The Harts learn with certainty that family really is everything….
“So what’s this latest sound card of yours supposed to do?”
After examining the device, Tommy Steele handed it back across the table to his friend, J.J. Hart. Finding themselves with some time to spare before their first class of the day, he decided he wanted a hot breakfast, so they had come across the street to the coffee house. While he ate a full meal, she drank coffee and fiddled with the gadget he was giving back to her.
“It makes things sound a lot clearer, especially if you’re playing music through your computer.” As she spoke, J.J. placed the device inside a paper sleeve and then put that into a larger sleeve before she slid the whole thing carefully down into an inside pocket of her backpack. “I hope to get it perfected to use it in this sound system I’m trying to get to the drawing board. I have a couple of things in the works right now. Dr.Westlake, over in the Hart lab, is kind of helping me with them.”
She checked her watch. “We’d better hurry up. It’s almost time for first period, and you know how they all freak out when I’m not in place.”
After wolfing down the last of his eggs, Tommy snatched a couple of paper napkins out of the holder and wiped at his mouth.
“J.J., you are the queen of electronic gadgetry. Sound cards, transistors, microchips, sometimes I think you shoulda been a guy.”
Seeing her head snap up at that comment, he added, “But then I’m glad you’re not one. You wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. See, people expect a guy to be into that kind of stuff, but coming from a girl, well… it just makes you real interesting.”
Her eyes narrowed, but he could see that hard, fast-formed crystal in them melting a bit with his timely clarification. “I’ve told you time and again about that sexist crap, Tommy. Girls are into this kind of thing, too.”
Tommy inwardly exhaled in relief at having gotten himself off that hook that he so quickly managed to get himself snagged onto. J.J. Hart was known to take a guy’s head off about shortchanging girls in the brains department, and without a doubt, that particular girl had more sense than most of the people he knew. In fact, it was fascinating how much she knew and how much ‘heart’ she had- for a girl. But then, being whose kid she was, it wasn’t really surprising.
“I just like being on top of technology,” she continued. “I’ve given it some consideration, and I’m thinking I might make sound engineering my focus in college, if I go.”
“You know you’re going. Jen is going to make you go. Hell, your old man will, too. No way you’re not going.”
“Nobody makes me do anything, Tommy Steele. And if I have to tell you one more time that he’s my fa-a-a-ther, not my ‘old man’.”
When she hard-rolled her eyes at him, he eyed her back. Then he grinned.
“Sound engineer, huh?”
J.J. broke down and smiled, and Tommy laughed to himself. The dimples got her every time.
“Boy, you make me sick. Yeah, sound. See, I love getting playback to sound real to the ear, especially when it comes to music. I want to hear every single note and tone sung or played. But then, maybe I’ll be a musician. I want to work with real music, not that digital stuff everybody is into now. Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I guess I have time to work that out. We better get moving.”
She stood and pulled at her book-filled backpack from the bench. Tommy noticed the effort she was taking in getting it around her hip and onto her back. He got up and came to her side.
“You are going to end up looking like Quadsimodo, girl. Severe curvature of the spine from carrying books, of all things. Here let me get that. You take mine.”
“Yours would have some weight to it, too, if you studied on occasion.” She let the backpack slide from her arm and back onto the bench.
He placed his bag on her back and then hefted her bag onto his. “I’m passing all my classes.”
She reached for a napkin and briefly swiped at at his bottom lip with it. “You’d better do more than just pass, Tommy. You know what your mother said about that motorcycle getting parked. She told you; I was there. I heard every word she said, and you did, too.”
“Nag, nag, nag. That’s all you women do until they just drop completely off a guy. Then when we finally don’t have any, you don’t want anything to do with us.”
“There you go with that sexist stuff again, Tommy. I’m just saying-”
“J.J. Hart!” Tina, the young cashier yelled to the back booth from her spot behind the counter. “Hurry up, you and Tommy Jordan, and get across that street. I know both of you have first period. I’m not going to be bothered with Mrs. H. showing up in here, getting after me like she did that last time. She reamed me out good for letting you two get me caught up like that!”
The two of them hustled to the front with their things, and Tommy paid the bill.
Tina pointed her finger to J.J. as she handed Tommy his change with her other hand. “Girl power, J.”
“You know it, T.” J.J. gave her a bright grin and a thumbs-up.
The two teens went out of the door calling their good-byes.
Tina continued to watch Tommy and J.J. through the shop window once they were outside.
She stood thinking how cute they were, and of how much fun life had been for her at their age. She found it amusing how clueless J.J. seemed to be when it came to Tommy. He was more than fond of her, she could tell, but J.J, appeared totally unaware of it. Perhaps it was that she was unconcerned about it. Whatever the case, her hope for J.J. was she remained focused on her studies, and as unfocused on the boys as she seemed to be at the time.
No young girl, she felt, ought to end up as she had: nineteen, single, and with a year-old baby, working all morning for minimum wage, struggling to go to school on loans and grants in the afternoon, coming home to tend to a baby all alone in the evenings while her own put-upon mother went to work midnights, trying to keep all three of their heads above water. Tina hadn’t seen or heard from her baby’s father since a couple days after the day he was born.
She had become very fond of J.J. Hart and her “girl power”. If she maintained her course, Tina felt that girl was going to be some woman one day. Having met and gotten to know J.J.’s mother, she could see the apple that was J.J. had not fallen far from the tree that was her mother. The first time the woman showed up in the shop was the morning J.J. and Tommy had ditched school during that time Tommy got himself mixed up with that fast girl at their school who had gotten pregnant and then implicated him in it. Mrs. Hart appeared at the counter, and looking at her, there was no doubt as to whose mother she was and for whom it was she was gunning that morning. All she could do was point to the back booth and then send up a silent prayer for those two poor, busted, doomed kids.
Since that time, Mrs. Hart had taken to dropping in on occasion some late mornings for a cup of coffee and a chat. Despite her posh appearance, she soon discovered the woman was easy to get to know, and for some reason, after their talks, the daily load she carried seemed lighter and easier to bear. Mrs. Hart spoke of things like taking personal responsibility, maintaining good health, and of how she should put herself and her own well-being first so she could be strong and at her best in order to take care of her son and their futures properly. She talked about not letting other people, including J.J., compromise her survival or get in the way of reaching her goals. That was one wise, very nice lady.
Tina had begun to make it her business to keep up with J.J. Hart and her doings directly, as well as through the grapevine. If she could help it, J.J. was not going to end up struggling in the way she was. Her parents had money, but that didn’t always keep a girl from making dumb mistakes when her parents weren’t looking. It took a village to raise a kid, and she was proud to be a part of J.J.’s village.
She watched Tommy and J.J. step off the curb into the busy street. He extended his arm protectively in front of J.J. as if trying to shield her from traffic. Blocking J.J. in that way had the effect of moving her to a position slightly behind him. They were laughing and checking for an opportunity to cross when in a flash, a dark van shot from a space at the curb. It screeched to a halt cutting them off. Before they could even back up, the panel door slid open, and three men in dark clothing, wearing black ski masks, jumped out. They grabbed Tommy and attempted to pull him into the truck as he struggled against them. J.J., having had more of a chance to see what was happening, instinctively latched onto Tommy’s jacket with both hands and tried to pull him back toward her.
Finally, one of the men released his hold on Tommy and went for J.J. Prying her hands from Tommy’s jacket, the man lifted her, struggling and thrashing in his arms, and tossed her to a fourth man in the van’s cabin. Tommy, attempting to assist J.J. while still trying to fight the men off him, was also finally forced inside.
Right before Tina’s shocked eyes, the door slid shut, the van pulled off, and the children were gone.
“This is Jennifer Hart.”
“Darling, where are you?”
“I’ve dropped J.J. off at school. I took her a little early, and now I’m in the car on my way to the airport to catch that commuter to San Francisco. Why?”
“I need you to come back. Come straight down here to the Towers.”
“Why? Jonathan, what’s wrong?”
“Jennifer, please trust me. Just turn around, and come down here now. I’ll call Marcia and tell her that you won’t be making it today.”
“Just do as I say, Darling… Please.”
He hung up.
That was certainly abrupt. I wonder what’s wrong.
She ended the signal and placed the handset back in the dash, cognizant of how her heart and her blood pressure had ramped up.
She thought she heard something foreign in his voice. It sounded like fear, but that couldn’t possibly have been what it was. After all, that was Jonathan Hart to whom she had been speaking.
Security awaited her arrival and met her in the lobby. They were not regular uniformed security; these were two of Jonathan’s elite plainclothes security personnel.
One of the men approached her. “”Mrs. Hart, Mr. Hart asked us to meet you and escort you up to his office.”
“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to ignore the escalating dread building within her system, generating myriad other uncomfortable sensations.
Neither man answered her. Instead, the second man turned and spoke into a small walkie-talkie.
Scanning the lobby, there seemed an unusually heavy security presence all over. In her haste to get inside, she hadn’t paid much attention, but having been stopped by the men allowed time to notice there were also uniformed LAPD officers stationed outside of the lobby doors and private security positioned in front of the inside doors.
The two plainclothes Hart officers whisked her around to the room containing the private elevator that would take her directly into Jonathan’s office.
She wanted to ask again what was going on, and demand that one of them answer her, but she from not getting a response the first time, she figured they were not going to tell her no matter how many times she asked. There were procedures to be followed, and she would have to keep her anxiety at bay until she reached the top floor where, hopefully, it would be quickly revealed to her. The suspense was suffocating.
When the elevator stopped at the fifth floor, the doors slid open. Inside that private room, stood two more plainclothes officers a woman who they escorted into the car. It took a moment for her to realize the woman was Brenda Steele, a senior accountant with Hart Industries.
The woman’s eyes widened when she looked up and saw her inside the car.”Mrs. Hart!”
At that moment they both came to the realization that they were both being lifted to the top floor in a like manner, and reached the same terrifying conclusion at the same time, exclaiming, “It’s the kids!” before reaching out to tight clasp the hands of the other.
Jonathan’s offices bustled with police, uniformed officers as well as plainclothes detectives. One took notes from Jennifer about J.J and another spoke with Brenda Steele about Tommy.
Jonathan paced, trying to listen and trying harder not to panic. His head swam with all there was to consider and his own frustration at not being able to act on anything. First there was Jennifer, who was much too calm and business-like with that officer as she gave him J.J.’s information, describing what she knew her to be wearing when last she saw her. There was also Brenda Steele, who quietly wept while trying to answer the questions being asked of her; Tommy, her only child, was all the family she had in the world. And finally J.J. Hart, his daughter, his own precious child was missing.
His and Jennifer’s greatest fear, his worst nightmare, had come to pass.
“As strange as it seems, Jonathan, the waitress says to her it appeared they were after Tommy, not J.J.,” Herschel Gray, the police captain reported, cutting into Jonathan’s whirling thoughts. “She said they seemed determined to get him and that J.J. just ended up getting caught up in it.”
“Why Tommy?” Jonathan asked, rubbing at his forehead. “He’s a good kid. There’s no trouble I know about. Who would be after him enough to kidnap him?”
“We’ll have to ask the mother when she’s finished over there. Jonathan, how much do you know about her and the boy’s father? Maybe it’s got something to do with one of his parents if it works out they were after the boy.” Herschel answered.
“I gotta be honest with you.” the captain continued. “And knowing you, I’m sure you’ve probably got it figured it out already; but this is going to be tricky any way it goes. If it’s J.J. they were after, we have to worry about why did they take her. Is it ransom? Is it somebody trying to get to you or to Jennifer? What exactly is it? If it’s Tommy, we have to figure out the reason as well, but that also means they don’t know who J.J. actually is. If they find out you’re her father, that detail can pose a big problem for them and an even bigger risk for her. We gotta try to keep a lid on this for a minute. It’s not going to stay quiet long, so we don’t have much time to try and find ‘em, or at least find J.J.”
Jonathan gestured to Herschel to lower his voice. He did not want Jennifer to hear that official proclamation coming from an official like him. As quick as she was with details, especially those that pertained to J.J., she was going to come to that conclusion on her own in a very short time. When that happened, he didn’t know how she would handle it- how he would handle it in order to help her.
Not to mention how Tommy had had gotten under his skin, as well.
“Herschel, we have to get both those kids back. I don’t want a hair hurt on either one of them.”
Herschel Gray quickly caught the gaffe which Jonathan obviously heard. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply-”
His apology cut short when Jonathan held up his hand, his eyes followed Jonathan’s.
Jennifer abruptly stood up from the couch and left the main room; the detective speaking with her stiffened and then backed up a bit to allow her to pass.
“Just a minute, Herschel.” Jonathan hurried off in the direction his wife had gone.
Turning the corner that led to the rear of his office, he looked but did not see her. There was only one other place that she could have gone. Opening the door that led to his private restroom, he found her sobbing silently over the sink, her hand pressed tightly to her mouth to muffle any sound. He took her in his arms, she turned to face him, and they clung tightly to each other.
“I feel so badly.” She finally managed to whisper. “It’s so selfish of me. Tommy is missing too, but I’m so scared for J.J. This is one of those times, Jonathan, in which her being a girl does matter. It really does. Oh, why can’t she just be still? Why does she have to be all over the place all the time? If she had just been in school where she was supposed to be…” She broke down again.
As he held his wife to him, a tear for his daughter coursed its way down his cheek. He held Jennifer closer to his shoulder cradling the back of her head with the palm of his hand to keep her from seeing that bit of weakness flowing from him.
“She’s a kid, Jennifer.” He consoled her trying to keep his voice even. “She didn’t do anything wrong and you know that. She’s fifteen and we can’t keep her locked up or tied down. You tell me that all the time. Now we’re going to have to just trust that she puts into play the things that we’ve been teaching her all her life. She’s as smart as they come and she doesn’t scare easily. Those two factors are going to work in her favor. Trust her, Jennifer. Tommy’s with her too. If it’s in his power, he’s not going to let anything happen to her. She’s not going to let anything happen to herself.”
Wanting to remain in the comfort of her husband’s arms but knowing that there was business to be attended to, she forced herself to gently push away from him, and went over to the mirror. As she fixed her face, she could see him reflected as he was trying not to be seen by her dabbing at his own eyes and face with his handkerchief which he quickly stuffed back into his pocket.
Her heart went out to him as it always did whenever he was distressed and trying to hide it from her. That was part of the magic between them; he never could hide much from her nor she from him. Their souls were joined as well as their hearts. He was in pain. She knew it and she could feel it. J.J. was his pride, his joy, and his link to the future. Tommy as well owned a piece of that man’s heart which she sensed was near to breaking.
“We need to go and help Brenda.” She said turning, going back over to him.
He pulled her to him once more and held her tight to his body. “We’ll get through this.” He whispered into her ear.
She nodded wanting to believe that he was right. Their hearts were beating against one against the other, almost in rhythm.
She told him, “We have each other. Brenda has no one right now. We need to get back out there.”
He briefly buried his face in her neck.
Taking his hand, she broke the embrace and they returned to the bustling outer office.
Marnie Benson looked up when Ms. Grimsley entered her fourth period English Lit. Class followed by a man whom she vaguely recognized as a friend of J.J. Hart’s father. She had spent so much time at her best friend’s home over the years that she knew many of J.J.’s parent’s friends and they knew her.
The two adults spoke briefly with the teacher who then summoned her to the front of the room. They instructed her to get her things and come go with them. Always eager to get out of a class, Marnie did as she was told. Outside of the door, she found her mother, Maureen Tolbert, waiting nervously. They were, all three of them, trying to hustle her out of there.
Marnie stopped in her tracks and held up her free hand signaling for them all to stop.
“Wait.” She demanded. “Alright, what’s going on? I’m not going another step further until somebody tells me something.”
“Marnie,” Her mother urged quietly, putting her arm around her and trying to get her to move. “Just come on with us to Ms. Grimsley’s office.”
“Not another step.” Marnie warned, planting her feet.
She suddenly recognized the man who had come into the classroom with Ms. Grimsley. “I know who you are! You’re one of Mr. Hart’s cop friends!”
He put his finger to his lips. “I’m Lieutenant Walker.” He whispered. “Marnie, we need you to just be silent and come with us. We’ll tell you everything once we get out of this hall and inside the privacy of the Counselor’s office.”
“I don’t keep silent for anybody, ask my mother here.” Marnie said warily. “And besides, I didn’t do anything. And neither did J.J. while we’re at it.”
Marnie’s exasperated mother finally grabbed her hand, pulling her with her as she started down the hall. “Would you just come on; you’re drawing attention.”
“I’m coming since it doesn’t look like I have a choice,” Marnie finally moved with them. “But I’m not admitting to anything without having an attorney present.”
“For J.J.’s safety, you mustn’t say anything to anyone, Marnie.” The Lieutenant advised her. “To keep people from asking you anything, we’re going to have your mother take you home now. Let the machine take your phone messages tonight, Marnie. People are going to be calling you.”
Marnie raised her tear-stained face to the adults surrounding her.
“When did it happen? I just saw them this morning. It was before first period. Mrs. Hart dropped J. off early today because she had to get a last-minute flight to San Francisco. She and Tommy said they were going to outside to sit on the wall until first period. The only reason I didn’t go with them is I had to go to the library to take a book back. I thought they had been in class all morning and between the bells I was just missing them in passing. I was looking forward to next period when we all get together at lunch.”
Thoroughly anguished, Marnie tearfully turned to face her mother. “Mom, where in the hell could she be?” To the others, she implored. “Where’s Tommy? Who’d take them? Why in the hell would anybody do that to them? They’re just kids! Do they want some damned ransom or something from the Harts? This is probably killing J.’s mother and father, not to mention Tommy’s mother!”
Marnie’s mother reached for her daughter’s hand and admonished her gently, “Don’t curse like that, Marnie.” Even though she knew that her chastising Marnie for her foul language fell on deaf ears. Marnie was too far gone and the habit so deeply ingrained that was now second nature to her, especially if she was excited, angry or upset. There was no disrespect intended on Marnie’s part.
“At least Tommy and J.J. are together.” Maureen Tolbert continued trying to console her own child. “They’ll take care of each other. Tommy’s strong and that J.J.’s pretty clever.”
Ms. Grimsley, sitting on Marnie’s other side told her, “We just don’t want it to get out. The police aren’t real sure that the kidnappers know that they have J.J. Hart, and the longer we can keep them in the dark about that detail, the better it is for her.”
“Why else would somebody have kidnapped them if it wasn’t to get J.J.?” Marnie asked, turning to the Counselor. “What could they hope to get out of taking Tommy’s behind?”
“That’s just it, Marnie. We don’t know why they were taken.” Answered Lieutenant Walker. “But we aren’t ruling anything out. Ms. Tolbert, why don’t you let me get you and Marnie out of here before that bell rings. I want as little attention given to this here at the school as possible. Some of it’s bound to leak out in a short time, but we think that the longer we can keep a lid on this thing, the better it is for those kids.”
By the time that the eleven o’clock news aired that evening, the lid was completely off the story. Reporters had been trying since early that evening to get a confirmation from the parents of the rumors that were circulating about the abduction. Reluctant until the final hour about making it public for fear of jeopardizing them, Herschel Gray finally issued an official statement on behalf of both families for the sake of perhaps getting a lead from some citizen who may have spotted Tommy and J.J. with their captors.
At that point all the adults involved had conferred and agreed that it was probably best
The story of the abduction, complete with the pictures of both teenagers, was the lead story. The media angle was, of course, that the daughter of prominent industrialist Jonathan Hart and his internationally acclaimed journalist wife, Jennifer Edwards Hart had been kidnapped from in front of her school along with a male companion in the early hours of the day.
As private as she insisted upon J.J.’s life being kept, the sight of her face being flashed as clear as day across that 61″ digital television screen, under those circumstances, caused Jennifer to suddenly stiffen in Jonathan’s arms and nearly faint. Finally succumbing to the exhaustion and distress that she had been fighting from the start, she had to be taken upstairs where, her physician, Kate Kendall sedated her and put her to bed.
Since returning from the Towers where she met with Jennifer after getting Jonathan’s call in the early afternoon, Kate had watched as her patient and friend paced nervously from room to room, worked with Marie, the housekeeper in playing hostess to everyone there, and mingled with all the assembled. She would disappear for brief periods, only to resurface and continue to try and make everyone else comfortable. But every time that phone rang Kate could see her almost trembling with suppressed anxiety.
She knew that Jennifer had been hanging on by a single thread which grew thinner with each hour that passed with no word on the whereabouts of those children. From her years of being there with and for them all, she was intensely aware that Jennifer and J.J. shared a unique and extraordinary bond. All of Jennifer’s maternal instincts were concentrated on that one child and with her they were absolute.
The house had been full of officers and investigators all day and into the evening. Bill McDowell and Pat Hamilton, Jonathan and Jennifer’s respective best friends in life were also there. As J.J.’s godparents they had both dropped everything and flown in immediately from their homes to be there with them as soon as they had gotten the word that J.J. was missing. Bill had come from Nevada and Pat from out east in New York. Jennifer’s elderly father, Stephen Edwards had been notified, and wanted to come to her, but she was able to talk him into staying put in Maryland for the time being.
Jonathan initially wanted Brenda Steele to spend the night at Willow Pond instead of alone at her house, but Captain Gray thought that it might be better if she stayed close to her own home in the event that a call came to her. It still had not been ruled out that Tommy was the target of the kidnapping. In fact, since no ransom demand had been made for J.J., and it was now past midnight, for the Captain, it was leaning more in that direction. He assigned several officers and detectives to set up at the Steele home to wait for any call that might come.
Pat had gone upstairs with the doctor to assist with Jennifer. Bill remained seated at the bar with Jonathan and Herschel Gray. The men were discussing possible scenarios.
Captain Gray was becoming increasingly uneasy with Brenda Steele’s reluctance to provide information about her son’s father. She would only say that he had never had any contact with Tommy and that once Tommy was born, he had never been a part of their lives. A background check on her had provided a squeaky clean profile and no apparent clues as to why someone would want to take her son.
Tommy had no record of being in trouble in school or with the law. A check of his recent sports physical showed that there were no drugs in his system. According to Jonathan, there was no reason to believe that he was involved with drugs or gangs. His mother, while she was able to provide a comfortable living for her son, was in no way wealthy. It did not make sense. The kidnappers had to be after J.J. But if so, why hadn’t there been a call or contact of some kind?
“Jonathan, the boy’s mother is as clean as they come. I know your people do background checks for employment. We ran our own official checks on both of them too this afternoon. Not so much as a parking ticket on her or on the boy. There’s nothing on file about his father. He’s not even named on the birth certificate. His health records, school records, everything have father listed as ‘unknown’. And you say he’s never had trouble with anyone that you know of?”
“Tommy doesn’t have time. He and J.J. and their crowd keep busy. That kind of keeps those kids out of trouble.” Jonathan answered. “He goes to school. From school he goes to work part-time. He’s on the wrestling team, he tutors at Mission Street Academy with some of the other kids, and he’s into weight training. When he’s got down time, he sometimes caddies for me, or he’s in the computer lab at Hart. When he does go out, he hangs out near home with his friends, dates a little, or he’s with J.J. and their friends.”
“His mother hasn’t ever said anything to you about the boy’s father?” Bill McDowell asked.
“She’s said nothing to me.” Jonathan answered. “Tommy told me that he’s never seen his father and that his mother doesn’t ever talk about him. He said that he quit asking her about him when he was a little boy. I never asked her about him, and she never brought it up except to say that she was raising him alone. I thought that she wanted to keep the matter private and it wasn’t relevant to anything that was going on at the time that involved Hart Industries, so I didn’t pursue it.”
Jonathan stopped for a moment and rubbed his tired eyes. All evening he had been holding it together. When Jennifer had gone upstairs, he really wanted to go up and be with her, but he knew that one of them needed to remain near the phone. He was glad that Bill was there. If/when it got to the place that he needed to pack it in, he knew that he could count on him to step into his shoes where it concerned J.J.
After a moment, he continued talking about his association with Tommy Steele.
“Tommy and J.J. met when J.J. was eleven. They’re in the same grade, but he’s just a month shy of being a year older. I know that he was born in Florida and that’s where he started school. At the time kids entered school a year later there than they did here. In the time that I’ve known him, he’s always been just a good, responsible, and very talented kid. As he’s gotten older, he’s even sort of on the quiet side. I’ve been going over it in my head all afternoon and evening, but I cannot figure for the life of me why anybody would be after him. But if it is J.J. they wanted, then don’t you think that we would have heard from someone by now?”
Bill McDowell slowly sipped his drink, set it down on the bar, and looked up at his buddy. He had been going over it in his head also while listening to what was being said around him.
“Valentine,” He began slowly, using Jonathan’s flying handle. “I’m leaning toward this not being about Beautiful Jr., Beautiful Sr., or you. I’ve got a gut feeling that they were after the boy.”
Herschel nodded in agreement vaguely hearing what was being said. He was slipping deep into his own thoughts. If nothing happened during the night, Brenda Steele’s home was going to be his first stop in the morning. If he didn’t get what he needed there, it would be on to the phone to get with his contact at the Florida Department of Records. He did not like that fact that night had fallen and those kids had not been heard from, especially J.J.
The old woman sat in her room and fingered the recently discovered photograph.
He had fathered a handsome child, but her own feelings of deprivation and confusion overwhelmed her. Why hadn’t he told her? Had his father known? If so, it was so unfair of him to have done that. For so many years she had no idea. Now to find out in this way… so much precious time lost….
J.J. woke slowly, her head pounding as if being repeatedly slammed in the forehead with a rubber mallet. Slowly opening her eyes, she found darkness around her. She could feel she was on a bed, but it wasn’t her own. A rough, but warm blanket covered her. As her eyes began to focus, she could make out that she was in a small, rustic room. She smelled wood. Cedar. Next to the bed was a window, and moonlight filtered in through its sheer curtain.
She tried to sit up, but everything began to spin, and she immediately dropped back down to the lumpy pillow under her head.
Where was she? What happened?
Closing her eyes again, she ran her hands slowly along her body checking herself as much as she could without shifting position. She was still fully dressed with the exception of her boots; she could feel her toes wiggling freely inside her socks. Her head hurt so much she thought for a moment she was going to be sick.
Willing that sensation away, she lie still in the effort to stop her head from spinning and pounding. She listened.
There was nothing.
Again trying to get up, she found she was just too dizzy, and once more she was forced to lie back. Twisting her right leg slightly, she pressed it against the mattress. Feeling the familiar lump, she exhaled with relief. Her second cell phone, the tiny, flat, emergency flip phone was still tucked securely down in her sock.
As soon as she felt better and could see and think straight, she would attempt to contact her Daddy.
“Please, please let there be a communications tower near here,” she prayed. “Wherever this is.”
She drifted back off to sleep.
Tommy could feel himself being pulled to his feet. He couldn’t seem to get his legs under him and his head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton. Nothing seemed to make sense. Someone else was supporting him; he was not in control of his movements. When he finally opened them, he couldn’t focus his eyes. As he was being jostled and forced to shift positions, his head began to pound fiercely.
From the sound and feel of it, he was being dragged/pulled up steel stairs.
“Be careful,” a male voice warned. “She wants him in one piece.”
“He’s awful big for just sixteen,” said a second male voice. “And heavy as hell. All of them are big. Watch his head.”
He was being eased into a seat of some kind, but his head hurt too badly to attempt to open his eyes and check his surroundings, even if he thought he could see. He could only hear their voices, and he felt himself being strapped in.
“Well we finally got him up here. Make sure you got him strapped good in that seat. She don’t want him hurt, and we don’t get paid if we don’t deliver.”
He was propped up and the strap was pulled once more, holding him in even tighter.
“There. We’re done with him until we get there. Let the guys up front know that we’re ready.”
Groggy and confused, J.J.’s image drifted through Tommy’s mind. It was the need to be assured of her well being that made him try to open his eyes again. He vaguely recalled that she had been with him earlier. He needed to see if she was still there and that she was all right.
“He’s coming to! Don’t let him see you! Where’s the stuff?”
An acrid smell filled Tommy’s nostrils just as he thought was reaching for J.J.’s outstretched hand. He could see the distinctive emerald ring on her fourth finger, her birthstone surrounded by the fifteen tiny diamonds, which her great-aunt had given to her on her last birthday.
Just as he reached for her, however, her hand drifted away from his. Without the feel of their fingers meeting and intertwining, he suddenly felt empty. He quit fighting it and allowed himself to float off into the darkness once again.
Even though her house seemed full of people, it had been a long time since Brenda Steele felt so alone. Investigators and police officers were stationed inside and outside, manning the telephones, keeping watch, and following orders from Captain Gray who was working out of the Hart estate. Several of her girlfriends had come to keep her company but she had come to be alone in her bedroom. She sat looking at Tommy’s picture on her nightstand, trying hard to keep the persistent nagging feelings of dread away from her surface.
Tommy was all that she had. He was her life.
Instead of continuing to worry herself into a frenzy, she opted instead to try to fill her head with thoughts of her child and his good friend, J.J.
Tommy had never known his father. The split came right after she informed him that she was pregnant and he informed her that he was married. He said that he wanted to do the right thing, but as far as she was concerned, the wrong things had been done from the beginning. No good was going to come of continuing the relationship, even though she had no thoughts of terminating the pregnancy. As time went on it became more and more obvious that most certainly no good was to come from remaining anywhere close to him and his family. Before Tommy was born, she moved to another city in Florida to give birth to him in peace.
Shortly after Tommy turned three, his father found them again and wanted to insinuate himself into their lives, but he said that he could not leave his wife. Even though he persisted, she refused to have anything to do with him. She did not want to be in the way of his marriage and did not want Tommy to have to be in that situation. Eventually, to make matters worse, his wife, who it turned out could not have children, found about them and things became even more tense. She moved again taking Tommy to yet another Florida city.
Finally when Tommy was six, she left Florida altogether to come to Los Angeles in an effort to get her life together and to stop running. She was very young and she didn’t know anyone in LA at that time, but she was determined that even if there would only be the two of them, her son was going to grow up in as loving and stable a home as she could provide for him. She got work, started school, developed a network of friends, and determined that no matter what happened, they were going to make it.
In the early years, when school was not in session, Tommy was forced to spend a great deal of his time alone in their small apartment, with friends volunteering to drop in to check on him. He would wait patiently for her to come home to him. Despite their lack of time together, he had never been a moment’s trouble to her. Her son had always been a little man; happy, smart, responsible, and very early on, he began to display a phenomenal talent for art, especially for drawing.
One day she noticed that he was sitting at the kitchen table painstakingly working on a sketch, As he went along, he talked quietly to himself, sounding as if he were making suggestions to someone. He was so involved in what he was doing that she was compelled to peek over his shoulder. He was hard at work on a picture of a little girl. She had a head full of long, curly hair, freckles, and very intense eyes. When she asked him who the girl was, he told her that she was his new friend, J.J. Hart and that he was having trouble getting her eyes just right.
Tommy and J.J. formally met in school on the first day of junior high, but he had spotted her with her father a good while before that. He had come home one summer day mentioning that there was a girl in the park who flew gas-powered planes and could pitch a mean hardball. He had been surprised that a girl would be interested in doing things like that.
Once they did meet, they had become immediate good friends. Among many other things, J.J. and Tommy shared an attraction to and an aptitude for computers. She was most interested in the hardware and the technology. Tommy was more into the software and its applications.
It was this mutual interest that led to J.J. introducing Tommy to her father one day in the park where they both played, and she brought her father to help her fly the planes. Once Jonathan Hart stepped into the picture it seemed that everything started coming together for them.
Mr. Hart took Tommy under his wing and once she earned her accounting degree, Hart Industries took her into its fold. Mr. Hart had opened the door, but once she got inside, it had all been up to her. She worked hard and made the most of the opportunity, all the time carefully watching and helping her son grow into a young man as he continued his strong friendship with Mr. Hart and his daughter. It had been nearly six years since that first day in junior high.
Tommy’s association with J.J., although she had nothing against it, had always been a cause of concern for her on several levels. First, she was the daughter of very wealthy, well-known, powerful parents and the two children were from two very different worlds.
In the beginning, Brenda Steele had no idea who Jonathan Hart was when she was first introduced to him that day that he and J.J. gave Tommy a ride home from the park. He invited Tommy to spend time with them during the day while she worked and went to school rather than having him at home or wandering around the streets alone. Mr. Hart had taken an instant liking to Tommy, and Tommy to him. In no time, Tommy was a frequent guest of the Harts. It wasn’t until he started coming home with tales of what he had seen and done with the Harts that she put it all together. She had been dumbstruck- and a little disappointed- to find that J.J.’s terribly handsome, very nice, down-to-earth father was actually the Jonathan Hart of Hart Industries, and not the single parent of a cute, precocious daughter that she originally hoped that he was. Tommy went on to really make her feel like a complete idiot when he asked her why she hadn’t been tipped off by the car in which he and J.J. had driven him home. Plenty of people had money in Los Angeles, he advised her with all of his twelve-year-old-boy wisdom, but not everybody drove a Rolls Royce like it was a Jeep.
Then J.J. Hart was no ordinary girl. Not ordinary indeed. Although she was always pleasant and very well mannered, even as a little girl, Brenda recognized that she was different. There was a subtle independent and unconventional streak in J.J., which she knew would eventually be a powerful source of attraction for the males in her life, Tommy being included in those males. Her Tommy, as little as he had been at the time, had picked up on it right away and it clicked with his own more quiet, but equally adventurous nature. The two of them complimented each other. J.J. encouraged him to take the chances that he wouldn’t normally take, and he had a calming effect on her turbo-charged personality. And she was extremely bright. Listening to her speak and interact with the other kids was always fascinating.
Of late, aside from her other appealing qualities, J.J. was also shaping up to be physically attractive in an almost dangerous way. Rarely wearing makeup, and almost always dressed in an understated, casual manner, at fifteen J.J. Hart was well on her way to being gorgeous and seductive without trying to be; she just was. Since the fall of the previous year, Tommy seemed to have put other girls on the back burner. He still dated other girls occasionally, and had many friends, but his friendship with J.J. was on another level entirely. It always had been, but of late she could see that it was taking on a new dimension- at least on his end.
Lastly there was Mrs. Hart. Now she was a hard read. A generally pleasant, extremely beautiful woman, she was not as open a book as her congenial husband. Jonathan and J.J. Hart had the outgoing, attention-getting personalities. Jennifer Hart, on the other hand, tended to let them take center stage while she watched their antics from the sidelines. She was always elegantly gracious, but there was something reserved and cautious about her. From listening to Tommy and J.J. it was quite plain to see that it was she who had the most influence on J.J. The girl had a healthy respect for her mother. After working at Hart and after having opportunities to observe them in different settings together, it was more than evident that Jonathan Hart was completely in love with his wife. Their relationship was legendary throughout the Towers of Hart Industries.
But Tommy rarely mentioned Mrs. Hart when he discussed his activities with the other Harts. Whenever he did, it was most always in connection to J.J. It made Brenda wonder how Jennifer Hart actually felt about Tommy and his relationship with her husband and her daughter. The last thing that she wanted was for Tommy to be a bother to either of J.J.’s parents, but most especially for J.J.’s mother.
Brenda lay back on the bed with her hand to her brow fighting back the negative feelings that where threatening to overtake her. Tommy was her only child, and the only person in her life that mattered to her at that point. She had put her whole life on hold for him; kept interested men at bay, and made sure that he had and did all that he was supposed to have and do. His conception had not been intentional, but from the start she made the quality of his life her first responsibility with the thought that once he was grown, she would still be a young enough woman to do the things she wanted to do with her life.
Now he was out there somewhere, being held against his will, and she had a nagging, suspicious feeling about it all. The obvious scenario would be that someone was trying to take J.J. and in defending her, Tommy had gotten caught up in it. But all indicators were saying that J.J. had not been the target, as hard as that was to believe. Her womanly intuition screamed that none of this was about J.J. But, if they weren’t after J.J, that meant that they wanted Tommy.
Surely after all these years that was all behind them.
She came to a final conclusion: enough time had gone by without a call or a word. It had to be checked out, no matter how far-fetched it seemed. In the morning, she would have to tell the Harts everything.
It was two o’clock in the morning and still there had been no word. Jonathan had gone upstairs to be with Jennifer an hour ago. When he did, Dr. Kendall and Captain Gray had gone home to rest. Two detectives were left stationed inside the premises. Two uniforms were patrolling inside the gates, and two squad cars were stationed on the outside. One of the detectives was seated at Jennifer’s desk in the great room going over notes. The other was in the kitchen getting something to eat. They were going to stay overnight and would be relieved by two other detectives and the Captain in the morning.
Pat and Bill sat having a last drink before retiring for the night themselves.
Bill looked across the bar to Pat. “So how was Jennifer when you left her?”
“She was sleeping, but it was the drugs. Even with that in stuff her system, she was still restless. Kept moving and turning. I told Kate that I bet she was walking through her sleep looking for J.J., poor thing.”
She took a long swig from her glass. “For somebody who never wanted a kid, she sure is one hell of a mother to that one.”
“Jonathan’s no good either. He was trying, but I know that’s his heart we’re talking about. I know what it’s like to lose a kid. When I lost T.J. in that plane crash, I sat around for a year wishing it had been me. It took realizing that I still had another son to be there for to bring me out of it. But unlike with my T.J., this is their only one and she is coming home. And Tommy is too. The way he talks about that boy, he might as well be his son. By the time I made Jonathan go up, he had worn himself out with the stress.”
“Those two will both be better once they lay down together.” Pat surmised. “They have that effect on each other. Bill, where do you think those kids could be? You’d think that we would have heard something by now.”
Bill reached for her hand. “It’s not J.J. they’re after, I’m sure of it. That’s why we haven’t heard anything. Whoever took them wanted the boy for some reason. I figure they got him, which was what they actually were after so there’s nothing for them to say. They wanted him, not ransom or conditions. I just hope that they don’t hurt J.J. or put her in any jeopardy because she’s seen something that she shouldn’t have seen.”
“That girl’s as smart as a whip, Bill.” Pat stated with certainty. “She’s the quickest study I’ve ever seen, next to Jennifer, of course. Jennifer could come up with some stuff when we were J.J.’s age, I mean she used to shock me she was so good. In a heartbeat, with no prior warning, she could come up with a story, change voices, speak in other languages, assume other personalities, the works. But that J.J.’s gaining on her. If anybody can get themselves out of a tight spot, she can. I’m keeping my money on her little scheming narrow butt.”
Bill had to smile. Their goddaughter was plenty cute and plenty gutsy; split right down the middle of her parents. She had always been the spitting image of her mother and had her intelligence, but she operated with the nerve, and quick cunning of her father. And that Tommy, according to Jonathan, had balls. Jonathan had been working with both of those kids on developing their survival skills. Their internalization of the lessons that he was teaching them had been demonstrated when they worked together last year to help save Jennifer from that lunatic who tried to kidnap her during the Mission Street Ball.
“This kind of thing makes you realize just how little money has to do with the things that really matter to you.” Bill mused while sipping the last from his glass. “I’ve got McDowell Aviation, Valentine’s got Hart Industries, you have your publishing firm, Jennifer’s got her own money and her father’s to boot; between all of us there’s millions and which one of us wouldn’t give whatever was asked to get those kids back? But nobody’s asked, and for all our money, we’re at the mercy of whoever has them.”
Pat merely nodded slowly, finishing off her own drink.
All that could be done was being done at this point. Bulletins had been posted, and police were actively seeking the van. The waitress had been able to provide a pretty good description of the van, although she had been unable to get a plate number.
“Let’s cash ‘em in, Pat.” He said, squeezing her fingers gently between his in that way she immediately interpreted.
She looked up at him from her seat on the barstool as he stood behind the bar . “I’m upstairs.” She said. “You’re in the guesthouse. How are we going to manage that?”
“Has logistics ever been a problem for us in the past?” He had one eyebrow raised suggestively and she found that expression irresistible on Bill McDowell. “Your place or mine?”
“Jonathan and Jennifer don’t have a clue about us, Bill. Maybe we shouldn’t under the circumstances.”
“How much do you want to bet that the two of them are up there right now consoling themselves in a like manner?” He leaned across the bar to Pat bringing her hand to his lips. “How many times have I flown the miles from Nevada to New York just to be with you? Do you think that I’m going to be this close to you and sleep alone? Again Patricia, your place or mine?”
She slid off the stool. “Just give me a minute.” She said, having quickly made up her mind. “I need to get my things from upstairs. We don’t want to be waking anyone from their much needed rest, now do we?”
“We’ll rest much better too.” He said with a knowing wink.
Saying their goodnights to the detectives, they went on their way.
She smoothed the thick hair back from his handsome face. Even in sleep, this was a beautiful child. How could he have left him out there all this time? So much had been lost. Such a waste. This was probably not the best way to get any of it back, but at least they were all together again as they should have been all along, if only the boy’s mother had cooperated. If he would only have listened.
Jennifer had awakened from her fitful sleep. By this time Jonathan was in bed with her. She could hear him lightly snoring as he lay on his stomach on top of the covers with his face turned away from her. If he was asleep with his daughter still missing like she was, he had to have been dead on his feet.
Not wanting to wake him with her restless movements, she got up, folded the comforter all the way back to cover him, and went to the window to look out onto the grounds. The pills that Kate had given her to help her rest had instead made her jittery . It seemed rather than her senses being numbed, they had been heightened to the max. How could she be expected to sleep anyway under the circumstances? Upon waking, she instinctively wanted to first check the phone console for that red light, and then cross the hall to make sure that J.J. had that light off in her room and was in the bed. It hit her hard when she was faced with the sudden reality that her daughter was not there.
It was still the middle of the night. The warm amber of the lamplights across the vast velvet of lawn, the swaying trees and the shimmer off the pond always gave her comfort when she woke like this. She sat in the window seat, drawing her knees to her chin, pulling her long nightgown in around her legs to keep out the night draft.
Where in the world could J.J. be? Had she been harmed in any way? Was she hungry? Was she frightened? If so, was she able to get to the bathroom? The thought of how J.J. always seemed to have to go when she was nervous or scared about something forced a reluctant smile to her lips. She was so funny.
Movement below the window caught her attention.
Bill and Pat were walking arm in arm down the driveway away from the house. Bill was carrying what Jennifer recognized to be Pat’s smaller travel bag. She sat up to attention. Those two looked awfully cozy…
They were going to the guesthouse! Bill and Pat? She could not believe it. She had no idea, no inkling that they…. Wait a minute- Pat was holding out! How long had this been going on?
She pictured J.J. viewing this scene with her nosy self. That naughty rascal would be so tickled to know that her godparents were thus ‘involved’ and that she had seen them sneaking off like that… if only she were home where she ought to be.
Jennifer sat back, put her forehead to her knees, and hugged her legs tightly to her body. She closed her eyes once more fighting the threatening tears.
“Darling.” The sound of his voice caressed her ears just as she felt his hand touch her hair.
She looked up at him. In the light from the window, she could see his blue eyes as they fixed upon her with great concern.
“I didn’t mean to wake you.” She apologized. “I’m sorry. I woke up and came over here to keep from disturbing you. I know that you’re tired.”
He sat down across from her with his back against the other wall. “I don’t sleep that well when you’re not with me. I almost always know when you get up. I really know it when you don’t come back.”
He held his hands out to her requesting that she come sit with him on his side .
She went to him, and sat on his lap, straddling him on her knees to face him.
“Talk to me.” He said simply once she was situated and he had his hands about her waist.
Hesitating at first, she managed to whisper, “I’m just so scared for her.” her voice trembling as she looked off, out of the window. “She’s never been away from us where we didn’t know exactly where she was. We’ve always been so careful- now this. Things like this are not supposed to happen to her. And there’s been no word. Why is that? Now it’s night. What’s happening to her in the night, Jonathan?”
For once, he did not have the words that would comfort either of them. He felt all the things to which she had given voice. He realized that she wasn’t actively seeking anything spoken from him when she rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her hands loosening the drawstring on his pajama bottoms.
He allowed her to lead.
It took his breath away when she placed her hands on his shoulders to lift her body enough to ease him into the soothing, moist heat under her gown. The balm generated by her slow, sensuous ministrations brought comfort to his aching manhood as well as to his tortured soul. As they rode the waves together, with her at the helm, he buried his face between her breasts taking in her soft scent. He could feel her hands tangled in his hair, as she held his head next to her rapidly beating heart. The warmth and softness there as well as the silky fabric that covered her caressed his cheeks while the core of her femininity massaged and embraced his essence, easing the tension that he felt. He continued to hold her at the waist as she regulated rhythm of their voyage.
He loved this woman beyond reason. He knew that no matter what happened he always would.
Praying all the while for their child to be returned back home to them to sleep once again safely across the hall, they made love in the moonlit/lamp lit window, each attempting to assuage the pain of the other. There had been many nights over the years spent in sweet ecstasy in that same window, but on this occasion there was a desperation to the act, a weeping of sorts, and a mutual search for comfort.
When the climax came, they were both in tears, each collapsing, spent, into the arms of the other.
When J.J. woke again, it was daylight. Her head still hurt some, but not like it had when she had come to during the night. She could at least think straight at that point and she could remember.
Where was Tommy?
She felt for him with her hands, and then opened her eyes to look for him, but he wasn’t there. The bed was too small to hold both of them anyway.
She sat up and patted her lower right leg. Thank heavens the phone was still there in her sock. Standing, she wavered for a moment, a little dizzy, and then she went to the window. Pulling back the plain sheer curtain, she could see nothing but fields, low shrubs, and sky. She was obviously on an upper floor of a small house. There was no lock on the window, so she attempted to raise it. It slid up easily and a soft, warm breeze blew in. She stuck her head outside the frame and let the morning sun kiss her face like she would do at her parents’ cabin in the mountains. Turning back around, she surveyed the room.
It was very small compared to what she was used to, even at the cabin. There was a bed, a nightstand and a chair. Although it was quite Spartan it was clean and somehow pleasant.
The boots she had been wearing were next to the chair, her jacket hung on the back of it, and Tommy’s backpack was on the seat. There was a tiny open closet in which hung a few flowery dresses, and three pairs of worn ladies’ shoes lined the floor. The only door, which was next to the chair, was closed. Going over to it she was mildly surprised when the knob turned and it opened. That just saved her the time of having to stop and pick a lock. Well, now she had two ways out if she needed them, the window or the door.
Peering out of the door across the narrow hall, there was a wood railing in front of her, which looked out over a larger room below, much like the loft of the great room at home. Walking out to it she looked down to where a woman sat at a wooden table peeling potatoes. Scanning the room below, she assessed the situation.
The woman looked up as she heard the slight movement above her. The girl gazed down at her from the railing. She was glad to see that the child had finally awakened on her own.
“Hey Sweetie!” She called up. “You feelin’ better? I was hopin’ you’d get up soon. Go on down the hall there and get washed up.” She pointed to J.J.’s right. “I don’t have nothin’ nice for you to put on, but I left you some clean things in the bathroom to get dressed in. Bring me your clothes when you get out of ‘em so’s I can wash ‘em up. Hurry now. I fixed you somethin’ to eat and it’ll be dryin’ out in this oven. You need to come tell me and Ben about yourself.”
“Excusez-moi.” The girl answered, looking confused. “Je ne comprends pas l’anglais.”
Not knowing what was said to her, the woman did not know how to respond. For a moment, they both only looked at each other with perplexed expressions. The girl stared with eyes that seemed to be taking measure of her. Finally, the woman pointed again to the right, thinking to herself that the poor little one was probably still not feeling her best. She had really been out of it when arrived there on the previous evening.
The girl disappeared from the railing heading down toward the bathroom.
“Probably one of them foreign exchange kids done got high and lost her way somehow.” The woman muttered to herself. “Too pretty to be out there like that all alone.”
She put the knife down on the table, getting up to go to the front door. “I guess out here in California anything’s possible. I thought we were moving away from all that foolishness coming way out here.”
“Ben!” She called across the yard after flinging open the screen door.
A tall, angular man stuck his head out of the door of a shed by the big tree in the yard. “Yeah, Millie!”
“The girl’s awake! I believe she’s a foreigner, though. She’s not speakin’ in English.”
“That’s goin’ to make it even harder!” The man yelled back.
“Well come on in here so you can help me with her!” She ordered.
The phone rang and Jonathan released Jennifer to dive across the bed for the handset.
“C’est Justine, Papa.”
It came as a whisper and the signal was weak, but it was the whisper he so wanted to hear. He gasped and then almost cried.
“Baby, where are you?”
He could feel Jennifer take the hand with the phone and tug it gently so that she could put her ear to it with him. From the second click, he knew that one of the detectives downstairs, if not Herschel himself, was also on the line. They had not been down yet. Marie would be handling things on the first floor until they got there.
J.J. continued to whisper, speaking very fast, saying everything in French.
“I don’t know where I am and I can’t really talk, but I’m fine so far. They don’t know I’m really an American, and I want them to think I don’t understand English so that they’ll speak freely around me. There’s a lady and I think there’s a man too. She seems nice enough, but I’m not taking any chances. I don’t know where Tommy is, but I’m pretty sure that he’s not with me. Get Dr. Westlake at Hart. Tell him to go to the #27 Gateway. My password is ‘incorrigible’ and the program he’ll need to open is “LJH1″ on the hard drive. It’s experimental, but you may be able to find me with that program. I love you, Daddy. I know you’re there, Mama and I love you too. I have to go. When you come, Mom, bring me some clothes!”
And she was gone leaving just crackling static on the line.
He set the receiver back in its cradle. Elated, he took Jennifer’s anxious face in his hands to kiss her tears.
“Thank you.” He exhaled.
“For teaching her French.”
“Then thank you, too.” She smiled, pulling away to get up.
“For making her clever enough to put it to use in that way.”
“Come on.” He said patting her backside as she passed him on her way to the bathroom. “You’ve got to translate what she said for whoever was listening in downstairs. I’ll put a call in to Westlake to meet us in the lab, and then we’ll go find our daughter. She apparently has a better plan to get herself home than any one that we have right now. I’m glad Bill and Pat are here. We can put all of our heads together.”
At the mention of Pat’s name, Jennifer was immediately reminded that she and her best friend had a conversation to hold when all of this was finally over.
“I’ve got a bag to pack first.” She said aloud. “It seems that I’ve received my instructions, without a ‘please’ I might add, but for once I’m going to let her boss me.”
Tommy rolled over and realized that he wasn’t on the edge of his full size bed as he normally would be when he rolled over upon waking the first thing in the morning. In fact, stretching out his long arm, he couldn’t even feel the edge.
His head hurt something terrible, and even though his eyes were closed, he could tell that wherever he was, it was sunny. The redness filtering in behind his eyelids made his head hurt even worse. He tried to sit up, but nausea overtook him and he lay back down.
“Don’t try to get up.” A woman’s voice said quietly. “I want you to rest. I wish that it didn’t have to be this way. He waited too late and now there’s nothing to be done to fix that.”
He could feel a hand in his hair, but he was just too sick to open his eyes to see who it was or to reach up and make her stop and leave him alone.
“You are so much like my Jordan.” The voice said while the hand continued to smooth his hair, brushing it back from his forehead. “Rest, Thomas. I’ll come back to check on you later.”
A comforter was tucked tenderly around him. “When you get up, you’ll find everything you need here in this room.”
He heard the rustle of clothing, footsteps on carpet, a door sliding open across carpet and sliding again to close. Then came the click of a lock being set.
“J.” he called weakly, earnestly hoping that she would answer him. “J.J.”
He tried to open his eyes, but the room was so bright, and everything began spinning. He quickly closed them back.
He felt around with both hands praying that maybe she was just sleeping and could not hear him calling to her. But she wasn’t there.
The bed he lay on was huge and he could swear that the covers and the sheets were satin. He had never been on satin bed clothes, but he was sure that this was what they must feel like.
He prayed to whomever might be listening to him, “Please let J. be all right.”
Keeping as still as possible, he attempted to stem the waves of nausea that threatened to send him running to find a bathroom. He knew that he had been drugged. He recalled J.J. saying how sick her mother had been and how badly her head hurt after that guy drugged her at the ball.
That lady who had been in there with him said that he looked like “her Jordan”.
His middle name was Jordan. Coincidence? Probably not, but what was it actually?
Who was she talking about? Why was he there? How come she locked the door?
He wanted to get up and get down to the business of getting out of there, but he was just too sick. He rolled back over on his stomach into his usual sleeping position, and determined that as soon as he felt better he would get out of this mess. He had to find J.J. Mr. Hart trusted that she would be safe with him, and he was not going to let him down if he could help it.
Then too, it wasn’t something that he would tell anyone, or admit to if he were asked, but he truly wanted to get home to his mother. He knew that she had to be worried sick. Besides all that, he needed her.
Brenda Steele woke reaching for the phone. She had slept off and on all night. Each time she woke, she reached for the phone and then changed her mind. Now it was morning and it was past time to break her silence. The Harts deserved to know.
“This is Brenda Steele. May I speak with Mr. Hart, please?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Hart aren’t in, Ms. Steele, but detectives are on their way to your house. There has been a development.”
Her heart immediately accelerated and she waited for the officer on the phone to elaborate. He did not.
“Good morning, Ma’am.” Was what he said before he hung up the telephone.
Was it good news or bad news? He could have at least said that, she thought as she lay back on the pillows. The officers in the living room would let the detectives in, she guessed. She was paralyzed with anxiety at that point. Could it actually be them again?
Jonathan, Jennifer, Bill, Pat, and Captain Gray stood around the #27 Gateway in the computer lab while Dr. Westlake booted it for operation.
“I’m not exactly sure what she was doing Jonathan,” He spoke as he waited for the computer to open up. “But you know how she is when she’s in the lab working. J.J. kind of goes her own way on these things when she’s down here. I know that she was working on enhancing some sound cards and she was doing something else based on an anti-theft tracking system used for vehicles. She didn’t discuss it much with me. She’d just come to me for answers to some technical questions- maybe about the schematics she had drawn, whether I thought things were viable, how she could improve things. I can’t tell you right off what this is all about.”
“She seemed to think that you’d know what to do with it.” Jonathan assured him. “And since we’re grabbing at straws here-”
“-it’s all we’ve got to work with.” said Bill finishing Jonathan’s thought.
Several programs came up. There were three “LJH” programs. Dr. Westlake entered J.J.’s password and opened the program labeled LJH1. A bulleted list of hyperlinks appeared:
- Willow Pond
- Bel Air
- West Los Angeles
- Los Angeles
They all looked at each other.
“Well, we have to start somewhere. Start with ‘Willow Pond’ and let’s see what happens,” Jennifer suggested.
An outline map of the area of the estate came up with a command hyperlink labeled “Grid and Locate”.
Dr. Westlake cued it. The message came back in red letters: “Subject not found.”
He repeated the procedure with ‘West Los Angeles’ and ‘Los Angeles’ with the same result.
“Maybe she wasn’t finished with it.” Dr Westlake said with some disappointment.
“She’s radiating out.” observed Pat. “She wouldn’t have told us to come up here if she didn’t think that she had something.”
She looked over at Jennifer for confirmation, and Jennifer nodded her head in agreement. J.J. and Jonathan didn’t too much fool with things that they didn’t feel stood a solid chance of being sure things.
“Let me have that.” Jonathan said reaching for the mouse. “It’ll work for her Daddy. Come on J.J., I know you’ve got this set up right.”
He sent the curser to the California link and clicked.
The words, “Subject Found” began trumpeting in green. The grid for the state of California lit up and a red line began to run crazily from the Los Angeles area to the very southeastern tip of the state. The line stopped abruptly just before the Mexican border, a blip formed where the line stopped, and it blinked slowly and faintly in one spot.
“My goodness!” Exclaimed Dr. Westlake. “Can it be that this little girl set this up to track herself? If so, Mr. Hart, she’s a genius!”
“Comes from good stuff.” said Bill putting his arms around Jonathan and Jennifer patting their backs. “Now we just gotta find her. Jonathan, you know I have my plane here. What about Valentine? She ready to fly?”
“Valentine’s always ready to fly.” Jonathan answered. “J.J. and I keep her ready.”
“We’re probably going to need helicopters to be able guide the police cars to the area and to be able to pinpoint and land wherever she is.” Captain Gray advised. “We’re also going to have to locate landing strips for those planes in the area too. We’ll take the planes down to San Diego and then we can take helicopters from there to pan the area.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and walked to the other end of the room as he punched the buttons.
“I’m going to need to download this program onto a laptop in order for you to take it with you to use to locate her.” Dr. Westlake got up to get the necessary equipment while he continued talking. “I have a feeling that the blip will get stronger the closer you get to her. Once you get it into a helicopter it should really work for you. That will get you in even closer to her.”
He stopped for a moment, scratching his head in recollection.
“You know, I remember seeing J.J. sitting there one day fiddling with the stone in one of her earrings. She had taken the stone out and I was wondering what she was doing, but I didn’t bother her. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing that I let her be. I bet that was what she was doing; she was putting a tracking chip in it. She’s set this program up to track that earring!”
With his words, Jennifer had her own flashback.
“I had to take her to the jeweler not too long ago to have a stone tightened in one of her earrings because she said that it was loose. I bet it was that same earring! Jonathan, it was one of the diamond studs that you gave her when she had her ears pierced that second time. Those are the ones that she wears all the time. She was adamant that Harry didn’t have to reset the stone. She only wanted him to tighten the prongs all the way around it.”
Jonathan beamed with pride, “Smart as a whip. Just like her mother.”
“Crafty as hell too.” Said Pat.
“Just like her old man.” Bill smiled in admiration. “A microchip off the old block.”
Jonathan took Jennifer’s hand, squeezing it for reassurance. “Let’s get going on this. Bill, we’ll have to file the paperwork to get those planes up in the air. We need to do that now.”
They could hear Herschel on his cell making arrangements for the helicopters and police backup from that area of the state.
As they were leaving the lab, Jonathan called to Dr. Westlake as he was setting up the laptop for the download, “You’re going to have to go with us Doctor. Somebody who knows what they’re doing has to run that program. J.J. called on you. I want to get my daughter and her friend home.”
Dr. Westlake. although he was not crazy about the idea of flying in a helicopter, like just about everyone at Hart Industries, he would do anything for his boss. Jonathan Hart was a good man. He treated everyone in his employ with dignity and respect. And there wasn’t too much that he would not be willing to do to get that amazing J.J. Hart back safely. That was one kid who was destined for big things and he hoped to be around to see her do them.
Marnie arrived in the sophomore hall a little before first period to find a large crowd around the bank of lockers where hers was located. As she approached, the group became quiet and they opened ranks to allow her to get to the center. As they moved aside, she could see that the two lockers on either side of hers were covered with cards, notes, and trinkets. Those were Tommy’s and J.J.’s lockers. Someone had posted their pictures on their respective locker doors in the middle of the messages and mementos. Apparently the secret was out.
Marnie’s eyes filled. She had almost stayed home that morning, but at the last minute she made the decision to come, hearing J.J. talking to her head, “Just deal with it, Marn. Tell people to just bug off and mind their own business.”
Now she wasn’t so sure that she was going to be able to handle it all.
“We were waiting for you.” Philly, one of her and J.J.’s closer friends took her books from her and put them on the floor. Then she reached for her and clasped her hand.
A huge circle quietly formed in the hall. Marnie noticed that several of the people in the circle were teachers, including their counselor, Ms. Grimsley.
“I know that we aren’t supposed to be doing this in a public school,” Ms. Grimsley began taking hold of Marnie’s other hand with one of her own. “But there are times that the rules have to be overlooked. I think that this is one of those times. I’m ready to take the flak for this if there is any to arise over our doing this. Everyone is gathered here because this is where we want to be and this is what we want to do.”
“Yes we do.” Whispered Marnie. “I don’t give a damn. I wish somebody would say something to us about praying for our friends. You all go ahead and pray to whoever your God is, even if it’s you. We want them back safely with us.”
Nods of agreement went around the circle as eyes closed and heads bowed.
Ms. Grimsley led the prayer for the safe return of the two who remained absent from their midst. At the final “Amen”, everyone repeated it after her and squeezed hands in affirmation before breaking the circle.
Marnie, not normally a very sentimental or demonstrative girl, especially when it came to persons in positions of authority over her, reached up to hug Ms. Grimsley.
“Thanks.” She said in the counselor’s ear. “I think I’ll be able to get through today now knowing that I asked somebody stronger than me to look out for them. I hadn’t really thought about doing that on my own.”
“That’s why we have all kinds of people crossing our lives, Marnie.” Ms. Grimsley answered. “On our own, individually, we can’t all think everything. Together as a family of people with a common focus, we’re smarter and we’re stronger. I know that your heart is in the right place though when it comes to J.J. and Tommy. Keep the faith, Marnie. It’s going to turn out all right. I have a really good feeling that it will.”
J.J. fell back against the closed door of the tiny bathroom in despair.
She had come in there, after successfully contacting her father on the cell. She told him what to do about Dr. Westlake happily thinking that she had put together a plan to get herself out of there. Then, preparing to take a shower under the spigot in the tiny plastic-curtained closet, she suddenly realized that all of her jewelry was gone; her ring, her necklace with the diamond shaped like a heart, and both pairs of her diamond earrings. More painful than the loss of that earring she so badly needed, was the loss of her heart bracelet, the bracelet that her father had placed on her wrist when she was a month old, the one that she had worn all of her life.
She slid down to the floor in anguish. That piece could never be replaced. How could she ever tell her father that it was gone? Those guys in the van, she surmised, had probably taken it all off her while she was passed out. She had a hunch that the people in the house with her weren’t thieves nor did she get the feeling that they were any threat to her. However, she was not about to let her guard down on speculation alone.
Near tears, her mind clouded, her head throbbing, she sat with her back to the door not sure what to do. She had the wrong book bag, so that cut down even more on her options. Daddy wouldn’t try to call her back. That wasn’t how that was done. Now what?
Then, just as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, and it was as if her lungs were being filled with fresh wind. There was more than one way to play this game; she knew that to be true of all situations and she could not afford to be feeling sorry for herself. That was not how she had been taught to react in the face of adversity. It was time to get on track.
The earring was just one way to do it. Slowly rising from the floor, she could feel the pieces coming back together. The bracelet thing would be dealt with later. There were more pressing issues at hand than some lost jewelry. She at least still had her phone. Good thing she had just juiced it up yesterday before leaving home for school. Daddy and Captain Gray would track the signal from her call. That would at least put them closer to her.
Without that earring, though, she didn’t have a clue as to where to tell them to begin to look specifically. She would have to get outside and take a look around for herself. After putting the lock on the bathroom door, she took the phone out and made ready to call him to tell him to forget about #27. But before signal could go through, she was startled by someone knocking. After terminating the transmission, she flipped it closed and stood on tiptoe to set it on top of the medicine cabinet which was attached high on the wall, pushing it way to the back out of the sight of anyone who might get in.
“You alright in there?” It was the lady’s voice. “I don’t know if you know what I’m saying. I just wanted to make sure that you’re alright.”
J.J. did not answer her. Instead she went to the shower and turned it on. She stripped and got in under the warm water. At the same time she was cleansing her body, she was clearing her head, making ready to formulate Plan B.
Where in the world was Tommy? Was he okay this morning? What was all of this about?
She still had a whale of a headache and felt a little woozy, but that too would be dealt with at another time.
The detective said that the Harts had heard from J.J. and they were trying to locate her. They knew that she was somewhere in southern California. But nothing had been said about Tommy.
Brenda Steele sat watching the detective’s mouth continue to move, but she wasn’t hearing anything that he was saying to her any more. After he had gone past nothing being heard from Tommy, she tuned out.
When she left all those years ago, she had thought that it was finally all over. There had been no word, no contact. She thought that she could stop worrying about it. She had put all of that out and all of them of her mind. Perhaps she let her guard down too soon after all.
At first it seemed too far-fetched. Now, in the light of day, it was beginning to make sense. The feeling of dread was becoming overwhelming.
“Sergeant, please let the Captain know that I think I might have some information that he can use.”
Tommy woke again, still lying on his stomach. Right away, he remembered that when he had awakened before, he had been in a strange place. This time, he lifted his head from the pillow and was able to look around. Although his head felt as if it weighed a ton, he was able to focus his eyes at that point.
He was in a huge, white bedroom. It seemed as if everything was white: the furniture, the treatments, everything. He turned over and sat up slowly, anticipating the wave of dizziness that swept over him. He closed his eyes, rode it out, slowly reopened them and got up. The lady said that everything he needed was there, and what he desperately needed to find was the bathroom.
Crossing the room to what he hoped was not a closet, he noticed the plush softness of the carpeting beneath his feet. Opening the door, he was gratified to find that it was indeed the bathroom, but he was overwhelmed by its size as well as its opulence.
What kind of kidnapping was this? Was J.J. in as nice a place? Where was she?
After doing what he came in there to do, he looked all around. Just as the lady said, everything that he needed was there. The bathroom was completely outfitted with toiletries and towels. There was even a thick terry cloth robe hanging behind the door with the initials, ‘TJS’, embroidered on it. There also was a pair of butter soft leather house slippers. One whole wall above the double marble sinks with the gold fixtures was a mirror with some serious track lighting above it. He turned on the lights and was momentarily startled by his own appearance. With his red eyes and thick, disheveled hair, he looked to himself like death warmed over. Running both hands through his hair, he pulled it back out of his eyes and off his forehead.
How did drug addicts do it day after day, he wondered. Just looking in the mirror in the morning ought to be enough to make them want to quit using.
He wandered back out into the bedroom taking in everything. There was a complete computer system, a 47″ television, a DVD player, a built-in stereo system, and a weight bench. When he opened the louvered doors of the closet, there was an entire wardrobe of clothes. Further examination revealed that they were his size. The huge cabinet in the corner contained socks, underwear, tee shirts, and other accessories for a young man, and the items that weren’t white were in the colors that he preferred. It was all as if someone had been studying him and was trying to totally accommodate him. Instead of being impressed, it made him nervous. The one thing that was missing from the room was a telephone. He thought to check the computer. He did not see a connection to a phone jack for the internet. Emailing was obviously not going to be an option.
Over in a corner, he saw the boots that he had been wearing at the time that he and J.J. had been taken from in front of the coffee house. Leaning against the wall next to the boots was a book bag, but it was J.J.’s, not his. He remembered seeing the jacket that he had on hanging in the closet. He went back to it and felt around in the pockets for his cell phone. It was gone along with his wallet from the inside pocket.
He rushed the book bag. J.J. always had her cell in there. Dropping to his knees, he began rifling it, trying to feel for the phone. He pulled out her many books and notebooks and felt all the way down to the bottom. Nothing. He opened the flaps and the pockets, but all he could find was the pouch with her sound cards and other electronic gadgets. It seemed that her phone was missing also. He checked her secret compartment under the bag. Her wallet with her I.D. was still there. That, he stuck in his back pocket. Wherever she was, maybe they didn’t know exactly who she was. She certainly would not be telling them. He put her other things back inside the bag and got up.
Getting up leaving the book bag against the wall, he went over to the door. Slowly, silently turning the knob as Mr. Hart had shown him, he found that he was locked in. Somebody was trying to cut him off from the outside world and make him really like it in there. Was J.J. somewhere in this house? If the room that he was in was any indication of the rest of the house, she could be anywhere in it if it worked out that she was actually there.
His mouth felt like cotton and the clothes he had slept in the night before seemed to be sticking to him. Having grown up the child of what he termed a ‘clean freak’, he knew that before he could do anything or even begin to think clearly, he would have to get a shower and change. That had been his routine his entire life, and even in the unusual circumstances in which he found himself that morning, he found it hard to deviate from it. He went to the dresser and then into the closet, taking the liberty of selecting things to put on. When he was satisfied with his choices, he went in to get cleaned up hoping that a shower would help him get sorted out.
He felt like hell.
“Millie, don’t you think we ought to take her into town and at least let somebody there know about her?” Ben asked his wife as they sat together at the table.
He had come in from working with that broken tractor part in the shed right after she let him know that the girl was awake. He was cleaning the machine oil from his hands with a rag. His two hound dogs lay at his feet. When he thought that he had as much of it off as he could get with the rag, he went to the sink and washed them under hot water with a cake of soap. he came to the table and sat across from her drying his hands on a towel.
“I don’t think she was feelin’ all that good.” Millie answered, placing a bowl of fresh green beans in front of her. “She didn’t look so good when she was standin’ up there at that railin’. That wasn’t no natural sleep she was in when you brought her in here yesterday evenin’. I went up there to see to her a bit ago, but she had gotten over in the shower. Had locked herself in, poor thing. She’s probably scared to death-away from home and not speakin’ English. She kinda sounds French, but you know I don’t know much about that kind of thing. We’ll see how she is when she comes down.”
“It’s the end of the week anyway. There ain’t too much anybody’s goin’ to do with her before Monday even if we do take her. I’d hate to see her in one of them children’s homes or one of them places where they stick runaway kids for a whole weekend. That won’t be good with her not knowin’ English.”
Ben stopped and looked down at the table. After a short time, he looked back up at his wife and asked, “What do you think about we just leave her be and make her comfortable until Monday mornin’? Then we can both drive her in.”
Millie watched her husband’s weathered face. “Well, I do agree with you that I don’t want her sittin’ up in no children’s center either. They got all kinds of people preyin’ on the kids in those places, especially the young girls.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But look here, Ben, I get the feelin’ somebody’s got to be lookin’ for this child. Them things she had on weren’t no cheap things and I looked good at her hands and her hair. She’s been pretty well taken care of, all shiny and polished. She’s not just some average girl; there’s something to her. I didn’t listen to the news on the radio this mornin’ because I didn’t want to wake her up. I sure hope it don’t turn out that somebody’s snatched her and her people are out looking for her…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked away as tears suddenly filled her eyes.
Ben took her hand. “Maybe I’ll go ’round to Ike’s at six and see if I can catch the news on his TV this evenin’. If it turns out that she’s been reported missin’, maybe there will be somethin’ on there. If it is, then I’ll call the sheriff from Ike’s.”
She smiled at him, appreciating his understanding without her saying, and squeezed his hand before letting it go. “Ben, these are the times that I miss the telephone and the TV, but since these kinda times don’t come around often, I guess I can keep on doin’ without them.”
“No point in bringin’ bad news into your home, I say,” Ben walked over to the sink and hung towel on a pipe under it. “When you can go to Ike’s and get as much of it as you want when you feel like you want it, and then come on back home to the peace and quiet.”
The top stair creaked and looking up, they could see the girl tentatively making her way down. She was wearing one of Millie’s house dresses which was several sizes too large for her. Even though it would have come down to Millie’s ankles, it hit the much taller girl at mid-calf. She had her long, damp red hair in a braid, the thick rope reaching almost to her waist.
Millie stood smiling to put the girl at ease. She took the bundle of clothes from her and indicated that she should sit down at the table. Ben watched her. She certainly was a pretty thing. He was glad that he found her when he did. There was no telling what might have happened if a girl like her had fallen into the wrong hands in the condition she had been in at the time. She would be safe with them until he could find out where to return her. He and Millie would see to that. He would be sure to get to Ike’s this evening to see the news.
“You gonna feed her, baby?” He called to his wife who had gone into the laundry room which was right off the kitchen.
“I got her plate right there in the oven keepin’ warm.” She called back to him. “Get it for her.”
Ben went to the stove and came back with the plate. When he got back to the table, the girl was petting the dogs which had gotten up and had both placed their heads in her lap seeking her attention. That was something. Those dogs didn’t usually take to strange people. He slid the plate in front of her and shooed the dogs off.
He pointed to himself. “Ben.” he said, and then he repeated it. “Ben.”
“Ben.” She said quietly, pointing to him.
He nodded and pointed to her questioningly.
“Suzanne.” She answered. “Je m’appelle Suzanne Simone.”
She pointed to the dogs.
“Jake.” He answered, pointing to the blonde one. Then he summoned the spotted one and rubbed his ears. “Jasper.” He said to her with a broad smile.
She nodded and smiled back.
“We’re going to take good care of you, Suzy.” Ben smiled back. “Don’t you be scared about nothin’ while you’re here with us. We’re gonna keep you safe till we can find out where you belong.”
J.J. held on to her poker face, not showing any signs of understanding him. She continued to nod to let him know that she was listening. The tense knot in her stomach loosened somewhat. Not willing to give in to her hunch all the way, she sensed that he was a trustworthy man. Her guard would be kept up, but at least she was not as apprehensive for her own safety as she had been. These, she felt, were not her captors. Nothing was making much sense, but that wasn’t the point. Finding Tommy and getting home was the point.
All the while she had been looking. There was no sign of Tommy so far. Where could he be? What was this all about? As soon as she could get alone, she would try to reach Daddy again from the bedroom. The phone would not transmit from the bathroom when she tried again after her shower. She figured that she must be nearly out of range and it depended upon where she was in this immediate area as to whether or not the operating communications tower could pick up her signal. She would try it from on the bed where she had been before.
As she put the first fork full of the warm scrambled eggs with the bacon crumbled over them into her mouth, she felt as if she had gone to heaven. The buttery homemade biscuits screamed calories, but there was nobody there to count them. She had eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world, and Marie was a great cook, but that breakfast that morning in the country seemed to be the best she had ever eaten.
Suddenly, overwhelmed, her eyes filled with tears. Not wanting to be seen crying, she forced them back.
J.J. Hart wanted her Mama like crazy.
A trace of the signal from J.J.’s call revealed that she had been calling from some rural area southeast of San Diego. With the uncertainty of the terrain in the area, landing helicopters was going to be the surest thing. They landed at Lindbergh and took police helicopters from there.
Captain Gray, Jonathan, Dr. Westlake and an officer who was a computer specialist as well as a sharp shooter from the San Diego Police Department, rode together in the lead helicopter. All attempts had been made to convince Jonathan to ride behind in the second helicopter which carried Jennifer, Pat, Bill, but he had flatly refused stating that there was no way that he was not going to be on the front line in retrieving his child. Besides, he and Jennifer had a pact that they would never fly together as long as J.J. was a minor.
A third helicopter carried Hart Private Security who specialized in protecting the Hart Family when the need arose. The team had been formed shortly after J.J. was born mainly for her protection, and in her fifteen years, this was the first time that they actually had to be called into play in such a direct manner. Prior to this they had accompanied Jonathan around the world when there was a major transaction involving a transfer of funds or securities. Occasionally they had been called in by Jonathan to protect Jennifer when she was working in the field on a story that he might have felt uneasy over. Until this incident, she had been unaware that she was being guarded in such a manner. The revelation surprised, and somewhat angered her, but it was a discussion/argument to be had at another time.
The helicopters would be met by the local police department once J.J.’s program indicated that they had reached their destination and Captain Gray radioed the location. Jonathan and Captain Gray watched the laptop’s screen intently over Dr. Westlake’s shoulder. As they traveled east following the red line of the program, the blip grew stronger and larger. The flashing began to speed up.
Jonathan earnestly wished that his wife were by his side watching the screen with him so that she could also have the visual reassurance that they were getting closer to what hopefully was going to turn out to be J.J. Even though Jennifer gave the appearance of being calm, he felt her uneasiness. J.J. had been gone over twenty-four hours and neither of them had any concrete indication as to her true condition. He was glad that she was with Pat and Bill. The presence of their two good friends would be her moral support until he could get back to her.
When Tommy emerged from his shower, he found that someone had been in the room and left a large dining tray filled with covered dishes on the desk. Even though he was eager to get down to the business of getting himself out of there, he was also extremely hungry. It had been almost twenty-four hours since he had last eaten and he was a growing boy.
He put his dirty clothes down in a hamper in a corner and went to see what was on the tray. Lifting the first small one, he found two eggs in little cups. They appeared to be have been hard boiled, but the yolks were still runny. He put the cover back on that one. On a second little tray were several of what appeared to be biscuits, but they were flatter than biscuits and were as hard as rocks. Those first two entrees were out. He pushed them to the side. Under the larger tray, he found a broiled breakfast steak and hash browns. To this, he sat down.
Whoever was in charge of whatever was going on apparently did not know kids. Even J.J. Hart, for all her parents’ money and all of her dining experience, turned down what she called ‘foo-foo’ food in the morning. Bacon or ham, toast, eggs, maybe some hash browns, and juice suited the two of them just fine. J.J. sometimes sneaked and drank coffee some mornings at the coffee house. When they were in the sixth grade, he introduced her to cold cereal and she had fallen in love with it. Now in high school, many was the morning she skipped Marie’s breakfasts at home to arrive at school to eat Corn Flakes, Cheerios, or Captain Crunch in the cafeteria with her friends, although she claimed the sugary Captain Crunch made her too hyper which sometimes led to her getting into trouble later in the day.
He ate the steak and the potatoes and drank the juice. There was also some fruit, which he wolfed down too. Still hungry, he forced down two of the hard biscuits and then called it quits. He wasn’t in any way full at that point, but he’d had all that he could eat, and it was time to get busy.
Trying the door again, he found it locked still. Who was doing this and why?
It dawned on him that he had not looked to see what was outside. Going to one of the windows, he drew back the curtains and was greeted by an ornate grating which covered the pane. Beyond that he could see vast ornamental gardens and lawns and palm trees. Was he still in California? He hoped so.
He checked all of the windows that lined two sides of the room and got the same grating with the same view. It appeared that he was on a second or third floor; he was pretty far off the ground. With that grating and the distance from the ground, the windows would not work as a way out. It would have to be the door.
Going back into J.J.’s book bag, he pulled out her small cosmetic bag, unzipped it, and extracted her metal nail file. Very stealthily he set about his work.
Ben and the dogs went out of the front door leaving J.J. at the table finishing her breakfast. When she was done, she took her dishes into the kitchen area to put them in the dishwasher. She almost laughed aloud at herself. There was no dishwasher. There were a few dishes in a pan in the sink. This was like being at the cabin.
Dishes in the sink at the cabin drove her mother crazy, and so, automatically, she knew that the dishes in this sink needed to come out. The rule at the cabin was whoever ate last had to do the dishes, and since conveniently, she usually always seemed to be the last to eat, she got stuck with the job most of the time. Running warm water from the tap into the pan, she poured some dish soap from the bottle on the window sill over into it.
When the pan was full, she washed and rinsed the dishes. As she did so, she began trying to put a plan of action together in her head which still throbbed a tad. At her first opportunity, she would go outside and try to see if she could get her bearings, note a landmark, get a position on the sun-something, anything that could be a clue as to her whereabouts. Then she could go back upstairs and contact her father to tell him about the missing chip and give him any hint that she might find out there about where to find her.
The entire episode was baffling to her. Why had this happened? What did those men want? It seemed at first like they wanted Tommy, but her jewelry was missing. Did they just want her jewelry? Did they not know who she was? Why was she in this place seemingly walking around free if she was who they were after? What could they have wanted with Tommy if he was the one? And where on God’s green earth was Tommy?
She stacked the dishes on the counter as she went, and then dried them with a clean towel that hung on a rod by the window. The cabinets over the counter were open-faced so she could easily see where everything went. She put them away. Emptying the pan, wiping down the counter and the sink, she rinsed the dish towel and hung both towels back on the rod. She had been so absorbed in her own thoughts and in what she was doing that it wasn’t until she was finally finished that she turned around and noticed that the lady had been watching her. She was smiling broadly at her.
J.J. smiled back automatically shifting into her act. She pointed to herself and said, “Je m’appelle Suzanne. Suzanne Simone.”
The woman responded, “I’m Millie Evans. Mil-lie. And you are a sweetheart, I can tell.” She held out her hand. “Come on with me, Miss smart Suzanne. We ain’t got that much, but let me show you around what we got.”
J.J. took Millie’s hand and allowed her to lead her to the outside of the house, which was right up her alley.
The lock on the door turned out to be child’s play, and thanks to Jonathan Hart, he was just the child for that job. After just a few minutes of fiddling with it, Tommy had it disabled. Although it still gave the appearance of being functional, he had rigged it so that he could open it from the inside even if someone locked it from the outside. Just knowing that he had the ability to get out of that room on his own allowed him to breathe a little easier. He left the door closed and remained inside for the time being.
Nobody had come back for the dishes, so he set the tray on the floor next to the door. Left to his own devices, he explored the room.
The television proved to be only a monitor; it did not receive an outside signal. There was, however, a cabinet full of movies that he could play in the DVD player if he so chose. A more thorough examination of the computer proved that although there was no internet capability, someone was obviously aware that he was a software fanatic. There were all kinds of CD’s, and upon booting the system, he found that it was loaded with several interesting programs, many of them graphics programs.
The cabinet housing the computer held an extensive stash of art supplies. He sat at the desk in awe. It weren’t for the fact that he was there against his will, he felt he could get to like it there…If only he knew where and how J.J. was. He took her wallet from his pocket and opened it, flipping to the two pictures of herself that she kept there along with many others of family and friends. One was of her and her mother taken at the ball. They were two excellent looking women that night. The other was one that her mother had never seen. It was the one he had taken of her out behind the school where she was blowing a perfect smoke ring from a cigar she was smoking. J.J. was such a clown. He had to smile at the thought of that crazy day. He touched her freckled nose with his finger. Then he put the wallet back in his pocket.
Not knowing the layout of the house or the grounds, or what was waiting for him on the other side of that door, he made the decision to wait and watch. Mr. Hart said that all things reveal themselves in time and that it sometimes paid to be patient and just sit pat. When in doubt, he said, let the other person play their hand first.
Tommy opened a program on the computer to put it through its paces. What else did he have to do except wait to see what happened next? He hoped the wait wouldn’t be too long.
Bill sat up front with the pilot. Pat and Jennifer sat next to each other in the rear seats. Pat had been watching Jennifer who had for the most part been very quiet ever since the first thing that morning. Normally whenever they were together the conversation and laughter flowed between them non-stop. It had been years since she had seen that haunted look in Jennifer’s brown eyes. In front of their helicopter, some distance ahead, she could see the one carrying Jonathan and the others. A short distance behind them was the Hart security team. Jennifer stared absently out into the distance on her right, away from her. Pat reached over and covered the hand that anxiously gripped the armrest between them with her own.
Jennifer turned to look at her and smiled a weak smile. She placed her other hand on top of Pat’s, and Pat did the same. That was how they used to do it when they were just girls sharing secrets or troubles.
“Just wanted to know if you were still with us.” Pat smiled back. “You haven’t had much to say all day.”
“I’m sorry.” Jennifer apologized. “I don’t mean to neglect you. I just can’t get my mind off of it. I’ve tried to not worry, but do you think they would have hurt her? I couldn’t bear it if someone’s hurt her, Pat.” Jennifer’s eyes searched her face. Pat was not one to sugar coat anything and she knew that Jennifer was trusting her to be frank.
She clearly read the meaning behind Jennifer’s question. The thought was indeed frightening and it had crossed her mind as well.
“Jennifer, she said that she was fine, didn’t she?” She answered in a tone that she hoped was reassuring.
“She said that there was a lady- and a man.” Jennifer explained. “J.J. knew that I was listening when she called and spoke with Jonathan. You know that she would lie about someone hurting her to keep me from worrying about her any more than I already am. She’s always been that way when it comes to me worrying about her. She’ll adjust the truth to what she thinks will cause me the least amount of pain, or worse, she’d just keep silent.” Jennifer dropped her eyes to look down at their stacked hands. “Pat, she’s just a little girl. You don’t think…”
Pat pulled her hands loose and put her arm around Jennifer drawing her close.
“Come on, Jen. Don’t make yourself sick until there’s really something to be sick about. She called. We know that she’s somewhere relatively close by. We’re on our way to her. You’ve raised her little ass to be smart and strong, just like us. Besides, I think she’d give a guy so much hell about coming at her like that, he’d be too damned tired to go through with it after she got finished with him.”
They didn’t know that he could hear them talking over the din of the motor, but Bill spoke from up front without turning his head, “I second that! Our J.J. would kick ass before she let anything happen to her.”
Surprised, the two women looked at each other and then they both had to laugh, each hugging the other tightly.
The tranquility of the lush far flung fields surrounding Millie and Ben’s small frame home was fascinating. It was peaceful at her parents’ cabin, but up there, they were surrounded by mountains and trees and there wasn’t this vast view. Out where J.J. was now, it was green as far as the eye could see, nothing it seemed for miles except soft rolling hills. She wanted so badly to just go ahead and ask where she was, but her natural sense of wariness kept her from giving up her French persona. If they didn’t think she understood them, they would continue to say anything around her. Maybe she could glean something from what they said to each other that would give her a clue to pass on to her father when she called him back. At least she now knew that Millie’s surname was Evans. She assumed Ben’s was too. She could give Daddy that much.
Millie had taken her out the back way. There were clothes hanging out to dry on two lines, including her own jeans, shirt, socks, and under things. J.J. shuddered at the sight of her unmentionables fluttering in the breeze for all the world to see.
Behind the house, a fair distance away, was a barn and they walked out to it. The soft grass and then the dusty earth felt good to J.J.’s bare feet as she crossed the yard. She loved going without shoes when she was outdoors like this. Inside the barn, the first thing she really noticed were the two horses in the stalls along the side. Immediately drawn to them, she went up to each one, stroking their faces and patting their broad sides. She had a sudden longing for Sam, her horse they boarded with Mr. Stokes for when she visited the cabin. These were mature horses too, and she could tell that they were gentle, just like Sam. He was sixteen now and had a son, SOS, that her father boarded for her with Stokes also. Sam had been her horse all of her life. Her father had given him to her when she was six months old.
Some chickens pecked around in the dust and straw on the floor near the door. Jake and Jasper wandered in together and nudged at her legs. She bent down to pet them. As she did, she thought about Third. She missed him and she knew that he was probably going all around the house looking for her. It had only been a day, but it seemed like she had been gone from home forever. She wondered where he had slept last night since she had not been in her room.
Millie took her by the hand and they went out to the chicken coop where she watched as Millie gathered eggs. She handed some of them to her to carry. They were warm. Fresh from under a chicken’s butt, J.J. thought to herself. No wonder the ones she had eaten earlier tasted so good.
They took the eggs into the house where Millie put them into a bowl and then put the bowl in the refrigerator.
“Gotta snap these beans.” She said as she sat down to a bowl of green beans that had been sitting on the table. J.J. sat down across from her, not knowing what else to do since she was not supposed to be able to understand English.
She watched as Millie took one bean and snapped the ends off of it carefully pulling away a green string from what looked like seams on each side of the bean along with the ends.
“These strings have to come out of there.” She said holding the bean out so that J.J. could see what she was doing. “If you don’t, that ain’t a good thing when you’re eatin’ ’em. Mouth will be all full of stringy stuff that don’t chew or go down easy.”
She broke the bean in half after removing the strings and put the finished pieces in a second bowl.
J.J. watched her do a few more, then she reached across and took one. She did what she saw Millie do. She was aware that Millie was observing her making sure that she pulled the strings all the way out.
“Real good.” Millie said nodding her encouragement, and then she handed her a few more to do.
It was fun. After those few, J.J. pulled the entire bowl over to her side and waved Millie off. She would finish doing these and then go up to try to call Daddy.
“Alright, little lady.” Millie said laughing. She stood and put her hands on her ample hips. “I guess I’ll just go on to the other things I need to be doing.”
Tina was at the counter at the coffee house. It was a slow morning. Since it was Friday, test day at the school, most of the kids who would normally be stopping in to eat or to grab a quick cup of coffee or tea were across the street cramming in the school library or in study hall. She took a newspaper from the stack that the guy dropped off for customers to purchase and enjoy their morning repast.
She was tired. Most of the yesterday morning had been spent talking to the police about what she had seen. Then she had school herself that afternoon, and the baby had been cranky most of the night. Following the news all evening into the early morning hours, she’d listened for any new developments. She was anxious to see which one of the kids those men were actually after. From their questions, it seemed as if the police were focusing on J.J., but from what she saw for herself, she didn’t get the impression that it was J.J. they wanted. Although she worried about them both, she feared most for J.J.’s personal safety. J.J. Hart was very young, very attractive, and female; Tina knew that there were some real sick people in the world.
Now she was grateful for this break that she seemed to be getting from her work. Reading the paper for that bit of time had taken her mind off J.J. and Tommy, and what might be happening with them. Having perused the front page, which carried the story complete with the pictures of both kids; the Metro, as well as the Everyday Living sections, she flipped back to the Obituaries section. It was her morbid little secret thing to do when she read the paper. For some reason, she liked reading the mini-biographies of the people who had recently passed on.
She only read the ones with the accompanying pictures. Somehow putting the face to the story made it more interesting. Scanning the page, she was suddenly stopped by a picture of a man who looked strangely, but immediately familiar, as if he were someone she saw regularly. According to the information given with it, he had been a prominent businessman in the state of Florida, the owner of a large architectural firm. He was a handsome man and rather young to be deceased: his late forties. She reread his name in the caption under the picture: J.T. Steele. Reading the article again for clarification, she got his full name, Jordan Thomas Steele.
Studying the photo she wondered why he looked so familiar. Having never been to Florida, surely she had never seen him before. The man was smiling in the picture, and he had deep dimples. Dimples just like the dimples Tommy got when he smiled. Just like Thomas Jordan Steele’s dimples.
She pulled the card that Captain Gray left with her the day before from the pocket of her apron. Picking up the telephone, she dialed the number he had penciled in, the one to his cell.
She knew that the boy was awake and it was time to go up and meet with him. It seemed so strange to be coming face to face with him under these circumstances, but there simply had been no other way. The mother would not have cooperated if she tried to approach her through the normal channels. When they asked nicely those few times years ago the mother had refused to even let them visit. She had even run away to keep him from them. Jordan had been crushed but after she fled the state, he wouldn’t pursue the matter for the sake of his wife’s feelings. Now it was too late for him, but it was not too late for them. This was the boy’s rightful home, where he should have been all the time.
She put the key in the lock and turned it to enter his room. He sat at the desk and turned slowly in the chair to face her. Awake, his eyes took her breath away. She stared with hazel eyes into the hazel eyes of the one who had been so dear to her. Even if she hadn’t checked his identification, there was no doubting that he was Jordan’s child. Until this day she had only seen one good picture of him as a baby, and a few pictures that Jordan managed to have taken of him from a distance through the years. She had never seen the child in the flesh. Jordan had strictly forbidden them to contact him or his mother. But now the rules had changed. It was their right to have him there with them, it didn’t matter what anybody else thought about it. He was so much like Jordan.
Startled for a second by the sound of the key being placed in the lock, Tommy braced himself. When he heard the door open behind him, he swiveled slowly away from the computer screen and fought to keep his heart from racing. He could not afford to be fearful or anxious. Fear, he had been taught, made one lose his edge. He had to remain sharp, and he still had to find out what happened to J.J.
Right off he knew that he was somehow related to the woman standing in the doorway. She was a large woman, not fat, but substantial and imposing. She was quite tall and they were both built on the same big frame. She had the same dark features and the thick, long, and curly black hair. It flowed back, away from her handsome face just his own tended to do when left to itself. She was dressed in some sort of long beige flowing gown thing with wide sleeves.
They stared at each other, and she came no closer than the open door.
After a few tense moments, she finally asked, “Are you comfortable, Thomas?”
“As comfortable as a caged person can feel.” He answered without getting up from the chair. He crossed his legs and sat back. “May I ask who you are and why I’m being held here.”
“This is your home.” She answered. “You’re here because this is where you belong.”
“I belong with my mother. I have a home and this isn’t it.” Tommy declared quietly. “Again I’m asking, who are you since it appears that you already know who I am.”
The woman took a few steps into the room, but still did not come close.
“Did you have enough to eat?” She asked. “If not I will have more sent up.”
“I prefer to go home and eat. My mother knows what I like and how much to give me.”
“You are direct. I like that.” She smiled. He noticed that they shared the same distinct dimpled smile. ” I am your aunt, Josephine. I was your father’s twin sister.”
J.J. finished stringing the beans and Millie showed her how to wash them. While they were doing that, she heard Ben come in and go up the stairs. Once again, she made mental note that she would have to put off her phone call. It seemed as if that was never going to happen. Her head was beginning to hurt again and she felt unsteady on her feet.
Millie put the beans on to cook, noticing that the girl had gone pale again and had leaned into the counter. She took her by the hand and walked her to the front door.
“Why don’t you sit out here and get some air.” She suggested. “You been shut up all morning.” She opened the door and gave her a gentle push out onto the porch.
That really put the phone call on the back burner for the time being. J.J. sat down on the front step to survey her surroundings. There didn’t seem to be anything outstanding that she could grab hold of to use as a landmark. There were just the few small buildings on this property and then hills and fields. A long narrow dirt road led up to the house from a main road that seemed to be nearly a mile away. That was it. The house had no phone, no television- forget about computers, fax machines, any of that. The lone radio that she saw on the shelf in the kitchen was turned off the entire time. She felt lost in this almost primitive setting, out of her element, like she did after a few days at the cabin in the mountains. She guessed she should have been grateful that there was at least electricity and indoor plumbing. She was certain that she was in no danger from Ben and Millie, and that in itself was of great comfort to her.
She got up and walked slowly off into the field thinking of her mother. Jennifer Hart had to be a basket case by this time. She had never been away from her like this before. The idea of being totally on her own was exhilarating in a weird sort of way. But that feeling was dampened by the thought of what this situation must be generating at home.
Until now, her mother always knew where she was and they always kept in contact in some way or another when they were apart. As strong a woman as she knew Jennifer Hart to be, J.J. was aware that there were a few things that spooked her, and heading that list was knowing that her daughter was in trouble or in danger. Missed curfews and last minute changes in plans were sure-fire ways to set her mother off. All of her life, she had been taught that for her, being kidnapped was a distinct possibility. Whenever she spoke of it with her, J.J. could read in her mother’s eyes the terror she felt. Just thinking of what she must be going through during all of this made her want to cry.
Her head hurt, and her legs felt wobbly.
She stopped walking to drop down in the long grass and stare out across the vista. It brought to mind the time when she was little and she climbed a tree in the backyard to see the vista of the estate. Her pants had gotten stuck on a branch and she could not climb back down. When her mother was looking for her and calling for her, she didn’t answer because she didn’t want her to be afraid about her being stuck in the tree. She stayed up there in the tree until her father came home and got her down. He had to tear her red shorts off to get her loose. The pants were still up there and even now, if a person knew just where between the branches to look, they could still be seen up there snagged on that high branch. Her mother had been terrified that day because she couldn’t find her.
She had only been five when that happened, but J.J. never forgot about making her mother cry that day. With this episode, The Duchess was probably feeling bad all over again. The thought of her crying over this nearly broke her heart.
Her head was now throbbing and thinking about what both her parents must be going through triggered the tears that trickled down her own face. She took the braid loose and shook her hair out. Wiping her face and eyes, she lay on her back spread eagled in the grass. The day was warm. The sky was beautiful. The sun felt so good on her whole body. If she could see her, Jennifer Hart would be pitching a fit about her exposing herself to its rays like that without having sunscreen on her legs, arms, and face. If only she could see her.
The blip was flashing faster and becoming larger. Dr. Westlake was excited that they were obviously getting closer and as a scientist, he wanted to see if J.J. had accomplished what he thought that she had done with this program and that chip. Jonathan kept his eyes glued to the screen. Captain Gray had gotten two calls on his cell, but the other two men paid no attention to him as he spoke quietly into it. Once he ended his calls, he came right back, without comment, to watch the screen with them.
Suddenly the computer beeped loud and long. The words “SUBJECT FOUND” on the screen turned from green to red and began to flash along with the enlarged blip which turned from red to green and began to flicker furiously.
Directly below them, were fields and a lone cluster of tiny buildings.
Captain Gray quickly pulled his cell phone back out of his jacket pocket.
Jennifer was once again watching out of her window. The pilot was descending some following the lead of the vehicle ahead of them. Below her stretched an immense expanse of green velvet and softly rolling hills. It continued unbroken as far as the eye could see. Then the green was interrupted by something, just a speck, but it was there. She narrowed her focus. It was a tiny, shaped like an X. The more she gazed upon it, something deep within her was increasingly stirred. She sat up.
“Pat!” She pointed. “Pat, Bill, look!”
Both of them looked down to where she indicated.
Bill could see something at the place where Jennifer was pointing. “Take it down some.” He said to the pilot. He couldn’t make out what it was, but the tone of Jennifer’s voice said that she had seen something of note.
They slowed and descended even more.
“My baby.” Jennifer whispered. “That’s her. Pat, that’s J.J!”
Pat peered down. She could see a figure, but it was still awfully tiny. “Are you sure, Jen? -so small. How can you tell?”
“Bill, take me down!” Jennifer pleaded. “I know that’s her. She does that in the grass at the cabin, at the ranch, at Pa’s. She likes to feel the sun on her skin even though I’ve told her time and again not to do that. I know that’s her!”
As she had been speaking the pilot had been lowering the helicopter to give them all a better view. The object took on the appearance of a cloth doll that had been left behind lying in the field.
Then the figure on the ground slowly sat up and then stood. It was a girl. She began waving with both arms. It was J.J. From as high as they were, her bright smile seemed beam straight up to them.
They noticed that the helicopter ahead of them was swooping down to land in the field.
The radio crackled, “We got her. We’re going in.”
Ben was back at work in the shed on the tractor part when he heard the motors in the distance. Way out in the country like they were, planes often went overhead and they didn’t take much notice of them when they did. But this was much closer and the sound was different. Stepping out of the shed, he looked in that direction. At the same time, Millie came out of the house onto the porch wiping her hands on her apron.
“What is that? You see anything?” She called.
“Looks like helicopters landing out there! Where’s Suzy?”
“I sent her out here for some air. Look!”
She pointed out to the road where cars were racing from the highway up toward the house raising a huge dust cloud in their wake.
Millie ran down into the yard to Ben. “What’s going on?” She cried, clinging to him frightened almost to tears.
“I don’t know.” Ben answered. “But we know that we haven’t done anything. Don’t be scared. Just let them tell us what they want.”
He was still scanning the yard and the area for the girl. Jasper and Jake had come from the porch and were circling them, growling protectively at the unfamiliar noises.
“This has to have something to do with Suzy.” Ben said as he held Millie close to him. “You said that you thought she wasn’t just a regular girl. I think you might have been right.”
The helicopters landed, one behind the other, a short distance from where J.J. stood.. The wind from the whirling blades blew through her hair and the loose dress she was wearing as she stood bracing herself against the force. To her father, she was the most beautiful thing in the world at that moment. Almost before they touched down, Jonathan was out of the door and on the ground.
Captain Gray and the other officer surveyed the immediate area with their hands on their guns. There seemed to be nobody around except J.J. They watched as father and daughter were reunited.
The two stood for the briefest moment to take each other in, and then J.J. ran into his outstretched arms.
That one word, “Daddy!” was music to his ears as she fell into him. He held her tightly, kissed both her cheeks, and looked into her eyes.
“Are you all right?” He asked when he could get his voice.
“I’m just fine, Daddy. Especially now that you’re here.”
Even though she hadn’t really been frightened, his arms around her felt so good at that moment. For her, it was going to be all right. Daddy was there.
Bill McDowell was approaching at a trot from behind them smiling broadly.
“Look who else is here.”
J.J. turned in her father’s arms and then stood back away from him with her hands on her hips.
“Well.” she said. “I see my Daddy brought out the big gun.”
“That’s the only kind me and your Daddy use.” Bill boomed in his big voice. “You know that. Give your old Uncle a hug. You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
When Bill released her, he pointed into the distance. “There’s somebody over there who really needs to see you.”
J.J. could see her mother standing just outside the door of the second helicopter. She had her arms crossed, holding herself tightly. J.J. recognized that body language. It was what they both did when they were upset about something. With her heart in her throat, she slowly walked away from them toward her. Her mother looked so beautiful, at that moment more beautiful than ever.
Jennifer watched as J.J. walked barefoot, windblown, and apparently naked under that thin hideous dress, toward her. She wanted to go to her, but her feet would not move. It had only been a day, but it seemed like a lifetime. Her daughter was there. She was alive, and she appeared to be fine. And she was coming to her. J.J. stopped a few steps from her. At that moment, looking so wild and free and absolutely natural in this setting, she could really see that she was getting to be a truly beautiful girl. All of it was so frightening.
As if she were reading her thoughts, J.J. spoke to her, “Mama, I’m fine. You don’t have to worry any more. Honestly, I’m fine.”
J.J. watched her eyes. “Honestly, Mom.” She nodded slowly to reassure her. “I’ve been telling you all these years that nobody wants me, and that if they did get me, they’d drop me right back off. You see that’s exactly what happened.” She held her arms out to her and smiled. “I really am fine.”
It was Jennifer who took those final steps that put them together again.
Pat watched from inside the helicopter as her friend embraced her child. That girl was just fine. Jennifer need not have worried. J.J. had that powerful aura about her that kept people at length until she invited them into her space, a space that she fiercely protected. Although she was her mother, even Jennifer had hesitated just then until J.J. invited her to come to her. She wondered if Jennifer had any idea how much power J.J. exerted over her in doing that. She didn’t think that either of them was aware of that dynamic between them yet. It made her smile to think of it; they both had the impression that Jennifer alone was running things. Those two could not have been better matched. The kid was super sharp, but Jennifer held the reins. That was probably the best perception for them to go with for the present.
She had never been happier for any two people, or for herself, as she was at that moment.
A quick discussion determined that Tommy was still missing. They hustled up to the house when J.J. made them realize that the quiet old couple caring for her there would be traumatized by the helicopter carrying the Hart security team landing in their front yard and by the police presence they could see barreling up the drive. Once they got up there, Captain Gray took charge and sorted out the activity on the outside of the house while the rest of them all went inside to review the circumstances surrounding J.J.’s being there.
When they were all seated, it was Millie who spoke first. She spoke to Jennifer. It was obvious that was nervous. Even though they were not showy or dressed especially fancy, she could tell from the small things that these were wealthy, influential people. But also, it had not escaped her attention that Jake and Jasper had chosen to lie directly at the pretty red-headed woman’s feet, and that she automatically reached down to affectionately scratch their ears.
“I know you have to be Suzy’s mama.” Millie quietly observed. “She’s just like you. I hope you speak English.”
Jennifer stopped petting the dogs to look up at Millie and then to J.J. who stood between her and Jonathan. And then it came to her. “Suzanne Simone?”
J.J. nodded sheepishly.
Jonathan and Bill smiled, and Pat burst out in laughter. “Jen, between the two of you, your mother’s name is getting an awfully good workout.”
In the past, Jennifer had written a book under that name, and at present she often used it when she was working incognito on something related to her writing.
Forced into a smile herself, Jennifer answered, “I do speak English, but I’ll let Suzy here explain everything to you.”
Ben and Millie were astonished when J.J. spoke to them in plain English.
“I’m sorry I had to tell you that name, and that I had to pretend I was French. I didn’t know at first what your intentions were toward me or who you were at all. Then, afterward, I couldn’t switch back without giving myself away. I’m really J.J Hart, Justine Jennifer Hart, and these are my parents, Jonathan and Jennifer Hart of Los Angeles. These two are my godparents, Bill McDowell and Patricia Hamilton, and this is Dr. Westlake, a computer engineer for my father’s company, Hart Industries. Everybody, this is Ben and Millie, I think Evans. They both took real good care of me.”
The couple smiled at J.J.’s last comment, and then nodded to confirm their last name.
J.J. continued speaking to them. “Living way out here, you probably wouldn’t recognize my parents, but they’re pretty well known in L.A. and other more urban places. I couldn’t take the chance of you finding out who I really was. I didn’t know how I ended up here or if you had done it, the kidnapping I mean, so I had to go into my act. It’s a security thing. Please forgive me.”
She then looked back to her father, Bill, and Dr. Westlake who had carried the laptop in with him. “How did you guys ever find me? You couldn’t have used the program.”
“We did use it.” Jonathan answered. “It tracked you to right here, just like you programmed it. Pretty clever set-up, by the way.”
“But how? All my jewelry was stolen. The chip for that program was in my jewelry.” J.J. dropped her eyes from her father’s as she suddenly remembered. “Including my bracelet, Daddy. It’s gone.”
She wanted to cry again at the thought.
“No it’s not!” cried Millie. “It’s in your bag upstairs. When Ben found you asleep in that gully, I took it all off you after he carried you in here. I didn’t know if you were a runaway or not, but I knew that you didn’t have no business runnin’ with all that stuff on you for everybody to see. That would get you hurt for sure. I took it off you, and I put it in a pocket of that knapsack so if you ran away from here while we were sleepin’, you’d have it, but it wouldn’t be so obvious.”
J.J. blew Millie a kiss.
“Thank you so much.” She said, and then she winked at her Daddy, “Did I do good, or what?”
Bill playfully punched Jonathan in the shoulder. “I keep telling you, Valentine, a chip off the old block.”
Jonathan could only shake his head in disbelief at the level of his daughter’s abilities and ingenuity.
Then J.J. tapped her mother and her godmother. “Come on. I want to get changed.” She looked around at everyone else. “Excuse us, please.”
As they headed upstairs, Jennifer handed J.J. the bag that she brought for her.
“Even though you didn’t say ‘please’ to me when you demanded that I bring these to you.” She began to fuss quietly at her as they climbed. “And if you and Tommy had taken your behinds to school like you were supposed to, this would never have happened.”
“Whatever, mother.” J.J. drawled, rolling her eyes, oddly pleased to have her mother fussing at her again. “Please and thank you.”
Jennifer continued in a much lower tone. “And I want to talk to you about what’s not on under that dr-”
“Now, now, girls.” Pat chided as they reached the top and entered the room overhead. “No fighting.” And she closed the door behind them.
Jonathan, suppressed a smile listening to them. Evidently it was back to business as usual with those two.
He turned to Ben. “When you found her, she was alone? There wasn’t a boy with her?”
“No sir, Mr. Hart. She was all by herself. It was like she was sleepin’, but it was a deep sleep kinda like she had been put to sleep with drugs or something. She was in the ditch layin’ on her back. Her jacket was fastened up to the neck like somebody didn’t want her to get cold. The knapsack was under her head like a pillow. Somebody took time to put her right where she would be found, which I did, and I brought her up here. That whole time that I was carryin’ her and we put her to bed, she didn’t wake up. We ain’t know that anybody was lookin’ for her. I was goin’ tonight to my friend’s to watch the news and call the sheriff if I saw anything. We don’t have all that here. The bag she had with her didn’t have no identification in it and the name in all the books was a boy’s name. She didn’t look like a ‘Thomas’ to us so we figured she had the wrong bag.”
Ben stopped for a moment, and hung his head. He took Millie’s hand. “We weren’t goin’ to let no harm come to your girl. We didn’t mean no harm to her either. She wasn’t feelin’ so good, so we were keepin’ her here with us for the weekend. If we hadn’t heard nothin’ by the end of the weekend, we were goin’ to take her to the sheriff first thing on Monday mornin’. See Mr. Hart, we had a girl once, and a boy; my nephew I was raisin’ for my dead brother. We were livin’ in Florida, workin’ for some people at the time and they were goin’ to school. We had moved there from the country to give them a better chance. One night our girl didn’t come home from her classes. They found her a few days later… she was dead. Somebody had hurt her and then killed her. They never did find out who done it- not that it would have mattered. After that happened, the boy fell in with the wrong folks, and we lost him too. We come on back out here and left the world out there.
The room was silent until Millie broke it.
“Your girl is special, Mr. Hart. I can tell. She’s smart and she’s sweet. I can tell ’cause the animals took right to her, just like with your wife just now. Animals don’t have no reason to lie or try to get next to you. They either like you or they don’t, and when they don’t, everybody else needs to look out ’cause there’s a reason for it. I never would have know’d that she was a little rich girl except for the jewelry. But lookin’ at all this, you and your wife, and your friends, I know she comes from money now. And she comes from people who care about her and have raised her up well too. You should know that she’s still not feelin’ her best; was havin’ a little spell right before you all came down from the sky. Keep an eye on her.”
Ben watched as Jonathan rubbed his brow. He reached out and touched his knee. He could tell that Suzy/J.J.’s daddy wasn’t through with it; he was only halfway there. He wouldn’t rest until he knew what happened to both of those kids he was looking for.
“You got your girl back.” He said to him. “Your son’s likely to turn up soon too. If you’ve raised him up like her, he’s got backbone and spunk.”
Jonathan caught Bill’s eye. His son?
“Yeah, the boy’s got backbone.” Bill said clapping Jonathan on the back. “Thanks to his old Dad here.”
Captain Gray came through the screen door. He had gotten everything squared away out front and things seemed to be getting taken care of on the inside. He was extremely glad that J.J. had been found unharmed and that apparently she had not been the focus of this incident. That took the fear of harm coming to her out of it. Now they could all get down to the business of what this was actually all about and hopefully get Tommy back safely. That last call that he had gotten in the helicopter sort of put things into sharper focus for him.
He introduced himself to the owners and then turned to Jonathan and Bill. “I’ve been getting bits of information all day on things that have to do with Tommy and this situation. I think we can start to put some of the pieces together now.”
Tommy had gotten rid of his ‘aunt’ by telling her that he was going to lie down for a while because his head still hurt and he felt dizzy. It wasn’t a lie. He did not feel well at all, but he also needed time to figure some things out. The few things she said to him had his head swimming as well.
She said she was his father’s twin sister, and he believed her. He could easily see the strong resemblance he had to her, but she shut down completely on him when he asked her about his father. He had always assumed that his father was dead. His mother hadn’t said that he was, but she didn’t say much of anything about his father whenever he asked. In fact, he had quit even asking. He had to be dead, though. Why else would his father not come around?
He hadn’t thought about the matter of not having a father in some time. It had never been a very big deal; his mother was the best, they had lots of friends that came around. Many of his friends either didn’t have fathers or they didn’t live with the fathers they had. Then he met Jonathan Hart, and it really didn’t matter any more. Mr. Hart wasn’t his father, but he was a good friend. He kept him on track personally and academically, he had been there to get him out of the few jams he’d managed to get into, he spent time teaching him things, and he attended school functions and his athletic events just as any father might do for his kid. He had to be there anyway for J.J., and even though it really wasn’t necessary for him to stop in to see after him, but he did just the same.
Now here he was in this house with this lady, his so-called aunt, telling him that he had a real father. That was a serious kick in the head for him. He lay back on the bed to ponder it all.
He tried to figure out what he was going to do. It was more than apparent to him that he wasn’t going to be doing anything if he did not get out of that room and see what else was in that house. The woman made it clear before she left that this was where he was going to be for a while. Aside from wanting to keep him from contacting anyone on the outside, he wondered if she had another reason for not wanting him to get out of there.
He listened for some mention of it when she was talking to him, but she hadn’t said anything about anyone else being kept there with him. He didn’t want to ask about J.J. specifically. For the first time he actually realized the precarious position J.J. was in being the daughter of such prominent parents. There really were times that just letting on who she was could jeopardize her life. She and her father had said as much to him on occasion, but to really see how it could play out was something else entirely. He lay there thinking of what to do about it. He couldn’t just come out and ask ‘auntie’. He would just have to find out for himself.
He got off the bed and went to the door, easing it open. Peering out into the huge hall, it seemed to stretch for a city block in either direction with doors on each side. There was nothing to do but to do it. He disabled the lock from the outside and stepped out, closing his door behind him.
The older lady sat in her room watching out of the window onto the grounds. The house seemed so quiet without Jordan and his volatile wife. It wasn’t right that a child should go before his mother, she mused. It had not been that long, but it felt as though a great deal of time had gone by without seeing his face or hearing him arguing across the hall with Camillia, his wife. It was the only time that one really did hear Jordan if he weren’t sitting right next to you. Right after the funeral, Camillia had moved out of the house to return to her own family. It seemed that all that remained of Jordan were pictures and his sister, who lately seemed to not know what to do with herself.
Although they had been born twins, her children had been two distinctly different people. Jordan was quiet, smart, and industrious; but much too passive and compliant when it came to his sister, Josephine, who was five minutes older. She exercised that elder status with every opportunity that presented itself. It was Josephine who had the dominant, ambitious personality, but for some reason she had been content to live her life through her brother. All their lives she attempted to control his every move, and it seemed that he accepted it. Throughout his entire life he seemed incapable of getting out from under her influence. He even wound up marrying the woman Josephine picked out for him. When Jordan went into business for himself, Josephine decided he needed a wife. Camillia had been a school friend of his from a family with old money, much like their own. After they were married, they all lived together in that house until the day Jordan died. Josephine insisted upon it.
Now, it had been revealed to her through Jordan’s lawyers that somewhere in the world Jordan had a boy, her grandson. A grandson she never knew existed until Jordan’s will had been read.
Once again, she pulled the boy’s picture from the pages of the Bible that lie next to her chair on a side table. It had been taken by a private investigator while the boy was outside his school. She studied his face. He had been smiling at the time and his smile was like her children’s smiles; like his grandfather’s smile had been. It occurred to her that Josephine had not seemed very surprised by the revelation. Could it be that she had known about this boy all along, and they had both kept him from her?
No matter. There was nothing keeping her here now. Her grandson was in Los Angeles with his mother. Arrangements were being put into place for the three of them to be together once and for all.
Jonathan sat shaking his head in disbelief. “All this time, I had no idea. I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection. It was right there in front of me, and I missed it. That isn’t like me.”
“Mr. Hart, I honestly did not think about them when this all started.” Brenda Steele hurried to explain. “After that, when it began to dawn on me it could be them, I just didn’t want to believe it. I still don’t. But it’s the only thing that makes sense. Jordan is gone, and now they want Tommy.”
“How were you to know?” Bill asked Jonathan from the bar stool next him. “We never referred to him by his name. He was always T.J. to us, and we never knew his kid. He was just that, a kid, when we had our dealings with T.J. and that was years ago, hell we were just past being kids ourselves. And besides, your Tommy has always been ‘Tommy’ to you, and you two are here in L.A. What connection was there to make?”
“But Tommy looks like the old man if you really pay attention. He has the same smile. Who would have thought that the man who drew up the plans and oversaw the construction of both our headquarters would be the grandfather of one of my daughter’s best friends?”
“I named my firstborn for him.” mused Bill. “He was really a good man. He truly looked out for me; bankrolled my first fleet. Wonder if he ever had any inkling about Tommy.”
“He couldn’t have.” Answered Jonathan. “If he knew, there’s no way that he would have stayed out of his life. Besides Tommy was what, about five or six, when the old man was killed in that construction accident?”
“Yes,” Brenda answered. “That was when things really started getting tense with the phone calls and threats. They wanted me to give Tommy to them. That was when he and I came here.”
They were gathered at Willow Pond and it was getting late. J.J. was home once again.
Under extreme protest, she had been examined by her doctor, fed, and had been put to bed by her mother. The focus in the great room now was on locating Tommy and getting him back home as well.
“Mrs. Steele-” Captain Gray began.
“Brenda,” She corrected him, looking up. “Please. I have never been Mrs. Steele. I did that for my son.”
“Brenda,” He continued. “It’s just a theory, but it’s the only one that makes sense. You say that the Steeles have tried to get you to give him up to them, and then they made an attempt to take him by force another time?”
“Yes. You see, my parents were dead. They were killed in an auto accident when I was fifteen, and I was living with an elderly aunt. She was my only living relative. When I first told my aunt that I was pregnant, and after I let her in on who the father was, she tried to convince me to let Jordan have him to raise. Their family had so many more advantages and I was so young at the time. He was three when they tried to get him from the day care center where I had enrolled him so that I could work. We didn’t have very much, but I just couldn’t do it, let them have him I mean. Tommy is mine. My aunt kept telling me that I was young, I would have other children, raising Tommy would hold me back, and on and on.” She shook her head at the memory. “That wasn’t the point.”
She looked over to Jennifer. “Even if a woman had six kids, no one child could replace another. You just have five others who are just as irreplaceable.”
Jennifer nodded in agreement. That statement was one that she totally understood. Not that she would have ever had another, but no number of children could replace J.J. Hart. Every parent in that room had to agree.
Bill quietly murmured, “Amen”.
“What kind of a man was Jordan Steele?” Pat asked. “He must have been all right at one time if you became involved with him.”
“He was very nice then. He was interesting, and he seemed interested in me. He was way older than I was. I was eighteen and he was thirty. I was a co-op student at an architectural firm where he was a partner, and trying to be grown and sophisticated, I guess, I got involved with him. He wasn’t the problem so much. It was his sister, and then his wife. He had a twin sister who simply made a puppet out of him. And he had a wife that I didn’t know anything about until I was already pregnant. I was just young and stupid, believing everything that was told to me. That was when it all hit the fan. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I knew that I had made a mess, and I was prepared to just move on with my baby and my life. The wife started harassing me and threatening me and Tommy. After a few years, my aunt died. Then Mr. Steele died and I got the hell out of Florida and came here to Los Angeles. I didn’t want them to get their hands on Tommy and for that sister do to my son what she did to his father. It all stopped then. I haven’t heard from them since that time. I thought it was over. Tommy is sixteen now. Why would they start up again now? Is it because Jordan is dead?”
Pat had been listening to her carefully and had been reading between the lines. It hit her all of a sudden.
“Wait a minute.” She said holding up her hand. “You said that you haven’t heard from him in all this time- since Tommy was six. Wasn’t he paying you child support?”
“I didn’t want it. I didn’t ever want anything from him except to be left alone.”
Pat sat back, incredulous at her admission. “I cannot believe that you didn’t at least get child support from him! He had big bucks! He inherited his father’s firm, and it took off under him.”
“Pat.” Jennifer said quietly, placing her hand on her friend’s lap in an effort to stop her mouth.
Once Pat, a staunch feminist, got going on a subject like that one, she tended to get passionate about it.
“Well damn,” Pat continued, getting just as worked up as Jennifer thought she would. “I’m just saying, she’s raising the kid by herself. The least he could have done was-”
“Hush.” said Jennifer again, this time taking her hand and squeezing it lightly.
Jennifer squeezed a bit harder. “Shhhhh.”
“The hell if I would have let him get away- Ouch! Jennifer, DAMN!”
She had been pinched, hard, on the back of the hand. Rubbing the stinging red spot, she glared angrily at her friend.
Just then Jennifer thought she heard the tiniest start of a giggle, but when she looked up in the direction from which she thought it had come, she didn’t see anyone.
“I told you to hush.” She quietly reminded Pat, bringing her focus back to Brenda.
Brenda Steele smiled at Pat’s indignation. “I understand your feelings. Of the few people who know that I support Tommy on my own, most of them have said something to that effect. But sometimes it just doesn’t matter about that. I’ve been supported in many other more important ways with Tommy.”
She looked meaningfully toward Jonathan who sat on his barstool apparently caught up in his own thoughts.
“You got an address on that estate in Florida?” He suddenly called out to Captain Gray.
“Yeah, Jonathan, I know exactly where it is.” The captain answered from a side chair. “But we can’t just go rushing up in there. We don’t have anything except our speculation and circumstantial details that say he might be there. We don’t really know where he is. J.J. couldn’t tell us anything. They must have put her under the minute they got her in that truck. She remembered getting snatched, and then she remembered waking up in the old couple’s upstairs bedroom.”
A small voice came from the dark loft library at the back of the room, above their heads. “I think I know a way to find out if he’s on that property.”
All heads looked in that direction.
J.J. peered down at them from between the bars where she was crouched down below the railing.
“How long have you been there?” Jennifer stood to ask. “I thought I told you to go to bed. And what have I told you about eavesdropping? Justine Jennifer Hart, you march yourself right down here!”
She slowly descended the spiral staircase at the rear of the room. She looked like herself once again; neatly put together, cozily wrapped in a long, soft, pink robe with pink fuzzy slippers on her feet.
“I just couldn’t sleep.” She explained, approaching her father instead of her mother, which did not escape her mother’s or her godmother’s attention.
“I won’t be able to sleep until you can find him, Daddy. I want to be down here with you guys. It’s not right that I’m safe at home, but Tommy’s still out there somewhere. I bet wherever he is, Tommy’s worried about me if nobody’s told him what happened to me. I was worried about him when I realized that he wasn’t with me. I’m still worried, and I will be until he gets back here with us.”
She turned to Brenda. “Ms. Steele, Is Tommy’s father dead for real?”
“According to the the paper he is, J.J. That was the first that I heard of it. We really haven’t had any contact with him.”
“He had a father all this time, and he didn’t know it. That’s too bad. Now he won’t ever have a chance to meet him. Well, at least maybe now he can get to know about him.”
Tommy hadn’t ever said anything to her about wanting to meet or know about his father, but it was her secret wish for him to know who he was. It was her wish for her own father as well, although he always maintained that he didn’t care to know any more. She tended to base her opinions in this area on her rich experiences, and she couldn’t help but feel that anyone who didn’t have a good father in their lives was being deprived of something valuable indeed.
She stood before Jonathan with her hands in her robe pockets. “Daddy, I think I have something that might work to help you find out if Tommy is in that house or not.”
Jonathan reached for her and pulled her close in to him. He was relieved beyond words to have her back home, and delighted that she had exercised the nerve to sneak into that loft like she did. It proved to him that she hadn’t been too frightened by what had happened to her. Besides, he really didn’t want her out of his sight for too long despite Jennifer’s insistence that she needed to rest.
“How?” He asked.
“The same way you found me.” She answered. “When they took us, I was carrying Tommy’s book bag. We switched off because mine was so heavy. So when whoever took us dropped me off, they must have assumed the one I was carrying was mine, and they left his bag with me. That means that Tommy most likely has mine with him. There’s another tracking chip in my bag. It’s for LJH2. It’s not as specific as the one you used this morning. It’ll track that chip within a specified radius. You manually set the radius, and it will track it to as short a distance as 20 feet up to a hundred miles. I haven’t had the chance to work on it more to get it to go farther than that. If you get to that estate, the program will track that chip. That can at least tell you if my bag with the chip is in there or not. If the program indicates that the chip is there, then it will be more than just speculation that Tommy might be there too. At least then Captain Gray will have just cause to have the authorities in Florida check it out .”
Bill playfully tugged her ponytail. “Valentine, you sure got a smart one.” Then he tapped J.J. on the shoulder. “Look here, Beautiful, I’ve been wondering about something. What’s “LJH”?”
J.J. looked uneasily over at her mother and hesitated, as if she didn’t want to answer with her in the room.
“Go ahead.” Her mother urged, crossing her arms. “I have my suspicions, but I’m curious too.”
Speaking softly, J.J. answered her.
“Well, LJH1, stands for ‘Locate Justine Hart’. That was the first one I wrote. When it worked, I did the other two. LJH3 is the program to locate Daddy. His chip is temporarily in his car until I could think of a more stationary place on him.”
“And LJH2?” Jennifer asked, patting her foot, watching her brilliant daughter squirm next to her father.
“It’s yours;” J.J. quietly admitted. ” Locate Jennifer Hart. That’s the one Tommy has in my bag. You were going to get your chip the next time you took your wedding ring to Winston’s to have your settings checked.”
“Sorry kid,” Whispered Bill cringing in sincere apology. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that.”
Pat, still sitting on the couch behind Jennifer, but facing J.J., sent her a thumbs-up. J.J., noticing her right away, suppressed a naughty smile as she also felt her father playfully pinch her side at the same time.
“I was just trying to keep us all safe. We’re all over the place lately, and I thought it would be a good thing to have if we got lost from one another.” She leaned in to cuddle up with her father, putting her head on his shoulder before looking back to her mother with soulful eyes. “It worked for me, didn’t it?”
Jennifer, caught speechless, and having no rebuttal statement, dropped back down onto the couch, throwing up her hands in surrender. “Private security tailing me. Now tracking chips. I just give up. I’m at their complete covert operations and technological mercy.”
She sat all the way back to whisper. “And that girl is going to be spoiled rotten before it’s all said and done. She’s already just about putrid, but this incident is just going to make it worse. Look at her over there with the two biggest, most pliant pieces of putty ever to call themselves men. Wasn’t I the one who called her down here? Has she yet come over here to see what I wanted?”
“I told you earlier, she’s crafty as hell, Jen. Over there playing those two like fiddles.” Pat whispered back, thoroughly tickled by J.J. and the very different interaction between her and each of her parents.
She leaned across Jennifer to take Brenda’s hand. “Between those three over there at that bar, and the Captain over there on that damned phone, your boy will be home real soon.” She reassured her.
She thought to herself, “For my goddaughter to continue to work her magic on him too.”
Tommy and J.J. were an affair waiting to happen. On her last few visits, she could see the drama unfolding. She knew that Jennifer was aware of it too, although they hadn’t talked about it at all yet.
From the time that J.J. mentioned that second tracking chip, Captain Gray had been speaking quietly into that much-used cell phone.
Tommy crept down the carpeted hall to his left. The first door that he came to, the one next to his, was open. Peering in, he found that it was a bedroom and it appeared to be empty. Scanning it quickly for a telephone, he did not see one right off and kept going.
The room directly across the hall from that one appeared to be some sort of living room or den. It had a small couch and some chairs. He guessed that it would be called a sitting room. He gave himself a pat on the back. He had learned a little something from hanging around with J.J. She knew all that stuff. There didn’t appear to be anyone in that room, so he went in and took a quick look around. Surely there would be a phone in there. A brief scan of the area did not reveal one. Not wanting to linger in one spot too long, he kept continued on. There had to be a phone in one of these rooms.
Farther down the hall was another door that he could see from where he stood. It was closed. He decided to leave that one alone just in case ‘auntie’ happened to be behind it.
Turning around he started back to check out the other end of the hall, but he was stopped by the sound of footsteps on a rear staircase. Being that he was right in front his door, he ducked back into that room, quickly setting the lock back into position. Taking a seat at the desk, he fully expected to hear that key turn in the lock. Instead the muffled sound of voices filtered through the heavy door. Tommy rose from his staged position at the computer and crept over to the door to try to hear what was being said. He put his ear to it.
“But Mother, Thomas is our child. He is a Steele. He should be here with us in Jupiter instead of stuck in some seedy suburb in Los Angeles, California.”
He recognized the voice of his aunt, but who was ‘Mother’ And where on earth was Jupiter?
Another voice spoke: “We will contact his mother. If she wishes for him to come to get to know us, then we will send for him. If she does not want him to come here, we will not force the issue. I do not want my grandson forced to see me. This is something that Jordan should have seen to on his own. Perhaps when the boy is older, and he is made aware, he will come of his own volition. Perhaps his mother will allow me to come to him.”
“No, Josephine.” The other voice spoke again. “You have had your way long enough. This boy you will not rule. You will not rule over me either. Not another day. I will contact his mother through Jordan’s lawyers when I have everything in order. This thing will be done properly by his grandmother, not by you. Jordan did not want you to contact the boy or his mother. You heard them say that. That is how this shall be done.”
Her words seemingly ended the conversation and the footsteps going away from him, though they were very faint because they were on carpet, seemed to go off to the right.
His head was spinning. He went to the bed and lay himself down across it. It was all too much. He had an aunt who gave off strange vibes, a father: Jordan? Whom he had yet to see, and apparently a grandmother who didn’t know that he had already been forced into being there with her. Yesterday there had only been his mother and him. Today it appeared that he had a larger family. But what kind of family was this that his aunt would go to the extent of having him kidnapped off the street, drugged, and held prisoner like this?
If she was keeping him a hostage in this room and they were supposed to be blood relatives, what had she done with J.J. who was not related to her at all?
A whole day had gone by at that point. Where and how was J.J.? And where on earth was Jupiter?
Suddenly unwell, he went into the bathroom and was violently ill. Weak, shaky and sweaty afterward, he lay down on the cool tile of the bathroom floor resolving that when he was able to get off that floor, he was getting out of the situation come hell or high water.
J.J. lie awake in the dark. There was no way that she was going to be able to go to sleep what with Tommy out in the world and nobody really knowing where. Her mother insisted on her coming back up to her room after she had given her father the idea of tracking the chip that was in her bag. She would have called Marnie again once she was back in the room, but they had been on the phone together, as well as with various others on the three-way, off and on ever since she got home. Jennifer Hart came up and caught the two them on the last very late call and she’d shut them down for the night. Now her mother was in her room, and she would be monitoring that console in there like a hawk.
Daddy, Uncle Bill and the police weren’t going to fly to Florida until the first thing in the morning. By that time everything would be in place for things to be done properly if the signal panned out. She hoped that Tommy would be alright until then. It still wasn’t a sure thing that he was even with those people in Florida, but that was the theory with which they were going. In the morning, she planned to ask if she could go with them, even though she knew that she probably wouldn’t be allowed to do so. Even if her father and Uncle Bill let her, which they might be inclined to do seeing as how they knew that she could hold her own and since Tommy was her friend, her mother most likely would torpedo the idea.
Jennifer Edwards Hart.
J.J. was glad to be back home with her, but her mother had been a little distant with her since her return. They hadn’t really talked like she thought they would. Of course the house had been full of people all afternoon into the evening, so maybe she just hadn’t had the time.
As soon as the plane touched down upon their return, her mother had insisted upon Dr. Kendall seeing her, so part of the afternoon had been spent in the doctor’s office. Dr. Kendall said that she was going to have headaches for a while, but she already knew that based on her mother’s experience with being drugged with an inhalant. All the while that they were with Dr. Kendall she kept trying to tell both of them that she was all right, but her mother insisted on having her checked out. Without her saying it, J.J. knew what her mother’s fear had been, but nothing like that had happened. That guardian angel of hers, the original Suzanne, had been by her side the entire time. Perhaps Tommy’s grandfather, her father’s friend, was watching over him now, and no harm would come to him either.
She rolled over, pulled the covers up, hugged Third to her, and tried to go to sleep.
Tossing and turning until the dog finally jumped down and crawled under the bed, she came to the conclusion that sleep just wasn’t going to come. She got up and started out of the door. Then she remembered the fairly new house rule about wearing the robe outside her room. She reached down to the foot of the bed and put it on. Stepping out into the hall, she walked down to the guest room where her godmother was sleeping. She knocked lightly, glad that her parents’ room was on the other side and down a good bit.
“It’s me, Aunt Pat.”
“Come on in here, J.J. What are you knocking for?”
Pat turned on the light and pulled back the covers, inviting J.J. to climb into the bed with her.
“What’s the matter?” She asked her once J.J. was settled.
“I can’t sleep, Aunt Pat. There’s too much on my mind. It won’t shut off.”
“Worried about Tommy?”
“A lot. And I’m worried about my mother too.”
“I can understand your being worried about Tommy, but your Daddy and Bill are on top of that. I think that situation will be resolved soon. But, what’s this about your mother? Why are you worried about her? To me it seems that it should be the other way around.”
“What’s wrong with my mother? Why is she acting so funny? Do you think she’s upset with me?”
“What makes you ask that? Why would you think that she’s upset with you, of all things?”
“Well, she hasn’t said very much to me since I’ve been home. It’s almost like she’s kind of avoiding me. She keeps making me go to bed and stay in my room and stuff. She even had my dinner brought up to me instead of me coming down to eat with everyone else. Then, too, I think I got on her nerves with wanting to put that tracking chip in her ring. I was only thinking of her safety. Aunt Pat, I don’t want to be in the way. I just want to know what’s going on with Tommy. I want to be a part of finding him, but she won’t let me do anything.”
Pat had been a little concerned abut Jennifer’s reaction also. She did seem a little detached when it came to J.J. earlier that evening. She understood all the reasons why Jennifer had been so worried while J.J. was missing, but she turned out to be just fine. Since her return, Jennifer had been rather quiet on the subject of J.J., and she did appear to be a little eager to close her off from the world.
Pat was sitting up on the pillows, and she looked over to J.J. who was laying flat on her stomach fiddling with her emerald ring. J.J., too, was rather relaxed for a girl who had been abducted off the street just the day before by four men in ski masks, even for a girl who wasn’t afraid of a whole lot.
“She fussed a little about that chip and the detectives tailing her while she’s on assignment.” Pat answered. “But I think she understands your father’s and your concern for her safety. Now her nose did get a little out of joint when she found out that you weren’t wearing anything under that dress. Weren’t you nervous about that?”
“Well, what could I do, Aunt Pat? Millie only gave me the dress and those underpants I showed you guys. You know that I’m an only child, and I’m not used to having to share anything, especially not underwear. I think I do pretty good at being generous and liberal-minded, but I have to draw the line at wearing somebody else’s panties. I don’t care if they were clean. No way.”
Pat laughed. “J.J., I thought I would die when Jen asked you about it, and you pulled those bloomers from under that pillow. You held them up, and me, you, and Jennifer could have gotten into them.”
“See what I’m saying!” J.J. held up her hands. “That’s another reason why I didn’t have any on. I would have just been holding them up with my hands the whole time. Besides, all the good parts of me were covered up and my mother could only see through the dress because she was looking. She always checks me out like that; says I send out signals. I disagree, but does that matter? I don’t even think along those lines, but she says I should. Then the scrunchee broke and I couldn’t put my hair back up; that’s why it looked like that. The helicopter wind just made it worse. My mother called me a Bohemian, like what she calls Aunt Sabrina.”
“If you’re talking about your Great-Aunt Sabrina in France, then yes, I can see it. She’s like that too. Just doesn’t give a damn about what she does. Anybody who’s seventy-something, pushing eighty hard, and has the nerve to wear a thong…”
J.J. smiled at the thought of her free-spirited aunt. “I love her. She is so cool.”
“J., tell me something,” Pat began. “Through all of it, were you scared at all?”
She didn’t answer right away. It seemed that she pondered her response for a bit, as if she really had to think it over.
Finally she said, “You know, since you’ve asked, I wasn’t. When they first snatched us, I was mad because they were really roughing Tommy up and he was fighting them so hard. Then that guy grabbed me, and that made me even madder because he put his hands on me and he was pulling on me. I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up, and I was sooooo sick. After that, I was just nervous, but once I knew that the Evanses were okay, and that they didn’t mean me any harm; I mellowed out. I was antsy about finding a way to let Daddy know where I was once I thought my earring with the chip in it was gone. But then too, I had my little phone, and knowing that I could at least reach somebody made me less uneasy. I knew the signal could be traced.”
Moving from her stomach onto her back, she sighed and continued, “In my heart I knew that my father and my mother would find me. I just didn’t want it to take a long time and keep them worried any longer than necessary. I didn’t know that you and Uncle Bill were here helping them. I’m really glad you both came to be with them. I’m sure that it means a lot to them. It does to me.”
Pat turned onto her side and J.J. looked over into her face to listen to what she had to say.
“I’m glad that you weren’t scared J. You lose your edge when that happens, and you needed to stay sharp. You did a good job of keeping and using your head. But your mother was scared- very scared- for you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so frightened, and you know that she and I go way back.”
J.J. had gone back to playing with her ring, twirling it slowly, absently around her finger.
“I knew it.” She said quietly. “She always gets like that about me. Aunt Pat, doesn’t she know by now that I can take care of myself? I can, you know. I’m a girl, but I’ve never been a wimpy girl. She’s not one either. Why does she act like that with me?”
“Because she’s your mother, and you’re her only one. In her lifetime, J., she’s had some scary experiences, too, so she knows what it’s like. She’d like to be able to keep your world safe and painless, but she knows that she can’t, and that bothers and worries her. You’ve been faced with so many challenges this year, J.J. There was your friend, Marnie’s, problem with her stepfather, the thing with Andy Seagren and your mother at the ball, the girl at school who you helped when she lost the baby, and now this. I think she worries about how all of this is going to affect you.”
“But I’m always okay afterward. I might be down for a minute, but I get over it. Most of time I’m able to get over negativity so successfully because she helps me to understand why things happen and how to cope with the rough stuff.”
Sitting back, and putting her arm around her, Pat brought J.J. to her to rest her head on her shoulder.
“I think Jennifer is just coming to the realization that she can’t protect you from things to the degree that she could when you were younger. Then, she could put you somewhere, tell you to stay put, and there you would most likely be until she came for you. Now you’re older and it’s getting to the place where its moving more out of her control. That frightens her. She’d like to keep you closer, but she knows that she can’t if she wants you to grow up and be independent.”
“But if she knows I can handle it, which I think I’ve shown her I can, then why is she still so scared?”
“Again, it’s because she’s your mother. I heard her make that comment to you earlier about you and Tommy not being where you were supposed to be and that this wouldn’t have happened if you had been. At the time, I thought it was kind of strange for her to say that to you at the time that she said it. But now I think that if indeed she is upset about anything, it’s because you were at the coffee shop and not in school, and if so J.J., that’s her problem. I want you to understand that. You weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. School hadn’t started yet when you two were over there. You went to get something to eat. When it happened, you and Tommy were on your way back to where you were supposed to be. Your being J.J. Hart should not deprive you of being able to do normal, teenage things. I don’t want you thinking or feeling that way. Yes, you do have to be careful, but so does everybody else in this world. You can’t live your life in a bubble. When I learned that your parents were allowing you to go to a public school when you started junior high, I was so glad. It’s really been a good thing for you. You’ve grown and blossomed from the experience.”
J.J. rolled off Pat’s shoulder and lay her head down on the pillows. She turned her face toward her godmother who continued to speak to her.
“Look, Jennifer is my best friend in the world, and you know how much I love her, but in this situation, it’s not you who has the problem; it’s Jennifer who needs to get a grip. You can’t work it out for her, J. She’ll have to do that on her own. She’s got some baggage that she’s walking around with that affects all her dealings with you. As close as we are, I don’t know what all of it is, but I sometimes think that it’s heavy. Just keep in mind that in this, you didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t appear that this was even about you. All you need to remember when it comes to Jennifer is that your mother loves you- more than I think you’ll ever know. Don’t worry about any of the rest of it. You’re home. You’re safe. Tommy will be home soon too. Listen, if you want, you stay in here with me tonight and go to sleep.”
While she had been speaking, her focus had shifted to the ceiling. When J.J. didn’t respond at all, Pat looked over at her. She was fast asleep.
Reaching over to pull the covers up over her arms, Pat had to smile.
That damned J.J. could sleep on a rock if she was tired enough. And she knew the child had to be tired.
Tommy woke up to find himself still on the bathroom floor. When he opened his eyes, the room immediately took off and spun. His head was pounding. He didn’t know how long he had been down there, but he knew that he had to get up and try to get out of that bedroom to find a phone. His mother had to be worried sick about him, and he was worried about her as well as J.J. What could have happened to her? He didn’t even want to think about the possibilities.
He pulled himself up and as he did, his stomach flipped. Lunging for the toilet, he held his head over the bowl. As he waited for the inevitable, he thought he could hear the key turning in the lock on the door to the room.
Startled, sensing someone near her, Pat woke and quickly opened her eyes. Focusing in the darkness, she realized that it was Jennifer who was standing over her as she slept. She cautiously sat up, trying not to wake J.J. who was still lying next to her.
“You scared the hell out of me!” She whispered as she glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “Jen, it’s the middle of the damned night! What’s up?”
“I got up to check on her.” Jennifer whispered back. “I saw that she wasn’t in her bed. I figured she was having trouble sleeping, and she’d come in here with you. Was she afraid?”
“Yeah.” Pat answered, looking up to find Jennifer’s eyes. “For you, my friend.”
Pat got out of the bed and held the covers back. “This is your spot, Jen. She needs for you to be here, not me. I’m going on into her room.” Pat strode over to the door.
“Jen, you sure had us one helluva girl-child. We didn’t want a boy, and I’m so glad we got what we wanted.” She said as she went out of the room, softly closing the door behind her.
Jennifer watched J.J. a moment as she lie there peacefully. Her daughter was indeed a hell of a girl- not the girl she expected when she was carrying her- but still one hell of a girl. Getting over into the bed, she pulled the covers up to lie on her side facing J.J.’s back. Leaning over her, she smoothed some loose hair back from her sleeping face, then she draped her arm over her and lie down. As she relaxed, she felt J.J.’s fingers curl around hers and hold it tightly, and she could immediately feel that small thumb gently rubbing the settings in her wedding ring.
“Hey Mom,” Came the sleepy voice. “Not mad at me any more?”
“Why would I be angry with you, J.J.?”
“I don’t know. I just got the feeling that you were.”
“I was never angry with you, really. I just get so scared for you sometimes.” Jennifer answered. “You just don’t realize… Look, I know you’re a big girl now, but do you mind if your mother holds you for just a while?”
“Will it help you?”
“Yes, I think it will.”
J.J. shook her head. “Then I don’t mind, since it’s just us.” And she allowed her mother to pull her to her and hold her close.
It was a place where, since she had become such a big girl, she didn’t feel the need to go as often any more. At that moment, though, it felt real good to be there.
“Good night, my sweet girl.” Jennifer whispered to her. “Go back to sleep. I can rest now that you’re home.”
J.J. had to admit to herself at that point that perhaps she had been just a little bit scared after all as, safe in her mother’s arms, she fell back to sleep once again .
He heard her in the room calling softly to him.
“Thomas. Thomas, where are you?”
Anger swelled inside him. It was because of her and whatever she had her goons use on him that he was feeling so badly. He hated not being a peak performance. If he had been, maybe he would have been out of this. Using his foot, he pushed the door to the bathroom closed. Pulling himself up from the floor, he closed the toilet lid down and sat on it, trying to get his head, his eyes, and his stomach to operate in synch with each other.
There was a knock at the door.
“Thomas, are in there?”
Tommy rolled his eyes. Where else would he be? As far as she knew, she had him locked in. He flushed the bowl so that she could hear it.
“Thomas, may I come in?”
His head snapped to attention at her question. And evidently she was a ‘perv’ too.
“No. I’ve been going by myself for a long time now, and I don’t need help. You’d know that if you knew anything about me.”
“Thomas.” She called through the door. “Don’t be angry. I just wanted you here with me.”
“Does my mother know where I am? Did you call her and let her know where I am?”
No answer came. A few quiet minutes went by with no exchange. Then he heard her say, “I’ve brought you something to eat, Thomas. I’m leaving it here for you. Later, I’ll come back and we’ll talk. Maybe then you’ll understand why I had to do this.”
“Whatever.” Tommy thought to himself.
He wasn’t planning to be there when she got back. He was beginning to have the thought that J.J. was not there on the premises with him. It dawned on him that if she was anywhere close by, she would be looking for him just as he had been trying to get to her. J.J. was quicker and even better than he was about picking locks and skulking around; she was smaller, faster, and she’d been at it a lot longer. In all the time that had gone by, she would have found him if he hadn’t found her. But she didn’t have her bag, so she wouldn’t have the necessary equipment, or would she? One could never tell with her. He needed to be absolutely sure, though, before he dismissed the notion of finding her.
He eased his way, dizzy and sick to the door. Cracking it open, he peeked out; there was no sign of anyone. The tray his aunt had left was on the desk. Just the thought of food made him want to run back into the water closet. He wondered how Mrs. Hart hadn’t died behind being drugged that time. She was a lot lighter and smaller than he was, and she had received a pretty heavy dose too that time. If she felt as bad as he was feeling, she had to have been at death’s door with hers.
He sat on the side of the bed and tried to pull on his boot. It was hopeless. Just bending his head down to look at it made him want to pass out. Pulling off the boot and dropping it back to the floor, he lay back on the bed. The trip into the hall would have to wait. He couldn’t risk getting out of that room and not being able to make the most of his time out there.
Jonathan Hart’s voice echoed in his head: “Your mind cannot operate at its best, unless you are at your physical best. When you’re at a disadvantage or your position is somehow weakened, don’t be hasty. Wait it out and look for the opportune moment. When it comes, go straight for the jugular.”
Thomas Jordan Steele might have a biological father somewhere in this world, but Jonathan Hart had his shoes on and was walking tall in them.
A lot of time passed before Tommy felt well enough proceed again into the unknown. Lying on the bed, he faded in and out for some time. The last time that he woke fully, the room was dark. He sat up slowly and switched on the bedside lamp. He couldn’t be sure, but he had the feeling that it was quite late. It was time.
Once he had the lock on his door rigged again, he crept down the hall, this time going to the right. On this trip, he was in search of the jugular.
His aunt had locked him in. From the sound of that earlier conversation he had overheard, the other woman, his grandmother, obviously did not know what her daughter had done. She sounded like she wanted to meet him, but only under the right circumstances. Maybe if he could find her, she could put things right. She sounded like a lady who could make his aunt see reason. Of course, if he found a phone first, he would cut out the middle man. He didn’t know where he was, but the origin of the call itself could be traced thanks to modern technology.
The long hall was dimly lit, but he was glad for that. The bright lights and the whiteness of the room in which he had been held all day intensified his headaches. Without the glare he was able to think more clearly.
The first room was open and he went in. Light from the outside lamps on the grounds filtered in. After a few moments his eyes adjusted and he was able to see and make out objects in the room. He searched for a phone next to the bed. There wasn’t one. He checked the table between the two side chairs. It was empty. Feeling that he was spending too much time in one place, he decided to move on.
Peeking out, he checked in both directions. He saw and heard nothing. There was another room on the other side of the hall a short way down. Just as he started in that direction, the entire hall was suddenly illuminated by the long row of crystal chandeliers overhead, the white light blaring down on him like a jailhouse spotlight. The shock of being caught and the throbbing pain in his forehead suddenly hit him like a sledgehammer, and his body dropped heavily down to the floor.
Moments later he was rolled over onto his back, and he heard “Oh why did you have to do this?”
Jonathan was awakened by a knock at his bedroom door. Instinctively he reached for Jennifer, but the space next to him was empty and the sheets were cool. He reflected that he must have been in a deep sleep to not realize that she had left his side.
“Yes?” He called as he turned over to switch on the lamp.
“It’s me, Daddy.” Came the almost whispered answer.
What in the world was she doing up in the middle of the night?
J.J. quickly entered, closing the door behind her.
“She’s in the big guest room, Daddy.” She said noticing right off the slightly perplexed expression on his sleep-disoriented face as he quickly glanced back to the empty spot next to him. “She came to be with me for a while.”
J.J. figured that the first thing he must do upon waking was look for her. She was acutely aware of how much he loved his Jennifer. She sat on the side of the bed next to him.
“Daddy, would you please try to talk my mother into letting me go with you in the morning?”
“How do you know that I’m going to let you go with me in the morning, J.J.?” He asked her. “Our going there could be dangerous. We don’t have any idea of what we’re walking into. We don’t even know if he’s there for sure. It’s just a hunch we have at this point. We just got you back home safely. Why would I want to put you in harm’s way again?”
“I wasn’t in harm’s way the first time, Daddy. They didn’t want me; they wanted Tommy and they got him. I don’t think they took him to hurt him. If they wanted to get rid of him, they could have just done a drive-by or something like that. We were right out in the open where it would have been easy. They took him because somebody wanted him. If his late father’s family has money like it appears that they have, maybe it has something to do with his father leaving something to him that they don’t want his mother to know anything about. It didn’t sound like they were too fond of her. I mean why would they be? Tommy’s mom is an outsider as far as their concerned.”
Jonathan watched her face. It never ceased to amaze him how often he and his daughter thought alike. J.J. Hart was fifteen, pretty, feminine; and at first glance, non-threatening. But she had the mind and the reasoning processes of someone much older. Her shrewdness and her calm sometimes surprised even him, especially lately. Was he sorry that she wasn’t a boy? Not for a moment. The deceptive packaging was going to throw a lot of unsuspecting people off when they tried to cross her in life. He hoped that he lived long enough to see some of it when she had it all perfected.
He strongly believed in exposing her to real life. She wouldn’t always be operating within Bel Air or within polite society. In fact, their daily world at home was more like fantasy. More than anything, he wanted her ready to face life for what it really was; a place where one could learn many things, but also a place where she would need to watch her back at all times. Like him, she thrived off of and craved adventure and excitement. He understood that in her, although Jennifer often expressed her fears for both of them. But it was what they had to do.
“I’ll see, baby.” He said, having already made up his mind to speak with Jennifer. “But you know how your mother is about you and me. I know that she’s been playing it close with you all day. I saw her and I know she’s doing it because she’s unnerved about what happened with you.”
“She can’t hold me a prisoner because of that, Daddy. I love her, you know I do, but she can’t keep all the bad things from happening. She has to trust me to handle myself when they do happen, just like you do.”
They each looked into the blue eyes of the other. He nodded. She nodded back.
The door swung open.
“J.J. Hart, I don’t care how much sweet talking you’re over there doing.” Jennifer declared as she sailed in. “You are not going with your father in the morning. I don’t care what either of you has to say on the matter.”
She planted herself on the other side of the bed with her arms crossed, staring them both down. “Jonathan, you do what you have to do to get Tommy back, but J.J. will be right here with me.”
Jonathan gently eased J.J. up. “Go back to bed.” He said solemnly to her. “I’ll talk to you in the morning.” He turned to his wife. “You and I need to talk now.”
“How much of that did you give the boy?” She hissed into the phone. “He’s as sick as a dog. He’s been sick since you guys brought him here. I told you I didn’t want him hurt. He’s so sick he hasn’t been able to eat. I just checked on him and he hadn’t touched a bite and he’s up there on the bed passed out. Now I may have to call in a doctor and you know how dangerous that’s going to be!”
“You said that you didn’t want him awake, Jo.” The male voice on the other end replied. “He’s a big boy. He kept coming to, and we had to keep putting him under. We didn’t have time to stop to measure how much we were giving him.”
Josephine was trying hard to keep the level of her voice to a minimum, but it was difficult with the anger, anxiety, and panic that were coursing through her simultaneously. “You gave him too much! I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“We were just trying to keep him from seeing us and seeing where he was going, which was what you said to do. I don’t give a damn about what you do with him at this point. That’s your problem. We fulfilled our part of the arrangement. Now when do we get the rest of our money?”
“You just about killed my nephew, and I’m supposed to pay you full price for it? Go to hell.”
She slammed the phone down in fury.
What in the world was she going to do? Thomas was definitely sick. She knew it when he arrived, and that was not how this was supposed to go. Good thing Mother had been out when they brought him in. She thought that it would pass, but it hadn’t so far. Instead, he seemed to be getting worse. If she called a doctor in to see about him, that would be one more person who knew about his presence in the house. But she had to do something for him. Even though she had arranged his abduction, she really did not want him hurt or sick. In despair, she sat down on the couch. It was so late. Who could she call? If her mother found out what she had done… If Jordan’s lawyers got wind of this…
A piercing scream came from upstairs, “JOSEPHINE!”
As J.J. worked with her laptop, readying the LJH2 program they were going to be using once they reached Florida, Bill McDowell sat across the table watching her. She had moved the file from Dr. Westlake’s computer to her own explaining that for her a computer was a tool, and she preferred using her own tools when she was working.
“You got it set up?” He asked, sipping his coffee, knowing full well that if she didn’t have it yet, it wouldn’t be long before she did.
“I think so.” She answered without looking up from what she was doing. “It’s not that complicated. All this one has to do is pick up the chip, not give us a location. It sort of works like a Geiger counter would. Just lets you know that something is there.”
Bill was fascinated by her. “J.J., how do you know how to do all of this?”
“Daddy taught me a lot, and I spend a good deal of time in the labs at Hart. I like to learn about how things work, and the engineers there show me when I ask. Sometimes I just watch what they do and think of other ways to apply what I see.”
She looked up at him. “Uncle Bill, do you think I’m weird?”
He was surprised and taken aback by her question. “No. Why?”
She went back to her work as she answered him. “Sometimes I feel weird because people always seem surprised by the things I like to do, even Tommy makes comments at times about it. On occasion I wonder about it myself. I think my mother gets disappointed too that I’m not another type of girl.”
“What other type?”
“You know, like her- a more girlish girl. I can’t explain it, but it’s not like me.”
“J.J., your mother and everybody else likes you just the way you are. You are a little unusual, no doubt, but that’s what makes you who you are, a very interesting person.”
He heard the computer beep as she shut it down and folded it closed. She looked up at him again.
“I think my parents had a fight.” She quietly informed him.
“When? About what?”
“Early this morning. About me. About Daddy letting me go with you guys this morning. My mother didn’t want me to go. But this morning, Daddy got me up and told me to get dressed to go. My mother thinks that he indulges me too much. Do you think so, Uncle Bill?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, sometimes. But that’s because he loves you so much, and you’re such a good kid. I think too that your father understands some things about you better than your mother does. But to her credit, there are other things that she knows and understands about you better than he does. Those two will reach a happy medium. It’s not your problem.”
She sighed. “That’s what Aunt Pat said, but I hate it when they fight.”
“Your Aunt Pat is one smart lady. You listen to her because she’s right. Married people do that from time to time, sweetheart. When two people have been together as long as your folks have, they’re not going to agree on everything all the time, even when they’re as compatible as your mother and father are. That’s especially true when the disagreement is over the kids. Before my wife died, we argued about our boys a lot.”
“I don’t like being the reason.”
“It’s not your problem, J.J. They’ll work it out. You just keep on being a good kid.”
Jonathan entered the kitchen, heading straight for the coffee maker. He was dressed to fly.
“Where’s Beautiful Sr. this morning?” Bill asked when he noticed the deep furrow in his friends brow. That added facial feature usually indicated trouble.
Jonathan answered tersely.” She’s still upstairs with Pat.”
“Is she mad, Daddy?”
“Very, I think.”
“Then maybe I shouldn’t go with you.” J.J. said, pushing the laptop away from her to the middle of the table. “You know how the program works. You don’t really need me.”
Jonathan looked across the kitchen at her, his eyes challenging her spirit. “I thought you said you wanted to go.”
“I do, but I don’t want her to be mad at you about it.”
He came over to the table and sat down. “This is between your mother and me.” He pushed the laptop back toward her. “If you want to go, you’re going with me. The other doesn’t concern you.”
“I do want to go, Daddy.”
“Then say what you mean and stick to it. I’ll handle the rest of it. As soon as I finish this coffee, we need to get the show on the road.”
“Go up and tell your mother that you’re leaving, Beautiful” Bill instructed her.
When she was gone, Bill turned to Jonathan. “You think it’s worth it? I mean if it upsets Jennifer like this, maybe we shouldn’t take her.”
“Bill, nobody, not even Jennifer is going to clip her wings. If she’s not afraid, I’m not going to let anyone, not even her mother, put fear into her. Jennifer has to understand that she can’t protect her from everything. She’s scared, J.J. isn’t; she’s ready to get back on the horse and ride. Besides, she’s with me. How much harm am I going to let come to her?”
Bill said nothing. He’d had the same disagreements with T.J.’s mother. T.J. had been a fearless young man, and even though he was dead, there remained for his father the satisfaction of knowing that he died doing what he loved most: flying. His oldest son had lived his brief life to the fullest. In death he taught his father to appreciate the very different talents and interests of his younger son, Peter, who as a child, tended to take a back seat to his older brother in his father’s eyes. Jonathan had one child with very unique talents and interests. Living life to the fullest was what he wanted for his daughter too. This disagreement with Jennifer was one that Jonathan was going to have to endure for J.J.’s sake.
When J.J. got to the top of the stairs she could see that the doors to her parents’ bedroom were open. Gathering her nerve, which was what facing Jennifer Hart in a mood required, she made her way to the bedroom. Stopping at the doorway, she could see her mother seated at her desk by the window. Pat sat in the seat of the bay window.
“Good morning.” She said to both of them. “May I come in?”
Her mother looked at her but said nothing. When Pat saw that happen, she answered. “Sure Sweetie, come on.”
J.J. entered and proceeded slowly to her mother’s desk. Jennifer noticed that J.J. was dressed in her flight gear: all black complete with her leather boots and bomber jacket.
“I’m going to go with Daddy, Mom. He said I could.” J.J. said to her. “I just wanted to let you know.”
Her mother looked as if she wanted to cry, and J.J. suddenly wanted to relent and stay home. But she wanted to be there go get Tommy back more. It was so hard. She stood wondering why it had to be so hard to make decisions when it came to the people she loved.
“Mom, don’t worry.” She said as she walked around the desk to get close to her. “I have to do this.”
“I know.” Jennifer affirmed softly. “I know that you do. Just be careful, J.J.”
J.J. took her mother’s face in her hands. “Please don’t worry. I’m with my Daddy. He won’t let anything happen to me. Uncle Bill will be there too- and Tommy when we get him back, and all the security. I couldn’t be in better hands. And don’t forget that I can hold my own as well- just like you.”
“I know you can.” Her mother said as she placed her hands over J.J.’s which continued to hold her face. “I really do.”
J.J. kissed both her mother’s cheeks. “Thanks for letting me go. I love you- more than I think you’ll ever know.”
Releasing her mother, J.J. hurried from the room calling, “See you, Aunt Pat!”
From her position in the window, Pat could see J.J. stop in the hall and wipe her eyes with her jacket sleeve before running down the stairs.
“Yep, Jen,” She said. “That’s one helluva kid.”
“I know.” Jennifer answered as she dabbed at her own eyes with a tissue. “Just like her father is one hell of a man.”
And just as fearless, she thought to herself.
Pat looked over at her wistful girlfriend who now stared out of the window. Jennifer was still beautiful, she thought to herself, and she didn’t have a clue that she was one hell of a woman who couldn’t see herself in her child for seeing her husband in her.
Brenda Steele paced her bedroom, nervously smoking one cigarette after the other. Prior to that morning, she had given it up, but this was the second day that Tommy had been missing and the strain of not knowing where he was had been too much. The Kools and the lighter had been in her nightstand for six months just waiting for that weak moment.
The Harts had J.J. back, but Tommy was still missing. For her, that confirmed where Tommy was. She knew that Mr. Hart was on his way to Florida to check out his hunch, and to see if that program of J.J.’s would assist in finding him. As much as she wanted Tommy home, she was nervous about seeing him again. She wondered how he would feel about what she had done.
All of Tommy’s life, she had kept his father’s identity from him. When he asked, she said as little as possible or she changed the subject. At the time that seemed the best course of action. Jordan’s family was so rich and so powerful. With all of their connections, she felt that it wouldn’t have taken much legal finagling on their part to get Tommy from her. As a result, she never listed Tommy’s father on any official document starting with this birth certificate. The hospital tried to give her a hard time about it, but she stood her ground finally claiming to have been a victim of a sexual assault. The loss of dignity was nothing compared to the thought of losing that boy to his wimp of a father.
Now, if it turned out that Tommy was with them, what would he think about her keeping him away from his father and all that he could have given him? Jordan Steele had not been a bad person, but for all of his money and possessions, he was not a man in charge of his own life. His father and his sister made his decisions for him. Like a robot, Jordan went through the motions that they laid out for him. Not much was said about Jordan’s mother. She’d never met her, but his wife seemed just as bad as the sister. She was spoiled and used to getting whatever she wanted. Their relentless calls about giving Tommy to them to raise had been frightening, especially once Jordan revealed to her that Camillia was unable to bear children of her own.
How could she explain to her son that all she wanted was for him to grow up to be his own man? Tommy was all she had in the world. She wondered if Jennifer Hart truly realized how blessed she was to have found a real man like Jonathan Hart, and how lucky she was to have him as the father of her only child. It wasn’t so much that he was wealthy and handsome; Jordan had been both wealthy and handsome too, but Mr. Hart was a real man. He would have been a wonderful father to a boy, just as he was to his daughter; just as he had become to Tommy. J.J. would definitely be growing into her own woman. It was already happening. Tommy was also benefiting from the association.
She could hear the voices of the detectives who had been stationed in her living room. They had been assigned to her house by Captain Gray that morning right before he took off with Jonathan Hart for Florida. As soon as they knew something they would be contacting her.
What if he wasn’t with them after all? Where could he be if not with the Steeles? Taking a long drag from her cigarette she sat down on her bed to wait.
Tommy felt a firm hand slide under his chest and another press against his upper back and he was rolled over to come face-to-face with a woman who was kneeling next to him. This was an older woman who looked to be of Spanish descent. She had the same dark flowing hair, but it was lined with silver and pulled up into sort of a braided bun on top of her head. She was also a large woman, and she was strong. In rolling him over like she did, she made the hallway spin on him and it was all he could do to keep from being sick again. He closed his eyes after he got a quick good look at her. She had been looking into his face.
“Oh, why did you have to do this?” He heard her murmur. “He asked you not to do this.”
He felt her hand smooth his hair back from his forehead. Her touch was gentle, almost soothing.
“You are Thomas Jordan aren’t you?” She spoke in a whisper that had a trace of Spanish accent. “Your face is so much like my Jordan’s.”
Tommy pretended not to hear her. He remained motionless, his eyes closed.
“You don’t need to fear me, Thomas. I am your grandmother, Josefina Steele. I would never hurt you. I knew that Josephine was up to something, but I didn’t know that she had done this. Open your eyes, Thomas. Let me see your eyes again.”
Something about her voice made him want to look at her again.
“Your eyes are like Jordan’s eyes. The same hue, the same dark lashes. You are Thomas Jordan?”
“Are you ill, Thomas?”
He nodded again and explained, “They had to drug me to bring me here. They knocked me out. I think whatever they used made me sick.”
“Damn her.” His grandmother hissed. “I told her to leave you be; to let me handle this. I knew that she would try to force it. That is how she has done everything all of her life.”
She patted his cheek tenderly and sat back on her legs for a moment as if she were thinking about something. Then she sat forward again. “Thomas, are you any good at acting?”
“If I have to, I guess I can be. What role will I be playing?”
“A very sick boy.”
“No problem. I think I can manage to pull that off.” He answered mournfully. “Want I should vomit or anything for effect? I think I can work some up on cue.”
She laughed a quiet laugh as she gazed into his face. So much precious time had been wasted.
“Not on my carpet, Thomas.” She smiled. “Can you hold on to it for just a minute? You just follow my lead, yes?”
He nodded and closed his eyes again. She screamed for Josephine as if she were truly terrified. If Grandma was on the up and up, his hunch about her was right. She was that jugular he had been seeking.
Jonathan, lost in his own thoughts, was on automatic as he flew Valentine through the southern skies on the way to Florida. Bill was riding shotgun in the seat next to him and J.J. was behind him with Captain Gray. Hart security would meet them at the airport in Florida where they would move into helicopters to fly over the Steele estate. Captain Gray had already arranged for the local police to move in when he sent them the signal that the chip had been detected.
From the beginning of this whole thing he had been working hard at keeping his anger at bay. There was a rage in him that was hard to contain when those closest to him were threatened or harmed. He expected to feel it with J.J., but he had not expected to still be surging so strongly in him with Tommy, yet it remained.
He didn’t know if its strength at that time was a residual effect of the intense discussion he’d had with Jennifer that morning, or if it was solely out of genuine concern for the boy. Most likely it was a combination of both. He had an extremely low tolerance for interference with his immediate family, his extended family, and absolutely zero for interference in his relationship with his beloved wife. Whatever it was, somebody was going to pay for, if nothing else, putting that little redhead behind him in a position to be hurt or worse. He was going to get Tommy back, yes, but he was also going to find out who had done this, and how they were going to make it right by those kids, his wife, Tommy’s mother, and to him.
Jennifer had to be set straight that morning. She wasn’t wrong often, but she was this time. She was letting her fears affect J.J. and that was not going to be. J.J. was inherently fearless, and that was how she was going to remain if he had anything to do with it. Jennifer normally wasn’t fearful about anything, except the things that affected her child. It had been that way with her since J.J.’s birth. As well as he felt he knew her, there were things between them that had never been discussed, especially things from their pasts. Up to now, the past hadn’t been important. But, as J.J. was getting older, it was apparent that there was something that greatly bothered Jennifer and that affected her reactions to some of the things that J.J. did or had happen to her. Jennifer, a normally even-tempered woman, seemed to be at odds with herself at times, and it was baffling to him.
She was strict and consistent with J.J. about most things. Her two major house rules were that J.J. was to be wherever she was supposed to be at all times, and when she was out, she was not to make a move or change her plans without alerting them first. But, when it came to J.J. and boys, it was as if Jennifer completely relaxed on that matter. That was one thing on which she almost always let J.J. make her own calls.
It wasn’t as if there had ever been any problems; J.J. didn’t even seem terribly interested in boys, dating or any of that anyway. Still, he couldn’t understand why Jennifer wasn’t as restrictive with her in that area as she was with everything else. J.J. was growing older and he understood that she needed to be allowed to exercise her decision-making skills, but it would seem that this would be an area of more concern for her mother.
Jennifer was all woman, and he had always found women to be fascinating creatures. Perhaps they weren’t meant to be completely understood. Maybe she knew something about J.J. that he didn’t.
And then what was going on with Tommy? Why had he been taken? What if it turned out that he wasn’t there? Then what? He’d worry about that when the time came. His strong feeling was that Tommy was with his people in Jupiter, Florida and the only question that remained for him was why.
“We’re in Florida air space, Jonathan.” Bill reported, bringing him out of his reverie. “Got any bites back there yet, J.J?”
“No. We must not be close enough.” She answered. “I have the program set at it’s widest range and it’s not picking up anything yet. We’re coming in from the west. Jupiter is on the Atlantic side. It won’t pick up just yet.”
“The boy is there, Jonathan.” Captain Gray said with finality. “I’m ready to bet everything in my wallet on it.”
J.J. looked sidelong at him. “Then it must be a sure thing that he’s in Florida,” She said. “if you’re putting it all on the table like that. You play with scared money. I’ve watched you, and you don’t play risky or go for the long shots. Tommy’s there for sure if you’re betting the whole wallet on it.”
Captain Gray whipped around. She winked at him and went back to the computer screen.
Jonathan and Bill were forced to look at each other and crack up with laughter.
“Whose kid is that back there?” Bill whispered pointing with his thumb over the seat in J.J.’s direction.
“Mine.” Jonathan answered with pride.
The man sat staring at the receiver in disbelief .
“She hung up on me again! Said she’s not payin’ because the kid is sick. I’ve been back and forth with her since last night. I’m sick of this. I’m beginning to believe she’s serious.”
He slammed down the phone. “Who the hell does she think she is? We went through all that, and she thinks she’s gonna renege at this point? I don’t think so.”
The three others seated around the room were watching him intently. One of them sat forward in his chair. “So now what?”
The first man reached into the top drawer of the chest upon which the phone sat. “If she wants to act up, so can we. We did our part. She needs to do hers.”
He extracted a gun and began checking the chambers.
One of the others stood. “Look, I don’t want to get involved in no rough stuff. I agreed to help snatch the kid. It made me nervous when we ended up with the girl too. I felt better when we dropped her off at my uncle’s. We’re are in deep enough already. I’m not for shooting at anybody now.”
“I don’t know about you guys,” The first man declared. “but I want my money!”
He pulled out a small box of bullets and began loading the gun.
“I told you we should have kept that girl once we had her.” He said. “If nothing else, we could have had some fun with her. But no, you start crying about how she’s just a kid and we should get rid of her. Then it turns out that she’s got a millionaire Daddy who would have paid top dollar to get her back. By the time we go back for her, there’s cops all over the place. Now Jo Steele’s talkin’ about not payin’ for the boy. This whole thing has been a disaster from the start. The hell if I’m not gettin’ what I’m due. Who’s with me?”
Two of the men stood. The one who had spoken did not.
“Count me out.” He said. “You guys can have the rest of my cut.”
He thought of how the others had leered hungrily at the pretty little unconscious girl, and how he almost had to fistfight them to get them to leave her alone. He had fastened her jacket up to the neck and kept her in the back with him until they had driven down to the farm where he insisted they leave her before getting on that plane they’d hidden to fly to Florida. He knew that once he got her away from them, she would be safe there with his relatives until she could get back home. At that time, none of them had a clue that she was worth even more to them than the boy, not that it mattered to him. Snatching the boy and delivering him to his family, he was willing to do. Snatching and/or hurting the girl was another story altogether. He had wanted no part of that.
“More for us.” Said the first man. “You stay here, then. We’re going to get paid.”
Three of them put on jackets. When they were gone, the man gave a sigh of relief, surprised that he had been left unharmed. Going over to the door, he bolted it behind them. Then he went to the phone and punched in a number.
“Yes, I’d like to make a flight reservation for Tijuana, Mexico…yes, the next available flight.”
He was getting as far away from all of it and them as possible. One thing he wasn’t was greedy. There was enough in his pocket to make a new start, and that was just what he intended to do.
Alarmed by the tone of her mother’s voice, Josephine raced up the main staircase to the second floor as fast as her large body would carry her. She found her mother kneeling on the floor in the right hall over the body of her nephew. She stopped short a few feet from them.
How had he gotten out of the room? Now mother knew about him being there.
“How could you do this?” Her mother looked up at her with tears in her eyes. “Jordan asked you to leave him alone.”
Without moving any closer to them, Josephine answered, “Don’t you see? I had to do it. How else would you have gotten to know him? His mother wouldn’t have let him come to you. He belongs with us now that Jordan in gone.”
“Jordan left specific instructions, and you have violated them. He is not going to belong to anyone if you don’t get him some help. Call an ambulance for this boy!”
“We can’t, Mother.” Josephine pleaded. “I won’t. They’ll take him away from me.”
“He is not yours!” Josefina yelled. “Call an ambulance NOW!”
“They’ll ask questions, Mother. They’ll contact his mother, and she’ll want him back.”
“She is his mother. Now do as your mother has told you before this child dies.”
As if on cue, Tommy moaned softly. His grandmother patted his cheek as she held his head in her lap. His aunt went back down the stairs.
His grandmother pulled him into a sitting position. “Can you stand, Thomas?”
“Yeah, I think so, if I do it slow.”
She helped him up. She stood alongside him and took his hand. “Come into my room and talk with me, Grandson while she goes to do what I told her. I am the only one that she cannot boss around. You will rest and tell me about yourself. I will tell you about your family, and when you are felling better, I am going to get you back home.”
All that could be heard was the hum of the engine. The conversation had stopped and they flew in silence across the state of Florida. J.J. continued to monitor the screen waiting and hoping that the program wouldn’t let her down. She was pretty sure that it was operating properly, but there was a lot on the line that was dependent upon it doing what it was designed to do, and she wanted no nasty surprises. Her father was making his descent into Palm Beach and it was show time.
All of this had started on Thursday. It was now Saturday, but it seemed as if it this drama had been playing out much longer than that. So much had happened in such a short span of time, the most serious of which for her was her missing friend and her battling parents. Tommy would be found, and he would be fine; she could feel that. But she hated being the catalyst for discord between the two people for whom she cared the most in life. That seemed to be happening with increasing regularity of late.
Not long ago, her mother had gone off on her father about his use of double standards when it came to girls and boys. Her mother didn’t want him giving her a complex. A few weeks ago, he had let her mother have it about allowing her to go roller skating at the rink until ten at night. It was on a Friday, but he was upset because she got a ride there and back with Tommy, Deon, Philly, and her seventeen-year-old brother, Hector. Too many boys in the car, he said, even though they were all just good friends. Her mother went off on him back about him “not giving J.J. credit for having her own mind”, as well as for questioning her judgment when it came to her. “Would you be raising this much Cain is she were a boy?”
Now there her mother was doing the same thing with her father as he had done to her. Would she be as nervous about her being with her father and going with him and Uncle Bill to get Tommy back if she were a boy?
Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat said that it wasn’t her concern, but how could it not be her concern when her parents were going around not saying much to each other? With her mother looking like she wanted to cry at any minute and her father having that line creasing his left eyebrow that everybody who knew him, knew what it meant. He didn’t even go up to say goodbye to her when they left, and she hadn’t come down. Aunt Pat came down, but her mother had not.
Then there was Tommy. How was he going be after all of this? How would he feel after he found out that he had a father, but his mother had kept him away from him. He would never get to know his father now. But then, if his father had wanted to be with him, he would have been, wouldn’t he? Jennifer Hart did not want her up in that plane with Jonathan Hart, but there she was. Nothing and nobody could keep her father away from her, of that she was sure. If Tommy started up with attitude over that father thing, that was going to be the argument she would use to make him see reason.
She sighed deeply. As she did, she looked down to check the screen. The words “SUBJECT FOUND” were flashing faintly. She grinned broadly and tapped Captain Gray who was dozing in his seat. She pointed at the screen as she held the laptop out for him to see. He gave her a thumbs up.
“We got him, Daddy.” She said, leaning forward. “The chip is here, and Tommy must be too.”
Early Tuesday morning, the coffee house across the street from the school was packed. Tina had to finally take to turning kids away. After the initial rush, there was simply no more room without the place being designated a fire hazard. Tommy Steele and J.J. Hart were back and were holding court at the counter. Tommy was standing and J.J. was seated on the stool right next to him.
“It was so cool! Just like something off TV!” He exclaimed to the crowd.
J.J. watched him with an amused eye. Tommy wasn’t normally this demonstrative, and he certainly didn’t talk much, especially in large groups of people. But, she knew that there was a part of him that craved excitement, just like she did. It was one of the things she liked about him, that and the fact that he normally played it close. Tommy was a watcher for the most part; he didn’t miss much.
He stood on the rungs of her stool and Marnie’s, who was seated on his other side, so that he towered above everyone else as he told his story.
“My grandmother has this little terrace-like thing outside of her room, and she took me out there because I was sick and she wanted me to get some air. We were out there sitting and talking to each other, and I was telling her all about what my aunt had done, you know, drugged me and locked me up. She thought it was cool that I got out on my own. Then, out of no where, these three guys come tearing across the lawn underneath us. They got guns, but they’re throwing them in the bushes and stuff, trying to get rid of them. We look and there’s all these cops with their guns drawn chasing them.
All of a sudden, there’s helicopters landing everywhere. Security guys and cops jump out. There’s more cops in cars pulling up everywhere. My crazy aunt comes busting out on the terrace with us, screaming, “They’re after me, they’re after me!” I look at my grandmother thinking she’s going to freak out, but she’s all calm and everything; she just keeps drinking her tea out of this little cup and she goes, “No better for you.” to my aunt.
The cops come out on the terrace behind her and handcuff her because it turns out that the guys that the cops were chasing were the same guys she hired to kidnap J. and me. The servants, who I didn’t even know were there until all that happened, were all terrified and everything. My aunt’s screaming “Help me, help me!” while they’re taking her away, to my Grandmother, who keeps drinking her tea and doesn’t say a word.
And then the last helicopter, the one that I saw had been hovering, lands. Who gets out looking like Amelia Earhart, only much cuter?”
He leaned back and put his arm around his friend. “Nobody but my girl, J.J., her old man, and The Godfather.”
“Who’s The Godfather?” Somebody asked.
“J.J.’s godfather, Bill McDowell. He’s her father’s best friend.” Tommy replied. “He is the man. Always looks like he’s carrying an industrial sized can of Whoop-Ass under his jacket. Like he keeps a whole case of it in the trunk of his car for those special emergencies that might happen to come up.”
J.J. had to chuckle. Her Uncle Bill really did look like that.
Tommy continued. “They had got J.J. back and then they came all the way from California to Florida just to find me. Now I ask you, is that love or what?”
He leaned down and smooched J.J. dramatically on the cheek, catching her totally by surprise. She promptly pushed him off and wiped her face.
“I told you about calling my father my “old man” and about trying to cop cheap feels on me, Tommy Steele. And anyway, Daddy made me come with him to find you. I didn’t want to come. He needed me to run the program.”
“Yeah, right.” He grinned his deep-dimpled grin. “He’s Mr. Hart Technologies, but he can’t run a program himself. He taught you everything you know about programming. You know you love me, girl. Just admit it.”
“Whatever.” She answered, blushing mightily.
“They should have left your ass out there with your psycho auntie.” Marnie commented from her perch on the other side of him as she buffed her nails. “That way you would know not to be whining about not having that many relatives. I’ve told you and J.J. time and time again, you don’t know how blessed you are with a minimum of crazy-assed family. You should see that crew that I have to deal with on holidays. When I have to go to Texas to visit my mother’s people, it’s like generations of the Addams Family, only with southern accents. We won’t even begin to talk about my father’s side. Now you got ’em too, Tommy. Only you got ‘Gators.”
“I’m only claiming my Grandma Fee.” He declared. “My Aunt Josephine will be away on an ‘extended holiday’ for a while. She pissed my mother, my grandmother, and Mr. Hart off royally.”
“It doesn’t pay to make Daddy mad about his family.” J.J. observed. “When it’s payback time, he plays for keeps.”
Tina’s voice screamed over the din. “All of you all with first period, get up here and settle up! Nobody’s gonna be late for class on my watch! Those counselors are not going to be calling over here getting with me!”
Many in the crowd began to move toward Tina and the till, leaving Tommy and J.J. to gather their book bags.
He caught J.J.’s eye. “It’s so good to be back, J. I’m sorry it happened like that, but I’m glad it turned out like it did. You’ll never know how glad I was to see you get out of that bird. I didn’t know where you were, and I was scared to ask anybody. I know what you mean now about being who you are.”
“Yeah well, I’m sorry that it happened like it did, too.” She said. “All of it, especially about your dad and his heart attack and all. I’m sorry you didn’t get to ever meet him, but at least you have your grandmother to fill you in. Now that she’s going to be buying that condo and living here in L.A., you’ll get to know her, and she’ll get to know you. Pretty cool that you’re named after your grandfather too. It all turned out all right. Your grandmother seems like good people. I like her nickname: Fee; that’s real cute. I’m glad you’re feeling better too, Tommy. I was worried about you. Aren’t you glad both our mothers let us out to play today? I was going stir-crazy.”
He looked down and away from her as he spoke softly.
“I never thought of myself as a mistake before, but hearing all of that, kinda had me down for a minute. I was a little mad at my mother too at first for not telling me. Then I got to thinking about it while I was in bed- all day yesterday- that if my father had really wanted to get to know me, nobody could have stopped him. Your father didn’t stop until he had you back. Then he came and got me, and I’m not even his. Thinking about that put it into perspective for me. I feel better about it, I think.”
“About that mistake thing, Tommy. I’m one too, but I don’t think they love us any less because of it. I mean, we’re here now. What’re they going to do? I bet half the kids that are born, are mistakes or surprises of one kind or another. Who knows, we may have some mistakes ourselves one day.”
“Me and you, J? Together?” He grinned, and then leaned in to leer at her. “You know what they say about that hot Latin blood. It courses through my veins, you know.”
She shoved him out of her face and slid off the stool. “Get away from me. I was speaking in general, you fool.”
He smiled at her again, put his arm around her shoulder and they walked to the counter together. For once, he was glad to be going back to school after a break. J.J. stopped and paid their bill; it was her turn.
“Girl Power, Tina.” She said, pointing her finger at Tina.
“Back at you, girlfriend.” answered Tina, returning the gesture. They briefly hooked fingers and smiled. “Good to have you two back.” She said as she let J.J.’s finger go.
Tommy kept his arm around J.J. the entire time, and Tina noticed that she hadn’t shrugged him off.
She watched them as they went out, crossed the street, went up the walkway; all the way until they went through the doors of the school.
Millie heard Ben calling to her from the front yard. She went to the door. He was standing and looking out at the road.
“Look it here.” He said pointing to a truck coming up the road to their house.
It pulled into the yard. Attached to it was a flatbed that carried a shiny new tractor.
“What’s this?” Ben asked the driver as Millie stepped out onto the porch. “I didn’t order no tractor.”
The driver got out handing him a bill-of-lading and an envelope addressed to he and Millie.
“I don’t know anything about it” Answered the driver off-handedly, “Except that the bill says “paid in full” and that it’s to be brought out here to you. You Ben Evans?”
“That’s me.” Ben answered.
“Then it’s yours.”
Ben handed Millie the envelope and he watched as the driver made ready to move the tractor down from the flatbed to the ground.
Millie opened the envelope and read the note card inside of it aloud:
Dearest Mr. and Mrs. Evans,
Words cannot express our heartfelt gratitude to the two of you for keeping our daughter safe within your home until we could locate her. You treated her like she was family, and there is no gesture that could ever repay your kindness, your hospitality, and your compassion. Because of you, our daughter feels that she merely had an exciting excursion rather than a traumatic, life-threatening experience, and strangely enough, she has come away from it all richer for it having happened to her.
She has spoken of nothing except how peaceful and tranquil she found your home to be. She has even told us that she is now thinking of living on a ranch or a horse farm when she is grown.
She mentioned to us that she thought that your tractor was giving you trouble. We thought that this might help you out. Please accept this as our way of saying thank you.
Jennifer and Jonathan Hart
P.S.: J.J. (Suzy) wanted you to have this picture.
Enclosed with the letter was a picture of J.J./ Suzy. She had her hair down, and she was smiling that bright smile. Millie flipped it over to read the neatly scripted note.
Dearest Ben and Millie,
Thank you for having me in your home and taking such good care of me. I had a fine time even though I had to be kidnapped to get there. You made it fun, not scary. I’ll never forget you. Scratch Jake and Jasper behind the ears and give the horses a good rub down for me.
Please don’t forget me.
Forever in your debt,
Justine Jennifer Hart
No, they would never forget Suzy-J.J.-Justine Hart and the evening she showed up lost and alone. They could tell right off she was a good girl from a good home and was being raised by decent people.
Animals don’t lie.
Jennifer and Pat stood at the door as Jonathan and Bill put the luggage in Bills rental car. The four of them had just returned from breakfast after having dropped J.J. off at school that morning. It was her first day back, and they all wanted to go see her off. She had been mortified and delighted at the same time to have so much attention paid to her. They all made sure to yell their goodbyes to her as she got out, drawing the teenaged attention of her gathering horde of friends. To their amusement, J.J turned beet red with embarrassment.
Jennifer took Pat’s hand. Pat took hers and they repeated it until their hands were intertwined.
“I love you, Pat.” She said. “Thank you for being there for us.”
“Always.” Pat answered. “That’s my kid too, you know. Remember I was the one who talked you through the pregnancy.”
Jennifer smiled at the memory. It had been a frightening and difficult time emotionally, but Pat had been right there whenever she needed her. Through the years, she had remained right there as J.J.’s confidante, advisor, and at times, co-conspirator.
“Jen, you and Jonathan have to patch this thing up, you know. I’ve told you about those tramps waiting in the background to catch you slipping.” With her eyebrows raised, she looked into her friend’s eyes. “With panties down around one ankle, remember? I’d hate to have to shoot one of those bitches, but you know I will for you.”
Jennifer chuckled softly. “I know. It’ll be fine. We’ll work it out. I love him. He loves us both. It’s just a rough patch that we’re all going through right now.” Jennifer answered. “You can put the pistol up. It won’t come to that. If it ever did, if you recall, I’m quicker on the draw than even you are. I can be quite territorial, if pushed.”
They squeezed hands and hugged. Jennifer leaned back. This time she had the raised eyebrow.
“Tell me something, Pat. Why is it that Bill is flying all the way past Nevada to take you home to New York? Is there something you want to tell me?”
She patted Jennifer on the cheek and smiled. “If you have to ask, you don’t need to know. You take care of that man of yours. See you, girlfriend.”
She turned to walk over to the car. Jennifer watched her, thinking of that night in the window. Pat and Bill, how long had that been going on? Forget about Pat and Bill. How long had it not been going on with her and Jonathan? It seemed like forever.
Jonathan shook Bill’s hand. “Thanks, old buddy.I couldn’t have handled this the way we did without you by my side. She’s the only one I have.”
Bill held onto Jonathan’s hand. “You were there like a brother for me with T.J. J.J. is the daughter I never had. It’s what we’ve always done for each other, that’s all. Did you decide what to do about Tommy?”
“Well, his grandmother doesn’t want him to know about the inheritance until he comes into it at twenty-four. She says that she doesn’t want money or assets to change him. She likes what she sees in him so far, and she wants him to continue just as he is. She says that hopefully, by the time he comes into it, his personality will be pretty much set and he’ll know what he wants to do with his life. The bequest will just assist him in that. She’s asked me to help her oversee it until he comes of age.”
“What about the aunt?” Bill asked. “You gonna prosecute?”
“Yeah, I am.” Jonathan answered. “I have to. I won’t rest unless I do, but there’s also a stipulation in Jordan’s will that serves as an order of protection for Tommy and his mother. It didn’t have to turn out as well as it did for either of those kids, especially mine. His lawyers had warned her at the reading that his estate would prosecute her if she interfered with Tommy in any way.”
“I guess this could definitely fall into the category of interference.” Bill observed. “Jordan did right by the boy after all. It was really good to find out that he had at least been keeping up with the boy all his life, even if it was from a distance. But it was kind of eerie looking at all those pictures he’d had taken by detectives. His mother didn’t find them until after they took the sister out and she went in her room later that night. They had been running surveillance on that boy all that time. I guess the sister loves Tommy too, in her own strange kind of way. Knew everything about him, but didn’t know him at all. Think of how sad Jordan’s life must have been, Valentine. He had a kid that he was too weak to get to know. Too weak to even let his parents know that they had a grandson. Old T.J. never even knew the boy was in the world. What a waste! Nobody on earth could have kept us from our kids, could they?”
Jonathan ran his hand through his hair. “Not from J.J. That’s why I’m in the doghouse now.”
Bill frowned. He knew that Jonathan was hurting. He and Jennifer had been cool toward each other since the return from Florida with the kids on Sunday.
“You and Beautiful over there,” He said tilting his head in Jennifer’s direction. “Get past this. You two have been too good to and for each other to let this come between you. I’ve told you many times before, there’s a whole lot I would have given up for a woman like Jennifer.”
Pat approached them, and he finished with Jonathan, “But I’ve gotten really close to a woman like Jennifer.” He whispered to Jonathan with a wink, catching his friend off-guard and with Pat there, unable to ask for clarification.
Pat, who hadn’t heard what Bill said, kissed Jonathan on the cheek. “See you for J.J.’s Sweet Sixteen party in May. I can hardly wait!”
“I can.” Jonathan answered rolling his eyes at the thought. “I really can.”
Bill opened her door and let her in. Then he went around to the driver’s side and got in.
“Till May, Valentine.”
They pulled off. Jonathan stood waving and as he did, he felt a familiar arm entwine itself around his. He turned to look at her. She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. Even after all their years together, he was still impressed, and sometimes mesmerized, by her good looks. He drew her to him and held her tight.
“You and I need to talk, now.” She said.
They walked arm-in-arm into the house and went upstairs into their room. They stood facing each other. He looked into her eyes.
“Let me just say that I’m not sorry about taking J.J with me, Jennifer.” He admitted sincerely. “But I am sorry that you’re unhappy with me for doing it.”
“I’m not sorry about what I said to you about taking J.J., either. Although I do understand the two of you, I still worry about you and the things that you do. I am going to tell you when I think you’re pushing the envelope too hard with her. I think you did this time, but fortunately it all worked out. I’m just sorry about you being unhappy with me. I hope that you don’t think I’m being overprotective, but she’s not a boy, Jonathan.”
“Jennifer, you can’t be one minute all over me because I’m doing or saying things based on her being a girl, and then the next be telling what I can’t do with her because she isn’t a boy. I have simply always tried to treat her like J.J. Hart, the person who likes it rough. J.J. enjoys flying by her coattails, just like her Dad. I can’t help it that she happens to be a girl. And I also can’t help being the nervous father of a very pretty girl.”
He put his finger under Jennifer’s chin and lifted her face to his.
“One day you are going to have to tell me some things that I don’t understand about you. Some things that you do with her, and attitudes that you have toward her; they don’t add up for me.”
She didn’t say anything to that. In fact, he thought she looked a bit uncomfortable at his last statement. The sudden haunted look on her face made his heart ache. He felt badly for pushing her. He would leave the subject alone. Maybe one day she would let him in.
He took her in his arms.
“Look, we’re probably never going to see eye-to-eye on some things with J.J.. She’s too much like me in spirit for you, and she looks far too much like you these days for me. But, I think we can agree on one thing.”
“What’s that?” She asked, looking up at him.
“We made some baby together, didn’t we?”
She had to laugh and nod in agreement. “That we did, Mr. Hart.”
“How about practicing on another one?” He suggested, brushing her lips with his. “I already called the office and told them I wouldn’t be in until later on.”
“It will strictly be for practice.” She answered as she removed the clip from her hair and it fell down to her shoulders. “There is and will only be one J.J. Hart. She’s irreplaceable, just like her father.”
“Just like her mother.”
“Just like the love that brought her to us.”
That statement was sealed with a kiss, and the rest of the morning, into the early afternoon, was spent reaffirming that love that delivered their daughter, J.J. Hart into their lives and into their hearts.