The Project: Part Twelve

Part Twelve

The woman at the front desk  called ahead to announce him, but Bill still knocked on the closed door and waited for permission to enter before turning the knob.

Herschel Gray, the police captain, was behind his desk. He looked up from what he was doing when the door opened. “Long time no see, Bill. They told me to expect you.”

“I came as soon as I got the call.”

“Uncle Bill?”

Over in the corner, seated in a wooden chair with her arms and legs tightly crossed, her face alone reflecting her extreme surprise, was Marnie.

Bill narrowed his eyes at her. “Yes, it’s Uncle Bill. So, why didn’t you call Pat, like you normally do when you get picked up by the police?”

Marnie snaked her neck, huffed, and folded her arms even tighter. “First of all, I don’t normally get picked up by the police. And secondly, they took my cell phone from me when I was trying to call her from the back of that cop car.”

Bill pointed an accusing finger at her. “Who they should have called this time was Jennifer. If she knew anything about this, she would have been landing in a helicopter on the roof of this place to get here as fast as she could to take care of you. Then where would you have been? Lucky for you, August directed the message to Jonathan first. Twice in one week? That’s got to be a record in this family. So, what happened this time? And don’t be trying to sell me a bill of goods about how it wasn’t your fault.”

Marnie threw up her hands. “But it wasn’t! They said I pulled a knife on Alphonse, but-“

“A knife?” Bill held up his own hand to stop her. ” Look, that’s okay. I’m sorry I asked. You can save that story for Pat.” Then he turned back to Captain Gray. “Any charges? Fines? Anything I have to sign? When’s her court date? ”

Captain Gray chuckled and handed him a letter-sized manila envelope. “I took care of it; I think it really was a misunderstanding when it came down to her and why she got hauled in. That’s a copy of the unofficial report and her cell phone’s inside.”

Bill took the envelope from him and gestured with his hand to summon Marnie. When she got up and came to him, he looked down at her to ask, “So, did that so-called boyfriend of yours get picked up, too?”

“Yes, and he is my boyfriend. That’s how we got picked up together like we did; he was fighting for me. His mother already came and got him from here. Mrs. Barnett tried to get me out, too, but-” She cut her eyes over to Captain Gray. “He said I couldn’t go with her. He said I had to wait until somebody directly in charge of me could come and get me.”

Then her facial expression abruptly morphed from defiant to contrite. “I swear to you, Uncle Bill, it really was a misunderstanding, just like Captain Gray said. When they rushed us, it startled me, and I forgot I had the cake knife in my hand.”

Bill held his hand up a second time. “Save it for Pat, I said. I’m just the middle man in this, the errand man, surrogate daddy and as it turns out, prisoner escort. The less I know about the particulars, the better.”

Marnie slid her eyes away from him, and headed for the door, going right back into fussing. “If I had remembered I was holding that knife, though, I might have gone ahead and carved Alphonse out a new one while I had the chance. He had it coming for trying to ruin my party like that. I’m glad he got arrested. I hope nobody ever, ever comes for him, and that his ass rots right here in lockup. And if he does manage to get out, he better be watching his back. He’ll be needing to look out for me.”

But right at the door, she stopped and turned around. In those few seconds, her face and her eyes had gone back to remorseful as she looked up to Bill.

“I didn’t curse anybody out, this time, Uncle Bill. Even though that cop wouldn’t listen to me, and he didn’t have any right whatsoever to snatch me up and throw me in that car like that, or to take my phone away from me, I didn’t curse him even one time. You can ask anybody. I was a total lady this time. Make sure you tell Aunt Pat that when you tell her what happened, okay? Please.”

Bill turned Marnie around while he looked back to Captain Gray to mouth, “Schizoid, but Pat loves her.”

Captain Gray smirked, “Good luck to you, and to Pat, and to the NYPD with that one.”

______________________________________________________

“Jen?”

Pat stuck just her head inside the den door, and she could see Jennifer on the far end of the couch.

“Jen, are you okay? May I come in?”

Jennifer lifted her head, and Pat caught it when she hastily swiped at her face. Not waiting to be invited, Pat came all the way into the room, shutting the door behind her.

“Jennifer, is everything all right?”

“Yes. Well no, but it’ll be okay, I imagine.”

Pat crossed over to the couch and sat down on the end closest to the door. “What did the Squirt have to say?”

Jennifer was still going through motions to compose herself.

“She was phoning from the emergency room at Memorial. She said she’d been hurt. Jonathan is with her.”

“Hurt? Hurt how?”

“You know her, Pat. She wouldn’t say. She was only phoning to let me hear her voice so that I’d know she was well enough to talk. Despite whatever might be wrong with her, she had put it all together: his being there with her without me, and she knew that I would be worrying. She wanted me to not be angry with Jonathan. She was begging me to not be upset with him for not phoning me to tell me about her.”

“That sounds like her,” Pat said, handing Jennifer a tissue from the box on the table by her end of the couch. “Taking up for her father, trying to keep the peace between you two.”

“I promised her that I wouldn’t be angry with him, but I’m not going to be able to keep my word on that.”

“Blow your nose, Jen. So, if you’ve heard from her, she’s talking and seems okay, then why are you crying?”

Jennifer accepted the tissue and asked, “Who said I was crying?” as she dabbed at her eyes. “I’m not crying.”

In response, Pat handed her another tissue. “Look, girl, you and I have been together for longer than either of us cares to admit. Even without the raccoon eyes and if your nose didn’t look like Rudolph the Reindeer’s on Christmas Eve right now, I’d know. You know I can feel it when things aren’t right with you, just like you can with me. Come clean. Talk to me, and tell me what’s going on with you?”

Jennifer sighed and sat back, no longer attempting to hide her despondency, and allowing that lone tear to course down her cheek.

“I’m all right. I’m just a little overwhelmed, I guess. There’s been so much happening. I’m sure that whatever is going on with J.J., it can’t be too bad. After all, she was well enough to phone to ward off trouble and to be her normal wary self in that instance. Surely Jonathan would have come back here to get me or would have sent for me if it were something awful or life threatening. Kate was there. J.J. mentioned to me that Jonathan had her come down to see her. J.J. said that she’d tell me everything when they got home, so evidently whatever is going on with her is not something that’s requiring her to be hospitalized.”

Then she raised her hands to her face.

“The two of them are so frustrating, Pat.” Her voice cracked with the sob she was unsuccessful in holding back.. “It’s always been like this. What if something had happened to her that wasn’t expected, like a seizure or a blood clot or something? What if it was something life-threatening, and he couldn’t get me there in time? It would be just like- I just get so damned scared for them. He hasn’t called, hasn’t said word one. I don’t know how J.J. got hurt, or what’s going on. She wouldn’t give me any details. Neither of them understand. J.J. is a baby. I can accept her doing this, but him? I’ve told him so many times.”

Pat slid over to Jennifer’s side and put her arm around her, drawing her close.

“Jennifer, believe me, I’m not taking up for either of them, but I have to say this. Your husband and your daughter are two very tough, very able, and naturally protective characters. As such, they don’t always see things the way the rest of us see them. They also don’t or can’t see how much protecting they need themselves. Because of that, they don’t always do things the way they should be done, or maybe not the way you would do them, but they really don’t mean to worry you. Things just have a way of happening to people like them, and they try to handle their troubles themselves without bothering anyone, not realizing that it bothers everybody when they do that. You’ve always known that about Jonathan. Hell, that was a large part of what got you two together in the first place, that thing in London with Kingsford Motors and my poor friend Brookes.

“Jonathan’s kid, unfortunately, is just like him when it comes to attracting trouble. But also like him, she always manages to come through the stuff either unscathed or stronger for her experience. Take her advice, Jen; try not to be too upset. They can’t help how they are. You know full well how much Jonathan loves you, and how much he loves J.J. He wouldn’t let anything happen to that girl, and vice versa. They have both proven that to you on more than one occasion. Despite how you might feel about the things he does with her, and how he does them, Jonathan has always taken excellent care of J.J. He’s not going to let any harm come to her. He takes risks with her, sure, and I know that’s unnerving for you, but he has always seen her for what and who she is. All of her life, he’s been teaching her things she’s going to need to know, and he’s been making her as tough and as strong as she’s going to need to be. He has sense and intuition enough to know when he should call you in.”

Jennifer remained argumentative. “That’s not the point, Pat. The point for me is, is this the way it’s going to increasingly be? We’re a family. I don’t care if he does that to other people, but to shut me out- over my own child? I would never, ever do that to him.”

Pat took hold of Jennifer’s hands and gently pulled them from her eyes. Then she leaned into Jennifer’s face.

“No, but you did do it to J.J. over Jonathan in Las Vegas just last month.”

Jennifer repelled by Pat’s accusing stare, lay back on the couch, her face taking on an even more pained expression, as if reliving that incident in her head.

“Jen, people… make… mistakes,” Pat said, increasing her grip on Jennifer’s hands. “They don’t intend to, but they do. Jonathan doesn’t scare easily, but like I told you, he was plenty scared this morning when he left here; just as you were when you arrived in Vegas that day. Jonathan is a good man and a wonderful father, but he’s not perfect. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Wait and see what he has to say.

“As for J.J., Jen, she’s just a kid. She acts grown at times, she has some old thought processes, but the reality of it is she’s sixteen. That girl loves and respects both of you and your relationship immensely. She’s told me more than once that she greatly dislikes being a point of contention between the two of you. But the raw truth is you’re going to have to face more and more as she gets older is, emotionally, J.J. is modeled more on her father. It’s not a thing she’s chosen for herself, Jennifer, it simply is how it is. Plus, I have to reiterate, she’s still just a kid- a real smart one, but a kid just the same.”

Jennifer slowly nodded as she dabbed the last of the persistent tears from her eyes.

“Besides,” Pat continued, taking on a more business-like tone as she slid over some on the couch, away from Jennifer. “You and I have more pressing things going on right here. A call just came from the gate. Some technicians from HartToys are on their way up.”

“For what? Who sent them?”

“Apparently Jonathan and August sent them to collect the dolls. Timmons is bringing them up.”

“Why is the gardener bringing them, Pat? To collect the dolls for what?”

“I guess maybe Timmons was down there with the truck or something. Hell, I don’t know why. I’m just telling you what I was told.”

Pat watched as Jennifer stood up from the couch and began straightening her clothes, tucking her blouse into her pants and running a hand through her hair. It was all Pat could do to suppress the smile of satisfaction at how easily Jennifer could move from one thing to another and how she always made sure she looked good doing it. Compartmentalizing situations, as well as the corresponding emotions had always been a strong, almost magical element to Jennifer’s character. For Pat, to witness it in her had always been a great source of entertainment.

“Chris is truly back on her game out there, Jen. When Marie answered the call from the gate, Chris stopped her, took the phone, and made the guys down there give her some code before she allowed them to come through. Seems she has even more clout than that security group down there, and she remembers that she does. She’s in her briefcase and on her laptop now. There’s something she’s looking for. I’m not sure she knows quite what it is, but I believe she’ll recognize it when she runs across it. Maybe then we can figure out what’s up with her and Claire. Come on. Let Jonathan have the Squirt for now. For the moment, you and I have Ms. Chris.”

______________________________________________________

With Pat gone out of the room and Eva and Marie having moved to the foyer to meet the technicians who were on their way up from the front gate, Chris seized her opportunity.

Lining up the combination of numbers needed to unlock the latches on her briefcase, she got it open she and was gratified to see  the contents were still strapped and fitted into place. A quick visual check confirmed that the key items were precisely as she last packed them. Jonathan Hart or August Lamb could easily have gotten past her codes and into the briefcase, but as far as she could tell, they hadn’t done so. She always thought both of them to be honorable men, and they hadn’t let her down.

With an eye on the foyer, she slid her hand underneath the papers and files on top and unsnapped the cool metal object she sought from it’s recessed hiding place. Removing it from the briefcase, she slid it along her side and into the pocket of the pants she was wearing.

Patting it securely in place, she felt more at ease and like herself with it than she had without it. Until then, she had been naked.

Then she began to go through the papers and files. Some of the answers were there; she knew. What she didn’t remember, however, were all of the exact questions. But she was certain that if she ran up on that for which she was looking, the two ends would meet and things would begin making clear sense to her again.

Like a shot to the head, actually dredging up some residual physical pain, it came to her. The car.

That Hamilton woman had left her cell phone on the end table. She stared at it a moment; then she shrugged.

What the heck.

She picked it up, punched in the numbers to put her in touch with August Lamb, and pressed “Send”.

______________________________________________________

Leaned against her father’s arm, with her eyes closed and pretending to sleep, J.J.’s mind was hard at work.

He knew.

He asked about it.

Daddy figured it out that Genie was different. Leave it to bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time to get her caught at it so late in the game. Just one more day, and Genie would have been back at school and away from all of them with nobody the wiser. But because of Alphonse’s crew, the fight, and her getting hurt, Genie had been in Daddy’s care long enough to give everything away.

Technically though, she hadn’t disobeyed. After all, it wasn’t actually her who physically opened Genie up and did the adjusting; it was Hector. But would Daddy buy that once she laid it out for him? If he did, it was for sure the Duchess wouldn’t. She held technicalities of that kind in very low regard. With her, things were a lot more black and white; Jennifer Hart was not respectful at all of loopholes when it came to her daughter trying to finesse and slip her way through a one.

Then Daddy had gone and screwed up. What in the world had he been thinking?

Okay, leaving home he only knew about there being a problem at the park. He hadn’t known at that time about her being hurt. But once he got to the park and found out, what in the world made him think he could keep something like that to himself? Why hadn’t he made the call home? Why didn’t he have someone bring her mother to the hospital? Surely after all their years together, he understood his wife better than that. He had to know that he was setting himself up for one of Jennifer Hart’s more ballistic reactions. It would have been a whole lot better for him if he had at least phoned her to clue her in and put her mind at ease, but he hadn’t even done that. What the hell was his problem? Was he scared of her?

That couldn’t be. Daddy wasn’t scared of anybody. Maybe it was more like he was scared for her. But that didn’t make sense either. There wasn’t anybody who was better at taking charge of troublesome situations than Jennifer Hart, especially if Jonathan or J.J. Hart were at the center of said troublesome situation- most especially if it was the latter. None of this was like him. What was going on? Nothing seemed as it was supposed to be. Not since the murder and not since 9/11. Was his recent illness still affecting him? He was supposed to be well from it, but could what she was seeing in him be a residual emotional or psychological effect of having been so sick? After all, she was of the opinion that guys didn’t handle well things like being sick.

Maybe he would have gone ahead and called if she hadn’t told him about Ms. Rangel and those men being at the park. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything to him about any of that. It wasn’t like she knew for sure that their being at the park was wrong. But then again, it hadn’t felt right at all. Not telling him about them wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, would it? When in doubt, she’d often been told, don’t. But somehow that didn’t seem to apply in any of this.

The back of her head and her eye underneath the eye patch were throbbing. Her stomach was doing nervous flips. She was in warm water with Daddy, and she and Daddy were in steaming hot water with the Duchess. He was going to get it for shutting out Jennifer Hart, but the black eye was going to be Justine Hart’s undoing.

It wasn’t something that they had ever spoken of between them, but J.J. was well aware that her mother was somewhat vain about her appearance and about that of her daughter’s, taking great, but understated pride in the fact that were naturally good looking. It was a family thing. Aunt Sabrina was the same way; very proud of, but a lot more vocal about the good genes with which they had all been blessed. Now the daughter/grand-niece had a temporary, but authentic disfigurement and was relegated to wearing an eye patch for at least a week. She hadn’t seen the injury for herself, but it felt like a pretty good one. Jennifer Hart was not going to be the least bit happy about any of it.

What to do? What to do?

Lie low, that’s what. Daddy was just going to have to handle his end of the business himself. She had problems of her own with which she would have to wrestle.

She had tried to help him out, making that preliminary call on his behalf to soften the Duchess up. But then, in retrospect she could see that in being purposely evasive she might have made things worse. It had been her intention to not give her mother a lot to worry about before she had to, but not telling her enough might have given her greater cause to suspect the worst.

Her mother said she wouldn’t be mad, but who could tell about her? She said she wouldn’t be angry with him, but once she got a load of that eye patch and the black eye, not to mention reading the emergency room report- the part about her being knocked out and the scratched cornea- as she would undoubtedly do, all bets would probably be off about her not giving Jonathan Hart the blues.

Snuggling further down into her father’s shoulder, J.J. finally determined that she would just keep low. She would “sleep” there in the car to avoid his questions, then get home and keep her head down, like she should have done that morning when Chase told her to. If she had done what he said, none of what she was currently worrying about would be.

Yes, as soon as she cleared the door, she would go right on up the stairs to her room, keep quiet, and wait until trouble either came to her or until, please merciful God, it blew over or past her.

Even having offered the most sincere and humble of prayers, she figured that last part wasn’t very likely to happen. And besides, running up the stairs would be just that, running.

Just go on in there and face her, J. Let her fuss or whatever, and get it over with.

Daddy, I tried to get your back in this mess, but I’m sorry, now you’re on your own.

______________________________________________________

When the car made the turn into the entrance of the park, Marnie turned to Bill.

“You’re taking me back?”

“It’s your party,” Bill answered. “Your car is still here; somebody has to pick that up. And then what kind of party would it be if the guest of honor isn’t there?”

“I thought you said they phoned Mr. H., and that’s why you came. After what he has to know happened, he’s letting me come back?”

“With a stipulation.”

“Stipulation? Say, how come he didn’t come for me himself?”

That was when Bill realized. “You don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“J.J. got hurt in the fight. Where were you that you don’t know that?”

“Hurt? J? Oooh, I could just kill Alph- Captain Gray wouldn’t give back my phone or let me use his so I could call her to tell where I was. I didn’t know about her being hurt; it didn’t even occur to me that anything had happened like that. We were on two different sides of the tent. She was way over on the side with the dolls. I was over by the food, helping the caterers with the cake and stuff, like I told you. When all the junk happened, I was letting Alphonse have it, but I had that knife in my hand, and the security guys and cops swarmed in and snatched me right on up. Sid, Chance, and I were the first, I think, that they took in. There was so much going on, they were snatching up people so fast, that probably nobody really saw them take me, too. I think I was the only girl. Then that cop confiscated my phone while I was trying to call Aunt Pat.”

Bill had given the phone back to her. She clicked it on to check her messages. “Look here, I have all kinds of calls. I bet they’re all about J.”

“More like people looking for you. Nobody knew where you were until Mr. Lamb put the call in to the police to notify them you were missing. By sheer coincidence, they had just gotten you up to Captain Gray’s office. So, you two should be on a first name basis by now, huh?”

Marnie ignored that. “Uncle Bill, what happened to J.? I don’t want to go back to the party. Take me to her. Please.”

Bill kept driving into the park. “She’s okay. Her father is with her. She got hit in the eye with something and had to be treated and checked out at the hospital, but she’s going home. Jonathan wants you to go ahead with your plans.”

“How can I do that with my best friend hurt like she is?”

“He wants you to do that, and J.J. would, too. The party is for you, and I’m told the kids are there still, waiting for you. And then there’s the stipulation.”

“What stipulation, Uncle Bill? You keep saying that.”

“I get to stay. Somebody has to make sure you keep in line and don’t pull any more knives, so the cops don’t have to come back for you.”

“Aw, ma-a-a-nnnnn, Uncle Bi-l-l-l-ll” Marnie sighed with a roll of her big brown eyes. “I told you I didn’t pull any knives, and the cops didn’t have to come for me the first time. Somebody just got the wrong impression and jumped to the wrong conclusions. You heard what Captain Gray said. You saw there weren’t any charges pressed against me. You sure J.’s going to be okay? You sure Mr. H. wants me here? I feel bad being here at a party with J. hurt, at home by herself, and everything.”

“Take her some cake. She’ll be happy to know you had a good time even if she couldn’t. Hey, you’re not going to be ashamed to have an old man like me be your escort, are you?”

“Escort? More like chaperone, overlord, Daddy double, or bodyguard or something. None of the guys will want to talk to me with you on the scene.”

“Not even Chance?”

“He’s probably the only one who would, but I’m sure his mother made him go home with her.” She sighed a heavy, heavy sigh. “But, I guess since it’s you, it’s okay. Even though they’re scared of you, the guys who know you think you’re pretty cool, and you’re more than all right by me. Look, you can come, but just don’t tell Mrs. H. what happened today, okay?”

“You don’t tell Pat that I smoked the cigarettes I’m going to light up once we get to the picnic site, and you’ve got a deal.”

“Bet,” Marnie agreed with a nod, smiling for the first time since they left the police station. “Although, you are going to have to give that smoking thing up after today. It’s a nasty, dangerous habit. Your son and his family, Aunt Pat, Kyle, and I are going to need for you to be around for us a long time.” She reached out and patted Bill’s arm. “But we have time to work on that, you and me, when I’m in New York with you for those two months.”

Bill shook his head as he pulled into the parking area of the big tent he had seen from the distance. Pat and Marnie- now that was something to look forward to. A wife and an almost daughter, two for one. Three for one if he counted in Kyle. He was smiling on the inside, for Peter and his family, himself, and for those two kids; with Pat, it was going to be interesting.

He wasn’t sure if she was mature enough to see it for herself, but Marnie Elaine Benson had a lot of vigilant, loving eyes on her. Her own father might be laid up, but that surrogate one she had wanted nothing but the best for her, including keeping her, as much as possible, out of the strange goings-on at Hart Industries, and at Willow Pond. For that day, anyway, thanks to Jonathan, she’d keep right on being a teenager and having fun- under Uncle Bill’s watchful eye, of course, while Daddy Jonathan took care of the other things.

There wasn’t a whole lot, however, that could be done with that other girl, the one whose last name was Hart. By any means possible, intentional or by chance, it seemed that little one was determined to be where the action was, and that was wherever another Hart happened to be.

When he pulled the car to the curb, Chase and Chance Barnett, along with their mother and father were standing together in the parking lot. Chance, spotting Marnie, broke from them to rush to Marnie’s side. As the boy held open the door for her and watched her get out, Bill watched the boy.

Arrested twice in one week- third time this year, cussed out her stepmother, stole and drank somebody’s bourbon- straight, and accused of pulling a cake knife on some six foot-two boy she was in the process of cussing out. And you still want her? Damn gutsy of you, kid….

But then, he said to himself, come to think of it, what am I…..?

______________________________________________________

The women watched as the three Hart technicians, two men and a woman, quietly went about attending to the needs of two of the crying dolls and gathering the plastic carriers containing the rest, as well as their respective diaper bags. Two plainclothes security persons stood watch over them. The group had come in, greeted them all and had spoken briefly with Chris, expressing to her their happiness at seeing her up and around, before setting to work.

“May I inquire as to where you’re taking them?” Jennifer asked.

“Our instructions are they’re to be taken to your equipment shed,” one of the security men answered. “Management doesn’t want them to leave the estate. Your gardener is going to transport the units out there. That way, with the truck and our car, there will only have to be one trip made.”

Pat was seated on the arm of the couch across from Chris whom she had been studying. She noticed the slight reluctance from Chris as she handed over Jaden who had been lying on the couch next to her while she continued to go through the contents of her briefcase. It wasn’t until all the dolls and the technicians were gone, the front door was closed behind them, and Eva and Marie had gone to the kitchen to see about lunch that Pat asked, “So what’s that all about?” directing the question to Chris,

“Mr. Hart may be a business man,” Chris slowly nodded as she spoke, “but at heart, he’s about security. He knows exactly when to close a thing down. He’s got all of us and now those dolls closed up inside the one place that he considers safe. Those dolls may have to be deprogrammed, and it does take those technicians to properly do it, but that isn’t going to happen anyplace other than right here. Here, Mr. Hart can be sure of their safety and he can be certain that the people who are doing it are being monitored, thus the extra security on them. Those security folk you saw aren’t my people, they’re August’s. Since they’re not out of HartToys, they’re likely to be more objective about what they observe with the technicians.”

Then she switched her attention to Jennifer. “Is J.J. going to be all right?”

Chris’ apparent powers of inference and observation had Jennifer tilting her head in question. “Why would you think something was wrong with her?”

“Well, first August and Mr. Hart ran out of here this morning without you. You’ve been tense the entire time that I’ve been in your company today; that isn’t like you. J.J., of all people, is not here in the safe place with the rest of us. You went into the other room to take her call, and now your eyes and nose are red. If it was Mr. Hart in trouble, I don’t think anything or anybody could keep you stuck here. J.J. apparently is with her father, otherwise you’d be out of here, running people over about getting to her, as well. Therefore, I conclude that something has happened with her, but Mr. Hart is handling it, and you aren’t real happy about that. Something happened at the park. Is she hurt badly, and is she going to be all right?”

It was Pat who answered her. “She’s okay. Like you said, she’s with her father, so she can’t be anything but okay. Now what about those dolls?”

When Chris turned back to Pat, her annoyance was most palpable. “What about them?”

Pat had been pushing all morning. The acerbic tone of Chris’ voice drew Jennifer’s complete attention. The two women, sitting across the coffee table from each other in the sitting area of her great room had locked eyes and were facing off. For the first time, Jennifer could see just how much Chris Allen and Pat Hamilton had in common. Both of them were determined individuals accustomed to getting other people to do what they wanted or needed done, each of them used to getting her way. In front of her, the war of wills was unfolding. One side was determined to get something out of the other, and the other side was just as determined that the other didn’t get it. It left Jennifer wondering if there was more that Pat knew about Chris that she hadn’t told her, and what was it that Chris was trying so hard to keep to herself?

And what was it about those dolls that elicited such powerful reactions in Chris? Which brought Jonathan back into the picture.

After careful thought, she realized that he had those dolls collected and brought to Willow Pond not only to keep them safe while they were being deprogrammed, but also because he knew there was something about them, too. Whatever happened at that park had cemented the concern she thought she had seen developing in him over those “units”. Was there something that happened at that park, other than J.J. getting hurt, that kept him from phoning? It was for certain that he wanted those dolls away from those kids and in a place where he could keep his own watch over them.

Could those dolls have been what someone was after all the time? After all, they had come from HartToys where the craziness seemingly had gotten its start. Had J.J. and the FACS class been unwittingly carrying around something that someone was willing to kill over? Was that yet another thing Jonathan hadn’t shared with her? If J.J. had gotten hurt that morning as a result of something connected to those dolls, he had to have been feeling enormously guilty over it. It would mean that he’d had a hunch that he hadn’t followed, and as a result, his child had gotten hurt.

And, if there were something going on along those lines, and she had any inkling of it, J.J. Hart was cagey enough to leave out that little detail when she was on that phone trying to calm her mother down over her father’s elusive behavior.

When the weight of the questions in her mind dropped Jennifer into the side chair, Pat and Chris heard it and were distracted from their visual stand-off.

“What’s wrong, Jen?” Pat asked.

Jennifer had turned her attention to Chris. “What is it about those dolls? If you know something, Chris, if you remember something, please tell us.”

Chris slowly sat back, scratching at her head. “I do know something, Jennifer. I know a lot of things, but they’re all scraps right now, just bits and pieces. They don’t add all the way up to anything. I swear to you that I can’t put it together. There was a paper… I remember a paper…. It’s not in my briefcase. I’ve looked. It wasn’t a big thing, but I remember it caught my attention. I saw it, and I took it. It has to do with those units and a number.”

In obvious frustration, Chris lowered her forehead into her hand. “There is something to them, those dolls, but I just can’t remember clearly… I know I had a paper…something about those units didn’t jive… I keep thinking, seeing my car… I have a bad feeling about the car… maybe it’s-  I phoned August to help me.”

The gate buzzer sliced cleanly through the tension and anxiety in the room, bolting all three of them into upright alertness. Jennifer got up and went into the foyer. Before she could answer the call, she saw that filling the monitor’s screen was August Lamb’s concerned face.

“Come on up,” she said as she pushed the button to activate the remote and admit him.

______________________________________________________

“August Lamb, I’d like you to meet my fiancée, Miss Jennifer Edwards. Jennifer, please meet my friend and Security Operations Manager for Hart Industries, Mr. August Lamb.

It was a sunny morning in early September. Standing in the lobby of the Hart Towers, bathed in the sunlight streaming through the main doors behind her, her sleek, polished elegance seemed to almost glow as it radiated toward him.

She was cool and classy, definitely east coast. Gold coast, if she had come from Chicago, from where he had his origins, but reportedly, she was from Manhattan- upper east side Manhattan, of course. Lovely, well-dressed, tall and slender. A whole lot of thick, shoulder length dark red hair… Jonathan’s tastes had always run to women with long, darker shades of hair and real good legs… like hers.

His initial impression had been that she was likely upper-crust, old money, white woman snooty, but there was something about her eyes.

Then without hesitation, she held her hand out to him, a huge, imposing black man, and she smiled a warm, a genuine smile. After a lifetime of being forced to be discerning about people and what lie beneath their surfaces, he could tell fake or forced from authentic in a heartbeat.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Lamb. Jonathan has told me so many interesting things about you. I understand the two of you have known each other a long time.”

She had the most captivating eyes, and he almost squirmed under their directness.

“We have, Miss Edwards. He’s real good people.”

Hearing what he said, she turned that smile and those eyes back to Jonathan. It was obvious she loved him, and he loved her, and that in the short time they had known each other she had already discovered he was real good people, a genuinely nice guy. It showed in the way she reached for and curled her hand around his. Jonathan wasn’t normally an overly demonstrative man, but he allowed her that, lacing his fingers between hers as easily and naturally as you please.

That was the first time he had seen Jonathan in three weeks, since before that Kingsford Motor trip. In his absence, all of Hart Towers had been buzzing with the news that while in London the CEO had met, fallen in love with, and become engaged to a journalist from New York. The word was he was bringing her back with him so they could be married. Someone had dug around and found pictures of her, which had been copied and passed all through the system, including his own office.

He discovered that September morning the pictures hadn’t done her justice. In the flesh she was so much more… human… more real than a photograph could capture. On that first meeting and from that first handshake, he could see exactly why a man like Jonathan would fall for her as quickly and completely as he had.

Over the years, it turned out she was indeed a whole lot of woman and not just the fashionable socialite she appeared. She had proven she could wear all kinds of hats and handle all kinds of situations. Poor Jonathan hadn’t stood a chance in London all those years ago; he met his match that day.

They all had.

Out at the gate, knowing what was waiting for him up at the house, August Lamb dreaded pushing that call button. Chris had phoned him, saying she was in the main house with Jennifer and Pat Hamilton, and she needed to see him right away. For sure, he was anxious to get back to Chris, but he was not looking forward to facing Jennifer Hart.

Jennifer on a tear was enough to have to deal with, but backed up by her best friend, Bill’s woman, that Pat?

Although he never had cause to witness it himself, he heard the two of them together could be a force to be reckoned with. Both of them coming at him with questions about those girls they shared between them, especially that one girl- questions for which he didn’t have all the answers- that had the potential to get ugly, not to mention painful. Then there was Chris, who had issues of her own.

He didn’t want to reckon with any of it.

He was more than aware that Jonathan had left Jennifer, not to mention Pat, behind, and that Jonathan hadn’t phoned Jennifer since then about what was going on. After all, it was him running in with the news of trouble at the park that started that chain of events. He understood why Jonathan  left Jennifer at home this time. When he and Jonathan went out of the house that morning, they didn’t have the specifics, and with everything up in the air as it was, they were unsure of exactly into what they were running. With J.J. out there in it, Jonathan didn’t want to risk having Jennifer out in the open, too. They certainly hadn’t known at that point that J.J. had been hurt. If they had, maybe things would have been done differently. Any time a negative situation involved J.J. Hart, dynamics changed. From the moment that girl was born, Jennifer made it very clear to her husband and to everyone else that nothing dangerous in which they might become involved was to touch that girl, and she meant exactly that. She did not play around when it came to that one baby of hers.

Increasingly though, J.J. was finding things of her own to get into, or the things tip-toed up and found her. Like her father and at times her mother, ‘things’ had a way of cropping up around J.J. and drawing her in. Despite their best efforts to keep an eye on her when her father deemed the circumstances warranted it, it was becoming more and more tricky for security to keep up with that girl and keep her out of harm. She was growing up, getting smarter, getting faster, becoming more aware, more mobile and therefore a whole lot more global.

He was not looking forward to fielding Jennifer’s questions should she pose them to him. He had known Jonathan a whole lot longer, but over the years, he had come to greatly admire and respect Jonathan’s intelligent and deceptively steely wife. At first appearances, she came off as attractive, very feminine, non-threatening, but underneath that soft, smooth facade lie an iron will and an almost fierce determination once she made up her mind about what it was she wanted to do or to have happen. She still had that way of looking at a person that bored through skin and bone. It seemed sometimes that she could peer right into a person’s head and witness the individual’s actual thought processes. She could be as tough as Jonathan, and in some instances, tougher; therefore, she was definitely not one to be lied to or to be pussy-footed around with, not as it related to her husband or her daughter-particularly that daughter.

Having located Marnie, it had been arranged that he wouldn’t have to tell all about her. For that he was glad. That had been worked out on the phone. She was back at the park- with Bill- but at the park where she was supposed to have been, and where he could honestly say that she was, if asked. That part had been lined up very well. Jonathan had always been one for looking out for himself and for those around him. Nobody could cover a set of tracks like he, and perhaps, Bill could.

How much, he stood wondering, should he tell Jennifer? For sure she was going to be putting it to him. How much did Jonathan actually want her to know? As he thought about it, there wasn’t a whole lot he did know for sure, but he knew enough to get called on it by Jennifer Hart should she get a whiff of any avoidance or evasiveness on his part.

One thing he did know for sure was that if Jonathan hadn’t gotten in touch with her at some point after leaving her that morning, he was going to get his ass kicked once he showed up with J.J. and that eye.

Ken Matheson and a couple of other plainclothes security had gone on to HartToys. He looked forward to getting himself up there, too, by the time Alice Rangel showed up. That was one lady with whom he wanted to have a real, up-close chat. What had she and Martin been up to? He had since gotten another call from Arnold Zale. What had Alice, Claire, and Victor Shell’s daughter, Octavia, been up to? Who knew Shell had another kid? Leave it to Zale to track down a stray, outside-of-wedlock daughter. As far as they could tell, Shell was still out of the country, but that one of his kids was right there in California. Was there a connection still between the three women who had once been coeds? If so, somebody needed to step to the plate about it.

His hope was that Chris remembered something. He prayed that in calling for him, she had something useful to tell him to make having to come face-to-face with Jennifer, before Jonathan got back there with J.J., worth his while.

Not paying attention, he pulled into the drive a bit too far away from the call box, so, rather than back up and try it again, he got out of the car to reach it. Security at the gate was ready to pass him through, but with Chris now in the main house, he thought it proper that he stop and announce himself. He pressed the button and expected  the housekeeper would answer. Standing there, waiting for a response, his mind still going over everything, it startled him to hear Jennifer Hart’s voice tell him to, “Come on up.”

Dammit, Chris. Jennifer Hart and Pat Hamilton?

I’d just as soon face a twenty gun firing squad….

Same difference.

______________________________________________________

“So how long are we going to sit here?’

“Until she comes back out. Are you sure you can see the apartment from here? You can see her car?”

“Yeah, I got a good shot at the door and the car.”

“Good, then we wait. She’ll be back out. She was running scared, but I won’t let her get away from me. She didn’t get that far and then turn around and come all the way back here for nothing. Something’s drawn her back here, and it has to be something big after that disaster at the park this morning. We should have known that with the kid there, security would be, too. By now, Hart’s got his people all over it, and that’s got to have her nervous. I’d do her now, but with all I’ve spent, I’d rather have what we came for first than her right now. If anybody’s going to put their hands on it, she’s the only one left who can.

“We wait. When she comes out, we follow her and see where she goes from here. She’s desperate. At this point, so am I.”

______________________________________________________

When the phone buzzed in his inside pocket, Jonathan looked to the red head leaned against him. Her arms were still folded on top of the bulge that was Genie down inside her jacket, and with the vibration of the cell, she hadn’t budged. He figured she was asleep. When J.J. dozed off, especially if it was for a rare daytime nap, she went completely under and a mortar blast probably wouldn’t wake her. According to the medical instructions he had from the hospital, for the next twenty-four hours, she was only supposed to be allowed to sleep for short intervals, but they would be home soon enough.

Home. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to that.

He had adjusted his body so that J.J. was snuggled into his chest and neck. He smiled and rubbed his cheek against her hair. She was a big girl now, but she would always be his baby. Then for a moment, his heart sank underneath the dead weight of the guilt he carried. She was Jennifer’s baby as well. How angry was she going to be with him over this?

Easing the phone from his pocket and checking the display, he leaned his head and his face in the other direction to take, in a near whisper, the call from Arnold Zale.

By the time he was clicking off, dazed and a bit confused by the latest information Arnold had on Claire Allen and perhaps Chris, the car was pulling into the drive. August Lamb was leaving the call box and climbing into his car. He looked over the hood, back to their car, and recognizing the plate and the man who was the CEO’s customary driver, the look of relief that crossed August’s face was unmistakable.

______________________________________________________

Still standing at the monitor, Jennifer saw it when the nose of that distinctive Lincoln Town Car from the fleet pulled in behind the car which August got into and drove through the gates. In the gap between, she positively confirmed the identity of the second car that was allowed to pass without being stopped, or even slowed, at all: “HART 1”.

Turning away from the vestibule area, without a word to the others, she proceeded up the front stairs.

______________________________________________________

Ken Matheson mulled over a great many things as he made his way to HartToy. He hadn’t seen Chris since his early morning safekeeping visit with her in the hospital. More than anything, he wished he could get her take on Sarah Martin coming to see him and bringing him those phone records. Something about it didn’t feel right. What Mrs. Martin was proposing didn’t seem to be that far outside the realm of possibility. It had the hallmarks of an affair, but for some reason, he wasn’t ready to buy that idea wholesale.

Lamb ordered the dolls sent to the Hart Estate, but told him to tell Rangel to come to the HartToys facility on pretense of deprogramming them there. She was being set up. Lamb hadn’t elaborated on what the plan was for her, but evidently he and Hart had their reasons for getting her out there.

He had the feeling once he was told about Sarah Martin’s visit, Lamb hadn’t bought the affair idea either:

“Why did she want to meet you at a restaurant? Why not at the house? Wonder how come she didn’t come out to the plant? To your office? That seems a lot more likely place to get with you if that was what she really wanted with you. Why’d she go so far out of her way? She say anything about the money her old man had on him?”

He hadn’t had any answers for Lamb. All he could definitively relay was he met with the woman like she wanted, and the phone records and her suppositions were all she had given him.

Since that time, Arnold Zale had been put on it. Maybe that meant Lamb saw something more to the story, too. With Zale and his people on it, it was only a matter of time before they had some answers. He didn’t think anyone was really aware of it; it was one of those things she kept to herself, but Chris had that same capability to dig up information on people. She rarely had to go outside of her personal resources to find something out. But holed up at the Hart place like she was, and in her present condition, her hands were sort of tied.

And how, he wondered, was Claire making out? Why hadn’t she been reunited with Chris in all the time gone by? Did somebody have something on her that made keeping her apart from her sister necessary? Why wasn’t she raising hell about not being allowed to see Chris? Did she have any idea of Chris’ condition?  Had she even asked to see her sister? Claire had never been one to sit still for too long. Maybe, with Hart in it, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. With J.J. Hart injured and Lamb having been told of Rangel’s presence at that park along with those guys, without a doubt Hart and Lamb would be locking down everything and everyone until they had a firmer line on things.

In the end, all he had to go on for sure was what he had been told. Alice Rangel was supposed to show up at HartToys later that afternoon, and he was supposed to meet her there. What was planned to go down after that hadn’t been shared with him.

______________________________________________________

Once inside the house, noticing there were people in the great room, and seeing Pat stand up from where she had been seated on the couch, J.J. started in that direction. She was stopped, however, by her father pulling on the hood of her jacket.

“I thought I told you, when I woke you up in the car, to go straight up to your room,” he said. “The stairs are this way.”

“I was just going in to my mother,” J.J. explained. “You know, to get it out of the way. I’m surprised she’s not already out here.”

“She’ll come to you. You go up, get out of those clothes, and get into the bed.”

“The bed?” she cried. “The bed? It’s Saturday, and it’s still daylight for Pete’s sake. I don’t want to go to any old bed.”

“I don’t think I asked you what you wanted,” Jonathan asserted after turning her around to face him so she could see he was serious. “Go. And take this with you.” He handed her the hospital instructions and the bag containing her prescriptions.

Taking her cue from the look in her father’s eye and the no-nonsense tone of his voice, J.J desisted in complaining to him and started up the stairs.

August had been standing behind them though the exchange. When J.J. departed, he tapped Jonathan on the shoulder.

“Didn’t want her to be witness to it, huh?”

Jonathan sighed, shrugged and started into the great room with August following behind.

______________________________________________________

“What a rip-off,” J.J. grumbled as she trudged up the stairs. “Stayed in last night to babysit some dolls. Now I’m being sent to bed in the middle of the day on a Saturday. This isn’t even right.”

She refused to acknowledge she was using the railing because she still felt a little light-headed and the pain in her eye and her head hadn’t let up all the way. The thought of being relegated to the house, and quite possibly to her room and the bed, ramped up her already elevated level of irritation, crowding out all other sensations.

At her room and frustrated, she grabbed the doorknob, twisted it hard, and flung open the door, still fussing but more loudly. “This is absolute crap! Go to bed in the middle of the day. I’ll go, but I bet you I’m not stay-”

“You will do whatever that paperwork in your hand says  you are supposed to do.”

Her mother’s voice, then the sight of her seated in the big chair by the window sent a lightning bolt  through her system, shorting it out.

Gripping the knob for support when the room took one hard, fast spin, J.J. closed her eyes and leaned back against the door. She heard someone say, “Jeez, Mom”, and despite her best efforts to stop it, she felt her body sliding down to the floor.

______________________________________________________

By the time Jonathan noticed Jennifer was not among the women gathered in his living room, her voice was calling for him from upstairs to send up the nurse. Headed toward the sound, he was followed closely by Pat and then Eva, who passed both of them on the stairs. In the second floor hall, Marie met them, having come up the back stairs.

The doorway to J.J.’s room was blocked by Jennifer holding onto J.J. who was half-lying, half-sitting up with her head against her mother. Eva dropped down next to them, grabbing for J.J.’s flailing arm and her other shoulder to push her into a more upright position. J.J. was coming to and trying to get up as her mother was attempted to hold her down.

“Wait, J.J,” Jennifer was saying. “Just be still for a minute.”

“I’m okay,” J.J. protested. “I just want to get up.”

“Be still, I said.” Jennifer held tightly to J.J. while Eva began to check her over, feeling her face, then her neck, finally taking firm hold of her wrist.

“I startled her,” Jennifer explained. “She wasn’t expecting me to be here in the room waiting for her.”

“I think she’s all right,” Eva answered, peering down into J.J.’s good eye to check her pupil while still holding onto her wrist. “Looks as if she had a little fainting spell.”

She released the arm and then picked up and scanned the hospital papers that lie close by on the floor where J.J. had dropped them. “Um-hmm, I see here she sustained a head injury earlier today. She’s probably still suffering some of the effects of that. She’s been sent home, but with instructions she’s to be kept still and monitored closely.”

“What have you done to your eye?” Jennifer asked J.J.

“I didn’t do anything to it,” J.J. drowsily replied.

By this time, the three already in the room had been stepped over and joined by Pat, Marie, and Jonathan. Pat also bent down to crouch closely over J.J., while Marie kept on into the room to turn the back the bed covers. Jonathan maintained a standing vigil over the group on the floor.

“I know good and well you are not lying there trying to be cagey,” Pat warned J.J. “What the hell happened to you?”

Pat unfastened the Velcro strap at the back of J.J.’s head that held the eye patch in place. When she pulled it away, Jennifer’s breath hitched at the sight of J.J.’s injured eye.

“Da-a-a-a-mn, Squirt,” Pat remarked in awe. “You got punched out real good. I hope the other person looks worse than you.”

“I was not punched out. Nobody punches me out. I got this from some shrapnel.”

“A head injury? Shrapnel?” Jennifer raised her eyes accusingly to Jonathan. “Look at her. What in the world has happened to this girl that you didn’t think I needed to know about? How could you- What in the world, if anything, were you think-”

“Mom, you said- ”

You, just hush.”

Jonathan silently squatted down to scoop J.J. up from Jennifer’s lap. Prying their daughter from Jennifer’s protective hands, he lifted her to a standing position and walked her over to the bed where he and Marie helped her to lie down.

“But I don’t want to go to bed,” J.J. whined as she submitted to her father’s non-verbal command to put her head back on the pillows.

“Would you ladies see to her getting undressed and under these covers?” He directed the request to Pat and Eva as he unzipped J.J.’s jacket and removed Genie from the cloth carrier underneath.

“She probably needs a little something to eat,” he said to Marie. “I don’t think she’s had anything since breakfast, and she has medication to take.”

Without a word, Marie left through the bathroom to go downstairs via the back way.

Jonathan placed the doll in the chair, and then he returned to the doorway where Jennifer was still seated on the floor. The re-ignited flames of her smoldering anger had turned the usual warm brown of her eyes to hot ash grey as she glared up at him.

“I need to talk with you,” he said.

She ignored the hand he extended to her and pushed up on her own.

“I’d rather stay here and attend to my child myself,” she answered, tossing the hair back off her face in aggravation. “But I see  you’ve decided that right away from me, as well.”

“I need to talk with you,” he insisted. “Please.”

After an uncomfortable few moments and an uneasy glance at J.J. over on the bed, she folded her arms and turned to go out of the room. He followed her.

______________________________________________________

When everyone else left the room in response to the cry from upstairs, August Lamb remained downstairs in the living room with Chris, for whom the attempt at sudden movement had been more than she could manage.

“You okay?” he asked, sitting down next to her and moving the computer she held on her lap to the coffee table.

She didn’t lift her head from where she had lain it back on the couch, and she didn’t open her eyes which she had closed to stop the room from moving without her.

“Fine,” she murmured. “What happened to J.J.’s eye? What’s going on upstairs?”

“J.J. got hurt during some horseplay at the park. I don’t know what’s going on upstairs, but there are enough of them up there to handle whatever it is. I’m concerned about you. You’re awfully pale.”

“You would think so,” she teased.

“Oh, it’s about race now,” he poked back.

“I couldn’t help it. You left yourself wide open for it, calling me pale.”

“You are pale, for you, but then you’ve been through a lot lately. How’d you end up over here? I left you in the pool house.”

“I walked over. I wanted to get into my briefcase and laptop, and I want to get back to myself. I’ve been lying around too long. I have things to do.”

“So why did you phone me? You said that you needed to see me.”

“I do,” Chris opened her eyes, leaned forward, and reached across to close down the top of the laptop, “but not here. You have your car, or did you get driven up here?”

“I have my car.”

“Good, then help me. Get me and my stuff out of here and back over to the pool house. I don’t want to talk here. Come on. Let’s hurry up before they come back down.”

______________________________________________________

Pat, who had taken charge of J.J. after stuffing the prescription bag into Eva’s hands, was pulling J.J.’s tee shirt over her head.

“You know that your mother is not at all in love with you having this bad eye, J. And an eye patch to boot? Jennifer is not liking this one bit. You are her pride and joy. Then, aside from this eye that you’ve injured, you went and passed out in front of her. This isn’t good at all. Sitting here looking just like some little roller derby girl who tried to pass and got steamrolled by Big Bertha. What happened?”

“Well, I wasn’t steamrolled by any Big Bertha, that’s for sure. I was merely a victim of circumstance; a casualty of war, if you will. As for my eye and being my mother’s pride, Dr. Kendall had one of her doctor friends who’s a cosmetic surgeon come check me out. He said it’s just bruising. I bruise easy because I’m kind of fair, sort of like my mother does even though I’m darker than her. He said that I won’t have any scars or anything afterward, though. I asked him, and he said I’ll be all healed for your wedding. By that time, I won’t be looking all like a pirate or a roller derby girl or anything else rough for your pictures.”

“The jeans, Squirt.”

“I don’t want to go to bed, Aunt Pat. Really, I don’t. I’m not tired.”

“Number one,” Pat counted as stood over J.J., pointing down at her. “You just got up off the floor from fainting. Number two, and most importantly, nobody asked you if you were tired or what you wanted. The jeans, I said. Give them up.”

“That’s what Daddy said, too,” J.J. said as she unbuttoned and unzipped. “I can see that I’m just going to be totally disregarded in this.”

“Yep, I’d say that you’re right.”

Pat folded J.J.’s clothes and placed them on the end of the bed. Then, reaching under the pillow, she pulled out J.J.’s journal with the pen stuck inside. “Here, if you’re not sleepy, you can keep occupied with this for a while. I’m sure you have an awful lot to say about this morning.”

J.J. pursed her lips at Pat, but accepted the book. “So, like, my mother is giving my Daddy straight-up hell, isn’t she? It wasn’t his fault that this happened.”

“No, but it is his fault that he left her out of it once he knew about your having been hurt. It’s his fault that he handled things the way that he did. He, better than anyone on this entire planet, knows how Jennifer is about you. So, in answer to your question, I suspect that’s exactly what she’s going to let him have, and a hot, fresh-brewed batch of it, too. No amount of pleading on his behalf that you could have done in that phone call you made to her was going to save him from that. Does he know you called her? He didn’t put you up to calling her, did he?”

“Of course not. I did it on my own, when he wasn’t around, and I hung up when I saw him coming back. I was only trying to help them. I hate it when they fight.”

“Sometimes, Squirt, people who love each other have to hash things out- hard- in order to better understand each other.”

“You’d think, after all this time, that they’d have that understanding thing worked out.”

“Tell me the truth,” Pat urged, pulling the ponytail around to the front of J.J.’s shoulder, smoothing it out as she spoke. “Did you make the call to Jennifer mostly because you were trying to keep your precious Daddy’s fanny out of the fire like he does so often for you?

J.J. turned her head away from Pat to hide the smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth. Her Aunt Pat had her- and Daddy- down pat.

“I won’t lie,” she admitted. “I was trying to save him a little bit. I felt so bad for him; he looked so- like- just so not like him. I could tell he was on edge about it. Dr. Kendall said to me that he told her he hadn’t brought or contacted my mother, so I knew right away that his number was going to be up with her.

“But for real, I also called my mother because I knew she would be at home worrying about what was going on, and I didn’t want her to worry. I honestly was thinking about both of them when I called. I wanted to take some of the concern off of her, and, I admit, some of the heat off of him. But judging by my mother’s chilly attitude toward Daddy when she left up out of here just now, I guess I didn’t do so well, huh?”

By this time, Eva had gone back out of the room, leaving Pat and J.J. alone. J.J. pulled up the covers and lie back on the pillows. Pat sat down on the side of the bed next to her.

“I’m a pain, aren’t I, Aunt Pat? Seems like I’m always doing something. It’s been one thing after another this year. I really hate it when my parents argue about me. It wasn’t anybody’s fault I got hurt, but I am the reason why they’re over there in the room, and she’s letting him have it with both barrels and a horsewhip.”

“It’s between them, J.; it’s not about you. They love you.”

Pat fitted the eye patch back over J.J.’s eye and fastened it. “Hurt much?”

“Some, but not a lot. Does my eye look real bad?”

“You haven’t seen it?”

“Nah, I didn’t want to look. I’ll see it soon enough. There’s a tiny scratch on my cornea, but it feels like there’s a rock or at least some gravel in it. They gave me some of the medicine for my eye and for my head before I left the hospital.”

Pat sat back on the pillows, and J.J. noticed that she was looking over the instructions on the prescriptions. “It was around ten-thirty or so when they gave it to me,” she advised Pat.

“Have you heard from Marnie?” Pat asked as she read.

“My phone has been buzzing like crazy, but she hasn’t phoned me, and I didn’t have a real chance to get to her. I was the whole time in Emergency, seeing doctors and taking tests and stuff. She’s probably busy running the party and entertaining her guests.
Daddy, no doubt told her to stay where she was, that I’d be okay with him. She would have called me otherwise.”

“Whatever,” Pat snorted softly, and said. “That one has a story to tell you about that, but I’ll leave that for her to do- once I get done with her.”

“Don’t tell me she’s in some kind of trouble, too.”

“All I have to say about it is that I am not having it out of her once I get her little tail to New York, that’s for sure.”

“This is all so wrong, Aunt Pat. I went ahead, rushed and did my homework early yesterday because I knew I had to stay home to babysit the dolls last night.  Marnie and the crew are at the park right now, having a party that I didn’t even get to attend for very long. Now I gotta be in the bed. I don’t want to be in this bed, Aunt Pat. Chase was going to take me to dinner tonight, and then we were going to hang out. Do you think by this evening I’ll be able to talk my mother into letting me go?”

Pat screwed up her face, and for a moment sat up to look down into J.J.’s face in disbelief.

“Girl, you cannot be that clueless. You will be lucky if you get to see the hallway outside the door of this room tonight. You are in for the duration. If I were you, I wouldn’t even broach the subject with Jennifer, not in the mood she’s in. Your best bet is to go ahead and write this weekend off as a loss. You have the journal right there. Go ahead. Get to writing.”

J.J. sucked her teeth and folded her arms is disgust. “What a rip-off. I should have stayed in bed this morning, and then none of this would have happened. I told my mother and father and everybody else, from the get-go, that I didn’t want to do this project. It’s been nothing but a great big huge pain.”

The sight of Genie, over in the chair and silent, momentarily took J.J. back to her father and his question in the car. But it was only a fleeting worry. By the time Jennifer Hart got through with him, she figured, that doll would be the last thing on his mind. He probably would have forgotten all about Genie Hart by the time he got finished being slow roasted and then deep fried by Jennifer Hart.

“It might have been a huge pain,” Pat was saying in response to her complaint about participating in the project. “But things happen how they’re supposed to happen. You were supposed to do the school thing. You were supposed to be at the park this morning. You were supposed to get clocked in the eye. That’s how life goes; it’s all scripted, I believe. How else can one explain the bizarre things that happen? How else can we explain who gets called home and who gets to stay for a while?”

J.J. turned to check Pat’s face; she was staring straight ahead and her expression didn’t change as she continued with what she was saying. “And so it goes.”

Then she switched her focus back to J.J. “But for right now, Squirt, I want to hear exactly what happened to you.”

J.J. settled all the way back, pulled the covers up to her neck, and sighed, “See, it was like this….”

She went on to tell what she remembered about that morning, but just as she had done with Dr. Kendall, she left out the part that Pat didn’t need to know. That information had already been shared with the proper party, and she was certain that when he finished his current business, he would be looking into that and a whole lot more.

It hadn’t escaped her attention that Chris, who to her surprise had been in the great room when she’d peeked in there looking for her mother, and Mr. Lamb hadn’t come up the stairs with the others. The two of them being there in the house, combined with the information she had given her father about the people at the park, probably meant that things would be being stepped up considerably once her father got back down there with them. At that point, the Duchess wouldn’t tolerate being left out of anything else, which would take her mother’s focus off of her and what she might be, or not be, doing.

Besides, the forced down time could be constructively used to process that phone conversation her father had with Arnold Zale while they were in the car. It hadn’t really been eavesdropping; she had been sitting right there, and her father knew she was. It had simply been one of those cases where she had been in the wrong place at the right time, awake and not asleep like he thought. Whose fault was that?

So, what was up with the Allen sisters?

______________________________________________________

Alice Rangel took her time to finish packing the suitcase and travel bag. After all, she didn’t know when or if she would be returning to that apartment. As she checked around the bedroom for anything she might have missed, she patted the bulge under her arm for reassurance. It had been a long time since she found herself packing so heavily. But then, it had been a long time since she had been in such a fix.

She thought all of that was behind her, but she should have known when he turned up at HartToys that trouble would be coming with him. It had to have been planned that way all along, and she should have gotten out when she first saw it happening. But now it was too late for should-haves. All she could do now was go along with what was and work with that.

Or let it work with her.

______________________________________________________

Still walking in front of him, Jennifer entered the bedroom first. Jonathan closed the doors and thereby, shut out the rest of the world behind them.

She went directly to her secretary where she pulled out the chair and sat down. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled as she balled and then flexed her fingers before pressing the flat of her hands against the wood of the desk top. She then slid her palms together, meshing her fingers into one tightly held knot.

Jonathan braced himself. Along with her eyes, his wife had expressive hands, and those hands were communicating that she was doing everything she could to hold back her anger with him.

He sat down in one of the side chairs by the windows, the one that was closer to the desk, but still some distance away.

“Jennifer, I know you’re upset.”

“Upset doesn’t quite cover it, Jonathan.”

“I understand that, and you have a perfect right to be, but I wish you would try to hear me out.”

“Oh, I’m going to try to sit here and let you tell me what you have to tell me. And then, when you’re done, if I can hold on that long, I am going to tell you exactly how I feel about things.”

Unable to meet her unrelenting fiery stare, he scratched at his forehead as he sorted through his own feelings in search of the right words that would adequately express all of what had been going through his mind.

“I didn’t mean to anger you,” he started. “None of this was meant to make you angry.”

“But you did, and it has.”

“Jennifer, it happened so quickly. I had no idea when I left here this morning that J.J. had been hurt. All I could think about was that I let those kids go out there even though I had a hunch that something wasn’t right. I kept thinking that even though I’d taken precautions, I let it happen. It didn’t turn out to be what I thought it was, but J.J. still got hurt. I’m so sorry. I feel so badly about everything.”

But, obviously, that wasn’t enough for her. Her face, the pursed lips and narrowed eyes, said that she wasn’t ready to let him off the hook.

“Once you did know that she was injured, what was your reason for not calling me and telling me? What was your reason for not sending someone for me? Dammit, Jonathan, she’s my child, too. I think you forget that sometimes- both of you.”

“You’re wrong about that. I don’t ever forget that she’s yours, and I know that J.J. doesn’t either. I think sometimes that’s why things happen with us the way that they do. It’s because we do think about you and how you feel that-”

“Don’t give me that. You do what you do because you want to. You do it because you feel that you can. You think that if you handle it, and it comes out all right in the end, it should be okay with everyone. Well, it isn’t. Not with me, it isn’t. Not about her, it isn’t.”

She stood up, and walked around the desk toward him.

“Jonathan, you are a brilliant and extremely capable man,” she said as she stood over him. “But sometimes I get the impression that you think you can call everybody’s shots for them. Well, I have news for you. You don’t call mine, especially as it relates to Justine.”

“Jennifer, I-”

She held up her hand to him, cutting him off.

“What if something unforeseen had happened with that child? I heard what Eva said. Those papers indicate that J.J. was unconscious for a period of time. If I known that ahead of time, if someone had bothered to tell me, I never would have approached her in the manner that I did just now. But I didn’t know, and I did startle her, and you see what happened to her.

“Jennifer-”

“What if in the ambulance she had a seizure? What if, God forbid, she got to the hospital, appeared to be fine, suddenly developed a blood clot, and then had a stroke that paralyzed her or rendered her speechless?”

She stopped and leaned in to him with her hands on her hips. “What if she had died, Jonathan? Did you think about that? What if she died, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her? Did you consider that scenario?”

“But I knew it wasn’t that serious. I had Kate check her out. She didn’t have a seizure, a blood clot, or a stroke. She didn’t die. She’s here, right across the hall, right here with-”

“But she could have! Don’t you get it? Anything could have happened, and she would have been taken away from me. Once again I would have been robbed of the chance-  just like-”

Her eyes squeezed shut with a pain that radiated across to him. “”No right. You had no right.”

Horrified by the realization of what was causing her to say what she was saying, he reached for her, but she jumped back, snatching away from him.

“You can’t understand, can you?” she asked with tears spilling from her eyes. Then her voice went cold. “But I guess that I shouldn’t expect that you would.”

It took only a moment for her words to sink in, and when they did, it stood him up from the chair.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“You seem to have all the answers to everything else. You figure it out.”

With that said, she turned her back on him, went around the bed and into the dressing room, slamming the door behind her.

Left standing there alone, rage and frustration rushed in on him, overtaking all of his senses. His fingers clenched at his sides as a strong tremor snaked from the soles of his feet to the top of his head with the fury that coursed like red hot lava through his entire being. It pulsed at the tips of his toes against the inside his shoes, and thumped beneath his fingernails as they pressed, nearly cutting into, the skin of his palms. For a split second, the throbbing blinded him as it arrived at his temples.

“That’s it,” he muttered as he headed for the bedroom door leading into the hall, feeling for the knob he couldn’t see. “Enough of this. I have got to get to the bottom of all of this.”

In the hall, Pat was coming out of J.J.’s bedroom.

“Jonathan?”

He heard her, and he felt her staring behind him as he went down the stairs, but he couldn’t stop to answer her.

______________________________________________________

“What really happened at the park, August? I can tell that it was more than just some kid stuff. What aren’t you telling me?”

August, having loaded Chris and her things into the car, had pulled around off the main road and was taking a back one toward the pool house.

“I thought you were supposed to be so dazed and confused.”

“No so much that I can’t read you. What’s going on, I asked you?”

“You called me, Chris. What’s going on with you?”

“I need for you to help me, and please don’t fight me on this. I know you’re my boss, but I know what I need to do.”

“Help you with what? Fight you about what?”

“I need to get off these grounds, August. I need to get to my car. I need to get into my office.”

“The point of us getting you out of the hospital and brought here is so that you could rest.”

“But I’m not going to rest until I get back to being me. I have to go back to where all of this mess started so that I can get things sorted out.”

“The car’s totaled. There’s nothing you can do with that.”

“I know that it’s totaled, but there’s something important inside of it that I need to get out of it. Take me to the impound or to the salvage yard if that’s where it is, so that I can check it out.”

He pulled a manila folder from where he had it stuck down on his side of the gear console separating their two seats, and he handed it to her. “This what you’re looking for?”

She flipped open the folder. “How did you find this? I had it-”

“Jonathan found it. He has a knack for knowing where to look for things.”

“I see. I still need to get to my office.”

“You’re confined to here, Chris.”

“I don’t have to be. You can get me out of here, and you know it.”

“You’re trying to get me fired. What’s up with this folder, and what’s so important in your office?”

“I don’t know for sure about either, but I will know if you take me to HartToys. I have a feeling. I know I need to get there. August?”

“Yeah.”

“I also want to see Claire. More than anything, I need to see Claire.”

“It seems to me that you’re needing a whole lot of things, Christina Allen. For a person who’s only a couple of days out of a coma, you sure have heaped a lot onto your plate.”

“August, I just want you to help me to get back to where I was. I was onto something. I can feel that I was before all of this happened to me. If I could only get some of the bigger pieces I have to come together, I can start over again and pick up where I left off.”

“Well,” August sighed as he pulled up in front of the pool house. “Where do you want to start?”

“Right here,” Chris answered as she popped open the door on her side. “I need to use the restroom, and then we can be on our way.”

August was already out of the car and had hurried around to her side. “I’m telling you, you’re going to get me fired over this.”

She smiled up at him as he offered her his arm for support. “Don’t worry. If it comes close to that, I’ll take up for you with the big guy. I think he likes me. He reminds me an awful lot of my father. Takes good, hands-on care of that daughter of his, and he’s got a huge heart.”

______________________________________________________

Leaned over the sink, behind the locked door to the bathroom, for a few minutes Jennifer let the tears of anger flow freely. She felt badly about letting that negative emotion get the best of her, especially since it had been directed toward Jonathan.

She regretted having taken that final jab at him, but it was true that there were times she sensed he didn’t know what she felt because he didn’t remember his own mother and father. She understood that although he didn’t dwell on it, he still felt the pangs of abandonment, but that couldn’t be the same as remembering having so suddenly lost a loved one. That had been her mother. J.J. was her child, her only child, her daughter. She should have been allowed to be there for her. Instead he had cut her off from that, and no matter if it was Jonathan who did it, for whatever reason he had done it; it hadn’t been the right thing to do.

The water had been running and with her hand she tested to see how cold it was. Icy. Leaning down even farther, she splashed several handfuls on her face. Then she toweled off, applied cold cream, washed it again, and set about reapplying the small amount of makeup she previously had on. Re-brushing her hair and shaking it out, she checked herself in the mirror to see how close she was to her normal, collected self. Satisfied, she left the bathroom, then the bedroom and crossed the hall to knock at and then open the door.

J.J., in bra and panties was seated at the computer, typing and talking with the hands-free appliance for her cell phone in her ear. When the door opened, she appeared at first startled and then upon seeing who it was, she relaxed.

“Gotta go,” she said into the phone. “Yeah, maybe, if I can talk certain parties into it.”

“Just tell him “no” now and get it out of the way.” Jennifer said as she closed the door behind her. “And then say “goodbye” and hang up.”

Clicking off, J.J. lay the phone on the desk and resumed typing. “I’m sending Tommy a picture of me with this email.”

Jennifer rushed to the monitor. “What kind of picture are you sending him, sitting here in your underwear like this. And I thought I told you about talking on the phone to boys in that condition.”

Clicking “send” with a flourish of her hand, J.J. rotated a half turn in the chair to face Jennifer. “First of all, Mother, how do you know I was even talking to a boy? Secondly, you said about talking to boys while I was in the bathtub. You didn’t say about talking on the phone in my underwear. Please. I’m only sending Tommy a picture of my face, see.”

She reached back to click over to a full frame picture, taken with the web cam, of only her face, complete with eye patch. Then she looked up to her mother with an impish grin on her face. “I know you did not think I was sending cheesecake pictures of myself to Tommy.”

Jennifer pulled her up by the arm from the chair. “Put your nightgown on and get back over into that bed. I don’t put anything past you and Tommy Steele.”

“But I don’t want to be in the bed,” J.J. griped as she slipped over her head the nightgown her mother tossed to her. “I’m not tired at all. Marnie and all of them are still at the park, at the party, having a good time, and I’m over in some stupid bed. It’s not even three in the afternoon.”

After smoothing the rumpled sheets and covers and then fluffing the pillows, Jennifer silently pointed. Sighing, J.J. crawled in and allowed her mother to pull the covers up on her.

“I hate this,” she grumbled.

Unfazed, Jennifer folded back the comforter over J.J.’s midsection. “You should have thought about that when you were out there doing whatever you were doing to have this happen to you.”

Then she sat down on the side of the bed and slid her hands underneath J.J.’s head to unfasten the eye patch, pulling it off.

“My God,” she whispered as she stared at the injured eye. “Where are those papers you brought home from the hospital?”

J.J. handed them to her from where they lie on the night table and watched as her mother read them.

“Mom?”

“What is it?”

“Are you mad at me about this? If you’re worried about my face, Dr. Kendall’s friend, the cosmetic surgeon, said that I won’t have any scars from it. It’ll be okay. I heard Daddy go down the stairs. I thought you told me that you wouldn’t go off on him. His feet sounded really mad on the steps.”

“Have you had anything to eat since breakfast?”

“You’re avoiding the issue, Mom.”

“You didn’t answer my question, and like you just said, I am the mom.”

“Marie is fixing me something. Remember, Daddy asked her to? Aunt Pat went down to get it. Now what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Mo-om.”

Jennifer took her time in replying. She finished reading the doctor’s notes. Checked out the instructions on the medicine bottles and then turned back to J.J. With her fingers she felt for herself the puffiness around the injured eye, ignoring J.J.’s flinching, and peering into the pupil as if she could see the scratch with her own eyes. Then gently, with her fingers, she smoothed back the loose hair on J.J.’s forehead.

“I get upset with you when it seems you take sides with your father against me,” she finally said.

“But I-” J.J. started to sit up, but was pressed back by her mother’s firm hand to her shoulder.

“Just let me talk, J.J. I get upset with you when you’re evasive with me. You like to have things spelled out for you when you ask questions, but you don’t always do that for me when I ask them of you.”

Relaxing and lying back, J.J. submitted to the almost too-calm quality of her mother’s voice.

“I’m not angry with you for getting hurt. You’ve been doing that all of your life, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting into things, falling, getting scraped up; that’s just you and who you are. If that were the case, I’d be angry most of the time. I’m not exactly angry with you about the phone thing either. I think I know what you were trying to do, but we can’t operate like that any more. You and I have to be up front with each other. We are all that we have, you and I, the mother and the daughter.

“As far as my getting angry with your father, you don’t, you cannot understand all the dynamics. I know that I promised, but sweetie, I regret that was one promise to you that I couldn’t altogether keep, and I’m sorry about that. I love your father; you know that I do, but sometimes I have to let him know when he’s taken a thing too far. This, in fact, is a lesson from me for you: you cannot let your love for someone allow him to take advantage of you or of that to which you have a right. You are my child as well as your father’s. He was wrong this morning. Even though you were trying to help us, you were wrong, too. You phoned me, but you played cat and mouse with it. Although I understand why you did it, you weren’t much better in it than he was.”

“I’m so sorry,” J.J. apologized. “I wouldn’t purposely do anything to make you feel bad. But I’m not sure if you know everything about it. He’s got a lot on him; I tried to tell you that. You probably didn’t give him a chance to tell you everything.”

For a moment, J.J. stopped and studied Jennifer’s face. “You were crying over in the room, weren’t you? I can see it in your eyes. Where did Daddy go?”

Jennifer ignored the questions. “What do you mean that I don’t know everything?”

“He didn’t tell you about it, did he?”

“Tell me what?” Jennifer cried in irritation. “You’re doing it again.”

“About that HartToys technician and those men.”

Sitting up, J.J. filled her mother in on everything that happened that morning, and with her she included the parts she’d left out with everyone except her father.

“Mom, I could tell that when I told him, it- I won’t say it scared him, but it made him more nervous. This morning, before we left for the park, he made me call him to let him know we were leaving. Last night when he was with me, after you left us, he insisted that I do that, so I could tell that he was already paranoid about things. He made me call him because he was setting up security for us; I knew it. He’s been antsy like that since all that HartToys stuff started. I think, too, that’s why he didn’t say anything to you about me right away.

“The way I figure it is, he might not have known about me when he left here. With security there, he would have gotten the call the minute anything jumped off. But when he got to the park, he realized it was just us fooling around. But then, when he found out about me, he held off on phoning you until he was sure what was going on with me. He didn’t want to be phoning you up and worrying you if there really wasn’t something to be worrying you about.”

“That wasn’t his call-”

“It might not have been, but I’m giving you my version of what I think happened. When I finally was able to talk with him, and I told him about that other stuff I saw, I could see that he got, like agitated or something. Then he couldn’t say anything to you because it bent him all out of shape thinking what could have happened. Sometimes, ‘could have’ is worse in your mind than what actually does happen, Mom. He’s a guy. They aren’t like us. Guys can’t admit to being nervous, or maybe even scared, like we can. That’s what I was trying to tell you on the phone, but he was coming and I had to hang up. I didn’t want him to know that I had called you. I didn’t want him to know that I was in his business.”

“But you had no problem with being in mine.”

“It’s different with us,” J.J. said, leaning forward to press a kiss to her mother’s cheek. “The mother and the daughter. Isn’t it?”

Jennifer cut her eyes at her coyly grinning child.

“You little one-eyed Jack,” she fussed as she fastened the eye patch back over the eye.

“Excuse me,” J.J. said. “but I think that would be one-eyed, J.”

Pat came through the bathroom door with a full serving tray in her hands which she carried over to the desk. “Come on, Squirt and eat so you can get a nap.”

“I’ll eat, ” J.J. answered, pushing back the covers once her mother got up. “But I don’t know about the nap thing.”

“You’ll sleep once we get this medicine down in you. This pain stuff; it’ll knock you right on out.”

“Make me into a junkie, why don’t you,” J.J. grumbled on her way across the room.

Her picture was still on the computer screen, and Pat noticed it as she was getting things ready for J.J.

“What the hell are you doing taking pictures of yourself like this?” she asked as J.J. sat down in the chair. “I do not believe you. You’re proud of this, aren’t you?”

J.J. smirked. “I don’t know about proud, but what can I do about it? You just have to make lemonade out of it when life throws you lemons. I sent it to Tommy so he could see. He won’t like me being hurt, but he likes stuff like this with LA East. Tommy would be proud of me for not going out like some sissy punk girl in a fight with them. He’d make me a Purple Heart or something like that to wear on my letter jacket. If Daddy would have let me, I’d have gone right back to the park with Marnie and the crew after I came from the hospital instead of being here. LA East knows better. Marnie’s probably out there planning-”

J.J. cut herself off to look back to her mother, who was giving her ‘the eye’. Then she turned back around, speaking with a bit less bravado. “Well, anyway. Now they really have it coming.”

“Oh, I see,” Pat was still standing over her. “You sent Tommy a picture because he likes stuff like this. What about Teddy? Did you send him one?”

When J.J.’s cheeks colored, Pat leaned her head back to catch Jennifer’s eye. From over by the bed, Jennifer winked in return.

“I didn’t send him one,” J.J. admitted as she examined the food sent up to her. “He wouldn’t get it like Tommy would. Tommy and I could laugh something like this off; he’d be making jokes about me, but it wouldn’t be a real big deal with him. He doesn’t care how I look. With Teddy, it might be a big deal. I don’t think he’d understand about it. Hopefully, by the time I see him again, there won’t be any signs on me of this ever having happened, and I won’t have to be trying to explain. They’re both my friends, but it’s not the same with Teddy as with Tommy. Tommy and I know each other better; he knows me.”

Again, Pat looked back to Jennifer and this time they exchanged an almost imperceptible nod.

“You go ahead and eat,” Pat said to J.J. as she passed an affectionate hand over that red head. “We’ll be back shortly.”

She gestured for Jennifer to join her in the hall. Once they were out there with the door closed, Pat motioned for her to come all the way across to the master bedroom where she shut that door behind them, too.

“That one eavesdrops,” she explained. “How much do you want to bet that if I were to go back out there, I’d either find her peeking through where she’s cracked the door open because she couldn’t hear what we were saying, or she’s pressed so hard against the closed door trying to hear, that I’d knock her down with it if I were to open it.”

“Sucker’s bet,” Jennifer sighed as she slowly shook her head. “I won’t give you a dime on it. Not for a second could I deny that what you’re saying is true. They don’t make them much nosier than our J.J.”

“Look,” Pat waved her hand to move them from J.J. to the real reason she’d brought Jennifer into the room. “Chris is gone.”

“Gone?”

“Um-hmm, and so is August. He came in with Jonathan and J.J., but when I went back down there, Eva was running all around the first floor, looking for Chris, who was no where to be found.

“And your husband is closed up in the den right now. You see, I eavesdrop, too, so I can tell you he’s in there making all kinds of calls. The boy is mobilizing. He’s gunning for somebody named Rangel; there’s something he’s got lined up at HartToys. I don’t know what happened up here between you two, but I saw him when he came out of this bedroom. Whatever you said to him has evidently pushed him over the edge. His face was all torn up.”

“I was angry,” Jennifer cut in. “I said something to him that I probably shouldn’t have said. Anger has always been my short suit.”

“Did you mean what you said?”

Jennifer nodded. “I thought it was the truth at the time.”

“Then it needed saying. Go to him, Jen. He’s pissed off, and he has something in the works, but he works better with you next to him.”

“I don’t know, Pat. When do I get a break? It’s been one thing after another with him and J.J. all of this year. When do I get to sit down and stop? When do I get to say “enough”, and be done with it? I’m not the one who’s wrong here.”

“It isn’t a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. Jen, out of the three of you, whether you know it or not, you are the strongest. You are what holds the three of you together. Those other two would fall apart completely if it weren’t for you.

“Now, I know first-hand that you can be nasty when you’re angry, and you probably did cut into him with whatever you said to him, but you don’t lie. There is nothing you could say to that man that would break up what the two of you have. If anything, you probably made him think, which was what his ass needed to have done in the first place.

“Do what I’m telling you. Go. Bill and I will be here with the Squirt to keep an eye her. And we’ll be here for Marnie when she shows up. She needs to finish packing.”

“Now that you mention her, where is Marnie? Still at the park? Why wasn’t she with Jonathan and J.J.? Have you spoken with her?”

“No,” Pat answered as she went into the dressing room. She came out with a navy blue sweater to match the slacks Jennifer was wearing, which she handed to her along with the envelope purse she picked up from the top of the vanity. “She wasn’t with J.J. when she got hurt. The ambulance left without her, but I’ve checked on her, and I know that she’s at the park and she’s fine.  You let me do this. You go and see about Jonathan.”

Jennifer was pulling on the sweater. “What will I say to him? It’s going to be very awkward. We don’t usually have these kinds of scenes.”

“Just go down there and act as if nothing at all happened. Just pick up right off where you were this morning before it all started. That’s gets them; I do it with Bill all the time- tell him off, and then go back and act as if nothing ever happened. Jonathan won’t know what direction you’re coming from, so he’ll stand still, and let you call the shots. Go ahead. I know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m not accustomed to playing games with him, Patricia.”

“Yes, you do. It’s just that you’re playing this one standing up. Look, don’t worry about a thing here. That’s why you have me in your life… still.”

Pat’s eyes went straight to Jennifer’s as she added in a near whisper, “I keep wondering, Jen. Then I find myself stumbling over and being hit in the head with reasons why.”

Those nauseating, frightening sensations that accompanied recollections of that past migraine-laced Tuesday forced themselves back to the front of Jennifer’s consciousness. In reaction, she reached out and squeezed Pat to her. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, old girl.”

“Hopefully, there will be a lot of years before either of us old girls has to find out, ” Pat answered, returning the hug and then easing Jennifer back from her. “Go.”

They left the bedroom together, but Jennifer went down the stairs while Pat headed across the hall.

______________________________________________________

“Where to first?” August asked when he had Chris back in the car.

“Claire?” she offered.

August was hesitant. “I don’t know how Jonathan would feel about me taking you there without letting him know.”

“Then let him know,” Chris answered, as her hand felt along the leg of the pants of her sweat suit. Reassured, she continued, “But I won’t take no for an answer. I need to do this. I’m sure, too, that in all this time that she’s been alone and closed off, Claire needs to see me.”

For a moment, he studied the woman next to him. He had known her a long time, and he had absolute faith in her instincts. Despite her supposed memory impairment, he understood that some things that would not be changed by that injury: her basic knowledge of her profession and her devotion to Claire. Both of those things were integral parts of Chris Allen, they had always been the qualities in her that most impressed him.

He started the car. “Then lets not risk being deliberately insubordinate. Let’s just go ahead and do it.”

The car was driving off just as Eva was running up the path from the main house. August saw her and stopped. When Chris lowered the window and told her, “Get in.” with a tilt of her head toward the back seat, Eva complied, climbing in without question or complaint.

______________________________________________________

Downstairs in the den, Jonathan finished his flurry of phone calls, some of which he was returning, the others those he had initiated. Having a hard time getting up a second wind, he slid down a bit on the couch, lay his head back, and closed his eyes. So much had happened, and the bulk of the day was still before him. That idea was draining in itself.

In his head he began lining up what he knew. The dolls were there on the grounds, delivered to the tool shed. Instead of being deprogrammed, they were actually being dissected by trained technicians. In an effort to keep everyone honest, security, hand-picked by August, was overseeing that process. None of the techs had been told to look for anything specific. The hope was that one of them would run across something that didn’t seem typical or that showed up where it should not have been.

His name and Hart Industries were on some deciphered list. Instinct told him it was a hit list of sorts. What kind of hit remained to be seen. He couldn’t tell Jennifer that was why he had her locked on the estate. He couldn’t find the words to explain to her that all he wanted to do that morning was get J.J. back on the grounds and to her. The list had his name on it, but anyone who had any awareness of him as a person knew that the best way to hit him would be through one of them. On the grounds of Willow Pond, he could be reasonably sure that they were safe.

Jennifer….

The thought of her, he pushed away.

Alice Rangel had been contacted and was due to show up at HartToys for the purpose of shutting down the dolls. But that wouldn’t be happening. What would be happening was she would be coming clean and telling him what was going on. Why was she at the park that morning, and what had her intentions been? To where had she disappeared once everything started happening? She had to have seen that there was trouble. If she was there for legitimate reasons, as an adult, why hadn’t she come over to try to stop the kids? If she was watching, as J.J. said she was, then she had to have seen J.J. get hurt. Why hadn’t she come to her aid? And who were the men J.J. said she saw? Were they part of why Rangel was there?

At least Claire was still where he put her. She hadn’t been allowed any outside contact since that last attempt by Pat and Jennifer to get her to talk. That was how he wanted it. At the point she probably was mentally, he figured she had to be damn-near stir crazy and, hopefully, a lot more cooperative.

Chris seemed to be returning to herself. Maybe she would soon tell them something they could use. And then speaking of Chris, what was the deal on her and Claire? The information Arnold related, in the call on the way back from the hospital, was puzzling and only added to the seemingly never-ending chain of questionable events.

Marnie, Marnie, Marnie. The thought of her brought a much needed glimmer of amusement. What an riot that girl was. Herschel said it was the second time in a week that she had been in his office, waiting for someone to come pick her up. The first time, according to Herschel, had been for disorderly conduct with her stepmother, and Pat had come for her. This time it was for reckless conduct with a cake knife while she was cursing out some high school boy who already looked like a linebacker for the Raiders. Marnie barely made five feet in height, but she more than made up for that in spirit.

It was wrong and disrespectful, but after hearing what Herschel said about it, he didn’t blame Marnie for going after the stepmother. There was only so much a person was supposed to take. The rage had to go somewhere, and evidently the stepmother had turned the right valve to open that line in Marnie. For such a young girl, she carried a lot on her petite shoulders, and she carried it so well that unless one knew her, the load couldn’t be readily detected.

So that was why Pat had confiscated the car. Leave it to Pat Hamilton to cover for those kids, especially for Marnie. Everybody, he guessed needed somebody like Pat in their corner. Pat had once been where Marnie was treading; she knew how it was and how to teach Marnie to cope with it. For him, that person had been Max.

That made him wonder for a moment about Max. And about Anastasia, the nun who raised him before Max entered his life….

Then it dawned on him that J.J. hadn’t said a word about any of it either, and without a doubt, she had to be know what the deal was about Marnie and that car. She was holding out.

But then, would he have turned in a best friend’s secret to Max? Way back then, as a teenaged boy, he had been so closed off. He didn’t even have a….

Another line of thought pushed away.

Arnold’s call to him had been interesting, but frustrating and confusing. It only placed on the table more pieces to the badly scrambled puzzle and raised yet another question that would have to be answered: what, if any, was the lingering connection between Claire Allen, Alice Rangel, and Octavia Dash? For him, it was too strong a link to be coincidental.

And what was the real story on Chris and Claire?

Jennifer… She was wrong about what she said….

…had that all wrong… I do know….

“Jonathan.”

He hadn’t heard her come into the room, but when he opened his eyes, there Jennifer stood over him. The look on her face was odd, not quite anger, but it wasn’t exactly forgiveness either.

“J.J. told me about that technician and those men at the park,” she said.

“So, I guess you’re here to let me have it about not telling you about that, too,” he sighed as he pulled himself up into a more upright position.

That was when he noticed she had her purse under her arm and she had put on a sweater over her blouse.

Her facial expression didn’t change. “No, actually I didn’t. I came down to tell you that we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on. We need to go and see Claire. I think we need to bring her here to see Chris. She told Pat and I that she would only talk with Chris. If that’s the case, then I think it’s time we facilitated that happening.”

The even, matter-of-fact tone of her voice was clearly conveying to him that whatever decision he made, it was something they would be doing together.

“I thought you wanted to go to J.J.,” he said as, warily eyeing her, he slowly stood up from the couch.

“She has plenty of people here to look in on for me. I think it’s more important right now that I help you with all of this, and then, when this is all over, we can oversee our daughter’s well-being together.”

Following her to the door of the room, he scratched his head in wonder at how she could go so quickly from confrontational and resistant, to calm and supportive. At the front door, he grabbed his keys from the tray and exited the house right behind her.

After all, they had always done their best work as a team, proof positive being that eye-patch-wearing little girl up on the second floor.

______________________________________________________

 

When the guard knocked on the door and poked her head in, Claire raised her head from the pillow.

“You have someone here to see you.”

Before she could ask who it was or acknowledge the guard at all, the door opened fully.

She sat bolt upright when Chris stepped inside the room.

______________________________________________________

“So why the sudden change of heart?” Jonathan asked when he could endure the silence no longer.

They were almost at the Hart Towers, and Jennifer hadn’t said a word to him since they left the estate.

“It’s not a change of heart. I meant what I said to you about J.J. It’s just a change of direction for the time being; like I told you in the den, we’re better when we handle problems together, we both know that.”

Keeping his eye on the road and on the traffic before them, he nodded his agreement.

“This- this mess with HartToys, Chris, Claire, all of it, needs to be handled,” she continued. “It needs to be over. When J.J. told me about that technician and those men, I’d had enough. I do not like these ‘things’ getting that close to her. She revels in it, but I am not having it. I don’t know for sure if what she saw was part of all of this, but I’m not willing to take that chance with her. Someone wants something, and they are not going to get it coming through her, not if I have a say in it.”

“But that’s exactly how I feel, Jennifer. I don’t want J.J. mixed up in it in any way, either. Despite what you think, I do understand about how-”

“Jonathan, can we stay on the subject at hand. What decisions have you made regarding that technician? You aren’t sitting still on it, I know. What’s your plan?”

Her cutting him off so abruptly momentarily stunned him, preventing him from answering her about the technician or the situation right away. In his position in life, that kind of thing didn’t often happen to him. But when it did, it usually was Jennifer doing it. Nobody he knew, except perhaps J.J.- who was learning the technique firsthand- could shut a conversation down as effectively as his wife.

He found it fascinating how Jennifer could leave one troublesome situation to take on another without letting the first thing affect the second, as if she placed her problems in packages, tied them up, and dealt with them if, when, in the order she chose. He realized that was what she was doing in her head as she sat there next to him in the car. By no means was she finished with the matter of J.J.; she had only tabled it “for the time being” because there were other, more pressing things she felt needed taking care of first.

Throughout the silent drive from Bel Air, he had been thinking things over. Between the lines of what had been said, Jennifer’s coming down to him as she had said a lot about how she felt about them. “We” had been the masthead of her argument up in the bedroom. “We” had been the reason for her coming down to the den. Apparently their “we” could withstand anything, and for that he was grateful. About that part of it, she was absolutely right.

“I arranged for her to go to HartToys on the pretense of deprogramming the dolls,” he finally answered.

“But you had them sent to the house instead.”

“So I could have them taken apart.”

“For what?”

“To see if there’s anything inside one of them that someone could be looking for.”

“What’s going to happen once that technician gets to HartToys?”

“Security is on her, and they’re going to let me know when it looks as if she’s headed that way. I plan to meet with her there.”

“You? I thought we agreed that you were going to let security handle it.”

It was another argument threatening to rear its head. Although the tone of her voice had him bristling for it, he kept his cool.

“Like you, Jennifer, when J.J. told me about the technician and those men, I’d had enough. I was sort of willing to take a back seat to most of it until she told me that. For me, it seems to be getting too close. The police aren’t moving fast enough for me. They don’t know where to look, but I think I do; my people have more of an inside track on it. That woman came there to that park this morning with the knowledge that J.J. and those dolls would be there. I don’t know what her intentions were, but I do intend to personally find out. As to Chris and Claire, there’s something going on about the two of them, and there is a possible connection to HartToys. I got a call from Arnold when I was in the car coming back from the hospital with J.J.”

He filled her in on what Arnold had discovered. She in turn told him that it was pretty much what Pat had shared with her at the breakfast table that morning after he left them to go with August.

“Based on all of this, what do you think is going on with Chris and Claire?” Jennifer asked as they pulled into Jonathan’s space in the Hart Towers’ parking structure.

Being that it was Saturday, only a few other cars were parked there. Jonathan was checking the mirrors and the windows to make sure that they hadn’t been followed and that they were still alone. Just before he pressed the switch to release the locks, he noticed August’s car in the row across, and that was when it dawned on him that both he and Chris were no longer in the great room when they had come through it to leave the house.

“I don’t quite know,” he answered as he shut the car down. “Hopefully, once Claire is back with Chris, it’ll all come out.”

______________________________________________________

J., am I glad to hear your voice! What happened to you? Are you all right? Where are you?

Calm down, Marn. I’m home and I’m okay. I got hit in the eye with something and hit my head. They say whatever I got hit with, scratched my eyeball.

Chase said you were knocked out.

Yeah, for a minute. I’m okay now, though, but I’m on medical lockdown and house arrest. Where are you? Aunt Pat said you had something to tell me.

Damn. That means she knows already.

Knows what?

That I got picked up by the cops.

Again? Where are you? Are you out of lockup?

Yeah, I’m out. I wasn’t really in lockup. It was like the last time; I had to stay in the Captain’s office until somebody related, or semi-related could pick me up. Uncle Bill came this time.

Oh, God. Uncle Bill? You must have tripped for real when you saw him walk into the room. Was it just you who got hauled in?

I did trip, but I sure was glad to see it wasn’t the Duchess. Lord knows I did not want it to be her. I would have straight died if it had been her; I’d rather do time in ‘juvvie’. It was me who got picked up, Alphonse and some of his crew, Chance, Sid,-”

Sid? He was fighting?

You should have seen it. He was kicking Reggie’s entire ass for stepping on his shoe and leaving a mark on it. Hector got hauled in-

Hector? Now that’s really funny.

Yeah, I heard he started fighting with Tim who had come over there where you were and jumped on Chase. When Hector started fighting, of course, ‘Bicio had to jump in. He and ‘Bicio fought Tim back across the tent, over to our side, and then the cops got them. Philly said their Papi had to come downtown and get both Hector and ‘Bicio out. You know Mr. Diaz let them have it good.

I sure wish I had been conscious for all of that.

No you don’t. Knowing you like I do, you would have been fighting right along with the boys and gotten picked up, too. Better your father had to come to the park to get you for being hurt than your mother having to come get you from the police station for fighting.

You have a definite point. Was Uncle Bill mad at you?

He wasn’t mad. In fact, he even let me come back to the party, but the trade-off was I had to let him stay here with me. He’s not over here with us, though. He’s over in the parking lot, smoking like a chimney and hanging out with the security guys. I like him a lot. He’s pretty cool.

Marnie, you didn’t say what you did to get picked up in the first place.

Oh yeah, I just had a cake knife in my hand while I was cussing out Alphonse. The cops thought I had pulled it out specifically for him, that’s all. It was a mistake, but I’ll tell you all about that when I get home. I was just calling to see how you were. I was worried as hell. Is your eye bad, like all black and stuff?

Yeah, but I have an eye patch over it for now.

Damn, I hate that for you. Is your mother mad about it?

Not about the eye.

I would have called sooner, but I didn’t know anything about you getting hurt until Uncle Bill told me in the car on the way back to the park. The cop had taken my phone, too, so that was another problem. Say, J.J., what did your father do with the dolls?

The dolls?

Yeah, Chase said that when your father got here to see about you, he had all the dolls gathered up and taken away by security. I thought maybe, since you were with him,  you’d know why. I thought maybe he might have mentioned it to you. The party was supposed to be for them, but since they’re gone, I guess it’s all about me now, MarnieElaine. I sure wish you were here, too, though.

Yeah, me too, but I guess it really was scripted to happen this way.

After hanging up from Marnie, alone in the bedroom after Pat went back downstairs with the lunch dishes, J.J. sat up in bed, pulling her knees up to her chin. Why, she wondered, had her father had the dolls collected? And where had he sent them? She thought back to that conversation he’d had on the phone in the car with Mr. Zale. During the course of it, he had mentioned about not having something “sent back to the facility”, but having it come to “the house” instead. Could that have been the dolls?

Genie was still over in the chair. Almost as soon as she noticed her there, the doll began to tremble and then cry.

“It has been a while since you’ve been changed and fed, hasn’t it?” J.J. said to it as she slid out of the bed to go and get her.

Taking Genie through the bathroom and into the sitting room, she lay her on the daybed and changed her. Then she got one of the bottles of formula off the table to feed her. As she was passing the window that overlooked the back end of the estate, she could see the pool house and beyond that to the gardener’s tool shed in the distance. Along with the Jeep Mr. Timmons used in his landscaping duties, there were three other cars parked out there which she didn’t recognize. Nobody except Timmons and the people he sometimes used to help him ever parked out there. He always used the same people, and their cars she knew from sight.

That tool shed, she surmised, would be an ideal place for the dolls to be kept without drawing anyone’s attention. They had to be deprogrammed or without the proper care, they would be ruined. Could they be being shut down out there? It made sense. If her father had those dolls collected because he thought there was something to them, just as he had done with her and her mother, he would put them in a safe environment- one that he felt he could control. What better place than home?

He had asked about Genie, but why hadn’t he had her collected, too? Maybe with everything else that had been on his mind, he’d forgotten about Genie. And then with his wife acting up and all….

J.J. sat down on the daybed. As she held Genie who was greedily sucking down her meal, she continued to stare out of the window. After a moment or two, a sly smile slowly formed.

Lo-o-o-oophole!

Aunt Pat’s parting orders had been, “do not show your face on that first floor”. But she hadn’t anything about bypassing the first floor.

As soon as the baby was back to sleep, J.J. determined, she was out of there. It had been a while since she’d done it, but those back windows had a ledge underneath them that wasn’t that far from the ground, and being that she was older and stronger, it would be that much easier to leave through one of them, jump down, and make it out to the tool shed without anyone the wiser. With the house full of grownups, not getting caught was probably a long shot in terms of the odds, but it was definitely a shot worth taking. She had to count on all of them being so into whatever it was that they were doing down there that nobody would notice the fugitive making a run for it.

______________________________________________________

They left Eva in the main security office which was off the first floor lobby. Then August took Chris to the elevator that led to the bunker.

When the car stopped between floors, Chris had given him a questioning look, but she didn’t ask anything as he went through the required motions to get them inside the hidden space at Hart headquarters.

Arriving at the door of the bunker itself, August was growing increasingly uncomfortable with what to do with himself while the sisters talked, but he was more nervous about leaving them alone. Chris hadn’t said very much during the ride over. She had expressed what seemed to be, an overwhelming, almost consuming desire to get to Claire. All the while she was next to him in the car, he could sense something emanating from her: irritation, maybe loving concern mixed with aggravation. Whatever it was, he sensed it was related to her sister. The quality of it, however, was for him, a somewhat odd aura for her to be giving off, but it was somehow oddly familiar to him on a more personal level.

That girl, he decided, was truly a tough read.

From the time they entered the bunker, he had been behind her, and he continued to follow her lead once they were shown to that bedroom. When Chris stepped around the guard, opening the door at almost the same time that the guard knocked on it, he could see Claire, facing in that direction as she was rising from the bed. The expression on her face at the sight of Chris was not one of joy or relief as he would have expected; what he saw instead was trepidation, maybe even fear.

______________________________________________________

Pat had gone downstairs to take the  dishes back to the kitchen. Having given J.J. the next dosage of her medication and gotten her settled in bed, she was counting on her going to sleep. She wanted desperately to get back to Chris, whom she found fascinating. Like any good writer, she could sense a story there in need of a teller. A lover of mysteries, and once a writer of them, she was anxious to get into and solve the mystery of Christina and Claire Allen.

After coming down the inner staircase and leaving the dishes in the kitchen, she accepted the cup of tea that Marie insisted she drink. Then she had gone back to the front of the house. The great room was empty. August Lamb, whom she’d seen come in with Jonathan, and Chris were gone. So were Chris’ briefcase, laptop, and purse.

Crossing over to the den in search of Jonathan and Jennifer, she wasn’t surprised to find that room empty as well. Leaving there she went to the front door to check the driveway. The only car there was Jonathan’s Rolls Royce.

She smiled to herself at the mental picture which formed of Jonathan’s perplexed, suspicious expression as Jennifer approached him in the den, her calm in contrast to her earlier rancor throwing him completely off kilter. He was a brilliant man in business, a definite mover and shaker, but he was no match for his wife’s feminine wiles.

In her estimation, few men were when it came to most women.

Evidently, the Harts had mended the fence, at least enough for them to both get into Jennifer’s car and drive away. Chris, she assumed, had returned to the pool house via August Lamb’s car. She couldn’t have walked that far alone, not in her condition, and not carrying all of those other things. After a moment’s reflection, it dawned on her that Eva was gone from the main house, as well. Chris had to have gone to the pool house to take her belongings.

Closing the front door behind her, she started down the driveway, headed for the side of the house and around to the back, formulating her plan as she meandered along. She would have to separate Chris from August if he was still there with her, and from Eva, who would be hovering around to protect her patient. She’d get Chris outside, maybe by offering to take her for a walk in the wheelchair, the way J.J. had done on the night before, and then once they were far enough out, she would pick her clean.

She was passing the bay windows of the great room which faced out to the pool, when a dark figure with long red hair seemed to drop from the sky, rolling across the grass a few feet in front of her.

______________________________________________________

They were growing frustrated with her. For days they had been following this one and then that one, and they didn’t seem any closer to whatever it was she was looking. She had paid out plenty of money to get it; wasting her trust in her vengeful quest to lay waste to someone else. People had lost their lives as well as their integrity, maybe even their souls, over it.

They had been witness to it all, but being ordered about by her in her seeming never-ending scavenger hunt was growing tiresome. The axe she was trying to grind wasn’t even her own; it belonged to her father, and as far as they knew, he hadn’t asked her to do that for him. He was old, had mellowed, and seemed pretty content with his lot in life even though circumstance had forced that lot upon him.

They were glad when she lay off following Hart’s wife and kid. Jonathan Hart from a distance was one thing, but getting up close and personal with the man through his family was quite another. They tried to impress that upon her, but she didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of what they were attempting to convey. The kid had shown up to visit Chris, that previous Saturday and then been joined by her mother. They had followed Jennifer Hart to that condo, watched her go in and then come out with a bag. From that, she was convinced that Chris was passing information to the Harts. Chris was supposed to be gone for good, but  as it turned out, that element of it wasn’t going to be that easily eliminated.

Now, she was convinced that the Allen sisters had disappeared from radar due to Jonathan Hart’s maneuvering. They tried telling her that was a signal that they should cut their losses; Hart was onto to something, if not them particularly; he had a clue, and that made them nervous.

But she was determined. For her, putting all of it together and pulling it off, had been a long time in coming. Who knew that 9/11 would happen before she got her chance, and that so many other things would go wrong?

She had zeroed in on her two last hopes for finding what she’d paid for, Martin’s wife and Alice Rangel, specifically Alice, whom she considered to be the weaker link. Over coffee that morning, she had lain it out for Alice, but with the thing at the park foiled by those kids and all that security, Alice seemed to have been trying to run. But at the last minute, way down the road, she had come back, which unbeknownst to her had saved her life- for the moment.

Outside that apartment building, waiting for Alice to resurface, they cast furtive glances to each other as they sat in the front seats of the car. Slumped in the back, she was watching like a hungry hawk the front doors of the building through the tinted rear windows of the black sedan.

______________________________________________________

“C-C-Chris, you’re okay.” Claire stammered. “I wasn’t expecting you. Not here. Not like this.”

She wanted to stop talking after telling Chris that she wasn’t expecting her to be there, but she couldn’t. She knew that she was sounding stupid, and perhaps childish, but the words were leaving her involuntarily, pouring out of her exactly as she was feeling them. There Chris was, standing there, looking larger than life, just as she always did when she showed up out of the blue in times of trouble. She wanted to run to her, and tell her how glad, how relieved, she was to have here there, but she didn’t. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t.

Chris didn’t move from the doorway. “Yes, I’m okay. Did you think I wouldn’t be? Or were you hoping I wouldn’t be?”

Not knowing what to say in reply to the icy tone of  Chris’ voice, even more so than her questions, Claire lowered her eyes to the bed from which she hadn’t made it all the way up. It was reassuring to have Chris there, but the scrapes she could see on her face were disturbing; the overwhelming guilt was humbling.

Seconds later, without having heard her approach, Chris’ thumb and index fingers gripped her chin. “Did he do this to you?”

In the time spent there alone, Claire had almost forgotten about that eye. In those previous few seconds, she had forgotten about it completely. When she didn’t answer, Chris used those fingers on her chin to force her into standing and looking her in the eye.

“I asked you if he did this to you.”

Claire, still trying to avoid Chris’ abrasions and her steady gaze, only nodded in reply.

“Why?” Chris asked, keeping her hand on Claire’s face, preventing her from turning away anything other than her eyes.

Claire forcefully pulled her chin from Chris’ hold and sat back down on the bed where she clasped her hands tightly on her lap.

“He wanted you,” she mumbled, “not me… like it’s always been… with everyone.”

______________________________________________________

Startled, Pat first recoiled in shock and then rushed with concern toward the barely moving girl who had rolled onto her back and lay sprawled in the grass before her.

“You are goddamned certifiable!” she declared as she knelt next to J.J., smoothing her hands down her arms and legs, checking her over, and then looking up to the open window and the ledge off which the child had apparently just jumped. “I do not believe you. You are fuc- You are as crazy as hell. Where the hell did you think you were escaping to with half your damned wits and only one good eye?”

“You have a serious case of potty mouth, Aunt Pat,” J.J. exhaled, sounding dazed as she held her hand over her forehead and the eye that wasn’t covered by the eye patch. “You really should have your mouth washed out.”

“And you should have your ass kicked,” Pat countered. “You make a person cuss. I cannot believe that you did this.”

“I think it was the medicine. Those pills and those drops made me do it. I told you I didn’t want to take any of it.”

“Oh, shut the hell up with that nonsense. You did this because it’s what you wanted to do. J.J., you could have killed yourself. You were unconscious once, maybe even twice, earlier today; you have an injured eye, and you’re on medication. Now I happen to be passing by, only to find you jumping out of second floor windows. This is totally irresponsible and downright inconsiderate of you.”

“Technically, I didn’t jump; I dropped. And I’ve done it before. I knew what I was doing. I’m okay.”

“You’re okay? Why are you so dizzy now if you knew so well what you were doing then? I can hear and see the damned tweety-birds and stars circling your head.”

Despite how badly she was feeling and the trouble she was in, J.J. grinned at the cartoonish mental picture her aunt had just painted for her.

“Justine Jennifer Hart, I know you are not laughing about this. Girl, I am telling you, I am two seconds off of taking this belt off and using it on that sassy, devil-may-care tail of yours to get through to your extra-hard head. I don’t care how old you are, or how otherwise injured you might be, I’m real close to wearing you out. Where the hell are you trying to go? What were you thinking, coming out of the house in that manner? Are the stairs on fire? ”

“You said for me not to show my face on the first floor-”

“So here we go with that loophole stuff again. I told your mother earlier that you are just like your father: absolutely nuts. I bet he did things like this as a kid and then tried to weasel his way out of them when he got caught, just like you do now. One day, young lady, you’re going to hang yourself high and choke to damned death on one of those very loopholes you’re so fond of utilizing. Answer my question. Where did you have to go so badly that you’re climbing out of windows to get there?”

Slowly J.J. sat up, but found she had to lean against Pat when the wooziness wouldn’t subside. “I just wanted some air.”

“Oh, I guess now I have “Sucker” written across my forehead.”

“Huh? I didn’t say you ha-”

“So why not just open the window and stick your head out if you “just needed some air”? Strum that tune for someone else, J.J. Hart. The truth, and I want it now.”

J.J. sighed. “Okay, okay, I wanted to see what was going on out at the tool shed. There are strange cars out there, and I wanted to see what was up. Who’s out there? Do you know? Are the other dolls from the project in there, Aunt Pat? Is that where Daddy has them stored? I know he had them taken up from the park and brought here.”

“And how is it you know all of that?”

For the first time, J.J. raised her eye to her aunt’s. “I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to name my sources.” Then she went back to resting her forehead in her cupped hand.

Pat Hamilton, editor-in-chief, squeezed shut her eyes and pressed away the tickle on her lips triggered by J.J.’s journalistic stalling. Then she had to hug the girl to her when she nestled down into her bosom to admit her guilt and profess her contrition, all the while holding her swimming head.

“But I’ll have to agree with you about this having been a bonehead move, Aunt Pat. I don’t know what this would have been like if you hadn’t been here. I’d still be lying there, I guess, but passed out completely. If you help me get back to my bed, or maybe just to the couch in the den- I don’t know if I can do the stairs, I promise you I won’t give you a moment’s more trouble. I feel like hell. So very dizzy, I almost wanna puke. You won’t tell my mother about this, will you? Or Daddy?”

“Forget about it. We all mess up.” Pat pressed her hand against J.J.’s back and leaned her forward a bit just in case she did have to let her lunch go. “And besides it’s you and me; your parents aren’t here. It’s not as if I don’t know you have some serious psychological issues; I’ve been covering for you and for them for the past sixteen years, and I’ll probably be doing so for the rest of my life. You just shocked me, dropping out of no where like that. I’m glad you didn’t hurt yourself any further from the fall.”

J.J. sat back upright after a few moments and then wiped at the clammy perspiration lightly peppering her forehead.

“Me, too,” she managed to utter. “I’m okay, Aunt Pat, really. Listen, I’m sorry about scaring you, and for being irresponsible. I didn’t see it like that when I came up with this last minute plan, but I do now. I also apologize for being inconsiderate. Now that I’ve thought about it, this really was stupid and thoughtless. Everybody’s looking out for me except me. I guess I’m not as invincible as I like to believe I am. Seems like somebody’s always putting just the right person right there to catch me when I’m doing something wrong or dumb.”

With her arm around her, Pat assisted J.J. in getting up from the ground, thinking to herself, “What can I say?”

Allowing J.J. to shift most of her weight onto her as they slowly headed back to the main house, Pat marveled at how peculiarly she had been diverted from her own last minute plan to descend upon the pool house- and Chris.

“Somebody is always looking out….”

______________________________________________________

Arrived in his office at HartToys, Ken Matheson pulled from the machine the fax which awaited him. It was the records he had requested from Alice Rangel’s cell phone. Taking them to his desk, he sat down and lay them out next to the late Fred Martin’s.

Was she or wasn’t she? Were they or weren’t they?

Not as far as those phone records showed.

From what he could see after checking, rechecking, checking again, there were numerous calls made from Martin’s phone to Rangel, but none made from her to him. He then looked to see if there were any numbers he recognized on Rangel’s records, or if there were any repetitions on his that might indicate that maybe she could have been using another number to contact him.

But Zale had been his usual thorough self; he had investigated and identified the repetitions on Alice’s records: her mother, a sister, and several to one Carol Leonard, the teacher who was involved in assigning J.J. Hart and the other kids to that project with those dolls.

The teacher’s number was right there, giving him that push he needed. “Why wait until Monday?” he whispered to himself.

He picked up the telephone and punched it in.

Continue to Part Thirteen

 

 

Please leave a comment

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

w

Connecting to %s