The Project: Part Fourteen

Part Fourteen

A single gunshot.

Jennifer!

She was over there. On the other side. Without him.

The lady was tough and could indeed look out for herself, but with that headache… And with Chris not being up to her usual self… He had been told that there were a lot of silent eyes, and plenty of potential firepower over to protect them, but still-

There was no restraining him as he took off in the direction of the sound.

With voices and static crackling in their ears August Lamb and Ken Matheson were forced to follow Jonathan, trailed by the watch commander who was barking staccato orders into his headset as he hurried to place himself where he should have been, in front of the other three men.

___________________________________________________________

Defying orders to stay put, as if she were reacting to the sound of a starter pistol, Claire bolted toward the terrifying sound. Alice, for her part, seized the opportunity to make a hasty, solitary retreat.

___________________________________________________________

“J.”

The voice and the vague feeling of somebody patting her on the shoulder began drawing her out of her slumber.

“J., wake up. It’s me.”

“Hmmmmmm?”

“J.J., I’m home. Pat says you have to wake up for a little while.”

“Noooooo.” She pulled the covers over her head. “Go ‘way. Leave me alone.”

Small hands tried to pull the covers back. “I cannnnnnn’t, J. Pat says you have to wake up. You can’t sleep any more right now. Get up. I brought you some cake from the party. It’s from the chocolate part, your favorite.”

“I don’t want any cake; I want to sleeeeeeeeep, Marnie. Leave me alone.”

The mattress rippled in rough waves underneath her body as Marnie sat down hard and then purposefully bounced up and down next to her. “Come on J. I know you hate for somebody to wake you up, but you have to. And anyway, we need to download all these pictures from the party so you can see them.”

J.J. slid farther down in the bed, pulling the covers completely over her head. “You go ahead and download the pictures. I’ll look at them later when I wake up.”

“No,” Marnie insisted, tugging hard at the blanket J.J. had fisted in her hand. “You have to get up and be awake for a while. The doctor said.”

“And when I do get up, Marn,” J.J. groaned as she grudgingly accepted that she had been forced too far on the side of wakefulness to hope to get back to sleep right away and allowed Marnie to pull the comforter off her head. “I am going to kill you. I’m going to wrap both my hands around your throat and squeeze as hard as I can. Who opened those shutters?”

“I did. It was dark as hell in here. Let me see your eye.”

“How about I let you see my ass?” J.J. raised her head from the pillow, rubbing sleep from her good eye. “How about that?”

“Ooh, J., you cussed at me! That’s not like you.”

“It’s the medication.”

“Yeah, right. And for the record, I’ve already seen your ass, and I must say, it did nothing for me. Now Chance’s ass, that’s something different. J,, he is sooooo cute, and his butt looks sooooo good in swim trunks and in those jeans he had on today. You saw- when you could see- that he had on that cut-off muscle shirt, too. Oh my, those arms, those flat, rock hard six pack abs, those muscl-ey thighs, his really tight buns-”

“Who-o-o-a!” J.J. reached up and gripped her closed-eyed, enraptured best friend by the shoulder. “Stay focused, Marn. Slow your roll, and get back on track.”

Marnie took a deep breath, exhaled, and then fanned herself with J.J.’s hospital papers from the night table. “Okay, okay. Okay, right. But for real, J. Get up, take off that eye patch, and let me see your eye.”

J.J. sat all the way up resting her back against the pillows. It took a few seconds for her head to completely clear and her mood to mellow. She detested being awakened; having someone do that to her irritated her to no end, but she understood that Marnie was only following orders. She yawned and stretched the kinks out of the length of her body as she unfastened the eye patch.

“My goodness, J.!” Marnie exclaimed at the sight of J.J.’s injured eye. “As fair-skinned as you are, that’s going to be a mighty long time healing. What did you get hit with?”

“How do I know? It happened so fast. If I had seen whatever it was coming at me, I would have ducked.”

“You’re going to have a black eye for almost forever.”

“Yeah, well, I already went online and ordered some designer eye patches in different colors and patterns. I even found a red, heart-shaped one. I figure, if I have to wear this thing for a while, I might as well have some fun doing it. Of course, the Duchess will have a fit about that, you know, my making light of it, but anyway. The way I figure it, there’s no sense in sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I had them Fed-Ex’d to me; they should be here by Monday when I get home from school. I’ll wear this black one on Monday with the outfit I have planned. What did Pat say to you? Hauled in twice in one week? Boy, she must have hammered you hard.”

“She hasn’t said anything to me,” Marnie sighed, “-yet, but I know it’s coming. When Uncle Bill and I got home, she had something to talk to him about, so she took him right over to the guest house, and told me to come in here and wake you up. She said that you aren’t supposed to sleep for long periods of time. What’s that about?”

“When I got hit in the eye, I recoiled and smacked the back of my head on that table and knocked myself out. The emergency room doctor wrote on those papers he sent home with me that I can’t sleep for long; that somebody has to wake me up every so often. I imagine it’s because they want to make sure I don’t cash out from a blood clot or anything else weird in my sleep. Who’s home?”

“As far as I could see, Marie; she’s downstairs cooking. Pat and Bill, like I said, but they went over to the guest house. I didn’t see your parents. Your mother’s car isn’t outside. They weren’t downstairs, at least not where I could see them. Their bedroom door was open when I came up the stairs, and I didn’t see either of them in there when I came past the room, and my Duchess radar hasn’t gone off; I don’t sense her presence. I didn’t ask about them, though. Why?”

J.J. had gotten out of the bed and gone into the bathroom. “Nothing much. I just have a little something I need for you to do for me,” she called out over the faint sound of the toilet flushing and then water running.

“Look, I’m not getting involved in any underhanded shit, J.”, Marnie called back. “I have been in enough trouble lately to last me at least a couple of months. You said it yourself, picked up and nearly incarcerated twice in one week. By now Pat’s got to be sitting on the front burner with the eye turned up to high.  Forget it. I’m the one who’s going to New York with her on Monday. She’s going to have me all to herself for a long time, and she knows all the ways to prolong my agony.”

As she came back into the bedroom, tying the belt to her robe around her waist, J.J.’s glowing cheeks and the stray wet hair stuck to her forehead and temples said that she had splashed herself with cold water to freshen up. The eye patch was back in place over her injured eye.

“Jeez Marn, I really did do myself some damage, didn’t I? I look pretty scary right about now, even to me. The cosmetic surgeon in the ER said that he didn’t think I’d have any problems with it healing. I hope he was right. No lasting scars, he said. ”

“Well, that’s something. I’d die if that was me with a black eye, looking like hell.”

“Gee, thanks Marn.”

“I’m sorry; I’m just saying. I am way too vain and insecure for something like that. Forget about school. I’d have to go and close up in my room somewhere until it went away or at least faded enough for me to cover it up with some makeup. Being a jock and all most of the time, you can pull off having a black eye, an eye patch, ankle and wrist wraps, band aids, and fix-up crap like that. You’re a brick, J.”

“I’m not that much of a brick; I got knocked out, and I’m stuck up here in the room for the rest of the day as a result. Look, all I need for you to do is go out to the tool house and peek in the window.”

“For what?”

“To see what’s going on inside, of course. Why else would I need you to look in the window?”

Marnie shook her head. “Nope, nope, nope, no way. I know there’s more to it than that. What am I looking for? How come you don’t just go yourself? As fast as you are, you could have been out there and back in all the time you’ve been home.”

“I tried to go, but I wasn’t on my usual game, and I got busted by Cruella- twice. The second time, she ordered me up to my room and to go to bed. Told me I’d be lucky to see the hall up here tonight, much less get out. She’s cut Chase off from getting to me, telling him that I had to stay inside the house tonight and rest. But she didn’t say you had to.”

Marnie’s eyes widened. “Loophole?” Then she snaked her neck and held up her hand. “Oh hell no. I’m not doing it. I told you, I already have issues of my own: cussed out my step-mother, threatened to kill her, cussed out cops- got picked up. Allegedly tried to knife Alphonse while cussing him out- got picked up. In Pat’s mind, I’m already tried, convicted, and now have a criminal rec-”

J.J. was laughing. “I’ll bet Alph’s eyes got as big as frying pans when you were waving that wide cake knife around while you cussed him out for scaring you.”

“Yeah,” Marnie chuckled, “You should have seen him. He was ducking and screaming and everything, like a little b-, and I might have laughed in his face if the cops hadn’t swooped down on us like they did.” Then she got serious again as she pointed her finger into J.J.’s face. “But as to you and your request, though, I’m not doing anything I know is wrong from the start, J. I’m just not. My behind is already-”

With her own hand, J.J. moved Marnie’s back down to her side. “Look Marn, I only need for you to go out there, peek in the window, and see what’s going on. I just checked, and those cars are still parked out there.”

“What cars? And what difference does it make what’s going on in the tool house, J.? What do you care about that? Since when are you into what the gardener’s doing?”

“It’s not about Timmons or the gardens. I think Daddy had the dolls taken out there after he had them picked up from you guys.” Then she stuck it to Marnie where she knew Marnie would feel it. “If so, that means that Jaden’s probably out there, too.”

She could almost see Marnie’s thinking and her resolve making their shifts. “So how killed am I going to get if I get caught at it, J.?”

“Don’t claim getting caught, and it won’t happen,” J.J. urged. “Just don’t think along those lines. Stay positive.”

“Stay positive, hell. What if the Duchess is here and she catches me out by the tool house? What if Pat comes? What then? God help me if they’re out there together. How do I explain to either of them what I’m doing out that way?”

“Marnie, my mother’s not here, and you just said that Pat is in the guest house with Bill. My mother and father left before I went to sleep, and they must not be back yet. They had a fight, rather she told him off about my getting hurt, and then they left to go somewhere. They’re probably off making up as we speak. He most likely took her to a late lunch or something.” J.J. stopped to check the watch on her wrist. “And right about now, he’s talking some smooth junk in her ear, breaking her down. She’s pretty hard for me to bend, but she can be like putty in his hands, if he does it right; he knows how to work her. She gets mad at him sometimes, but she can’t ever stay mad at him long.”

“What did he do with you that set her off?”

“Oh, you know,” J.J. waved her hand in dismissal of the question. “He’s a guy.” Then she reached down to help Marnie up from the bed. “And like a guy, he didn’t handle it right. When he found out about it, he didn’t call her to tell her about me. He left her here, took me to the hospital, and then just brought me home all messed up like this, without warning, and she got mad.”

“Left her here? Didn’t tell her? What the hell was he thinking? Even I know better than that.”

“But see, that’s not what’s important at the moment,” J.J. cozily wrapped an arm around Marnie’s shoulders. “The tool house and what’s happening out there is. Go through the loft, down the back steps, through the den, and out to the deck. It’s the quickest route to where you’re headed. With Aunt Pat on the other side, in the guest house, and Marie in the kitchen, it’s the best door to not get caught going out of and to not get questions asked of you.”

“You never quit,” Marnie fussed as she reluctantly allowed herself to be moved across the bedroom toward the door. “You might only have that one eye to see out of, but you’re still nosy and pushing it. It’s always something with you, and I get dragged right along into it with you.”

J.J. rubbed Marnie’s back, then gave her a squeeze, “That’s because we’re buds, Marn. Two for one. Now I’ll go ahead and download the pictures while you go out there and get the goods. Where’s the camera?”

Marnie pushed away and headed for the bedroom door, “It’s already over by the computer. J.J. Hart, I’m warning you, if I get caught, you’re going to have to worry about that remaining eye.”

“I’ll take that chance,” J.J. said as she sat down at the desk.

Marnie reached behind the door and lifted Third’s leash from the hook. “I guess I can use the dog as my alibi. You know, pretend like I’m simply taking him for a walk since you aren’t able do it.”

“Good looking out. Nobody can question your being out by the tool house for that.” J.J. was popping the memory card from the camera to insert into the computer. “With me being hemmed in up here, you can legitimately say you were taking him out for me. Now hurry up, get out there, and get back. I’m dying to know what’s up.”

She stopped with the camera and looked around the room for a moment. “I’m hungry. Where’s the cake that you told me you brought me?”

“I thought you said you didn’t want any cake. I thought you just wanted to sleeeeeeep.”

“Well, I’m up now. You effectively saw to that. Where is it?”

“Over on the table.” Marnie pointed as she backed out of the door. “It was bigger than that when I cut it for you, but then Hector sliced off a hunk and ate it before we could get it wrapped up to bring to you. He said you wouldn’t mind, seeing as how he’s still your common-law husband, you know, your baby’s daddy and all.”

J.J., clicking keys on the computer with her right hand, reached for the phone on the desk with her left. “Common-law husband, eh? My ‘baby’s daddy’ and ate my chocolate cake? Well, we’ll just see about that.”

___________________________________________________________

Upon entering the guest house, Bill went straight to the couch, sat down, and kicked off his shoes.

“Kids,” he sighed. “I haven’t had so many of them running all around me in years. Not since T.J. and Peter were in the Scouts and I was the den father, or since they played sports in school and I was a team sponsor; they were always signing me up for that stuff. Even with the fracas this morning, and the guest of honor getting picked up, they just kept coming and coming. Then Marnie, Chance, and that Sid made it back, and that was all anybody needed to know. Even after the food ran out, still they kept coming. That was a nice thing you did for them, Pat. Real nice setup. Your Marnie sure knows how to get the word out, I don’t think she stopped talking into that earpiece of hers once.” He bent over to pick at some dried grass caught in the cuff of his pants which he flicked off onto the carpet and then turned around to check for Pat. “So, what did you want to talk to me about that we had to come all the way out here?”

Pat was at the front windows, adjusting the blinds to admit a bit more sun to the plants; she hadn’t been out there since before breakfast that morning, and the light had since shifted.

“What exactly did Jonathan say to you other than to ask you to pick up Marnie and keep her occupied?” she asked.

Bill removed his jacket and at first absentmindedly felt for the pack of cigarettes in the inside pocket before realizing in whose presence he currently happened to be. Pushing the package securely back down into its hiding place, he then he lay the garment across the arm of the couch and sat back, settling himself into the plush leather cushions, crossing one leg over the other.

“What are you going to do to her, Pat? She’s scared to death of what you’re going to do or say to her. Poor little thing. She was so pitiful, begging me to tell you that she didn’t cuss anyone out this time.”

“She just better not have,” Pat declared from behind the bar where she was fixing drinks for the two of them. “I told her the last time she got picked up about all that profane language she resorts to when she’s angry, and about keeping the police department on her side rather than the other way around . ‘Poor little thing’, my foot. In her lifetime, little Ms. Nastymouth Benson is probably going to need some strong allies, and a lot of them, from that particular camp.”

“Ms. Nastymouth Benson? Now if that isn’t a rock solid case of it takes one to know one.”

“Screw you, Bill.”

He twisted around to flash his most devilish smile. “I will if you want it, babe. And you can bet that when I do, I will be aiming to please. It’s been a while.”

Pat came to the couch with both bourbons. She handed one down before taking the seat next to him.

“You know,” she said, “you need adjusting. Your mind is stuck on the ‘filthy’ setting.”

“And that’s why you love me, Patricia Hamilton. It’s also why I love you. I love you, your filthy mind, and your nasty mouth.” He leaned over and planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “It’s all so sexy. Great minds think alike, you know. And great mouths li-”

To shut him down, Pat flipped up her middle finger, momentarily held it to his face, and then placed it to his lips.

In reply, he ran the very tip of his tongue along his top lip and then down her finger, dipping it seductively into the space between that digit and the next one, causing her to snatch her hand back from him.

“Adjust me, baby,” he leered.

“You are beyond depraved, Mr. McDowell,”  she declared as she tried not to chuckle at the lust-laden expression on his face.

He sat back, grinning broadly. “Always have been, and hopefully, I always will be. It’s what first drew you to me, and it’s what’s kept you coming back for more and more and more. Admit it. you were, and still are hot for me, aren’t you, Pat?”

Lost for a come-back, she closed her eyes and dropped her head in amused dismissal of his line of conversation and to avoid his accusing smirk. “Bill, be serious.”

“All right, babe,” he said, reaching to take her free hand in his. “I see that you’re back to your investigative self, and I’m glad of that. Okay, what is it? Ask me. I’ll tell you what I can. Where do we start? With Marnie?”

“No. Marnie Elaine, her legal and her social challenges will be dealt with at another time, one-on-one, she and I. What I want to know is, what exactly did Jonathan tell you about what went on at the park?”

“Didn’t he explain it to you and Jennifer when he got J.J. back home?”

“He didn’t. By the time they were finally back together, there was too much going on. After that, Jennifer wasn’t up for listening to very much he had to say. She wasn’t giving anyone much opportunity to talk.”

Bill grimaced at the mental image.

“There was a lot that happened after Jonathan got the Squirt back here to Willow Pond, but none of the questions I had really got answered. You tell me what you know.”

“She blasted him all the way out, huh?”

“She closed up with him in the bedroom after she startled J.J. into falling out.”

“Falling out?”

“J.J. hit her head at the park and knocked herself out. Got her eye hurt, too- but that’s all a long story. The short version is, she wasn’t steady on her feet when Jonathan finally got her home. Jen sort of ambushed her in her bedroom, startling her, and she fainted.”

“Jeez.”

“I was coming out of J.J.’s room just as Jonathan was coming out of the bedroom from Jennifer. I had heard a door slam, and I thought it was her leaving him in their bedroom. It turned out that what I heard must have been a door inside the bedroom. When I saw it was him in the hall, I swear, he looked as if he’d just been sucker punched.”

“Jennifer is the only one I know who could get a punch like that in on Valentine and make it hurt.”

“I hope she didn’t say anything rash or hurtful. When Jennifer is really angry, she can cut to the quick. She was good and angry over J.J. and over his leaving her out of it the way that he did. I don’t know what that man was thinking, doing that to her. He, of all people, knows how she is about that girl. Jonathan puts up a good front, but he’s really a pussycat at heart. I hope Jen didn’t say something to him that really hurt him.”

Bill crossed his arms and tapped his finger against his chin. “When he phoned to tell me about J.J. and Marnie, he said that he had messed up, and that he thought she would give him hell over it when he got J.J. home. He was anticipating her not being too happy with him. After he laid it all out for me, I kind of figured she might tell him off, too.”

“Well, what did he expect? You should have seen how he just jumped up without a word of explanation and ran out of here with August. Then he didn’t call her back to let her know what was going on. Without saying why, he had those dolls delivered to the house and dumped on her, and then, just as wordlessly, he sent technicians to collect them again and take them to the tool house to check them over. Then, again with no explanation to her, he ordered special security to go and keep an eye on the technicians. When Jennifer does finally get a call, it’s not from Jonathan, it’s from J.J., pleading with her to take it easy on ‘her Daddy’.”

It was Bill’s turn to chuckle as he tipped up his glass. “See that’s why I needed a daughter. Just one somebody in the world to get my back no matter what, and to run hard interference for me like J.J. does for Jonathan. Peter and his boys run right past me to you. That’s boys for you.”

“You do not need that. Your boys were raised right. First you had your wife, then Clara, and now I’ve been in their lives long enough for them to know which of us has the most sense. And for your information, it turns out that the Squirt was trying to look out for both of them in her own little misguided way. But getting back to what I was saying, after Jennifer spent all morning sitting around, wondering and worrying, he waltzes back in here with J.J., an eye patch over her eye and papers in her hand that inform her mother that at some point this morning, she had been rendered unconscious. Bill, Jonathan’s not a stupid man; He knows how Jen is. He had to have had a very good reason for pissing her off like that. What’s going on?”

“Is the eye bad?”

“Dammit, man! Stop changing the subject.”

“It’s J.J. we’re talking about here, Pat. I’m her godfather. I want and need to know.”

“All right, she’s pretty badly bruised around that eye, there’s a little scratch on her cornea, and she’s had a headache all day. She has to put drops in the eye, take some pills as needed for the headache, and she isn’t allowed to sleep for more than two hours at a time for the next twenty-four-damn hours, thus my sending Marnie to get her up. For some twisted reason, J.J. thought she was still going out tonight, but I’ve nixed that by putting her behind on medical house arrest. She’s attempted escape twice since she’s been home, but she wasn’t quite up to her usual cunning and swiftness. Eventually, probably tomorrow morning knowing her, she’ll be right back to herself. Now will you please answer me what I asked you.”

Apparently satisfied with the briefing he’d gotten, Bill seemed to relax. He settled back on the couch to tell Pat what he knew.

“Okay. I was just coming out of the morning session and going with the others down to brunch when I got the call. I was already aware that Jonathan had arranged for security to be at the park to keep an eye on the kids, and that as a favor to him, Gray had some police at the ready, as well. I was a little concerned about the girls being out there myself, so I was glad to hear that. Jonathan told me last night that he had a strong feeling that something might happen, and you know he goes with his hunches on things. As it turned out, it was just the kids out there acting crazy. Or at least, that’s what it seemed like at the time. After J.J. got hurt, and they got her in the ambulance with Jonathan, one of the twins, Chase, let August know that there had been some guys at the park, and he wasn’t sure if they weren’t being set up for something.”

“Something like what?”

“I don’t know. Jonathan didn’t say. He didn’t have all the details at that time. It was all still pretty sketchy then, and he was calling from the hospital, so he was talking pretty fast. He wanted me to get to Marnie and get her sprung as quickly as possible, so that was where my focus was. I knew that he had his hands full with J.J. and getting his story together for Jennifer. Why?”

“All of them are gone. Jonathan, Jennifer, Chris, and August. August had come back here just as Jonathan arrived with J.J. When J.J. fell out upstairs with Jennifer, and Jennifer called out for help with her, Jonathan, Marie, and I went up. August stayed downstairs with Chris. A short time later, I came back down, looking for them- for Chris actually, but they were gone. Then I overheard Jonathan in the den talking on the telephone with someone. It sounded as if he were assembling the troops, but I couldn’t tell what for, so I went upstairs and got Jennifer, and made her go to him. Despite the spat they’d just had, he needed her. She keeps him grounded and sane when things start going haywire, and I figured he had to be rattled behind J.J. getting hurt and Jennifer letting him have it over it. Did he say anything to you about those dolls?”

“What dolls? The ones the kids had?”

“To what other dolls would I be referring? Would you please try to work with me here.”

“Pat, baby, you know I don’t get as wrapped up in all this cloak and dagger bullshit as you and Jonathan and Jennifer. Unless it has to do with planes, flying, hiking and exploring, or the kids, I’m not becoming all that involved. For me, it’s tell me what you need me to do, and if it makes sense to me,  I’ll get ‘er done. I don’t need to know all the inside details and background information, and I’m not asking a whole lot of questions about any of it. To answer you, no I don’t know what he was doing with the dolls. I didn’t know anything about them until you mentioned them just now. Like I told you, my objective was Marnie and making sure she was okay. Jonathan said to pick her up from Herschel at the precinct, take her back to the park, and keep her occupied, and that’s what I did. She’s quite the hostess, by the way. Throws a real nice party.”

“It didn’t occur to you to ask Jonathan why he didn’t want her brought back here?”

“What did I just tell you? He said keep her at the park; I said ‘okay’. Why are you so antsy, babe?”

“Because I want to know what the big deal is about those dolls. Chris knows something about them; she keeps reacting to them. Also, one of the techs called up to the house not long ago to say that they were out there “still working on them”. I want to know what they’re doing. They were looking for the twelfth doll when they called up here. I believe it’s J.J.’s doll that they don’t have. J.J. had Genie with her when she got hurt, so she didn’t get picked up with the others. The last time I saw her, she was up in J.J.’s room on the chair. I went looking for her after I got that call from the technician, but she wasn’t up there anywhere that I could see. I don’t know if Jonathan took her with him, or what, or why, but I want to know.”

“Why?”

“Because I do. I just have a feeling. He’s onto something with those dolls.” She took Bill’s glass out of his hand and set it on the coffee table next to hers. “Come on,” She pulled him up by the hand from the couch. “Put your shoes back on.”

“For what? Where’re we going?”

“To the tool house.”

“Pa-a-a-at,” he whined as he stepped into his loafers. “I don’t give a damn about those dolls or about what’s going on out at the tool house. I’d rather sit here and finish that drink.”

“And a cigarette; you don’t fool anybody, sitting there with your addicted self, smelling like an old ashtray. Well, I do care what’s going on out there, and you’re coming with me. I can also smell when something’s developing around me, and I’m not one to be left out of a good plot in progress.”

Bill continued to protest. “With her father not being here, I need go and look in on J.J. Make sure she’s doing okay.”

“She’s fine. You can stop and see her on the way back.”

He was still mumbling his dissent as she pulled him to the door: “My hard luck to fall in love with a nosy publisher.”

“And it was my hard luck to fall in love with a roaming, carefree, unconcerned Huck Finn of an aviator,” she replied, pushing him out in front of her onto the walkway, “but you don’t hear me complaining.”

___________________________________________________________

It happened so fast it took a moment for Chris to realize it wasn’t her own gun she heard; that she hadn’t gotten off a single shot. Behind her, close to her ear, she vaguely heard Jennifer whisper, “Damn”.

A short distance away, two bodies now lie on the carpet. The one face she could see was twisted in shock and anguish as the thin body involuntarily twitched in grotesque response to the bullet hole torn into the right shoulder. In the shadows, at the other end of the hall, Eva remained crouched in firing position. Before the sight of her was obscured by the swarm of security that flooded into the area, a lone overhead emergency lamp on that end eerily highlighted a thin trail of smoke from the revolver she masterfully cradled in both hands.

Chris relaxed and then abruptly turned around, using her arm to hustle Jennifer out of the area. “Come on. Let’s get you back into the office.”

“What about Octavia?” Jennifer asked as she moved along with Chris while replacing the safety on the gun in her hand. “What about that other woman? What about Claire?”

“They’ll be taken care of,” Chris said as she wasted no time hurrying her immediate charge to where she could be secured until her husband returned for her. “There will be enough cops and security up here in a second to see to their welfare. Claire will find me, of that I’m sure. Right now you are my concern. Let’s go.”

___________________________________________________________

Jonathan turned the corner following closely behind the watch commander, who doggedly insisted upon pushing his way forward to lead the group. At the sight, the resulting sharp jab of deja vu was overwhelming. Jonathan’s urgent steps momentarily slowed, causing Ken Matheson to run into him, an action for which Ken was quick to apologize. “Sorry, Mr. Hart.”

But Jonathan didn’t stop to acknowledge the apology or to let the other man know that the collision hadn’t been his fault. He heard him, but he was too focused upon what was going on in front of him and preoccupied with reaching his objective. For the second time that day he found himself walking into a hectic, frenzied scene that involved one of his own, only this time it was Jennifer.

Pushing his way through the crush of security personnel, he could see two bodies lying a few feet from each other on the floor, one of them bleeding onto the carpet. The other, the heavier woman, was stirring and moaning a bit. In-house emergency medical was huddled over them, as calls were being dispatched to get more help for them. Despite the sight and the urgency of the moment, he was immediately comforted by the fact that it wasn’t Chris, Claire, or Jennifer there on the floor. Even though the bodies were still some distance away, he readily noted that both were of different build than the three he sought. The hair color and texture were wrong to be any one of them, as was the attire. With that, he shifted his focus to looking for them in the crowd.

Who he did see right off was Eva, talking with security as she reset the safety on a gun she was holding which she then placed into a clear plastic bag being held out to her. August pushed past him with Ken following behind, to join that group.

In selecting Eva for the job, Jonathan concluded with certainty that he and August had made the right choice. Every step of the way, starting with her being called in the night of Chris’ accident, she had been right on top of everything, in the right places at the right times. Judging by the snippets he could hear of what was being said, she had definitely been in the right place at the right time in this last instance.

___________________________________________________________

In the office, they didn’t stop until Chris had Jennifer back inside that other room and over by the bed.

When Chris urged her to lie down, Jennifer did so without protest. The shock of Octavia’s sudden, violent turn on Chris, witnessing her being shot right before them, combined with the lingering pain of her migraine, all of it had her feeling weaker and more nauseated than before.

Chris, too, rushed to sit down, taking the chair next to the bed. Despite the strong front she had been trying to project, in reality, her nerves were jangled, her heart was pounding, and her own head was spinning once again. Being rattled and the resulting unsteadiness had her feeling as if at any moment she might be sick or pass out. It was all too much. As badly as she wanted to find Claire, she couldn’t do it. Too much had come back to her and it was all still flying at her as she struggled to get control over her physical shortcomings.

Almost as if on cue, as if telegraphed to do so by her thoughts and desires, the door Chris had closed behind them burst open and a blurred figure rushed in, dropping itself at her feet and pushing its head into her lap.

“I thought she killed you, Chris! I was trying to come find-,” Claire’s cries were nearly hysterical.  “I saw her with you, and I told that security nurse, or whatever she’s supposed to be, to hurry, and we tried to get… Oh God, I thought she’d shot you….”

Chris stroked her head and then bent down to hold her. “Hush. You know better than that. Our luck has always been better than that.”

A brush against her hip caused Chris to look down to where a slender hand was seeking her attention. When she twisted around to her, Jennifer was peeking up at her from under the arm she had been holding over her eyes.

“She’s really yours, isn’t she, Chris?”

It wasn’t really a question, and even if it had been one, the answer was one Jennifer had apparently figured out for herself. With a single nod of admission, Chris turned her attention back to Claire whose head was still in her lap. “Tell me what’s going on,” she quietly urged her, “It’s time you told me everything, but this time you’d better not stutter, and you’d better not try lying to me or omitting a thing.”

None of them in the room noticed that Jonathan had arrived in the doorway.

Relieved at finding the three of them safe together, but stunned by what he’d overheard, he backed away. Arnold’s findings and his confounding reports from that morning were finally making sense. It was no wonder that he had been running into so many seemingly dead ends.

His heart wanted to take him to Jennifer, to hold her and reassure himself that she was still there and fine, but his head said that it would be best to leave her to handle that delicate end of things. Retreating through Chris’ office, he decided to check on that other end, telling himself, “Go ask Alice.” She had a lot of explaining to do about her intended business at the park that morning that might have resulted in even greater injury to those kids out there, namely his kid.

But in the outer secretarial office, he stopped. The little bit he had gotten as he stood in the doorway of Chris’ back room was searing itself into his mind, making his thoughts squirm with discomfort. Hadn’t he just gone through that kind of scenario that morning in the car with J.J. when Genie, stuck under her jacket, had her looking as if….

Jeez.

That confirmed that call he’d gotten in the car from Zale. That was where he was running into the inconsistencies in their background. But Chris had to have been extremely young, a lot younger than J.J. was at present. How in the hell did she and Claire get to be sisters? Did Claire know the truth of the situation, and if so, how long had she known? That had to have been the reason for all the inconsistency that Arnold had been running into with the medical information he’d dug up on Chris’ mother. Could that have been the cause for the apparent rift between the two women.?

More than anything, what he really wanted to do was get Jennifer and go home where once the gates closed out the world behind them, everything could magically go back to normal. He wanted to set eyes on his own kid for solid reassurance that she was still sixteen, in high school, and unencumbered by adult troubles. Jennifer wanted to be with her, and J.J. needed for her mother to be with her, even if it was only a bump on the noggin, a black eye, and being stuck in bed that troubled her. For a pretty, outgoing young girl in current days and times, life could certainly be a whole lot more complicated than that. Once they were finished with J.J., he and Jennifer could get down the business of making things right between them again.

As soon as he got it figured out, he determined, collecting his wife and going home was exactly what he would be doing, which meant that getting the answers to his questions from the people from whom he sought them had better not take too much more of this time.

Pushing himself away from the desk he had been leaning against, he went through the secretarial office door and back into the busy hall.

___________________________________________________________

“I cannot believeI’m letting you walk me all the way out here to see something I don’t even care to see,” Bill fussed as Pat dragged him along the side of the main house of Willow Pond Estate, on their way to the back end. “We could have driven out there a whole lot quicker.”

“And I cannot believe  somebody who will hike miles into mountains to go into caves and such in search of what, he doesn’t know when he takes off in search of it, would complain about taking a short walk with a woman he claims to love,” Pat fussed back. “I guess spending time with me, doing what I want to do is too much for you.”

“Don’t try picking a fight, Patricia Rose. This is not about my loving you or about my spending time with you. It’s about your needing a partner in nosiness, and I’ve already told you, I’m not go-to guy for that.”

“You will be who I need you to be when I need you to be him.” When she increased her grip on his wrist and lengthened her stride, he was forced to go right along with her.

They took the shortcut across the lawn behind the main house, and were just starting down the walkway that led down to the rear gardens and the tool house when Pat stopped in her tracks, yanking Bill to a stop as well.

___________________________________________________________

Having made short work of setting Hector straight about her cake and about the termination of their arranged domestic situation, J.J. took the call from Teddy when he beeped in. She was talking with him and enjoying the pictures being transferred from Marnie’s camera to thumbnail shots on her computer screen when the hiccup followed by plaintive wailing from her bed brought her back to the moment.

“I guess I have to go now, Teddy. I have to check on my baby.”

“I hear her. Is Hector going to keep her any this weekend?”

“No, just me. I probably won’t see Hector until school on Monday. Even then, we’re through. Back to being just buddies.”

“Good.”

She stuck her tongue out at the phone, and shook her head in exasperation. Then she grinned because it was Teddy; the butterflies were tickling, and she had to. “I’ll talk with you later tonight.”

Him, she hadn’t told anything about the incident at the park or about her having gotten hurt as a result of it. As far as he knew, the party had gone just fine. Since he couldn’t see her, and wouldn’t for a while, he didn’t need to know about her eye. Before getting up to attend to Genie, she clicked over to her e-mail account and then clicked right back out when Tommy’s address didn’t show up in a quick scan of her senders’ list.

“Good thing you aren’t real,” she said to Genie as she retrieved the doll from where the robotic arms and legs struggled against the covers lying on top of her. “You’d be smothered, and I’d be running around all frantic, trying to decide where to hide the body and what stupid, futile lies to tell to temporarily cover up for your absence.”

Then she thought about her father and his questions again. “I’m already in deep if he happens to remember. No lies to be told there, and probably not any loopholes to grab hold of or to crawl my way through either. I’m through. He’s going to remember. When he gets home, I’m totally finished. God help me if he sics the Duchess on me over it. In that case, I’m just freaking dead in the water. I’ll be on lockdown until after Aunt Pat gets married.”

She picked Genie up and checked her diaper. She was wet, and it was time for a feeding. “Then you’ll puke and crap. It never ends.”

With Genie on her shoulder, patting her back to soothe her, J.J. took her to the sitting room where the diapers and bottles were kept. She lay the doll out on the daybed where she began changing the wet diaper while still talking to herself. “Maybe I will wait until I’m way older like the Duchess was when she had me before I have some kids. This baby stuff will make you old if you’re not already. Can’t go anywhere, can’t do anything, always on the job, man problems. Whether I’m sick, hurt, or just plain don’t feel like it, I’m at your little beck and call twenty-four-seven… I love you, but you’re an awful lot of work… a great big chunk out of my time and my life… looking out for you was how I got hurt in the first place….”

Through the slats in the open blinds, she spied Marnie as she walked Third down the sidewalk that led to the tool house. She was looking all around herself as she went, stopping here and there to let Third sniff the grass and do his thing on the bushes along the walk. It looked as if she might have been rushing him a bit, though.

J.J. fastened the tapes on Genie’s clean diaper and then went to stand at the window to see what Marnie did once she got down to the tool house. It would be just like Marnie to chicken out halfway and come back, fibbing about having been down there and not seeing anything when she looked in the window. As a rule, Marnie didn’t like taking risky shots like that. That girl was only adventurous when it came to parties, or maybe boys… cute ones with good abs, tight butts, and lots of money to spend on her.

But Marnie didn’t chicken out. When she reached the tool house, she let Third off the leash to allow him to roam freely, presumably so that he could handle his more serious affairs in private. Then Marnie tiptoed up to the house to a point where from the window, J.J. couldn’t see her. Movement closer to her, behind her main focus but within the periphery of that one eye she was using, snagged her attention.

“Oh, Jeeeeez-ussssss, Marn!” J.J. hissed in surprise as her fingers and her toes balled with dread. “You’re a goner for real. I am so sorry.”

___________________________________________________________

Confused and frightened, but determined, Alice refused to give in to her panic as she electronically accessed the nearby stairs, hoping to get away before anyone noticed that she was missing.

At the sound of the shot, Claire had left her, turning that corner around which Eva had gone when she told them to stay put. Not having seen what happened for herself, she had no idea who, if anyone had been hurt. Whatever the case, there was nothing she could do about that situation. The only thing she could do to help anything would be to get back to the tech floor. She was convinced that had to have been where he stashed it. If he changed his mind about going through with what Octavia wanted him to do, then the only way he would have gotten it out of there would have been inside something, and the only thing over which he had been obsessing before his death had been those robotic units. If it wasn’t with those dolls distributed to those kids for that project, then she would need space and time alone to quickly come up with where else down there it might be. If Octavia was there like Claire said she was, then she was there for the purpose of retrieving what she felt was hers. Whatever he had created for her, it had to be there.

Locating what Octavia was after before Octavia got her hands on it would be the only way that she might be able to redeem herself.

___________________________________________________________

“What?” Bill asked in response to Pat’s having stopped them.

She released his arm to point down the path before them. “Look at that.”

In the distance, Marnie was hurrying away from the tool house. She jumped from the short stoop, stopped on the walkway and whistled, patting her thighs with her hands as she did so. Third bounded to her from behind the house, and they watched as she clipped the leash to his collar. She stood up, started in their direction, and abruptly halted. Even from that distance, it was evident that she had been startled by their presence. Her mouth fell open, but no words came out; however, the thought bubble above her head flashed a hot expletive of the highest order. It was as if she were some tiny rodent, scuttling around in the dark and then stunned by sudden light as it found itself caught  alone in the open, too far out to go back from whence it came and with not enough time to get out of the way.

Pat’s disbelief had her stuttering, “Well I- I will be- She- she- she just got home. I sent her upstairs just now to- How-, I-, I have never in my life met two such relentlessly hardheaded- Even Jen and I when we- I specifically told the Squirt-”

Then she was finally able to conclude, “These two little, want-to-be-Girls From Uncle are not to be believed.” When she saw Marnie reaching for something on her hip, presumably her cell phone, Pat held up the flat of her hand in no-doubt-about-it silent warning.

Then she whipped around to check the window above that overhang from which J.J. had earlier fallen. Surely enough, when she did, like an apparition, a pale-faced form in white abruptly disappeared as the blinds in front of it snapped shut.

“I could write a damned book,” she murmured. “And publish it, too. It’d be a runaway bestseller.”

Beside her, looking up with her, Bill choked back a chuckle.

“You’d better not,” she warned him through gritted teeth. Then she turned around and crooked her finger at the paralyzed girl on the other end of the lane, calling out, “And make it fast!”

The petite figure in the flared designer jeans obediently sashayed in quick, dainty steps toward them, the shiny bobbed head hung in surrender. Third, innocent and unsuspecting, pulled at the leash, eager to greet the two familiar figures waiting for him and Marnie to get there.

___________________________________________________________

“Alice.”

The single word uttered by the CEO and sounding like a question got August Lamb’s immediate attention.

Jonathan had pulled him from the tight cluster huddled together, sharing notes on what was known so far. He looked into the intense, darkened to sapphire eyes, answering, “I don’t know. Haven’t had a chance to ask. I was just getting ready to ask about Claire. Chris and Jen-”

“Claire’s with Chris and Jennifer in the office. Let me have your pass keys.”

“How do you know where they are? And for what do you want my credentials?”

“I saw them in the office with my own eyes. They’re together, and they’re all right.” Jonathan held out his hand. “Let me have your pass keys, I said.”

“It isn’t safe, Jonathan, and on top of that, it isn’t ethical. I can’t do that. Where you pass, I pass with you.”

“I’m your boss.”

“And as my boss, you made me your chief of security, which means that my job is to protect your assets, chief among them being you. To further clarify, it means that your ass is in my hands- so to speak. Where are you trying to go?”

Jonathan made a face, and August lost it. Despite the gravity of the situation, they both briefly smirked in amusement over the graphic figurative reference to Augusts’ professional responsibilities.

“To find Alice.” Jonathan finally answered. “We know that she was at the park with her goons, spying on the kids with those dolls this morning, and I want to know why. On the pretense of getting to those dolls, she’s here in the facility. Everybody except her is up here on this floor, but she’s not present, and I want to know how come. I can feel it in my bones that she’s the missing link in all of this, and I want to find out what she knows, what’s going on, and why. Now.”

“The tech floor?”

“That’s my hunch.”

“And when you have a hunch-”

Both men started for the elevators with August reporting the change in their position into the mouthpiece he flipped down to his chin.

“And no damned press in the building, or for that matter, on the grounds at all,” he decreed before stepping onto the elevator behind Jonathan.

___________________________________________________________

“I could kill you, J.!”

After bursting through the closed door and slamming it shut behind her, Marnie went straight for the big chair, threw herself into it, and curled up into a fetal position. J.J. pushed the covers off her head and rose up in the bed to check out the room. “Where’s Pat? I saw her catch you. I thought for sure that she’d be right behind you, all on your neck, up here to kill us both. ”

“I told you she would,” Marnie mourned from the crook of her arm. “When she gets here, she’s going to wring both our necks. She told me to come up here and wait for her. She said that she was going over to the guest house to get her new leather belt and that she would be right on up to put us both out of our misery. When she gets finished beating the hell out of us, when I can get up again, I’m blacking your other eye like just like I told you up front that I was going to do if I got caught.”

“What did you see out there?”

“To hell with that and you, J.”

And Marnie snapped up and briefly held aloft a single small, silver-ringed digit to finalize the sentiment.

“I’m going to sleep,” J.J. declared as she dropped back down and pulled the comforter over her head again. “I’ve never had a whipping in my life, but I know she has got to be as mad as hell at me by now. She can’t get me if I’m asleep.”

Marnie curled her body even tighter. “Pat won’t care. I have had a whipping or two in my life. Grownups don’t care where you are or what you’re doing, if they’re that mad at you. Sleep or not, they go ahead and beat your ass anyway. I do not believe this. Here I am, sixteen years old with a car of my own that right now that I’m too scared to get into and drive away from this madness. I’m nearly grown but about to get a damned kid’s spanking just because I listened to you. I knew better. I should have followed my own mind.” She drew a shaky hand across her forehead, wiping at the nervous perspiration. “Oh, my God, I cannot believe this.” Then she buried her whole face in her arm.

“She’s not going to get us like that.” J.J. said from under the covers. “If she was, she’d have taken Uncle Bill’s belt from him, and she’d have gotten you out there on the walkway. By now she would already be up here finishing me off. But she is going to let us have it verbally. Probably me more than you. I’ve been on her nerves more than you, although you did end up down at headquarters in lockup again.”

“Mine wasn’t my fault. It was a misun- What all did you do to her, J.?”

“I can’t even begin to tell you about the stuff I did. The first one was a doozy, and it only got worse after that. Look, just go in your room and play it off. Be in the shower or something when she gets there.”

“No. I’m not listening to you any more. Pat said to come in here, to this room, and wait right here for her, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

“Suit yourself.”

J.J. scooted her own body farther down in the bed, pulling the pillow with her. “Be in direct path of Hurricane Cruella if you want to. I’ll be under here where it’s safer, feigning sleep and hoping she wears herself out while she’s still focused on you.”

“Whatever, J., whatever. You know, I should never have spoken to you that first time we were in time-out together in Kindergarten. Now look at me; I’m still in damned time-out, only now with a sword swinging over my head. I should have left your ass alone that day.”

“Yeah well, you didn’t, and here we are with the sword hanging over both our heads. Look Marnie, we’ve been there before and come out okay. And besides, you were finished anyway. You did time-out at the police station- twice in one week, I might add. While you’re blaming me for being in the fix we’re in, your goose was already cooked, carved, and waiting to be served up.”

Without lifting her head or shifting out of her desolate body position, Marnie reached up with one hand, snatched the fringed throw from the back of the chair and used it to cover herself while she awaited the inevitable.

___________________________________________________________

Starting in the large lab, Alice ran from there to the Assembly and Testing room, and then down to her own cubicle looking for the dolls. Where could Ken have had them delivered? He had summoned her to come down and deprogram them, and she thought for sure that he would have had them brought to the large lab for that. Where else would he have had them taken other than those rooms in her area of the tech floor for that kind of thing? It wasn’t making any sense to her. In her agitated state, nothing was. She couldn’t think clearly; she was far too frazzled to easily think clearly.

With all that was going on upstairs, and because they were aware of her presence in the building, she knew that it wouldn’t be long before security came in search of her. Her movements could be pinpointed and tracked in the building. According to Claire, Chris was in trouble. There hadn’t been much time for discussion of the details, but the situation had been enough to upset Claire to the point of tears. Claire Allen wasn’t one for being upset, and she definitely wasn’t one known for crying. A gun was involved, so was Claire’s big sister, and there had been at least one shot. Chris had probably blown Octavia away if Octavia was the one pulling a gun on her. Which meant that Security would be everywhere, and it wouldn’t be long before someone came looking for her to see why she had taken off and what she was doing.

Her cubicle was just as she’d left it. She had only half-expected to find the units there anyway. Where in the world could Ken have put them if he wanted her to work on them?

___________________________________________________________

Ken Matheson stuck his head in to announce the arrival of police detectives. Chris hung up the phone she was on and asked him for a moment to help Claire compose herself. Then the two of them went into the office proper to meet with the official parties gathered there. Left alone, Jennifer rose from the bed, slipped her feet back into her shoes, and vacated the back room also. Chris was seated at her desk, doing most of the talking with the police and security. A chair had been pulled around so that Claire was seated by her side. Following Chris’ earlier directive, Claire was holding her chin up and looking straight ahead with a bravado Jennifer knew the young woman probably didn’t feel. It was a good united front. Before they left that smaller room, Chris had already summoned an attorney on Claire’s behalf.

Silently, she bypassed all of them and went through the office door, closing it behind her. Being the CEO’s wife brought her a considerable measure of autonomy. People tended maintain a respectful, deferential distance, but she knew that at some point, she would probably be called upon to give a statement as well. When that time came, she would do so; however, for the moment, she had more pressing things on her mind. What she had surmised on her own, what she had been told in that brief span of time they all were alone, the shooting, and the lingering, throbbing effects of the migraine had her nearly reeling with lightheadedness.

That poor girl thinking for years that her mother was dead only to learn otherwise, presumably once she was grown. She couldn’t imagine what those two had been through, attempting to work their way past that awful family secret. Surely there was a whole lot more to the story that remained to be told. But it would have to wait a while longer, if it was ever going to be fully revealed. After all, the particulars were really Chris’ business, not a Hart Industries’ concern. It wasn’t something Chris had to share if she chose not do to so.

Despite the trouble between them, Jonathan, she knew, would be worried about her, and she wanted to get to him to assure him that she was okay. If she didn’t, he would without a doubt be breaking his neck to get to her. But once she was on the far end of the dimmed secretarial area, close to the outer door, she had to stop and sit down at an empty desk to gather herself. Resting her forehead in her hand for a long moment, she wrestled with the jumble of thoughts and emotions. In the midst of it all, her writer’s mind was hard at work juggling scenarios.

Thirteen or fourteen years old… a baby with a baby, and by circumstance, she and consequently her child were made to live a lie. What had the parents been thinking? No matter how careful they had been in covering their tracks, how could they believe that such a thing would stay buried forever? And how had they planned to deal with the fallout from its unavoidable revelation? How had Chris turned out to be such a stable, focused woman? Maybe Claire was why she was so stable and focused.

Pulling out the cell phone from her other pocket, without even having to look, she pressed that speed dial button.

___________________________________________________________

It took a few moments of standing there in the middle of the room puzzling over it for Alice to come to the final realization that she had most likely been called down there on false pretenses. Ken was supposedly there to meet her to deprogram dolls that weren’t due to be back until Monday, but were strangely returned to the facility after the incident in the park. Claire told her that the Harts were there, as well as Chris. What was that about? What would bring Chris to HartToy so soon after being seriously injured in her accident? And why would an important man like Mr. Hart be slumming around inside one of his buildings on a Saturday? It was practically company doctrine that Jonathan Hart’s weekends were reserved for his family, and that he was not to be considered a part of the corporate mechanism during those times unless the matter was extreme.

Had she become an extreme matter for Mr. Hart, and was that why they all happened to be in that place at that time?

There was every reason for her to believe that she could be, but how could someone as insignificant as she become a point of direct interest for such a man? She had never met him directly; had only seen him in passing, most recently the week before when he had been in Chris’ company, visiting on the tech floor. That had been right after the murder and right before she got dragged into it.

Money wasn’t everything. She’d told him that when he let her in on his dilemma. There were other ways to get oneself out of jams other than getting involved with people who ordinarily wouldn’t be given the time of day. But the world was small, and thanks to technology, it was getting smaller all the time. Instant gratification, snap your fingers to make problems go away, seemed to be the order of the day.

She was the only direct link left. Did Hart know that? Had he somehow put things together and come up with her? After all, despite his CEO status, he was basically a hands-on type individual. If the project or problem was of interest to him, it reportedly wasn’t above him to go anywhere to take an active part in its development or its resolution. He was also known for getting involved in and solving mysteries. Surely, with all the intrigue going on directly involving his holdings and his people, he would be playing an instrumental part in getting to the bottom of it.

The thought had her knees and hands shaking once again. She brushed her sweaty palms on her pants as she dropped down into her chair.

Could he know? What had happened upstairs? Was anyone shot? Who?

Without an ounce of regret, she hoped it would be Octavia. That would solve a great many people’s problems. For some it was already too late. Chris made no secret of her dislike for Octavia and had more than once warned her about staying away from Octavia. That hadn’t been a thing she had to be told twice. However, evidently that same warning had not been issued to Octavia about her. If it had, Octavia had not taken heed.

Why, oh why, had Ken called her there? Why were all those people there? Was it about her? Were they there for her? Was that shot she heard supposed to have been for her? For Claire? Chris? What was Octavia doing there?

It had to be about her….

Someone was approaching. Footsteps on Berber carpet, quiet, muffled, but definitely coming her way. Unzipping her purse, she reached in and got her hand closed around it just as Jonathan Hart himself filled the cubicle’s entrance.

___________________________________________________________

“Get the phone, J. I know you can hear it ringing. It might be Pat testing us.”

“Pat doesn’t test. I told you, she’s coming up here in person to do us. I don’t want to talk to anybody. You get it.”

“What if it’s the Duchess checking to see if you’re in your room like I know she told you to be? She’s not going to believe that I’m not stalling for you to get here if you aren’t the one to answer the phone. Then where will we be? It’s bad enough we’re in deep with Pat.”

J.J. stretched a hand out from underneath the covers, blindly reached for her house phone on the stand next to the bed, and pulled the receiver back under with her.

“Hello.”

“I thought I’d do better in calling this line rather than your cell to make sure that you were where you are supposed to be. What took you so long to pick up? Why does it sound as if you’re breathing hard?”

“Of course I’m here, Mom. I am not breathing hard; I’m in the bed, and I had to reach all the way across for the phone. Is everything okay now with you and Daddy? Where are you?”

“How you were doing? Your eye and your head? Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine, but you didn’t answer my questions.”

“You are not fine, and I don’t have to answer you; I’m the mother, and what goes on between me and my husband is our business. Why do I have to keep reminding you of those two things?”

“Then you’re not fine either and everything isn’t okay. Where are you? Where’s daddy? When are you coming home?”

“You just take care of you, Justine Hart. Your father and I have business to which we’re attending. We were taking care of ourselves long before you came along, so I’m quite sure that we can manage doing so now. I just called to check on you- to make sure that you weren’t giving Pat a hard time.”

“Mom, I told you I’m okay. How come you won’t answer me about you? Why are you-”

“I also phoned to tell you that I love you, J.J.”

For a moment, J.J. was so taken aback that it made her hesitate a moment before answering. “I love you, too, all the time. But what brings this on? What’s happening?”

When the covers were snatched off her head, daylight flashed in her eye, and Pat’s face appeared directly over her, J.J. almost dropped the phone. Behind Pat, Marnie was huddled in the chair with the throw pressed tightly to her mouth as if she were suppressing a scream. Her already big eyes were wide with horror.

“I know good and well that after everything else, you do not have the nerve to be up here on the phone.” Pat boomed. The eyebrows were way high. “Tell that little pin-head of a boy that I said you have to go.”

“I have to go now. Aunt Pat wants me.”

“Justine Jennifer Hart, what did Pat mean by ‘everything else’? Why is she yelling? What on earth have you done?”

“Nothing.”

“Put Pat on the phone.”

“She said I have to hang up.”

“Don’t you dare hang up. I said for you to put Pat on the phone this instant.”

With a heavy sigh, J.J. held the receiver up to Pat. “It’s my mother. She wants to talk with you.” But before Pat could take the device from her, J.J. drew it back and covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “Please don’t tell her. You can do whatever you want to me when you get off from her, but please don’t say anything to her about all the stuff I did.”

“Or me.” Marnie whispered loud enough for Pat to hear.

Pat took a moment to narrow-eye both of them before taking the call, switching demeanors to sweetly and brightly say, “Hey, Jen”,  into the phone.

“Hey, Jen, my foot. What’s going on? And you’d better not be covering for her. You can be as bad as Jonathan when it comes to that. You know better than anyone how jangled my nerves are.”

“Covering for whom? J.J.? She’s been a complete angel. What else could she be in the shape she’s in?”

“I know my child, Patricia. That girl could have two broken legs, an arm in a splint, have both eyes blackened and swollen shut; J.J. Hart could be in a coma, and still she would find a way to get into something. What has she done? Tell me.”

“I thought you left her with me, Edwards. I said she’s fine. What’s the story on you and Jonathan? Where are you?”

“HartToy. It’s a real mess here. I just wanted to check on J.J.”

“And Chris? August? Are they there, too? Is Chris all right?”

“Yes, she’s here, as well as August. Claire is here, too. I believe that your mystery concerning the two of them has been solved.”

“So she is the mother and not the big sister.”

“You had it figured out already? Why didn’t you say as much to me this morning?”

“Until you just confirmed it for me, I wasn’t exactly sure. When I got that medical information I showed you about her mother that I requested from The Mole, I began piecing things together in my head and tentatively came up with that being a possibility. It sounded pretty far-fetched to me, but you know how I believe that anything is possible. Seems as though it really was this time, huh?”

“My God, Pat, she had to have been just a baby. Younger than the girls are now. What about Marnie? Has she made it home yet?”

“She’s right here.” Pat turned around and skewered Marnie with a look that sent her back underneath the throw until only her eyelashes and eyebrows showed.

“I know you’re hiding something from me, but I also know that you’ll take care of it. Whatever it is, you go ahead and handle things however you have to. I have my hands full here. Look, I don’t know when we’ll be home, but I’m so grateful that you’re there with the girls. I know I probably don’t have to say this to you, but J.J. is not to go anywhere this evening. Even with her injuries, she will try you on it.”

“No, she won’t.” J.J. squirmed with discomfort when Pat turned her hot gaze back to her. “She’s already inquired about and been informed of her plans for this evening. Marnie Elaine will be right here, too.”

“Aw, shi- oot!”

The disgruntled muttering from the chair twisted Pat back around to cock a polished index finger, gun-fashion, at Marnie while she continued speaking with Jennifer. “She needs to finish her packing, and to stay close to her temporarily half-blind buddy. After all, it is two for one, you know.”

Between J.J. and Marnie, three eyes rolled. J.J. tried to lie back down and pull the covers over her, but Pat snatched them back and gestured for her to sit up, mouthing “Oh, no, don’t you even try to fake sleep now.”

“Through thick and thin, Pat. We do know about that, don’t we, old girl? Yes, Marnie should probably stay in, too. That will be easier on everyone.”

“I certainly do know about it. And as far as Miss Benson goes, she’s partied plenty this weekend. She has things she needs to get done here for herself tonight.”

The barely audible sound of someone sucking her teeth in disgust emanated from the chair.

As she continued to listen to Jennifer issuing instructions, Pat waved a hand behind herself, summoning Marnie to her. When Marnie reached her side, stopping slightly behind her, Pat pulled the girl by the arm, around her hip, and then used her hand to Marnie’s shoulder to press her into sitting on the bed. Signing off from Jennifer, she handed the phone back to J.J. to hang up, and then she glared down at her two apprehensive charges.

“You do know that I’m less than half a step from taking both of you out right about now, don’t you?”

Eyes widened, and the two heads bobbed in confirmation.

“And you know that I have enough of the right kind of connections in this world to make both your little asses completely disappear from the face of the earth, no questions asked, don’t you?”

Both girls gulped and nodded again.

“Jennifer wouldn’t even ask,” Pat directed that comment, complete with hands on hips and snaking neck, to J.J. “Her exact words to me just now were, ‘Handle it.’ If she only knew: climbing out of windows, boys calling here looking for you like ninety going north, you as nosy as hell and trying to sneak out when I specifically told you to rest.”

Then she turned her attention to Marnie. “And you, cursing in public like a damned high seas pirate, pulling knives on people, getting arrested not once, but twice in one week.”

“It was only a cake knife, and I didn’t pull it on Alph. I wasn’t even really arres-” When the eyebrows went up, Marnie shut down.

Pat continued her threats. “Nobody would ask me anything. There would simply be two less little chippies with whom the rest of the world would have to contend. Getting rid of the two of you, I might just be doing mankind a favor.”

Pat turned her focus back to Marnie. “So what did you see out there?”

Marnie’s raised her eyes to Pat’s face. “Huh? Where?”

J.J. perked up to attention and leaned in to Marnie. “She said, ‘What did you see out there?’ You know, at the tool house.”

“Hush, you nosy little parrot,” Pat admonished J.J. “You heard me, Hot Lips. What did you see?”

“I only took the dog out there to do his business,” Marnie stalled. “That was all.”

Pat folded her arms and rocked back on her heels. Pursing her lips and patting one foot, she locked Marnie in her sights. “So you’re going to sit there and try telling me that on this entire vast estate, with all the gardens, walkways, paths, and other outbuildings, over by the tool house was the only place that dog could sniff out to put down some pee?”

“No,” Marnie lowered her head to murmur into her own chest. “He had to crap, too.”

“It’s his preferred spot,” J.J. piped up in support.

Pat, clearly un impressed, shot J.J. a look that unmistakably spoke her feelings about the weak attempt at a snow job before pointing an accusing finger down to Marnie. “You must think I’m crazy.”

Then she pointed to J.J. “And that medication has had an obvious negative affect your already questionable judgment.”

She took a step forward and placed a hand to the top of Marnie’s head. “Now I’m going to ask one more time, and if I don’t get a straight answer….” She raised her blouse to reveal, at Marnie’s direct eye level, the unfastened black leather belt, featuring the prominent silver buckle, looped though the black trousers she wore.

“They had the dolls all taken apart,” Marnie rushed to answer. “It looked like one by one, in separate piles on that long table, workbench, or whatever it’s called. I don’t know if it was all of them; I couldn’t look long or count piles or anything. I just peeked, and then I ran ’cause I got scared they might see me. But then you and Uncle Bill came, and you saw me.”

Pat tipped her head in J.J.’s direction. “This one here send you out there?”

Although it looked at first as if she might, Marnie didn’t answer. Instead she closed her mouth and pressed her lips together so hard that her cheeks dimpled. J.J. slid that one eye, then her face away from Pat and sighed.

Pat was left shaking her head. “Stupid question,” she surmised aloud. “I get it; two for one. You make me sick, but I have to give it to you for loyalty. You are good and grounded, though. Don’t ask me to go anywhere tonight.”

She started to turn around, but then as if she had a sudden afterthought, she turned back to the girls. “Or ask anybody else to got out for that matter, namely Bill. You two are completely, totally, no-doubt-about-it finished for the rest of the weekend, do you hear me?”

They nodded.

“I can’t hear you. I asked if you heard me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they droned together.

“Because if you try using that loophole strategy of yours on me, I promise you, I will hunt you down and hang you both high with it. I’ll pull the noose so tight that it will snap your tender young necks like sapling twigs. I have had all the nonsense I am going to take from you two for a while. Are we understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

When they could hear Pat on the steps, Marnie jumped up from the bed throwing her hands in the air. “Grounded! Well, I’ll be damned. I cannot believe this. Grounded on a Saturday night with Chance home from school for the weekend. You know good and well that Connie McLemore’s party is tonight. We were all supposed to be there. I had that hot new outfit all picked out. Grounded. I swear, I could just die, just lay down and freaking die.”

“Well, I couldn’t go out anyway,” J.J. said as she pushed the covers back to get up. “Pat had already cancelled and thrown away my dance card. At least you have had some time out. I’ve been in all day. And I was in last night, not to mention how I was in all last weekend. I’m the one going through the social drought at the moment. At least she didn’t whip us like she said. But then, I never thought that she would in the first place.”

“Oh, yeah? Well then, why were you hiding under the covers, scared to answer the phone when it rang, if you were so sure of what she was going to do or not do? You were terrified, just like me, admit it. Pat is not predictable, and you were worried as hell about it. I thought for sure you were a goner when you were under the covers, and she came in here. She saw the lump, heard you talking, and shot straight for the bed. I couldn’t even get the scream out. If I hadn’t stopped in the powder room downstairs before I came up here, I’d have gone on myself in the chair when she busted open that door.”

At J.J.’s full length three-way mirror, Marnie stopped pacing long enough to fluff her hair and check her appearance. “So what did the Duchess want?”

“To check on me, she said, and to tell me she loved me. Something’s up, though; she didn’t sound so good, and she wouldn’t say where she was or if she was with Daddy or not. She was sort of mad at me earlier for trying to cover for Daddy, so why is she loving me so much now? And why in the middle of the day on a Saturday? Normally, if I’m home, she’s already started in on me with all the don’ts for Saturday night.

“And say Marn, did you happen to hear Aunt Pat make that comment about Chris?”

“What comment about her?”

“About Chris being the mother and not the older sister.”

“Too complicated for me, J.” Marnie replied, waving her hand as she started toward the door. “That’s one for you to figure out while we’re stuck in here tonight. My own life is in shambles right now; social end of it just shot straight to hell. I have calls to make, to you know, cancel my plans for this evening and to send our damned regrets. Good thing there was my party this morning and most of the regulars were there. I won’t be a total social outcast after this. I owe you a big-time black eye, J.J. Hart. Don’t think I’ve forgotten. I guess I’ll call and check on my father, too, since it doesn’t look as if I have to be in a hurry to get ready to go anywhere.”

“You know, Marnie, if you think about it, she didn’t say that Chance couldn’t come here.”

“No, but she did say that she would hang us up in the loophole, if we tried it, J. The hell with that. I’m doing it exactly like she said to do it. You keep forgetting, she’s going to have me all to herself for two whole months. I am not going to be sitting on the short end before we can even get out of Los Angeles. I need to save some up for later.”

Marnie started out of the door and then backed up to peek around the jamb at J.J. who was putting on her robe again. “Hey, how come Genie is still up here if all the other dolls are in the tool house getting taken apart? I saw her in your bed when I was waking you up. Do I detect preferential treatment?”

“More like an oversight, I think,” J.J. answered as she tied the belt around her. “She was probably supposed to be out there, too, but there was so much going on, and she got overlooked. She was tied to me when the rest of the dolls got picked up, and I figure nobody knew it until they took off my jacket, probably in the ambulance or something. Daddy had her with him when I woke up in the hospital from being knocked out.”

Marnie wasn’t listening; she was already on her cell, leaving J.J.’s room to head down to her own. J.J. went and got Genie from the daybed in the sitting room where she’d left her ‘napping’. Somewhat confused and strangely disturbed about things as they stood, she brought Genie back into the bedroom with her to sit down in window to think it all over. With Pat and her wrath out of the way, the only thing on her mind at that point were her parents and of course, Chris.

Her parents weren’t really that much of a worry to her. She didn’t like them arguing between themselves, but as bad as it seemed, that would eventually be overcome, of that she was sure. She was more concerned about where they were and what they were doing that her mother wouldn’t tell her about when she was on the phone with her. It had to do with HartToy and it was a mess; she’d overheard that much. With three people connected to HartToy in some way dead, how much more messy could things have become. But even more troubling to her was what she had overheard about Chris and her sister- or maybe her daughter, Claire.

So that was what Mr. Zale had been alluding to in his phone call to her father in the car that afternoon…

How could that be? Had Chris been lying to her all along? But as she thought about it, she recalled that Chris had never really talked directly to her about Claire. It was her own mother who brought up Claire directly to her and explained her familial relationship to Chris. Whatever else she knew about them, she had gotten from that conversation at the hospital between Chris and her mother and in the car once they left the hospital. She was aware that for some reason, Claire didn’t seem too anxious to be with Chris. If Chris was indeed her mother, then why wouldn’t Claire want to come to her and see about her when she was injured? Maybe Claire didn’t know about it. Maybe it wasn’t true. But even if they were only sisters, why hadn’t she been there for Chris?

For herself, she really was her mother’s daughter, no doubt about it, and nothing could keep her away if the Duchess were ill, even if they had fallen out right before. It hadn’t that one time, and it never would. She and Marnie weren’t sisters, but they were as close as sisters, and nothing could keep her from Marnie if Marnie was hurt or sick. Family, natural or otherwise, looked out for each other, that’s how it was meant to be.

If Chris and Claire really were mother and daughter, how was it that everyone thought they were sisters all along? Was Chris really old enough to be Claire’s mother? She didn’t seem old enough to have a full grown daughter.  In the hospital, Chris had definitely referred to Claire as her sister. Why would she do that if she was actually the mother?

It was all so confusing… and worrying….

Her father told her that the truth usually outs itself. Had some truth about Chris’ life been outed? Did Claire know? Was it a recent discovery, and therefore, the source of their troubles?

Obviously Jennifer Hart knew the answer, but did she dare ask her about it when they were together again? Would she tell her on her own? Should she ask about it? As much as she wanted to know, how did she dare ask about a thing like that, something so personal about Chris that she wasn’t even supposed to be aware of?

Her own mother was truthful and very clear about the things she chose to share with her kid- as long as she didn’t consider what was being asked of her as being too nosy or unnecessarily intrusive to her own life… or someone else’s. Even in those instances, she was up front about saying that it was.

Lying her head back against the window frame, J.J. began playing back in her mind the interview she had conducted with Chris the week before and her interactions with her since. Now that she had been let in on it, however inadvertently, she wanted to closely examine everything to see what, if anything, she might now find hidden between the lines.

___________________________________________________________

Pat was halfway down the stairs when she realized her mistake.

How could I be so stupid? I know that little minx heard it. She heard what I said to Jennifer about Chris, and with her slick self, she didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. Didn’t let on one for one second that she’d heard what I said, but I know full well that she did. The Squirt doesn’t let things like that just slip by without at least some consideration on her part. I’ll bet anything that she’s up there right now, doing the math.

For a moment, she contemplated going back up to that bedroom, but then she realized that there wasn’t any fixing it. She didn’t have enough factual information to fill in the gaps for J.J., and that tidbit J.J. overheard wasn’t something that could be smoothed over, taken back, or erased. As close and she and J.J. were, and as deep as their conversations could sometimes get, there were some things that only Jennifer could set right with J.J.

Marnie said that the dolls had been taken apart. That confirmed that feeling she’d been having that there was something to those dolls. Chris had said as much that afternoon when she was sitting there in the great room with them. Jonathan had to have been having that same feeling, which meant that there really was something sinister going on with them.

As she continued on down to the first floor to check on dinner, she wondered if Jonathan and Jennifer would make it home in time for that and what she should tell Marie about holding their meals. And again she wondered where Genie had gone and if she was part of the problem.

Then she thought again about Chris, Claire, and J.J.’s knowing about them.

Damn.

Once Jennifer was home, she would let her know what happened. She would tell her that J.J. was aware of the discrepancy concerning Chris and Claire, and that she would have to fill her in on the truth because J.J. would need that. Until then, the girl would be up there in the room, silent, bewildered, and wondering, and she would need to be set straight to keep her from trying to find out things on her own and possibly putting herself where she shouldn’t be. That she was so curious was in her blood. That element of her personality went way back.

Because it did, Jennifer had always been forthright with J.J., sometimes uncomfortably so. She had always thought it better to present J.J. with the bare facts of an issue that needed explanation or further clarification. Building a solid trust base between herself and her child had been Jennifer’s ongoing project for the past sixteen years. Only she could work this one out to the point of fixing it.

___________________________________________________________

After checking the other places they thought Alice might be, they decided to check for her in her cubicle. As curious as he was about Alice’s level of involvement in the recent chain of events, and as angry as he was about how all of it had impacted his family personally, Jonathan didn’t want her spooked. The sight of August Lamb tended to do that to people, especially if they knew they had done something wrong or they had something they wanted to keep hidden from him. He needed for Alice to feel comfortable enough to talk. Aside from Claire, she was all they had, and only Alice had been directly affiliated with HartToy and those dolls the entire time.

Approaching the cubicle together, just before they reached the entrance to it, Jonathan pressed his hand to August’s forearm to signal him to stay put. In response, August grabbed onto Jonathan’s wrist to get his attention. When Jonathan turned around to see what he wanted, he found August frowning his deepest disapproval. Jonathan pulled his arm free of the other’s man grasp, used that hand to signal his intention to proceed alone, and then he took the final few steps before moving fully into the doorway. He could sense August creeping behind him, attempting to stay close but out of sight of whoever might be inside.

A young woman was seated at a desk. When she swiveled around to face him, her hand was down inside her handbag. She jumped in apparent surprise and then froze, exclaiming, “Mr. Hart!”

“Ms. Rangel, I presume.”

“Yes,” she replied in a shaky, meek-sounding voice that matched her anxious appearance, all of which, for some reason took a bit of the hard edge off his anger. “I’m Alice. How are you, sir?”

“I’d feel a whole lot better if you’d put the bag down.”

His own right hand was at his waistband, ready to take action if the need presented itself. August had been likewise poised since they stepped off the elevator.

“Oh!” she cried, as if she didn’t realize she still had the purse on her lap. She snatched back her hand, closed and then pushed the bag to the floor, never once taking her eyes from his face.

Not sensing an immediate threat in her, he dropped his own hand and asked, “May I come in? I really need to talk with you.”

When he took a step inside the cubicle, she remained where she was. There wasn’t the slightest recoiling, no movement at all away from him, and he was glad of that.

“Is Chris okay?” she asked in that same anxious tone. “I only care about her.”

“She’s fine, Alice,” he answered. “I just left her to come looking for you. I was told that you were here somewhere in the building. I think you know some things that I need to know, and I need for all of this to be over. Why were you at the school yesterday, and at park this morning, and why did you run away?”

For an instant, she looked stunned. Then she hung her head. After another uncomfortable moment or so, she raised her face back up to his.

“I need to tell somebody. I’ve been so scared. I didn’t have anybody I could-” Then she gestured to him with her hand, waving him in. “Yes, Mr. Hart. Please come in. I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Chris has said that you were a man to be trusted. I don’t have anything I want to hide any more, and I want it off of me before anybody else gets hurt. I wanted to tell Chris or Mr. Matheson, and I really was on my way to do that a while ago, but-  but now you’re probably the best person of anybody to tell it to. They wanted to hurt you, but once he figured out that getting at you was what they were really after, he couldn’t go through with it. That’s what got him killed.”

“Who, Alice? Who wanted to hurt me? Why?”

“Why don’t you sit down, Mr. Hart. I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Still standing a bit sideways, with the hand she couldn’t see, he signaled August to remain where he was, out of sight, but close by. He couldn’t believe how easy it seemed it was going to be.

___________________________________________________________

“Where is my husband?”

Ken Matheson turned around at the sound of the voice, and found himself face-to-face with the CEO’s wife. He had been overseeing the emergency help and the official police personnel arrived for the two injured women, listening to his headset about Hart, Lamb, and a female, presumed to be Alice, having left the executive floor to go down to the tech floor, and was arranging security backup for that area of the building. Feeling himself being pulled in several different directions, he was trying to decide where his presence would be most needed when that direct question was put to him.

“I’m getting a line on him now, Mrs. Hart,” he half-lied, in an attempt to stall for time to see what developed and to get more security down there to back up August Lamb, covering for the CEO who was apparently off doing his own thing.

“You have a line on him,” she declared, appearing to see clear through his hemming and hawing and highly irritated by it. “There is no where in this building that he can go that you and your people don’t know about it. Where is he? Take me to him.”

She wasn’t playing. The look on her face said that she was not going to be easily put off by him or by anyone else.

“Mrs. Hart, we have a situation. In fact, several. Right now, you’re better off up here.”

He watched as she closed her eyes and for a moment, held her forehead in her hand.

“You know,” she said, taking her time in speaking. “All day long today, people have been presuming to know what’s best for me, my husband included, and quite frankly Mr. Matheson, I am sick of it. Now, to avoid having another situation up here, I am going to ask you again, as nicely as I can, to please take me to my husband.”

“But I don’t think Mr. Hart or Mr. Lamb would-”

When she looked back up at him, he wasn’t sure, but it seemed the color of her eyes had gone from their usual interesting warm color to a cold filmy grey.

“What did I just tell you? I am tired of it, and of the two of them. If it would be more comfortable and by the book, you can personally escort me to wherever they are. That way you can be sure that I’m safe, that you’ve followed proper procedure, and you would be left out of it as it concerns me. Right now, you alone are in the direct line of my fire.”

It only took a second or two before he was put through to August Lamb who, after securing his exact location, he informed he was on the way down with Jennifer Hart. He clicked off without waiting for an answer either way.

“Thank you,” she said as she graciously accepted the arm he offered.

As she walked with him to the elevator, he was thinking that for such an attractive woman who appeared so outwardly soft and unassuming, she certainly lived up to her subtle reputation for being a force to be reckoned with when it came to her husband and her child. But then, what else could be expected from a woman married to a man like Jonathan Hart? Men in Hart’s lofty position often changed wives like they changed vehicles. Hart’s devotion to his life-partner was legendary. She had held his undivided attention for well over twenty years.

But then he figured, if Hart had to deal with the likes of a woman like her on a regular basis, aside from obviously loving her, he was probably too scared to try to trade her in.

___________________________________________________________

Although she had invited him in, Jonathan remained leaned against the frame of the cubicle’s doorway as Alice struggled to get the words out. She was agitated to the point of shaking. Not meeting his eye, she sat pressing her trembling hands together in what he assumed was an effort to still them. When she got up and began pacing, as far as she could pace in such a confined space, the sudden action initially caused him to tense a bit as he was still not quite sure of her. But when on a second trip back toward him, she stopped and finally met his gaze, he immediately read in her face her sincerity.

“I don’t really know where to start, Mr. Hart. There’s so much I don’t know for sure. I only have bits and pieces, even though some of them are kind of big pieces.”

“You have me beaten, Ms. Rangel-”

“Alice.”

“Alice, so anything you can tell me would help bring things into better focus.”

“Did anyone get hurt upstairs?”

“So you were up there?”

She nodded. “I was. I was with Claire, Chris’ sister, when I heard the shot. We had run into each other up there, both of us looking for Chris. Something bad happened with Chris and then the security lady showed up. Then the shot…. I- I- I ran down here to-”

Her focus leaving his face, her widened eyes going past him and over his shoulder, caught his attention at the same time his own radar sensed that familiar presence.

“Jonathan?”

Jennifer was at his left shoulder. Right behind her were Ken and August, their apprehension radiating in waves around them like heat off summer-hot pavement.  Beyond them, in the shadows, additional security was quietly assembling. He reached behind himself and brought Jennifer to his side.

“Mrs. Hart,” he said in explanation.

Alice swallowed hard. “I know.”

To his surprise, Jennifer didn’t stop. She pulled out of his loose hold and continued into the cubicle, asking “And you’re Alice?” just his cell began vibrating against him.

“Yes, ma’am. I am.”

“Then you’re just the person with whom I need to speak.”

Briefly checking his phone and sliding it back in place, Jonathan then watched Jennifer gently take Alice by the arm, saying to her, “Let’s sit down.”

Once she was seated, Jennifer leaned back against the desktop, bracing herself with her hands. Stilling them, as opposed to using them as she customarily did when she talked, would keep Alice from feeling threatened and would insure that the younger woman focused only upon what was being said to her.

Good move, darling. Excellent execution. You are so good at what you do.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Alice,” she began, “although I would have preferred it to have been under less trying circumstances. Ms. Allen has spoken very positively to me of you.”

A tiny, momentary nervous smile twitched at Alice lips.

“Alice, I understand that Ms. Allen has been of great help to you at different points in your life. Now Mr. Hart and I need for you to help us so that we can help Ms. Allen. Let’s get down to business before the police and security get here. I think you would be more comfortable talking with us, don’t you?”

Alice nodded. “I think so, too, Mrs. Hart.”

“Our daughter has said that she saw you yesterday at her school, but that you didn’t come to her class. We know that you set the dolls up at her school. She told me today that she saw you at the park-”

“Is she okay?”

“You’re aware she got hurt?”

Alice immediately turned red with shame. “Yes. I saw it happen, actually I saw her go down. I should have stayed but-  It all happened so fast, and I didn’t know what those men she sent with me might-”

“Who sent them?” Jonathan asked from the doorway. “Who sent you?”

When Jennifer slid her hand along the edge of the desk and flexed her fingers, almost imperceptibly waving them at him, he could hear that he was pressing Alice too hard and too fast.

“I can believe that you were afraid, Alice,” Jennifer continued. “J.J. is all right. It was only her and her classmates acting like typical unruly high school youngsters. Unfortunately it got out of hand, and she got the worst of it. But why were you there? Was it about those dolls? Are you here today, on your day off, because of those dolls? Please talk to me.”

With her head bowed, Alice hesitated a few moments before answering, “I’m not altogether sure about the dolls, Mrs. Hart. It’s just a strong supposition on my part. You see, the guy, Paul, the one who got killed here, it all began with him and some money he owed to the wrong person.”

Jennifer reached out and placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder, causing her to look up at her. “Who was the wrong person?”

Alice sighed, “A woman named Octavia Dash.”

For a moment, Alice shifted her eyes to Jonathan. Then she brought her gaze back up to Jennifer. “Mr. and Mrs. Hart. It’s a very long, very sordid story. It goes way back.”

“We have time,” Jennifer assured her.

When Jennifer slightly tilted her head, signaling him to join them at the desk, Jonathan leaned back and used his eyes to signal the people outside the cubicle to remain there. Then he pushed both hands down into his pockets and went to stand beside his wife to hear what Alice would tell them.

The alarming text message from Arnold could be addressed once he finished with the more important business at hand.

___________________________________________________________

Still in the hall, his nerves practically percolating, August almost jumped out of his skin when the radio buzzed like a mild electric shock against his waist. He stepped back to take the call, switching position with Ken who took over his clandestine surveillance of the cubicle containing the Harts and Alice Rangel.

It turned out that all of his and Jonathan’s plans for blanketing the area surrounding the facility with security had paid off. Two men fleeing the scene too fast had been picked up and hauled in. They had admitted to dropping a woman off at HartToy. Evidently they were stepbrothers to the woman who had been shot upstairs, and they were spilling their guts.

___________________________________________________________

Pat had just called the girls via intercom to come down and eat when Bill entered the kitchen from the back patio door. He walked past Marie, who was setting the table, to take Pat by the arm and lead her into the great room to the couch, where he made her sit down.

“Okay,” he said. “You forced me out there. The security only let me in because they know me.”

“I knew they would even if they didn’t know you,” she replied, patting the back of the hand he was resting on her thigh. “You have that ‘I’m in charge’ look” about you.

“Yeah, right. I had to make up some lie about just wanting to see how the technicians were coming along. I’m going straight to Hell with the things I let you talk me into.”

“Your destiny along those lines was set long before we met, Bill McDowell. Your date with the Devil has nothing at all to do with me. So, what did you find out?”

“All I could see is they had taken apart each one of those dolls, and they’re going over them piece by piece, inch by inch.”

“Looking for what?”

He inhaled and released through his nose a long, exhausted breath. “I don’t know, Pat. I didn’t ask. I only went out there because you made me, and for the record, don’t think I’m going to be doing everything you tell me to do once we get married. I intend to continue to be my same old, ornery self, doing my own thing, in my own time, my own way.”

“Me, too.”

She sat back and tapped an index finger against her chin. “I wonder what Jonathan has them looking for? I wonder if he’s looking in the right place for it?”

“You don’t even know what it is, so how can you jump to wondering if he’s looking in the right place?”

She didn’t answer him. But watching her, Bill could almost see her thoughts working inside her head like the movement of a fine Swiss watch. With all the contacts Pat had in the world, there was no telling what she actually was aware of, and she wasn’t one for divulging everything that she knew. Nobody liked figuring out a mystery more than Pat Hamilton. But he was glad that she’d had so much to keep her mind occupied and her body busy since that past close-call Tuesday. Afterward, he could see her falling, and didn’t feel that he had been much help in catching her. That she had been put with Jennifer and those two girls after the fact, especially with that Marnie, had been another lifesaver thrown to her.

They heard someone taking the last steps on the main staircase and a couple of seconds later, Marnie entered the room. Upon seeing both of them sitting there, specifically Pat, she slowed almost to the point of stopping in her tracks.

“Where’s J.J.?” Pat asked. “I called for both of you.”

“She’s lying down,” Marnie answered from where she stood behind the couch facing the two adults. “I think she’s going back to sleep. She said her head hurt. She’s already called down to Marie to apologize. She said for me to tell you that she’s not hungry; she said she’ll eat something later, maybe once her parents are home.”

“This had better not be another one of her con jobs,” Pat warned. “I’m telling you, if it is, you’re both going down for it. I don’t care if you were right here where I could see you. You two know better than anybody that I will be taking two for one.”

Marnie rolled her eyes and sighed. “J.’s not conning you. Not after what you said to us when you were up there in her room with us. We heard you, and we both took you totally seriously. After you left us, I went right over and cancelled all my engagements for this evening, just like you said. I don’t think J. feels well for real. It’s not like her to lie down on her own like that; it’s not even dark out yet. She said you guys gave her medicine earlier, and it has her feeling all dopey. I know for fact that medicine does that to her.”

Bill rose. “I’ll go up and check on her. I haven’t seen her at all today.”

“You come here,” Pat indicated with her hand that Marnie should take the spot that Bill had just vacated.

Marnie came around the other couch and sat down next to Pat, instantly going into guilt mode. “I know you heard about it, but I really didn’t do anything wrong at the park, Aunt Pat. Honest. It wasn’t my fault at all this time. I was cutting the cake, Alphonse scared me, and then those cops-”

Pat placed a finger to Marnie’s lips. “Shut up.” When Marnie stopped trying to talk, Pat removed her hand.

“Marnie, I don’t give a damn about that. I’m more worried about you. Are you all right? The other night when you came to see me, you were pretty upset about a lot of things. Has any of that gotten any better with the time that’s gone by since then? Have you spoken with your mother?”

“I’m okay,” Marnie answered her, but she hung her head and began rubbing at the silver rings on her fingers.

“I asked you if you’ve spoken with your mother.”

Marnie raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Has she called me?”

“That’s not what I asked you, and I don’t wish to be made to pose my question again.”

“No. She- No, I haven’t.”

“Did you try to phone her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t want to. I- She makes me so- I just didn’t want to.”

“Have you spoken with Kyle?”

“Every day. Most of the time, twice a day. Always in the morning; if I don’t get to him first, he phones me. And then I try to call again before he goes to bed at night to see how his day went. I also spoke with my grandmother and with Brett and Mikey.”

“So, what is your reason for not speaking with your mother, Marnie? She’s there in Boston with your father and Kyle.”

“She is not with Kyle. She doesn’t care anything ab-”

“That’s not the point. I’m already aware that you’ve been checking on Kyle, your father, and all the others, but it’s also come to my attention that you’ve been pointedly avoiding your mother.”

“How do you know for sure that I’ve been avoiding her? Maybe she just didn’t answer the phone when I called. Maybe she wasn’t in the room at the time, or she just wasn’t there at the hospital, or something.”

“Don’t worry about how I know. You have been avoiding her. You know you’ve been doing it, and so do I- period.”

Marnie sat back and folded her arms. When she exhaled, it was strong enough to fan her bangs away from her face.

“She gets on my nerves, Aunt Pat. She’s so messy about how she handles everything. For example, I don’t know why she’s got to be  the one there with my father. Supposedly, she’s there to represent my father and because she cares about him on some level, but he’s got a wife for that. I also understand that Kyle’s not my mother’s kid, but you’d think that under the circumstances, since Kyle is my father’s child, and she allegedly cares so much about my father, she would be big enough to go and check on the boy. Or at least pick up the phone and say hello to him and ask him how he’s doing, but no. She just leaves him hanging all on his own even though she’s fully aware that Kyle’s father is all he has. After all, he’s a scared little kid away from home, on his own for the first time, and he knows that his father has been in a bad accident. But that’s how she is. When people show me how they are, I believe them. It’s like I told you the other night, I just want to have a quiet, problem-less life sometimes, so I eliminate the negatives where I can.”

“I understand that philosophy, but Marnie, you’re going to have to find some kind of way to get past this thing with your mother. She’s still your mother regardless of how you feel about her or about the things you think she’s done or hasn’t done. She’s going to be your mother the rest of your life. You’re going to New York with me so that you can be closer to your father, but don’t you realize that’s going to also put you back with your mother?”

“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Marnie sullenly mumbled.

“How? By acting ugly? By arguing with her and defying her? By cussing her out? How will your father feel if you do that? How can he get better if he knows that you and your mother are duking it out every time you come to see him?”

“I don’t know. He should be used to it. In a way, it’s his fault.”

“Then why aren’t you as angry with your father as you are with your mother, if in a way it’s his fault as you say?”

“He’s messy, too, but not with his kids. I had to learn the difference. See, he does his thing with other people, and I know that he shouldn’t, but he at least tries to stay low with it. He tries to keep it away from us. I only know about it because my mother told me about him and her, and because now I’m old enough to notice the signs of stuff like that. But I figure his messing around is his and Karen’s problem; I can’t do anything about that, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with me or with my brothers. But even though he might be shady with his women, my father makes sure that his kids get taken care of- all of us.

“Even though he’s all hurt and everything, he has phoned me to check on me. Has my mother?  My mother only has me. I’m her only child, but with her, I feel like I’m on my own. I can’t count on her like I can my father. I want my father to rest and get well- to not worry about me. But it would be nice if my mother acted like she worried about me sometimes. She has shown me exactly who she is in too many ways on too many occasions. I tried to deny it for a while, but now I believe it, and I’ve stopped counting on her. I don’t need her.”

“Marnie-” Marnie raised a finger to Pat’s lips, which shocked into her into silence.

“Look, Aunt Pat, you can say what you want, try to justify it to me however you want, but bottom line is my mother is only causing problems, and I’m sick of her drama.,” Taking the finger away, Marnie sat back, heavily dropping into the couch cushions. “Pat, honestly, I hear and I appreciate all you’ve said to me about it, but if you think I’m going to sit here and promise you that I won’t go off on her if she says something stupid to me, which she will, I’m sorry; I can’t do that. Not even for you. If she takes me there, I’m going there- every single time- every step of the way.”

“But Marnie, she’s your mother, and as such, you should respect her even if it’s only because she is-.”

“Then she should act like it. My parents are divorced. Divorced means you’re done. He cheated on her, knocked up somebody else, and then he left her. Since then, he did it again to somebody else. So, why is she there with him and not his current wife? What kind of mess is that? What sort of self-respect example is that supposed to be setting for me? I wouldn’t have anything at all to do with a man who did something like that to me, I wouldn’t care if he was my baby’s father. Would you? Then she almost let somebody, her husband-”

Marnie stopped for a moment and wiped at her eyes, before uttering between clenched teeth, “And then tried to smooth it over with me and cover it up to my father. But it’s not like the setting an example part of it matters to me with her because she’s never been any kind of example. If I was using her as a role model-”

Marnie stopped herself again when Pat gave her the eye. “I understand that part of it, but your parents, the natural ones and your stepparents, they’re grown, Marnie Elaine. They can do as they like. Karen isn’t in any shape to be of any help to Carl or to you. I wouldn’t want you to spend any more time with her than you have to anyway. But some people might think that Maureen’s going to your father, her ex, under those circumstances to be a noble gesture on her part.”

“Noble, my a-” Pat pointed a finger at Marnie’s lips, cutting her off, then warning, “You better not.”

When Marnie huffed, and looked away, Pat had to struggle mightily to maintain her serious demeanor.

Nasty tempered little imp. A real mess, but makes a world of good sense. One can hardly blame her….

“Your mother is there more for business purposes than personal,” she continued when she had it under control. “Your father has several hot irons in the fire that need close tending, and your mother, I’m told, is a very smart business woman despite the other shortcomings you feel that she has. They still have some interests and holdings together. Apparently your father trusts your mother in that area.”

“My mother.” Marnie spat. “She’s there to protect their mutual interests all right, but I’ll bet you anything that not all of them are financial. She’s there to stir up trouble because that’s how she operates. Before this, they weren’t even speaking, now all of a sudden they’re buddy-buddy? Please. She doesn’t want him, but she doesn’t want Karen to have him either. Karen’s way younger, and my mother can’t stand that. This is my mother’s way of making Karen kiss her- sticking it to Karen. As much as I hate Karen and how sorry she is around her sons, my brothers, I can sometimes see why she drinks the way that she does. It’s her way of dealing with everything. In my family, if you aren’t strong, or if you can’t fight, they’ll eat you alive.”

Pat stared down in challenge at the teenager next to her. “So you think you’re strong? You think you can fight?”

Marnie slowly inclined her body toward Pat, looking her right in the eye. “Can I fight? Hell, yes, and I’m strong, too. Just like you. That’s why I want to be with you. So you can teach me ways to fight better and to be even stronger. J.J. told me about some of the stuff you had to come through in your life. You turned out okay. I want to turn out okay, too. I know I’m a pain in the butt, and that I can be kind of bad sometimes, but I swear to you, I won’t cause you to regret having me with you.”

Pat wrapped an arm around Marnie, whispering to her, “Hush, girl,” as she held her for a moment. “I don’t give a damn about that.”

She really didn’t. Marnie was a busybody and could be trying at times. She could sometimes even be naughty, but it all simply made the kid more interesting. Just like that busy, nosy, naughty one upstairs with the concerns she wasn’t going to share with Bill when he got there.

“Go on in and eat,” she ordered as she pushed Marnie away from her and up from the couch. Then she watched as those tight jeans headed off to the kitchen.

At the door, though, Marnie stopped and turned around before going in. “Thanks for my party this morning; it turned out great even though I got almost-arrested again. The cake was beautiful. I took pictures of it before it was cut so that you could see it. I’ll print them out for you when I go back upstairs. Actually, thanks for everything, Aunt Pat. You won’t be sorry over having me with you in New York. I promise.”

With a wave of her hand Pat sent Marnie in to Marie and her meal. Then she sat back to wait for Bill and to reflect.

It was for sure when Marnie did travel to Boston to see her father, she would have to arrange to go with that girl to keep her from cussing anybody out… or from pulling a knife on somebody for saying the wrong thing to her… or to make sure that to her father was where she really did go… or….

But she was certain she wasn’t going to regret her decision to take Marnie with her. It was what needed to be done for everyone, all the way around. For a long haul like the one they all faced, Jennifer was better suited to raising J.J. Marnie needed another kind of touch, a different sort of approach, and being in New York would put her closer to her own family. Having Marnie there would also give her something else to focus upon while trying to deal with the devastation and confusion she was sure awaited her in her beloved Manhattan.

It was going to be interesting.

About as interesting as finding out the details behind Chris Allen and her baby, and where those two, HartToy, and those dolls all met up to make a story. In his mandated trip to the tool house, Bill had been of no real help in it. Peeking through the window, Marnie had come away with as much as he had in actually getting inside. Jennifer and Jonathan truly needed to hurry up and get home. The waiting was killing her.

… and J.J.

Resting, hell. J.J. Hart might not feel well, but her current malaise was more likely nausea and fatigue due to how fast that mind of hers was spinning the matter of Chris and Claire Allen.

___________________________________________________________

J.J.’s door was closed. Bill knocked and waited for an answer before opening it. Third met him, dancing around and between his feet and then jumping on the bed with J.J., where she was sitting, writing in her journal. When she looked up to see who it was, she smiled at him.

She had taken her hair down. Even with the eye patch, in appearance, she was very much her mother’s child, and as such, aside from being his daughter, he could completely understand Valentine’s being as taken with that girl as he was. Other than the color of her eyes, just about everything else about her, her face, her hair and her coloring, her movements and mannerisms; they all spoke loudly of her mother.

“Hi, Uncle Bill. What a nice surprise.”

Even some quality in her voice.

He grabbed her desk chair and rolled it over with him as he walked to the side of the bed.

“I heard about your accident,” he said as he sat down. “Marnie told us that you weren’t feeling too well and that you wouldn’t be down for dinner. I thought I’d come up and see for myself how you’re doing.”

She closed her book after sticking the pen inside, and slid it underneath the pillow next to her. Third settled himself at her side, draping his head and one paw protectively across her thigh as he kept watch on his mistress’s visitor. When J.J.’s hand began absently scratching at his ears, his eyes almost, but not quite, closed in ecstasy.

“I’m okay,” she answered. “I’m just a little tired from everything. I guess the medicine is slowing me down, too. I ate sort of late this afternoon; it was after I got home from being treated in the emergency room, so I’m not really hungry right now. I know Aunt Pat probably sent you up here to get me.”

“No. I came on my own. You and I haven’t really had a chance to talk in the entire time that I’ve been here.”

“You’ve been busy. How did it go with reopening the airport? I’ll bet that must have been something. An undertaking of massive proportions.”

“It really was something, the shutting down and the gearing back up. Consider it, all air flight cancelled across the entire nation and American air space shut off. Nothing at all flying. It was, I hope, a once-in-a-lifetime thing for all of us. You really have witnessed some real history in these past few days. I’m proud to have been asked to be a part of the process. Which brings me back around to you.”

“To me?”

“May I see your eye?”

She unfastened the eye patch and pulled it away. He flinched.

“Kinda bad, huh?”

“Yes, it looks like it hurts. But I’m not so much concerned about the cosmetic, although I must say that you’re getting to be too pretty to risk your looks over some horseplay.”

J.J. blushed in accompaniment with her self-conscious smile. “Thank you for the compliment, Uncle Bill. But it really was an accident. Everything just kind of happened, and I didn’t see it coming at all. It’ll heal. I have it from a reliable source that there won’t be any scars afterward. I’ll eventually get back to looking like me.”

“I must say, for a teenaged girl, you’re taking this quite well.”

“It’s not like I have a choice in the matter at this point.”

As she put the patch back on her eye, Bill leaned forward in the chair, clasping his hands together.

“I’m more concerned about your eyesight. J.J. You’re a pilot. Your eyes are as important as your wings. You’ve got to be very careful with your eyes. You don’t want to end up grounded permanently.”

The one blue eye widened. “I am grounded right now, aren’t I? I can’t fly like this.”

He slowly shook his head. “Or drive on that Learner’s Permit either.”

“Aw man.” With a hand to her forehead, she dropped back into the pillows. “I hadn’t thought about any of that. I really am grounded. All the way.”

“It’s temporary, I’m sure, but it’s food for thought for the future. You have to be more careful.”

“Well, at least now Daddy doesn’t have to feel so bad about being grounded. I am, too, right along with him. Another episode of the never-ending saga of Two for One. I don’t know how we manage to do it, but it seems like lately it’s always him and me.”

Bill snorted way down in his chest. “That’s not a recent development, girl. It’s always been like that with the two of you. I understand that he came to get you at the park when you got hurt, and that you tried to run interference for him with your mother. Then Jennifer let you and Valentine have it good when he got you home.”

“Yeah, we both messed up with her,” J.J. quietly admitted. “We knew better. I hate that we made her so mad. She told me off some, but I think she teed off on him pretty hard. Do you know what’s going on with them right now? Did they make up?”

“I know that they’re together.”

“At HartToy? Working on the murder stuff? It’s taking them an awfully long time. Has something else happened?”

Bill sat way back in the desk chair to smirk, cocking his head to one side in amusement. “You are not going to box me in, Junior. I’m not Valentine. I don’t break down as easily as he does. You will just have to wait until he shows up to ask your million questions. That’s for him to do with you. Nice shot at it, though.”

“What can I say?” J.J. shrugged. “I take my shots where I can get them. I don’t always connect, but I figure, you can’t win if you aren’t in. Is Aunt Pat downstairs raking Marnie over the coals for getting picked up? She said that you had to go and get her out of the clink.”

“I don’t know. Probably. But Marnie can take it. She’s a tough cookie.”

“Aunt Pat is, too. I think they’ll do well together.”

“Better than Marnie being here with you, soaking up your mother from you?”

When J.J. cringed a bit and paled, Bill laughed and reached out to pat her a couple of times on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“I don’t think I know what you’re talking about,” she mumbled.

“Yes, you do. See, you and your father are naturals together, same spirit, same outlook on life, same general everything; because it’s the two of you, there’s enough of him to go around. But there’s only one Jennifer. Now you and Jennifer, that’s something altogether different, that’s special. There’s only enough of her for Valentine and you, and sometimes even Valentine is a crowd.”

When J.J.’s jaw dropped in surprise, Bill held up his hand to cut off her protest.

“I’ve been watching you with her all of your life, and it’s been interesting. You have a very unique relationship with your mother. You and her are a lot different, but, especially as you’re getting older, you make those differences work. Regardless of that, there’s only room in it for you and her. Staying for an extended period of time, Marnie would be in the way. She’s better off going with Pat for the moment. Pat is better suited to give Marnie what she needs, and you can have the room you need.”

Visibly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken, J.J. asked, “What’s your point in all of this, Uncle Bill?”

“To tell you that you don’t need to feel guilty about how you feel about your mother; it’s not your fault; there’s no wrong in it. It was designed for you and her that way. Sometimes it’s like that between a parent and a child. It was like that with T.J. and me. Sometimes two people, even a parent and child, just click. When T.J. died, it was really rough on me, but it was far rougher on Peter. It wasn’t until after T.J. was gone and Peter was a grown man that I realized how much T.J. and I had been unintentionally excluding Peter. T.J. and I were naturals together, just like you and your father. My boys’ mother had been dead most of their lives, especially Peter’s. They were both my children, but how long had that son been feeling left out there on his own? You have the good fortune of being an only child with your mother, so there’s no chance of anybody feeling left out or overshadowed. You haven’t ever had to share her. I’m not so sure that you’d be able to do so now, at least not for a long haul.”

Until then, as she was listening to him, J.J.’s eyes had been in her lap, her fingers twisting that emerald ring. When she finally lifted her face and turned to him, with all that loose hair, she looked more like her mother to him than ever.

“I could, too, share,” she pouted. It was cute because J.J. rarely did that; she did it when she was cornered, and that was the only option left to her.

“You’d try because that’s how you are, and that’s how you’ve been raised, but it would be risky to your friendship.”

She went back to twisting her ring. “How did you know I was feeling guilty about it?”

“Because you’re my girl, and I keep my eyes on you. I don’t tell you when I’m looking or let you in on everything that I see when I am looking, but I do notice things. Sometimes with you, it’s not what you say, and it’s not always so obvious in what you do. But if I pay attention, I look long enough, hard enough, I can see through to what’s really going on with you. Like the thing in Vegas when you took off on your mother. Nobody gets as angry with someone as you were with Jennifer unless they care very deeply about that person. A not so obvious part of your anger then was that Valentine was taking up your space with her.”

“Valentine? Daddy taking up my space? He was sick! She had to be there for him. I wasn’t angry about that.”

“Think about it, sweetie.”

Bill rose from the chair, went around and took hold of the back of it in preparation for rolling it across the room again. “You’ll have to come at it from another angle in order for you to get your arms around it, but you’re a smart girl; you can do it. And when you have it figured out, don’t feel badly about it. There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s just how it is and how it’s supposed to work. Everybody will end up being where and with whom they should be.”

On his way out of the room, Bill stopped to wink at her. “Get some rest. I’ll see you later.”

Just like it happened down on the couch with Pat, he could see the gears spinning and meshing in J.J.’s head as she sat watching him from the bed. He laughed to himself as he closed the door.

That, on top of whatever else she was mentally working on before I got there, ought to keep her in that bed for a while. By the time she gets finished processing all of it, if Jennifer hasn’t made it back by then, she’ll have worn herself out, and she really won’t be able to do anything except lie down and go to sleep.

___________________________________________________________

Despite her show of calm, Jennifer was nearing the end of her patience. Her emotions had been forced all day to run a tortuous, negative gamut. As a result, standing there with Alice, she was tired and her nerves were on edge. She had expected Jonathan to come looking for her after the shooting. Instead, she’d had to go in search of him, finding him once again taking matters into his own hands. He never, ever quit.

She had been told of and upon meeting her, readily detected on her own Alice’s sensitive nature. It made her a bit more reluctant to push, but her own tension and the problems continuing to pile up without resolution were making her all the more irritable.

They seemed so close, and she wanted to see the end of it so that she could get back to matters that were closer to her own heart: those other two Harts, one with whom she needed to be, and the other with whom she wasn’t quite finished. And then there was the matter of Chris and Claire.

The headache medication, as well as her suppressed frustration with her husband had her feeling jittery; she hoped it didn’t show. To assure that it didn’t, she kept her hands braced to the desk and her attention riveted on Alice.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hart, I don’t know how much you know about Claire Allen or me-”

Not willing or able to wait for a repeat of what she’d already been told, Jennifer filled in the blanks. “Alice, we know that you, Claire, and Octavia went to school together. In your freshman year, the three of you were dorm mates, and you became friends. The summer after your first year, you took a trip to the mountains and there was trouble. Start from there.”

“He was with us. Rod- Paul Rider, the guy who got killed here. He was somebody Octavia brought in at the last minute. Claire and I didn’t know him, but it all changed from an innocent, first time on our own trip abroad to scoring. I didn’t want any part of it, but Claire said that it was supposed to be easy money, we couldn’t possibly get caught. She said that Octavia had it worked out and it would be a snap. Nobody would suspect three college girls. Rod had it all set up. All we had to do was get there and pick the stuff up. Well, we did get caught. It turned out to be a set up.”

“Alice, I don’t care about that.” Jennifer said, hoping that her impatience didn’t sound in her voice. “I want to know what’s going on with those dolls. You came here today looking for those dolls to be here. Why?”

“I- I-”

Jennifer continued to press, concentrating on keeping her voice even. “Were you looking for something? Is there something wrong with them?”

“I’m not sure. I really don’t know for certain. I was just guessing, but it’s the only place left that I can think of where he might have-”

“Hidden something?”

“Yes.”

“There’s nothing in the dolls.”

The three people inside the cubicle turned toward the voice at the door.  August Lamb came in, apparently after overhearing what Alice had said. “I just got a call, and they’ve gone through all eleven dolls that were delivered to your place. They found nothing out of the way.”

He stopped in a spot that had him looking down on Alice. “No, they’re not here. We said that they were to get you here. Just what would they be looking for Alice?”

“I honestly have no real idea,” Alice answered in a voice quivering from a fresh rush of apprehension. “Mr. Lamb, there are twelve units, not eleven. We delivered twelve, but I noticed that only eleven were on the bill of lading once I got to the school. I wrote the serial number of the one that got left off onto my personal record when I noticed that it was missing. I thought it was an oversight, but you know how something sticks in your mind?”

That statement immediately registered with Jonathan; he was close enough behind Jennifer that she felt his body tense. It had certainly stuck in his mind. Jonathan would not have to ask to see Alice’s list. He already knew which one wasn’t listed. They both did, and they both knew why that one wasn’t in the tool house being dissected and examined with the others. Before she could form the words herself, Jonathan put forth the request.

“Tell us what you do know about whatever it is.”

Alice spoke fast, as if she wanted to be rid of what she had been holding onto. “He had turned his life around, had fixed his face after being beaten so badly on that trip I told you about. I hadn’t seen him in years, but then he turned up here. He had to tell me who he was because he had changed so much. He probably would have had to tell me anyway, even if it hadn’t been trouble that made him seek me out.

You see, when I’m here, I’m working, and I don’t pay much attention to faces, or even to people much for that  matter. I love my work, and I tend to get way down into it; I block everything else out. And then Chris has put so much faith in- Well anyway, he told me Octavia had him over a barrel; he was in a financial bind after breaking up with his wife; he owed everybody, he said. Student loans, hospital bills, the works. Also, she knew who he really was, and she threatened to turn him in to personnel. He said he only wanted to work, get back on his feet, and to leave his past in the past.

“See, Octavia works for some guy named Knight- for one of his interests over in Europe. Somehow it’s connected up with Claire, that’s how the two of them stayed in touch. For some reason, Octavia wanted Rod, -er um, Paul, to develop something to hurt somebody she had it in for. To hurt their business. Somebody big. She and whoever she was in with were paying big money for it to be done. You know, to shut down their infrastructure; something to get past the firewalls in place and fry a network totally. I told him not to trust her and to get out of it, but he was in too deep. He didn’t know it was you she was after. When he found that out- well, I think- I’m sure that’s what got him killed. He didn’t deliver, and that’s how I came to be in it.

“Once he was dead, she came after me. She thought he told me all about it, and she wanted me to come up with it. Well, I didn’t know the particulars, and I wasn’t going to follow through with anything until she drug Chris into it. When Chris got hurt like she did, I got scared. I thought, but couldn’t believe that Claire might have a hand in it until I ran into her earlier today and found out for sure. This morning- Octavia cornered me at Starbucks and told me I’d better get it and give it to her or she’d go after Chris. It seemed to me like she was desperate, like somebody else was after her. I couldn’t be sure if Octavia could get to Chris or not, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for, but I wasn’t taking any chances with Chris; I know that was no accident she had in that car, and I didn’t want anything else to happen to her. I went to the park this morning, but- I just couldn’t- Those were kids. She sent those guys, and I didn’t want the kids to get- but then your daughter-”

At that point, Alice broke down, the hard, body-wracking sobs causing her to fold into herself.

“Take her out of here. Now.” Jonathan said to Ken who had appeared in the doorway behind August. “I don’t want her talking to the police or anyone talking to the police about her. If Chris hasn’t said anything to them about her, then she stays out of it; she’s in-house. Put her in that room we took Claire Allen out of at the Four Seasons, and get someone in there to watch over her until we can get back to her and finish sorting things out. Chris is to be brought back to my place when she’s done upstairs.”

“What about Claire?” August asked as he moved closer to where Jennifer was consoling Alice despite Jonathan’s hold on her arm, attempting to get her to come with him. “If they haul Claire in, Chris will want to go with her, and I’m not fighting with Chris by myself.”

“She isn’t going to leave Claire,” Jennifer lifted her head to advise. “That will be a fight.”

“Call me in that instance,” Jonathan ordered. “But if Claire is cut loose tonight, she comes to Willow Pond also. I don’t want those two out of my sight. Have someone deliver her things from the bunker to the house.”

He reached and with both hands to Jennifer’s shoulders, moved her away from the desk and Alice to bring her to him. “Come on darling, we have someone we need to double-team. Let’s see if the police need a statement from you, and then we can head home.”

Still harboring vestiges of her earlier resentments, Jennifer felt betrayed by her mind as it tried to warmly register instant consolation when her body made physical contact with his. Her mind and her body might be suckers for him, but her will and her attitude were not. Jonathan Hart had crossed the line, and it was going to take a whole lot of moving and shaking on his part for him to get back on the good side of it.

But, then too, she had surely crossed a line with him….

Wait.

Double-team? Home? That could only be J.J. What in the world has that girl done now that I don’t know about? …that Jonathan would be concerned enough about to confront his  precious child over?

I guess soon I’ll be finding out about that, too.

They both had work to do to get back to where they should be once all the other business was out of the way.

___________________________________________________________

After tossing and turning for about thirty or forty minutes, J.J. gave up on trying to turn off her mind and go to back to sleep. She had thought that with the medication, she could overcome her propensity for staying awake once awakened, but apparently that wasn’t to be. Too much time had gone by since she’d taken the pills and the drops, and her natural inclinations were back in place. Besides there was too much going on in her head and in the waking world to be just lying there doing nothing.

Feeling a bit grungy after being in bed most of the day, she got up and took a shower. While under the water, avoiding letting it hit her face and her injured eye, she thought more about all the things going on in her life. A lot had happened in such a short amount of time. The world had changed, they’d almost lost Aunt Pat, and Marnie had nearly lost her father. At HartToy, there had been a murder and a drowning death that didn’t quite ring true for her as a suicide. Another murder had been committed elsewhere, but that had direct ties to HartToy. And then there was Chris, who might have been the one who got away. For herself, she had started and almost finished a unique, but interesting school project, and she nearly had her eye put out.

A lot going on- “indeed”, as Jennifer Hart would say.

Her parents, she deduced, were still gone. Surely if they’d come in, she would have heard them. And surely her mother would have come up to check on her and her eye. Uncle Bill said that she was exclusive when it came to her mother, and he had been right. There was no way to get around that. She knew it. She had known it a long time; it only bothered her that he had been able to see into her head like that. It made her uncomfortable when people could figure out what she was thinking, especially when it was something of which she wasn’t all that proud. But Daddy? Was she really, on some secret, blocked-out level, jealous of Daddy?

That one was too bizarre to deal with, so she tabled it for later.

Since she was already at peace with Marnie going to New York with Pat, and with why she felt that way, she pushed that matter off to the side as well. Staying in Los Angeles, Marnie would be okay with Daddy, but she wouldn’t last with the Duchess. Marnie would eventually find holding herself in, the way that she would around Jennifer Hart, too restrictive, and she would probably end up snapping and doing something to rebel against having to do it. Go off on the Duchess- which would surely get her killed, run away, act out; Marnie might work her way up to doing something that might mess them up permanently. As it was, they could take each other in small doses. When the Duchess did have to get with her, Marnie usually got something positive out of it, and the Duchess was never so angry that she had to completely lose it with her. The thing with Marnie and Pat was clearly different and clearly, it was beneficial to both of them, even in her young eyes.

Yep, they’d do fine until the wedding in November. After that, Marnie would have to come back to Los Angeles because Pat would be on her honeymoon with Bill. No way would Pat leave Marnie alone in New York with only Cordelia. And Marnie had made it clear that she was not going to stay with her mother in Boston. Her father was in no shape to look after her, the stepmother was out, and Texas with her grandparents was too far away. After the wedding, Marnie would be home until Christmas, at least. Maybe even until the end of the school year. That wouldn’t be so bad. By then, things might have changed with her family.

What the hell was happening at HartToy? Something was going on. She heard it when her mother was on the phone with Pat, and she could see it on Uncle Bill’s face, even though he wouldn’t answer her when she put the question directly to him.

Then, at the thought of the look he had given her and of what he did say, she smiled to herself. Her Uncle Bill would have made a great father to a girl. He thought himself so hard to manipulate, but a girl of his own would have steamrolled him flat. Like Marnie would probably do once she got him off by himself in New York. Talk about putty in somebody’s hands. All Marnie would have to say is, “Let’s-” and Uncle Bill would be the one to say, “Go.” Marnie would say, “I want-“, and Uncle Bill would be breaking his neck driving her to get it.

It would take Pat stepping in to shut that down. And she would. Aunt Pat wasn’t the Duchess, but she certainly couldn’t be considered a leisurely, at-will walk in the park either. Pat’s bark was usually worse than her bite, but then her bark alone could be pretty close to lethal… definitely not something to be taken lightly or dismissed as a bluff.

What were those people in the tool house looking for? Why were they taking the dolls apart? Marnie said that they had done each one. What could be wrong with them that somebody would want to murder someone over them? Was she jumping the gun with making that connection? Did that actually have anything to do with the murder? What made Chris have that reaction to Genie?

Chris.

That was so weird. Chris, if she really was Claire’s mother, had been living The Project for most of her life, but obviously she had been doing it on the low. Her daughter had become her sister. Why? To get away from the shame? To avoid being stigmatized? Who had done that? Obviously her parents, but… it didn’t make sense. Why not give the kid up for adoption if  abortion hadn’t been an option or a consideration on legal, moral, or religious grounds?

Who was the father? Had she been in love with the guy? Had she just been too young and way too impulsive? Had he been some kid her age? An older boy? A grown ma-

Had she been-

Oh, my God…

J.J. shuddered hard at the thought. Folding her arms tightly around her midsection, she was glad for the steamy, cleansing water. Despite the eye, she ducked her head all the way under the showerhead and stood there, allowing the spray to slowly wash away the wave of dread and nausea, all the while fervently wishing that her own mother would hurry home.

 I don’t care if wanting my mommy does mean I’m spoiled and immature.

Feeling a bit better after a few minutes, she shut off the water, grabbed her towel and got out. Then for another few minutes, she had to sit on the bench in front of her dressing table to gain control over her shaky knees and trembling hands. It was so bad that she almost hit the intercom button to call for Pat, thinking that her physical symptoms might be a negative reaction to her medication, or the return of those anxiety episodes she was having earlier in the year, but which she noticed had stopped plaguing her during that emergency with her father the month before.

But then, sitting there a while longer and being very still, she could feel it all gradually subsiding and her usual steadiness returning.

She braided and twisted her wet hair into a tight knot on the top of her head to keep it off of her neck. Standing around, blow-drying all of that was out of the question. The hard waves that the braiding would cause could be smoothed out later. It was Daddy’s fault. And Pa’s. If they weren’t such hair freaks, and if her mother wouldn’t persist in going along with them, it would be a whole lot shorter and easier to manage by now. Then she got up and slipped into the fresh nightgown she had laid out before getting into the shower.

Seated before the mirror once again, while applying moisturizer to her skin and checking out her bruises and the one bloodshot pupil, the blue of her own eyes reminded her of her father and of how Uncle Bill said that the two of them were “naturals”.

Another episode of the never-ending saga of Two for One.

I don’t know how we manage to do it, but it seems like lately it’s always him and me.

“That’s not a recent development, girl. It’s always been like that with the two of you. I understand that he came to get you at the park when you got hurt, and that you tried to run interference for him with your mother. Then Jennifer let you and Valentine have it good when he got you home.”

Yeah, we both messed up with her … We knew better…. I hate that we made her so mad… Did they make up?

She wondered if it upset other kids so much when their parents argued or didn’t get along. Could they just shrug it off and go on about their business, or did the worry form a hot lead lump in the pit of their stomachs, like it did hers when her parents were going through rough times? Why had Daddy handled it in that manner? What had he been thinking about that had him so uptight? What had her mother said to him to make him so angry as he went down the stairs? Uncle Bill said they were together, but were they really?

It had not been a very good day at all.

In the other room, Genie began to cry.

Genie.

Genie was the only one left. She had been upstairs with her while the other dolls were being taken apart. The people in the tool house hadn’t had her out there with them, so she hadn’t been searched for whatever it was they were looking so hard.

If Daddy set that up, then he knows first hand that Genie wasn’t out there. He’s the one who took her off of me up here in the bedroom. If he’s checked back already, which knowing him, he has; they’ve told him what he wanted to know. If it wasn’t out there with one of the others, then he’ll be straight up here to take Genie apart himself to look at her. He hasn’t forgotten about her. He was already asking questions.

Damn.

How do these things keep happening to me? This thing is like an avalanche. Trouble just keeps coming and coming, getting bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier….

It had not been a good day at all, and the evening wasn’t looking a whole lot better.

Like a real baby in need of attention, Genie’s cries became more insistent. After a final few puffs of talcum powder to her neck and chest, J.J. pulled herself up from the bench to go to her.

… and when it’s all said and done, I am going to get freaking crushed… rolled over flat as a pancake, splattered just like the Coyote after falling off the cliff while he’s chasing the Roadrunner…

But, at the bedroom door, she stopped, a small smile forming on her lips.

…but, then again, … Daddy says when you find yourself in a position where you can’t beat ’em….

_________________________________________________________

With nobody other than themselves questioning her whereabouts, Alice had been quickly hustled out of the facility, protectively enveloped within a small contingent of private security personnel. Once they were back up on the executive floor, Jennifer had been approached by detectives from the local police department, desirous of securing her account of the shooting while it was still relatively fresh in her mind. She had gone with them, accompanied by Jonathan and Ken, into Ken’s office. August remained behind. He had other things and other people on his mind and his agenda.

It was funny how hardened, normally brusque cops became so deferential when approaching and talking with the CEO, or in this case, his wife. Even after all his years of being witness to it, he still found it morbidly amusing how often it was skin color, and/or money and position that determined how someone was perceived and treated by law enforcement.

The two injured women were gone, transported to the hospital, but the bloodstains on the hall carpet and the individuals investigating the incident remained. He had dispatched personnel to the hospital to oversee that end of things and to keep him posted. Reports back from his contacts at the  police department had the stepbrothers filling in some of the blanks. It seemed they had been willing participants in their step-sister’s plans until she decided to get up close and personal with Jonathan Hart; they understood that was taking things too far.

That last thing had him chuckling to himself. For sure, his friend Jonathan had globally established himself as somebody not to be messed with. The man knew how to fight, and he no longer had to do it with his hands. A wink of an eye, a small hand gesture, a single phone call, and Jonathan could shut a whole lot of things down. This time, he hadn’t known right off where to apply the force, but now that he knew more specifically….

Fred Martin’s wife would likely be bound over for arraignment in the attack on Chris in the facility. He wasn’t surprised about that; he had been suspicious of her ever since the questions about the cell phone records had come up. It was established that Chris had been hurt before she got into her car. She had recalled with him being confronted in the building by someone, a female. Whoever hurt Chris inside the building had to have been someone on staff or someone who could have been let in and who had knowledge of the layout and security procedures, information which, being married to Fred, Sarah Martin could easily have been made privy. And just because the cell phone was in Fred Martin’s name didn’t mean that he had to be the one making the calls to Alice. The story Sarah Martin tried to spin with Ken about her husband having an affair with Alice had fallen apart completely once Ken talked to the Watch Commander. On the way to see Claire, he had put the notion of an affair to Chris as a possibility, and she flatly rejected it. Alice, she said, was a single-minded workaholic, often having to be made to go home and rest. And she was timid about stepping outside of the lines. No way would she be romantically involved with another employee, much less a married one.

Octavia Dash and the boys would go down for arranging for Fred Martin to snuff Paul Rider and his wife, and for “assisting” Fred Martin, at gunpoint, in his drowning. Too bad Fred still had that gambling problem, and too bad Octavia found out about it. It didn’t pay to let people like that have something on you that they could hold over your head.

It was beginning to fall into place. All that remained was “why” and what had Claire’s culpability been in it?

He continued, slowly winding his way through the people working or standing around, down the hall to Chris’ suite. Throughout that long, long day, he had been anxious for her. She wasn’t well, but knowing her work ethic as he did, she would be pushing it. Chris Allen was a female in a largely male corner of the working world, and although she made it look so effortless, he recognized that she had always worked harder and more diligently than her male counterparts because she had to. That was a concept he clearly understood. Her stellar reputation, much like his own, had been hard-earned and fiercely protected. Despite Claire being Chris’ only immediate family, he was not going to allow Chris to be compromised because of something Claire might have done.

But then, too, Chris, was smart, just as her father had been. She wouldn’t allow herself, or Claire, to be compromised without some concrete justification.

When he entered the outer office from the hall, he could see the door to Chris’ office was open, but couldn’t immediately see or hear anyone inside. As he approached that door, he stopped when he could hear Chris’ voice.

“It’s time people knew,” she was saying. “They’re allowing you to come home with me for the time being. And unless something comes up that you haven’t told us about-”

“I told them everything,” Claire’s voice cut in. “I really did.”

“-you will be with me from now on. Right with me. I’m not entertaining any arguments on the subject. Neither of us are kids; we’re women and it’s our truth. No more running around, no more running away. You and I have to face this. I am your mother. You are my daughter. We’ve been fighting it for too long. I told you the truth, and I know it blew you out of the water. It’s not our fault that things happened like they did or that they were done the way that they were, but it is our fault that we haven’t faced it.”

“It’s my fault. I refused to listen to- He hurt you again because of me- again.””

“Hush. It wasn’t because of you the first time or the second. He’s a selfish, self-centered, overly protected, overly indulged individual, and that’s all he’s ever been. That had nothing to do with you. Look, Mrs. Hart already knows about us. For all that they’ve done for us, we owe the Harts an explanation. We’ll start there and then see where that takes us. In the long run, when all’s said and done, I may have to find other employ-”

“But you don’t have to work. They gave you-”

“-ment, but-”

August didn’t realize that he had resumed approaching the door until both women stopped talking and looked up at him.

“I- I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I- I- I was coming to see how you were doing.”

Chris was seated behind her desk. Claire was in the chair next to her, and they were holding hands. The fatigue he feared for Chris showed in her features. Claire appeared surprised and then frightened to see him there.

“You heard?” Chris asked, but it sounded more like a statement.

In answer, he nodded, hoping that he didn’t look as stunned as he felt. There had always been something that felt strange to him about Chris’ relationship with Claire. It often seemed to go beyond Chris being an overprotective older sister. To him it was something akin to his feelings toward his own grown children. He thought it was due to Chris having assumed the role of parent to Claire once their parents were killed. But now….

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Tired,” Chris answered without letting go of Claire. “Very, very tired. They’re allowing Claire to stay with me for the time being. She has to remain in the States until all of this is cleared up.”

“Did you find Alice?” Claire asked. “Is she all right?”

“Alice is fine. Her name hasn’t come up, so Mr. Hart has had her placed somewhere safe for now.”

“Good,” Chris sighed, releasing Claire’s hands to swivel around and put her head down on the desk. “She’s too soft for anything more than that. She’d be scared to death, just like that time before.”

Seeing Chris put her head down, August came into the room to stand in front of the desk. “You need to rest. Mr. Hart wants you to go back to his place. We’ve arranged for Claire’s things to be taken there. He wants Claire there, too.”

“I’d really rather that we went home to my place,” Chris protested without raising her head. “I’ve imposed upon them enough.”

August was slightly startled when Eva emerged from the back room, drying her hands with some paper towel and fussing,. “You’re in no shape for that. You’ve done a whole lot more and been into a whole lot more than you should have in the condition you’re in, and that’s been all day today. I don’t know how it is that you’re still functioning.”

Chris raised her head, but brought her elbow onto the desktop, resting her cheek in her hand. “I never thanked you. For everything you’ve done.”

“Just get into the car with him, and that will be thanks enough,” Eva said, going around the desk to help Chris out of the chair. “You go to sleep tonight, and it will probably be another three days again before you wake on your own.” She looked back to Claire. “Let’s go, Junior. You have somebody you need to look after- apparently for a change. And I’m going to see to you doing it.”

“Where are the Harts?” Chris asked as August positioned himself next to her so that she had to lean on him as they left the office. Claire trailed meekly behind, followed by Eva.

“I left them talking to the police. They should be on their way home soon, if they aren’t already.”

“Good,” Chris acknowledged. “We’ll all be there. I’ll only have to tell the story once.”

Eva noticed when Claire winced, and based upon what she had recently learned about those two, she didn’t blame her.

___________________________________________________________

After helping Jennifer into the car, Jonathan walked around to his side and got in. As he backed out of the space, something he’d been told a long time ago came back to him.

“… when you’re scared Jonathan, you don’t know from happy or sad. You don’t know what’s right or wrong or proper to do. You’re just scared.”

It was late, but J.J. Hart would have to be the next order of business. She and Genie weren’t sitting quite right with him. They were a major, dangling loose end.

What if that girl has been walking around with….

Even the incomplete thought sent hard shudders of sickening dread rocketing through his body.

Thank God for Pat. While he and Jennifer had been so occupied, he hadn’t had to worry about J.J., where she was, or what she was doing. Aunt Pat was on watch duty with J.J. and her pal, Marnie. When Aunt Pat talked, those two definitely listened. Everything happened for a reason, and as far as he was concerned at the moment, that was the reason Pat had not only been pulled off that flight at the last minute, but had been transported to Los Angeles and then wound up marooned on Willow Pond.

She had been on his mind off and on since he last saw her in the second floor hall of his home. He could still picture the concern in her face, and he could only imagine what must be going through her mind about him and Jennifer. Taking into account their wide-ranging travels, their vast network of personal, social, and business relationships, aside from Jennifer’s father, he hadn’t ever met anyone else in the world who cared for them and their personal well-being like Pat.

She came from behind the bar where she had been pouring drinks for the two of them. They had come to her office from lunch at a nearby restaurant where she’d matched him drink for drink as he tried to pump her for background information on Jennifer. But she had shaken him off. She hadn’t fallen for any of his usual tried and true gentlemanly charismatic techniques for getting a woman to loosen up. In fact, she had shut him down by utilizing what took him a few minutes to recognize were a few of her own methods to find out more about him.

As she approached with two glasses in hand, he took visual stock of her. She was an interesting-looking woman, young, pretty, but in an aristocratic, almost frosty sense. She was tall with stylishly cut, shiny, bone-straight dark hair. In a funny sort of way, after talking with her, her sharp wit and equally keen intelligence had rendered her even more attractive to his eyes. The two of them, she and Jennifer, were of the same height and general build, both were interesting and attractive in a similar sort of way, but there was a difference in their mannerisms and thinking that to his mathematical mind manifested itself in angles and curves, Pat being the more angular of the two. He had always preferred curves.

But it was Pat’s eyes that got to him, more so her eyebrows. Her dark eyes were rendered even more intense and striking by those dramatic brows that when describing her best friend to him, Jennifer said she didn’t have to have professionally arched; they were natural and the envy of their circle. They appeared to have been too-expertly drawn onto her face, but as close as they were sitting, and being observant of those kinds of things in women, he could clearly see that they weren’t. They were real, as was her no-holds-barred personality, her raucous laugh, and her obvious propensity for success. At twenty-nine, she was an acclaimed literary scholar and well on her way to quietly assembling her own publishing empire. That plush office located on the top floor of a prime piece of Manhattan real estate, which she owned outright, was evidence of that.

When she handed his drink down to him, his eyes caught hers, and he found it amusing that throughout their time alone together that afternoon, she had been just as intently studying him.

“So,” she said. “I’m sure in all this time that you’ve figured out that this wasn’t meant to be a social call.”

“I gathered that it wasn’t from the way you whisked me away from my fiancée, and then wouldn’t let me ask you anything about her. Won’t she be upset about the two of us being gone alone so long together?”

She smiled as she took a long sip from her glass and then set it down on the desk. “Yes, but she’ll get over it. We don’t compete for men, so it won’t be a jealousy matter with her; Jen knows I don’t want you. It’ll be more like nosiness on her part. Wanting to know what I said to you or what I asked of you. I brought you out of the apartment because I needed to talk with you, by yourself, without her around.”

Patricia Rose Hamilton.

He and Jennifer had just come to New York from Maryland where he’d met, placated, and come to terms with her formidable father. Pat had been waiting for them at Jennifer’s apartment. As soon as Jennifer was occupied with business she had to take care of before the two of them could continue on to Los Angeles, Pat had latched onto him and ushered him from the apartment and down to the car she had waiting at the curb. She said it was to show him her building, business-person to business-person. He knew better.

He took a sip from his glass. Bourbon. The best. the girl had taste and class and evidently, a cast iron stomach. Definitely old money. Most young women he knew didn’t do bourbon straight, the good stuff, like she had been doing all day and showing no ill effects from it.

He put the glass down and sat forward, leaning his elbows on the desk. “Why?”

“I needed to feel you out for myself. And don’t get cute and take that literally. I told you, we don’t compete for men.”

He chuckled and sat back, asking, “Why do you have to do that? Jennifer’s a big girl. She seems to me to be very capable of taking care of herself. I thought you two went way back. Don’t you trust her judgment?”

“She is, we do, and I do trust her judgment. But I’m older, so that makes me responsible for her. But since it’s only by a couple of months that I’m older, she wouldn’t agree with that, which is exactly why I left her where she is. She’d be all over me for butting into her affairs. Jonathan, she’s obviously chosen you, but I had to see for myself, through my own eyes, what you were all about.”

“I’m sure that a smart woman like you, with the connections you must have being in the line of work that you’re in, has had me checked out thoroughly in all this time.”

She patted a manila folder that lie on the desktop in front of her and smiled that self-satisfied smile one more time. “For sure.”

“And?”

She sat forward and slammed a balled fist down on top of the folder. “And, dammit, as hard as I’ve looked through here and at you, I can’t find anything objectionable.”

Then she snickered and sat back again with her glass in hand to continue. “You seem to be a real straight arrow. The straightest one I’ve seen to have achieved so much in such a short amount of time with so little with which to start. The only word I can think of to describe your success is that tired cliché, ‘meteoric’, but it has been nothing less than that. You’ve worked very hard and you’ve worked extremely smart. I like smart people. I’ve learned through wise counsel and experience that it’s not how much you have, it what you do with what you have that counts.”

He later learned that ‘wise counsel’ had been Jennifer’s father.

“You seem to be an awfully intelligent and charming fellow, Mr. Hart. But then you’d have to be to have won Jennifer over as quickly as you’ve done. She’s sweet, but she’s stubborn and very, very careful. She doesn’t give her heart or anything else easily. You see, she’s extremely protective of the things she holds dear. I have to tell you, I was quite surprised and a little concerned when she phoned to tell me about the two of you. I specifically sent her to London to get your story because I’d heard of your legendary ways with the ladies. I thought of all the people I could have sent, she would be the one to attract your attention and get to you, but to stick to business once she did. Not only did she stick to business and get the story, I see she stuck to you, too.”

“And me to her, Pat. You don’t have to worry. I love her. I haven’t ever felt for anyone what I feel for her. And as for my legendary way with the ladies, it’s just that, legend, not totally fact.”

She stared at him in a manner that said her mind and her spirit were probably a lot older than she was. “Meeting you, after talking with you today one-on-one, I now know for sure I don’t have to worry. Jonathan, I want you to know  you are a very lucky man. I think Jennifer a very fortunate girl. It’s funny how things happen, and how people come together, but I believe that you two will be good for each other. I truly believe that your marriage will be rock solid and last a lifetime. If Jennifer wasn’t sure of you, she damned sure wouldn’t be going off to Los Angeles with you.”

It shouldn’t have mattered what her girlfriend thought. In any other instance, he might have found that interaction intrusive, but somehow with Pat it hadn’t been. She had always been family, a trusted sister-in-law. At times, especially once Max was gone, she’d been a much-needed confidante.

“Something’s wrong, Pat. She doesn’t seem happy about it.”

At first Pat hadn’t said anything in response. Without telling Jennifer about it, he had flown all the way to New York to see her in her office again, this time to get her take on Jennifer and her reaction to being pregnant. He was worried about her. There was a lot going on with Max having passed away and their getting adjusted to life without him. They were still living in Malibu at the house on the beach while the main house in Bel Air was being reconstructed after being leveled by that devastating fire. The baby he and Jennifer were expecting was due in less than four months, and it was to Willow Pond that he wanted their child brought home. Jennifer had been unusually quiet and introspective since being informed of her condition, often going off for long walks alone on the beach  or sitting outside by herself on one of the decks, writing in her journal or simply staring out to the ocean. She wouldn’t talk about it; he was too scared to ask her much about it, so it was hard to tell where her head was. But it certainly wasn’t with him.

Pat leaned back in her chair and folded her hands across her midsection, all the time warily eyeing him.

“I really shouldn’t be discussing this with you,” she finally said. “Jennifer and I, as a rule, don’t discuss each other’s private concerns with other people. But I guess after all this time, I really shouldn’t consider you to be ‘other people’.”

“I should think not. If you know something, if she’s said something to you about it, please tell me. I need to understand what’s going on with her so that I can know what to do. She’s so quiet and withdrawn. I understand that she might be overwhelmed, but it’s as if she feels she has to do it alone. I can’t get in. I ask her if everything is all right, but all she says is that she’s fine. Physically she’s okay; the tests say that she is, and that the baby is developing properly, but Jennifer is not fine.”

“Just keep loving her, Jonathan.”

“I do love her. You know that. What’s she told you?”

 Pat hesitated, and then sighed before finally admitting, “That she’s as scared as hell.”

“Scared? Of what? Why doesn’t she say that to me? What? Did she tell you that she doesn’t want the baby?”

“She scared, I said. Jennifer never anticipated having a child; after being married to you for so long and not conceiving, she didn’t think she could have a baby.” Pat pursed her lips and held up her hands in question. “I mean, you two? As much as you two do it? Come on, what are the odds? As often as the two of you go at it, there had to be a problem on one end or the other in that baby-making area.”

He rolled his eyes, and he might have blushed had it been anyone other than her saying something like that to him. “Just go on, Pat.”

“Jennifer has been quite content with her childless life, and extremely happy with just you and Max and Freeway. Then you lost Freeway. You still had Junior, but then there was the fire, and then Max left you. When she started losing weight and feeling so ill and sluggish afterward while you were in Montreal, and it wouldn’t let up, it made her nervous. She phoned me when she got back to LA; she didn’t want to tell you that she thought she might be sick- a bad virus, a tumor, maybe even cancer like Max, or something. I begged her to go and get checked out, but it wasn’t until I threatened to call and put you on it that she agreed to go with you to the doctor. Then she finds out it’s a baby, she’s three months along, and the pregnancy is viable; it’s no fluke, the child is going to be. This later-in-life experience is taking her way outside of her comfort zone. Look how long it took her to tell me about being pregnant. You know that Jennifer was never big on having kids; she didn’t think she was suited to it. Now, after all this time, she’s getting one. But I think once the kid gets here, she’ll be fine.”

“Is she unhappy about having the baby?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Jonathan? She’s scared. And she’s uncertain about her abilities. Jennifer has never, ever had to worry about being good at anything. She’s always excelled at whatever she’s seriously undertaken, but she’s not so sure about motherhood so late in the game. It’s going to bring some profound changes to both of your lives, and to your lives together. In my opinion, she’ll make a fine mother. I have no doubt at all that you’ll be a marvelous father. And you two will always have me for backup with that baby. I’ve always wanted a child, and I’ve been waiting a long time for this one, so I’m as excited as you are.

“But when you’re scared Jonathan, you don’t know from happy or sad. You don’t know what’s right or wrong or proper to do. You’re just scared.”

She had since become a beloved aunt, J.J.’s “Tee Pat”

Why she had been much on his mind as he’d sat there in Ken’s office with Jennifer, Ken, and the detectives, he didn’t know, but there she was, practically whispering in his ear the entire time.

“She’s extremely protective of the things she holds dear.”

Yes, Jennifer was. She had always been that way. As cantankerous, pompous, and sometimes unreasonable a man as her father could be, he was always her father, and she wouldn’t hear a word said against him. It went without saying how she was about Pat. With him, Jennifer had always been just that- with him, beside him, behind him… inside and all around him. He understood why she had been so angry with him that morning about J.J. That girl was her baby, her only child, her unexpected adventure. He fully expected that she would be upset with him over her.

But she didn’t have to say what she said. He did know how it felt. It wasn’t clear to him how he knew, and he’d never talked about it with anyone, but he did know.

“… when you’re scared Jonathan, you don’t know from happy or sad. You don’t know what’s right or wrong or proper to do. You’re just scared.”

When Pat said that to him way back then, he actually felt it and immediately, he understood it. Fear of the unknown during her pregnancy had rendered Jennifer numb on the outside, although a great deal had to have been going on with her on the inside. Because she felt she couldn’t express it to him, she’d kept it to herself. Most likely, on some level, she had been trying to protect him because she was aware how much that baby meant to him.

Walking up to that table and finding J.J. laid out on her back with her face covered the way that it was, he had been frozen for a moment with… fear. It had been a primal terror, something that went beyond J.J. possibly being gone from him. It rushed him so forcefully, that he’d nearly blacked out from the blow. Sheer willpower was the only thing that forced him to keep going and to get to her side.

Being the husband, the father, the man in the situation, he was supposed to take care of them. What had been and was still going through him was something he couldn’t get together enough to articulate. Earlier, he thought it was because he wanted to protect Jennifer- and himself- from the fact that he hadn’t been able to protect their daughter. But even when it turned out that J.J. was merely knocked out and that it hadn’t been the result of the trouble he feared, the thought of what might have been left him shaken to his core. It went way beyond J.J., HartToy and all of that. In the end, he had been left numb on the outside, although on the inside, his mind was racing in a thousand different directions.

He did know. He wasn’t sure how that was, he couldn’t dredge up any details to support it, but he did understand how it felt to be left so suddenly alone.

“Jonathan.”

I do know.

“Jonathan.”

What if that girl has been walking around all this time with….

It took the touch of her hand upon his to bring him back to the present, to the reaity that he and Jennifer were in the car, and he was driving, taking them home to Willow Pond.

“Jonathan. What’s wrong? You’re trembling.”

And that the light was green, but he hadn’t noticed it change. They hadn’t gotten that far away from HartToy. Technically, on HartToy Boulevard, they were still on the grounds of the facility and it was the black of night, so the area was relatively secluded. He was glad to not be on the main thoroughfare, holding up traffic, and that he hadn’t been jolted out of his reverie by an aggravating honking horn.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asked, leaving her hand on top of his. “Why don’t you pull over for a minute.”

Proceeding a little farther down the road, he drove over to the curb and parked underneath a street lamp. When he moved his hands from the steering wheel, her fingers slid between his and held on.

After a few long moments of sitting there, saying nothing, he finally asked, “How’s your head?”

“I asked you how you were first. And don’t try telling me that you’re fine. You’re not. You never have shaky hands. What’s going on?”

Dropping his head back onto the headrest, he closed his eyes and sighed, “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For coming with me. Did Pat talk you into it? You were pretty angry with me at the time.”

In the silent span between, he could almost hear her considering her response before she spoke again.

“I came because, as I told you in the den, we work better together. I think that was proven this evening. A lot was accomplished. A lot was revealed.”

“You’re right about that,” he agreed as Chris and Claire in that back room flashed inside his head. “An awful lot, but there’s still a way to go.”

Still leaned back in her own seat, Jennifer continued, “I came because despite everything else, I was supposed to do so. Where you go, I go; I won’t be shut out, not even by you. We do things together. Despite hurt and anger, Jonathan Hart, you are my husband and I love you.”

Just like always, those last three words eased his tensions. Even after all their years together, it was gratifying that such a woman could be in love with him. Giving her hand a small squeeze, he allowed through his closed-eyed smile, “I can live with that.”

“You still didn’t answer my question, Jonathan. What’s going on with you? Do you feel all right?”

He released her hand and restarted the car. “I’ll be a lot better once we get home to that child of ours.”

“Why? She’s with Pat. I’ve talked with both of them. Pat says J.J. is fine.”

“It’s not that. Have you noticed a change in Genie’s behavior;  that she isn’t crying so much as she was when J.J. first got her?”

“You know, now that you mention it- ” He heard her small gasp. “Jonathan! Are you thinking-”

“I don’t know for sure, Jennifer. But that’s the only one left that hasn’t been checked out. All I know for sure is that I’ll feel better once I look into that end of things myself.”

She sat back and folded her arms. “Whatever you need to do, Jonathan. I’ll let you handle that. And for the record, my head is fine, so if you find that you need me to take over with her….”

He pulled off again, headed for Bel Air and straight up those front stairs to that bedroom housing Genie and ‘her mother’, J.J. Hart.

Continue to Part Fifteen

 

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