The Project: Part Seven

Part Seven

She slept in fitful, reluctant jerks of time. Mostly she paced.

When she arrived, she had been purposely hooded to prevent her from seeing where she was being taken. She assumed that was also so her face couldn’t be seen. She didn’t know where she was or why she was there. Since she hadn’t been hurt or threatened, she could only assume who it was that holding her.

The place was austere in terms of what she was accustomed to, but aside from the lack of windows, it wasn’t unpleasant. All of her immediate needs were being met by the largely silent individuals who popped in at intervals to check on her. Ever since her arrival in the States, she hadn’t really been of a mind to appreciate or to even notice her surroundings either there or in the hotel suite from which she had been so cleverly removed.

How or why she’d been allowed to leave him without repercussions was a frightening mystery.

Chris said Hart was a man to be trusted. For once, she listened to Chris. At this point, what else could she do? It was all in someone else’s hands, just as her entire life had been.

This time though, she had messed up beyond redemption, the damage done and irreversible. There was no turning back, and no way to fix anything.

So she paced, waiting for…

… waiting….

________________________________________________________

Just before she turned the corner that would put her in the loft, J.J. hesitated when she thought heard her father’s voice. It was coming in low, but it sounded as if he was talking with someone. Pressing herself to the wall, she peeked around it to see if indeed he was alone. He was, but he was over in the far corner, standing with his back to her, his cell pressed to his ear. From his clipped responses, it was evident he was trying not to be overheard and didn’t plan to be on the phone very long.

While her upbringing urged her to go back and give him his privacy, the J.J. part of her kept her feet planted in that spot and her body glued to the wall.

It’s Edwards-Hart ugly, Daddy. I get this nosiness thing honestly, too.

She closed her eyes and focused, trying to catch a thread of what her father was saying.

“When?… For how long?… What was the make?… Black… um-hmm… You get a license number?… Rental-uh-huh, I should have figured… Good, yeah, Zale can trace that back… She sees everything, so I wouldn’t doubt she did… makes me nervous, but to trying to tie her down would only get her back up… I know you will… I don’t care, she’s in the best place… she stays right there until I tell you differently…keep me posted…”

“What are you doing?”

J.J. jumped at the whispered question, and she didn’t resist when Pat drug her up the hall by the arm.

After pulling her all the way into her bedroom, Pat pushed her backward where she landed, bouncing hard on her backside, on the bed.

“I just wanted to talk to Daddy,” J.J. hurried to explain as Pat closed the door. “but he was on the phone. I think he didn’t want anybody to know that he was. I didn’t want to interrupt him.”

Pat crossed the room and stood over her with her hands on her hips. “So, then why were you standing there, trying so hard to hear what he was saying?”

“Aunt Pat, I wasn’t trying to- well, okay I was, but it wasn’t on purpose.”

Pat narrowed her eyes, tilted her head, and crossed her arms. “Justine Jennifer Hart, this is me, Aunt Pat, remember?”

“Okay, I know it looks bad. But for real, it didn’t start out to be eavesdropping on purpose. I went around there legitimately, just to talk to him, but then-”

“Look,” Pat waved her hand in dismissal, “save it, J. I’m not Jennifer. I really don’t care why or that you were eavesdropping as long as it wasn’t on me. I just didn’t want him to catch you at it. Now let me catch you doing it to me.”

“Don’t worry, you wouldn’t catch- I mean, I wouldn’t-”

“Hush, sweetie, before you step any deeper down into it. Say much more and you won’t even be able to scrape it off; you’ll just have to throw the whole damned shoe away.”

“Quite a graphic little metaphor there, Auntie.”

When Pat sat down on the side of the bed, J.J. scooted over to give her more room.

“It’s what I do, Squirt. So, did you hear anything good? Where’s Marnie?”

“In her room. I left her on the phone with her father.”

Pat seemed to brighten a little. “Well now, that’s something. I’ve been meaning to tell you. You have quite the little boyfriend there in Boston.”

“Teddy? He’s my friend, not my boyfriend.”

“Um-hmm. Whatever. If he isn’t, he ought to be. He’s mighty cute. I’ve been seeing quite a bit of him as I’ve been helping Carl to get Kyle settled at Brookfield. He’s always hitting me up about you. He and Kyle have established a good bond, although I think Teddy’s going to have his hands full with keeping up with that little one.”

“You, too, from what I hear he’s been up to already.”

“No. When it comes to Master Kyle and I, he’ll be the one with his hands full. Especially now that his father is incapacitated.”

Pat kicked off her shoes and pulled her legs up onto the bed. J.J. slid over to the other side to give her all of her space. Pat juggled, thumped, and shifted the pillows around until she had them the way she liked them. Then she lie back, lacing the fingers of both hands across her midsection. J.J. remained, seated cross-legged, next to her.

“Actually Squirt, I came up to see you because you and I haven’t had a chance to talk together since I’ve been here.”

“There hasn’t really been a lot of time for us to talk together, Aunt Pat. A lot was going on yesterday, but I’m so glad you’re here, and not-”

When J.J. caught herself, and Pat heard her do it, she reached out and patted J.J.’s knee. “It’s okay, sweetie. Me, too.”

J.J. picked up from where they had been before her near faux pas.

“I had school today, and I thought you and my mother were going to be off together for most of the day, so that kind of put us away from each other, too.”

“J.J., I understand that you ditched your classes this afternoon.”

“Just two, Aunt Pat. One of them had already been pre-empted by an Honor Society meeting, and the other was FACS, or Home Ec as you and my mother might know it.”

“You didn’t go to your meeting? Aren’t you an officer?”

“Yes, I’m junior class treasurer, but it’s early. We haven’t done any fundraising yet, so I didn’t have that much to do at the meeting; just give the current status report.”

“You had a responsibility on the board, but you ditched it.”

“I- No. Yes. I didn’t go to the meeting.”

“You think running away is the answer when you have issues, J.? You seem to have that kind of bad.”

“Huh?”

Pat didn’t expand upon what she said right away, which forced J.J. to face it dead-on, all by herself.

After a few introspective moments, Pat spoke again.

“You retreated from Jennifer when she got sick, and when she got hurt. You went inside yourself when you were being stalked earlier this year, and you didn’t tell anyone until it came out on its own. You hid what was going on with Wesley from your parents until it wouldn’t be hidden anymore, and I understand that you nearly got yourself and Chase Barnett killed in the process. You ran to Bill and me in Reno when the going got rough for you last month. J.J., were you running again when you cut out of school today?”

“Marnie tells everything.”

“Not always, but she had to today. At the time, her own back was against the wall. You don’t try switching the subject. Answer me.”

“I just needed some space, Aunt Pat. That’s all that was today. Hector had gotten on my nerves, and I didn’t feel like being bothered with anybody after that.”

“I see. So a man made you run. That’s even worse.”

“No, he did not make me run. I just left.”

“That’s the story you told me the last time, ‘I just left.’ Face it, J.J., you ran just like you always do.”

Anger tinged with a hint of shame began to redden J.J.’s cheeks as well as to rankle her spirit.

“Did you come up here to start a fight with me, Aunt Pat?”

“Oh, am I pissing you off?” Pat kept her eyes closed and her voice calm, as she continued to lie there on her back.

“Respectfully, to tell you the truth, you really are.”

“Good. I want you to be. I want you to be good and pissed, and then I want you to see what I see: a girl who looks to me like she’s getting into the habit of not facing the things that upset her.”

“I do too face them. Hector put Genie in a position to get hurt, or at least at the time I thought he did, and I told him about himself. I didn’t run away from that.”

“You told him what you thought he needed to hear from you, and then rather than stay and let the thing play out, you took yourself away from it. It’s the same thing you did with Jen last month. It’s the same thing you did all those other times. You did what needed doing for the moment, but as soon as you could, you got the hell out of it.”

“So you’re saying I’m sort of a coward.”

“I’m not calling any names, I’m merely telling you what I see.”

“Your eyes are closed, Aunt Pat. You can’t see anything.”

Pat rose up and sat forward until she was nearly touching noses with J.J. Then she opened her eyes as wide as they could go and locked them on J.J.’s.

“I’m telling you what I see, Justine Hart,” she declared. “It’s definitely not what I want to see. Please tell me that I’m wrong.”

“You are wrong. I’m not a coward.”

Pat leaned in closer, forcing J.J. to lean back. “Then why do you run?”

“I- I- I don’t. I just- I just go and- I just go and think about things, that’s all. People get on my nerves, and I need to be by myself to fix things in my head. I need to be by myself to, you know, get it together.”

“To get it together.” Pat backed off, turned around and swung her legs over the side of bed, fitting her feet back into her shoes.  “How well I know about that.”

J.J. could see Pat’s shoulders rise and fall with the heavy sigh accompanying her words.

“You do run, Squirt. You take off when you get scared of being hurt too badly. You remove yourself when you get scared of not being in control of you, of what people do to you, of what people do around you, and especially of what people do to those you love. You’re in the habit of running, sweetie, and you have to stop it.”

“I do not run,” J.J. insisted, but she sounded, even to herself, a bit less certain about it than she had been before.

Pat stood facing her as she tucked her silk blouse back down into the waistband of her slacks.

“Yes, you do, baby. Auntie Pat wouldn’t lie to you. Think on it, and when you’ve stopped pouting because I’ve hurt your feelings, and you can be more objective, you’ll see that you do.”

Highly irritated, feeling as if she’d been put on the spot, J.J. wasn’t ready to let it go.

“Okay. If what I do is running, then you do it, too, Aunt Pat. You get depressed or mad, and you go off by yourself. You go into your room or your office, and you close up away from everybody else. Even from Dora. Even from me. It works for you, so why is running, if that’s what you want to call it, such a bad thing when I do it?”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t running when I do it, J.J.  I happen to want better for you. You have the potential, the support and the wherewithal to be stronger in the face of adversity than I am. Why do you think I’m in here right now talking to you about it? You’re my girl, my precious godchild. I want nothing but the best for you and nothing but the best out of you. Taking off, in whatever form I do it, is my weak spot. It doesn’t have to be yours.”

When the door closed behind Pat, J.J. snatched a pillow from the head of the bed, and threw herself face down into it. After a few minutes fitful contemplation, she reached up and yanked the band from her ponytail to toss it across the room. Her Aunt Pat had a way of making her so angry at times that she wanted to spit. Pat also had a way of putting things to her that made her stop and “objectively” think.

Slowly she sat up.

Smoothing her hair back from her face, she took hold of it in both hands, rolling it between her long fingers, Then she pulled it around in a tight twist to the front of one shoulder.

I don’t run, and I am nobody’s coward.

But it was awfully odd that her mother and Pat had used that word, ‘coward’, with her in recent memory in reference to her behavior after one of her retreats. The first time had been when she and her mother had been at the villa in Vegas while her father was in the hospital. It was over her having read her mother’s diary, and her trying to get out of having to say that she had done so. Then there was Aunt Pat saying that same word.

That very afternoon, when she tried to back away from her mother’s questions about what was bothering her, the Duchess wouldn’t let her…

“Can we please not talk about it right now, Mom?”

“Nope… Unacceptable… We don’t put things off any more. If it takes all day, Justine Hart, right here is where we’ll be… If it bothers you this much, it bothers me even more.”

… wouldn’t let her run from her.

If it bothers you this much….

Rising from the bed altogether, she left the room resolute in her decision.

Headed again for the loft, she was more determined than ever to find her father and to tell him what she thought she had seen that afternoon. On her first time around there, it sounded to her as if he already might have a line on it, but that was no reason for her to back away from giving him her version.

________________________________________________________

“Why am I being guarded like this?”

It was the third time shed asked the nurse that question, and Chris could tell from the woman’s tight expression that she was getting tired of being asked about it.

“It’s just for your protection, Ms. Allen. Until you get your memory back. Dr. Langford doesn’t want anyone coming in talking to you and unintentionally feeding you details. He wants you to get back to being yourself on your own.”

“Seems like overkill to me, if that’s all it is.”

Chris lie back and closed her eyes. It was the third time she’d gotten that infuriating answer.

August Lamb had come down to see her that evening, just before the close of visiting hours. He had been evasive in his conversation and uneasy in his demeanor, both actions uncharacteristic of her usually straight-shooting, straight-talking boss. With her that evening, the father in him had come out. He was worried about her, and she could tell that his concern had been over more than just her physical condition. She made various attempts at it, but she couldn’t break him; she couldn’t get him to divulge the slightest detail to her of what happened to put her where she was.

What was it that she needed to recall that required her to have a guard at the door and one in the room?

Nurse, hell. That chick was security. Nurse might be her day job, the things she’d done with her clearly said that she was qualified for the title, but she had also definitely been trained to guard.

Why had August spoken in such vague circles? Had Mrs. Hart gone out to her place solely to retrieve her things? Was there something else she was looking for? Had she found it? Why had J.J. been searching her face so intently? What was she looking for? What was it that they didn’t want anyone to tell her? And why was Claire figuring so prominently in the fractured images that kept flashing in and out of her mind?

White Dodgers cap, blue baseball jersey, black jeans like the ones she had on earlier that afternoon when she’d been there to see her with her mother. She could clearly remember J.J. having come to see her on that Saturday. In fact it was the last clear, unbroken memory she had of that day. It was an interview that she’d come to conduct. An interview for school that had to do with her participation in a Family and Consumer Science class. J.J. had chosen to be a writer for her project-related career, and she had come to interview her about her own career and life choices. Then Mrs. Hart had come to retrieve J.J., who, as it turned out, wasn’t supposed to be there.

Why? Because she hadn’t asked her mother if it was all right to come all that way? Or was there some other reason that she wasn’t supposed to be there?

It all broke down after that, and in some places before that. There were infuriating gaps, details that didn’t make sense because they didn’t add up, didn’t connect. Floating images that faded in and then quickly faded out. All of that was accompanied by vertigo, fatigue, and a sense of ominous, threatening dread, the foundation for it eluding her.

Her head hurt, and she couldn’t be sure if it was from the injury or from trying so hard to get it all to come back.

Her body was stiff and sore. They’d gotten her up a couple more times, and it had been torture to move muscles which had had been unused for days, especially the battered ones.

That part of it, she did remember. Perhaps not everything that had to do with it, not everything that precipitated it, but what she knew of the attack and the immediate reason for why she suspected it happened, she did recall. That part of her physical condition was her business, and vengeance for it would be hers… once it was all completely clear again to her.

In high school, she’d been an athlete like J.J.’s jacket proudly proclaimed that she was. She’d earned a letter jacket, too, for basketball and swimming. So had Claire, in tennis, way back then; back when things had been good between them. She’d done all she could for Claire, perhaps too much. She’d tried to do her best by her.

But evidently, her best hadn’t been good enough.

J.J. said that she’d learned from her school project that she didn’t want to be a mother right away. From that fascinating Hart toy, she’d gleaned for herself that she was too young to be a proper parent, and in what she said, it was clear that she had made the choice to wait.

Mission accomplished, Miss Teacher, whatever your name is.

But sometimes a girl didn’t get a choice. Sometimes she was forced by circumstance to do what she had to do whether she was ready for it or not. She had to feel her way and hope that what she was doing was right.

She had done the best she knew how to do, but apparently, it hadn’t been good enough.

________________________________________________________

When Jennifer joined him in the bedroom, coming in from the hall, Jonathan used the remote to switch the television off and to send the screen back into the recessed cabinet in the wall from which it had come.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said. “I understand you want to see the late news.”

“You don’t like the television on in the bedroom at night,” he replied. “And besides, I’d rather be watching you.”

As she stood at the side of the bed taking off her robe, he saw her cheeks color at the compliment. She smiled’

“That’s exactly why I love you so much. You always know exactly what to say to me to make me feel good.”

She was wearing the top to the yellow pajama bottoms he had on. After he came from brushing his teeth in the bathroom, he found that she and the shirt were gone. Only the bottoms were left on the bed. The top. it turned out, was where and with whom he hoped it would be.

He extended his arm to her, inviting her in. “The girls all right?”

“Yes. I had to pry Marnie off that phone and J.J. off her computer, but they’re fine. Homework’s done, clothes for tomorrow prepared and ready, faces washed, teeth brushed, and they’re in their night clothes.”

“Just waiting for you to go to bed, so that they can resume doing their own thing in peace,” he teased.

She slipped into the bed and into his embrace, nestling her body comfortably into his. “They can do as they like at this point, I’m done with Mom/Duchess patrol. Now I’m back to wife and lover.”

“Duchess.” He pressed an amused  kiss to her forehead. “That’s was a good one; leave it to Marnie. We haven’t had very much time together at all today. We got up running, and we never did get back together after we came in from the patio.”

“There were so many other things going on this evening.” She settled her body against him, resting her head on his shoulder and a hand on his chest. “Phones ringing. The girls. Hector whining, trying to return Genie to J.J. Pat; she still isn’t right, and despite what she and Marnie might have to say on the subject, I don’t for a moment believe that she only went out to take Marnie home to get her things. It would take more than that to root Pat out during one of her dark moods, which she was clearly giving in to when we parted this morning. And poor Bill. I’m glad he’s got the FAA thing to occupy him while Pat’s going through hers. She’s drinking like a fish.”

With his hand, he moved Jennifer’s hair back so that the flesh of his cheek would be in direct contact with her face, then he changed the subject. “It’s nice to be alone again in the sanctuary, isn’t it?”

“In here?”

He could feel her peeking up into his face even though he didn’t attempt to look down into hers.

“That was by design, Jonathan.”

“I so look forward to closing that door at night with just the two of us on this side, Jennifer. I love everybody on that other side, but at night, I only need you. How did your day go? We never got any farther than that.”

“No we didn’t. Mine went pretty well even though it was busy. I’ve already told you that Pat didn’t go with me, she stayed here, so I was on my own. I did the shopping I had to do for her before I did anything else.”

“Did she like the things you picked out for her?”

“Pat doesn’t care. She never really did. She likes nice things and to look nice, but she’s never really cared about clothes or about picking them out. I’ve always done that for her, or she hires someone to do it. I’m always seeing things I think she’d like, buying them, and having them shipped them to her.”

“I didn’t know that. You’ve never mentioned it.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me still, Mr. Hart. I like keeping you guessing.”

“I know you do,” he thought to himself. “You think you’re slick, and I love you for it.”

Playfully, he pinched her buttock, causing her to jump, squealing his name, “Jonathan!”

“I see my daughter’s completed her driving course and she’s up for her Learner’s Permit. She said that you’ve already cut her off from the Rolls.”

“That’s because you don’t have any sense of what’s proper when it comes to her. I told you at the start that I won’t have her spoiled and over-indulged. A sixteen-year-old practicing driving in a Rolls Royce, I should say ‘driving’ rather than practice driving because this course thing has only been a formality on her part, is a little over the top.”

“Your car was nearly as expensive as mine, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

“It’s the principal of the thing, Jonathan. And besides, you’ll be next to her, probably on the phone or reading the paper, allowing her do whatever she wants, letting her develop bad habits, as if she doesn’t already have them seeing as how you’ve been working with her all this time.”

“I didn’t know that your opinion of me was so low.”

“Not low, darling. I just know how the two of you are. You feed off each other’s… I don’t know… sense of reckless adventure, for lack of a better description of it. Neither of you gives one bit of a care about how things should be done. You do them the way you want to do them.”

“Not always.” he grinned. “Just when it’s her and me.”

She could see his mind racing over things he and J.J. had done that she probably knew nothing about. J.J. knew how to do a great many things a girl her age and from her background usually wouldn’t know anything about, thanks to her streetwise father. Looking him in the eye, Jennifer shook her head in determination,.

“Jonathan. she’s driving with me for the bulk of her time until she gets her license. That way I can see that she knows what speed limit signs are for and that the six-sided red sign with “stop” written on it, as well as the red light, means stop and not slow down and then keep going.”

“Do it however you like, darling.” he answered with a definite air of nonchalance. “I’m sure that if the end result is J.J. gets her license, she isn’t going to do too much complaining about the means to getting there or who it is that helps her get it.”

They both knew that J.J. Hart would eventually somehow work it so that she ended up in the Rolls with him at least once or twice. It was inevitable.

“What about Chris?” he ventured. “I heard there weren’t any problems with bringing her to?”

“She was weak, and she said she felt dizzy, which the doctor said was to be expected. But other than that, I felt she was doing fairly well. Dr. Langford said that she was. I went to see her after I finished with the shopping for Pat. I wanted to give Chris some time to get used to being awake and to get her bearings before I got there. When I did get with her, she was fully awake. We talked a little. Then she had to be checked out, so I went down to the cafeteria to have lunch. She’d gone back to sleep when I got back to her room, so I left and went over to her condo to pick up a few of her things. I wanted her to feel more comfortable there in the hospital.”

“Did she remember at all what happened to her?”

“I don’t think so. She said that she didn’t. I got the distinct impression that she’s drawing blanks in key areas, but that she recalls more than she’s willing to let anybody in on. I sense in her a strong tendency toward self-preservation. She’s going to do whatever she can to protect herself as long as she’s feeling vulnerable the way that does right now.”

Jonathan nodded, thinking that he could empathize with what Chris had to be going through.

“She have a nice place?” he asked aloud.

“Very. She has good taste. The condo is tri-level. Open floor plan, lots of light, inviting. Apparently she loves plants.”

“Anything else she loves?”

“Her sister, perhaps, but not a man, if that’s what you’re alluding to. Not that I could tell, anyway. I couldn’t bring myself to snoop and pry. I just got what I went for, saw what was evident, and I left.  I didn’t notice anything to suggest the regular presence of a man. Then I got the calls about J.J., and had to go and see to her-”

“Wait. The calls about J.J., with an s? Over the thing with Hector? It was that bad that you got more than one call about her?”

“Ms. Grimsley phoned me first to say that J.J. had been in her office for a moment, and that she looked as if she was upset. Marnie told her about the thing with J.J. and Hector, so she surmised that might be what the problem was, but she was worried that it might be more considering the close call with you, Pat, and the whole 9/11 incident.

“It turned out that J.J. was so angry with Hector that she had left school. At least she thought that was why she was angry. I got the second call from Tina, you know the girl who works at the coffee shop across the street from the school.”

“Your girl.” he smiled.

“Yes, that Tina,” she blushed. “Anyway, she phoned me to say that J.J. was there, and that she seemed upset. Two calls about upset, and then cutting school; I went to find J.J. Hart to see what was going on with her.”

“Hard to think that one would get so upset over a doll.” he mused. “You couldn’t get her to play with dolls when she was little. Now all of a sudden, Hector has a near-death experience with her over this one.”

“I tend to agree with Ms. Grimsley, Jonathan. It was a lot more than just that. J.J. has a lot on that mind of hers that she doesn’t always want people to know about.

“Sometimes I think it’s that she doesn’t know how to let people know what bothers her, and that’s why she keeps it bottled up the way that she does. I managed to get her to talk to me some today. She told me about what happened to Genie at school, and how she felt about it. I think it’s surprising even to her that she’s come to care so much about that doll, but Genie has become more than a doll to her, Jonathan. You know how she is. When she does a thing, she does it all the way. For all practical purposes, Genie is her child, her responsibility. She’s an unusually conscientious person when it comes to the people she loves.”

“Yes, she is,” he agreed, holding Jennifer even more closely to him. “She certainly is.”

You have no real idea how much she is.

________________________________________________________

J.J. hung up from Hector and lay the phone down on the night table.

“I’m never going to get to sleep,” she whispered to herself as she crossed the room. “Thank God for window seats.”

She sat down in hers, drawing her knees up to her chin. Even with Genie gone for the night, without the threat of her unpredictable outbursts, and aside from Hector’s pitiful pleas for advice and reassurance once she told him he could not under any circumstances return her, J.J. found that she still couldn’t rest. She could have ignored Hector’s calls, deciding not to pick up once his number showed up in the display, but in her wakefulness, she was taking perverse pleasure in his distress.

No better for him, Genie. Give him hell. We forgive, but we do not forget. It’s that Edwards-ugly in us.

That last time he called, Hector must have been holding Genie. Her annoying wail coming through the phone caused the hair on her own neck to stand up in nervous irritation. She felt for Hector and what he had to have been going through, but it was his turn to do it. She had hers.

But for some odd reason, she missed Genie and was anxious for her. With her homework done, her clothes for the next day laid out on the chair, and having scoured the search engines for more information and pictures of 9/11, she found herself restless and being nagged again by that pervasive bad feeling she’d been having for days. Something wasn’t right, and even though it all started about the same time that The Project began, she hoped it didn’t have to do with Genie.

With Jaden in the house, the contrast in the behavior of the two dolls was even more apparent to her. Genie was definitely in need of an attitude adjustment- or an adjustment of some kind.

Was Hector taking good care of her? Worried, she had broken down and called Philly to get the inside story.

Philly reported that even with Genie’s touchy disposition and their two younger brothers relentlessly teasing him about playing with a doll, Hector appeared to be holding his own. Mr. Diaz had come into Hector’s room a couple of times to see what all the crying was about and to check if Hector was doing right by her. Their mother had helped him out a couple of times with diaper changes and with cleaning her soiled outfits. But now it was late. Mr. and Mrs. Diaz turned in early when Mr. Diaz was in town and not on the road with his music business. According to Philly, it was about eight when their mother told Hector he was on his own before she retired to the master suite on the other side of the house down on the main floor. Hector, by that time, had to be operating completely on his own, no Mom, no Philly, just him and Genie.

She smiled to herself at the mental picture. Genie raising Cain; Hector walking the floor with her.

She did feel better after having spoken with her father. He didn’t say much about what she told him. She suspected from the scrap of conversation she’d overheard in the loft before getting busted by Pat that he already had a line on it, but as they talked later, she could tell that there was a great deal going on in his head. He had a way of looking at her when they talked things over sometimes, especially lately, that said that he was doing more than listening to what she was saying. Her father listened not only with his ears, he also listened with his mind, in fact with his whole body, and she could see it when he was doing it. That was what he had been doing with her that evening when she went back to the loft. It was as if he was hearing/sensing a lot more than the words that were coming out of her mouth, and that realization made her a little uncomfortable.

She closed her eyes and pictured him in her head, sitting there in his chair, one leg crossed over the over, his body relaxed, his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully bracing his chin….

What more was he hearing? What was he seeing? For what was he looking? With him it was always so hard to tell. He appeared to be just listening, but who knew what was going through his mind? That it was so hard to read her father at times, was one of the many things she admired about him. He kept people guessing.

Laying her head back against the window frame, she made that wish again to grow up to be like him. She didn’t believe in wishes and such, but nonetheless, she found herself making them from time to time. She wanted so much to be the kind of smart that he was; she tried so hard to be strong like him. He was close-mouthed and private. Like a good boxer, he didn’t telegraph his moves before he made them. When he did strike, it often caught his target off guard, leaving it stunned and dazed. But at the same time, he was nice, and people liked him. Unreadable and courageous, Jonathan Hart was steadfast in the face of adversity… not some sissy-Mary runner, like Aunt Pat said his daughter was becoming.

She wondered if her father saw that in her, too, and was just too kind and loving to tell her. Had he ever retreated from anything in his life? Was there anything he feared?

…have to ask him that one day.

People like him, she supposed, were probably deathly afraid of things nobody would ever guess them to fear. Like mice or something crazy like that. But the one thing she knew for sure would scare the hell out of her father would be losing his wife. That one thing would take him completely out. Sitting there going over it, she couldn’t come up with anything else that would. From what she could tell, based on her sixteen years’ experience with him, her father didn’t back up from a whole lot. Maybe by the time she got to be grown, she wouldn’t back up so much either.

“Whatcha doing, J.?”

Marnie handed her a bottle of water she had taken from the cooler on her way into the room and then took a seat on the other side of the window.

“Just sitting here, missing Genie. Jaden asleep?”

“Yeah. Gave him his bottle, changed him, and he’s out like a light. Sid called to check, but I told him to get a life and leave me alone. I would think you’d be glad to be rid of Genie and all of that crying, but then, it’s you we’re talking about. You never do the typical.”

J.J. smiled at that observation on Marnie’s part. “I consider that a good thing. I came past your room a little while ago, but you were multi-tasking: on the phone and doing your homework, so I kept going. The Duchess check on you?”

“I was probably talking to Chance when you came past. Yeah, the Duchess made her rounds, told me to get off the phone when she did her bed check on me. Chance has been consoling me all day. He says his folks are letting him come home for the weekend to see me.”

Marnie grinned as she lifted the water bottle to her lips, “You know, to make me feel better.”

“You are such a total skank,” J.J. grinned back. “Here we are, knee deep in tragedy, and you’re busy playing the thing like a barnyard fiddle.”

“Look, some good has to come of all of this, J. No sense in wallowing in misery. Now all I have to do is keep my nose clean so that the Duchess doesn’t have any reason to not let me out this weekend when he gets here. Pat said she’d keep the police thing on the low.”

“You do realize that now that you’re his, Daddy is going to rake Chance before he lets him take you out.”

“Damn, I didn’t think of that,” Marnie said, and for a moment she seemed concerned. Then she relaxed and again took a sip off the water bottle. “Chance will just have to work that out for himself. He’ll do it; he’s a smooth talker. He likes kissing me, so he’ll work that part of it out.”

J.J. shook her head. “Such a little trollop. Kissing is all you’d better be doing since you’re not on the pill. You don’t want the Duchess on you about that. And tell him to contain himself to your mouth and to keep the suction to minimum. You know she’ll be checking you out when you get back. And if Pat is still here, you can count on her to give you the third degree. Rubber hose, naked light bulb hanging from a frayed cord in the cracked ceiling as you get interrogated. Her and the Duchess tag-teaming you, if not performing a full body check on you once you get back home. Neither one of them has any shame about making a girl strip. Believe me.”

J.J. waved her hand. “Been there, done that. I can just see them sitting up on the couch in the great room, wa-a-a-a-iting for you to clear the front door. How is your father?”

“We didn’t talk long,” Marnie answered. “He was just checking on me. Can you believe that? He’s all broken up, can’t walk, can hardly move, but he’s checking on me.”

“Was your mother with him?”

“I didn’t ask. Somebody had to have dialed out for him, but I don’t know who it was. Daddy sounded real weak, but the fact that he called me made me feel a lot better about things. He was trying not to say a whole lot about what happened to him or how he was. He kept switching the conversation back to me. I talked to Kyle. He’s mad because the hospital won’t let him visit right now.”

“Teddy went,” J.J. said. “He and his father went this evening. I just talked to him. He IM’ed me when I was on the computer.”

Marnie looked across to J.J. with some trepidation. “Wha’d he say?”

J.J. hesitated, but Marnie urged her on. “Tell me, J. It’s okay.”

“He said that your father is pretty bad, but that just like you said, he’s not dwelling on it. His spirit is strong. I can understand his not going through the details with you. He probably figured that there was nothing you could do about it except worry. Teddy said that your dad was joking around and stuff despite the shape he was in.”

“That’s how my father is,” Marnie sighed. “He can be going through something, but nobody on the outside would know about it. He’s a real good faker, but I always know when things aren’t right with him. Like with Karen. I don’t think he’s too happy with her, I’m pretty sure he messes around on her, but he hangs on with her because I think he doesn’t want to admit that he’s messed up again. It isn’t worth it to be tied to somebody with whom you’re unhappy, but how do you say that to your father?”

“Finish telling me about you and Aunt Pat, Marnie.”

Marnie brightened up and grinned again. “It was so good, J. I wish you had been there.”

J.J. resettled herself, arranging her long linen gown around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. “Okay, go.”

“Well, Pat makes me tell her everything that happened at the house. I told her how it all went down, how I just went to get my things, about my brothers and the cookies, and about Karen coming in and going off on me.”

“What did she say about Karen calling you names?”

“She didn’t say anything. She let me tell her all of it without stopping me; she just listened. You know how she does. When I was finished telling her, she just said for me to get Jaden, my stuff, and come on. She made me apologize to Captain Gray. One of the cops who brought me in happened to still be on the floor with us. She made me say ‘sorry’ to him, too.”

“Were you sorry for real?”

“Yes. About the cops, but not about Karen. Pat said the cops took me out of there to get me away from Karen. I didn’t see it that way until she said it. I felt kind of bad about letting those officers have it like I did.”

J.J. nodded.

“So me and Pat leave,” Marnie continued. “They brought my car from my father’s house to the station, so we had to pick up the keys at the front desk. Pat gets the keys, and when we get outside to the lot, she won’t let me drive. She makes me get in on the passenger’s side while she keeps the keys and gets in behind the wheel.”

“Did you trip?”

“Girl, I wasn’t saying too much of anything. I had just been bailed out by her, and one of the first things she said to me when she got there was that she had been drinking before I called. I wasn’t even sure she should have been behind the wheel, but she could do whatever she wanted. I didn’t care what her blood alcohol level was. All I could think of was if Pat hadn’t been there, I would have had to call your mother. J.J., can you imagine?”

J.J. closed her eyes and shuddered.

“No, Marnie. I cannot. You’d have done better calling Daddy or, better yet, just letting them go ahead and lock you up. I cannot even begin to envision the Duchess having to come get you from the police under those circumstances. And it’s your second time this year, too.”

“Neither could I. It was as if God knew I was going to need for Pat to be here today, and that’s why she didn’t get on that plane yesterday. And for the record, that first time was a group thing, not just me. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been you, too, if you had opted to go with us to Tiff and Brit’s for the party rather than hanging out with Tommy.”

“No, no, no, no, Marn. It was not going to be me because I told you when you took off with them that it wasn’t a good idea; that I had bad feelings about it. But if I recall correctly, I believe you flipped me the bird, called me chicken s—, and went anyway. When the call came that you all had gotten busted and hauled in, I was in my room, in my jammies, doing my homework, thank you.”

“Anyway,” Marnie said, rolling her eyes. “The trade-off for her not telling the Duchess what happened was I had to give up the car. You know I didn’t argue.”

“I understand completely, Marn. I wouldn’t have either.”

“So, we’re driving, and I notice that we’re not coming here. We’re headed in the opposite direction. I ask her about it and she says, “We’re going to see your stepmother.”, and she had that look. J, I knew it was on. She had her Cruella DeVil working.”

J.J. was leaned forward. “I’ll bet she did. Especially with Karen having called you those names.”

“Yeah, well, we get there. I let us in, and Pat went over into the library after she told me to go on up and get what I needed. Lela was in the foyer, and when she saw me, she was looking all scared, like she didn’t think it was a good idea that I was there. All the help likes me, and she was looking out for me. She knows what a crazy drunk Karen is.

“She was like, “Miss Marnie, why don’t you just let me have your things sent to you?” I was like, “I need some of my things now. I won’t be but a moment.” At that point my stepmother comes into the foyer where we were. She sees me, and she starts right in, ‘You little hardheaded bitch. I’m calling the police. How dare you come back here.’ Then, all of a sudden, Karen stops in mid-bitch, and her eyes got really big.”

J.J. snickered, “How I wish I had been there.”

“Me, too, J. It was a ca-lassic Kodak moment. One of those ones where you wish you had al-l-l-l-l of your girls around you so they could witness it with you because you could never tell it to them as good as it happened.”

“Try,” J.J. grinned. “Please.”

“Well, I turned around when I could see Karen looking all bug-eyed at something behind me. Pat had come out of the library, and from the look on her face, she had heard everything. I could tell that she was going there for sure with Karen. She had her head cocked to the side and those eyebrows of hers had gone really high. She reaches out, grabs me by the arm, and she puts me around behind her, talking about, ‘Go in the library’. Of course, I didn’t go. I was shocked and a little nervous, but I’m nosy as hell. I wasn’t about to miss being eyewitness to whatever she was getting ready to put on Karen.

“Then Pat walks up on Karen who’s just standing there, kind of speechless. She thought I was by myself, and that she was going to go off on me again, but she didn’t know that I had backup.

“At first Karen tried to be hard, asking Pat, ‘And who are you?’ all nasty and everything. Pat puts her hands on her hips and goes, ‘I’m the person who is going to kick the living shit out of you if you ever come at this little girl again. I’m am going to be your worst goddamned nightmare if I ever hear of you calling this child or any child the names I’ve heard you call this afternoon.’

“Then she poked Karen real hard in the chest with her finger, walked up on her some more, and told her, ‘You asked who I am. Remember this. I am Patricia Rose Hamilton of Manhattan, New York. Now, you threaten little girls and call the police on them for trespassing in their own home. Well, I don’t live here. That makes me a trespasser. Call the police on me. Go ahead. I dare you.’

“Then Pat told Lela to go with me to get my things together. I wanted to stay and finish watching Pat do Karen, but Lela made me go with her. I don’t know what Pat said to Karen after I went upstairs, but Lela and the nannies had already started packing my stuff, which was what I brought back here today. When we came back down to load the car, Pat was still standing over Karen, who was backed up to the wall and crying.”

“What about your brothers?”

“They’re okay. They were glad to see that I wasn’t in jail. You know how little kids’ imaginations run away with them. They saw from the upstairs window that the police had taken me, and they already had me in an orange jump suit doing hard time on the rock. They came down and met Pat.

“Pat was like Jekyll and Hyde; when the boys came down, she left off Karen and turned all smiley and nice. Mikey was like, ‘Are you the nice lady who’s going to take care of Kyle?’ It was so cute. She picked both of them up, talked to them, and they gave her a kiss. We’ve talked about her so much around our house, until I guess they felt like they already knew her. Pat’s so good with kids. But when she put the boys down and the nannies took them away, she went right back to Karen. She gave her that look and just pointed her finger at her like she was saying to her, ‘Remember what I said to you, bitch.’ and then we left.”

“Ooooh, I wish I had been there, Marn.”

“I do, too, J., but there’s more.”

“More?”

“Yeah, there might be a little more drama to come.”

________________________________________________________

“So what about you, Jonathan? How did you make out down at City Hall?”

“You weren’t there, so that kind of messed with my making-out. Kind of hard to do that sort of thing by yourself. Well, it is for me anyway. Haven’t had to resort to that type of action since I was a kid, and even then-”

“Jonathan!” She plucked at one of his chest hairs.

“Ow!”

“Be serious.”

“Jeez, I see where your kid gets it from.” He rubbed at the affected stinging spot. “Okay, okay. Nothing really happened. In fact, it was on my nerves to be there. You know how I hate after-the-fact. On the up side, if there is one, we’ll get some business from all of this. Everybody wants to go way high-tech now with their security, the government, everyone. Marcus says we’ve begun getting calls from entities around the world.”

Jennifer turned her head and buried her face in his chest for a moment. The gesture surprised him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she sighed. “It’s just kind of daunting at times to know that I’m married to such an important person. You’re brilliant in so many ways, I don’t think you even know how bright you shine. Then you’re so low key and unassuming in the enormous respect that gets paid to you. It humbles me at times to know that you chose me to ask to be your wife as opposed to all the other women you could have asked.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that other stuff you said, but I have always known what I wanted, and I’ve never been afraid to pursue it and to take care of it once I had it. That includes Hart Industries, and it especially refers to you.”

He twisted a bit, moving his head just enough to be able to see down into her face. “Jennifer, what are you and Pat up to?”

He heard and felt her tiny, hesitating gulp. “Pat and I? Whatever do you mean?”

In mild impatience, he jostled her body with his. “Quit stalling. I know that you and Pat have been looking into the thing at HartToys.”

When she fell silent, he repeated his attention-getting body action. “Oh, no you don’t. I get it all the time about keeping things from you. Now here I find out you’re doing it to me.”

She attempted to smooth her hand down his abdomen, heading for his lower extremities, but was cut off when he reached down and stopped her.

“Not this time, Red.” Locking fingers with her, he brought her hand out and placed it back on top of the covers. “Spill it. I want the whole enchilada.”

“Ooh,” she cooed into his ear. “So do I.”

He sat up and twisted away, causing her to roll rather unceremoniously off his chest and onto her side of the bed.

“Nope. You are not seducing me into silence this time, Jennifer Hart. Admittedly I’m an all-day sucker for you and normally, I’m happy to be it, but this time there’s too much at stake. Pat asked you about a project this afternoon. I heard her. What project? Claire? If so, how would she know about her and all of that? Because you two have been talking about it, conspiring in it, which means that you, my love, are holding out on me. You know you are, and I don’t like it.”

Propping his back on the pillows, he sat up, crossed his arms, and cast his most accusing gaze down to her.

Looking up into those intense blue bedroom eyes, Jennifer knew that the jig was up. The time had come for a real Hart to Hart.

________________________________________________________

“J.J., as we speak, my grandparents are on their way here. Pat and I were in the car, coming back to Bel Air from Brentwood when my grandmother called me to tell me that they were headed this way. Grandma Lillie got the call from my mother about Daddy’s accident, and with air travel cancelled, my grandmother knew she couldn’t get to Boston to be with them, so my Granddaddy had the motor home gassed up, and they’re being driven here to pick up Brett and Mikey. She said that Daddy’s lawyer called her this morning and asked her to come and get them. When he called, though, they were already on the road. It’s like my Daddy and my grandmother knew that Karen wasn’t going to be able to handle it on her own. My grandparents are going to take the boys back to Texas with them until my father is better.”

“What about Karen? Is she going, too?”

“My grandmother didn’t say about Karen. I didn’t dare tell her about what happened with Karen and me. Grandma Lillie isn’t crazy about any of my father’s wives, including my mother. But she loves her grandkids, so she tolerates their mothers. She’d shoot Karen on sight if she knew what happened this afternoon. Now, my mother holds her own with her; she has some clout because I’m my grandmother’s oldest blood grandchild and I’m a girl, but Karen, with that problem of hers, is no match at all for my father’s mother. My grandfather is no joke either when it comes to his grandkids. Even though he’s a step-grandfather, he treats us all the same, his real ones and us. The real drama part of it all is I think my Grandma might try to talk me into going back with her, too. She says she’s coming to talk to your parents about me.”

“I thought they already talked. I thought they all decided to leave you here.”

“I don’t know. When  talked to her today, she sounded like she might be wavering. Like she wants me with her.”

“Are you going to go if she puts it to you?”

Marnie shook her head. “I don’t want to. I want to stay here. Texas is much too far away, and I really don’t like it there when I think about places to live. It’s okay to visit for a few days, but not to live. LA is my home. J.J., I sure hope she doesn’t try to make me go with her. I’m tired of fighting. She’s my grandmother, and I love her, but I will fight her on it. I hate that my brothers and I are all going to be scattered all over; I know she doesn’t like that, but I’m thinking maybe it’s for the best right now.”

J.J. sat back, leaning her back against the window frame “Tell me how you have it figured, Marn.”

“Well, J., I’m thinking if Brett and Mikey go with them, then each one of our living situations in Daddy’s absence is going to be the best for us right now. Kyle is already where he needs to be, and eventually he’ll be able to be with Daddy. The little guys need to be with someone stable, and that’s not Karen by herself. My father must know that. I mean, look at it; he’s in the hospital, but he’s lined things up for them. Grandma Lillie will take good care of them, and they’ll be taught better with her, you know, manners, how to act in school and all. Karen lets them run wild and do whatever. If it wasn’t for the nannies, they’d be totally out of hand; Karen tries to undermine anything they do with them.

“And, I’m already where I need to be. If your folks will have me, and you’ll have me, I’m staying here in LA. But then, there’s my grandmother- the forceful one. She is so big on family sticking together.”

J.J. reached her hands out to take Marnie’s. “You know I’ll have you. Daddy and the Duchess will have you. And you are already together with family. The Duchess’ argument will be that you don’t need to be changing schools in your junior year. Daddy will say that you need to be in a place and with people that you know; that you need to be with your friends and to keep to your established activities and routine. He’ll convince them that he’ll take good care of you, and besides, this is where your father and mother, even she at first. have said that they want you. As for us, me and you, we don’t need to be that far away from each other. College will do that to us in a couple of years.”

“And what’re we going to do then, J.?” Marnie asked in a whisper. “I hate even thinking about that.”

J.J. squeezed Marnie’s hands in hers. “For the moment. We’re going to do like my girl, Scarlett, in Gone With the Wind.”

“I know, I know.” Marnie pulled her hands from J.J.’s grasp and drew one dramatically to her forehead as she stretched out on the window sill.

“Fiddle-dee-dee, we won’t think about that ta-day,” she drawled. “We’ll think about that to-mar-ruh.”

They both collapsed in muffled laughter.

________________________________________________________

“Well?”

Lying on her stomach, propped on her elbows, her chin braced by her clasped fingers, Jennifer took her time in responding to Jonathan’s mono-syllabic question.

It wasn’t often that she found herself in the position she was in. Normally she was the one firing off the questions at him while he stewed in the hot seat. Answering him this time would be a tricky thing. She didn’t know how well he’d take her engaging Pat to meddle about in affairs that were essentially his, those same affairs into which she’d warned him off delving into too deeply. And then, on top of that, she’d kept her efforts a secret from him. Hadn’t she gotten all over him in the beginning of it all for not telling her about it right away?

“Jennifer, I’m waiting.”

“I’m coming,” she answered. “I’m just trying to think of an acceptable answer.”

“How about the plain, unadulterated truth?”

Taking a moment to gather herself, she didn’t change position when she finally spoke.

“Truth?”

“Plain and simple.”

“Okay. All right. You’re right, Jonathan. I have been holding out on you. I did ask Pat to have her people look into things for me, but I had a good reason for it.”

“What’s the good reason?”

As she wasn’t looking directly at him, she tried to use his tone to gauge his disposition. Was he angry? Hurt? Feeling betrayed? Any one of those things would be awful. But the sound of his voice wasn’t telling her anything.

“Jennifer?”

Awful.

“Jennifer.”

Simply awful.

“Are you going to talk to me?”

Her mind was working, but as it sometimes happened when she cared a great deal about the stressful matter at hand between them, especially when she was the cause of it, spoken words weren’t so easy to come by.

“Jennifer, just tell me this.”

She nodded once.

“How come it’s okay for you to shut me out, but it’s not okay for me to do it to you? How come you tell me to back off things while at the same time you’re going after them in earnest? Why is it okay for you to keep secrets from me and to do things behind my back, but it’s wrong and grounds for a fight if I do it?”

She finally murmured, “We don’t fight.”

“Okay argument. It’s grounds for an argument, a hot one, with you letting me have it good when I’m the one who’s doing it to you.”

“Jonathan, I was only trying to save you.”

“Save me? I didn’t know I was in need of saving. Am I in some sort of danger?”

“Not that kind of saving, Jonathan.”

The covers grew taut over her torso and legs and then loosened up again as he shifted his body until he was lying on his side  and a bit closer to her.

“Look at me, Jennifer.”

His face level with hers, she looked directly into his eyes and saw, with some measure of relief, concern, not anger, in them. The concern was for her.

“Jennifer, when are you going to believe that I’m all right?”

She sighed, resting her forehead on her restless fingers. “Jonathan.”

Placing one hand over both of hers, he held them still, using his other hand to caress her upper back.

“Darling, listen. I’m fine. I am absolutely, positively fine. I’m not sick any more. Really. You know that Leonard gave me a clean bill of health. You were right there when he did it. I don’t have heart trouble of any kind. I’m only grounded from flying as a precautionary measure, not because I’m sick in any way. I’m not an invalid, Jennifer, and you know it. You don’t have to be afraid for me.”

“He told you to take it easy for a while.”

“And I am. What have I done besides go to work? No golf, no tennis, I haven’t run with J.J.; I’ve been eating right, watching my drinking. What more can I do?”

“I know.” she whispered. “But even with just work, you go so fast. You move so much, take on so much. It hasn’t been that long that you went back, and you walked right into that mess at HartToys and now this national crisis. I knew when you told me of it that you weren’t going to leave the HartToys murder alone, but you don’t understand. You don’t know what it felt like when J.J. phoned me about you. You didn’t see what I saw when I arrived in that hospital room with you. You didn’t see how scared J.J. was for you. You weren’t alone at night in a strange bed, worried and afraid of losing you.”

“Now you’re wrong about that,” he said, leaning in close to her ear. “I was alone at night in a strange bed, worried and afraid about losing me, and you. I went through it right with you. I’m who it happened to, but Jennifer, I’m done with that. I’m home, I’m whole, and I’m still here. And I’m with you. That last thing in itself insures that everything is as it should be with me. From the first night I was released from the hospital I’ve been trying to prove that to you.”

“In that aspect,” she smiled with the memory of that night… in the hot tub… on the beach. “you certainly have.”

“Then you have to stop worrying about me in other respects, too. I’m fine, I promise you.”

“Okay.” While he remained on his side, she rolled over onto her back. “I’ll try, but I can’t promise you that I’ll be all that successful in it.”

“That’s at least a start.” he said into her neck.

“Are you angry with me about asking Pat to look into things?”

Leaving her neck, he kissed her shoulder and then her cheek.

“Even if I was a few minutes ago, when you rolled over and I looked into your face, I wasn’t any more. I can’t look at that face and stay mad about anything. You and that kid of yours just run all over me, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it.”

Raising her arms, she wrapped them around his neck, pulled him down to her, and held him close. “I love you. I’m sorry. It is unfair of me to hold you to something I’m not willing to do myself.”

” ‘I’m sorry’. Music to my ears. Sounds so good to have it said to me for once.”

“Oh, you!” she cried, pushing him back. “You are awful.”

He propped himself up on his elbow again. “Now about you and Pat. You let me think all this time that I was filling you in, and you already knew what was going on. Probably everything I was telling you.”

“Not all of it,” she admitted. “You told me a few things I didn’t know. Some of what you fed me helped me make sense of the pieces I had.”

“Be for real, Jennifer. Wouldn’t you be mad as hell at me if you were in my place right now?”

“Jonathan, are you going to harp on that? I said I was sorry. In a minute, I won’t be.”

“Okay, okay, I quit. But I really do think that if we’re both going to be in this, we need to start working together here. Let’s see what you have, I’ll show you all that I have, and let’s get to work on what kind of picture we can come up with.”

Rolling over, away from her, he pulled open the top drawer of the night table and extracted the folder he’d been filling with the data received from Arnold Zale. Seeing him do that, she got up and went over to her secretary where she retrieved from the middle drawer the files she’d gotten from Pat, which she brought back with her to the bed.

“How did I get found out?” she asked, opening her folder across her lap.

Next to her, he was sifting through the notes and printouts he had in his.

“Pat’s name came up as someone looking into Chris and Claire’s background. That a mighty thick stack of stuff you have there. If you had Pat’s people on it, that makes sense, I guess. She’s as thorough as I am. I see she managed to get that to you despite losing practically everything else she had with her.”

“She brought me the most important thing,” Jennifer said, leaning across to peek at what he had. “She brought me herself.”

________________________________________________________

“So, what about you, J.? What happened with you after you left the Counseling Center? Why did you skip out? What went down between you and the Duchess? Was she real mad? She couldn’t have been. You’re still breathing, and her face wasn’t frowning and mad at dinner.”

“First off, Marnie, let me say that your story does beat mine, hands down. I didn’t have half the day you had. No, my mother wasn’t mad; she knew when she got there that I had problems. After I left you with Grimsley, I went back to class. Hector had come looking for me in the meantime to bring me Genie’s diaper bag and carrier that he got from where Bianca had stashed them.”

“Are you mad at Bianca?”

“I’m not going after her, if that’s what you’re asking me. I’m done with that. She’s not that high on my list now, but then we were never what you’d call close friends anyway. We’ll see how she works things when she sees me again. The ball’s in her court, but I won’t make a big deal out of it if she chooses to not say anything about it to me. I think Hector took care of it well enough.”

“You handle things a whole lot better than I do. I’d still get a stick or something and kick her ass, but go ahead with the story.”

“I got a pass from Kelsaw to the bathroom to clean Genie up and change her clothes. That’s when I made up my mind that I’d had it with school. I was too mad to stay and I- I just took off.”

“To the coffee house?”

“To the stands. I was just going to stay out there on the field at first, but it got kind of cool up there, so then, yeah, I went across the street.”

“Why there? You knew Tina was going to turn you in. Tina’s not going to let you, of all people, slide. You know how she feels about you and school and that she’s on ratting terms with the Duchess.”

“Like my mother said to me when she got there, I think I wanted ratting out. I think I wanted her to come. In fact, it turns out I really needed for her to come. It’s funny and so weird, but it seems like when I get really bad, when I feel like I’m about to cave in or to explode, she’s the only person to whom I can tell absolutely anything. She has to drag it out of me sometimes, but once she puts the squeeze on, it’s like getting toothpaste out of a near empty tube. She has to roll me up real tight and hard, but she can get quite a bit out of me if she takes her time and does it right, and she usually does.”

“I can’t believe she didn’t kill you for skipping. You’re so lucky that it’s your mother you can turn to, J. I’ve always admired that about you and her. Not a whole lot of people our age can say that their mother is the person they go to when they need to talk to somebody. I know I can’t. Hell most of the rest of us are hiding things from our mothers, not telling them.”

“Lucky or whatever, she’s who I needed today. We talked about what happened with Hector, Genie, and me. She helped me to see some things I hadn’t seen. She made it be okay. Then she took me back to school to sign me out with Grimsley and to make me apologize for being AWOL. Then she had the nerve to offer me up for detention, but Grimsley said I had extenuating circumstances and she exonerated me from it. After that the Duchess took me with her to see Chris at the hospital.”

Marnie leaned in. “Now, what was that like? Was she awake from the coma? Did she remember anything? Was it like on TV?”

“It was kind of weird. She wasn’t all groggy or anything; she was herself, she wasn’t all blank like on television and stuff. There are some things she doesn’t recall. Her face has some marks on it, I guess from the airbag going off in it and maybe some small cuts from broken glass or something. Other than looking tired, she didn’t appear to be hurt too badly.

“She had a guard outside her room and a private duty nurse inside with her. My mother said that was to regulate who comes in and talks to her. Personally, I think it’s more than that, but the explanation I got from her made sense. Chris doesn’t remember what happened to her, and they don’t want just anybody coming in, filling her in on what she doesn’t remember.”

“Why? So she’ll remember on her own?”

“Yeah. They want it to come back to her naturally, and hopefully it will be what she really remembers and not what someone else has suggested to her. I found out she has a sister. She’s younger, and her name is Claire.”

“What was she like?”

“I don’t know. She wasn’t there. That seemed kind of strange to me, too. My mother was sort of vague on that when I asked her about it. I could sense there was something she wasn’t telling me. I think Chris and her sister might not get along or something. There was more to it, but she wasn’t saying. There’s something else to all of this.”

“You think, J.?”

“I know, Marn. I can feel it in my bones. Chris was checking Genie out, and she started crying while we were there.”

“Chris or Genie?”

“Chris was crying, I mean. Genie was, too, but I’m talking about Chris. My mother had to talk to her some. She says Chris is frustrated about being hurt and not being able to remember things. I say she’s scared, and not just about being hurt or having amnesia. I was talking to my father tonight about some things along those lines, and I swear to you, there’s a lot more to everything that’s been going on.”

“Well, look J., if it is, can you leave me out of it until after the weekend? I real-l-l-l-ly don’t want to end up on lockdown. I got too many strikes against me as it is. It’s bad enough that I don’t have a car, I’m on the low about the police thing, at Pat’s mercy, and all of that. Chance is coming home, and I need like hell to be loved up.”

“If Pat’s still here come the weekend, you’ll have her all on you, and Chance will have Daddy on him. It might not even be worth it to get too loved up.”

“If I get one good French kiss in, it’ll be worth it.”

“You are so hot.”

“You would be, too, if Teddy lived anywhere near LA and you were with him more often. Don’t even try it, Miss Ice Princess. The only reason you don’t get more involved with boys than you do is you’re scared of losing control. You’re the Duke and Duchess’ daughter, and we both know how sizzling that situation is. They’re probably over there right now-”

“Marnie, those are my parents.”

“Real is real, J.J.; I’ve been coming here for years, and I’m just saying. That hot thing is probably genetic, too. You’re all into biology and dominant traits and crap, so you know good and well that you more than likely have that in you, too. Don’t fight it, girl, just admit it’s in your blood and go with it. And then, too, when you do a thing, J., you do it all the way. Look how you are with Genie, and you didn’t even play with dolls when we were little. If you take the time to like somebody, a boy I’m talking about, then you’re going to like him all the way.”

“You know so much.”

“I know you. Truth or dare, J.”

“What?”

“Truth or dare. You game or what?”

J.J. considered it for a moment. “Truth. It’s too late for one of your crazy dares.”

“The whole truth.”

“I don’t welch or renege, Marnie. I said I’d take truth.”

“Okay, that night after the dance, when you and Teddy didn’t come to the boat party with the rest of us. Where did you guys go for real? What did you do? Did you tongue kiss him, and if you did, wasn’t it real, real good?”

“Um, um, um.” J.J. shook her head in dismay. “I should have taken the dare.”

“Too late. You have to answer.”

J.J. took a deep breath, turned her head, and stared out of the window as she spoke.

“We went to Malibu, by the house, and walked on the beach. It was clear, warm, and being out there was so romantic. I did kiss him; he kissed me. It was a real kiss, a very adult kiss, and it was real nice, real hot, and yeah, I admit, I backed up and got out of there before I lost control.”

I ran… like crazy….

On the other side of the window sill, Marnie wrinkled her nose and smiled a tip-of-the-tongue-between-the-teeth smile.

“I thought as much. That boy is way fine and too much your sort for you to have passed that up. I saw how he was looking at you when you had that swimsuit on the night before. I saw you made sure you wore the one that half your junk nearly falls out of.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. And you say I’m the skank. Teddy wanted you then, but he had Kyle all up in the way. You were hot for him, too. I saw you.”

Still facing out to the grounds, but blushing fiercely, J.J. mumbled, “I was not hot for him. Not that first night.”

“Yes, you were.”

“The hell with you, Marnie Elaine Benson.” But J.J. was chuckling as she said it.

Marnie, full of the devil, was still grinning.

“The hell with you right back, Justine Jennifer Hart.”

Gathering her gown around her, smirking at Marnie emphasizing her middle name, J.J. swung her legs down to the floor. “We better get out of this window and go to bed. Jeeves isn’t going to be playing in the morning when she’s behind the wheel waiting to take us to school in your car.”

“Yeah.” Marnie agreed, hopping down altogether. “And I don’t want her girl asking me too many questions about why Auntie Jeeves has the car.”

________________________________________________________

“From all of this, Jonathan, do you have any solid idea yet what this could be about? Is it about HartToys? Hart Industries? Or is it something not at all connected to Hart?

“I’m still not sure, but I’m leaning more and more toward it having something to do with Hart Industries, at least in part. I went to the police impound lot today and checked out Chris’ car for myself. I found a folder hidden inside the door panel. She had one of those hidden slots in the window well.”

“Inside the lower door pocket?”

“Yes, where nobody would have noticed her putting anything unless they were specifically watching her do it. Inside the folder were serial numbers, something that I think was written in computer code, and another piece in a graphic code. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, that’s not my area of expertise, so I sent it to the boys to have at it.”

“Jonathan, do you think Chris has something to do with any of this?”

“I don’t think so. I’d feel a thing like that. I didn’t see it in her eyes when I was with her the other day. I didn’t get that vibe from her that I get when somebody’s hands are dirty and they’re trying to hide them. If anything, at most I think Chris might be guilty of trying to protect someone she suspects might know something until she could confirm or dispel what she’d turned up for herself. Look here.”

He handed her some papers he’d dug out of his folder. “Copies of police reports and things that Chris had in her office. She was privately checking out Rider’s background for herself.”

“Seems we were all on it,” Jennifer remarked as she flipped through the documents. “The police don’t seem to have much to say.”

“Well, they’ve had their hands full otherwise. At least they’re focused on our missing person right now.”

“Martin? That guard who was on duty the time J.J. and I were there? The one you told me has been taking off from work?”

“He’s still missing since Sunday. Nobody’s seen him. He’s been gone from home and from work; there hasn’t been a word from him, so his wife finally filed a report. According to her, it wasn’t unusual for her husband to take off for a couple of days every now and then, but it’s been three now, and that’s not usual. August and Matheson have been handling that end of it and keeping me posted. So far, though, there’s been no word on his whereabouts.”

“I hope he turns up. That would be one more thing to add to everything else.”

“That’s what I said. So tell me, Jennifer, I see here from what Pat gave you that you know all about it. What’s the woman’s perspective on the Chris, Claire, Marston Knight thing? We know that Chris was seeing him for a while and now he’s supposedly with Claire.”

Jennifer sat back. “I’ve been pondering over that. Marston and Chris seem unlikely to me, but I’ve come to realize that’s because I know them. If I didn’t, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way. Marston’s older than she is, but in terms of mature man and woman, the ten or so years age difference isn’t all that great, I guess. He’s a nice looking man, well-off, relatively successful, and charming on the surface. I could see her being initially attracted to him and then perhaps repelled once she got to know him and his character better.”

Jonathan was watching Jennifer’s face, studying her attractive features as she worked the scenario out in her head.

“What about Claire?” he asked her.

“I’m thinking,” she said, gesturing with her hand. “That maybe Marston had some ulterior motive for getting with Chris. After all, she is an attractive, intelligent, well-connected woman, as well as an executive for a branch of a very important corporation. Perhaps when he didn’t get what he wanted through her, he took up with the younger, more naive sister. That, to me, might be a link to it having something to do with Hart. I mean he’s keeping it in the family and the family is directly and indirectly connected to Hart.”

“Makes a lot of sense,” he nodded. “Tell me about your encounter with Chris this afternoon.”

As Jennifer related to him the details of her two visits with Chris Allen earlier that day, Jonathan sat listening, his arms folded across his chest. He didn’t interrupt her. It disappointed him to hear that Chris didn’t seem to remember the most crucial parts of her ordeal, what happened at HartToys and what happened to her. He smiled when she mentioned Chris asking about the security outside- and inside- her hospital room, and his brow lightly creased when she told him about Chris crying.

“J.J. was with you.” he said. “What did she make of all of it?”

“I think it bothered her, especially to see Chris cry. J.J. is very fond of Chris, and it was as they were talking together, the two of them, that Chris broke down. It happened as J.J. was showing Genie to Chris. Now Chris did recognize Genie as a Hart toy; recognized the numbers on her neck right off. She knew exactly where to look for them.”

“Really.” He scratched at his chin. “That’s interesting. Did she ask about her sister?”

“She wanted to know if she’d been contacted, but strangely, at least it seems strange to me, she didn’t seem to be concerned with why she wasn’t there. Even J.J. found that a bit odd. We didn’t stay very much longer after I got her to stop crying.”

“What did you say to her?”

“I just told her that she’d have to be patient. I tried to help her understand that things would come back to her if she’d only relax and let them. She’s in the best place for that. I let her know that she didn’t have anything to worry about on the home front; her job, that even her plants would be looked after. When I mentioned the plants, she managed to laugh.”

“So you didn’t get to ask her about the other injuries.”

She slowly shook her head. “I wouldn’t have done that with J.J. there. That might have embarrassed Chris, and it isn’t something J.J. needs to know about. As it was when we left Chris, J.J. slipped back into the funk she’d been in when I found her at the coffee shop. She didn’t have very much to say at all on the way home from the hospital. I was almost sorry that I took her. I hope that it didn’t overwhelm her. She’s been pretty quiet all evening, hasn’t she?”

“Probably tired, coming down from having had Genie to contend with these past few days and with everything else that’s happened.”

He knew differently; J.J. had spoken with him. The girl did have a lot on her mind, but she’d asked him to keep it to himself for the moment.

Considering the conversation they’d just had, for a moment he felt like a hypocrite for holding back from Jennifer what J.J. had given him. But J.J. made him promise. She didn’t want her mother nervous and/or frightened if she was wrong about what she thought she saw, but at the same time, she didn’t want Jennifer out there unprotected if it turned out she was right.

He was gratified that she hadn’t held onto it. She was growing up, becoming more vigilant, making better decisions about when and in whom she should trust.

But then again, he had gotten it from August first….

For a few minutes, they both silently continued to go through the two folders, he pulling from hers, she going through his.

“It’s a rough thing,” he finally said, closing the folder in his lap and letting his hand rest on top of it. “Chris not being able to recall, I mean. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how it felt to be in that kind of fog; getting close, but not being able to get a firm grip on what you’re trying to recall. It was so frustrating.”

“I remembered about that today, too, Jonathan. When I was with Chris, I told her that you had gone through the same thing once, but had come out of it just fine. It was terrible watching you so be so unsure of yourself, just as it was for me with her. I remember you wouldn’t rest for trying to find out what happened to you.”

He took her folder from her, placed it on top of his, and moved both of them to the floor on his side of the bed. Then he rolled back over to her.

“I remember how nice you were to me, how hard you tried to put me at ease,” he smiled as he gathered her in his arms. “I remember falling in love with you all over again.”

“That was fun.” She snuggled against him. “Kind of titillating sleeping with a stranger who wasn’t a stranger.”

“Kind of like the first time?”

“Yes, sort of like that. But better because I knew you even if you didn’t know me.”

“Was I a good lover?”

“The best, like always, Jonathan. But then, you did know that. Just like the first time, it was proof positive that no matter what, we were meant to be.”

Holding her close, his heart swelled with love and a smidgen of macho pride. Having and pleasing a real woman like his wife was a source of deep satisfaction for him as a man, most times even more so than his myriad other successes.

“The best,” she quietly repeated, sounding as if in her head, she’d returned to that night.

“So were you, Jennifer. And so are you. You know, from the start, we’ve always done our best work best as a team.”

He hadn’t felt her do it, but when she rolled over in his arms, he could see that she had unbuttoned the pajama top she wore.

“I think I need assurance of that, Mr. Hart,” she whispered up to him.

“Still trying to seduce me, Red?”

“Call it what you want, darling, but if you call me Red another time, some vital part of you is going to end up uncomfortably blue when I move me, my auburn hair, and everything else that is me way over to the other side of this bed and go to sleep.”

“Sorry,” he laughed as he maneuvered himself into position over her to look down into her face, directly into her eyes. “And I haven’t had that blue thing happen to me in quite some time either.”

“Why, Jonathan?” The snap to his pajama bottoms popped loose in her skilled hands. “Because women just rolled over and gave you what you wanted every time?”

“No,” he answered as he reached over to switch off the light. Returning his attention to her, he moved her completely onto her back.

“Not women,” he murmured into her neck. “Wasn’t that interested in a whole lot of women. Too busy. Once I found you, it’s only been you, the only one I ever needed, and you never leave me wanting.”

“Only when you’re good, I don’t leave you wanting,” she reminded him. “You’ve had your deprived moments along the way.

“I’m always good,” he declared as he slid satin panties down and off that last slim ankle and foot. “And I think you mean depraved moments.”

“Lecher.”

“Call it what you want.”

________________________________________________________

“J., I can’t sleep. Every time I start to drop off, she starts crying. I’m going crazy.”

“Now you know how I’ve been feeling, Hector. Hang up and stop bothering me. You’re keeping me up. It’s my night off. Did I call you, whining in the phone, when I had her?”

“You’re her mother. You know what to do for her. Let me at least put the phone to her ear so you can tell her to stop.”

“Hector-r-r-r-r, I’m ti-i-i-i-red. Stop calling me.”

“Please, J. Help me.”

“Get Philly.”

“She turned in with Trey hours ago. Her kid don’t keep up near as much racket as ours. J, please. I’m begging you. I’m losing my mind.

“You have to be in possession of a thing before you can lose it, Hector. What in the world do you want me to do? I’m here. You’re there. She’s just a baby. Work with her.”

“She’s all crying and clicking and stuff. I don’t know what to do for her. I got a math quiz in the morning, and I’m not doing all that good in that class as it is. I gotta get some rest!”

“Clicking?”

“Yeah. When she cries, there’s this little, tiny clicking noise that comes from her. Haven’t you heard it?”

Now that was something.

Having disconnected from Hector, J.J. lie there in the darkness wondering how she missed an unusual clicking sound coming from Genie. That wasn’t like her. Had she been so focused on tuning out Genie’s crying when she thought it was unwarranted that she missed a detail that might be a clue to something being definitely wrong with her? Hector was “an ear” just like she was. He tended to hear things that got past other people, too, but normally when they were working on their music together, he relied on her for the finest tuning that got done while he tended to the technical. He trusted her ears more than he did his own.

For a moment, she was tempted to call Hector back and tell him to sneak out with Genie and meet her at the park. But that would make her have to take Marnie’s car to get there, which would definitely be a problem, not to mention the sneaking out, a thing she vowed she would never again do.

Even though she knew perfectly well how to drive, she didn’t have her driver’s license yet. She only that day got clearance to get her Learner’s Permit, and if she got caught behind the wheel alone, which past experience with her ever-attentive mother said the odds of pulling it off successfully were not in her favor, all she worked so hard to acquire would be up in smoke. Also, she promised her father she wouldn’t drive any more without a license, and there would be no explanation or excuse for it she could offer, in the whole, entire universe, that would satisfy her mother, or her father for that matter, if she got caught at it. On top of all that, with Aunt Pat on the grounds and with the situation that existed between her and Marnie, no way would Marnie risk taking her to meet Hector even if she managed to wake Marnie and get her out of the bed. Marnie would not be willing to put a weekend with Chance Barnett on the line for that.

It wasn’t worth it. It would have to wait.

With the phone still in her hand, she pressed redial. When Hector picked up, she could hear Genie still cutting up in the background.

“Tell me you had a change of heart, J. I can have her at your place in half a hour.”

“No, but meet me in the sound booth of the music room with her at lunch time.”

“For what?”

“Don’t ask questions, Hector. It’s better if you don’t know up front. Just be there, and don’t tell anybody where we’re going to be.”

“Am I going to get in Dutch for getting involved in whatever you have up?”

“Only if you don’t show, Hector.”

With her mind made up about that, J.J. pulled the covers over her shoulder, tucking them between her shoulder and her ear as she tried to get back to where she had been before Hector’s first call. When she closed her eyes, however, the slideshow started all over again.

…Genie, crying and dirty… Chris… that black car… fire, smoke, and such terrible mayhem… Aunt Pat… her father seated at his desk in the loft, listening to her as she told him what she’d seen that afternoon….

It was that last image in the loop that offered instant comfort when it presented itself.

That was the one she forced herself to focus on in an attempt to relax again and get to sleep.

________________________________________________________

… a mighty cute kid… playing at being a writer, but I can clearly see her being one in life… got the routine down pat… so businesslike and organized… good, solid questions… probing questions… close to the heart questions….

…it’s her eyes… so warm and inviting like tea with honey on a cold morning… a person can relax and trust in them… have to be truthful, they look right through a person… wonder if she sees through me with those eyes….

…J.J. looks a lot like her… same face, same smile… different eyes, though… eyes like her father’s… dare-you-to-try-to-lie-to- me eyes like her father…

… too nice to lie to… too fine a man to deceive… not every CEO so hands-on and immediate… concerned…

… good family… good people… I wish I…

…I wish….

A huge burst of unnaturally bright light in the narrow, dark tunnel ….

What the hell?

A deafening explosion, somehow behind her, behind her head, actually to the back of her head. And then swirling, iridescent orbs, drawing her body down, down, down….

The unseen, but clearly felt shock as well as the sensation of falling woke her, frightening her into trying to sit up to catch herself. But the subsequent onslaught of dizziness, the dull thumping inside her skull, and the stiff soreness of her body immediately took over, all of it making her momentarily sick to her stomach.

“Chris.”

A hand closed about her shoulder. “Take it easy. It’s me.”

At the touch and the sound of the voice, she stopped fighting, in actuality only thrashing about, and opened her eyes.

“Ken?”

“Yeah, Chris. It’s me.”

“What are you doing here? It has to be the middle of the night.”

“It is.”

“Why?”

The confusion was overwhelming. The darkness all around her made it worse. “What?”

“I came to be with you for a while.”

The lights in the room were dimmed, but she realized after a moment or two that she could see into the shadows.

“How long have you been here? What happened to that nurse-slash-guard that’s assigned to be in here with me?”

“I came to give her a break.” Ken answered from where he was seated in the easy chair next to her bed. “She has to sleep sometime.”

Chris sighed, “I guess.” and lie all the way back.

“How’s it feel to be back in the land of the living?”

“Frustrating,” she answered, brushing away the hair that caught between her eyelids when she closed them again. “But I imagine it’s better than being in the valley of the shadow of death. Is there some water on the table still?”

She could hear him pouring it for her. Then she felt his hand take hers and place the cool waxed paper cup in it. He held her head to allow her to drink it. The liquid felt good going down, irrigating her parched throat, seemingly coursing its way through her system, clear down to her toes.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she whispered. “I’ve told you.”

“I know you’ve told me, but I’m done listening. I let you get hurt, doing things your way. From here on out, I’m doing them my way.”

“You don’t know everything there is to know, Ken.”

“Then tell me, Chris. Tell me the parts I don’t know.”

“I don’t remember a lot of it, Ken.”

“Then how is it you remember that I don’t know all the parts? What parts? Fool all of them, Chris, not me. You can’t fool me.”

When she turned her face away from him, he took the cup from her hands. Then she could feel him lean over the rail.

“You can shut me out, Christina Allen, but I’m not going away. I’ve known for a long time that something was wrong, but I let you push me away. I went because I told myself that was what you wanted. But the rules of the game have changed.”

In desperation, she whispered to him, “How did I end up here? Tell me.”

“You tell me.”

“I don’t know.” Tears splashed the pillow beneath her cheek. “Honestly, I don’t. You said you let me get hurt. How?”

“When you can tell me what happened to you, Chris,” he said as he reached his hand through the rail to place it on top of hers. “We can go from there, but until then, we’re in this together. You might be the boss, but we have been, and we are friends.”

“What about C- Claire?” she rasped.

“She’s fine. She’s safe.”

“Where? Is she here? In LA, I mean?”

“Yes, she’s right here. She flew in as soon as she heard.”

With that Chris lie all the way back and turned away from him.

“Mrs. Hart was here. She told me that Claire knew, but I was hoping she wouldn’t try- If he let her come, there’s more to it, Ken. He wouldn’t let her anywhere near me without there being an ulterior motive. He has to be looking for- Oh God, if only-I can’t- I can’t put it togeth- ”

Ken Matheson squeezed the hand beneath his.

“Don’t worry about her. She’s fine for the time being, ” he urged. “You need to take your time. It’ll come. In the meantime, Claire is covered, Chris, and you can rest about that. Mr. Hart won’t let anyone hurt her. He’s the one who has her.”

Chris exhaled in relief, feeling as if she should have known. Claire must have gotten through to him.

“Thank him for me, Ken. Make sure you thank him for me.”

She shifted her head some to move her face from the damp place she’d made in the pillow, certain that she’d have to do that again in not too long a time.

“I will, Chris. Go back to sleep now. I’m right here.”

She nodded into the pillows and closed her eyes.

________________________________________________________

With Jennifer in her dressing room and having finished making the bed, Jonathan sat down in the nearby window seat to review the numerous messages awaiting his attention in the memory of his cell phone. The very first one was from Rob Westlake, head of computer engineering for Hart Technologies. It was to Westlake that he’d sent the papers from Chris’ car.

The second was from August Lamb; the third was from Herschel Gray. That wasn’t good. Rather than calling any of them back, he got up and moved toward the bedroom door to go out into the hall to phone the hospital to check on Chris.

Once he started returning the calls in the queue he was certain that he’d be on the phone or on the run for the rest of the day. More than anything, he wanted to stay next to Jennifer and to keep J.J. close to home, but they all had their own things to do. He would have to be satisfied that the safeguards he’d put into place after his conversation with J.J. up in the loft would be enough to keep the two of them safe.

________________________________________________________

When Jennifer emerged from the back, she was surprised to not see Jonathan in the room, but after a few moments, when she could hear his voice coming from the hall, she understood; he never made or took business calls in their bedroom.

From where she stood inside the room, rubbing cream into her hands, she could see him leaned against the railing, handsome and tall in a black blazer, off white shirt, and grey slacks accented by a ruby red necktie. It was an attractive look on him. But then, he looked good in most anything he put on- or didn’t put on.

She still found it hard to believe that he had been so sick only a few weeks back. Looking at him as he spoke into the phone at his ear, running a hand through his thick silver-brown hair, it seemed almost silly how scared she’d been at the thought of losing him. Almost.

He said that he felt fine. He tried to assure her that she shouldn’t worry about him. He looked the picture of heath and vitality. His virility certainly didn’t seem to have been affected by the virus that temporarily felled him, but she could not shake the lingering worry she had for him.

So lost in her own thoughts was she, that it was a moment before she noticed that he’d looked up and seen her standing there. When their eyes met, he winked and she smiled at him in return.

Going over to her desk, she neatly arranged the papers in that folder that had so much of her attention, and she placed it down in her bag. Her first order of business would be Pat. Once she’d seen to her, she’d figure out where she wanted to go from there.

________________________________________________________

When J.J. arrived at the lockers, Hector was already there. Apparently he was waiting for her; as soon as she rounded the corner, he got up from where he had been sitting on the floor with his math book on his lap and picked up the carrier containing Genie to hand it to her.

J.J., ignoring his outstretched arm, acknowledged Genie, “Good morning, sweetie.”, and continued past Hector to her locker.

“Dang, J., you ain’t even going to say good morning to me?”

“How do you know that I wasn’t speaking to you?”

” ‘Cause you ain’t never called me “Sweetie”, not even joking around. Are you going to take her, or what?”

“Or what, Hector,” J.J. answered as she worked the combination to her locker. “Your time with her isn’t up yet. You have her until lunchtime.”

“I told you I have a math quiz. I can’t take her with me to the math quiz. What if she starts crying?”

“Take her and your quiz out into the hall. All the teachers know about the project. Mr. Hinton will let you as long as you keep the door open and he can see you aren’t looking at the answers on your hand again. Did you feed her?”

“What answers on my hand?” He caught her drift. “Girl, please. If I was cheating, I wouldn’t be sweating so hard about passing the class. I know how to cheat. Yeah, I fed her, and she crapped already, too.”

“Did you clean her off real good?”

“I got my mom to change her. It was making me sick to do it, plus I don’t think it’s right that I’m having to look at her down there.”

“You are so nasty, Hector. Only you would think along those lines about a baby.”

“Well, she’s a girl, and I don’t think it’s right. Here, take her, J. I’m tired. I haven’t had any sleep.”

“No.”

In frustration, Hector jerked back the carrier. Genie hic-upped a couple of times and began to cry. J.J. left what she was doing at her locker and came over to Hector. She removed Genie from the carrier and held her up to her ear to listen to her back.

“Mmmm, she smells good.”

“Moms did her this morning.”

“Your mother changed her. Your mother washed and dressed her. Hector, what did you do with her?”

“Fed her and walked the floor all night with her, that’s what I did with your kid, J.J. Hart.”

J.J. turned Genie over to listen to her tummy. “That’s so odd that I didn’t hear it before. I wonder what that is? There certainly is a clicking noise.”

Hector nodded. “Told you.”

“Sounds like a bad relay or something.” Then, to Hector’s dismay, instead of taking from him the carrier he still held, J.J. put Genie back into it, telling him, “Don’t forget to meet me in the sound booth with her at lunchtime.”

“You ain’t taking her for real, J.J.?”

“I told you I wasn’t, Hector. It’s still your turn. Now I will go down to the FACS room and pick up some more diapers and milk, put it on my tab, and deliver it all to you. But the baby is yours until we get to the sound booth.”

“What is it we’re doing in up in there, J.?”

“I told you about asking questions, Hector.”

Her arms full of books, J.J. slammed her locker closed. “Be there. That’s all you need to do. And let’s not have a repeat of yesterday’s unfortunate sequence of events. I said I forgave you, but I haven’t forgotten.”

“See that’s why I’m not married to you, J. You’re too bossy, uppity, and hard to get along with to be a girl.”

“And you’re lowlife and trifling. Hector, even for a boy. Just do it my way, and we won’t have any more problems between us. See you later.”

Once more, Hector found himself watching J.J. Hart walk away from him. Even though she wasn’t his type, it wasn’t altogether a bad sight. The main thing, however, was that she was leaving him alone at the lockers again with the crying doll.

“You ain’t right, J.!” he called behind her.

Without looking back, she raised her arm and shot him a one-fingered obscene gesture.

It wasn’t until the door of the locker next to him hit him in the back that he realized Marnie had come up behind him and had probably been witness to at least the tail end of what had gone down between him and J.J.

“Ow, Marnie!”

“Look out, and don’t step on Jaden.”

Jaden was in his carrier on the floor by his feet.

“That hurt!”

“Quit crying, boy, and do something about Genie and all that fussing she’s doing. My goddaughter does not need to be carrying on like that. And try to get having her in your care right this time so J. doesn’t have to go there with you over her baby again. She’ll be doing more than cussing you out or flipping you off if she catches you slipping one more time.”

“The hell with both of ya’ll.” He grumbled as with one large hand he reached in and gently scooped Genie out of the carrier. “She’s my baby, too.”

________________________________________________________

A short while after breakfast Jennifer came outside to put her bags in the car. She immediately noticed that the car Bill had rented to come home from the airport in on the day before was gone from its spot in front of the guest house. Apparently he’d left already for another round of meetings with the FAA. The girls were off to school, and Jonathan, too, was gone. She put her things in the car, opened the windows to allow air to circulate, and then got back out.

She had started walking over to the guest house when she noticed the red BMW cresting the hill at the bridge over the pond. Thinking that it was J.J. and Marnie coming back, perhaps after something one of them had forgotten, she stood there waiting, ready to fuss about their cutting it so close and maybe being late for class. As the car approached, she was surprised to see that it was Pat behind the wheel. The car pulled up to the front of the guest house, and Pat got out.

“Pat, why do you have the car? Where are the girls?”

“I dropped them off. The car was just going to be sitting there on the school parking lot all day. We, Marnie and I, agreed that it made more sense that I keep it. If I have somewhere to go, then I’ll have a car to get me there. Didn’t make sense for me to rent one when there was a perfectly good one just sitting around. Also, I won’t have to be bugging you if I want to take off on my own.”

Jennifer crossed her arms and tilted her head in suspicion. “Now exactly how much truth is there to that story, Patricia? I know how you cover up things for those girls. What’s happened? What have they done that you had to confiscate the car?”

Pat walked up to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, turning her body to lead her back toward the main house.

“You worry too much, Edwards. You really need to let up and give those kids some breathing room. They’re very good girls, they have good heads on their shoulders, and they’re growing up. They don’t need you all over them all of the time. How are they ever going to learn to think for themselves if you don’t ever give them opportunities to do so?”

“You’re not going to tell me what happened are you?”

“What’s there to tell?”

“I definitely smell a rat, Patty.”

“It’s just your upper lip, Edwards. So what’s on the docket for today?”

Jennifer shifted her eyes to discreetly check out Pat’s face. Her sassy behavior was on point, but her usually alert, attentive eyes were dull, lifeless; she seemed to be forcing it.

“Are you okay, Pat?”

“Just dandy.”

Stopping in her tracks, Jennifer moved Pat’s arm from her shoulders and instead grabbed her firmly by the forearms. “No B.S., Pat. Are you all right for real? Don’t lie to me, please. You know I’ll understand if you say that you’re not. Nobody’s expecting you to be.”

For a moment, Pat looked past her in what seemed to be exasperation. Then slowly she came back and met her gaze.

“I’m as good as I’m going to be for now, Jennifer.” She dropped her head. “So many people at Morgan Stanley alone. I know so many of them… Jen, I’m as good as I’m going to be until I get back to New York and find out for myself exactly how bad things really are and-”

“And?”

“And how many of my business associates, employees, acquaintances, colleagues, and friends didn’t fare as well as I did.”

For a moment, Pat allowed herself to lean forward, and she rested her forehead on Jennifer’s shoulder.

“Go easy on Marnie, Jen,” she whispered from that position. “She wants so much to not be a problem for you. I’d take her back with me if I could.”

Then just as suddenly, Pat stood upright and pulled her arms from Jennifer’s grasp.

“Let’s do your day,” she declared. “Let’s do what needs doing in your day since mine is still in someone’s else’s control. But we have to be there to pick up at the girls at the Academy at five-thirty. They said they’ll get a ride over with some of the others who do tutoring with them.”

“You bought that “get a ride” thing?”

“Yes, I did, Jennifer. It isn’t like Anastasia won’t call if they don’t make it and make it on time. Like I said, let up.”

“Good point about Anastasia. She likes nothing better than getting one up on J.J. All right.”

Concerned about her still, but grateful that Pat didn’t seem to want to close herself off again, Jennifer followed her as she started toward the house. At least, out of that guest house, she wouldn’t be sitting around by herself, in pain and trying to drink it away.

Watching Pat’s back, she wondered what could have happened between her and Marnie to make Pat say what she’d said about Marnie not wanting to be a problem. What could have happened or what conversation took place between them to lead Pat to that conclusion?

________________________________________________________

“Malicious code.”

Those two dreaded words reverberated in Jonathan’s mind for several minutes after they left Westlake’s lips. That wasn’t the kind of language the CEO of a major international technological outfit wanted to hear, especially not in the times through which he was currently living or in association with one of his most trusted employees.

Why would Chris be carrying something like that around in her car? From where did she get it? When did she get it? Did she even know what it was she had?

What did she intend to do with it? Where or to whom was she planning to take it? How much of it, if any of it, did she remember? If asked, and she did remember, how much of what she knew would she reveal?

Did what happen to her happen because she had it? Or because someone thought she might have it?

What in the world was it all about?

“Jonathan?… Jonathan?”

Marcus was calling his name, apparently attempting to draw him back to the meeting.

“Yes.”

“I was asking you if you wanted one of us to go and speak with Chris?”

Around the table with him and Marcus were August, LAPD Captain Herschel Gray, Dr. Westlake and a couple of the computer engineers who overnight deciphered the computer code, as well as Ken Matheson, who was sitting in for the injured Chris Allen.

“I know the doctors want to limit the number of people who interact with her right now.” Marcus continued. “But until we get her take on it, it’s going to be hard to effectively go forward with anything. Without her input, we’ll just be feeling around in the dark .”

“We’ve checked, double-checked, and triple-checked our systems here,” Westlake said. “I’ve ordered the same checks be done world wide within our organization. So far, nothing’s turned up to be amiss. I didn’t expect that it would with all the safeguards that we have in place. We’re constantly installing updates, but one never knows. As fast as patches and plugs are put in, and walls are put up, somebody’s out there coming up with something to get around, over, or through them.”

“Investigations is still working on the graphic code from that folder,” Ken Matheson offered. “I checked on that before coming here. They didn’t have any definitive answers for me at that time. I was with Chris for a few hours last night. She was pretty out of it, probably because it was late and she was tired.”

“I could go to her,” August volunteered. “She trusts me. We have a fairly strong personal and professional rapport.”

All eyes at the table were on Jonathan who seemed to be considering all that was being said. Finally he shook his head.

“No. I’ll go. I need it straight from her, and I’m probably the only one here who knows exactly the kind of fog she’s struggling to get through.”

Nobody disagreed. Everyone present had been with or associated with the company long enough to remember Jonathan having gone through that brief, but serious bout of amnesia. They also recalled the danger in which the return of his memory inadvertently wound up putting him and Jennifer.

Jonathan turned to August. “Until we know what this latest thing is all about, I want the security around Chris and her sister stepped up even more. I’m not so worried about the sister; she’s good, but Chris is more exposed.”

When Jonathan stood, everyone else followed suit, understanding the silent signal that the meeting had ended. As the others gathered their papers and other paraphernalia brought up with them, Jonathan gestured to August to remain behind.

“What do you think about Matheson?” he asked once everyone else was gone. “Are you sure he can handle being in charge of the facility in the face of Chris not being there?”

August shrugged. “I’ve never had reason to doubt his abilities, but then he’s never before been put to this kind of test. He did look a bit worn out when he was in here. I know that he went over to the hospital and relieved the nurse last night for a time. Maybe the strain of it all is getting to him. We’ll have a word when I get a minute alone with him.”

“Do that,” Jonathan instructed as he gathered his keys. “Send him some more help over there if he needs it. Anything else on Martin?”

“Nope. I managed to get Herschel off to himself to pick his brain before the meeting. You know how he is, trying to keep things in the department as much as he can, but he says Missing Persons hasn’t come up with anything yet.”

Jonathan sighed. “Well, I’m going to head on over to the hospital. I called earlier to check on her. She was awake, but the nurse said, very quiet.”

________________________________________________________

“What?” Pat asked when she noticed Jennifer was turning onto Las Palmas and that they were in the vicinity of the Hart Towers. “You need to see Jonathan about something?”

Jennifer shook her head. “No. Someone else.”

Pat waited for her to elaborate, but after a few moments’ silence she realized an explanation wasn’t coming, and she sat back. Obviously it was going to be one of those situations where she’d have to follow Jennifer’s lead.

“Whatever you’re getting me into, Edwards, don’t forget that we have to pick up those girls at five.”

“Five-thirty.” Jennifer corrected her as she pulled into the parking structure after using her passkey. “At the Academy.”

________________________________________________________

With his class right at the head of the stairs, as soon as the bell rang, Hector and Genie were out the door and down the stairs in a shot. He had signed himself and J.J. up for the sound booth earlier that morning, so they were slated to use it during the time they normally ate lunch. Perpetually hungry, Hector hated missing a meal, but he was far more interested in whatever J.J. had up for them to do. He was sure it was something shady, and for him, which made it all the more intriguing.

When Hector barreled into the band room, he greeted the teacher who had just come in from between-class hall duty.

“What’s up, Mr. Washington.”

Mr. Washington looked up from where he had begun rearranging the band chairs. “Hey, Hector. You made it. I see you and J.J. are giving up your lunchtime.”  It was his preparation period, so there wouldn’t be a class coming in for a while.  “What are you two working on?”

Hector Diaz and J.J. Hart were two of his most promising students. They had collaborated on several musical projects in the past, and increasingly they were becoming more confident and independent in their endeavors. Lately he was mostly overseeing and advising their work rather than directly instructing them. As a professional musician himself, he also worked on occasion with Hector’s father in his studio. He fully expected Hector would follow his father and his father’s people in the music business after high school. His more scholarly sister, Philly, would most likely go on to college and be that doctor she wanted to be, but Hector would be doing his studying on the road.

The verdict wasn’t in yet on J.J. Hart. She had the interests,  the talent, the support, and the means to go in so many different directions.

“Yeah, J. has something she needs me to help her with,” Hector answered as he put his books on the table. He kept Genie with him as he headed up the stairs to the booth that overlooked the rest of the classroom.

“How’s fatherhood?” Mr. Washington said. “I heard about your close call yesterday. J.J. let you live, I see.”

“Man, word sure travels fast around here. Fatherhood would be okay if my kid didn’t have such a bad attitude. She gets that from her mother. If J. wasn’t so good with the beats and the sound, I’d cut her loose.”

“It’s not hip-hop that you and J.J. are working on, is it?” Mr. Washington peered skeptically over his half glasses to the top of the stairs. “You two got good and carried away that last time.”

“You know that was phat, Mr. Washington,” Hector crowed with an air fist bump. “You just couldn’t say ’cause we was in school. But if we had been at the studio or at the club, it would have been on for real, wouldn’t it? You’d’a been taping it, cuttin’ us a CD.”

Mr. Washington continued with the chairs, trying not to let Hector see the merriment dancing in his eyes and tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“No comment,” was all he would give up in reply.

“That’s okay,” Hector said before he entered the booth. “You ain’t gotta say. We all know it was live. We had everybody in here bouncin’ ’til you came in and shut it down.”

He disappeared inside and Mr. Washington chuckled to himself at the memory of his coming into class late only to find his A Jazz Band indeed ‘bouncing’ and gyrating to the seriously funky beats and duet-delivered lyrics being spun up in the booth. His classroom looked more like Friday night at the club or a low budget music video than an award-winning branch of West Los Angeles Gifted and Talented academia.

“Hey, Mr. Washington.”

J.J. Hart raced in and set her books on the table next to Hector’s. She, that ponytail, and her backpack headed for the sound booth almost without stopping.

“Don’t be late coming out,” he called behind her. “You and Hector tend to lose track of time and your sense of hearing when you’re in there. Set the timer. When the clock says it, go to class.”

“No problem!” she called behind her before shutting the door.

________________________________________________________

“Do you feel like going back?” the nurse was asking Chris as she slowly made her way down the hall just outside her room.

Chris held tightly to the rail, confounded and aggravated by the weakness of her legs, the difficulty she was having with her overall equilibrium, the persistent dizziness, as well as the lack of control she had over the thoughts whirling through her mind.

“No, I’d like to go a little farther. I really need to work on getting out of here.”

No matter how hard it was or how bad she was feeling, lying in that bed with nothing to distract her from her mental woes was far worse than being up and working on getting back to her physical self. It was also better than having someone sitting next to her, looking at her as if they were waiting for her to tell them something or as if they had something to tell her.

But nobody could tell her anything. At least not until she could tell them. Or she felt up to telling them.

A real life Catch-22…

The nurse was walking close enough beside her to aid her if she faltered, but allowing her to walk on her own, as she requested to be left to do.

“No sense rushing things, Ms. Allen. Recovering your health is one of those things that happens in its own time.”

They had only gone a short distance when Chris noticed a nattily dressed male figure approach the nurses’ station.

“Oh, hell,” she muttered, cursing her condition, how she had to be looking at that moment, and that she wasn’t able to turn around, run back into the room, and dive into the bed.

“What’s the matter?” the nurse asked.

“My boss,” Chris whispered. “Actually the Chief Executive Officer of the entire corporation. What in the world is he doing here? Please, take me back. I don’t want him to-”

“Chris!”

She  cringed crimson from the top of her tousled head to the bottom of her skid-proof, unattractive hospital- issued slippers. She wanted to wear her own, but the nurse wasn’t satisfied with the soles on them, and had insisted upon the ones she had on. Immediately conscious of her plain, practical robe and that she had on a hospital gown underneath it, she tried with her free hand to draw the robe closed at the neck. Then she thought about how she wasn’t wearing a drop of makeup. The red abrasions marking her chin, a small place on her forehead, and her right cheek made her even more self conscious.

“Your boss? Well, he’s sure a handsome devil,” the nurse hurriedly whispered at her ear. “And he’s come to see you. Must make you feel real important to have the CEO pay you a visit.”

“Not like this. Not here,” Chris hissed in desperation out of the side of her mouth, watching helplessly as Hart approached with a large vase of peaches and cream roses in his hand.

As always, her already weak knees went limp at his smile and the twinkle in his bedroom eyes.

… such a handsome, nice man….

Watching him move toward her, a sudden strong sense of something being terribly wrong surged like an errant electric current through her entire body. Caught off guard by it, she almost fell, and with one hand, he reached out and caught her by the upper arm.

“Easy,” he said. “Can’t take things too fast.”

He handed the vase over to the nurses’ reaching hands.

“Here,” Hart said as he eased her full weight onto his arm and shoulder. “let me help you back. Looks as if you’ve done enough for this round.”

Under any other circumstances, she would have been glad to be in his company. As he eased her back into the room where the nurse stood showing him the way, past the guard still seated at the door, and into sitting on the side of her bed, she felt humiliated, weak, and tired.

“I’ll just step out a moment.” He said as he headed for the door and went through it, back into the hall.

It took a moment for it to register with her that he was allowing her the privacy to remove her robe and get back over into the bed. The nurse helped her, and once she was situated, went out to let Hart know that it was all right for him to come back in. He brought the side chair from by the window over to her bedside and sat down in it.

“Thank you for the flowers, Mr. Hart.”

He opened his mouth to correct her, and she had to smile. “Jonathan. They’re beautiful.”

“You’re looking pretty good yourself, Ms. Allen.”

“You know better.”

“Chris,” he grinned. “How do you feel?”

“Better than yesterday when I first woke up and found out I’d lost three days of my life.”

“That was better than losing you,” he replied. “You needed the rest.”

“Three days worth is a bit excessive, don’t you think?”

He chuckled.

“What are you doing here, an important man like you? I’m sure you have a whole lot of other, more important things you could be doing.”

“Right now, you were the most important detail I had to see to. I’d have come yesterday, but I was in and out of meetings all day.”

“That’s okay. Mrs. Hart surprised me by coming. She made me feel a lot better about things.”

He smiled at the mention of his wife, but didn’t offer a reply. She inclined her body a bit more in his direction.

“I was in a car, wasn’t I?” she asked in a whisper so low that only he could possibly hear it. “This happened to me in a car, didn’t it?”

He didn’t answer. She continued to probe.

“My car, wasn’t it? I was driving my car, and I had this humongous headache. Worse than I’d ever had in my life. I wrecked my car, that’s how I got here, isn’t it? I was in my car, and I wrecked it.”

Finally, he nodded.

“Totaled?” she grimaced.

He nodded again.

“Damn. I loved that car, and I’d just paid it off.”

“That’s where insurance comes in handy.”

He was watching her face, just as the others had been doing all morning. His looking at her had always made her uncomfortable, but this time the feeling was even more intense. That disturbing surge of dread shot through her again.

“Something really bad happened with all of this, didn’t it? It’s not just this accident, is it? You’re the reason I’m being guarded so heavily, aren’t you? What have I done?”

For a moment, he partially stood, hitching at his pants the way men do when they don’t want their slacks to wrinkle badly, or they’re stalling for time while they get what they’re going to say together in their heads. Then he sat back down, fitting himself comfortably into the chair, crossing one leg over the other.

“Tell me what you remember so far,” he said.

She didn’t think Hart was quite old enough to be her father, but for that moment, his protective presence made him feel like one to her. She shut her eyes to shut out her own father’s face. She missed him. With the latest turn of events, she really missed him.

“I’m getting so tired of people answering me with that when I ask them a question,” she sighed.

His calm tone didn’t change behind her impatient declaration.

“That’s how it has to be, Chris. I know exactly how you feel, but believe me, nobody is trying to purposely frustrate you. It’s how it has to be done. You’ll have to work your way back to where you were.”

“What if where I was is awful, Jonathan? I feel like it might be. What if where I was is somewhere I don’t want to return to? My gut feeling is where I was is somewhere I might not want to get back to.”

“It might not be, Chris, but in order to get back to yourself and your life, you’ll have to get back to where you were. And believe me, sooner or later, you will go back, whether you want to or not. You said you remember being in the car. What do you remember before that?”

She hesitated. Although she trusted him implicitly, he was still her boss. There were things she couldn’t tell him. He respected her, and she respected him, but he was a man. A man couldn’t be expected to understand everything a woman went through, especially a woman in her position.

“Trust me, Chris,” he urged, as if he could see what was going on inside her head.

She began, the words taking their time to form in her head, then creeping with care off her tongue.

“I remember up to your wife and J.J. coming to see me on Saturday afternoon. I remember Mrs. Hart and I were talking. J.J. had gone out of the office by then. We were by ourselves.”

“Talking about what?”

She shook her head slowly. “I honestly cannot remember.”

“Why was J.J. there?”

“For an interview. For her school project with the baby and all. She was doing the career part of it, and she interviewed me. Seems like there was more, but it won’t come if there was.”

“And then what? After you and Jennifer talked, what happened?”

“Then I was in the car, driving. It was dark, really dark. I was trying to get home. I was sick… or something. My head hurt, like I told you. But…”

“But?”

“But it hurt in the back. It was weird. I’ve had my share of headaches, but I’ve never had a headache to the back of my head. When I woke up yesterday, they told me I had an injury to my head, and that’s why I had to be made to sleep. Jonathan, I couldn’t have hurt the back of my head in the car accident. It was hurting before the accident. It had to have been. I don’t remember wrecking the car at all. The last thing I remember is the pain in the back of my head. I’m guessing these marks on my face are from the airbag and the cuts on my arms from glass, but the other happened before all of that.”

He was rubbing at his chin, his eyes cast down into his lap as if he were thinking.

“Jonathan. What about my sister?”

“What about her?”

“I know you have her. Why exactly do you have her? What has she done?”

For a moment he seemed reluctant to say anything. Then he asked, “Why do you think she’s done something?”

She sat up on one elbow, leaning in even farther toward him.

“Not fair, Jonathan. I asked my questions first. Why is it that you have her?”

He smiled, and she knew it was because she’d won that round. Jonathan Hart had a reputation throughout the company for his appreciation of intelligent, spirited women. Hell, he lived with one. Actually, two.

“She called me,” he admitted. “The fact that she had my number in the car, and what she said let me know that I needed to take care of her.”

“What did she say?”

He didn’t answer.

“Where did you put her?”

“Someplace where she can’t be hurt. Do you know why someone might want to hurt her?”

This time she was the one who didn’t answer. She turned her face away from him, and she was startled to the point of jumping slightly when she felt him take her hand in his. “Claire said that you told her that she could trust me. I appreciate your doing that. I was glad to help her. If I can, Chris, let me help you.”

“When I have it all together, Jonathan,” she said without turning back to face him.

“Maybe you shouldn’t wait until you have it all back together,” he said. “When you feel you have enough of it back within your grasp, you have someone call me. I’ll be right here, me, I’ll come myself.”

“I will.”

“Chris?”

“Yes.”

“Please, don’t play games with this. Don’t sit on it too long. You have to know when you can’t fix things all by yourself. Trust me. I can help. Jennifer can, too. If you let us, you know that we’ll help you.”

He squeezed her hand and when he let go and she heard him get up, the void he left was nearly suffocating. She wanted to call him back when she could hear his footsteps crossing the room, leaving her altogether. But she couldn’t. Her pride wouldn’t let her.

And she still didn’t have enough of a handle on it yet.

She was happy that Claire had the good sense to seek him out, even though that might mean exposing their mutual dirty laundry. But what had she told him? How much had Claire let him in on that he understood how desperately she needed protecting? What did he know about her that made him provide so much protection to her at the hospital? The heightened security she noticed about the floor when she’d been out in the hall for that short span of time had not escaped her attention.

________________________________________________________

“Sorry, sir, but we can’t get close enough to find out anything. Hart has his people out in full force… they’re all over…. locked up like a fortress….

… No, sir, there’s been no word. Nobody’s seen or has any idea where-

Yes, that matter has been handled; you don’t have to worry about that… its usefulness had been outlived…

Right, I understand. We’ll keep trying, but…

…Sir, I really don’t foresee getting much closer…

…I understand….”

________________________________________________________

“So what’s the story, J.? Why are we in here?”

J.J. was pleased to see that Hector had already started the tape of the piece upon which they’d been collaborating. He’d set it on loop to give the appearance that they were at work and to generate the red “In Session” signal to the outer room and to Mr. Washington, the continuation insuring that the light would remain on for a time. Through the front window panels that looked out over the music room, they could see that a couple of other students had come in, and that Mr. Washington was busy with what appeared to be a musical arrangement they’d brought to him.

She took Genie from the carrier and turned her over on her stomach to unfasten the jumper she was wearing.

“The baby is sick,” she said as she worked at the tiny buttons and snaps. “We’re her parents. It’s up to us to see to her well-being.”

Hector, watching her, raised an eyebrow. “So, like I said, what’s the story? ”

“Look in the front pocket of my book bag and get that tool kit out.”

“Tool kit?”

“Tool kit, Hector. I know you’re not hard of hearing. If I’d said look in there and get that beer, that pack of cigarettes, that joint, or that porn magazine, you’d have heard that, wouldn’t you?”

“Hell, yeah,” he quietly agreed as he swiveled around to the table behind them to the bag she’d placed there. “You got some of that in here?”

He fished around with his fingers for a moment and then came out with the small plastic case containing a tiny set of tools.

“How many of these do you have, J. Seems like every time we need something like this, you come up with one. Where you getting these things from?”

“The dollar store,” she answered as she finished undressing Genie down to her diaper.

He laughed, “Dollar store? What in the world do you know about the dollar store, Baby Big Bucks?”

“I know you can get lots of good stuff for little or nothing at the dollar store. I know I can buy enough of those tool kits to keep us out of trouble when we run into it, wherever we run into it. I know a deal when I see one. Those tool kits are the bomb.”

“True ‘dat,” Hector agreed as he handed it to her.

He and J.J. had done enough impromptu speaker/ sound system jobs for their friends for him to know how handy her ever-present kits were.

“Here.” She passed Genie over to him.

“What?”

He took the doll, but looked, in confusion, over to J.J. who was selecting a screwdriver from the assortment of diminutive tools. She passed that to him as well. “Turn her back over on her tummy, and I’ll show you what to do.”

Then she peeked over the sound console, out of the window to check on Mr. Washington, who was still engaged with those two students who’d come in behind her.

“Why I’m having to do her, J.? Why you ain’t doing it? You know more about this stuff than me.”

“Look, why do you ask so many questions, Hector? We’re up here now, and we don’t have a lot of time. Don’t waste it asking questions. Just do what I tell you before Washington comes up here to check on us.”

“See, that’s just why we ain’t together,” he fussed as he turned Genie over on his lap. “That’s why you and me aren’t married. Plain old, flat out bossy.”

“And I keep telling you, we’re not married because I wouldn’t have you,” she countered, keeping her eye on the teacher. “If I’d have said yes, you’d have been on it in a heartbeat, and you know it. And anyway, I see you’re doing what I say.”

“I’m too scared not to,” he mumbled as he felt around on Genie’s back for an opening in which to slide the edge of the screwdriver.

________________________________________________________

When the elevator car they took from the parking structure jerked to a stop just before the first floor, Pat, edgy and caught off guard, was visibly startled.

“What the hell?”

“Easy.” Jennifer briefly placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’s fine. It’s supposed to do that here. I signaled it to.”

“Well, you could have warned me.”

“Then you might not have come.”

“That would have been a mighty strong possibility.”

Using a card she’d pulled from her purse, Jennifer carefully pushed it into an unseen slot between the two closed doors. A green light blinked several quick times, signaling its reception, and the doors slid open in response, revealing a solid wall directly behind them with a keypad affixed to it and another card slot underneath the pad. Jennifer punched in a sequence of numbers, turned the card around to the other side and slid it into the wall. When she pulled it out, the wall slid open revealing a short, neon-lit narrow hall in front of them with another wall at the end.

Jennifer stepped out of the car, but Pat stood fast.

“I think I’m going to need a cigarette and a drink to deal with this, Jen. Where the hell are we?”

“Just come on,” Jennifer answered, taking Pat by the arm. “You know that I wouldn’t bring you anywhere that you’d get hurt.”

“Not intentionally, you wouldn’t,” Pat said, stepping out of the car, her skepticism clearly showing in the way that she was looking all around herself as if there was something for her to see other than stainless steel walls and ceiling surrounding them. “I can remember once being ambushed by a swarm of goddamn, nasty-assed bats after letting you talk me into following you into a cave that Pa told us not to go into.”

“We were seventeen, Pat. That was a long time ago.”

“I don’t give a damn, it happened. Pa wanted to kill both of us. You for being hardheaded, and me for following you like a little fool. I remember telling myself then that I was never, ever letting you talk me into anything like that again. Now look where I am. I will be damned. Is this a bunker?”

“Yes, with your filthy mouth,” Jennifer answered, pulling her down the hall by her arm. “No wonder you and Marnie bond so well. You have the same thing in your building.”

“Yes, but mine is in the basement of my building.”

“This is California, Pat.”

“Oh, yeah. Okay. I get it.”

Another key pad. Another card inserted into that facing wall which slid up into the ceiling upon Jennifer pulling it out. On the other side, they were met by a curtained glass wall.

“Jonathan isn’t playing is he?” Pat whispered. “Is this real glass?”

“Don’t ask,” was Jennifer’s answer as she pressed another sequence of numbers into the panel affixed to a steel girder.

“How do you keep all of that in your head, Jen? You used to not be able to put together so much as a phone number from memory. You always had to have a phone book with you.”

“I don’t know. Fooling around with Jonathan all these years, I guess. Getting into the jams I’ve gotten into with him over the years, I’ve learned where my true strengths lie, and I’ve come to rely on them fully. Believe me, I’ve had to.”

The curtain rolled back to reveal an armed member of Hart personal security. The gentleman tipped his cap to them as he set the glass in motion to admit them.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Hart,” he said while casting a wary eye to Pat.

“This is my friend, Patricia Hamilton,” Jennifer said in both greeting and introduction.

“Oh. Okay.” The guard relaxed upon hearing and obviously recognizing the name. “She’s already been cleared; she’s on the list.”

“Like I said,” Pat leaned in and whispered into Jennifer’s ear. “Your husband does not play. He covers all of his bases.”

They were in what appeared to be a sort of waiting area. The guard used a card to unlock another door, which admitted them into the front room of what would turn out to be a small suite of rooms. It was an apartment located deep within the bowels of Hart Industries Headquarters. Reminiscent of a mid-budget hotel room, it was generically furnished, but comfortable aside from the fact that there was not a single window.

“She’s in the back, Mrs. Hart. Doesn’t say much. Nothing beyond her immediate needs. That’s it.”

“What’s she doing for sunlight?” Pat asked.

“That’s classified, Ma’am,” was the answer she received, to which she shrugged her shoulders. “I just wondered.”

She followed Jennifer who went in the direction the guard pointed.

In one of the small bedrooms, a dark-haired young woman, dressed in navy blue sweats was seated on the bed. Although she was a far cry from the upscale fashion statement she’d nearly run into at the hospital, when she looked up, Jennifer recognized her right away as the same person she’d seen go into Chris Allen’s room that day when she stood watching from the hall.

“This, I take it, is ‘the project’?” Pat ventured as she hung back by the door.

Folding her arms, she sized up the girl from her head, down to her bare, manicured feet.

“Ms. Claire Allen, I am Jennifer Hart, and this is my friend, Patricia Hamilton. It’s nice to finally meet you. If you don’t mind, we’d like to talk with you.”

It was definitely the same girl. This time, however, she appeared confused, depressed, maybe even defensive. But without a doubt, she was sporting a serious, but healing shiner to her left eye.

________________________________________________________

“Let’s hope this helps,” J.J. was saying as she fitted the tools back into the grooves of the small plastic case. Then she placed everything in the front pocket of her backpack, carefully sliding the items into the designated places for easy retrieval should she need them again.

Hector, in the meantime, worked at changing Genie’s wet diaper. Checking her, he’d found that she’d gone on herself during the procedure.

“Why does she pee so much? I hate having to be looking at and wiping off her little taco. It ain’t right.”

“Her what?” J.J. snapped around to face the table where Hector was working with Genie. “What did you say?”

Hector pressed the last tape to fasten the clean diaper in place. “Her taco, you know, her-”

J.J. used her shoulder to muscle him away from the table. “Just move, Hector! Let me have her. I cannot believe you said that.”

“Said what?” He cried in confusion. “What? Taco? That’s what ya’ll all have, don’t you?”

J.J., standing over Genie, closed her eyes and shuddered.

“Get away from me, Hector.” She snatched up Genie’s jumper from the table and slipped it over the doll’s head. “Every time I think we’re making progress, you go and mess up again.”

“Wha’d I say, J.? I just said I didn’t think it was right that I change a girl baby’s diaper, that’s all. I’m trying to be respectful, be a responsible daddy, and you go off on me. I swear, you ain’t never happy.”

“If we have the taco, as you so vulgarly refer to it, Hector, then what do you guys have?”

Stopping and turning to face him, she placed one hand on her hip and pressed the index finger of the other to Hector’s lips, stopping him speaking.

“And Hector, if you say ‘the filling’, I’m letting you know right here and right now that it’s going to be on between you and me up here in this booth.”

When she eased her finger from his mouth, Hector dropped his eyes to the floor, sheepishly admitting. “I was gonna say “stuffing”, but I can see now that might have been a problem, too, huh?”

With her hand still riding her hip, J.J. sent him warning via that one raised eyebrow.

“Sorry,” he murmured when he saw the look on her face.

“Constantly,” she replied.

Shaking her head in disgust, she returned to the table.

She finished fastening the buttons on Genie’s outfit while Hector crossed over to check the window to see where Mr. Washington was in the room below. Satisfied that they weren’t in any danger of being walked in on, he returned to J.J. and Genie at the table.

When J.J. was finished, she turned Genie over onto her back. The doll’s greenish-blue eyes were open and staring directly up at both her and Hector.

“Well, little girl. Nobody but you, your sorry, sexist daddy, and I know what went on up here.” J.J. smiled down at her as she straightened the yellow rosette headband on her head. “And you won’t be telling it, will you?”

Hector peered over her shoulder. “I know your excellent, loving daddy won’t be saying sh-”

“Hector! Not in front of the baby.”

“Yeah, okay.” He reached around J.J. and lightly poked Genie in her soft belly. “As long as you ain’t hollering or messing up your pants, Daddy loves you.”

“Girls wear panties, Hector.”

“Don’t get me started, J. Next thing you know, I’ll have said something, and you’ll be getting a attitude over it.”

To both of their surprise, in response to Hector’s touch, Genie smiled for the first time since they’d had her. Both teenagers looked to each other, Hector in surprise and J.J. in absolute self-satisfaction.

“You are a freakin’ genius,” he crowed. “You said that was what it was.”

“And you have seriously good hands,” J.J. grinned in return. “I couldn’t have done it without you. You were a lot easier to work with than Marnie would have been. You at least had some basic knowledge of what to do.”

“So you think this loophole thing is going to work, J.?”

“Definitely,” she nodded as she picked Genie up to hug her. “The way we did it, if I somehow get called on it, nobody can pin doing anything wrong on me. Plus, it looks as if we helped our kid feel better, which is all that really matters to me. I think despite our not being married and our obvious academic, school of thought, and lifestyle differences-

“Hey! I thought we was through fighting, J.”

“- we’re fairly decent parents.”

“Well, that’s all that matters to me, too, J. That and getting finished with this project with a halfway decent grade.”

It was almost time for the bell, so Hector shut down the music equipment while J.J. gathered her and Genie’s things in preparation to leave the sound booth. With Genie snugly fitted down into the carrier on her chest, J.J. was content with finally being able to it get done, and with having been right about the hunch she had.

“Make any good progress?” Mr. Washington called out to them from his desk as they passed through the music room on their way to the classroom door.

“Lots,” Hector answered.

“Thanks so much for letting us use the booth,” J.J. waved. “See you later in class, Mr. Washington”

The bell rang, signaling time for class change.

________________________________________________________

Jonathan was driving his car out of the hospital’s parking structure when his phone rang. Digging it out of his breast pocket while maintaining his watch on the road before him, he took the call.

It was August, and the news was not good.

After paying his parking fee, he switched his mindset from returning to the Hart Towers and the business at hand, to returning to the Hart Towers and hearing about the latest instance of suspected foul play.

________________________________________________________

“You were way too nice, Jennifer. If you’d have let me do her like I wanted to do, I’d have had her talking today while we were there. We wouldn’t have to go back. With some people, you can’t take the nice approach.”

“You saw her face, Pat, her eye. She’s been traumatized enough by someone, the poor baby. Even though she’s trying to be such a tough nut, she’ll be even harder to crack down the line if we’d have come down heavy on her right out of the gate. She’d have dug her heels in even more, and we won’t get anything out of her ever. As we left it, there’s still room to go back.”

“Jennifer, that little cow knows something either about what happened to her sister, what’s going on at Hart, or both. Poor baby, my foot. She’s a hot-tailed young tramp who’s leaving her sister hanging out there.”

“Pat, tell me how much you really like her.”

“Yeah, right. She does know what’s going on. You saw it. I know you saw it. She’s been bought and paid for by Marston Knight. I’ll bet my own ass that he’s behind some, if not all of this. I dated the bastard myself a couple of times, even though that was years and years ago, so I know how he is.”

“You did? You never told me that.”

“Nothing to tell, Jen. Actually I’d forgotten about it until all of this came up. He and I happened to be in the same place at the same time, I’m not even sure where any more, and somebody introduced us. He took me out, tried too hard to impress and woo me, talking about he’d been wanting to meet me, how fascinating I was, and on and on. It didn’t take too long for me to get the feeling that more than he wanted to be with me, he wanted something from me.”

“So did you end up giving him something, Patricia?”

Pat cut her eyes to Jennifer who was watching where she was going as she drove them out of the parking structure. “I didn’t give him a thing, Jennifer.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I didn’t do everybody I dated, you know.”

“I know you didn’t.” Jennifer attempted to placate her by reaching over and patting her hand.

“Anyway, Edwards,” Pat continued. “I don’t think that’s what he wanted from me, not that he wouldn’t have taken it if I’d have been offering it, of course. I got the impression, however, that he was a lot more interested in what I had in my pocketbook than what I had in my panties. From what I remember of him back then, seems like he was always sort of privately strapped for capital, you know, putting up a profitable front but grasping for investments and investors without trying to be overtly noticeable about it. I see that hasn’t changed. Over the years, in passing from time to time, I’ve had occasion to know how he conducts business. He’s definitely low-life.”

“Is he the kind of man who’d hit a woman?” Jennifer asked.

Pat shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen or spoken with him in eons. I wasn’t all that close to him when I was speaking to him, so I don’t really know him like that. Personally, I haven’t had that kind of experience with any man.

“Being the bitch that I am most of the time, I guess I don’t attract that type of thing; I’ve never been in that kind of situation. You know me, Jen. I usually don’t stick around long enough for things have a chance to get that ugly. Bill’s a first, and he’s a keeper. He’s tolerated me and my mood swings for this long; the man must be a saint. Besides, he’s too detached to get that angry. He’d walk away before he passed a harsh word or a lick. But then, who really knows about what triggers a man to become violent? Who suspects their man of that kind of thing until it happens?”

When Jennifer didn’t say anything in response, Pat turned her visual attention from the traffic into which they’d pulled, back to Jennifer.

Jennifer was focused straight ahead, as attentive to her driving as she should have been, but Pat could see and feel in her that ‘thing’ which haunted her friend whenever that kind of subject had opportunity to rub up against her. As always, it confounded her that Jennifer wouldn’t, hadn’t ever, unburdened herself of it. They were friends, closer in thought and in spirit than many women who’d been born as sisters. She had her suspicions about what happened to Jennifer, but that was all she had.

Earlier that year, Jennifer had nearly killed a man for coveting and stalking J.J. When told of it, she suspected it had been a reflex reaction in Jennifer brought about by whatever happened to her all those years ago. When Jonathan entered her life, Jennifer had gotten past it, but at times it was apparent that she hadn’t gotten over it.

“Jen?”

“Yes.”

“What if it was J.J.? What if J.J. was older and away from home. You sensed trouble, went to her, and found that some guy had done something like that to her. But when you got there to her, she lied to you. You knew she was lying, but she wouldn’t tell you anything about what happened or who it was that had done that to her?”

A few more minutes passed before Jennifer spoke her answer, but when she did, her tone had changed to one completely out of character for her usually gentle nature. She sounded hard and cold, matter-of-fact.

“First of all, I don’t believe that J.J. would let herself to be in that place. I think she’d figure things out and leave before they could go that far. She’s developing some very strong instincts as they relate to people. All you have to do is look at the people with whom she surrounds herself. But if something like that did somehow happen to her, she wouldn’t lie to me. She simply wouldn’t allow me to see her in that condition. She’d do everything she could to keep it to herself and to try to stay away from me because she knows full well what I’d do. She also knows what her father would do. To protect us, she wouldn’t tell us or allow us to know.”

“That’s not a good thing, Jen.”

Jennifer shrugged. “That’s what she’d do. It’s what she’s done in the past. If she came to anyone with something like that, Pat, she’d come to you. The question then becomes, what would you do?”

Pat’s answer was solemn, but definite. “The same as you, old girl. Not one thing different would I do.”

“Would you tell me about it?”

“No.”

But it would be taken care of just the same. One phone call, it would definitely be handled, once and for all, and nobody would be the wiser.

Pat settled back into the seat and resumed her study of the traffic, the scenery, and of what had gone done in that hidden room within the Hart Towers.

Jennifer had been more than patient with the dour, reticent young woman in the bunker. Touchy and irritable herself, it had been a vigorous exercise in self-restraint to stand by and watch as Jennifer attempted to gently loosen up that borderline rude girl and to get her to talk. Not much headway had been made.

What had been the catalyst for that call Claire made to Jonathan, the one that caused him to shift gears and put the wheels into motion to secure her safety? Now that she was safe, why was she being so uncooperative and acting so ungratefully?

Without a doubt, Jennifer had the patience of Job when it came to that sort of thing. As for herself, if it hadn’t been for the fact that one of Claire Allen’s eyes was already blackened in before they arrived that morning…..

Way back then, if Jennifer had brought her troubles to her, instead of holing herself up in the apartment in the way that she had, Pat figured she’d probably be just finishing up her prison sentence. Whatever happened to Jennifer, whoever it was that hurt her, would have been dealt with, as Pa put it, “with dispatch”. And if she got caught and convicted of it, when her sentence was up, it would have been Jennifer who would have been at the gate, picking her up to take her home. Family stuck by family.

Perhaps that was why Jennifer hadn’t ever shared it with her, just as she said J.J. probably wouldn’t do with her or with Jonathan if she was ever so unfortunate. Sabrina had always been there for Jennifer; perhaps she’d been Jennifer’s sounding board.

Perhaps.

When the sigh escaped her chest before she could catch it and hold onto it, the sound got Jennifer’s attention.

“Are you all right?”

“Here with you? Yeah, Jen, I’m good.”

When Jennifer smiled behind what she said, it made her feel good, too. During the ordeal of that horrible past Tuesday, the only thing on her mind as she and Bill made their way to Los Angeles and through the madness of LAX, had been getting to Jennifer and letting her know that it wasn’t over; it was still the two of them. The entire time, she’d been grieving over what she knew Jennifer had to have been going through. She understood it, could sense it, could almost physically feel it. It was the same anxiety and pain she would have felt if the situation had been reversed. It didn’t let up until after J.J. took her up to that bedroom and saw to her and Jennifer being reunited.

What a great kid. So old, so wise, and yet still a kid. A good one.

That Claire-damned-Allen had a whole lot of explaining to do. The little snotty bitch knew a whole lot more than she was giving up, and she had a feeling that it was something that had the potential to get her, or someone else, killed.

Maybe it already had.

For certain, Claire needed to get her nasty attitude in check, and soon. The next visit wouldn’t be playing out so tenderly if she had anything to with it. Aunt Pat would be conducting that interview, and it wouldn’t the touchy- feely, warm fuzzy interaction it had been with Jennifer. It would be a nasty-assed intervention, ending perhaps in one young woman being lifted clear off her tail by the thick hair on her head. The whole thing wasn’t feeling right, and Claire Allen seemed to be the missing link.

Yep, for the second inning, the big sister would be coming on deck in that bunker , and slugger that she was, she’d be looking to hit a grand slam. Jennifer could loosen her up, but if Claire tried to hold out again, it would be Pat Hamilton who would be taking over. After all, who knew what was going on in the background that might have others in danger while she sat safe and sound in that hidden room? Who had time to waste on waiting someone out who left her sister hanging out there to get hurt like that?

Yes, Jennifer had left her out there that time, but she understood it. Jennifer’s pain had been private, and if she could have shared it, she would have. Nobody else stood to get hurt in that instance, and if Jennifer hadn’t been so stubborn, she might have been able to spare herself of whatever it was she’d gone through. Despite their closeness, Jennifer had always been private about the most personal things; she only let her in on those, but on that thing in Australia, even she had been left out of it.

When she could, however, Jennifer returned to the fold, and she’d picked right up with the pace as if she’d never left it. She was somewhat changed, and the change in Jennifer brought about some changes in her, but their deep love and respect for each other never wavered.

Family stuck by family.

Dammit.

________________________________________________________

A psychologist.

Dr. Langford had come in and asked if she would like to speak with a psychologist. Chris sat back in the chair and closed her eyes.

A psychologist wasn’t what she needed. What she needed was a phone, some clothes, and a few unattended minutes to allow her to get the heck out of there. That last thing wasn’t likely to happen. Her door was always manned, and the private duty nurse, Eva, almost never left her side.

A psychologist. Indeed.

After Hart was gone, Dr. Langford had come in to speak to her. He passed on to her the news of what happened in New York and D.C. to her, and that was when he’d made that suggestion. He thought a psychologist might make dealing with that news and with what happened to her a little easier. He felt it might help her powers of recall if she could talk with someone trained in that kind of thing.

She told Dr. Langford that she didn’t think she needed to speak with the other doctor. Putting on her game face for him, she pretended to take in the news of the national tragedy with her customary aplomb, and she informed him that she’d rather be left to regroup by herself.

It wasn’t as if it wasn’t happening on its own.

When he left, she had to continue the facade to keep Eva from picking up on anything being amiss with her. The nurse had been keeping copious notes on that clipboard that she kept with her, and she didn’t want to give herself away to her. Not just yet.

That nagging dread twisted hard at her stomach one more time. Terrorists… planes… destruction…

Death… Claire….

What in the world was it that wouldn’t come?

It was as if she could come close to it, but something wouldn’t allow her to see it or touch it; as if her mind was playing cat and mouse with her. She’d always hated games of keep-away. They angered her and made her work harder to get back in her possession that which was being denied her.

“Are you ready to get back over into the bed, Ms. Allen. You’ve done a very good job of sitting up for a while.”

Condescending witch.

Can it, Chris, she’s only doing her job.

“Thank you, Eva but I can do it myself.”

Eva remained at her elbow as she slowly pushed herself up from the chair and began untying her robe. The dizziness was less intense, but still problematic as far as balance went. She fought it, concentrating on appearing unaffected by it. When, despite her best efforts, her knees betrayed her as she started toward the bed, she cursed in aggravation as Eva caught her by the arm.

“It’s all right, Ms. Allen. You’re doing fine.”

Chris sat down on the side of the bed and waved the woman off. “If I was fine, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be-”

Eva stared down at her, as if she were waiting for her to finish her sentence. She didn’t. Instead she lie back on the pillows and allowed Eva to help her get her legs up into the bed.

Some more to put on that clipboard of hers. I’m never going to get out of here.

In her entire life, she’d never felt so helpless and alone.

At least that she could remember.

________________________________________________________

“They’re sure it’s Martin?”

Jonathan pulled out his desk chair as he asked the question, and sat down to face August who was waiting there for him in the office when he arrived.

“When I phoned you this morning, we weren’t. They’d only just been notified of a body at that time, but I had a bad feeling. Ken Matheson took the wife down to I.D. the body. It’s definitely him. When he washed up, he had his Hart identification in his wallet, which by the way was flush with large bills. That’s how we ended up getting the first word. That’s when I phoned you the first time.”

“Large bills?” Jonathan asked with a sigh. “Doesn’t sound very good. In fact it sounds like like something I’ve heard before. Foul play?”

He was beginning to think that maybe Jennifer had a point; he had come back to work too soon.

“Coroner has the body. going over it. An autopsy’s been ordered. I’m told there weren’t any outward signs of foul play, but they have to rule it in or out. They say he appeared to have been in the water no more than a day or two.”

“Where the hell was he between Saturday, the close of his day, and whenever this happened?” Jonathan mused, mostly to himself. “What was he doing? Did he just walk out there into that water on his own, or was he taken out there and dropped off a few miles from shore by somebody else?”

“We should hear something from the coroner’s office soon,” August replied. “Herschel’s got a rush on it. The body was found in his jurisdiction.”

“Good thing, I guess.”

Jonathan was grateful for that. He had a personal relationship with Herschel Gray that went way back, which afforded him some perks. It wouldn’t be long before they knew. He’d had occasion over the years to do some things to help Herschel out with investigations, so Herschel was usually only too happy to return the favor. Arnold Zale had a heck of a crew working with him. Occasionally Herschel had need to turn to them for help, and they had been glad to oblige.

The down side of it, however, was that if it turned out that someone had helped Martin into that water, then that meant all of it was looking as if it definitely had something directly to do with HartToys, and that was getting too close to home.

Too, too close to home.

“Are our people still out there, August?”

The other man nodded. “They will be until you say otherwise.”

“Claire?”

“Still where we put her. Still not saying anything, but not kicking about being kept there either.”

“Good. Any more word from Westlake on either of those codes?”

“Not yet. They were still working on them when I went up to check. Westlake is having that computer code run on the dummy system to see what is does. The boys had the other one.”

The intercom buzzed and Jonathan answered it.

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

Zale entered the office carrying one of his trademark manila folders. He spoke and then took the chair that Jonathan gestured toward. He lay the folder down on the desk after sliding his chair forward, while August leaned his body in that direction to better see what was inside.

“Mr. Hart, I decided to take another track today. I got to thinking about the malicious computer code found in Chris’ Car, the Victor Shell/ Marston Knight connection, Claire Allen; and I went back to look into the situation we had with Hart Shipping and Shell all those years ago.”

He stopped and looked over his glasses to Jonathan who motioned with his hand that he should keep going.

“Well, I got to thinking about how so much of what we do is computer-driven, where back when that incident at Hart Shipping happened that wasn’t the case so much. I wondered if there was some connection. I asked Westlake to consider every possibility for what that computer code was designed to do.

“I also I found was that Chris and Claire Allen’s father, Christopher Allen was a private investigator. He hired out to corporations and municipalities when needed. He was involved in conducting that coast-to-coast sting that eventually uncovered the irregularities at Hart shipping that you looked into, Mr.Hart.”

“Yeah,” August said as the aggravating recollection was slowly coming back to him. “The time you couldn’t be talked out of getting hands-on, You weren’t going to he satisfied with just an investigation. You insisted upon going out to the dock and onboard that ship actually posing as a worker. I don’t know how you got away with that with Jennifer.”

He had been none too pleased that Jonathan Hart, owner of Hart Shipping Lines, had taken it upon himself to get right up front and personal to find out where the problem was when it looked as if there was something corrupt going on at the waterfront that involved a Hart facility. That had been a long time ago, not long after the Harts were first married.

In fact, it was Chris’ father who headed up the entire west coast effort, and it was he who coordinated rounding up the responsible parties after Jonathan cracked everything wide open at Hart Shipping. Victor Shell had been the only one from that part of it to escape prosecution. A year or so after that, before he could testify at the resulting trials, Christopher Allen, Big Chris to his friends, and his wife were killed in a single car collision one rainy night in San Francisco while they were there on holiday.

“Jennifer didn’t have my method of operation down as well then as she does now.” Jonathan answered. “That’s one of those things I don’t bring up around her a lot. She doesn’t need to be reminded of things like that. Kind of sets her off.”

August and Arnold tried not to smile.

“Chris Allen’s father, you say?” Jonathan directed the question to Arnold.

All three men looked to each other in question.

“Coincidence?” August ventured.

“My gut tells me that it isn’t,” Jonathan answered.

August sat back in his chair. “And we’ve always gone with the gut.”

“I’ve tapped my resources to get us a copy of that old police report from the accident.” Arnold said. “Stanley has some pull, too, with some of the private investigative services and the insurance companies. He’s shaking some of those trees. Back then, it was probably viewed as nothing more than an accident, but in light of recent developments, I guess it kind of sent up a red flag for me. I’d like to see what the police report actually has to say.”

Jonathan had shifted into his thoughtful position: sitting back in his chair, one leg folded over the other, finger to chin. “I think it bears looking into.”

“Me, too.” August agreed.

“Mr. Hart,” Arnold tentatively began. “as terrible as it was, it’s sort of to our advantage in the matter of the incidents related to HartToys that 9/11 happened when it did. It’s cut down on who can quickly get into and out of town. It’s also assured heightened levels of security everywhere for the time being, which will also curtail a lot of movement. I got a little nervous when I first saw that name, Victor Shell. I remember how all of that put Mrs. Hart in such danger that time before.”

Jonathan pondered it for a moment. He vividly remembered how close they’d come. Since that time, he’d never been so cavalier about their personal security, especially Jennifer’s. J.J. was shaping up to be just as vigilant and just as protective of her mother as he was about his wife and of her.

Then he sighed. “Yeah, well, all of that is all well and good, the curtailed modes of transportation, the extra security and all of that, but based upon Martin being fished out of the drink earlier this afternoon, Rider and his wife buying the farm, and Chris getting hurt, I have to think that whoever was coming, is already in, and he isn’t leaving without what he came for.”

________________________________________________________

J.J. and Hector had already arrived in FACS, their last class of the day, by the time Marnie and Sidney got there. They were situating themselves, Genie, and their things at the table.

“Okay, so like, where have you two been?” Marnie demanded as she put her books down on the table. “You weren’t at lunch, and you weren’t at the lockers the last two periods. J.J. Hart, I know good and well you aren’t skipping again. We’re already in Dutch.”

“I had all my stuff with me, so I didn’t have to go to the lockers,” Hector answered.

“Me, too,” J.J. replied. “And you’re in Dutch, Marnie, not me. Me and Hector had stuff to do in the music room at lunchtime.”

Marnie stared across the table at J.J., suspicion creasing her normally baby-smooth forehead. “Funny you didn’t mention having music stuff to do at lunchtime to me last night or this morning. When did you sign up for that?”

“I signed us up this morning,” Hector answered. “as soon as I got here. Me and J. talked about it last night.”

Marnie continued to stare J.J. down as she loosened the straps on Jaden’s carrier before pulling him out and handing him to Sidney, demanding that he check and, if need be, change the doll’s diaper.

J.J. returned the stare. “And? What?”

Marnie pointed her finger across the table. “All I know is this isn’t looking right to me. I know you. You do stuff. And if you do anything to get us locked down this weekend, and I’ve already told you that Chance is coming home, it is going to be on, J.J. Hart. If you get caught and get locked down, the Duchess is going to lock me down, too, and I swear to God, it’s going to be on.”

J.J. tossed her head. “Whatever. You haven’t asked anybody if you could go out, so you don’t even know if she’s going to let you. And furthermore, I know your business about the car, so you might not want to go there with me. I love you; you’re my girl and everything, but it’s two for one, Marnie Benson. You make noise about me getting us locked down, not that I’m admitting to having done anything to be locked down over, then I’ll be forced to let it slip about your adventures with you-know-who and you-know-where yesterday.”

“With who?” Sidney asked, turning to Marnie. “Your adventures with who? Where?”

J.J.’s grin dripped mischief as she continued to goad Marnie. “Sid there would have to turn you in to Social Services if he knew where his kid ended up yesterday.”

Sidney’s head snapped around to Marnie. “Where?”

“Where was he?” Hector probed. “What happened to you, Marnie?”

“Shut up, J.” Marnie hissed. “Just shut up. See, that’s why we’ll always be best friends. You know too damned much.”

“Know that,” J.J. said, snaking her neck as she placed Genie on the table on top of her blanket, “and act accordingly.”

“You guys got left out of the vote at lunch,” Sidney said. “You should have come. Now you don’t have a choice.”

“Choice about what?” Hector and J.J. asked at the same time, and then laughed about it afterward.

“All of us with the FACS babies are going to ask to keep them over the weekend instead of turning them in tomorrow.”

“What for?” J.J. cried. “I’m ready to be done with this. I want my life back. I don’t know about this at all.”

“We want to have a going away party for them at Skyline on Saturday morning. Everybody is going to come.”

J.J.’s defensive posture softened. “Oh, well, okay. A party. I’m game.”

Philly and Deon arrived, quickly moving to their seats at the table.

“Where were you two at lunchtime?” Philly asked. directing the question to her brother. “Hector, you must be dying. You never miss a meal.”

Hector helped his sister with her backpack while Deon assisted her with Trey. “Got me some chips and a Coke from the vending machine. I’m stopping at the taco place on the way to St. Augustine when I drop ya’ll off for tutoring.”

“Still stuck on that taco thing, huh Hector?” J.J. said under her breath, but loud enough for him to hear her. “Eating them now, huh? Is that symbolic?”

“Shut up, J.,” he chuckled while his cheeks and ears turned red. “Do I have to pick all of you back up too?”

“Me and Marnie have a ride home.” J.J. answered, then she corrected herself. “Marnie and I- you’re rubbing off on me, Hector- but you still have to come for Philly. That way, you won’t have to divert to Bel Air to drop the two of us off.”

Philly patted Marnie on the shoulder. “Did you tell J. and Hector about the going away party?” She looked over to J.J. “It was all Marnie’s idea. I think it’s going to be fun.”

J.J. screwed up her face. “Marnie’s idea?”

Sidney snorted. “That’s what I said when she came up with it.”

Marnie held up the flat of her hand to Sidney’s face, as she spoke to J.J., “I just figured if I act responsible and interested, I organize and throw the little party and everything, then I can get my car back to do the running around for it. And then too, that should score me some points with the Duchess. Behind my charitable efforts, even she won’t be able to come up with a reason to not let me out to see Chance this weekend.”

J.J. laughed, “I knew there had to be some ulterior motive to it.”

Marnie leaned back in her chair. “Shooooot, I’m just hedging my bets. I like organizing parties, and I like Chance. Two birds with one stone; I can handle that.”

“Why you get your car taken way?” Hector asked, evidently still stuck on what happened with Marnie that she hadn’t explained.

“Mind your own business,” she told him.

When Ms. Leonard entered the room, Marnie’s hand shot up in the air.

________________________________________________________

“Mr. Hart.”

It was Liz again. This time she bypassed the intercom and called into the office directly. Jonathan was still at his desk, with August and Arnold.

“Mr. Hart, the hospital is on the phone. There’s trouble. It seems that Ms. Allen is upset and is insisting upon checking herself out.”

“Mr. Hart?… Mr. Lamb?”

Jonathan and August were out of their chairs and headed for the door, leaving Liz’s voice behind and Arnold staring after them. Jonathan had his cell out, pressing speed dial.

________________________________________________________

“You usually love The Ivy, Pat. I thought we’d lunch here since you didn’t eat much at breakfast this morning again. I figured by it being so late, you might be hungrier and you’d eat.”

Pat, hearing that Jennifer hadn’t been fooled by her moving the food around on her plate more so than consuming any of it, gave up the pretense. She put down her fork and picked up her napkin from her lap.

“I know, Jen. I appreciate you looking out for me, but I don’t have much of an appetite these days. It’s not like me, but I’m just not very hungry at all. I’m sorry.”

Jennifer’s phone began to ring, and she pulled it from the pocket on her purse. Pat took the opportunity to check her makeup and then gestured to Jennifer that she was going to the ladies’ room. When she emerged a short time later, she found Jennifer standing near the entrance to the restaurant, appearing as if she were anxious to leave.

“Jonathan, just called,” she said as they went through the doors and were met by valet. “Chris Allen is upset and trying to check out of the hospital. He said the doctors informed her this afternoon of the 9/11 incidents, and shortly after, she became very agitated. He’s on his way over, but he wants me to go over and talk with her, too. She’s not well enough yet to go home. He thinks I’d do a better job of calming her and convincing her of the need for her to stay where she is. ”

“He’s probably right, Jen. What about the girls? We still have to get them at five-thirty. I mean, we have plenty of time, but who knows what might happen over at the hospital that might hold us up?”

“When Hector picks up Philly from tutoring, he can bring them home as well,” Jennifer answered. “There are quite a few of them over there from whom they could get a ride home. I trust Hector; we’re acquainted with his family. He knows Jonathan. I’ll phone J.J., and tell her to let him know.”

Jennifer’s car arrived, and they got in. Pat put her hand over Jennifer’s when she reached for her phone again, stopping her from putting the call through to J.J.

“Wait, Jen. I’m not feeling real good about this. In fact, I have a bad feeling about all of it. Why don’t you take me back, and let me get Marnie’s car. We aren’t that far from the house. I’d feel better if I went and got them myself.”

Jennifer turned to study Pat for a moment before pulling off. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t put my finger on it. If I knew what it was, I’d certainly tell you. All I can say, Jen, is I’d just feel a whole lot better if they got in the car with one of us. don’t want them standing around, waiting, if we get hung up at the hospital, and I don’t want them slipping off to do something else before they come home the way kids are likely to do when there’s a group of them. I don’t need to go to the hospital with you. Chris doesn’t know me, and she probably won’t speak as freely with me present as she would with you alone. Drop me off, and you go on. I’ll get the girls.”

“If you say so,” Jennifer sighed. “It’s a funny thing, Pat. J.J. has been telling me that she’s also been having some ominous bad feelings of her own for which she can’t pinpoint the reason. I guess with all that’s happened, you both have justification.”

Pat didn’t say anything to that, but her mind immediately went back to J.J.’s silence on the way to school and to the manner in which those blue eyes kept glancing at her and into the rear and side view mirrors while she rode in the back seat. Judging by her coolness toward her through breakfast and on the way to school, she figured J.J. for still being miffed following their conversation up in her bedroom on the evening before, but that wasn’t all that was bothering her. There was something else going on. Although she was with her friends as she went up the walkway to school, J.J. kept up that furtive surveillance until she went through the doors of the building.

In her eyes, J.J. was growing into being very much like her father. On the surface, she appeared affable and outgoing, but like Jonathan, she was actually rather sensitive and somewhat reserved. She was like him in how she noticed everything, in how she got strong hunches, and in how she didn’t always speak on what she knew or saw. She was learning to trust and to follow her instincts, but she had to get better about sticking with a thing, facing it down, and seeing it through to the end even when it was painful to do so.

In that having strong instincts aspect, Jonathan Hart and Patricia Hamilton were also very much alike. Aside from everything else that had happened already, she had the gut feeling that the proverbial other shoe had yet to fall. There were too many dark players dancing around on the periphery of all their existences. Jonathan was probably feeling that same thing. Even though they hadn’t let J.J. in on everything, the kid was way intuitive; she felt it just like they did.

Perhaps, Pat thought, J.J. might have even seen it.

Even though Jonathan more than likely had an extra set of eyes on J.J. and Marnie, Auntie Pat wasn’t leaving either of them exposed to random chance or someone’s sinister opportunity.

Continue on to Part Eight

 

 

 

 

 

 

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