The jarring, insistent ringing of the telephone roused A.J. Simon from slumber. As he reached for the phone, he glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand—it was past midnight. Early-morning calls were always unsettling, and this time was no exception.
"Hello?" mumbled he into the mouthpiece, his voice still thick with sleep.
"Hey, A.J. It's me." It was his brother, Rick. "I didn't wake you up, did I?" He practically had to shout not to be drowned out by the din around him.
Judging by the background noise, he was calling from a bar, a real rowdy one at that.
A.J. was certain Rick knew he had been asleep and was getting mad. "Whatever it is, the answer is no."
A.J. was about to hang up the phone when his brother's panicky voice stopped him. "Oh, hey! Don't hang up! I really need your help."
Still half asleep, A.J. asked from force of habit, "What now?"
"Uh… I'm kinda stranded here. My Power Wagon needs a jump start."
A.J. was getting more alert and angrier. "Rick, I'm your brother through no fault of my own, business partner by choice, but I'm not your personal roadside service. Didn't I remind you that your pickup might need maintenance services a couple of weeks ago? And why don't you call a cab instead of me?"
Rick carefully reined in his temper trying not to get snippy with A.J. "I am going to take it to the shop this weekend. Honest. And I'd call a cab if I could, but I don't have enough money for the cab fare—this place's clear across town."
A.J. groaned. Sleep had deserted him by then.
"Come on, A.J. Just remember how many times I gave you a ride when you were late for your paper route or missed your school bus before you got your drivers license. Or, when you were…"
"All right, all right!" Rick was an expert on guilt-tripping his younger brother. "Give me the name and the address of the bar."
A.J. was receiving the driving direction from Rick when he heard him say, "Hey, do you mind? I'm still on the phone, pal."
There was another male voice in the background, but A.J. could not make out most of what he was saying. Whoever this guy was, he was definitely not a happy camper.
To his dismay, A.J. heard Rick exchange testy words that were followed by scuffling sounds.
"Rick? Rick?" Alarmed by what he thought was taking place, A.J. shouted, but after a few moments, someone slammed the pay phone receiver back on the hook.
He stared at the phone receiver for a couple of seconds then placed it back on its cradle with a sigh. He got out of bed and started putting on street clothes in a hurry while wondering if Rick would stay out of trouble long enough to leave the bar in one piece.
A bar called Blue Moon was located smack-dab in the middle of a rough neighborhood, and its exterior matched with its surrounding buildings in various stages of deterioration and neglect.
As he pulled into the parking lot, A.J. scanned the area hoping to find Rick waiting by his pickup. No such luck. He actually would have to step inside to look for him.
Of all the bars and taverns in San Diego, Rick had to pick this one—naturally, bemoaned A.J. The bar looked like a hub for all sorts of criminal activities. Rick was a two-tour Vietnam vet who had no need to hang around with tough crowds to prove his manhood, but no one could psychoanalyze who Rick Simon was in a most logical way.
A.J. plodded across the parking lot, keeping a wary eye out for any suspicious individual or activity. As he neared the entrance of the bar, someone darted out of the dark alley between the bar and the condemned building on the left. A.J. jumped back to avoid a collision, but the other man tripped and pitched forward. He instinctively reached out and grabbed A.J.'s arms to break his fall. A.J.'s hands also shot out reflexly to keep the other man upright. Their eyes met for a brief second when they made physical contact. Then the stranger, who was gaunt—almost emaciated—with sallow complexion exhibiting many signs of a junkie, broke free and ran away like the devil was after him.
A.J. could not help but check on his valuables: wallet, keys, watch... Realizing that nothing was missing, he felt a little ashamed for judging a total stranger by his appearance.
As A.J. was about to enter the bar, the batwing doors burst open and out came a man who was built like a pro linebacker in full protective gear. This time, the two men could not avoid a head-on collision.
A.J. went down hard like he had been tackled, but the other man merely took a few backward steps to absorb the impact. When A.J. looked up, the linebacker was already running towards the parking lot. Just before he got in his car, the big man took a backward glance and glared at A.J. He must be pursuing the man from the alley, A.J. assumed. No wonder the smaller of the two had been in such a hurry to hightail. He was just grateful that it was not him the big guy was after.
When A.J. entered Blue Moon, he was acutely aware that he was out of his element. Although he was dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket, he still felt way too overdressed like showing up at a luau in a tux.
He hurriedly walked up to the counter ignoring the men and some women seated around him who were gawking at the new arrival. The barkeep eyed him suspiciously as if he were an undercover vice cop. "What do you want?" He was as friendly as a mugger.
"Hi, I'm looking for my..."
"Do you want a drink or not?"
The bartender's tone gave A.J. no choice.
"Uh… Give me a beer."
A.J. didn't touch the glass of draft beer the bartender had set on the counter and tried to pick up where he had left off. "As I was saying, I'm looking for my brother…"
"Well, hello, sweetheart."
A.J. turned to the sound of a raspy, sneering voice and cringed. The voice belonged to a biker, a large, unkempt biker with heavily tattooed arms and a crooked nose that had been broken once or twice before.
"You looking for a tall, skinny guy with a mustache?" The biker grinned at A.J. showing his gapped front teeth.
"Yes." This is not good.
"With a cowboy hat and boots? Responds to the name, Rick Simon?" The biker's grin became wider.
"Yes." A.J.'s voice became smaller.
"Funny. He said his brother was comin' to pick him up but didn't say nuthin' 'bout no sister."
Like any man, A.J. became incensed whenever his masculinity was questioned, but his instinct for self-preservation was much stronger than his self-esteem. He gritted his teeth. "Listen, fella. I don't have a bone to pick with you. I just want to know where my brother is."
"Oh, I bet you do, sweetie pie," said the biker mockingly. "I'll personally show you where he is."
The biker was deceptively nimble and grabbed A.J. by his collar and belt from behind before he could react. He half-dragged, half-carried him toward the backdoor while the other bar patrons around them clapped and cheered on in appreciation of this unexpected live entertainment.
The backdoor led to the dark alley A.J. had passed by before entering Blue Moon. There were two more bikers standing by the bar's dumpster. They were similarly clothed in tattered jeans and a denim jacket with sleeves torn off worn over the bare torso.
"Hey, look. This cream puff says he's a Simon, too." The first biker with a crooked nose proudly presented A.J. to his cohorts like a hunting dog with a bird in its mouth.
"Um…I thought you were going to show me where my brother is," said A.J. hesitantly.
"Oh, you will see him in no time." The biker told A.J. tauntingly then said to the other bikers with a nod, "Hey, take it from here, guys."
The two bikers, who had been guarding the dumpster, gripped A.J.'s arms and legs. They lifted him off the ground and started swinging him like a pendulum until they achieved enough momentum they desired. Then they let go of him to send him airborne.
A.J.'s body cleared the top of the dumpster and landed on the heap of garbage bags—and Rick, who was lying flat on his back in the middle of the dumpster. As his brother's arm hit the midriff, Rick grunted in surprise and sat up. He mumbled something unintelligible, his hands clenched in fists. Then his eyes cleared.
The brothers heard the bikers laughing as they were walking back to the backdoor. Slowly, A.J. stuck his head out of the dumpster but quickly ducked back down in order to avoid a beer bottle hurtling toward his head.
"Stay down! And don't ever come back here!" One of them yelled as they returned to the bar.
"What the hell did you do to make them so mad?" Rick asked A.J.
A.J. stared his brother in disbelief. "What did I do? What did I do?" He whispered harshly before exploding in frustration and anger. "Acknowledging that you're my brother, that's what!"
"Oh? Oh? Is that all you have to say? What you do in your spare time is your business, but if you wanna pick a fight with some unsavory character, don't drag me into it!"
"Hey, I didn't drag you into this; I was only defending your reputation."
"Me and those three guys were doing just fine till I mentioned that you were coming to pick me up."
A.J. shook his head in confusion. "But I heard you fighting with them over the phone."
"No, no. That's someone else, some drunk who bumped into me and started a fight. The biker dudes threw him out before the things got ugly. So, I bought them a round of beer while waiting for you to get here."
At this point, A.J. was thoroughly lost and stopped speculating. "Okay then. Where did I come into the picture?"
"After half an hour or so, I casually mentioned that I should leave and wait for you in the parking lot."
"And they got mad?" asked A.J. incredulously.
"No. They just told me to wait inside and let you come in to look for me. So I said, no, you wouldn't like that, and they said why."
A.J. kept staring at Rick without a word and let him continue his narrative.
"So, I told them this isn't the kind of place you'd want to set foot in."
At least you got that part right, thought A.J.
"That's when the bikers got real mad saying things like, 'what's wrong with our bar?'"
"Their bar?" It was hard for A.J. to imagine anyone could take pride in a dilapidated place like Blue Moon.
"Sure. They felt you were insulting their favorite bar. And they started shoving me around, calling you names, and that's putting it mildly. Man, I thought I'd heard every expletive there is while I was in the Corps, but I learned something new tonight…"
"I insulted their favorite bar?" Only his brother could drag someone who was physically miles away into trouble with him, lamented A.J.
"You okay?" asked Rick placing his hand on his brother's shoulder.
A.J. shot a glare at his brother. "Of course not! I'm madder than hell!"
Even when he was ranting, A.J. looked as lethal as a pissed-off squirrel chattering in a tree, which could be a curse or a blessing depending on how you looked at it; while it might not boost his male ego, in a fight, his opponent would get a painful surprise if he let his guard down because he looked so mild-mannered and milquetoasty.
Rick didn't realize he was smiling at his brother until A.J. said to him curtly, "What are you grinning at?"
"Oh, I'm just glad that you're okay—physically." It wasn't entirely untrue. "Come on. Let's get outa here unless you wanna stay here for dumpster-diving."
A.J. hazarded a peek again to make sure the coast was clear before they attempted to leave the dumpster and its stench behind.
Eventually, A.J. brought his car and parked it right next to Rick's Power Wagon. While Rick was looking for a jumper cable in the toolbox, A.J. popped the hoods of their vehicles. As he was raising the Power Wagon's hood, he heard someone speak with a cockney accent, "All right, mate?"
A.J. turned around and saw a short man in his fifties or early sixties smiling amiably at him for a change. Judging by the smell on his breath, the Brit had a good reason to be blissful.
"Do you want me to 'ave a butcher's?"
"Oh, um, no thank you. It just needs a jump start, but thank you for asking."
Rick heard the two men chatting for a while as he rummaged the toolbox to dig up the cable. When he finally got it, he jumped off the flatbed. He held the cable up in the air to show it to A.J. "Found it!"
The short Londoner was tipsily walking away muttering something that sounded like, "Cor blimey! I think I'm getting real Brahms!"
"How did you manage to carry a conversation with that guy? I have no idea what he was babbling about." asked Rick scratching his forehead.
A.J., who was inspecting the Power Wagon's battery, looked up from under the hood. "George Bernard Shaw once said the British and American are two nations separated by a common language." He grinned at a baffled look on his brother's face. "And I can see you agree with him."
"Yeah, whatever. But did I hear the English guy right? I thought he called himself Brahms. Was Brahms a real nutjob or something?"
"No, he didn't call himself Brahms." A.J. took the jumper cable from Rick and placed the clamps on the battery's terminals. "It's one example of the old-fashioned rhyming slang. 'Brahms' means 'drunk,' or more precisely, 'pissed.'"
"Uh-huh. And you call that 'rhyming.'"
A.J. smiled at his brother's remark. "Rhyming slang is almost impossible for the outsiders to understand because the second word of the pair, the one that actually rhymes with the intended word, is omitted. In this case, it should be 'Brahms and Liszt.' Liszt and pissed—get it?" He finished connecting the batteries with the cable and got into his car.
"List? What kind of list are you talking about?"
"No, not that kind of list. It's L-I-S-Z-T, as in Franz Liszt, a composer like Brahms."
A.J. shook his head to dismiss Rick's emerging interest in linguistics. "I don't know about you, but I'm really beat. So, let's get this over with and go home."
Rick started to say something, but A.J. ignored him and turned on the car engine hoping his brother wasn't too 'Brahms' to drive home.