The Project: Part Ten

Part Ten

_______________________________________________________

There are a lot of parks here. You’re sure that’s the park? You’re sure?… There have been too many slip-ups to be wrong on this one. You’d better be right… I don’t give a damn whose fault it is, we had her right here. We knew right where she was, and then he let that bitch get away… got careless and sloppy, and… well, you’re all we have left on the inside… You all got your money, and now you’re all that’s left… Look, I don’t care if you didn’t get paid. That’s not my problem. You still owe me; I own you… Mess with me, and it can made to look like it was all you…

You told me you thought that’s where he had to have put it. Since you couldn’t find what happened to those specs for it, then you better hope we find it… don’t let me get the idea you might be holding out on me… I don’t care if they are just kids… I don’t care at all that one of them is his. The kid gets in the way, she gets capped, just like everybody else who got in the way… And anyway, her old man deserves it for what he did to mine. He deserves more than just having his business wiped out…

yeah well, just so you understand you can be cashed in, too. If you don’t want to go on a one way ride like your boy, you better be right about this park thing…

________________________________________________________

Good old, Chase. He could always be counted on for an assist, even when he didn’t know that was what he was doing.

His showing up like he did and for the reason he did, insured her father would be tied up for a while. Uncle Bill’s coming over from the guest house cemented that, and then their calling in Mr. Barnett when she declined Chase’s request to be his partner, was her exit visa. As much as she hated not being a part of the action and of a good bet like the one that was on the table in the billiard room, she had to take her shot when it came. With her mother and Aunt Pat in the den, elbow deep in whatever it was they were doing, J.J. had her window of opportunity.

In the kitchen, as she went about fixing a small basket of fruit to take to Chris and Eva, she’d run into Marie, but she hadn’t been a problem. A lover of fresh fruit, especially grapes, she often put cold fruit from the fridge into that basket to take up to her room. She’d eat some and set the rest in the cooler she kept in her sitting room. Thus, her actions didn’t seem to draw any undue attention from the usually vigilant housekeeper.

With so many people staying over the weekend, Marie wouldn’t be taking her customary Saturday off. Instead of retiring to her room to pack for a visit with her sister, she was busy working. When she went into the pantry, from the corner of her eye, J.J. could see that she was checking her inventory; she seemed to be making up a meal list. Marie too, would be deeply occupied for a while.

That window was wide open. The only thing left to do was step through it.

Upstairs, she momentarily vacillated on whether or not to take Jaden with her. If he started crying, and there was nobody there to see to him, that might draw unwanted attention, thereby revealing her absence from the house. Although he was in his crib in her room quietly sleeping, she decided to take him, too.

With Genie strapped to her front, Jaden strapped to her back, a couple of diapers stuffed inside the front pocket of her hoodie jacket, and the basket on her arm, she was just about to leave the room when Third ran in doing that flipping thing he did when he had to go out.

It was an annoyance, an unexpected hindrance. But if she ignored him, he’d only go down, and find the Duchess, and flip all around her. Then she’d be on the intercom, calling for her to come down and take him out. There wouldn’t be an answer, nobody would come down the stairs, and then she’d be busted for real.

“Cut the middleman,” she sighed to the dog, taking the leather lead she kept behind her door off its hook and squatting to snap it onto Third’s collar. “As well as the potential for mama-drama. I don’t need you giving me away to her. Chris might as well meet you, too.”

Down the interior staircase she went and into the kitchen, stopping on the bottom step to peek around the corner to see if Marie had come out of the pantry; she was no where in sight. Carrying Third under her arm, tipping across the ceramic tile in her rubber-soled sneakers, she slipped out of the back door, closing it behind her without a sound.

_______________________________________________________

After having her dinner brought to her in the bedroom and eating what she could, Chris slept for a while. It seemed that was all she’d been doing since waking from her “big sleep”. She’d be awake for a time, staring at the walls and Eva, staying still to control the dizziness, and then, out of boredom or as a means of escape from her more troubling lines of thought, she’d fall off to sleep again. Because of her healing head injury, she was still being awakened by Eva at two-hour intervals, a necessity which left her strangely tired, restless, and on edge despite the excessive sleeping. The Hart’s pool house was lovely and comfortable, but far too quiet. To facilitate true recall, a lot was still being kept from her, including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.

She sighed.

Willow Pond. The official name of the Hart estate sounded lovely to her ears. It was reflective of its occupants, the Harts, all of them. Pleasant, cool and breezy, free-flowing, calm. She felt safe there, insulated, but from what, she still wasn’t quite sure.

Coming in as she had, flat on her back in a van, she hadn’t had a chance to see much of the grounds. Having been there before, she was somewhat familiar with the front, but she hadn’t had much occasion to check out the rear, where she currently found herself. She was aware that the estate backed up to the lovely Santa Monica Mountains, and she wished she could get out to see them. Sitting there in the front windows of the pool house in the early night, she could see the small fountain on the island of grass and flowers right by the quiet, shimmering pool. Jets of water jumped up in its center, dancing a crystalline jig in the center of the  In the not-so-far distance, the lights in the windows of the main house burned warm and inviting.

Then, out of no where, a most welcome sight.

Coming up the walkway was J.J Hart with a little dog attached to a lead and a wicker basket on her arm. Judging from the urgency of her step and the furtive glances she was casting back toward the house, Chris figured that the girl was probably operating on her own and out of place once again in making her way to her.

Not caring a bit how wrong J.J. might be in venturing out there, she smiled in happy anticipation.

_______________________________________________________

It was hard to believe that something so terrible could happen in America. It was the kind of thing that happened in other places, places where it was an awful thing to hear about, but you were morbidly relieved that if it had to happen, it happened over there and not right there where you were. Where she was supposed to have been that past Tuesday had it not been for Chris.

All of her life, Chris had been coming to her rescue, and she’d been too stupid and selfish to see it. Chris had given up so much, and all she’d done was take. Alone, for all practical purposes, housed in that living tomb she was in, she was better able to see everything for what it was- and herself for whom she had become. She was neither proud, nor pleased.

Claire closed the newspaper she’d been reading, and pushed it to the floor with all the others before rolling over onto her stomach. Using the remote, she turned down the sound and thereby shut out the pictures flashing on the monitor of the current repetitive news story being piped in via satellite hookup. The pictures, the images, and the stories seared impressions on her mind that were becoming more than she could take.

On top of all of that, she was sure that they were looking for her; they had to be. What she hoped was that if she didn’t surface, they’d assume she was dead among the thousands of others in New York, but that was a chance she wasn’t quite ready to take. It was too soon. She’d have to stay under a while longer, hiding, burrowed in like a rodent, or vermin, trying to keep safe from predators she once thought were allies.

In the beginning, she hadn’t seen it. Chris tried to tell her that the truth might be hurtful and ugly, but she had been determined to find out for herself why Chris had done things in the way that she’d done them. Reluctantly, she understood why Chris hadn’t disclosed what she knew. But why had she chosen the life for herself that she did when things could have been so much better for both of them?

“Be careful what you ask for. Be grateful for what you have, and be careful what you wish for. You might find that what you think you don’t want is what you should have had all along.” Those were things Chris often said to her. What she’d since learned was all that she wished for, all those things she thought she lacked, she’d had all along without even knowing it.

She rolled over onto her back, staring up at the stucco ceiling that she knew was a covering for the thick stainless steel that encased that entire living space. Her life, such as it was, was nothing less than a mess. Only Chris could fix it. If anybody could, she would know how.

She resolved that in the morning, she’d request to meet with Mrs. Hart again. She’d ask one of the guards out there to make the call. Yes, she’d send for Mrs. Hart, tell her as much as she could, and beg to be taken to Chris.

Then it dawned on her that the last time she saw Chris, she hadn’t been in any shape to talk with anyone. She didn’t even know if Chris would be in any shape to see her in the morning. She hadn’t asked, and she hadn’t been told.

How sorry was that?

Rolling back onto her stomach, Claire buried her face in the pillow.

_______________________________________________________

For some time after Sarah Martin left him, Ken Matheson remained in the booth, staring at the phone records she left with him. He held them in his hands, not quite sure what to make of the whole thing. By itself, it might just be an affair. But aligned with the things they knew to be true, he realized it could very likely be something more.

First of all, HartToy security was not allowed to fraternize on any level other than a professional one with members of technical staff. Relationships among consenting adults were bound to crop up every now and then, especially in a place where the turnover rate was so low, but for the sake of keeping matters honest, members of security were strictly forbidden from becoming personally involved with other employees while working for Hart.

So why had Martin been phoning Alice Rangel?

With the man deceased, it seemed a moot point, but he had to wonder what did transpire between them? With so many calls, it was evident that something was going on. As he checked the lists over, he could see that the connections varied in length. Some as short as a few seconds, others several minutes, a couple almost a half hour. Had Alice Rangel been phoning Martin in the same manner?

Mrs. Martin said her husband had a gambling problem. Mr. Martin was found with a large amount of money on his body. Had he won big? If so, why would he commit suicide? If it was murder, why was the money still on him? Why hadn’t Rider been relieved of it at the time of his death?

Because the money obviously wasn’t the objective.

His first inclination had been to phone Alice Rangel up and ask her to meet with him in the morning, but then he thought better of it. If there was something untoward going on, then he didn’t want to alert her to the fact that he was focused on her. She, as was Martin, was a longtime Hart employee, and in his capacity to be closer to the staff, he had become cordial with both of them, but he never suspected any connection between them. He was suddenly glad that he hadn’t been able to get to her that afternoon when he was diverted by Mrs. Martin’s phone call to him.

Rangel’s work phone records would be easy enough to check, but what he needed was her cell phone records. For that he would need to call upon someone who had access to that sort of thing. Settling back against the padded leather booth seat, he wished that Chris were around. She’d be on the phone in a heartbeat, lining things up. That girl knew everybody and could get anything done by just asking.

There were the upper level, in-house investigators at headquarters, but he was loathe to involve them. If it turned out to be something as minor as two people messing around when they shouldn’t have been, he didn’t want to look the fool for calling in the big guns for that. If that was all there was to it, then he was supposed to be the one to handle that, and then call in August Lamb to address the possible security breach once his investigations were done.

God, he hated the idea of calling in Lamb.

Sitting there, it came to him that a friend of Alice’s was a teacher at a high school in West Los Angeles. It was through Alice and that teacher that the newest prototypes had been called into play for a project at the teacher’s school. He remembered sitting in on the initial plans for securing the units, which at that time were still in the development stage, and hearing Alice say that she and the teacher in charge of the project were longtime friends.

The waiter brought the bill; he paid it and left the restaurant. It was Friday night, and the main street as he drove from the parking lot was busy with cars and pedestrians out for a good time. School wouldn’t be back in session until that Monday. First thing Monday morning, he figured, he’d go into the office, look up the teacher’s information, and then he’d go and pay her a visit. Maybe she could shed some light on what was going on with her friend, Alice Rangel and the late Mr. Martin.

_______________________________________________________

“Your home is absolutely wonderful.”

Chris marveled as those mountains she had been desirous of seeing came into view. Amber spotlights designed and strategically placed showcased their shadowy majestic heights as they rose into the night, seemingly just beyond the grounds of the estate rather than in the considerable distance.

J.J. strolled, pushing the wheelchair along the walkway leading that direction. Third’s lead was tethered to Chris’ hand, and he walked right along with them. They had been out to the tennis and basketball courts. J.J. had shown her the old tree house, the garage, the grape arbor, the stone well, and the fish pond. She had taken her as far out as the gardener’s shed, which looked more like a small cottage than a place used to house tools and equipment.

“You are one lucky little girl to live in a place like this.”

“It is nice,” J.J. replied. “Peaceful and relaxing when I need it to be; lots of good places to get away from everything and everybody at times. My father has done a lot in his lifetime. I’m just glad for him that he can look around himself and see the fruit of his efforts. He likes having a lot of room to move around in, which is why there aren’t a whole lot of rooms in the main house, but the ones it has are big, and that’s why there’s so much land around it. He needs room to stretch out, he says.”

To herself, Chris considered that a rather unusual and mature answer for such a young girl to make. Most kids, she thought, took things like the home they lived in, for granted. She doubted that many teenagers took their parent’s happiness and satisfaction into consideration, but it seemed J.J. Hart did.

“This place is so huge, J.J. Don’t you ever get lonely here, being an only child and all?”

“Nah, I’ve lived here all of my life, so it’s just home to me. Besides, I like being an only child; I’m used to being on my own a lot. Sometimes I like being with just me.”

Chris thought to herself, “How well I recall the feeling.”

Then she asked aloud, “So, with all this space, do your parents allow you to entertain your friends here a lot, or I guess when you want to have company? I’ve heard about your legendary birthday parties.”

“Legendary?” J.J. laughed. “Good one, Chris.”

“I’ve heard they’re huge. I remember your father called in a bunch of security for the last one.”

“Strictly overkill, but to answer you about my friends, sure, they’re here a lot. I have sleepovers, and of course, there are the parties. The crew is always stopping by or hanging out around the pool.”

“The crew?”

“Yeah, my best, closest buds. My mother calls us the “Wild Bunch”. Sometimes she refers to us as a “merry band of teenage pirates”, thus ‘the crew’. We’re not really wild, though. We just like to have fun. I’m pretty sure when my parents bought this place, they didn’t envision a whole lot of kids running around it. I think they’ve come to at least accept that if my friends are here, they know exactly where I am.

“Speaking of my friends being here, right now, my best friend, Marnie is actually living with us for the moment. Her father got hur- is away. Her mother is, too, so she’s staying with us so that she can go to school.”

The slight hesitation when J.J. mentioned her live-in friend’s father hadn’t escaped Chris’ ears. J.J. had caught herself, and she figured it was in some way done for her benefit.

“Did you ever come here when the original house was standing, Chris? You know, before the fire?”

“A few times. On the outside, the house you now live in looks exactly the same.”

“I know, on the inside, too. Daddy showed me pictures of the original and the specs they used to put it back together. It’s really an interesting thing to see. I mean, how they put it all back from almost just ashes.”

“I’m told your father built the house back when your mother became pregnant with you. I thought that was a lovely gesture.”

“Yes, my parents told me that. They wanted me to be raised here. So you see, when you were asking me about being lonely and stuff, I couldn’t possibly be; I was meant to be here.

“You know, Chris, I sometimes wonder if they would have done that if I hadn’t been born.”

“What?”

“Put the house back together. I wonder sometimes if they’d still be bouncing around from place to place or living in Malibu at our beach house where they lived with Max after the fire. Say, did you know Max?”

“I can’t say that I knew him, but I did meet him a few times. He seemed like a very nice man.”

“Did you ever talk with him?”

“A few times. I remember he had a gravely voice, always smoked a cigar, had a very nice smile, and an eye for the ladies.”

“Did he ever try to hit on you?”

“What do you know about ‘hitting on’ somebody, J.J. Hart?”

“Please,” J.J. smirked. “I know enough about it to ask you if he did it to you.”

“You are a mess,” Chris laughed. “I was way too young for him.”

“But still pretty,” J.J. nodded above her head as she continued to push the wheelchair. “My mother said he liked pretty ladies, and that he could charm anybody.”

“He was charming in his own unique, curmudgeonly way.” Chris smiled in recollection. “Speaking of unique charm, I met your Aunt Pat earlier today.”

“And?”

“And I think you have it made. She’s a publisher, your mother is a journalist, your godfather is big in aviation, and your father is a major industrialist. You have all kinds of good influence in your life. Lots of successful examples. I can’t recall, have I asked you if you have any idea yet of what you’d like to do or be?”

“I don’t really know for sure. I’d like to do or be something that keeps me happy and content with my life. I think I’d like to do something that helps other people. Maybe something with kids. And I want to travel.”

“What? No husband, family, white picket fence, and all of that?”

“If it falls that way, all well and good. If not, I’ll be like you, Chris, happy and content with what I have, if I’m doing the things I want to do. Right?”

Chris nodded. That was indeed what she’d said to J.J. in the interview.

J.J. stopped. They had reached a point on the back end where the illuminated mountains glowed in the distance in front of them. J.J. sat down on a low retaining wall and released Third from his lead to allow him to roam and sniff freely along the narrow band of grass on the other side of the walkway. To Chris’ eyes, it was a most picturesque spot, but one that made her heart ache in that old familiar way that mountains still did when she was in or near them. Mountains had come to represent important milestones in her life.

One of the dolls J.J. had strapped to her had begun to cry. It was the one behind her, and she had to loosen the carrier on the one in the front to get to the one that was fussing.

“Jaden, my friend Marnie’s kid, she commented as she worked with the straps. “He must be wet. He almost never cries. I fed him not too long ago, so he shouldn’t be hungry. He only cries when he’s wet.”

“Yours still cry a lot, J.J.?”

Chris watched her get the first baby loose.

“Not as much as before,” J.J. answered as she removed Genie, still inside her cloth carrier, from her chest. “She’s become sort of adjusted since the last time I saw you. Here, can you hold her for a sec while I change Jaden?”

She handed the soft bundle over and went to work getting Jaden off her back. Chris removed Third’s lead from her wrist and hung it on the arm of the chair. Then she pulled back the cloth covering Genie’s face. The doll’s eyes were closed and she was impressed at how much, in the dimmer lighting, it resembled a real infant.

… a whole row of them…

Naked, different shades of flesh, and of different ethnicities, they were naked and lying in a row on the stark white counter. It was amazing how much they looked like real babies from where she had been standing.

… two white coats, going back and forth in the cubicle, so busy they didn’t see her looking in on them….

One by one, the white coats seemed to be examining them, testing them out. They squirmed and cried, like actual infants, just like-

Her eyes squeezed shut, and that was when she saw him, lying on the concrete floor, a pool of blood under his head. He was still lying right where he fell. They didn’t move him until she got there. One of those white coats… Paul.

… that tech, Paul Rider… fairly new… positively dead….

“You okay, Chris?”

J.J. had left the other doll lying on his back on the retaining wall to come to her side. Evidently she had been in the middle of changing his diaper, and in her concern, had jumped up leaving the job not quite finished. A small stream of clear liquid spouted from the doll’s tiny, erect genitalia.

“I’m fine,” Chris lied. “But you’d better check on the little guy. He’s doing his thing.”

J.J. whipped around in time to catch the mini-geyser just before it petered out, affording Chris the chance to regroup.

“I think I’m going to give some more thought to having boys when I grow up,” J.J. grumbled as she went back over to Jaden, pushing Third out of the way from where, up on his hind legs, his front feet on the wall, he was sniffing at the doll, tentatively licking at him and the wet.

“Nasty thing,” J.J. fussed at the dog, pushing him away when he tried again to hop up and see what she was doing.

Having left behind the baby wipes, she dried off Jaden’s tummy and thighs with the hem of her jacket as she continued her fussing, “The minute it’s uncovered and/or some air hits it, there you go. All boys are nasty to some degree, little boys, big boys, and boy puppy dogs. Come to think of it, all of those are probably one and the same.”

“Just wait till you’re grown up, J.,” Chris sighed through her mild amusement at being witness to the sight. “It’ll be better then, and it’ll be right. You’ll understand more about guys; you’ll know more about life. Maybe we should head back when you get finished with him over there.”

As she spoke, she was still running her hand over Genie’s tiny body as the images in her head whirled, flashing in and out so quickly that she was almost sick with it and had to again close her eyes.

… it was a murder. I remember… murdered in the structure….

Claire. My Claire.

As her gut painfully wrenched, her eyes squeezed shut even tighter.

“I hope I didn’t get you sick, Chris, bringing you out like this. You don’t look so good.”

“No, I’m okay. Really. I think I’m just tired.”

Her eyes were still closed, but her mind was clicking, stutter-starting; rusty from inactivity, it was struggling, getting itself in gear. Moments later, the wheelchair was rolling again.

“They probably have a posse out looking for us by now,” she heard J.J. say.

Genie was still in her lap, lying under her hand.

“Tell me something, J.J.”

“Hmmm?”

“Did you bring me out here for fresh air and to show me around, like you claimed, or was it to pick my brain? To see what I remembered?”

There was a slight, but noticeable pause before J.J. answered.

“Chris, I brought you out here to get some fresh air, and because I wanted to talk with you. I hadn’t had a chance to see you; you were asleep when I got home from school.

“You’ve been cooped up in that hospital for all those days, lying around, doing nothing. You needed to get out and look around. I was in the hospital myself earlier this summer. It was only supposed to be for two days, it turned into three, but it felt like three hundred. It was like heaven when I got to be outside again. I almost didn’t want to go into the house when they finally got me back home.

“I really did bring you out to get some air, but now, if some other good just happened to come out of it for you….”

Chris opened her eyes and lifted them to the young face over her head. J.J.’s eyes were on the doll still resting in her lap under her hand. She thought back to J.J.’s demeanor when she arrived at the pool house with the offering of fruit, and to how her eyes kept darting back over her shoulder.

“J.J. Hart, were you sneaking when you came out to the pool house to get me? I saw you walk up; it looked to me like you were creeping. Is this like that Saturday you came to see me? When you came to interview me, but you had an ulterior motive? Don’t try to snow me, little girl. I do this kind of thing for a living.”

“So, I see the fresh air did do you some good.”

Chris slowly shook her head. Set up by a teenager- that teenager- again.

“You are such an absolute, complete mess.”

“So I’ve been told,” J.J. grinned down at her.

_______________________________________________________

Two like silhouettes stood on the pool house walkway in the distance ahead of them. At the sight, Third began tugging at the lead, anxious to run to them and check them out.

“The posse,” J.J. whispered down to Chris. “My mother and Aunt Pat. I was hoping they’d stay busy in the den. I should have known my mother’s radar was going to go off. I don’t know how she knows, but when it comes to me, she always does.”

“We only went for a walk, J.J. What’s the harm in that?”

“You don’t understand, Chris. She told me- She- My mother will never believe I came out here just to talk to you. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going, so she’s going to think- My goose is cooked.”

“No it isn’t. I owe you big. You up?”

“Like last time? Like when my mother showed up and caught me at your office?”

“Yeah, like that. Look, I’ve got this. You just be cool and follow my lead like you did the last time.”

J.J. patted Chris’ shoulder. “I am going to love having you here.”

_______________________________________________________

August Lamb stared at the fax in his hands, trying to make sense of it. Fresh off the machine from the cryptographers he and Jonathan had put on that graphic code taken from Chris’ car; it turned out to be a list of important names and strategic places in Los Angeles. Heading both decoded lists was the name “Jonathan Hart” and “Hart Industries”.

He wasn’t really surprised at the findings, just perplexed by the possible implications.

It was very late, too late for Jonathan to do anything about it even if he was notified. He’d let the man sleep and get with him first thing in the morning. It would be Saturday, and Jonathan hated to be bothered with business on Saturdays, but this had been an unusual week, and the message in his hands wasn’t a typical message.

_______________________________________________________

“Jonathan Hart, if you think for one minute that I think that little minx of yours-”

“Wait, wait,” Jonathan said, cutting Jennifer off from the tirade he was sure she’d been holding in all evening, and could only release once their guests were gone and they were alone together in their bedroom. “Why is it that whenever she does something, J.J. suddenly becomes solely mine?”

“Because she gets it from you.”

Jennifer came out of the dressing room from where she’d been fussing, brushing her hair as she came around to her side of the bed. She sat down on it, facing him where he was seated in the chair by the window, already dressed for bed.

“Gets what from me?”

As he tilted his head with the question, the minute flash of paternal pride in his eye did not get past her. Nor did the smirk he was trying to hide by biting his top lip with his bottom teeth.

“You know full well what I’m talking about. That- that nerve, that- that- that brass the two of you have. You alter and skirt rules. You thumb your nose at convention if convention doesn’t meet your immediate needs, and you have a personal spin to put on everything. And you know what else?”

“What?”

The effort it took to not smile was enormous. Jennifer was just so damned pretty and sexy when she was angry or annoyed. To let her see he was amused or, heaven help him, turned on by it, would be disastrous. As it was, things weren’t looking all that hopeful in that area.

In the early years, when he found himself coming up short and occasionally shut out with Jennifer as the indirect result of something J.J. had done, he would be left with only J.J.’s petulant words to amuse and comfort him.

“I do ’nuffing’ to her.”

As well as her justification to him for whatever actions on her part might have resulted in her house-arrest and his being in the hot-seat for even giving the appearance he might be coming to her defense or sympathizing with her cause.

“Mommy was mean to me. If she hadn’ been mean to me, then…”

There would never be any voluntary mention of what she might have done to Mommy to make her be “mean”. That only came out after a great deal of coaxing on his part. J.J. had never been one to easily give herself up, not even way back then.

“That Chris is just as bad,” Jennifer continued. “Oh, she might be just out of a coma all right, but she hasn’t lost a thing. Covering up for J.J., just as she did that Saturday when I ran up on your child out at HartToy, she was oh, so smooth.

“They came back, J.J. with Chris in the wheelchair, Third and both dolls. As soon as they saw Pat and me standing there waiting for them, Chris, with her smooth-as-silk tongue, already had the story rolling about how happy she was J.J. had come out to visit her. Thanking me for letting her. About how she was wondering if she was going to get a chance to see J.J. tonight. All about what a sweet child J.J. was to have thought about coming out and showing her the grounds. The whole time, your child is standing there, grinning sweetly, looking ever so seraphic and innocent. All she needed was for a pair of gossamer wings to sprout out of her back.”

“So? What’d she have to look guilty about? It was sweet of her to go out and take Chris for a walk and to show her around.”

Bent over brushing her hair from underneath at the nape of her neck, Jennifer brought just her eyes up to his face.

In response, Jonathan dropped his to his lap. “Well, it was,” he murmured as he picked at non-existent lint on the leg of his pajama pants.

She placed the brush on the night table, and leaned back to plant her hands behind her on the bed, which pushed out her unencumbered bosom underneath her filmy nightshirt. Crossing her long, bare legs, she shook out her hair, making it fall away from her face and back down to her shoulders. At the sight, he adjusted his robe so it fully covered his lap.

The look she gave him spoke volumes before she even so much as opened her mouth. When she did speak, he wasn’t surprised at all by what she said.

“You are utterly hopeless when it comes to that girl, Jonathan. I’m supposed to sit here and believe that J.J. Hart left a sure bet on the table, Chase Barnett, Bill, and you to go do charity work on a Friday night? Please. She had an agenda for going out to that pool house, and whether you want to acknowledge it aloud to me or not, you know full well she did.”

“Jennifer, darling, look.”

He sat forward, assuming his most business-like negotiating posture as he spoke. “You and I have explained to her Chris’ condition and the need for all of us to watch what’s said around her. You said you reiterated with her this afternoon what you expected of her with Chris being here. In the highly unlikely event she was to totally disregard what I said to her, J.J. doesn’t ever disobey you. So in light of all that, what in the world do you think she was out there doing aside from what she said?”

“Using a loophole,” Jennifer declared. “Just like you would, if that had been you at sixteen. As far as that goes you this evening, if you hadn’t been otherwise engaged. And I don’t know if you picked up on it or not, but I’m pretty sure you, too, were set up by your daughter in that.”

For a long moment, he sat staring at her. She could see and almost hear the gears turning and the wheels spinning in his handsome head as he processed what she said, especially that last thing she said.

Finally he stood up, pulling his robe closed around him and then tying the belt. He picked up and handed her the robe she earlier left on the foot of the bed.

“Maybe we do need to pay a little visit across the hall,” he conceded. “If my kid did go fishing tonight- and mind you, I’m not saying she did; but, if she did, it’s likely she caught something.”

“Just like her daddy would have, if he went ‘fishing’,” Jennifer grumbled as she pulled on the robe.

“Just like her daddy did when he went fishing and caught you.”

She momentarily froze in place, eyeing him from head to foot.

“If you take a moment and recall accurately, Mr. Hart, you weren’t fishing; I was, so I couldn’t possibly have been the one who got caught. If you check your facts, you’ll find that it was you who ended up on my hook.”

“Whatever you say, Mrs. Jonathan Hart.”

“Hmph!” She cut her eyes and tossed her head.

As she passed him to go to the door, he patted her on the behind and got his hand swatted away in response.

_______________________________________________________

“So, how’d you make out, Chase?”

Your father let me win. He knows I’m home for the weekend, and that the bike or the car will need gas while I’m hanging out with you. He’s not about to let me be able to use the, ‘We ran out of gas’, excuse for not getting you back home on time. I get the feeling he’s used that one once or twice himself in his lifetime.

“Probably. That sounds like something he might have said to a girl’s father. Judging by the pictures I’ve seen of him as a kid and the bits and pieces I’ve managed to pick up along the way about him and his moves, I think he might have been a hound in his day. You know, you kind of look like he looked in those pictures. So tell me, how much are we up?”

We? What, you got a turtle in your pocket or something? You left me high and dry to sneak out and go do whatever that was your mother and your aunt were tripping out over. I got used by you tonight, but that’s okay. I made some real good money off the Big H and Captain Whoop-Ass, but then I ended up having to break my own old man off a piece of it. How do you like that? I call him down to help me, he plays like crap, I sink the winning shot, and then, at ante-up time, he’s standing there with his hand out. Now here you come wanting a cut of my action, too.

“There wouldn’t have been any action had it not been for me having to baby-sit. I don’t care what you say or who else you had to break off, you owe me, Chase Barnett.”

Okay, I’ll buy you dinner tomorrow night. How about that? Can you get out tomorrow night?

“That’s cool. And yeah, I can get out. I’ve done my good deed for the weekend. Marnie can arrange for her own kid tomorrow night. I’ll try to get a sitter, but if I have to, I can take Genie with me.”

I don’t know about that, J. I’ve told you-

“And I’m telling you. If I have to, she’ll be with me and with you, Uncle Chase. Hold on, somebody’s at the door…

“… gotta go, Chase. It’s Daddy.”

You in trouble about whatever you did tonight?

“I don’t know. I didn’t really do anything, but sometimes our interpretation of ‘anything’ isn’t the same as our parents’. I’ll call you in the morning, and let you know the outcome.”

J.J. rolled off the bed and grabbed her robe. It was just Daddy, but she put it on anyway.

Even with your father, Justine. You’re too old to be fanning around guys in just a thin nightgown.”

It had only been Tommy that time.

Tommy. No word from him that night either.

Life in Spain had truly sucked her friend in whole.

And what the hell did ‘fanning around’ constitute anyway?

When she answered the door, she was surprised and a bit stunned to see her father and her mother standing there.

“Family meeting?” she asked with mounting trepidation as her parents silently walked past her into the room.

“Family meeting,” her father confirmed as he took a seat on the far side of the bed.

He gestured for her to join him while her mother stood waiting for her get in. When she did, crawling over to sit in the middle, her mother sat down on her other side.

_______________________________________________________

Pat was still on the phone, sitting by the front window when the Corvette drove up, slowed long enough for the horn to clearly sound, and then continued on around to the main house. The sound brought Bill out from the master bedroom. Pat was just clicking off from her party, but she continued scribbling for a moment on the pad she had in front of her.

“Are you coming to bed now?” he asked. “You’ve been on the phone all evening.”

“I had things to take care of here, and in New York, but the roundabout way. I still can’t get through to anyone directly. Even though she knows where I am and that I’m all right, Cordelia’s probably a basket case; she doesn’t think anyone can take care of me except her. And Dora is more than likely being run ragged trying to handle everything for me in my absence. I’m told that part of my executive staff holed up at my place because they couldn’t get home those first couple of days. Because communications are still so iffy, we still don’t have a full head count. Manhattan must be a nightmare.

“Then, too, I’ve been checking on Kyle, trying to make sure he’s all right. The lower school headmaster says he’s been a little withdrawn, but Teddy’s been taking a lot of time with him. So, I phoned Kyle directly to, you know, give him a little pep talk, and to let him know that we’re thinking about him. He seemed really glad to hear from me.” She stopped and sighed. “It’s been so very crazy.”

She stood and craned her neck to peek through the slats of the blinds. The slight movement of her silent lips told Bill that she was counting. On eight, she stopped.

“If that little hot Jezebel had made it to ten, I was going out there,” she muttered, shifting the rod to close the blinds. “She’s gone inside now.”

“Kissing?”

“Yes. Eight’s a little long, but ten, you’re well on your way to foreplay.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Bill said. “It’s been kind of quiet and a little lonely around here lately.”

Their eyes met, and after a long moment, she walked over to him, stopping just before their bodies made contact.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking up to him as she pushed the pad she’d been writing on down into the pocket of her robe. “I’ve been wrestling with some internal things myself these past few days.”

“So you shut me out?”

“It wasn’t intentional. I’m just not fit company when I get like this.”

“You don’t shut Jennifer out. You talk with her and you spend time with her.”

“You weren’t here. You’ve been busy.”

“What about when I am here, Pat?”

She hung her head and stuck her hands down in the pockets of her robe.

“I shut Jennifer out, Bill. She just knows how to be; she knows how I am, and she works around it. I know how to function around her when I’m like this.”

“Whether you realize it or not, so do I.”

The way she shrugged and slightly tilted her head told him that she didn’t realize it.

“I thought it would be best if I didn’t inflict this side of me on you. Usually, when it happens, we’re not together. You’re where you are, and I’m where I am, and I have it handled by the time I get back with you.”

“You’re going to be my wife. We’re going to be together a whole lot more. I know the house, the ranch, and the apartment are all big enough places for us to choose our corners, but what kind of basis is that for a marriage? Regardless of what’s going on, I want to be in the corner where you are.”

“Are you really sure you want to be married to me?”

He turned his face to the ceiling, rolling his eyes as he did so. “Now you’re going to question that?”

“Bill, we’re great as friends and lovers, but I can be something to deal with on a regular basis.”

“I know that, and believe it or not, that’s one of the things I love the most about you.”

“I really don’t want to mess up what we have.”

“If you don’t marry me, I’ll be messed up. Peter and his family are going to think it’s me who backed out, and they’re going to come after me. They’re crazy about you, and they want you as part of our family legitimately.” He leaned his face down closer to hers. “Just like I am; just like I do.”

Stuffing her hands farther down into the robe’s pocket, she smiled a small, uneasy smile. Shifting her feet, she attempted to explain.

“It’s just that I’ve never been married; not in the real sense, not to someone I love and who loved me. See, it’s always just been me putting up with me. I’d hate like anything to mess us up. Even though we’ve been together for years, marriage is a huge step, and-”

She brought her hand to her forehead as if her head hurt. “I’m just so-… so-”

He reached out and did what he hadn’t dared to do since that first attempt at comforting her on the day they arrived at Willow Pond. Gently, but insistently, he pulled her by the forearms, bringing her body to his. She resisted him at first, but he didn’t release her from the hold he had on her.

“Scared,” he said, finishing what she was finding difficult to admit as he closed her all the way within his big embrace.

“I know, Pat. I was too every time I think of what might have been if I’d been a couple of seconds longer in getting there. But don’t you know that’s why things happened like they did? Don’t you see that’s why I was the one allowed to come and get you? It’s in the big plan for us to be together. I love you. You have to love me. You’d have dropped me like a rock a long time ago if you didn’t.

“Baby, you can let me in. In fact, you need to let me in because I don’t like being out here by myself. I’ve been out here on my own for too long, just like you.”

When she didn’t say anything in response, it took a moment or two for it to register with him that his pajama shirt was wet; she was crying. As long as he’d known her, he’d never known Patricia Hamilton to cry. Hard and repressed, the fear and sorrow were working their way down her body. Even though he couldn’t hear the sobs, he could feel them in her chest, her back, and in her belly. To keep her from faltering when the grief made its way down into her legs, he held her even tighter to him.

“You try so hard to take care of everybody, and you want to take on everything,” he whispered down to her. “With me, babe, you can take off the cape and relax. You just rest and let me be the strong one for a while, okay?”

She nodded into his chest.

_______________________________________________________

Eva was making her final check before turning in herself for the night. She was just about to leave the master bedroom when Chris made up her mind to ask.

“Eva.”

The nurse turned around in the doorway.

“Do you have your cell with you?”

“Why?”

“Because Mrs. Hart said that these house phones here are programmed to only call up to the main house. I need to call out, and I don’t have my phone, why do you think I’m asking?”

“You know, you talk awfully smart for somebody with no phone, and who needs one, Ms. Allen.”

“Do you have one or not?”

“I might.”

“Are you going to let me use it?”

“Maybe.”

Chris sat up in the bed, paying no attention at all to the swirl of vertigo. “Look, I’ve got about two inches in height over you, at least ten pounds in weight, and a three, maybe four inch reach advantage. I’m asking you nicely.”

Eva wasn’t fazed in the least. “I’m trained in martial arts, Ms. Allen. I know all kinds of ways to restrain unruly patients of any size.”

“And I’m trained in ICKYA,” Chris countered. “Now, I need a phone, and I need it NOW.”

“Ick-ya? I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s short for ‘I Can Kick Your Ass’, and you will hear of it if you don’t get me a phone. I have to speak with August Lamb.”

Eva smiled. Her patient, who she had been told could be feisty, seemed to be well on the mend. Since her return from the walk she took with the Hart girl, Chris Allen had remained awake, alert, restless, and irritable, which was a lot better than the lethargic, dizzy, confused, and irritable woman she had been in charge of for the past few days.

“You threatening me, Ms. Allen?”

“You betcha. Are you going to work with me here, or not?”

“How about I phone Mr. Lamb and give him a message?” Eva offered.

“How about you get me the cell, and I phone him myself,” Chris answered. “I’m not an invalid. I can at least punch a number into a phone. Eva, look, you’re supposed to be here to help me. Help me with this. I have to speak with him.”

Eva left the room and returned moments later with a small flip phone, which she handed to Chris. “Make it fast. You need your rest. And don’t you think it’s kind of late to be calling somebody?”

Without comment, Chris took the phone and punched in a number. “He’ll see it’s your name and number in the caller ID, think it’s about me, and he’ll pick up- late or not.”

She switched the phone to speaker.

When the male voice on the other end said, “Hello,” she winked, “I told you so,” at Eva.

“Hey, it’s me, Chris.”

Chris! What are you doing on the phone? How are you feeling? What time is it? It’s late. Why aren’t you in bed?

“I’m much better, and I am in bed. But, I needed to talk to you, well, to ask you something. Do you think you can meet with me in the morning, here at Mr. Hart’s place?”

Why? About what? What’s the matter?

“I just need to talk to you. I- I’m having some recall, and I need for you to, I guess, confirm some things for me.”

You know I can’t tell you anything, Chris. I can’t fill you in on what you don’t remember.

“No, but I can tell you what I’m recalling, and you can tell me if I’m right. That’s allowed, isn’t it?”

I’m not sure. Is it?

In question, she looked to Eva. Eva shrugged and then nodded.

Eva doesn’t see any harm in it. Will you come? First thing?

About eight-thirty, nine? That okay?

Great.

You want Jonathan there, too? You contact him?

No. Just you, August. Right now, I don’t want the Harts involved. I know you have clearance to get in here without having to bother him. There are some things I’m still not sure of, and I need you to help me, if you can, or if you will.

If I can, Chris, I will.

After terminating her call, she thanked Eva. When Eva left the room, she turned off the lamp next to the bed, and then lie back and relaxed.

It was coming together, slowly and in ragged bits and pieces, but it was coming.

Paul Rider wasn’t Paul Rider.

Why that thread kept running through her mind, she couldn’t quite put a finger on. But as sure as she knew that she was Christina Alexandra Allen, she knew that Paul Rider was not Paul Rider, and that he had some connection to Claire, as well as to those dolls J.J. had with her.

_______________________________________________________

“Your mother tells me you and Chris pulled another fast one.”

“Fast one? Another?”

“Last Saturday?” Jennifer said from where she was lying on her side next to J.J. “I wasn’t fooled, Justine. Chris is good, but I could tell she was covering for you up in that office.”

J.J. turned from where she had twisted around to look at her mother back around to Jonathan.

“Tonight wasn’t a genuine fast one, Daddy.”

“Not genuine?

“Yeah, see, I did go to Ms. Chris, but it was because I hadn’t seen her.” She lifted a mischievous eyebrow. “Chase told me he beat you playing pool tonight.”

Jonathan frowned, “Please. I let him. If he’s got money in his pocket, he can’t try to use the old “I ran out of gas” line with me to get you home late. That’s if I let you go anywhere. And you don’t try changing the subject. Tell me about your leaving the game to go out to the pool house tonight.”

J.J. fidgeted, frowned in painful resignation, and breathed a heavy sigh.

“Well, see, when I got home from school, I called out there, but Ms. Chris was asleep. I had homework I had to get done so that it would be out of the way for the weekend. I got that done, then we had dinner. After that I had to help Marnie get ready to go out. I also had the babies to see to. I couldn’t leave them by themselves, so when I got a chance, I went out to see Ms. Chris, and I took them with me.”

When Jonathan’s eyes bore down on her face, J.J. met them with an equally steadfast gaze. Jennifer, still lying on her side behind them, watched them both.

Jonathan forked two fingers and tapped them against his forehead, then with those same two fingers, he touched them to his daughter’s forehead.

“Come on, J.J., this is us talking, you and me. We think a lot alike; therefore I know you and your M.O. pretty well. There’s a lot more to this story that you aren’t telling. You waited until everybody was occupied before you left. Why was that? I think it was because you didn’t go out there to just see her. Come clean.”

She looked away from him, mumbling, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Placing the palm of his hand along her cheek, he turned her face back in his direction. With the index finger, he tipped up her chin to make her look at him.

“Talk, I said.”

She lifted her chin from his finger, exhaling, “Okay-y-y-y.”

When she shifted her body, Jonathan noticed what she did was slide, almost imperceptibly, closer to Jennifer.

“Not this time, Red, Jr.” He took J.J. by the arm, and pulled her back toward him so that she was even closer than she had been. “Your mother cannot back you up on this one. Tonight you were operating entirely on your own.”

“I didn’t do anything,” J.J. murmured, beginning to twist her birthstone ring around her finger. “I just wanted her to see Genie again, that’s all.”

Jonathan and Jennifer exchanged glances.

“Why?”

J.J. searched her father’s face.

“Are you mad at me? I promise I didn’t say anything wrong, or do anything out of the way. I didn’t disobey my mother, so you don’t have to be mad.”

“I’m not mad at you, J.J. I just want you to tell me what happened, that’s all.”

“Okay. I really did want to see her to say hello. Then, see, we just walked around. I showed her the grounds, and we just talked. Not about anything at HartToy, or about her sister, or any of that. Ms. Chris remembered the old house before the fire. She remembered you built it back because my mother was having me. She remembered Max, too. So see, you don’t have to be mad at me. I didn’t do anything.”

At the mention of Max, Jonathan softened.

“I’m not mad. I’m just trying to figure you out. Like I said, I know you and how you can operate, at times. Why did you want Chris to see Genie again?”

For a moment, J.J. turned to look uneasily at Jennifer. Jennifer nodded, signaling her to go on and explain herself.

“Well, see, like, the other day, when we were at the hospital, I had Genie with me. Ms. Chris wanted to see her. I let her, and she had some kind of reaction. I saw her have it. She remembered something when she saw Genie. She almost said, but then she stopped herself, and then she started crying- not Genie, Ms. Chris did. It scared me at first; I thought I had done something wrong, but my mother said she was just frustrated about not being able to remember clearly. She talked to Ms. Chris and got her to stop crying, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that Genie triggered something in her head.”

“So what was your plan in taking Genie out to her tonight?”

“I don’t know. I guess I remembered you saying how hard it was for you when you had amnesia, and that you didn’t get your memory back until you went back to where it all started. I don’t know if Genie has anything to do with anything, but the bad stuff seems to have started at HartToy. Ms. Chris isn’t in any shape to get back to HartToy, so I thought I’d bring a HartToy to her. I only wanted to help her. Honest.”

“I thought we told you to leave things alone, J.J.”

J.J. shifted around to Jennifer.

“What was I bothering, Mom? I just went out to see her. I was home tonight because I was keeping Genie and Jaden. I was responsible for them, so when I wanted to go out to Ms. Chris, I took them with me. Yes, I wanted her to see Genie, but I don’t consider that meddling or bothering anything if I’m just talking to her. If something happened in the course of that which helps her remember and to get better, is that wrong? Isn’t she supposed to be here getting better?”

“If that was all there was to it,” Jennifer said. “Then why did you slip away to do it? Why did you wait until your father was busy playing pool, and until you thought Pat and I were busy working? Why didn’t you tell us where you were going? Marie said she saw you fixing the fruit you took to Chris, but you didn’t mention anything about your intentions to her either.”

J.J. sat in silence, fiddling with the bedcovers, until her father issued a verbal nudge. “Well?”

“Because I knew it would be like this. I knew I would get the third degree, and that you two would think I was up to something. I took off to avoid all that. I didn’t want you to think I was up to something.”

“Well, weren’t you?” both Jonathan and Jennifer asked at the same time.

J.J. lifted her face to the ceiling and shook her head. “Whatever. Just go ahead and tell me what my punishment is, so we can get this over with.”

“Keep a civil tongue, young lady,” Jonathan warned. “And check that attitude in. Nobody’s talking punishment-yet. I told you, you and I think alike. I can see your point in what you’re saying, but don’t push it.

“So tell me, what did you find out? Did anything come of that little gamble you took?”

J.J. opened her eyes and focused back on her father. “For real? Straight up? This isn’t a trap?”

It was his turn to sigh. “For real, J.J. No trap. Just tell me what happened.”

For a second, J.J. twisted back to look at her mother, but Jennifer had her face lowered with a hand to her forehead in what J.J. figured could only be her exasperation at the turn in the conversation she and her father were having.

Forget her. I’m off the hook. Daddy said.

Turning back around, leaning forward toward Jonathan with her hands resting on her thighs, J.J. answered him.

“She remembers a whole lot more than she’s letting on that she does. She remembered exactly what she and I talked about in that interview, what I said and what she answered me. When I let her hold Genie, her eyes closed real tight, like she was hurting or something. She remembered something, Daddy. I’ll bet you big money that it was something bad. Right after that she asked me to take her back to the pool house. That’s when we ran into my mother and Aunt Pat.”

She turned to Jennifer. “Kind of like she did with us in the hospital, when she said she was tired and was acting as if she was ready for us to go. Remember?”

“Um-hmmm,” Jennifer answered without moving her hand.

Someone was in the hall, on the top steps, then coming toward the room. Marnie bounced in, talking without really looking. Jonathan checked his watch.

“Hey J., the 17-20 was the bomb tonight! Everybody was there; you shoulda been. They were asking where you were. Guess who Hector was out w- Oh!”

At the sight of J.J. seated on the bed, flanked by both her parents, Marnie stopped in her tracks. Throwing up one hand, she apologized, “Uh, my bad. Uh, um, I think I’ll just be going on down to my room.”

She grabbed up Jaden’s carrier, where he was sleeping in the chair. “Thanks for watching him for me tonight, J.”

As she backed out through the doorway, with her free fingers she fashioned a quick phone which she held to her ear, mouthing, “Call me!” to J.J.

“Good night, Marnie,” the elder Harts chimed.

“G’ night!” she answered from down the hall.

Jonathan turned back to J.J. “Now tell me,” he said, his face suddenly stern and serious, “What am I going to do with you?”

J.J. sheepishly raised her eyes to his face. “Love me?”

The facade melted, and he smiled. J.J. relaxed.

Forking her fingers, she tapped her forehead with them and touched them to his. “Like you said, Daddy, it’s me and you. We got it like that. I love you for all that you are, so you might as well love me right back.” Then she nodded at him, “Yep, and you know it.”

“And what all am I, pray tell?” he beamed.

“Just like me,” J.J. continued to nod. Then she turned to her mother, “Real nice people. Right?”

Jennifer got up and headed for the door, “I’m out of here. You’re both cramping my stomach.”

When she was gone, Jonathan reached for J.J. and wrapped her in a playful bear hug. “You know, you get me in so much trouble with your mother.”

“I don’t know why,” J.J. grinned up at him when he let her go. “I did nothing to her. I followed what she told me; I didn’t break any rules. I don’t see how she can fault me or you for that.”

“Oh, yes she can,” he said, getting up from the bed. “And she probably will. Did you see that car any more that you thought you saw before?”

“No, all I’ve seen is your guys watching us.”

“No other suspicious cars or anything else out of place?”

“Nope, nothing that I noticed. But it’s good knowing somebody’s there that should there be. I don’t like having Big Brother looking over my shoulder all the time, but I guess it comes with this territory.”

“It does,” Jonathan said. “I’m sorry about it. Hopefully it won’t be much longer. What time are you and Marnie leaving for the park in the morning?”

“We need to be there early to get things set up. Aunt Pat arranged to have everything delivered to the park for us. She even ordered us a tent. Wasn’t that nice of her? I think she went all out because the party’s also for Marnie. She wouldn’t even take the money we collected; paid for it all herself. Marnie and I need to be there to meet the caterers and things, so we’ll probably leave here about six or seven.”

He was at the door. “And that’s another thing. How come you and Marnie are on foot, hitching rides, and not in your car?”

J.J. lifted her chin and folded her arms. “Seeing as how even though I’m sixteen and know how to drive, but I don’t have my own car yet,” she haughtily sniffed. “I’m always on foot or hitching rides.”

He chuckled way down in his chest. The girl looked and behaved so much like her mother when she was in a snit.

“So, I see you’re going to play it cagey. It must have been pretty bad. Who did it, you or Marnie?”

Keeping her arms folded and that chin aloft, J.J. remained silent.

“It’s like that, huh? Not at liberty to say. Must have been Marnie, then. Well anyway, let me know when you two are leaving in the morning, all right?”

“Okay.”

“Don’t forget to do that, J.J. I don’t care if I’m still in the bed. Just call across, and let me know.”

“I will.” She abruptly sat up in the bed, shooting her hand out to him to stop him from leaving. “Hey, Daddy, wait. May I ask you one more Chris thing before you go?”

With the door half open, he stopped and pushed it back until just before it closed, answering, “Depends on what it is. I’m in hot enough water as it is when I get across the hall.”

“I just wanna ask, is Chris’ sister okay? Have you met her? How come she hasn’t been around? Is she coming to see Chris?”

“I thought you said one more thing, J.J.”

“Da-a-a-ddy.”

“All right, the answer to your first question is she’s fine. The answer to the second is yes. The only honest thing I can say about the other two is I don’t know. Good night, sweetheart. Don’t forget to do what I told you in the morning.”

He closed the door behind him, and she exhaled.

She survived a surprise double-teaming no worse for the wear. She was glad it hadn’t been her mother doing the grilling, although it had been odd and uncomfortable to have her father be the one conducting the inquisition with her mother looking on. She was glad he hadn’t pressed her on the matter of Marnie and the car. That he didn’t insist upon sticking his nose in places it didn’t really have to be, and he recognized those kinds of situations when they cropped up with her was one of the things she loved about him.

After fanning herself in relief for a few minutes, allowing her heartbeat the time to return to a more normal rate, she reached for the phone to call Marnie.

Chris and her sister could go on the back burner for a while; she had done all she could with that for the moment. It was disappointing to find that Claire hadn’t bothered to turn up, and it was frustrating to not be able to ask all the things she wanted to ask, but that was something for another day and time. At the moment, she needed to find out what she missed in her own world by staying home that night. Marnie had to have used that fake ID she bought off Orbicio to get into the 17-20 Club. It was only for people whose ages matched its name. Chance was seventeen, but Marnie wasn’t. And who was it Hector was seeing that he wouldn’t tell her about when she asked him, point blank, about it at the lockers after FACS class?

As she waited for Marnie to pick up, she peeked across the room at Genie. The doll was lying asleep in her crib. J.J. made a mental note that for the sake of appearances, before she went to sleep herself, she would need to get up and make Genie cry one more time.

“I suppose if we’d had a son, I’d be the pliant lump of putty you are with our daughter.”

Jennifer was sitting up in bed with her arms folded. The defensive angle of her chin sent a wave of ‘been there, done that’ washing over him that lapped at and tickled his funny bone. He thought he had left that Edwards-attitude in the bedroom across the hall, but that was a mistaken assumption. In a desperate attempt at self-preservation, he turned his head and squeezed shut his eyes to keep her from detecting in them the merriment he felt. To camouflage the smirk that threatened, he pursed his lips until it hurt.

Both his girls, the big one and the little one. They were so feisty, and cute, and always so much fun.

“I guess I would be the one spoiling and indulging him, and you’d be on me about doing so,” she continued.

He crossed the room and came to the bed in silence, slowly removing his robe while trying to maintain control over his composure, conscious the entire time of her unrelenting scrutiny. Climbing in and pulling the covers up to his chest, he lie on his back, closed his eyes again, and folded his arms behind his head.

“Probably,” was all he gave her in delayed answer.

With his eyes closed, he couldn’t see her, but he could feel her. She was staring, waiting for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, he sensed his silence eating at her

“Is that all you’re going to say to me, Jonathan Hart? ‘Probably.’ Is that all I get?”

“Yep.”

“I cannot believe you. You let that girl play you like a fiddle in there. She pouts, sulks, grins, bats those bright blue eyes, and you melt like butter in a sauté pan. You listen to and buy any cock and bull story she has to tell.”

“Well, what did you want me to do to her?”

“I don’t know. I guess, something more than smile at her and urge her on.”

“She didn’t do anything wrong.”

“So she says.”

Slowly rolling onto his side and raising the upper half of his body to lean on his elbow he looked up into her face.

“If you wanted me to be the one to come down hard on our kid, then you should have had that boy you mentioned. Or, you shouldn’t have had a girl who’s quick like you, who looks so much like you, and who makes faces like you do. You smile at me, bat those eyes of yours, and I melt every single time you do it. I listen to and buy wholesale whatever you have to tell me, be it cock and bull like with J.J. the other night, or the real deal, like most of the time when we talk.

“If we’d have had a boy, then yes, I probably would have to have been the one to lower the boom on him because that would have been my place: to make him a man, to get him ready to face the world and not be some soft, spoiled, overindulged punk. I don’t have to do that with J.J. You have the handle on that. You’re doing an excellent job of making sure she turns out to be strong and grounded, a fine woman, just like her mother is.

“You say I spoil her. Maybe I do. It’s just that I feel a girl needs for her father to let her know she’s special in his eyes, and that he loves her. She needs to know her father respects her mind and her person. I think a father needs to make his daughter feel protected, and that he needs to let her know she can always count on him so she doesn’t go looking for a ‘daddy’ in the wrong places and with the wrong people.

“I live in hope I’m doing my part as well as I feel you’re doing yours. Our Justine Jennifer is curious, bright; I admit she’s a bit cunning, but she’s thoughtful and a whole lot compassionate, just like her namesake. I knew what I was doing when I named her. I look at her, and I see you, so I gotta love her. If that’s spoiling her, you’ll just have to sue me.”

Jennifer continued to stare him down as he gazed up at her. After a few quiet moments, she leaned down and with her arms still folded, and touched her lips to his.

“You are so full of it.”

His grin was full of playful lust. “And I love giving all of it to you.”

Rising up, with one hand to her shoulder he pushed her down onto the pillows. “Tell me you love me.”

Struggling to remain aloof to the mischief dancing in his eyes, she allowed, “I’ve told you before, you’ve been mildly amusing to be with from time to time.”

“And I’ve told you before, you couldn’t do without me.”

“Oh, don’t be so sure of yourself, Jonathan Hart. I only stayed because I didn’t want to have to fight you for child support or visitation once we got J.J. I should advise you that young Ms. Hart has a plan already mapped out for her hapless prospective stepmother’s demise should she ever come into play.”

He laughed out loud. “I’ll just bet she does. I wouldn’t even bother to chance something like that with her; she is too loyal to you to allow that to happen. I’d have to stay single the rest of my life. But you know she doesn’t ever have to worry about anything like that. I’m yours alone, forever and ever, even if I am full of it.”

“And you are, but I love you anyway. You are pure, top grade spackling paste with that girl across the hall, but I can’t deny that you’re an awfully good father to her, as well as a very wise man.

“Jonathan, this is changing the subject, but what do you think is going on with Chris?”

“You mean with regard to the dolls?”

“Yes. That reaction J.J. mentioned to you. That’s how it was at the hospital, just as she said.”

He rolled over onto his back, assuming his former position. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell with Chris. But if J.J. noticed something, it’s valid, I can tell you that much. She’s getting to be real good with observations and paying attention.”

“I don’t know if I like that.”

“I don’t know that you have a choice in the matter, Jennifer. It’s not your call; it’s who she is. It’s who we are, it’s what she comes from, and that’s all there is to it.”

She shrugged in resignation. “What are we going to do about Claire?”

“I don’t know about that either. Until one of the sisters lets us in on what the deal is with them and whatever else that might be, I think it’s best that we leave things where they are for now. I’d hate to bring Claire out, get blindsided, and have something happen to her or to Chris.”

“Jonathan, I have to tell you, I’m not real comfortable about this party the kids are having at the park tomorrow. It’s so wide open. Those dolls and all.”

He extended an arm to her, and she slid over to lie down again, but this time with her head resting on his shoulder.

“This evening when I got home, I told you about all of that new info Arnold dug up so you’d be in the know. I didn’t want to talk about it with you on the phone this afternoon because I guess I’m getting a little paranoid about things, too. I don’t mean for all of this to worry you, or to start you overly stressing out about J.J.’s safety. I’ve done everything I can think of to assure that. Despite all that’s going on and the implications, J.J. has to be allowed to be herself, a kid. It’s not fair for us to too tightly tie her arms, hands and tongue. She understands how far to go.”

She sighed in his arms and for a moment, buried her face in his chest.

“Jonathan, I’ll be so glad when all of this is behind us.”

“Me, too, darling. Me, too.”

_______________________________________________________

“What’s up, J.!”

At the sound of Chase’s voice, J.J. came in from where she had been peeking out from under the canopy, checking the sky above. When she and Marnie left home, it had been overcast, and the damp heaviness of the early morning air seemed to hold the promise of rain. It was still rather cool, but it seemed that weak bit of sunlight might eventually burn its way through all that heavenly haze.

Chase, apparently newly arrived, was behind her, inside the tent and standing beside the table where plastic carriers containing sleeping dolls were lined up nursery-fashion. Hector and his cousin, Orbicio were also inside, busy working on hooking up the sound system they were running from Orbicio’s father’s specially equipped van parked nearby on the grass.

“Cool banner,” Chase commented, pointing to the hand-lettered sign on roll paper hung and stretched across to flutter over the “nursery” table.

“Goodbye Babies; It’s Been Real.  Good luck in the Big Apple, Marnie!”

On one end of the banner twelve babies had been drawn. On the other was a caricature of Marnie, filing her nails while seated on top of a big red apple with a smiling worm sticking out of the side of it.

“Great depiction of the Marnster,” he said, pointing up. “Art class?”

“Yeah, J.J.,” answered. “It is good, but if Tommy had been here to do it, it would have been even better. He can really draw.”

Chase eyed her for a moment, searching her face as she looked up to the sign, and then he turned around to the table with the dolls.

“I guess this one with the red hair is Genie. She sorta looks like you J.”

He called over to the two boys working on the speakers. “What happened, Hector? Weak genes or something? No sign of Puerto Rico on this child.”

“You know how pushy J.J. is,” Hector called back without looking up from what he was doing. “If she can get her way on something, that’s what she’s going to do, even with genes and that DNA stuff.”

“Deal with it, Hector,” J.J. said in response.

Chase grinned at his friend’s perpetual sassiness and gave her a one-armed hug. “I see your daddy let you out this morning after catching you all wrong last night.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “I told you last night and this morning that I didn’t do anything for him to hem me up over. Where’s Chance?”

Chase gestured to the other side of the tent where Marnie had already enlisted Chance and some of the others involved in the FACS Project group to help the caterers set up the food, the chairs, and the tables that were being delivered by the services Pat had employed for the affair. It was still early, but hungry, eager kids had already started arriving. While Marnie was playing pit boss and hostess, J.J. had taken charge of keeping an eye on the dolls.

“Which one’s Marnie’s?” Chase asked.

J.J. pointed out Jaden, and then Chase reached into the carrier to pick up Genie.

“Say “hi” to your Uncle Chase, little girl,” he told the doll as he held her up in front of him. “You must be mighty special; your mother doesn’t play with dolls. Never did. She’s feels all real, J.”

“I know. She acts real, too, so be careful and don’t wake her up. If you do, you’re taking care of her. On second thought, give her here. It’s too cool for you to be fanning her around like that.”

“Fanning?” Chase questioned as he handed Genie to J.J., and she stuck her down in the cloth carrier she wore inside her fleece hoodie jacket.

Hector looked up from his work. “And all that almost-real baby does is crap and pee when she’s awake. Hey J., I wasn’t thinking the party was gonna be this big of a deal, with caterers and all of this stuff. But we shoulda known it would be huge if you and Marnie was doing it.”

“This is my Aunt Pat’s doing,” J.J. answered. “She ordered everything. She said she wanted us to have a good time without worrying about setting ourselves on fire trying to cook hot dogs, or any of us getting food poisoning by leaving stuff uncovered for the flies to get into and all of that. I think she did it this way mostly for Marnie. Aunt Pat has a lot of class when it comes to this kind of thing, and she likes Marnie a lot.”

“She must like her if she’s taking the little brat with her to New York for two months.” Hector muttered as he carefully twisted a wire into place.

“Chance is about to die about that,” Chase commented. “That’s all he talked about when he got home last night. Whining about how Marnie was going all the way to New York for two whole months. I ended up having to tell him to quit crying and go to bed. I was playing Mortal Kombat, heavy into it, and he was messing up my flow.

“How you gonna act without her and Tommy, J.? I know they’re both your longtime ace-boon-coon buddies. Tommy’s your boy and Marnie’s your girl. What’re you gonna do?”

“Do real well in all my classes, I guess.” J.J. sighed, looking up at Chase and shrugging her shoulders. “And stay out of trouble. No distractions whatsoever with them gone and you and Chance back up at school.”

“Shooooot,” Hector drawled, stopping what he was doing to wave a hand. “You do real good in school anyway, girl. I only got a good grade on this project because of you.”

“And we all know my cuz here don’t make too many good grades,” Orbicio laughed. “School ain’t our forte. Unless it’s music class, now that’s something else. This project you two did together is probably the closest Hector’s gonna get to a ‘A” and snaggin’ a smart girl for himself.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” J.J. said with a hint of slyness in her voice. “I heard Hector took a pretty, Honor Roll Latina to the 17-20 last night.”

Orbicio’s head popped up from the back of the machine he was working on. “Who? What Honor Roll girl did you go out with? I thought you told me you was through with Bianca.”

Hector smacked the top of the table. “I knew I was done when I ran up on Marnie. See that’s what I’m talking about. That girl tells everything.”

“She tells me what I need to know,” J.J. grinned. “So, I understand ‘Lita finally wore you down.”

” ‘Lita?” Orbicio crowed. “Carmelita? Carmelita Gonzalez? Now that’s all right! She’s had you scoped out for the longest; it was just a matter of time before she fired and took you down. She’s exactly what you need: a take charge woman who happens to be one of us. All you gotta do for a woman like Carmelita is bring home the check; she’ll handle the rest. Congratulations. You might graduate on time after all, and then my uncle won’t have to kick your behind about getting left back.”

“Shut up,” Hector muttered to his cousin. “She asked me out.”

“You went,” J.J. snickered. “Just like she told you to. Let me tell you, Hector. A little lesson in life. You can’t keep a good woman from getting what she wants.”

“Then I guess I should go ahead and ring up your boy, Teddy, and give him fair warning,” Hector retorted. “Since Tommy had the good sense to move to Barcelona to get away from you.”

Before she could snap back on Hector the way her instincts and her glib tongue immediately clicked right in to do, unusual, unexpected movement J.J. thought she saw out of the corner of her eye distracted her. Instinctively, she slowly pulled the hood of her jacket over her red head, before zipping Genie all the way up inside.

_______________________________________________________

“I feigned dizziness to stay down here and wait for you,” Chris said from where August found her seated on the couch when he let himself into the pool house. “Well, I should probably say it wasn’t all pretend.”

Being who he was and who it was he was there to see, he had no difficulty at all getting through the gates and onto the Hart estate. After all, it was he who was in charge of that contingent of silent, vigilant gentlemen stationed there and just inside on the grounds. And then, too, Chris Allen was one of those individuals whose employment status was just below his own within the company.

“Coffee?”

She offered him one of the two cups sitting on the tray on the table between them, and he accepted it, filling it from the fine porcelain decanter, then slowly stirring in cream and sugar.

“Eva went up to the house to fetch our breakfast. The Harts invited her and me to eat with them this morning, but I knew that you were coming. I noticed she made a phone call right before she left me alone. So, now how many of your goons are stationed outside my door?”

“You’re looking a lot more like yourself,” he said, ignoring her question. “How are you really feeling?”

“I’m better, as long as I don’t try to get up too fast or stay up on my feet too long. Sitting down like this, I’m great. But the vertigo isn’t nearly as bad as it was. Every day, every hour, it’s easing up more and more.”

She ran a hand through the back of her hair, feeling along her scalp with her fingers. “The actual lump is practically gone. It’s still a little- thick, maybe lumpy to the touch, in that spot. Still pretty sore there.” Then she focused in on his face. “I remember being hit, August.”

“You do? Where were you when it happened?”

“In the facility. But I don’t recall exactly where or precisely what I was doing at the time. I just know that someone hit me. I saw stars- then bright, white light.”

“Did you see who did it?”

“I don’t know who, but I’m pretty sure it was a female.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Legs. Smooth female legs.”

“How do you know that’s who hit you if you don’t remember where you were or what you were doing?”

“August, you know me. If I tell you that’s what happened, it’s what happened. I admit that I don’t have it all together yet. It’s coming, but what I have so far, I really do have. I wouldn’t have bothered calling you here and mentioning it to you if I didn’t.”

He knew what she was saying about herself to be true, but things weren’t adding up.

“I’ve checked, Chris. There were no females signed into the building last Saturday aside from you, Mrs. Hart, and J.J. Only a few male techs were there working in the labs, and there were no female guards on duty that day.”

“I know what I’m talking about, August.”

He nodded, but it was mostly to reassure her. As much as he wanted to give credence to what she was saying, the truth of the matter was the facts, as he knew them to be, weren’t supporting what she was telling him, and she had suffered a head injury.

“There’s something else,” she said. “The guy that was killed, Paul Rider-“

She hesitated. August didn’t seem to be surprised that she recalled the murder. At least she didn’t notice any immediate change in his demeanor that would telegraph as much to her.

“Yeah, what about him?” was all he said.

“He’s not who he was supposed to be. Again, I’m not real sure how I know it, or why I have such a strong feeling about it, but Rider wasn’t Rider. There was something else to him.”

When August’s face remained deadpan in light of what she was saying, she brought a hand to her forehead and began rubbing it.

“Dammit, August. It’s driving me crazy to not be able to get to what I know is up here in my head. It keeps trying to get out, but something’s pushing it back, keeping me from getting to it. Just have somebody check deep, deep into him. I had to have been onto something about why he was shot, and that’s- I don’t know.” She dropped her head. “I know you probably don’t believe any of what I’m saying. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

He leaned in her direction, placing a hand to her shoulder.

“Don’t feel that way, Chris. It’s not a bother, and I am listening to you. I believe you, but I just don’t have anything much to go on. Look, tell me what you do know. Maybe you have something that’s a piece to some of what I already do have. Maybe you recall something that I might need.”

She wanted to tell him about the dolls, but she realized that she still didn’t really have anything to give him aside from her vague inkling that they and the murdered tech were linked in some way. Feeling a bit foolish about having summoned Lamb all the way out to the Hart estate so early on a Saturday morning, she switched over to what she knew was crystal clear in her mind and was what she really wanted to know.

“Where is Claire, August? Where is Mr. Hart keeping her? He told me that she was safe where he had her.”

“She is.”

“Where is this safe place?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“I want to see her. Is that something you can do?”

“I’ll have to speak with your doctor and with Jonathan, but if it’s do-able, it’ll be done. I’ll see to it personally.”

“Thank you. I also remember having my laptop, my briefcase, my purse. Was any of that recovered?”

“It was all in the car with you,” he said. “We have all of it.”

“Whew!”

“Chris?”

“Yes.”

“What’s going on? Are you telling me everything?”

She turned her head to look out of the window, avoiding looking at him, as Chris quietly answered. “It’s a mess, August. But it’s my mess, not Hart Industries’ or a HartToy’ concern, at least as far as I can recall. I worry there might be more, but to be honest with you, I can’t say truly if there is more. I’ve told you all I know to be valid. As for what I haven’t yet coughed back up, that remains to be seen, or I should say, remembered.”

“What can I do to help, Chris?”

She turned back around to face him. “Believe me. Believe in me. And get Claire to me.”

When his cell phone all of a sudden buzzed to life in the breast pocket of his jacket, it startled him. The slight jump he made away from her, in turn, startled her.

_______________________________________________________

“Bill had that early morning meeting,” Pat was saying between tentative sips off her steaming cup of coffee. “And then he wanted to stay and see how much the new procedures are going to affect the flow of passenger traffic in the terminals with the resuming of flights today. It’s probably going to be chaotic again, getting people back to where they should be or should have been. Calming people’s fears and paranoia, which have had a chance to solidify over the past few days.”

“What time did the girls leave?”

“J.J. called over to us around seven,” Jennifer answered.

“I heard the car pull off about fifteen minutes later,” Jonathan added. “I see you told them it was all right to drive it today.”

“I didn’t need the car today since I don’t have plans to go anywhere.”

“So you let them have it back.”

With her fork midway to her lips, Pat raised her eyes from her plate to Jonathan.

“Who said I took it from them?”

“I just figured,” Jonathan answered, keeping to his customary casual tone. “Seeing as how it was just sitting there all day yesterday while you rode around with Jennifer in her car. Then you two picked the girls up from school. I just thought there might be a problem.”

Pat pointed her fork in his direction. “Don’t even try it, Hart. I’m sure your wife over there has been bending your ear, filling you in, trying to get your take on things, piquing your rampant curiosity. She gave it a shot with me, too. Now I’m going to tell you exactly what I told her- stop fishing. If something’s happened, it’s gone all this time without either of you sticking your noses into it. If something’s happened, I have it under control. You both have enough on your plate at the moment, so finish your breakfasts and allow me to finish mine.”

Jonathan turned his attention to Jennifer who gave a little shrug and went back to her meal.

The front door buzzer sounded and the indicator light began flashing, which drew the attention of all three adults at the table as well as Marie at the sink. Marie grabbed a towel to dry her hands in preparation to answer the call, but Jonathan’s signal to her kept her where she was. He got up and went over to the console himself.

With the intercom on speaker, everyone present could hear that it was August Lamb requesting to be admitted. Seconds later, he appeared at the door from the great room. The expression on his face told them that the news was not good.

Continue to Part Eleven

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s