The Project: Part Nine

Part Nine

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“What do you want me to do? The units aren’t returning as planned… I don’t know exactly why; all I know is I got a message from upstairs saying a call came in yesterday requesting an extension… they won’t be back in the plant until a lot later than we- I anticipated… It isn’t my fault; how was I to know? I don’t make those kinds of decisions. That comes from higher up … how would I know for sure? I’m telling you, I didn’t have anything to do with it… No, I haven’t heard from anyone… I thought you said I wouldn’t have to… I agree things aren’t going according to-… maybe that’s not how it happ-… no, that wasn’t done well enough, but if it had been, you can bet the spotlight would have been aimed right here until they found out who-… Yes, it is a mess… no, I don’t have any other ideas… okay… I understand… all right, if I hear anything from- … I’ll do my best to find out….”

__________________________________________________________

Ken Matheson was exhausted. Swiveling around from his desk to the window beside him, he rubbed at his tense forehead and tight jaw line. It was Friday, and still relatively early, but already he was tired. He hadn’t been resting well since it all started.

The detectives, who just left, had been there talking, more like questioning, him once again about the security guard, the late Larry Martin, and he told them what little he knew. Until his recent absences, there hadn’t ever been a problem with the man at work. He was quiet, a reliable employee, but a definite average Joe. There was nothing outstanding about him, so there didn’t seem to be anything else to tell, at least not as far as he knew.

Ever since Chris’ accident and hospitalization put him in charge, he had been in the direct line of fire as far as security issues, law enforcement, and HartToy went. With her lingering partial amnesia, no one was being allowed to speak with Chris about the recent troubles at the facility. The cops with whom he had spoken that week knew of her car wreck, but they didn’t seem to be aware that she’d been hurt before she got over into the car, and that the first injury was the most probable reason for the incident with the car. That she had been attacked wasn’t something Lamb or Hart wanted widely discussed at that point. That it wasn’t a result of the wreck itself was a detail that, for the time, was being suppressed.

Until that past Saturday, he hadn’t realized just how much Chris took upon herself. He understood only too well that being Director of security for a high tech facility like HartToy wasn’t an easy job, but he had no idea the amount of pressure under which she actually operated on a daily basis. For years, she had been his buffer between most of that, handling the big picture while he took care of matters more ‘close to home’. He had a more hands-on relationship with the technicians and those who worked the nuts and bolts of HartToy. With her apparent confidence and capability, Chris made being the boss look so easy and his playing the second fiddle quite comfortable.

Now he was on his own at the top, alone and unsure of who it was that was preying upon them, or if that person might even indeed be one of them. After all, Rider had been killed inside the facility, albeit the parking structure, it was the employee parking structure which should have been secure. Where he was shot just happened to be in a precise area that the camera didn’t pan. For him, that single detail stood out. Then there was the matter of Rider’s wife, who hadn’t been anywhere near HartToy when she met her fate. Her murder had to have been in some way connected to that of her estranged husband. Neither of them seemed to have any family, so that took care of trying to come at it from some other angle. That, too, was almost as if it had been scripted. Someone had to know.

Martin’s death had been ruled a definite drowning; it was reported back that there hadn’t been any signs of foul play on his body, and that his lungs were full of water. But why would a man, fully clothed and his wallet flush with cash, end up in the water like that?

Suicide?

Toxicology tests were being run on the body that afternoon. Had he been somehow drugged into doing it?

Maybe. But why? By whom?

And nobody was sure where Chris had been at the time she sustained her initial injury. All anyone knew was that prior to her car leaving the road, she had been at work. Mrs. Hart, a most reliable source, had spoken with Chris in her office that afternoon. Aside from perhaps the assailant, Mrs. Hart was most likely the last person to have spoken with her. Not a whole lot of time had lapsed between Mrs. Hart’s being in the office and the time of the wreck.

He had never liked that Chris worked six, sometimes seven day weeks, taking little time for herself. He didn’t like that she spent so much time alone. At the very least, he felt she needed at least one someone in her life, someone or something other than a building full of electronic toys and gadgets to keep her company. Although he never expected anything so bad to happen to her, it bothered him that she kept so much to herself, concentrated so much on her work, and wouldn’t let anyone in too close to her.

Over the years, he had occasion to get to somewhat know Claire. He had been closer to her when she was a child, but as she grew older and spent less time at HartToy, their relationship had become more distant. As a young girl, Claire had been a good student, a smart girl, but somewhat unfocused and restless. Chris, in an effort to keep her occupied and out of trouble, had given her the best of everything. She went out of her way to allow Claire to sample everything and to indulge her ever-changing interests. He always felt Chris did that to compensate her little sister for having lost her parents at such a young age.

While she was raising Claire, he had understood Chris’ dedication to her work. She had to work hard in order to provide for Claire in the manner that she had. But in recent years, actually after Claire’s departure for college, the sisters seemed to have drifted apart. Chris continued to bury herself in her work, and Claire spent less and less time in California. After she graduated from the university, she spent much of her time bouncing around in Europe supposedly working as a broker of some kind. She rarely came home any more. In fact, he couldn’t remember her last time being home, and he hadn’t seen her at all since her arrival after Chris’ accident. He was aware of Hart’s ordering her removed from the Four Seasons; he knew of Lamb arranging for it to happen, but he had been left out of the loop in it, as well as to where she was being kept. He only knew that wherever she was, she was safe. With Hart, how could she be otherwise?

Unbeknownst to anyone, sensing that she was in trouble of some kind, he had begun and then left off making his own arrangements for her. His intervention, as it turned out, hadn’t been necessary. Knowing the little that he knew, he thought it strange that she’d been allowed to come home to be by Chris’ side. That was especially true in light of her not being allowed to leave with Chris when Chris had recently flown over to try to bring Claire back home to the States. Chris returned without Claire, and she’d been troubled and preoccupied ever since.

He and Chris had been working partners and friends for years. Although she didn’t talk a lot about her personal life, he was likely privy to more of it than most. Both of them single; he’d been married and divorced during his time at HartToy, they spent a lot of time together. Sometimes the conversation spilled over into things that were not related to work. Until lately, that kind of sharing had been more on his part than hers. Over the years, he had gradually become familiar with her rhythms, her habits, and her disposition. She was almost obsessively private, but for some time, he had been sensing that something was wrong in her life, however, there was only so much he could do for her with so little to go on.

It wasn’t as if he could come right out and ask her, and expect that she would tell him. That wasn’t her. She kept her personal matters, particularly her troubles, mostly to herself. He was aware; however, that whatever was going on with her involved Claire. He had an inkling that it had to do with Marston Knight and his relationship with Claire, but Chris wouldn’t go into very much detail with him. She didn’t really have to. Although he didn’t know why, he did know that in her own brief dealings with him, Knight had left a bad, and he thought, disturbing, impression on Chris. Whenever his name came up, she seemed to momentarily freeze before catching herself and proceeding on with the business at hand. Needless to say, she was none too happy about her sister taking up with him. After she came back that last time from going to see about Claire, she wouldn’t speak with him on any of it at all.

But, if the situation was reversed, if he was the one in trouble, Chris would be, or she’d have someone else, one of her many snoops, digging and delving into his business to find out what was going on. That was how she was; more than willing to help others, but not as accepting of it for herself. She would stick her nose in his business to get to the bottom of his trouble in a heartbeat. But he wasn’t Chris. He didn’t have her vast network of connections.

And he didn’t have her steely determination or her nerve.

Even though he was trying to put his best foot forward, he sensed that August Lamb, as well as the CEO, didn’t hold him in the same regard as they did Chris. How could they? To even himself, in this current situation, he felt he was at the helm of a damaged ship, bereft of compass, and therefore without a clue as to where he was or should be heading. Not knowing who within the crew could or could not be trusted was also a worry. With everyone at HartToy considered potentially suspect by the powers that be, he was sure that he was being scrutinized for possible culpability, as well. As such, that had to be the reason why he was being left on the outside of the investigation.

He did know that Chris was being moved to the Hart estate to complete her recovery. That knowledge brought him some comfort. At least hidden away inside the Harts’ gates he didn’t have to be concerned about anyone getting to and hurting her again.

Accustomed to following Chris’ strong lead, it came to him that he had been left on the island to fend for himself. The only thing he could think to do was to get up off his butt and go looking around in earnest for himself.

__________________________________________________________

Ms. Leonard was in her classroom on her planning period, the segment of time in her working day that she didn’t have students assigned to her. She should have been working on preparing her lessons for the upcoming week, but she was having difficulty getting around to the task. The rest of the planned curriculum seemed so inconsequential coming behind the family project the Junior/Senior class was finishing up.

It had been an experimental and somewhat controversial idea. Getting it to fly with the school board and some of the parents had been a tough sell. It first took forward thinking, realistic staff members, and the parent board to consent to the idea. Then there was testimony for the need for something like it from some of the students, including a very candid article concerning the reality of student sexuality written by one of the school’s top students for the school paper. It took all of that before the project was finally approved and the go-ahead given.

The project itself had taken a half year’s planning, including calling in the expertise of an old friend who just happened to be a longtime executive for a major toy manufacturer and who had some brand new, state-of-the-art prototypes that just happened to need testing out. The dolls HartToy provided them had been absolutely perfect for the objectives they were trying to meet. Nobody, no textbook, no preliminary study could have predicted the things those teenagers had come up with. At the end of the day, she and the other teachers involved were more than pleased with how things had turned out.

In the two week course of the assignment, the students had done quite a bit of research, interacting, and soul searching. Despite her fears, during the week that the kids actually had their “children”, not one of the dolls had been neglected enough to “expire”. A couple of them developed diaper rash. There had been a few calls from parents, turning their own kids in for making excessive babysitting requests. One baby ran a brief temperature, another was found to be slightly unkempt, causing the young parents to be brought to task over it and thereby lose points. Only one came close to being abandoned, but J.J. Hart had taken complete care of that situation according to Ms. Fischer, the teacher who was witness to J.J. lambasting Hector Diaz in the hall outside of her classroom over his negligence with their child.

As a result of the project, other unexpected learning had come to fruition. A legal aid team was formed to assist with matters that had come up between or with the participants in the project. There was a child welfare group that bird-dogged the ‘parents’ about their children. There was even a very knowledgeable, no-nonsense judge who elected herself to the bench and came complete with her own court. Child support issues had cropped up which required litigation. There were legal separations, and even a divorce on the grounds of suspected adultery and irreconcilable differences- although Kendra and Percy looked as if they might be on the verge of reconciling when she happened upon them in the back hall late on the previous afternoon.

She had seen roles reverse, perspectives switch, and attitudes change. A most notable switch-up had been with Miss Marnie Benson, society maven, future entrepreneur, rampant coquette, and dedicated clothes horse. In the beginning, after being signed into the project by her temporary guardians, Marnie hadn’t been the least bit interested in partaking in the assignment. After being cited a couple of times for her failure to cooperate, she somewhat acquiesced but made it clear that she had no intention of doing anything outside of what she had to do. Now that it was all coming to an end, she noticed it was Marnie who, although initially decreeing she wanted nothing to do with him, had custody of the child she and Sidney were supposed to be sharing. Sidney was none too pleased things had taken that turn, and he loudly voiced his opposition, but Marnie wasn’t listening to his protests. Every time she saw Marnie, the doll was with her. Little Jaden was, quite naturally, the best dressed of all the children, surprisingly well-adjusted, and he seemed to be well-cared for by his “mother”.

That the kids didn’t want to turn the dolls in that afternoon as originally planned, surprised and pleased her. She thought after a week of having to be completely responsible for their welfare, her students would be ready to pitch the dolls at her. Instead, they begged to keep them, saying that they wanted to have a going-away party for them at the park on Saturday. Tickled at the notion, she’d gotten permission from administration to let the kids keep them. That was after administration contacted the manufacturer to get their permission to hold the dolls over the weekend. The original plan called for a representative from HartToy to come that evening and de-activate them for repackaging and then return them to the plant for performance evaluations. With the kids keeping the dolls, that wasn’t scheduled to happen until at least Monday afternoon.

As long as the kids maintained them, the dolls were self-charging, and there were enough supplies left to hold them over for that period of time. She would need to distribute it all once the students got there for last period. She got up from her desk with the intention of separating it all into the twelve necessary packages. Then her interdepartmental phone rang, and she reached to pick it up. Hearing who was waiting to speak with her on the other end, she was shocked almost into near speechlessness. She had to sit back down to take the call.

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Unlike their first visit to the bunker, on their second trip, Pat was first off the elevator car when the doors opened. Jennifer, noting her friend’s eagerness, pulled her back by the arm.

“Hold it, Pat. Just wait.”

Caught off guard, Pat turned around as she attempted to pull her arm free. “What?”

“You’re on a scent; I can tell. What’s going on in that head of yours? You’ve been very quiet ever since we left Chris’ place.”

Pat looked to Jennifer’s face and was skewered by those eyes that had always been able to cut right through to her deeply embedded, heavily protected core. The only other people who could so effectively do that to her was her Bill, but even more so, Jennifer’s father and her childhood guardian, Stephen Edwards.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she answered, trying to evade Jennifer’s unrelenting stare.

After removing her arm from Jennifer’s grasp, she smoothed the blouse and tugged at the short leather jacket she wore, neither of which really needed any straightening. “I just know where I am and where I’m going this time, that’s all.”

“Um-hmm.”

Jennifer, eyeing her up and down, stood fast. “Patricia Rose Hamilton, I can read your body language better than anyone else on earth. You’re channeling. You have a lot of nervous energy and stress built up, you’re onto something, and I know how you get when you’re like that. You hone in on a thing, and you use going after it to expend that energy and to relieve that stress. What’s going on?”

“I said I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jen.”

“And I say you’re lying. You do know what I’m talking about, and we’re not going another step until you let me in on it. Tell me.”

Pat slowly shook her head. “Somebody watching would think we were twelve again. Look, I’m the oldest, Edwards. I keep telling you, you are not the boss of me.”

“It’s only by two months. Since the day we met, I’ve been reminding you of that repeatedly. And as old as we both are now, at this juncture, those two months are negligible.”

Jennifer held her right hand to Pat’s face and wiggled her fingers. “The code to where you’re trying to get is in my head and it has to come through these. If you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, we aren’t going anywhere, and you’ll still be all wound up just like you are right now.”

Pat closed her eyes and sighed, “You make me sick sometimes, Jennifer.”

“And so what if I do, Patricia? Two months older or no, I have the upper hand in this, so to speak.”

Pat huffed, folded her arms and tossed her head. “A-l-l-l-l-l-l right. If you must know-”

“And I must.”

“- I’m anxious to get back with that little sister. I want to get a definite make on her so that when I meet the older sister this afternoon, I can line some things up that I have going in my head.”

“Like what?”

Pat huffed again and then placed both her hands on Jennifer’s shoulders.

“Look, let me hold on to them for now, Jen.  I don’t want to speak on it yet because I don’t want to jinx myself. You know about that and me. I have the feeling that these sisters- well- I don’t know. Just trust me.”

Jennifer at first frowned but then nodded in agreement. She turned and started down the narrow corridor in the direction of the door at the other end. Pat followed her.

“You aren’t going to try to steamroll this girl when we get in there, are you?” Jennifer asked over her shoulder.

“If she’s as rude and huffy to you in there today as she was yesterday, then yes, I’m going to pull out and administer the oral strap to her little haughty ass, and if it comes to that, Jen, you just stand back and let me. She’s had the benefit of the good cop and didn’t seem to appreciate it. If she’s going to continue to act ugly to people who are only trying to help her sorry little tail, it may be time for the bad cop to take her turn at the table.

“But,” Pat held up one finger as Jennifer ran the codes to get them in. “if she’s civil, even if she doesn’t really tell us anything of value, I might be inclined to let her slide one more time.”

__________________________________________________________

Jonathan came down to the lab as soon as he got word of Dr. Westlake’s message.

Every screen in the dummy network lab, #5, was blank. The absence of the generally unnoticed hum of finely tuned machinery at work was almost deafening. Jonathan also thought he detected a faint whiff of hot wires. Dr. Westlake and a knot of computer technicians were gathered around the screen directly connected to the mainframe computer. A couple of the technicians were beginning to dismantle the brain. They all turned around when August Lamb cleared his throat to alert them to the CEO’s arrival.

Westlake stood up from the stool upon which he’d been seated and came over to shake hands with both men.

“Good morning, Mr. Hart. As I told you, we ran that code you gave us to check out, and as you can see, we’ve gone dark in here. Like we thought, the code is designed to shut everything down.”

“What happened?” Jonathan asked.

“Well, we replicated it, ran it, and what you see here, or I should say don’t see, is the result. It completely wipes out the system upon which it’s run. We ran the test in here because this lab is the latest contained one that we’ve set up. It’s some sort of particularly virulent virus; it ran right through the firewalls we had in place, overtook the system, and completely it shut it down. Fried it.

“I’m accustomed to viruses infecting a system, running in the background, causing glitches, muddying system movement, slowing things down, interfering with programs while it does its dirty work, but this one simply blew the network.”

“I see.” Jonathan walked over to where the engineers and technicians were busy at work over the #1 unit. “You ran it directly from the PC, but could it be placed on a chip or a disc, you know, be made portable?”

“Of course,” Westlake answered. “It could be put on any portable storage device, inserted somewhere, and run. But that activation on a major network, I believe would result in shutting down the entire network, just as it did in here. The results would be devastating. We’re going in now to check the drives to see just what internal damage it does and how, do the repairs and replacements, and run it again to see if we get the same results. But, I’ll tell you this much up front, though,”

Jonathan, standing with his hands in his pockets, was listening closely. Westlake appeared slightly unnerved by his findings, he could tell. If his top computer engineer was moved by what happened, then it was serious.

“Yes?” He was anxious for the doctor to continue.

“This is some vicious stuff, Mr. Hart. It seems to me that it was designed to kill, so to speak. Whoever wrote this meant to put someone whose business runs on technology out of business. I’m thinking that when we go to check these dummy drives, they’re going to be wiped clean of the sample data we put on them. We also need to see if it sends that wiped data out to some other computer.”

“Wiping the drives clean and stealing the information?” August asked.

“Perhaps.” Westlake answered. “I think the shutting down the system is to slow us up from doing anything to find that out right away. If this had been run on any of the networked computers within the corporation, it would almost instantly replicate itself and shut down everything within the corporation. Consequently, we’d be days making repairs and finding out what all was lost. In the meantime, everybody here would be sitting around with their hands in their lap, and if the information is being transmitted, the receiver would be way ahead in the game. Let’s face it, Mr. Hart, Hart Industries is almost wholly reliant on its technology.”

“There’s all kinds of terrorism.” Jonathan sighed, garnering a look from August. “The key is trying to be proactive. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Westlake, you’ll get back to me with your findings?”

“Of course,” the doctor answered.

He shook hands with Jonathan and August Lamb again and went back to his work. Jonathan and August left the lab, headed back to the private elevator that would return them to Jonathan’s office.

“Nervous?” August asked as he accessed the locked door that led to the elevator car.

“For once,” Jonathan replied. “I think I might be. Have we heard anything back from the cryptographers about that other piece we got from the car?”

August pulled his phone from his breast pocket. “Not yet, but I’ll check on it.”

__________________________________________________________

J.J. left Marnie in the Counseling Center with Ms. Grimsley after Ms. Grimsley excused her to go over with Marnie some other things in private. She was glad to be gone, but the privacy thing was a joke. Marnie would be telling her what was said as soon as they got back together again.

There was still some time left in the lunch period. Stopping first by the locker, she proceeded on from there to the girls’ restroom. Once inside, she checked her watch, and then pulled her cell from her back pocket. When her party picked up, she went right into it.

“Hey, Chase.”

J.? What’re you doing calling me this time of morning? How come you aren’t in class?

“I got called out by the counselor, and anyway, this is my lunch time. It’s almost halfway over, but I had to tell you something first. Where are you? I checked the time. You’re not in the classroom already, I hope, and you’re picking up this phone call.”

No, I’m just on my way to Physics. What’s up?

“Are you still coming home today with Chance?”

Yeah, I told you I was. Chance and I have one more class after this, and then we’re leaving right out. Why? Chance said he called your old man and told him that we’d be by there as soon as our plane got in and we got home from the airport. Don’t tell me he’s sweating you hard about us coming to see him before we take you and Marnie out? I don’t know why he’s tripping. It’s not like we’re strangers to him or anything. We’ve been hanging out with you and Marnie since we were kids.

“No, it isn’t Daddy. And I’ve told you over and over until I’m sick of telling you, he’s my father, not my “old man”.

All right, your father, then. Mr. Hart. The Big H. Jonathan. Hustler Extraordinaire to the ‘nth Power. What’s up, I asked you?

“You remember I told you Marnie and I are doing this project for school?”

Yeah, with the dolls and all.

“Well, at breakfast this morning, at the last minute, my mother was like, ‘If you two are going out tonight, then who’s going to watch the babies?’ Of course, Marnie and I hadn’t thought that far ahead. My mother and Aunt Pat copped out, saying they couldn’t babysit for us. She said they have other things to do. Writing stuff or something. They could have  watched them for us while they worked; they’re just being difficult, but-”

Well, where’s the kids’ daddies? Or aren’t you speaking to Hector yet?

“You know, Chase, I am constantly amazed at how quickly word travels here in California. If you must know, Hector and I have settled our misunderstanding.”

Look, you’re the one who picked Marnie the Motor-mouth for a best friend. If you two made up, then how come Hector can’t watch the kid? What about Sid? Surely you guys can get him to babysit. That sounds like it would be right up his alley.

“Hector has a date with his latest love interest, and Sidney- well, Sidney’s still in sort of a snit about Marnie having taken Jaden back from him. He acts up when he gets the chance, and this would be one of his chances.”

I thought Hector was your man, J. How’s he going out on a date with somebody else, and you, of all people, aren’t dotting his eye for cheating on you?

“Hector is only the father of my child. I told you I opted to be a single parent. Hector was simply a make-believe moment in my unfortunate, for-this-project past. We are not together, for pretend or anything else; I remain unencumbered.”

What about Teddy? You still “unencumbered” from him, too?

“Like I sa-a-a-aid, Chase Barnett… while you’re all up in my personal business….”

I can be in your personal business, J.J. Hart, you and I have it like that. That is some project your school has you all doing. It almost sounds like fun with all the drama that’s been going on with it: jealousy, fights, babies getting left around, people getting served with papers, divorced, and all that. I’d have loved to have been a part of that, especially in it with you. How about if you and me had been put together to be parents?

“We could have been parents for the project, but I wouldn’t have married you either. If I had, for sure you and I would have been one of the couples getting divorced, and in the process, your eye might have gotten dotted.”

Why my eye? You’re not doing Hector’s.

“It’s a little different with us, Chase. I expect more out of you. We would have been married, the women would have been all on you, like they always are in real life, all disrespecting me and everything. You would have slipped and cheated with one of them, word would have gotten back to me; and I would have put your lights out and then cut you loose afterward. Simple as that.”

(Laughter) Whatever, J. Look, I gotta tell you, I’m not going to be seen out with you tonight while you’re carrying around a doll that looks and acts almost real, and is supposed to be your baby. And you’re with me? People might think things. Dang J., you didn’t even do dolls when you were little.

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. But first off, let me say I’m going to ignore that ‘and you’re with me’ comment; you should be so lucky. Anyway, something’s come up with Marnie and I’m going to need to stay home and keep both dolls, hers and mine. I figure you and I can hang out whenever. Then, too, we’ll all be taking the trip to Tahoe with your parents during Christmas break like always. I wanted to try to catch you before you left school so that if you were coming home just to hang out with me, I could let you know I won’t be able to get out tonight.”

What’s up with Marnie?

“Chance will fill you in, I’m sure. She should be getting with him any minute now and telling him what’s up.”

You guys still having the kids’ going-away party in the morning?

“Of course. We couldn’t let our babies get away without a proper send-off.”

By the time they hung up from each other, Chase hadn’t said if he was still coming or not.

In the mirror, J.J. put on her cap, threaded her ponytail through it, and checked out her appearance. Instead of heading for the cafeteria, she decided to go outside on the Junior/Senior patio, feeling as if she could use some fresh air. Maybe Deon would be out there, and she could get a quick hand of Poker in. As she straightened her letter jacket, her mind went from Chase to Ms. Chris.

Chris would be there by the time she got home from school that afternoon, and maybe, just maybe her sister would be there as well.

For some reason, she found herself oddly intrigued by them and the dynamics, or lack thereof, between them. In them, she sensed a good mystery waiting to be somehow nosed into. The Duchess would be issuing warning on top of warning, verbal as well as visual, the eyebrow and whatnot, but sometimes a thing was worth risking being locked down for it. This was one of those things. This one was worth trying to figure out how to get around her mother, the warnings, and all of that.

It was also worth sacrificing a Friday night out to stay close to the action at home.

People connected to HartToy were dropping like flies, and she wanted to know why. Her father hadn’t said very much more to her about it since their talk in the loft, but she could tell that it was wearing on him. An awful lot had gone down in that short span of time since the murder, and despite his vital appearance, she hadn’t forgotten how sick he had been less than a month ago. Stress, she understood, could wear a person out.

How well she knew that to be true.

She had been trying to ignore it, but standing there watching herself in the glass, she was reminded that Aunt Pat hadn’t said a word to her at breakfast that morning. In fact, it seemed to her that her aunt was pointedly avoiding her. They hadn’t said much, if anything to each other since the confrontation in the bedroom. At the table that morning, Uncle Bill was even giving the two of them the eye. It had never been like that between them before, and she and her stomach really didn’t know how to handle it. Perhaps the Duchess had been wrong in her assessment of things. Maybe Aunt Pat really was mad at her, and it wasn’t that she was just waiting her out.

“Well, whatever it is,” she said to herself.  “It’ll have to wait a little while longer. I have the rest of this school day, Ms. Chris, Daddy, Genie, and the party tomorrow to worry about right now.”

__________________________________________________________

Although having them there made her even more nervous and edgy, Claire Allen was almost grateful for news of company. It was lonely and much too quiet there in that room. She’d had the visit earlier from Mr. Hart, but her natural internal defenses had been so strong at that time that she couldn’t wait until he left her.

But the walls were starting to close in.

At night, way into the night, they took her out through a short dark hall to an unlit elevator that lifted her to a secluded place on the outside where she could breathe in some fresh air and have it touch her skin. She didn’t know where the place was, but she was grateful for it when they took her there. There was an artificial sunlight they used with her for part of the day, but she hadn’t seen real sunlight in days. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to stay there much longer. Sooner or later, she would have to return to the real world and face her troubles, as well as Chris and the music.

At the moment; however, she had more guests.

She got up and ran a quick comb through her hair. With that eye still in the shape that it was, makeup wouldn’t have made any difference at all, so she hadn’t bothered. Straightening the clean sweats they’d brought her to put on, ignoring the slippers, she waited for her guests.

Jennifer Hart entered the room, followed by her friend, that Hamilton woman. Both of them were, in appearance, all she aspired to be: women of style, women who looked as if they mattered.

Mrs. Hart smiled, Ms. Hamilton did not.

“Hello, Mrs. Hart,” she managed to smile in return while extending her hand.

She consciously pushed aside the armor, at least for that moment. If, or rather when, she was released from there, she’d need an ally of some kind. “Ms. Hamilton,” she nodded in the other woman’s direction to which she got no verbal response, only a slight nodding of her head.

Mrs. Hart came toward her, shook her hand, and then sat down on the daybed across from where she was standing by the chair. Ms. Hamilton took up the place she’d occupied on the day before, leaned against the door frame with her arms crossed and her dark, smoldering eyes trained directly upon her.

“Sit down, Claire.” Mrs. Hart said. “We came to see how you were today. Is there anything you need?”

“I’m fine,” Claire answered as she took the seat.

Unable to meet the woman’s eyes, she tried to find somewhere else to look. Failing at that, she dropped her own gaze to the carpet. “No, there’s nothing I need. I’m fine.”

Mrs. Hart wasted no time in getting to the point of her visit.

“Claire, I asked you yesterday, if you were in some kind of trouble, and you became angry and shut down. I’m asking you that again today. I’m going to need for you to talk with me if I’m going to try and help you.”

Without much thought on her part, the shield of defense went up.

“What makes you think I’m in so much trouble, Mrs. Hart? Maybe I just needed to get away for while to rest. Maybe I just wanted to regroup.”

“I know that you’re in some sort of trouble, Claire. I was there the day you went to the hospital to see Chris. I saw you go into the room. Chris was still in the coma, and you didn’t even sit down. You went in and almost ran back out. Why didn’t you stay there with her? Why did you leave right away? What were you afraid of?”

The stark memory of seeing Chris like that sent a shiver through her being. It raced from the top of her head down to the ends of each one of her toes. Chris had always been so strong; no matter what, she’d always seemed indestructible- a rock, a boulder even, deeply embedded in the ground upon which she sat. She could always be counted upon to be there, no matter what. Then, all of a sudden, she wasn’t.

In answer to Mrs. Hart’s questions, Claire could only mumble, “There’s no trouble.”

The Hamilton woman shifted position on the wall, and without looking in her direction, Claire could feel her growing impatience. Even to herself, she sounded suspicious, self-protective, maybe even stupid. Of course, there was trouble. She’d called Mr. Hart begging him to watch out for Chris, admitting to him that she had gotten herself in deep. Her eye was a complete giveaway. Why, she wondered, was she fighting it?

Pride.

And Chris.

Despite everything, Chris didn’t deserve to have anything more happen to her. She had to have had her reasons for doing the things she’d done. Maybe if she had listened to Chris and not been so angry about everything, it could all have been avoided.

“Who hurt you, Claire?”

“I fell.”

“On what?” Ms. Hamilton asked, speaking for the first time since her arrival. “Five knuckles attached to a fist?”

Mrs. Hart shot her friend a look that clearly said, “Shut up! Let me handle it.”, and then turned back to her.

“No you didn’t fall,” she said. “Someone hit you. Who? Why?”

She didn’t want to say. What she wanted to do was recline the chair, lie down in it, and curl up on her side as tightly as her body would let her. But even if she could do that, nothing would change, and things couldn’t possibly remain as they were. She had to tell someone. But to tell would expose Chris.

“He was angry at me,” she murmured, her stomach twisting at the sudden image in her mind of his irate features as he stood over her screaming… and screaming… and screaming. “He lost it and hit me. He didn’t mean to do it. I provoked him into doing it.”

When there was no immediate response, she looked up to see that Mrs. Hart was no longer looking at her. She’d turned away. Her face had gone ashen, and her hands were gripping the chenille spread on the daybed. She’d closed her eyes and appeared shaken by something. The sight almost made her get up and go to her. But before she could, if she’d been so inclined, Ms. Hamilton left the doorjamb and propelled herself toward her, cutting her off from doing so.

“Look,” she warned as she stood before her, leaning in with her hands on the arms of the chair. “Quit playing games. Who hit you? Why did you call Mr. Hart, and what did you mean by that call?”

“Pat,”  the third voice in the room chided, almost pleading. Ms. Hamilton, not to be deterred, waved an annoyed hand at it without turning around and without taking her eyes off of her.

Claire’s hands gripped onto the arms of the chair, too, as instinctively her body moved back and away from the woman standing over her. Only the back of the chair stopped her retreat. Tongue-tied with shock and some escalating fear, she could only manage to stutter, “I, I-”

“Tell me!” the woman seethed. “Tell me who hit you before I hit you. People are in trouble out there, shit’s happening, people are dead, and I think you are the cause of some of it. Christina loves you. Some other people must like you. I don’t feel either of those things for you, but I do love that woman sitting behind me.

“Now her, she’s one of the nicest people on earth, but I’m here to tell you, I am not. I am the worst kind of bitch you will ever come across in your life, and my nerves were already shot when I came in here. You’re wasting our time, and maybe putting other people’s lives in jeopardy. If you don’t start talking, I’m going to show you just how much of a shrew I can be. You won’t have to ever worry again about whoever kicked your ass that last time, or about talking to the police, not after I get finished with you.”

Trembling, Claire felt trapped… and scared.

“Did Marston Knight hit you?” Ms. Hamilton demanded.

Hearing his name come off the woman’s lips shocked her. How did she know? How much did she know?

“Marston? Knight?”

“You heard me. Don’t try to play stupid. It pisses me off when intelligent people try to play stupid with me. Did that old man put his hands on you?”

“N-no,” she finally mumbled.

Ms. Hamilton leaned in even further. “What?”

“I said, no. It wasn’t him”

“Then who was it?”

It had jumped down from the edges of her mind and was pushing at the back of her throat, but she couldn’t find the inner strength to get it out onto her tongue. It didn’t feel right just yet. It wasn’t the right time. These weren’t the right people.

“I want to tell you, but I can’t,” she whispered.

“Why can’t you tell us, Claire?” Mrs. Hart got up and came around to stand beside Ms. Hamilton.

The Hart woman’s voice was kinder; and like Ms. Hamilton had said, she probably was the nicer of the two women. If she was going to open up to anyone, it would probably be to her, but she couldn’t let her guard down to Mrs. Hart either, at least not yet.

“Not until I talk to Chris, Mrs. Hart. I have to talk to Chris first. I have to find out- to tell her- how is she?”

“A whole lot you care,” Ms. Hamilton accused. “Only now are you bothering to even ask about her?”

“I-, I was-, I was going-”

Mrs. Hart came around Ms. Hamilton and squatted down at the right arm of the chair. “Tell Chris what, Claire?” she urged. “You don’t have to be afraid any more.”

The Hamilton woman had released the arms of the chair but was still standing over both of them.

Nervous and overwhelmed to the point of sweating, Claire began to cry.

__________________________________________________________

It wasn’t until they were back in the car, and she was starting it, that Jennifer spoke on what happened in the bunker.

“Don’t you think you were kind of hard on her up there, Pat?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Whatever did she do or say that made you go after her like that? We’d only just gotten started, and you practically jumped on her.”

The image of Jennifer’s ashen face and her tense reaction to Claire’s admission that she got that blue/black mouse she was sporting from some male in her life, played in Pat’s head.

It was like that with Jennifer when directly faced with issues of domestic violence. Ever since Australia all those years ago. It wasn’t always that strong, didn’t last so long, and therefore wasn’t normally that noticeable. In fact, she doubted  most people would even pick up on it in her, but she did. The pangs of personal guilt shot through her own being were just as strong every time she was there to be witness to it.

What about those times when she wasn’t? In those times, Jennifer was alone in it, just as she had been way back then. She allowed Jennifer to talk her out of accompanying her to Sydney. It had been a mistake, one that she saw coming, but Jennifer thought she had it under control, probably in the same way  Claire thought she did and found out the hard way she didn’t.

“I didn’t like how she was talking to you. I don’t appreciate how nasty and defensive she is with people who are only trying to help her. She’s obviously in bad trouble and she needs to come clean, at least with you and Jonathan. If it weren’t for you two, from the sound of things, if Jonathan hadn’t come to her aid, she might not be here for anybody to try and help.”

“I still think we might have gotten more out of her if we had taken a softer approach.”

“Jen, some people don’t respond to soft. I should know, I’m one of them. She is, too. I get the strong impression she’s one of these people who thinks  life owes them something. Something’s happened in her life, and whatever that might have been, she feels she was deprived of something. Since then, she’s been doing everything she can to make up for it, up to and including jeopardizing the well-being of others.”

“Is that the writer in you talking again?”

“It’s the Pat in me, the one who has studied people, talking. That girl is drowning in guilt, but is too stupid, stubborn and proud to call for help.”

“She said she would talk to Chris.”

“And how do you propose to have that happen? You said Chris doesn’t have full recall. Jonathan, the doctors, et al don’t want anyone providing details to her she doesn’t dredge up on her own, and surely her talking with Claire about their troubles might facilitate that.”

“I don’t know,” Jennifer sighed as she pulled the car out of the underground lot and back into bright LA daylight.

She checked the clock on the dash. I guess we better head back home. Chris is scheduled to arrive right after lunch, August said between twelve and one-thirty, two o’clock. It’s just about one now. We have her things, and I want to be there when she arrives.”

“So do I,” Pat said as she lay her head back on the headrest. She closed her eyes.

Behind her eyelids was Claire Allen with that black eye along with Jennifer’s pallid, haunted expression as she sat on that daybed. Her heart twisted in sympathy for both of them.

__________________________________________________________

J.J. spotted a woman making her way through the crowded hallway. Having come in from outside at the end of her lunch period, walking in the middle of a group of friends who were either in her upcoming Lit class or had classes in that direction, the woman’s face registered right away. It was one she knew, but it took them moving closer to each other for her to recognize it as the face of the technician who had been with them in FACS class that first day, Alice Rangel from HartToy.

They were too far away from each other to speak, and the hall too tightly packed for them to easily make their way to each other. J.J. wasn’t sure if the woman even saw her, or if she did see her if she would recognize her in that sea of kids. Instead of trying to get her attention, she made the decision to just keep going. After all, the bell was due to ring, and Ms. Rangel would probably be in FACS class during the last period anyway. They could talk then if it turned out there was anything they really needed to say beyond hello.

__________________________________________________________

August Lamb tried not to be obvious as he attempted to study Chris Allen out of the corner of his eye.

She lie across from him, strapped to the cot in the nondescript hospital van transporting her to the Hart estate. Eva, the private duty nurse, and all of her and Chris’ things had gone on before them in a commercial taxi. Shortly after her departure, Chris had been brought down a service elevator, straight to the underground garage, and loaded into the van. She was still suffering some dizziness and therefore wasn’t always steady on her feet. The nurse assigned to the van to see to her during the trip was seated behind her head.

“Why am I so privileged?” Chris had asked him on their way down in the elevator.

“So privileged?”

“Having you, as my personal escort. I would have thought an underling would have been assigned this task.”

“You’re a special case. Hart Industries Royalty.”

She waved a dismissive hand at him in response.

The reality was nobody was going to be allowed to get close to her until the entire truth of what was going on was revealed. Medical opinion aside, limiting and controlling her outside contacts was an integral part of the plan for her recovery.

Chris had her eyes closed, but she wasn’t sleeping. He was sneaking peeks at her because he didn’t want her to open her eyes and catch him staring. The girl was an enigma; she always had been. As long as he had known her, it took these recent incidents to show him just how much he didn’t know about her personal life. She was the consummate professional, sharp and intelligent, but what was she really like as an everyday person?

Chris had been with HartToy for two years when her parents were killed in the accident. She started out as an intern from UCLA which was only supposed to be temporary, but she proved so good at her work they kept her on as an apprentice internal investigator. She worked her way up from there. Even when Claire came to live with her, she never broke stride. How smoothly she seemed to handle her duties at work as well as at home, despite her relative youth, impressed him. When she lived at home with Chris, Claire spent a great deal of her time at HartToy, doing her homework in Chris’ office and helping out around the facility. Once she went off to college, he rarely saw her and Chris rarely spoke of her, although the pictures on the shelves in her office did the talking for her. Judging by what he could see displayed there, he could tell she loved Claire and was very proud of her.

Why would someone want to hurt Chris? What had Claire been into in all those years away, and what in the world was she doing with an old, sleazy guy like Knight? The obvious appeared to be the answer, but he was not a man to be fooled or diverted by the obvious. There was something more going on with that. Claire was running scared, but why?

Who was in that black sedan that Bob Smith, Samms, and J.J. Hart had seen? Shell?  Maybe, but Shell would be awfully old to be running around, chasing somebody on his own after all those years. And having escaped prosecution that first time by leaving the country, he didn’t dare show his face again in the States. But he could still be carrying a lethal grudge against Jonathan, who’d put an end to his gravy train when he fired him from Hart Shipping Lines and pressed racketeering charges against him. Shell could easily be transmitting his orders to someone more capable to get back at him. But that shipyard corruption scandal that Jonathan helped break up had been years before. Shell had left the country, and they’d thought it was over. Why would Shell only now be trying to exact his revenge, if indeed it was him?

And who in the hell killed Rider, his wife, and Martin? The coroner said that Martin drowned, but that didn’t mean that someone didn’t force him to do it or take him out for a one-way boat ride.

It all had to be connected. It was connected, he had no doubt about it.

It was good that Chris was going to the Hart place. It was quiet there. And safe.

He wanted so badly to ask her what she knew. She might not remember some things, but there was a lot she was aware of that she hadn’t told, of that he was certain. He had been very much instrumental in her security training over the years, and he’d come to admire how close-mouthed and poker-faced she could be about a matter at hand until she was absolutely, positively, sure of things.

More than anything, he wanted to know who hurt her- the first time, as well as that past Saturday. More than anything, he wanted to know who did it and why, and how they managed to get that close to her. And he wanted to know for more reasons than just the professional ones.

__________________________________________________________

Pat decided that she was not in the mood to drive around town on her own gathering the things the girls had on their list, as they would have done on their own if they hadn’t found themselves bereft of wheels. She’d decided to take another track. Throwing her own credit card into the ring, she was making phone calls, placing her orders and arranging to have things for the party delivered. It was her preferred mode of shopping.

When they arrived back at Willow Pond, they found Chris had yet to arrive, and Marie had their lunch ready.

Pat ate hers at Jennifer’s desk in the great room, where she continued the business she started. To Marie’s dismay, as well as her disapproval, Jennifer asked to forgo hers for the time being. Instead, she took the things they gathered for Chris out to the pool house to put them away for her.

The pool house on the estate was actually more of a second guest house. There was a large front room with a dining area, complete with kitchenette, two bedrooms- one of them a master suite, a second bathroom, and a solarium where the Jacuzzi was located. It, like the guest house was always kept ready for visitors, but Marie had the service come out on the afternoon before to give it some extra freshening. She’d brought in fresh flowers, filled the refrigerator and the cupboards with quick, but nutritious snacks, and changed the bedclothes and curtains to give the place a lighter, airy, more feminine feel.

She was sure  Chris would be comfortable there. Maybe one she relaxed, things would more freely come back to her, and she’d be more willing to share them.

Someone had physically assaulted both Chris and Claire. Who? Why? What in the world was going on?

The common link in all of it seemed to be HartToy, and as much as she hated facing it- Jonathan. As many ways as she looked at everything, in some way or another each piece wound its way, directly or in some roundabout fashion, right back to him. It was an unspoken, but well-understood point that they hadn’t discussed in the bed when they’d talked it all over. Some things didn’t need to be said between them; they already inherently knew them to be true and all too real.

As such, was someone hurting people, killing people, to get to him? At him? Could he also be a target?

It was always something.

He said that he’d put extra security on her and on J.J.; he feared that someone might be following them. Why that was, she didn’t know. His supposition was that it might have been because she and J.J. paid that visit to Chris on that Saturday of her car wreck. He also speculated that it might have been that someone had seen her go to Chris’ place that first time, and that perhaps they thought she’d brought something out that they wanted.

It was for sure that someone was looking for something, and they were willing to go to any lengths to get it. Jonathan hadn’t said as much, claimed he was just covering his bases, but she suspected that he was looking for something specific with those dolls. After all, they were HartToy, the trouble started right before they started being used for the project, and upon seeing her with J.J., Chris had a rather strong reaction to Genie. When she told him of it, he’d since associated the dolls with those serial numbers he found in her car, which proved he’d been thinking about it. For Jonathan, nothing was coincidental. So many things pointing in one direction, for him, would be beyond coincidental.

The thought that Genie might possibly be key, and that Genie was so securely attached to J.J. gave her pause for worry. It seemed that no matter how hard they tried to keep her out of it, the Hart penchant for backing into, walking into, leaping into trouble, had been that girl’s birthright. To make that matter worse, like her father, she seemed eager to claim it.

Not having a naturally suspicious nature, being followed and that kind of thing wasn’t foremost in her mind most of the time. But it was in Jonathan’s, and it would likewise be in J.J.’s. Was that what she was seeing that day in the car when it appeared she was so preoccupied? J.J. had taken some concerns she had to her father, although he had been reluctant to share with her the specific nature of what J.J. had told him.

Putting a tail on J.J., she didn’t mind. On herself, she wasn’t crazy about the idea, but she understood Jonathan’s need for that kind of peace of mind. But had he done the same for himself? It would be like him to not have.

On the night before, up in the bedroom, she and J.J. had talked at length about several things. Those times were the best; she loved them. She relished those moments when J.J. let her in, when she turned to her for answers to her always-intriguing questions. She was gratified when J.J. let her in and allowed her to see what was on her ever-expanding, maturing mind. Although they often embarrassed her, she couldn’t help but be amused by those times when J.J. dared to tease her about some personal shortcoming or incident, and they could laugh together about the matter. As much as she’d had come to love Marnie, she was secretly relieved Pat was taking her.

Marnie did need more than she felt equipped to give. Her style of parenting, the reigning in and/ or cutting off, worked with J.J., but like Pat said, that wasn’t what Marnie needed. Marnie would buck that and eventually run past it, causing rifts where they didn’t have to be. Marnie wasn’t one to be told what she could and could not do. If told not to do something, it was nothing less than her choice whether or not she obeyed. It didn’t have anything to do with what she had been told, unlike J.J. who would comply out of respect for her elders, if nothing else.

Marnie needed what Pat could give her: lessons, practice, and example on how to work with what she had. At sixteen, Marnie was too far along in who she was to change. As a teenager, Pat had been the same way. All anyone could do with her was make her see her worth in the big picture. She already knew her worth in her own world, and she tried her best to make good on it- in the classroom, in campus activities, and also, with the boys. It took Pa to wisely guide her into the solid, successful woman she became.

How he knew what to do with Pat, but not with his own daughter, bothered her for years. Then, one day, around the time she was J.J.’s age, it dawned on her, he didn’t have to know her because it was her mother had known her and done the work.

Before leaving them, Suzanne Rousell Edwards had already firmly lain the foundation she wanted her daughter to have, and by the time she left, it had set. As Pat said in the car, there was nothing anyone else had to do for her except watch over her and let her be. Pa tried ruling her from afar, but that hadn’t been what she needed. Like Marnie, she’d bucked it and run past it. It took Pat to help her see that Pa had been doing the best he know how to do. Maybe it hadn’t been what she needed, but it was the best he had to give to her, he was all they had, and at least he was willing to give them that.

What would she have done without Pat’s wisdom? What would she have done without Pat? What would Marnie do without her? What, at present, would Pat be doing without Marnie in her life? Wasn’t she in the house at that moment doing Marnie’s bidding rather than sitting around alone and brooding in the guest house?

Herself and J.J.

Pat and Marnie

Chris.

Claire.

Then, abruptly and inexplicably, like a quickly opened faucet, the tears rushed forward.

Confused and almost frightened by what was happening, she snatched tissues from the night table and sat down in the chair in the master bedroom where she had been in the closet hanging Chris’ jogging suits.

What an awful time for a meltdown. I don’t have meltdowns.

As she dabbed carefully at her eyes with the soft, cloth-like paper, it was as if days of anxiety and pent up stress were making themselves known to her.

What is this? What’s happening to me?

But then, never had she been so close to losing Pat. Not long before that, it was Jonathan, and with him in that situation, maybe even to losing J.J.

Jonathan had been so sick, and J.J. had gotten him down. She flew her father, in a jet she shouldn’t have been flying, to the help he needed and, in essence, back to her. A couple of weeks after that, he took off toward disaster in DC, only once again to be brought safely back to her.

His health was better now; he said he felt fine, but what if all that was happening around them caused him to have a setback? What if someone really was trying to get to him? If something happened to him to take him away from her forever, how would she continue on without him?

Then she thought of J.J., joking with her about her and Jonathan breaking up and going their separate ways.

“I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if, God forbid, you and Daddy did break up. I started messing with this as far back as when Marnie’s mother and real father broke up. If it happened like that with you and Daddy, even as big as I am now, I’d go with you, wouldn’t I?”

Hell yes, you would. There is no way in the world  I would leave you with your father. As much as I adore him. love him, and respect him, and as much as I trust him with you, you are far too much like him, and you are a girl. Until you are eighteen and out on your own, you will be right here with me. As long as I’m here in this world with you, and you are my minor child, it is with me you will be.

“If for some reason, you guys did break up, and Daddy had the nerve to think he was going to get married again, if there ended up being a stepmother, like a young bimbo second wife, I could give her you-know-what, couldn’t I? And if I did, you’d look the other way and let me, wouldn’t you?”

She chuckled to herself at the memory of J.J.’s naughty face, her nodding head seconding what she was saying, that ponytail, long grown out from the little sausage curl from which it started.

“If he had the nerve….”

Through her tears, she had to laugh at her daughter’s nerve. The girl had evidently dedicated a good bit of time and some serious scheming to that particular line of thought.

Yes, J.J., I’d look the other way. It would be dead wrong, and when Jonathan called to fuss about it, I’d listen and be sympathetic; I’d promise to speak with you, and I might when I saw you. But  when he hung up from telling on you, I’d laugh until I cried.

… with your little spiteful self. I’d be warning you not to, but you would give the ‘young, bimbo second wife’ what-for. Before you left me, I’d tell you to be gracious and to act nicely toward her, but all the while I’d be at home knowing full well that throughout your entire visitation with them, you’d be giving her pure hell, like only you can.

“It would be two for one, for real; me and you. If Daddy knows what’s good for him…”

For real, baby. You and I….

It’s ugly, mama, I know, but you know that’s how we Rousell-Edwards girls are. We don’t easily share what we really consider to be ours. I know full well why Pa never married again.

And it was why Marnie would be better off with Pat. She could only be mother to one, the one that was sent to her, so late in the game, for safekeeping. She and J.J. were alone in what they had, just as Pat said they were.

“…the reality is, you can’t be anybody else’s mother. You can’t even play at it. J.J. is your only child…”

That, Justine Jennifer, certainly was.

Dabbing at her eyes with the tissues, satisfied that the uncharacteristic surge of negative emotion had passed, she got up and went back to putting Chris’ things away. Again she wondered how Chris managed raising Claire when she was just past being a child herself. Had they once been close? Was it really that they weren’t close now, or had something gotten in the way to keep them from being so?

Did Claire have something to do with Chris injuries, the old ones as well as the recent one to her head. Was all of it about Claire, and if it was, how did that connect to Jonathan?

Questions, questions, questions….

Maybe with Chris there with us, it won’t be much longer before we get some more random pieces we can use to get the puzzle closer to being solved. Perhaps, once she’s on more comfortable ground, Chris can loosen up some and let us in on all of what she’s already recalled.

Chris and August? Pat was seldom wrong about things like that, but August and Chris?

That bears watching.

She placed the folded lingerie in a dresser drawer and then arranged the toiletries she’d collected in the tray which sat on top of the dresser.

By the time the girls got out of school, Chris would be there, and J.J. would be “busting a gut” to get to her. That was a potential monkey wrench in the plan, but she was a glitch that could easily be handled, especially by her. After all, she was mother to one- that one.

Finished with what she came to do, satisfied that Chris and Eva would be comfortable during their stay, Jennifer returned to the house to eat the lunch Marie was holding for her.

__________________________________________________________

When J.J. arrived to FACS class, Hector was already there, along with most of the other members of the Wild Bunch who were assigned to that class. She placed Genie on the table and looked up front to the board to see what Ms. Leonard had posted for the day’s agenda.

“You know we have to turn our journals in today,” she said to Hector, seated next to her, as she read it for herself. “It says we have to share with the class one of our pages. Although, if it’s a journal, I don’t understand why I have to share my innermost thoughts with others. That’s not what journaling is about.”

“It was for a class, J.” Marnie reminded her. “And besides, you know good and well that you didn’t write your innermost thoughts for a journal the teacher told you she was going to take up from us.”

Marnie reached across and tapped Hector on the arm. “Especially that day J. went off on you about Genie. I know she didn’t write down in that school journal her innermost thoughts about that.”

Hector cut his eyes across the table to her.

“You know,” he dryly began as he removed Marnie’s hand from his arm in the manner he might pick a tiny bit of lint from his sleeve. “It’s probably good you’re taking yourself to New York. You like to keep mess going. Other people have dropped it, but you just keep on bringing it up, kicking it around.”

“Keeping up mess?” Marnie wiggled her nose and grinned in delight at him. “It’s a gift.”

“And you know she’s got to use it,” Sidney added from his spot next to Marnie where he sat changing Jaden’s diaper. “She lives for mess and drama.”

“Speaking of mess and drama, Sid, you’re still not going to keep Jaden for me tonight?” Marnie shifted around to ask.

Sidney whispered an obscenity, to which Marnie responded with an equally obscene whispered retort, before sniping, “That’s okay. Be like that. J. already said that she’d do it. I just wanted to see where your heart was.”

“Well now you know,” Sidney sniped in return.

“I hope you wrote something good, Hector,” Philly called to her brother from the end of the table. “When you were in the den last night, hurrying up, trying to fill in all the empty pages while you were watching ESPN.”

J.J.’s jaw dropped. She’d sat down and was checking on Genie when she heard what Philly said. She leaned in toward Hector until she was right at his ear.

“I know good and well that you didn’t do a whole journal last night! I thought you told me you’d been doing it all along?”

Hector whipped around toward her. “Philly’s lying. I was just punching it up, that’s all. You know how I write all sloppy and everything; I wanted the teacher to be able to read what I said. Philly’s just talking.”

Philly continued her goading, “Okay, well if I’m lying, then how come at least two of the pages you turned to and started writing on were blank, Hector? I saw you. You thought I wasn’t looking, but I saw you.”

“Those were the pages for today, Philly. Why you always gotta be hatin’?” He turned back around to J.J. “Honest. I swear I did it. You don’t have to worry about me getting you a bad grade.”

When he looked into her face, though, he saw the skepticism in J.J.’s eyes. That was confirmed when she held out her hand. “Let me see it then.”

Genie started crying.

“See to the baby.”  Hector turned back around and swept his journal off the table into his lap. “That’s what you need to do.”

J.J. pulled Genie’s carrier to her. “I’m warning you, Hector.”

“See to the baby,” Hector repeated. “She’s not crying for nothing any more. She’s probably wet, and it’s your turn.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” J.J. grumbled as she lifted Genie from the carrier. “And you better have that journal right when Leonard calls on you.”

Hector waved his hand back at her in dismissal, sucking his teeth and mumbling, “Whatever, J.,” as he leaned in to talk basketball with Deon who had since arrived.

__________________________________________________________

Arnold Zale was doing a final check on the information he’d run up on that morning. He couldn’t believe that he’d been so shortsighted, but it never occurred to him that might be the case. He’d come upon it by chance when locations and times didn’t match up.

People did that all the time, and the occasional resulting mix-ups were understandable. In this situation; however, it might prove to be a crucial piece.

He had a few more things to check into, a couple more things to verify, and then he’d take his findings up to Mr. Hart.

__________________________________________________________

Once her safety straps were removed, Chris was eased up into a sitting position from the gurney, and she opened her eyes for the first time since closing them when she was being secured for the trip to the Hart estate. Even though it was being done gradually, the shift in position made her dizzy. August Lamb was still seated across from her. He was watching as the nurse helped her to sit up. As she struggled with getting the vertigo under control, his eyes filled with concern.

“I’m fine,” she said in response to the expression on his face. “Honestly, August, I am.”

He rose and moved toward her. Although he could have, he must have felt uncomfortable rising to his full height inside the van, so stooped, he reached for her arms.

“Let’s do this, then,” he said, lifting his eyes to the window behind her head. “Your hostesses await you.”

She tried to turn her head to see who he was seeing, but the movement was too much too fast. He braced her when she swayed.

“Easy, Chris. No rush.”

“I couldn’t rush if I wanted to rush,” she sighed, placing a hand to her forehead as if that would stop the inside of the van from swirling around her.

She was placed in a wheelchair and fitted with a pair of sunglasses. Before she could question the need for them; she rarely wore sunglasses, the nurse explained, “You’ve been inside for a while. It’s just until your eyes get adjusted to natural light again.”

That made sense. As astute as she considered herself to be, she hadn’t considered that. So much else was on her mind.

August positioned himself behind her chair. He pushed her out onto the open rear door of the van which mechanically lowered them to the driveway. Even with the sunglasses and the shade of the many trees in the area in which she found herself, the sunlight filtering through to her eyes was uncomfortably bright. Blinking while adjusting to it, Chris caught sight of Jennifer Hart who was standing off to the side, waiting and watching as she was being wheeled toward her.

There was another woman with her. She was of the same height as Mrs. Hart, roughly the same lean build, but maybe a bit more angular in places where Mrs. Hart was softer, rounder. From a distance, they sort of favored each other in general appearance. Maybe they could have been sisters, but as she got closer to them, something told her that they weren’t.

For starters, the other woman’s hair was different. Where Mrs. Hart’s hair was red, longer, more wavy and  free-flowing, the other woman’s was short, dark brown, and straight. A streak of white shot like a lightning bolt through it, and was swept back from her forehead, where it originated, to flow across her brow with the attractive wedge-cut style. They were both good-looking, “well-preserved” women, but the dramatically high, dark eyebrows, and her dark, almost black, shiny eyes gave the other woman a more defensive, threatening aura than Mrs. Hart.

Those eyes honed in on her as August pushed her forward. In the back of her mind, she thought she knew her… or knew of her

Mrs. Hart extended her hand after both women greeted August. From his demeanor with them, it was apparent that August was very familiar with both of them. She noted that Jennifer Hart was a good one for holding hands and using the gesture to put a nervous person at ease.

“Welcome, Chris,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

Then she introduced the other woman.

“This is my friend, Patricia Hamilton. She’s J.J.’s godmother. She and J.J.’s godfather are staying with us, too, for a few days; an effect, but a welcome one, of 9/11.”

“It’s Pat,” the woman said, extending her hand, as well.

On its own, her smile was pleasant. Captivated by her interesting aura, Chris did a quick visual inventory. In appearance Ms. Hamilton was sophisticated-looking to an extreme, and then it dawned on her- old money. That attribute came across in her in that effortless manner that old money has a way of doing: exquisite but understated jewelry and clothing, well-cared-for hands, dignified mannerisms, polished complexion and hair, that certain subtle air of confidence and entitlement, but that huge diamond engagement ring she so casually wore refused to be quietly overlooked.

“We’re sort of marooned here for now.” she heard Ms. Hamilton saying through the haze of her thoughts. “It’s good to finally meet you. Jennifer’s spoken very highly of you.”

It came to her: Patricia Hamilton, the publisher out of New York. Hamilton House Publishing. Big, huge, real old money.

J.J.’s godmother. What a kid. Surrounded on all sides by intelligence and promise.

Chris’ mind was racing, faster than it had since what she’d come to term her “re-awakening”.

Engaged? To J.J.’s godfather, maybe? That would be Bill McDowell, McDowell Aviation, Reno, Nevada. Mr. Hart’s good friend. Him, she’d met before, more than once, when he’d be visiting and happened to be with Mr. Hart downtown at headquarters at times when she would be there.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Ms. Hamilton,” she said. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I hope it’s made a decent impression.”

“To be sure, and it’s Pat, I said. We’re all grown here.”

Eva walked up and joined them, checking on her well-being and taking over wheelchair duty from August Lamb. After asking her if she was going to be all right and telling her that she knew how to reach him if she needed anything, he made his departure from all of them, waving and getting back into the hospital van.

Ms. Hamilton had a very nice smile, but it was deceptive. She sensed that whatever Jennifer might have said about her had not been enough to satisfy “Pat’s” curiosity. Still feeling that she was operating on the outside of everyone else’s reality, Chris determined right off that the publisher, editor-in-chief, professional scrutinizer was someone around whom, for the time being, she’d have to closely maintain her guard.

__________________________________________________________

Sid had cracked everyone up with his animated delivery of his journal entry detailing how J.J.’s father had gotten on Hector about not being able to talk J.J. into marrying him, and about how he’d learned how closely some girls stuck by each other and made suckers out of guys when it came to kids. He had gone so far as to write that he thought Marnie might have even duped him into believing that Jaden was his. Furthermore, he wanted a paternity test done and for Marnie to reimburse him if it turned out that he wasn’t Jaden’s biological father.

When Ms. Leonard called for comments, it was Marnie who raised her hand. When called upon, still sitting sideways with one arm draped across the back of her chair, she pointed a finger in Sidney’s direction and started her comments off with, “Oh no, you didn’t.”

Ms. Leonard rolled her eyes as the kids around her began nudging each other, bracing themselves for what was coming.

With her finger still pointed in Sidney’s direction, Marnie continued with what she had to say.

“See, Sid, you need to go ahead and call up Judge Hatchett’s people. We could work this whole thing out on live TV, but I’m telling you ahead of time, you’ll only get your feelings hurt in front of millions of daytime viewers.”

From the podium, Sidney pointed his finger back at Marnie. “I will call her, Miss Thing. Think I won’t?”

Marnie stood up from the table.

“You know good and well that Jaden is yours, Sid. When Judge Hatchett gets the paternity test results back, she is going to eat you alive for dragging me on TV and trying to call me out like that. Then she’s going to make sure that you pay me child support. Don’t get me to testifying up in here.”

Marnie’s diva-like delivery of the TV judge’s trademark line had the kids falling all over each other with laughter and Ms. Leonard struggling with staying serious herself.

“Whatever, Marnie.” Sid threw up his hand, pushing the flat of his palm in Marnie’s direction while rocking his head. “What-ev-er.”

At that point, Ms. Leonard had to stand up and squash it before they could get any farther with what was gearing up to be one of their better, more entertaining arguments.

When it was Marnie’s turn, her entry was brief, but by the time she finished, she had everyone looking inside themselves. It wasn’t what anyone expected to hear from her.

“Even though Jaden is a boy, and he doesn’t have hair like I would like for him to have; he’s mine. It’s up to me to take care of him. It’s on me to make sure that no matter what else is going on with me, he gets taken care of and that he’s happy. That’s not somebody’s else’s job. It’s not Sid’s. It’s mine because I am his mother. I’m only sixteen, but in my life I’ve learned what being a good mother means and what it doesn’t mean.

I had a real bad day today, but I’m proud that I made sure that Jaden didn’t. I didn’t drop him off with anybody or leave him behind in the car. He stayed right with me through all of it. It was where he was supposed to be. If he had been a real little boy, he would have seen the kind of person his mother can be, and he might not have been all that proud of me and the way that I reacted to what happened to me. But he would know that I would never leave him hanging, alone, or wondering about things. He would know that no matter what, I love him and that I would never let anybody misuse or hurt him.”

Other than Marnie, only J.J. knew how bad a day it had been for Marnie on the night that she must have written those words. They hadn’t shared with anyone that incident concerning her stepmother, the cops, and Pat. J.J. was also pretty sure that Marnie hadn’t shared with anyone else in their peer group the internal conflict she was experiencing as it concerned her own mother.

Hector had been flipping through the book he had way down in his lap the entire time that the other kids had been standing up to read, even through Marnie and Sid’s performance. Although he was seated next to her, he kept his back turned to J.J. When the teacher called his name, he took his time getting to the podium up front, and J.J. was holding her breath.

“I don’t write so good.” Hector started off saying. “So ya’ll are going to have to bear with me. I hate reading out loud, ‘specially if I’m the one who wrote what I’m having to read. I chose to share this one.”

He spread his book out on top of the stand, cleared his throat, and held the pages down flat with both his hands. Taking a deep breath, he began to read.

“Today I messed up, and I do not ever in my life want to feel as low as I felt before I went to J.’s house and talked to her old man this afternoon. I was feeling like scum, but he talked to me and made me feel better. He is a great guy and a smart dad. If I ever get to be a real dad, especially if I have a girl to raise, I would like to be a father to her like he is to J.

J.J. Hart is mean, and she’s hardheaded. She is bossy and everything else, but for real, Mr. Hart has raised a daughter who does not take any junk off anybody, male or female. She is a girl, but he teaches her to do all kinds of stuff that girls do not normally do, and how to handle herself with everybody, anywhere. He knows how to help other kids see the light, too. If I ever have a real daughter, I would like for her to be like J. and my little sister, Philly.

They are smart girls, and they take care of their business in school and out. They do not let guys rule their life. They put themselves and what they need to do for their future first right now. That way, when they are grown up, if they did get pregnant and have a baby, and the guy turned out to be a lowlife, they would not be forced to stay with him in that situation. They will be smart enough and strong enough to take care of themselves and their kids on their own if they had to.

But then, Philly and J. will probably be smart enough to take their time and only get a kid with a guy who they were sure would not put them through those kinds of changes. After today, I know I do not want to be the kind of man who would put his woman or his kid through bad changes like I did with Genie and J. today. I did not mean to hurt them, but it turned out I did, and I am sorry about that.

When I am a grown man, I would like to be like my own Papi. He is pretty tough on me, but that is because I am the oldest and a boy. My father takes care of his family, and even when he is going off on me, I know that he knows what he is talking about. He wants me to be a good man. I would like to be like Mr. Hart, too. He is cool. He is all right all the way.

By the time he read those last words, Hector was visibly perspiring, his voice had become a little shaky, and his hands were trembling. Suffocating in his own anxiety, he took a deep breath, exhaled and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Then he sheepishly raised his eyes from the book, up to his obviously stunned audience.

Philly and J.J. rose from their chairs at the same time and began clapping for him. Then the rest of the class did the same. Shamefacedly grinning and blushing, Hector dropped his journal off with Ms. Leonard, who patted him on the back as he passed her to return to his table where he was heartily welcomed back into the fold.

When everyone was seated again, J.J. leaned forward and with a hand to his shoulder, she pulled Hector back to whisper in his ear, “I didn’t know you had it in you, but I’m glad to see that you do. That was really nice what you said about our fathers.”

He reached up and placed his hand on hers. “I meant every word of it, J. ‘specially about you and Philly.”

From the other end of the table, Philly shot him a wink and a thumbs-up.

Marnie reached across and pushed him on the arm. “You go, boy,” she smiled. “You did good.”

Hector beamed, “I ain’t never wrote that much in my whole, entire life. Before that, I never had so much I needed to say in writing.”

Then J.J. gave him a quick peck on the cheek to which he whispered, “Oh, don’t try loving me now, J.J. Hart. It’s too late to try to get me to marry you. Now I don’t want you.”

“Oh, you want me,” she cooed seductively in his ear before sitting back in her chair. “You know good and well that you want me. Even if I am mean, hardheaded, bossy, and everything else; you know you love me. And you don’t fool me for one minute, Hector Diaz. It’s the ‘and everything else’ part of me that’s driving you ca-razy ’cause you know you can’t ever, ever have it.”

Hector had his back to her again, but she heard him when he said, “You the one that’s crazy, girl,” and she could see by his shaking shoulders that he was laughing.

__________________________________________________________

At his desk, alone in his office, Jonathan went back through what he had. Before him was spread what he and Jennifer had put together from what he had gotten from Arnold Zale and the information that Pat had gotten from her source and given to Jennifer. He had been going at it from the angle of looking at Rider. It seemed Pat and Jennifer had been more focused upon Chris and her sister. Although they’d learned some things about those three people, they hadn’t found out enough to make a clear picture out of any of it, and they definitely hadn’t made any connections between Rider and his wife, Martin, the guard, and/ or Chris and Claire Allen.

That Chris’ father had been involved in breaking up the west coast dock scandal that involved Hart Shipping all those years ago in the late seventies was a detail that he hadn’t been aware of at the time. At least not that he remembered. When it went down, he had mostly been focused upon what was going on at Hart, not the larger picture. There had been corruption within his own ranks, and that was what he had been concentrated upon weeding out. Once that was done, testimony was given in court, the offending parties brought to task or run off, and the necessary checks put into place to keep it from happening again, he’d left it alone.

To learn that “Big” Chris Allen and his wife, Virginia, had perished in a single-car accident right before he was due to testify in the ensuing huge trial, got his attention. Single-car crashes always piqued his curiosity. Unless mechanical failure, nature, and or poor road conditions could be positively proven to have been the cause, those types of wrecks always left him wondering. That Chris had almost gone the way that her parents went really stuck out in his mind. Had her parents also been the victims of foul play before getting into their car? After?

It was reported that Rider had some connection with Victor Shell. Shell allegedly had connections to Marston Knight. Chris and Claire also had an association of some kind with Marston Knight. The Allen sisters and Rider were all connected to HartToy. Chris Allen, Sr. had been instrumental in the investigation that sent two Knight executives to jail, cost Marston Knight, himself, millions in fines, and had Victor Shell in hiding.

But he’d had dealings with all of them on one level or another. From what he could see, he was the common denominator in the equation, but if so, where did he fit in the puzzle?

The report on his desk concluded that “Mr. Allen lost control of his vehicle while driving a sharp mountain curve. The car went over the side and caught fire upon impact, trapping the occupants inside”. The bodies had burned beyond visual recognition. No autopsies were performed; the identities of the corpses were confirmed through dental records. The case seemed pretty much open and shut. Looking at that copy of the old report as it lie there on his desk, thinking about Chris, Jr., her near-miss, and everything else that was going on, Jonathan wasn’t so sure.

Claire had reached out to him, and he’d answered her call. She was safely housed in the same building in which he was currently sitting, he had seen to that happening, but it turned out that she didn’t trust him. The overwhelming sense he got from her in the short time that he had been down there with her was that she didn’t have much trust for men in general. In hindsight, he was sorry that he hadn’t waited for Jennifer to accompany him in going down to see her. When they were together in the bunker, it was almost as if Claire was afraid of him, and that certainly wasn’t a reaction he was accustomed to getting from women. But going on the condition of her face, she probably had good reason for her negativity.

Checking his watch, he guessed Chris would soon be arriving on Willow Pond if she hadn’t already gotten there. He didn’t know how August was keeping up the pace, but the man had been all over everywhere that morning and afternoon. He’d been with him at headquarters for a while, and then he insisted upon running over to the hospital to be Chris’ personal escort for the trip to Willow Pond. He’d been going to the hospital every day since her admittance, sometimes more than once or twice a day. He said it was to check up on her well-being and her security.

That brought his right hand, Marcus Borland, to mind. He thought he was fooling someone, too.

Jonathan leaned back in his chair and thought again about some things that he’d since deduced on his own about the matter at HartToy. It was something that wasn’t contained in those papers on his desk; it was a thing he’d picked up on his own.

From a photo on his desk, J.J. smiled at him from where she was perched atop the paddock fence at Briarwood with a long stalk of dried grass between her pearly teeth.

They just ought to be pearly- and straight; they cost me enough.

But in reality, he didn’t care. That was his baby, his and Jennifer’s girl, and nothing was too good for her or her mother.

He didn’t know why he was feeling the way that he felt, or what he hoped to accomplish in having done it, but he was glad that he’d put that call in to the school that morning. It was just a hunch, but when it came to hunches….

__________________________________________________________

It was finally J.J.’s turn to go up before the class to read her entry. True to her private nature, she was feeling pressed and put upon by having to read what was in her journal to the rest of the class. Just as Marnie said, she hadn’t written down her exact thoughts in the school journal, but still she felt imposed upon, being made to expose her thoughts in the manner that she was being asked to do.

Despite all of that, what she had written was the truth. It was how she felt at the time she wrote it, and looking back on it while the others were up reading theirs, she decided that what she’d chosen to share was how she really felt in her heart.

“This is the last entry,” she informed her audience. “I wrote it last night. I write a lot when I journal, so get comfortable. I wasn’t expecting to have to share in public, but here goes.”

She took a deep breath and then began reading.

“Sometimes being me is hard. I’m the only child of two relatively well-known parents with an image to uphold in their world. At times I feel like I have to live my life in their shadows, and that I can’t be me because of who they are. My parents don’t force that line of thinking on me. In fact, they have- especially my mother- worked hard at letting go of what they think I should be, and have instead encouraged me to be who I am- with some modifications of course.

“In spite of that, I do find myself at times not doing things that I think would reflect back negatively on my parents if those things were to come to light. There have been instances when I wanted to do what my friends were doing, even though I knew they weren’t quite right, but the thought of getting caught, and my parents being publicly humiliated by my behavior has kept me in line. I know that my parents love me and that they’re proud of me and my accomplishments. Likewise, I am proud of them and theirs. I would hate to do anything to shame them or to tarnish their sterling reputations.

“Having said all of that, I have to say that I’m still not sure that I want to be married when I have a child.

She slid her eyes to Ms. Leonard to gauge her reaction, and then to her audience, most of whom had also switched over for the moment to Ms. Leonard and then back to her.

“It’s going to be hard for me to find someone who meets up with my standards for a husband. My parent’s marriage, specifically my father as a husband, is going to be a hard act to follow, and the fellas who know me know that.”

The guys at her table mumbled, “Ye-e-e-ep” not quite under their breaths, and she could almost feel them nodding although her eyes were locked on the page in her book from which she was reading.

“But I do want to have children, and I want more than one. I don’t want to raise an only child.

“Even though I had some inkling of it before going into this project, I’ve learned through the project that I’m not the easiest person in the world to get along with, relationship-wise.”

When she heard Hector say, “You got that right.”, she resisted the urge to flip him off. Instead, she pressed on with her reading.

“I like for things to go my way, I’m pretty self-reliant, and I’m confident of my abilities- maybe too much so. When people make me angry, I’m not the best listener, and it doesn’t help that I have a too-quick temper. I also suffer from tunnel vision sometimes when it comes to my personal perspectives.

“In my favor, though, if you get the chance to get a word in edge-wise and you’re making sense, I can be persuaded to change my thinking. I am sometimes willing to followIF the person is a good leader in the situation in which we find ourselves. The problem for me is, I don’t think I’m going to find someone to be a life partner who is all the things I’m going to need him to be. For the kind of guys I like, it’s going to hard to find someone who’s not going to be intimidated by me and my circumstances.

“Being sort of hyper, short-tempered, and all the rest, I don’t have a lot of time or the patience for petting other people’s fragile egos and all of that. I mostly prefer substance over style. I hate pretense and posturing. I think I’m going to be a lot for one man to deal with, emotionally and materialistically. I know I’m kind of young to have come to that conclusion already, but truthfully, I’m already pretty sure of that much.  The way my life is lining up, that’s how it’s going to be for me, and I think my mother knows that about me, too. She’s been dropping little hints to me about it all of my life, and lately, since I’m getting older, I’m noticing that she’s been stepping that up some.

“She told me recently, during a particularly bad moment I was having with Genie and some other things I was going through at the time, that I couldn’t give up on being a mother just because I was having a bad day. She said that since I elected to be a single mother for the project that I had to be strong for me and my baby. I chose to be the primary one in Genie’s life, and as such it was my responsibility to keep it together for her because for the most part, I was all Genie had. She emphasized that it had been my choice to have her and to be alone in it. She knew that Hector wanted to be married for the project and that he was willing to help with Genie, but I was the one who opted to stay single and raise Genie mostly on my own.

“My mother was talking to me about what happened that particular day, but she has a way of saying things that project her deeper feelings about things that may come at me down the line. Somehow, I don’t think she’d trip all that much if I one day came to her and said that I was having a baby, and I wasn’t married. If I was old enough, had finished my education, was emotionally and financially capable, I think she’d understand and be okay with it. I’m not so sure about Daddy, but whatever the case, my mother would eventually make it be okay with him, too. She can do that with him.”

Back at the table, Marnie loudly snort-snickered, and the sound caused J.J. to have to briefly stop and bite her lip in private-joke-amusement before going on.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me along those lines, but looking back on all of this, I’m glad I did this project, after all, and not the research paper. I think I learned a whole lot more about me as a person, and about me as a potential partner and mother from this very hands-on experience.

J.J. Hart, September 13, 2001     9:11  P.M.”

When she raised her eyes to her audience, and then looked to Ms. Leonard for her reaction, that was when she realized that Alice Rangel wasn’t there.

__________________________________________________________

Jonathan had gone back to the Hart Industries business on his desk. Just as he predicted, the security systems division was seeing a huge increase in the volume of their activity. Clicking through screens on his computer, making his usual mental notes, he’d gotten a rhythm going between his paperwork and the computer work when the beep of the intercom brought him back to here and now.

“Mr. Hart, Arnold Zale is here to see you.”

Arnold came in toting his customary manila folder, which told him that there had to be some new development. After apologizing for perhaps interrupting him, which Jonathan assured him he wasn’t, Arnold sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. The investigator was a matter-of-fact person, so he didn’t waste time getting to his reason for being there. It was a personality trait that Jonathan Hart appreciated.

“Mr. Hart, this morning I had the idea to take another track on the HartToy research you requested. I did some more digging, but this time into Claire Allen. If you don’t mind me saying so, I find her elusive behavior rather strange in light of the things that have happened with her sister. In the course of what I was doing with the investigation, I discovered something interesting about her and about Marston Knight.”

When Jonathan didn’t say anything in the ensuing gap, Arnold picked up the silent signal and continued as instructed.

“Claire Allen originally started out for New York, not Los Angeles, after she was contacted about Chris. She diverted here. In checking, I found out that a Marston Knight left not long after her, hours actually, headed for New York also. He hasn’t been heard from since. Of course, we know that she hasn’t either. The word on the wire is, it’s feared they somehow perished in New York.”

“Where were they supposed to be going in New York?” Jonathan asked.

“My sources say she was supposed to be headed for the stock exchange. Then, like I told you, he left London right behind her.”

“Was he in pursuit of her?”

“I can’t say at this point. Intent isn’t something you can really pinpoint on paper, or should I say onscreen. There’s something else. You see, Mr. Hart, we’ve been inputting the name “Marston Knight”, but we haven’t been differentiating.”

“Differentiating?”

“Yes sir, between Marston Knight, Sr. and Marston Knight, Jr. That’s what I inadvertently discovered. It seems there’s a son with the same name, who’s in business with the father.”

Jonathan blinked. He hadn’t had reason to do business with Knight or to be privy to the man’s business life, much less his personal life, in decades. He had no idea that Knight had a son. Aside from the random bit of business gossip, he hadn’t had reason to think about him until the name, “Marston Knight”, came up in connection with the things happening at HartToy.

“Which one is missing?” he asked.

“Well sir, both of them at this point. It seems that it was Jr. who left London behind Claire. Knight, Sr. left San Francisco for New York not long after Jr.

He hasn’t been heard from either.”

__________________________________________________________

“You’ve done quite a bit today, Ms. Allen. I think you should lie down for a while.”

Chris didn’t turn away from the window, out of which she’d been staring, to answer Eva. “I’m sick of lying down. I’m not going to get past this dizziness and unsteadiness if I keep lying down.”

“That has to do with your injury. The dizziness and vertigo is going to be overcome by time, not by your stubbornness.”

“Or yours,” was Chris’ reply.

She remained seated in the chair and continued to look out of the window. Jennifer and Pat, as they’d asked her to call them, had gone back to the main house after showing her and Eva around the pool house, which with its two bedrooms, kitchen, and front room was almost as accommodating as her condo. The hot tub was a nice amenity. Eva said it would be good for her muscles, made tight from the car accident and then so much lying around afterward. That might be true, but she didn’t think she was ready for it just yet. The swirling and bubbling of the water made her queasy just to look at it. She was glad that feature was in the glassed-in sunroom area, which was off from the rest of the house.

As she gazed out on the expanse before her, it was hard to believe that Mr. Hart had done so much in one lifetime, a lifetime that didn’t appear to be anywhere near over. In her own lifetime, she’d had occasion to move among some moneyed individuals, but most of them came from money. Hart had started out with literally nothing, and he’d built an empire to pass on to his daughter.

She recalled her own father and his constant reminder to her that the quality of a person’s life was largely dependent upon what the individual chose to make of it. He had been right to some degree. Unfortunately, he’d left out the part that had to do with legacy. A person’s life could also be touched, maybe even tainted, by decisions made by others. Those results of those decisions were passed down for to others for them to handle without a clear clue as to how that handling should be done.

From where she sat, she could see the pool area and one end of the main house. At the corner, a handsome bay window overlooked the driveway as it curved around the side of the mansion and wound around to the back. She wondered if that might be J.J.’s window. She imagined that the master bedroom was in the front, facing the pond and what might as well have been the park that made up the front yard. Judging from the position of that window, she figured it afforded the occupant of that room a good view of the pool, the rear and side gardens, and the surrounding area as well as allowing a good bit of natural light into the room. If the master bedroom was where she thought it was, she surmised that side bedroom would have been where the Harts would have placed their only child; close to them, but in her own pleasant space.

Then she laughed to herself.

Always imagining, Chris. Always trying to figure things out. Always trying to get the layout of the land.

Logistics.

It had become habit with her to try to figure them out when she entered into an unfamiliar place or situation. One thing that she knew to be true about herself despite the rest of her foggy confusion was that she learned from her mistakes. It was a childhood lesson whose long, sucking tentacles still had her firmly in its grasp.

Where in the world was Claire, she wondered, and how safe or smart would it be to ask about her?

__________________________________________________________

Pat was in the great room, on the phone with the list in hand, lining things up for the girls. Jennifer, now seated at her desk with the day’s mail, picked up right away when that one line lit up on her phone console.

Good afternoon, Mr. Hart.

Mrs. Hart. I was hoping you’d be there. How are things going?

Everything is fine. And with you?

I’m good. Did Chris and Eva get there?

They arrived early this afternoon.

Any problems?

None. August delivered Chris himself. Security was on the gate to admit them. Pat and I were here to show them around the pool house, but we didn’t stay out there very long. We wanted to let them get settled in, and then Pat has been working on the arrangements for the kids’ party tomorrow morning. You know how she is with a project.

Yeah, I do. And then for her own good, she probably needs to be running something to take her mind off other things over which she doesn’t have control at the moment. Did you two get to see Claire this morning?

Yes, right after we dropped the girls off at school, we went out to Chris’ place to get her things. Then we came down to the towers to see Claire, but we had about as much success this time as we had the last. However, Pat did manage to loosen her up enough to tell us that she won’t say anything to anybody until she speaks with Chris.

Pat did? Was it ugly?

Quite. Pat made her cry.

About what?

I don’t know. Pat went after her, then I cut in and tried talking with her, but she started crying. She wouldn’t say why she was crying. I know that Pat probably scared the living daylights out of her.

“She needed it!” sounded from the couch in the great room. “She’s lucky I let you stop me.”

(Laughter on both ends of the phone.)

I see she’s getting back to normal. What exactly did Claire say?

She just kept saying that she had to speak with Chris first.

That can be arranged.

Give it a minute, Jonathan. Claire may want to speak with Chris, but do we know if Chris is ready to see her? Chris knows she’s here in Los Angeles, yet she hasn’t asked about her or requested to see her.

Hmmmm, that’s an interesting angle, a wise observation. Have I told you lately how smart you are, Mrs. Hart?

No, not that I can think of.

Then have I told you how much I love you?

Oh, yes. Now that you have done. Last night. This morning. Every time you look at me. Have I told you how much I love you?

Oh, yeah. Last night. This morning. In my daydreams all day today. Every time I look at this cute kid, looking like you while she grins at me from this picture on my desk.

(Mutual smiles)

Listen, I really just called to tell you  I’m on my way home. I have an appointment with a certain young man who’s supposed to meet me there a little later. He needs my clearance to take one of my daughters out.

Jonathan, like J.J. told you, it isn’t as if you don’t already know Chance.

And that hustler-in-training brother of his, Chase. But like I told J.J., it’s because I do know them that I’m going to speak with them. Chance is taking Marnie from underneath my roof tonight, not Carl’s. I want him to fully understand that the rules of the game have changed somewhat. I don’t want him fooling around in the dark, figuratively or, for God’s sake, literally, while he’s out with her this weekend. I love the boy, but I will do him in. Chase already knows what I’ll do to him over J.J., but his kind needs to have it reinforced every so often.

You know, whenever I look at or think about Chase Barnett, I can’t help but picture you as a teenager. He could easily have been the prototype for your son.

So I see you get my drift. I know his type- intimately.

Nothing more on-

When I get home, darling, we’ll talk.

He cut her off before she could ask about any new developments at HartToy. It left her wondering why he’d done that, and if that meant there was something he had to tell her, but didn’t feel comfortable talking about it on the phone.

If that was the case, why?

__________________________________________________________

“So, what’s your take on Chris, now that you’ve finally met her?” Jennifer asked Pat as they sat outside the school, waiting for J.J. and Marnie to come out of the building after final dismissal.

“Pretty girl,” Pat summed up, not taking her attention away from the checklist in her hand. “She and the sister look an awful lot alike. I suppose this Chris must be fairly bright and responsible seeing as how she’s a Hart executive serving in the capacity she does.”

“What about her and Marston Knight now that you’ve seen her. What’s your feeling about that?”

“Looking at her, I’d say she’s the physical type that would attract somebody like him: tall, classy, although going on my personal experience with him, I would figure him to be attracted to someone in a higher income bracket. But then he’s older, she’s younger. If nothing else, she probably made an attractive arm-piece- who’s to say?”

“What about him and Claire?”

“Younger, so an even more attractive arm-piece. Or perhaps I should just say ‘piece’.”

“Pat!”

“Well, you asked me.”

“We don’t know for sure if there was a relationship of that kind between him and Chris. It could be that they just went out a couple of times. Maybe it was business.”

“Could be,” Pat agreed, but with a lightness of tone that caught Jennifer’s attention.

“You don’t sound as if you believe that could be the case.”

Pat briefly used the side view mirror to check her face.

“Let’s just say that I think there’s a lot more to Ms. Chris Allen than meets the eye,” she said, running her hand through her hair to fluff out the longer side. “Way down in my bones, I feel as if the saying, “Still waters run deep”, certainly seems to apply to her. And I’ll tell you something else.”

“What’s that?”

“A certain quiet, distinguished, swarthy gentleman is enamored of her.”

“August?”

Pat nodded, going back to perusing her list.

Marnie came to the car and got into the back seat, greeting both of them as she did. She put her tote bag on the floor between her feet and loosened the straps on Jaden’s carrier. Then she handed Pat the certificate she’d gotten for completing the project successfully.

“I’m all finished. I did it. Now all that’s left to do is party. Did you get the list done for me since you had m- since you said you would?”

“Um-hmm,” Pat answered as read over the paper Marnie had given her.

Jennifer studied her as she read. Pat was rarely wrong when it came to detecting someone having feelings for someone else, especially in the case of a man having feelings for a woman. She hadn’t seen that one for herself, but evidently, in that brief span of time that she’d been in their presence, Pat had picked up on something. Except when it came to herself, Pat had always had that knack. She was a keen observer of human behavior and an extremely good judge of people.

J.J. came to the car, but she didn’t get in. Instead, she came to Jennifer’s window, asking her to pop the trunk. She had her normal load of things, but with her and Marnie in the back, there wasn’t enough room for all of it, Genie’s things, Genie, and both girls to ride comfortably.

After a few moments, the trunk thumped closed and J.J. climbed into the back seat. She had Genie in one arm. With the other, she handed over her mother’s shoulder the certificate she’d earned.

“Something else for that Junior Year scrapbook you’re doing,” she said. “I’m now officially a good parent. It’s documented right there. Hello, Aunt Pat. Did Ms. Chris come, Mom?”

“Hey, J.” Pat was still going over the assorted papers in her lap, and didn’t look up.

“Yes, she did,” Jennifer answered as she looked over the certificate. “And you and I will have to talk about that when we get home.”

J.J. rolled her eyes while snaking her neck in irritation behind her mother’s head, as she placed Genie into the cloth carrier on her chest, then tightened the straps. She put on her own seat belt, stretching it carefully across to make sure that Genie was secure inside of it. Jennifer caught the whole thing in the rearview mirror and pursed her lips to keep from chuckling in amusement at her teenaged daughter’s impudence, as well as the care she finally taking of a doll. It was on paper that she’d done it.

Sixteen years, it took ….

When she again looked over to Pat, Pat appeared to be watching Marnie from the mirror on her side of the car.

______________________________________________________

In checking the A.M. log he requested be faxed over to him at shift change from the front entry guard’s booth, Ken Matheson noticed that among the documented comings and goings, Alice Rangel had checked out for a little over two hours that afternoon. She had since checked back in.

It seemed odd that she would do that. She wasn’t scheduled for having any reason to be out of the facility during her working hours that day. Earlier that week, he noticed on the technicians’ outsourcing schedule, that she had been penciled in for going over to the West LA Gifted and Talented High School to collect the prototypes the school had been using for a project. From Chris’ notes, he saw that Rangel had been the one to go over and get the students set up with them the week before. As the liaison, she was the person responsible for bringing the units back to the plant and for compiling the results of the surveys to see how effectively they operated and how beneficial they had been in meeting the school’s objectives. Afte that, the units would be taken apart and necessary repairs and upgrades made. After that, the real marketing of the product would begin and that group of technicians would be on to another product.

But that appointment had been canceled via request from headquarters. It turned out the dolls were going to be remaining with the school until the following week. Perhaps, he figured, someone got their wires crossed and Rangel didn’t get the memo.

The outer office was busy as always, the secretaries going about their clerical duties. Chris’ secretary was on the telephone, and the guard that had been stationed outside her closed, locked office was on his job. Nobody had been allowed to enter Chris’ office since her accident except the executive secretary, August Lamb, Jonathan Hart, and himself; and none of them were allowed to be in there alone. Until they knew more about what happened to her, that office was off limits, the reason being if there was something there that was key to anything, it would have to be right where she left it when she returned. Hart didn’t want anything disturbed until either Chris could get back to it and handle it herself or things got worked out, whichever came first.

Another no-confidence vote from up top, he guessed.

He decided to go down to the Design and Development floor. Rider’s cubicle was down there, even though it, too, was still off limits. Maybe he could catch up to Alice Rangel and find out what unscheduled business took her out of the building earlier that day.

Before he could leave his office, his secretary buzzed him, letting him know that Sarah Martin, wife of the drowned guard, was on the phone, requesting an appointment to meet with him.

He headed back to his desk.

__________________________________________________________

“You know, J.,” Marnie was saying as she and J.J. came down the back stairs together. “I haven’t had to have an outfit checked before going out since- Come to think of it, I never have.”

“You’re in new territory now, girlfriend. You’re in Hart-land. The Duke and Duchess aren’t having it, and Aunt Pat knows you for the little trollop you try to be.”

“I’m not a trollop. I’m just cute, I have a seriously good body, and I know it.”

“Yeah well, so does Chance. He’s been away from you for a little while, so he’ll be hungry. Don’t let him take too many nips off of you.”

“I can’t promise anything. I’ve got a bad case of the munchies myself.”

“He might not have much of an appetite after having to get with Daddy about taking you out.”

Marnie waved her hand. “That was earlier. I’m sure he’s over that by now. The scare’s worn off. I wish I had gotten to see him, though, when he was here.”

“Me, too, but that’s part of the divide and conquer thing. Daddy gets Chance off to himself. He subtly, but thoroughly threatens the hell out of him, and that’s supposed to make him act right when he gets with you. Hold up a minute.”

J.J. stopped midway down the staircase, pulling Marnie by the arm to make her stop as well. Then she went down another couple of steps so that she was standing in front of Marnie. She pulled up on Marnie’s somewhat low-cut top.

“That’ll be the Duchess’ first move when she sees you,” she said as she worked at what she was doing. “Let me just save you some time and aggravation.”

“J., I’m just gonna pull it back down once I’m in the car.”

“She knows that, but as long as you’re in her sights, it’s going to be all pulled up like this.”

“J., you’re not upset about not being able to go out, are you? For real?”

“Nah, I’m okay. I’d rather that you and Chance got to be together since it might be a while before you see each other again. I know that if it were Teddy visiting me, you’d do it for me- if it happened that Chance wasn’t at home visiting you at the time.”

“Then we’d work that out, wouldn’t we?” Marnie grinned. “And cut the crap. You might have opted to stay home to babysit, but you have an agenda. You’re going to sneak out and see Chris, aren’t you?”

“You know it,” J.J. grinned back. “The first chance I get. She was asleep when we got home, and she took her dinner in the poolhouse. I’m dying to see her. I’m going to fix her some fruit, and as soon as opportunity presents itself, Genie and I are going to pay her a friendly little evening visit.”

“You know you’re playing with the piranha, girl.”

“I’ll take my chances. Come on, Cruella and the Duchess are waiting.”

__________________________________________________________

Jennifer and Pat were sitting in the den with a concerto playing through the sound system, papers stacked and scattered before them on the table. When the girls entered the room, both women’s eyes went straight to Marnie’s attractive, but tight, jeans outfit.

“How in the world are you breathing in that get-up?” Pat asked as she watched the girl approach. “You fart, and it’s curtains for the seat of those pants.”

J.J. grimaced and turned her face away in embarrassment, while Jennifer quietly admonished her friend. “Pat, how indelicate.”

“It might be indelicate, but then tactful has never been my style. I call them like I see them.”

“They’re not all that tight,” Marnie said after stopping to stand alongside the table at a point that put her right between Pat and Jennifer. “And seeing as how I haven’t had anything to eat today that might produce that kind of gas, I should be okay on that. Besides, it’s all stretch material. It gives as I move. If I should happen to move in that particular direction, it should give.”

Jennifer dropped her eyes down to her papers, while J.J. squeezed hers shut, pressing her lips together to keep from laughing.

Pat made a face and then took Marnie by the arm to bring her closer to her.

“Look here, missy, let me impart this tidbit to you before you go out of here with that little boy that I don’t want to have to kill later. You told me that you weren’t sexually active-”

J.J., who had been standing slightly behind Marnie before her repositioning, slowly began easing herself in her mother’s direction.

Marnie stuttered, “I- I’m n-”

Pat maintained her grip and her glare.

“I just want to tell you, straight from the horse’s mouth, that despite what you might have heard to the contrary in the media or from your little ignorant, misinformed, adolescent lunchroom debates, oral sex IS sex.”

“Aunt Pat!” Marnie cried in genuine shock and horror.

J.J. blanched and moved even closer to Jennifer while Pat held up her hand, cutting Marnie off from any further protestations.

“I’m just clarifying it for you, Marnie Elaine. I don’t want there to be any gray areas in this between you and me. You are going to be with me for a while, and I want us to have a very clear understanding of the parameters from the outset. There is to be no sexual activity- period, oral or any other kind. You are too young for that. I’m telling you, don’t give any, and don’t get any. Hickeys and hand jobs are included in this.”

Marnie’s mouth dropped open. “Hand j-”

“Han-n-n-D  Jo-o-o-Bs,” Pat repeated, stretching it out, carefully enunciating each letter in each word while looking Marnie in the eye.

Mortified, J.J. bent down and buried her face in her mother’s neck, whispering, “Oh, my God. No she didn’t.”

Jennifer reached around to gently pat her on the back, advising her, “Breathe, baby.”

“Oh, yes she did,” Pat declared, having overheard J.J. while keeping up her focus on Marnie’s face. “I know you like this boy, he likes you and the two of you call yourselves dating. You’re going away from each other for a while, which is a perfect scenario for something bizarre and out of the way happening. I’m saying to you right here and right now with two witnesses present, I am not going for any of that loophole crap you and the Squirt over there try to pull. There will be no holes filled tonight, Miss Marnie, loophole or any other kind of hole, am I clearly understood?”

“But I wasn-”

Pat raised her hand again. “Am I understood? That is all that I asked of you.”

“Yes.”

With that said, Pat pulled up on Marnie’s knit top, an action to which Marnie shifted her widened, disbelieving eyes to J.J. who was still over by her mother, but grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

“You’re vulnerable right now, Marnie,” Pat was saying as she stretched the top way up over Marnie’s bosom. “You don’t need to be looking for any comforting in the wrong places.”

She stopped with the top and took both of Marnie’s hands in hers. “If you feel the need to be cheered up or bolstered in any way, you let me, Bill, Jennifer, Jonathan, or J.J. do that for you. When you get to Massachusetts, let your father do it, your mother, or Kyle. What I’m saying, sweetie, is you’ve got family for that. You don’t need to be looking to boys for too much reassuring right now. Your guard is down; it’s not a good time for it. Understand what I’m saying to you?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Marnie smiled a small smile and then nodded, “Okay.”

Releasing Marnie’s hands, then patting her on the fanny, the temporary guardian finished delivering her directions to her ward, “I mean it. He is not to touch anything on you that’s below the chin, and he is not to linger too long on anything above the chin.” Looking across the table to Jennifer, she asked, “You have anything you want to add?”

“No, Patricia, I think you’ve pretty much covered it all, and quite bluntly, I must say. Well, there is one thing.” She looked over to Marnie. “Do not pull that top back down once you get over in that car with him. Leave it and them right where they are.”

As Jennifer spoke, she held onto the arm that J.J., in her nervousness, had absent-mindedly wound a bit too tightly around her neck.

Pat winked at Marnie. “I’m just cutting to the heart of the matter. That way nobody’s misunderstood.”

“All right, I understand,” Marnie said. “But can I ask one thing before I go?”

“Can you?” Jennifer questioned.

“May I,” Marnie corrected herself.

Pat chuckled at the exchange. “What’s that?”

“How come you all don’t say all this sex stuff to J.? How come I always get the ‘don’t be a little tramp’ lectures?”

“You’re not a little tramp,” Pat assured her. “Yet. Just a potential big tramp- maybe. But don’t feel badly, pet; it takes one to know one. That’s why I come at you like I do. You have definite hot tendencies, and I have a home-grown radar for that sort of thing. Now as to your little insinuation about preferential treatment, J.J. is not you. She doesn’t require that kind of thing, at least not right now anyway.

“But just like I do you with the sex things, I get on her, too, in the places where she needs getting. Ask her. I don’t spare her feelings either. I don’t believe in it. I believe in telling people up front what they need to know in an effort to keep them from making bad mistakes or developing bad habits that might impact the rest of their lives. I wish I’d had someone to do that for me when I was sixteen. I might have conducted myself differently then, and be better off for it now. Straightening you two out before you’re too badly bent is the least I can do for you.”

J.J. lifted her head from her mother’s shoulder when her godmother shifted her attention from Marnie to stare directly at her.

The intercom beeped, and Marie’s voice spoke, “Marnie, your guest has arrived.”

Marnie kissed Pat on the cheek and told her goodnight. Then she waved to Jennifer and J.J. before turning to take her leave. J.J. rose from where she had squeezed onto the chair with Jennifer, and she went to the other side of the table, over her godmother.

“I won’t run anymore, Aunt Pat. I promise.”

“I see you’re not,” Pat smiled as she squeezed the hand that held hers. “You came right to me, just like I knew you would in time. Your name isn’t Hart for no reason. You’re my god-child, my niece, therefore you’re nobody’s sissy-Mary coward. Know that and act upon it- all the way.”

J.J. smiled and then pressed her cheek against Pat’s, whispering, “Thanks. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Pat whispered back. “Just take heed.”

Pat watched as J.J. followed Marnie out of the room.

“Were you going to go to her if she’d held out on you much longer?” Jennifer asked as she picked up the paper she was working on before the girls came in.

“And curse her all the way out for being so damned stubborn,” Pat answered. “It was killing me to give her the cold shoulder. I so love that girl.”

“She loves you, too. And for the record, it was eating her up pretty badly as well.”

“How do you know that? How did you know there was something going on between us?”

“It was obvious. Besides, she told me so last night. She was worried that you were angry with her for being rude to you.”

Pat snorted, “Angry? About her being rude? Hell, I was proud of her for that. Not too many people have the nerve to take me on. You should have seen her. She ate me up; it was great. I’ve always said that she’s as mean as a rattlesnake.”

“No, I shouldn’t have seen her,” Jennifer declared. “If I had, she’d be up in her room, closed off from all human contact for the entire weekend. She knows better than to take on an adult; I don’t care how angry she thinks she might be. But you have always said she was mean. Right from the start, you said it.”

“I should know. I’ve been up close and personal with the original for over forty years. The baby got it honestly. Ask Stephen.”

Shocked when Jennifer looked up from her paperwork and gave her the finger, Pat erupted in raucous laughter which seemed to last forever. Finally, she leaned way back in her chair, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes with one hand and fanning herself with the other. “Whoooo! I knew you still had some Gresham Hall gutbucket left in you.”

Blushing at her atypical, but involuntary, breach of decorum and tickled by Pat’s reaction to it, Jennifer admitted, “Yeah well, you have a way of bringing it out in me.”

Pat was still laughing. “Thought you’d purged yourself of it after all this time, didn’t you? Just go ahead and admit it. You know good and well that it’s not something you can blame on Jonathan. The Squirt got that little nasty streak of hers straight from you.”

__________________________________________________________

Not sure of who he could trust at HartToy or into what he might be walking into himself, Ken Matheson arranged to meet with Martin’s wife at a small restaurant near where she lived in LA. He didn’t know what she looked like, but she’d told him what she would be wearing. Before he could even begin to look for the outfit, she approached him. Evidently she knew what he looked like.

“Mr. Matheson, it’s me, Sarah Martin.”

She was standing in front of the hostess’ stand; a slight, dark-haired housewife type in her late forties, maybe early fifties, as her late husband had been. He could tell that she was nervous. In light of all she’d been through, he thought he understood.

They were taken to a booth, and she immediately told him that she wasn’t hungry. She’d asked to meet with him because she had something she needed for him to see.

“I didn’t know who else to tell,” she said. “I found this going through my husband’s things.”

She handed him an envelope. Inside were three folded sets of cell phone bills, one for each of the preceding months. A yellow highlighter had been liberally used on the pages, and the number it illuminated was the same each time.

“He’d been staying away from home a lot lately, which was why I guess I wasn’t very alarmed right away when he didn’t turn up. I suspected he was having an affair, but… well, I guess I’m just not a confrontational person. I never worked up the nerve to ask him about it.

“When he was home, he would be acting all secretive and edgy. Seemed like I could hardly say anything to him without him snapping me up. Something was bothering him. I’m guessing now it was guilt. I kept hoping I was wrong, you know, about the affair. I even hoped maybe it was the gambling again or something. But then, in beginning to clean up his business, I found those.”

“The gambling thing?”

Her face reddened. “He liked to gamble, Mr. Matheson, but he wasn’t very good at it. He got in deep the last time, and we had to remortgage the house.”

“Do you have any idea whose number this is?”

She nodded. “She works, well worked, with him at HartToy. My husband kept the emergency relay system numbers for the facility next to the phone in the kitchen. When I checked, there it was, her number: Alice Rangel, under the list of technicians.”

__________________________________________________________

Jonathan had been the one to answer the gate buzzer, so it was he who answered the front door when the knock came. As he had spoken with Chance earlier, setting down his rules with him about dating Marnie that weekend, he wasn’t expecting it when it was Chase who stood there grinning at him when he opened the door. It was a second or two before he noticed Chance standing behind him.

Chase, as brash as ever, clapped him on the shoulder in greeting. “What’s up, Mr. H.? Glad to see me? Did you miss me?”

“You just left; you haven’t been gone long enough to miss. And tonight, you can just take yourself right back home,” Jonathan declared, shrugging the boy’s hand from his person. “If you were planning on taking J.J. out this evening then you should have been here earlier this afternoon with your brother when he came to see me. I know you got the message that was how it was supposed to go.”

Now holding Chase by the shoulder to keep him in place outside the door, with his other hand, he admitted Chance who nonchalantly walked past them into the great room.

“No, no, you misunderstand,” Chase said. “I didn’t come to take J.J. out. I came to take you out.”

Jonathan released Chase’ shoulder and stood back. “What?”

“I got fifty in my pocket,” Chase said as he reached for something next to the door.

It was his pool cue, “Sweetness”, which he stood on end in front of him, “And I got my baby here. What say you?”

“I say come on in,” Jonathan answered. “and get that spanking you’re begging for.”

Once inside the door, Chase turned around to face Jonathan.

“Come to think of it, I’m going to need you to put your money where your mouth is. I know you. You don’t normally carry cash.”

“Let me see yours,” Jonathan challenged.

Chase pulled his wallet from his jeans pocket and extracted several bills which he held up for Jonathan to see.

Jonathan pulled out his wallet and quickly went through it. “Yeah, I’ve got it. You’re on. I see I’m going to have to keep teaching you about respecting your elders.”

Chase laughed, “I’m a slow learner, but I do get a kick out of the lessons.”

Marnie and J.J. came into the great room from the far end. When they saw each other, Marnie and Chance chastely and briefly hugged, but J.J. squealed in delight at the sight of Chase.

“Chase! I thought you weren’t coming,” she cried as she ran to him and hugged him.

Chase, holding her tight, kissed her on the cheek and swung her around, right in front of her father.

“You know I wasn’t going to stay away. Since you couldn’t get out, I figured I’d come over to keep you company, and beat the pants off your father in the meantime.”

“Pool?” she asked, noticing for the first time his leather encased cue. “Oooh yeah, that’s a great idea. What’s the wager?”

“Fiddy.”

J.J. looked over Chase’ shoulder to Jonathan. “Do you need spotting, Daddy? You never have cash.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “I have it if you need it.”

Marnie blew Jonathan a kiss, as she and Chance slipped out of the front door. Chase continued to hold a beaming J.J. closely about the waist. Jonathan could only shake his head at all of it.

“No baby, thank you. I’m good”

The kid usually did have to cover him. It was true that he was normally cash-poor, and that J.J., who was almost always flush with it, often had to cover him. He was constantly in financial debt to her.

“My daddy is going to wear you out,” J.J. bragged, pushing off from Chase and heading for the billiard room. “Aren’t you, Daddy?”

“Like a thick leather strap on a small, tender hide.” Jonathan answered.

He held his arm out to Chase, indicating that he should follow J.J.

“Say, what’s with Fort Knox out there at your front gate, Mr. Hart?” Chase asked over his shoulder. “They almost wouldn’t let me up in here, talking about I wasn’t on the list. It just happened that one of your regulars was down there, and he recognized me. Something wrong, or is it just extra security after 9/11?”

“Something like that.” Jonathan answered. “You keep your mind on this whipping you’re about to get.”

Happy for the unexpected diversion from his concerns, Jonathan followed both teenagers into the billiard room. It wasn’t long before Bill came over from the guest house and Chuck Barnett, summoned by his son once J.J. declined to be his partner, joined them.

__________________________________________________________

Some time later, finished with what they had been doing in the den, Pat and Jennifer appeared at the door of the room where, from the sound of it, all the action seemed to be. Jennifer quickly surveyed the scene. Almost like deja-vu, it was a page out of J.J.’s sleepover earlier that year; what started out as a quiet night with a few guests at home had seemingly turned into boys’ night out. A full-fledged snooker competition was in progress, complete with the requisite smoke from Chuck, and Pat suspected Bill’s cigarettes- he wouldn’t be touching his as long as she was in sight- and drinks.

“What’s the youngster drinking?” Pat asked, walking up on Bill as he stood along the wall, waiting his turn at the table.

“Coke,” Chase answered with a frown. “That’s all they’d let me have. They all got Coors Lite, which is one step up from Coke, and I can’t get as much as swallow of it.”

“That’s all you need,” his father told him. “An how would you know how many steps up it is from Coke?”

Chase turned his back on his father.

Jennifer sidled up to Jonathan. “Are you again playing for money against this child?”

“I told you before about this child,” Jonathan answered as he sized up the shot Chuck Barnett was going to have to make. “He bets grown; he plays grown. He came over here and challenged me.”

Bill chimed in, “No fun in playing for play.”

“Make him a man,” Chuck Barnett agreed, a smoldering butt clamped between his teeth. “He is not going to be a boy much longer. Might as well get his feet wet in somewhat safe waters.”

“Where’s J.J.?” Pat asked. “I would think that with money on the table, she’d be right here.”

Chase looked up, smirking at Jonathan after his father successfully sank the shot he’d attempted. “She didn’t want to play. Said she needed to go up and see to the kids or something.”

At hearing that, Jennifer sagged against the wall with her hand to her forehead. Pat placed her hands on her hips, and turned to Jonathan. “You fell for that?”

“What?” Jonathan asked without taking his eyes off the table. “She stayed in tonight to baby-sit. She said she was going to look in on the dolls.”

Without a word, Jennifer left the room.

“Fell for what?” said Bill as he sipped from the drink that was placed suspiciously close to the ashtray with the lit cigarette. “That’s what she said when she left out of here.”

“And none of you thought it strange that J.J. Hart would leave a billiard room where there was a bet on the table and open drinks she sneak sips off of, to go and see to some dolls?”

“Well, that’s what she said when she left out of here,” Chuck shrugged as he high-fived Chase over the shot.

Pat threw her hands up in the air, “Men! Just plain hopeless. I cannot believe you let a sixteen year old girl punk all of you.”

The males in the room looked for a moment to her in question, then to each other, before turning their attention back to the game.

By the time Pat got around to the foot of the staircase, Jennifer was at the top and on her way back down.

“She’s not up here,” she was saying. “I called down to Marie in the kitchen. She says that J.J. hasn’t been down there for a while. The last time she saw her, she was putting some fruit into a basket. She said the she assumed J.J. was fixing a snack for herself and taking it to her room.”

“When we assume,” Pat said, shaking her head as she followed Jennifer through the house and to the side door. “an “Ass” gets made out of “U” and “Me”.”

“You, maybe,” Jennifer mumbled as she stepped outside with Pat behind her. “Never me.”

Continue to Part Ten

 

One Response to The Project: Part Nine

  1. Lesa says:

    Love the discussion between Pat & Marnie about the tight jeans. Hilarious!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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