shoulder. He lifted his left hand a fraction and gave the terrified youngster a thumbs up. Sean did his best to smile in return.

Rick’s hands moved to cover the blood stained one A.J. had molded to his right side just below his rib cage. Using extreme caution he eased it away from his brother’s body, prepared to put his own there if the blood began to freely flow.

A.J.’s head arched back against the hard tiles and he cried out in pain. He was forced to bite down on his lower lip as Rick’s probing continued.

“I’m sorry, A.J. I’m sorry. But I gotta take a look at this.”

“I know,” A.J. gasped in assurance.

Rick gently pulled his brother’s hunter green polo shirt free from the waistband of his tan Levi trousers. He brought the shirt up to A.J.’s rib cage so his abdomen was exposed.

The detective was relieved to see the bullet hadn’t torn A.J. open, but rather had made a neat round hole in his side. He’d seen enough abdominal wounds in Vietnam to know how nasty, and how deadly, they could be. Especially when internal organs were exposed. But that didn’t mean this wasn’t serious. Far from it. Rick was in the dark as to the path the bullet had traveled and just what damage it had done.

Bobby Masters was growing more impatient with each passing moment. “Come on, come on. Hurry up over there!”

Rick ignored the man to instead keep his attention on the task at hand.

“A.J., I’m sorry, little brother, but I’m gonna have to roll you on your left side. I need to see if I can determine where the bullet went.”

A.J. knew that action was bound to be horrifically painful but did his best to ease the regret he saw in Rick’s eyes. “This is…….your revenge…… for me taking…….your bike without asking first……when I was eight, isn’t it?”

Rick couldn’t help but smile as he brought a hand up to his brother’s head. He winked, “Yeah, it is. That’ll teach ya’ to take things that don’t belong to you.”

The lanky man didn’t waste anymore time. He could see the gunman and the woman engaged in heated conversation. He needed to do as much as he could for A.J. while their assailant was otherwise occupied.

Rick looked across A.J.’s body. “Sean, can you cradle my brother’s head and shoulders for me while I move him? I’m gonna roll him toward you, son, and it’s gonna hurt him. I need you to hold onto him for me. Can you do that?”

Sean’s words were spoken with far more confidence than he was feeling. “Yeah,…..uh yeah sure. I can do that.”

“Good. Now just let me do all the work. Don’t pull on him. Just accept his body as I roll it your way.”

“O,…..Okay.”

Rick and Sean worked together like a well rehearsed team of paramedics. The detective kept a firm hand over A.J.’s wound while he moved him but that didn’t prevent A.J. from crying out in pain again. Rick was peripherally aware of some of the children in the room crying along with A.J. as though in sympathy of his distress.

Rick’s brow furrowed into deep lines while he studied his brother’s back.

“Damn,” he swore under his breath. “No exit wound. Damn!”

Rick regained his composure and nodded to Sean to help him roll A.J. to his back once more. This last bout of pain was too much for the blond and he was now only semi-conscious.

Before Rick could decide what to do next he heard sirens pierce the air.

Thank God. Some of A.J.’s kids must have got to a phone and called for help.

Bobby Masters heard the sirens, too. He looked at Rick and Sean and waved his rifle toward the area Rick had vacated.

“Get away from that door! I want everyone away from that door!”

“I can’t move my brother,” Rick steadfastly maintained.

The rifle was aimed at A.J.’s skull. “You’ll move him or I’ll kill him! Get away from that door. Now!

“Sean, go sit over there next to Mrs. Harrington,” Rick ordered. “Ask her to have the kids move back a little bit so I can make room for A.J.”

Sean nodded and did as Rick instructed. Stacy gave him a hug when he reached her. The chubby boy was forced to fight back the tears of fear and despair that threatened to burst forth as he was held against the her chest. Quietly he told her, “We’ve got to have the little kids move back some. Mr. Simon is gonna bring Mr. Simon over here.”

Stacy followed through on Rick’s instructions to Sean. She asked Rick’s class to scoot back as much as they could so as to make room for him and A.J. Other teachers jumped in to help the children quickly do as they were told.

Bobby’s eyes never left Rick as the detective slid an arm under A.J.’s knees and the other under his neck. Rick didn’t tell A.J. what he was up to this time. He didn’t think his brother was aware enough to understand.

A.J. gave a weak cry of “Aaah!” at the movement and his left hand, which was behind Rick’s back, grabbed a fistful of brother’s shirt.

“I know, A.J.,” Rick comforted as he struggled to walk the ragged path the teachers had cleared for him, “I know it hurts. Just hang on for me, little brother, hang on. We’ll be there in a second.”

In an attempt to calm the kids down teachers had been passing out coloring books, crayons, paper, pencils, Magic Markers, books, board games, puzzles, playing cards, and anything else they could find on the shelves while the mayhem was in progress. A pillow, blanket, and two towels came Stacy’s way from the supply closet in the back of the room. She spread out on the tile floor the blazer she’d been wearing to help ward off the chill for A.J. A nearby male teacher saw what she was doing and passed forward his sport coat so no part of A.J.’s body would have to lie directly on the floor. She put the pillow at the head of her blazer and waited for Rick to arrive. Together they placed A.J. on the makeshift bed then covered him with the blanket. Rick rolled up one of the towels into a thick pad and placed it under the blanket on A.J.’s wound. For the time being he left his hand there in an effort to stop the blood that was still ebbing from the hole.

Geneva remained attached to the bomb while Bobby began to pace the front of the room mumbling to himself. Stacy’s eyes traveled from the couple to A.J.

“How bad is it, Rick?”

“I don’t know. Bad enough, let’s put it that way. I have no idea where the bullet is or how much damage it did. In a way I guess it’s good that it didn’t exit his body. That’s one less place he’s got to bleed from. But in another way that’s bad as there’s no tellin’ what it’s lodged against or how much damage it was doin’ every time I was forced to move him.” Rick lifted the blanket just enough to peek at the white towel. “At least he’s not bleeding too badly. I might be able to get it to stop if I hold this towel here long enough.”

“I’ll help you,” Stacy offered. “Just let me know when you need a break.”

Rick nodded. He looked around the room to see calm had somewhat been restored. Most of the children, especially the smaller ones, were absorbed in projects their teachers had gotten them started on. Some were drawing, some were writing, some were coloring, and some were reading. Rick’s class was turned sideways and facing one of the other first grade teachers who was softly reading to them.

Stacy, too, was aware of the sirens wailing outside. Instead of dissipating they seemed to be increasing as though more and more law enforcement officers were arriving.

“What will the police do?” She whispered.

“If they can somehow make contact with him they’ll try to talk him into letting everyone go, especially the kids. If he refuses, well if he refuses I really don’t know what they’ll do. If enough time passes and he doesn’t cooperate and they feel he’s gonna start,……hurting people, they’ll storm the room. Probably throw in tear gas first, then send a S.W.A.T. team in. But with all these kids in here that will be the last resort.”

Stacy looked around at the children she felt personally responsible for. She envisioned men in black wearing flak jackets and toting high powered rifles entering the room with reckless abandon.

“What can I do to keep the children safe?”

“About the only thing you can do for now is pass a message to the other teachers to be prepared for anything. And I do mean anything. At the first sight of a tear gas canister being thrown in or the first sound of a gun shot they’ve got to get the kids on the floor, stomachs down with their hands covering their heads.”

“With almost three hundred children in this room that won’t be an easy feat to accomplish.”

“I know it. But at least tell them. From there they’ll have to do the best they can.”

Bobby Masters paid no attention as Stacy passed Rick’s message to the closest teacher. It was absorbed and passed on until it had made the rounds of the room. Rick saw some of the teachers whispering to their students. He could only guess they were cautioning the children to be prepared for whatever was to come.

The gunman’s mumbles increased in volume and became clearer. After all these months he finally had a live audience to preach to and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. He raised a hand Heavenward.

“And the little children shall lead us out of bondage sayeth the Lord! For whosoever teaches the children must be a righteous man! It is an abomination what is being taught in our schools today and you, men and women of so-called-knowledge, are sinners in the eyes of God! You are to be driven from your pedestals and smote where you stand!”

Rick leaned to Stacy. “I’ll be the first to admit it’s been a good many years since I’ve stepped foot in a church, probably close to forty. And the times I was there I didn’t exactly listen with rapture, but correct me if I’m wrong. None of what this guy is sayin’ is actually in the Bible, right?”

“None that I’ve ever heard,” Stacy confirmed.

Bobby Masters was just getting warmed up. His preaching only increased in intensity and volume until it interrupted all other activity in the room. Fifteen minutes later Rick had to hand it to the guy. Even if everything he said was pure crap Billy Graham couldn’t have outdone him on his best day.

The children began to fidget and get upset as the oration went on in loud rambling sentences that often made no sense. Bobby had moved a teacher’s chair over so at least Geneva could sit down. She remained tethered and handcuffed to the bomb, her eyes brown eyes wide and flitting about the room as though looking for a means of escape. For the first time Rick really noticed her. Noticed the split lip and discolored cheek that clearly spoke of abuse. Noticed the dilated eyes and pale face that spoke of her fear. Noticed how young she was, somewhere between seventeen and twenty he’d guess. And noticed the slightly swollen belly that was covered with a maternity top while advertising her condition with one word, BABY. For some odd reason Rick was certain the baby was the gunman’s and that this terrified young woman was his wife or girlfriend.

The phone located on the wall behind Bobby began to ring. Rick knew each classroom was equipped with a telephone in the event of a medical emergency or fire. During the school day the phone rang in the main office only. Stacy had told him if in the unlikely event it wasn’t picked up there after twenty rings the system was programmed to then ring the phones in the classrooms until someone answered one of them. Rick seriously doubted that system had ever been tested until right this moment as he was certain one of the secretaries in the office acted as telephone receptionist.

The phone ceased its ringing for a matter of a few seconds then started again. Thirty-five rings later it halted only to begin once more. Rick finally spoke up over the preaching that had yet to abate. “That’ll be the cops wanting to get in touch with you.”

Bobby turned to Rick. “The Lord has not deemed it necessary that I talk to the police.”

“Look, pal, you’re gonna have to do something ’cause if you think standin’ up there all day and preachin’ the good book to this crowd is gonna cut it you’re dead wrong.”

When the gunman merely looked at Rick the detective took it as an invitation to continue. “These kids need a bathroom break. All of ’em. If you don’t work something out soon in that regard take it from me, you’re gonna have a mess in here. And the little ones will be gettin’ hungry. We need food and drinks brought in, the cops can arrange that.”

Bobby thought about Rick’s words long enough for the phone to cease one more time before starting its pattern all over. He aimed his rifle at the detective. “You pick it up.”

“They don’t wanna talk to me. They wanna talk to you.”

The rifle was now moved to A.J. “I said, pick it up!”

Rick looked to Stacy. She nodded and gently slid her hand underneath the blanket. She gave Rick’s fingers a squeeze as their hands traded places on the towel plastered to A.J.’s side.

A.J. was cognizant enough to realize his brother was rising. Through half open eyes he scanned the room. “Rick?”

Rick knelt on one knee and patted A.J.’s shoulder. “I’m here, A.J. Just take it easy. I’ll be right back.”

Bobby’s rifle remained aimed at A.J. as if he knew he’d found Rick’s weak spot. The lanky detective snatched the receiver from its cradle, happy for the time being to put an end to the insistent ringing.

“Hello?”

A female voice Rick immediately recognized boomed through the line. “This is Lieutenant Abigail Marsh of the San Diego Police Department. To whom am I speaking?”

“Uh,….I’m a teacher here at the school, Lieutenant. My name’s……my name’s Rick Simon.”

Rick could hear the woman’s screech of surprise before it even came. “Rick? What the hell are you doing in there?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I imagine it is,” came the dry reply. “And if you’re in there dare I presume that Golden Boy is with you?”

“Yeah, he is.” Rick’s eyes traveled to the pale supine A.J. “He’s here.”

“What’s going on in there, Rick?”
Rick looked to Bobby Masters. “It’s the police. They wanna know what’s going on in here. Whatta ya’ want me to tell ’em?”

“Tell them the truth. Tell them the Lord has sent Gabriel to free the children!”

Rick put his mouth back to the phone. “He says,…..”

“I heard him,” Abby interrupted. “A psycho?”
“Definitely.”

“Tell them I have the entire school in here! God has instructed me to sacrifice this building if Satan, through the police, tries to move against me!”

Rick relayed the message.

“Is he serious?” Abby asked. “Does he have a bomb?”

Not knowing how much information the gunman was willing to let him give Rick’s answer was succinct. “Yes.”

“I’ve talked to some of the students who managed to get out, Rick. There seems to be a considerable amount of confusion as to what’s going on in there but they have told me where he’s holding you. They also said something about a student being shot. Is that true?”

“No, it’s not true. No students have been shot. A,….a teacher was.”

“How serious is it?”

“Serious. Real serious.”

“What’s the chances of convincing the guy to let the teacher go?”
“Not good.” Rick eyed the rifle leveled at his brother’s left temple.
“Not good at all.”

“Then I’ll need to have someone contact the teacher’s family before the media gets a hold of all this. What’s his or her name?”

“The family already knows.”

“What do you mean?”
“The teacher’s name is Simon, Lieutenant. A.J. Simon.”

Rick never heard Abby’s reply. Bobby Master’s broke their connection before she could formulate one.

After fidgeting began to turn to whimpering among the younger students, and with a good deal of pleading from Geneva on behalf of the children, Bobby finally allowed them a bathroom break. He carefully counted each class as it exited with its teacher. He threatened to kill everyone who remained if even one student didn’t return. There was a set of restrooms just down the hall within his plain view from the doorway. Even if any teacher had thought to try something daring the gunman would have easily thwarted his or her effort.

It took forty five minutes for the procedure to come to an end as one by one each class was forced to exit and reenter before another class was allowed to go. When it was Rick’s turn he asked Stacy to take his kids so he could remain behind with A.J. This caused some of Rick’s children to begin crying once again at what was out of the norm for them.

“Please, Mr. Rick,” Micah sobbed as he clung to Rick’s waist, “please come with us.”

“Mr. Rick, I don’t wanna go if you don’t come,” Jessica cried. “I’m scared. I wanna go home.”

“Please, Mr. Rick. Please,” LaKeshia begged, her brown eyes murky muddy pools. “You always take us and I don’t want to walk by that man without you.”

A pitiful chorus erupted as one by one the children cried and pleaded.

Rick rubbed backs and patted heads and wiped away tears while attempting to calm his class in a quiet voice. “Come on now, it’s okay. Everything’s gonna be okay. No one’s gonna hurt any of you. I want you guys to go with Mrs. Harrington for me so I can stay here with my brother.”

It was then that Rick felt a hand larger than a six year old’s brush his knee. He looked down into his A.J.’s blue eyes.

“Take them.” A.J.’s order was weak and raspy, but despite that was firm in tone and conviction. “They need you.”

“You need me, too.”

“Not as much as they do. Take them, please. I’ll be okay.”

“You’re sure?”

A.J. managed a small smile. “I’m sure, Mr. Rick. Now go.”

Rick smiled in return and gave the hand on his knee a long encouraging squeeze before placing it back underneath the blanket. With Stacy’s reassurance of, “I’ll stay with him, Rick,” the detective rose and gathered his class. The children clung to whatever parts of his body they could reach. Like a moving hive clustered with bees Rick made his way to the bathrooms.

In short order Bobby Masters discovered that allowing the children to visit the bathrooms by far didn’t cure all his problems. Despite his valiant attempt at preaching against the sins of the flesh the kids were growing hungry. The phone kept on ringing, too, as Abigail Marsh continued her attempts to reestablish contact.

Rick became the unofficial spokesman for the adults, a role Stacy gladly relinquished to him. She knew his vast experience gained from private investigation work and with the police could only be a benefit to them.

“Hey!” Rick beckoned from his place by A.J.’s side over the latest disjointed sermon. “Hey, these kids need something to eat! It’s almost noon. The little ones are used to eating at eleven.”

The man paused in mid-sentence. He chewed on his lower lip with indecision giving Rick the impression he hadn’t anticipated such minor inconveniences as having to feed three hundred children.

Bobby scanned the room while Geneva’s pleaded. “Please, Bobby, they have to eat. They’re just little kids.”

“Shut up, woman! Just keep quiet until the Lord calls upon you!”

He turned to Rick and made a solemn proclamation. “God will provide for the children in a way only He knows.”

Rick gave a sarcastic snort. “Like how? Is he gonna turn the Elmer’s Glue into wine and the crayons into bread?”

“You blasphemous heathen!” the man roared with indignation. “You disciple of Satan!” Bobby raced toward Rick with a snarl on his lips and hatred lighting his eyes. Before the detective had a chance to react the man was upon him. Rather than physically assault Rick, however, Bobby Masters drew back the heavy steel toe of his work boot and rammed it into A.J.’s injured side with all the driving force his leg would allow.

The blond man’s cry at the unexpected pain was even heard over the screams of the terrified children. A.J.’s body instinctively tried to rise and double over at the middle, only to fall back to the pillow when the effort proved to be more than he could expend. Stacy didn’t think she’d live long enough to ever forget the sight of his ashen face and dusky lips as he gasped for breath. The act of breathing normally was impossible for him as hot pain engulfed him setting his nerve endings aflame.

Rick’s hands curled into fists. He began to rise to his brother’s defense just like he had done when they were kids and school yard bullies dared to pick on A.J.

“Why you bast,….”

Cold steel rested behind Rick’s right ear as the end of the rifle took up residence there.

“Sit down, teacher.”

Rick’s eyes met Bobby’s. Like gunfighters challenging each other to a duel, neither one of them was willing to drop their gaze.

It wasn’t until Bobby’s foot drew back again and was targeted for A.J.’s wounded side that Rick did as he was told.

The room was once again in an uproar as children cried and screamed and begged to be taken home to their mothers. Rick was vaguely aware of Geneva pleading with her husband and then a few minutes later aware that the school’s three female cooks were being allowed to leave the room. What exactly Bobby had said to them or ordered of them Rick didn’t know. As soon as he’d reseated himself his attention had been riveted on A.J.

Stacy scooted out of the way so Rick could sit by his brother’s upper body. While he offered what comfort he could the principal gingerly pulled the towel away from A.J.’s side.

The bleeding had stopped some time before. Now Stacy was forced to grimly announce, “He’s bleeding again, Rick.”

Rick’s arms were around his brother’s shoulders and he had A.J. propped into a half sitting position to aid his attempts for air. His eyes briefly flicked to Stacy. “How bad is it?”

“It seems to be heavier than it was earlier.”

“Just keep your hand there. Maybe you can get it to stop with direct pressure. I don’t wanna use the other towel unless we have to. We might need it later.”

Stacy nodded her understanding. A.J. moaned when the heel of her hand was pressed into his sensitive side. There wasn’t much the woman could do about that fact other than to turn away and hide her tears of sympathy.

Rick gave his brother’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. One hand rose to brush through A.J.’s hair. “I know it hurts, A.J., I know. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I woulda’ known he was gonna,……”

A.J.’s head rubbed back and forth against Rick’s shirt. “Don’t,” he whispered. “It wasn’t……your fault…….so just……don’t.”

“A.J., if it hadn’t been for my smart mouth he never woulda’,….”

A.J.’s eyes caught and held Rick’s. “I said,…..don’t. Besides,…..your smart mouth has been,……..has been getting me in trouble……for years. I’m used to it,……by now.”

Rick couldn’t do anymore than carefully draw his brother closer. He rested his chin atop the fair hair and closed his eyes. He retreated into his own private world long enough to gather the strength he needed to face the awesome task of somehow keeping both A.J. and this room full of children safe.

The detective returned to the present when he heard Stacy ask of him, “Is he asleep?”

Rick looked down at the head resting on his shoulder. A.J.’s eyes were closed, his breathing slow and shallow.

“Probably more unconscious than asleep.” Rick gently eased A.J.’s body to a reclining position. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but at least for now he’s not aware of the pain.”

The detective looked up to see Masters on the phone. “Is he talkin’ to the cops?”

“Yes, I think so. It sounds like they’re trying to convince him to let the children and A.J. go.”

Rick nodded knowing that’s exactly what Abby or the hostage negotiator would be trying to do. “Where did the cooks go?”

“His girlfriend or wife or whoever she is finally talked him in to allowing everyone to eat. He told the cooks they had exactly one hour to get it ready and get it up here or he’d kill a teacher.”

“Nice guy. Obviously he was absent on the day Mrs. Dunford lectured on manners and respect.”

Stacy couldn’t help but smile at Rick’s sarcastic humor. “Obviously.”

The principal sobered as she surveyed the room. An odd calm prevailed like the quiet unsettling calm that blankets a summer day right before a violent rain storm moves in. The teachers and other staff members had managed to engross the children in games and books and crayons once more. Many students were even huddled in groups working on things together while talking softly amongst themselves like they could be found doing on any other school day. Stacy wondered how much they really understood about what was going on and if any of them knew how potentially disastrous the situation was. She hoped not. And as much as she inwardly shuddered at the thought she also hoped if the volatile gunman decided to end their lives it was over with before any of them knew what was happening.

Rick pulled the blanket up around A.J.’s shoulders while tuning into Bobby Masters’ conversation.

“The children shall be released when the Lord deems it so.

“No, the Lord does not want the injured man released. He is a disciple of Satan just as they are all disciples of Satan.”

Rick listened as the conversation went around in circles until the assailant finally slammed down the phone in disgust. He fell to his knees in what appeared to be prayer. He stayed that way, mumbling and swaying until carts could be heard rattling in the hallway and the cooks appeared.

The process of passing hastily made sandwiches around the room was a lengthy one. As Rick worked to get his children situated and fed he discovered there were two choices, peanut butter and grape jelly on white bread or simply grape jelly on white bread for those children who were allergic to or didn’t like peanut butter.

Rick handed a sandwich to Emily. He then reached for one to give to Micah. The blond boy passed it over to Stanford.

“Don’t tell me, Micah, let me guess,” Rick stated with a sigh of mock long suffering, “you’re allergic to peanut butter, right?”

Micah smiled and nodded while his classmates giggled. Rick tousled the child’s hair as he handed him a jelly sandwich. “Eat yer heart out, tiger.”

Cold milk was passed around next. The school staff and Rick were kept busy concentrating on who wanted white and who wanted chocolate. That was no more than settled when bananas and apples made the rounds of the room.

After everyone made sure all the children had gotten a sandwich, milk, and piece of fruit the adults partook in the meager feast. Rick glanced up at the forlorn girl sitting in the teacher’s chair. The chain on the cuffs was just long enough to allow her limited freedom with her left hand. That hand kept up a constant circular motion on her swollen belly as though she was comforting her unborn child. The doe-eyed girl was all elbows and knees, so skinny that Rick couldn’t help but wonder how her body supported the life growing within it.

Bobby and his rifle swiveled as the detective rose.

“Unless you want me to give your brother another kick you’ll sit your butt back down, hotshot.”

Rick held out a sandwich and cartoon of milk. “I was just going to ask the girl if she’d like something to eat.”

“She doesn’t want anything.”

“How do you know? Did you ask her? It looks like she’s eatin’ for two these days so I expect she’s gettin’ kinda hungry by now.”

“Just sit yourself back down and shut up. Me and the Lord take care of my woman, not you.”

“Look, just take the handcuffs off her and let her,…..”

Bobby’s final command was quiet and dangerous. His menacing eyes traveled to the unconscious A.J. “Sit down.”

For his brother’s safety Rick had no choice but to do what he was told. Geneva offered him a shy smile as though thanking him for his thoughtfulness and courage. Rick returned the smile and mouthed, “Hang in there.”

Rick sat by A.J. nibbling on the sandwich Stacy handed him. He didn’t have much of an appetite but knew he had to eat. He couldn’t even begin to guess when they’d be fed again. If this went on as long as he thought it might there was no doubt they’d be here a while. He wondered if he could talk Masters into allowing fast food of some type to be brought in for supper. He knew the chances of Abby being able to work something around that would be good. Possibly some of the younger cops could dress as restaurant employees and gain access to the building when the food was delivered. Rick knew it was a long shot and certainly a dangerous one, but he also knew it was one Abby would be willing to try if given the opportunity.

One of the cooks threaded her way to Rick with a wide-mouthed thermos filled with ice chips. “We thought your brother might be able to suck on these, Mr. Simon. I made a sandwich for him but I don’t suppose he should eat it.”

“No, he shouldn’t,” Rick agreed. He reached up and accepted the thermos. “But thanks for these.”

“You’re welcome.”

In-between his duties with the children Rick kept a vigilant eye on A.J. He was grateful to the other first grade teachers, Stacy, and one of the secretaries who had all willing filled in for him whenever he felt he needed to devote time to his brother. Although A.J. had stirred a bit during the lunch period he had yet to be lucid enough for Rick to consider him conscious. He was constantly checking A.J.’s pulse, respiration, and the towel adhered to his wound like a bandage. The bleeding seemed to have almost stopped once again. While that was a small bit of good news Rick was all too aware of everything that could be going wrong he knew little or nothing about.

More than likely he’s bleeding internally to some degree. How long can that go on before the effects of it kill him? And who knows what kinda damage that bullet has done or is doin’? I’ve got to get him outta here. He’s gotta get to a hospital. But how the hell do you bargain with a nut like this? He doesn’t seem to want anything from the cops. He just keeps sayin’ he wants to free the children but he’s sure goin’ about it in an awful peculiar way.

It was as these troubling thoughts were sloshing around in Rick’s mind like cream in a churn that A.J. began to regain consciousness. When he finally opened his eyes they were vacant and dull as though he’d been roused out of a sedated sleep.

“A.J.?” Rick quietly hailed his brother. “A.J.?”

It took the blond man a long moment to find and focus on his brother. “Where…..am……what…….hap,….pened?”

“We’re at Stacy’s school, A.J. Remember?”

A.J.’s brows met as his sluggish brain tried to make sense of what Rick was saying. “School?”

“Yeah, at Heritage Academy.”

Those words appeared to help A.J. get his bearings.

“My….kids?”

“Your kids are fine, A.J. They’re just fine.”

Rick fingers slipped to the pulse point on his brother’s throat. In Rick’s opinion the beat was slower than it should be but seemed strong. He had no idea what that meant but prayed it was good.

The detective plucked an ice chip out of the open thermos. “A.J., I’ve got some ice here for you. I’m gonna put it in your mouth. Can you suck on it without swallowing it?”

A.J. nodded his head and parted his lips to accept the refreshing solid liquid Rick deposited within. His tongue flicked the cold chip from one side of his mouth to the other until it was evaporated. His sudden thirst was far from quenched when he spoke in a husky croak.

“Do you have anymore where that came from?”

“Sure do, little brother.”

Rick repeated the procedure, heartened by the fact A.J.’s voice was a bit stronger and his eyes clearer.

The ice cube danced off A.J.’s teeth and he spoke around it. “What’s going on?”

“The guy let the cooks make everyone lunch, peanut butter and jelly on white bread.”

Despite his pain and weakness A.J. found the strength to employ the ever-present Simon sense of humor. “Your favorite,” he quipped in reference to Rick’s no-fuss culinary tastes.

“Yep. The all-American all-purpose sandwich no doubt. Anyway, he let everyone eat and he’s been on the phone with the cops.”

“Are they having any luck?”

“Don’t know,” Rick shrugged. “He listens for a while, throws in a few references to God, then gets pissed and hangs up on ’em. That’s been goin’ on for about an hour now. Maybe longer.”

A.J.’s vantage point of the room was limited by his brother’s body and his reclining position on the floor. “How are the kids holding up?”

“Overall they’re doin’ okay.” Rick looked around to see the children returning to the activities they’d been pursuing before lunch. Stacy had his class broken into pairs and playing tic tac toe on sheets of paper. “They’re little troopers, that’s for sure. The staff is doin’ a great job of keepin’ them calm and occupied.”

“But how long are they going to be able to do that?”

“I know. I was thinkin’ the same thing. If this goes on much longer,……..well you can’t keep three hundred kids cooped up in a room meant for sixty for very long before you’re bound to feel some ramifications. My group alone has too much energy for that.”

A.J. had one last concern regarding the kids. “Where’s Sean?”

“He’s helpin’ some of the teachers with the smaller kids.”

“Is he okay?”

Without asking Rick knew A.J. meant ‘okay’ in the emotional sense as opposed to the physical. “Yeah, he’s fine. A great kid as a matter of fact. He did a super job of helpin’ me with you. He kept his head together despite the fact the poor kid had to be scared shitless.”

“Make sure you tell him that. And that I said thanks. It’ll mean a lot to him. His classmates tease him because of his size. He needs a pat on the back every once in a while.”

“I’ll tell him,” Rick promised. He couldn’t stop the swell of pride that filled his chest. Typical of A.J., he was concerned about someone else when it was only himself he should have been expending energy for.

The blond man’s eyes drifted to the front of the room. Geneva was no more than ten feet from him. Bobby paced the limited floor space behind her nervously thumping his Bible against his thigh. His eyes danced about the room and he’d returned to mumbling to himself. Rick surmised the man was realizing he was in way over his head.

A.J.’s eyes returned to his brother. “Rick?”

“Yeah?”

“No matter what happens your first obligation is to the kids in this room, you got that?”

Rick’s facial expression was carefully guarded. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what it means. It means if the opportunity arises you help the kids before you help me.”

“A.J.,….”

“Rick, don’t waste your breath trying to argue with me. You’d make me promise you the same thing if our positions were reversed so it’s a moot point. Besides, I can take care of myself if need be.”

“I know you can.”

“So promise me.”

“For crissake, A.J.,….”

“Promise me.”

There was a lengthy pause in which A.J. refused to break eye contact with his brother. It was Rick who finally dropped his eyes from the steady trusting gaze. “Yeah, yeah, I promise.”

“That promise sounds about as firm as the one you gave Mom when you told her you wouldn’t sneak out of the house anymore to meet Betty Carol Simmons. Only to have her catch you in the act two nights later.”

“Yeah,” Rick grinned at the memory, “there’s nothin’ like the sight of Mom waitin’ at the bottom of a rose trellis at two o’clock in the morning in her bathrobe and curlers.”

“I’m sure not,” A.J. agreed. He sobered. “I’m glad she left for Vegas yesterday.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Cecilia had departed from San Diego the previous morning on a tour bus with her senior citizens group. They were to stay in Las Vegas through the weekend gambling and taking in shows. Rick had no doubt local media was already outside the school broadcasting about the events occurring within. He imagined they’d make the national news as well, but held out the hope he could be the one to tell his mother about it before she saw it on the television in her hotel room. Whether or not he’d get that chance Rick didn’t know. God forbid she should be witness to one or both of her sons being carried out on stretchers, or worse yet, in body bags.

Rick had a feeling A.J. was having much the same thoughts. His brother fell into a troubled silence that soon gave way to sleep. Rick gingerly checked the makeshift bandage again. As near as he could tell A.J. wasn’t bleeding, at least not externally. He wished he had a better idea as to just how serious his brother’s injury was, but no one in the room had any more medical knowledge than he.

I gotta hand it to me and A.J., when we do something we do it right. We would have to be here the week the school nurse is away at a seminar.

Stacy sidled up next to Rick. “How’s he doing?”

“I don’t know, about the same I guess.” He reached out a hand and laid it against A.J.’s face. “Is it just me or does he seem warm to you?”

The woman’s slender hand replaced Rick’s on the blond man’s cheek. “Somewhat. His face is a bit flushed.”

“I thought so, too.”

“Is the fever caused by the fact the bullet’s still inside him somewhere?”

“Probably, but hell I don’t know for sure. All I know is he needs to get to a hospital. I saw too much stuff like this in ‘Nam, Stacy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Too many bullet wounds that didn’t appear to be all that serious or where the injured guy seemed stable only to have things turn sour faster than you can say Jack Robinson.”

Stacy didn’t bother to ask Rick if by ‘things turning sour’ he meant there was a strong possibility of A.J. dying before their ordeal ended. She didn’t have to ask him. The fear imprinted on his face was all the answer she needed.

“Rick, some of the kids are starting to feel sick from the gasoline fumes coming from that container. Could you ask him if it’s okay if we open the windows? And the kids really need another bathroom break.”

“I think you should ask him.” Rick voice was laced with irony. “I tend to get the guy riled up every time I speak to him.”

Stacy rolled her eyes in a way that was meant to tease. “So I’ve noticed.”

She stood and cleared her throat until she finally caught the attention of Bobby Masters. “Excuse me, but would you object to us opening the windows and the door? It’s getting very stuffy in here and some of the children are feeling ill.”

Bobby glanced around. Indeed some of the kids did appear to be listless as though suffering from nausea. He looked Heavenward giving the impression of consulting with a higher deity on the issue.

“The Lord says the children are not to be punished. He has granted his permission for the windows and door to be opened.”

“Thank you,” Stacy replied politely. “And they are in need of a bathroom break as well.”

Masters gave a curt nod and pointed at a teacher. Like Moses parting the Red Sea he waved a hand indicating a class was to be led to the restrooms. He allowed the door to remain open after they’d exited.

Rick rose to help some of the staff open windows. They were square panes of glass three feet by three feet and pushed outward on hinges. The detective made a mental note that while an adult would never be able to fit through the space most of the children would.

Squad cars with police officers milling about them lined the playground. Rick was certain the building was surrounded by law enforcement officers just waiting to be commanded into action. Vans with the logos of every television station in San Diego had taken up residence outside the school, too. Men with portable cameras on their shoulders jockeyed for the best angle while reporters spoke into microphones. People whom Rick took to be anxious parents lined the sidewalks across the street and were being kept back by several uniformed officers planted solidly in front of them.

Rick caught a glimpse of Abby but doubted she could see him. He hoped she had some sort of a plan because he sure didn’t. He thought ahead to what they might need in the event they were still being held captive come nightfall. He spoke softly to Stacy who was opening the window beside him.

“I hate to say this but we’ve got to start considering the possibility that we’re not gonna get outta here any time soon. If it starts lookin’ like we’re all gonna be together for supper I want you to try to convince the guy to let the cops have food brought into us. If he asks for a reason tell him,…..tell him the cooks don’t have enough on hand to feed everyone. Tell him a supply truck is due to make a delivery tomorrow morning so they’re low on everything. “

“Why?”

“Cause it might be the cops best chance at helpin’ us.”

“Rick, if this goes on that long there are other concerns to be thought of as well.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve got a janitor with a heart condition, a teacher who’s a diabetic, and several children who are asthmatics. All of them are going to need their medication. We’ve been lucky so far that none of the kids have had an asthma attack due to the stress.”

“Then when the time comes you’ll have to tell the guy that. Even if the cops can’t do much to help us in the way of gettin’ us outta here, medication can be brought when the food is.”

“And a doctor.”

“What?”

“A doctor for A.J.”

“I don’t think the guy will go for that.”

“He might not, but it never hurts to ask. I didn’t think he’d let us open the windows either.”

“I guess you’ve got a point there. I’d rather he just let A.J. go.”

“I would, too, Rick. I would, too.” The woman paused in the motion of pushing a window open. “Rick,…..I’m sorry. If I hadn’t asked you guys to help me this week this never would have,….”

“Stacy, don’t. I don’t want you blamin’ yourself for this and I can guarantee you A.J. doesn’t want you doin’ that either. If A.J. and I hadn’t been here then an elderly woman who has a husband and grandchildren would be here in my place, and a young woman who has a three year old boy would be here in A.J.’s.”

“Rick,” Stacy scolded, “just because neither you nor A.J. have spouses or children doesn’t mean your lives are any less valuable than anyone else’s in this room.”

“I know that. It’s just my point is it’s not like there would be two less people in this room if A.J. and I weren’t here. Either Mrs. Dunford and Mrs. Tarsetti would be here or there’d be two other substitutes here. So I guess if someone’s gotta go through this shit it might as well be us.” Rick winked. “Besides, darlin’, this is nothing. Remind me later and I’ll tell you about the time A.J. and me had to hide out for a week in the home of the most beautiful woman you ever laid eyes on. Her windows got shot out ’cause of us and my dog was a real bother to her cat.”

Stacy lifted an eyebrow. “A real bother, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. And let me tell you that little gal wasn’t too pleased with us when we finally packed up and left, but my point is all three of us, me, A.J., and that pretty little lady survived it. Just like I’ve got a feelin’ the three us will survive this.”

Stacy leaned into Rick for a brief moment of comfort. “I hope you’re right, Rick. I hope we all survive this.”

Rick’s arm encircled the woman’s shoulders and he gave her a reassuring squeeze that belayed what he feared deep inside his soul.

“We will, Stacy. We will.”

Minutes ticked by like long drawn-out hours as the afternoon passed. Despite the best efforts of the school’s staff members the children began to grow bored and restless. Bobby Masters hadn’t objected to them moving about the room to retrieve a game off a shelf or to go talk to a friend who might be sitting some distance away with another class, but by far those small amounts of activity didn’t begin to expend the high energy levels that needed to be run off on the playground.

On occasion the children’s movements brought some of them dangerously close to the bomb causing Rick’s heart to skip a beat. He finally suggested they take a roll of masking tape and mark off a square around Geneva and Bobby so the children would know where they couldn’t step.

Stacy made this request of the gunman, emphasizing her concern was for the safety of the children. He prayed about it, then granted his consent. He didn’t object when Rick rose to help Stacy. He ignored the pair, opened his Bible, and moved his lips as though silently reading to himself while his finger slid across the paper.

Rick carefully unrolled the tape Stacy was holding anchored by the wall. He secured the wide tan band to the floor, scooted backwards a few inches and repeated the action. From his crouched position he glanced up at the pregnant girl. He spoke softly so as not to draw Bobby’s attention. “How are you holding up?”

The detective couldn’t help but think that whatever life had once been in this young woman’s eyes had long ago been beat out of her. Maybe even long before she hooked up with the gunman. She appeared to have mentally removed herself from the room as though what went on didn’t matter to her anymore. That worried Rick. It worried him a lot. All along he had felt she just might be the key to their survival. If she was carrying the man’s child that fact gave her, as well as Rick, a small portion of bargaining power should the opportunity arrive. And even though her efforts had gotten her nowhere she had always spoken up on behalf of the children echoing Rick’s and Stacy’s sentiments in regards to lunch and bathroom breaks.

Geneva lifted a dull shoulder of indifference in answer to Rick’s question. He gave her an encouraging smile.

“You hang in there for that little one you’re carryin’. Things are gonna be all right.”

The woman risked a glance over her shoulder. Bobby appeared to be engrossed in prayer and meditation. The phone was ringing again, its jangling nearly drowning out her soft words.

“You don’t know him like I do. Things aren’t going to be all right.”

“What do you mean? What do you think he’ll do?”

Geneva rubbed her handcuffed left palm over the baby. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“What doesn’t matter?”

The girl refused to say another word to Rick. Bobby snatched the phone off the hook and began shouting something into it regarding the constant interruptions being unpleasing to God.

Rick finished with the tape having effectively created a square ten feet wide by twenty feet long that ran to the open doorway. He encouraged any children who were sitting within that space to move back. The teachers explained to their classes this was a boundary they weren’t allowed to cross.

Because of the tight pace constraints A.J. was practically lying on top of the taped line. He was directly in front of the bomb with Rick’s class huddled behind him.

Rick crouched at brother’s side. He looked around to see if there was some place in the room he could move A.J. to that would increase his chances of survival should the bomb go off.

A.J. had been awake on and off for the past hour. Rick glanced down to find himself under intense scrutiny.

The blond man’s voice was so raw and quiet it sounded like he was suffering from a severe sore throat. It took great effort on his part but he managed to get his words to come forth in an even flow.

“Don’t even think it.”

“Think what?”

“Think about moving me somewhere else.”

“A.J.,…..

“Rick, just forget it. I’ll fight you for all I’m worth, which granted may not be much at the moment, but nonetheless I’ll give you hell if you so much as try. I won’t allow you to put a child, or anyone else for that matter, at risk because of me.”

“I won’t be putting anyone at risk.”

“Yes you will and we both know it. With as cramped as it is in here if you move me someplace else that means a child or adult will be forced to move forward and take my place.”

Rick had already come to the same reluctant conclusion but didn’t share that fact with his brother. As much as he loved A.J. he couldn’t ask another to take his place with the exception of himself. And that was a moot point as he was already sitting at A.J.’s side. If the bomb was detonated the force of the explosion would surely kill both of them.

For the time being Rick didn’t know what else to do but change the subject. He lifted the blanket and checked A.J.’s side. The wound didn’t appear to be bleeding, but that was about the only good news Rick could come up with. In the past hour the detective had noticed subtle signs that indicated to him A.J.’s condition was gradually worsening. At times he was mentally alert like he was now, but at other times he was totally out of it and had no idea where he was or what had happened. It was obvious as well that A.J. was growing weaker. When he spoke his voice was barely more than a whisper and he constantly asked for ice. Rick had but a few chips left in the thermos and no way of getting them replenished. Stacy had made a valiant effort at trying to talk the gunman into allowing one of the cooks to go get more. But Masters had steadfastly denied her repeated requests until he finally grew so enraged that for Stacy’s own safety Rick signaled her to stop.

To make matters worse in all the time they’d been in this room, which was getting close to five hours now, A.J. had yet to indicate a desire to make use of the bathroom. Rick asked him several times if he needed to go. Not that Rick thought his brother could actually make a trip down the hallway, but one way or another he would improvise something and then give A.J. the necessary privacy and dignity to get the job done. But on each occasion Rick inquired of his brother about that particular need he had been told it wasn’t necessary. Although Rick realized the ice chips A.J. had been sucking on probably didn’t amount to much liquid he was concerned this could be the first signs of kidney failure.

Rick laid a hand on his brother’s forehead. A.J. had gone from being ‘a bit flushed’ as Stacy put it, to being hot. He couldn’t begin to guess what A.J.’s temperature was but imagined it was around or above one hundred and one. As much as he hated to dip into the precious ice chips Rick did just that. He wrapped two in the clean handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket and wiped them over A.J.’s face.

“Do we have more of those?”
“Ice chips?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure, hang on a sec.” Rick reached into the thermos. He took one chip out and counted. Four left.

Damn! The only stinking things that are bringing A.J. any kind of comfort and there’s only four left with no hope of getting more any time soon.

Rick looked down at his brother as he let the ice rest on A.J.’s hot forehead for a long moment. The blond’s eyes were closed, but by the small movements of his mouth Rick knew he was awake and sucking on the chip he’d just given him.

What makes it even worse is that he’ll never complain. Once the ice is gone he’ll never say another word about it no matter how thirsty or hot he gets.

Bobby Masters was screaming in the phone, once more rambling about the Book of Revelations and the arrival of the Beast. For the most part the children had learned to ignore him the way one learns to ignore a boring teacher who drones on long after he or she should have shut up.

Rick’s eyes narrowed as he took in the man while feeling A.J.’s hot flesh scorch his hand. You bastard. You damn bastard! So help me God if I get the chance I’ll take you out in a deserted field somewhere, chain you to that bomb and detonate it myself.

The detective didn’t know how long his thoughts were focused on the various ways he was going to dismember the gunman’s body. All he knew was he enjoyed each and every thing that came to mind until A.J.’s tired voice beckoned him.

“Rick?”

Rick smiled down into the drained gray face.

“Yeah, little brother?

“More ice,……please.”

For just a second Rick thought of telling A.J. no, that they needed to ration the ice now, but he found he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t deny his brother the only thing he had left to give him. For whatever reason it all suddenly became too real for Rick. No matter how often he had worried that A.J. might not make it through this ordeal he had never really acknowledged the thought deep down in his heart. When it threatened to get too close and too painful he’d pushed it aside with a flip, We’ll make it through this. We’ve made it through worse shit, we can make it through this as well.

But now Rick knew that wasn’t true. He looked down into A.J’s face devoid of all color except for the cheeks streaked with ruby lines of fever. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead though Rick didn’t think that was from the high temperature, he was fairly certain it was from shock. A.J.’s pulse was thready as well and when his hand moved up to take the ice from Rick it had a slight tremor to it.

He’s gonna die! If something doesn’t happen and happen soon, if Abby doesn’t somehow talk this guy into lettin’ us go, A.J. will die here. He’ll never make it through the night.

Rick’s mind offered up a brief prayer.

Lord, I know I don’t call on you much, or at least not nearly as often as you’d probably like me to. But you gotta understand, I’m outta ideas, plans, suggestions, and I’m down to three ice chips. I don’t know what else to do in order to keep my brother and these children safe. You’re gonna have to do it for me, God. I need your help. Actually, what I need is a godda,……..a uh… miracle and if I remember correctly from my Sunday School days you’re pretty good at those on occasion so please throw a few my way. I could sure use them, Lord. I could sure use them.

When Rick’s prayer ceased he found Emily resting against his knee. He looked down into her eyes and offered her a smile. His free hand ran through her hair.

“Hi, sweetie. How ya’ doin’?”
“I’m okay.” She wrinkled her nose as she looked at Bobby Masters. The gunman was no longer in contact with the police and was once again preaching to the room. “I don’t like his stories much, though. They’re loud and they don’t sound very nice. I don’t think anyone is happy in them, do you, Mr. Rick?”

Rick glanced up at the Bible thumping Masters. “No, Emily, I don’t think anyone is happy in them.”

“Mr. Rick, it’s time for you to tell us the rest of our story.”
“The rest of our story?”

“Yeah, you know, the one you’ve been telling us all week.” Emily’s hand motion encompassed her classmates who were all seated nearby. “The one with us in it.”

“Oh. Well I don’t know, kiddo. I’m kinda busy right now with my brother. I bet Mrs. Harrington will tell you a story if you ask her.”
“But it won’t be the same,” Emily whined. “It won’t be like the story you’re telling us ’cause your story goes on and on day after day and you said today would be the end because it’s Friday.”

Emily’s sentiments were echoed by her classmates who all began to beg Mr. Rick to finish their story.

A hand brushed Rick’s elbow. He turned his head to A.J.

“Go ahead,” the blond whispered, “finish the story for them.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,…….I’m sure.” A.J.’s eyes drifted closed. “I haven’t heard one of your stories,……in a long time. I’m kind of,…….looking forward to it.”

Rick’s thumb stroked over A.J.’s cheek. “Okay, kid, whatever you say.”

“But before you,……start,………can I have more……..ice?”

Despite the fact Rick’s mind taunted, three, three, only three pieces left, he readily submitted to the request.

“Sure, A.J.”

He unscrewed the thermos top and reached inside. He took one out and gently worked it in-between A.J.’s loosely closed mouth. His voice had a preoccupied tone to it as he cautioned while staring into the thermos, “Be careful, A.J. Don’t swallow it. I don’t want you chokin’ on it.”

Huh. That’s weird. I musta counted wrong the last time. I thought there was only three chips left, but I just gave A.J. one and that still leaves three. Guess I shouldn’t complain, every little bit helps at this point in time.

When Rick was satisfied A.J. was as comfortable as he could possibly make him he gathered his classroom around him. He sat sideways so he could see both his kids and his brother. His handkerchief still held some ice and he kept it roaming over A.J.’s face as he resumed the saga that had begun on his first day of teaching. In effort to bring some excitement to the story an evil prince had ridden into the kingdom on Wednesday and by Thursday held many of the its loyal subjects hostage in Lady Emily’s tower. Given the current circumstances Rick wasn’t sure if this was the best story-line to continue with. Before his mind could come up with a way to turn the story in another direction the kids all too willingly reminded him in great detail of where he’d left off. He finally concluded they hadn’t tied in the similarities between his story and their current situation and were probably too young to do so. On the other hand he knew they were smart little buggers, far smarter than he’d ever imagined six year olds to be. It was quite possible they had tied the two situations together and needed reassurance from him that things were going to turn out okay in both the fictional and real worlds.

Twenty little faces were turned upward with rapt attention as Rick quietly began. “Prince Bakar, King Micah’s evil cousin, wanted to rule the land. But he was a bad man who ate live snakes for breakfast and had long ago been exiled by King Micah. Now Prince Bakar was back and had much of the Kingdom locked in Lady Emily’s tower. Lady Emily fled to her window and cried for help. At that very minute a man riding a white stallion was gallopin’ by. And whatta ya’ think happened next?”

The children loved this part of Rick’s story. He allowed them to offer up their own ideas, some of which he used and some of which he didn’t.

Rick chuckled when Grant guessed, “He sold them a car and they all drove away and lived happily ever after.”

“No,” Rick disagreed, “I don’t think so, buddy. Remember, this happened a long time ago. There weren’t any cars yet.”

LaKeshia’s eyes rolled upward with concentration. “He kept right on going until he was clean outta town. He didn’t want to mess with Prince Bakar either.”

“That would have been a smart move on his part,” Rick agreed, “seeing what an ornery dude Prince Bakar was and all. But no, that’s not exactly how it unfolded.”

Emily had her own suggestion to offer. “He was a brave man who rescued Lady Emily, married her and brought her all the chocolates she wanted for the rest of her life.”

Again Rick chuckled. “Well, kiddo, as to whether he married Lady Emily and brought her chocolates I don’t know. But you are right when you say he was brave man. As a matter of fact he was the bravest man in all the land. He was King Micah’s most favored knight and his name was Sir Andrew.”

Rick didn’t miss the tiny smile that touched A.J.’s lips or the way his head slightly moved back and forth on his pillow in a gesture of affection. He didn’t open his eyes when he mumbled, “I didn’t expect,……to find myself,…….making an…….appearance in your,…….story.”

“All the important people in my life make an appearance in my stories, kid.”

Rick continued on as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “Now Sir Andrew didn’t take too kindly to men like Prince Bakar. Men who take things that don’t belong to them. Men who hurt other people just for the fun of it. Men who lock people in towers and won’t let them out.”

“What did Sir Andrew do, Mr. Rick?” Jessica asked. “Did he save everyone in the tower? Did he save Lady Emily and the princesses three, Jessica, Olivia and Autumn, and the shoemaker Patton and……”

“Yes, Jessica, he saved them. But you’re gettin’ way ahead of me, pumpkin, so slow down there a minute.”

Rick’s story progressed with only an occasional interruption. Whenever A.J. needed his attention he’d ask the kids for their ideas as to what was going to happen next. That ploy kept them occupied long enough for him to meet his brother’s needs. Time and time again A.J. asked for more ice and time and time again Rick would retrieve a piece from the thermos for him. He put more in his hanky as well and continued to bathe A.J.’s face with it. It crossed Rick’s preoccupied mind on several occasions that he should be out of ice by now, but his attention was being demanded in so many different areas that he never had time to give this latest phenomenon much concentration.

A few minutes after Rick had put another piece of ice in A.J.’s mouth the blond began to choke and gasp for breath. The lanky man halted the story in mid-sentence and shot to his knees. He wrapped his arms around A.J.’s shoulders and brought him to a half sitting position. The blond detective’s right hand clamped onto his brother’s forearm. The way he squeezed each time he coughed was mute testimony to the intense pain the action caused him.

The coughing didn’t stop causing Stacy to rush over and drop to her own knees. Her question came out in a frantic jumble.

“What can I do, Rick?”

“Can you support his back? Can you hold him just like I am right now?”

“I think so.”

Rick quickly but carefully eased A.J. from his arms to Stacy’s. He scooted around to the side of his brother and with one quick thrust had his right thumb and forefinger down A.J.’s throat. In a matter of seconds he retrieved a jagged piece of ice.

A.J. gagged around Rick’s fingers and his body attempted to throw up after they were gone. Nothing came forth, however, and the act of his stomach muscles contracting only caused the blond more pain.

Stacy moved aside as Rick took his brother back in his arms. He stroked a hand over A.J.’s forehead and then up through his hair. Stacy didn’t miss the desperate note in Rick’s voice as though he was pleading with A.J. to be all right.

“It’s okay, A.J. It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay, little brother. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

Rick caught a glimpse of tears in A.J.’s half open eyes. He didn’t know if they were caused by the violent gagging of moments earlier or by the violent pain occurring now. Either way Rick didn’t care. He looked at Bobby Masters who was pretending to be oblivious to the whole scene. Rick swore right then and there that one way or another the man would pay for what he was putting A.J. through.

When A.J. was finally able to speak he offered an almost inaudible, “I’m,……sorry.”
Rick’s hand continued its movement. “Ssssh. Ssssh. Don’t say that. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

Stacy wrapped more ice in Rick’s handkerchief for him. The detective alternated between running it over his brother’s warm face and dry lips. He held it in front of A.J.’s mouth every few seconds and encouraged him to lick it with his tongue.

“Do you want me to put a piece in his mouth?” Stacy asked.

“No, he’ll only choke on it again. I think he’s getting too,………weak to suck on it. Besides, I don’t think there’s any left.”

Stacy looked into the thermos. “Sure there is.”
“There is?”

“Yes. Four pieces.”

Before Rick had time to assimilate that news the children were demanding his attention again. Emily pointed to the clock.

“Mr. Rick, it’s three-thirty. It’s time for us to go home.”

“Sweetie, I don’t think we’ll be going home right,…..”

It was as if Emily was all too aware of what Rick was going to say and why. It was as if she thought if she could keep him from saying it it wouldn’t be true.

“It’s three-thirty,” she repeated matter-of-factly. “We go home at three-thirty. Our buses are here at three-thirty and my mom will be waiting for me. She’ll be waiting for me at the corner, Mr. Rick, like she does every day. She’ll be waiting with my baby sister in the stroller and my little brother on his Big Wheel.”

Rick kept one arm around A.J. while he reached out for the girl and pulled her close. “Honey, I know you want to go home but we can’t right now. Your mom knows where you are, Emily, and she understands why you won’t be home on time.”
Emily couldn’t stop the tears that spilled over to run down her round apple cheeks. Her words came out in hiccupped sobs. “But….but….but I wanna go home, Mr. Rick. I don’t wanna….wanna…..wanna….stay here any,,,,any…..more. Today,….to….day was…..was supposed…..supposed to be…..a…happy day. We….we…..we were sup….sup….supposed….to have….a party. But that man…..that man ruined it. He’s…..he’s a bad…..man, Mr. Rick. He…he…he’s……bad like…..like Prince Bakar.”

Rick gave the child a strong one-armed hug. “I know, sweetie, I know.”

Emily’s tears prompted other members of Rick’s class to begin crying. Stacy opened her arms to them offering what comfort she could. Sean moved in and took Micah and Chandler in his lap. He worked hard at hiding his own tears while talking softly to the little boys.

As the other children in the room began to realize three-thirty had come and gone many of them broke into sobs.

Rick looked around in despair.

How will we ever survive the night if it comes to that?

Despite Rick’s hushed words of comfort Emily remained hunkered into his right side crying. A.J.’s head was resting on his left shoulder, Rick’s left arm loosely wrapped around his brother’s chest. Without realizing it the detective began to gently rock back and forth with both his burdens.

He had no idea who he was talking to, Emily or A.J., as he repeated a soft litany. “It’s gonna be all right. Everything’s gonna be all right. Be strong for me. I need you to hang in there and be strong for me. I won’t let anything happen to you, but I need you to be strong for me. Please be strong for me. Please.”
The hands on the wall clock were rapidly approaching five p.m. The children were restless and hungry, all in need of their normal routine of after-school snacks and outdoor play. It was increasingly difficult for the staff to keep them calm. The little ones were weepy and whiny, their noses a runny mess and their eyes red and puffy. Some had taken to sucking their thumbs while rocking their small bodies back and forth in comforting rhythm. On A.J.’s behalf a portion of the older children he had taught grew surly and rebellious. Two teachers were forced to separate Jake, Tyler, Brian and Matt who were plotting a harebrained escape plan in an effort to get help for A.J. Carrie huddled by herself in a far corner sobbing for all that had happened to Mr. Simon. She kept the little cardboard box that contained Andrew held tightly against her chest and wouldn’t allow it to leave her sight.

Bobby Masters seemed to sense the rapidly increasing discord within the room. His demands of the police became more unreasonable and incoherent with each passing moment. Abby asked him several times to allow her to speak to Rick Simon but he continuously refused the request. When she told him it would be in his best interest to release the wounded teacher he also refused.

“No one’s leaving here until the Lord deems it so!” the crazed man screamed into the phone.

A small portion of ground was finally gained when the gunman agreed to speak with the male hostage negotiator. Abby didn’t know what caused his change of heart. He’d flat out refused the suggestion each time she’d previously made it throughout this long day. Of course she didn’t have to be inside the school room to know that now, eight hours into the ordeal, the gunman had frightened, tired, cranky, restless, hungry children on his hands. His voice had an hysterical edge to it that hadn’t been present earlier in the day. That scared Abby. Past experience taught her an upset assailant was a dangerous assailant. The slightest disturbance could inflame him be it a child who cried too loudly or a phone that rang when he wasn’t expecting it to.

Abby looked across the street at the distraught parents lining the sidewalk and then thought of the injured A.J. inside the building. She had no idea whether her friend was alive or dead. She had no idea as to whether or not anyone else had been hurt since she’d talked to Rick at eleven that morning. She listened as the hostage negotiator, Ryland Kamm, spoke with the gunman. Kamm, a police officer with a degree in criminal psychology, kept his voice neutral and calm. His soft reasonable tone was in sharp contrast to the assailant’s wild pitch and frenzied energy. Abby hoped Ryland could somehow convince the man to lay down his gun and walk out of the building. Instinct told her, however, the chances of that happening were pretty remote.

She looked over several rows of cars until her eyes spotted the SWAT team. For now those eight men and two women didn’t appear to be anyone other than additional police personnel. That would all change if Abby gave the order for them to move in. Then they’d suit up in their dark caps and thick flack jackets in preparation of storming the building. She prayed it wouldn’t come to that. The risks were enormous. If the gunman detonated the bomb before the sharpshooter could take him down everyone in that classroom would most likely die. Things wouldn’t be much better if the bomb didn’t go off. No doubt the children would flee in panic at the first hint of trouble. How many would accidently be killed or seriously injured by flying bullets the lieutenant couldn’t even begin to guess.

Abby’s only other option was to continue doing what she’d been doing all day. Waiting. Waiting and listening to the ramblings of a gunman whose name they didn’t even know. In situations such as these patience was indeed a virtue. Quite often the police could wait an assailant out until he finally realized the hopelessness behind what it was he was doing. Many times everyone involved walked away physically unscathed. Yet Abby couldn’t help but remind herself that many times they didn’t. Just last year she’d been involved in a situation where a man was holding his girlfriend and her two young children hostage in the woman’s home. Eleven hours later the woman and children were dead, all shot in the head by their assailant. The man now awaited death in a California prision. But even that hardly seemed harsh enough punishment for what he had done. Abby had been the one to find the ten month old baby with half her skull missing still clutching a pink stuffed bunny in her chubby arms. It was a heartbreaking sight she’d never forget and she often laid awake at night wondering if she’d made a mistake. Wondering if instead of waiting she should have ordered her officers to overtake the house long before the tragedy occurred within.

Now Abby found herself in the same situation all over again while mentally weighing the same dilemma. To wait or to command her people to make a move. Either way, the responsibility of the decision was hers. Either way, the end results could be disastrous.

Abby looked from the parents, to the media, to the ambulances and fire trucks, to her own personnel, and finally to the school building. The enormity of it all weighed like an anvil on her shoulders as she shaded her eyes with one hand and studied the windows of the classroom where the children and staff were being held. Her mind gave a sigh filled with weariness and fear.

Why the hell didn’t I listen to my mother when I was seventeen and she told me nice girls don’t spend their Saturday’s at the local firing range and their Sunday’s cleaning their guns?
A.J. Simon laid limp in his brother’s arms. He was only semi-conscious now. What few words he mumbled were barely audible and most times made no sense to Rick.

Stacy knelt nearby and continued to fill Rick’s handkerchief with ice and wipe it over A.J.’s face. Both Rick and Stacy had long ago quit wondering why the ice still remained plentiful, their minds absorbed with too many other concerns.

Rick wrapped the blanket more securely around A.J.’s shoulders and pulled him closer. Despite the high fever the blond man was shivering as though suffering from a terrible chill. If the police didn’t do something soon Stacy knew it would be too late. She was certain A.J. would die in Rick’s arms before the next hour passed.

Rick feared the exact same thing but steeled his features into a neutral mask. Only by looking at his eyes could one see the torment in his soul. A large palm gently caressed the side of A.J.’s face. It was woefully inadequate but there just wasn’t anymore Rick could do for his brother without putting the children’s lives at risk. Stacy had pleaded with the gunman on several occasions to let A.J. go. She’d been forced to stop when he snared a kindergarten child from the crowded room and placed his rifle against the little boy’s skull. It was the first time the man had displayed his willingness to harm one of the children. As much as Rick loved his brother he couldn’t allow the gunman to hurt or kill any of the kids if it was within his power to stop it. After things calmed down and the terrified boy had been returned to his teacher Rick told Stacy not to try anything on A.J.’s behalf again. She swore she saw tears in Rick’s eyes when he made that request but by the firmness behind it there was no doubt he meant every word of it. Rick’s order ended in a broken whisper.

“A.J.,……A.J. wouldn’t want…….wouldn’t want any of the kids to be hurt because of him, Stac.” Rick looked down at his unconscious brother and stroked a hand through sweat matted hair. He stumbled over his words in a voice choked with tears.

“A.J………..A.J.’d be awful,…….awful mad at me if I…..if I let that happen.”

The moan A.J. Simon emitted as his brother eased him back to a reclining position on the pillow was so weak Rick didn’t hear it. He felt Rick pat him on the shoulder and pull the blanket into place. His older brother said something to him but the soft words were lost on the blond. A.J. could feel a tension in the room that had been missing earlier. But no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t force his mind to focus on it.

Rick sat by A.J.’s side and observed Bobby Masters pace in a tight circle. His movement was restricted to the length of the telephone cord. He was holding the receiver to his ear and shaking his head.

“No! No, I don’t want you to come in!”

Rick couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation but was aware the man was in contact with the hostage negotiator. Despite Bobby’s agitation Rick looked upon this as a positive occurrence. The two men had been engaged in ceaseless conversation for the past thirty minutes. In that half hour time period the negotiator seemed to be gaining the gunman’s trust.

Or perhaps Bobby Masters was as weary as the rest of them and just wanted to go home.

Geneva had sat silent and pale all afternoon. She hadn’t been allowed anything to eat or drink. Twice Stacy suggested she be released from the contraption she was attached to and allowed a trip to the bathroom. Bobby refused the suggestion both times by saying she was the mother of Gabriel, the child who was to be God’s right hand, and wasn’t bothered by the urgings of human kind.

Now silent tears began to run down the girl’s cheeks in her first show of emotion all afternoon. Her throat was parched and her voice drained of strength. Her brown eyes had grown dull like a scuffed wooden floor leading Rick to believe she was ill.

“Please, Bobby,” she whispered to her husband who was hanging onto the phone’s receiver but refusing to speak to the hostage negotiator, “please talk to him.”

When the man didn’t respond to her Geneva tried the only idea she had left. “Bobby, please. For the sake of Gabriel talk to the man. God,……God wants you to. He told me so.”

The enraged gunman flung the receiver against the wall and raced forward with an upraised hand. “He only talks to me, harlot! He doesn’t talk to the likes of you! Only me!”

The back of the man’s hand struck the woman’s face with a resounding smack. Her head was whipped to the side by the force of the blow. There was a collective gasp in the room made by staff members who were certain the next thing they’d hear was a blast of deafening proportions. Children screamed and broke into fresh sobs. In an oddly detached manner Stacy wondered if you felt anything when you died in an explosion.

Without thinking about it Rick was on his feet and rushing to the pregnant woman’s defense. The rifle quickly found Rick’s midsection.

“Stop! Stop!” Bobby’s commanding scream sounded like it came from an hysterical woman as opposed to a man in control of the situation at hand. “Stop right there!”

Rick held up his hands. “Look, it’s over. It’s over, okay? The kids are hungry and tired, some of them are in need of medication, and my brother needs to get to a hospital as does this young lady.”

Bobby looked down at his wife. Purple, blue, and sallow yellow were the only colors visible on her milky face. She didn’t look nearly as frightened as she looked defeated. As though she knew there was no hope left that any of them would leave this school building alive.

The gunman’s eyes traveled the room. Frazzled staff members worked to calm children who were beyond being comforted. Some wailed for their mothers while a number of the older boys balled their fists and eyed him with disdain. An eight year old boy began to gasp from the beginnings of an asthma attack and the teacher who suffered from diabetes was glassy eyed and shaky, in growing need of her long overdue insulin injection.

Bobby’s cries sounded as though he was trying to convince himself of something he no longer believed in. “It’s not over! It’s not over! The Lord has not said it is so!”

Rick could faintly hear the hostage negotiator calling from the phone receiver left dangling upside down against the wall. Bobby ran and snatched it up.

Ryland Kamm’s voice was a soothing balm to the wild man. “What’s happening in there?”

“I,….I…….” Bobby’s eyes traveled the chaotic room one last time. “I…..I…..I need to talk to you.”

Rick let out the breath he was holding and gave a silent prayer of thanks. It might not be much, but at least it was a step in the right direction.

The detective stepped back and seated himself at A.J.’s side once more. The blond’s open eyes slowly shifted from side to side as though the disturbance in the room had brought him out of a deep sleep. Rick didn’t think A.J. felt the hand he laid on his head or heard his words of, “Hang in there for me, little brother. Just hang in there,” before his eyes slid shut again.

Once Ryland Kamm entered the building it was like watching a play from behind a closed curtain for the adults in the classroom. Bobby met the man in the hallway and wouldn’t allow him to come any farther. From his vantage point Kamm couldn’t see in the room. But his voice carried that far allowing the people within to hear everything being said.

Ryland Kamm was experienced at what he did. He immediately recognized Bobby Masters was to his breaking point. Possibly he’d even surpassed it.

Although the police still didn’t know the gunman’s last name, Ryland had been able to get his first name out of him some time ago. He stood fifteen feet down the hall from Bobby with his arms slightly spread from his sides and his hands open, palms facing outward. He wore nothing other than blue jeans, a black T-shirt and tennis shoes. He wanted it to be apparent to Bobby he wasn’t armed and therefore posed no threat to him.

Kamm spoke first, tossing the ball in the gunman’s court.

“Where do we go from here, Bobby?”

“I,….I…….God has not told me that yet.”

“Just what is it God is telling you?”

“To free the little children.”

“That’s good,” Kamm nodded. “I’m sure that’s what God wants you to do. Free the children, Bobby. Let me lead them out of there along with the injured man.”

“No! You don’t understand! God wants me to free the children from their teachers. Their minds are being poisoned. God’s laws are not being obeyed!”

“That may be true, but I don’t think this is the place to debate it. And the teachers are just doing their jobs, Bobby. Just doing what they’re paid to do.”

“No! They must be stopped! They will ruin the children! They,……they,…..they ruined me!”

“How is that so?”

“They said I was stupid! They laughed at me! They called me lazy! They ridiculed me in front of my classmates! They said I’d never amount to anything!”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Bobby, really I am. Your teachers shouldn’t have said those things to you. I can tell it was a painful time in your life and that the memories still pain you yet today. But the teachers you’re speaking of aren’t the same teachers who are in that classroom down the hall. These are different people. It’s not fair for you to punish them for something they had nothing to do with.”
“But they’re all alike! They think they’re so high and mighty because we put them in charge of our nation’s youth! But we shouldn’t, don’t you see? God should be in charge of the children. He told me so. That’s why he sent me here today. So I could spread his message until Gabriel himself comes to take over my work.”

“Who is Gabriel?”

“He will be my son and God’s messenger. He shall sit at the right hand of our Lord.”

“And God has told you this?”

“Yes. Many times.”

“Then you must give yourself up to me now, Bobby, so that your son can have a father. So that your son doesn’t have to grow up without….”

“It doesn’t matter! Even if something happens to me my son will always have a father! God will be his father!”

“That’s true, God will be his heavenly father. But the Lord meant for our children to have earthly fathers as well. That’s why he gave humans the power to reproduce.”
The conversation continued. For every matter of fact statement Kamm made Masters countered it with something far less than rational. Ryland maintained his calm composure and continuously steered the gunman back in the right direction when his mind threatened to veer off course. The only thing Ryland Kamm cared about was getting everyone in that classroom out alive.

From his place by A.J.’s side Rick could hear the sincerity in Kamm’s voice. He’d never met the man before, never even heard of him, but he could tell the guy was damn good at what he did. If Rick didn’t know better he’d almost believe Ryland’s only intention was to take Masters somewhere for coffee so they could talk things out. The detective knew that wasn’t true, however. If and when the gunman relented cops would appear out of nowhere and pounce on Bobby Masters like hungry tigers on a trapped gazelle.

A hushed silence prevailed in the room. The adults strained to hear what was being said in the hallway and seemed to take little notice of the children around them other than to absently stroke a head or pat an arm. The children who were old enough to understand what was happening listened hard as well in an effort to determine when they might achieve their freedom. The younger ones returned to their coloring books and games. Rick noticed some movement in the room but didn’t pay much attention to the kids who were weaving their way toward the back. When Emily, who was sitting closest to him, rose and took Micah by the hand Rick didn’t try to stop them. He assumed they were in search of a different game or more paper and allowed them to go without question. A.J. stirred and his eyes opened. Rick looked down into the glazed orbs and mustered up a smile for his brother’s benefit.

“It won’t be long now, A.J.,” came Rick’s soft spoken promise. “We’ll be gettin’ you out of here real soon.”

The blond detective didn’t acknowledge his brother. Rick was afraid A.J. was so near death he was no longer aware he was with him. His fear increased when A.J.’s eyes traveled to the far upper corner of the room near the door. Through parched lips the man whispered, “Dad?”

“A.J.?” Rick gave his brother’s shoulder a light squeeze. “A.J., it’s Rick. I’m here, A.J. I’m right here.”

Rick was unable to take A.J’s attention from the vacant corner ceiling of that classroom. He whispered, “Dad,” one more time and then nodded his head as if agreeing to some sort of instructions. Or so it seemed to Rick. Before he could say anymore A.J.’s eyes drifted closed. With the back of his hand Rick swiped at the sudden tears in his own eyes. He knew now that A.J. would never leave this school building alive. If his brother was seeing their long deceased father in some form of hallucination, well Rick couldn’t explain why but he felt this meant A.J.’s life was precariously close to ending. He squeezed his brother’s shoulder one more time and whispered, “Please,” begging whoever it was in charge of such things as life and death to spare A.J.

The conversation in the hallway dropped and then rose in volume at sporadic intervals. One moment Masters’ voice would be so soft he couldn’t be heard in the room and the next he’d be screaming at something Kamm had suggested that he didn’t approve of.

“No! No! No, I won’t let them go! I can’t! Take the children and make them whole, sayeth the Lord! Teach the children as if they have sprung from thy own loins!”

“Bobby!” Ryland was forced to shout, “Bobby, come on now! God does not approve of what you’re putting these children through!”

“Don’t you tell me what God approves of and what He doesn’t! Don’t you dare to insinuate you know God!”

“But I do know God, Bobby! I know Him and I know He….”

“No! No, you don’t know him! You don’t!” Bobby waved his rifle in the air, beseeching the heavens above. “You don’t know him! You don’t! He’s my God! He’s mine! He speaks to me and me alone!”

At that same moment Geneva Masters felt something warm running between her legs. She looked down to see blood staining the inner thighs of her white slacks crimson. She felt the cramps again but now knew they weren’t from stress and lack of food. She hadn’t felt the baby move since that morning. She hadn’t felt the baby move and now her dead fetus was trying to abort itself.

Geneva’s screams mingled in with her husband’s. “He’s dead, Bobby! He’s dead! You’ve killed our baby!”

For a brief second Bobby Master’s face appeared in the doorway. Geneva rose to her feet on shaky legs totally oblivious to the dangers the bomb presented. “You’ve killed him, Bobby, do you hear me? You’ve killed our baby! You’ve killed Gabriel!”

Geneva threw back her head in hysterical merriment. Through no power of her own she’d finally found a way to get back at her husband for all the cruelties he’d inflicted on her.

“You’re such a fool! You’ve killed the right hand of God, Bobby! You’ve killed his messenger! You’ve killed your precious son!”

Bobby Masters’ cry came out in a long pitiful wail. “Noooo! Noooooooooo! Nooooo!”

Ten seconds after that wail began it would all be over.

Rick’s mind told him he needed to get to the woman before she accidently detonated the bomb. A chill ran down his spine when she looked out over the classroom. Her eyes were empty and her face blank. The detective didn’t know what she was seeing but he knew it wasn’t three hundred innocent children. As if in slow motion he saw the movement of her wrist. The one that was attached to the cord that was in turn attached to the bomb’s detonator.

Rick’s last thought was a frantic, She’s gonna set it off!

Before Rick could jump forward in what would have been a futile effort to halt Geneva’s wrist A.J.’s body sprung off the floor. With arms and legs outspread he slammed into Rick and Stacy with a force far beyond what strength he had left. In turn Rick’s and Stacy’s bodies fell onto the children behind them knocking them over like pins in a bowling lane.

The blast of the homemade bomb blew out windows and tore the door off all its hinges but one. It dangled askew like a loose tooth about to be released from a seven year old’s gum. Over the loud ringing in his ears Rick heard a gunshot echo in the hallway.

Thick black smoke filled the room making it nearly impossible to see. Gasoline fumes hung heavy in the air causing people to cough and gasp for breath. The American flag in the corner was on fire as was the paper alphabet chart on the wall. Children screamed and scattered like barn mice whose home has just been invaded by a marauding cat. Adults scooped up those they could grab and shoved them out the windows into the waiting hands of rescue personnel.

Rick pushed himself to his feet and joined in the effort, Stacy right beside him. He squinted into the gloom as he handed Chandler out to a police officer. He knew A.J. had to be in the room somewhere but couldn’t see him. He remembered his promise to his brother and resisted the urge to look for him and leave the rescue of the children to someone else.

Rick deposited child after child into the arms of the men and women lining the outside of the building. Firemen were in the room now and urging everyone left to evacuate. A man in a heavy coat and red helmet grabbed Rick’s elbow but he yanked himself free of the grasp.

“A.J.!” Rick called over the din of crackling fire, wailing sirens, and loud voices issuing commands. “A.J.! A.J.!”

Rick recognized Stacy’s voice from across the room. “He’s over here, Rick! He’s over here!”

Rick traversed the distance, dropped to his knees and gave Stacy a shove. “Go on! Get out! We’re right behind you!”

The lanky man shoved one arm under the unconscious A.J.’s neck and the other under his knees. He pushed himself to his feet and stumbled out of the room with A.J. held firmly to his chest.

Halfway down the hall Rick was met by running paramedics pushing a clattering gurney. Rick deposited his brother on the rolling bed and ran along beside the men as they wheeled it out of the building. He quickly brought the men up to speed regarding A.J.’s gunshot wound. It was then Rick realized he didn’t know if his brother was alive or dead.

He had an answer soon enough. A doctor was waiting outside the building and did a quick evaluation of A.J.’s condition. Rick was no more than assured his brother was still living before A.J. was whisked off to the Flight For Life helicopter Abby had standing by on the vast playground.

Rick ran by A.J.’s side all the way to the chopper. It was there that he was forced to part ways with his brother. There wasn’t enough room inside the medically equipped emergency vehicle for anyone other than the pilot, the doctor and one paramedic.

The detective stepped back as the helicopter’s engine whirled to life. He bent low to protect himself from the turbulence caused by the blades. Grains of dirt pelted his face like driving snow. He watched until the chopper was nothing more than a tiny speck in the sky headed for County General Hospital. His prayer was no more than a fervent, “Please, God. Please.”

Rick turned around to run back to the school building. He was certain Abby had someone there waiting to take him to the hospital. If she didn’t he had a key to A.J.’s Camaro on the key ring in his pocket. One way or another he’d get to County General regardless of how many traffic laws he might break doing so.

Before the detective ever got that far a child raced toward him with her arms outstretched. She was soon joined by another and then another. Emily threw herself into Rick’s willing embrace and wrapped her arms around his neck. Micah’s arms were next and then Chandler’s. The boys were soon forced to move over to make room for LaKesha and Autumn. The girls were then pushed out of the way by Nicholas and Stanford. The process repeated itself time and time again as one child was replaced by another in Rick’s arms.

There were tears in Rick’s eyes as he did a mental head count. They were all present. All twenty of them. All present and safe and whole and beautiful.

“Oh, Mr. Rick, we were so scared!” Emily cried. “So scared something bad happened to you.”

Rick pulled the little girl to his chest and let her tears soak his shirt. “No, sweetheart, nothing bad happened to me. I’m fine, kiddo. Just fine.”

Rick spent the next few minutes reassuring the children. He accepted their hugs and kisses, allowing them to clamor all over him like frightened puppies. When he finally rose Micah was on his back and three children apiece were clinging to each of his hands. The rest held onto his waist as they made slow progress to the school’s parking lot. Once there the children left Rick’s arms for the safe haven of their parents’ arms.

Five minutes later Rick was being raced to County General in a squad car with lights flashing and siren screaming.

The last sight he saw as the vehicle pulled out of Heritage Academy’s parking lot was of Bobby Masters being carried from the school in a body bag.

A soft knock rapped against the wood of the hollow door. Before Rick could rise from his chair the door was pushed open just enough to allow Abigail Marsh’s upper body to appear.

“Hi,” she mouthed quietly.

“Hey, Abby,” Rick returned.

The woman stepped into the dimly lit room. She nodded toward the hospital bed with its raised rails and the sleeping man who laid within. Her tone was carefully hushed.

“I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes, Rick. Would it be better if we went out in the hallway?”

“Naw, we can talk in here.” Rick stood up and pulled the only other chair in the room next to his. “According to Joel they’ve got A.J. sedated to the point a freight train could roar through here and he wouldn’t so much as flinch.”

Abby stopped by A.J.’s bedside on her way to the chair. She’d seen him briefly very late the previous evening not long after he’d come out of surgery. He’d been sleeping heavily then as well. Now, nineteen hours later, she thought he looked a little better. At least his face was no longer the color of school paste. An IV was inserted in a vein in his left arm and another in the top of his left hand. She knew that underneath the hospital gown he wore his right side and rib cage were heavy bandaged. A suction tube ran through the bandages and was draining into a collection cup hung on the side of the bed. The blood and oxygen he’d been receiving the last time she saw him had been removed, however, which Abby took to be a sign that things were progressing well. Rick had also told her A.J. had more tiny cuts and abrasions on his back than the doctors could count as the result of flying shrapnel from the bomb blast. But thankfully those injuries weren’t serious. They were bound to cause the blond discomfort until they healed but considering how he obtained them things could have ended much worse.

Abby took the seat next to Rick. His face was drawn and the whites of his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion. Since Abby had last seen him he’d allowed someone to clean and place Band-Aids on the cuts he’d incurred from the shrapnel. One was above his left eyebrow, the other on his right cheek. The tan bandages stood out in stark contrast to his pale features.

“You look like you could use some uninterrupted sleep as well,” the policewoman observed. “Have you been home at all since A.J. was brought in here?”

“Yeah, I went home about three o’clock this morning.”

Abby knew Rick well enough to easily make an educated guess.

“But you didn’t sleep, did you?”

“No. I tried but I was,…….too keyed up I guess. I ended up doin’ some things around the boat, took Rex for a walk, ate breakfast, and got back here around noon.”

“Are you going home soon?”

“Yeah, probably.” Rick flicked his wrist and glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes short of being seven p.m. “I’m beat and they say A.J. won’t wake up for the rest of the night anyway.”

“Was he awake today?”

“Yeah, on and off for short intervals. They made him eat some soup and take a few bites of something they called pudding that looked more like wallpaper paste to me. By the look on A.J.’s face as it was goin’ down I’d say it tasted pretty much like wallpaper paste, too. They plan to unhook him from the rest of this stuff tomorrow and get him out of bed for the first time since the surgery. I’m gonna be here when they do that so I can give him a hand.”

“When will they release him?”

“Middle to the end of the week it looks like. Or at least that’s what Joel thinks right now. It all kinda depends on how he’s doin’ I suppose.”

“He was lucky,” Abby stated.

Rick stared at his brother and shook his head in disbelief. “He wasn’t just lucky, Abby. He was damn lucky.”

The detective thought back to the previous evening. Twenty minutes after he’d arrived at County General they were rushing A.J. to surgery. He was bleeding internally like Rick had suspected and in deep shock, but other than that they couldn’t tell the eldest Simon much. Abby joined him in his vigil late that night. It was after eleven before A.J. was out of surgery and a doctor came to talk to them. Remarkably the bullet hadn’t done extensive damage. It had skidded by A.J.’s vital organs and came to drill itself into a rib. The surgeons stopped the bleeding, removed the bullet, and got A.J. stabilized. The doctor warned Rick his brother was very weak due to the circumstances of the day, but he was optimistic that given time A.J. would make a complete recovery.

“Did you get a hold of Cecilia?”
“Yeah, early this morning. Thankfully she hadn’t heard anything about it on the news. She’d was out all day yesterday and didn’t get back to her hotel room until around midnight. She went to bed without ever turning on the TV.”

“How’d she take it?”

“Oh, you know Mom, she’s a pillar of strength if there ever was one. She was upset, of course, but once I assured her A.J. was gonna be okay she calmed down. She called here this afternoon and was able to talk to him for a few minutes so I think that helped her peace of mind considerably. She had been talkin’ about renting a car and driving home today but I convinced her not to. Her bus pulls out of Vegas right after breakfast on Monday morning. I figured it was best if she just waited and came home on it.”

“You’re probably right. She shouldn’t drive that distance by herself after receiving this kind of news.”

“That’s what I thought, too.” Rick gave an affectionate smile on his mother’s behalf. “Course she told me she wouldn’t have any fun and it was a waste of her time to stay there, but I told her that’s what A.J. wanted. Which was true. So that kinda put the subject to rest.”

Rick shifted the discussion to a new direction. “How’s the investigation goin’?”

“About as far as it’s going to.”

“Whatta ya’ mean?”

“Although we have some more information to gather and piece together yet I believe we’ve drawn our main conclusions.”

“And they are?”

“That Bobby Ray Masters Jr. was a paranoid schizophrenic among other things. He had a long history of mental illness dating back to high school. In reviewing his grade school records and the things his teachers wrote about him it’s apparent his problems were present even then but sadly, grossly misdiagnosed. Some called him hyperactive while others referred to him as lazy while others simply called him a troublemaker. The all purpose word ‘underachiever’ appears time and time again as well. He never finished high school. He joined the Army not long after he dropped out. You probably won’t be too surprised when I tell you he served in a demolitions unit.”

Rick shook his head at the irony of it all. “Which is where he learned everything he needed to know about making a bomb outta the innocent kinda stuff most of us keep in our garages.”

“More than likely,” Abby agreed. “But his military stint didn’t last long either. He was constantly being written up for misconduct. When he was twenty he was given a medical discharge.”

“Medical discharge as in relationship to mental illness?”

“Yes. Or at least that’s what his former commanding officer told me on the phone today. I’ve got to untangle some more red tape before I can actually get my hands on his military records and review them.”

“Did he ever undergo treatment?”

“For a while. At a VA hospital which is where he was first diagnosed. After that things get sketchy. He disappeared from the hospital one day and never returned. He had a succession of low paying jobs he didn’t hold onto for long. He was constantly fighting with his

co-workers among other things. He lost his latest job two months ago. I’m planning to talk to his supervisor on Monday. I assume I’ll discover the same scenario that caused him to be fired from his previous jobs caused him to lose this one was well.

“We do know that a little over a year ago, in May of 1988, he married an eighteen year old girl by the name of Geneva Kimbal. Her remains were positively identified by the medical examiner this morning.”

“She was the one chained to the bomb.”

“Yes, she was.”

“What about the baby? Was it dead before the bomb went off?”

“We’ll never know that, Rick. What little they found of it isn’t enough to draw any conclusions. We don’t even know what sex it was and probably never will.”

Rick shook his head in despair of all the things they would never know for certain or completely understand.

“I talked to some of the Masters’ neighbors this morning,” Abby said. “According to what they told me there was no doubt Geneva was being physically abused.”

“Based on what I saw I’d say that’s a given.”

“One of my detectives talked to her family this afternoon. It sounds as though this type of life is all the girl ever knew. Her father died when she was four and her mother remarried a few years later. Though no one would come right out and say it an aunt of the girl’s insinuated the stepfather sexually abused Geneva and her older sister. Or as the woman put it, “Had himself some hanky panky goin’ with them little girls every now and again.”

“No wonder the poor kid went from one bad situation to another.” Although Rick knew it wouldn’t make much difference one way or another he felt it important to speak up on Geneva’s behalf. “I’m certain she was there against her will, Abby. She was just a kid and scared out of her wits. I don’t think she intended to hurt anyone. I’m not sayin’ what she did was right, but she detonated that bomb because she just couldn’t take anymore of the life she was being forced to live.”

“I know. I’ve interviewed Stacy and several other teachers today. Their observations are similar to yours. That Geneva Masters was her husband’s unwilling accomplice.”

The pair fell into silence as Rick’s mind traveled back to the previous day. The gunshot he’d heard in the hallway right after the bomb went off was a result of Bobby Masters putting his rifle to his chin and pulling the trigger. The high velocity bullet had effectively scalped him as it rocketed upward through his brain and out the top of his skull.

Rick was long gone from the scene of the disaster by the time the police officers, fire personnel and other investigators were finished. It was only this morning on the television news that he had learned no one other than Geneva and Bobby Masters had lost their lives in the carnage. Every child and adult in that classroom had gotten out safely. Other than minor cuts and bruises no one but A.J. was seriously injured.

Rick stared at his brother and murmured with astonishment, “It was the miracle I asked for,” as the wonder of it all dawned on him for the first time.

“Pardon me?”

“I uh,….I was just thinking out loud. It was a miracle no one was killed when the bomb went off. I mean geez, Abby, there were over three hundred people in that room. How the hell do you explain that other than to call it a miracle?”

I don’t explain it any other way, though the arson investigators have come up with a few scientific reasons as to why no one was killed or seriously injured.”

“Like what?”

“Understand, these are only preliminary findings, but Masters made several key mistakes when he put his bomb together. According to one of the investigators it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it could have been.”

“Yeah,” Rick agreed dryly, “tell that to those of us who were in that classroom when it went off.”

Abby thought back to what the blackened destroyed room looked like when she’d first seen it. “I know what you mean but that’s what they tell me. For whatever reason, when the bomb did go off its blast didn’t project forward as is the norm. The main thrust of the explosion was felt on the east and west sides of the room. Because of that, and because the windows and door were open, a good deal of the blast dissipated outward instead of forward.”

“Forward as in where we were all sitting.”

“That’s correct. Whether we’ll ever have an answer as to why that happened I don’t know. The experts are stymied by it at this point.” Abby paused before adding, “And there’s on more odd occurrence no one can explain.”

“What’s that?”

“Some of the children are claiming,……”

The woman broke off there almost as if she was too embarrassed to continue.

“Are claiming what? Some of the kids are claiming what, Abby?”

“Do you recall telling me last night that right before the explosion occurred you noticed some of the children moving to the back of the room?”

“Yeah. That’s why I think so many of them survived the blast free of injury.”

“Yes, well several of the other teachers noticed the children’s movements also. Now those same kids are saying that shortly before the bomb went off an,…..an angel appeared in a corner of the room and urged them to move back.”

Rick raised a skeptical eyebrow. “An angel?”

“Yes. Or at least that’s what I’d guess you’d call it. Some of the children described it as a glowing formless light that was warm and friendly. Others said it was someone they knew.”

“Someone they knew?”

“Yes. For example the little girl in your class, Emily Spraten?”

“Yeah.”

“She says the angel was her grandmother.”

“Her grandmother?”

Abby nodded. “Her grandmother. Her mother tells me Emily’s paternal grandmother died last year. She and the little girl were very close. Emily swears her grandma appeared in the corner of the room and told her it was important that she move to the back. A boy in one of the third grade classes claims the angel was a deceased cousin of his who told him the same thing. A fifth grader claims it was her favorite uncle who….”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. Is deceased.”

“Yes. The man died in an automobile accident three years ago.”

Rick mulled over Abby’s words before giving a long slow nod of comprehension.

“I know it sounds weird,” Abby stated. “As a matter of fact it sounds more than weird.”

Rick thoughtfully studied his slumbering brother. “No, Abby, it doesn’t sound weird. Believe it or not it doesn’t sound weird at all.”

A.J. was released from the hospital the following Thursday morning. He was far from recovered and it was a struggle for him to make it up the stairs to his bedroom even with Rick’s help. But he was glad to be home even if home meant he’d be moving no farther than from the bedroom to the bathroom for the next few days.

Cecilia carried in the sports bag containing the few personal items A.J.’d had at the hospital. Tucked under her other arm she held three large manila envelopes bursting at the seams with get-well cards. Although A.J. had received his fair share of store boughten cards sent by friends and relatives the majority of the cards were made by childish hands and colored with crayons.

Despite the damaged classroom school resumed as normal on Monday morning with counselors on hand for the students and staff. It was by far a difficult day for everyone to get through and there would be many more difficult days ahead. While some of the children would come through the incident relatively unscarred others would be plagued by it to various degrees for the rest of their lives. For now their parents and teachers were offering them the only thing they could, their love, their patience and their time.

Mrs. Dunford’s first graders wanted to do something nice for Mr. Rick’s brother. Therefore it was the elderly teacher who suggested the whole school make get-well cards for A.J. Emily sent one with a hand drawn picture of Rick, A.J., and Rex on the front. Inside she had scrawled,

To Mr. Rick’s Bother. I Hop u Fel Beter Soon.

Love, Emily

The fifth and sixth grade classes A.J. had taught worked together to construct a ten foot long get-well banner for him. They each wrote a message on it and signed their names. Carrie’s message told him that baby Andrew was hail and hardy and had come through the bomb blast unscathed. Sean’s message didn’t say anything other than, ‘You’re one of the best teacher’s I ever had, Mr. Simon. Thank you for saving my life. I’m glad you’re going to be okay.’ Rick couldn’t help but laugh at Jake’s message. ‘Get well soon, Mr. Simon. P.S. Everything I know about sex I learned from you.’

Now the banner hung in A.J.’s bedroom at home. At A.J.’s request Cecilia hung the rest of the children’s cards up, too. Although it was a well kept secret from the blond man Stacy had contacted Rick and told him when A.J. was once again on his feet the students he had taught intended to invite him back to the school for a day. With the help of their teachers they planned to host a luncheon for him in an effort to thank him for what he’d done to keep Sean free from harm.

By the following week A.J. was getting around the house fairly well on his own. He was sore and tired easily, but hoped within the next two weeks to at least be allowed to return to work part-time.

It was after six o’clock on Wednesday evening when Rick entered carrying a bag of groceries. He’d been staying with his brother since A.J.’s return home. He deposited the bag on the counter top and peered through the space between it and the upper cabinets. A.J. was sitting on the couch dressed in blue jeans and a bulky sweater. He had the arms of the sweater pushed up to his elbows and was engrossed in the newspaper.

Rex squirmed out from where he’d been laying underneath the coffee table, greeted Rick, then stood at the door. Rick let the dog outside with a warning of, “Stay off ole’ man Gorman’s lawn.”

A.J. looked up from his newspaper. “Do you really think he understands you when you tell him that?”

“Sure he does.”

“Then how come within five minutes time Gorman is calling you to come over and get him out of his rose garden?”
“Hey, that’s not Rex’s fault. I think the ole’ guy is enticing him.”

“Enticing him?”

“Yeah. I haven’t caught him at it yet but I think he purposely lures Rex over there just to get him in hot water.”

A.J. rolled his eyes while rising from the couch to help his brother put the groceries away. Rick waved a hand. “Sit down. I can do this.”

The blond man ignored the command and pitched in to do his fair share of the work. When they were done Rick grabbed a beer out of the fridge for himself and asked A.J. what he wanted.

“Nothing.” A.J. walked around the counter and sat on a bar stool. “Supper’s almost ready anyway.”

“Did you cook?”

“Yes, I cooked. What did you think, the culinary fairy magically appeared while I was napping this afternoon and put together a meal for us?”

“No, smartass, I figured Mom dropped something off.”

A.J. shook his head. “I told her it wasn’t necessary anymore. I can handle it myself now.”

“You sure?”
“I’m sure. Believe me, there isn’t much involved to peeling potatoes and carrots, dicing onions and throwing everything on top of a pot roast.”

Rick took a full whiff of the warm spicy air. “I thought something smelled darn good in here. That’s what we’re havin’ for supper, huh?”
“That’s it. If you want something else you’re on your own.”

“No, no. I don’t want anything else. That sounds great.”

Rick took a sip of beer and nodded to the folder he’d laid on the counter when he’d brought in the groceries. “I brought the mail and some other papers home in there for you to look at.”

“Thanks.” A.J. reached a hand out and slid the manila folder across the formica counter top. He studied the contents while Rick drank his beer.

When the last of the liquid was drained Rick deposited the can in the garbage. He busied himself pulling out plates, glasses, and silverware while A.J. opened the mail with his thumb.

“Hey, A.J.?”

The blond barely looked up from his task. “Mmmm?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” A.J. lifted a shoulder in a puzzled shrug. “Why not? What do you want to ask me?”

Rick’s eyes had an uncharacteristic seriousness about them. “It’s about the bombing at the school.”

“Oh.”

Silence prevailed in the room as A.J. broke eye contact with his brother. They had yet to really discuss the incident between them though Rick couldn’t pinpoint as to why. He supposed overall the memories were simply too painful for both of them. He recalled all too clearly how he felt when he was certain A.J. was going to die in his arms and would just as soon avoid traveling that road again. He supposed A.J. had some feelings like that of his own to deal with. Maybe he wasn’t anymore ready to get them out in the open than Rick was. Maybe he never would be.

“Now that you know what the subject matter is, is it okay if I still ask my question?”
A.J.’s reluctant tone belayed his words. “Uh,…..yeah, sure. Go ahead.”

“I know you weren’t aware of this, but shortly before the bomb went off some of the kids who were sitting near the front of the room got up and moved to the back taking their friends with them. That action on their part probably saved their lives.”

“Yes?”

“And Abby told me that after the kids were questioned about that they claimed,…..all of ’em claimed, that an,…..an……an…..”

Rick wasn’t sure how to say what was on his mind. It was funny, he’d excepted it so willingly when Abby told him about it that evening in A.J.’s hospital room because he’d truly believed it. He believed that in an indirect way he’d been witness to it. But now it sounded absolutely absurd to his ears. Looking at his brother’s expectant face made him wish he’d never brought the subject up. Obviously the kids had, well maybe not made it up, but heck, they were just little kids and had spent a long traumatizing terrifying day being held hostage by a goofball with a gun and a bomb. Who really could know or understand what their minds had fabricated to protect them? And A.J. had been close to death. Now that Rick had put himself in the position of admitting it out loud it was a lot easier to believe what he had when it was occurring, that A.J. was hallucinating.

Before he could figure out a way to drop the subject A.J. asked, “The kids claimed what, Rick?”

Rick swallowed and tried again. “See, I know this sounds dumb, but some of the kids say that an,….well an….an…..”

A.J. softly finished the sentence for his brother. “That an angel appeared before them and told them they had to get back.”

Other than through Abigail Marsh, Rick knew of only one other way A.J. could have been privy to that information.

“Did Abby tell you that?”

“No, Abby didn’t tell me that. I just,….know, that’s all.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do, Rick, okay? Let’s leave it at that.”

“What are you gettin’ so pissed about?”
“I’m not pissed. I just,…I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it couldn’t have happened,” A.J. murmured almost inaudibly, “that’s why not.”
The blond eased himself off the bar stool and returned to the couch. Rick rounded the counter and sat down next to him in the easy chair.

“A.J., what couldn’t have happened?”

When his brother didn’t answer him Rick reached out a hand and placed it on A.J.’s knee. “A.J.?”

A.J.’s gaze remained fixed on the carpeting. “I……I guess it’s not that it couldn’t have happened. It did. I know it did. It’s just…..it’s just not something I planned to discuss with anyone. Not even you.”

“Because you think that I’ll think you were nuts?”

A.J. smiled at his brother’s forthrightness. “No, not because I’m worried you’ll think I’m nuts. You’ve got the market on that in this family, big brother.”

“Ha, ha.”

A.J. smiled again but didn’t say anymore. Rick kept his peace for a long moment before deciding to trudge ahead. He was way too curious now to let the subject end here.

“A.J., there’s a lot of things I don’t understand about that day. A lot of things the various ‘experts’ are tryin’ to explain away with scientific fact. Problem is, they can’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened in that classroom and right from the start I guess there was a higher being lookin’ out for all of us. An eleven year old boy would have been killed had you not walked in right behind him and in just a matter of a fraction of a second figured out what was happening. You took the bullet for that boy and then laid there all day with it inside you. Yet somehow you survived, A.J.

“Then we opened the windows and door for no other reason than it was getting hot in there and some of the kids were gettin’ sick from the gas fumes. Later we find out that by doing those things we might have saved everyone’s lives.

“Then we discover Masters was part of an explosives team while in the Army, but by some odd twist of fate screwed up when he was puttin’ the bomb together. Because of that its blast wasn’t nearly as powerful as it should have been.

“You might not remember this part either, but as the day wore on you were runnin’ a pretty high temperature. One of the cooks had given me a thermos full of ice for you.”

“I remember that. I mean I recall you giving me ice chips.”

Rick nodded. “Well long before the day was over those ice chips shoulda’ been gone A.J. Stacy asked Masters several times if she could get you more but he wouldn’t allow it. We were finally down to our last four ice chips but they never ran out.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that both Stacy and I counted ’em several times as we gave them to you and each and every time we always had four left. We never ran out, A.J., long after we knew we should have.”

Any other time A.J. might have scoffed and chided Rick by telling him he’d never been able to accurately count anything in his life. But not this time. This time A.J. knew there were things at work in that classroom none of them would ever be able to explain.

Rick resumed the conversation. “And then a bunch of kids move to the back of the room because they say an angel told them to. Some of them describe it as being a glowing light that was warm and friendly. Others say it appeared to them in the form of someone they had known. A family member who is deceased.”

A.J.’s eyes fell to the carpeting again. When he didn’t say anything Rick pressed on.
“It was Dad, wasn’t it, A.J.? Our dad told you to get back, didn’t he?”
A.J.’s voice was tight and choked. “No.” He looked up at Rick and tried to blink away the tears in his eyes. “No, Rick,” he said with more strength, “Dad didn’t tell me to get back.”

“Then what did he tell you?”
“He told me to get both of us back. I…..I can remember what he said as clearly as if he was standing right here in front of me saying it now.”

“And what was that?”

“He said, ‘Andy, that bomb’s going to explode before this ordeal ends. It’s up to you to protect yourself and Richard.”

Rick smiled. “Sure sounds like Dad.”

A.J. smiled in return. “More than you can ever imagine. And then he told me, ‘I’ll let you know when the time comes, son. I’ll give you the strength to do what needs to be done.’

“And he did, Rick. Just seconds before the explosion occurred I heard him order as though he was shouting in my ear, ‘Now, son! Now!’ And,….and I guess he did somehow give me the strength I needed to tackle you and Stacy. I can’t explain it any other way. God knows up until that point I was so weak I could barely move my head on the pillow.”

“Yeah,” Rick readily acknowledged, “you were.”

A.J. offered his brother a sheepish grin. “So,…uh….now that you’ve heard my story do you think I’m a few bricks short of a full load?”

Rick laughed and scooted forward to perch on the edge of his chair. He pulled his brother’s head to his shoulder and wrapped his arms around A.J.’s back.

“A.J., I’ve always thought you were a few bricks short of a full load. But no, I don’t think you’re crazy. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. ‘Cause you see, there came a time in that classroom that day when I prayed for a miracle. Lookin’ back on it now I think God answered me several times over.”

A.J. returned the hug he found himself enfolded in as he thought of how every single child and staff member had made it out of that school building alive. “I think so, too, Rick. I think so, too.”

After a long moment the blond man gently extracted himself to go check on supper. From the den Rick called, “Hey, A.J.?”

“Yeah?”

“Next time you decide you’re just itchin’ for some excitement?”

“Yes?”

“Leave me out of it.”

A.J. chuckled and tossed a wadded up dishtowel at this brother hitting him squarely on his bald spot. “Believe me, Rick, next time I’m itching for excitement I plan to leave the thought unvoiced.”

“I’d say that’s a heck of a good idea, little brother. A heck of a good idea.”

It was the following spring before Rick was able to make arrangements for his former first grade class to tour the Simon and Simon office like he had promised Emily so many months before. Of course considering the size of the office and the nature of the business it wasn’t much of a tour, but the twenty children who had fallen in love with Mr. Rick were simply thrilled to be reunited with him and thrilled to see that their get-well cards had aided in Mr. Rick’s brother’s recovery. Or so A.J. told them.

Afterwards the kids were loaded back onto their school bus along with Mrs. Dunford, Stacy, and Emily’s mother who had volunteered to come along as an additional chaperone. The bus driver followed Rick and A.J., in Rick’s truck, to the marina’s beach. Because it was a week day the beach was deserted of all but two sunbathers. The kids stripped down to the swimming suits they’d been wearing underneath their clothes. They raced for the water to splash and frolic in its waves. They all remembered Rex and were overjoyed when he joined in the fun. This time Rick was wise enough to keep Micah away from him. The last thing he needed was another nasty note from the boy’s mother.

The Simon brothers treated their guests to lunch that day. A.J. flipped hamburgers and rolled hot dogs on a grill while Rick sat cold soda, ketchup, pickles, mustard, relish, buns and potato chips on four picnic tables. Stacy, Mrs. Dunford and Emily’s mother had brought a wide variety of other foods to round out the meal. When everyone was gathered together they partook in a long lazy enjoyable feast.

A.J. was amused as he sat back and watched Rick interact with Iva Dunford. They were quite a contrast in character study with Rick in one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, cut-off blue jean shorts with ragged hems and bare feet while the tiny proper Mrs. Dunford wore nylons under her pale yellow Bermuda shorts, clean white sandals, a loose fitting white cotton blouse and a large brimmed yellow straw hat to keep the sun off her nose. Nonetheless the two got along fabulously and spent the thirty minutes after lunch discussing each of the children at length.

“My goodness, Mr. Simon,” A.J. overheard the older woman say at one point, “the first two weeks after my return all I heard was Mr. Rick this and Mr. Rick that. I believe you missed your calling as a teacher.”

As much as Rick had loved those little kids he was forced to assure the woman that no, he hadn’t missed his calling as a teacher. All he had to do was recall the endless bathroom breaks needed and the astounding energy level those six year olds possessed.

Rick’s words were gracious and sincere. “Mrs. Dunford, my hat’s off to you and all the other teachers who work with kids day in and day out. It takes a very special person to tackle that kinda responsibility.”

Stacy was sitting in-between Rick and A.J. at the picnic table when Rick made that remark. She linked arms with both of them and leaned sideways to first give A.J. a hug, and then do the same to Rick. “Yes, it does,” she agreed. “It takes a very special person.” Her eyes shone with tears of remembrance as she thought back to the harrowing day she’d been working so hard to forget. “As a matter of fact sometimes it takes two very special people.”

Neither brother needed to ask Stacy to elaborate. They both knew perfectly well what she meant. She laughed when she felt Rick’s kiss on her right cheek then A.J.’s on her left. The brothers took off running soon thereafter, playfully shoving and teasing one another until they reached the water. They jumped in with the kids, splashing and frolicking right along with them until it was time for the children to get out and dry off in preparation of the trip back to school.

The children wrapped up in their beach towels and sat in the sand with the Simon brothers. Emily’s mother and Mrs. Dunford passed around cookies and juice.

Between bites of her cookie Emily pointed out, “Mr. Rick, this is just like the party we were gonna have…..”

“Going to have, Emily,” Mrs. Dunford gently corrected. “This is just like the party we were going to have.”

“I know, Mrs. Dunford. But that’s the way Mr. Rick talks.”

Rick blushed underneath Mrs. Dunford’s disapproving gaze and her “tssk, tssk, tssk,” that went along with it. A.J. and Stacy couldn’t help but laugh.

“Anyway,” the little girl continued, “this is just like the party we were going to have that,…….that day back at school. Only better.”

Rick reached out and gently yanked on a wet pigtail. “You bet it is, kiddo. It’s a lot better party than we could have ever had at school.”

“And now you need to finish the story, Mr. Rick.”

“Yeah,” the other children echoed, “finish the story, Mr. Rick!”

“Gee, guys, that was a long time ago. I don’t know if I remember where we left off.” He looked to Stacy. “Besides, I don’t think we have time.”

Stacy glanced at her watch. “If you can finish it in half an hour we have time.”

Emily bounced up and down in the sand. “Come on, Mr. Rick. You can finish it in half an hour. Pleeeease! Please tell us the rest of the story.”

A chorus of drawn-out “Please’s” soon joined the girl’s.

“Well, okay. But you guys are gonna have to give me a hand and help me remember.”

Emily competently informed Rick of the facts as though she’d been reviewing the story in her mind ever since the last time she’d heard him tell it almost five months ago now.

“We left off with the brave knight Sir Andrew riding into the kingdom to rescue everyone the evil Prince Bakar had trapped in the tower.”

It was A.J.’s turn to blush. It was one thing to end up being the brave knight in your brother’s story when you’re lying with a bullet in your side and your brain is so foggy that what’s going on around you is unclear. It was quite another to find yourself in the role when you’re cognizant and at the mercy of eleven six year old girls who were smiling up at you with unabashed adoration.

But despite A.J.’s embarrassment at finding himself the hero in Rick’s story the tale was told with dramatic flourish. Much like Alfred Hitchcock, Rick had a cameo role in his story and appeared briefly as the crafty wizard Richard The Wise. A.J. thought he’d be better suited as Richard The Court Jester and didn’t hesitate to interrupt with that suggestion. The kids laughed as Rick grabbed his brother in a wrestling hold and pretended to pin him to the sand. When the horseplay was done the story continued. Rick got back at his brother with his closing sentences.

“And the next day King Micah hosted a glorious wedding at the palace. Everyone in the land came to see Lady Emily and Sir Andrew united in holy matrimony.”

Emily’s gaze dropped and her cheeks were tinged pink like a proper blushing bride as her classmates clapped and cheered. The big smile she tried to hide broadcast her delight at this fairy tale ending.

“And from that day forward Sir Andrew brought her all the chocolates she desired.”

Emily’s head rose. “And chocolates for their babies, too, Mr. Rick?”
“Their babies?”

“Sure. Lady Emily and Sir Andrew would have lots of children. Twelve I think.”

Emily’s mother, Stacy and Mrs. Dunford laughed while Rick contemplated this turn of events. “You’re right, Emily, I think they would have lots of babies. At least twelve. Maybe even thirteen.” His eyes slid to his brother. “You hear that, Sir Andrew, you’re going to be the proud papa of a big family. A very big family. I think you’d better get busy lookin’ for a better paying job, buddy. I don’t think rescuing damsels in distress brings in a heck of a lotta money.”

A.J. joined in the good natured laughter. “I don’t think so either. Emily, you and I are going to have talk about that number. I believe we’d better scale it down to no more than six.”

Emily took the blond man’s words to heart. “Okay, six is fine with me.” Her finger came up in stern warning. “But you have to remember the chocolates. That’s the most important part.”

A.J. bowed at the waist from his seated position and sincerely promised in his best Shakespearean accent, “Oh no, me’ lady, I shan’t forget the chocolates for one as lovely as yourself.”

Stacy clapped her hands together as a school bus pulled into the parking lot. “Come on, kids! Everyone get your shoes on. It’s time to go!”

The adults ignored the collective groan emitted by the children as they hurried to help get shoes on the correct feet and to gather up stray clothing. The women looked around one final time to make certain they had everything and everyone. Before they headed to the bus Stacy told the kids to say a final goodbye to Mr. Rick and Mr. A.J. as they’d taken to calling the blond man that day.

The two men accepted hugs and kisses from every child. It was as Micah was wrapping his arms around Rick’s neck that he whispered something in the detective’s ear. Rick whispered back then straightened.

“Listen up, everybody! Micah just reminded me that my story isn’t quite finished.”

The kids looked up at Rick giving him their full attention. He slung an arm over the startled A.J.’s shoulders.

Rick grinned as he made his final proclamation. “And everyone lived happily ever after!”

Rick’s audience clapped and cheered once again deciding this was the most perfect and final ending to what had been a perfect story.

A.J. smiled at his brother. “You’re sure about that, huh? Everyone lived happily ever after?”

Rick pulled his brother to him in a loose sideways hug. “Yep, A.J., I’m sure about that. Happily ever after is the only way my stories end, little brother.” Rick’s hand came up to tousle the blond locks. “It’s the only way I allow them to end.”

Rick looked from the robust healthy children before him to the robust healthy brother beside him and grinned with firm declaration.

“It’s the only way I allow it.”

***The End***

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