Rick Simon looked up from the paperwork he'd been tackling with most of the morning to spy on A.J. His brother was taking a break at his desk sipping a cup of coffee, totally engrossed in the world of another 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain.
Seeing his younger sibling enjoying his favorite pastime knowing full well he was suffering made him mad, but when he spoke, he carefully kept a neutral tone, "Hey, A.J.?"
"The answer is still no, Rick."
The sanctimonious little twerp didn't even look up, his nose still buried in the book.
"Oh, come on, A.J.!" Rick got out of his chair and strode over to the other side of the office. He perched on A.J.'s desk and asked in a grave tone their father had often employed to give him a lecture, "How many times have I bailed you out when you were in a tight spot?"
"Not as often as I've bailed you out, and more often than not, you were the reason that I was in trouble in the first place," came an insolent reply. A.J.'s eyes finally left—reluctantly—the pages of the book and met with Rick's. "As I recall, I offered to help you with your tax return not just once but several times. Did you take up my offer? No-o-o-o! You chose to go with Carlos' second cousin who promised you a fat refund. You should ask him to help you with the audit."
"I would if I could, but he's unreachable. Even Carlos doesn't know where he is."
"Gee, I wonder why," smirked A.J. "It's about time you learned that every risky behavior has its consequences, and that you're ultimately responsible for your own action since you're an adult—in the chronological age anyway."
On that stinging note, A.J. returned to his book dismissing dejected Rick.
"Is that the way you respect your older brother?" Rick gave it another shot.
"Is that the way you set an example for your younger brother?"
All that talking and begging had been futile, so the only thing left for Rick was to let his action do the talking.
"Hey, what're you doing?"
A.J. screeched when Rick snatched the book away from his hands.
"How can you sit there and read like everything's peachy when your own brother's having a major crisis?"
"Give me that back!"
A.J. jumped out of his chair to get his book back, but Rick quickly raised it above their heads, just barely out of his brother's reach.
"You scumbucket!" A.J. screamed in frustration.
"Oh, that really hurts." Rick chuckled at A.J.'s utterance that had been one of his toy phrases for his older brother during their fights while growing up. "You gonna help me now?" asked he fending off his younger and shorter brother.
"No! And you're not helping your case!" A.J. shot back. "Just give me my book back, or else!"
"Or what?" teased Rick.
The brothers froze. They had been so preoccupied they had not noticed their mother standing at the door. That alone was bad enough, but to their embarrassment, an old woman in her sixties or seventies was by her side with a hint of a smile.
Rick let his hand that held the book fall to his side. A.J. snatched back and pressed his precious possession against his chest like a miser clutching a bag of money.
"I was telling Mrs. Crenshaw how you two are running a very successful investigation business," said Cecilia Simon with an icy stare of disapproval. She was clearly chagrined by her sons' immature and unbecoming behavior in front of her elderly companion.
"Mrs. Crenshaw?" Rick mumbled frowning. The name had an oddly familiar ring to it.
"You probably can't recognize me. It's been a long time," chuckled the old woman with a twinkle in her eye. "You certainly have grown to be a nice young man, but I see you still have that little mischievous boy inside."
"You don't have to be so polite, Mrs. Crenshaw. A boy from the fifth-grade teachers' hell was more like it." Cecilia corrected her.
"Mrs. Crenshaw!" Rick exclaimed, eyes wide with horror brought on by recognition.
Rick's former teacher turned her gaze to A.J. "You were still in kindergarten back then, but your mother often brought you with her to our, shall we say, emergency meetings when Rick was in my class."
Rick's fifth-grade teacher! No wonder he looked so panicky. A.J.'s face began to break into a vindictive smile.
"You were such a sweet little angel, always quietly waiting for your mother reading your picture books, and she's right—you haven't changed much, dear," said Mrs. Crenshaw eyeing the book A.J. was hugging protectively.
A.J.'s smile vanished as he heard his brother's derisive snicker.
"You're probably wondering why I brought Mrs. Crenshaw here," said Cecilia.
"That crossed my mind." Rick muttered.
"We bumped into each other at a grocery store this morning and got to talking. Her husband of eight years passed away recently."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry to hear that, ma'am."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Crenshaw."
The Simon boys offered their dissonant condolences.
"Thank you, but he endured a four-year battle against the illness he could not recover from and was ready to let go." Mrs. Crenshaw smiled sadly. "But that's not the reason I wanted to see you..."
Cecilia took over when the old woman lapsed into silence. "While sorting her late husband's belongings, she found something puzzling. It's led her to believe he might not have been who he'd claimed to be."
Mrs. Crenshaw nodded and said to the Simon brothers, "I'd like you to find out to whom I've been married for the past eight years."
Mrs. C's been married to someone with a shady past?
Rick grinned inwardly, but before he could express his interest in this work, Cecilia spoke up. "I told her what you do for a living and offered her your service. You at least owe it to her, Rick, as atonement for your sins."
"You did what?" Rick didn't mind taking the case but not for free especially when an IRS audit was looming on the horizon.
"Oh, I wouldn't dream of asking you to work for me without compensation, Rick," intervened Mrs. Crenshaw. "I actually have kept your career achievements in a scrapbook. You and your brother have an excellent reputation in your trade."
Keeping track of my career achievements, huh? Like you used to keep tabs on me, thought Rick warily.
"I'd appreciate it very much if you two could spend some time on my query to see what you can come up with."
A.J. turned to Rick and said demurely, "I'm game if you are."
This was too good an opportunity to pass up. He hoped Mrs. Crenshaw would provide some juicy tidbits on his brother from way back when on the side.
Rick had already made up his mind but took his time to reply.
"Okay, sure." He finally responded. "When would you like us to start?"
"How about right away?"
Mrs. Crenshaw had always been a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase kind of woman, Rick recalled with a sigh.