Secrets: Part Two

It wasn’t until after Jennifer had gone downstairs later that morning that J.J. appeared at the door of the master bedroom. The door was open, so she could clearly see into the room, but she stopped and knocked on the doorframe.

“Come on in,” Jonathan told her. He never could understand why she did that, but it was something she had always done.

Standing before him where he sat on the side of the bed putting on his shoes, she handed him a large envelope.

“Good morning, Daddy,” she said just above a whisper. “I wanted to give those to you. They were delivered to me at school, too. Last Friday.”

He bent the brad fastenings and poured the contents onto his lap. There were the pictures of his wife and the note Marnie had returned to J.J. His eyes involuntarily squeezed shut as he swallowed rage and forced back boiled up bile from the pit of his gut. Not only his daughter, but his wife as well, and then using the mother to frighten and coerce the child. It was all just too much, the pressure that poor little girl must have been under.

“Sit down.” He patted the space next to him, and she did as he instructed.

“How long has this whole thing been going on, and why haven’t you told us anything about it?” he asked.

They hadn’t talked about it. When he made it back to her bedroom after placing his calls earlier that morning, only Jennifer had been awake. Neither of them wanted to get her back up. They agreed to wait until later, after she had time to rest and recover from her nightmare.

With her head bowed, J.J.’s only response was, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

Confused, he turned to look at her. Her downcast bearing was disturbing. She almost looked defeated, like she wanted to cry again.

“J.J.?”

When she wouldn’t look at him, his thoughts went back to that first set of pictures, the ones that Marie had given him. He realized then that she must know that he had them and had concluded that he had seen them. Acknowledging his daughter’s penchant for personal privacy, even with him, he put his arm around her and drew her close.

“Look, I’m your father and I love you.” He told her. “I used to bathe and powder all of you, every inch of you. I know there’ve been a few changes since that time, but there’s no need for you to feel bad or be embarrassed about any of this with me. You haven’t done anything wrong. This isn’t your fault. I know that your space has been infringed upon in the worst way, but that’s why you have me. We’re going to get to the bottom of this. Just tell me why you didn’t tell us what was going on. That’s what has me baffled. I thought that we trusted each other. I thought we looked out for each other.”

She was shocked out of her morose for the moment; he didn’t understand. it hadn’t been about trust or a lack of it.

“I just didn’t know what to do, Daddy.” She said. “It’s been going on since my birthday pictures started being in the papers. I really didn’t know what was going on. It was just the presents at first, then those notes got put in my locker. It wasn’t until those pictures came of my mother with that note inside that I knew something was really wrong. That was late last week. I just got scared when that happened. The note said that he knew where she was all the time. You know how she is. I didn’t want her to be scared for me. And…”

“And?”

“And… I thought that if I told you, you would overreact and put me on lockdown and everything right away. I didn’t want to be caged up even if it was for my own good.”

“Overreact? So, you were going to leave your mother hanging out there like that, not knowing anything, not knowing that she was being followed like that? You were going to leave me in the dark about both of you? My wanting to keep you safe is overreacting?”

J.J. turned red, looked ashamed and said quietly, “I didn’t mean to leave her out there. I just didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want her to be scared like I was. I was going to tell both of you this morning at breakfast, but then I had that bad dream. That’s why I brought you those pictures instead of giving them to her this morning when I showed her the other stuff. Daddy, I would die if somebody hurt her again like last year. You know that. I didn’t want you to worry until I was sure of what was going on. When you guys are worried about me, you can hold me awfully tight. I know why you do it, but it’s tight just the same. I wanted to tell you at track practice last Saturday, honest, but just I didn’t know how.”

It was his turn to feel badly. For a moment, he had gotten angry at her for stubbornly holding out on him about everything. But, then it came to him. J.J. knew, but she didn’t know. Maybe he was expecting too much of her judgment, after all, she was only sixteen. She had superior intellect and good instincts, but she was still just a child operating from a child’s point of view, a relatively sheltered child at that. His daughter, who didn’t scare easily, had been more frightened in the wee hours of that morning than he had ever seen her. And even then, her fear had not been for herself, it had been for her mother. Whoever this was had done their homework. They knew exactly how to get to her.

In the raw truth of those earlier terrifying moments she declared that she would do whatever was wanted of her if her mother was left unharmed, but more than once she had said that she would kill someone for hurting her. He looked over at that pretty, pony-tailed, rosy-cheeked child seated next to him, looking back at him with his own clear blue eyes and her mother’s face, and he wondered it that were true of her. Restraint brought about by maturity and experience were the only things that had kept him from doing someone in himself on a couple of occasions when Jennifer’s safety had been threatened in the past. J.J. was very much like him emotionally, but at this point in her life she lacked that maturity and restraint brought by experience component.

The thought was frightening. He knew that just like him, she harbored a latent colder, more ruthless side. The ice he occasionally saw in her gaze made him wonder if she had it even worse than he did. He could hear her beginning to gasp for air. He had noticed her doing that earlier, during her ordeal. Pulling her close to him again, he told her that everything was going to be alright.

She told him that she knew that it would be now that it was in his hands. He rubbed her back to help her calm down.

As quiet as it was kept, he was still frightened himself, but the right people were on it, and there would be some answers very, very soon.

_________________________________________________

“Jonathan, I am not going to be held a prisoner,” Jennifer declared. “I have things to do.”

Jonathan and J.J. had come down to breakfast together, and they all were seated at the table. He had brought down the pictures taken of her and of J.J., as well as the note that ominously threatened her. He showed them to her and watched her grow pale as she reviewed them, especially as she examined the ones of their daughter. That was when he told her that he didn’t want her leaving the grounds while J.J. was in school and he was at the office.

“If you can’t do those things from the house,” he said as he buttered his toast, “they won’t get done today, Jennifer. I don’t know if this person really means you any harm, or if he’s just using you to coerce J.J. into doing what he wants. The police, my security personnel, and I think that’s the best plan of action. I have people covertly placed around the area keeping an eye the house and the grounds, but they can’t watch you all over the city without drawing attention. This nut has proven that he has access to you, and I won’t have you hurt. You’ll just have to stay put until this is over. Hopefully, if my instincts are right, we can flush him out real soon.”

She threw her napkin on the table in disgust and aggravation. Normally she would fight him on something like this, but his tone was different this time and she could hear in it that he was not backing down. He was spooked, and he wasn’t taking any chances.

“What about J.J. here?” She gestured toward their daughter. ” You’ve got her going to school. What about her safety? I don’t want her all over the place either. If I’m to be kept inside, why aren’t we keeping her as close? Jonathan Hart, I want her here with me where I know that she’s safe, not being used as bait out there with some deviate running loose. You’re pushing the envelope with her again, Jonathan. We’ve gone down that road before.”

Listening to her parents go back and forth,  if she hadn’t been feeling so down, this turn of events would have J.J. highly amused. Her mother was going on lockdown, but she wasn’t. How priceless and ironic was that? She was glad her father had come to that decision. Her mother was smart, but she trusted too easily. Anybody could get close to her before she realized they meant her harm.

Jonathan hated having to deal with his wife’s hot temper. It didn’t flare up often, but when it did…  And tying her down was one of the best ways to light that red hot rocket.

“Jennifer, the only way we have of finding out who’s doing this is to allow him to continue to try to communicate with J.J. and he only gets to her at school . If she starts all of a sudden taking the anonymous calls that she’s been getting, he might get wise to us knowing about him. If we pull her from school, the same thing might happen, and then he may go on to some other girl, or he might try something more drastic with J.J. I have my undercover people set up to be posted everywhere at that school. They won’t be obvious, but they will be there. Herschel has LAPD undercover keeping a lookout at the school, the area around the school, and the house. The plan is we go about our day as usual, except that today I’ll take J.J. to school. That’s not out of the ordinary since I do that sometimes. That keeps you here and safe. We don’t know who’s watching and it has to look like she hasn’t said anything to us about anything. Darling, please try to understand.”

Marie had been standing over to the side, cleaning up from cooking. She didn’t normally involve herself in their discussions, but this was something altogether different, and her feelings for Jennifer ran deeply. “Excuse my saying so, but Mr. Hart is right, Mrs. Hart.” She offered quietly, knowing that she would listen to her rare offering. “If you want to get him, J.J. is going to have to be the lure. You’re going to have to trust him.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes in frustration, as much as she hated to admit it, he and Marie were probably right. Whoever this was had to be caught and stopped. She looked over to J.J. who sat silently over her plate, picking at her food. She hadn’t said one word.

“Are you alright?” she asked, reaching for her hand. “Do you want to do this? You don’t have to if you aren’t comfortable with it.”

“I’m not comfortable, but I’m not scared about it either, Mom,” she answered, continuing to move the food around on the plate. “More than anything I just want it to be over. Let’s just do it the way Daddy says. He won’t let either of us get hurt.”

Squeezing her hand, Jennifer shot Jonathan a look he instantly interpreted.

If an harm comes to this girl…

Although he understood her apprehension, still he was mildly irritated by it. Didn’t she understand J.J. was his kid too?

Focusing his attentions back to J.J., Jonathan said to her, “Now that we’re all together, let’s talk. I want you to tell us everything from the beginning to the end.”

_________________________________________________

From the time her father dropped her off at school, J.J. found she was having trouble breathing. She quietly went about her day feeling like a thick rubber band was tightly wound  around her chest constricting her lung capacity. When the announcement was made that the final class rankings were posted, it resulted in a slight upper for her flagging spirit. She found she had finished first for the year with Ajay Singh, her longtime rival breathing down her neck, a half point behind her. Standing outside of the Counseling Center with the rest of the crowd reading the board, her girlfriends heartily congratulating her, she felt it when she was lightly tapped on the shoulder from behind.

It was Ajay. He stood behind her with a look of reluctant resignation on his darkly handsome face.

“So I see you have managed to use that pretty smile to gain advantage over me, Miss J.J. Hart,” he said teased. They had spent several years together, and she still enjoyed hearing him speak; his accent still rather heavy as he spoke his native language almost exclusively when away from school.

“Smiling didn’t have anything to do with that, Mr. Singh, and you know it. I don’t know why you refuse to acknowledge that I am your equal at least. At best, I might even be your intellectual superior, if you just want to go there with me.”

“You are still a girl, and we still have two more years to go,” he said with a gracious smile. “We will see who’s on top by the twelfth grade, when it really matters. I was told to give this to you.”

He handed her an envelope that felt as if it contained a note or a card. Her breath caught and her pulse began to race once more as she took it from him. The envelope was sealed. It wasn’t until she finished quickly looking it over that she noticed Tommy standing off to the side, but watching her.

“Who told you to give this to me?” she asked.

Ajay shrugged his shoulders, his eyes back on the rankings board as if staring at it long enough would change their positions. “I don’t know. I have seen him around. I think he works here. He looked like he was in a hurry. He was in our hall over by your locker like he might have been waiting or looking for you. When I came up, he asked if I knew you. When I said that I did, he asked me to give the envelope to you. Said it was a message from your father.”

Unable to say anything right off,  J.J. told herself to breathe. Tommy pushed off the wall he had been leaned against and stepped up next to her. “What did the guy look like?” He asked Ajay.

Annoyed at his interjection, J.J. recovered and tried to bump him out of the way with her shoulder and hip. “Tommy, would you stop it.”

But trying to move him, had no effect on Tommy; he stood fast, didn’t so much as budge.

“You stop it!” he countered, following the calmly delivered command with a no nonsense glare.

“Tell me what he looked like,” he said again to Ajay. He listened closely to the sketchy description the other boy was able to offer. Then, “Thanks,” he said as he walked away from J.J. and the crowd.

“Did I do something wrong?” Ajay asked. “Was I not supposed to give that letter to you? I hope I did not impose.”

“It’s okay.” She sighed and stuck the envelope in her notebook. “Thanks for getting this to me. And maybe it will be you next year in the driver’s seat, Mr. Singh.”

“You can count on it, Miss Hart.” Ajay grinned and tipped an imaginary cap. “Or should I say, you can ‘place your bet’ on it.”

Despite everything going on in her head, she had to smile at that. They shook on it before parting ways.

_________________________________________________

Jonathan had been on the phone in his office all morning, and every time he took a call concerning that very sensitive matter, the angrier he became. Every feeler and inquiry he had sent out  had come back pointing to one common factor, the Country Club. If he knew for sure which one of the three individuals the arrows were pointing to, to zero in on, he would be all over him. It irritated him that he didn’t know which one, or if indeed it was any of them for certain. It was hard to maintain his normal patience in this situation. J.J.’s screams were haunting him, ringing loudly in his ears, and those pictures of Jennifer along with that note were keeping him from concentrating on anything else.

Then he had gotten that very interesting call from Tommy. It seemed that the boy had seen someone watching J.J. at that track practice the previous Saturday. He had been sitting on that information, unsure of what to do with it, until  a man had actually been seen in the school that  morning trying to deliver something to her. Tommy couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t seem like the same man. According to Tommy, the man that morning differed in build from the man that he saw at the field during track practice, and the boy who encountered him said that he had seen him around. Could it be a school employee? All the other feelers he had out led back to the Country Club. How did this piece fit in the puzzle?

And had the guy who showed up this morning intended to deliver something to his daughter personally and just wound up getting intercepted by the other kid before he could get to her? He was, according to Tommy, found lurking in the sophomore hall near J.J.’s locker. How would he know where in that school to find her? Had his only intention been to give her the package? How much pure hell would Jennifer raise when she got wind of that close call?

The thought of his wife’s reaction, as well as those questions running through his mind, made his blood run cold. It took every ounce of fortitude he had to not get out of that chair, rush up to that school and get his child, but he didn’t want to set off any alarms in case that nut job was somewhere watching. Besides, Tommy said that he recognized some of the Hart Security team masquerading as building maintenance and lunchroom personnel, and that they had her well covered. That made him feel better.

Tommy also said that J.J. was acting edgy, but that he was sticking with her too whether she liked it or not. That’s why Tommy was so much his boy. He was not easily intimidated, even by a mean, icy-eyed, bad tempered redhead. And J.J. could be very intimidating; she was capable of being very mean, and a lot more stubborn than her mother, which really said something.

Three-thirty couldn’t come soon enough. He couldn’t wait to see what J.J. had gotten today, and he desperately hoped that it was what he thought it would be. After all, this was the last day of the school year and the ideal time for whoever this was to make his move. Jennifer was still tucked safely away at home and J.J. was secure for the moment. He would be waiting right outside that front door of the school to get her at the end of the day. Somebody was playing with fire and didn’t realize that they were already burned to a crisp.

_________________________________________________

Jennifer pushed back from her desk. Trying to work was hopeless; her focus was shot. She was too worried about J.J. and her personal safety as well as her mental state. She had been quite subdued when she left the house with her father that morning, and they hadn’t done very much talking before the nightmare or after. In fact, J.J. had never  exhibited the type of terrified behavior that she had displayed in the wee hours of that morning. With her tendency to try to show a brave face to the world, there was no telling what was really going on beneath her surface. Her carefully guarded privacy, her precious personal space, and her sense of security had been seriously violated, and the resulting ill effects could be severe if they weren’t properly addressed.

More than anything, she wanted J.J. there with her. If she were there, they could go out back alone and talk it out. J.J. would be frank and honest with her if she could get her alone at the opportune moment. For the average child, counseling with a professional would most likely be in order behind something like this, but she knew that it wouldn’t work with her child. Justine Hart would not let anyone in whom she did not feel had a vested interest in her well-being. That would be revealing too much of herself to someone, a paid stranger, and she just didn’t do that. She didn’t even do that with people she knew intimately.

She had let them know that she had told Marnie some of it. But, in fact, she knew that J.J. wouldn’t really tell it completely to anyone except her mother, and then only if she chose to tell it. That morning as they sat at the table together talking, she got the feeling that J.J. was simply reciting the details for her father’s sake, but there was much more she would have said had it just been the two of them at that table.

Jennifer went over to the couch and lay out on her back to stare at the ceiling. Why did these things have to happen? They had happened to her in her lifetime and now they were happening to her daughter, threatening to rob her of her sense of innocence. She’d be damned if that were so. Too much work had gone into helping her to be comfortable as a female and reasonably happy with herself as a person. So far the girl seemed pretty well adjusted in both areas. The counselor had called earlier with the news that J.J. had finished first in her class for the school year. No pedophile would be taking that youthful joy away from her. Whoever this was would be answering to her directly. It would not happen again.

Getting up from the couch, she returned to her desk and speed dialed J.J.’s hairdresser. Speaking directly with Salvatore, she placed her order, a most unusual one he thought, but he said that he would be over to see her shortly. From there, she headed up to J.J.’s bedroom.

_________________________________________________

“Who told you that I need a bodyguard, Thomas Jordan Steele?” J.J. demanded as they both stood arguing in front of the lockers. “I don’t need you conducting my business.”

The two of them had both skipped class after Tommy came and literally snatched her out of the music room before the tardy bell rang. When she tried to protest, he kept his hold on her arm, marching her down the hall, stating without leaving room for rebuttal that they needed to talk.

“Well, we know that it wasn’t you who asked anybody to look out for you!” He spat back at her. “The world knows that the great and magnificent J.J. Hart doesn’t ever need help. You’ve been going around acting all weird for weeks now, and nobody is supposed to notice or care. Everybody in this hall knows you got issues, but you don’t care how you affect other people. It’s the last day of school and not one water balloon has gone out of a window, not one teacher has been made to lose it, nobody’s been put in detention- not even Marnie, and it’s all because everybody is all bent out of shape about what’s bugging you. We aren’t having any damned fun. I thought we trusted each other, J.”

Suddenly chagrined, J.J. slumped back into the lockers. She hadn’t considered that people, her friends cared that deeply about her personally. Once again it seemed that she had underestimated her impact on those around her.

“We do trust each other, Tommy. I trust you totally.” She whispered dejectedly while sliding down the locker to drop to sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Tommy sat down next to her. “Then why wouldn’t you let me in on it? I had an idea what was up, but why wouldn’t you tell me yourself? Why won’t you talk to me now? I thought we were friends, girl.”

“We are friends, Tommy but it’s real personal and embarrassing. I just can’t talk about it. It’s being taken care of. I told Daddy this morning, and that’s probably the same as telling you. If I had said anything to you, you would have told him what I said, even if I told you not to.”

“I know. And you’re right. If I thought you were in trouble and he needed to know, I would have ratted your butt right on out. You always try to be so hard and tough, J. Some stuff is beyond you. This is not about being a girl and having to prove yourself.” Tommy said in a hushed tone, looking around them. “I’ve put it together anyway. I told you, I know some stuff that you don’t know. And I already talked to your old man myself,”

He stopped and held the palm of his hand up to her rapidly clouding face to stop her from talking, “and before you even get started, I don’t care if my talking to him does make you mad. He’s got this place crawling with his people, scraping walls, trimming bushes and stuff. I liked to have died when Mr. Lamb served us our mashed potatoes at lunch. He’s the HEAD of Hart Security. Your father can get anybody to do anything. Jonathan Hart is The Man.”

J.J. slowly relaxed and grinned. “That was kinda funny. Mr. Lamb acted like he didn’t know us from Adam’s tomcat, talking about “do you want gravy?” It was all I could do to keep a straight face. Daddy- not my ‘old man’, Tommy-  is good to people and people like him back. That’s why they go out of their way for him when he needs something.”

Tommy looked over at her. “It’s the same way with you, J. You’re always looking out for people and people want to help you when you need it. You got to learn to let people in. Sometimes it’s not about you want, J. Sometimes people need to be able to give help in order to be right with themselves; in order to be able to give back what was given to them. Do you understand what I mean? Am I making sense?”

She nodded and slid her arm around his neck. “Yeah buddy, you’re making plenty of sense.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’m sorry about being such a flaming witch. I know I can be a trip. Thanks for hanging in there with me and for being my friend even when I push you away.”

Blushing, he smiled, but he couldn’t look right at her just then.

She still loved those dimples. They made her blush and look away from him as well.

“Oh, so what the hell, we’re having skip parties now, and nobody invites me?”

That was Marnie breaking up the moment. She had turned the corner walking aimlessly, apparently AWOL from her class, and saw them there on the floor in the hall.

She walked up to where they sat together against the lockers and stood over them with her free hand on her hip. “I like how you let me know. I’d still be sitting up in class if I hadn’t had enough sense to get up and skip out on my own.”

Looking closely at them, she cocked her head to the side, “Say, what are you two all red in the face and grinning like two idiots about?”

“Oh, I guess I’m getting my ass left out of that too.” She concluded when neither of them answered her.

_________________________________________________

Angelique Baker was uneasy. Her father and brother had been going at it for the last three weeks about something that had to do with the family business. Then he had gotten all over her when she lost that match to J.J. Hart last Sunday. She tried to tell him ahead of time, when he kept goading her into playing her, that J.J. was a much better player, but he insisted that she was just talking herself out of her game and that she could beat her if she wanted to. He threw the tennis lessons that he was paying for up to her. Angelique knew that she couldn’t win that match going in. J.J. was stronger mentally as well as physically. What her father didn’t know was that he was paying for a little more than just those tennis lessons. But that was the pleasure she got out of it to make up for the grief he gave her. Rick Slater’s talents weren’t limited to the tennis courts.

She didn’t want to play J.J. for another reason; she liked her, she genuinely liked her. J.J. was younger, but they went way back and she was a lot of fun. She was always the life of whatever was going on around her and she tried to make everybody feel like they were a part of the action. Nobody got left out when she was around, for which plain, quiet Angelique was grateful.

Having been raised mostly by her father, a widower who doted on his only son leaving her care to the servants, she lacked the social poise and easy grace that J.J. had obviously inherited from both her charming parents. At J.J.’s recent birthday party she sat and watched J.J. work the enormous invited crowd of her friends on the rear grounds of her home like the seasoned hostess she was. J.J. had been having birthday parties all of her life and she frequently entertained her friends at home, gatherings to which she was sometimes invited. J.J. always seemed to have it together and Angelique wished that she could be like her. If her own mother had lived, instead of dying in childbirth with her, leaving her with a father who held it against it her, maybe things would have been different.

But she was uneasy now because a lot of questions were being asked of her about J.J. Hart lately. At first she hadn’t paid much attention to them, answering them and then moving on. But when the questions began to center around specific things like where her locker might be at her school and where she hung out in her leisure time, it made her sit up and take notice. Certain shady parties seemed to be taking an undue amount of interest in that little girl. She was only sixteen, and although she was way smart, she was still just a baby. At nineteen now, Angelique remembered what it was like to be sixteen and how cloudy things could get. She had stopped giving out information on J.J. when she was asked, and she had started paying attention. She didn’t like what she was seeing.

Her father’s car was right out front when school let out and J.J headed straight for it without looking anywhere else. She knew that her father was watching for her and that all she needed to do was make it to his car. He said that whoever was doing this might be watching her; the thought made her anxious. Not knowing who it could be made her paranoid. Being made to feel that way made her angry.

She got into the car ready to hand him the still unopened envelope, knowing that he had been going hard at it all day trying to find out who it was that was doing this. But before she could get the envelope out of the notebook,  he quickly pushed the book closed, and back toward her lap telling her to just hold onto it until they got home; he didn’t want her to risk being seen giving anything to him. She sat back smiling to herself, at ease for the first time that day. Her father was so smart and so quick with it all the time. She figured that he must have been super sneaky as a kid. It was from him, she knew, that she inherited stealth and guile, and she hoped that one day she would be as good as he.

This had been the last day of school, and she was glad of it. She and her mother would be safe on the grounds of Willow Pond until this was all over. It surprised her that she had begun seeing it like that. Hadn’t she been the one fighting lockdown all along? Now she was looking forward to it. That wasn’t a good sign and she knew it.

As Tommy pulled into the main street from the parking lot, he took his time scouting out the cars parked in front waiting to pick up students who didn’t ride the bus. He saw Mr. Hart’s Rolls and sighed with relief, although he knew all the time that J.J.’s father would be out there. The man had probably been there at least forty-five minutes trying to be sure that he got the space right at the door.

Tommy mused to himself that he pitied the guy who fooled around and actually decided to marry J.J. one day.  For once he was glad that he was too poor and out of the running for that position. For one thing, she could be real hard to deal with; it was going to take a heck of a man to not let himself get run over by her. Then, he was going to have a tough act to follow in terms of living up to all the things her father provided for her and being all of what Jonathan Hart was to her. And lastly he was going to have to contend with Jennifer Hart for a mother-in-law. That poor joker was going to have to be on all the days of his life because that lady was bound to have some pretty high expectations for whoever it was that swore before God and her to take care of Justine Jennifer Hart.

The silver Porsche parked mid-block caught his eye. He couldn’t be sure, but it sort of looked like the one that he saw pulling out of the lot at J.J.’s practice. He had only caught a glimpse of it at that time, and there were lots of those cars in that color in this section of Los Angeles. Trying to be inconspicuous as he slowly pulled the bike past, he attempted to get a good look at the driver, but he conveniently had his face turned away and was hunched over something that it appeared he was looking at in the passenger seat. Tommy was forced to go on by without getting the look he wanted.

That was okay, though. Mr. Hart and all his men were on it. He had given them all the information that he had about it. School was out and there was nothing else that he could do to help except be J.J.’s friend. He motored on so that he could arrive to work on time.

Marnie decided to ride the bus home since it was the last day. Her mother normally came to get her, but at the last minute that morning she had flown out to Vegas to meet a girlfriend- she said. Nelson, the houseman, was supposed to come for her, but he drove like the little old man he was, and it made her crazy, so she called him and told him that she would get the bus and for him to just meet her at the community gate.

She could have gotten a ride with J.J. and her Daddy, but she felt like they needed to be alone. J.J. had been real down since all of it began and Marnie was worried about her. They weren’t talking like usual. Even though J.J. had let her in on what was going on with her, she really hadn’t said any more about it than she did that Saturday up in her room.

Why J.J.?

Yeah, she was pretty, but she was only sixteen. There were plenty of grown women who would just gladly give it up without dinner, a show, hell, some without too much conversation. Why try to force a kid into it? Why couldn’t kids just be left to being kids? There were truly some sick people in the world. She knew that first hand.

She was reminded of her mother’s recent divorce from her last husband and the advances her ‘stepfather’ tried to make on her. That had been really bad. The fear and paranoia had been overwhelming. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t think. Her grades suffered in school. She cut her friends off, thinking nobody could help or would understand. Her mother wouldn’t listen when she had tried to tell her. There were nights  she had been too afraid to sleep. It wasn’t until her mother caught the bastard in the act of peeking at her, that she finally kicked him out. J.J. should have told her mother about her situation from the start. She would listen. She wouldn’t have let it go on as long as it had.

Even though her situation had occurred some months back and was over, there were times Marnie felt like she hadn’t gotten all the way past it. Her mother had taken her for counseling afterward and that helped some. J.J.’s mother was a big help too. They had talked a little bit about how it made her feel. Now when Mrs. Hart saw that the brakes needed applying, she pressed them-hard, and let a person know when they were taking it too far and going too fast. The Duchess had been all over her lately. She was beginning to be on her like she got on J.J. Even though the woman could be scary, Marnie appreciated that she cared about her enough to check her, and she, in turn, was paying attention.

She leaned her head on the window, enjoying the feel of the cool glass while tuning out the loud chatter going on around her. The bus pulled past Mr. Hart’s Rolls Royce just as J.J. was getting in.

Now that school was out. Marnie figured J.J. was going to be okay. She would be on Willow Pond with her folks all day. In less than two weeks, she would be gone to France to see her Aunt like she did every year. That would take her far away from all this. She was just going to have to endure that damned lockdown until it was over. It was for her own good until this jackass, whoever he was, could be found and Mr. Hart could get to him to kick the hell out of him. He would be better off dealing with Mr. Hart because Marnie had the feeling if the Duchess got to him first, she probably wouldn’t be waiting to get close enough to risk getting physical and breaking a nail.

Jennifer Hart would simply drop him.

When they were all together in the great room, Jonathan took the letter from J.J. It was still sealed and it read, “To J.J. from Daddy”.

Knowing that it wasn’t made him wince, and the anger had to be choked back. He was her Daddy. Nobody else had the right to claim that status in vain, nobody outside of the Lord God Almighty.

“Why didn’t you open it?” He asked when he could speak again.

“I didn’t want to see what it said.” She answered from her seat on the couch next to her mother. “It goes all through me to read that stuff and it stays with me. I would rather that you just told me what it said. Somehow it seemed like that would make a difference. I don’t know why.”

“The written word is powerful, Cherie.” Jennifer said quietly, putting her arm around her for a moment. “When you read things for yourself, the words speak directly to your mind without a middleman.”

J.J. nodded. Her mother would know all about that. She wrote words that spoke to people’s minds all the time.

Jonathan looked up from the note, and J.J. could see his eyes hone in on her mother’s as he handed her the note across the coffee table.

Jennifer took it from him, read it and looked back at him shaking her head, negating whatever it said. “She’s not doing that.” Was all she said, but from the way she sounded when said it, J.J. knew that she meant what she said and that her father better not try to fight her on it.

“What did it say?” She asked looking to her mother.

“You don’t need to know.” Jennifer answered still looking at Jonathan. “You aren’t doing it. You are out of it from this point on. We’ll handle it.”

“But I thought that it’s me who he wants.”

Jennifer shifted her stony gaze from Jonathan to J.J.

“I said, Justine, that your father and I will handle it.”

Jennifer got up from the couch, gesturing to Jonathan to come with her. “We’d better scan this note and fax it to Captain Gray since you don’t want him to be seen coming here.” She said, going over to her desk. “I anticipated this and I think I have a plan to get it taken care of once and for all.”

While they were over by the desk talking low and obviously excluding her, J.J. got up from the couch. She got her skates from the cubby under the front stairs and went out of the front door. They didn’t want her to know, and that was all right by her. According to her mother, she was out of it, and she had put a period behind it when she said it.

Angelique had used tweezers to place the defiled picture from the garbage can in a zip-lock bag after searching the study. Now it was in the glove compartment of her car as she drove aimlessly through the hills. Blown completely away by her findings, she wasn’t sure what to do or where she was going, but she had to get some air.

J.J. Hart was just a kid. The barrage of questions about her and that photo she found were like putting the pieces of some macabre puzzle together for her. What was beginning to emerge from the construction was frightening. Loyalty and love were important, but harboring someone sick and possibly dangerous changed of all that.

Entering Bel Air, she found herself on Willow Pond Drive nearing the rear gates of the Hart Estate. Should she take the picture to Mr. Hart or not? Could she bring herself to show him what had been done to his daughter’s picture, and what would he do as a result? Was that the real reason for taking it from the trash and preserving it in the bag? Is that why the car seemingly aimed itself in this direction?

Through the wrought iron gates, she could see J.J. on the wide cement drive slowly doing figure eights on her roller blades. Angelique pulled up and blew the horn, getting J.J.’s attention. She stopped, smiled and waved, then she went to the control box to enter the code to let her in.

“Hey Angie!” J.J. greeted her, leaning into the car. “What’re you doing down this way?”

“I was just out riding. I knew that today was your last day of school and I didn’t know when you were leaving for your France trip, so I thought I’d just stop to speak in case I missed you before you got out of here. I’m just recovering from the bruising you gave me in the match.”

J.J. grinned. “You made me run some, too. I needed a long nap after I got home.”

Angelique watched J.J.’s face. She was such a cute kid and way too young and innocent for this crap. “Say J.J.” she said quietly.

“Yeah?”

“Be careful. You’ve got a pretty good future mapped out for you.”

“In tennis? No, I’m a runner.”

Shaking her head, “You don’t understand, J.J.” Angelique said, placing her hand on the freckled arm which rested on the window frame. “I mean be careful in life period. You’ve got a lot of potential, but there are people who don’t always mean you well, and it can all be gone in no time. Sometimes these are the people you would least expect. People tell you what they think you want to hear just to get you to do what they want you to do. Watch around yourself. Don’t get sweet talked into anything by guys. Don’t let anybody back you into anything. Follow your own mind while you’re in France, and especially do it once you’re back here at home. We live like we do, but we’ve got all kinds of snakes here too.”

Looking a little confused, J.J. asked, “What makes you say all that? You know something I don’t know?”

“I just know guys, J. They’ll use you if they think they can, especially if you’re young. Friends, relatives, lovers, whatever; they’re all guys. And as pretty as you’re getting to be…” She lightly pinched J.J.’s arm. “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Look, I gotta go. You have a good time in Perpignan and call me when you get back, okay?”

As she backed out, the gates closing behind the nose of her car, Angelique could see J.J. watching her with bewildered eyes. As long as the Harts kept her behind those gates, no harm would come to her. That place had been like a fortress, her father often said, ever since J.J. was born, with Mr. Hart constantly updating and upgrading the physical perimeter of the estate and the electronic security system that protected it. Her father said that Jonathan Hart did all that to keep his wife and daughter safe, more so than his possessions. She didn’t blame the man.

A little way down the road, she stopped and gingerly took the zip-lock bag from the glove compartment with the tips of two fingers. Getting out with her cigarette lighter, she cleared a place in the dirt at the side of the road, tore the plastic with her key to expose a paper corner of the photo which she then lit. Waiting until it was entirely consumed by the flame and then the fire totally stomped out, she got back in the car and headed for home.

She was going to call UCLA in Berkley as soon as she got in the house to see if she could do a late registration for some summer courses. She had just returned home with the intent to stay for the entire summer, but now she needed out of Los Angeles. She too needed to be more careful and to focus on her own future. Certain guys didn’t mean well by her either, and she had done and seen and given away enough. It was time to put some distance between her and home for a while.

As she drove, the thought crossed her mind that one never really knew anyone.

“Did she talk to you?” Jonathan wanted to know.

It was late, and Jennifer had just come down from the second floor. Their daughter had been quiet again most of the evening, having come in from outside, eaten dinner, and retired to her rooms rather early.

It was all so strange. Even though they wanted to keep her close for the moment, J.J. was not one to be this subdued with school being out and all. Normally she might be out somewhere, returning just barely making her curfew, or she was at home but down at the pool with a gang of her friends. It was just the evening of the last day of school, but in the past her celebrations were normally in full swing by this time; the phone ringing off the hook, Marie fussing good-naturedly about the parade of kids in and out of the kitchen, both of them checking their watches and pacing to see if she would make it back in time if she had chosen to go out.

Jennifer in particular was beginning to harbor a great deal of inner resentment over the changes this situation was bringing about in J.J., and consequently, within herself. She and Jonathan at first thought that since she had opened up to them and let them know what was going on, she would bounce back to herself. But so far that wasn’t happening. If the changes had something to do with J.J. alone, that she could take. But this was all because of some perverted individual’s desire to bestow his misguided attentions on that child, shutting her spirit down as a result. Her daughter was closing herself off on her own out of whatever it was that was eating her up on the inside. As much as she sometimes wanted J.J. to get somewhere and be still, this was not how she wanted it to come about.

Just as soon as this was done she and J.J. could work this out.

“She wouldn’t really talk to me.” She answered. “I think she’s embarrassed and scared about having had that nightmare, and she’s nervous about not knowing what’s happening. I think after tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, I might be able to get through to her. She needs closure, I think, before she’ll open up to anybody.”

“Should I call Dr. Chase and see if he can set someone up to counsel with her?” Jonathan asked skeptically, sliding her the drink he had made for her across the bar.

What he was actually thinking was that J.J. would make an idiot out of a counselor, but at least it would be a first step at letting her know that they were truly serious in wanting to help. Jennifer believed in counseling. He and J.J. did not- not for themselves anyway.

“I’m going in first.” She answered, sipping slowly, thoughtfully. “Her counselor at school said something to me the other day that opened my eyes. I’m recognizing that this is a power play on her part, too. It took me a while to accept it, but it’s J.J.’s way of making me do what she wants me to do when she wants me to do it. It’s her way of being in control. I’m sure she thinks I don’t know it. She may not even recognize it for what it is. But, when we have this situation out of the way, she will be talking to somebody.”

“You sound pretty sure that we’re going to pull this off according to the blueprints.” He said with that old adventurous Hart glint in his blue eyes.

She smiled in response to it. “You and I work these things very well together. Don’t you remember?”

He took her hand and squeezed it, leaning in to kiss her lips lightly and rub noses with her. “Yes, I do seem to recall that we did.” He grinned afterward. “Still do.”

“So tell me again what Zayle and Lamb found out, Jonathan.”

As Jonathan was talking, she pulled the note that J.J. had brought home from her pocket. Unfolding it, she read it one more time. J.J. said that a man was on the phone that one time that she picked up. Tommy said that he had seen a man watching J.J. at track practice. Ajay had gotten this note from a man with the instructions to give it to J.J. That man had a whole lot of nerve and whoever he turned out to be, he had it coming.

Tomorrow afternoon couldn’t get there fast enough.

Just as soon as this was done…

Jonathan watched her looking at that note noticing that her eyes had gone to that lighter, grayish brown color they changed to when she was extremely angry.

The dream had been a bad one. She couldn’t remember the details, but she woke terrified and soaking wet with perspiration just the same. J.J. sat up and twisted out of the covers. Then she pushed Third back from where he had come to her aid and was trying to lick her face to comfort her. She must not have cried out this time; her parents weren’t there like they had been when she woke up the night before. Reaching under her pillow, she pulled out her book light and turned it on. Using the lamp or the overhead would draw attention.

When would all of this end? She had been having bad dreams for a while before last night’s nightmare, and now this. Maybe it would stop when whoever this was got caught. She knew that her father had to have a line on who it was. There was no way that he couldn’t. He had the best investigative team working for him. Mr. Zayle and his crew could find out anything about anybody. She knew that they had probably even been able to trace the origin of those anonymous phone calls that she had been getting. None of that was anything that her father would discuss with her, though. Both of her parents still tended to keep her out of the loop when something really bad was on the wind. Even with that note, it had been addressed to her but they hadn’t given her any of the details. Her mother just told her that she was out of it.

Marnie had called, but of course they didn’t talk about it. Tommy had called, and he automatically knew what to do. He had been taught all about wire-tapping, what to say, what not to say, by the master; so that too had been a generic conversation. Not that she wanted to talk about it with them or with anyone. It was too dirty, too personal, too close. She was glad that her parents removed her from it, but in a way, that didn’t seem to help the way that she felt inside very much. Nothing there had changed.

J.J. wondered if they were thinking that her mind would automatically be removed from it just because they put her body on lockdown there in the Utopia of Willow Pond. Wrapping her ponytail on top of her head, she got up to take a hot bath with the hope of at least being able to relax once again.

“Daddy, I promise I won’t get in the way.” J.J. pleaded as she and her father sat on the couch. “I want to go.”

It was the afternoon of the next day. Jonathan was having a very hard time convincing his daughter that she needed to remain at home. He was having a hard time leaving her, but Jennifer wasn’t having it any other way.

“Your mother thinks that it would be best if you stayed here, sweetie.”

“But he’s coming to meet me. What’s going to happen when I’m not there? How is it going to be proven that he was looking to meet up with me if he doesn’t find me when he gets there?”

“It’s been covered, J.J. Believe me.”

She was pouting and it was killing him. He continued to explain it to her.

“This is for the best. We won’t have to worry about you if we know that you’re down at Marnie’s. And if he’s watching the house, and he sees me take you down there, then that looks like business as usual. You get to the mall with Marnie’s mother most of the time, or I take you. If he’s watching, he’ll figure one way or the other, you’re going to be there to do what he told you even though you’ll really be at Marnie’s the whole time.”

J.J. ducked her head and leaned in close to him to whisper, “You know my mother would brain you if she knew that you let me in on the details of that note.”

“Yeah, well, you have a way of wearing a guy down.” He whispered back. Then he stared at her, warning, “J.J., if you get me in trouble with your mother over this…”

“What could I possibly do, Daddy? You won’t let me go with you. It’s not like I’m going to dime you out to her or anything to blackmail you into it. I understand why I can’t go with you.” She stood sulkily and pulled her purse onto her shoulder. “I’m ready to go to Marnie’s.”

As soon as the housekeeper let her in, she raced straight up to Marnie’s room where Marnie sat at her dressing table, brushing her hair.

“What’s up, J.”

“Everything. Get up.” J.J. answered pulling her up from the bench. “I need you to help me do my hair and then get your mother or anybody other than that slow Nelson lined up. Somebody needs to drop us off at the mall and quick.”

Glancing over at his wife seated next to him in the car, Jonathan grinned broadly from ear to ear.

“You are amazing.” He beamed. “You still constantly amaze me.”

She smiled back at him and winked. “Always have, always will.”

“You can drop us off right here, Mrs. Tolbert.” J.J. suggested politely from the back seat.

“I thought you said on the dead side, over by Lane Bryant and the other old people’s stores?” Marnie turned to ask, instantly receiving an icy warning stare from the back. “Oh… yeah, Mom. Right here.” She said sheepishly, turning back around to face the front.

Marnie’s mother pulled to the curb and the two girls jumped out. “What time do you want me to come back for you?” Maureen Tolbert asked.

Marnie looked to J.J. who whispered, “Tell her we’ll call.”

“We’ll call you.” Marnie said leaning into the car.

“We might get a ride back.” J.J. offered. “It all depends. We’ll be back before dark, if we do.”

“Suit yourselves.” Mrs. Tolbert shrugged as she pulled off.

“Your mother is so easy.” Said J.J. as they quickly walked toward the mall from the curb. “You know we never would have gotten away from Jennifer Hart that easily.”

“Hell,” Answered Marnie. “The Duchess never would have brought us in the first place, especially not to the J.C. Penney side like this. Saks, Lord and Taylor sides, maybe.”

Just as they reached the doors, a car horn honked and a voice yelled, “J! Marnie! Wait up!”

It was Tommy in his mother’s car. “Let me park this. Wait for me.”

The girls looked at each other.

“I cannot believe his mother let him drive her new Lexus.” J.J. remarked.

“Did we cross him off the list of suspects?” Marnie wanted to know. “Because I could swear that what that boy does to keep up with you could be qualified as stalking too.”

 

He watched from a distance as the Rolls Royce with the distinctive ‘1HART’ plate pulled up to the curb and the girl got out. He was a little disappointed at the outfit she chose for their meeting. She would have to be instructed as to what he preferred to see her dressed in, so that she would be properly attired the next time.

Still, she carried herself with that confident, casual air that made her so attractive, and that grace that he knew she had inherited from her beautiful mother. Wouldn’t that be something? He could have the beauty of the mother and the youthful inexperience of the girl all wrapped up in one scrumptious package. Enough had time had been taken and enough money had been paid out to make this happen.

He sat watching until her father pulled away and was out of the lot, and she was inside the doors of the mall.

______________________________________________

“Tommy, how did you know we were here?” J.J. demanded as Tommy joined them inside the glass doors of the mall after parking the car. “How did you talk your mother into letting you use her new car?”

“Girl, please. I’ve been outside your house all day waiting for somebody to bring you out. I got the car to keep from attracting attention. Everybody in your neck of the woods recognizes the bike when they see it, and besides, it’s loud and draws attention. I needed to be on the down low for this..”

His eyes fixed on her head.

“Good idea your rolling your hair up in that ball. With your hair  up like that, you look like your mother more than you look like you. How’d you slick it down so tight?” He eyed her hard. “That’s kinda eerie and sick that you look so much like her, J. I hope your husband likes his mother-in-law. Somebody would have to look twice today. Good looking out, though.”

“I told you he was stalking you, J. And he thinks kinda twisted, too.” Marnie offered, looking up at Tommy. “It’s probably been him all the time. They say it’s usually somebody you know.”

Tommy and J.J. rolled their eyes at her. Marnie threw up her hands. “I’m just saying… You never know.”

J.J. turned back to Tommy. “This is gel in my hair. I can’t wait to wash it out. It’s all sticky and stiff, but the ponytail was too noticeable. I didn’t want to be seen if I could help it.” She punched him in his arm. “And you can cut out that husband crap. You know full well I’m not getting married to anybody. Tommy, I don’t know what to do with you, boy. You make me so mad doing stuff like this. How are you just going to be following me like this?

“Well, I’m not going to stop, so get used to it,” he told her. “I knew when you got that note yesterday from Ajay that-”

“What note?” interjected Marnie. “Nobody tells me a damned thing, and really, I’m getting sick of being left out.”

J.J. gave Marnie the hand while Tommy stared her down and then ignored her to continue talking to J.J.

“-that something was going to happen today. I just didn’t know what. I was down the road, just outside the gates of your house, scoping it out. I didn’t see anybody hanging around or anything. Then I saw your father drive you out. I followed you guys down to Marnie’s and saw him drop you off and leave. I was just about to come inside the house and see what was up when I saw Mrs. Tolbert and you two come out and get in the car. I followed you here to the mall. Now tell me what’s supposed to happen from here. How is it going down without you?”

“We don’t know,” J.J. answered beginning to walk onto the concourse with Tommy and Marnie following her lead. “Daddy wouldn’t tell me everything. He just said whoever this is was supposed to meet me on the quieter side of the mall. Over by where we never go to hang out.”

“J.J., your mother is going to kill you if she finds out you’re here,” Tommy warned her. “You know how ‘noid she is about you and danger. I bet she thinks you’re at Marnie’s, doesn’t she? That’s why your Daddy took you down there, isn’t it?”

“Tommy, my mother probably isn’t even here to see me.”  J.J. snapped back, her tone full of sass. “And besides Daddy told me I couldn’t come with him. He didn’t say I couldn’t go to the mall. I’m simply at the mall hanging out with my friends.”

“Oh good, we’re playing word games,” Marnie said, shaking her head. “I’m going to end up on lockdown the first week of summer vacation, and I didn’t even do anything.”

The three of them headed in the direction of the mall’s quiet side.

______________________________________________

She was sitting on the bench by herself, just like his note instructed. Obedient; that was a good sign. She had her head down and she appeared a little uneasy. Good. He liked them nervous; they couldn’t think clearly when they were nervous. Using her mother was a good tactic for getting her to comply. Their strong relationship was the envy of many of the other women and girls at the club. She would do anything he told her to do if it would protect her mother.

There weren’t that many people around, this being the side of the mall that the young people avoided. The food court, the athletic and eclectic apparel and boutique stores, as well as the game room were over on the other side. There were a few older couples walking together, three or four husbands holding purses or tending strollers, and the random shoppers going in and out of the stores. The door leading back to the outside parking lot was right behind where he had her wait for him. A little conversation, a reminder or two, and they would be on their way with no one the wiser.

______________________________________________

Jonathan could see her from his excellent vantage point behind a pillar situated diagonally across from the bench where she was seated. He kept her in his sights, waiting, poised to spring into action should something happen. He could feel the adrenaline pumping, his heart racing; he hated using her for bait out there in the open like that, but she would have it no other way, and without a doubt whoever this was had to be brought out into the open. The instructions in the note had been followed to the letter, well, almost to the letter.

After a couple of false alarms, a tall, slender man came out of the patio furniture store and stood for a moment, seemingly looking her way as she sat by herself with her head down. Jonathan had spotted him, but kept his focus on her. She was good. She was so good. Even he might not have recognized right away. He stuck his hand in his pocket and tightly gripped his keys as the man moved toward her. As he got closer to her, and his features became clearer, Jonathan’s eyes clouded with fury surging up like a toxic cloud from the core of his being.

She still sitting had her head down when he approached the bench and then sat down next to her. She had such pretty hair. Her long, thick ponytail had been pulled out through the back of her cap and it cascaded down her back. Loose, long wavy tendrils hung down along her face obscuring her features. He wanted to reach out and brush them back so he could see her face and look into those blue, blue eyes, but he didn’t want to move in too soon and risk frightening her.

“Well hello, J.J. I see you made it.”

She nodded, but didn’t look up.

“Did you like the presents I sent you? Did I surprise you?”

She nodded again, still shyly holding her head down. Her hands were under her oversized basketball jersey and he thought he sensed her trembling.

“You’re not afraid of me are you? You’ve been knowing me all your life. There’s no need for you to be afraid. Are you cold?”

She shook her head.

“Why won’t you talk to me, J.J.? If you aren’t cold, why do you have your hands under there like that?”

“Because,”  she said as she slowly brought her hands out from under the shirt. His attention was immediately drawn to the left one, the one closest to him, and the huge diamond ring she wore. A second later he noticed the other held a pistol, a pearl handled .22, which she smoothly, skillfully raised to the side of his forehead, “I was waiting to blow your goddamned head off.”

With the gun boring painfully into his temple, he came face-to-face with Jennifer Hart as she rose to stand over him, her brownish gray, not blue, eyes smoky with rage but her voice low and sinister, “I was waiting to make you feel as terrified as you’ve had my daughter feeling these past few weeks, Allen Baker, Junior.” She cocked the trigger. “You lowdown, dirty bastard.”

Somewhere in the distance, in the fog of his confusion and horror, Baker heard voices yelling, sounding too far away to do him any good.

___________________________________________________

Keeping watch all around them, J.J., Marnie and Tommy moved through the mall until they got to the appointed area. Marnie stopped, suddenly grabbing an arm of each of her partners in the escapade.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” she whispered. “Look. it’s J.”

Walking toward a bench was someone who looked and was dressed just like J.J. In fact she was in J.J.’s clothes.  She sported J.J.’s white Dodgers baseball cap complete with the long, thick red ponytail pouring out the back of it. She had on the black and white basketball jersey J.J. had gotten last year for her birthday from the guys on Varsity with the mandatory white tee shirt under it. She wore a pair of her black parachute pants with the zippers on the leg bottoms open, and J.J.’s best white Nike running shoes.

“How much you two wanna bet she’s got the boxers on under those pants, too,” Marnie whispered in awe. “You gotta have the boxers with that sagging pants hookup, but for her I bet it’s a pair of your daddy’s silk ones, not the cotton we wear. She wouldn’t wear cotton. The Duchess is you all the way, J.” Marnie had gone giddy with excitement. “I cannot believe this!”

J.J. stood with her mouth hanging open, completely lost for words as she watched her mother take a seat on a bench, thinking if she didn’t know better, she might have thought that was her out there. In her gear, her mother did look just like her.

Tommy was just as stunned. “She even changed the way she walks. You walk like more like your old man, J.J. I would not have believed this if you two had tried to tell me about it later. No way. So that’s how it’s going to happen.”

Tommy quickly pulled the two girls into an out of the way corner where they could see the action without being seen. He figured somewhere hidden away was Jonathan Hart, and he would be getting with all three of them if he spotted them, especially him. His hope was that it would all go down, and he could get the girls out of there before they got caught. They had already decided they would stay just long enough to see who the stalker was and then get the heck out of there.

A couple of guys approached the bench, the three of them held their breath, but each time the men continued on past. J.J. kept her eyes locked on her mother, amazed at how her whole carriage had changed. She had her head down so her face was mostly hidden, but her body was more loose and casual. She appeared way younger and a lot less sure of herself as J.J. Hart than when she was Jennifer Hart.

Was that how she looked to the world? To her mother? Aunt Pat, her godmother, said  her mother had always been the mistress of disguises. For her last birthday party, her mother had come as that blonde floozy Edna and was a hit. Now there she was over there playing J.J. Hart to perfection. She was as good as Aunt Pat said she was.

Another man approached. A tall, thin man casually dressed man in an expensive blazer and slacks. He stopped, checked her out from the back, and sat down next to her.

“It’s Junior!” J.J. and Marnie whispered at the same time.

“Wasn’t he all up in your face last Sunday at brunch?” Marnie asked. “Talking to you about something financial?”

“Yeah,” J.J. answered, still watching. “I didn’t really talk to him a lot. He was angling to get me to talk to him while I was trying to finish my math. I kept trying to figure out why he was there. I mean, I’ve seen him around, but before then I never really had what you could call a conversation with him. I know and play tennis with his little sister, but he’s old enough to be my father almost.”

Once again, J.J. could feel her chest tightening and her breathing becoming labored again.

“Well,” Tommy said. “Now you know what he really- awwww hell! Look! She’s got a gun!”

“NO! DON’T!!” They all screamed at the same time.

___________________________________________________

When Jennifer stood and stuck that gun to Baker’s head, it caught Jonathan completely off guard. She hadn’t said the first word to him that she was carrying. The gun was not part of the plan. For a moment he froze with shock. Then, realizing what was happening, he took off toward her yelling, “NO, JENNIFER! DON’T!!”

From all sides of the area, men and women rushed from inside stores, tipped over baby strollers, the dolls inside spilling onto the floor. They dropped purses, newspapers, and packages, and surrounded the bench where the two had been sitting. They were Hart security, mall security, and plainclothes LAPD who had been keeping surveillance over the entire proceedings. Captain Gray also materialized on the scene from inside one of the nearby stores.

Jonathan waved him and everyone else off as Jennifer continued to press the pistol to Baker’s head, speaking to him in a clenched-teeth growl that kept anyone from hearing what she was saying until he was up close behind her. Baker, by that time, was pleading with her.

“Please, Mrs. Hart. I didn’t mean her any harm. I just wanted to talk with her.”

“Tell that to someone who believes that, Junior,” she said in response. “I am one who does. Why did you want to get her alone if all you wanted to do was talk? What the hell did you have planned for her? Why right by the door to the parking lot?”

Jonathan, terrified, but desperate to keep the situation from escalating, called to her from a few feet away. “Jennifer. Please. You don’t want to do that. We’ve got him, baby. Give me the gun, darling. Please.”

“Listen to him, Mrs. Hart. Please,” Baker implored. Tears ran down his face.

“No.” She said, speaking to the man at the other end of her gun barrel. “I want you to know what terror feels like.”

With her other hand, she reached behind her, beckoning for Jonathan to come closer while keeping the gun to Baker’s temple. “Jonathan, you see, I want him to know what J.J. was feeling. I want him to know how powerless, helpless, and traumatized little girls feel when some dirty lowlife does this to them. I don’t want him to forget how terror feels. Our daughter won’t ever forget. It isn’t something that is ever forgotten.”

With each “I” she uttered, she stabbed Baker hard in the forehead with the barrel of the gun. Jonathan was sure he heard metal vibrating off bone.

“You wanted to use me to get to my daughter? Well, I’m here. Use me now. Can’t you handle a real woman? Why didn’t you come after me? Because you couldn’t handle me like you thought you could that child, you pervert.”

Jonathan focused his attention to her hand, the one that held the gun, the one with the finger pressed to the trigger.

“Jennifer, please give me the gun,” he begged. Never had he seen her this angry.

“Mom.”

They all heard that small voice behind them.

“Give Daddy the gun, please. If you shoot him, they’ll take you away too, and then I won’t have you to be there for me, just like you didn’t have your mother with you. It’ll happen all over again.”

At the sound of that entirely unexpected voice of reason, Jennifer quickly, but viciously poked the barrel of the gun into Baker’s skin one more time causing him to whimper  and his eyes to further widen with fear.

“It wasn’t loaded, you gutless coward,” she said before, disgusted and exhausted, she dropped her arm. “You need thank your maker for small blessings instead of trying to ruin them. I hope you rot in hell.”

Reduced to a complete, nervous wreck, Baker melted in a quivering heap the bench as the authorities began to move in. Jennifer remained standing over him as if she needed to see him apprehended and his hands bound.

Another few moments and she slowly turned away. She handed the gun off to Jonathan who audibly exhaled. Security and the police fully moved in on the sobbing mess of a man, blocking him from view.

Jennifer then turned to J.J. and held an arm out to her, solemnly ordering, “Come here.”

J.J. hesitated for a moment, eyes locked on her mother’s, afraid to move.

Jennifer nodded and repeated, “Come here, I said. It’s okay.”

J.J. ran to her, and as she held her, the girl lost it, choking and gasping for air through her tears. As she rubbed her back to calm her, Jennifer whispered close to her ear,  “You are going to be SO locked down when I get you home, Justine Hart. I am closing the curtains and the blinds and locking the door. You won’t see the light of day or the light in the hall. You were told  to stay home. You are so absolutely incorrigible.”

Feeling someone tugging the back of the jersey she wore, Jennifer looked over her shoulder to where Marnie, now standing behind her, had lifted the shirt to peek under it.

“Told you, Tommy,” she said to the boy standing next to her, “Silk. Just classy all the way.”

Snatching the tail of the shirt from Marnie’s grasp, quickly concluding who she and J.J. had suckered into dropping them off at the mall, she continued whispering in her daughter’s ear, “And your swift little girlfriend behind me is going down too.”

J.J., despite everything, attempted to defend herself to the bitter end. “Daddy said… I couldn’t come… with you guys. He didn’t say-”

“Hush,” Jennifer said, continuing to hold her and rub  her back to help her breathe again. “You are done. So is Marnie, and if I have my way, so is your boy. Just hush and breathe, baby. It’s over.” She hugged J.J. even tighter. “It’s over.”

Behind all of them, Jonathan checked the gun to put it away, and his breath caught. Quickly resetting the safety, he shoved it deep inside his pocket and continued overseeing Baker being handcuffed. He wanted to go over and beat the hell out of him. Instead he turned to Tommy who now stood next to him.

He shook the boy’s hand, thanking him keeping the girls safe, then mildly scolding him for not making them go back home. Then he reached for and hugged Marnie, checking to make sure she was alright. Of course, she was. Nobody enjoyed sordid drama the way she did. Finally he approached his own wife and child.

Jennifer and J.J. felt it when Jonathan’s arms encircled them, and they heard him when he said, “It’s all over. Let’s go home.”

Continue to Secrets: Part Three

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