The Project: Part Three

Part Three

“Where do you think they could be, J.? It isn’t like them to leave us on our own in the house overnight like this. Without even Marie here with us.”

“It’s not quite overnight, Marn,” J.J. said from her side of the bay window where she, Marnie, and Third were seated in her bedroom.

“What are you talking about? Look at the sky. It’ll be daylight soon.”

“We’re almost grown, Marn. We can be left alone.”

“Our asses weren’t so grown yesterday when the Duchess caught us up at HartToy, were they? Funny how they trust you to be grown in some situations, and then smack you right back into being a kid in others.  They did call and say they would be in later than normal, but I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Me neither. This really is kind of out of character for them, as overprotective as they tend to be most of the time. Maybe they fell asleep up on Giraffe Hill.”

“Giraffe Hill? Where’s that?”

“That’s what Daddy calls the places where people go to neck and feel each other up and sometimes do it. They say you get sleepy after.”

Marnie laughed. “You are crazy, J. You and your daddy. I didn’t want to say, but I did see him and the Duchess go out to the pool house the other night, after they thought we were in bed.”

“Oh, you wanted to say, all right, Marnie Benson. My cell rang; I heard it. That was your number I saw in it the next morning.”

“Then why didn’t you pick up when I called you? You didn’t know what I wanted. I could have really needed you. I could have been in the room sick or something.”

“Because I saw them go out there, too, and I wasn’t going there with you. You weren’t sick. You didn’t need a thing I was going to be giving you that night, especially not the chance to roast me over my hot-to-trot parents.”

“They’re so cute. I tease you a lot about them, but for real I think it’s nice they do stuff like that. How they don’t fight and argue a lot, and he doesn’t cheat on her. She’s not all nagging and whiny, all clingy and stuff. I like how they’re friends even though they’re married. It’s almost weird to me how they talk and laugh together so much when I’ve seen them out together. It must be nice to have parents who don’t fight all the time.”

J.J. didn’t say anything, but she was glad the dark gave her the chance to take a look at Marnie to study her facial features as she stared out of the window. Although she fussed about it or made cracks over it, Marnie didn’t talk a lot about how she really felt about her home situation. She tended to brush things off when asked about them, but underneath it, J.J. sensed she hurt a lot more than she wanted anyone to know. Whenever Marnie did say anything to her along those lines, she would remain quiet and let Marnie say whatever she wanted to say.

“You know, J., I’d like to fall in love like that one day.”

For J.J., coming from Marnie, the queen of flirt and tease, that was a surprising admission.

“For real, Marn?”

“Yeah, don’t you? I know you don’t like boys all that much now, but don’t you want to be like your parents later? When you’re grown? I mean, you wouldn’t have to be married to the guy and all, but just love him and have him love you like that?”

“I don’t know. That’s too far away from now.”

“It might not be, J. Not for you. I’ve got a feeling about you.”

In the shadows, J.J. waved her hand in dismissal of Marnie’s comment. “I’ll probably be married more than once, if I ever do get married. I’m kind of hard to get along with. My first marriage will probably be for practice.”

Marnie laughed out loud. “You are nuts, girl. I don’t know about that. If you married somebody, it would be because you loved him, and you were pretty sure he loved you. It wouldn’t be any of that fly-by-night, Vegas chapel shit. You aren’t like that about stuff like that. You’d know the guy, he’d know you, and it would last forever, just like with your mother and father.”

“They didn’t know each other when they hooked up, Marn. Talk about fly-by-night.”

“Yeah, but they knew what they needed to know. All these years later, they’re still sneaking out to the pool house, and with each other.”

In the darkness, J.J. smiled. Despite the impression of shallowness she conveyed, Marnie could be surprisingly deep; one had to know her.

“Marnie, did you call your mother tonight? She call you?”

“Forget her.”

“You don’t like her very much these days, do you, Marn? Seems like lately you’re mad at her all the time. Ever since we came back from Pa’s this summer.”

“Since before we came back from your grandfather’s. Maureen’s been on my nerves a while now. She’s my mother, and I love her, but no, I don’t like her a lot. I’m not mad at her or anything; I’m just tired of her shit. I think now that I’m getting older, I can see she’s not right, not for somebody’s mother, and I don’t respect her very much for it. Ever since she left me hanging with… well, you know all about that. I don’t have to go over that again with you, but you know what I mean. J.J., it’s hard to like somebody you don’t respect, even when it’s your mom. Sometimes I don’t think she likes me much either.”

“Your mother loves you.”

“She might love me, but just like with me about her, I don’t think she likes me. There’s a difference between like and love. I know for fact she prefers not having me around or having to be responsible for me. She complains and makes out like my having moved out on her offended her, but I think she actually likes me living with my father. It frees her up to do the shady things she couldn’t do as easily when I was there on the scene with her twenty-four-seven, looking at her doing them.”

When Marnie stopped, again J.J. didn’t say anything; she didn’t really know what to say. She understood exactly where Marnie was coming from. In fact, she felt the same way about Marnie’s mother, only the love component wasn’t present in hers.

“I did talk to my Daddy tonight, though,” Marnie continued after a minute or two. “He and I talk a lot lately. Even though he’s not all that right either, we’re a lot closer since I’ve been staying with him. I still can’t stand his wife, but I’m glad I went to live with him. He likes me being there- or here when I’m not there.”

“Has he gotten Kyle all settled? Teddy said he was doing fine; said Kyle’s made some friends and he’s already gotten into and out of trouble with them.”

“Yeah, that’s my little brother. A chip off the old block. Got caught sneaking off campus, trying to go somewhere they shouldn’t have been; some video game place. Give him a couple of months. They won’t be catching him once he gets his technique perfected. My father said he cursed Kyle out and threatened him with bodily harm, so he thinks it’s going to be okay for a while. At least until I get there for Thanksgiving and can shore him up with another cussing out on general principal, if nothing else has cropped up by then. That’s how you have to do Kyle. Daddy said he might come home earlier from Boston than he thought he was. Maybe as early as Tuesday.”

“Will you go home if he does?”

“You want me to?”

“No. I like you being here. I think the Duchess does, too. At least with you here, in her eyesight, she knows you’re okay and happy and being good. When you’re not here, after a couple of days she always asks after you; wondering where you are, how you’re doing, and what you’ve gotten into.”

Marnie smiled, and when her dimples flashed, J.J. smiled on the inside.

“Then I’ll go ahead and stay ’til the weekend like we planned. To think, J., we stayed in last night and actually wrote papers when we could still be in the street, and nobody would have been the wiser.”

J.J. shook her head as she idly scratched at the ears of the dog in her lap while keeping her eye on the scene outside the window.

“Nah, Marnie, our luck is too bad lately. We’d have been hanging out, having a good old time with Hector and all of them who stay out half the night. Orbicio and his crew would have been smoking weed or drinking beer. Hector and we wouldn’t have been, but our clothes would have been reeking of it, and we’d have run right into my folks and been busted wide open, just like we were yesterday afternoon. Who would have thought that all that way from home, the Duchess would have rolled up on us like she did? But she did. If we’d have been with Hector and them, no way could we have convinced the Duchess that we weren’t smoking and drinking, too. Maybe not even Daddy. Nope, we needed to be right here out of harm’s reach.”

“I guess so. We did manage to somehow get by that first time; we’re still here. A second time would have meant the death penalty for sure. Especially if we got caught up like that. Damn, I cannot even imagine… I’d have run away and went back home to my stepmother.”

“The Duchess would have just came after you, and Karen would have gladly given you up. You would have been through any way you looked at it, Marn. Jen might have even sent Daddy for you. Then where would you have been?”

“Way up that creek we find ourselves up a lot. Did you talk to Teddy tonight? Did you get him squared away?”

“Yeah, but I waited and let him call me. He was a lot better tonight.”

“Did you guys talk about the project?”

“A little. I let him ask me this time, then I told him about the shopping thing this morning. He had his attitude in check on this go ’round. He wasn’t anywhere near as snotty.”

“He must have sensed he’d pissed you off with that.”

“You know, I don’t think I’ll ever understand guys. Even Daddy said he would have had an attitude about it if it had been him and my mother in the situation. He said it was a guy thing. It must be, because I can’t make heads or tails of it.”

“I’m glad I got put with Sid. Not much room for controversy there. Not that kind, anyway.”

“What about you and Chance, Marnie? You two still call yourselves going together? I heard you talking to him earlier.”

“We do go together, J. It’s serious this time.”

“I’m so surprised that you haven’t slipped out on him yet.”

“J.J., I’m not a total flooze. I happen to like Chance very much. He says he’s not talking to or pushing up on any other girls. I told him he’d better not be. Here I am, forsaking all others, keeping my hands to myself. He’d better be doing the exact same thing with those preppy tramps at his school. Besides, us being in our junior year here, there’s not that many new kids coming into the program, at least not boys- not any cute ones, anyway. That makes it a little easier on me. Still think the Duchess is going to make us go to church?”

“I don’t know now. It’s so late.”

“We haven’t been to bed. If she makes us go, we’re going to be falling asleep, J. Then she’ll be pinching us and fussing at us.”

“Probably. If Daddy goes, she’ll be doing him, too. You know how he acts up in church. He’ll get pinched before either one of us, though, because she’ll make him sit right next to her, with her at the end of the pew so he can’t get up and leave, talking about he needs to take a call, or get some air, or he has to go pee or whatever, and then never come back.”

Marnie laughed, “Yeah, and then he’s conveniently already at or in the car when the service is over and we get outside. She makes that face at him, like he’s dirt or something, but she can’t say what she wants to say to him with us standing there.”

“Daddy doesn’t care about what faces she makes as long as he can work it so he doesn’t have to be cooped up in church too long. During the service, she’ll make us sit on his other side, but you’ll be right next to him. She won’t let me and him sit together in church. She says he corrupts me. She doesn’t know; me and him are too far gone on the corruption thing. I’m a lost cause. It’s probably more the other way around now.”

“She saw it when you made him go upstairs to talk to you after dinner yesterday. She said you two were conspiring.”

“Whatever.”

The gate button began flashing bright red on the phone console in the dark bedroom beyond where they were sitting, slightly startling both girls.

“That must be them.” J.J. said, leaning toward the window.

Sucking her teeth disapprovingly, Marnie fussed, “This is damned ridiculous. It’s five o’clock in the morning. They know better than this. Their asses need grounding, but good, coming in at the crack of dawn like this. What will the neighbors say?”

“I think something must have happened.” J.J.’s nose was practically pressed against the glass. “And they had to go check it out. They wouldn’t have hung out this long, having a good time, knowing that we were home alone. Unless they really did fall asleep up on Giraffe Hill.”

“Well, I will be checking out the Duchess’s neck for hickeys.” Marnie asserted. “Hell, the Duke’s, too.”

“The Duchess doesn’t get them where anybody can see them right off.” J.J. smiled, reminded of a recent private incident involving a passion mark, her mother, and a certain part of her mother’s anatomy. “I would think she wouldn’t put them in places where they can be seen, either.”

The girls snickered collusive mischief.

They remained there, looking down until first the headlights lit the pavement, and then the Rolls appeared in the side drive underneath J.J.’s window. When the male figure, illuminated by the motion lights activated by the arrival of the vehicle, got out and started around to the passenger side, they jumped down from window seat. Marnie dashed for the open bedroom door, running through it and closing it behind her, while J.J. and Third dove for the bed.

_____________________________________________________________

“Are were going to tell her about this?”

“I think we just about have to, Jonathan. J.J. knows Chris. She really likes her. If we don’t tell her at all, she’ll just find out about it on her own, and then who knows what she might try to do or get into?”

“As much as I’d like to leave her out of this, I know you’re right, but I don’t think we need to tell her everything.” Jonathan said as he ushered Jennifer through the front door.

“This has all been a bit much.” She stepped out of her shoes and carried them with her as she went over to her desk in the great room to drop off a manila letter file folder and then came back to join him in the foyer as he waited for her by the stairs.

“I know the doctors are predicting she’ll be all right.” she continued. “I just have a hard time believing this was a mere car accident, like the police seem to want to make it be- not in light of everything else that’s happened. There weren’t even skid marks at the scene. That Lieutenant Donaldson character acted like he didn’t want to entertain any theories at all other than she lost control of her car. At that time of day, on a Saturday? There isn’t that much traffic on that road. How could she just lose control of her car on a road like that? That curve wasn’t that much more than a bend. And what about her head? I wish Hershel had been there.”

“Yeah, well, I do too, but he’s on his vacation. As it was, I had to pull you back to keep you from going over that desk and letting that poor young man have it.”

“I won’t be talked down to by someone almost young enough to be my son. He wasn’t hearing a thing I said.”

“He just didn’t know who he was talking to, darling. But I agree with you that things aren’t adding up. I bet once we have that car looked at by our people, it’ll come out that it had been tampered with in some way or there’s some other twist to the story other than what we already know for ourselves. I wish we could have somehow spoken with Chris and found out what really happened. She’s so banged up.

It’s hard to believe that I just spoke with her in her office, and she seemed perfectly fine. There was no indication- Jennifer, I’m really tempted to call and beg off this Washington trip. I’m sending enough engineers. Do they really need me, too? It makes me nervous to be leaving with all of this going on.”

“Jonathan, even if you stayed here, what else could you do? The police and security are doing all they can. August will be here on it. You know how thorough he is. He’s almost as bad as you about that sort of thing. All you can do at this point is sit back, and let them do what they are trained and get paid to do. You won’t be able to talk with Chris for a while. The doctors are going to keep her in that coma until the swelling goes down in her brain. Until then, nobody will be able to talk with her. August and his people will be keeping watch over her twenty-hours a day. What else can you possibly do? You’ll do yourself better if you go; you won’t be obsessing so much over all this if you can put your mind to something else for a time. ”

“I know you’re right, but I can’t help feeling we’ve got a cancer of some type over at HartToy, and if so, it’s got to be rooted out.” He sighed with his own weariness as they reached the second floor. “I’m glad you thought to call to tell the girls we’d be out later than we planned. J.J. would have been sitting in that window all this time, waiting for the car.”

“Like a little old lady. She probably still didn’t sleep all that well, knowing that we weren’t in.”

At the top of the stairs, she went left to J.J.’s door while he continued down the hall to Marnie’s room. After peeking in on the teenagers, they met together outside their own bedroom door.

“Mine was asleep.” he said. “What about yours?”

“She appeared to be. Third, too, but then you never can tell; J.J. probably even has the dog trained to follow her lead. Funny he didn’t alert when I opened that door, as protective as he is of her. He usually at least looks up when I do that. Well, now that we’re home, if she wasn’t asleep, she will be soon.”

Laughing to himself at Jennifer’s comments about their slick offspring and her furry little sidekick, Jonathan allowed her to enter first and then closed the door behind them.

He dropped down to sit on the side of the bed, kicked off his shoes, and loosened his collar. “I’ll tell J.J. at lunch. God knows I’m not going to make breakfast. I so hate bringing her in on something like this, but it’s always been better to be proactive with her. She’s so nosy and too smart.”

“That she is.” Jennifer agreed, as she turned around to him to allow him to unzip the dress she had on, immediately reminded of what she’d since put to the back of her mind of J.J. and Chris’s earlier exploits of the day. As far as she knew, he still didn’t have a clue about that.

“Darling,” he said. “Once I am gone to D.C., you’re going to have to do some serious, hard talking to J.J. I don’t know what’s going on with all of this. I don’t know who’s doing what, but I have very bad feelings on it. I don’t want her anywhere near a Hart facility while I’m gone. Not even downtown. She has to understand that she cannot deviate from that in any way. I’d hate to have to put somebody on her to watch her, but I will. I’ll tell her as much myself when I do talk to her, but you’ll have to reinforce it with her. She listens to you and minds you a lot better than she does me.”

“She minds you.” Jennifer replied over her shoulder, leaning into his touch as he also unhooked the bra she wore underneath her slip and then smoothed with the flat of his hand the skin of her back where the clasp left tiny red indentations. “She just does it more creatively with you than with me. Don’t worry. I’ll make her understand. I don’t want you to worry about her, Marnie, or even about Chris. I’ll see to all of our girls.”

Not bothering to change out of the slip, or he with putting on pajamas over his silk boxers, after shedding the rest of their clothing, they both climbed over into the bed.

“I really do have a headache now.” he said, throwing his arm over her body to bring hers in to his.

“Pity.” she answered with a yawn and a tiny wiggle of her backside. “I thought maybe-”

“You are insatiable, woman.”

“You ought not to be so good, and besides, you wouldn’t have me any other way.”

“Rain check.” he whispered into her neck.

She snuggled all the way down into him. “Um, hmm. I can do that.”

It had been a long night.

_____________________________________________________________

They hadn’t been made to go to church after all, which was good because neither of them got up again until after ten. J.J. and Marnie had been awake, putting the finishing touches on their schoolwork for at least forty-five minutes before Marie, who must have returned from her sister’s that morning while they were still sleeping, called for them to come down for what amounted to brunch.

“Wonder if my mother is up yet?” J.J. wondered aloud from the table by the window where she was finishing up her math after Marnie shut off the intercom.

“Their door was still closed when I came through the hall to come down here.” Marnie replied. “I purposely didn’t come through your sitting room like I could have ’cause I wanted to see if they were up. The door would be open if they were, wouldn’t it?”

“Most of the time that’s the case. Sometimes, if one of them gets up and leaves the other in the bed, the door would be closed. The only one who would have gotten up early on a Sunday would be my mother, and she would have been in our rooms, getting us up if she was up. Odds are they’re still in there, as late-slash-early as they came in.”

J.J. got up from the table, closing her books. “Come on, let’s go down to eat. I’m starved. Did you make up your bed? You know how my mother is, and I don’t think we should give her any more ammunition. She might not miss if we give her a second shot at us.”

“Yeah, I made it up, but come and see if I did it good, J. She had that fancy, new cover on it this time. You know I don’t do this kind of thing so thoroughly on a regular basis. Normally, when I was with my mother,  I would just straighten up and throw the cover on; the housekeeper would do the rest. I don’t want to get caught slipping on anything here. I only clean up my room real good when I’m here and at my big granny’s house. My big granny is like your mother; believes in kids being self-sufficient no matter how much help she has. Now she has a personal maid for herself, but not for us kids. All the cousins have to toe the line when we’re at her house.”

The girls started out of the room and up the hall toward Marnie’s room.

“I always wanted to ask you,” J.J. said. “If she’s your big granny, then what’s your other grandmother, the little granny?”

“Big Granny is my father’s mother, and she’s the big one because she doesn’t play. And because she’s tall and big, too. Huge, immense ass and boobs. My mother’s an only child, which makes me her mother’s only grandchild. That one of my grandmothers doesn’t care what I do, so she’s not as big in meaning to me as my other one. She’s just Gran. Plus she’s short and small like me and my mother. That takes the edge off, too. When I’m with her, and I do stuff, she makes the help get it up. But not Grandma Lillie. She says the help is for the house, not for cleaning up kids’ bedrooms and kids’ messes. My father is kind of like my grandmother about my room. I have to keep it up, but he’s not that strict about other stuff around the house.

“But you know what, J? Hanging around with you, at your house, and with my Grandma Lillie, I’m starting to have problems with leaving things hanging. I actually feel guilty when I don’t clean up behind myself these days. What’s happening to me?”

Patting Marnie on the back, J.J. chuckled, “The Duchess and your granny are rubbing off on you, that’s all. But for real, you need to know how to do things. How will you be able to tell the help how you want something if you don’t have any idea how things should be yourself?”

They arrived at Marnie’s door, and J.J. quickly surveyed the room.

“You did good in here. She shouldn’t have anything to say. We can obviously clean up after ourselves, but come tomorrow, we’ll have kids to be looking after. A week with babies, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”

“You and Sid have kids, J. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll still be Marnie Elaine, footloose and fancy free. I might help out some with my godchild as long as her behind is dry and clean and she’s not throwing up or crying or anything.”

“You think you’re going to be footloose and fancy free, but Sid is going to get tired of carrying that baby burden by himself, and he’s going to make you help. You think he’s not going to at least ask you to baby-sit the kid?”

“He can try.” Marnie sniffed. “Better ones have come before him, and they couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do. I doubt that Sid will be able to either.”

“Whatever, Marnie. Come on, let’s go down through the great room since we’re on this end.”

They continued on around the corner, through the loft and down the spiral staircase that put them on the first floor.

Passing her mother’s desk, J.J. spotted a manila folder which hadn’t been there the night before when she was down there using that computer and printer while Marnie used the one in her room. Marnie, who’d been ahead of her on the stairs, continued on around to the kitchen, while she diverted to the desk. After looking around herself to make sure she was alone, she used the rubber eraser of one of the pencils in the cup to flip open the front cover of the folder. Reading upside down, she’d only gotten as far in her skimming to see that it was a police report and the name, Christina A. Allen, before she heard the timbre of her father’s unique baritone voice and her parents’ footsteps on the front staircase. Using the eraser to flip it back closed, she stuck the pencil back in the cup and sprinted on around to the kitchen.

_____________________________________________________________

“No hanging out.” Jonathan decreed. “You two are to go to school, do whatever after-school activities you might have, and then come straight home. If you do have somewhere else you have to go, you are to call and clear it, do you understand? I am not going to have her worried about or with the two of you while I’m gone. Don’t make her have to call me with any bad news.”

Listening to her father as he informed them of his upcoming trip, J.J.’s attention was immediately drawn to that being his second reminder to her and to Marnie since they sat down to eat, of his desire for them to stay close while he was out of town. It wasn’t like him to be so restrictive. Even though he was wasn’t being forthcoming about it, she could tell that there was definitely something on the wind. Almost holding her breath for it, she waited for him to mention something about where he and her mother had been the night before that kept them out so late. But what he said next stunned her.

“J.J., while I’m out of town, I don’t want you to visit or be around any of the Hart facilities, not even my office downtown.”

She raised her eyes from her plate and directed them across the table to her father. “May I ask why? Have I done something wrong?”

For the briefest moment, she shifted her attention to her mother whose facial expression told her that it was still between the two of them about her having gone over to HartToys to see Chris on the afternoon before.

“You haven’t done anything wrong, J.J.” he answered her. “But I’m going to be very honest and up front with you here in a second, and then I’ll need you to do exactly what I’ve told you. Either I trust you to do what I say, or I’m going to put a tail on you and on Marnie, and you’ll be forced to do what I’ve said. The first thing that will happen will be the loss of that car until I get back.”

When Marnie looked shocked at him being the one to threaten them in that particular fashion, he spoke directly to her.

“Yep. That’s right, and to keep you two honest, you’re here until I get back home. I’ve already called and cleared it with Carl.”

Marnie rolled her eyes, pursed her lips, and put down her fork. Then she folded her arms.

“Can I ask how you all can just clear stuff about me without consulting with me?” She asked. “I’m like some little pawn on a grownups’ chess board; people just move me around and junk, and I don’t get to say squat.”

“You can say squat.” Jennifer calmly advised. “But it’s checkmate just the same. For now, you’re the child and we’re the adults. We call the shots. We make the moves. Deal with it.”

Exhaling, Marnie closed her eyes and snaked her neck in exasperation. Jennifer allowed her that one.

“Getting back to you.” Jonathan said, turning his conversation back to J.J. “I know that you’re aware of some of the things that have been going on over at HartToys. Well, there have been some further unpleasant developments, and I don’t want you- in any way- to be a part of them or nosing about in them.”

“Can I at least know what they are?” J.J. asked.

Jonathan looked to Jennifer, who nodded her final approval.

He continued. “The other day, they found Mr. Rider’s, he’s the guy that was killed in the parking structure, they found his wife dead, too. She was murdered in her apartment maybe a day or so after he was shot.”

“Was it related to what happened to him?” J.J. asked.

“We don’t know what happened to him, other than he was shot, so we don’t know the answer to that question about her either, J.J.  Then, last night, your mother and I were so late getting in because there’s been another incident.”

The folder on her mother’s desk and Chris Allen’s name flashed in J.J.’s mind, causing her breath to hitch as she waited for her father to finish what he was saying.

“Yesterday evening, when she was on her way home from work at HartToys, Chris Allen, the security director for HartToys was in an auto accident. It was a sort of freak accident.”

Both girls looked up. J.J. leaned into the table toward him. “Ms. Chris? How is she?”

Marnie’s eyes widened, “She’s not-”

“No.” Jennifer quickly placed a comforting hand on Marnie’s shoulder. “She sustained some pretty nasty cuts from flying glass, she was bumped around pretty badly, and she suffered an injury to her head.”

“What kind of injury to her head?”

“A concussion, J.J. The doctors have her sedated for the time being so that she can rest.”

“One of those medical comas?” J.J. brought her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God. She must be bad.”

She pushed back from the table, muttering, “Excuse me.” before taking off across the kitchen and up the back stairs.

Jonathan clearly taken aback by his daughter’s abrupt reaction, stood in preparation to go after her.

“No.” Jennifer followed him up, holding her hand out in his direction to stop him. “I’ll go. You two stay and finish eating.”

“Should I bring the rest of your meals up to you?” Marie asked from where she had been frosting a cake over on the counter, listening to and watching all that was going on, especially noticing that silent interchange between mother and daughter.

Jennifer shook her head, negating the offer as she, too, headed for the back stairs. “Thank you, but no. I don’t think we’re going to want anything more right now.”

When she was gone Jonathan turned to Marnie with the intent of getting her take on what was going on with J.J. What he found was a bowed head and brightly flushed cheeks, as Marnie hunched over her food, nervously concentrating on finishing her meal while obviously avoiding making any eye contact with him whatsoever. Everything about her outward appearance loudly screamed, “Don’t ask me sh–!”

At the sight, he chuckled to himself and accepted there was a whole lot going on among the females of his household, and for the time being, he was being left out of it.

“Anything I should know?” he went ahead and ventured.

The head shook in answer, the eyes never once looking up from the plate they were fixed on.

Deciding to leave it, he went back to his meal with Jennifer’s early morning words repeating in his ears.

“I’ll see to all our girls.”

She was the best one for that job, and considering the ones with whom she’d be working, she would definitely have her hands full.

_____________________________________________________________

Without bothering to knock, Jennifer pushed open J.J.’s door and entered the bedroom. Closing it behind her, she walked over to where J.J. sat curled up in the window seat with the dog on her lap. Approaching them, she pulled Third from J.J.’s arms and lowered him to the floor, telling him, “You go on now.”

Obediently, he jumped down and scooted underneath the bed.

“Now, you come here to me,” she told J.J. as she took her hand and pulled her from the window over to the hassock where she plopped her down while she sat down in the chair.

“Talk to me.”

“About what, Mom?”

“What do you know that you haven’t told anybody, J.J.?”

“About what?”

Jennifer sat forward and took hold of J.J.’s chin, forcing her to look up at her. “Don’t play games, Justine. What was that hasty exit from the kitchen all about? You can fool other people. Maybe you can pull the wool on your father at times, but you cannot fool me- ever. You ought to have accepted that by now.”

“I’m not trying to fool you. I really don’t know anything.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Moving her chin from her mother’s hand, J.J. mumbled, “Nothing.”

“We’re staying here until you talk to me, Johnnie, Jr.” Jennifer sat back in the chair, and crossed her arms and legs. “I can tell when something’s bothering you.”

“Johnnie, Jr.?” J.J. tried not to grin. “That’s a new one.”

“You act just like him sometimes, only I’m not having it out of you. He was too far gone to fix when I met him; you are still salvageable in this. And I still owe you a good tongue lashing. He doesn’t know about yesterday.”

“I kind of figured that. Thanks for not telling on me, but he’s bound to find out.”

“He probably already knows, but just hasn’t said. That’s something for another time. But getting back to you and me, J.J. Hart, we can do this now, or we can do it later, but we are going to do it- today, and we’re going to sit right here until we get it done. No breaks, restroom or otherwise. I don’t have anything else on my agenda. What about you?

“I’ve got other stuff I could be doing, but I guess that doesn’t matter much to you, huh?”

“I can’t say that it does. Not right now, no.”

“What if I have to go?”

“Then let’s get it done before that becomes a pressing issue.”

J.J, clearly miserable, took a deep breath, swallowed, and began.

“Mom, how can you be talking to somebody one day and then the next, they’re in a coma? How come all this bad stuff is happening? I know you and Daddy don’t think these are isolated incidents. And how come Daddy is coming down so hard on me? Why do I have to all of a sudden stay away from places I’ve been going to all of my life? Why is he acting so funny, and why do I have the feeling that something really bad is going to happen?”

“What do you mean, J.J.?”

“About what?”

“You said you had the feeling something bad is going to happen? What’s that about?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have. Like when you’re waiting- I guess like they say, you’re waiting for the other shoe to fall. I felt it downstairs after you guys said that about Mr. Rider’s wife and about Ms. Chris and the accident, if that’s what it was. I felt it last night when you and daddy called to say you were going to be late coming home. I was kind of scared for you two. Then, too, I sort of felt it when I was at HartT-”

J.J. dropped her eyes down to the hassock she was sitting on.

“Um-hmmm,” Jennifer picked up on what J.J. had left off saying. “When you were at HartToy. Speaking of that, young lady. You do understand I am aware what you were up to.”

“No, for real, I just went to-”

J.J. stopped talking when she looked up to her mother’s face. Jennifer had closed her eyes and was slowly shaking her head. “Don’t even, Justine. You are mine, and I know what I might have done in your place. I know what your father did as soon as he got the opportunity, so it stands to reason you went out there with the same intent. What did we tell you?”

“To stay out of it, but I-”

“But I, nothing, J.J. You cannot fool me. How many times do I have to say that to you? By the way, you did a wonderful job on the interview. But that does not excuse your blatant disobedience.”

“It wasn’t blatant. Even you have to admit that I did have a legitimate reason for going out there even if I might have had a little bit of an ulterior motive. You have to give me that.”

“I don’t have to give you anything except a long term house arrest if you keep pushing me. Whatever creative spin you might want to put on it, it still comes down to you were disobedient yesterday. You know it, I know it, and your father would be livid about it if he knew of it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you really?”

“Well, I am sorry for upsetting you.”

“But not for going? Not for being hardheaded?”

“That would be a lie if I were to say I was sorry about that. I try not to lie. I really did good on the interview?”

“Yes, you did very well. I was extremely proud of you for that part of it. But, if I were a spanking parent, I don’t care if you are sixteen; you wouldn’t have been too big or too old for one yesterday. You or Marnie.”

“You would have gotten with Marnie, too?”

“Just like I would have gotten with you. AND I would have taken the keys to that car.”

“I told Marnie I thought you wanted to do me. I didn’t think you would have done her, too, though.”

“In a New York minute. Speaking of New York, Pat is flying in on Tuesday morning.”

For the first time, J.J. smiled. “Great. I love when she comes. And Marnie’s going to be here with us, too? That’ll be fun, and it’ll make Daddy being gone not so bad. Why is she coming? Is she coming on business? Daddy really doesn’t know how long he’ll be in Washington? What’s he going to be doing at the Pentagon? He didn’t say when he was telling us about it downstairs. Or was he not supposed to say?”

“Why do you ask me so many questions at one time?”

“Because you’re good at answering me. Somehow you get them sorted out, and you answer me good-well.”

“Pat’s coming on business. She and I have to drive to San Francisco to see Marcia. We’ll be gone all day on Wednesday, so it will be imperative that you and Marnie do as your father told you: Go to school; I know you have newspaper and track practice on Tuesday afternoon, so you can do that, but then you need to come straight home. J.J., we really need for you to strictly abide by what we’ve said this time.”

Jennifer leaned forward and took both of J.J.’s hands in hers. “I’m not real angry with you any more about yesterday, but I will be if you don’t do what we’ve asked from this point on.”

“Something’s really wrong, isn’t it? Why is Daddy going to Washington?”

“What’s going on here and your father going to D.C. aren’t connected, J.J. But there is something wrong here. We don’t know what it is, and that’s why we don’t want you hanging out too much while he’s gone. His being away may be somebody’s opportunity, and we don’t want you or Marnie walking into anything. We just don’t know, and we don’t want you out there in harm’s way, if it is. Your father is going to Washington with the engineers for something technical, but even he hasn’t been told why, so he couldn’t tell us why or for how long. He isn’t being hard on you, he wasn’t acting funny; he simply isn’t sure of a lot of things, and that bothers him to be going away with all of this in the air as it is.”

“What happened to Ms. Chris? Will she be okay? Was it really an accident?”

“What makes you think it wasn’t, J.J.”

“What made you ask me what else I knew, Mom?”

“Are we going to play musical chair with words, Miss Hart? Answer me. I asked my question first.”

“I felt like she was sad about something during the interview.” J.J. said. “She was nice. She was pleasant like always, but underneath, I got the feeling she was sad or maybe upset about something. At the time, I figured maybe it was about the murder having happened in her building, but now, with her getting hurt, it makes me wonder, that’s all.”

“Did you write your report from the interview?”

“Yes, Marnie and I stayed in last night, and we did them.”

“Stayed in? You and Marnie? On a Saturday night? What did you do, get too scared to go out after having been so naughty yesterday afternoon?”

“Essentially.” J.J. shamefacedly grinned as she idly rubbed her fingers over the stones in her mother’s wedding ring. “We felt like we shouldn’t press it with you. We stayed in and went ahead and got our work done, just in case you decided to make us spend the whole day today, after church, doing edits and rewrites.”

“Anticipated a trip to church, too, did we?”

“Tell me that if you and Daddy hadn’t had to go and see about Ms. Chris, and stayed out so late, that you wouldn’t have made us go.” J.J. challenged. “Like for absolution or something.”

“Bright and early.” Jennifer confirmed. “The only reason you didn’t was because I couldn’t get up. You two hot numbers need a good, long dunking in some nice, cool holy water.”

“Is Ms. Chris going to be okay? What’s wrong that they had to put her into a coma like that? The driver’s side airbag must have deployed, so how could she hurt her head that badly? Are you telling me everything, Mom, or are you treating me like a baby again?”

“As long as I am forty years older than-”

“Thirty-nine years.”

“-forty years older than you, Justine Jennifer Hart, you will be a baby to me. The doctors say that Chris should be fine in time. I know that you like her and that you care about what happened to her. I’m honestly telling you all that I know for sure right now, J.J. Let me see the report you wrote from the interview.”

J.J. got up and brought back to her mother the folder containing the report she’d written the night before. As Jennifer read her work, J.J. stood over her, intently watching her face. When apparently she was finished, Jennifer lifted her eyes to J.J.

“This is very good. What made you describe Chris as “strong, serious, and smart, but still compassionate and caring”? Do you really know her well enough to make the last two more personal judgments?”

“Oh yeah, I definitely know her well enough to say that about her. She was extremely sensitive to the fact that my mother was on her way up and was likely to kill me when she got there. She was very compassionate toward me and my plight. After I heard the gate radio up to tell her that you were there, and I told her how much trouble I was in, she cared enough to cover for me once you got up there. I shouldn’t be telling you all of that, but I figure you probably had it worked out in your head already anyway. I so hope she’s going to be all right. It wasn’t any accident, was it?”

Jennifer reached for J.J., pulling her onto her lap. With her hand pressed to J.J.’s cheek, she eased her head down so that it rested on her shoulder.

“J.J., you worry too much about things that don’t concern you. For this week, while your father is gone and it’s the two of us and Marnie, can you please just be my baby?”

“My legs are too long for that now, Mom.” J.J. smiled, stretching to tap the tips of her bare toes on the carpet.

“But you haven’t grown so long and so big that my arms are too short to hug you.” Jennifer answered as she administered a tight squeeze.

“I hope I never get too big for that.” J.J. said as she snuggled into her mother’s embrace. “But don’t tell anybody I still let you. A thing like that getting out would ruin my image.”

“How’s Master Teddy? You haven’t mentioned him to me in a while.”

“He’s okay. He was tripping a little bit about me doing the project with Hector, I think, but I can’t worry about that. It’s his problem, not mine.”

“Good girl.” Jennifer said as she poked J.J. in the side. “After tomorrow, you’ll have a baby to look after. You won’t have time for assuaging male egos. And you also won’t have time to be disobedient again, will you? Running around, doing things you’ve been told not to do. You don’t want to be putting my granddaughter in jeopardy, do you?”

J.J. broke away from her and sat up.

“Hold on, Mom. Look, let’s not get carried away with this project thing. It’s a doll I’m bringing home, not a baby. Now I’m willing to play along since I’m being forced to do so, but I’m not having you going out and picking up outfits for it, putting it on the waiting list for kindergarten at the Bel Air Academy, signing it up for future lessons with some famed ballet diva, and all that cra- stuff.”

Jennifer laughed and moved J.J. off her lap to stand up herself. “All I’m saying, my sweet girl, is that I’m home alone with you two little clowns for how ever long your father is going to be away, and I’m telling you up front that I’m not having it out of either of you. You’re both sixteen, not sixty. In fact, your two ages added up together don’t even nearly add up to mine. So, the only one who’s grown here is me. I’m calling the plays, and one of them is that you and Marnie Elaine are to tow the line. Are we clear on that, Miss Hart?”

“Ms. Hart, and yes, I’ll behave. When can I go to see Chris?”

“You’re already starting.”

“I just asked a question.”

Jennifer headed for the door. “When I take you. Do not go over to Memorial-”

“So, that’s the hospital she’s in?”

Jennifer rolled her eyes. “Don’t go there, anywhere near Hart Headquarters, HartToys, in fact, the only Hart facility I want you lingering close to is 3100 Willow Pond Road. Do you hear what I’m saying to you?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I love you, J.J., and I’m proud of the work you’ve done with that interview. You were a true professional yesterday, even if you were being incorrigible at the time.”

“Thank you.”

“But you’ll be dead meat if you disobey me again.”

“I know it. Is Ms. Chris really going to be okay?”

“In time, J.J., yes. Now I have to go check behind your little girlfriend, and see what she’s done with Pat’s profile.”

From the look on her mother’s face as she was leaving, J.J. concluded that Marnie’s work was up for a major scrutinizing. She’d gone over it with Marnie herself on the night before, but that was nothing like having Jennifer Hart, glasses perched on the end of her nose, checking every “i” for  a dot and every “t” for its cross. Oh well, she concluded, at least she’d made the cut.

When she belly flopped on top of it, Third crawled out from underneath the bed and jumped up to join her there. Lying with a pillow stuffed underneath her chin and the dog under her arm, J.J. thought more on the frailty of life; how a person could be there one moment and gone the next; whole in the afternoon, and in a coma that evening. All it would take would be that one right incident, that one sudden unfortunate circumstance for it to all be changed or over completely; for a point of view, an outlook, a life to be forever altered.

In the morning, she would become a “mother”, if only for a week, but she was sure that once the project was over, some of her own thinking would be changed. That was how that experience was supposed to work. Her father was flying to Washington on Monday evening. Aunt Pat was flying into Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. Marnie’s father was away from home in Boston, and with the way Mr. Benson operated, he could be anywhere at any time. He said he might come home early. Rolling up on someone without advance warning was definitely his style.

What in the world was going on at Hart? Why in the world was it so hard to believe that what happened to Chris was a mere accident? Why wouldn’t Jennifer Hart give a direct answer to that question? What did she mean when she said that she was telling, “all that I know for sure”? What was she not sure of that she wasn’t telling? Chris would be well “in time”. How badly was she really hurt?

What was going in the world that she couldn’t shake that frighteningly ominous feeling which let itself in and settled over her on the night before, putting her in that window where Marnie found her staring out onto the grounds? Like her father, she listened to and followed her hunches; they seldom led her wrong.

“Please, please, please let everything and everybody be okay.” she prayed.

_____________________________________________________________

“Why it’s gotta have red hair, J.?” Hector asked as he pulled back the blanket and looked down at the “baby” in J.J.’s arms that they had just been issued. “And why I gotta be the pack mule just because I’m the guy?”

J.J. signed off and accepted the newborn, actually newly-activated, bundle that the woman assisting Ms. Leonard handed to her. Pinned to the pink blanket was a card that read “Baby Hart-Diaz”

“That’s Diaz-Hart” J.J. said to the woman she thought she’d seen somewhere before. “Small Diaz- emphasis on Hart.”

The woman smiled back at her.

Their newly assigned child came complete with a cloth knapsack/backpack, miniature car seat, stroller, fold-up crib, infant seat, filled diaper bag, “food”, and a bill, all of which Hector carried as he and J.J. returned to their seats after having the cost of the equipment equally deducted from both their individual budgets.

“She has red hair because I do.” was J.J.’s answer to Hector’s question. “All the women in my family have red hair. It’s a dominant trait. And yes, you have to be the beast of burden because that’s all you’re good for. You weren’t there for me Saturday morning when I needed you for the thinking/ decision-making part. I’ve had to do all of our paper work since this thing started. So now you can carry the stuff. I’ll take care of the kid.”

“I thought you forgave me for all that.”

“I did, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. And one more thing, you’re going to have to clean up your speech patterns because if you don’t, you’ll have her speaking that pidgin English you speak. I’m not having it. You are Hispanic, but you were born American. I don’t know why you persist in speaking the language so poorly.”

“Snob.”

“Slacker.”

“Can I borrow some money, J.? I took a big hit for this baby stuff.”

“I took the same hit, and as the primary caregiver, I have the kid most of the time, so I’ll be footing most of her bills. Forget you. Enjoy yourself in that unheated, windowless school bus.”

“Don’t forget, when I get visitation, it’ll be in that school bus.”

“We’ll have to talk about that, too.”

They arrived back at their table to compare their offspring with the others already distributed.

Philly held up her cocoa brown, spike haired infant. “Look Hector, he looks like your baby pictures.”

“Yeah, but he’s good and brown like his daddy.” Deon proudly crowed .

“It’s a doll, Deon.” J.J. reminded him. “Suck your chest back in. You haven’t done a thing.”

“Yours looks more like me than ours.” Hector complained to his sister and Deon. “Look.” He pulled back the blanket from the baby in J.J.’s arms. “This one looks like J.”

Marnie grinned at the sight of the infant with the wisps of flame hair. “If it was a real baby and you were, God forbid, the real daddy, Hector, she would look J. anyway. That’s how it goes in her family.”

“Not if it was a boy like it should have been.” Hector protested. “If it was a real boy, it would look like me.”

“Then he’d be in real trouble.” J.J. said as she sat down and unwrapped the doll from the blanket it came in. “These things are amazing. They feel just like real babies, same weight, all soft and pliable. She held it up to her nose. “They even smell like a baby, like powder. I have to hand it to her; Ms. Leonard put a lot of thought into this project. These “kids” really do kind of look like us. Look at Kimmi’s baby. It’s Asian, like her and Dan. I don’t think I’ve ever seen dolls this real.”

When their names were called, Sidney rose from his seat, dragging a disinterested Marnie up by her arm.

“What?” Marnie protested. “You can go up there by yourself. You’re the one who’s going to be taking care of it.”

“Come on.” he insisted. “We can at least look like we’re together.”

“It’s an obvious front.” Marnie protested as he pushed her ahead of him. “Everybody knows. Isn’t that vest kind of garish, Sid?”

“Yeah, just like that lipstick you have on.” Sidney came back at her. “And we need to discuss this budget, Miss Thing. “You didn’t figure in a nickel’s worth of child support, and we have to pay for the baby stuff when we get up there.”

“I didn’t intend to figure in any child support.” Marnie said over her shoulder. “Still don’t. Hope you have your checkbook.”

Once the Marnie and Sidney show was over, and he’d put their baby equipment down on the floor, Hector turned back to J.J. “I guess I don’t even get no say in naming her.”

He sat down next to J.J., watching as she pulled at the rompers the doll wore, examining its soft, spongy body closely.

“You know, I didn’t even think about a name.” J.J. said, briefly switching her attention to Hector, her voice sounding her surprise at that slip on her part. “She’ll be ours for a week. I guess we should call her something.”

“Carmelita.” he grinned, his eyes gleaming with teasing mischief.

“Forget it.” she flatly declared as she went back to the looking over the doll. “I knew you were going to mess up. I wish I would name my kid after somebody who’s gunning for me, stalking me and stuff about you.”

“Bianca.”

“And I’m not naming her after your latest love interest either. Her name is Genevieve.”

“Genevieve Diaz? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s Genevieve Suzanne Hart.”

Hector jerked back as if she’d slapped him.

“Oh, we are going to have to fight about this, J. It’s bad enough you’ve stuck her with those two white bread, ugly first names-”

“White bread? Ugly? I’ll have you know that Suzanne was my grandmother’s-”

“J.J. Hart, my kid is going to have my last name.”

“I think not.”

Momentarily distracted by the sight of Big Percy returning to the table, awkwardly holding a tiny blue bundle in his arms while Kendra struggled with the equipment, J.J. found herself so busy thinking, “Just like a man- got his boy and that’s all he cares about.” that she almost didn’t hear what Hector was saying to her.

“It’s bad enough you had my kid out of wedlock, J.J., even though I offered to marry you when you got knocked up. But now you’re going to cheat me out of giving her my name? You sure are bossy.”

When his words sunk in, she snapped all the way around in her chair to face him.

“Knocked up? Offered? Bossy ? Hector, I didn’t want you. That’s why I didn’t marry you.”

“You wasn’t talking about who you didn’t want when-”

“See,” she cut him off. “That’s just why I didn’t marry your last-class behind. Everybody makes mistakes; you were mine. Her last name is Hart.”

“No, it ain’t! Where’s the birth certificate? Let me fill that thing out correct.”

The whole table was laughing, watching the two of them go back and forth. It had been like that ever since Hector and J.J. joined the project and found themselves paired up together.

“I want you to know, I ain’t Tommy.” Hector declared.

J.J. stood up, the doll pressed protectively to her shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I know you got the hots for him. He got ’em for you, too, but he ain’t here. You with me now. I’m your man. I’m your baby’s daddy.”

“So you think, Hector. Mommy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.” She retorted, snapping her fingers in his face. “And just so you know, Tommy is ta-wice the man-”

“J.J. Hart!  Hector Diaz!” the teacher called from the front. “I am warning both of you for the last time.”

“Sorry.” J.J. and Hector simultaneously replied .

They high-fived each other in truce and sat back down.

“We got to be up in here all day together, J.” Hector laughed. “Learning how to take care of this baby.  No other classes. How many fights we gonna have?”

“A lot if you keep messing with me.” she laughed back. “I do wish Tommy was here. We could really be having a good time.”

“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t be your partner, J. He’d’ve muscled me all out the way to get to you.”

“Whatever, Hector.”

Sidney and Marnie returned to the table. Marnie had their blue bundle, holding it out and away from her. Sidney was toting the equipment, which of course, was only because Marnie wouldn’t, and he couldn’t carry all of it and the baby at the same time.

A loud “Who-o-o-a!” sounded as several people jumped up screaming from the other side of the table when Percy and Kendra’s baby spouted a small fountain after they peeled back its diaper to see if it was as anatomically correct as they’d been told it was.

“I guess that’s pretty correct.” Percy said as he wiped water from his eyes. “Pissed on daddy already. See how high it went? That’s my boy.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Marnie laughed. “I forgot boy babies do that. My brothers were real good at it. You’ll have to watch out for that, Sid.”

“I’m not speaking to you.” Sidney huffed as he pushed the baby things under the table, sat down, then took up the bundle she’d placed on the table.

He peeled back the blanket from its head, and Marnie frowned. “He doesn’t even have hair.”

The doll was bald, but had dimples in its cheeks and was noticeably cute and pixie-ish, like her.

“I said I’m not speaking to you.” Sidney repeated as he made of point of caressing the smooth pate in Marnie’s presence.

“Don’t speak to me then.” Marnie sniffed back at him with a toss of her head. “I don’t care; I’m still not paying. Keep acting, and I won’t ever even sit for his little ass.”

All around the room, dolls and equipment were being toyed with and examined. Laughter, animated discussions, and disagreements filled the air.

“Ms. Leonard’s got us all day.” Hector said to the group. “She and her girl up there got their work cut out for them, don’t they?”

“Yep.” J.J. grinned as she unsnapped the rompers to check out what was inside the miniature diaper. “They wanted us to have this experience. Well, here we go.”

To her amazement, the doll began to move its robotic head and its limbs. Then its lips pouted, and it began to cry.

Hector reached over to pat its tummy as the plaintive wail drew the attention of the others at the table.

“This is really something.” J.J. whispered to herself.

_____________________________________________________________

Nothing in the papers this morning. Nothing on the news.

Should have done her right then, while I had the chance, even if it wasn’t in the best place. Now Hart will have his people all over it and her.

She must know. Why else would she have gone down there? Why did she have to show up right then?

This is getting messy. Complicated.

Maybe I should get out. Walk away. Get lost now, while I still can.

_____________________________________________________________

Jennifer, waiting in the corridor, looked through the window into the private room where Chris Allen lie, looking, if it weren’t for the equipment around her, as if she were asleep. She was still being kept under, and according to what the nurse at the desk told her, that was likely to be the case for a couple more days.

On her way up, she recognized at least two Hart plainclothes security personnel in the lobby, and one by the elevator as she got  off on the floor. Uniformed security was positioned by her closed door, and a private nurse was stationed inside the room with her. All of that was protection provided to her courtesy of Jonathan Hart Industries, specifically, Jonathan Hart himself.

I so hope she’s going to be all right. It wasn’t any accident, was it?

She hadn’t been able to tell her so at the time, but J.J. had been right on the money.

If the airbag deployed, then how could she hurt her head that badly? Are you telling me everything or are you treating me like a baby again, Mom?”

It hadn’t been any accident, and she had been protecting J.J. from the ugliness of life; there was nothing wrong with her staying a child about some things. Just as the healing bruises discovered on Chris’ torso hadn’t been caused by the auto accident, neither had the more recent injury to Chris’ head. The doctors hadn’t said, but she and Jonathan had surmised that Chris had been attacked elsewhere, made it to the car, and was probably either trying to get home or trying to get to help when her car left the road after she was no longer able to manage it or she blacked out completely. The injuries to her body, discovered once her clothing was removed, was another story altogether; a hidden away story still waiting to be told.

Closing her eyes, gripping the rail beneath the window where she’d been resting her hands, Jennifer shuddered, thinking to herself that Chris was most likely trying to make it home. She wouldn’t have gone for help. It would have been too shameful for her to go for help, risking revealing the secret she was carrying.

Marston Knight. Knight Shipping Lines.

That was with whom Pat said Chris had been involved. She’d called with the news, hot off The Mole’s press, earlier that morning- right after the girls left for school and Jonathan left for the office. Like always, given a little time, that Pat could find out anything about anybody. She’d had that and quite a bit more.

How and why would Chris be affiliated with a man like that?

Shuddering again, Jennifer figured to herself, “She probably didn’t know or figure it out until it was too late.”

Snakeskin could be beautiful and attractive, but it still housed a snake.

“Would you like to sit with her for a while, Mrs. Hart?”

It was Dr. Langford, Chris’ personal physician with whom they’d met on the night before once he was notified that she’d been brought in. With no family nearby for them to contact, they had been the only ones there for her. Dr. Langford walked up and stood next to her to look into the room at his patient. “Her sister is on her way in, I’m told, but until then, I think it would be good for someone she knows her to be with her.”

“I’d like that.” Jennifer answered, shaking the doctor’s hand. “How is she this morning?”

“About the same.” he said. “It’ll take some time for that swelling to subside; she took quite a blow. Then the airbag hitting her in her face didn’t help any. I’m glad she wasn’t any more disfigured than the few cuts and that slight powder burn.”

“About those bruises to her body,” Jennifer almost whispered.

The doctor shook his head. “All I can say is I’m certain they weren’t all from last night’s accident. They’re at least a week, maybe a little more than that, old. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for her to wake up to find out more about that, if then. Judging by the extent of her injuries, it might turn out that her power of recall will be somewhat impaired at first. It may take a little time for her to regain all of her memory.”

Nodding, Jennifer released Dr. Langford’s hand, and the guard at the door stepped aside to allow her into the room.  She and the nurse inside exchanged an impersonal smile in greeting before she sat down in the chair by Chris’ side.

“Is it all right if I hold her hand?” she asked.

Dr. Langford, who had also come inside,  and was quietly conferring with the nurse, stopped to tell her it would be fine.

Taking Chris’ hand, she lightly squeezed it inside her own.

She was sure she had to have imagined it when what seemed like some strong, almost electric current of understanding exchanged between her and the comatose woman in the bed.

_____________________________________________________________

By early afternoon, sitting in on his third meeting of the day, Jonathan was too distracted to actively participate. While Marcus Borland, Arnold Zale, August Lamb and other executive members of Hart Headquarters security, detectives from LAPD, and Ken Matheson, second in command over at HartToys, huddled together in his office to go over the events of the previous week, he remained at his desk going over in his head the information that Arnold Zale had shared with him in private that morning.

What kind of relationship or connection could a level-headed woman like Chris Allen have with Marston Knight? It worried him.

Knight shipping lines was an established presence on the waterfront. Like Hart Shipping Lines, Knight did business all over the world. However, according to Zale’s sources, the Knight operation was being quietly investigated for some undisclosed improprieties. Zale said that word on his underground pipeline was that it had to do with illegal overseas arms shipments. Anything to make a buck.

Secrets. Murder. Terrorists. Bad apples among the good. Suspicion was everywhere.

Christina Alexandra Allen.

What made a guy beat up on a woman?

In his estimation, there was no justification. No matter what abuse she might be heaping upon him, in his book, a real man walked away before he physically lashed out at a female. Unless it was a matter of self-defense; she had him backed up to the wall or pinned into a corner, and there was no other way to handle it. In that scenario, even he had to admit that there were some women who wouldn’t hesitate to take on a man, and kick his ass if it came to that.

Then for some reason, Pat Hamilton, Chris Allen, and J.J. Hart flashed, in that order, in his mind.

Rider’s wife had taken a beating, and he suspected that Chris had gone head-to-head with someone. With her, it had to have been a fight. He couldn’t picture her accepting a whipping from anyone without retaliation on some level. What else would explain the older bruising that doctor reported that he’d found on her body?

At least she was still alive.

Could that be the reason someone else was dead?

His head beginning to throb, he pressed slow, massaging circles into both temples with his fingertips.

J.J., baby, please hear to what I said to you. Please listen to your mother while I’m gone. You’re plenty smart and plenty tough, but technically you’re still just a baby.

Chris’ sister had been contacted, and was supposedly on her way in from Europe. It seemed the girl moved around a lot; she had been difficult to locate. In a testosterone-driven age of technology and paperless record keeping, it took Jennifer, a woman, to think of looking in Chris’ purse, not for her electronic rolodex or her Palm Pilot, but for a small paper phone book.

“It’s less complicated to erase and make changes in a paper phone book when necessary than it is to power up and go through all those other electronic motions. I keep one with me.

“These days, people change or add numbers like they change clothes. With a paper phone book, I don’t need batteries, I don’t have to worry about putting it on charge or if I have the adaptor cord with me or not. My data only gets erased when I erase it; it only crashes if I lose or misplace it, which in that case, I have nothing and nobody to blame but myself.”

Just as she said, that was where they found the sister’s most current contact numbers.

Even though they hadn’t heard anything from her since the initial call was put in to her, according to Zale’s electronic sleuthing, Claire Allen was supposed to arrive that afternoon. Once she got there, it was his hope that she’d be able to shed a little more light on what was going on in her older sister’s private life that might have spilled over into her professional one.

With all that happened, the flight to D.C. for him and the engineers had been rescheduled for the very first thing in the morning. They’d take the Hart corporate jet assigned to him, and upon arrival, be driven directly to the Pentagon for briefing. Even with that extra time in Los Angeles, it didn’t leave much time for him to be looking into anything. Like Jennifer said, and he reluctantly concurred, he would most likely have to leave that to those whose job it was to investigate the matter.

Besides, not knowing how long he would be gone from them, he wanted to spend some time at home that evening laying down the law one more time to J.J. and Marnie. And course, after that, he wanted every minute he could get alone with Jennifer.

The voices across the room droned in and out of his hearing; every now and then a word, a phrase or two, registered.

...checking out… guards… on duty… called off… saw nothing… Martin … sister… some kind of broker… car… running tests….

With Marcus over there taking his usual copious notes, and August intently listening, none of it was important to him at the moment. He’d be brought up to speed later on what he hadn’t managed to catch on his own.

Too much thinking. So much to do. Even the consideration of it all was making him tired.

At times, he wished he were blue collar instead of management. Occasionally, to amuse himself, he wondered what it would have been like if life had turned out differently. If the path hadn’t been changed for him, he might have wound up working an assembly line somewhere, barely making ends meet, doing the same, predictable thing day in and day out, but none of the current worry would be his. Every now and then he wondered what it would have been like to put in eight hours and at the signal, go home to his wife, his kids, the dog, and his life, and leave the job at the job. What would life have been like if he really was the regular Joe he still basically felt like he was at his core?

But that was only an occasional daydream. In reality, he loved things the way they were. Being that kind of man, that regular Joe, living an ordinary life would not have suited him. It wasn’t necessarily the wealth, the power, or the celebrity that he thought he’d miss; it was the unusual challenges, the anticipation of exciting and wide-ranging things to come which dominated his current life that he knew couldn’t do without. And then too, that other kind of man, Joe Regular, could not have had Jennifer for his wife.

But as his lover maybe? A secret, otherwise unattainable lover with whom his soul was joined? From two very different walks of life, but longing for each other, just the same.

Him in his flannel shirt and chinos, she in Chanel.

Eventually making that little girl between them.

Then what might have been? Would Jennifer have kept J.J. away from him to avoid complicating things for her? Probably not. But how would that matter have been handled between them? Even married and living together, they didn’t always agree on things about her. Jennifer didn’t believe in complications and untidiness when it came to J.J.’s upbringing, although life seemed determined that some of that touch J.J. from time to time.

He didn’t believe in feeding into the pretense and elitism, which was a pervasive element of the privileged atmosphere in which Jennifer had been, and now J.J. was being raised. If he hadn’t been a constant in J.J.’s life, would Jennifer’s father have had more influence on the way the girl had been brought up? After all, J.J. was Stephen’s only grandchild.

Despite his daughter turning out surprisingly down-to-earth, Edwards had his own ideas of what was proper for his granddaughter, and they didn’t always line up with J.J.’s daddy’s perspectives. To keep J.J. grounded, he worked extremely hard at counterbalancing Bel Air, Upper East Side Manhattan, and Briarwood in Hillhaven, Maryland with the real world, as far as his kid went, and so far, he was satisfied his efforts had been successful. If things had been different between he and Jennifer, they might have had that baby, but that last thing might have been a problem.

Further distracted by the interesting, yet disturbing possibilities he had conjured up for himself in those few minutes, he rubbed at his tense forehead and tired eyes, and noticed Ken Matheson casting furtive glances in his direction. Not wanting to appear disinterested to those who looked up to him, or ill to anyone who might have lingering worries about his physical state, he sat forward and made a conscious effort to appear more engaged, although his mind was still elsewhere.

Jennifer had been spending time with Chris at the hospital. Perhaps she would be there when the sister finally arrived. If anybody could get information out of a person, it would be Jennifer. Most likely, she had already added that sister to her list of girls for whom she needed to look out.

_____________________________________________________________

“Here Hector, it’s your turn. She stinks again.”

Hector, hard at work at something he was writing, pressed the doll J.J. was urging on him back toward her.

“I can’t, J. I have to finish this. I haven’t turned my interview in yet, and it’s due before we go home. I still have to type it up.”

J.J. pushed the doll back toward Hector. “I don’t care. You had all weekend to get that written. You’re not going to leave me doing all the dirty work because you hung out all weekend and then slept in when you should have been taking some of that time to do your homework.”

Hector never looked up. “If I get a bad grade, J., your grade comes down, too.”

“It’s only going to take you five minutes to change her diaper, Hector. I fed her, burped her, she threw up on me, and I changed her the first time she crapped. She’s done it again. It’s your turn. You need the practice.”

She shoved the doll into the crook of Hector’s arm, and he very nearly dropped it. She caught it, and then took it back from him. “You make me SICK, Hector!”

He stopped writing and looked up. “Okay, look, I’ll change her if you work on my interview paper.”

Standing over him, holding the doll, she closed her eyes and exhaled in frustration. “It’s like having two kids.”

“You go’n do it or what, J.?”

Sucking her teeth in irritation with him, she handed him the doll and exchanged places with him.

“She does stink,” he said, drawing his face up in a disgusted frown as he held the baby away from him.

“You would, too, if your pants were full of crap,” she said as she skimmed what he had written. “In fact, I could swear I’ve been catching a distinct whiff from yours ever since we started with this. I think I can smell you right now.”

Then her eyes grew wide as she snatched up one of the papers. She held it out to him.

“Orbicio?” She threw the papers down on the table, scattering them. “Hector, I cannot believe you interviewed your nineteen-year-old, weed smoking, future crack-head cousin, Orbicio! You couldn’t find anybody better than that?”

“He’s a musician,” Hector answered matter-of-factly as he lay the doll down on the blanket J.J. had spread out on the table and then unsnapped her rompers.

“Yeah,” J.J. scoffed. “And he was convenient. I know you hung out with him and his boys all weekend, just like you always do. You probably didn’t even interview him for real. You probably just made this stuff up while you were sitting here writing just now.”

He continued with the doll, clumsily working at unfastening the diaper. “You can’t prove a thing, J. Neither can Ms. Leonard.”

Then, grimacing, he stepped back from the table. “Ugh, how do they get a doll to do that? It’s even brown like real baby doo.”

“You heard that lady tell us it forms in a little bag inside the doll as a result of the “milk” we give them. Then they’re programmed to crap and pee it out. She simulates almost everything a real baby might do.”

“This is too much reality for me.” he said, and she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he was fastening the soiled diaper back closed without cleaning off the doll’s bottom.

“Hector, what are you doing?”

“I can’t, J. I just can’t. I think I’m going to throw up.”

“You have to, Hector. She’ll get a rash, and we’ll lose points. What if you have the baby, she does that, and I’m not around? I’ve told you and told you, I’m not getting a bad grade because of you.”

“If you aren’t there, I’ll call my mother, or Philly, or the housekeeper, my father, somebody- I can’t do it. It’s too nasty.”

“You great big sissy” she spat up at him through clenched teeth.

Pushing him out of the way, in a few minutes she had the doll cleaned up and rediapered. “I’m glad I didn’t marry you. If I had, I’d be over at the business class right now, waiting outside the door for the bell to ring so I could meet up with Charmaine and them, and try to find out how to get a dee-vorce from your sorry hide.”

“J., you know you love me.”

When she tried to hand Hector the dirty diaper to throw it away, he put his hands behind his back. “I can’t, J. I swear, I can’t. I’ll puke. I swear, I’ll puke.”

The doll began to cry, it’s tiny limbs rotating as it lie on the table. J.J. angrily pushed past Hector with the offending package dangling from her fingers. “See if you can make her stop crying then,” she ordered. “Be good for something.”

She headed for the trash can while Hector picked up the baby from the table and tried to comfort it. He put her on his shoulder and patted her back, but she continued to cry. He rocked her in his arms, but even that didn’t help. His sister, Philly, came up from behind him, holding her doll in her arms.

“You have to relax with her, Hector. That lady said they’re programmed to be sensitive to how they’re handled. Mine almost never cries. Your cries a lot. You must be nervous or being too rough with her.”

“Some kids cry more than others,” Hector said, sounding like a defensive daddy, holding the doll closer to his chest and rocking her a bit faster. “It ain’t got nothing to do with me being tense or anything. It cries with J., too.”

“Maybe she’d stop crying if you stopped calling her “it”.” Philly sniffed as she walked back off to where Deon sat with some of the others who were working with their children.

Up front, J.J. threw away the diaper in the special container provided for that purpose and then she turned her attention to the other woman in the room with them, the one her mind kept telling her that she knew from somewhere. The woman was telling the group of students around her that the dolls had been programmed to have individual temperaments, and therefore would exhibit distinct personalities. None of them, she said, could expect that their doll would do the same thing as another; it was designed to be that way.

Intrigued by the planning and the programming that went into the dolls, J.J. was drawn to the discussion. The woman, who was a scientist involved in the development of the dolls, had introduced herself to them by name earlier, but she hadn’t been paying that kind of attention at the time, so she didn’t catch it. The woman was currently talking to Sidney, who had raised his hand, wanting to know if the dolls were programmed to react negatively to a parent who, “wasn’t paying it enough attention”.

Marnie, seated with him, rolled and then cut her eyes at him, sending him a silent, but clearly obscene message. The woman, obviously aware by that time of the dynamics between the two of them, merely smiled in answer to Sidney’s rhetorical question, and then to J.J.’s surprise, directed her focus to her. She excused herself from the larger group and made her way through them to approach her as she stood on the periphery. J.J. read the name on her tag, “Alice Rangel”, as she came toward her with the doll she had been using for her demonstrations that morning in her hands.

“So, Miss Hart,” Ms. Rangel said. “What do you think of these babies?”

“I think they’re great.” J.J. answered. “I’m amazed by how real they are. Even the battery pack is soft. You can’t tell it’s there by feeling for it through the clothes like you can with most dolls. You just told me what I was coming to ask you. Mine seems like it cries more than the others, and I was going to ask you if that was normal, but I guess I must have one of the more sensitive ones. It’s crying now. I can hear it.”

“They say a good mother can hear a baby cry and know when it’s her child that she hears.” the woman said as she patted her on the shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

Oddly gratified by that information and the accompanying compliment, J.J. smiled.

“I guess I should get back.” she said. “My partner isn’t too comfortable with her yet.”

J.J. started off, but then she turned back around. The woman was watching her, it seemed, more intently than she considered normal, and she decided against asking her from where she might know her. It had been eating at her all morning, but now she was left wondering instead if the woman might know her. After all, out of all the kids in that room, without any prompting on her part, the woman referred to her by name. She hadn’t called anyone else out by name, and nobody except the new lady was wearing a nametag.

Returning to the table with Hector, she ignored him when it looked as if he were going to try to hand her the crying baby.

“Handle it, Hector.”

She sat back down to continue to her work on his paper.

“We haven’t had her a full day, and you’re already working every nerve I have. What kind of daddy are you? We both have to deal with her; she’s sensitive. Probably sensitive to how much her father wishes she was a boy.”

“I don’t care nothing about that now, J. I like that she’s a girl. She kinda reminds me of you.”

“Don’t tell me, tell her.”

“You’re ugly-acting and hard to handle, just like your mom,” he said to the doll as it continued to wail. “Must be ’cause you got red hair like her.”

“The hell with you Hector. There, you made me say it.”

“Ooh, I’m telling. You cussed. And in front of the kid, too.”

“I learned the word from my Daddy. My mother slings it around at times, too. So, it’s only fitting that my kid pick up one or two from me.”

Hector sat down next to J.J. and continued his rocking of their baby. J.J. booted up her laptop as she continued to fuss.

“I cannot believe you decided to use ‘Bicio as your role model.”

“For your information, I’m planning on asking him to be Genie’s godfather, too,” he replied, “and Carmelita to be her godmother.”

“Um-hmm” J.J. answered without stopping what she was doing, “over my dead body. Genie?”

“Yeah, Genie. I ain’t calling her no “Genevieve”. Just hurry up so you can take her. The crying is making me antsy.”

She swiveled around in her chair to face him, hand on her hip. “Hector, I know you are not rushing me on something you should have finished already. You’re her father. You take care of her while I take care of this.”

She flipped, in utter disgust, through his wrinkled, jumbled papers. “Since you nicknamed her that- without my consent, I might add, maybe you can wish on her. You should make the first one be that you and I make it through this week without one of us taking the other out, namely me doing you.”

“Or me doing her.” he grumbled, lifting the noisy baby to his shoulder and patting her back. “This definitely ain’t my thing.”

“For the next few days, Hector, it will be. Know that.”

Although she had been busy all morning, and was still actively engaged at the moment, J.J. was quite conscious that she hadn’t had a free moment to herself to get to a networked computer and see what else she might be able to find out about what happened to Chris, as she planned before leaving home that morning. She hadn’t even been able to slip out and use her cell to call up Mr. Frieson, Mr. Zale, or Uncle Marcus to try to pump one of them into giving up some information. Mr. Lamb couldn’t be broken down, so he was a no-go on that. Also, he couldn’t be counted on to not tell her father that she had been making inquiries, unlike the others, who might shut her down on their own but would keep it on the low that they did it.

She had been told to leave it alone, but finding out what was going on and if Chris was going to be all right, was eating at her in the background of everything else that was happening. And that only added to that nagging feeling she still had that something bad was on the wind.

_____________________________________________________________

On her way back to the room from taking a stretch, freshening up, and getting water, Jennifer’s attention was drawn to the woman getting off the elevator. She stopped in her tracks.

…my, my… what have we here?

The woman was a late twenties-early thirties maybe, version of Chris Allen, if Chris were another type of person. Chris, one immediately took for businesslike and matter-of-fact, a more upscale no-frills, what-you-see-is-what -you-get type of person. The girl stepping onto the floor seemed the opposite. Slighter in build than Chris, but with the same shoulder length dark hair, she was dressed in a stylish black pants suit that from the cut, was probably a Kasper design. The sunglasses she still had on her face, the handbag on her arm, and the boots on her feet, screamed Prada, and high end Prada, at that. A peacock blue Pashmina scarf with beaded fringe draped from one shoulder and arm.

… has to be the sister….

Impressed by the becoming outfit, Jennifer continued to watch as the woman was escorted from the nurses’ station, directly to Chris’ room, where she was I.D.’d by the guard and met at the door by the private duty nurse who allowed her to enter. Jennifer remained where she was until the floor nurse, who had accompanied the woman to the room, returned to the desk, at which point she rounded the corner from where she had been conducting her discreet surveillance.

“Oh, Mrs. Hart,” the nurse said upon noticing her, “Ms. Allen’s sister has arrived. She’s in the room with her now.”

Thanking her for the information, Jennifer crossed the hall, but did not return to the room. Instead, she stationed herself in a place where she could see through the window, but wouldn’t be easily noticed by the people inside. The sister stood next to the bed where Chris lie still and silent, the equipment attached to her making the only real noise in the room.

She found it odd that after only a few minutes of being there, Claire Allen left without ever having sat down or getting any closer than a foot from the bed. Chin protruding, she passed right by, going directly to the elevator, pressing the button and getting on when the doors opened. Discreetly checking out the sister’s face, Jennifer surmised that the girl was overcome by emotion, but the emotion she sensed coming from her was fear.

When as soon as the doors to the car Claire had gotten into closed, the doors to the second car opened to allow some people onto the floor, Jennifer made a beeline for them, praying that her car wouldn’t make too many more stops on the way down and reach the lobby too late for her to catch up to Claire.

_____________________________________________________________

Jonathan was still seated at his desk when his phone console lit up to silently signal that his secretary, Liz, had a message for him. It had to be important; she would have held onto it until he came out of the meeting if it hadn’t been. Inserting the earplug, he pressed the button to signal to her that he was listening. It turned out she had the information passed on to her from Stanley Frieson about Chris’ sister for which he’d been waiting.

Signing off from Liz, he excused himself and informed the others in the office with him that he would have to leave, but that they should continue on with what they were doing. Marcus promised to brief him on what transpired in his absence. As he went through the door, he felt August’s questioning eyes on his back. Passing her desk in the outer office, he instructed Liz to make sure she let Lamb and Matheson in on what she just told him about Chris’ sister having arrived in town. And to be sure she gave them those latest schedules and rosters for HartToys he had faxed to him and had just put into her hands.

_____________________________________________________________

“Damn.”

Jennifer stopped short, quietly venting her frustration; she was too late.

Through the glass doors of the lobby, she could see Claire Allen outside, climbing  into the back of a waiting Cadillac. It wasn’t until the car pulled away that she noticed the handsome, well-dressed gentleman standing on the grassy island on the other side of the drive, also watching that particular vehicle leave. He crossed over and came through the hospital’s revolving door, so focused upon whatever was on his mind that he didn’t notice her until she spoke.

“Hey, you, who is supposed to be at work.”

At the sound of her voice, he stopped and then turned around.

“Busted,” she announced.

His cheeks immediately igniting, he stuck his hands down in his pockets and approached her.

“It’s no wonder you’re so worried about that child of yours and what she might get into while you’re gone,” she fussed. “She got it absolutely honestly, straight from her hard-headed rogue of a father. What are you doing here?”

It was everything she could do to not laugh; his face bore the same caught in the act look as J.J. had worn on hers for the ride home that previous Saturday afternoon when caught wrong, up in Chris’ office, a place where she definitely wasn’t supposed to have been.

“What can I say?” he shrugged, “I got the word the sister was on her way here, and I had to come.”

She stood with one hand on her hip, shaking her head at him in exasperation.

“What can I say?” he repeated.

Taking her by the arm, he led her over to a corner by the lobby windows where they sat down away from the traffic coming and going or milling about.

“So, did you meet her?” he asked. “Did you get a chance to talk with her?”

For a moment, in frustration with his dogged persistence, she dropped her head into her forehead. Then, when it was J.J.’s mischievous grin she saw behind her closed lids, she went ahead and opened her eyes to answer him. The two of them, her husband and her daughter, the sorcerer and his willing apprentice, were hopelessly incorrigible;

“Jonathan, don’t you have an important trip for which you should be getting ready, rather than running around, checking things and people out, being a modern day Sherlock Holmes?”

“I have plenty of time, Watson. I see you’re down here, apparently running behind Claire, and not up in the room with Chris.” He answered. “Besides I called Marie and put her on the trip and getting me ready for it. Well, did you? Talk to Claire, I mean.”

“No, Jonathan,” She sighed at his persistence. “I missed her. She came up to the room while I’d gotten up to stretch for a minute. I was in the hall when she arrived, and that’s when I saw her. She got off the elevator, went in to Chris, stayed a couple of minutes, and then left. She didn’t talk to Chris, didn’t touch her, anything. In fact, it was as if she didn’t want to get close to her.”

“Where were you when all this was going on?”

“Still in the hall. I watched through the window. I didn’t see her ask the private duty nurse anything. She stayed a minute or two, then she got out of there. It was all very curious. Did you see who was in the car with her? Was there anyone in the car with her besides the driver?”

“I couldn’t see through the tinted windows, but I did notice that it was a private limo, not one from the airport.”

“How much have you found out about her, Jonathan? I know Arnold’s been on it since last night, hasn’t he?”

“I didn’t hang around for all the details. Once Arnold said she’d arrived, I figured her for coming straight to the hospital. He’d pulled up and emailed me a picture of her, so I knew what she looked like. I headed right out, hoping to catch up to her and have a word or two. But by the time I parked and made it over here, she was already getting into the car. I thought maybe, if I could have caught up to her, she could fill me in on what Chris might have gotten herself into on a person level.”

Jennifer sat back in her chair. “Me, too, but she left so quickly. She appears to me to be quite a few years younger than Chris, and being the older sister, if it’s personal, Chris might not have shared that part of her life with Claire. And then, with Claire living in Europe most of the time, maybe they weren’t that close anyway. I didn’t get the feeling that they were from Claire’s behavior when she was up there with Chris. I mean, Pat isn’t my genetic sister, but I can’t imagine that something could happen to her that put her in the hospital that I wouldn’t be right there, so close to her that I was practically in the bed with her. I’d be there from the start of the day until they put me out in the evening. In fact, that’s exactly how it happened when it was Pat.”

“One would think with their parents being deceased, and they being the only siblings, they’d be kind of close.” He reflected aloud. “Zale managed find out that Marston Knight, you know Knight shipping?”

She nodded as if she were just hearing the name for the first time.

“He’s had some dealings with Chris.”

“What kind?”

“They’re still working on that. Any change in her condition?”

“She’s stable. I guess that’s the best we can hope for right now.”

“At least she isn’t worse. I wonder where Claire is staying.”

“Jonathan. You have a flight out tonight.”

“It got pushed back until the morning.”

“Then you have me tonight.”

He smiled at her and then looked at his watch. “Doesn’t J.J. have Driver’s Ed. today after school?”

“Yes, Marnie will take her there before they come home. This should be interesting. They were assigned their children today. Sidney will have his and Marnie’s, I think, but Marnie will have to baby-sit for her godchild while J.J.’s in her driving class. I want to be there when they do get home. I’m anxious to meet our grandchild.”

“I’m not.”

“Why?”

“I’m still not altogether comfortable with J.J.’s marital situation, Jennifer, even if it is a simulation and it’s for this school project. She’s a maverick, just like your father says she is, and I don’t want her getting too keen on or comfortable with the idea of single motherhood.”

She smiled to herself.

So he did see through it when J.J. said it. He’s not completely blind to thatvside of her, after all.

“And secondly,” he went on. “I didn’t even get the chance to threaten Hector’s life over it, like I would have if the situation had been real. If it’s supposed to simulate real life, don’t I get to phone Hector up, make him come to me, and jack him up him until he’s near tears about what I’ll do to him if he doesn’t do right by my daughter and my grandchild?”

“It’s not that real, Jonathan. You know, I’m almost glad that you won’t be at home for this leg of it. I can see now that this has been on your mind, and that you’re getting kind of wrapped up in it.”

He shrugged and got up from his chair. Then he reached for her to bring her up as well.

“I’m just saying, Jennifer, the guy who gets my daughter to go that far with him that she comes up that way, had better be enough of a man to marry her.”

“It might not be the guy, Jonathan. It might be your daughter who makes the choice to stay single if she “comes up that way”.”

“Whoever he is, If she’s having his kid, he’d better be man enough to get her to change her mind. He’d better be talking real long and real strong, and if he can’t get her to marry him, he’d better be prepared to look to me like he’s married to her and their kid. There will be no more children in this family with AWOL fathers. It isn’t right. If it’s possible, the parents are alive and well, then the kid should be raised by both parents. Hopefully, rightfully, two married parents- married to each other, I mean.”

“Where’d you park?” She asked.

“I’m in the lot across the street.”

“I’m in the structure.”

She wrapped her arm around his as they made their way outside.

“I’ll see you at home then.” He said, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek when they reached the sidewalk where they’d have to go their separate ways.

Instead of releasing him, she pulled him around to her so that they were facing each other.

He looked down into her uplifted face. “What?”

“I love you.” She said, bestowing a kiss to his lips. “You’re a fine man, Jonathan Hart. A real man. A bit old-fashioned, maybe, but-”

“Old-fashioned?”

“Okay, not old-fashioned, perhaps traditional is a better description; you’re moral without a doubt. Whichever one it is, it’s for sure that you’re a fine man, a gentleman inside and out, and I’m crazy about you. They don’t make them like you too much any more. I’m glad you’re my daughter’s father.”

He winked her and smiled. “So am I.” Then he asked, “So, do you think Claire will be staying at Chris’ place?”

“Let it go, Jonathan.”

_____________________________________________________________

When J.J. came out of the building where she took her Driver’s Ed. class, she found Marnie seated behind the wheel of the car with Genie in her arms, trying to quiet her. It was apparent from her tense facial expression that if she hadn’t come out when she did, she might have found the doll and all of her paraphernalia on the curb and Marnie nowhere to be seen.

“Here, take her hollering butt,” Marnie fussed, pushing the baby into her arms almost before she could get into the car once she opened the door. “My nerves are too bad for this. If Orbicio was to somehow show up right now, I’d make him give me a joint. As it is, I might have to risk raiding your parents’ bar once we get to your house; I need a drink, for real. She’s been carrying on like that almost ever since you went in for class. I started to come get you. I couldn’t even start my homework.”

J.J. unwrapped Genie from the blanket Marnie had too tightly wound around her, and she checked her diaper once she unsnapped the rompers.

“She isn’t wet. She hasn’t messed or anything yet. She shouldn’t have been hungry. I had just fed her before I went in for class. You saw me.”

“I know you did,” Marnie agreed as she started the car and pulled out of the parking space. “That’s why I couldn’t figure out what the hell her issues could have been. I’ve been holding her, rocking her, hell, I even trying singing to her. Me, singing, to a doll, can you believe I did that? You need to go ahead and do a dissection on her. J., and make sure all her circuits are wired up right. She keeps up too much fuss for her Auntie Marnie. I can’t have all that noise and confusion in my universe. That’s just why Sid has custody of the boy.”

“The “boy”? Didn’t you guys name him?”

“Sid calls him Jaden. At least I think, it’s Jaden. It could have been Jalen, I don’t know. Whatever.”

“You are some kind of mother, Marn. You’d better know his name by the time the Duchess gets back with Aunt Pat from the airport tomorrow. Better yet, you better have Jaden, Jalen, or whoever with you when Aunt Pat sees you, or she’s gonna want to know the reason why. Coming all this way, she’s gonna want to see both kids.”

“Hey, I’m only cooperating because your father told me not to get another citation. Daddy Hart knows my heart isn’t in this.”

“Yeah, well, you can explain that to Aunt Pat when you see her. And keep in mind, Daddy won’t be there to back you up on it. The Duchess can be counted on to leave you hanging on it. I’ll have mine, so you’ll be on your own with Pat “Cruella” Hamilton.”

Marnie didn’t say anything, but J.J. could tell from her silence that she made her point.

Genie abruptly stopped crying and J.J. gingerly wrapped her back up, whispering, “”Good, she’s gone to sleep.”

Reaching over the seat, she fastened her into the car seat they strapped into the back. “I don’t know what Hector’s going to do when it’s his turn to have her. I might not be able to let him keep her overnight ever. He won’t know what to do for her.”

“She’s a not a real baby, J.,” Marnie said, watching in amusement her studious friend making a concerted effort to strap the doll in properly. “Ms. Leonard can’t see if you have her belted in or not. And it would serve Hector’s lazy tail right if you let him keep her and worry the hell out of him for a whole night without you around to bail him out. You’ve been doing most of the work ever since we got put into this. I, at least, take care of our paperwork so that Sid doesn’t have to.”

When she was done, J.J. turned back around and put on her own seat belt.

“I didn’t want to do this either, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it.”

“Why do you have to think so much? You’re a teenager. You’re not supposed to do all the thinking you do. One day your head is going to up and explode.”

“An-y-way,” J.J. drawled, throwing up her hand at her friend. “I figure a lot of women who become mothers didn’t plan to do it either; it just happened. Maybe some of them, married or not, get stuck with guys they love, and who say they love them, but who don’t pull their weight when it comes to the relationship, so the women get forced into taking care of most of it, just like me, if they want things done right. If I have to do this, then I’m doing it right, Marnie. It doesn’t matter who can see me. For this week, that’s my kid, and I’m doing things the way I know they should be done.”

“Do it your way,” Marnie answered. “Me, personally, I can’t hang. It takes too much time away from other things.”

“Now I do have to agree with you on that,” J.J. sighed as she reclined her seat and closed her eyes.

“And quit thinking about that, J.” Marnie ordered after a couple of minutes, effectively shutting down the images and ideas slowly forming in her mind. “You’ve got enough of your own stuff to be concerned about.”

“So do you, Miss Absentee Parent, 2001”

“What- ev-v-v-ver, J.J. Hart.”

_____________________________________________________________

“You two need help,” J.J. said.

She and Marnie had come through the front door, toting their books, and the baby equipment. Desirous of making only one trip from the car, J.J. had Genie in the baby pouch attached to her front and her school backpack strapped to her back. On her shoulder was the diaper bag, and in her hands were some of Genie’s other things. Marnie, following her in, was similarly overloaded. They dropped the baby equipment at the door as soon as they were inside, and were greeted by the senior Harts, who were watching them from the great room as they sat together enjoying afternoon cocktails. It was evident from the look of expectancy on their faces that they were waiting for them to get there.

Jennifer was seated on the couch with Jonathan perched on the arm, right next to her.

“Just hand me my grandbaby.” Jennifer replied, her arms eagerly outstretched as if reaching for and expecting to receive a real baby.

Walking into the great room with them, when J.J. got the carrier straps undone, she placed the doll in her mother’s waiting hands. Her father leaned in to look over her mother’s shoulder. J.J. stood back and put her hands on her hips.

“Daddy, what are you doing here? I cannot believe you came home early from work just for this. How long have you been here? Normally you’re just coming through the door at this time of day.”

“Your mother made me,” he answered.

“I did not,” Jennifer retorted. “You’re nosy. You need to go ahead and admit it. Denial isn’t attractive, Jonathan.”

“Well, it’s not every day my sixteen year old daughter brings home a baby, my grandkid,He said, peeking down at the pink blanketed package in Jennifer’s arms. He shook his head at the sight. “Another redhead.”

“As it should be,” Jennifer and J.J. chimed at the same time, and then they both laughed at being in agreement on that topic.

“Get Hector on the phone,” Jonathan said to no one in particular as he continued to study the doll. “I need to talk to him about this.”

There were enough cells between all of them that someone would carry out the order. It was Marnie who took him up on it.

“Bet,” she said with glee, whipping her phone out of its pocket on her tote bag “I got this.”

She punched in Hector’s number and handed Jonathan the phone, a mischievous grin stretching her face. She made sure to move in close to him so as not to miss a word of what he what he was going to say to the boy on the other end when he got him.

“Jonathan,” Jennifer said, twisting around to look up to her husband who had the phone to his ear, “no you aren’t.”

“Yes, I am. She’s got the baby, and I’m going all the way with this. This project’s supposed to simulate real life? Well all right. I’m simulating.”

J.J., who remained standing all that time, moved her backpack from her back and sat down on the couch next to her mother.

“Daddy is so wrong. Hector’s going to die dead when he hears who’s calling him up. And Daddy’s on Marnie’s phone? Hector, poor thing, will be see her number and be caught off guard, thinking it’s Marnie calling him.”

While Jonathan talked in the background, and Marnie, at his elbow, grinned impishly as she took it all in, J.J. talked with Jennifer about the baby.

“These things are amazing, Mom. It’s science fiction come to life. She cries, and eats, pukes, poops, and everything. If you hold her up to you, she even smells like a baby. You feed her, and then when she goes, it actually smells bad. I’ve never seen anything so real. We have clothes, and diapers, and everything.”

Jennifer placed the doll on her lap and unwrapped it. Handling it like an actual sleeping newborn, she carefully, gingerly lifted its limbs, eased it over on its tummy and then onto its back again.

“She is awfully lifelike.” She said as she ran her hand over its curls. “She has the weight and the pliability. Does she have a name, J.J.?”

J.J. readily answered. “Yeah. I named her Genevieve Suzanne Hart.”

Her own smile broadened when she saw the glow cross her mother’s face, coloring her cheeks and warming her eyes.

“Hart?” Jennifer questioned after it registered.

“Hart,” J.J. confirmed. “Hector shortened Genevieve to Genie. I let him have that, but her last name is Hart.”

Still holding Genie on her lap with one hand, Jennifer reached into her own pants pocket with the other and pulled out a tiny headband. She stretched out with her fingers and then slid it onto Genie’s head. It was cute, made up of lace and little yellow rosettes. J.J. sighed in exasperation, as peeking over Jennifer’s shoulder, seeing what she’d done, Jonathan smiled even though he was still on the phone.

“Mom. I thought we discussed this.”

“We did. And so what?”

Genie’s eyes suddenly flickered open. She puckered up and began to cry. Instinctively, Jennifer slid a finger into the leg of the rompers and underneath the diaper.

“She’s not wet. Is she hungry? Are you keeping her on her schedule?”

J.J. grimaced when she noticed her mother check the diaper with her finger as she did. “What if she had crapped?”

“A little baby crap never killed anyone, J.J. Trust me. I know that to be very, very true. If it did, your father and I wouldn’t be here; you were beyond regular, and you weren’t always neat about it either. And what have I told you about saying “crap”?”

“You just said it.”

“And what have I told you about doing what I say and not what I do?”

“I can’t win.”

J.J. took the crying doll up and wrapped the blanket around her. “She’s eaten. She’s doesn’t need changing. She just cries a lot. Ms. Leonard’s assistant for the day said they’re all programmed to have different personalities. I’m thinking I just got a crier; she’s been at it all day. We’ve decided she’s sensitive. I’ll take her upstairs and try to get her settled.”

Jonathan was clicking off and handing the phone back to Marnie. “Let me see her for a minute.” He said to J.J.

He took the doll, looked her over, checking her arms and legs, watching how her mouth moved and her body trembled as she cried in his large hands.

“I haven’t had to deal with this kind of action and noise in years,” he noted aloud as he carefully handed Genie back to J.J. “This is going to take some getting used to. She has to realize her Grandpapa’s nerves aren’t what they used to be.”

“Her Grand’papa’?” J.J. snickered. “So you’re going to end up being a Pa, too, before it’s all said and done?”

He reached out and tugged at her ponytail. “Go take care of your hollering kid. I’ve got my meeting with your significant other to get ready for.”

“Keep in mind that it’s not real life, Daddy. Please leave the gun out of it when he gets here.”

“Since it’s not real life, I just won’t put the clip in. He better be real glad it’s not real life.” He turned to Marnie. “Stuck to your guns, huh? Making Sidney tote that barge and the baby?”

“You said to pretend, and to not get another citation,” Marnie reminded him. “That’s what I did when we were at school. We’re home now, and it’s back to reality. Yes, Sidney is handling that for us. I don’t do babies, especially not baby boys. He didn’t even have hair.”

“A good mother loves her baby regardless,” Jonathan told her, speaking quietly, as if he didn’t want J.J. and Jennifer to hear him, “I wouldn’t have thought you one for kicking your kid to the curb.”

“I didn’t ki-”

For a second, their eyes met, and then Marnie backed up from him a bit.

“Come on, Marn,” J.J. said, getting up. “Help me get all this cra- stuff upstairs so I can get her quiet and start my homework.” Through all of it, Genie’s wailing continued unabated.

J.J. picked up her backpack, and then grabbed as much of what she could carry of the things by the door while holding onto Genie. Marnie got the rest and both girls went on up the stairs.

“Furniture and everything. What do you think about that?” Jennifer remarked, watching them go. “This is some project. They really go out on a limb and come up with some creative, but thought-provoking ideas for these kids at that school. They never would have gotten anything like this at the academy.”

“No, they wouldn’t have,” Jonathan agreed. “As uncomfortable as it makes me, I have to agree J.J. learns best when she can put her hands on what’s being taught.”

“Marnie, too,” said Jennifer, reaching for his hand and squeezing it in a way that made him look to her eyes. “She needs to have things clearly pointed out to her, as well.”

His face colored, and he used reaching for his drink as an excuse to turn away. Nothing got past her.

“I don’t know if I could take a week of that crying, though,” he said after taking a healthy swallow. “I’m almost glad I’m not going to be here. J.J.’s going to have to get her regulated. She didn’t give any indication that she’d picked up on it, but, believe it or not, that’s one of ours.”

Jennifer looked around to him. “What is? The doll?”

He nodded. “Those are our numbers on her neck. I haven’t been so closely keeping up with what’s been going on developmentally over there at HartToy, but I know my codes and serials. And I did hear they were working on some sophisticated prototypes to be used in educational programs like this one the girls are in, but more so for use in research with children’s products, like disposable diapers, furniture, car seats, that sort of thing, maybe even automotive design. I heard they were state of the art, but I had no idea that they were so realistic. From what I read on them, they can even die under the right circumstances.”

“Really? Kind of like those Neo-Pet things J.J. used to have and would get so upset over when she would go out of town, forget to take it with her, and then come home to find it expired? Or like when she does that Sims stuff on the computer?”

He nodded again. “They’re designed to imitate life. If they aren’t taken care of, as with real babies, they don’t thrive.”

“That’s kind of scary, considering we’re talking teenagers here.” Jennifer replied. “But then if HartToy developed them, what else would you expect? It really is a small world, isn’t it?”

_____________________________________________________________

It was late. Hector had come, gotten dragged over the imaginary coals, and was gone. Marnie had moved over to her room so that she could concentrate on getting her homework finished. J.J. was only half-done with the homework she had, but every time she sat down to work on it, Genie would begin to cry and she would have to go to her. With her father having to get up so early to make his flight, she’d moved herself and the baby back into the sitting room to be farther away from her parents’ room so that they wouldn’t be disturbed by the noise. But that put her and Genie closer to Marnie, who had already been across twice. The first time to fuss and help, the second just to help to allow her to work some more on her homework.

That was a while ago, and now Genie was crying again. J.J. walked the floor with her, holding her in her arms, trying to suppress her own growing frustration and impatience.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I’ve done everything I can think of.”

She ran her finger along the inside of the doll’s diaper, the way she’d seen her mother do. “You aren’t wet. I washed you up. I changed your clothes. I fed you. I even read you a story. Felt like a fool while I did it, but I did it. Why won’t you stop crying?”

In the middle of the floor, she stopped and raised Genie to her shoulder to rock her.

“Shut u-u-u-u-up.” she softly sang to her. “If you don’t sto-o-o-o-p, you’ll be so-o-o-o-r-r-ry.”

Genie continued to cry.

“I know what to do for you.”

She took Genie over to the day bed, sat down, and placed the doll on her lap, turning her over on her stomach. On the small end table was a nail manicure kit, from which she slid the nail file. Unsnapping the tiny nightshirt, she was just about to go to work, when she heard, “I know you are not about to do what it appears you’re about to do.”

Startled into almost jumping out of her skin, J.J. jerked, nearly dropping the baby from her lap to the floor. Almost diving from the bathroom door for her, Jennifer caught Genie in time, scooping her up into her arms, leaving J.J. holding the nail file in clear view.

“Something told me to come across here and check on you two.”

“You could have knocked.”

“Oh, I can sense when a door needs kicking in as opposed to knocking on, Justine Hart. I have that kind of instinct when it comes to you. So what were you going to do, slit her throat? Sacrifice her to the gods?”

J.J., her cheeks ablaze, silently slid the nail file back into its case while her mother snapped Genie’s night shirt back closed. At the last snap, Genie stopped crying and closed her eyes.

“Well?” Jennifer insisted, sitting down next to J.J. on the day bed, holding Genie in her arms.

“I told you I didn’t want to do this,” J.J. muttered, her embarrassment masquerading as sullenness.

“That’s just an excuse,” Jennifer wasted no time informing her. “Don’t put that on us. You’re doing this for a class you elected to take, and you know full well why you got roped into having to do this project You’re only upset because I caught you again, about to do something you’re not supposed to do. You have a job before you, and you’ve got to figure out how to get it done- legitimately. What were you about to do to her?”

“I was just going to take out her sound card. I was only going to take it out until I finished my homework. I don’t have a lot to do, but I do have to do it. I can’t if she’s screaming and stuff. I can’t concentrate.”

“What do you think I did when I had work to do, and you were being fussy and cranky? Did I take out your sound card?”

“You probably gave me to Marie. Or to Daddy.”

“Occasionally to Daddy, maybe, but most of the time, it was just you and I here. He’d be at work, and I didn’t make Marie be responsible for you if I was home with you. When you were fussing or acting up, I stopped what I was doing to see to you. It was what I had to do, J.J. I was the only one here who was your mother, and I took that responsibility seriously. As I’ve told you, I wasn’t expecting to have a baby in my life, either, but all of a sudden, there you were.”

“Oh…, yeah,” J.J. whispered in sudden recollection. “Right.” Then she leaned into her mother’s shoulder, laying her head on it.

Jennifer continued, but her tone was much softer. “It wasn’t always convenient, J.J., it wasn’t easy, and sometimes it wasn’t much fun. Like you are, I was very capable, but it was very hard at times. Every now and then I missed out doing something else I might have needed to do or would like to have done at the moment because you needed me more. Some nights I ended up staying up way later than normal to do the things I had to do for me because my day and my time had been taken up with you and your fussing, but that’s the way that went.”

“But I’m only sixteen. You were way older.”

“J.J., you know there are sixteen year old girls with babies. Some even younger than that. They have to do what they have to do, also. Be happy this is only practice for you. At the end of the week, you get to turn your baby back in; they don’t. You’ll just have to work this out.”

“I was trying, Mom, honest, I was. But she cries so much. And for nothing. I can’t figure out why. There’s no pattern to it, no reason for it. I did everything I was supposed to do. She’s clean. She’s dry. She’s not hungry. I paid attention to her.”

“That’s how babies are, J.J. There isn’t any pattern to them, there’s no rhythm, no rhyme. Sometimes you’ve done all you can do, but they still want all of your attention. They do their thing to get it, and everybody kind of has to dance to their music. After a while, once you realize the times when it is only a power struggle for your attention, you learn to tune them out, but learning those instances from others takes time.”

“I don’t have that kind of time. I have to finish my homework. I’m tired, too. I hear everything you’re saying, but- I’m just tired, Mom. Hector slacks, and I’ve been holding him up, and she’s been crying all day.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Jennifer said as she pushed J.J. into an upright position and faced her.

“What?”

“I’ll take her for a little while. You go ahead, finish your homework, and get ready for bed. She and I will sit right here, and watch a little TV. If she starts up again before you have things done, I’ll see to her. Even if she was your real baby in real life, you’d still be mine, and I wouldn’t let anything mess up your being first seat in your class. You would have messed up in the personal area, but I’d be right here helping you to not mess school up, too.”

“Thanks, Mom. You’re all right,” J.J. leaned in and kissed her cheek before getting up and starting for the other room.

In the doorway, she stopped. “You think maybe my other grandmother could have been sixteen with a baby? Some young girl who was single with a trifling boyfriend who was no help to her; she couldn’t hang, and she gave Daddy up because of it?”

When Jennifer shrugged, J.J. did, too and went on into the bathroom.

Jennifer eased Genie into her infant seat, on the floor by her feet and covered her with the blanket, tucking it around her. Using the remote, she turned on the television. Before getting too comfortable, though, she took that nail kit off the table and slid it into the pocket of her robe.

“Make it a little harder for her to do you in, girlfriend,” she whispered down to the doll. “I’m looking out for you, too.”

For a second, what J.J. suggested about Jonathan and his mother played out in her mind like some poignant black and white, grainy vignette from an old silent movie.

That child thinks entirely too much. She has the mind and the soul of a writer. Ideas and images course like lifeblood through her, and she doesn’t even recognize it.

After finding a documentary channel that looked remotely interesting, she turned up the volume a bit and pulled her cell phone from the other pocket of her robe. Pat was leaving Boston on an eight o’clock A.M. flight, and she needed to reconfirm the flight number; she couldn’t remember if Pat told her it was #157 or #175, and she wanted to ensure she was there in plenty of time to meet her.

Then, too, maybe there would be some new developments or discoveries they needed to talk over.

_____________________________________________________________

On the other side of the bathroom, back at her desk in her bedroom, J.J. gathered her things to work on what she needed to complete. In her mind, though, she was still trying to figure out the logic behind Genie’s schematics. A real baby might be erratic and unreasonable, but that baby over in that other room with her mother, no matter how true to life she was supposed to be, was essentially a computer. Computers followed a program, a program based on logic. Something specific went in, and a specific response was programmed to come out. Unless there was some sort of glitch going on, there had to be a logic of some sort behind all that crying that Genie was doing.

Unless, of course, there was a glitch.

And in that case, the glitch would be the logic.

_____________________________________________________________

In his mind, lying there waiting for Jennifer to come back from J.J.’s room, Jonathan took a final mental inventory of the things he would be taking with him in the morning. The filled suit bag hung from the valet, his suitcase was packed and ready, and the last thing he’d done was to place over with the rest of it, the toiletry bag he’d personally restocked. When he got up, all he’d have to do would be to get dressed, and then when the car arrived to pick him up, put the bags over in the trunk. There was nothing he disliked more than operating at the last minute.

Having no idea how long he’d be away in Washington, he hadn’t been sure how much to have Marie get ready for him, but thinking over all he knew she packed for him, he figured he could last at least three or four good days. Any longer than that, and he’d have to dispatch someone to go shopping for him; that was all there was to that. Being the boss did have its advantages.

But it also had its stressful, worrying disadvantages. Not only did he have to figure out his physical baggage, there was also the mental baggage with which he had to wrestle.

Still hanging over his head was the business at HartToys and Chris. It bothered him that no one at Hart had heard from Claire Allen, Chris’ sister. Since her arrival in Los Angeles, she’d been keeping an unusually low profile. So far, nobody, the police or anyone else, had been over to bug her. For two decades, Chris had spent the bulk of her days at that facility she oversaw. At the time of her accident, she was leaving work. He thought sure that Claire might at least go down and talk with Matheson or someone on staff there to see what she might have been up to or to find out what someone might know.

Maybe Claire knew something that she didn’t want anyone else to know.

Before coming up for the night, he’d called the hospital to check on Chris. Her condition was the same, and when he asked, he was told that the sister hadn’t been back. Private security placed at Chris’ apartment to watch over it right after her accident, confirmed that Claire wasn’t staying there, and in fact, she hadn’t been seen there at all.

That seemed odd.

He referred it back to the context Jennifer used with him earlier that day. He couldn’t imagine something happening to Pat that Jennifer wouldn’t have raced to be right by her side, where she would have remained until times and Pat got better. Whenever Jennifer was in New York alone, for business or otherwise, she always stayed with Pat; that was a given. It didn’t occur to her to go anywhere else. In turn, all Pat had to say was she was coming to Los Angeles, and it was automatic that she was staying with them. From the start, that was how it had always been. They didn’t even bother to ask him how he felt about it, as if he ever had a choice in the matter. Jennifer Edwards and Pat Hamilton were a package deal, and those two weren’t even sisters by blood, as were Chris and Claire.

It was all very odd.

Rider’s body remained unclaimed, as well as that of his wife’s. Neither of them seemed to have any family outside of each other, and at the time of their deaths, apparently they didn’t even have that. Arrangements were already in place, once all the investigations were complete, for Hart Industries to arrange for both burials if nothing or nobody else turned up in the meantime.

Chris’ sister was mysteriously keeping her distance. Zale had her pinpointed as staying at the Four Seasons, but she hadn’t been out of the room into which she had booked. Why had she come if she wasn’t there to see after her sister’s welfare? And then, how did Marston Knight fit into the picture? Was it with Chris? Or was it with Claire, as he had a strong hunch was the more likely scenario. If so, what happened to Chris that put those bruises on her body, and gave Jennifer the creeps like things of that nature always seemed to do?

She was another odd piece to the puzzle. There were things she hadn’t mentioned to him either.

The door opened and she swept in, tossing something onto the bed that she’d taken out of her robe pocket. When it bounced on his lap, he could see that it was a nail kit.

“What’s with that?”

“Your daughter, the apprentice, was just about to perform a dissection when I got in there. I told you I had the feeling I needed to go over there and check on her before I went to bed. Genie was almost a goner.”

“The hell was she doing using a metal nail file on electronics? She knows better; she’ll short the thing out.”

“That girl wasn’t going to short anything out, and you know it; you’ve taught her better than that. She was only going to pry her open with the file. Once she had the innards exposed, that’s when she was going to go to work on her. She told me she was going to remove the voice chip. Genie was crying, like she has been the entire evening, and J.J. said she only wanted to shut her up long enough to complete her homework.

“I counseled with her, but then I went on and stayed with them until J.J. finished her work and got her shower. I left her reading something, studying for her Lit class. Genie was sleeping, for the time being, but I can’t say what might happen to her in the night if she starts up again. I thought I’d up her chances of survival by bringing that in here with us.”

Jonathan leaned over, picked up the phone, and pressed a button.

“Come over here for a minute, sweetheart. I want to talk to you,” was what he said into the receiver after a moment, when apparently his party picked up. “Don’t even bother to knock. Just come on in.”

“Family meeting,” he announced to Jennifer as she was getting into the bed.

_____________________________________________________________

“Yes, Daddy.”

J.J. rushed through the bedroom door, still fastening the belt of her bathrobe as she approached them. “You wanted me?”

He gestured for her with his hand, and then patted the side of the bed next to him, opposite of where Jennifer sat behind him.

“Come here and sit down.”

J.J. entered, but instead of coming to him, she went around the bed to slide the chair by the window across the floor until it was as close to the bed as she could get it. Then she sat in it, next to her mother.

“J.J., your mother told me what she caught you doing. Let me start off by telling you, don’t take parts off or out of the doll.”

He saw J.J. cut her eyes accusingly to her mother, and in answer, Jennifer coolly raise that one eyebrow at her in warning before turning her attention away from the teenager beside her and back to him.

Awesome dynamics….

“All right,” J.J. said, also focusing back on him.

“That’s taking short cuts, and you know better. There will be no dissections.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Nobody took your voice card out.”

“And God only knows, if I could have…” Jennifer briefly closed her eyes and rubbed at her forehead. “How many times I’ve wished I could have just-”

J.J. cut her off. “Is that why you called me in here, Daddy?  ‘Cause if so, I promise you I won’t do it again. I didn’t do it this time, but-”

“You didn’t get the chance.”

There was another mother-daughter eye exchange when Jennifer held up the offending nail kit she’d taken from J.J.’s bedroom.

“-but I won’t ever even let it cross my mind again, if that’s what wanted to tell me.”

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

He picked up a folded piece of paper off the night table next to him, which he handed to Jennifer.

“Now, which one of you wants to tell me about this?”

J.J. leaned in to see what it was her mother was opening. He noticed, when they both realized what it was, J.J.’s almost imperceptible shudder and Jennifer’s hands as they momentarily went the slightest bit unsteady .

“Imagine my surprise,” he said. “when I sent for this past weekend’s duty rosters and the visitor sign-in sheets from the HartToy security gate so that I could see for myself who came and went, to find my daughter’s and my wife’s signatures there.”

Jennifer’s mouth opened to answer, but it was J.J. who spoke up.

“Daddy, I can explain. It was all my fault.”

He inclined his body toward both of them, leaning on his elbow, directing his attention first up to Jennifer.

“You know, I thought something was fishy when Marnie showed up here by herself on Saturday, white as a sheet, like something or somebody had spooked her. I’m trying to ask her where everyone else was, but she couldn’t wait to get away from me. Then here come the two of you through the door together. J.J.’s making tracks for the bathroom, your face is tight; I kept waiting for it, but you never did say what was going on. But I figure whatever had gone down with the girls, you had it handled. Then I got this faxed to me. So, tell me now. What’s going on? How come I got left out of this? Maybe I really don’t need to leave here in the morning.”

J.J. talked fast. “Daddy, like I said, it was my fault. I went out there without permission and when my mother found out, she came to get me, and she brought me back. That’s how she ended up out there.”

Jennifer came in right behind her.

“Jonathan, she went to get an interview from Chris for the project. When it first came to my attention that she’d gone there, I thought she was snooping around out there. But it turns out she wasn’t. As part of the project, she had to interview someone who was living a lifestyle to which she aspired. She’d made arrangements with Chris to interview her on Saturday because that was when J.J. had the time, and Chris could afford to give her the kind of attention she would need. I sat in on part of the interview, so I can vouch for its validity.”

“Then, if it was so valid, why wasn’t I told about it by either of you?  J.J., I specifically said that I didn’t want you to have anything to do with what was going on out there.”

This time J.J.’s mouth opened, but it was Jennifer who provided the answer to his question.

“Since it was mostly about her work, she wanted to do the interview in Chris’ workplace, and she was afraid that we wouldn’t have allowed her to go if we knew. I told her that she was right; we wouldn’t have, but after all, Jonathan, we are the ones who insisted upon her doing this.”

“So, if you didn’t know about it up front, Jennifer, how did you find out that was where she was?”

“Marnie,” Jennifer and J.J. said at the same time.

“I took off on her, and she ratted me out,” J.J. humbly murmured. “She didn’t want to get in trouble with my mother, too. You know how it’s two for one with us. She was scared my mother was going to take the car from her if I got caught, so she told.”

To back J.J. up, Jennifer was nodding; he found the performance nearly entrancing. Both sets of eyes, equally able to strum the strings of his heart, were fixed on his; their similar faces reflecting an innocence that didn’t quite register with him as wholly genuine.

Something made him look down, and he noticed that as J.J. leaned in to talk to him, she had slipped her hand inside her mother’s, tucked down close alongside Jennifer’s outer leg. At the sight, it confirmed for him they were both holding out, and had silently united in it, whatever it was.

I’m screwed. Locked out of it completely .

Sitting back, he sighed and ran both hands through his hair in mild frustration. His girls….

“Look,” he finally managed to exhale, “all I’m saying here is I need for you two to be careful and to stay close. I love you too much to have anything happen to you while I’m away. J.J., please hear what we’ve said to you. I won’t be able to rest or concentrate while I’m gone, if I’m thinking you might try something.”

“Daddy, I promise, I swear to you I won’t do anything. I’ll stay away from Hart, downtown and everywhere else. I won’t take Genie apart. I won’t get into trouble at school. I’ll mind my mother’s every word. Please, go on your trip, do what you have to do, and handle your business. You can count on me to handle mine.”

She got up and came around the bed to stand over him. “I promise you. I won’t be a pain to my mother in any way, and I won’t let you down.”

“All right,” he sighed, squeezing her hand. “I love you.”

He was no match for the two of them together.

“I love you, too, Daddy.”

“I’m leaving before you get up, but I’ll stop in before I go.”

“You’d better,” she said, bending down to kiss his cheek.

When the door closed behind J.J., he reached for and pulled Jennifer to him.

“Since when is it you and her against me? I thought J.J. and I had the lock on that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said as she settled herself against him, lying her head on his shoulder.

“Jennifer, you don’t lie well, but that’s all right. I’m sure you have your reasons for covering for J.J. like you did.”

“What cover? She did go see Chris to do an interview. I did find out from Marnie that was where she’d gone. You saw me come through the door with J.J. I got the word from Marnie, I went up there to fetch J.J.’s little tail back, saw what she was really doing, and I brought her home when she was finished. Admittedly, when I found out that was where she was, I had every intention of wringing her neck, but how could I? She was legitimate, and she’d done a very good job.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me what she’d done?”

“You had enough on your mind, with everything else and then your trip. I’d handled it and her. I didn’t want to worry you with it.”

He held her closer to continue talking about that girl they’d made.

“J.J. should consider going into law. Nobody can make Silly Putty out of the truth like she can. I mean she can stretch it, shape it, bounce it around, form it to her own purposes like nobody’s business, press it to something and make her truth stick to it. I swear to you, I have never met anyone who can, like that girl does, look you in the eye as you’re telling her what to not do, and all the while she’s inside her head, scheming on how she can get around doing what she was told and remain inside the lines at the same time.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jennifer shrugged inside his embrace, “to me, that’s not such an unfamiliar state of affairs. I’ve been dealing with that sort of thing for over twenty-five years. J.J. Hart is just the updated, female version.”

“I’m not even going to entertain that, Jennifer Hart. And how come she won’t sit on this bed when she comes in here lately?”

“Because we make love in it, and she’s very aware of it.”

“Aw, Jeez, Jennifer,” he squirmed, grimacing and blushing, “did I need to know she thinks about that?”

“Well, you asked me,” she laughed. “Jonathan, how can such a confident, sexy, virile man be such a prude about it when it comes to his daughter?”

“Because my daughter is my baby, an innocent. I want her to stay that way.”

“She is an innocent, for the time being, but that doesn’t make her stupid or naive. She knows, Jonathan.”

“So, what? You tell her about us? You two talk about everything.”

“Of course, I don’t tell her, but she’s educated on what men and women do when they love each other, and she’s quite intuitive about the people she loves. Needless to say, she’s very well aware of what goes on in here between you and me.”

“I still say I smell a rat between you and her about Saturday,” he insisted, changing the subject away from that other uncomfortable topic, “and let me tell you, with your not so innocent self; you’re holding out on me, number one. And number two, all of that you’re doing down there to me is not going to take my mind off number one.”

She smiled as she pressed her length against him a bit more and moved her knee from where she had it, to wrap the entire leg over his hip. “Then why not forget it for right now, darling? It’s done. She promised you she’d behave. She keeps her promises- well, she keeps them within reason.”

Kissing his lips, running her tongue along their outline, she slipped just the tip inside to taste the tip of his. Then she left his mouth to whisper, “But I’ve made no such promises, reasonable or otherwise.” into the sensitive place on his neck, generating spine-tingling ripples that pooled and shimmered at the small of his back.  “One for the road, my love?”

“One now, my love,” he whispered back, “and another in the morning. I’ve already set the clock for way early.”

“You’re so smart, always thinking. I’ve always appreciated how you plan ahead.”

Reaching behind himself, he turned off the light.

There wasn’t any sense in wasting another moment on trying to get out of her something she wasn’t going to give. Jennifer was stubborn. She was also smart and competent, as well as cautious; she might be into or onto something, but she could take care of herself and J.J. He was certain that she could handle in his absence whatever it was that was going on in the background. Then, too, Pat would be there for a couple of days to give her a hand with the girls, if she needed it.

It was for sure that there was no better person in the world to whom he could entrust his brilliant, but cagey daughter’s well-being. J.J., as wily as she tried to be, was no match for her mother. And if what went down with her that past Saturday at HartToy passed muster with Jennifer, it would have to do the same with him. Jennifer had always been far more firm with and harder on J.J. than he.

In the meantime, Chris, Claire, HartToy, Rider, the wife, all of it, would be handled by the proper parties. If he was lucky, they’d have done with it by the time he got back in town, and he wouldn’t have to be bothered with it any more at all.

His arousal rapidly superceding and clouding out his more practical thoughts, he accepted it would be better and far more beneficial for him to just go ahead and enjoy that which she obviously wanted him to have, no matter if he did sense it was partly a diversionary tactic on her part. She could be perplexing and unpredictable, but along with those eyes, that smile, and those legs, those were qualities he always found irresistible and exciting in her, not to mention her loving heart.

…how she put herself between him and J.J. earlier when J.J. was clearly in the wrong. Weird, but wonderful….

Rolling her fully onto her back, he found her mouth and with his tongue began the lovemaking in earnest. His hands returned her increasingly intense caresses. Opening his eyes, he raised his head enough to take in the face beneath his. Its fragrant warmth radiated up to him; her rapid, ragged breaths, registering moist and hot on his cheek and in his ears.

I love, I love, I love this woman…

“Jennifer.”

“Um-hmmm….”

“Open your eyes for me.”

…crazy for her….

When he took hold of her gown, she graciously lifted her hips to allow him to push it up past her backside where he left it bunched about her waist. In the meantime, her fingers worked at his waistband, their inadvertent touches against his hirsute belly practically electrocuting his flesh as she freed him from the strained-to-capacity confines of his pajama bottoms. He raised his head again as he positioned his body.

“Look at me, Jennifer.”

Opening her eyes and herself to him, she arched her back to meet and accept him. Their eyes still locked, sharing erotic volumes between them, his initial desire had been to take her slowly, to take his time and relish the feel of her inch by inch. But then she locked her legs around him, catching him off guard with it, and he found himself plunging deep and hard, all at once, until he was as far inside as he could go and with it, seeing stars.

… never were afraid to say what you wanted … who am I to not give it to you…..

It wasn’t how he wanted it, but as satisfying her had been his goal from the outset, he reveled in the resultant throaty sounds of her pleasure as he put his back into delivering on her request.

… absolutely crazy for you, Red… take all of me….

After all, he had no idea how long he’d be gone and away from her. Recent events having graphically illustrated for him how quickly things could change in life, he knew what it felt like to leave and not be sure he was going to get back to her. So, while he could be with her, he wanted to be with her.

____________________________________________________________

Genie was crying again, but J.J. ignored her as she sat, fitfully wailing, in her infant seat on the daybed. Instead, she went on into the bathroom from the sitting room, to start getting ready for school.

“I fed you. You’re dry, and you’re cleaner than I am right now. I have things to do, so you’ll just have to have your tantrum on your own.”

It was earlier than the time she normally got up, but she had to allow extra time to see to Genie, before seeing to herself. Besides, once Genie got her up with that crying, she hadn’t been able to get back to sleep anyway. It had been up and down all night like that, each time ending with her struggling with her tendency to remain awake once she was up.

The only good thing to come of that was she had been up and wide awake to see her father off. He and the engineers were on a red-eye flight on their way to D.C.. Good thing it was the corporate jet. At least they could get up there and go back to sleep in relatively private, familiar comfort if they liked. Her father even had his own room on it to which he could retire.

When she came out of the bathroom, she found Marnie, fully dressed, sitting on the daybed in the sitting room, holding Genie in her lap. The doll’s eyes were open, so she was “awake”, but she had stopped crying.

“You’re up early,” J.J. said.

“I heard Genie crying. It woke me up, it was getting close to time to be up anyway, so I just went on and got up. She keep you up a lot last night?”

“Off and on. So, what’d you do to her just now to get her to stop, Marn? Stuff a sock in her mouth?”

“Nah, she stopped on her own once I got in here. I got dressed, heard she was still crying, so I came across. I saw you were in the bathroom, so I picked her up. Then she stopped. Her batteries ought to be wearing out, the way she carries on.”

“One would think.”

Taking Genie with them, the girls went back through the bathroom and into the bedroom on the other side. Marnie sat in the chair with Genie on her lap.

“I got in trouble over her last night,” J.J. said as she stepped into the jeans she had laid out on her bed.  “It’s like the Duchess has radar or ex-ray or something. She busted right up in here just as I was about to open Genie up and take out her voice card. She caught me red-handed with the nail file just before I could start working on her back.”

“So what happened?”

“She just talked to me about being responsible and about having patience. She ended up baby-sitting while I finished my homework and got my shower. But then she went right across the hall and told Daddy on me. He intercoms me to come over there to him. When I got in the room with them, he fussed at me some about the alleged attempted dissection. Of course, I admitted to nothing, but then, after she got me in trouble with him, my mother ending up sticking up for me.”

“For real? How did that work out?”

“It turns out Daddy found out about me and my mother being out at HartToy on Saturday.”

“You said you thought he would.”

“Well, he did. He knows everything that happens at Hart. You know how it’s been on my mind about why my mother turned up out there when she ran up on you?”

“Yeah, we talked about that in the window.”

“Well, when he gave us that security paper with our names signed on it, showing us that he knew we’d been there, I guess I went on automatic; I covered for her before I even knew what I was doing. Evidently she hadn’t sold me, or herself, out over it, so I guess I didn’t want him to ask her too much about it. We made out that you told on me to her, and that she then came after me, which really is essentially what happened.”

“Oh, I see, make me out to be the big old rat.”

“Somebody had to be it in that situation. You were all we had to go with at the moment. It was believable.”

“Again, I’m being used. So then what happened?”

“Then she turned around and covered for me. He’s like, “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of it, J.J.?” She’s tells him, “Jonathan, she went to get an interview with Chris, and she did a good job.” He’s like, “So, why didn’t you tell me, if that’s all it was?” She goes, “Because I didn’t want to worry you.” It was so smooth, Marn. You’d have thought it was me and you. Me and my mother? Now that was a definite first. It’s great when girls look out for each other with the guys, even if this time it was Daddy.”

“Damn, J., I swear you can make yourself sound just like her.”

“It’s a gift. She can do it, too. So can Aunt Sabrina. Aunt Sabrina is too good with it. You have to see her. She can do facial expressions, body language, everything. Have you thinking you’re talking to the actual person, if you aren’t careful. My mother is excellent, too, though. Accents and dialects are her specialty, but she’s a great actress. You remember Edna from my party.”

“Yeah, that was funny as hell when she did that.”

“I get mine from her and Aunt Sabrina, too, I guess.”

“I love when you do your grandfather. Especially when you have the pipe and the eyeglasses for props. What in the world do you think the Duchess is keeping from your father, J.?”

“Probably that she’s been looking into things herself. That’s all I can make of it. She likes a good mystery, and although she makes out like it’s just me and Daddy who have issues along those lines, it’s actually her, too. He wouldn’t admit to me that she did, but I believe she warned Daddy off it, too, like she did with me. See, she’s still kind of nervous about him being back to work so soon, and she’s worried that he’s pushing himself too hard after being sick like he was. It wouldn’t be unlike her to tell us to back off, but to not do it herself.

I’m pretty set on she was on her way out there to snoop on her own, and to talk to Chris. I can see her trying to hook up with Chris on it. Women spill their business real easily to her, I notice. She can get them to tell her things. I know she does me all the time. I wonder if the doctors are going to wake Chris up today?”

“Maybe your mother and Pat will know something about that by the time we get home. I can’t wait to see Pat.” Marnie stopped talking for a minute, adjusting the headband on Genie’s head and then fussing with her clothes. “J., I think your father is mad at me.”

“Why and about what?”

“Because of what he said to me yesterday. I think he’s mad at me for not doing the project right. He said I wasn’t being a good mother.”

“When did he say that?”

“You were on the couch talking to your mother. We had just gotten home, and it was right after he got off the phone, calling Hector and telling him he wanted to see him. I think he doesn’t like that I gave the baby away to Sidney to take care of.”

Neither girl said anything. The realization rapidly overcoming her, in the middle of pulling her shirt on J.J. sank down on the arm of the chair Marnie and Genie were in. As quick as she normally was, she couldn’t think of a thing to say to Marnie that would make her feel any better. In fact, it was one of those moments where one friend instinctively shares the pain of the other. Even she hadn’t seen that one coming, and she certainly hadn’t seen it coming from that direction. But her father probably was disappointed in Marnie for her attitude toward her mock parental responsibilities. After all, for whatever reason it happened to him, he’d been on the receiving end of that kind of thing in his real life. And then, truth told, wasn’t what Marnie was doing with that toy baby not too far removed from what her own mother did with her?

“J.J. is Marnie with you?”

It was Marie’s voice that spoke to them through the intercom. Her tone was different, sort of unnatural; it was expressionless, flat.

“Yes, she is.”

“Your mother would like to see both of you over in her room.”

“Wonder what’s up with that?” Marnie said, handing Genie off to J.J. who immediately got up from the chair and took the doll over to the bed.

She lay Genie on the bed, lining up two pillows on either side of her the way her mother showed her on the night before. She said it was to keep the baby from rolling off, not that Genie was going anywhere, but the project was supposed to be a learning experience that imitated life. Then she covered her with the baby blanket.

“I don’t know. Marn. It’s not even seven yet, so it’s too early for us to have done anything to be getting raked over.” J.J. answered, buttoning her blouse as she followed Marnie to the door. “But it must be bad, if she’s calling for us to come to the room first thing in the morning like this.”

_____________________________________________________________

 

The master bedroom doors were open, and as they crossed the hall, they could see Marie inside, making the bed, which wasn’t a normal thing. Typically, Marie would be downstairs, waiting breakfast for them. That bedroom, the general care of it, such as making the bed, was usually maintained by its occupants.

Stopping in the doorway, J.J. knocked and then peeked inside. Her mother, seated at her secretary, was dressed, and she had her back to them. It appeared she was staring at something outside the windows.

“Mom?”

“Come on,” she said without turning around. Both girls entered.

J.J. stole a glance at Marie.

Bent over the bed, smoothing the covers into place, the woman’s face was solemn and closed. She didn’t look up at them. It was their first time seeing her that morning, but she didn’t speak. When J.J. looked over her shoulder at Marnie, who was directly behind her, Marnie shrugged and gestured that they should continue on over to the desk.

“Yes?” They both said as they stood over Jennifer.

When she turned to them, the lack of color in her face confirmed for them J.J.’s prediction. When she stood up and came around the desk to them, that prediction was properly moved and seconded.

“What’s wrong?” J.J. asked, taking a step back from her.

“What’s happened, Mrs. H.?”

Jennifer positioned herself between them.

“You girls won’t be going to school today. We’re all on security alert. Mr. Lamb wants us to remain here until further notice.”

J.J. immediately asked, “Why?”

Jennifer sighed and rubbed at her forehead as if trying to maintain her composure in front of them. When she spoke, it sounded in her tone that remaining collected was exactly what she was trying to do.

“I just got word that two Boston to Los Angeles American airliners were hijacked this morning,” she answered. They were both commandeered and flown into the World Trade Center in New York. The first plane struck the north tower. They thought at first that it was an accident. Then, roughly fifteen minutes later, the second plane went into the south tower. It’s now suspected to be a terrorist action.”

“My God,” J.J. whispered as it began to register. “I’ve had that bad feel- Mom, was one of them-”

“My father!” Marnie gasped. “He called me late last night. He was coming home this morning. From Boston to LA.”

“On what flight?” Jennifer asked her.

“I don’t know. He didn’t say; my dad isn’t specific like that. He just said he had an 8:00 flight because his business was done, and that he was coming home.”

Jennifer turned to J.J. “The second one, the one that went into the south tower was #175, the plane Pat was coming in on.”

When Marnie went limp and leaned into her chest, Jennifer put her arm around her to support her. She continued speaking to J.J. over the top of Marnie’s head.

“J.J., right before I sent for you, I was notified of another plane, a Washington to Los Angeles flight, having also been hijacked. That one was just crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.”

Closing her eyes, J.J. breathed, “Daddy.”

That news sent it all crashing down on the tower that was J.J. Her stomach tightened, the room spiraled wildly, nauseatingly out of control, and her knees began to buckle. Faltering, her mother’s arm reached for and caught her. With surprising strength, she practically yanked her in to her. Somewhere within her own cloud of distress, however, J.J. was acutely aware of her mother’s need for support, too, and she put her arms around her.

“Oh no, Mom,” she heard herself whisper as Jennifer eased them all into sitting on the desk. “What’s happening to all of us? Daddy, Aunt Pat, Mr. Benson, all those people on those planes and in those buildings.”

“Is it the end of the world, Mrs. H.?”

“I don’t know, girls,” Jennifer whispered back to them. “This time, the Duchess, doesn’t have the answers. I thought I had been through some things in my life, but right now all I can tell you is I have never seen,  experienced, or felt anything like this in my entire time on earth.”

Continue to Part Four

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