It was such a beautiful day in June; summer vacation was almost within school children's reach, perfect for playing hooky. And that was just what Rick and A.J. Simon did; they locked up their private investigation office before noon and drove to the beach to sit back and bask in the sun. It was a weekday, so they did not have to vie for the prime real estate on the beach. Sometimes, it was great to be your own boss.
They lay on chaise lounges with a cooler between them. This was one of Rick's favorite places to ogle scantily clothed girls, but today he was just content being immersed in the sun and the tranquility. And beers. He reached down to grab another can from the cooler and saw his brother gazing wistfully beyond the waves lapping the sandy beach.
"Hey." He flicked the beer can's ring tab at A.J. to get his attention. "No deep thoughts allowed on the beach, especially on a day like this."
A.J. slowly turned his gaze and offered a fleeting smile to his brother. "I wasn't contemplating Kant or Nietzsche. It's just that…"
"What?" Rick threw him a sideway glance from the corner of his eye while draining one third of the beer.
"I wish…" A.J. uncharacteristically struggled to put his emotions into words. "I wish I could preserve the moments of life's simple pleasures…"
"So, basically, you're having a Time in a Bottle moment."
A.J. smiled at the reference Rick had made. "Yes, something along the lines of it."
"If you're enjoying yourself, how come you look so glum?" Rick knew A.J. hadn't come clean. Something was eating at him.
A.J. dangled his right leg and kicked the sand lazily. After a few moments, he reluctantly told Rick with a sigh, "I just wish Dad were here with us."
Dad! Of course! Rick wanted to slap his forehead for being so dense. Father's Day was only several days away.
"We've been here with Mom and Dad a lot of times." He tried to remind his brother.
"Sure, but we were still kids, busy playing with other kids. Dad was there just to keep an eye on us, nothing more." A.J. lifted his head and glanced at his brother with the same wounded look Rick had seen on the first Father's Day after their father's passing. "I never had a chance to tell him what he meant to me and thank him for being such a great dad except the times I gave him corny, handmade cards."
"He seemed to like them. As they say, handmade cards are better than store-bought ones." Rick could see A.J. was not quite convinced yet. "And who needs a collection of tasteless ties and socks he has no intention of wearing outside his bedroom?"
A.J. smiled a pale smile at Rick's comment.
"Once I bought a pair of underwear on sale right after Valentine's Day and gave it to Dad on one Father's Day. I thought it'd show him how much I loved him 'cause it had hearts all over. But of course, it was meant for a different kind of love—though I didn't realize it, it had something else on the fly under the flap. When he saw it, he turned bright red, and Mom started laughing hysterically."
That got A.J. chuckling.
"Anyway, you're a lousy drunk, A.J.," said Rick with a grin. "Why can't you be a happy one?"
"I'm not drunk. This is my first beer."
"In that case, have a few more."
A.J. was receptive to Rick's suggestion for a change. They killed a six-pack between them and spent the rest of the afternoon bantering and reminiscing.
The brothers made a stop at a greasy spoon for a quick meal on the way home. A.J. objected to the choice of eatery, but since Rick was driving his Power Wagon, the objection was simply overruled. Their supper consisted of a double cheeseburger with fries for Rick, chicken quesadilla for A.J., and lots of strong coffee.
While Rick was nursing another cup, A.J. checked on the messages.
"Nothing urgent," reported A.J.
"So there's no need to go back to the office."
Rick suggested a boys' night out, but A.J. declined. He knew his brother was still in a funk; however, decades of experience as his big brother told him he should keep his distance and let him sort this one out on his own terms. Talking wouldn't sway his conviction, that much he knew. A.J. was his own worst critic and the kind of man who found forgiving himself the hardest, even if his offense was as minor as failing to tell his father in excruciating detail how he adored him before his death when he had been just a little kid.
Rick dropped his brother off at home and then went out for a drink with Carlos and other buddies of his.
A.J. was comfortable being a homebody—he watched the latest news, read a few chapters of the book on Nikolai Romanov—the last Russian czar—that he had recently purchased and turned in around 11:30. His brother hadn't come home yet, so he let Marlowe out before putting him in the cabin of Rick's boat. He read one more chapter of the biography in bed then drifted off to sleep.
A.J. woke up suddenly, wondering what roused him from a deep sleep. He did not have to wonder for long; someone was at the door rapping on the glass pane hesitantly.
He got up, took his gun out of the holster and trod lightly down the stairs. Releasing the safety catch of the gun, he approached the kitchen door. He could see the silhouette of a—woman?—person with long hair on the stained glass. She tapped on the glass again.
He knew he had heard her voice before. "Who's there?"
"Diane Morrison." In a teary voice, she said, "I'm desperate. I don't know what to do."
Jumbled, disturbing images, brought on by recognition of her identity, flashed before his eyes as he reached for the doorknob. On the other side of the door stood Diane Morrison without a trace of makeup, disheveled and in distress. Her frizzy brown hair was a tangled mess. She seemed to have rolled out of her bed and come straight to his place.
"What's wrong, Mrs. Morrison? Something happen to your husband?"
She nodded. "He… he took my Danny…" She could no longer hold back her tears.
"He? You mean, Lance Whitaker? He abducted your husband?"
She only sobbed openly burying her face in his chest.
Rick rounded the last bend; he was in the homestretch. He was pleasantly tired and yearning for the comfort of his bed. He was about ten, fifteen yards from A.J.'s home when he saw someone in the headlight.
"A.J.?" He jammed on the brakes and jumped out of his pickup. "What the hell are you doing in the middle of the night? It's past two."
"Something came up. Sorry, I have to go now." A.J. said evasively.
"Something came up? Like what?"
"It's personal." A.J. was unusually terse.
"Personal, my ass!" Rick blew up in frustration. "You're dressed in dark clothes and a black hat. If it's not the outfit for a covert operation, I don't know what is. And if it's something personal, why are you packing heat?" Even after a night of drinking, Rick's PI senses had not been dulled enough to miss his brother's belt holster.
A.J. did not respond and opened the door of his Camaro. Rick grabbed his arm and spun him around.
"Damn it, A.J.! Don't do this to me. What's…"
He fell to the ground when A.J. sucker-punched him. He was dazed momentarily and had to stay on his back for a few seconds. When he was able to sit up, A.J. was already pulling out of the driveway.
Rick tried to jump back in his truck to follow his brother but realized the keys had fallen out of his hand when he had been knocked down. It took him a minute or so to find them in the dark, groping on hands and knees. By the time he got his keys back, it was too late to chase A.J. He cursed out loud and ran towards A.J.'s home hoping to find any clue.
Before he opened the kitchen door, Rick found a small, wadded piece of paper on the welcome mat. He smoothed it out and squinted to read what was on it: the direction to get to this very address. He traced it backwards to see where the starting point might be. It didn't help much—the first entry was one of the major thoroughfares.
He turned over the paper. As he had guessed, it was a receipt—one from a ubiquitous franchise supermarket. The information on the top included the name of the store, the date and time of transaction and which branch, or neighborhood location the purchase had been made. The geographic information triggered something in his memory. He had been in that neighborhood before. He closed his eyes and delved deeper into his memory reservoir.
Danny Morrison! Rick's eyes flew open when the answer he'd been looking for finally came to him. This could mean only one thing—Lance Whitaker had resurfaced again, and that Danny or Diane Morrison had shown up at A.J.'s doorstep tonight asking for his help. But which one?
Diane Morrison. Rick was sure of it. Danny was a reporter and habitual note-taker, always carrying a little notebook and several pens. And he had been here a few times to discuss business over dinner and needed no direction.
It appeared Diane Morrison had received a phone call and jotted down the driving direction to get here on the back of the receipt. But who called, Danny or Whitaker?
Rick took another look at the receipt. It was dated the day before. Well, technically two days ago as it was past 2:00 a.m.
The Morrisons are back in their old neighborhood? Danny had temporarily moved his family to an undisclosed location around Christmas last year after a couple of close calls with Whitaker. He had been lying low but staying close to the San Diego area to keep working on his projects; however, he kept moving from one motel to the next. Rick hastily looked up and dialed Danny's home phone number. The line had not been disconnected but just rang and rang with no one to pick it up.
If she was here tonight, she's most likely to be on her way back home, speculated—hoped—Rick. There was only one way to find out. He ran back to his pickup and gunned the engine.