The Project: Part Six

Part Six

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“She’s gone? What the hell do you mean she’s gone? I thought I told you to keep an eye on the suite? Not to let her out of your sight. To call me if she left again.”

“I was keeping an eye. I seen all these people come in the lobby. Bunch of ’em. Men and women. I could tell they was plainclothes. I figure some private security, too. All of ’em serious, like they meant business. They showed credentials at the desk.”

“What kind of credentials?”

“Don’t know. I wasn’t close enough. But they showed enough to get ’em past hotel security.”

“You didn’t notice if it was anybody you’ve seen before? Nobody from the company?”

“No. Not one. All of these was new to me.  I played like a guest and rode up on the elevator with ’em. I had to get off at the last regular floor, though, to keep the ruse going. They had to have used a key to go on up to the floor with the suite. To not give myself away, I took the other car to that floor and then hid out to watch and see what happened.”

“So what happened?”

“They let themselves in the suite. I don’t know, but somebody had what they needed to get in. When they came out, there was three people out of the group who was dressed alike, in baggy sweats, same height and build, with hoods on their heads so you couldn’t see the faces. We all went down the same way we came up to the floor- two cars, me hiding out so they couldn’t see me. By the time I got to the lobby, they was putting the three dressed alike people in three different cars.”

“Did you follow them? Any of the cars go to the police station? Did you get any plate numbers? ”

“No plate numbers, and how could I follow ’em? They went in three different directions, and I wasn’t anywhere near my car. How was I to know who was who or which one to follow? It’s just me you left here. There would have to have been three of me to keep up with all of ’em. After it went down, all I could do was call you to let you know.”

“That’s one more cat out of the bag, and I still don’t have what I need. Get out of town. You’re a definite liability at this point. He and his boys will be onto you, if they aren’t already. Go. I’ll handle things from here.”

He hung up the phone. For some time, in fact, ever since it all began, it felt as if death was upon him, too. It was hard to face that, but it made sense it would be.

Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.

His hands unsteady, his legs like rubber, he started for his car. Saying goodbye probably wasn’t even going to be an option.

Just take what you got and make a clean break while you can.

_________________________________________________________
Alone in the sitting room, J.J. sat cross-legged in the big armchair, her eyes wide and riveted to the horrific scenes playing out on the late night news on TV. Focused, she had tuned out the pensive wailing coming from the baby carrier on the floor by her feet and didn’t even notice it when her father entered the room from the hall.

“Do you think it’s wise for you to be watching that right before you go to bed? Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be over in the bed?”

She jumped, startled by the unexpected sound of his voice and by the fact that he had been able to walk right up on her like that.

“I-I- I j-just wanted to see what had developed. If anything else had happened. I haven’t had a chance to get back to it since my mother made me turn it off earlier today.”

He reached down, took the remote from her hand, and  pointed it at the television. As the screen went blank, she relaxed her edge-of-the seat posture and melted back into the chair.

“Your baby’s crying.” He said, switching his gaze down to the squirming doll in the infant seat. “Or hadn’t you noticed?”

“Oh, I noticed.” She answered. “But there’s not a thing wrong with her. She’s dry, she’s cleaned up for bed, and she’s eaten. My mother said that sometimes babies cry to get your attention and that it isn’t good to give it to them every time they seek it.”

Jonathan came all the way in and sat down on the daybed.

“Your mother is a very wise lady, but I don’t know how can you stand the noise. When you were little and you would fuss like that, she was able to tune you out when she knew you didn’t really want anything. She would just let you cry, and she’d go on about her business. You’d carry on until you got tired. I couldn’t stand it when she would do that, but she would not let me go to you and pick you up.”

“I’m teaching myself to shut it out; I don’t want her to be spoiled, but hold on a minute.” She got up and picked up Genie’s carrier by the handle, taking it into the bathroom.

After she had been gone a couple of minutes, he could hear her as she came back, closing the first bathroom door, and then the other behind her when she reentered the room with him.

“She’ll be okay over there in the room. Maybe, hopefully, she’ll wear herself out, too, and go to sleep. Did you just come in from Marnie?”

“Yeah, she and I talked for a while.”

“Was she better after?”

“I think so. She’s understandably upset and scared, but I told her not to worry about anything, that she’d be fine here with us for how ever long it turns out to be. Your mother and I talked with her grandmother in Texas this evening. She thinks it’s fine that Marnie stay with us for now.”

“Marnie trusts and respects you guys, Daddy. I don’t think that part of it will be a problem for her. It’s really too bad about her father, but at least now she knows where her mother is, and that she wasn’t just ignoring her. That has to make her feel a little better about everything.”

“J.J.,” He said. “Are you going to be all right with this? You’ve been an only child your entire life. Having a friend sleep over from time to time is one thing, but having her come to live is another. You’re my first concern in this. Are you sure this is all right with you?”

J.J. closed the door to the hall before sitting back down in the chair.

“I think it’ll be fine. I know it will. It’ll take some getting used to on both our parts; we’re accustomed to being onlies, but you and my mother and Marie have always taught me to share my blessings. The two of us have always shared with each other. Marnie’s my girl in every way there is. Believe it or not, right before Mr. Zale showed up this afternoon, we’d been visiting that very possibility. We’ll be okay.”

“So, you wanted to talk to me?” He said.

“Daddy, I thought you had forgotten. That was such a long time ago; way before dinner. I wasn’t sure you’d even gotten the message.”

He smiled. “I can read you like a book, and I don’t forget when you tell me you need me. I may be a little while in getting to you, I might get hung up somewhere between the call and getting there, but I don’t forget. You should know that by now.”

She nodded and smiled back. “I do.”

“And so?”

“I wanted to ask you, what’s all this about?”

“All of what?”

“This flying planes into buildings, terrorism, killing thousands of people at random, for no reason. All this shaking up people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s barbaric. Mindless. I don’t understand any of it or the possible reasons, the logic, behind any of it. I don’t see how something like this could happen without anybody seeing it coming.”

For a moment, Jonathan had to stop and study her face. His daughter had always asked hard questions, and it seemed she always asked them of him.

“I don’t know, J.J.” He finally sighed. “Somebody had an agenda, and as crazy as it seems, this was their way of carrying it out. We, meaning the United States as a country, got caught with our guard down. I think we’ve taken national security for granted for too long, you know, ever since Pearl Harbor. I guess we figured nothing like that could happen again, and we just got caught wrong. That’s the best I can do with that for you. This situation is all of those things you just called it to me, too.”

“I’ve never seen Aunt Pat like she is. She’s like a zombie or something. I mean, she’s saying all the right and regular things, but I can tell she’s not right. She’s not like she should be, not like herself. She isn’t at all a scary person, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say she’s petrified. She’s doing anything to keep from being still. She’s either on the phone or she’s pacing. She couldn’t even eat. Did you notice that? I don’t think you should let them go to San Francisco in the morning like they have planned.”

“Why not, J.J.?”

“I have a very bad feeling about it. Before all this stuff happened today, for the last couple of days actually, I was having this creepy feeling. Then this morning, it all came down in New York and DC like it  did. Now I have that same feeling about them. Aunt Pat is spaced out and my mother is too close up to see things properly. She’ll be so busy watching out for Aunt Pat, who isn’t seeing anything, that they’ll just be out there, not paying attention to what’s going on around them. I just don’t feel good about it.”

“Now taking into account who we’re talking about, how do you propose I stop them from going?”

“Just tell them to stay home. Tell them you think it still isn’t safe, and that they shouldn’t go so far away. Something like that.”

“You think that’s going to stop them?” He asked her. “Let me ask you. Would it stop you in their place?”

She shrugged her shoulders and admitted, “Probably not, but at least you would have said it to me. Maybe, even if I did go ahead and go, I’d be hearing you in the back of my mind, and I’d be looking over my shoulder a bit more.”

He sat forward, leaning in her direction, his arms resting on his thighs, clasping his hands before him, .

“Talk to me, J.J. Does all of this frighten you a whole lot? Is it bothering you quite a bit?”

For a moment she hesitated, then she mumbled, “Yes.”

“Come here to me, J.J.”

When she got up and came to sit down next to him, he put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her.

“Sweetheart, I don’t know what to tell you to make this better for you. I can’t make it better. It happened. It was terrible, and we’ve all been touched by it. Today, whether you realized it or not, you witnessed history being made. How things were yesterday, this morning when I left here the first time, they’re never going to be like that again.

“Big changes are coming in matters of national security, FAA procedures, everything. I think airports and airport security are going to be where we see the most changes; Bill’s already been contacted to sit in consult. Businesses are going to adjust the way they do things. I’ll be changing some of the things I do at all of the Hart facilities. The New York skyline is forever marked by this. No matter what they put there in the future to replace what was lost today, we will always be touched by the memory of what happened, of what was but isn’t any more. Many people’s lives ended today. Some, like Pat, were for one reason or another, near misses. They were spared, but they’ll be a long time wondering, “Why not me?” Everything has been altered, and all of us are changed in some way by today’s events.

“But through it all, baby, I want to tell you that you know you can count on your daddy. That’s the only sure, positively sound thing I can offer you about any of this. You can come to me with your concerns. You can count on me to listen and to help as much as I can. Just like I made it back to you and your mother earlier today, if it’s in my power, I’ll be there for you, always.”

He reached over with his free hand and turned her face so that she could look directly at him.

“And when it isn’t in my power any longer, J.J., when my number is finally up, and I can’t be there, I’ll go to the hereafter confident and secure in the knowledge that I’m leaving the world the very best part of me. I’ll expect you to be strong and smart and to carry on in the same way you would if I was here.

“Right now you’re learning, you’re practicing, you’re getting ready; I’m so proud of how you’re turning out. When the time comes for me, I’m counting on you to take everything your mother and I have taught you about living smart, doing right by people, surviving, as well as all that stuff you’ve managed to come by on your own that sustains and keeps you, and use it to make a good life for yourself and your family. I don’t have any reservations about telling you that I’m expecting great things from you. You do remember what I’ve already told you about taking care of your mother in my absence. That is something else I’ll be counting on you to do.”

She lay her head on his shoulder. “You know I’m your girl on all of that, Daddy, especially that last thing. But please, don’t feel like you need to be in any hurry to test me out on it. Recent experiences have shown me that I’m pretty good, I’m getting better and stronger, but I’m not quite ready to solo yet.”

The bathroom door opened and they both looked around to see that it was Jennifer. She had Genie in her arms.

“J.J., this child is over here crying her eyes out. I had to come over and see to her.” Then she stopped, cocked her head to the side, and stared them both down. “What are you two over here conspiring on that you’ve left this baby out there by herself?”

“Nobody’s conspiring.” Jonathan answered, keeping his arm protectively around J.J.’s shoulders. “We’re simply having a father-daughter chat.”

“Well whatever you two are closed up in here doing, Genie was out there having a fit all by herself until I came into the room with her and picked her up.”

“Oh, I see,” J.J. devilishly grinned. “It’s okay if grandmama spoils the kid. I haven’t had the good fortune of experiencing it myself, but I’ve heard of this sort of thing. The stuff a mother won’t put up with in her own child, she sees nothing wrong with it when it crops up in the grandkid. Genie is, to say it plain and simple, just willful and attention-seeking, and to put it in your terms, I am not having it.”

Caught off guard when J.J. dropped her voice some and affected her mother’s refined mannerisms to utter her assessment of Genie’s behavior and to that very last statement, both senior Harts were forced into laughing at her irreverent, but dead-on rendition of Jennifer Hart in mother mode.

Jonathan stood, ushering J.J. up with him. “Come on, you, it’s bedtime. And don’t come back in here, turning that TV on once we leave out of here. This room is off limits to you for the rest of the night, and don’t think I won’t come back to check on you. You’ve had a long day, and you need your rest. You have school tomorrow.”

“Tell that having school thing to Genie, there.” J.J. grumbled as she followed her parents through the bathroom door and into her bedroom. “She doesn’t seem to think that matters.”

9/11/2001 had been the longest of days. Even longer than all those days put together that he’d spent in the hospital, unable to do anything other than lie there, worry, and stare at the four stark white walls of his room.

In the darkness and unable to fall asleep, Jonathan used the wakefulness to again consider his phenomenal good fortune, the first of it being that he was still there to hold the warm, precious package that was sleeping in his arms.

A delay in taking off from LAX was what kept him and the engineers from arriving on time in Washington, DC, thereby allowing them to not only avoid possible death or injury, but also keeping them from being eyewitness to the carnage. Leaving late also afforded them the opportunity to turn around en route and make it back home to be with their loved ones before Hart One could be grounded along with every other type of aircraft in United States airspace.

Then there was Pat. For most of the day, it hadn’t been looking too good for her, but thankfully, at the end of it, she was still among them, safe, if not quite sound; but she would be in time. There was a lot she’d have to face in the coming days, maybe even for upcoming weeks and months depending upon what awaited her in Manhattan, but Pat was a fighter and a survivor. In her lifetime, she’d been tried by fire on several occasions, but probably not as literally as this last time. In Los Angeles she would have Jennifer to lean on. Once she made it back to New York, she would have Bill to help her. With both of them by her side for support if and/or when she needed it, she’d come through this as well.

Marnie’s father, it turned out, had escaped certain death on one of those doomed flights, but that was only because he had almost met it head-on the night before. Carl had indeed been scheduled to leave Boston for LA that morning. After having dinner with Pat on Monday night to have her sign papers to be his east coast representative for his son, Kyle, on the way back to his own hotel, he’d been involved in a serious auto accident while trying to avoid another. He spent all that Monday night being stabilized in emergency. Once Marnie’s mother, Maureen, arrived from Texas to see to him, he’d been in surgery. She had flown into Boston in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and the entire time she was there, Maureen had been at the hospital, her attention focused upon Carl’s prognosis.

Arnold Zale had shown up at Willow Pond late that afternoon with the information he’d harvested on his own about Carl’s accident. Not long after that, once Carl was out of surgery and she was sure that he was going to make it, Maureen finally phoned to inform them of all that had happened with him. Then she spoke directly with Marnie.

Maureen planned to remain there in Boston with Carl during his recovery from fractures in both legs, a broken arm, and serious internal injuries. For the time being, with all planes in the US still grounded as they were, she didn’t have a choice other than to stay, but since he would need someone there with him for a while to oversee his personal interests and to attend to his business affairs, she said she might as well fill that role. Even though they were no longer married, and on the surface they didn’t get along, evidently there was still some sort of weird bond between them. After all, Carl hadn’t sent for Karen, his present wife; he’d sent for Maureen, and she had immediately put down whatever she was into in Texas that kept her from getting in touch with Marnie, to go to him.

Carl’s rehabilitation would be a slow process, but the doctors were optimistic that eventually he would regain his mobility. Maureen was concerned about how Marnie would take the news of her father’s accident and injuries. In light of the grim conclusion Marnie had reached in her mind about her father’s whereabouts by that time, although she had been very much upset and concerned about the truth of the matter, she had also been very much relieved that he was at least alive.

Carl and Maureen were desirous of Marnie remaining in Los Angeles where she was comfortable and familiar rather than being shipped off to either of her grandmothers in Texas. He and Jennifer had assured them that she was welcome to remain with them, and that they would keep her with them for however long it would take her parents, namely her father, to return to Los Angeles. It was the best decision for all of them. Marnie could be a pistol, but she wouldn’t be as much of one with him and Jennifer as she might with someone who didn’t know her as well, who didn’t deal with her all the time, or who night not understand how having to make such sudden, huge adjustments might affect her behavior.

He thought about Arnold Zale. The man deserved a medal and a big bonus for all the bullets he had to have sweated over the past few days. Especially considering what he’d been put through in the past hours.

In all that had gone on, it hadn’t for a moment dawned on him when he led Arnold into the great room, that the man hadn’t been told that Pat hadn’t perished on Flight #175 after all. Arnold had been the one to secure the manifest upon which her name appeared. As far as he knew at that point, she had been a victim of the tragedy already being referred to as 9/11. The poor fellow almost fainted dead away himself when he walked in there and saw her sitting at that desk just as whole and feisty as always.

Involuntarily, Jonathan’s head slowly shook at the memory of his own uncharacteristic, unintentional insensitivity and the resulting expression of sudden shock on Arnold’s blanched face.

“What’s wrong?”

Jennifer’s voice floated up to him, the sound of it like an unexpected brush of velvet against his cheek in the sepia stillness. He drew her body closer, fitting himself even more snugly into her curves and then pressing his lips to her forehead.

“I thought you were asleep.”

“There’s too much running around in my mind to sleep.” She answered. “What about you?”

“Mine, too. Hell of a day, wasn’t it? Tomorrow will probably be almost as bad. I’ve got a meeting at city hall. It’ll be a day of everybody trying to press patches into bald places, making excuses, slamming doors behind escaped horses.”

“Yes, yesterday was bad. It was the worst, but considering what might have been….”

He nodded, knowing that she could feel him do it.

“I have to say that as a group, even with Carl’s situation, we made out all right.” She said, continuing her thought. “A great many families weren’t so fortunate in this as we.”

Forever the optimist.

Yet another thing he loved about her. Then J.J. came to mind.

“Just tell them to stay home. Tell them you think it still isn’t safe, and that they shouldn’t go so far away. Something like that.”

Still bossing him around, that little one was. She always had. Probably always would.

“Mommy was mean to me while you was at work, Daddy. She say I’m sassy and she make me go to my room. I wasn’ even hardly sassy to her, but she was real mean to me. You should punish her. Tell her to go to her room for being mean to me. Make her take a nap like she made me. Go ‘head. Tell her. You’re the daddy. Make her.”

Like I could ever make your mommy do anything she didn’t want to do or stop her from doing what she wanted.

But with Victor Shell back in the picture, he really did not want her going too far. It was after his first run-in with that character that the hit got put on Jennifer. That had been over twenty years ago, but who was to say? It didn’t help matters any for him that Knight Shipping Lines operated out of San Francisco, where she and Pat were planning to go.

At the same time, however, he didn’t want to spook her either. San Francisco was way too far for her and Pat to be venturing with that name floating around out there in the atmosphere. It might not be anything, but it wasn’t a risk he was willing to take with either of them. The air was too turbulent and they were too vulnerable, although both of them would most likely buck him on trying to keep them from doing what they had planned out to do.

“Darling, I don’t think Pat and I are going to Marcia in the morning.” He heard her say. “I don’t feel Pat’s in any shape to do that right now. I’m thinking maybe we should stay in the area. She has a lot of shopping she needs to do for herself, and also, I’m getting the impression she’s headed for one of her black periods.”

Damn. It’s as if she really can read my mind.

Thankful that it wasn’t going to be the struggle he was afraid it might be to convince her to stay close, he had to force his voice into not sounding his relief.

“Black periods?”

“You know. I told you about how she gets sometimes. It started with us back when we were girls in school where she would all of a sudden withdraw from all of us for a couple of days, get quiet and kind of morose. She’d keep to herself, sometimes completely closing herself off from the rest of us. Then inexplicably, it would be over. She’d come out of it. We’d get up one morning, and she’d be herself again. There wouldn’t be any explanations offered. No discussion of what had been bothering her. She’d act as if nothing happened, and so would I.”

“She’d never talk about it to you? Not even when you were older? Not even when you were together in college?”

“Never. In college, she took up smoking again, and not just cigarettes. When she was going through one of those things, she’d pretty much stop speaking or going out altogether. She’d just plain shut down. I’d get home from classes, and it would be apparent that she’d skipped all of hers. She’d be in her room with the door closed, the smell of reefer seeping out from under it.”

“Would she at least share the weed with you?”

“Anyway, Jonathan.”

“You know good and well that if Pat smoked it, you did it, too.”

“Anyway, I said.”

“I can’t picture Pat high.”

“Oh, but I guess you can picture me that way.”

“Jennifer, you can’t even drink much without getting high. I mean, who but you gets drunk off champagne? But Pat, now that girl can put it away.”

He felt her amused chuckle; she couldn’t deny any of that.

“She smoked reefer just like she drinks;” Jennifer finally said. “She told me once that it gave her a weird, euphoric buzz that she liked, but just as it is when she drinks, you couldn’t tell it to look at her. The buzz must have been internal. She could party all night, not sleep, and then she’d come home, shower, get dressed, and go to class or to work as if she’d slept eight hours. I’d party, too, but I’d need a day or so to recuperate. Not Pat. After college, she gave up the weed and the cigarettes- didn’t like the smell in her hair and her clothes, she said. But she kept the booze.”

The thought of uptown Pat, in the clubs and discos of New York, boozing it up and toking lowdown joints had him smiling. He hadn’t known her back then, but based upon what he’d been told about her, Pat, at the time, was probably one of those girls he would have viewed as a lot of fun. Complex and interesting. Cool. Out there, but still a real swinging chick.

“Would it bother you when it happened? When she’d pull away from you like that?” He asked.

“When we were very little, before I understood her better, it did. Then after the first few times, I began to see that it was just part of who she was; that it didn’t have anything to do with me or with our friendship. I would worry about her, naturally, but I’d leave her to herself. I loved her, so I accepted that in her, just as she accepted my bad temper and my occasional nasty attitudes.”

“You? A nasty attitude?”

“I see you didn’t immediately call my having a bad temper into question.”

Again, he smiled in the darkness, but offered the redhead beneath his chin no further commentary on that subject. Instead he switched the conversation back to Pat.

“I’m glad Bill’s staying. He’ll be busy out at LAX during the day, serving on that consult team, but at least he’ll be here with Pat at night. She’ll need that. That’s when the demons will try to kick in the door on her.”

“I’m glad he’s staying, too. I’m sure he’s going to be dealing with some “what-if” stuff of his own. And then too, I didn’t want Bill making that drive all the way to Reno by himself.”

He brushed his lips against her hair again. “It feels good to have my entire family safe and together at a time like this.”

“Oh, Jonathan.” Her heavy sigh raised and lowered the gentle hold he had on her. “When I heard what happened, all I could think about was you, those engineers, and how you’d walked right into the mouth of Hell. Talk about having your family safe and with you. I wish everyone had been as fortunate today as we’ve been.

“I never thought we’d live to see something like this happen on American soil. You hear about it in other places. I’ve gone and seen for myself the devastation after the fact in other places, other countries, but I never, ever would have imagined it happening here. Not in New York. Certainly not in DC. Not the Pentagon, of all places.”

“That’s the problem.” He replied. “In my estimation, it’s a national embarrassment that it happened like it did. Nobody else, not even the people who should have, saw it coming either. But it’s been coming, Jennifer. I could feel it. I didn’t think it would be anything of this magnitude, but I could feel it in my bones that something was going to happen. ”

“J.J. said the same thing to me. More than once recently, she’s mentioned about having bad feelings about something happening. It’s instinct, isn’t it? You and Max called it having a hunch. J.J. has that ability too, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah, she does.”

He could hear it in Jennifer’s words that she was assigning to J.J. yet another of his sometimes troublesome traits, but there was definitely no denying that the girl had it. Being female and naturally more intuitive, he figured she probably had it even better than both he and Max put together. Without a doubt, the kid could pick a horse race like nobody’s business.

And then he thought about what J.J. said to him about having that same feeling about Jennifer and Pat.

Twisting around behind himself, he pushed the button to adjust and set the clock. As he did so, he could feel Jennifer twisting around, as well, to see what he was doing.

“That’s only an hour from now.” She said. “Why are you setting it for that time?”

“In an hour I’ll need to go check back in on my daughter and put her to bed. I told her not to go back into the sitting room and turn on the television in there, which means that I’ll probably find her downstairs in the den, watching that television.”

“That is her, Mr. Hart. You do know your child. If she can find one, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem to the average person, if suits her purposes, J.J. Hart will find a way to slip her slim tail right through a loophole.”

“In the meantime,” He twisted back around and readjusted himself so that Jennifer was lying comfortably again in his arms. “I have some things I’ve been holding onto that I need to tell you about; some ends that have been taped together for the moment, some gaps that have since been filled in, and some holes that need to be avoided.”

_________________________________________________________

The next morning, very early, everyone was at the breakfast table. That included Genie and Jaden who were fastened to it in their feeding chairs next to their respective “mommies”. It was evident from the tense quiet that the night before hadn’t been particularly restful for anyone.

When out of no where Genie began to cry, everyone jumped except J.J. who sighed a bit less than patiently, placed her eating utensils onto her plate, and turned to tend to her. Just as abruptly, before J.J. could so much as touch her to remove her from the chair, Genie went silent again.

“What the hell was that about?” Bill asked, obviously a little rattled by what happened.

“I don’t know.” J.J. said. “She’s like this all the time. I haven’t had a good night’s rest since Sunday, before I got her.”

“Yours like that, too?” He asked Marnie.

“No. Jaden, here, hardly says a word. He even smiles if you rub his tummy. Watch.”

Marnie, who up to that point had been uncharacteristically quiet and subdued, lightly poked her baby in the midsection. Just as she said, his doll face stretched into a dimpled grin underneath the cap that matched another unique outfit.

“Take your vitamin.” Jennifer urged J.J.

J.J. shook a tablet from the bottle and took it with a sip of orange juice. “I probably should take two after the night I had with her. I hardly got any rest.”

“If you’d gone to bed like you were told, instead of being up looking for loopholes to slip your way through, you might not be so tired now.” Her father told her. “I certainly would have slept better if I hadn’t had to get up in the night, going in search of my daughter to put her back to bed.”

J.J.’s cheeks flamed for a moment as she resumed eating her breakfast. Then she turned to her mother. “Are you still going to San Francisco today? Aren’t you kind of late getting started, if you’re planning to drive there? ”

“Aunt Pat and I will be gone most of the day.” Jennifer said in answer. “I know you have Driver’s Training this afternoon. Don’t you have Honor Society today, too? ”

“Yes, but that’s during school, sixth period. We’re excused from classes for the meeting. Driver’s ed. is all I have after school today.”

“Make sure that you get your sixth period work that you miss and whatever might not have been faxed over yesterday.” Jennifer turned to Marnie. “What about you? Nothing last minute that you haven’t told me about, is there?”

“Nothing for me. We missed the track stuff yesterday, but it got called off anyway. I have Honor Society, too, during sixth period. After school, I just have to take J. to her driving class. That’s it.”

“So if I call here around the time I think you should be in,” Jennifer said. “I can expect to find the two of you here, right?”

“No hanging out today.” Jonathan interjected before either girl could answer Jennifer. “I’m still not real comfortable about things. Come straight home.”

“All of us will be in the field today.” said Bill. “Any one of us could turn up anywhere to check on you.”

J.J. frowned her irritation. “Jeez, it’s not like we’re fugitives from the law or anything. One would think we’re wearing leg tethers. Like we just got out and have to check in periodically with our probation officers.”

Jennifer set her coffee cup down. “Justine. I have but three words for you, sweetie: Lockdown. Saturday night.”

Pat came right behind her. “Consider it, Miss Sassy.”

“Okay-y-y-y, we’ll be straight home after Driver’s Ed.” J.J. nodded in concession to her mother. “And that’s Ms. Sassy.” she said to Pat, complete with a single sassy roll of the neck.

“Lockdown. Friday night.” Jonathan warned. “I don’t do it to you often, but I do know how to lower the boom, young lady.”

“All right, I’m through.” Said J.J. “I’ll behave.”

“Don’t you like your breakfast, Ms. Patricia?” Marie asked as she freshened Pat’s coffee cup. “I made all your favorites, and you’ve barely touched a thing.”

“I appreciate it, Marie.” Pat smiled up at her. “It’s delicious as always, but I guess I’m just not all that hungry. It’s kind of early for me.”

Jonathan took note that J.J. had been stealing studying glances at both her godparents the entire time that they’d been at the table, mainly at Pat.

Then J.J. stood up and began sliding Genie’s chair loose from the table.

“Let’s go, Marn,” She said. “Before we find ourselves not able to even go to school.”

“I am getting stir crazy.” Marnie admitted as she got up and began removing Jaden’s chair. “Even though it’s just school, I could use the diversion.”

“Just don’t act crazy and get caught wrong.” Pat advised. “It’s not a real good time for that. People’s nerves are on edge. Just do what you know you’re supposed to do.”

As J.J. was taking Genie away, the doll began to cry again.

“Seems like she’s getting worse about that.” Marnie observed from where she walked behind her.

“Tell me about it.”

“What are you going to do with her in class?” Jennifer asked before J.J. could completely leave the kitchen. “Won’t that crying be a disruption?”

The girls stopped for a moment in the doorway so that J.J. could answer her mother.

“I’m not doing anything with her in class. The disruption is going to be Hector’s concern. He doesn’t care anything about school anyway. I’ve done my tour of duty; I’ve had her two straight days. It’s his turn to take care of her.”

Then they left.

“That should be an interesting exchange.” Jennifer remarked as she finished what was left of her coffee. “I’d certainly like to be a fly on the wall for that.”

_________________________________________________________

Marnie had the motor running and was anxiously checking out the front door by the time J.J. emerged from it and got into the car. Genie and Jaden were already strapped into the back seat.

“What were you doing, J.? You know we’re supposed to meet the crew across the street before first period. We’re cutting it pretty fine.”

“I know, Marn, but I remembered at the last minute that I had to leave something for my mother. I had to go back upstairs and get it and bring it down for her.”

Marnie pulled off down the drive. It wasn’t until they reached the front gates that they were again faced with vestiges of the stark reality of the day before. Security was still encamped down there and as they passed through, J.J. noticed Bob Smith from Hart Security as one of the men watching the estate. They exchanged discreet nods as Marnie drove out onto Willow Pond Road.

“Did you get to talk to Kyle, Marnie?” J.J. asked after a time.

“Yes. I didn’t want to, but I figured he should be told. I knew my mother wouldn’t think to do it.”

“How’d he take it ?”

“J., he suspected all the time that Daddy could have been on one of the planes. The kid admitted to me that he knew Daddy was scheduled to fly American, but that he didn’t know the exact flight number. Kyle had been playing it off with me because he didn’t want me to worry. He knew, and he called himself holding me up.

“When I told him what really happened, about Daddy’s accident, but that he was alive, Kyle broke down and started crying; he was so relieved. That’s when he went on and told me what all he knew. He’s been at school, scared and keeping things to himself all this time. J., he knew about Pat, too. He knew her flight number, and he was thinking all that time that Pat was dead. I didn’t even consider that part of it when I was talking to him yesterday.

“That little boy has been at school, acting like nothing was wrong, holding his own all this time. I wish I could go to him. I called up Teddy and asked him to go over and check on him. He said he would.”

J.J. lay her head back on the headrest. “Good thing we have Teddy looking out.” She whispered. “Looks like all of us have somebody somewhere looking out.”

“Yeah.” Marnie whispered back.

“What about the thing with your mother going to your dad?”

“I don’t want to talk about that, J.”

“All right.”

They didn’t say anything else after that.

_________________________________________________________

So smart.

Once she finished reading it over, Jennifer put the printout she found that J.J. had left for her, labeled “F.Y.I.”, into the top drawer.

So thoughtful and caring. So very much like her father.

With the men gone and the girls off to school, the women were left to themselves. She was at her desk, gathering her things. Marie was in the kitchen, clearing from breakfast, and Pat had gone back out to the guest house to be with Bill before he left for the airport.

She heard the front door open and close, and she watched as Pat silently entered the great room, put her bag down and draped her shawl across the back of the couch. Then she headed for the bar where she fixed herself a drink.

“How long, Jen?” She asked as she came around from behind to take a seat on one of the stools, acknowledging for the first time that she had seen her sitting there.

“I’m ready.”

Jennifer stood to finish sliding the folders on top of the desk down inside her portfolio. “Kind of early to be drinking, isn’t it?”

“I’m your elder, remember?” Pat said after a long swallow.

“Only by three months, Patricia.”

“Ever since I’ve known you, Jen, I’ve had to remind you that those three months make me older than you, which puts me in charge. Not you.”

Jennifer came around the desk to stand next to Pat at the bar. When she did, she thought she detected a slight movement, on Pat’s part, away from her.

“How did you sleep?”

“Off and on.”

Pat handed her a folder which she’d carried over to the bar with her.

Going around Pat, Jennifer slid onto the next stool and opened it. The names “Christina Allen” and “Claire Allen” jumped out at her from where someone had highlighted them in the first two lines of print. A quick scan of the body of the writing informed her that what she was holding must have been the latest information Pat’s “Mole” had garnered about the sisters.

Even though Pat had lost most of the material possessions she had with her, as well as having narrowly missed losing her life on the day before, she still managed to do for her what she promised to do.

Talk about symbolic.

Pat rose on the rungs of the stool and leaned over the top of the bar to see behind it. “Jonathan got any cigars back here?”

Surprised by the question, Jennifer looked over at her. “I thought you gave that up.”

“Every now and then.” Pat said in answer as she continued her visual search.

Not finding what she wanted within easy reach, she sat back down on her stool and refilled her glass.

“I figured us for not going to San Francisco, after all.” Pat said. “I figured you for having another itinerary. I thought you’d want to see that.”

“You always could read me.” Jennifer smiled. “They’ve scheduled Chris for waking this morning. I’d like to be there for her. You know, a familiar face and all. Her sister won’t be there.”

“Why not, Jen? Why wouldn’t she be? She’s her sister. Why would she come all this way, and not be there for something like that?”

“Just a hunch.” Jennifer answered as she continued to scan the contents of the folder. “Do you feel up to going with me?”

“Why not.” Pat sighed, nursing her second drink. “I’m up, I’m awake, and I’m dressed. I can’t do anything about my own business, so I might as well be in somebody else’s. You met the sister yet?”

“Yes, well no. Actually, I saw her. I didn’t get to speak with her, though.”

“Wha’d you make of her?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like to judge, but the impression I got in the few minutes she was in my sights was that she’s young enough to still be stupid and starry-eyed, but old enough to be in knee-deep and caught up in the current.”

“Hmph.” Pat snorted. “Funny. I’ve never seen her. Never heard of her before all this, but from the little bit I read there, I got that same impression. It’s been a while since we’ve done a young-girl intervention, Edwards.”

“Yes it has,” Jennifer agreed as she put Pat’s folder into her portfolio with the others. “You still haven’t been able to get through to Dora?”

“No. But I put The Mole on it. He thought I was a goner, too, so needless to say, he was shocked to hear from me yesterday evening. He said it’s been like this ever since it happened. With communications down, nobody knows where or how anybody is. If Dora is still trying to get out to anybody, it won’t be me she’s trying to reach. The board will be calling or Fed-Ex-ing you.”

“Me?”

“Jen, for all practical purposes, I’m dead, and you are editor-in-chief of Hamilton House right now. You hold my proxy. Everything is in your hands. They’ll be coming for you.”

Jennifer went wide-eyed. “I’d forgotten all about that. Well, one thing’s for sure. That’s when it’ll all get straightened out, Pat. I cannot fill your shoes in that capacity. Your feet are too big.”

Pat cut her eyes to Jennifer. “We wear the same size, Jen.”

“You know what I mean.”

Pat drained the glass. “Yeah, well, in the meantime….”

_________________________________________________________

At the coffee house, the girls and the babies were met in the back booth by Philly and Sidney who had been waiting for them. Sidney immediately reached for Jaden.

“Give me my boy. I missed him.”

“You could at least say good morning to me first.” Marnie said, pretending to be insulted as she continued to hold Jaden close to her.

“Good morning.” Sidney said in a saccharine-laced tone. “Now let me have him.”

Marnie handed Sidney the baby and slid into the booth next to him while J.J. and Genie sat down on the other side. Philly had gotten up to allow J.J. to go first so that she could put Genie’s carrier next to the wall.

“Deon has Jr., I take it.” J.J. said to Philly.

“Yeah, he’s supposed to meet us here, too. It was his turn last night. He had the nerve to call me up about eight, trying to bring him back to me. But his grandmother caught him on the phone, and she made him hang up. Charmaine called back and filled me in. She said Mrs. DeJean was hollering at Deon, talking about he was being trifling; that if he could make a baby, he was certainly going to do his part in raising him. You could still hear Mrs. DeJean doing Deon in the background while me and Charmaine were talking.”

“I think the adults are taking this more seriously than we are.” Sidney said. “Hector told us about how your father called him up and made him come over to get hemmed up by him, J. When we were at your house yesterday, your father was making fun of him for letting you punk him out by not marrying him for the project.”

J.J. smiled.

“J.J.’s father is a pussycat compared to Deon’s grandmother.” Marnie remarked as she got settled in. “Mrs. DeJean is no joke. Weren’t we just talking about her and Mrs. Hart being so tough in the locker room the other day?”

J.J. sighed. “That was funny, but it seems like that happened weeks ago rather than days. Everything does.”

For a few moments, the silence hung on the air like a sudden, heavy fog.

“Where’s Jaden’s carrier?” Sidney finally asked.

“In the car. It was too bulky. Besides, I like holding him.” Marnie answered.

Sidney frowned. “Since when? Is the rest of his stuff in the car, so I can have it when I take him back home?”

“So what’s been happening.” J.J. asked, directing the question to Sidney. “What went on yesterday- I mean at school, not the other. I don’t want to talk about the other just yet.”

“I’m glad your father made it home okay, though, J. I do want to say that to you before you cut that off. It was so good when we saw him and got to talk to him.” He turned to Marnie. “I’m sorry about what happened to your father, but I am glad he’s still here with us.”

Then he turned back to J.J. “It was wild all day yesterday, even before- the other incidents.”

Philly tapped J.J.’s arm. “Gir-r-r-r-l, Kendra and Percy got a legal separation.”

Marnie, a day out of the loop and starved for gossip, almost leapt across the table. “What happened?”

J.J. merely grinned in interested amusement.

“Okay, see, like it was Percy’s turn for the baby, but at the last minute, he told her he couldn’t keep Trey-”

“Trey?” J.J. said. “Like in Percy the Third?”

Sidney nodded. “Yeah, can you imagine them saddling yet another boy with that name?”

“Like somebody did you with ‘Sidney’.” J.J. thought it, but kept it to herself.

Tina arrived at the table with a decanter and four cups.

“Here.” She said, putting them down in front of the teenagers. “You all aren’t company; you can pour your own coffee. You know where to fill the thing back up when it gets low, so don’t be calling me over here for that. Now, I’ll be back in a minute or two to take your orders, and I’m telling you, be ready. Don’t have me standing around waiting for you to hem and haw and make up your minds. I know most of you have first period, and you’re not going to be over here skipping or being late. Mess with me, and you won’t eat at all.”

She walked away.

“Why do we tip her?” Marnie wondered out loud. “She treats us any kind of way all the time.”

“Because she’d shoot us in the behinds if we didn’t.” Sidney answered. “Right as we were going out of the door. Tina does not play, but you gotta admit, she does look out for us. She’s all right.”

“Like I was saying,” Philly continued. “Kendra had kept Trey the first night, and yesterday, it was Percy’s turn to take him home. Only right at the end of the day, here comes Percy talking about he couldn’t take him. He said he had gotten in trouble with the coach during early morning practice, and Coach was making him stay late to make up his time. Then he had to do something with his father after school. He told Kendra he’d come by the house and pick Trey up later on that evening.”

“Here comes the good part.” Sidney cut in.

“Well, Kendra was mad about it because she had planned to go and get her hair done after school, and she didn’t want to take the baby with her to the salon. She said the hairdresser doesn’t like kids in the shop because they run around, cry and just do stuff that disturbs the other clients who come there to chill out. Kendra ended up having to beg her mother to keep the baby for her so she wouldn’t have to change her appointment or cancel it altogether. And you know how Kendra’s mother is.

“So, she got her hair done, and her mother came with Trey to pick her up. They went from there to the mall, and who should they walk up on, sitting on the Food Court, pressed all up against Tristina Atwater?”

Marnie, by this time, was practically on the other side of the table. “Percy?”

Philly nodded. “Yep.”

“No.” Marnie laughed, wrinkling her nose. “Kendra and her mother?”

“And her mother.”

“He shouldn’t have lied.” J.J. said, shaking her head at the mental picture of big, hulking Percy being confronted in public by his almost, might-as-well-be girlfriend and her mother. “He should have just said. Or he should have put Tristina off until the weekend when the project was over. He really shouldn’t have gotten caught out and all wrong like that by Kendra, and especially not by Kendra’s mother. She ranks right up there with Mrs. DeJean and Mrs. Hart.”

Marnie was giggling behind her hand, and J.J. was happy to see the usual mischievous gleam back in her eyes.

Sidney went on with the story.

“Percy called her and tried to clean it up, claiming that he was out there at the mall doing something for his father, and that he just happened to run into Tristina. But Kendra called me and said they were looking mighty cozy to her. So, this morning, we got to school early and they were already in the hall by the lockers. He was trying real hard to explain it to her, telling her he would keep the baby all day today and tonight, too, but Kendra wasn’t hearing any of it. She told him she had already gotten with Charmaine, who by the way is a judge now, and she granted them a legal separation over the phone. Percy’s supposed to get served with the papers today. Tiff is Kendra’s attorney. I don’t know who Percy is going to get to represent him.”

J.J., by this time, was laughing her first real laugh in a while. “Girls against the boys. I wonder if Ms. Leonard envisioned all of this when she came up with the idea for this thing? It’s taken off full force. Our crew can make a soap opera out of a thing in heartbeat, can’t we?”

Tina came and took orders from Sidney and Philly. Marnie and J.J., having already eaten, stuck with their coffees.

“So, did you bring the rest of his stuff or not?” Sidney asked Marnie again once Tina left the table.

Marnie had taken a bottle from the diaper bag. She pushed Sidney’s hand away when he reached for it, and instead took Jaden from Sidney’s arms to feed him herself.

“No, I didn’t.” She finally answered. “It’s all still at the house.”

“Well, how am I supposed to take care of him tonight if I don’t have his stuff?”

“I’m keeping him tonight.”

“You said one night, J.” Sidney hissed accusingly across the table at J.J.. “This is a setup.”

J.J. shook her head. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Sid. This has just turned into something you and Marnie there are going to have to work out between you. I did my part, now I’m out of it.”

But Sidney wasn’t quite ready to let her off the hook so fast. “You said she wanted him for yesterday when you got me to bring him. You didn’t say it would be longer than that. I missed him sleeping with me last night.”

Marnie looked up from the baby’s face to Sidney’s. “So who are you now, Michael Jackson? Jaden has a crib. Why is he sleeping with you in your bed?”

Sidney colored, as did J.J. who immediately took note of the Marnie’s unfortunate analogy.

“It’s just more convenient.” He explained. “Besides, I like him there. He’s little. It makes him feel more secure to be close to me than being in that big old crib by himself.”

“What if you make a mistake, roll over on him, and smother him?”

“Then Marnie, we get an F, that’s what. I’m his father, and I want him back.”

“Well, I’m his mother, and I’m keeping him.”

Sidney stiffened. “Since when did you give a rat’s behind about being his mother? The other day, you couldn’t even be bothered with holding him a few minutes. Now all of a sudden, you’re all Mother of the Year and everything. Give him back, I said.”

“No. A child belongs with its mother, if it’s mother is about anything.”

“Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.” Sidney countered. “And in this case, it’s me who’s about anything in that area. You are not maternal, Marnie Benson. Not the least bit motherly. If it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t even have good clothes. Just those rags they issued out to us.”

J.J. looked down and checked out Genie’s issued clothing. They didn’t look like rags to her. In fact, she thought the pink dress and matching panties and booties kind of cute with the rosette headband her “grandmother” had given her.

“Oh real good.” Marnie sucked her teeth at Sidney in dismissal. “You stole this, the stuff in his bag, and the one he had on yesterday from your sister’s baby.”

“At least I had the presence of mind to get them, and I did not steal them. My nephew’s outgrown them, so I borrowed them.  My sister doesn’t need to be holding onto them anyway. For her, that might be bad luck. With that sorry-behind, baby-daddy boyfriend of hers, she doesn’t need anything around that might give her the idea to mess around and get her another baby. She still lets that joker hang around and he doesn’t even pay her child support on a regular. And if you think I’m paying you child support, Marnie Benson, you can forget it.”

“Oh, yes you will, Sidney. You’re Jaden’s father. I’m not letting you slide like your sister lets her boyfriend. That’s not how I operate. You WILL pay me.”

“You weren’t going to pay me when I had custody of him.”

“I didn’t have to. I’m the woman. I don’t have to pay. Only guys have to pay. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

J.J. reached across the table to place her hand on Sidney’s shoulder when it looked as if he wanted to rise up off the seat and clobber his partner. “Easy, big fella.” She urged.

Deon arrived at the table with his and Philly’s baby strapped to his front and his backpack on his back. When he saw the booth was full, he drug over a chair from a nearby table to position himself at the end of the booth.

“What’s up.” He was smiling as he took loose the straps to the baby carrier to give the doll to Philly. “I could hear you all fussing all the way up front. I knew it had to be Marnie and Sid. Tina said to tell you to shut up or she was coming back here to make you. So, can I assume that Charmaine and them will be getting more business today?”

“Prob- lee” Sidney sniped. “I’m not having it out of Miss Thing here. First she’s gonna kidnap my baby. Then she’s going to try to make me pay her for it. I don’t think so.”

“Where’s Hector?” Deon directed the question to Philly and J.J. as he and Philly made the exchange with the baby and its cloth carrier.

“He was still in the bed when I left.” Philly answered while strapping the doll and the carrier to herself. “Papi is going to kill him if he gets reported for being absent, and Ms. Grimsley calls the house over it. Papi warned Hector about that when school first started. I don’t know why that boy didn’t get held back last year;. He skipped all the time. He better be glad he can play some music. That’s the only thing keeping him in our program when he’s not supposed to be. That and those skin-of-his-teeth grades he gets. He’s a year ahead of our program. They only let him in so he can develop his music skills.”

As Philly continued speaking while working with the carrier, J.J. noticed that Philly’s baby never made a peep the entire time, despite Philly’s not quite gentle handling of him.

“He’ll probably come late.” She went on. “He wouldn’t get up when I told him it was time, so I went on, took the truck, and came here to not be late myself. We said we were going to meet up and I didn’t want to miss out. That means Hector will either have to get Papi to bring him, and like I said, that might not be such a good thing for him. Or he’ll have to call a taxi, or call ‘Bicio for a ride. Since ‘Bicio doesn’t do mornings real well, what can I say? Papi says he’ll skin Hector alive if he finds out he’s started skipping again, talking about he’d rather be absent than do detention for being late. Last year he ended up getting called into Grimsley’s office for truancy, and Papi had to come for a conference and everything.”

“It’s pretty bad when your old man has to come to a conference for something you did wrong.” Deon remarked. “It’s bad enough when it’s your mother or, God forbid, your grandmother. Hector needs to get that bad habit worked out.”

“It’s the other way around for me.” J.J. said. “I’ll take Daddy over my mother at a parent conference any day.”

Then she sat back and sighed, “As long as Hector gets here.”, the whole time praying that Genie wouldn’t start up while they were there in the coffee house. “It is definitely his turn with this one.”

As the others continued to talk and fuss, J.J. retreated into herself, grateful that Marnie had, for the moment, something to divert her attention from thoughts of her father and his accident, her mother, and the unusual turn of events surrounding her parents. She and Marnie hadn’t yet taken the opportunity to discuss it together; after what she said about it in the car, that didn’t seem like it was going to be happening any time soon.

It had been way into the previous afternoon when word finally came of Mr. Benson’s whereabouts. After Marnie spoke with her mother later that evening, she’d closed up in her room for the rest of the night. Daddy was the only person who’d spoken with her after that.

The drive over from home to the coffee house had been a largely quiet one, and she figured that was where Marnie’s head had been the whole time. Her own mind had been on everything else, but especially on her Aunt Pat.

Normally, when Aunt Pat visited, she filled up the house with noise and fun. When she was there, whether she stayed in the house proper or out in the guest house, one could not ignore her presence. This time, however, her imposing physical person was just as present as ever, but she was so unusually quiet that it cast a pall on everything. Understandably, she was tired and frustrated, but there was more to her quiet than that. Nobody was saying or acting as if they noticed it, but she knew that it was. When Aunt Pat came, she always took time to pull her to the side for a private chat or two. She’d come up to the room, find her outside, something. This time, however, she didn’t. She didn’t even go back and forth with Marnie, like the two of them loved doing.

But then, this time wasn’t normal by anybody’s standards.

In fact, when she really allowed herself to fully consider it, which she hadn’t been doing very much, it was nothing short of crazy.

It was a new day, but it didn’t feel much different to her than the day before. There was a weight on her that she couldn’t shake, as well as that nagging, insidious bad feeling which hadn’t quite let up. Everybody was attempting to go about their regular routines. Daddy was going to his office. Uncle Bill was headed for the airport on FAA business. She and Marnie had been sent to school, like they were returning from a run-of-the-mill, regular absence. Her mother and Aunt Pat were supposed to be going to San Francisco, but they weren’t. Just as she hadn’t been fooled by her mother not answering her at the breakfast table, her mind wasn’t fooled by any of it.

Daddy had been absolutely right when they were talking on the night before; nothing would ever be the same again. They could pretend at normalcy, but the fact of the matter was, just as her father said, history had been made, perspectives had shifted, and trust had been shattered forever. Trust was not an easy thing for J.J. Hart to come by. Now, national security was yet another thing added to the suspect list.

Down in the carrier, Genie began to fuss, bringing J.J. back to the moment. Digging out and attempting to put the pacifier in the baby’s mouth, which hardly ever worked to quiet her, she was thinking how she couldn’t wait to get across the street and deliver Hector’s child straight into his arms.

If that boy knows what’s good for him, he won’t be real late.

_________________________________________________________

Jennifer got as far as the road crossing the bridge, when she felt Pat place her hand on her arm.

“Jen, wait.”

Having reached the other side of the bridge, Jennifer hesitated there rather than pulling the car out onto the main road.

“What is it?” She asked, turning her attention to Pat.

Pat was staring straight ahead. “I’m not going, Jen. Take me back to the guest house.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Jennifer, just take me back.”

“What? I thought-”

“No. Take me back.”

“Pat.”

“Jen, I can’t. You go on ahead by yourself. I’ll be all right here.”

“I don’t want to leave you by yourself like this. I don’t think you sh-”

“Please, Jennifer, just take me back. If you don’t, I swear to God, I’ll get out right here and just walk the goddamned distance.”

“Pat, are you sure you won’t come with me? Are you sure you want to be by yourself right now?”

Dropping her forehead into her hand, Pat uttered a quiet plea, “Jennifer, please.”

Instead of turning the car to the right which would have taken them down to the front gates, Jennifer turned left, back in the direction of the main house and the nearby guest residence.

Pat got out without a word, and Jennifer watched her until the door closed behind her. It took every bit of resolve she had to turn the car around and leave. If it weren’t for the fact that she knew her friend so well, if she had only her demeanor to go by, she might have been afraid for her.

_________________________________________________________

“So, where’s Jennifer this morning since she decided against San Francisco?” August Lamb asked Jonathan as the two of them were being driven to the  early morning security meeting at City Hall. “Smith was glad about that, them not going, I mean. He wasn’t looking forward to having to follow them for that long a distance. Jennifer’s a hard one to fool, and Bob says she wears him out while he’s trying not to be detected by her.”

“Yeah, but he’s her best shadow when I need it. She’d have a fit if she knew.” Jonathan answered. “She and Pat are together today even though they’re staying closer to home. She’s worried some about Pat. They’ll probably be shopping most of the morning. Pat’s luggage was on that plane and she lost everything she had with her. Jennifer told me, too, that she’s planning to go over and see Chris.”

“I called the hospital earlier.” August said. “They were just starting to bring her back. By the time they get there, Chris should be fully alert. I got word on her car, too. It turns out that there weren’t any signs of it being messed with, as far as they can tell, and I’m told they went over it thoroughly and more than once. There were some personal effects that were retrieved by the police. I’ll pick them up after this meeting. She must have just lost control of it. Probably blacked out from that head wound. We still have to find out what happened with that; what she was doing, where she was when it happened, what exactly did happen. We’ve got to hope that Chris can remember and tell us. For some reason, the cameras didn’t pick anything up.”

Jonathan nodded, the familiar intense expression clouding his face communicating to Lamb that while they talked, the CEO was multi-tasking: listening, talking, and also busy with mentally processing something.

August continued the conversation. “You know that Hershel Gray is back from vacation today. Came back in on his own after the emergency situation yesterday. It just happened he was in Tahoe and could drive back. Once he gets wind of this thing with us, if he doesn’t already have it, even though it’s out of LAPD jurisdiction, he’ll be wanting in since it’s associated with a Hart facility. He’s probably got plenty of well-placed connections in Ventura himself, and he’ll be putting pressure on somebody there.”

“I know.” Jonathan said. “I hope that increased police pressure doesn’t spook whoever is behind all of this and either makes them run or makes them step it up. It’s on the inside, and with this thing with Chris, they have to be getting desperate. My money is on she was attacked in the facility, and somehow she managed to make it out to her car and get away. Hershel’s supposed to be at this meeting. I’ll speak with him about it. I want to keep the investigation low key for the moment. Did you check on the sister this morning?”

“Where’s she going, Jonathan? She’s still right where we put her. That was a very good move you suggested. Lang is with her. That Claire Allen is a strange bird, Jonathan. Lang says she won’t say a word. Refuses to talk to the police. Even after we went and got her out of that suite and put her over into the bunker, she wouldn’t open up. Just thanked us and that was it. But even after we got her there, she was still shaking like a leaf. Somebody’s put a mean scare into that girl.”

” She said as much when she called me in the car, August. It sounded as if she were scared to death. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew I had to get her out of that hotel and put her someplace safe if for no other reason than for Chris.”

“Well, August began. “At least she’s okay for now. Maybe once Chris comes around and gets all her sensibilities back, she can tell us something. I think that sister knows a whole lot about something, too.”

“Any more on Shell?” Jonathan had begun shuffling through the folder of papers August had handed him once they got into the car. It was one of two he had on his lap.

“Far as I can tell, he’s still out of the country. You know, he’s got to be pretty old, at this stage of the game. You’d think he’d be dead by now or stashed in somebody’s old folks’ home. Hell, he might be, for all we know. The name just came up. There was no real activity with him. I just thought you’d want to know, what with all that happened before with him and that dock thing. I knew you’d be concerned for Jennifer’s safety, and now, of course, J.J.’s. Seemed a little strange to me that his name would come up connected to all of this, Marston Knight, and Knight Shipping.”

“Yes, but do we know that it’s all connected yet?” Jonathan asked more in speculation than question while still going through the data in the folder as well as the margin notes Zale had made.”

“Don’t know. But I can tell you that our guy, Martin, the one you asked about, hasn’t been back to work at HartToys since Saturday. He was off Sunday. Was scheduled to be on duty, Monday, but didn’t show. And he didn’t show again yesterday.”

“Red flag for sure. Did he call in on either day? Anybody check that out?”

“With all that happened yesterday, Jonathan, I have to say we didn’t. We were too preoccupied with emptying the buildings, locking everything down, and taking care of everything else. I might not have even thought any more about it myself if Matheson hadn’t called from HartToys to report they were shorthanded over there. My guess is he didn’t; nobody had been pulled in to replace him. We wound up sending them someone from headquarters to fill the gap and to help secure everything at that facility.”

“Follow up on that.” Jonathan said. “Martin was on the gate Saturday when Jennifer and J.J. were out there. He signed them in. He was also the key carrier that day, so he would have been doing the rounds, turning locks and securing the interior of the building that evening.”

This time it was August who nodded, making notes in a journal-type leather bound book.

Chris Allen had a strong reputation for running a tight ship at HartToys. The staff, from janitorial to management, had an excellent overall attendance record. For someone to be missing in action and not call in to say they weren’t coming was a sore thumb that stuck out, red and throbbing, begging for immediate attention.

“Do we yet know exactly what Rogers was working on the night he was killed?” Jonathan asked when his flipping through the notes didn’t readily reveal that information.

“Not yet.” August answered.

“Doesn’t seem like that should be such a hard thing to come by.”

“But for some reason, Jonathan, it has been.”

Jonathan closed the folders on his lap and put them down inside his brief case. Then he lay his head back on the headrest to sort things out before arriving at city hall. He had a long day ahead of him. Closing his eyes, he wondered to himself if anyone from New York had gotten through yet to Pat, or if Jennifer had yet come to the realization that, on paper at least, she was currently at the helm of Hamilton House. He also wondered if Pat might have already shut down like he, Jennifer, and Bill, too, thought she was on her way to doing.

It wasn’t until she came to the lockers after second period that J.J. ran into Hector, who had only just arrived at school.

“Where have you been?” She demanded as she walked up to him carrying Genie, her books, and Genie’s diaper bag. “You missed first and second period. I’m about ready to file my paperwork with Charmaine and the girls.”

“Welcome back.” He yawned in a most unconcerned manner. “I got up late; that’s where I been. Overslept and got cussed out all the way over here by Papi. And now here you come. What a way to start a day. And what paperwork can you file on me, J.? We ain’t married, so it ain’t like you can divorce me or separate from me; we ain’t together. That was how you wanted it, so you got no claims on me whatsoever.”

“Oh, yes I do, Hector Diaz. You are half responsible for this baby.”

“Speaking of which, my budget is coming up a little short, J. I had to buy the diapers and milk and stuff I brought to you yesterday. You reimbursing me for that?”

J.J. snorted in disbelief as she squatted to put her books down on the floor. “You have got to be kidding. You did what you were supposed to do; what my daddy told you you’d better do.”

“I’m close to broke here, J.J., so I’m not thinking about your old man. Ain’t nobody scared ‘a him anyway.”

“That wasn’t the tune that I heard you singing when you were with him, looking all bug-eyed while he was raking you.” J.J. grinned up to Hector. “And anyway, I’ve been taking total care of Genie. The least you can do is see to her material needs.”

“So what about my needs, J.J.?”

“Are you trying to be nasty again, Hector? ‘Cause if so,-”

“I meant mate-e-e-e-erial needs, J. Forget sex. I told you, I’m broke as hell. My focus is elsewhere right now.”

“Then clarify, Hector. You know that I know you, and I am totally aware of how quickly your mind goes to seed.”

“Whatever, girl. Looks like your mind went to seed first. Tell me, how am I supposed to fit in food and rent and Genie?”

“Cut into that huge entertainment allotment that you call necessary for “networking”. Eat cold beans from the can instead of eating out. Drink tap water instead of Evian. Leave Bianca alone. Nobody likes a broke man, so Bianca might not be a factor you have to worry about much longer anyway. She doesn’t look like a girl who likes cheap. I told you a long time ago that your stuff was out of balance. I fixed it for you, but here you are, whining about coming up short again. You are just plain sorry, Hector, I’m telling you.”

“It’s because of Genie. All the unexpected expenses related to her.”

“Diapers and milk are unexpected? You have a baby now. Your priorities have to shift.”

“Nobody told you to get knocked up.”

“Nobody told m-?  Look, I’m not even going there with you, Hector. However you want to look at it or call it, Genie’s yours for the rest of this day.”

“Why?”

“Because she is.”

“I don’t know about all that.” He peeked inside the carrier and then smiled. “Where did she get that thingy on her head?”

“From her Gramma Jennifer.”

“It looks real cute on her. She still crying a lot?”

Hector went back to unloading his books from his backpack to his locker. “Because if she is, cute or not, I ain’t taking her. As it is, I’m not nowhere near being the teacher’s pet in most of my classes. Fa-a-a-a-r from it, to tell the truth about it. To come in there, disturbing the class with a hollering kid would just make things worse.”

“How do you think I feel, Hector? I’ve had her two days straight. And when you didn’t show up like you were supposed to, I had to have her in class this morning. I had to leave out of the room three times in two class periods because of her.”

“Well then, what do I look like taking her to class with me? At least you get cut some slack because you’re a girl, and a honor student.”

“Hector, look. You are taking her. I told you, I’ve had her two straight days.”

“That first day don’t count, J. I was with you, and we was in FACS all day. Yesterday you was at home with her, not in class.”

“It doesn’t matter. I still had her, and I had to deal with her through all that other stress yesterday. Now, Daddy Diaz, it’s your turn.”

“I thought her last name was Hart.”

“Her last name is Hart. Yours isn’t.”

J.J. loosened the straps on Genie’s carrier. “Have you been keeping your journal like you’re supposed to, Hector? I forgot to ask you that last night when you called me.”

“Yeah,” He answered, his response sounding less than convincing to J.J.’s ears. “I been keeping it. Why you always gotta nag a guy? I can see why we’re not married. You’d worry me to death, bugging me all the time. Did I do this? Did I do that? Pay for this. Pay for that. Nag, nag, nag.”

J.J. fastened Genie to Hector, securing the carrier’s straps to his shoulders. Then she hung the pink diaper bag on his hairy forearm.

“We’re not married, Hector, because you’re not my type.” She said, patting Genie into place on his chest. “I won’t have you, and that’s all there is to it. Take good care of my baby.”

“She’s mine, too.”

“Only by unfortunate circumstance.”

“You musta thought I was sexy and fine at one time, J. We ended up with her.”

“A moment of weakness, Hector. That’s all that was. I was probably drunk or something. In my right mind, I definitely wouldn’t have been bothered. It probably wasn’t even any good; I don’t remember it.”

“You called out my name.”

“You wish it had been your name I was calling.”

“Hot snob.”

“Sorry slacker.”

“Professor.”

“Gilligan.”

“Nerd.”

“Beatnik.”

“Beatnik?”

He had to laugh. “Where did you come up with that one? You are so crazy, J. But for real, what I’m supposed to do if she does starts cry?”

“-and she will.”

“My boys are going to be all laughing at me and everything.”

“Deal with it.”

J.J. rubbed Genie’s bottom through the cloth and then went to open her own locker to exchange the books on the floor with the ones she needed for the upcoming class.

“She’s been changed, and she’s already eaten, Hector, even though that’s no guarantee that she won’t get set off again. If she starts up, she has a pacifier in the bag, but it doesn’t work all that well with getting her to stop crying. Maybe you can get your boys to help you out with her. Or you could always just leave the room with her, like I did, although in your case the teacher might not let you out. You might like that too much.”

“Aw, now that is a thought.” Hector grinned down at the top of Genie’s head. “Miss Genie, you, your little crying behind, and me might be getting along just fine. You might could help your daddy out, for real.”

“Don’t use our child for avaricious purposes, Hector.”

“What the heck is av’rishus, J.? Why you gotta always be using big words? Why can’t you just speak English?”

“I am speaking English. You’re the senior; seems to me like you should be teaching me. It means don’t use her for your own gain.” Gathering her books in her arms, she sighed. “My poor child; a dullard for a daddy.”

“Hey! I do know what a dullard is, J.J. Hart.”

“I don’t hear you denying being one.”

“So maybe my daughter’s a dullard, too, and that’s why she acts up.”

“I highly doubt it, Hector. No child of mine would be short on brains. Even this one I have with you.”

“Whatever, J. Look, don’t be surprised if I show up outside your Econ class with her. If she starts up, I’m-”

“Going to deal with it.” J.J said as she slammed her locker shut. At the noise, Genie began to cry inside the carrier on Hector’s chest.

“And if you wind up getting detention from Mr. Howard for when you skipped class this morning,” She called over the noise as she began to walk away. “understand that you’re on your own with him in there in his office, too. You’ll find Genie’s schedule in the bag along with her diapers, baby wipes, and there’s another outfit should she crap or puke and mess that one up.”

“J.?!” He croaked in desperation. “That’s too much stuff!”

She waved her hand at him without turning around. “Handle it, Hector.”

Unencumbered by baby, diaper bag, or the worry that Genie could start cutting up at any given moment, J.J. felt as if a weight had been lifted from her. It was only the third day that she and Genie had been together, but somehow, with everything else that had happened, and that which was still going on, it felt more like three lifetimes. She hadn’t seen Marnie since the start of school, and she wondered how she was doing. She wondered how/if Aunt Pat was holding up. She wondered if her mother would be there when Chris opened her eyes and woke up again.

Some of the weight had been lifted, but not quite all of it.

_________________________________________________________

“We’ve dimmed the lights around her to allow her eyes to gradually get acclimated.” Dr. Langford explained as he escorted Jennifer to Chris Allen’s room.

After completing her shopping for Pat, Jennifer had gone directly to the hospital in the hope of finding Chris awake and able to speak to her.

“Has she said very much?” Jennifer asked.

“We’ve been bringing her back bit by bit, and she hasn’t been fully awake very long, but she’s amazingly lucid; not nearly as drowsy as expected for as long as we had her under. She was a bit disoriented at first, which we fully expected, but I think, given her independent disposition, she’s reluctant to let us know the full extent of it. Despite all that’s happened, or maybe because of it, she’s extremely cognizant of maintaining her dignity and of protecting herself. So to answer you, no, she hasn’t said a whole lot, although it isn’t all, in my medical opinion, from any disability on her part. I’m hoping that once she sees you, she’ll talk a bit more to you, and you can better gauge where she is.”

The private duty nurse nodded to them as they entered the room. The head of Chris’ bed had been elevated so that she was partially sitting up. Normally tanned and vital, her face appeared pale and drawn; she had her eyes closed. Dr. Langford stopped just inside the door, allowing Jennifer to continue on to the bedside by herself.

Obviously hearing someone approaching, confirming for Jennifer and the doctor that she was awake, Chris opened her eyes. She smiled a soft, sleepy smile of recognition as she watched Jennifer pull up the chair and take a seat.

“Mrs. Hart.”

“It’s Jennifer, Chris. It’s so good to have you back with us.”

“Thank you. But I’d feel funny calling you that.”

“It’s my name, and I insist.”

“All right. Jennifer.”

Jennifer took Chris’ hand. “So, how are you feeling?”

Chris’ eyes flitted away from her to the direction of the door where Dr. Langford and the nurse still stood.

“Can we be alone for a bit?” Jennifer asked them, following Chris’ gaze. “Would that be allowable right now?”

In response, Dr. Langford held out his hand to the nurse in a gesture that indicated she should precede him out of the door. He closed it behind them. Jennifer watched through the window until she could no longer see them, then she turned her attentions back to Chris, who aside from her pallid and wan appearance, looked as if she had just awakened from a natural sleep.

“And so?”

“I don’t know. I have sort of a dull headache. Of course, my body is really stiff, kind of aches in my legs and my back. If I move my head wrong, there’s some dizziness, but I can handle all that. Did they have to cut any of my hair?”

“No, the skin wasn’t broken, so they didn’t have to get to the scalp. You just had some bad internal swelling.”

“Good. I’m glad of that. Not the swelling, I mean. Just about my hair.”

“Vanity, our name is woman.” Jennifer smiled.

“It certainly is.” Chris smiled back. “I don’t want to be going back to work with bald spots in my head.”

She could certainly sympathize. Like her, Chris also had a lush head of hair, with which evidently, she also didn’t want anyone tampering.

“I came because I thought you might need someone, Chris.”

Jennifer allowed the other woman to study her for a moment. She was being sized up, but that was all right by her. It was part of a drill that as a reporter and writer, she’d become used to having to go through before getting someone to loosen up with her.

“I realize that you might be feeling a little vulnerable right now. Is there anything you feel you can’t handle? You can talk to me in confidence.”

After a further slight hesitation, Chris finally answered.

“I- I guess- I guess I sort of feel like I’ve lost my mind. I woke up not knowing where I was or anything. I still don’t know anything. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t remember what happened to me. I can’t- I didn’t want to let on to Dr. Langford. I didn’t want anyone else to know. I’m so confused and it makes me ashamed and a little frightened that I don’t know- I guess, things- anything I should know.”

Jennifer squeezed her hand. “It’s all right. Memory loss happens sometimes after you’ve sustained a head injury. It happened once to Jonathan. His situation didn’t result in hospitalization, like yours has, but for a time, he couldn’t remember things either. His was so bad that he didn’t even remember me.”

Chris stared. “He didn’t recall you? I find that awfully hard to believe. The Harts and their magical continued romance are legendary.”

“Maybe so. But I took a total stranger home with me that night. He didn’t know me, and for all practical purposes, I didn’t know the person he was at that time.”

Despite having just come out of a coma, and being frustrated to distraction over her own lack of recall, Chris leaned forward and whispered with a grin, “So, did you cheat with him?”

Jennifer leaned in and grinned back. “Big time.”

Both women shared a naughty, but hearty chuckle.

“Oh, that did me good. I’ll bet that was a lot of fun despite his loss of memory and your worry over it.” Chris said when she finally stopped giggling. She lie back, sighing, “Oooh, I’m dizzy again, but I truly needed that.”

“Have they gotten you up?”

“They let me sit up on the side of the bed for a few minutes. I stood, too, for a couple of moments, but I was so dizzy and weak. Dr. Langford says I need to take it slow. I kind of believe him, but I hate this. I’m never sick or down like this.”

“Do you feel up to talking?”

“I guess so. What else do I have to do?”

“Can you tell me what you do remember, Chris? What’s the last thing you recall happening?”

“You know, Jennifer, I’ve been lying here in the dark, trying to go back over it. When I asked him, Dr. Langford wouldn’t say what happened to me. He only told me that I was in Memorial Hospital, I’d been in an accident, and that it happened on Saturday. Imagine my shock when he told me that today is Wednesday. Jennifer, I’ve lost three whole days of my life. Where did they go? What kind of accident did I have? What went on while I was gone?”

Chris’ last question made Jennifer wonder to herself how and when they would be able to tell her that the whole world had gone to hell on the day before, and that the world she knew when she lost consciousness that past Saturday was not the one to which she had awakened.

“Tell me what you remember last, Chris.” She again urged.

“The last thing I can clearly recall is that you and I were talking, but… I- I don’t really remember what we were saying. I only remember you being there. And J.J. was there, too. I do remember that. I remember she came to talk with me, then she was scared because you showed up, and that was when she told me that she wasn’t supposed to be there. I do recall that.”

“Do you remember what she wanted to talk with you about?”

“It was an interview, I think. About my job and- and something she was doing at school. A project. Something for a family class, maybe Home Ec. or something like that.”

“Do you recall why J.J. said she wasn’t supposed to be there?”

“I thi- I- I don’t know, Jennifer.”

Chris closed her eyes again, and Jennifer saw the almost imperceptible tremble of the other woman’s lower lip. Their hands still joined, Chris’ fingers trembled between hers. Jennifer leaned in again.

“Take your time, Chris. It has to be frustrating for someone like you, someone who’s used to being on top of things, but you must be patient. The doctor doesn’t want us to tell you what happened because he wants it to come back to you on its own. When it happened to Jonathan that time, he eventually regained all of his memory, but it did take time for things to come back to him. He was extremely frustrated, too.”

“For how long was he in the dark?”

“It wasn’t very long for him, a couple of days maybe for it all to come back to him, but I imagine it varies in people. The extent of the injury is probably a contributing factor as well.”

“How was I injured? Or can’t you tell me?”

Jennifer shook her head.

“Did the doctor say to you how long I’d have to be here?”

“I didn’t ask. But you’ll be here as long as you need to be, Christina Allen. There’s no rush. Everything is being taken care of, and right now you are where you need to be.”

“Tell me this, then. Why is there security at the door to this room? Why do I have private security playing the role of my so-called nurse? Am I in some sort of trouble? Have I done something criminal?”

Jennifer knew about the security Jonathan had stationed to watch the door, although she couldn’t see how Chris could tell that from the bed, but she wasn’t aware of that being the nurse’s true status.

“Chris, what makes you ask? How do you know these things?”

“Jennifer, I’m in the business, and I’ve been in it a long time, that’s something else I can recall. Right now, I might not be able to remember some things, but I can smell a guard, a cop- plainclothes or otherwise-, or a private dick a mile off.”

At that last category, they both shared a glance and ended up snickering again.

“I’m glad you came, Jennifer.” Chris finally said. “You’re funny, and a lot different from how you come off from just looking at you.”

Jennifer sat back a little, as if she were surprised. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”

Chris shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not something I can explain. It’s just that whenever we’ve spoken, you’re not ever what I expect. But I can always see why Mr. Hart is so crazy about you, and why J.J. is turning out so well.

“Look, I wouldn’t admit what I’m about to say to just anyone, but I feel as if I can trust you. A little while ago, when they first woke me up, I was plenty scared. I don’t like not knowing things, being confused and unsure, the way I feel right now. I don’t enjoy being uncertain. It makes me paranoid.”

“Nobody enjoys feeling that way, Chris.”

“In my bones, Jennifer, I feel that I’m here because something bad happened.”

Jennifer said nothing to that.

Chris was the one to squeeze her hand. “Will you stay a while?”

Jennifer, still holding on, assured her, “Yes, I’ll be here.”

Since she hadn’t asked about her, Jennifer didn’t bring it up about Claire being in town or about her having been there.

_________________________________________________________

As different officials representing the city, business, and law enforcement stated their concerns and recommendations, Jonathan listened.  At the same time he was perusing the folder full of notes sent at the last minute to his car by way of a Hart courier right before he and August left the Towers. Although he wasn’t paying absolute attention to the proceedings taking place around him, the shock, the panic, and the level of insecurity in the room seemed to be trying to find its way down the neck of his shirt, to crawl up the sleeves of his jacket and the legs of his pants, but he refused to entertain any of it. He was, of course, unnerved by what happened, but by no measure was he surprised.

In his book, anything was possible. The trick to it was staying one step ahead of the game. Also, for him, another part of it was accepting that the hunter goes after the bear, but sometimes the bear might get the hunter. The hunter should never discount the intelligence and cunning of the bear.

That’s how things like this happen.

For a moment, he had to close and rub at his eyes to block out the images picked up from the wide screen in the den. When he went after J.J. that morning to put her back to bed, that was where he found her. That girl had been sitting there, reclined in his Lazy Boy, watching and filling her head with all those gruesome scenes, some of which he found it difficult to be distant witness for those few minutes he stood in the doorway before letting her know that he was there. He wanted her to learn, to be informed and worldly, but he hated that her innocence, trust, and sense of security were being breached by forces over which he had no control whatsoever.

He and his people had met on the day before, via satellite hookup. Hart Industries Worldwide was already locked down. They had been for a while; things had just been stepped up a notch. At that moment, his mind was on more immediate matters. The folder before him was full of notes detailing Arnold Zale’s latest findings. Zale had certainly been busy. Where had he found the time?

Carl Benson was still in intensive care, expected to pull through, but in very bad shape; victim of a drunk driver weaving across the median and striking an oncoming vehicle head on. In trying to avoid the careening second car, Carl had driven his into a telephone pole. This time it was Marnie who had nearly lost a parent to an inebriated driver, just as Jennifer had lost her mother decades before.

When the news came, Jennifer instinctively reached for Marnie, and Marnie allowed herself to be held by her. That had been good for both of them. He’d felt it when J.J., who had been standing with him at that moment, stiffened at the sight. Understanding the subtle reaction in her, it was he who reached for and held onto her. J.J., at sixteen, had never had to share her mother, and had admitted to him more than once that it was how she liked it. Being a ‘sister’ would take some getting used to on her part, but blessed with an otherwise generous disposition, he didn’t doubt that she would come through her struggle with it on the high side.

For Carl, his having Pat sign those papers to serve as his representative for Kyle while he was at boarding school had almost been a prophetic move. That little boy couldn’t have been left in better hands- whenever those hands made it back out east. There would be no planes flying that day either. Everything was grounded until the US and the FAA could regroup from the severe security breach and the resulting enormous tragedy.

Maureen, Marnie’s mother, had checked into the hotel room in Boston where her ex, Carl, had been staying until the condo he’d purchased for himself was closed upon and ready. Although it was true that Carl would need someone there to advocate for him, Jonathan was left wondering what effect that would have on Carl’s current wife and their tenuous relationship. Marnie had shared things with Jennifer that led him to believe that Carl was thinking of extricating himself from the marriage. Would this be its final death knell?

Bad choice of words, there, Jonathan, given the circumstances.

And he wondered what Marnie really made of that. When he had gone in to talk with her, she hadn’t said very much; she mostly listened and then thanked him for allowing her to stay with them, but he knew there was a whole lot more going on in her head. He had long been aware that there was a great deal more to Marnie than the cute, superficial, chatty clotheshorse that met the eye. He could see in her that there was more to her than maybe even she realized.

He put the paperclip back on those pages and moved on.

Chris Allen, intelligent and independent; big sister and responsible. Claire Allen, little sister, bought and paid for. Young eyes on big bucks. Sense versus cents. For him a more solid picture of the two sisters was beginning to take form. Whether or not that was part of the big picture remained to be seen.

According to Zale’s notes, Chris was awake. Jennifer said she was going to her. He wondered if she was already there. It wasn’t as if he could step out of the meeting and phone her to see. Jennifer turned her phone off during interviews, so if she was with Chris, she wouldn’t be picking up. Even though it wasn’t quite an interview she was conducting, just the same, Jennifer would be devoting her entire attention to Chris.

The doctor had mentioned to them that Chris might have some memory loss for a time. He didn’t envy her the experience; the confusion, the frustration, being and feeling vulnerable and hoping that the people around you who said they knew you, really meant well by you. It felt strange to be able to remember not remembering.

He could recall being taken by taxi to a house for which he’d found the address in his pocket. There was a party going on inside, and after being greeted and let in, he was met by an attractive redhead with the warmest eyes and smile he’d ever seen- at least that he could remember seeing at the time. He could also recall having a hell of a headache, not knowing a soul in the room, and being bewildered by it all.

Wherever he moved in the house, the redhead stayed with him. She really was a beauty; good hair, those eyes, and that smile. She was well-groomed, obviously high-post and lovely, but she was wearing a flowing red jacket that although it was tied at the waist, it obscured the exact outline of her figure. And she had on pants, wide ones that didn’t reveal to him what her legs were like, not to mention that conspicuous wedding ring on her left hand. She kept talking to him as if she knew him. He wouldn’t have minded getting to know her and finding out if indeed she was married, but at that time, he was more concerned with getting his bearings, trying to figure out where he was and what had happened to him, hell, with trying to figure out who he was.

After a time, it was determined that he’d sustained an injury to his head. There was swelling to the back of it, which explained the pain he was in. He didn’t remember how the injury occurred, but evidently the end result was a temporary loss of memory. He could recollect the titillation of being told that the gorgeous redheaded woman, who in her gentle ways and her sincere concern for him was becoming increasingly attractive to him in a more personal way, was his wife. That meant he could sleep with her.

Didn’t it?

Some things were innate; they were not forgotten, and the urge to make love- and that he so enjoyed it- was one detail of his person which had not eluded him. Even before being told that she was his wife, he could feel the sap rising within him for her.

She took him home.

Home. A gated mansion in Bel Air complete with a house man. And a cute little dog who ran to him and jumped right up into his arms.

Freeway… he hadn’t thought about Freeway in a while.

And Max. He never stopped thinking about Max. How he wished Max was still with them. Max and J.J., what a wagering, gambling, scheming hoot that would have been. Max covering for her, J.J. picking his races and badgering him for her cut of the action.

Max. What a comfort he would be through all of what was going on.

Jennifer.

She took him upstairs to the room she said was theirs. It was uncomfortable between them at first. He didn’t know her, and he almost asked to be put in another bedroom. He figured there had to at least be one guest bedroom in a house that size, or to be assigned to sleep on the fainting couch he could see positioned within the master bedroom. He didn’t know her, and he didn’t want to make a move on a woman he didn’t know. But if he got into bed with her, that was what was going to happen. It wouldn’t matter about how huge the bed was. He’d find a way to roll over to her, and that would be it. Even though he didn’t know her, he could sense that she would have allowed that to be it. After all, she did know him.

In retrospect, that night hadn’t been any different then than it had been for them in the beginning. They had been essentially strangers in London, but that hadn’t stopped their souls from entwining. Just like that first time they made love, that night he wanted her; she wanted him, and it was meant to be.

Damn, I’m glad I’m sitting down at this table. This does not make sense. As old as I am, as long as we’ve been together, she can still make this happen to me just by thinking of her, like we’re two kids in high school….

… be glad when this meeting, hell, this whole day is over….

When he came out of the bathroom, she was already in bed. She had pulled her hair back some and she was under the covers, dressed in one of her more demure gowns; a kind of white/pastel, soft, maybe ruffled gown. She was freckled, fresh faced, lovely, and he was overwhelmed by her, by his surroundings. by the whole situation. She told him that the house, the estate, the car they drove home in- were all his, and he had been impressed. If what she said was true, then he could see that he had done quite well for himself. When he said as much, she confirmed that sentiment, going on to tell him that he did well at “just about everything”. There was an invitation in her “everything”, and all apprehension about being with her went right out the window. He didn’t know her, but he wanted to know her. After all, the gorgeous, classy redhead was his wife, proof positive that he had done exceedingly well for himself.

She had been embarrassed, amused, and confused by the situation, as was he, but they quickly got over it, fully giving in to the undeniable, close to illicit excitement it generated.

Funny how you can have amnesia, but you don’t forget how to do that. I guess if you’ve got it in you-

“What are you smiling at, Jonathan?” Lori Eckhert, a city official who was seated next to him, leaned in to him whispering, wanting to know.

“Nothing.” He whispered back to her in answer, a little embarrassed at being caught while pursuing the line of thought he was on. “Just going over something that happened a while back. Long time ago. Long before all of this.”

“Good you have something pleasurable to take your mind off this horror for a minute.” She said, patting his arm and then leaning back into her seat to resume paying attention.

He looked to his other side, to August who was deep into what the current speaker was saying.

For a few more minutes, he went back to reflecting upon how gradually recovering his memory in that past instance also revealed, like the pages turning in a book, that he had witnessed a murder, and that he and Jennifer were in danger because of what someone else feared he knew. In the end, it almost cost Jennifer her life, and rescuing her from the murderer was what brought everything back into focus.

It was Jennifer’s doctor’s husband whom he’d seen in the telescope. He was in front of a window in a nearby apartment house, clubbing a young, blonde woman, dressed in a white negligee, over the head. She fell from his sights. It was to Drew and to that apartment that he had been running when he collided with the guy on the motorcycle in which he’d sustained his head injury. It was Drew who tried killing him as well once he realized that his secret might get out if he regained his memory. He’d been drugged, but Drew hadn’t succeeded in taking him out.

It was the truth that ended up coming out. Drew went to jail. Kate, although mortified by the seedy details of Drew’s disastrous affair, divorced him and went on with her life and her practice. Since then, she’d put her two kids through medical school. Drake was still in his residency, and Kate Jr. was just about ready to set up her own practice. Drake would be joining her after finishing his studies.

It made him wonder even more about HartToys and Chris. And Claire. About Rider and his wife. About Marston Knight. About Victor Shell.

Did Chris know something she shouldn’t? Did someone think she might know? Could she still be in danger? Of course she was.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it when August pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked it. He must have had it on vibrate; the display was lit.

About Jennifer.

And J.J.

It all made him uneasy.

_________________________________________________________

“Did u get 2 read it?”

In the lobby, checking her phone messages while Chris was being examined one more time by the staff physicians, Jennifer read the text message. Getting it made her check her watch and then the large clock behind the reception desk.

She texted back. “Y arent U in class?”

“I am n class,” was the rapid-fired answer.

Jennifer stared at the cell phone in her hand in disbelief.

Nobody except that girl of hers would have the nerve to be text messaging her mother from the classroom when the phone should have been off, and she should have been paying attention to her own affairs, not checking into someone else’s. For a moment, it made her wonder how much text messaging went on between J.J. and her peers while they were in class, even more disconcerting, between J.J. and Marnie.

“Yes. Thank u. Phone off and get back to wk.”

“Luv u. Tell Aunt Pat luv her 2.”

Jennifer clicked off and phoned Pat a second time. Again there was no answer, and again she wasn’t surprised. When Pat shut down, she shut all the way down. What J.J. left for her on her desk that morning were the printed results of research she had done on human reactions to abnormal situations and on psychological problems associated with surviving a disaster.

J.J. must have picked up on Pat’s decline and went to work on that overworked computer of hers, lining up what she thought might be the cause of her godmother’s problem. What that girl culled from trolling the Internet seemed on the mark. It described to a tee what she also saw developing in Pat.

Stephen Edwards’ grandchild.

Jennifer Edwards’ daughter.

Jonathan Hart’s offspring.

Curiosity and copious research were definitely in Justine Jennifer’s genetic makeup.

Though it had never been discussed with her, no doubt in her extensive dealings with Pat throughout her life, J.J. had most likely seen glimpses of it in her godmother, but kept it to herself. J.J. generally tended to find and accept other people’s darker quirks and idiosyncrasies interesting rather than troubling as long as they didn’t directly affect her.

J.J. Hart, in leaving those print-outs for her that morning, had been looking out for both her mother and her Aunt Pat. Unfortunately, she had first-hand experience with what stress could do to a person and the trickle-down effect it often had on those who love that person.

Noticing a sign indicating the location of the hospital cafeteria, she decided to have a cup of coffee, maybe a salad, and to take the opportunity to more closely examine the contents of that folder Pat had given her. She hadn’t looked at it since peeking inside of it in the great room that morning. Then, too, there were those things Jonathan had shared with her that she hadn’t had the chance to adequately process.

_________________________________________________________

J.J. turned off the phone down in her lap, stuck it in her back pocket, and went back to the computer screen.

In the computer lab with her Literature class, she had been flipping between the screens she needed for her research paper to the screens she was pulling up for her own private research. One advantage to being first in her class was that teachers tended to not hover over her, checking to see what she was doing. Since she always got her work done, and did it well, she was usually afforded a lot of latitude within which to operate. Besides, even if someone were to question her soaking up the details of the previous day, she could always suggest it might be good for what she needed for her paper. If called on it, she could find some kind of way to tie it in. She was quick on her feet, and the teacher would probably buy it.

She had been checking out pictures and streaming video of the devastation, trying to look past the Trade Center photos to the surrounding buildings to see if there had been any damage to them. The Hamilton Press Building was very close to Ground Zero, and she read how the windows had been blown out of some nearby structures. Some of those buildings had been named in a couple of articles she read, but at that point, she hadn’t seen or read anything about Hamilton House.

Out of the thousands of people missing, she wondered if any of them had been Aunt Pat’s people. It was habit for some of them to go over there for breakfast or other business. That would have put any of the breakfast folks on the ground floor, but what about someone who went over for other reasons, reasons that might have put them higher up? And what about all the people Aunt Pat knew over there? Who worked over there? Her friends. Whole businesses were on those upper floors. Completely wiped out….

Those cops and firemen who went in to help, not knowing it wasn’t over, who never made it back out… that got caught up….

For a moment, it was too much, and she had to put her head down on the keyboard.

“The Duchess told you not to be looking at that stuff.”

Out of no where, there was Marnie, standing behind her with Jaden strapped to her front.

“What are you doing here,” J.J. asked, lifting her head and wiping at her damp forehead. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Calvin’s Econ class? I know she didn’t let you out.”

“Grimsley sent for me. I guess she’s heard about my father, and she wants to see if I’m okay. I haven’t been there yet. I stopped to see about you first.”

“Me? What about you?”

“I’m all right.”

J.J. leaned back in her chair to see where the teacher was. Ms. Kelsaw, observing them from the front table, nodded her approval.

“She said it was cool for me to come talk to you,” Marnie said, confirming she hadn’t just sneaked into the room, which wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility for her. “I think all the teachers know why you and I weren’t here yesterday. When your mother called school to say we were going to be out, she must have told them why. I’ve been getting cut slack all day. Adults feeling all sorry for me, treating me nice and stuff. Be devastated and come to Grimsley’s office with me.”

“No. She’ll be trying to ask me questions and talk to me. I don’t go in for that sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with me, so I definitely don’t need or want any counseling from her. I’m fine.”

“Then why did you have your head down when I came in here?”

“I’m just tired. Genie kept me up again.”

“Then come on. Take a break. You can skip while I go to Grimsley. Kelsaw will let you out. ”

“Nah, I don’t think so. I’d rather finish what I’m into here.”

“You need to leave that alone. It messes with your mind, just like everybody, I’m sure, has told you.”

“I’m doing my work, Marnie.”

“You’re being hard-headed, J.J.”

“So who are you now? My mother? Aunt Pat?”

“Whatever. So like, okay, tell me. Why did I see Bianca Rojas going down the hall with Genie at the start of class?”

J.J.’s eyes went wide. “With Genie? You sure?”

“Pink dress, pink socks, little yellow rosette head band on her red head?”

“Where was Hector?”

“Didn’t see him anywhere. Just Bianca and her girls with Genie, going up into the restroom. The bell was about to ring, so I didn’t get a chance to ask her what was up with that.”

“You’re lying, trying to play me to get me to go out of here with you.”

Marnie raised her right hand and solemnly swore, “If I’m lying, I’m flying, and you don’t see any wings on me.”

J.J. raised her hand. “Ms. Kelsaw. May I go see Ms. Grimsley?”

“Sure, J.J.,” Ms. Kelsaw answered, her voice hinting compassion. “Get your things together, and I’ll write you a pass.”

“Told you,” Marnie whispered. “They’re all at our beck and freaking call.”

“You’ll milk anything, won’t you, Marn?”

“For all it’s worth. I can sit through counseling with Grimsley if it means getting out of Econ with Calvin.”

“Well, when I get through with Hector.” J.J. grumbled as she logged off her computer. “He’s the one who’s going to need the counseling.”

_________________________________________________________

As she read through them, Jennifer scribbled notes onto the margins of the Mole’s notes. A lot of what she read, she had learned from Jonathan on the night before. He filled her in on quite a bit, but there were things inside that folder that she had not aware of, enlightening details, which until then hadn’t concerned her or occurred to her to know them, but that significantly fleshed out the players.

The Allen sisters had lost both their parents to an automobile accident a little over two decades before. It happened when Chris was in her last year of college and Claire was just a little girl. Once again, there it was, that fateful age- twelve; that was how old Claire had been at the time. Arrangements were made to bring Claire to California from their native Colorado, and from that point, Chris assumed the role of parent to her younger sister. Just out of childhood herself, she’d seen Claire through middle school, high school, and then through college. Chris supported them on what was left to them by their parents, and on whatever salary Chris was earning at the time.

Jennifer sat back to contemplate that. It was no wonder that Chris was such a hard worker. It was all she knew to do.

That was a detail that, up to that moment, she hadn’t known about Chris; never would have suspected it. At twenty-three, twenty-four, Chris was doing what she hadn’t undertaken until she was in her fifties- raising a teenager. Up until this latest thing, she’d only ever considered the woman herself, almost as if Chris existed in a vacuum. Chris had come on board right after Jonathan acquired the enterprise that would become known as HartToys. He’d taken it on as a lark, buying out a friend who was faltering financially and needed the influx of cash. It was originally a facility that Jonathan intended to incubate for a few years, maybe write off as a loss during that time, and then sell down the line. But like almost everything he put his hands into, it had taken off under him, and in the end, he’d held onto it, building it into the technology driven powerhouse that it currently was in its market.

She could recall hearing Chris’ name come up every now and then over the years; Jonathan didn’t often talk business in-depth at home. But whatever was said about her, it was always positive; she was smart, hardworking, had good instincts- all of which was backed up in those notes in that folder. In her own personal interactions with her, she had been impressed with Chris’ mature, professional carriage and her apparent confidence in the various roles she’d played. Between the lines on those papers and aside from her own impressions, however, Jennifer could see another side of her. It was a much stronger, deeper, more genuinely human side.

She folded her arms and thought about her own situation with J.J. in comparison to Chris’ with Claire.

At twelve, thirteen, fourteen, J.J. had been a terror. Even at sixteen, she could still be difficult, as evidenced by her strongly independent and oppositional reaction after Jonathan’s recent illness. If Claire had been anything even remotely like J.J., she wondered how Chris had managed. She had been so young herself, holding down a full time job and raising a child. It seemed as if she’d put her own personal life on hold to raise her sister. She might not have, but it made sense that she had to put off some of the things she might have wanted to do. Even as an older, married, accomplished woman with a husband who insisted upon being nothing less than a hands-on father, she found that she’d had to adjust or put aside some things she had once been able to do before J.J.

At least, for her there had been time before J.J., years where her life had been her own and she had been free to get to know herself. She’d had time to enjoy life on her own and then the one she developed with her husband. How had Chris managed? Maybe because she didn’t know how it could be, she didn’t miss what she hadn’t ever had.

Was the sister now a factor in Chris’ current troubles? Was the man trouble the Mole alluded to Chris having, trouble with Claire’s man and not hers?

According to those notes, Ms. Claire had gotten herself way out there on the edge before she made that call to Jonathan, and he and August arranged to have her hips snatched back in and stashed away for safekeeping. That was another appointment that had to be kept, but it wasn’t as if that particular client was going anywhere any time soon. She’d sit right there on ice where she’d remain until someone had the time to get to her and to make her explain herself. Chris came first.

Jennifer continued to flip through. So much of what Jonathan said Zale had revealed to him was on the pages in front of her. It was as if Zale and the Mole were tapping the same sources. It made her wonder….

Still there was nothing much about Rider and his wife. Nothing that would explain their suspected executions. She still held to the idea that someone was looking for something that one of them had. Her money was on Rider having it, and the wife being an afterthought on the part of the seeker of whatever it was that was lost.

At least now they knew how Marston Knight fitted into the picture. What would a lovely young woman like Claire see in an old goat like Knight? Why the ducats, of course. What else could there be? The money, the proximity to power, and the opportunities both could afford her.

In her station in life, she had seen that sort of thing too many times, even to some of her acquaintances who married or dated for that rather than what it should have been about. In fact, she currently had her eye on Marnie, whom she could easily see getting caught up in something like that if she weren’t tended to a bit more wisely and thoroughly in the upcoming few years. It was why Stephen Edwards taught her to work, and why she insisted upon J.J.- and Marnie- learning to hold their own.

Dr. Langford walked up to the table in that corner of the cafeteria where she had stationed herself. “I was hoping to find you here.”

Jennifer looked up from her papers at him, closing the folder. “I told Chris that I wouldn’t leave without telling her that I was. How is she?”

“I left her going back to sleep. I think she’ll be out for a while. Despite the fact that she’s been under for three days, she’s pretty tired after all she’s been through. Did she tell you anything?”

“Not a whole lot.” Jennifer answered. “She said that she was still a bit dizzy and weak.”

She didn’t want to give Chris away completely. She wasn’t sure how much detail of the more personal information Chris wanted people to know. “She doesn’t remember much past Saturday afternoon, when she was at work.”

“Did she ask for her sister?”

“No. I didn’t mention her, hoping that she might, but she didn’t bring her up at all.”

The doctor who had turned a chair around backward to sit, straddling it, scratched at his chin as if he were considering something.

“Dr. Langford, do you have any idea how much longer she’ll be here?”

“At least a couple more days. The swelling’s down considerably in her brain, but I’d like to have her here when we let her know about the disaster, to monitor her reactions. Once the swelling is down completely, we’ll be running some more neurological tests, just to be sure that all is well. Also, I’d like to find out some more about those bruises to her body. She didn’t mention anything about that to you, did she?”

Jennifer shook her head.

She wanted to tell him, but she didn’t, that it might not be such a good idea for him to broach that subject with Chris. If Chris remembered how she got them, which she most likely did considering she got them before that Saturday of the accident, she was probably not going to tell him about it. If they were gotten in some ugly, untoward manner, like she suspected they were, then Chris would pretend to not remember just to save face.

After all, Jennifer was thinking, if someone had asked her that time, she wouldn’t have said. It would have killed her to have been made to say. Not even Aunt Sabrina asked, and she had seen them on her for herself.

“No.” She finally answered. “She didn’t say anything about that. I don’t think she was thinking about them at the time. She was still trying to get her footing in general.”

The doctor nodded.

“Dr. Langford, do you think it would be all right if I went by Chris’ apartment and picked up some of her personal things? Maybe a robe and some slippers? A nightgown or two? Maybe some of her toiletries. That might make her feel more comfortable. It might even jog some memory. She seemed pretty tense to me, and that can’t be helpful to her recovery. She’s not used to being kept down like that.”

“I think that might be a good idea.” The doctor answered. “Do you have access to her place?”

“I do.”

She still had Chris’ purse with all of her personal effects, including keys to her car and her apartment, which she’d held onto after being given them when she and Jonathan arrived at the hospital. Once she finished with Chris, the apartment would be her next stop. And then perhaps there would still be time to fit in a visit to Ms. Claire Allen.

_________________________________________________________

Charging down the hall in the direction of Hector’s algebra class, J.J. was stopped by the familiar, artificial feline-sounding wail. Marnie, who was still with her, as Hector’s class was in the direction of the Counseling Center, almost ran right into her. Rounding the corner, to their horror, it wasn’t Bianca they found pacing the hall with Genie, who was crying fitfully. It was Carmelita Rodriguez, the girl who had been loudly voicing her exception to Hector doing the FACS project with J.J.

Before J.J. could even open her mouth to confront her about how and why she had her baby, Carmelita lit into her.

“J.J. Hart, how you gonna just abandon Hector’s baby like that? I went to the bathroom and found her where you left her in one of the stalls. I got a good mind to go down and tell Ms. Leonard on you.”

Appalled at the accusation, J.J. held up the flat of one hand. “Hold on, ‘Lita. You say you found her in a stall in the bathroom?”

“You know good and well where you left her, all careless and stuff, like she’s a book bag or something. How sorry and lowdown can you be?”

Genie was still crying in Carmelita’s arms.

J.J. closed her eyes for a moment to beat back the outrage. When she spoke again, it was through her clenched teeth.

“Quit jumping to conclusions, ‘Lita, just because Hector is your boy. I didn’t have her. Hector was supposed to have her. I left her in his care. When did you find her?”

“Just now.” Carmelita answered. “I got a pass to go to the bathroom, and when I got in there I heard what sounded like a baby crying. It kind of scared me at first. I mean, you never know- after that thing with Milini and all that went down with her last year in the locker room. When I opened the door to the back stall, there this baby was on the floor.”

Genie was just a doll, but J.J. felt as if the sudden heartbreak would choke all the air out of her; it was almost impossible for her to breathe.

“Hand her here.” She managed to say as she held  out her arms.

“Bianca had her.” Marnie informed Carmelita while with her own hands she cradled Jaden who was still in his cloth carrier on her chest. “Not J. I saw Bianca with her, and I’m the one who told J. about it. I don’t know how Bianca came to have her, but J.J. didn’t do this. The breakdown is somewhere between Hector and his girl.”

“I cannot believe Hector.” J.J. murmured as she looked Genie over. “I know this isn’t for real, she’s not a real baby, but I thought more of him than this. He didn’t want to take her, I made him, but I didn’t think he’d go and just hand her to anybody. He’s irresponsible, but I didn’t know it was like this. I feel so bad now about leaving her with him.”

She pressed Genie to her. Her little dress was soiled and the hem felt damp in one place. Her rosette headband was crooked on her head and one rosy cheek was smudged. For some reason, the sight and the situation made J.J. want to cry. She turned from Marnie and Carmelita before it could happen in front of them, and she embarrassed herself.

She began to walk away. “Thanks, ‘Lita.”

“No problem.” She heard Carmelita say. “Hey, I’m sorry I accused you, J. I should have known better. And, I was just playing with you when I was messing with you about stealing my man. I mean Hector’s cute and all, but now I don’t know if I want somebody who’d do his own kid like that.”

Marnie patted Carmelita’s arm in thanks before hurrying behind J.J. When she caught up to her, it shocked her when she noticed the water welling in her best friend’s smoky eyes.

“Maybe you should come with me to Grimsley before you go after Hector.” She suggested.

J.J. shook her head, still clutching Genie who’d gone silent, to her breast. “No. You go on to her office before you get in trouble for not reporting. As for me, I don’t need for anybody to get between me and Hector over this.”

_________________________________________________________

“I’ll see you downtown.” Herschel Gray said, shaking hands with both Jonathan and August before parting from them after the city hall meeting to go to his own car and return to his office at police headquarters. “Jonathan, I’ll keep everything you said in mind, you just don’t try keeping me in the dark too long.”

“As soon as we can,” Jonathan promised with his customary congeniality and charm. “We’ll let you know what we need.”

“You didn’t have very much to say in there.” August commented as he and Jonathan climbed into the back seat of the car in which they had arrived. “I think people were a little disappointed that you didn’t offer more.”

“Not that much for me to say.” Jonathan answered, sliding down into a relaxed position, closing his eyes, and lacing his fingers  together across his midsection. “The damage is done, August. We’re just running scared now. We can patch, we can buttress, but we can’t fix the damage that’s been done. We can’t bring those people back who paid for our negligence as a nation yesterday with their lives. The Trade Center is gone. The Pentagon was attacked. People are stranded, left behind wondering, shell shocked, and worst of all, we can’t give our kids back their sense of security.”

August had no response for any of that, so he too sat back and relaxed for the ride over to police headquarters to take care of their more pressing business.

The driver pulled off, and for a while neither man said anything more.

_________________________________________________________

When Jennifer got back up to the room, Chris was still sleeping. The nurse said because it was her first natural sleep since waking from the medically induced slumber she had been in for three days, it was likely she wouldn’t be waking again very soon. Due to the gaps in her recall that the doctor wanted to be filled in naturally and the mystery surrounding her situation, she wasn’t being allowed any other visitors outside of her, Claire, and perhaps, Jonathan.

Jennifer didn’t want to leave her, but driven by habit to use her time efficiently, she decided to go and do the things she needed to do rather than sitting and watching Chris sleep. She finished writing her note, folded it, and placed it on the table next to the bed in a spot where Chris could easily see it and reach it in the event that she should wake before she returned. Doing that would ensure that Chris would understand that she hadn’t left without saying goodbye to her, and that she planned on coming back.

Standing over her, Jennifer smoothed her hand over the hair Chris had been so concerned about losing, moving it back from her face. For a moment, looking at Chris made her wonder what kind of turns her own life might have taken and what kind of woman she might have turned out to be had Jonathan not come into her life. Would she be happy? Satisfied? Fulfilled? Lonely? Bitter? Secretly desperate?

It also made her wonder what Claire had done to cause her to call Jonathan and blame herself for her sister getting hurt. Did she mean the car accident, those fading bruises to Chris’ body? Both? Or was she alluding to something else, something else that might be yet to come?

Her head swirling with questions, Jennifer gathered her things and left on her way to Chris’ apartment. Pushing the things for which she had no answers to the side, she began making mental note of the items that Chris might need or want to make the rest of her hospital stay more comfortable.

_________________________________________________________

At the juncture of two halls, the one that would take Marnie to the Counseling Center and the other that would lead J.J. to Hector’s class, the girls ran smack into Hector coming from the direction of the Counseling Center.

“Oh hey,” he said, smiling as he spied the doll on J.J.’s arm. “I was just on my way to get her, but I see you already did.”

J.J.’s eyes were stainless blue steel slits.

Marnie didn’t stop. Touching an index finger to her forehead, chest, and both shoulders, she passed her two friends, offering up a rare prayer- one big enough to cover Hector’s eternal soul, as well as his earthly ass.

“On my way to get her?” J.J. hissed, mocking his words.

She held Genie out to him so he could see the condition she was in. “Look at her. Where in the hell did you leave her? Why the hell did you leave her?”

Caught off guard by Genie’s appearance and J.J.’s anger, Hector took a shocked step back.

“J.J, I-”

J.J. took a step in, filling the gap left by Hector’s retreat. “I cannot believe you. I knew you were a slacker about some things, but I thought way better of you than this. I mean, you have a younger sister, little brothers.”

“What happened to her, J.?”

“What happened? I left her with you, but you’re asking me what happened to her? You don’t have a clue, do you? How could you be so careless?”

By this time, J.J. was yelling, causing Hector to panic, his eyes darting all around, checking their surroundings. “Hold it down, J.,” he urged, moving back in, closer to her. “Somebody, some teacher will hear you.”

“Like I care,” she screamed, snatching away from his reaching hands.

“Shhh. Calm down. Just let me explain.”

“No. I will not calm down.”

“Just let me please tell you.”

“What, Hector? What can you possibly tell me that would make one iota of sense about this?”

“I didn’t have her, J., but there was a-”

“I know you didn’t have her. But you were supposed to have her, not give her to one of your bimbos to look after. I repeat, how fa-re-e-eaking careless can you be?”

“I was not careless, J. Honest. I-”

“The hell you weren’t, Hector! Genie was in the girls’ bathroom, on the floor, all wet and nasty and crying. And then Carmelita, of all people, was the one to find her. Now explain to me, if you possibly can, how that happened. Explain to me how that came to be.”

“J.J., I swear to God I don’t know what happened. I-”

“SHUT UP! Don’t say anything else to me. All I know is I left her with you, and then I find out she’s not with you; she’s in the john.”

In desperation, Hector said the only thing he could think of: “I told you I didn’t want to keep her.”

Genie began to cry.

A teacher opened her door and stuck her head out of a nearby room. “Is there a problem? Do you two have passes to be in the hall?”

Both J.J. and Hector held up their signed hall passes.

“Then you need to go on your way.” The teacher directed, “You two and that doll are keeping up an awful racket.”

She took a half step out into the hall, one hand on her hip, making it clear she meant for them to move on.

“Well you won’t EVER have to worry about keeping her again, Hector Diaz,” J.J. said, lingering just long enough to visually sear him from his feet to his forehead, before storming off.

Hector, less intimidated by the teacher’s presence than by the situation he found himself in, called out to J.J., but she didn’t turn around, and of course, she didn’t stop.

“Looks like she is through with you,” the teacher said to Hector. “What did you do?”

“Nothing,” Hector muttered.

“That’s usually the problem,” the woman said, sounding not quite sympathetic to his plight. “Go on to class. The two of you can work your domestic differences out later.”

Hector watched J.J. until she went through the Counseling Center door. Then, crumbling his pass in his fist and stuffing his hands down in his pockets, he stalked off in the opposite direction. From his determined stride, he appeared to be a man on a mission.

_________________________________________________________

Among the items retrieved from Chris Allen’s car, delivered to LA police headquarters, and  brought to Herschel Gray’s office per August Lamb’s orders, were her laptop computer and her briefcase.

“The guys called me in Tahoe as soon as it was established that the woman in the car was a Hart executive. Technically it wasn’t our jurisdiction, but the rules kind of shift and spread out when it’s Hart-related.”

“Thanks, Hershel,” Jonathan said as he watched August sift through the collection of items in the cardboard box on the table. “Where’s the car?”

“Ventura has it,” Gray answered. “I’m told it’s totaled.”

“Pity,” Lamb said without stopping his digging. “She was crazy about that ‘Vette. It was sharp; she had it customized just for her. I remember the day she got it. She had been talking to me about having ordered it, and then the day she got it, she drove it by the house so I could take a look at it. My daughter happened to be home from school on break. Chris took her for a spin, and Danielle right away fell in love with it. Started begging me to get her one. I had to tell her, Chris is independent and she bought hers with her own money, and if she wanted a Corvette, then once she gets out of school, gets a job, and starts footing her own bills, if she can afford one then; she can have one.”

Jonathan had the briefcase and laptop. As he put the strap for the laptop case over his shoulder, he asked Gray, “I’d like to take a look at the car. Can that be arranged?”

“If her insurance company hasn’t had it picked up.” Gray was already reaching for the phone. “I got a guy who knows the guy up there personally. Not like your getting in would be a problem. They’ll let you in to take a look. I’m pretty certain they’re finished with all of their investigating.”

A cell phone rang, and Lamb and Gray reached for theirs. Jonathan did not; he knew that it wasn’t his. His phone was still on vibrate, and when it did ring, J.J. had his programmed to play the theme from Inspector Gadget. Jennifer found it silly and unprofessional, but he and J.J. thought it appropriate for him. After all, the tips of his fingers tingled with anticipation of getting Chris’ laptop and briefcase up to his office. There was nothing like picking a lock or hacking past a password. It wasn’t right, nor was it ethical, but his instincts insisted there was something terribly wrong, and Chris may have stumbled on something that she almost had her own lights put out over it.

_________________________________________________________

Freda Grimsley sat in her office with Marnie Benson, who was seated on the couch across from her desk, taking loose the straps of the child carrier in which her FACS Project baby was fastened to her. Watching her, Ms. Grimsley could only shake her head; the child had on an outfit that had to cost at least three times what she was wearing. Even among the highly eclectic student body attending that specialized school, some of them children of extremely well-off parents, Marnie stood out. She was always sharply dressed, never a hair out of place.

Unfortunately, Marnie was also one of those out of her particular group of counselees upon whom she’d bestowed the title, “Frequent Flyer” due to the volume of referrals she received on her over the years. Thus far, for this new semester, Marnie hadn’t been formally referred at all, just a couple of casual mentions from Ms. Calvin. But those two had a bit of ‘history’ between them, and then, the school year was still in its infancy.

This time she sent for Marnie on her own. Maureen Tolbert, Marnie’s mother had called long distance from Boston that morning to let her know of Mr. Benson’s accident. She also wanted her to know Marnie would be living with the Harts until her father, with whom Marnie had taken up residence over the past summer, was able to return home, which might not be for some time. Right behind her call, Jennifer Hart had phoned as well to let her know the girls were returning to school from their security absence on the day before, to inform her of Marnie’s father’s condition, and to let her know about the change in Marnie’s living arrangements and of their guardianship of her.

Although she was sorry about Marnie’s father, she was very happy for Marnie. Nothing could have been better for her. Marnie ran over her mother, and plucked at father’s heartstrings as if strumming a bass fiddle at a hoe-down. Having dealt with Marnie, J.J., and Mr. and Mrs. Hart ever since the girls started the high school part of the Gifted and Talented program, she was well aware of the positive dynamics between the Harts and those two teenaged best friends. Both girls were leaders, excellent students, and each was a handful in her own way.

Marnie was a spitfire, frequently in trouble for her mouth, being willful, and for her sometimes negative attitudes. J.J. defied any single description. Given the moment and the circumstances, she could be anything. In all of her years in the educational field, she had never met anyone like J.J. Hart. She could be mischievous and playful outside and in the halls, but in the classroom she was serious and responsible. Most of the time, no matter her mood, with adults, if nothing else, she was always polite and respectful. In being her counselor, J.J. made it so easy for her that dealing with her was difficult. Where Marnie would come to her at times, and they could talk; she had never been able to get close to J.J. about anything other than academics, and even with that, there was only so much J.J. needed. When the time came, J.J. Hart was going to be writing her own free ticket to the university of her choice.

But into the third year of being her counselor, she hadn’t made any headway with J.J. on personal matters at all. That one didn’t seem to need, want, nor would she allow that kind of nurturing or intervention from her.

On the other hand, because of their frequent contacts, forced and otherwise, she and Marnie had settled into a comfortable, workable relationship. Marnie listened when she chose to hear what was being said to her. When she didn’t, she wasn’t ever rude, at least not to her. When she turning a deaf ear to what was being suggested, those long-lashed brown eyes kind of glazed over, and if she was completely tuning out, she might pull an emery board or a bottle of clear topcoat from her purse and begin shaping or polishing her always perfect nails.

Marnie removed the doll from her completely, wrapped him in the carrier, and lay him down on the couch.

“I’m kind of surprised to see you with him,” Ms. Grimsley said from her seat behind her desk. “I thought Sidney had custody of your baby.”

“So, you teachers do talk about us behind our backs, don’t you?” Marnie said. “Who told you all of that?”

“Don’t worry about who told me, Marnie Benson. So what happened? I saw Sidney with him yesterday.”

Marnie sat down on the couch and crossed her legs. “I just had a change of heart, that’s all. Plus Sid was acting funny about me paying him child support, but-” Marnie stopped to hold up a finger and snake her neck, “that wasn’t about to happen. I took Jaden back from him. Sid can pay me. That’s the natural order of things anyway.”

Flinching, then frowning, Ms. Grimsley decided against attempting to debate “the natural order of things” with that tiny, opinionated, obstinate package across from her.

“Jaden. That’s his name?”

“Yeah. Sid named him. I like it, though. He’s a real good baby. J. got a crier. I feel for her.”

“Speaking of crying, Marnie. I heard about your father. Your mother and Mrs. Hart phoned me this morning.”

Marnie held up her hand. “Can I stop you?”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to talk about that. Don’t worry; I’m okay. There’s nothing wrong with me at all. I just don’t want to talk about it now.”

“Maybe later?”

“If I need to, Ms. Grimsley, I know where to find you.”

“Promise me, you’ll come?”

“It’s a deal. But only if I need to. Promise me you won’t bug me about it.”

“It’s a deal. So how do you feel about living with the Harts?”

This time, Marnie smiled. With a wave of that same hand, she relaxed. “I practically live there anyway, so it’s cool. Besides, it’s not forever. When my father comes home, I’ll go home again. My only concern is with my two smaller brothers, but with the car, I can go check on them as often as I want. I keep a cell, so I can call them or their nannies when I feel like it, too.”

“I’m glad you’re thinking about your brothers. Have you spoken with your stepmother?”

“I thought we agreed we weren’t going there.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know she was included in the off-limits area.”

“That bit- She is always off limits, Ms. Grimsley.”

“My fault. I should know that by now. Marnie, Mrs. Hart is going to be a lot tougher on you than your own mother.”

“I know it.”

“She won’t take the things off you that your mother and father take.”

“I know it.”

“Will you be all right with that?”

“And if I wasn’t?” Marnie threw up her hands. “What could I do about it? Ms. Grimsley, look, I’m fine. Really. Don’t worry about me. Who you need to be worried about right now is-”

There was a knock at the window, and they both looked up to see J.J. peeking through the glass. Ms. Grimsley waved her in.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said as she entered with her FACS baby in her arms. “I just need you to sign my return pass.”

“But you didn’t come to see me,” Ms. Grimsley said as she checked out the release time on J.J.’s pass as well as her flushed cheeks and watery eyes. “Say, are you all right?”

J.J.’s words came fast. “I know, Ms. Grimsley. I didn’t come right off like I was supposed to, but can you please just play along? I really was legit; I wasn’t hanging out. I had some serious business I had to handle about the FACS project, and I had to get out of class right then. It wouldn’t wait. And then, too, you have to admit, I am in here, seeing you now.”

The counselor in Ms. Grimsley wanted to delve deeper.

“J.J., I heard about your close call with your aunt yesterday. Maybe you should stay a minute.”

But J.J., standing next to where she was seated, was already gazing past her; the neon “CLOSED” sign blinking above her head.

Ms. Grimsley signed the pass. “Alright. Go on back, J.J. I put the time on there.”

“Thank you. I appreciate this. See you in the lot after last period, Marn.”

When she was gone, Marnie tipped her head toward the door. “She had to get with Hector. Some serious baby- mama- drama had jumped off, and she had to check him on it. I left before she could get started hammering him into the floor, but I’ll bet you she nailed him good. Rusty, corroded, spike-like nails all in him. She was mad as hel- eck when I saw her last. That’s was why her face looked like that. Hector has really messed up with her, and his timing couldn’t have been worse.

“I do have some issues, Ms. Grimsley, I admit that much, but then, I always have them. I can deal with mine. For real, it’s not me you should be concerned with this time.”

When J.J. returned to the computer lab and approached Ms. Kelsaw to give her the return pass, she noticed tGenie’s cloth carrier and diaper bag on the teacher’s desk.

“These were dropped off for you a couple of minutes ago,” the woman said, “by a very contrite looking young man.”

J.J. shifted her notebooks and Genie in her arms, then took them. “Ms. Kelsaw, I know I just came from the hall, and that I should have done it then, but would you mind if I went back out to go to the ladies’ room? I need to change her. I have all my work for today completed.”

She could see Ms. Kelsaw checking her out as she considered the request, and she hoped the woman wouldn’t ask her any questions. She was too close to the edge for anyone to be asking her anything about anything. To her relief, the teacher pulled out her pad of passes.

“I guess so” she answered. “There’s only a few more minutes left in this period. And put some old water on your own face, too, while you’re in there.”

Fighting back tears, J.J. nodded.

Ms. Kelsaw filled in the information, stopping to take a look at her watch to put down the time. “It’s hard being a single mother, isn’t it, J.J.?” she said.

J.J. didn’t answer that one at all.

Ms. Kelsaw swiveled around in her chair to look her in the eye when she handed her the signed pass.”Been there, J.J.,” she said. “But you do what you have to do, regardless. Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger when you get to the other side of it.”

“I’ve heard that said before, Ms. Kelsaw,” J.J. said, managing a weak smile. “But thank you for saying it to me today. I needed to hear it. ”

After cleaning Genie up and changing her outfit, enduring two quick crying jags from her while doing so; J.J. splashed several handfuls of cold water onto her own face. She toweled off, feeling refreshed and more in control of her emotions.

By the time the bell rang, she and Genie were once again ready to face the world. It was time for lunch, and she hurried to get out of there before the between-class hordes descended upon the restroom. But rather than heading for the cafe, where the crew would be gathering at the back tables, she made for the back doors, having decided to go outside and be by herself with Genie and her own thoughts.

J.J. climbed up to the very top row of the bleachers and took a seat. Loosening the straps on Genie’s carrier, she smoothed her hand over the sparse, fine curls and marveled at how sometimes Genie’s eyes were closed as if she were sleeping and at others they would be open, simulating she was awake. At that moment, they were open and Genie was looking up at her as if she knew who she was and trusted her.

“So like, what all happened to you this morning? I sure wish you could talk and tell me. How in the world do real mothers leave their little babies with sitters when the baby can’t say what happened while the mother was gone? How does the mother not worry herself to death while she’s away from her child?”

It had to be about trust, as her own mother said.

After all, Jennifer Hart has to be the queen of paranoid when it comes to her one duckling.

“But what if the mother has trust issues in general? What then, Genie?”

It wasn’t Genie who answered her; it was Jennifer’s voice she heard.

“You don’t get breaks just because the seas are rough on a particular day. You have to hang on and first, keep yourself in the boat. Then you have to hold on that much harder to the baby. You have to hold on and trust in that stronger power sustaining both of you.”

“But what if you still get let down like Hector did me and Genie today, Mom? I know she’s just a doll, but for some reason, I care. Even though she’s a royal pain in the butt, I care.”

… your child might not be as cooperative as you’d like, you keep your arms around her. You have to do that because, since you opted to be a single parent, you’re the one she counts upon to keep her safe and to help keep her life stable…

… even when a child has two parents in the home, in times of trouble, it’s most likely the mother to whom the child will turn….

“Just like you, I am that one.”

She hugged Genie to her, causing Genie to begin crying inside the carrier. J.J. continued to hold onto her.

“Cry for both of us, Genie. Cry for Aunt Pat worrying about her people, and for Chris, Mr. Rider and his wife… for Mr. Benson and Marnie, their whole family… for yesterday… for everybody … for everything….”

Up in the bleachers, away from it all, J.J. could see clear across campus, past “the wall” and out to the main drop-off street that ran in front of the school. People were going about their business, carrying on as if nothing had happened; as if nothing was changed or different in the world. As if nothing that occurred mattered. Hector was down there somewhere. And so was Bianca, both of them carrying on as if nothing at all mattered or anything bad had gone down.

After a while, once Genie stopped crying, J.J. realized it had grown quite cool up there, even in her letter jacket. After re-tightening the straps on the carrier, making sure Genie was warmly snuggled inside of it and zipped inside her jacket, she gathered her books and things, and got up to make her descent back down into the world.

_________________________________________________________

It was her last name that got her past security housed at the gated entrance. It was her face that registered with the private security stationed in front of the actual residence. Chris’ condo was a ranch unit, not an apartment in a high rise, like Ms. Fee’s; Tommy’s grandmother or Jonathan’s board chairman, Marcus Borland’s. Chris’ place was part of a development of similar, but not identical, semi-detached brick homes. Watching the numbers, Jennifer found the unit she was looking for at the highest point of a small rise in the road she was on.

Letting herself in, she was immediately impressed. The condo’s floor plan was open and flowing, inviting. From the foyer, she could see several rooms at once, which gave the residence a feeling of expansiveness. Soft pastels dominated the color scheme. The furnishings were contemporary and attractive, not necessarily expensive, but functional and meant to last. Adding to the comfortable ambiance was assorted live greenery- a couple of hanging plants as well as potted ones on the floor and a few on the tables. There was even a potted tree just inside the patio door.

But it was the neatness and order that Jennifer noticed most. It was extremely clean; not a thing seemed out of place. It all made her smile. Looking around herself, she was reminded of the corporate apartment Jonathan and Max shared when Jonathan first brought her to Los Angeles.

For a male household, the apartment had been surprisingly tastefully appointed. Jonathan, she learned, was very neat, almost obsessively so. His bedroom: the dresser, his chest, the closet, his bathroom were all spotless and meticulously ordered. Every shirt, pair of pants, his socks, briefs, his shaving gear, shampoo bottles; everything was in its place. His suite of rooms in the apartment wasn’t kept by Max; Jonathan took care of it all on his own. For her first few days there, she was almost uncomfortable, afraid she was going to upset the balance Jonathan had going for himself. She would watch him, folding, rolling, hanging things up, and wiping things down.

One morning, after he left for work, she finally asked Max about it. What he said to her made a lot of sense.

He sat her down and explained that even as a teenager, when he first took him in, whatever space Jonathan was given as his own, would always be kept clean and almost excessively tidy. Max said it took him a while to understand his adolescent charge’s non-adolescent behavior.

Jonathan, he explained, had grown up in a dormitory with no privacy and very few personal possessions. What little he had of his own, he cherished. He took great care of his meager belongings, and he kept them in a certain order to first, keep track of them, and second to be sure nobody was messing around in his space. He would arrange things a certain way, and if they weren’t in that same order when he returned, it was a signal to him that his privacy had been invaded, and there would be hell to pay. Checking with Sister Anastasia on his theory, Max found all of that out and that what he suspected of Jonathan was true: the orderliness was indeed a self preservation tactic.

Max also said that Jonathan was close-mouthed, and therefore, might not be the most forthcoming individual when it came to talking about things that bothered him or with asking for help when he needed it. He informed her that Jonathan had accumulated a whole host of those kinds of personal survival strategies, and she should feel free come to him if there was something that didn’t quite make sense about her seemingly easy-going fiancé.

What would she have done without Max in those early days before she understood Jonathan’s shutting down was not meant to intentionally shut her out?

Although he remained tidy and methodical, Jonathan had loosened up quite a bit since then. For him, she realized, it had also been a matter of trust, and from the start, they had always worked at respecting each other’s differences and needs. They found despite her surface complexities and pursuit of perfection, of the two of them, it was Jonathan who was actually the more complex and driven.

But once J.J. came into their lives, Jonathan had to give up completely his lingering expectation that things should and would be exactly where he left them. She and Max, knowing that was how he liked it and how he was accustomed to having it, would do that for him. But nothing fascinated baby J.J. more than those items that belonged to her daddy. His watches, keys, cufflinks, calculators, and assorted blinking, ticking, clinking or flashing objects; they were all fair game. The whole household had to be reexamined and items, including guns in drawers, under cushions, and on shelves, rearranged due to that little newcomer to their scene.

Teenaged J.J. still had no qualms about coming behind her father and moving/reading his current book, taking his tech magazines or instruction manuals into her room, sneaking a sip off his drink, fooling with the latest blinking, ticking, clinking, flashing gadget he was tinkering with; and he got a kick out of all of it.

She thought she could sense that same thing going on there in Chris’ apartment. Since Chris didn’t have children and lived alone, she could count on things staying where she left them. She could also rely on that order being her safety net, a security device of sorts. Chris would easily be able to tell if someone had been there in her absence by just looking around when she came in.

With that in mind, Jennifer moved carefully about the condo, going first to the kitchen where she sought out a pitcher to water the plants. After she took care of the plants, she checked the refrigerator for perishables, pouring down the sink a half quart of milk that smelled as if it might be going bad. She rinsed the carton out several times to remove any residue before placing it in the otherwise empty trash receptacle.

The air conditioning kept the place cool, but she wanted to slide open the patio door to admit some fresh air. However, being there alone, she thought better of it. Past precarious experiences taught her not to underestimate any situation, no matter how well-guarded the area or how safe she might be feeling in it.

As she tended a hardy hanging philodendron, she checked out the pictures placed among the books on a nearby bookshelf.

There were several family photos. Most of them appeared to have been taken years back, and in them she could recognize Chris as a girl. She assumed the much younger child pictured there was Claire, both of them with their parents. In another photo, she recognized Claire. She was older, but more youthful than she appeared at the hospital that day. It looked as if she was in the mountains somewhere, backpacking. On those shelves were several pictures of Claire and of others, but there were no pictures of men, or specifically, of a man who seemed a particular man.

The condo, although it was designed to appear as a ranch, was in reality, tri-level. Downstairs was mainly one large room that appeared to be multipurpose. Most of it seemed to be used as a den-recreational area. There was a wet bar, a wide screen television, and a wall unit with a stereo/ DVD system installed. One corner of the room was filled with workout equipment. The opposite corner, by a window. was outfitted with a desk, computer, files; all the things to equip a home office. A framed college graduation picture of Claire dominated the top shelf of the desk.

Jennifer shifted the vertical blinds hanging at the door wall to admit a bit more light for the benefit of the plants down there, but not wide enough for anyone outside to be able to clearly see and take inventory of what was inside. The view to the valley below was spectacular.

In the bathroom, she filled a paper drinking cup from the dispenser several times to water the greenery down there. Giving the desk a visual going over, the surface of it was cleared off, and she could see nothing in the slots and cubbies that immediately caught her attention. Given the neatness and order theory, she didn’t touch anything there.

Back on the main floor, she took the half staircase up to the next level, into a hall that had rooms on either side. There were two bedrooms and a guest bathroom. Jennifer peeked into both the other rooms before entering the master suite.

The eggshell blue and ivory colors dominating that bedroom immediately brought J.J. to mind. They were the principal colors in her room. That shade of blue had always been J.J.’s favorite. When other little girls were reaching for pink, J.J. Hart was displaying and acting upon a definite preference for blue.

Her mother always suspected that had a lot to do with J.J.’s love for and her alignment with her blue-eyed father.

“I like I have eyes like my daddy.”

The blue eyes had always been her favorite personal attribute.

Now, depending upon who was doing the asking, she might claim it to be her bosom. She was still awfully proud of those eyes, but J.J. was definitely aware that she was blessed with a more than decent rack, and she would do anything she could get away with in her efforts to show off that recently acquired bit of cleavage.

Who but J.J. Hart would be on her knees at the side of her bed, saying her nightly prayers with her mother looking on, tacking on the addendum, “And since it seems I’m going to have to have them, please give me real good boobs- with a line down them, like my mother’s and Aunt Sabrina’s. Amen”

Given her development in the years following, the girl had somebody’s ear up there.

Suppressing a smile, Jennifer pictured her daughter, poking out that chest.

… little hot Jezebel minx….

Still mindful of not overstepping herself, but on the lookout for anything telltale, she located a folded carryall in the closet to put things in she felt Chris might need or want. As all of her belongings were so meticulously arranged, it was a fairly easy task to complete. In the closet, everything was on hangers or folded on shelves- no hooks, and color-coordinated.

She selected a soft blue robe and a pair of blue slippers. As she went about her packing, Jennifer also made mental note there was nothing in that room to suggest the presence of a man.

Smart girl.

As a single woman in New York, it had been her policy to not bring men to her Manhattan apartment. Most times, she would meet her dates on some mutual ground. If the evening developed into anything, it wouldn’t be at her place. She called the shots on that. If she wanted to leave, she could, which she usually did. Because she didn’t intend to give anyone the impression he could stay, putting someone out who didn’t want to go had never been a problem. Nobody, outside of her father, was allowed to lay claim to her or to what was hers, and even he kept to his own spaces. Jonathan had been the first and the last man to put his shoes under her bed.

Peeking under Chris’ bed, there was nothing there except another pair of house slippers, women’s house slippers. If nothing else, Chris kept up appearances. There were no stories to be gleaned from that condo, at least none that were jumping off the page. Respect for the woman and her privacy kept Jennifer from going any deeper than the surface.

Zipping up the bag, she resigned herself to waiting Chris’ memory out, and then to the hope she could get her to talk and begin to connecting the dots for them all.

Back in her car, she checked her phone and noticed she had a message waiting.

_________________________________________________________

“Marnie, my notes for the meeting are in my locker in that dark blue folder. All you have to do is read from them. I didn’t have that much to report this time. It’s early in the year yet for the financial stuff.”

Where are you, J.J., and how come you aren’t coming to the meeting? You never miss Honor Society. You still mad?

“I’m not mad any more. Just kind of disappointed. Maybe depressed, I don’t know. I’m not coming back to school this afternoon. I feel like I need to be by myself for a while.”

Where are you?

“Don’t worry about that, Marn. Ignorance is bliss in some situations. If I don’t tell you where I am, you won’t have to lie or cover for me should somebody ask you. We only have FACS class after the meeting. You can get my back in there, can’t you?”

You know I will. Say, is Hector with you? He wasn’t at lunch. He skipped last hour, too.

“Don’t ask me about Hector. Of course he isn’t with me. I don’t know where he is, and I don’t want to know.”

Philly said to tell you she’s sorry about everything that happened. She said she warned you about her sorry-assed brother.

“That, she did.”

You’re not somewhere reading the paper or doing that Internet stuff, are you? I think you have yourself on overload, J.

“No, I’m just chilling, honest. Hey, how come you’re on the phone? Shouldn’t you be in class?”

I got a bathroom pass. I told you I’m milking this sympathy thing for all it’s worth. I had to find out where you were. When you didn’t show up at lunch, I knew you were skipping. If the Duchess finds out, you know she is going to kick the crap out of you. Somebody is bound to call her once you get reported AWOL.

“Whatever, Marn. At this point, I don’t even care. I don’t care about anything.”

You still going to Driver’s Ed. after school? You still meeting me in the lot?

“Yeah, I’ll be back in time for that. If we have any FACS homework, make sure you get that for me, too.”

“Tell her that I said to get herself back to class, and that she doesn’t have to wait for you after school.”

At the sound of the voice, J.J.’s breath hitched and she closed her eyes. She could hear her mother sliding into the booth seat across from her. “If you go to your driving class, I’ll be taking you. Then you hang up.”

“Gotta go, Marn.”

Yeah, I hear. You are so cold busted. Sorry for you, J. I’ll see you when I see you. If she asks you, tell her I had a restroom pass.

“As if that’s going to matter.”

J.J. clicked off and stuck the phone down in her bag. Tina showed up at the table with two cups. She slid the coffee in front of Jennifer.

“Here you are, Mrs. Hart.”

When Tina put the cup down in front of her, J.J. noticed the coffee she ordered and that was so slow in coming, had turned into hot chocolate. Looking up in question, from the look Tina gave her, Tina had been the one to turn her in.

The young woman held up her pinkie finger to her. “Girl power, J.,” she said before leaving her alone with her mother.

“I see Tina ratted me out.”

“She thought I should know where you were. She said he thought something was wrong with you.”

“I’m okay.”

“Then if you’re so okay, why are you here in the back booth of this shop and not in school where you should be? I thought we asked you not to stray today.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I just needed some space, so I came here. Where’s Aunt Pat?”

“She decided not to come with me. Ms. Grimsley phoned me, too, J.J. She told me you had just left her office, and it appeared you’d been crying or were upset. Did something happen between you and Hector this morning? She said that’s the word she got.”

“From Marnie, no doubt,” J.J. grimaced. “Can we please not talk about it right now, Mom?”

“Nope,” Jennifer said. “Unacceptable. I’ve told you about that. We don’t put things off any more. If it takes all day, Justine Hart, right here is where we’ll be. If a thing has you skipping your classes and disobeying your parents, it’s bad. If it bothers you this much, it bothers me even more.”

The she leaned forward, staring J.J. down, “I care about your happiness just as you care about mine. I could not be at peace if you were not.”

J.J. immediately recognized the quote. She smiled. “Gibran. Love Letters.”

“It’s Jennifer talking to her beloved daughter today.”

“So, you’re not mad at me for skipping?”

“I’m more concerned as to why you’re skipping.”

For a few moments, J.J. silently patted at Genie, still fastened to her in the carrier inside her jacket. Underneath the table, one foot nervously kept time with the hand.

Finally, unable to hold it in any longer, she broke down. “It’s all so terrible, Mom. Everything. Everybody.”

Then she hung her head to hide the sudden flow of tears. “I know I’m real wrong to be here and not at school, but I’m kinda glad Tina called you.”

“I think that’s why you came here, J.J. If you meant to skip just for the sake of it, I’m sure you could have found somewhere a lot less conspicuous and a lot more exciting to go.”

Jennifer came around the table to slide onto the seat with J.J.

“Sweetie, you’re tired. You should have taken yourself to bed last night when your father told you to. You’ve been up and down the past two nights with this project. You went through all of what happened yesterday. No matter what transpired between you and Hector this morning, I’m not going to have you cutting school over it. The information you left for me to read this morning, I’m sure you meant it for Pat, but it also applies to you, actually all of us, as well. This has all been a lot on you, J.J., and it doesn’t help that you are the nosiest, most stubbornly determined, hardheaded girl I have ever met. ”

Then, putting her arm around her and wiping at J.J.’s damp cheek with a napkin, she whispered, “Okay, I’ve said my piece, and I’m done. Now tell Mama all about it.”

__________________________________________________________

“You guys made it just in time,” The police impound yard manager was saying as he escorted Jonathan and August through the inner office to the rows of cars in the holding area. “This one was due to be transported to salvage this afternoon.”

“Upon whose request?” August asked.

“How would I know?” The officer asked, holding up the clipboard he had in his hand. “I just go by the paperwork they give me. I read here it’s been cleared as a total by insurance, and I see it’s written up for transport. As soon as the flatbed got here, it was on it’s way.”

Jonathan and August exchanged questioning glances. As the owner of the car, Chris was the only one who could have signed off on that, and it was a fairly certain thing that she hadn’t done it.

The Corvette was mostly a twisted mess, the front end horribly crumpled, windshield shattered, and both front airbags deployed. Viewing the actual result of the wreck for himself, Jonathan scratched his head in wonder and relief that Chris hadn’t come out of the incident any worse than she had. For him, it confirmed his opinion that she passed out behind the wheel before impact. Her body had to have been loose and pliant. It had gone with the  movement of the car rather than tensing against it, which might have set her up for injuries more serious than the ones she sustained.

“Is it okay if I take a look inside?” He asked the officer.

“Sure, I don’t see why not. We’re done with it.”

The dented driver’s side door was ajar, no longer able to close properly.

“Door jammed from the front end impact.” The officer said. It had to be pried open to get the driver out.”

Jonathan pulled it open and stuck his head inside. August went around to the passenger side and did the same.

“If Chris wasn’t already down for the count, she would be if she could see this car in this state.” August said. “What exactly are we looking for?”

“I don’t know.” Jonathan answered, sliding his hand under the steering console. “I just have a feeling.”

August looked up from his investigations around the open glove box and the area underneath it. “A hunch?”

Jonathan was bent down, checking on the floor, feeling under the driver’s side seat. From the floor he moved to the seat, pushing his fingers into the place where the seat meets the seatback. Then he turned his attentions to the door itself. It had indeed been peeled back, and in that process, the inside panel had come away some from the door itself. Jonathan tugged at it and found that it actually pulled away more easily than it should have. Dropped way down between the inside panel and the window workings was a manila file folder.

“Bingo.” He whispered to August. The cops wouldn’t have had any reason to look there, but he did.

Peeking above the rim of the door, he could see the officer who had accompanied them out to the lot. He was a short distance away, leaned over the hood of another car, occupied with checking some paperwork on his clipboard. Jonathan pulled the panel away just enough to reach in and grip the folder with the tips of his fingers to pull it out of the door. Then he handed it down low, close to floor, over to August. August took it, stuck it in his waistband, sliding it around to his back, and then pulling his blazer back closed.

Jonathan got out and shut the door hard enough to make noise with it.

“Find anything, Mr. Hart?” The officer asked, looking up from what he was doing. “Our guys went over it pretty thoroughly. It looked like a routine, single party accident. I don’t know what you hoped to find that we didn’t.”

“I just had to satisfy myself.” Jonathan answered. “Being thorough is a personal habit of mine, especially when it involves Hart Industries. Thanks for bearing with me.”

________________________________

Like two excited little boys, Jonathan and August nearly bumped heads as they huddled over the folder once the limo pulled off from the police station.

“You and your hunches,” August said. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“I don’t ask questions about it.” Jonathan replied as he checked out the documents. “All I know is they haven’t let me down yet.”

__________________________________________________________

When the guest house phone rang, Pat nearly jumped out of her edgy, brooding skin.

She had been there alone all day with the television off and the blinds drawn ever since she talked Jennifer into leaving her there that morning. She had been keeping company with the Christian Brothers, and judging from the bottle’s nearly depleted condition, she was getting close to wearing out her welcome with it. Brandy wasn’t her drink of choice, but then, she figured as she sat curled on the couch with a half-filled glass, beggars couldn’t be choosy. Bill would understand and go out to get himself another.

Having finally gotten that afternoon, the call she’d been so anxiously waiting for from The Mole, which put her, indirectly, back into contact with Dora in New York, she had been relishing the relief, the solitude and the quiet, using it all to get herself back together.

Where she should have been reveling in having had the good fortune of being pulled from that doomed plane by the man she loved, she found herself instead, wallowing in confusion, and strangely, that other weird, unidentifiable emotion. She never could put a finger on what it was or what to call it, nor had she ever mentioned experiencing it with anyone, but it had been plaguing her off and on as far back as she could remember.

She found it baffling how the inky, weighty blackness would come down on her the way that it would, so sudden and complete. When it did, there was nothing she could do to get out from under it, so rendered helpless, she’d wait it out; it lifted when it was ready to lift. In the meantime, it stifled and/or crippled her mentally and physically, and as such, its control over her was frightening. It was that fright rather than the condition itself, that would make her withdraw from life completely during those times.

When it wouldn’t stop ringing, she picked up the phone, sure that it had to be someone from the main house, most probably Marie, as anyone else would have phoned her cell. If it was Marie, then it had to be important.

It was Marie. She was phoning with an urgent and disturbing message about Marnie.

“Call for a taxi for me, Marie. I’ll go. Don’t call Jonathan or Jennifer with this. I’ll take care of it myself. Thank you for getting in touch with me with it first.”

As she got up from the couch to go wash her face and get dressed again, what was happening to her at that moment began to fall into place.

How had Marie known she was there? Why had she contacted her with that and not Jennifer? Or Jonathan?

As she pulled the gown off over her head, she was wondering to herself if the Harts were aware of what an intuitive person their longtime housekeeper actually was when it came to all of them.

________________________________________________________

“Genie, Genie, Genie,” Jennifer anxiously cooed as she held the crying doll to her bosom. “I’m beginning to believe J.J. has a point. You do have a problem. Look at me. I cannot believe I’m rocking and talking to a doll. I must have a few issues of my own.”

When J.J. went in to her driver’s education class, she offered to keep Genie with her in the car to give J.J. a break and allow her to concentrate on what was being presented. The hour was almost up and Genie had gone through three crying fits in that time. They would start all of a sudden and then stop just as abruptly. Jennifer’s intention had been to use the time reading through the notes in that folder, but just as she would get into them, Genie would start up and her concentration would be broken.

“If I was J.J. doing this,” she said to the trembling bit of technology in her arms, “By now, I’d be pretty sure about keeping my legs crossed real tight until I was on the pill, the patch, had my tubes tied, or something. I might even go so far as to seriously consider abstinence. No way in the world would I want to be bothered with a real one of you at sixteen, fussing like you do, not letting me think, not allowing me to rest, changing you, feeding you, worrying about you, having to be responsible for you all the time, dealing with my unreliable boyfriend/your father over you. My J.J. is a good one.”

Genie was still crying when J.J. came out of the building and got back in the car.

“Sorry,” she said, holding out her arms to her mother to take the fitful baby from her. “I don’t know why she’s like this. Maybe that’s why Bianca did what she did.”

“You don’t know that Bianca did it” Jennifer replied, handing Genie to her as J.J. exchanged some official looking papers for the doll. “At this point you don’t really know what happened. Wait until you speak with Hector before you come to any conclusions. I’m sure there’s more to the story. What’s this?”

“I’m never speaking to Hector or Bianca again in life,” J.J. declared as she attempted to comfort Genie, holding her close and patting her back. “That’s my final paperwork to get my Learner’s Permit. I’m finished with the lessons. You just have to sign, and then I can drive as long as there’s a licensed driver in the car.”

“As if you couldn’t drive without one before,” Jennifer mumbled as she looked the papers over. “And it’s a licensed adult, Justine Hart, which would exclude Marnie and the rest of your currently licensed crew.”

J.J. pursed her lips, continued patting Genie’s back, and was surprised when she stopped crying. “We really should have her in her car seat when we drive with her.”

Jennifer cut her eyes over to J.J. and started the car. “Due to circumstances, redheaded ones with blue eyes, that are quite obviously trying to operate beyond my control, we don’t have it. So put her in that carrier and make sure your seat belt is holding her, too. And another thing, when you get your permit, don’t be pestering your father to let you drive his car to get your practice in.”

“Why? ‘Cause his is a Rolls?”

“You heard me. That man allows you to do anything with anything.”

“Mom, Daddy always refers to it as just a car, and if you think about it, that’s all it really is. You’re the only one who makes a difference in it. All that paper says I need is a car- doesn’t say what kind- and a licensed driver eighteen or over.”

“You heard what I said. This car and this licensed adult is all you need, and you’ll be doing well to have that. You and your daddy have a tendency to take things too far, as evidenced by this past summer’s antics and subsequent disturbing revelations.”

Pursing her lips again and rolling her eyes, J.J. looked away. Her mother, she thought to herself, might be a tough cookie, but she wasn’t tough enough to override Jonathan Hart when he didn’t want to be overridden. They had finally gotten the flying thing out in the open and past her. It would be interesting to see what developed with the driving.

“Now I don’t know why I’m asking this,” Jennifer said as she pulled out into late afternoon traffic. “But I will. I have to go back to the hospital to take some things to Miss Chris. Do you want to go with me, or do you want me to drop you off at home so you can start your homework?”

J.J. perked up and grinned. “I don’t know why you asked either. Of course, I want to go with you. I had forgotten all about that. Did you see her earlier? Is she awake? Is she okay? Did the accident affect her memory? Did she know you?”

“There you go, tommy-gunning the questions.”

“Sorry.”

“To answer you, yes, I did see her. She was awake, and considering all she’s been through, she is fairly okay. There are some cuts and bruises she sustained, and she does have some memory loss. She doesn’t remember anything about the accident right now. She sketchily about you and me being there with her that day, but not exactly why. The doctor doesn’t want anyone to fill things in for her, so if you elect to go with me, you can’t feed her details. It’s important that her memory come back to her on its own.”

“So I take it that she hasn’t been told anything about yesterday, the planes, the towers, and all.”

“No, J.J., she hasn’t. I guess the doctor will fill her in when he thinks she can handle it.”

“Okay.” J.J. nodded. “I understand. Boy, that must be a trip.”

“What must be?”

“To wake up and realize you’ve been out for three days, not know why, or remember what happened when you were last awake. Then find out the world went crazy while you were sleeping. I think that would freak me out totally.”

“Well, I don’t think what she knows so far is doing her a whole lot of good either, J.J.”

“You said you were taking her stuff to her. You went out to her place? By yourself?”

“Yes. I’m hoping that taking her a few familiar things might jog loose some of what’s locked up.”

“That makes sense.”

J.J. kept her face straight ahead, as she talked with her mother, but her eyes were trained on the side view mirror.

“Chris and Marston Knight?” Jonathan and August waited until they were back in the relative security of Jonathan’s office before the question spilled from both their lips at the same time.

“She’s always been pretty private about her personal life, but I never would have suspected this.” August remarked. “Chris, I’ve always figured for a class act. How long did it last?”

“Doesn’t say.” Jonathan answered from his side of the desk where he was still going through the folders. “But according to this, the terrorist link Rider had was through Victor Shell. Shell had something going with Rider. I hope Zale is still working on it.”

“You know he is.” August said as he looked through that second folder which Jonathan handed to him. It was the one he’d taken from the door of Chris’ car. “What did you make of these schematics you got from the car?”

“Nothing from looking at them.” Jonathan answered. “I’d have to physically work through them to make sense of them. I’ve always been like that; I’m definitely hands-on.” He closed the folder and held it out to August. “Why don’t you have Westlake and his guys look them over. It’s computer related, I can see that much. Maybe a microchip or something. I’ve been away from the technical end for a while. There are also some things written there in code, too.”

“Been sitting in the big chair too long.” August poked. “Maybe we should call J.J. in and have her take a look.”

Jonathan laughed. “I would, but her mother would have my head if I gave her that kind of empowering opportunity. That’s been her latest accusation of what I do to J.J. You’re right, though. J.J. probably could make some sense out of it just by looking. She’s mine, and I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I have to admit, she’s getting to be pretty good.”

“Couple of years at M.I.T., and she’ll be running things.”

“Without a doubt.” Jonathan proudly smiled. “But for now, it’s on us. Run that technical stuff past Westlake and the guys, and tell him to let us know right away what they find out. Did Matheson get back with you about that missing guard. Did he turn up today?”

“Oh yeah, that was what those calls were that I got while we were downtown. He didn’t show. His wife called Matheson, trying to see if he’d been at work. Matheson says it seems as if he’s missing all the way around. Hasn’t been home since Sunday, and hasn’t shown up for work since Saturday. Wife’s filed a missing person’s report.”

Jonathan sighed. “God, I hope this isn’t one more thing.”

“What about that briefcase and laptop?” August asked, gesturing to the items over on Jonathan’s table. “And the box of stuff that was in the car, although there wasn’t anything of interest in that. Just the kinds of things a person might have in a car.”

“I considered breaking and hacking into them.” Jonathan said. “In fact, that was my plan. But I’m having second thoughts. I think I’ll save that for the last minute. You know, do that if I have to; if it comes to that. For now, I’ll just take them home when I go and put them with her purse just to keep them secure. Jennifer has the purse.”

“Sounds like an ethical enough plan. You always were an ethical, guy, Hart. That’s why people like and respect you.”

Jonathan could only smile at that and be inwardly gratified that he hadn’t followed through on his first impulse. Despite his inquisitive and adventurous nature, he did pride himself on having high principals and standards by which he conducted his business as well as his life. Besides, he had other concerns. When August was gone, he pulled out from his inside pocket, the sheet of paper he’d removed from that first folder to take a second, closer look at it.

There was only one long-legged, red-headed reason why Pat Hamilton’s name would come up as someone else looking into Chris Allen’s affairs.

________________________________________________________

At the police station, Pat presented her card at the reception desk. After stating she had been summoned by Captain Gray, she was escorted to his office where a female officer, who said she was waiting for her, got up from behind a desk and came over to greet her.

“We have the little girl back in the Captain’s office, Ms. Hamilton,” he said after the initial pleasantries were exchanged. “She was quite upset when Brentwood brought her in.”

“Quite upset?” Herschel Gray exclaimed as he came through the door of his inner office to the outside, catching the tail end of what was being said. “Now that is the understatement of the century, so far. That little bitty girl had grown men blushing. Good to see you again, Pat.”

Pat accepted his extended hand, and he leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek. “Real good.”

“Thanks,” Pat answered. It took a moment for it to register from where his strong sentiment was coming. “It’s good to be here. Where’s the demon seed?”

“Back here,” Herschel said, gesturing to his office. “She specifically asked that you be contacted.”

Marnie was inside, seated in one of his high backed side chairs, arms tightly folded and legs crossed, a lizard-green Enzo mule dangling from one of her petite feet. It was crystal clear that she was still fuming.

Pat, undeterred by the smoldering, walked right up to her.

“So?” She said, once she was standing over Marnie, “and before you answer me, let me warn you you’re messing with a woman who’s been in the dark, drinking for hours.”

“Then you won’t be the first blind drunk I’ve had to deal with today,” Marnie answered, rocking her head while looking past her.

Slightly shocked- and amused- by the insolent attitude she was getting, Pat cocked her head to the side. “Girl, don’t make me hurt you. Keep in mind, you called for me; I did not reach out for you.” Then it dawned on her. “Say, where is J.J.? How come she’s not up here, incarcerated with you?”

“I am not incarcerated; this isn’t jail. Captain Gray just made me stay up here until a responsible adult could come and get me.”

“So you told him to call me? What did I just tell you I’ve been doing?”

“How was I to know you were somewhere getting lit up? It was either call you or call Mrs. H., and I was not calling her or Mr. H. for that matter, to come get me from here. So, I took a shot, hoping if you and Mrs. H were still together, you could make an excuse and get away from her. You understand how I am. She does, too, but it’s not the same kind of understanding.”

“But I do understand you??”

“Of course you do. So, what did you have to tell Mrs. H.? I hope you didn’t rat me out, did you?”

“You got lucky. I wasn’t with her when the call came.”

“And then, too,” Marnie went on. “Even if you were drinking, some people can do that better than others.”

Ignoring, since it was coming from Marnie, the equivalent of a compliment, Pat asked again, “Where is J.J.? Didn’t she have Driver’s Ed. this afternoon?”

“She and Hector got into it big time over Genie right before lunch. J. got mad and took off; said she couldn’t hang, and she needed some space. Me and J. just happened to be on the phone together when Mrs. H. rolled up on her and caught her skipping.”

“You “just happened” to be on the phone. During the school day?”

“Yeah, you’re the one who told us that time at the reunion that girlfriends don’t move without getting in touch with the other. I called her to find out where she was when she didn’t come to lunch, and she wasn’t at the lockers afterward. That was when she told me she was out of there, and that she needed for me to represent her at the Honor Society meeting sixth period.”

“Oh,” Pat cut in. “So, you two can recall what I said at the reunion, since it currently fit your scheming little low-life purposes.”

Marnie barreled on, bypassing Pat’s comment.

“Anyway, after the meeting, I got it from one of the Counselor’s aides that Mrs. H. brought J.J. back to school, signed her out, and took her with her.  When we were on the phone, she told J. to tell me that if she went to driving class today, she’d be taking her, and then she made us hang up.”

“Both of you have completely lost your minds. Where was she skipping school at?”

“She couldn’t have gone too far. She was probably at the coffee house across the street, and Tina, she’s the cashier, is probably the one who ratted her out to Mrs. H. And by the way, that’s poor English, Aunt Pat. You left a participle dangling.”

Pat closed her eyes and counted to ten. Herschel Gray was still standing across the room, watching both of them.

“Girl, I’ll dangle your participle.” Pat threatened between clenched teeth. “Here I am, at home in a gown, minding my own business, trying to regroup, and the call comes that you’ve gotten yourself picked up by the police. I thought we told you two to come straight home.”

“I did!” Marnie cried, finally uncrossing her arms to throw them up in the air to make her point. “It’s getting cool out, and I needed a couple more of my jackets, so I went home to get them. You all didn’t specify which home I should go straight to. How was I to know that going to my father’s would make me end up here?”

When Pat’s foot began tapping the wood floor and she brought her hand to her forehead, Marnie stiffened, bracing herself, and refolded her arms.

“I wasn’t even doing anything.” She grumbled into her lap. “I just went home to Brentwood to pick up a couple of jackets so I could be matching. I wasn’t even doing anything, and my father’s wife came in there and started with me, the bitch. I don’t take that kind of crap off anybody. She knows better than-”

Pat held up her hand to cut Marnie off. “Hold it.” She said. Then she turned to Herschel. “How’d she end up here if she was in Brentwood?”

“The police captain in Brentwood is a golfing buddy of her father.” Herschel explained. “Seems whoever picked her up knew that and delivered her right to the captain. When he attempted to call her father, that’s when she told him that Carl was out of town, in the hospital, and that she’s staying with the Harts here in Los Angeles. At that point, they were more than glad to ship her to me for delivery to Jonathan. It was either that or write her up for disorderly conduct, and I wasn’t about to let them do that.”

Pat turned back around to Marnie. “You know, I have done some things in my life, Marnie Elaine Benson, not all of them good or right, I’ve cursed people up, down, inside and out, but I have never, ever been picked up by the police for anything, especially not disorderly conduct.”

“Neither have I!” Marnie cried. “Because I wasn’t disorderly. Since she took it there, I just told Karen what she needed to hear, and I told those cops that they better not to touch me. I told them not one of them had better put his damn hands on me, and I meant that. That’s my father’s house, and I have a perfect right to be there. It wasn’t fair what they were doing to me, and I wasn’t having it. If one of them had touched me, there was going to be holy hel-”

Pat leaned in and raised her hand as if she were going to smack Marnie’s lips, a gesture successful in shutting her down for that moment.

“You sure you aren’t scared to be in here with her by yourself?” Herschel asked. “I’m not the least bit ashamed to say I was. She not as big as a minute, but I was scared to sit down, she was carrying on so when they brought her in here. For the ride over, Brentwood put her in the back of the squad car by herself. The guys say after she cussed all of them out like she did, they were scared to ride back there with her.”

“They should have been.” Marnie spat at him. “They should have taken Karen’s ass out of there in that car, not mine. Aunt Pat, I kept telling them I wasn’t the one, but they wouldn’t listen to me. They could see she was drunk and calling me names, but I was the one they took out. I hadn’t even done anything to her except react to her. What did they expect me to do, stand there and take it when she’s threatening me and stuff? Carl Benson is my father, and he was my father a long time before he was her husband. That wasn’t even right what they did to me. I’m telling you, Karen and all those cops can kiss my a-”

“Stop all that cursing and just hush.” Pat ordered. “That’s quite enough of that.”

Then she turned back to the captain. “Leave us. I’ll handle this.”

He had already begun easing toward the door. “Nobody knows about this but you, Pat. There’s nothing on paper. And the car will be downstairs. We had it picked up for her.” He closed behind him the door to the office.

Pat turned back to Marnie. Placing her purse down on the captain’s desk, she planted both hands on her hips.

“Explain.” She demanded. “In detail, and this better be real good. And I better not hear one goddamned cuss word cross your lips while you’re telling me.”

“How come you can cuss, and I can’t?” Marnie pouted, crossing her arms once again.

“Because I can kick your ass, but you can’t kick mine. Does that answer your question?”

Arms still folded, Marnie looked off and quietly huffed, “I guess.”

“Then get to talking. Wait a minute, where is Jaden? Back with Sidney?”

Marnie reached down next to her chair and came up with the small plastic carrier containing the sleeping doll.

“I take care of mine. He’s been with me the entire time.” She said, putting him back after holding him just high enough for Pat to see. “When I went into the house, I thought I was only going to be a minute, and I started to leave him in the car. But then I was thinking, “It would be just my luck.” Something would happen, and I’d forget that he was out there and get called on that, so I took him in the house with me. Good thing I did.”

Marnie threw up her hands again, this time in resignation.

“Look, I’m sorry about all of this. The thing with Karen just got out of hand. I might have messed up with that. But I declare, Sidney and nobody else is going to catch me slipping on this project. I might have gotten picked up by the police and got brought here, but Jaden was right with me, safe and sound, for the entire trip. Whatever might have happened, nobody can say that I neglected or misused my kid like some people do.”

Pat could only shake her head as she backed up and perched herself on the edge of Herschel’s desk in preparation for Marnie’s explanation. In her mind, she was picturing Marnie in the back of that police car, cursing out seasoned cops to beat a full brass band, while carrying that doll by the handle of its carrier. On the surface, Marnie looked the picture of girlish, but stylish innocence. The well-dressed doll had to have added to that deceptive facade.

Lucy-fer in lamb’s clothing. And the lamb shops on Rodeo.

For a moment, Pat had to fight hard to keep the tickle she got from it all from showing. It wouldn’t do to let Marnie see that. All that girl needed was a hint of approval from her, and she’d be off and running again.

That was when she realized the blackness, the depression, or whatever it was, that when it came it usually held her down for at least a couple of days, seemed to have lifted. That left, clearly in her sights, the irate, pixie-faced, hilariously incorrigible teenager seated in the chair across from her, who of all the people she could have called upon to get her out of the jam into which she’d gotten herself, had reached out for her. And she just happened to have been in the right place, alive, alone, and reasonably well enough, to have taken the call at the time it had come.

“That one there and her little brother, who is mine on paper.” She thought to herself. “Everything happens for a reason, and no matter how long you live, I guess you never get to the place where they let you have all the answers to your questions up front. Just like always, I had to wait and be still until somebody was ready to let me in on it.”

________________________________________________________

As she drove, Jennifer was sneaking peeks at J.J. riding next to her. The girl was unusually quiet as she sat cradling Genie who was stuck down inside her prized letter jacket until only the curly top of her head was showing.

Funny how in a couple of days that baby has become almost a member of the family.

Then she caught herself.

Whoo! Too soon to be thinking along those lines, Jennifer. J.J.’s just a baby herself.

That jacket Genie was swathed in was special. J.J. had earned it for her strong athletic participation at school. It was one of the things she had looked forward to upon entering high school. When she was still in junior high, Jonathan had taken her along on a trip to the storage facility they utilized to hold the accumulated overflow from the house. While there, he had shown her the letter jacket he still had from his high school tennis, wrestling, and football days in San Francisco. Ever since that afternoon spent with her father, acquiring one for herself had been for J.J. a burning aspiration. By the end of her freshman year, she had worked up on one of her own.

Currently a junior, during her high school career she had lettered in swimming, tennis, and of course track. The jacket was still large and blousy on her, exactly how she preferred her casual outerwear. It was black suede with gold trim, representing her school’s colors. Jonathan paid for the all the extra work she’d had done on it over the past two years, so of course, he had allowed her to go all out.

HART was proudly emblazoned across the back in large gold block letters. She’d had the words, “Jonathan’s and Jennifer’s” embroidered in small script above HART. Pat’s nickname for her, “Squirt”, had been sewn underneath it, the “i” in Squirt dotted with a small red heart.

On the front of it, in a circular design, a tennis racket, a girl with a ponytail treading water, and a pair of track shoes shooting flames graced the front right breast. “J.J.” was scripted in the center of those representations of her athletic pursuits. On the left breast was pinned a set of solid gold airplane wings, a recent gift from her father. The words, “Valentine’s Girl” had been sewn onto the jacket right underneath the wings. On either side of her name she’d placed her National Honor Society pin and her two National Merit pins. It was an attractive, very personal garment, and J.J. treasured it.

On the left shoulder, the one closest to her, J.J.’s graduation year, 2003, trumpeted at her, reminding her that there were less than two years left until she would be forced to turn J.J.’s hand loose. It would be time then to send her out into the world on her own. Would she be ready? Would she be strong enough? Wise enough? Sufficiently self-reliant?

Would she be ready to exist on her own in the largely man’s world for which she seemed destined? Would she stay as single-minded and conscientious as she currently was about her relationships with males? Or would some man come along and turn her head? Perhaps attempt to use her and break her heart? Or maybe steal her heart. love her, and sweep her off her feet as Jonathan had done with her.

At the tender age of just-turned sixteen, J.J. had already experienced her share of male-misery, and she wasn’t even out there as far as the average sixteen year old girl. With Teddy, of whom she was more than a little fond, J.J. was still playing it fairly close.

Catching J.J.’s profile out of the corner of her eye, “So young.” she thought to herself. “And so innocent.”

It only would only take one jackass to come along and rock her entire, secure world to its foundation. Men had that kind of power over women, especially over young ones. It was unfortunate, but true. She knew it firsthand.

But you have a mother, my sweet thing, one who’s been there. She knows how it can be, and she isn’t afraid to let you in on it. In fact, she insists that you be let in on it.

“J.J., what are you thinking about?” She finally asked. “You haven’t said a word since we left your class.”

“Nothing really. Just, I guess, how weird it is.”

“How weird what is, J.J.?”

“How I usually don’t pay any attention or notice, but that today I’m so aware of there not being one plane up there. Not one. Has anyone said how long the grounding will be?”

“Not that I know of.” Jennifer answered. “Is that all that’s on your mind?”

“Mostly.”

“Want to talk about the rest?”

“Not now. Not yet. I don’t have it quite worked out yet, but I will when I can.”

“Promise?”

“I do, Mom. I promise.”

Pulling the car off the street and into the drive that would take them to the hospital’s parking structure, Jennifer prayed that she hadn’t made a mistake in bringing J.J. with her. Her hope was that J.J.’s schoolgirl appearance might have some effect on Chris’ powers of recall. Her slight fear was that J.J., with her keen observational abilities, might pick up on something unsavory or unsettling. All of her life, no matter how careful they were about protecting her, that girl could manage to find out and get into more than she should.

As Jennifer backed the car into an empty space, she had the opportunity to briefly take J.J. in dead on.

What in the world is she thinking about? Still ruminating over Hector and what happened? Or is she seeing something I don’t see?

Poor Hector.

She hoped the boy had a good explanation for what happened to Genie. J.J. Hart was genetically predisposed to being done with people who crossed or hurt her. She inherited that trait from both her parents. Once a person maneuvered themselves into getting X-ed off the list, that was usually a permanent removal. No announcement would be made, no fanfare, no overt notice given; it was simply over and there were usually no reprieves. Hector and J.J. had been buddies for some time. His younger sister, Philly, was a track teammate, and she was also one of J.J.’s closer friends. They were all part of the “Wild Bunch”. It would be bad for whatever happened with that school project to cause an irreparable rift in their otherwise cohesive unit.

Discreetly, she checked the rear and then her side view mirrors. As far as she could tell, there was nothing amiss with their immediate surroundings. J.J. began taking loose her seatbelt and then she reached to the floor by her feet for her purse and Genie’s little bag, but still she appeared to be concentrated on something. It was impossible to tell if her focus was external, or if it were internal, but whatever was going on with her, the evidence of its existence could be seen in that intense Jonathan Hart expression she was wearing on her peachy, freckled face.

I declare, you are just like your daddy, little girl. I hope you’re as smart with your heart as you are about everything else. I pray you’re more like your father in that aspect, as well.

________________________________________________________

After trying her phone a couple of times and finding it turned off, Jonathan gave up attempting to reach Jennifer in that manner. He wanted her to come down to the towers to meet him, there were pressing matters that he needed her to look into, but she was obviously engaged in something else. He hoped it was Chris that was occupying her time, and that she would have something good or useful to tell him once they got back together.

That other matter that was in need of her expert attention could wait. She would be the one to make heads or tails of that particular case whenever she got around to it.

Swiveling around in his chair, he took in the sky through the large round window behind his desk. No planes. Bill had phoned to say that it would be at least another day before air travel was resumed.

All those people stranded, uncertain, scared….

All those people who died. He was sure that there were scores of them with whom he’d crossed paths, had business dealings, phone conversations, knew personally. With whom Jennifer was acquainted. They were gone, and he didn’t even know it. In some cases, their own people didn’t know it for sure. Were still in denial about it. It had only been a day, but the terrifying event seemed to transcend time; they kept playing as if on a loop in his head.

Pat crossed his mind. Bill was concerned about her, as was he. When he’d attempted to phone her cell and then the guest house, she didn’t pick up. Bill was aware of the “black periods” through which she sometimes suffered, and he thought that she might be slipping into one when he left her that morning.

If she was, she had damned good reason this time….

The sky was clear, blue, unbroken. Not so much as a bird’s fleeting shadow broke the horizon.

It would be a while before Westlake and the boys had anything on that folder found in Chris’ car. In a way, he wanted a hand at cracking that code. But, like August said, that was why he was in the big chair. His job was to select, delegate, and oversee the business conducted by those who were experts in their field.

Turning back to his desk, there was plenty of work there with which he could have occupied himself. Instead, unable to concentrate on anything other than the national tragedy, its ramifications, and the more personal matter at HartToys, he decided that he was tired, and that he would call it a day. Hoping that Jennifer would be there when he got there, he buzzed Liz to let her know that he was going home for the day.

________________________________________________________

After picking up their visitor’s passes from the desk in the hospital lobby, J.J. hesitated before starting off with her mother toward the elevators.

Jennifer had taken a couple steps past her before realizing that J.J. wasn’t with her. She turned around. “What’s wrong?”

“I was thinking.” J.J. answered. “Maybe I should stay down here after all. What if Genie starts crying while we’re up there. That wouldn’t be so good, would it?”

For a moment, Jennifer appeared to be considering it. Then she held her hand out to J.J. in indication that she should join her.

“It’ll be all right. I’m sure there’s a waiting room up there where you can go if she does begin to act up. I’ve noticed that her fits don’t last all that long. It shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Besides, I think seeing you might lift Chris’ spirits.”

“Okay.” J.J. sighed, resuming walking with her mother. “You have more experience with this sort of thing than I do.”

The elevator stopped at another floor before they reached the one they wanted. An older woman got on, a small white-haired lady, clutching the shiny tan purse hanging on her arm close to her body. Her eyes immediately took in J.J., who still had Genie under her jacket with just her head showing. The woman’s face registered an unmistakable expression of disapproval before she pointedly turned away from them to face the door.

It took a moment for what happened to register with J.J.. When her mouth dropped open in outraged, insulted shock, she was discreetly tapped on the arm by her mother whose facial expression was telling her to let it go.

By the time the doors slid closed behind them once they got off on their floor, J.J. was ready to explode.

“She thought Genie was my baby! Did you see the way she looked at me? Like I was scum or something. She judged me. I cannot believe she did that to me. She doesn’t even know me!”

“Think of how young girls with real, live babies must feel when it happens to them, J.J.” Jennifer calmly advised as they headed for the nurses’ station to show their passes. “And it happens to them all the time. Not just looks, but things people might say. Comments they may overhear. They have to deal with it all the time, everywhere they go. At home. At school. In the streets. Everywhere.”

“That was so humiliating.” J.J. continued to protest. “That lady had no right. Nobody has that right.”

“It’s all part of the experience, J.J.” Jennifer patted her on the shoulder. “People will do things like that. They don’t mean any harm. It was just a reaction. You’re tall, but you do have a baby face. Too young to be having a baby in her estimation. It wasn’t her business, but she’s entitled to her opinion. This has been a very good project. I think you’re learning a lot more than anyone could have anticipated.”

Considering for a moment what her mother said, J.J. was solemn in her reply, “I’d sure hate to have to be dealing with that sort of thing all the time. I’m not all that tolerant of rudeness. If it happened to me like that for real, I’d have to tell somebody a thing or two about minding their own business.”

“You probably would.”

Jennifer introduced the nurses to J.J. and to Genie and explained that she had called Dr. Langford on their way over. The nurses confirmed that the doctor had already told them to expect their arrival and that J.J. had been cleared to go in to see Chris. The nurse who was speaking directly with them laughed and said infants weren’t normally allowed to visit patients, but she expected Genie would be an exception to that rule.

“So, young lady, what did your father say when you told him you were having a baby?” The nurse joked with J.J.

“Actually,” J.J. grinned. “He was the one who encouraged me to do it.” Then she winked.

“Come on, girl.” Jennifer said as she pulled on J.J.’s arm to move her across the hall. “You are awful.”

“Well she asked.” J.J. snickered. “And my daddy did approve of it. He signed the paper.”

At the door to the room, Jennifer told J.J. to wait and allow her to go in first to check on Chris’ frame of mind and disposition. She hadn’t been gone a very long time, but with the state of confusion Chris had been in earlier and the possibility of things coming back to her in that space of time without her letting on to anyone that they had, a lot could have changed in those few hours.

In the room, Chris was awake, sitting up on her bed. Jennifer noticed that she had a bit more color in her face than when she’d been there earlier that day.

“Hi.” She said. “I see you woke up.”

“I got your message.” Chris said as she reached for and held up the folded piece of note paper. “It was right here when I came to again. Say, is that my bag you have there?”

Jennifer approached the bedside and placed the colorful tote on the bed next to Chris’ legs.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I went by your place and picked up a few things for you. I thought they might make you more comfortable while you were here.”

Chris smiled. “Since it was you, I don’t mind. Thank you. How ever did you get the manager to let you in?”

“I have my ways.” Jennifer answered.

Chris studied her face as if she were searching for answers on it.

“Thank you, Jennifer. While I was lying here after I woke up, I was wondering about everything. I’m so dopey about things. Just bits and pieces coming and going. A flash here, a glimmer there. I can’t get it together. I think I have a handle on something, and then it slips away from me.”

“Give it time, Chris. You haven’t been out from under the medical sleep that long. How is your headache?”

“Better. Still there, but better.” Leaning forward, Chris unzipped the bag and began rifling through to see what was in it. “You thought of everything, Jennifer.”

“I try to be thorough. Listen, if you’re up to it, there’s someone with me who wants to see you.”

Chris looked first up at Jennifer and then over to the door. “Who?”

At that moment, J.J. peeked her head around the doorframe, attempting to sneak a  glimpse of what was going on inside.

“Come on in, Miss Nosy.” Jennifer said, gesturing with her hand.

“J.J.!” Chris smiled. “What a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see you. This is great.”

J.J. fairly bounced into the room.

“My mother let me come. I was dying to see you. I was about to bust a gut, waiting out there.”

Jennifer closed her eyes in exasperation. “J.J., do you have to say things like that?”

“Well, I was.” J.J. insisted as she greeted the private nurse and then came to the bedside to take Chris’ hand. “You guys were taking too long. My mother knows I’m nosy. She knew I was going to be out there trying to hear what was happening and not being patient. Patience is not virtue I have a whole lot of, Ms. Chris.”

“I thought we decided that it’s just Chris.”

While she was speaking, Chris’ eyes focused upon the jacket J.J. was wearing.

J.J., hearing what she said, stopped herself from remarking about Chris remembering having told her that during their interview on that previous Saturday.

She instead explained, “I did that for my mother’s benefit. She insists upon my being deferential to my elders. I needed for her to hear from you that you had given me permission to be less formal so that she wouldn’t be getting all on me for being impertinent and too-grown.”

Jennifer again closed her eyes while Chris laughed, “You are a mess, J.J. Hart. Such a huge vocabulary. What’s that you have in your jacket?”

“Oh,” J.J. unfastened the zipper to expose the cloth carrier from which two plump legs finishing in yellow booties extended. “This is Genie. She’s my Family and Consumer Science class project.”

“The one you were telling me about. I remember. You didn’t have her then. You said to me that you wouldn’t know how much you liked or disliked the project until you got the baby.”

“Yep.” J.J. nodded.

“So? What do you think now?”

“I still think it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it that I hadn’t even thought about before: your relationships with your partner, husband, boyfriend, whatever. How other people see you. The judgments made about you when you’re very young and you have a baby. How tiring it all is. I’m learning a lot. I’ll tell you one thing I already know for sure, though. I know that I don’t want to do this in real life right now.”

Chris raised her eyes to meet Jennifer’s. “I’m sure your mother is glad to hear that.”

“Let Chris see Genie.” Jennifer urged.

“Are you sure, Mom? She might start crying.”

“It’s okay if she does.” Chris said. “I love toys, especially dolls that do things. I’d like to see what these dolls look like.”

J.J. loosened the straps on the carrier and carefully removed Genie from it as if she were handling a real baby.

“She’s sleeping, Chris, but she’s real sensitive. She cries at the drop of a cotton ball.” She handed the doll down to the woman in the bed. “I’m told they’re programmed to have different personalities, but mine is Oscar the Grouch’s god-daughter.”

Chris chuckled at that, and accepted Genie from J.J.

“This is a HartToy.” Chris observed in wonder after few moments of closely examining Genie, checking her face, her limbs, then turning her over to check her neck. “Yes, these are our numbers.”

“Then maybe you can tell me why she’s so touchy.”

“I don’t know the exact characteristics of the product, J.J. I just recognize the unit and the numbers.” She turned Genie over onto her back, straightened her dress, lifted it to see her matching panties, and then smoothed her hand over the doll’s plump simulated flesh legs. “She’s so real. I didn’t realize- Isn’t this something. She’s got to be one of the-”

For a moment, Chris appeared confused. Then with Genie still on her lap, she looked up and seemed to focus again on J.J.’s jacket. Then she lie back on the pillows and closed her eyes.

“Are you okay?” J.J. asked her.

With her eyes still closed, clutching Genie to her midsection, Chris whispered, “I’m fine, J.J. Just a little dizzy all of a sudden.”

Genie started to cry and after a moment, a crystal tear rolled its way down Chris’ cheek.

Immediately distressed, J.J. turned wide-eyed to her mother, mouthing. “Did I do something wrong?” Then she gestured toward Genie. “What should I do?

Jennifer held up her hand, mouthing back. “It’s okay. You’re fine.”

J.J. stepped back from the bed to let Jennifer come in close. Jennifer sat down in the chair next to Chris and took Genie from her, handing her back to J.J. Then she took Chris’ hand in her own. J.J. stood behind the chair, patting Genie’s back, watching her mother with Chris, and listening.

________________________________________________________

“Hart Residence.”

Jonathan had only been in the house long enough to set the things down that he’d carried in, and flip through the mail on the tray by the door when the gate buzzer rang. He answered it, bending to pick up Third who was dancing all around his feet, begging for attention.

“Mr. Hart. There’s a young man down here to see J.J. Says his name is Hector Diaz. He says to tell you that if J.J. isn’t in, he’d like to speak with you.”

He authorized Hector’s admittance and wandered back to the kitchen, still carrying Third and wondering what in the world that boy wanted with him.

Must be trouble in make-believe paradise.

Marie was in the kitchen, busy preparing dinner. Third jumped down to go to his water dish.

“Good evening, Mr. Hart. You’re the first one in.”

“First one? Where are the girls? Aren’t they home yet?”

“J.J. is with her mother. Marnie is with Ms. Patricia.”

Jonathan picked a cherry tomato half from the salad bowl and popped it into his mouth. “Oh yeah, how’d all of that happen?”

Shrugging her shoulders, Marie continued working at the counter. “Mr. Bill phoned a few minutes ago to say that he’s on his way in.”

Jonathan fished out another tomato half. “J.J.’s friend, Hector is on his way up from the gate to see me. You have any idea what it’s about?”

“Not one.” Marie answered as she began tossing the salad greens, preventing Jonathan from picking out any more of her tomatoes. “But I think if he’s asking for you, he must be in need of a go-between.”

Jonathan had to smile at that prospect. Poor Hector, he was thinking as he headed toward the door that would take him back into the foyer.

I tried to warn you. J.J. Hart is her mother’s child. Mess up with them if you want to. They don’t take prisoners.

If nothing else, he was certain that whatever Hector wanted, it would be interesting, maybe even amusing. It wasn’t every day that his unwed daughter’s baby’s father showed up asking for him.

________________________________________________________

“Aunt Pat, this isn’t the way to Bel Air.” Marnie said as she noticed Pat making a turn that would take them away from where they should have been going.

“I know it isn’t. You just sit back and be a passenger.”

“In my own car?”

At the light, Pat stopped and reached over to pat Marnie’s cheek in a gentle, yet clearly condescending manner.

“You know, Marnie, I think I’m going to be needing a car for the rest of the time that I’m here in Los Angeles. You won’t mind if I drop you and the Squirt off at school tomorrow and Friday, and keep yours, do you? After all, it’s just sitting in the lot all day while you’re in school. If I take you and keep the car, I can do the things I need to do, and at the end of the day, I can come and pick both of you up.”

“Is this your way of telling me that I’m on lockdown?”

“Read it how you want to.”

Marnie rolled her eyes and huffed.

“But it wasn’t even my fault. I told you what happened; I thought you could see that it wasn’t my fault. I told you I just wanted to get my jackets, and to see my brothers to take them some cookies. When I got there, Karen came at me. Then she called the police.”

“But when they got there, you cursed out the police, Marnie. You aren’t supposed to curse out cops. I’m not saying that I blame you entirely, but nonetheless, it isn’t supposed to happen like that. You are going to have to learn to curb that nasty tongue of yours. Now there are some people who do need cursing out, I’ll surely grant you that. But not ever cops. Them you keep on your side; you never know when you’re going to need them. They were only taking you out of there today to get you out of the situation. They didn’t want you going word for curse word with your drunken stepmother, that’s all that was.”

“Then why didn’t they just say that?”

“Because you were too busy letting them have it, that’s why. They couldn’t get a word in.”

“So, are you gonna tell on me to Mrs. H.?”

Pat turned her head for a moment to look at her. “Why?”

” ‘Cause I want to know if you are. I don’t want her to know about it.”

“Marnie, tell me. Why in the world does it matter to you what Jennifer thinks of you so much more than it matters to you what I think of you?”

” ‘Cause. Like I told you before, you know me, and you know how I am. You already respect me for who I am, and you don’t care about all the stuff I’m not. I don’t want Mrs. H. to think I’m going to be a whole lot of trouble. I don’t want her to think I’m not a lady even though I’m not, at least not one like her and J. But I don’t want her thinking that I’m not, or that I can’t ever be.”

Pat took Marnie’s hand in hers, squeezing it tight. Then she sighed.

“I sure wish I was in a position to take you to New York with me when I can go back.” She said. “I’d keep you with me, send you to St. Mary’s-”

“St. Mary’s?” Marnie bristled, her lip curling in disgust. “Academy for Girls? Oh, hel-

“- UP the street from the job, and then in the evening you could come work with us and start learning the business. But I don’t know what’s waiting for me there now. I have a lot to face, and probably a whole lot to do. If you went with me, you could go and see your father, your mother, Kyle when you wanted to,  and you and I could work on that temper of yours.”

“It is kinda bad, isn’t it? I let it get the best of me with Karen and other people who piss me off, and then I can’t think clearly. I get mad, and then I do dumb stuff.”

“Marnie, sweetie, there’s not a thing wrong with you that time and a little more maturity isn’t going to mellow out. Whether you realize it or not, you’re quite a little lady already. And don’t think that Jennifer doesn’t see that. She does.”

“I hope so. I really don’t want to be a pain to her and Mr. H. while I’m with them. Getting picked up by the police while I was being hardheaded and disobedient wouldn’t be a real good start. Thank you for coming. Don’t tell Mrs. H. what happened. Okay?”

“You know that Herschel is probably going to mention it to Jonathan.”

“I don’t care if he knows. He understand me like you do. He’ll understand about me going to see my brothers and about what happened. She might understand, too, once it got broken down to her, but still, I just don’t want her to know.”

“So, I get to keep the car, right?”

“Whatever. Just please don’t say anything.”

Pat nodded and again squeezed Marnie’s hand to seal the arrangement.

“Aunt Pat, if she’s home when we get there, what are you going to tell Mrs. H. about how we hooked up like this?”

“You leave that to me.”

“So, where exactly are we going now?”

“To see your stepmother.” Pat answered.

When in surprise Marnie checked Pat’s profile, she could see what J.J. must have seen that time Pat took her back to her mother in Vegas; that time when she ran away to Pat and Bill in Reno after her father got sick. Cruella DeVil was on the case. The glint in Pat’s eye and the stony set of her jaw clearly telegraphed her intentions.

Marnie sat back and smiled to herself in happy anticipation. If it went down the way she thought it would, it was going to be well worth giving up the car for a couple of days.

Her daddy might be away from her, badly injured and in medical trouble, but he was in a safe place. So was she. There was nobody in the world like Pat.

Or Mr. and Mrs. H.

________________________________________________________

Jennifer once again had her eye on J.J.

After getting back into the car, J.J. set the radio on a jazz station she knew would be mutually agreeable to both of them rather than going through her normal routine of testing the established riding rules with one of those loud, thumping, sometimes parental advisory category music stations she and her crew preferred. With Genie resting on her chest, J.J. had reclined the seat a bit and then lapsed back into that silent mode she’d been in for the ride to the hospital.

Jennifer could tell that her inquisitive daughter’s head was most likely bubbling over with questions after what she’d witnessed and heard in that hospital room.

What she’d hoped would happen in taking J.J. and Genie into that room had come to pass. Chris had proven that she had clear recall of what transpired before that fateful Saturday. She recognized Genie as a Hart product, she knew where to look to find concrete evidence of it; she right away identified the serial number on Genie’s neck as a Hart series code. She recalled the conversation she and J.J. had about the school project, where earlier it had only been a fuzzy, disjointed recollection. J.J. had told her she wouldn’t fully appreciate the project until she had the actual baby to take care of, and Chris remembered her having said that, actually repeating it to J.J.

Then something provoked, or more like spooked, her into asking after her sister. When she did make the inquiry, it wasn’t as if she had to work to recall Claire. It was more like she had her in memory all along and had been afraid to bring her up to anyone. Finally, unfortunately with J.J. present to hear it and file it, she asked, “Has anyone contacted my sister?”

Not wishing to lie, she’d told her the truth: Claire had been contacted. But she didn’t go beyond that, and curiously Chris hadn’t asked. Instead, she said she was tired and thought she would go back to sleep. They’d left her at that point, but it was evident that Chris hadn’t been very happy about or comforted by her sister being notified of her mishap. Although she and Pat had collected many of the pieces, it seemed that little was fitting or linking together.

“Don’t you want to know Chris’ sister’s name?”

“I figured you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.” J.J. answered without turning away from the window out of which she’d been staring. “Or not, if you didn’t. You don’t always like for me to ask a whole lot about other’s people’s business.”

“Her name is Claire.”

“Pretty name. Is she older or younger?”

“She’s younger.”

“May I ask where she is? I would think that if she’s been notified that Chris was hurt and was in a coma, she’d be right there with Chris. If it was Marnie, I would be, and we’re not even real sisters.”

“Not everyone has the same dynamics, J.J.”

“Yeah, I know, but right is right, Mom. You can not get along with somebody, even with family, maybe not even really like them, but love goes past that. So does family. When the chips are down, when it’s family, you’re supposed to get each other’s back.”

Jennifer didn’t say anything else to that. J.J. had a solid, unwavering sense of family. That had a lot to do with what she’d seen of her own. Jonathan and Max, she and Pat, herself and Marnie, Bill and Jonathan, she and Jonathan, Pat and Bill; and Pa over all of them. They weren’t all linked by blood, but most certainly they were family. There was no arguing to be done with J.J. Hart along those lines. Family looked out for family, and that’s all there was to it according to J.J.

It was that way in her own book, as well. Through his unwavering devotion, Pa had taught that to her.

For the rest of the ride, they were silent. She thought J.J. might drift off to sleep as she sometimes did riding home after her day was done, but she didn’t. Instead, she continued staring out of the window, seemingly deep in thought.

Security was still on the gate. She figured they would be there until Jonathan felt comfortable enough for them to do otherwise, and he wouldn’t feel that way until all of his air was cleared. It wasn’t just 9/11 that was bothering him. Probably even more so, it was the situation at HartToys that was giving him pause for concern.

As they rounded the drive approaching the house, Jonathan’s car was parked at the door. That felt good. It still felt so good to come home to him. Parked behind his car was a beige SUV. At the sight of it, J.J. powered her seat into a more upright position.

“That’s Hector and Philly’s truck.”

She had her seatbelt off and was gathering her things before the car could come to a complete stop. Jennifer thought she could feel the steam of her daughter’s rising anger radiating across the console over to her. As she shut down the motor, J.J. had the door open, but before she could get all the way out, Jennifer grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back inside.

“Hold it, missy. You are not going to go in there carrying on like some irate, out of control, little shrew. If it is Hector, he must have come to see you. If he did come to see you, then he must have something to tell you.”

“Well, I don’t want to hear it. There is nothing at all he could possibly tell me.”

Jennifer maintained her hold on J.J.’s arm even as she was trying to pull out of it. “Hear me, Justine.”

J.J. stopped resisting and dropped back onto the seat, exhaling, “Okay.”

“Once upon a time,” Jennifer began. “a long time ago, a man had me arrested.”

J.J. groaned impatiently, “I think I’ve heard this story before.”

“Just hush and listen.”

“Oh, all right.” J.J. huffed and folded her arms across Genie. “I’m listening.”

“His having me taken in for questioning made me miss my flight home. I spent an entire afternoon talking to cops, rearranging my affairs, and thinking of ways I would do him in if Iever set eyes on him again. And then there he was, at the window of the car I was in, begging me to listen to what he had to say.”

“You should have shot at him.”

“J.J.”

“I’m just saying. He might have been cute and buff and everything, but you didn’t know him really. He had you arrested for nothing. If it had been me he did that to, he’d have had to have been paid back in full. Listen to him, my foot; I wish I would listen. He’d have been listening- to rat-a-tat-tat all around his feet while he was tap dancing around the bullets.”

“J.J. Hart.”

“Okay, I’m through.” J.J. said, waving her hand to clear the hot air. “Go ahead with the story. ”

“Sweetie, what I’m trying to say to you is if I hadn’t stopped and listened to him when he tried to make it right, you and I wouldn’t be here right now. My bad temper and my innate stubbornness would have caused me to miss out on the best deal of my life, which was all he was trying to set up for me in the first place. J.J., if I hadn’t listened to him that day, I can’t imagine where I’d be right now. Or even if I would be.”

“Because of Daddy.” J.J. summed up.

“Yes, your daddy. My baby’s father.”

Sighing and rolling her eyes, J.J. slid from the car, a lot less tense and defensive than she had been on her first attempted exit.

As her mother came around the car,  J.J. vowed to her. “I’m only giving him five minutes. Hector had better be talking fast, and he better be saying all the right stuff. Five minutes is all he gets from me.”

Jennifer, amused and at the same time oddly impressed by J.J.’s steely attitude, draped her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “Sometimes that’s all it takes, Justine Jennifer.”

After all, that was the same amount of time Jennifer Justine had given Jonathan Hart, and he’d gotten his bid for forgiveness in successfully with a few seconds to spare.

________________________________________________________

They watched as J.J. and Hector left the patio together with Genie, heading out onto the back end. It had taken a whispered prodding by Jonathan, delivered directly into J.J.’s ear, to get her to go off the patio and on the stroll upon which Hector had invited her so that he could explain himself to her.

“Dead man walking.” Jonathan observed when the teenagers were a decent distance away. “She is fired up.”

“What did you say to her to get her to go with him?” Jennifer asked. “She had no intention of budging until you got into it.”

“Just a little Daddy to Daughter encouragement. Poor Hector. From what he told me, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been him at school this afternoon or to be him right now for anything. What happened wasn’t entirely his fault, but I’m not sure if he’s a fast enough talker or thinker to convey that to J.J. before she lights into him again. He told me she really let him have it at school. Gave him pure, one-hundred proof hell.”

“He does have his work cut out for him.” Jennifer agreed. “He let the lioness’ cub get hurt, and that’s an absolute no-no. J.J. is mean, but that’s immaturity on her part right now; she acts on impulse, and doesn’t always give herself enough time to react rationally. Beneath the surface, though, she’s really not so bad. She can be reasoned with. What did he tell you happened?”

“According to him, it was a whole series of unfortunate events.” Jonathan said, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips where he pressed them to the stones in her wedding ring and then her fingers. “Beginning with him cutting class and ending with him placing his trust and his kid with someone he shouldn’t have. It’s a guy thing; not thinking, putting the pretty face before common sense.”

“Have you ever been guilty of that?” She asked, smiling as she leaned in to him.

“Oh yeah. Not with my kid, of course, but with my trust, oh yeah. It took Max, collaring me about it, to get me to see the light.”

Jonathan lowered his voice into a rough growl. “Look here, kid. You got money now and prestige. You’re gonna have to leave the no-class, strictly old neighborhood bimbos alone and be a lot more discriminatin’ about who you line yourself up with. Some of these dames out here, even the high-toned ones, ain’t out for nothin’ but what they can get from a guy, and I ain’t havin’ just anybody thinkin’ she’s gonna be workin’ on gettin’ you, gettin’ somethin’ from you, or on gettin’ somebody wit’ you.”

She chuckled. “Well, my goodness. We’d only known each other a day, and you didn’t know very much about me at all when I entered your lives. What in the world did he have to say about me?”

“Max could spot class a mile off. We might have gone pretty fast in London, you and I, but he was an excellent judge of character. He knew right away, just like I knew, that you were the one.”

“Your daughter,” Jennifer said, beginning to laugh at the mental picture of angry J.J. in the car. “Said that I should have shot at you. She said that if it had been her, and you’d put her through all you put me through that day, when you showed up at that taxi window, she’d have had you dancing.”

Jonathan nearly choked on the resulting chuckle. “Now she might have. She’s a lot tougher sell, but I maintain, the Hart charm could have won her over, too. Eventually.”

“Maybe after you’d entertained her a bit, two-stepping around that barrage of bullets she sent your way.”

“She is definitely your kid in that.” Still laughing, he leaned in to share a playful kiss with Jennifer. “So, how was your day? I tried a couple of times to reach you, but your phone was off. Pat’s was, too, when I tried it.”

“She stayed here, and I was probably at the hospital then. She started to go with me, but at the last minute, she changed her mind and asked me to leave her. How did it go at City Hall? Did you hear any more about HartToy? Did Arnold come up with anything else? Have you seen Pat at all since you’ve been home?”

“According to Marie, she’s somewhere with Marnie. So, how come Pat decided not to go with you? How was Chris? Was she awake? Lucid? Did she remember anything?”

Jennifer sat back in her chair. “Look, I can see we’re getting ready to play a round of Twenty Questions. Why don’t we go in and fix a couple of drinks, come back out here, and swap stories until dinner.”

“Sounds good to me.” He said standing and then assisting her up.

I can’t wait to hear how much you plan on telling me about what you know, that you think I don’t know about what you know.

________________________________________________________

On mental overload, J.J. had just gotten seated in her bedroom window, the one that overlooked the side drive, when Marnie’s car pulled up under it. She watched and was surprised to see Pat get out on the driver’s side and then Marnie emerge from the passenger’s seat when that door opened. Marnie handed Jaden, his diaper bag, and her tote bag over to Pat. Then she proceeded to the trunk which had been popped open before they both got out, and she took from it an armful of clothing on hangers. From her vantage point, J.J. could see that there were more things in the trunk that most likely had to come out, so she got up to go and help.

At the foot of the staircase, she met Marnie coming through the front door, her arms full of clothing bags. Their eyes locked, and J.J. read, “Don’t ask. Wait.” in Marnie’s as she silently passed her and continued up the staircase.

Pat entered behind her, and seeing J.J. there, held Jaden, his diaper bag, and Marnie’s tote out to her. “Here Squirt. He smells like he needs changing.”

“Then why give him to me?” J.J. asked before reluctantly taking the doll and the other things.

“Because he is part of you and Marnie’s project. Not mine.” Pat answered. “And because I told you to.”

“But he’s your grandchild.” J.J. countered, searching her godmother’s face, trying to get a reading on her.

“Whatever. You heard me.” Pat said, avoiding J.J.’s eyes with her own. “Where’s your mother?”

“I think she’s out back on the patio with Daddy.”

“What about Bill?”

“I don’t believe he’s back yet. If he is, he hasn’t come over here.”

“There are more things in the car. After you girls finish getting it all out, go on up and get your homework.” Pat headed into the great room. “No matter what else might be going on, there’s no sense in all of us getting too far off track.”

She ended up at the bar.

J.J. was at the car, retrieving some of the other items when Marnie returned.

“So what happened? I saw Aunt Pat was driving when you guys pulled in. How did that come about? How did you two end up together? What’s with all this stuff?”

“I think we both have tales to tell, J.” Marnie sighed, reaching in to help J.J. with the rest of the things in the trunk. “I saw Hector’s truck pulling out as we were pulling in. Apparently you didn’t rip his head off. And what happened with you and the Duchess? I see you’re still breathing, and that you’re allowed to come outside your room.”

“As crazy as everything was for me this afternoon, Marn, it all got worked out. What about you?”

“Let’s get this stuff upstairs, and while I put it away, we can swap horror stories; see whose is worse, although I’m pretty sure mine is the all-time, hands-down winner. I’m telling you, J., she’s your godmother, but Pat’s my girl.”

At the door, Marnie stopped and turned around to J.J. who was still at the car, shutting down the trunk with her free hand.

“And just so you know, we’re back on foot.”

“Aw man. Lockdown, Marn?”

“Lockdown, J.”

“Well, I guess relative freedom was cool while it lasted.”

“We may have lost the car, J., but we gained a chauffeur.”

“Aunt Pat, Marn?”

“Yeah, J.”

“Big freaking deal. We’re still locked up and can’t go anywhere. We get FACS homework?”

“No. We didn’t do anything in class today except have free discussion. Each couple had to get up and talk about all the stuff that’s been going on, our concerns, the things we’ve been doing well, the things that have gone wrong. Oh yeah, Percy got served, right in the middle of their presentation. Sid’s was still bitching about me having Jaden, but I didn’t care. You see I still have him. We didn’t talk about you and Hector, though. With you and Hector not there, I wouldn’t even let it get started.”

“Good looking out on that, Marn.”

“J., you know I have your back.”

________________________________________________________

“Terrific.” Chris thought to herself, swallowing hard to keep the nauseating panic at bay. “What the hell else can go wrong?”

She’d awakened earlier that day abnormally sluggish mentally and disconnected from her body physically. Aside from the dull hammering in the back of her head, she had gradually become aware that something was terribly wrong. With her eyes closed, she could tell that she wasn’t in her own bed, which meant that she wasn’t in her bedroom at home. The antiseptic scent, the abnormally rough, foreign feel of the covers against her flesh, the overwhelming sense of someone out of place being present and close by; the total ambiance, it had been all wrong.

When Dr. Langford’s familiar voice told her to, she slowly opened her eyes to find his face looming over hers. Why was he there?

Her own voice was painful in her throat and harsh to her ears as she posed the patent but entirely sincere question, “Where am I?”

“In the hospital.” Had been Langford’s answer.

He went on to say that there had been an accident in which she had been involved, but he wouldn’t elaborate on the details. He explained that she’d been there since Saturday, which inferred to her that some amount of time had passed. When she heard it was currently Wednesday and that her extended slumber had actually been a coma, it floored her. While she had been trapped somewhere in the Twilight Zone, held there by medication to allow her head to heal, three whole days had gone by without her knowledge.

What happened to her head?

Since that time, there were flashes, like those from a malfunctioning video presentation, fractured, flickering images, but nothing clear or concrete enough for her to focus, nothing from which she might be able to form anything definite. And she was alone in it.

Injured, and basically still in the dark about the things that pertained directly to her and her condition. The situation was terrible, frightening, crippling even, but she couldn’t let anyone know to what extent she was affected by all of it. To let on would be to invite intrusion, maybe even attack. It was important to make them believe. It had always been important to make others believe.

Then Jennifer Hart showed up.

What a lady.

Her mere presence had served to put a lot of internal things on the path toward right. It was almost amusing how she didn’t fit the stereotype of sharp, wealthy, attractive women like her. She might look it, but in reality she wasn’t at all aloof, self-centered, or snobbish. Once one got past the attractive, stylish facade, Mrs. Hart put a huge dent in that false perception. She was real; she was warm and genuine. Unlike a lot of women in her marital and professional position, she had a strong persona of her own. She wasn’t just Mrs. Jonathan Hart, wife of the CEO, and she wasn’t just Jennifer Edwards Hart, a well-known journalist. She was a person, a very real, very funny, very concerned person.

As she lie there thinking on it, she thought about how people were simply people, each to be taken on his or her own merit. Her own younger sister fit that stereotypical “rich woman” mold more so than Mrs. Hart, and she was no where near as financially affluent, at least not in her own right.

J.J. Hart.

In that jacket.

Claire in hers.

Claire. Stupid, naive, want-it-all-now Claire.

Hope for her sake she stays put and doesn’t let on.

As a kid, she had been a lot like J.J.:  just a regular, delightful, fun-loving kid. Then, after that first on-her-own trip to Europe to celebrate completing her first year in college, it all turned around. She was never the same after that trip.

Why couldn’t Claire have at least listened?

Just angry and resentful, that’s all. And impatient.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. That was simply how the chips had fallen for them. Get over it, that was all anyone could do. It wasn’t as if they could go back and have a do-over. Life just wasn’t set up that way.

It was tiresome being in the bed, but the dizziness was keeping her there. The soreness was still in her ribs; she could feel it. It had been worse before this last thing, whatever it was. The ribs probably only still felt badly because she’d been lying prone so long. If she’d been up and moving those past few days, the kinks would have been worked out.

Dr. Langford tried asking about the bruises. Why wouldn’t they just go away and leave her alone? He said he could tell they were old, not caused by whatever happened on Saturday, but that wasn’t his business. She wouldn’t let it be. It was old business, her business. It had been handled. That she fell was all he needed to know- when she decided to act as if she remembered. Telling him the truth wouldn’t fix anything.

Maybe… once she remembered everything… she could get back to trying to fix… whatever it was….

That was why she’d had to shut down on Mrs. Hart, even though she would have preferred like anything to have had her stay until she fell asleep again. She had to get back to trying, to remembering, and in order to do that, she had to have time and quiet. She had to be alone.

Even though alone was terrifying.

________________________________________________________

When they got inside, they found Pat seated on the couch which put her back to them. Although she had to have heard their footfalls, she didn’t turn around or otherwise acknowledge their approach. After exchanging slightly anxious glances between them, Jonathan crossed over to the bar, and Jennifer continued on into the room to sit down on the couch across from Pat.

Drink in hand, Pat raised her eyes from the glass to look at her, but didn’t say anything.

“I picked up some things for you while I was out.” She said to Pat. “I wasn’t sure how long you would be stuck here, and I knew you’d need a bit more than the shoppers brought you yesterday. They’re all out in the car. I thought we could take them over to the guest house after dinner.”

When Pat smiled, it was only with her lips, and that seemed to have taken a Herculean effort on her part.

“Thanks. You always were the shopper between the two of us, Jen.”

“I remember how you used to send me out with your credit cards to do your shopping for you. You’d complain about what I picked out, but you never took anything back.”

“I was no fool, Jen. You had very good taste. I just couldn’t let you know that I thought you did when it came to me. You can relax about having to take over for me. In New York, they know I’m alive and well.”

“That ought to be a load off your mind, Pat.”

“I would think it would be more of one off yours. It does allow me to rest somewhat easier. I didn’t speak with anyone directly. I just got word that the news had gotten through.”

“Martini, darling?” Jonathan called from behind the bar. “What about you, Pat?”

“A martini would be fine.” Jennifer answered. “A lot of ice, though.”

Pat twisted around and lifted her glass so that he could see it. “I’m good. I’ve been on brandy all day, and I’d better stick with it. Experience has taught me not to mix it up.”

She turned back to face Jennifer. “And don’t give me that look, Edwards; I’m fine. Marnie and her stepmother made sure of  that. I got cut off before the three sheets could even pick up a breeze, much less some wind.”

Jennifer leaned forward. “I was going to ask you about that, but I’m glad you brought it up first. What happened that you ended up out with Marnie when you wouldn’t go out with me?”

Jonathan joined them, handing Jennifer her drink and then sitting down next to her.

“Preventive measures.” Pat said. “Marnie needed some of her things from the house, jackets and such. I went with her to go and get them, that’s all. Didn’t want there to be any trouble with the baby getting what she needed. How did your project go? And did you go visit your friend in the hospital?”

“I didn’t get to the project. I wound up spending most of the day at the hospital with my friend. She was doing much better today.”

“Good. I figured, since she didn’t know me, it might be better if you went to her on your own, at least that first time.”

The front door opened and Bill came through it. “Hey.” He called out in greeting as he started toward them. “Babe, it looks like we’re here until at least Saturday. Unless we drive all the way back out east, we won’t be able to leave. Nothing’s going to be flying until at least Saturday.”

He bent over the back of the couch, gave Pat a peck on the cheek and went to fix himself a drink.

Pat emptied her glass, set it down on the table, closed her eyes, and ran both hands through her short, dark hair, ruffling it and the dramatic white streak into spikes.

After a tense moment, she sighed while using her fingers to smooth her hair into it’s usual wedged style, “Que sera. It’s all out of our hands. All we can do is wait.”

Marie appeared at the door that led back to the kitchen announcing that dinner was ready to be served. The girls could be heard coming down the interior staircase that would put them directly in the kitchen. Jennifer and Pat got up and followed Marie. Jonathan rose as well, but he went over to the bar.

“How’s she doing?” Bill asked, tipping his head in the direction Pat had gone.

“Hard to tell.” Jonathan answered. “She’s been out with Marnie for a while. That had to have done her some good.

Bill nodded in agreement. “She’s crazy about that kid.”

“She also mentioned to Jennifer that the New York end knows she’s still with us.”

“That’s great. She was up all night pacing, on the phone, drinking, and frustrated. I stopped over at the house before I came in here this evening. Pat has killed an almost full fifth of brandy. I had one half glass of it. Jonathan, I have never in my life seen a woman who can put it away like she can and not get drunk. If it was me, I’d be damn near staggering, if not out of it completely, and I have at least sixty, seventy pounds on her.”

“I’ll have another delivered to you.” Jonathan assured him. “I’ve got local connections. When it gets there, though, put it up from her. Pat isn’t used to not being in control of her circumstances, and she hasn’t been since you took her off that plane yesterday. She’s got an awful lot on her plate, and uncertainty is not her normal bill of fare. But she doesn’t need to be drinking her way through it, whether she can handle it or not.”

Bill came around the bar to stand in front of his longtime friend, and Jonathan was struck by the unusual tone of vulnerability in Bill’s tone when he spoke.

“I love her, Jonathan. I want to help her, but I don’t know what to do for her. It’s not like I can hold her or tell her it’s going to be all right. She’s not that kind of woman, and it probably isn’t going to be all right when she gets back. She loves Manhattan. It’s her mental, as well as her physical home. She’s probably lost a bunch of friends and acquaintances in this. I don’t know how to help her.”

As they started toward the kitchen to join the others, Jonathan put his arm around his friend’s shoulders.

“Just be close by when you can be, Bill. When you can’t, keep your phone turned on, and pick up if or when she calls. She’s going to have to work through most of it on her own, but I think the knowledge that you’re within her reach if she needs you will be help enough for her from you. She might not be the type who needs to be held, but reassurance takes all kinds of forms. Sometimes it’s just knowing for certain that there’s one person in the world upon whom you can count to always care when you hurt.”

The knowledge that Jennifer was there for him in whatever way he needed for her to be was always enough when he was going through bad patches of his own. The dark periods never came for him any more.

He and Pat Hamilton were an awful lot alike, probably far more than anyone else suspected.

________________________________________________________

“So after all of that, J., you let Hector take Genie with him for the night? You’re a good one. I wouldn’t trust him with my left shoe.”

Up in Marnie’s room after dinner, the girls were putting away Marnie’s clothes, the ones taken from the trunk of her car, before tackling their homework. Marnie was working with the garments on hangers inside the bags. J.J. was removing the things which had been stuffed down in the carry-on bags.

“I had to cut him some slack, Marn. His story made sense, even though it all started with him being irresponsible in the first place, but that’s just Hector. After he explained it all to me, I had to be at least glad that he didn’t want to take Genie into the boys bathroom with him.”

Marnie unzipped the first clothes bags and began removing the jackets from it.

“After all, we are talking Hector, here.” She interjected as she moved to the closet. “He just as well could have.”

“That’s what I’m saying.” J.J. replied. “Anyway, he didn’t know that when he asked Bianca to hold Genie while he went in, that the attendance officer guy would be hemming him up on his way out and would take him to the Counseling Center so they could call his father and get verification that Mr. Diaz knew Hector had stayed home first and second period.”

“His Papi brought him to school.” Marnie said as she came out of the closet from hanging up the contents of that first bag, heading toward the bed for a second. “Why didn’t he just write Hector a late note?”

“You know how Mr. Diaz is.” J.J. answered. “He has that real strong work ethic, and he gets pissed because Hector isn’t as driven, except where it applies to his music. Hector said Papi was real mad about him oversleeping, and just about pushed him out of the car without stopping or slowing down once he got him to the school. Forget about Papi writing a note. Hector was lucky to get the ride from his father at all.”

“So that’s where Hector was coming from when we saw him in the hall?”

“Yes. He said they had just cut him loose from the Counseling Center, after they got in touch with the house.”

“What was Bianca’s story?”

“He said she claimed she panicked. She had gone to the bathroom, and she took Genie in with her. Bianca said she sat her on the sink while she went in the stall to use it, so that’s how Genie’s dress got wet. Then Genie started crying, and Bianca, of course, couldn’t make her stop. The bell rang, she didn’t know what to do;  she said she couldn’t take her to class crying, and she was late, so she put Genie in the back stall and just left her.”

“Just left her in the stall? Crying like that? She just sat her in the stall and walked away?”

“Hector said that she said that’s all she claimed did to her, but neither of us believes her. I mean, why was Genie all dirty and scuffed up like that? Why did ‘Lita find her on the floor?”

Marnie stopped in the middle of another trip to the closet. “I think it’s awful that you guys don’t know exactly what happened to her. That all you have to go on is Bianca’s word. She could have done anything to Genie, J.”

“That’s what Hector said. He was real upset about it. Not just about me being mad at him about it, but about what happened, period. He said when he realized what happened to Genie, it made him sick and ashamed that he put her in that position. That’s why he left school early. He said he had to think, I could tell he was being sincere.”

Marnie grinned a small grin as she sat on the side of the bed sorting lingerie. “He had to have been if he came here to try to make up with you, and then stayed to talk to your father about it once he found out you weren’t home.”

“Yeah, well, that made an impression on me, too. By the time he got finished telling me everything, he had turned all red and couldn’t look me in the eye. I actually felt sorry for him and kind of bad about going off on him like I did. And then, there’s what Daddy said to me.”

“What’d he say?”

“At first I was mad as hell that Hector had the nerve to come here. My mother and I pulled up from coming from the hospital- that’s another story-, I saw his truck parked behind Daddy’s, and I was ready to spit nails. The Duchess talked me down from that before she let me out of the car. Then, when we got in the house, Marie told us- more like warned me- that Hector and Daddy were on the patio. I almost couldn’t talk to him when I got out there, I was so mad. Hector started apologizing right off, before I could say anything beyond hello- which my mother had to pinch me to get me to say- and he told me he wanted to talk to me by myself. He wanted me to go walking with him, but I didn’t want to. I thought he was going to be whining and begging and stuff, and I just really did not want to hear it.

“Then Daddy leaned over to me and whispered in my ear so my mother couldn’t hear it, “Get that Edwards-ugly out of your ass, give that boy a break, and go hear what he has to say.” Marnie, I wish to God my mother had overheard what he said to me.”

Marnie snickered. “He really cussed you, J.?”

“Yeah! Do you believe that? I didn’t know how to take it at all. Caught me all off guard.”

To Marnie’s great amusement, J.J. still seemed rocked by it.

“But I have to say, Marn, that was probably the only way Daddy was going to get me to move off that patio; he shocked me into it. I tru-u-u-ly wish the Duchess had heard him use the Edwards name as an adjective like that.”

“She’d have eaten him alive.” Marnie laughed out loud.

“You know it.” J.J. nodded “At the end of it all, Hector said he wanted to keep Genie for the night. Not to make up, but because he knew he hadn’t been pulling his weight with her, which he hadn’t, so I let him have her. I’m pretty sure she’ll be all right with him. After all, he is her Daddy. Then, too, Philly’s there. She can help him with her if he needs it. He’ll probably be calling me a million times.”

” ‘Specially when she starts that crying all into the night. So, you two are cool again?”

“Yeah. Hector’s still my boy. He’s not all the way the slacker I assumed he was. He proved to me today that he has a soul and a conscience; I like that in a guy. And I’m a hot head. I got on ‘Lita about jumping to conclusions about me, but then I turned right around and did the same thing to Hector. I need to do better. So what happened with you, Marn? How did you end up with Aunt Pat? My mother said that she didn’t go with her today. So, how’d she get with you?”

Marnie stopped what she was doing and dropped down to sit on the side of the bed.

“J.J., I got picked up by the cops.” The uncharacteristic sound of shame in her voice made J.J. stop what she was doing and turn to look at her.

“The cops!” She whispered as if she didn’t want to be overheard, even though the door to the room was closed. “Marnie! What happened?”

“See, I wanted to get a couple of my jackets from home, especially my purple leather. It was after school, I knew my brothers would be home, and I wanted to see them, too. So I went by the bakery and got some of those soft butter cookies they like, then I swung over to the house.”

“Loophole?” J.J. raised that one mischievous eyebrow.

“You know.” Marnie shrugged. “They said come straight home. They didn’t spell out which one.”

They both gave the open-mouth silent snicker and high-fived each other.

“Anyway, I get there. Brett and Mikey are all glad to see me, they start screaming and stuff. Then I had cookies, too. They were hugging me and everything, asking me about Daddy and if I talked to him. All of a sudden, my stepmother charges into the room, telling me to get out. I don’t have any business being there. I don’t live there any more. I’m a bitch and a whore, just like my mother, all of that. So I went off on her back.”

Although she considered herself open to anything, there were still some things that J.J. found absolutely shocking and hard to take. In her book, there were some universal taboos that by virtue of maturity alone, grown people should have risen above.

“She really called you a bitch and a whore?”

“Yeah, she did. Right to my face. At that point, I told my brothers to get out, to go to their rooms. I wasn’t going to have them disrespected like that. They were scared and didn’t want to leave me with Karen, so I rang for the nannies, and they ran in and got them the hell out of there, and then I let Karen have it good. She picked up the phone and threatened to hit me with it if I didn’t leave. I told her to go ahead, I wasn’t going anywhere, and if she did hit me, she better make sure she killed me because if she didn’t, I was damn sure doing her. Instead, she called the police and lied on me, telling them I broke in and was threatening her. That I was trespassing on private property and all of that.”

“Was she drunk?”

“As hell.”

“So then what happened?”

“The cops came and took me in the car with them. They made me go, and not her.”

“I guess you cussed them out, too.”

Marnie turned beet red.

“I couldn’t help it, J. I was so mad. I was so, so mad. She was drunk all over my brothers, hollering at me, calling me bad names. I really wanted to kill her.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, the hell I did, J.J., I hate her. You know, she actually said to me that it was my fault that my mother didn’t have a husband, talking about I wasn’t going to break up her marriage like I did my mother’s. My fault, how? She got knocked up and broke up Kyle’s mother’s marriage to my father, so where was she coming from with that crack about me? And it’s not like she’s not doing a good enough job of driving Daddy off on her own. I don’t know what my mother and father call themselves doing. Normally they hardly speak, now she’s with him when he’s hurt, and I guess Karen’s pissed off about it. J.J., I don’t know why grown people do what they do, but it’s certainly not my fault that they do it, and it’s not fair that they blame me.”

“She was just bent out of shape, Marn. Drunk, maybe hurt about him not sending for her, scared about your father being in the hospital and all. She didn’t know what else to say. Stress makes people act stupid sometimes.”

“Then Karen must be stressed completely out every moment of her damned miserable life.”

Although the weirdness concerning Marnie’s mother being there with Marnie’s father in Boston, rather than his current wife, had been on her mind as well, J.J. understood that it wasn’t at all fair for Marnie to get dragged into that adult drama by anyone. What could any rational person think that Marnie possibly have to do with any of that?

Operative word being “rational”….

The Duchess, in her infinite, anticipating wisdom, once explained it to her that sometimes kids blame themselves when their parents had problems, but that she should always remember that there was no real truth in that. Husbands and wives don’t always agree, she said. Sometimes they get on each other’s nerves, and they even have arguments at times, just like good friends sometimes do. But, she told her,  the problems in a chronically troubled marriage go way deeper than the children born from it.

“So like, where was Jaden while all this was going on?” J.J. asked, changing the course of the conversation when Marnie began wiping at the angry tears threatening to spill from her eyes.

“Jaden was in the chair.” Marnie answered. “While Karen was doing all of her carrying on for the cops, she kind of knocked into him. That’s when I really went crazy, and the cops took me. I don’t know what happened to me, but it’s like when she did that, I only saw black.”

“Have you checked back on your brothers? How did you end up with your clothes? Where does Aunt Pat come in on this?”

Marnie’s cell began chiming, and she held up one finger to J.J. while reaching to the night table to get it.

She spoke into the phone, listened for a moment, and her eyes widened. Then she allowed the tears to course freely down her cheeks as she smiled, “Hi, Daddy.”

J.J. took that as her cue to leave. Even though Marnie’s story wasn’t finished, and she had her own tales to tell Marnie, what was happening was far more important at that moment. What they had to say to each other could wait.

But before she did go, she took a moment to reach across the bed to pat Marnie on her back, and when she had her attention, to give her a wink and a hearty thumbs up, mouthing, “Tell him I said, hi.”

She closed the bedroom door behind her.

In the hall, she stopped with her hand to her chest, wondering why her heart was suddenly beating so hard. Continuing up the hall to her own room, she quickly considered it all.

She was happy for Marnie, anxious about Aunt Pat, concerned about the lingering effects of 9/11 overall, as well as how the news of the disaster would affect Chris when she was told. And what was the deal on the mystery sister? More than any of that, however, she remained undecided about whether or not her mother’s car was being followed that afternoon.

It had to have been more than coincidence that she kept seeing that black sedan, but she couldn’t be totally sure about it. If she mentioned it to someone, and it turned out in the end to be a mistake on her part, in the meantime that would be adding to everyone’s already heavy load of concerns and worries. Then, too, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t also seen Bob Smith from security in that rear view mirror. Evidently he’d been assigned to tail one of them, so, he had to have seen whoever else that was.

But what if he hadn’t?

As she entered through the doorway to her room, she thought she heard her father’s footfalls on the back staircase.

In the past, ignoring her hunches as they related to her mother’s safety and well-being, not to mention her own, had proven costly. Things really didn’t feel right to her. Hearing her mother say that she had gone out to Chris’ place all by herself , had at that time sent odd, disturbing chills through her. Who knew who might be watching Chris condo and/or why? What if that unnamed someone jumped to the wrong conclusions about why her mother had gone there?

What if the black sedan thing wasn’t about her mother, but had more to do with her?

Perhaps homework could wait.

Instead of going into her room, J.J. headed around to the loft. 

 

Continue to Part Seven

 

 

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