The Project: Part Eleven

Part Eleven

At daybreak, Arnold Zale sat back from his computer. He had been at it most of the night, but he wasn’t tired. Like always, once he was onto something, it energized him, and he had a hard time putting it down.

He had lined up and tied together a couple of loose ends, but there was something else he’d since run up on that he found troubling. What he was thinking, didn’t seem possible, but it definitely wasn’t how it was being portrayed to the public. If it was what he suspected it was, he could understand it having been worked out that way, but what were the reasons behind that? And where did the story start?

Octavia Vivian Dash. That name had shown up three times in his other diggings, and on a hunch, he decided to look further into it. After some extensive tracing and backtracking, he wasn’t surprised to find that Ms. Dash was an illegitimate, outside of a marriage, daughter of one Victor Shell, the disgraced and exiled former executive vice president of Hart Shipping Lines.

______________________________________________________

It worried him to the point that he hadn’t been able to sleep, that nagging feeling that said that he shouldn’t wait until Monday to get in touch with that teacher. As he lie in bed, tossing and turning, trying unsuccessfully to doze off, something kept pricking at him, keeping him awake as it was whispering to him that he needed to get someone on it before then. But who? And have them do what that he couldn’t do himself?

Ken Matheson hadn’t rested for thinking about all of it: 9/11, Chris, Claire, Paul Rider and his wife, Alice Rangel and Martin, and all that money Rider and Martin had that nobody seemed to want. He’d been sitting in that chair by the window, considering it all as the night turned into morning.

Alice.

She had been at HartToy for some time, five, maybe six years, developing the software that powered robotics. From what he knew of her, she was bright, but quiet, seemingly on the bookish side. He figured her for early thirties- at the most, thirty-five. With her being a computer engineer, it made him wonder what she might have seen in a security guard like Martin. Even though he had been on the job for years and wasn’t ranked at the bottom of the pecking order, she earned three, perhaps four times as much as he did, and Martin, who was married, had to have had at least twenty years on her. What would she have seen in him? Martin hadn’t been an outstanding-looking man, and aside from the money found on his body, he didn’t appear to be wealthy in any other way. It was understandable that Martin might be attracted to the younger, single Alice, but Alice to Martin?

He understood it wasn’t a predictable thing when it came to accounting for what attracted people to each other, but the more he thought about it, the more he came away from the idea that Alice and Martin were romantically involved. Involved maybe, but not romantically. But if it wasn’t a romantic relationship, then what was it that had Martin phoning her so often?

Chris warned against and did not tolerate fraternization between security and technical or any other personnel. A private person herself, she believed in the entities keeping separate professionally and privately in order to preserve industrial integrity. She maintained an effective working relationship with operations management, but she remained removed and objective from and with almost everyone.

People at HartToy generally liked her; she was fair and impartial in her capacity as security director, purely professional, which bought her a universal measure of respect as well as generating certain measure of apprehension and uncertainty about her. Christina Allen cast a huge shadow, and in all their years of working together, he had been happy and content to quietly exist in it. Her efficiency at the top allowed him greater freedom of movement among the masses, and he got to know people on a more personal level.

Which added to his confusion. Nothing in what he had observed for himself appeared to add up to an affair. Nothing at all seemed to go together, but somehow, it all seemed to be adding up to something.

First Rider was murdered, right there in the facility with no witnesses and in an area precisely where the cameras wouldn’t have picked it up. His apartment had been turned upside down. Then his estranged wife was killed and her apartment ransacked as well. That following Saturday, Chris had her car accident where subsequent examination revealed she’d sustained a head injury prior to the accident itself. Martin turned up drowned. Then there was the matter of Claire, who for reasons that had yet to be revealed, was being sequestered, he guessed, for her own safety. But from what? He’d been left out of the loop on that. He’d been left pretty much on the outside of most of it.

The only thing that came to him directly were those phone records he had gotten from Mrs. Martin. All of the other had come through Chris or August Lamb. Even if Chris had been at her best, if it was indeed designed to keep him outside, that’s right where he would have been. Closemouthed and guarded, she didn’t tell too many tales, not even to him.

Chris was so concerned with discretion that she didn’t even like for anyone to know that he and she had any sort of relationship outside of work, but getting to know each other was inevitable after so many years together. She came off as cool and aloof, but he knew her a little better than that. There was a vulnerable side to her that she tried awfully hard to keep hidden. That vulnerability had a lot to do with Claire.

He always supposed that it had to do with Chris overcompensating for Claire having lost her parents so young and Chris having to step into their shoes. Despite her best efforts at parenting, Claire turned out to be a little wild. Although she never admitted to as much, he got the impression that Chris might be blaming herself for that. Claire was the only thing that could distract Chris from her work, and lately that seemed to be especially true. She’d even taken off those days to go and see about that girl.

He got up and walked over to his desk where those sheets of printed papers, Martin’s phone records, were laid out side by side in chronological order. For a few moments, he stared down at them. Then he picked them up, one by one, studying the details, putting the one in his hand back down on the table before picking up the next. After finishing his perusal of the last one, he walked away. Headed for the bathroom, he had made up his mind. The first order of business that Saturday morning would be to go and see one Ms. Alice Rangel.

______________________________________________________

When without a word, Jonathan jumped up and followed August out of the kitchen and then out of the house, Jennifer, left behind, remained riveted to her chair. First had come August’s vague, but ominous announcement of trouble at the park where the kids had gone. Then there was Jonathan’s abrupt- rude if she hadn’t known him better- departure.

“H- h- he didn’t even ask me if I wanted to go with him,” she managed to stutter after a few shocked moments. “He has nev-”

Marie came over and set a fresh cup of coffee in front of her, removing the empty first one.

Pat, her entire being focused upon her friend, got up and came around the table to sit in the chair which Jonathan had vacated. She slid her arm around the back of Jennifer’s chair. “Let him and August handle it. Maybe it’ll turn out to be nothing.

Jennifer slammed the flat of her hand down onto the kitchen table. “Dammit Pat, I told him I had bad feelings about those kids being out there. He knows how I feel about J.J. knowingly being in a position to get hurt.”

“That’s why he left you here. You couldn’t see his face, but I could. I was looking directly at him.”

Jennifer turned around to face Pat.

“He was scared, Jen. He didn’t want you to see that. With you here at home, he knows you’re safe; he doesn’t have to be scared for you. He’s headed to see about his kid. She’s out there exposed. You’re here and safe. He didn’t need to feel as if he had to be looking out for you, as well.”

“But I wanted to go with him; he didn’t even bother to ask me. She’s my child, too. And then Marnie’s out there. We’re both responsible for her. And as far as his looking out for me goes, I’m a grown woman; I can take care of myself. He knows that.”

“He couldn’t. It’s all too much. The circumstances under which we’re all operating this week aren’t normal.”

“To Hell with circumstances! I am sic-”

Pat placed her hand on Jennifer’s shoulder, pushing on it, restraining her from rising out of her chair as she had begun to do. “I said, let him handle it.”

Jennifer tried to shrug her way out of Pat’s grasp, but Pat held on, continuing to force her back into the chair.

“Edwards, don’t make me fight you. You know I will. I almost did it in Mexico that time over the bullfighter.”

“And you’d have gotten your butt kicked royally if I’d cared more about the subject of our dispute,” Jennifer grumbled.

“I seriously doubt it.”

Successfully keeping Jennifer in the chair and satisfied that she would remain there for the moment, Pat let her go.

“Look, Jen, those kids have plenty of help out there. That man of yours did not let those children go to that park this morning without backup. He’s had someone tailing all of us for as long as I’ve been here; you, me, and those two girls. I’ve seen them, and you’ve said that he’s told you as much. Even when you dropped me off, and I left here by myself to go pick them up from school, there was someone watching over me, and I saw at least one someone stationed outside their school when we were there. Believe me, Jonathan and his people are all over it and all over them.”

Pat reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper which she slid in front of Jennifer. “Take a look at that.”

Annoyed by Pat’s calm demeanor, at having been physically restrained by her, and by her unfailing ability to make her see reason, Jennifer hesitated to reach for the paper. “I can’t read anything right now. I’m too upset.”

But in spite of her extreme irritation, when Pat left the paper on the table in front of her, her inquisitive instincts forced her to pick it up. Slowly she unfolded it, taking a long moment to look it over. Then with widened eyes, she turned back to Pat.

“When did you find this out?”

“Late last night. I’d sent for the information on her while we were at Chris’ place. I got the return call as I was sitting up waiting for Marnie to get in.”

“What caused you to go in this direction? Something at the apartment?”

Pat shrugged. “Just a hunch I had. It sort of came to me while we were in Chris’ bedroom, getting her things together.”

Jennifer went back to the paper. “So what do you think is the story behind this?”

“I’m not sure, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But I told you, I’ve had a feeling about them all along. Something just wasn’t ringing true about them with me. Now I know for sure that something’s fishy. I think you now have a reason to find out what the hell is going on.

“Jen, in light of all that’s happened, if something has gone down with J.J., Marnie, and the rest of those kids out at that park, it’s likely to be connected to those dolls and, or HartToy. I can feel it in my bones. All of what’s been going on seems to be connected to HartToy. HartToy is linked to Chris, and Chris is linked to Claire, and that’s all, in a roundabout way, connected to Jonathan. It’s not coincidence. There’s definitely a connection.”

“Lots of loose ends,” Jennifer thoughtfully intoned. “But unfortunately they do all seem to point in that same direction you mention.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. You always say that I channel anger, my fears, and frustrations into the things I do. If you want to channel what you’re feeling right now- and you should- then I say let’s put it to good use.”

“Is this your way of suggesting to me that we go see Claire again?”

“No. This is my way of telling you that we’re going to see Claire again. If it takes me having to snatch a great big knot in that tight little ass when we get to that bunker this morning, we are going to get the truth out of her. It was different when it was just her and Chris in this mess, but now it seems to have drawn in the Squirt, and perhaps Marnie, and you know that you and I- and the Squirt’s daddy- are not having that. We’d better handle that part of it before he has to.”

______________________________________________________

As they were cleared to pass through the gates of Willow Pond, August Lamb cut his eyes over to his boss and friend. They were both riding in the back seat of the car whisking them off the park.

He had known Jonathan Hart for decades and had come to be able to interpret the man’s body language much like those Hart cryptographers could break down a code. Seated across from him, Jonathan was a tightly coiled, industrial strength spring. One arm lay crossed over his abdomen while the other elbow rested on top it. A thumb and index finger cupped his freshly shaven chin. His face solemn, his eyes, which stared straight ahead, appeared intense and focused, but inwardly so. From all of it, Lamb deduced the CEO was over there running scenarios, working through the details at hand about everything  going on, and quite possibly, working out plans for retaliation should he get to that park and find something happened with his child.

The received call had been brief and to the point; something bad was going down at the park. Upon leaving Chris, he briefed Eva, letting her know of the problem and alerting her of the need to be extra vigilant with Chris. Then he jumped in his car to start for the front gate. At the last minute, he had the presence of mind to stop and let Jonathan in on the news. At the gate, they had been transferred from his car into a manned security vehicle.

There were two things in life one didn’t mess with when it came to Jonathan Hart: his wife and his child, and that child was a definite, absolute no-no for both of them. Jonathan’s getting up so abruptly, leaving Jennifer behind, said all there was to say about his singleness of purpose that morning.

“Jonathan, this probably isn’t the best time to let you in on this, but I don’t think I should put it off any longer. I heard back from the code-guys last night. They broke it.”

Jonathan switched his visual attention to August.

“A list of names,” August continued. “People and places here in LA. Your name and Hart Industries was at the top of it. No explanation as to what the list was for or why it was compiled. Just a list.”

Jonathan nodded and assumed his former introspective position. August knew that the information had been filed and put away for the time being. Nothing mattered to Jonathan at that moment except getting to J.J.

______________________________________________________

“What’s happened?” Chris demanded to know when Eva returned to the guest house after being stopped outside by August Lamb. “What’s going on? Why’d he take off like that?”

August had taken that phone call, not saying very much to the person on the other end, and then clicked off. Without any explanation whatsoever to her, he excused himself, simply saying that he had to go. Eva had been coming up the walkway, returning with the breakfast she’d gone to pick up from Marie. Upon meeting up with her at the door, August had taken the tray from her, set it just inside the door, and then moved her back outside. She spotted the uniformed guard that had been stationed out there, but August had waved him off in the direction of the front of the estate once he had Eva back outdoors. Watching the two of them from the front window, Chris could see August saying something to Eva and Eva nodding in attentive response. Then he had taken off, almost running, in the direction of the main house.

“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with at the moment,” was Eva’s response as she went about setting the tray down on the coffee table and removing the cover. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

“Forget eating! What’s happening, I asked you.”

“I told you-”

“You told me nothing.”

“I know. I told you it was nothing you needed to concern yourself with at the moment.”

Chris’s hands balled into frustrated fists as she fought to maintain her mounting anger. “I wish-” she seethed through her clenched teeth.

“I wish,” Eva said, cutting Chris off as she brought her eyes up from the two plates on the table to meet Chris’ glare. “that you’d let someone else handle things without your feeling as if you’re not doing your job.

“You don’t control the universe, Ms. Chris Allen. There’s nothing you can do about anything right now. You’re good at what you do when you are in a position to do it, but right now you’re not. You need to let the people who are, do what they do. The best you can do for anybody at this point is to relax and let- look, I don’t know if you believe in God or not- but you need to relax and let whatever or whoever your higher power might be do his or her job. ”

Eva came around the table and sat down to face her patient.

“Ms. Allen, things happen for a reason, even to the strongest among us. Sometimes we get slowed up, but that’s for a reason. Sometimes we get completely stopped, and that too, is for a reason. The smart thing to do in those situations is to put the bag down, sit back and take a breath, and if its necessary for the load to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry, let somebody else carry it for a while.”

Tears welled in Chris’ eyes as her body slowly melted from its rigid, angry, upright posture. Folding her arms in front of her, she eased back into the couch cushion, exhaling, “Just tell me this, then. Is anyone hurt?”

“Who’d be hurt?” Eva asked, having gone back to fixing the two plates of food.

“Anyone.”

“I don’t know, Ms. Allen. That’s a truly honest answer. I really did not ask him.”

She slid a plate in front of Chris. “Eat. You have some meds to take, and you’ll need to have a bit more than coffee on your stomach.”

Chris at first waved the plate off. But when Eva pushed it even closer in her direction, she resignedly leaned forward and picked up the fork. After all, she was forced to admit to herself, what the hell else could she do?

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After finding no one at home at Alice Rangel’s apartment, Ken Matheson returned to his car. Not really hungry, but in need of a pick-me-up after his restless night, he decided to go for coffee. Forget about that homebrewed, watered-down diner, or non-descript gas station coffee. If one needed a real eye-opener, a steaming cup of Starbucks’ house brand, taken black, was the only game in town.

He swung his car into the parking lot of the small, but trendy strip mall. Due to the early hour, it hadn’t yet come to full Saturday life, and he easily found a parking space. He had gotten out and was started toward the coffee shop when he noticed at one of the patio tables outside, Alice Rangel. She was engaged in what appeared to be an animated, maybe even angry, conversation with another woman whom he didn’t recognize.

Turning on his heel, he crept back to his car and climbed inside. From there, sure that he hadn’t been noticed by either woman, he maintained a covert surveillance until Alice got up from the table leaving the other woman seated there. When Alice drove out of the lot, he waited a discreet minute or two and then he pulled out as well, keeping her vehicle in his sights.

______________________________________________________

At the park, they found the area where the kids were supposed to be having their gathering awash in a sea of flashing lights. As much as he was trying to ignore it all and remain calm, it was the red lights among the blue ones that had Jonathan’s rapidly beating heart inching up into his throat and clogging his windpipe. As the car in which he and August were riding slid to a stop, “Damn,” escaped past his lips.

A thick bank of cops, kids, and cop cars were in the lot and on the grass, blocking anyone on the outside from seeing what was going on underneath the big tent. Among the other cars, vans, and SUV’s parked along the curb, Jonathan honed in on the little red BMW, which confirmed for him that at the very least, one, if not both his girls were there somewhere.

As Jonathan bolted from the back seat of the car, August jumped out on the other side, a stream of obscenities spewing from his lips as Bob Smith of Hart security rushed toward them.

Leaving August to handle the technical business, Jonathan waded into the crowd in search of what, for him. was the heart of the matter. Moving bodies out of his way, excusing himself as he did so, he could see that an emergency services vehicle had pulled up on the grass and right up to the tent. Inside the tent was teeming with kids, adults, and cops, all engaged in excited activity or concentrated discussions. Off to the side, white-coated caterers stood guard over closed steam tables and trays. Before him, he noticed a thicker knot of people surrounding what turned out to be one of the picnic tables under the canopy. As he got closer, he saw that two uniformed paramedics were part of that group. An uncomfortable feeling was massing in his gut, and it didn’t help him to know that his hunches were seldom wrong.

“Oh, Jesus,” he prayed. “Please.”

Someone standing near that table moved away from it, and he stopped in his tracks.

In the resulting gap, lying on the table he could see black-jeaned legs which finished in a pair of white Rockport walking shoes.

“My God.” For a moment, his eyes closed and he had to concentrate to keep his own legs from collapsing underneath the weight of his escalating dread. “Oh, my God, no.”

Those distinctive shoes he’d have known anywhere. After all, it was he who commissioned them directly from the manufacturer to support that healing ankle after it was injured earlier that summer.

Lurching into motion once again, using his full body weight to propel him, he shoved his way forward through the crowd.

______________________________________________________

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hart, but Mr. Hart said that nobody is to leave the grounds until he returns.”

“I will not be held a prisoner in my own home,” Jennifer declared to the uncomfortable-looking uniformed guard stationed just inside the closed gates to Willow Pond.

“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Hart,” the man continued to apologize. “I have my orders.”

“And I am ordering you-”

She was cut off from continuing her tirade by the firm hand placing itself atop the one that was maintaining the white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel.

“Plan B, Jen,” Pat stated behind her head. “Let it go.”

Jennifer, glowering at the man who would not let her car drive past him, continued to protest her confinement, “I said, I will not be-”

The hand slid down to her forearm and squeezed tightly enough to make Jennifer turn around.

“Plan B, Edwards,” Pat repeated. “We can do Plan A later. Plan A may take care of itself if we move on to Plan B.”

“What Plan B?” Jennifer nearly shouted at Pat in supreme impatience. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Plan B’s currently staying in your pool house.” Pat’s voice remained steady and calm. “I think it’s time for an intervention on that end. We’ve been nice to certain people long enough. I know she only just got here, and it hasn’t been that long since she’s come around, but she’s a bright girl who knows more than she’s letting people in on. I think things are being sped up and are starting to take a very nasty turn.”

Not at peace with being forbidden to do what she wanted, but intrigued by the suggested alternative, Jennifer stared Pat down before finally nodding, “All right.”

When she abruptly gunned the engine to whip the car around to make the sharp U-turn in the driveway, the security man had to jump to get out of her way. In his haste, he lost his footing and slid on the loose gravel. In the ensuing cloud of dust and the shower of stinging pebbles thrown off by the grinding wheels of the Mercedes, he slipped, fell, and went rolling into the nearby sticker bushes.

______________________________________________________

As August Lamb stood in the parking lot, watching the ambulance pull away, Bob Smith was trying to explain.

“It all went down so fast. All we saw at first was a bunch of kids ride up in cars and a couple of vans. Kids had been driving up the whole time, so it didn’t seem like any big deal. Then this last group jumped out, bandanas on their noses and mouths, yelling and rushing the tent. We weren’t sure what was happening at first, if it was a joke or not, but we moved in anyway Then the fighting started, and we went all the way in. Who would have thought, a school rivalry thing?”

“You stayed back too long. Let things get too far out of hand. Kids move fast. You have to stay on top of them. I told you that.”

“Sorry, sir,” Smith mumbled. “Kids aren’t my usual bill-of-fare.”

August put his hand on Smith’s shoulder in reassurance. Smith was a good man, but he knew that he should have used Samms. Samms was who he used normally with J.J. Hart. He knew her moves; after years of being her occasional shadow, Samms understood how she, and the kids with whom she ran, operated. After days of having him sit on J.J.’s school, he’d given Samms a day off, only to have disaster strike the moment he wasn’t on the job.

“It’s okay,” August offered. “It could have been worse.”

It would be worse once the news hit the fan at Willow Pond.

“Mr. Lamb.”

August turned toward the voice calling his name behind him. It was one of J.J.’s good friends and a frequent visitor to the Hart estate, as well as to the Hart Towers. He shook hands with the disheveled young man. He’d obviously been involved in the fracas between the rival student bodies and evidently had come out on the higher end; he wasn’t limping or bruised like some of the others, but the look on the boy’s face was one of grave concern.

“Mr. Lamb,” he was saying. “You remember me? Chase Barnett, J.J.’s friend?”

“Of course I remember you. They tell me you were with her when it happened?”

“Yes sir, that’s right. We were together, but she wouldn’t listen, like always. I tried to tell her to stay down, but-” He shook his head and waved his hand in dismissal. “Anyway, I told Mr. H. and the cops all of that. I have to hope that Mr. H. doesn’t kill me over all of this later, J. getting hurt and all, but right now, something else is wrong. I was thinking maybe you could help me.”

“If I can,” August said. “What’s the matter?”

“I wasn’t sure if I should say anything to the cops or if I should call my father. I didn’t find out for sure till just now or I would have said something to Mr. H. when he was here. I hope I’m not jumping the gun; I’m not sure if there’s a real problem or not, but I can’t find Marnie, J.J.’s best friend, or my brother. I’ve looked everywhere. Her car and ours are still here, but they’re not.”

“He’s your twin, right?”

“Yeah, but we’re not identical.”

The twins. August nodded with the gradual recollection as he began shaping details in his head. “Maybe they left with somebody else to get out of the situation.”

“No way.”

Chase, his hands down in the back pocket of his jeans briefly turned to acknowledge another teen who’d come up to tell him that he couldn’t find the two in question.

“It’s Marnie’s party, Mr. Lamb,” he continued to explain when he focused back on the older man again. “She loves crazy stuff like this. She wouldn’t have run off from her own party. I checked, and her purse is still in her car. And my brother is not only her boyfriend, he’s the ultimate host and party animal himself. The last time I saw him, he was over by Marnie, sluggin’ the crap out of Alphonse.”

“Who’s Alphonse?”

“He’s from LA East, the rival school to J.J.’s school. They play tricks on each other every year about this time. J.J.’s school’s football team stole LA East’s mascot last year and held it out for ransom. Alphonse and his boys, I’m sure, were just getting back at them by crashing the party. They made a play for the dolls, but that’s when things got all the way out of hand, and the fighting started.”

“You think Alphonse and his group could have kidnapped Marnie and your brother instead, as a joke or something?”

“I don’t think so. In the first place Alphonse and his boys might have maybe gotten one of them, but not both of them. And the one they would have taken in that case would have been Marnie. My brother and I only know those guys from around; we don’t go to school here in LA. And I’m telling you, they wouldn’t have gotten Marnie without a whole lot of noise and fighting. She can and will fight; she’d have been kicking and screaming like crazy, and if Chance was anywhere around her, like I told you he was, they wouldn’t have gotten her at all. I don’t think that’s what happened, Mr. Lamb. And there’s no way either one of them, Marnie or Chance, would just up and leave a party on their own, I don’t care what madness was jumping off at the time. In fact, that’s what would have kept those two here. They live for action like this. Say, Mr. Lamb?”

“What.”

Chase leaned in and lowered his voice.

“I don’t know if anybody mentioned it to you or to the cops, or if anybody else even saw it with all that was going on, but there were some strange men hanging around, too, right before everything else happened. J. and I saw them, kind of lingering back there by those trees.”

He stopped and pointed to a stand of trees in the distance, off to the right of the tent. “She sees them and all of a sudden start wanting to stuff the dolls under the table. That’s kind of how she got hurt.”

By that time, Bob Smith was already on the radio.

The last thing Jonathan Hart said to them before hurrying off in the ambulance with his injured daughter was that they should check on Marnie Benson’s well-being. In seeing to everything else getting settled down, and those dolls being gathered up for transport to the Hart Estate, which was also at Hart’s request, they hadn’t yet gotten around to seeking Marnie out. They’d assumed she was somewhere among the throng of milling teenagers.

August Lamb, as he listened to the boy, was kicking himself. He should have known that something was wrong. He was well aware of how close those two girls were. With J.J. injured, if she had still been at the park, Marnie would have been right there at that table with J.J. and perhaps fighting to go in the ambulance with her and Jonathan when it took off. And who were those men the kid mentioned? Was that just some coincidence, or was it a real threat or attempt of some kind that had been inadvertently thwarted?

Whatever the case, it appeared that two kids were not be where they were supposed to be. One of them was Jonathan Hart’s charge, and he had left her well-being in their hands. It was all turning into a fiasco of major proportion.

As August was signaling to a passing policeman, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Ken Matheson making his way through the crowd.

______________________________________________________

If ever you’re in deep and it’s way over your head, Daddy said, hold your breath.

Just hold your breath, he said, keep your cool, and float your way back to the top.

“Don’t panic, J.J., just hold your breath, kick, and float your way back to the top… concentrate, hold on, and when your head clears the surface, you can open your eyes and breathe.”

Daddy said….

“I’ll always be there, J.J. In body or in spirit, I’ll always be there.”

“I’m counting on you,” Daddy said.

“Hold your breath and fight your way back to the top. When your head clears the surface, breathe… when you get to the top… I’ll be there”

Daddy said….

______________________________________________________

“I’m not so sure about this, Pat. Chris may be too fragile still for what you want us to do.”

“Jennifer, think about J.J., Marnie, the fact that you don’t know what’s going on with them, and the fact that you can’t get off the grounds of your own home to find out, and then, if you can, say that again.”

When the car seemed to accelerate and almost sail over the crest of the bridge as they headed back toward the main buildings on the estate, Pat smiled to herself, “I thought so.”

______________________________________________________

It was a few minutes before Jonathan realized  he was still tightly clutching Genie under his arm. She had been handed to him along with J.J.’s jacket when the paramedic discovered her zipped inside it once they had J.J. in the ambulance.

What the hell was it with those dolls? For days, he harbored an increasingly bad feeling about them.

As they were being raced to the hospital, the paramedics were still working on J.J. and communicating with the hospital personnel who were waiting for her to arrive. They had her upper face covered, an ice pack on one side of it when he got there. Somehow during the fracas, she’d been struck with something and in recoiling from that, she’d hit the back of her head on the edge of that table upon which she’d been placed. At that time, she’d been out cold. In the ambulance, she had been fading in and out, but she hadn’t yet fully come back.

Watching from his seat on the other side of the ambulance, he had no real idea how bad she was; he hadn’t asked a whole lot of questions, instead letting the medics do their work while he phoned his doctor friend, Kate, who was on staff at the hospital where he had instructed them to take J.J., rather than where they had been slated to take her. Wealth and influence did have it’s advantage, and in this instance he’d chosen to fully exert it. He called the shots for J.J. Hart, and nothing but the best would do for his girl.

The sight of her lying on her back, so unnaturally still on that picnic table with her face covered in the way that it had been almost dropped him to his knees. It was all he had been able to do to keep close to his customary cool and dignified persona, kiss the top of her head, and then find out from Chase what had happened.

Several of the security personnel tried to intervene to give him their version of the events, but Chase Barnett, was the only one he trusted to give it to him straight and from whom he wanted to hear it. He was the only one who would realize how much he wasn’t up for any snow job and how much he needed to hear exactly what happened, not some sanitized, “keep my job” version. There was a lot he didn’t know about the events at the park that morning, but the one thing of which he was absolutely sure was that Chase had been right there with J.J. when she got hurt, and he had remained there with her until help came. Then he’d stayed there until her father arrived, despite being told several times by security and by the paramedics that he had to get back. Chase had moved enough to allow help to get to her, but he hadn’t left her side for a moment.

Chase knew. He’d done what he was supposed to do. J.J. was very select about the people she let get close to her, and she made good choices. In his opinion, despite his being young, very male, and very fresh, Chase was a good, loyal friend to his daughter. Again, she had chosen well with him.

Jennifer had to be told. That thought sickened him. He’d left her behind, and he knew that hadn’t sat well with her. If she’d made an attempt to leave the grounds behind him, which knowing her, she probably had; being stopped at the gate wouldn’t be sitting well with her either, but he couldn’t risk having her out there, too. When he left Willow Pond, he had no idea what was waiting for him at the park, and he wasn’t willing to risk both of them. Jennifer had been all over him of late about his shutting her out of things, and he’d promised her that he’d do better. But his gut feeling, looking into August’s face that morning, had been that he didn’t need to have both of them exposed. J.J.’s being out there was bad enough, and as it turned out, it was worse than bad.

Jennifer was going to have a fit. She’d been on the verge of one ever since everything began to happen. He’d been able to talk her down a couple of times, but nothing would fix this one. She was going to have a royal fit, and rightfully so. She’d told him that she hadn’t been comfortable about the kids being out there, but he thought he had it covered. He thought it would be all right. Kids should be allowed to be kids in spite of who their parents happened to be or what might be going on with them. J.J. had been through so much that year, and he just wanted her to be a kid, a teenager able doing teenaged things. He prayed it would be all right, but it hadn’t been, and J.J. had paid the price. She was just a kid, and kids should be able to be kids.

Kids…. Marnie.

Where had she been? J.J. was lying there hurt, but he hadn’t seen Marnie. Had she been there, but with things happening so quickly, he just hadn’t noticed her? He couldn’t have overlooked her. If she had been there, Marnie would have been right there with J.J. She’d have been begging him to allow her to get up in the ambulance with him. He did think to have security check up on her, but where had she been that she hadn’t come to J.J.? Or to him?

And why wasn’t Genie crying?

He took the doll from under his arm and studied her face as if in doing so she could answer his silent question. She hadn’t made a peep in all the time that J.J. had been on that picnic table or as she’d been jostled and bumped under J.J.’s jacket as she and J.J., had been moved from the table, onto the gurney, and into the ambulance. To his knowledge and experience, Genie cried if you so much as stared hard at her.

Then he looked over to stare hard at Genie, Sr. lying with her face covered and semi-conscious across from him. He had questions that, at that moment, she wasn’t in any shape to answer. But, as tough as he knew J.J. to be, she would be in some kind of shape later on, and he would be right there with the questions.

Tucking Genie back under his arm, he laced his fingers together to keep the technicians from seeing how badly his hands were shaking.

______________________________________________________

What had been such a clear-cut, sure plan on the night before, had since become wavering and ambivalent in the light of day. Claire paced the small bedroom, trying to work up the courage to request the call be made to Jennifer Hart. Mrs. Hart seemed a kind lady. She might understand, but she was only the beginning. There were others beyond her to which she had to answer.

Hidden inside those tiny rooms, with her basic needs being met, she was safe. Safe from those who might harm her, safe from the things that might still be playing out, and safe from having to face the ugly truth of her actions. Inside the bunker, she was steel walls away from having to face the reality of herself and Chris.

If Chris was still out there.

Funny, she thought, how for most of her life she thought she needed so much, only to find that she could be content with so little. Or nearly content, if only such a mess didn’t await her on the other side. But it was a mess that needed fixing, or at least facing. That much couldn’t be avoided. She couldn’t hide any longer. That she had to get out and at least find out about Chris was a thing that couldn’t be put off any longer.

“Gail!” she called to the guard who’d remained overnight with her in the bunker.

The woman appeared at the door.

“Can you get a call out for me?”

“I can, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to,” the guard answered.

For a moment, Claire was tempted to let that comment change her mind, but she didn’t. “Call whoever you have to call if it’s clearance you need. I don’t care what you have to do, but I have to get a call through to Mrs. Hart as soon as possible.”

“I’ll get in touch with Mr. Lamb.”

Claire thought she detected a look of relief on the woman’s face just before she turned around to go back to the front. For herself, she went into the bathroom to shower and get dressed in yet another set of sweats. At that point in time, she no longer desired to be as fashionable as she was accustomed to being,  but she did want to at least be presentable when the time came to leave.

______________________________________________________

Just as she finished clearing the breakfast dishes away, stacking them back on the tray to take back up to the main house, Eva’s cell chimed over on the desk. She picked it up, held a brief, mostly one-way conversation, and then turned to Chris, who was still seated on the couch.

“It’s for you.”

“Me? Who’d be phoning me?”

She handed the phone to Chris.

While Chris was on the phone, there was a knock at the door, and Eva went to answer it.

______________________________________________________

At the hospital, J.J. had immediately been taken to the back for treatment. Jonathan wanted to go with her, but he had to stay behind to provide her personal and insurance information to the records clerk. He had just finished up with her and was requesting to go to J.J. when his cell buzzed. Not sure what the nature of the call might be with all that had gone on that morning, and that might still be developing, he went outside to take the call to keep from bothering anyone, but mostly to keep from being overheard.

It was August Lamb. He asked about J.J., and then had a lot to tell him. The main message being relayed, however, the one that needed his immediate attention, wasn’t one he could do anything about at that moment; he couldn’t leave J.J. Under the uncertain circumstances, including his name and his property heading some decoded list, he didn’t want Jennifer or Pat leaving Willow Pond. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted them to know anything about the matter anyway. August could have taken care of it, but he had more pressing things into which he needed for him to look.

Hanging up from August, remaining outside on the walkway, he phoned Bill. It was a few minutes before he realized that people walking past him weren’t looking at him strangely because they thought they recognized him. It was because of the way he had Genie, inside her cloth carrier and looking very much like a real baby to one just happening by, slung so casually, almost haphazardly, over his shoulder.

Easing her into the crook of his arm and covering her head, he continued to explain the situation to Bill.

______________________________________________________

“She’s doing much better today, I think,” Eva was saying as she admitted them to the pool house. “She’s eaten, and she’s been sitting up for a while.”

When Jennifer and Pat entered the living room of the pool house, Chris was on the couch with a cell phone pressed to her ear. She appeared to be so involved in whatever was being said to her, that she didn’t notice them.

Although she knew that Pat was ready to pounce on her, and she, too, was anxious over the notion that whatever was going on might have drawn in J.J. and Marnie, Jennifer was reluctant to be confrontational with Chris. In her heart of hearts she felt that Chris, in some way or another, was a victim of sorts in it, as they all seemed to be.

Pat took a seat in the occasional chair across from the sofa while Jennifer remained standing by the door, which was actually even closer to Chris. Eva went around the coffee table and sat on the other end of the sofa from Chris, but perched on the edge of it. Jennifer made mental note of the protective message being transmitted by her body language. Even though they hadn’t stated to Eva the purpose for their coming out there, she seemed poised to step between her patient and anyone that might try to maneuver or deter her from the positive path to recovery.

Beyond staccato replies to the speaker, Chris was mostly listening. Finally, she signed off with, “I’ll see what she says.”

She handed the phone to Eva as she twisted around to look up to Jennifer.

“That was my doctor,” she said. “Dr. Langford. Claire wants to see me. She was trying to get to you, but the call was routed to Dr. Langford first to see if I was up to it.”

“Are you?” Jennifer asked.

“Of course. I didn’t say it to the doctor, but my only concern is with security. I don’t want it to be a risk for anyone.”

Pat leaned forward in the chair. “Why would you think it would be a security risk?”

Chris turned to seemingly study Pat before answering her. As Jennifer looked on, she was impressed at how much stronger and like herself Chris seemed to be. Chris had been wary of Pat from the start; she’d noticed that right away when the two women were being introduced to each other on the day before. It was with good reason; Pat had been honed in on Chris from the start.

“She’s being hidden away,” Chris said after a bit. “We all know that to be fact. If she’s being sequestered like that, then it stands to reason that she’s in some sort of trouble.”

Pat continued to dig. “Is that the only reason you think she’s in trouble?”

It was another strained moment before Chris replied, “No, that’s not the only reason.” but she didn’t elaborate.

Pat opened her mouth to say something else, but she stopped herself when behind Chris’ head, Jennifer held up a hand to her.

“We can’t get off the grounds to get to her right now,” Jennifer said, directing it to Chris. “Or to get you to her. There’s a security matter outside that’s keeping us held in here.” She shifted her attention to Eva. “Besides, I don’t know if you’re up for the trip anyway,” to which Eva shook her head in confirmation of Jennifer’s supposition.

“I think, though,” Jennifer continued. “That in any case, it would probably be better to get Claire here.”

“I do, too,” Chris agreed, her tone conveying a definite air of her pre-accident assertiveness. “In light of 9/11 and everything else, Mr. Hart and Mr. Lamb no doubt have this place locked down like Fort Knox. The only potential problem would be traveling the distance between where she is now to here. Jennifer, do you know where they have Claire?”

Jennifer nodded in answer. As she did, though, she was pulling her phone from her pants pocket. The other women could see that it was already flashing, signaling an incoming call.

______________________________________________________

She and Sam must have seen the coiled snake at the same time, but before she could make the move to steady herself and tighten her grip, Sam reared up, sending her small body flying. She remembered sailing helplessly through the air and her father calling her name. His voice sounded funny as she went tumbling feet, over head, over feet off the horse’s back and through the air.

“J.J., it’s Daddy, baby. Wake up.”

His voice sounded far away, but she could hear him. She tried to answer him, but he was too far away.

… Hold your breath, kick, and float to the top....

Strong hands cradled her head, then lifted her up, but for some reason she couldn’t make it understood that she felt them.

“Jonathan, I phoned the sheriff. He’s sending a car to take her to the doctor in town.”

My mother, the worrywart….

Softer hands smoothed her brow, and she was no longer afraid of being gone so long….

“J.J., can you hear me? Squeeze my hand, if you hear me.”

Not Daddy’s hand. Not Daddy’s voice. A lady’s… but, not my mother’s voice….

“J.J., it’s Doctor Kendall. Squeeze my hand, sweetie.”

Floating up, her head broke the surface and she took a deep, deep breath before squeezing the hand that held hers.

“I can hear you.”

Her own voice sounded raspy to her ears, and the words were sort of slow in forming and in coming across her tongue.

“Hi, J.J. How do you feel?”

Dr. Kendall’s other fingers were smoothing the hair back from her forehead, but something on her face was keeping her from seeing. It was cold. Ice… a cold pack was on her face.

“I feel like he- heck, Dr. Kendall. Like something heavy landed on my head and stayed there for a while. What all did I hurt? How come I can’t see? What’s going on?”

“You have an injury to your eye. We’re icing it to keep the swelling down so that it can be examined more thoroughly.”

“Both eyes?”

“No, just the right one. The other one was covered to keep the light out so that you could better rest.”

“Then can I uncover that one so I can see you?”

Dr. Kendall let her hand go and she could feel the woman back up some from her.

“The light’s bright in here, J.J. I’m going to dim it. Then, when I uncover it, I want you to keep that eye closed until I tell you to open it, all right?”

The doctor’s footfalls moved away, returned, and then J.J. could feel her folding back the cloth from one half of her face as she asked, “Do you remember what happened to you?”

The scenario fuzzily replayed itself in her mind. “It was at the park. We were all arguing and fighting with Alphonse and them, and I got hit with something.”

“Fighting? What in the world for?”

“It started out as fun, just a joke raid, I think, but then one of Alphonse’s boys hollered, “Get the dolls, they’re over there!” I wasn’t letting them get our babies. See, they all go to LA East, we’re LA West, and every year around this time, at the start of football season, our two schools do stuff to each other. But they weren’t kidnapping our projects. Even though the assignment is over, we’re still responsible for them, and I was in charge of the nursery today. Them trying to get the dolls, that was what the beef was about, and that’s why the fighting broke out.”

There was more to the story, but J.J. kept that to herself. Dr. Kendall didn’t need to know that part of it.

“I was trying to put the dolls out of harm’s way. Chase told me to duck, and I did, but then I came up again to see what was happening. I got hit, and then it went black. I don’t remember anything else after that except you waking me up. Am I messed up bad, Dr. Kendall? Where exactly am I now? How’d I get here?”

One arm was lying across her abdomen and the void there suddenly struck her. “Where’s Genie? They didn’t get her, did they?”

“You’re at Memorial, in the emergency room,” Dr. Kendall answered. “You came by ambulance. After you got hit in the eye, you hit the back of your head, and knocked yourself out. I imagine, at the least, you’re going to have a nice-sized lump and a pretty good shiner when it’s all said and done. I was more concerned about your head, but from what you’ve been able to tell me about what you recall, I don’t think I’m as concerned as I was. Okay, now I want you to slowly open that eye for me.”

Taking her time, J.J. eased open her eye to find the fuzzy image of the doctor’s face looming right above her own. It took a longer time than usual her vision to focus for Dr. Kendall’s features to come in clear. She could feel that she was lying down, and that if she’d been standing or sitting, she might have been woozy.

“How long have I been out?” she asked. “Where’s Genie?”

“You were only completely out for a little bit. You’ve been coming and going for about thirty minutes. How’s your vision? Any blurring?”

“Not that I can tell. There’s only one of you. Hold on, how come you’re here? You’re not an emergency room doctor.”

“It’s an emergency for me when Jennifer’s girl ends up in the emergency room. Your father phoned me to let me know that you were on your way in. I was just finishing my morning rounds.”

“Daddy called you? Where’s he? Where’s Genie? Where’s my mother? ”

Instinctively, J.J. tried to sit up, but Dr. Kendall’s hand to her shoulder forced her back down.

“Be still,” she said. “It’s too soon for you to be moving around. Your father came in the ambulance with you after they phoned him to tell him you were hurt. He’s out front. According to what he told me, I don’t think your mother knows about this yet. And he has Genie out in the waiting room with him.”

J.J. closed her eye and settled down into the pillow she could feel under her head.

“My mother is going to have both our heads when she does find out. When she finds out I’m hurt, it’s from fighting, and he didn’t tell her about it right away, she is going to go clean off on both of us. We did it like this last summer when I hurt my ankle at her reunion, you know when he and I handled it ourselves? You remember she was none too happy about that. So what happens to me now?”

Dr. Kendall folded the end of the ice pack back over J.J.’s face and smiled.

For the full sixteen years of J.J.’s life. she had been a semi-objective observer of the unique relationship J.J. had developed with her both her parents, but particularly of how she and Jonathan operated together. J.J., she knew, was nothing less than the apple of Jonathan’s eye. J.J. was not only crazy about her “Daddy”, she had always been and was still growing to be way too much like him. It probably had to do with him being the first to see her while Jennifer was busy pushing her out, and to him being the first parent J.J. saw.

Jonathan took absolute delight in his daughter’s nerve and intelligence. He had always encouraged it and her. At each stage of her development, he’d taught her to do far more than any child of that age, particularly a little girl, needed to know how to do. J.J, for her part, basked and thrived in her father’s pride. Because of that, the two of them had always gotten into things together.

Standing over her patient, Kate Kendall was reminded of the time, years before. A panicked Jonathan had phoned her for advice after baby J.J. took advantage of her daddy’s being on the other side of the room, changing a tune on the stereo. She knocked back the rum and coke he left on the table, guzzling down all but the ice cubes. He turned around to find her happily licking at the transparent liquor moustache above her lip and holding the glass out to him, requesting a refill. That day, Jennifer had gone out to run a brief errand, leaving him to baby-sit.

Luckily for both of them, there hadn’t been any physical repercussions for J.J., other than some sleepiness which Jonathan was able to camouflage as a “nap”. She doubted he had ever shared the factual details of that incident with Jennifer. Consequently, she had never brought it up with her either. Since that time, though, there had been myriad other things.

She shuddered at recalling the shock. Passing the television one evening that summer, she happened to catch a report about a prominent Los Angeles citizen having fallen seriously ill on the way back from his ranch in Colorado. The reporter went on to say that industrialist, Jonathan Hart, had been met by hospital ambulances at Las Vegas International airport after being flown in on his personal jet by none other than his teenaged daughter, J.J. Hart.

Frozen in her footsteps, all she could think about in that instance was Jennifer; her beloved husband ill, and discovering in that manner that her precocious, sixteen-year-old daughter was a pilot- a jet pilot, no less- and most likely, a home-schooled one.

Jonathan and J.J., despite their antics, had an infinite love and regard for Jennifer and would go to any lengths to protect her. Unfortunately, that included hiding things from her to keep her from being upset, worried, or angry.

They’d kept the flying lessons a secret for years. Two years before it officially became record, in the course of another crisis, J.J. let her in on it, but had sworn her to secrecy. Then, J.J. was fourteen and by that time, had been flying for two years. In the span since J.J. revealed that to her, it had been all she could do to not tell Jennifer about it, but she’d promised J.J. that she wouldn’t. Then, when the eagle did come soaring out of the nest, it turned out that not only did Jonathan have that baby airborne, he had her quite ably flying- and landing- jets.

In her mind, she was picturing J.J. at the controls, her father ill in the seat next to her, bringing that plane in for a landing… businesslike and professional beyond her years… cool and collected, just like both her parents….

When Jonathan phoned the hospital that morning to report to her about J.J.’s being hurt, she could hear in his voice the anxiety he was trying so hard to keep at bay. Of all of Jonathan’s considerable amassed assets, achievements, and his impressive accomplishments, his wife and his child were far more precious to him than any of that. This however, was not one of those episodes they were going to be able to hide from Jennifer. She would definitely be finding out about this one, and soon.

Dr. Kendall, still watching the tall, slender teenager lying on the table, could only shake her head at how fast time seemed to be getting past them.

J.J. had always been a rambunctious handful. From the moment Jonathan placed that baseball cap on that little red head as they were taking her home for the first time, the alliance had been formed. Jennifer had been holding the baby that day, but starting right then, her hands had been beyond full with the two of them. The road Jennifer and J.J. had traveled hadn’t always been as easy as the one J.J. and Jonathan usually traipsed upon, but it seemed of late to be becoming a lot less tortuous and a lot more tranquil and rewarding. That was a good thing. In spite of their differences, J.J. and Jennifer, in her opinion, brought out the best in each other.

Before long before J.J. would be off and on her own in the world, probably still finding trouble and enlisting her father in it, while they both tried to keep whatever that trouble turned out to be from her mother.

… arguing and battling in what, in some ways, amounted to a gang fight… knocked out and a black eye for afters. This, she knew, was definitely not what Jennifer Edwards Hart had in mind for her should-be debutante daughter.

“You’ll have to have some tests run on your head and on your eye,” she told J.J. “Then we’ll know whether or not you’ll need to stay the night here at the hospital.”

“The night? ” J.J. griped. “Nuts. I sure hope it turns out that I don’t have to stay. I hate hospitals. But then again,” she said as she held up one finger. “Come to think of it, it might be safer to stay here.”

Immediately catching her meaning, amused and gratified that the girl was so lucid and back to her rascal self after having been as good as unconscious a very short time before, Dr. Kendall snickered, thinking, “Kids. So resilient.”

“Either way, though,” J.J. went on musing aloud. “Here or at home, it’s for sure that Jennifer Hart is going let Justine and Jonathan Hart have it good. Justine for acting common and being part of a brawl, then getting herself hurt as a result, and Jonathan for not telling her about it right away. You wouldn’t happen to have an extra room or two at your house, would you?”

Dr. Kendall softly chuckled as she was going through the large cabinets by the door.

“J.J. Hart, if you think your mother is going to let you out of her eyesight once she finds out that you almost lost one of yours, you are sadly mistaken. I’ve known Jennifer a mighty long time, and I am very well aware of how she is about you. You are done, missy. You and your father, and that’s all there is to that. You might as well face it.”

J.J. audibly exhaled. “Well, then do you think my Daddy could come back here with me for a little bit? I really need to talk to him.”

“To begin to formulate that plan for how to break the news to your mother?”

When the girl didn’t answer, again Dr. Kendall chuckled. For sure it wasn’t going to get any better. In conversation about them, Jennifer often referred to Jonathan as J.J.’s muse. She wasn’t far from wrong in that.

“Without a doubt he’s anxious to talk with you, too.”

The doctor placed a folded blanket across J.J.’s bare arms. “It can get a little cool back here. You just lie still and rest. I’ve a couple of things to attend to, and then I’ll send for him.”

“When can I go for my tests, Dr. Kendall? You know, maybe I don’t need them after all; I’m sure I’m fine. I really just want to hurry up and get out of here.”

“Let the doctors be the doctors, J.J. I said for you to just rest lie there and rest.”

Even though Dr. Kendall couldn’t see her eyes, she was sure that underneath that cloth and that cold pack, J.J. Hart was rolling at least one of them.

______________________________________________________

Claire lie down across the bed, her body limp and her spirit tired from the dejection.

She was not being allowed to leave, and Mrs. Hart would not be coming to her. Reportedly the order had come all the way from the top. Jonathan Hart wanted her to stay put. She’d turned to him for help, and now it seemed he was her captor.

Lying there, she replayed the day he came to talk with her and how she’d rebuffed his attempts to help her. Chris said that he was trustworthy, but she hadn’t trusted in that. Yet another time she didn’t listen to Chris, and it went badly for her.

Was Hart angry over her reluctance to confide in him? Had something else happened, and that was why she was being held and left alone in that manner?  She thought she’d been brought there for her own protection. Was it really that she was being imprisoned there? What did Hart know? What might he have found out?

Gail, the security guard who informed her that her request had been denied, hadn’t said any more than that. There was no explanation given for why she was being shut down; she was only told that for the time being she was to remain where she was and that Mrs. Hart wasn’t coming. Nor was she being allowed to contact her by phone. There was also no news of Chris. She’d asked, but was told nothing.

Rolling over onto her stomach, she rested her head on her folded arms and closed her eyes. Even in her mind, she couldn’t escape.

______________________________________________________

She watched in horror as J.J. Hart went down, then she got the hell out of there.

How had things gone so crazily in just a few minutes? So close, and then nothing to show for it. Just like the other times, everything was all lined up, and then, it blew up in her face. Was it just bad luck? Was it coincidence? Or was it fate that wouldn’t let her get past or get out of it?

As far as she knew, there wasn’t any direct, obvious connection to what happened to the Hart girl to what else was going on, but who knew how Jonathan Hart’s mind worked? He had a global reputation for being shrewd, for putting complex puzzles together. With his daughter injured, coupled with everything else that had been going on, he was bound to be thinking things.

She got out of there before Hart could show up to see about his kid. She hadn’t stayed long enough to see if anyone had gotten caught. All she knew for sure was that she hadn’t been. Yet.

If Hart somehow made a connection….

Where she was headed, she didn’t know. Whether any of the others had been picked up by security, or the police she should have known would be covertly stationed there with J.J. Hart in attendance, she didn’t care. All she knew was that she had to get away.

It had all gone wrong. Flights to anywhere had been eliminated since that past Tuesday, and for her, that couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Now with air travel finally resumed that morning, everyone everywhere would be trying to get out or in, and the scrutiny and tracking of passengers would be more intense than it had ever been in the history of commercial aviation.

Everything, everything, everything had gone terribly wrong. It was still running off track, each event careening and smashing into the wreck before it, and she was the only common link to the cause of all of it. If someone on the inside were to figure that out….

Driving, not sure of where she was going or where she would end up, her only thought was that she had to get out before someone else had the opportunity to get in.

______________________________________________________

After having him paged a couple of times to no avail, Dr. Kendall personally came to the front. She was sure that with J.J. still being treated in Emergency, Jonathan hadn’t left the premises. After checking out the waiting room, she caught sight of him through the window, standing just outside the doors. He was on the phone.

When she got out there, he was stuffing the cell into the inside pocket of his windbreaker while cradling the doll in his other arm.

“You look like you did sixteen years ago.”

The sound of her voice must have caught him off guard; when he looked to her from what he was doing, it was one of those rare moments when she got a glimpse into the man. Normally one could look at Jonathan’s eyes, but not into them; he was usually too guarded for that. In that one unshielded instant, she could see that he had a lot on his mind and that whatever it was, it was deeply troubling to him. That raised her concern for him and his well-being. It hadn’t been that long ago that he was the one in Emergency, and J.J. was sitting on the outside, waiting for news of his condition. She was certain that being in the place he was, and under those circumstances, had to be stressful and wearing on him.

“It probably does, doesn’t it?” he answered. “This one’s a redhead, too. How’s my real baby?”

“She’s awake, and she’s asking for you.”

Relief softened the tension in his brow, and with his free hand, he ran a hand through his hair. “That’s great. Can I see her?”

“In a minute.”

Dr. Kendall sat down on the bench that was right by the wall against which Jonathan had been leaning. ” Have you phoned Jennifer yet? I hope that was her you were talking with on that phone.”

Much like a guilty little boy, he sheepishly averted his gaze past her and focused it out toward the parking lot on the other side of the walkway. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and the uncharacteristic discomfort it seemed he was experiencing further rouged his ruddy cheeks.

“No, not yet.”

“You’re playing with fire, Jonathan. That’s Jennifer’s child, too, in there on that table.”

“I know that. Is J.J. very bad?”

“She’s lucid; I don’t think she’s sustained any lasting damage to that noggin of hers, but you’re not going to get that eye past Jennifer. There are still the tests to be run before we can say anything for sure. You should have at least phoned her by now.”

“I wanted to wait and see how J.J. was going to turn out before I called her. I wanted to be able to tell her something definitive.”

“Knowing Jennifer like I do, she is going to tell you something definitive when she gets hold of you; you know that.”

He nodded and moved Genie from one arm to the other.

Dr. Kendall raised her arms. “Let me see that.”

When handed to her, she removed Genie from the carrier to examine her, lifting her jumper, pressing her tummy and squeezing her limbs, running her fingers over her sparse curls and the yellow rosette headband, turning her over and back again. “She feels so real. How did the project go?”

“Okay, I guess,” he sighed, noticing yet another time that, despite being handled, Genie hadn’t fussed.

She had remained quiet since that one time when she started up in the records clerk’s office. The woman’s surprised and then confused face was seared into his memory. Not bothering to explain it to her, he excused himself and hid in a stall in the men’s room to change Genie into the dry diaper and give her the bottle J.J. had stuffed in the carrier with her. Never in his life had he played with a doll, but there he was in the stall, feeling quite the fool, feeding and clumsily changing one that was quite literally his own.

With a sleeping Genie in tow, he’d returned to the clerk’s office to finish the paperwork, conscious the entire time of the woman’s eyes on the bundle he carried.

“I think the kids got a lot out of it,” he added. “The picnic they were having when J.J. got hurt was supposed to be a celebration for the end of the project and to say farewell to the dolls.”

“Nice idea,” Dr. Kendall said as she put Genie back into the carrier and handed her back to Jonathan. “Too bad it ended up like it did.”

“I agree,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “Come on, I need to see my kid so that I can phone her mother, although I’m sure that, to put it in J.J.’s terms, I’m pretty much toasted on both sides by now.”

He followed Kate Kendall back into the building, the thought running through his head that she had no idea how “too bad” it was that things ended up as they had. Nobody did.

But they would.

______________________________________________________

“Well, that settles that,” Jennifer said as she flipped shut her phone and put it back in her pocket. “We can’t get to Claire, and it appears Claire won’t be coming to us. At least not right away, she won’t.”

All eyes turned to her. She crossed the room and perched herself on the arm of the chair in which Pat was sitting.

“Why not?” Pat asked. “What’s happened? Who was that?”

“Bob Smith, down at the front gate. He was apologizing for our not being able to get out. He was also phoning on behalf of August Lamb, and I guess, indirectly, my husband. It seems it’s not just us who are “locked down” as my child would call it. All of Hart Systems is on alert. There’s no movement in or out of any of the California facilities for now.”

“What’s going on?” Chris asked. “I’ve never heard of anything this drastic before at Hart. Has something happened?”

Before Jennifer could open her mouth or shut her down, Pat answered, “Something went down at the park where the kids went this morning. Jonathan and August shot out of here right after they got word. We don’t know what happened, we don’t know if anybody’s hurt or not. We don’t know for sure if it has anything to do with Hart.”

Eva’s face took on a peeved expression and Jennifer’s body stiffened, but Pat ignored both of them, barreling on with what she had to say.

“All we know is that Jonathan has to be awfully paranoid about things if he’s shutting everything down and locking things and people up like this, especially Jennifer, here.”

Chris appeared to be thinking, and for a few moments, the silence in the room was close to uncomfortable. Then she turned fully forward from her sideways position on the couch.

“Jennifer, I’m told you have my laptop and my purse.”

“I do.”

“Let’s go up to the house. I need to get plugged in and find out what’s going on. I’ve been out of the loop too long. I may need you ladies to help me with some things, to piece some things together.”

Eva started to protest, “Ms. Allen, I don’t think-”

“I’m going,” Chris declared. “And I’m walking, so don’t pull out that wheelchair. I’m finished with that.”

Taking her time, sliding forward, and then bracing herself with one hand, she pushed up from the couch and stood. Steadying herself, she allowed time for the room to complete its tentative half- spin. Then, with Jennifer and Pat on either side of her and Eva following, she started out of the pool house.

______________________________________________________

After introducing him to the ER doctor who had primarily attended to J.J. when she was brought in, they reviewed with him the tests she would be soon undergoing. Then Dr. Kendall escorted Jonathan to the curtained “room” where J.J. was being treated. When he went in, Dr. Kendall backed out, closing the curtain behind her, leaving them alone.

His soft-soled shoes made no sound as he approached the table. J.J. remained still. She was so quiet that he assumed she’d fallen off to sleep. Placing Genie in the nearby chair, he stood over J.J. and gingerly lifted the cloth and cold pack from her face. At the sight, his breath hitched.

“Is it real bad, Daddy?”

The area around her right eye was bruised an angry dark red and even though it had been iced almost the whole time since she first injured it, it was swollen as well.

“Let’s just say that this and you are going to keep me in trouble with your mother.”

“You mean she still doesn’t know? Dr. Kendall told me that she didn’t think you’d  told her. You should have told her. Why didn’t you bring her with you? You should have brought her with you.”

The entire time she’d been talking, she hadn’t opened either of her eyes. It tickled him to know that she had to have heard him coming, and that she had to have recognized it was him. Conscious and alert like she seemed to be, she wouldn’t have let just anyone walk up on her like that. Although she was fussing, he was grateful to see that she was better than she had been earlier.

“You’re not the boss of me, J.J. Hart.”

“I’m not trying to boss you. For real, I’m just trying to tell you how you could have saved yourself from getting major grief from my mother. You know how she is about stuff like this. If you had told her or brought her, then it would just be me in this mess. Now it’s me and you, just like always. Tell me, does it look bad?”

“Tell me, does it feel bad?”

“The eye stings a little, feels kind of like there’s something in it. Dr. Kendall says they washed it out when I got here, but I can still feel something in it. I have sort of a headache, too. But I guess that’s from where I hit my head. Other than that, I’m okay. I want to get up, but Dr. Kendall says I can’t.”

“No, you can’t.”

Jonathan placed the cold pack back on the injured eye, but left the other uncovered. Then he drug the chair over so that it was right next to where J.J. was lying. Removing Genie from the seat, he hung her inside her carrier, as well as J.J.’s jacket, on a clothing hook close by on the wall. Then he sat down.

“J.J., do you remember what happened out there this morning?”

“Long version or short?”

He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head. “The true version, with nothing important left out.”

Underneath the blanket that had been placed over her, J.J.’s chest rose and fell with her sigh.

“I just got caught in the crossfire when the fight broke out between us and LA East. Alphonse and his football crew crashed the party to try to kidnap the dolls from us.”

“Why would they want to kidnap the dolls?”

“To hold them out for ransom, I guess. I don’t know. They do stuff like that.”

“Like you all did with their mascot last year?”

J.J. turned her face so that it away from his, almost mumbling, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“And I’m sure that you do,” he said. “You all stole LA East’s Pirate balloon and the generator that’s used to keep it blown up and waving during the games.”

“I wasn’t a part of that,” J.J. quietly retorted. “And anyway, how do you know about that?”

“Like I’ve told you before, there isn’t very much that concerns you that I don’t know about. I just don’t always tell you what I know. Sometimes it’s not important for you to know what I know. And then, in the event I happen to miss it-”

I know, I know, my mother manages to catch it.”

“You might not have been a part of the actual kidnapping, J.J. Hart, but what about the conceptualizing of the idea? The planning and implementation of the kidnap? How about the series of photographs LA East got sent of the balloon in odd places around the city? And the post cards: “Wish you were here”, “Do you miss me?”, and “Just chilling”? That had you and Marnie written all over it.”

“It’s just chillin’, Daddy, not chilling.”

“Whatever. You know what I’m talking about.”

He saw it when she snaked her neck, turned her face even farther, and he heard it when she lightly sucked her teeth. “I think, at this point, I’ll exercise my right to take the Fifth”

“Still sassy,” he smirked to himself. “That’s my girl with the nine lives of her own and a couple of somebody else’s.”

“I just bet you will,” he said aloud in response to her attempt at legal defense. “Finish telling me about this morning.”

She turned her face back toward him, and for the first time opened her eye to look at him. “What happened to me isn’t all that much. We were horsing around, and I got hit by something. Chase had started duking it out with Tim from LA East, some of the music equipment got knocked over, and then Hector and ‘Bicio got in it. We had seen them coming, and Chase told me to get under the table so that he could hand me the dolls to hide them out there. We were doing that when he got rushed. I came up from underneath the table cloth to see what was going on, and that’s when I got hit.”

“Who hit you?” Jonathan bristled.

“Relax, Daddy. Nobody hit me. I got hit by something, an object. I think some of the equipment Hector and ‘Bicio were setting up, might have fallen over and clipped me. But that’s not what’s important. That was just something that happened, you know, one of those unfortunate things. There’s something else I need to tell you, though.”

“What’s that?”

“The day we were assigned the dolls, this lady came to our school to help us get set up with them. I put it together later that she was a technician from HartToy. When I first saw her, it was like, “I know her from somewhere”, but at that time, I couldn’t put it together. She knew me, though; she called me by name that day. Later, I figured it out that Genie and all the rest of the dolls were HartToy.”

“How’d you figure that out?”

“The codes on their necks are Hart codes. I know the sequences from the HartToy I’ve had as a kid. I used to always look for them when I’d get toys. It’s become kind of routine for me to check for serial numbers and codes on everything now. It’s like a hobby or something for me.”

“So smart,” he thought, and he leaned in to press a kiss to her cheek. “I’m so glad to see you’re back to yourself. You were pretty out of it on the way over here. Go on with what you were saying.”

At his kiss, she blushed and smiled a soft, Jennifer-like smile, and as always, the resemblance tickled at his insides.

“Anyway, she was at our school yesterday. I caught sight of her during hall passing, and I thought she was there because it was supposed to be our last day with the dolls. But when we got to FACS class, she wasn’t there, and Ms. Leonard didn’t mention about her having been there. I didn’t ask Ms. Leonard anything about her; I mean it wasn’t a big deal or anything at the time. You know how something strikes you as odd, but it only lasts for a moment or two, and then you move on?”

“Um-hmmm?”

“Well that’s how that was for me. I didn’t think anything else of it. But this morning, right before everything else happened, I saw her. She was at the park, but it was like she was trying to hide or like she was trying to spy on us. She was standing there, but she didn’t try to come over to us, like I might have thought she would.

“And there were these guys, some men. I don’t know if they were with her for sure or not, but they started toward us from the direction I saw her, back by the trees. I saw her looking, I saw them, and I got a bad, sort of paranoid feeling. I pulled my hood up so that if she or they were looking for me and hadn’t picked me out in the crowd yet, they wouldn’t. My hair, this ponytail, is sometimes a dead giveaway. I don’t know why I was feeling so ‘noid and all about it, but I’ve been like that for a while, since Tuesday, I think. I’ve been jumpy and suspicious like that. Her being there at the park like that, being at school like she was, it all of a sudden just didn’t feel right. I was able to point her and those men out to Chase right before everything started happening. He was standing there with me. Him and Hector and ‘Bicio.”

Jonathan recalled talking with Chase, but that Chase hadn’t mentioned anything about any of that. He’d gotten that part from August during that phone call he’d received from him while out in the waiting room. While he was at the park, he had spied Hector and Orbicio in the background, but over with the police. Maybe they had seen something. He determined to himself that he’d find that out later.

“These men. What did they do? Were they a part of the brawl?”

“I don’t know. I got hit, and I don’t remember anything after that except waking up here.”

“The lady. Did you get her name?”

“Rangel. Her visitor’s name badge that she got from the office that first day she was at school said, “A. Rangel.”

Someone rapped on the frame to the cubicle, and Dr. Kendall pulled back the curtains. Behind her stood the ER doctor.

“Jonathan, they’ve got everything set for J.J.’s tests. Transportation is here to take her up.”

“Will I be able to go with her?”

“And whatever the outcome, I am not staying here,” J.J. chimed in behind her father. “Afterward, even if I’m blind in that eye, I am going home to my mother. She and Daddy can take care of me. Better than that, I can take care of myself. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine.”

“We’ll see about that once the results come back, Justine Hart.” Dr. Kendall said in response. “Jonathan, I’m sure it’ll be all right if you come with her.”

“J.J.’s absolutely right, though.” Jonathan was thinking. “She is not staying.”

When he left there, no matter what the outcome of the tests, J.J. would be with him. There was too much going on, too much uncertainty all around them, and too many people he didn’t trust to leave her anywhere that he couldn’t see her or readily get to her. J.J, had proven herself over the years to be plenty tough, and she seemed well enough that he and Jennifer could look after her. Also, Eva was at the house with Chris. If need be, once he had her safely back behind those gates, he’d pay Eva to look in on J.J., too.

Reaching over for J.J.’s jacket and for Genie, it hit him again: the dolls. That technician J.J. mentioned had been aligned with them. Coincidence? He didn’t think so. Those dolls seemed programmed to do everything except talk, but in the past couple of days, they had been trying to whisper a whole lot of things to him.

It would be interesting to see what tales they had to tell once he got home to them.

______________________________________________________

By the time they made it to the main house, Chris was obviously flagging, although she was giving it her best effort to not look as if she weren’t. They got as far as the patio when Jennifer made her stop, sit down, and catch her breath.

“You’re pushing yourself too hard, Miss Allen,” Eva fussed as she wiped perspiration from Chris’ brow with the small towel she’d brought with her out of the pool house. “These things have to be taken in increments.”

“Increments, shrecrements,” Chris wheezed between breaths. “I’m not an invalid, I have never been an invalid, and I’m not about to play the part of one. I’ve been through a lot worse than this in my lifetime and come out of it on the high side. I will not lie down and let this overtake me. I do better when I get up and face adversity head on. That’s how I was taught to handle problematic situations.”

“I’ve been trying to tell you,” Eva insisted. “Some things are not within your control, like healing for instance.”

“Bull. It is physical, but physical is also a whole lot mental. If you lie around and languish in infirmity, you’ll be that much longer in getting better. I know what I’m talking about. Just let me do it my way. I know when to slow up.”

Eva threw the towel onto the table and huffed off to deliver the tray of dirty dishes to Marie in the kitchen. In the meantime, the other two women had taken seats at the table with Chris. Jennifer turned her attention to Pat who had been fixated on Chris since they first arrived at the pool house. Chris had closed her eyes and seemed concentrated on getting her breathing to come more slowly and evenly. Jennifer took that opportunity to reach over with her foot and tap Pat on hers to get her to stop staring.

“What?” Pat mouthed in irritation after jerking in surprise at the dig into her instep.

“Stop it.” Jennifer mouthed back.

Pat frowned and slid her eyes back to Chris. “Let us help you inside,” she said. “You’ll be more comfortable on the couch.”

“Yes, you’ll definitely be more comfortable,” Jennifer hurried to second, in an effort to cover up the trace of insincerity she could detect in the tone of Pat’s entreaty. “Your things are at my desk anyway, which is close by the couch. ”

As she watched Pat help Chris up from the chair and lead her toward the kitchen door, and Chris’ somewhat uncertain response to that, Jennifer couldn’t help being reminded of a children’s poem she used to read to J.J. at naptime when she was younger. J.J. loved it, and she’d read it to her often, hoping that the little girl would pick up on the subtle message being delivered via that seemingly innocuous piece.

It was the one where the spider so graciously opened its parlor to the somewhat suspicious fly.

______________________________________________________

“You try the number,” August Lamb told Ken Matheson. “She’ll answer you. I know the techs trust you.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, it’s been mentioned to me by more than one somebody that the people under you trust you. Think you’re an honest, upright Joe.”

It was really the first direct compliment he’d ever gotten from his supervisor in all the years he’d been at HartToy. Any other accolades had come, in various roundabout ways, through Chris.

“I don’t say a lot, but I listen. I hear the talk,” the older man said. “We all have our strengths. Yours is dealing with people. Call her cell. She may pick up if she sees a Hart exchange number. If she is running, she’ll be looking for someone she can trust.”

The two men had gone over to the Hart Towers after getting in touch with Arnold Zale at home and putting him on the job of securing Alice Rangel’s cell phone records. Despite his lack of concrete evidence that something was really wrong, Ken Matheson thought that too many things about Alice Rangel were pointing in wrong directions to stay close-mouthed about her any longer. He’d told Lamb everything he knew, including about his visit on the night before from Martin’s wife, and about having followed Alice to the park that morning after seeing her with that other woman at the coffee shop. He explained how he’d watched Alice meet and talk with a group of men at the park, and about how she stayed back by the trees when the men started toward the kids’ party. It put him on edge when they did that, and he’d started out after them himself, but when the fighting erupted among the teenagers, and security and then the police descended upon the melee, the men stopped advancing and instead, retreated into the woods.

As for Alice Rangel, she had gone running back to her car even before the men he assumed she’d sent into the party. He told Lamb that where he had been hiding put him close to one of the men, and he wanted to try to detain him, but he thought it more important to stay and see how things turned out with the kids, especially with J.J. being there.

He hesitated at first to tell Lamb that he wasn’t aware right away that J.J. had been hurt, but he went ahead and did so, fearing that he wouldn’t have a decent answer should he be asked about. The truth was, he’d been more focused upon Rangel and what she was doing. He’d followed her as she ran back to the other side of the trees and watched as she jumped into her car , taking off as if she’d been shot out of a cannon. He only found out about J.J. being hurt when, returning to the other side with the intention of getting to his own car, he heard some of the kids talking about it.

“It’s ringing,” he said once the desk phone in Lamb’s inner office connected with the technician’s. They needed to use a generic Hart Industries’ number, and Lamb kept that one line for just such purposes. It didn’t specify from whom the call was coming or where within the division, just that it was originating from a Hart Industries exchange to give it legitimacy.

“If she picks up, tell her the dolls are being returned to HartToy this afternoon, and you were wondering if she could come in and deprogram them. Since she’s the one who set them up, she may go for that. After all, this project with the school has been her baby, so to speak.”

Matheson gave Lamb a thumbs up when his party picked up on her end.

It took a bit of coaxing; she claimed to have some things she had to do, but in the end, Alice Rangel agreed to meet Ken Matheson at the HartToy plant later that afternoon. She told him that she was some distance from the city, out running errands, and that she would have to stop by her apartment to change clothes and pick up a couple of things before she could start out for the facility.

“That buys us some time,” August said. “Let’s go see Chris.”

______________________________________________________

“What the hell?” Pat stopped and stood still at the sight.

They entered the great room to find security bringing in the last of the plastic carriers, and Eva and Marie collecting them and setting them down. Each  plastic carrier contained a doll, and at least three of them were squirming and crying, sounding very much like petulant kittens. Third was bouncing around them, sniffing and yipping at the facsimile babies, taking particular interest in the crying ones.

“Mr. Hart had them delivered here,” one of the men said. “Lamb called and said they were coming. They arrived at the gate and Smith, he brought ’em, said to have ’em delivered up to the house.”

“Where’s Mr. Hart?” Jennifer asked as she took a mental head count. “Wait, there’s one missing. There are supposed to be twelve of them.” She walked over to the table and couch where the carriers had been placed, shooed Third away, and looked closer. “Where’s Genie?”

The other two men had gone back out. The one remaining shrugged. “I don’t know from Genie, Mrs. Hart. These are the ones that showed up. Don’t know about Mr. Hart either. We were told to bring the dolls up to the house, so that’s what we did.”

One of the men came back inside with his arms full of small diaper bags which he set on the floor next to the couch. A fourth doll started crying.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” Pat cried. “And how do we shut them off?”

“They have to be changed and fed,” Chris said. But her voice sounded as if she was speaking from far away. “They’re like real babies. They have to be cared for like real babies. May I have one of those diaper bags?”

Her tone drew the attention of the other women in the room. She’d sat down on the opposite couch and had slid one of the crying dolls to the edge of the table toward her. Removing him from the carrier, she sat back with him on her lap. Pat handed her one of the little bags by her feet.

“Jaden,” Jennifer noted aloud as she continued to watch Chris with the doll she selected. “Marnie’s baby. Where is she? She’s kept that doll with her ever since she took him back from Sidney. She’s only let J.J. keep him, nobody else. Just J.J.”

Pat, catching the tension in Jennifer’s voice, shifted her focus from studying Chris to calming Jennifer.

“If it was Jonathan who ordered the dolls collected and brought here, Jen, Marnie would have given Jaden up for that.”

“But why would Jonathan have the dolls collected like this and have them brought to the house? Why not to HartToy?” Jennifer asked to no one in particular. “This isn’t making any sense. At least not any sense that doesn’t arouse my suspicions. Somebody is going to tell me something.”

Her hand was already in her pocket and closed around her cell phone when the house phone rang. Marie ran over, picked up, and then held  the receiver out to her.

“It’s for you, Mrs. Hart; it’s J.J.”

Everyone in the room watched as Jennifer took the phone from Marie and started over to the den. As she closed the door with one hand, she was wiping at her eyes with the fingers of the other. Everyone watched her, that is, except Chris. Still focused upon the doll, she had taken a bottle out of the bag, put it to Jaden’s mouth, and was staring down at him as he began to suckle.

“It was the dolls.” she said in a soft, almost dream-like voice.

Pat fairly raced to her side and sat down, noticing how Chris had begun to slowly rock, trance-like, back and forth.

“What about them?” she whispered to Chris as if she were afraid of disturbing her from her train of thought

“It was these dolls,” Chris said in answer.

As Marie and Eva tended to the other crying babies, Pat went for the computer.

______________________________________________________

Hi, Mom, it’s me.

I know it’s you, J.J. What in the world is going on?

Nothing really. At least not now. Everything is fine now.

What do you mean by, “It’s fine now?” What was wrong before that? Where is your father? For that matter, where are you?

Daddy went to the bathroom We’re at the hospital.

The hospital! J.J. what-

Mom, look, I have to talk fast. I don’t want Daddy to come back and find me on the phone with you. I’ll tell you all about it when we get home. I just wanted to let you know that everything is okay, and ask you to please not be mad at Daddy. It wasn’t his fault. It was an-

What wasn’t his fault? What are you talking about? What happened?

There was a little trouble at the park with LA East. I got hurt a little bit, but it’s okay now. Mom, please, Daddy has a lot on his mind. He doesn’t need for you to be mad at him about me. I know he left you at home, and he should have at least called you to fill you in, but he didn’t want to worry you. You know how he is about you and how he does things. Please don’t be mad at him. I’m not hurt bad.

Not hurt badly? What have you hurt? What happened to you?

Daddy had Dr. Kate to come and see to me. She was finishing up her rounds here, so she was able to come down and take care of me personally. I’m coming home as soon as they finish my paperwork, and I promise I’ll tell you everything. But please treat Daddy nice when he gets there. He needs for you to not be mad at him.

J.J., how are you telling me what I should do or say to my husband? What have I told you about interjecting yourself into our affairs?

I love you, I love Daddy, I love your affair, and I don’t want to be in the way of it. Please, Mom.

Our aff- J.J.!

I hate it when you fight, especially when you fight about me.

Who said anything about fighting? Your father and I don’t fight.

Argue then. I know you. You’ll be acting all ugly to him when he gets home, and he doesn’t need that right now.  He did what he thought was best at the time, even if you didn’t and still don’t understand what he was doing. Mom, please hear me.

Acting ugly? Justine Jennifer Hart, you do not tell me-

Oooh! Here he comes, I have to go. Please promise me you won’t be mad at him. Be mad at me, if you want, but not at him.

We’ll see when you two get here.

I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think it was important. Please.

I’ll try. That’s the best I can do.

No, promise me.

All right, Justine, all right, I promise. Just tell me what you hurt. Tell me how you got hurt.

I really have to go. Thanks for listening to me. You’re the best, and I love you. Bye.

J.J.? J.J.!

She was gone.

It was almost exactly like that call she got in San Francisco earlier that summer. J.J. said what she had to say, and hung up, leaving her to digest the message that Jonathan was ill, as well as the implication that she had been the one flying what she later found out to be Jonathan’s jet. Not answering her and hanging up was J.J. Hart’s impertinent way of sparing her.

From what exactly did she need sparing this time?

Jennifer ended the signal on her end and lay the receiver down on the coffee table. Glad of having closed the door behind her, she drew up her legs, leaned her body against the sofa arm, and lay her head down on her own arm. Ever since Jonathan took off, the mishmash of anger and frustration, with that dash of last minute relief thrown in, had been stirring inside her like some evil concoction in a red hot cauldron. Closing her eyes, she let it boil up, overflow, and wash over her completely.

______________________________________________________

 

When J.J. clicked off from her mother, she immediately pressed the speed dial button for Marnie’s phone. Her father and Dr. Kendall were coming up the  hall where she had been left to wait in the wheelchair. Just before they got to her, when they were close enough to see her do it, but before the call could connect, she clicked off and put the phone down into her pocket.

With the premium paid, she now had full coverage in the event certain questions got asked.

______________________________________________________

“You never did phone Jennifer, did you?”

Jonathan shook his head. “No, Kate, I didn’t. I figure to just wait now until we get home. Either way, she’s going to let me have it. I’d rather she have at me all at one time. There wasn’t any sense in getting her started over the phone, and then have her simmering over that conversation until we were face-to-face and she starts all over again when she gets a load of J.J.’s eye and reads the report. This way, it happens once, and it’s done. Hopefully.”

From their end of the hall, he could see J.J. seated in the wheelchair. He could not believe that she was on the phone. It had to have been in her jacket pocket when he’d given it back to her to put on in the drafty rooms where her tests were done. The results had come back, and aside from the knot on her head, the black eye, and a tiny scratch on the cornea of that injured eye, she appeared to be fine. The scratch, they were told, would heal itself.

“I do not believe you,” he called out to J.J. as they got closer to her. “You nearly got your eye put out, your brains knocked out, you’re sporting a black eye and an eye patch, both of which are going to take some heavy explaining when we get to 3100 Willow Pond Road. But as soon as you get the chance, you whip out that phone and get on it. After all you’ve been into today, who could you possibly be calling?”

“Why, Marnie, of course,” J.J. answered. “I was just going to fill her in, so she could fill in everybody else. But I saw you guys coming for me, so I hung up. And then I was going to call Chase to let him know that I was okay. You know he’ll be wondering until he hears from me.”

Jonathan, looking down on her, just shook his head, marveling at how quickly and how fully she had bounced back. Because he hadn’t said anything to her about Marnie, he was glad to hear that she had terminated the call before it could go through. There would be time enough for filling her in on that on the way home.

“Is all my paperwork finished?” J.J. asked. “We can go now, right?”

“You’re all done,” Dr. Kendall confirmed. “Jennifer isn’t going to like this mouse or this eye patch being on you, not one little bit, but things could have been a lot worse, I guess.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” J.J. said with a sly smile. “I think it’s kind of cool. A real live, not fake, eye patch for a real live black eye kind of makes me captain of the crew, don’t you think? You know, Jolly Roger for real, aye me hearties?”

After winking at him with her good eye, she took Genie from her father when he handed the doll down to her. “Has she been good, Daddy?”

Jonathan made a face at her, to which J.J. giggled.

As Dr. Kendall pushed the chair up the hall, toward the elevators, Jonathan walked alongside.

“It is time we faced the music,” He sighed. “There’s supposed to be a car down front waiting for us. I know Jennifer has to be way fired up by now.”

“I told you that you should have at least called her,” J.J. reminded him as she worked at strapping Genie to her chest. “Then it would have just been me facing that music with my mother all by myself. Now it’s probably me and you.”

“Like always,” Dr. Kendall intoned. “I don’t know how Jennifer puts up with either one of you, let alone both of you.”

With Genie zipped inside her jacket, J.J. reached out and took her father’s hand. “It’s two for one, Dr. Kendall; a package deal. My mother knows what’s up. We get on her nerves, but I’m sure she’s getting used to us. It probably won’t be so bad after she gets past the initial shock of seeing the eye patch and my eye.”

______________________________________________________

Still in his pajamas and encamped in front of his home computer with the third cup of coffee set quietly down for him by his most understanding wife, Arnold Zale hit the button to send the screen before him to the printer. He had just hung up from August Lamb, who along with Ken Matheson from over at HartToy, was requesting recent cell phone records for one of the HartToy technicians. That would be easy enough to do. He had connections within that cell phone company. Hell, he had connections within almost all of them.

Funny thing how that worked out. Just as that call had come, he was uncovering an interesting connection of another kind that involved that particular HartToy technician, Octavia Dash, and Claire, the younger sister of Chris Allen. He’d traced back and found that all three of them had once attended the same college together, had lived in the same dorm, and all of them had spent their freshman/sophomore together summer backpacking through mountains in Europe. After that summer, the trio split up with two of them transferring to other colleges in other states. Only Claire Allen had remained in San Francisco to finish her education. But soon after graduation, she, too, left not only the state, but the country altogether.

Swiveling around in his chair to pull those papers from the printer tray, he stapled them and slid them into the manila folder where he had been compiling everything else. He would procure those cell phone records for Lamb, and send them to him, and then he would get back to what he was doing. That needed further looking into so that he could get the full story to Lamb and Jonathan Hart.

______________________________________________________

In the back of the car which had been summoned to take them home, Jonathan ended his conversation, clicked off his phone, and put it away. J.J.’s exit papers from the Emergency Room were lying on the seat, and he picked them up to review the doctor’s instructions one more time.

Twenty-four hour observation? Keep her surroundings quiet? Bed rest recommended? Yeah, right. Surely, he was joking. She’s sixteen, and it’s Saturday? Please.

He pulled away from the papers the stapled bag from the pharmacy and shook the small box containing her eye drops and the brown bottle of pain pills into his palm. After carefully reading the formal names of the medications, he mentally filed them with the intention of later looking them up in Jennifer’s most recent copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference, courtesy of Pat Hamilton via her vast network of resources. He needed to see if they were something J.J. truly needed, or if she might be better served by allowing nature to take her own course. Like him, J.J. detested taking medicine, and fought doing so tooth and nail unless she was ill to the point of being debilitated by it, which was rare with her. Even getting her to be consistent with the vitamins she was required to take to help with her anemia was an ongoing struggle.

Sliding the items back into the bag, he then cast his attention to his daughter and to the mildly disturbing lump underneath her jacket. J.J. was semi-reclined on the other side of the car with her head resting against the window frame. Leaned back like she was, the lump was even more pronounced and therefore, more disturbing to him. She looked to be pregnant, and although he recognized that the added girth was due to Genie being strapped to J.J.’s front, the sight had him thinking about how for some girls her age, an actual pregnancy was a reality.

He wondered to himself how the fathers of girls in those situations handled it.

Although he didn’t think he consciously did things to try to steer J.J. in any one direction, he had extremely high hopes for her future. She had proven herself to be an excellent student and a gifted athlete. Aside from being his personal joy, she was pretty much a stand-up, responsible, all-around good kid. If she stayed on that path, it stood to reason that she would turn out just fine.

Her grandfather wanted her to seek higher education and at least an undergraduate degree after high school. Her father did, too, but above and beyond that, he wanted her to pursue her growing list of interests. He wanted her to have options, lots of them, and to explore as many of them as she could.

Jennifer, for whatever reasons it had fallen that way for her, had been able to do just that as a young woman, which hadn’t exactly been typical for girls and young women in those times. When he met her, she had already accomplished a great many things on her own. She had earned two academic degrees by then and was working on a third. A seasoned traveler, she had been to many places in the world. She could speak several languages and was conversant on almost any topic. She had her own wide-ranging interests which she heartily indulged, and her own opinions, which were largely based on personal experience and research, not mere conjecture or subjective bias. At twenty-nine, which was how old she’d been when he met her, Jennifer had been poised and confident, most definitely a well-rounded, worldly person. In short, in getting to know her, he found that he had met exactly what he had been waiting for, an independent, intelligent, interesting woman who just happened to be gorgeous- and sexy, as well.

It was what he wanted for his daughter; to have the time and the experiences that would help her grow into the kind of woman her mother was. Getting involved with guys too soon could curtail that. Just as his father-in-law said, boys tended to get in a thinking girl’s way. So far, J.J., still kind of a tomboy, didn’t seem overly interested in the opposite sex, but still there were several young bucks hanging around on the periphery. After all, the girl was undoubtedly pretty and spirited, and those bucks were undoubtedly interested. And being that they were young, they were also impulsive.

But then, that’s where Daddy bucks came into the picture….

He shifted his gaze back to her. She was still leaned against the window frame and appeared to be snoozing.

Hell, that damned eye patch might make that one even more interesting to that bunch hanging around her.

J.J. had that kind of edge to her. If anybody could make an adverse situation work to her advantage, it would be his and Jennifer’s kid.

Stephen Edwards had shared with him his regretful concern that his wife, Jennifer’s mother, had married him too soon and hadn’t had enough time to finish herself before her tragic, relatively early demise. They married when Suzanne was eighteen, and he was twenty-three. They had Jennifer when Suzanne was barely twenty, and after that, she devoted herself to raising her child. She had just turned thirty-two when she was killed in that auto accident. According to Stephen, it was mostly from her mother that Jennifer inherited her intelligence and her talents. He felt that his wife, in marrying him so young, never had the chance to fully develop as a person. He said that it was because of Suzanne that he made sure that Jennifer had been able to do what her mother, due to the choices she made for herself, had not been able to do.

It made him think for a moment about the changes and adjustments he and Jennifer, especially Jennifer, had made in their own lives after J.J. came to them. Of course, they had been much older than Stephen and Suzanne had been, and therefore, they had a lot more living under their belts by that time. Even so, having a baby had altered both their lifestyles somewhat, although in their case, slowing down at that point was probably a natural progression anyway.

He thought about himself at sixteen; he had been with Max for a year, and his life had already begun making a positive turn. By age eighteen, he was in the Navy and on his own, seeing and doing things that up until then he had only been able to dream about. Shifting back to J.J., he focused in again on the lump that appeared to be her tummy.

Sixteen? I’d have to have the boy killed, or neutered, or something. Way, way too young. Too much else she could be, should be doing… the boy would be dead, and I’d be in prison… no daddy, no granddaddy for the baby… the cycle would continue…

… the hell if that’s going to be so….

Then for a moment, he pondered how he even got onto that line of thought.

Just tired, I guess.

J.J. shifted position until she was seated a bit more upright. She yawned and then stretched her arms over her head. The bulge poked out even more, and it dawned on him again that Genie had been silent for a mighty long time.

“J.J.”

“Hmmmm?”

“Sweetie, how come Genie hasn’t cried? She used to cry a lot. I had her with me all that time at the hospital, and she barely made a peep.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught it when J.J. stiffened a bit- just a millisecond or so- before answering him.

“I think she just needed some time to get adjusted to me and my lifestyle.”

He pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. “Or could it be that she just needed some time to get adjusted, period?”

In response to that, J.J. stretched out her arms, in front of her this time, balling and then flexing her long fingers, and yawning again before sliding over on the seat and leaning into his arm. She snuggled up against him, folded her arms, and lay her head down on his shoulder.

“That medicine that Dr. Kendall gave me helped my headache some. I still have it a little bit, but now I’m sooooo sleepy. I think I’ll just take a little nap until we get home. Okay, Daddy?”

He smirked at being dismissed, and at the performance. It was all fine with him.

… Keep in school, little girl… football games, running track,  parties, stolen mascots, ransom, party-crashing, arguing and tussling… even with the black eye, the bump on your head, and the eye patch; keep having fun and being a kid for as long as it lasts ….

In surrender, he lightly pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

That’s all right. Take your nap; you’ll need it. I know I’m just pliant putty in your warm, crafty little hands. But believe me, as soon as we get home, and she gets through with me, I’m throwing the matter of Genie to your mother. And when she catches it, you can bet, so will you.”

______________________________________________________

Even though she had gotten pretty far out, she had turned the car around and was headed back. The call from Ken Matheson caught her off-guard, but it seemed fortuitous- almost too good to be true. Could it be that things were finally coming together after all?

As hard as she had been trying to get to those dolls to check them out, in the end it turned out that the dolls were coming to her. But what if after even all of that, she found out she was wrong in her supposition about them? After all, it had been a long shot in the first place, but it was the only thing that made sense, and it was the only thing that, so far, kept her from meeting the same fate as the others. Chris Allen, whether she realized it or not, had merely gotten lucky. Claire might have been her sister, but she was a sister with her own agenda. Always had been.

If it turned out that she was wrong, however, she didn’t know what she would do. She had gotten in too deep to hope that she was going to easily extricate herself. Greed had gotten the best of all of them, and of them who were left, she was the one with the most to lose. Her reputation, her livelihood, and now her life; they were all on the line. If only Paul had done it the way that he was supposed to do it….

Who would have thought that all these years later, someone would have been calling in a marker? Just like at present, back then, she had gotten caught up in it, but there it was back again to haunt her. Who knew that the school where the prototypes were sent to be tested would be the same school Hart’s kid attended? Although it had been a while since she’d last seen her, there was no mistaking who she was in that classroom that day. Monica hadn’t mentioned her as being one of her students, but then why would she? The name, “Justine Hart” appeared on the roster she received that morning of the students who would be receiving the dolls as part of the project they were working on, but that hadn’t really set off any alarms. But then the actual girl looked so much like her mother: her features, her build, and that hair, but with her father’s blue no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase eyes. Addressing her by name, however, had been a mistake, one she recognized as soon as she made it.

She’d told Ken Matheson one thing, but headed for her apartment, it wasn’t a change of clothes she needed; she needed changes of clothes, and she needed backup. If it happened that what she needed to be at HartToy wasn’t there, then she would truly be on the run, and she would need to protect herself. There were guarantees she’d made, that so far, she hadn’t been able to fulfill. She was going to HartToy that afternoon in the hope that she could find what she needed so that she could deliver on what she’d promised. But if that turned out to not be the case, then she would need to have an escape plan solidly in place, one that would allow her to safely get out and start over again somewhere on this plane, or to have her soul ready for the next if, God forbid, it came down to that.

So inwardly focused upon her immediate troubles, she didn’t see it when the black sedan in the distance behind her also made the turn back toward Los Angeles.

Continue to Part Twelve

 

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