Title: Poison
By: Lacey McBain (pen name)
Date: July 2003
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Violence, some bad language, hurt/comfort.
Summary: After an argument with his brother, Rick is faced with the possibility of never being able to apologize.
Time frame: Partway through the series - after the move to the new office, but prior to the arrival of Abigail Marsh.
Disclaimer: "Simon & Simon" was created by Philip de Guere, for which I am very grateful. 

Part 1 - Occupational Hazards

A.J. Simon was not a happy man.  As he drove along the San Diego freeway heading for home, he kept running over in his mind everything that Rick had said to him at the office.

"Why does he always do this to me?" A.J. muttered half-aloud.  The wind whipped through his blond hair as he drove, and his thoughts returned to the scene at the office that was still troubling him hours later.

It had been a perfectly ordinary start to the day at Simon and Simon Investigations.  A.J. was early, Rick was late.  When Rick burst in with a giant grin on his face and a dilapidated cardboard box in his arms, A.J. braced himself for whatever "great deal" his brother had found for them now.

"A.J.," Rick said, closing the door behind him with a quick kick.  "You are going to love this!"  Rick dumped the cardboard box onto A.J.'s desk and stepped back looking immensely pleased with himself.

"Which means I'm probably going to hate it," A.J. said casually, leaning back in his desk chair.  "Surplus Sammy's or Death from Above?" A.J. asked.

"Ah, come on, A.J., just give it a chance," Rick said, starting to open the box.

"Rick," A.J. began, feeling as if he were about to burst the balloon of a small child.  Over the years there had been a parade of equally shabby boxes dropped onto his desk accompanied by equally eager grins.  They were also usually accompanied by an enormous bill that A.J. ultimately ended up being responsible for.

"OK, so it's from Surplus Sammy's, but he gave me a great deal." Rick was busy pulling out a random collection of Styrofoam peanuts and old newspapers.  A.J. stood up to peer into the interior of the box as Rick withdrew something that looked like a large aluminum salad bowl draped with an impressive collection of wires.

"Well, what do you think?" Rick said.

"I didn't know Sammy was branching out into electronic kitchenware."

"What?  No, it's a Parabolic Hyper-Sensitive Cyber-Ear," Rick said matter-of-factly.  "It can pick up a whisper over three blocks away."

"And how much did this overgrown microphone cost us?"  A.J. said, suspiciously eyeing the contraption that Rick was holding.

"It was a steal - only 500 bucks," Rick said quickly, settling the device back into its box.

"500 bucks!" A.J. yelled.  "We don't have the money for that."

"Hey, these little beauties usually go for twice that.  Sammy gave us a deal," Rick said, his face colouring slightly and his voice rising.

"Yeah, I bet he did.  He knows a sucker when he sees one," A.J. said fixing his brother with an icy blue-eyed stare.  "And how did you pay for this?  Last time I checked, your credit cards had a date with Mr. Scissors."

"It was a damn good deal, A.J.," Rick said stiffly.  "I didn't think you'd mind."

"Rick, how did you pay for it? And please don't tell me you put it on my credit card," A.J. said.

"Fine, I won't tell you," Rick said, picking the box up and moving it to the floor beside his own desk..  He flopped down in his office chair, and swung his boots up onto the desk.

"Rick, you can't keep doing this," A.J. started.  "We're supposed to be partners."

Rick wheeled around in his chair and adjusted his hat.  A.J. could see the colour rising in Rick's cheeks.  The exuberance he'd shown over his new toy had been displaced by a hardness that A.J. had always hated.  He associated it with the Marine Sergeant from Vietnam, not the carefree older brother he'd grown up with.

"Here we go again with the partnership speech," Rick sneered.  "Why is it that any time I purchase something for the office, I hear ‘we're supposed to be partners, Rick,' but when you do it, it's just business.  Funny definition of partnership, little brother.  Seems to me that it means you make all the decisions and I just nod and say thanks for letting me work here."

"That's not fair," A.J. interjected, but Rick's anger was gaining speed quicker than the bulls at Pamplona.

"Isn't it?  You're always telling me what to do:  ‘that's breaking and entering, Rick'; ‘we can't take guns into Mexico, Rick';‘we can't shoot the client, Rick.'" Rick's voice was a biting caricature of his younger brother's.  A.J. bristled at the bitterness in Rick's voice as Rick continued his tirade: "You think you're so damned smart with your college degree and your expensive suits, but you would have been dead ten times over if it wasn't for me, and I don't need to be told what to do or how to do it by you."

Rick pointed to the box sitting beside his desk.  "This is a necessary piece of equipment and I made an executive decision.  I thought you'd be pleased that I showed some initiative, but I forgot that I need to ask permission before I do anything around here."

Rick got up and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" A.J. asked, trying to control his own emotions.  He really wanted to tell Rick to go to hell, but knew that wasn't going to do anything but escalate a situation that was already careening out of control.

"Out," Rick said, opening the door.  "If that's okay with you," he added sarcastically as he slammed the door behind him.

A.J. stared at the door, the glass panel still shaking from Rick's departure.  Part of him wanted to go after Rick and yell at him for being a jerk; the other part of him wanted to throw something at the door, preferably the aluminum dish parading as the latest high-tech gizmo that had started all of this.  A.J. put his head down on the desk for a moment and came to a decision.  He stripped off his jacket and loosened his tie, heading for the weight bench.  Maybe pumping a little iron would help, and when Rick returned, no doubt calmer and slightly humbled, they would go out for a drink and chalk it up to one of the hazards of working with family.

Except it hadn't worked out that way.


A.J. grabbed his mail out of the box and slid his key into the lock on his home, his mind still turning over the argument.  Rick hadn't returned to the office and A.J. felt the tension from their argument still lingering in his muscles despite his attempt to purge the anger with a good workout.  Even a quick shower and a cup of his favourite coffee from the bistro down the block hadn't done anything to improve A.J.'s mood.  He'd tried to concentrate on paperwork, but with Rick's words still ringing in his ears, he finally gave up, locked the office and headed for home.  For one long moment, he thought about taking the turnoff to the marina and Rick's houseboat, but decided that perhaps it was best to give Rick some space to cool down.  Eventually he'd come around–he always did.  Their fights were sometimes brutal, but the fallout was rarely long-lasting.

A.J. opened his kitchen door, throwing the mail onto the counter.  If he hadn't been distracted by the fight with Rick, maybe he would have noticed that the blinds on his patio doors were slightly disturbed, or that his copy of Antique Cars Quarterly had been carelessly tossed onto the otherwise neatly stacked pile of magazines on his coffee table.  Perhaps he would have heard the slight creak of the stairs as he walked from the kitchen to the living room, kicked off his shoes, and settled in the arm chair with a cold beer.  He took a long slow draught, willing himself to relax, and closed his eyes.  He'd worry about making up with Rick later.

Without warning, A.J. felt a sharp pain in the back of his head as a heavy object smashed down upon him.  The beer slipped from his hand and seeped rapidly into his carpet.  Through the darkness that was threatening to overtake him, A.J. struggled.  There were two men, maybe three, reaching for him, holding him.  He couldn't focus long enough to recognize any of the men as they repeatedly rained blows down upon him, battering him back into the chair from which he kept attempting to rise.  Finally, consciousness left him and he slumped backwards in the chair.

A deep, gravelly voice spoke from behind the chair: "Take off his shirt before you tie him up, and make sure the ropes are tight."  The three men in dark suits complied, ignoring the trickle of blood that dripped onto A.J.'s bare chest as they stripped him to the waist and secured his hands and feet with heavy-weight rope.

The man, tall and fair-haired, clothed in a white lab coat, walked towards the chair where A.J. slumped with his back towards him.  The man raised his hand and the glint of a needle shone in the afternoon sunlight.  He admired the straight thin line of the needle, the way the small drop of amber liquid clung to the tip for a moment before plummeting to the ground.

"I think it's time to contact his brother," the man said quietly never taking his eyes off the needle in his hands.  "The trace is still active?"

"Yes," the tallest of the three men replied.

"You know what to do," the white-coated man said, as he moved forward into the living room and stood by A.J..  "Let's hope his brother is as cooperative as we expect he will be," he said, plunging the needle deep into A.J.'s upper arm, expelling the amber liquid.  A small smile of satisfaction passed over his lips.


Part 2 - Choices

The Power Wagon flew down the highway at an alarming speed, Rick Simon cursing the late afternoon traffic.  It had been a long day already, and now this.  A mysterious phone call telling him to get over to A.J.'s or else.  He'd even called back to A.J.'s number to make sure that the call had really come from there and the same dispassionate voice had simply responded: "the clock's ticking."

Now he was heading for A.J.'s not having a clue what awaited him there.  And the only thing that kept running through his mind was the way he'd stormed out of the office earlier in the day.  As he pulled into A.J.'s driveway, he tried to put that out of his mind.  Whatever was going on, A.J. was in serious trouble.  There'd be time for apologies later.

Rick moved silently around the side of the house to the glass patio doors, his .44 Magnum clutched in his right hand.  The blinds were askew, and he could just make out a blond-haired figure slumped in the chair.  Rick fought the urge to fling the door aside and rush to his brother, choosing instead to slide one of the patio doors open as quietly as possible.

"Come in, Mr. Simon," a voice called pleasantly.  "No need to stand on ceremony.  It is your brother's home, after all.  Practically your second home."

Rick, gun still drawn, moved through the door and into the living room, taking in the scene in an instant.  An unconscious A.J. was naked to the waist, bound at his wrists and ankles, and there was dried blood on his nose and chest.  Obviously, he hadn't gone down without a fight.  On either side of him stood tall well-built men in dark suits, each carrying a handgun.  Behind the chair, a fair-haired man in a white lab coat, blinked slowly at Rick through thick lenses.  A quick glance to the side told Rick that another man stood guard at the kitchen door.

"Who the hell are you?" Rick said.

"That's not really important," said the man in the white coat.

"The hell it isn't–" Rick started, taking a step towards A.J..  The men beside A.J. raised their weapons sharply.

"Uh-uh, Mr. Simon," said the man. "I wouldn't recommend that.  If you're dead, then you have no chance of saving your brother's life."

Rick glanced across at A.J. who appeared to be stirring slightly in the chair, although he didn't seem to be any closer to consciousness.  Beads of perspiration were beginning to dot his forehead.  Rick could see the stray hairs on his forehead clinging to one another in damp clumps.

"What have you done to him?" Rick asked.  They'd both been beat up more times than he could count.  Something was different here–something that scared him.

"I've injected him with a highly toxic poison.  I used to be a chemist, you know," the man said proudly.  "One of the best."

A look of horror crossed Rick's face as the pale man continued.  "It's a rather slow-acting poison–it usually takes about 24 hours for a patient to succumb to its effects completely.  First there's a loss of consciousness, followed by a fever."  The man looked down at the beads of perspiration forming on A.J.'s face and smiled: "That's the stage he's entering now."

"Why you–" Rick began, but held his tongue as the men with guns stepped towards him menacingly.

"Then there will be delirium–that's always the most entertaining if you ask me–followed by a period of euphoria and lucidity.  A nice touch that, I thought.  That perfect moment of bliss just before the downward spiral into debilitating pain and madness.  Death is almost a blessing," he concluded thoughtfully.

"Why are you doing this?"  Rick asked, trying to take in the possibility that his brother could be dead by tomorrow evening.

"Because I need a little favour from you, Mr. Simon, and I didn't think I could persuade you to do it without some, shall we say, insurance?"

"What kind of favour?" Rick asked.

"I want you to kill someone," the man said bluntly.  "It's really very simple.  If you do as you're asked, I will provide you with the antidote to the poison and your brother will make a full recovery.  If not, then he will die and you will be responsible for his death."

Rick felt as if his heart had been ripped out of his chest.  He felt like he had to will himself to keep breathing.  He wasn't a cold-blooded killer, but this was A.J.'s life.  He'd never articulated the words before, but he knew he would do anything for his brother.  Even kill.

Rick's voice was cold as steel when he spoke again: "Who do you want me to kill?"

"A man.  A police lieutenant.  I believe you know him as ‘Downtown Brown.'" The man smiled as he saw the look of horror cross Rick's face.  "Your friend or your brother, Mr. Simon.  The choice is up to you."

With that, the man in the white coat began moving towards the kitchen exit.  His henchmen followed, still covering Rick with their guns.

"You have 24 hours, Mr. Simon.  I don't care when you do it or how, just so long as it gets done.  The antidote works quickly when applied, but I wouldn't leave things to the last minute if I were you."

"Wait–how do I find you?  To get the antidote?" Rick called to the retreating man desperately.

"I'll find you.  Don't worry, Mr. Simon.  I always keep my end of the bargain.  Always.  I hope you keep yours."  Just before he stepped through the door, he turned back towards Rick, who was already moving towards A.J..  "One more thing," the man said.  "If I were you, I'd call an ambulance.  He should really be in a hospital, even if there's not much they can do."

Rick didn't even notice the door shut as he reached A.J. and starting frantically untying his bonds.  With the ropes off, Rick felt for A.J.'s pulse, which was racing like a wild colt.  Rick pressed his hand to A.J.'s forehead and felt the skin burning beneath his fingers, drops of sweat clinging to his hand as he moved it away to examine A.J. for any other injuries.  A small red puncture mark was clearly visible on his right arm, and for a brief moment, Rick leaned his head against his brother's bare chest.

"I'm so sorry, A.J.," he whispered to his unconscious brother, his hands gripping A.J.'s shoulders firmly for a moment before releasing him.  "I'm sorry."

Rick reached for the phone.


Part 3 - Fever

Rick held A.J.'s hand all the way to the hospital, although he doubted that his brother was even aware of his presence.  Rick gave the paramedics all the information that he had, which he knew wasn't very much.  When they arrived at the hospital, Rick phoned his mother and asked her to come to the hospital and bring him a change of clothes.  He explained only as much as he felt was necessary, knowing that his mother was going to have more than enough to deal with during the next 24 hours–no matter what happened.


"Say what?" Town asked in disbelief.  He and Rick were standing on the roof of the San Diego General Hospital.

"I said someone's put out a contract on your life," Rick repeated.  "The same guy that poisoned A.J.."

"How do you know this?" Town questioned, leaning against the gray cement wall.

"‘Cause I talked to the guy," Rick said, lighting a cigar and blowing out a large puff of smoke.  "He gave me a choice–kill you or A.J. dies."

Town looked stunned.  "You're kidding, right?" But Town knew immediately that Rick wasn't joking.  "And what do the doctors say?"

Rick sighed heavily.  "They say the poison's not anything standard, and they're not sure how to treat it.  They're running tests, but A.J.'s best chance is the antidote, which apparently only Mr. Lab Coat can provide."

"Did he tell you how to contact him?" Town said.

"Nope, said he'd know when the deed was done and he'd be in touch."

"Then you're probably bugged," Town mouthed quietly.

"Already changed my clothes and went through them.  Nothing there.  I'm betting the trace's on the truck, and probably the Camaro too.  They knew I was at home when they called."

"So we've got to get to him–and the antidote–"

"Before A.J.'s time runs out," Rick finished.  "The guy said he was a chemist, one of the best, and he had three suits with him, hired muscle probably, but they knew what they were doing."

Town wrinkled his brows in thought.  "A chemist.  Tall?  Blond?"  Rick looked at Town and started to nod.  "Gravelly voice and Coke-bottle lenses?"

"You know him?" Rick said hopefully.

"Yeah," Town said.  "That one wasn't easy to forget.  I'll give you the quick version on the way to headquarters."


"So, basically what you're saying, Town, is that the guy's nuts.  A total fruit loop," Rick said, as they pulled into the parking lot of the San Diego Police Department.

"Pretty much.  But Dr. Griffin LeBarge is not your average psychopath.  I mean, he poisoned the entire executive staff at PharmaLife Industries simply because they had delayed production of his latest wonder drug.  The man's brilliant, but he's definitely a few bricks short of a load."

"Did they all die?" Rick asked, an image of A.J., pale and unconscious, involuntarily springing to mind.

"No," Town said.  "Fortunately, nobody died, which is why he ended up serving a short sentence.  One of his assistants found the antidote for us, but LeBarge was livid.  We hauled him off still screaming about betrayal and revenge."

"So why isn't he going after that guy instead of you?"  Rick asked, as they made their way through the crowd of people that surrounded the front desk of the Homicide division.  Town led the way into his office and closed the door behind Rick, gesturing for him to sit down.  Town sat on the edge of the desk.

"The assistant's already dead.  It happened about a year ago while LeBarge was still in prison, so we couldn't exactly pin it on him."

"Poison?" Rick asked.

Town shook his head.  "A single shot from a sniper rifle.  We never caught anyone for it, but I'm positive LeBarge arranged it."

"That still doesn't explain why he wants to kill you," Rick said.

"Well, it was an undercover op; I was on loan to vice at the time.  In fact, it had nothing to do with LeBarge in the beginning.  The company'd been pegged as a major supplier of some fairly unusual synthetic drugs that were filtering onto the streets.  I went in as a janitor, cleaning the lab and such, trying to get a feel for who worked in the lab, who had access to chemicals, who had the brains to run that kind of operation.  I think LeBarge trusted me because I was just a janitor, not smart enough to understand his research or his plans, so he talked about everything.  How his work was undervalued, how no one appreciated him, you get the idea," Town said.

"So was he involved?"

"No, it was the research assistant, Jonathon Tandy.  Unfortunately, we caught on to him at about the same time that LeBarge's funding was cut on his major project.  The good doctor's response was to give everyone at the weekly board meeting a little something extra with their coffee.  He thought a demonstration of his research would help to convince them of its value."

"Good thinking," Rick said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, except the board wasn't too keen on being poisoned to make a point, and when the CEO demanded that LeBarge produce the antidote, he refused.  He wanted more research funding and a patent agreement, if you can believe it.  Tandy came up with the antidote for us, and for that he got a walk on the drug charges.  Lebarge went to prison for attempted murder.  I was the arresting officer.  I was also the one he'd confided in about his research, and I think more than anything, he took that as a personal betrayal."

"How long's he been out?" Rick asked.

"Not long," Town responded, opening a file on his desk.  "Apparently just long enough to figure out what kind of personal betrayal would be the most fitting."

Rick's face turned red and he looked away from Town.

"Come on, Rick, I didn't mean anything.  I'm just saying that LeBarge did his homework.  He knows we're friends.  He also knows you'd do anything for your brother.  He wanted someone whose betrayal would hurt me the most; the only other choice would have been one of my officers, and we can't rule that out either.  He's probably got a back-up plan in the works."

"So, what do we do?"

"We find him and the antidote," Town said.

"What about staging a shooting, like we did with *** when there was a leak in the department?" Rick asked.

"Too risky, and I don't think LeBarge would buy it.  He knows you're going to come to me and try to swing a deal of some kind.  He'll be looking for something that's staged."

Town gave Rick a reassuring pat on the leg.  "Hey, don't give up.  We'll find a way to help A.J., even if you have to shoot me to do it," Town said with a grin.

Rick looked up at him with a serious expression.

"I was kidding about the shooting, Rick.  Jeez.  Go back to the hospital and check on A.J.. I'll do some digging and see if I can find a last known whereabouts on LeBarge.  I'll come by the hospital when I've got something, okay?"

"Okay," Rick said, and headed for the door.  Part of him was dreading going back to the hospital, but at the same time, he knew he couldn't be much help to Town at this point.

"Uh, Town?"  Rick said, sticking his head back in Town's open door.  Town looked up.

"My truck's still at A.J.'s.  Do y'suppose someone could..."

"Nixon!"  Town shouted.


Part 4 - Delirium

Cecelia Simon sat by her youngest son's bedside, holding his limp hand and praying.  The doctors had already told her that there was very little they could do unless they could determine the exact composition of the poison, and by the time that happened it would likely be too late to do anything for A.J..  Still, they had assured her, they would do their best.  A tall, fair-haired man in a long white lab coat stopped in briefly to check A.J.'s breathing, made a note on a clipboard and turned to go after giving A.J.'s pillow a slight adjustment.

"Is there any change, Doctor?" she asked.  He stared at her through his thick lenses, and patted her sympathetically on the shoulder.

"Don't give up hope, Mrs. Simon," he said in a rough voice, and left the room quietly.  She gripped A.J.'s hand a little tighter.  Hope was the only thing she had left.


Rick used his key to open A.J.'s front door and slipped inside.  Everything was just as they'd left it a few hours ago.  He wasn't sure what he was looking for exactly, but he had a feeling that LeBarge was the kind of man who didn't like his puppets to have too much play in the string.  Rick sensed he liked to have control of things.  He could have easily had his suits explain the situation to Rick without revealing himself, but he'd chosen to face him.  This was personal.  And Rick suspected that LeBarge knew he had gone straight to Town, even though he had tried to keep the meeting low-profile.  Somehow, though, Rick had the feeling that Town knowing about it was all part of LeBarge's plan.  Prey that knows it's being hunted tends to be more challenging.  Rick just wished he had a clearer idea of what the man wanted; yes, he wanted Town dead, but there was more to it.  Power, control.  All the things he hadn't had at PharmaLife.  Maybe this was his ultimate play for power.  Whatever the reason, he held all of their lives in the palm of his hand.

Rick continued to let his eyes play over the room, imagining the positions of the men, how they had moved, where they had walked.  His eyes caught the spilled beer on the rug, the bottle carelessly kicked partway under the couch.  He had a sudden urge to clean it up, as if setting that one small thing right would somehow make up for what had happened today.

"Concentrate," Rick told himself, and continued replaying the scene in his head.  A.J.'s pile of mail was sitting on the counter.  Rick riffled through it quickly: some bills, a postcard from a vacationing friend, the usual assortment of junk mail.  He was about to toss it back onto the counter when a small white card dropped to the floor.  Rick stooped to pick it up.

He turned it over and read: "Tandy Pharmaceuticals, The Future of Medicine."  Below it was an address and phone number.  Rick reached for the phone.


A little while later, Rick was making his way through the halls of San Diego General Hospital.  He stopped outside Room 416.  The door was slightly ajar and he could see his mother still sitting beside A.J.'s bed where he'd left her two hours ago.  He couldn't help but notice how frail she looked sitting there–how frail they both looked.  The steady beeping of the heart and blood pressure monitors seemed to mark the passing of time, and with every beep Rick felt seconds slipping away.  Even with the info he'd just gotten to Town, would they be able to get the antidote in time?  He honestly didn't know.  With a sigh, he put any thoughts of failure from his mind and stepped into the room.

"Hi, Mom," Rick said, as his mother stood up to greet him, wrapping her arms around his waist and squeezing him tightly.

"Oh, Rick," she said, and Rick could tell she was on the verge of tears.  "Any news?" she asked hopefully.

"Town's checking some leads.  He's going to come get me in a little while and we're going to find the guy who did this."  Rick let his mother return to her seat, as he crossed around to the opposite side of the bed.  A.J. was stirring in his sleep, his face flushed and covered with sweat.  Rick reached out a hand and gently laid it on his brother's forehead.  A.J.'s skin was burning up.

"They've given him something to help control the fever," Cecelia said, "but they said there's not much they can do.  He's just started getting more restless within the last ten minutes or so.  Before that he hardly moved at all."

They both strained to hear as A.J. began muttering in his sleep.  At first it was an incoherent jumble of sounds, but slowly they could make out a few words, the most prominent of all being "Rick."

Rick leaned closer to A.J. and put his hand on his arm.  "I'm right here, kid.  It's Rick.  Mom and I are right here."

A.J. continued to mumble in his sleep, giving no indication that he had heard what Rick said, or even that he was aware of the presence of his family in the room.

"Delirium," Rick said, breathing out slowly.

"What?" his mother asked.

"The guy who did this–Griffin LeBarge–he said that after the fever would come delirium.  Then he'd get real clear about things, almost as if there was nothing wrong, and then–" Rick broke off suddenly, not wanting to upset his mother.

"Then what, Rick?  Tell me."

"Mom," Rick began.

"Tell me, Rick.  I'm his mother," Cecelia said, her fierce love for both her sons obvious in her tone.

"Then pain and madness, and then, if we can't find the antidote..." Rick's voice was shaking as it trailed off.  He paused, trying to detach from the fear he was feeling inside.

"If we can't find the antidote, we'll lose him," his mother finished for him.  A tear slipped from her eyes and trickled down her face.  She dashed it away, looking embarrassed that she had let Rick see her that way.  "Well, that's not going to happen," she said with renewed determination.  "You and Town will come up with something.  I know you will."

For a moment, neither of them said anything.  The relentless beeping and the steady stream of muttering from A.J. filled the silence around them.  Rick and Cecelia, each holding one of A.J.'s hands, each uttered a silent prayer. They were still in that position when Lt. Brown entered the room a half hour later.


A.J. felt as if he were wrapped in layers of white cotton.  He knew his limbs shouldn't feel heavy, yet he couldn't move his body or even lift his head.  He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be glued in place.  His muscles were stiff and aching, but he couldn't seem to will them to move.  And he was so unbearably warm.  If he could just toss these blankets aside, maybe he could breathe more easily.  In his mind, he struggled to free himself, but nothing he did seemed to have any effect.

A.J. thought he could hear voices–very faint, as if they were coming from a long distance away.  He strained to listen more carefully, but the steady flow of language was indistinct, chaotic.  The voice seemed familiar, though, and he desperately wanted to move, to reach out for that voice.  It gave him proof that he wasn't alone in the world.  If only he could open his eyes, maybe he'd know who it was.  Maybe it was Rick.  Rick was trying to help him, trying to get him out of this cotton-shrouded nightmare.  A.J. couldn't understand where he was, but somehow he knew that Rick would find a way to come and get him.  He just had to hang on.

But then, A.J. had another thought.  Hadn't Rick yelled at him?  He strained to brush the gauzy-cobwebs from his mind and bring his thoughts into focus.  Yes, Rick had been angry at him, although he couldn't remember why.  Something about salad bowls, he thought, but that didn't seem quite right.  Rick didn't even like salad.  Was it a birthday present for Mom?  He hated not being able to remember.

Maybe if he got some sleep, he'd feel better when he woke up.  He would try.  The voice was still there, playing in the background like a familiar tune.  He listened without understanding as the world slipped behind a curtain of white.


"What did he say?"  Town asked, looking over at A.J..  He and Rick were going through the files that Town had brought.  Although Town had wanted to discuss their next move somewhere else, Cecelia had insisted that she be included.

"Sounded like ‘salad bowls'," Rick said, flipping through papers detailing LeBarge's past.  "Sometimes he's pretty clear, but mostly it's jumbled.  Sometimes he says my name or Mom's, but I don't think he really knows we're here."

"Somewhere inside he knows, Rick," Cecelia said.  "A.J. knows we'd never let him go through this alone."

Town looked from mother to son, then over to A.J..  He'd known the Simon family a long time, and there was no one better in a crisis. He just hoped to God they could find LeBarge before it was too late.

"Did you check out the company on that card I found?" Rick asked, setting down the file and rubbing his eyes.

"Yeah," said Town.  "Now things get really weird.  Tandy Pharmaceuticals is owned by Jonathon Tandy's family."

"LeBarge's research assistant?  The one that's dead?"

"That's the one.  His sister, Veronica Tandy, inherited the company from their father about six months ago.  Now, Ms. Tandy is currently in Europe, but her executive assistant was kind enough to provide me with some information."

"Such as?" Cecelia asked.

"Well, Kimberly–that's the secretary–let slip that Veronica and her brother had never been close.  Apparently Jonathon's father disowned him; that's why he was working for the competition rather than the family business."

"Nice family," said Rick.

"It gets better.  Apparently, Ms. Tandy has, shall we say, expensive tastes?  In the last six months, she's been actively spending the company's profits and is desperate for new investors.  Her jaunt to Europe is to entice support for a new ‘top secret wonder drug' according to Kimberly."

"Kimberly's a regular fountain of information, isn't she?" Rick said with a pointed look at Town.

"Ms. Tandy had better invest in a new assistant when she gets back, I think," Cecelia added.

"I suspect Kimberly was told to give us that information," Town said.  "LeBarge left that business card at A.J.'s because he wanted us to call Tandy Pharmaceuticals."

"But why?" Cecelia asked.

"Because he's playing a game with us, because he wants us to know that he knows every step we're making," Rick said, "and that he's still two steps ahead of us."

"Not quite," Town said grinning.  "After I got through with Kimberly, I put in another call to the personnel office.  The business card had the number for Veronica Tandy's direct line on it, so I wanted to see what would happen if we took a different route."

"Good thinking," Rick said.

"Well, personnel told me that they'd recently hired a new chemist who had revolutionized their pharmaceutical line."

"LeBarge?"  Rick said incredulously.  Could the man really be so bold as to go to work for the sister of the man he'd had killed?

"That's what I thought too, but no.  It turns out the new hotshot on the block is Dr. Alice Penner," Town said.

"I've seen that name somewhere before," Rick said, flipping through the pages in front of him.

"Yup, she was another one of LeBarge's research assistants at PharmaLife," Town said.

"I don't see the connection," Cecelia said, patting A.J.'s arm quietly as he continued to toss and turn.

"Well, there might not be one, but it is a strange coincidence.  However, the real news is that they also had a high-turnover in their warehouse just recently.  They had a freak accident–a chemical fire–and three of their employees decided the job wasn't worth it.  They hired two men and one woman to replace them."

"Get to the point, Town," Rick said with growing frustration.  "We don't exactly have a lot of time to figure this out."

"OK, one of the men they hired was Leopold Griffin," Town said triumphantly.

"Who's Leopold Griffin?" Cecelia asked.  She stood up and poured herself a glass of water from the jug on the bedside stand.

"Griffin Lebarge, Leopold Griffin–it's too close to be a coincidence," Rick said, catching Town's line of thought.  "Do you have the address for the warehouse?"

Town held out a piece of paper with an address written on it.  "He's going to be expecting us to look for him at the lab or the main offices.  I don't think he's going to expect us to drop in on him at work.  His shift starts at midnight," Town said.

"We're going to get him," Rick said with more confidence than he'd felt all day.  "I'm going to take Mr. Tall, Blond and Bug-Eyed and feed his little white lab coat to him piece by piece."

Rick and Town both turned at the sound of a plastic tumbler hitting the floor.  Cecelia let out a small cry as she looked at them with fright.

Rick was at her side in an instant, his hands on her arms, bending down to look into her eyes.  "Mom?  What is it?"

"Tall?  Blond?  Thick glasses?  A lab coat?"  Cecelia said, her voice catching with each descriptor.  Rick nodded slowly.

"He was here, Rick.  I thought he was a doctor.  He checked A.J.'s breathing and told me not to give up hope.  He patted me on the shoulder before he left," Cecelia said, shaking her left shoulder as if trying to shake off the memory of the man's touch.

"There are lots of tall, blond doctors–" Town began, but Rick cut him off.

"A deep voice with a rattle in it?" Rick's eyes were locked with his mother's.  She nodded, and he pulled her to him in a hug.  The bastard had been in this very room with his mother, with A.J..  He'd laid a hand on them both, and there was nothing Rick could've done to stop him.  As he held his mother, who was now sobbing against his chest, he vowed that before the night was through, Griffin Lebarge would pay for what he'd done to his family.  Rick would make sure of it, if it was the last thing he ever did.


Part 5 - Euphoria

"Just calm down, Rick," Town said, as they left the hospital.  The sun had already set when they climbed into the Power Wagon and headed for A.J.'s house.

"Nixon and Murphy will make sure that no one gets into that room without proper I.D.." Town tried to sound reassuring.

"I just can't believe that bastard was there," Rick said slamming his hand on the steering wheel.

"We're going to get him.  We've got the element of surprise working for us.  He probably figures he doesn't have to worry about us til Tandy reopens in the morning, or at the very least, he'll think we spent tonight going through their records.  He knows he's safe til the end of his shift."

"There's something else that keeps going through my head," Rick said quietly, following the dark curve of the highway along the ocean towards A.J.'s.

"What's that?"

"What if there's no antidote?"  Rick said, glancing across at Town.  "I mean, what if there's no way to win this game?  What if LeBarge never had any intention of saving A.J., even if I did what he wanted?"

"There's no way to know for sure," Town replied.  "But Lebarge is nuts, he's not stupid.  I don't think anyone who messes with poison would neglect to make an antidote–just in case."

Rick didn't reply, and Town grasped his shoulder lightly.  "Hey, it'll be okay, man," Town said.  He looked at Rick's face and realized there was more going on than just worry.  "Something else is buggin' you.  Spill it."

Rick took the last turnoff to A.J.'s.  "We had a fight," he said.  Town sat quietly in the dark, waiting for Rick to go on with the story.  "It was a stupid fight.  I bought something–"

"Surplus Sammy's or Death From Above?" Town interjected before he realized he would've been better to keep his mouth shut.

"That's not important.  Anyway, I yelled at him, told him he couldn't tell me what to do, and I stormed out."  Rick's voice got quieter.  "Next time I saw him, Town, he was tied up and drugged.  He hasn't been conscious since, and he might not even come outta this.  And the last things I said to him. . .well, it wasn't one of my finer moments."

"You and A.J. fight.  It's what you do.  Some of the time it's even moderately entertaining.  Everyone who knows you knows that you don't mean a word of it most of the time."

"This wasn't one of those times," Rick said.

"Even so, you're brothers.  Brothers fight.  Not only that you're partners and you're friends.  I've never known two people who were closer than the two of you; A.J. knows how you feel, even if you're acting like a big jerk."

Catching a less than friendly look from Rick, Town hastened to continue: "And you still love him when he's acting like a big jerk.  After we get the antidote, you can both apologize, okay?"

By this time, they had reached A.J.'s driveway.  Rick turned off the truck, but made no move to get out.  Town waited; Rick was feeling guilty and Town suspected there was at least one more confession Rick had to get off his chest before they could move forward with their plan.

"There was a moment when I considered it, you know?" Rick said softly.  The words seemed to hang in the air between them like a small shadow.

"You don't owe me any explanations, Rick."

"He's my little brother, Town.  He's the most important person in the world to me.  If I lost him–"

"That's not going to happen."

"I would do anything to save him.  Anything.  If LeBarge'd asked for my life in exchange, it would've been an easy choice."

"I know.  And A.J.'d do the same.  But guilt's not going to do any of us any good tonight, Rick.  Let's just get it done."

Town gave Rick another pat on the shoulder, thanking his lucky stars not for the first time that Rick Simon considered him a good friend.  If it had been someone else that LeBarge had asked Rick to kill in order to save his brother's life, Town was almost certain that person wouldn't still be walking around or breathing.

They hopped out of the truck and did a quick sweep of the perimeter before entering the house.  Seeing nothing had been disturbed, the two men lowered their guns, flipped on the lights, and Town placed a black duffle bag on the kitchen counter.

"What's that?" Rick asked indicating the duffle as he headed for the locked gun cabinet that formed part of the bookshelves in A.J.'s living room.

"A little insurance," Town said with a smile, lightly patting the bulky bag, and for the first time all day, Rick actually felt like grinning back.


Cecelia was dreaming.  She was running down a long corridor with doors on all sides.  She didn't stop to try the doors; she knew they would be locked.  A man in a white lab coat and Coke-bottle lenses was sitting in a chair at the end of the hallway.  As she approached, she could see he was writing on a clipboard and pointing to an enormous black clock on the wall.  Beneath the clock, a small blond boy was sitting on a chair, swinging his feet and humming to himself.  Cecelia couldn't quite make out the tune, but it was both sad and sweet, and it filled her with a sense of longing for things long gone.  Her parents.  Jack.  Things she hadn't thought of in years. Cecelia stopped and tried to make out the time on the clock, but the hands were spinning so rapidly, she could hardly see them.

"Make it stop," she cried out to the tall, blond man, who only shook his head and smiled.

"Don't give up hope, Mrs. Simon," the man said politely.  "You still have one son left."

He pointed to a door that had opened to her left.  Cecelia looked through it and saw Rick frantically searching a room that was lined with white shelves.  On the shelves were thousands of bottles of all shapes and sizes, each filled with a different liquid, each with a different label.  As Rick discarded each bottle, it would break on the floor at his feet.  A pile of glass and multicoloured liquid was forming around him, but he didn't seem to notice.  Finally, he seized a bottle that was shaped like a miniature cowboy hat and filled with amber liquid.  The label said, "Drink Me."  As Cecelia watched in horror, Rick opened the bottle and drank.  The floor turned dark red and when she looked down, Rick was lying in a pool of blood and broken glass.

She tried to scream, but something stopped her.  The little boy that had been sitting under the clock was suddenly standing beside her.  He reached for her hand and she saw that his eyes were the clear blue of cornflowers.  He smiled and said, "Mom?  It's okay.  It's A.J.."  She felt his grip tighten on her hand, and it was so warm and so strong, she wanted to believe it was real.

She heard his voice again, but this time the little boy's voice sounded much deeper and farther away.  With a start, she awoke. The hand that was grasping hers was A.J.'s.

"Hey, Mom, it's okay.  I didn't mean to scare you," A.J. said, cornflower-blue eyes looking at her with concern.  Before he could say anything else, she had flung her arms around her youngest and held him tightly.  When she finally let go, A.J. looked at her.

"I know this is going to sound a little strange," he said, "but what am I doing in the hospital?"


Rick and Town arrived at the Tandy Pharmaceuticals warehouse just after midnight.  They had decided to wait until after the shift change just in case LeBarge was watching for them, although Town was positive he wouldn't be expecting them.

"No security guards and no dogs," Rick whispered triumphantly after returning from a recon around the exterior of the warehouse.

"Two exits, the secondary exit is poorly lit.  One skylight accessible from the fire escape.  That might be our best option given that it opens into a loft storage area that doesn't look like it gets much use."

"OK, let's do it.  Whatever happens, Town, we've got to get that antidote before we take LeBarge to the police," Rick said.

"I am the police!"

"You know what I mean.  Get moving," Rick said as he followed Town up the fire escape to the roof of the warehouse.


If his room hadn't been on the fourth floor, A.J. would have long since woven his sheets together and escaped out the window.  For what seemed like hours, he had sat impatiently as a steady stream of doctors and nurses had poked and prodded, measured and felt, drawn blood and other bodily fluids.  If one more person asked him how he felt, he swore there was going to be bloodshed.

His mother stuck her head in the door.  "A.J.?  How are you feeling?" she asked.

A.J. smiled and held his tongue.  "I'm fine, Mom.  I'm still not sure what all the fuss was about.  I feel great now," he said swinging his legs over the side of the bed, grateful some nurse had seen fit to leave him a pair of pale-blue pajama bottoms to change into.

"You stay right where you are, young man," Cecelia said before A.J.'s feet could touch the ground.  "This is still a very serious situation, and you are not to move one foot out of that bed.  Understood?"

It never failed to amaze A.J. how formidable their five foot three inch mother seemed when she wanted to be.  "Yes, ma'am," he said, still sitting sideways on the bed, but not venturing to let his feet touch the floor.  For a moment, Cecelia remembered her dream with the little blond boy swinging his legs back and forth.  She hastened to hide a smile as she watched her grown son do the same thing.

"A.J., honey, I told you everything that Rick told me."  Well, almost everything, she corrected mentally.  She'd withheld where Rick and Town had gone and the information about Griffin LeBarge and Leopold Griffin being the same man.  She didn't want to worry about A.J. running off half-cocked to that warehouse to try to help his brother.

"LeBarge said that there would be a period of time when you would feel really good, and then–" Cecelia broke off, unsure of how to continue.

"Let's not worry about that for now," A.J. said gently.  "And where's Rick?  I need to talk to him."

"He's with Town," Cecelia said evasively.

"You already said that.  That doesn't tell me where he is," he pointed out.  He knew she was worried, that she'd just sat at his bedside for eight solid hours, that without an antidote to whatever poison was coursing through his system, he'd probably be dead before the sun set.  Still, at this moment in time, he felt fine, better than fine, and he'd be damned if he was going to spend what might be his last day stuck in a hospital bed while his brother and one of his best friends risked their lives for his.

"Are you hungry?" Cecelia asked in an effort to divert A.J.'s attention from Rick's absence.

He was about to say no, when a thought struck him.  "That would be great, Mom.  Why don't you get something for yourself too?"

"I can just send Nixon down for something," Cecelia said, starting for the door.

"No, Mom, you need a break.  Why don't you take Murphy with you to help carry the trays; I'm really starving.  Nixon will be right outside."  A.J. flashed her his best smile.  "Besides, I don't have any real pants and I'm on the fourth floor.  I can't exactly scoot out the window, can I?"  A.J. stood up and gave his mother a hug.

"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to stretch my legs for a few minutes," Cecelia said heading towards the door.  "But I won't be long and I'm leaving Nixon with instructions to shoot if you so much as stick your nose outside this door."

As soon as the door swung shut behind her, A.J. moved to the closet.  He opened the door, once again grateful for his mother's efficiency.  The clothes that Rick had changed out of when he was checking for bugs were hung neatly in the closet beside his own grey dress pants.

"A little long," A.J. said to himself, "but they'll do."  He slipped off the hospital pants and slipped into Rick's faded blue jeans and denim shirt.  His brother's dark green field jacket was also hanging in the closet.  As A.J. slipped it over his shoulders, he caught a faint whiff of Old Spice.  A.J. smiled.  There was something comforting about the familiar smell and the slightly too-long jacket and pants.  For a moment, A.J. remembered being a boy and wondering when he would ever be able to fill Rick's shoes.

"Guess I've still got some catching up to do, big brother," A.J. said, folding a neat cuff at the bottom of each leg.  "And speaking of shoes..." A.J. looked down at his bare feet and then back into the empty closet.  Somehow one-size-fits-all hospital slippers didn't seem like the best choice for a speedy escape.

"You could've at least left me a gun, Rick," A.J. said, still carrying on his one-sided conversation as he finished tucking in the soft denim shirt and fastened the large clasp on the belt.  "Well, at least I've got this in a pinch," A.J. said patting the brass buckle lightly.  Rick's hidden knife had gotten them out of more than one tight situation.  A.J. retrieved a small white business card that he'd found tucked beneath his pillow when he'd awakened, and looked at it again.

"Well, at least I know where I'm going," he thought, slipping the card into the pocket of Rick's jacket.

A.J. edged over to the door and chanced a quick glance through the glass.  He could see Nixon leaning to the left of the door, but Murphy was nowhere in sight.  He hoped his mother had taken his advice to have Murphy help her bring back the food.

It was now or never.  A.J. waited til Nixon appeared to be looking down the hall to the left, then opened the door quickly, grabbing Nixon by the belt and pulling him sideways into the room.  With more force than was probably necessary, A.J. pushed Nixon up against the inside wall, and whispered, "I'm really sorry about this Nixon, but I need your shoes and your gun."  With his left hand holding Nixon in place, A.J. felt with his right for the police officer's sidearm which he transferred to the pocket of the jacket.  He also unhooked the badge that Nixon had clipped to the front of his shirt and relieved him of his extra ammunition clip.

"Your shoes, Nixon.  Now."

"Ah, A.J., your Mom's gonna kill me, not to mention what Brown's gonna do when he finds out," Nixon complained, but slipped off his brown loafers and kicked them aside.

"I know where Town and Rick are.  Tell her everything will be fine.  I have to do this, Nixon," A.J. said, releasing his grip on him.  "Just give me five minutes."  A.J. gathered up the shoes and ran, leaving Nixon wondering if he could convince Cecelia that A.J. had knocked him out before taking his gun, his badge and his shoes.  He sat down glumly and waited for all hell to break loose.

A.J. managed to make it to the stairwell with only a few puzzled looks.  He'd neatly avoided the main nurses' station, and there were very few people roaming around at midnight.  Once he made it to the ground floor, he paused for a moment to slip on Nixon's shoes, lacing them tightly to keep them from slipping off his bare feet.  Then he walked casually out the front door and motioned to one of the waiting cabs.

A dark blue sedan rolled forward and A.J. hopped into the back.  A cheerful black man greeted him as he clicked the meter to the ‘On' position.

"Where can I take you, man?"  he said with a light Jamaican accent.

A.J. pulled out Nixon's badge and flashed it at the man.  "I need to go to this address immediately," A.J. said handing the man the business card with his free hand.

"Police business?" the man asked as he pulled away from the hospital, his grin filling the rearview mirror so that A.J. had the impression they were being followed by a set of giant teeth.

"Uh, yes," A.J. stammered.  Maybe this was going to be easier than he thought.  A.J. didn't actually have any money on him–his mom had taken his wallet for safekeeping.  If he could convince the cabbie to charge the police department, all the better.

"I do believe this place will be closed at night, officer, if you don't mind me saying so."

"I have reason to believe it will be open.  Part of an undercover operation, you see," A.J. said, watching the night slide by.  He tried to keep his answers brusque, to the point.  He was, after all, a highly-trained member of the S.D.P.D..

"And how long have you been an undercover officer, if you don't mind me askin'?" the cabbie asked.  His tone was friendly, but persistent.  A.J. guessed he was the kind of cab driver who could extract your life story from you on a drive to the airport.

"‘Bout five years," A.J. said, as if midnight rides to unfamiliar places were part of his regular routine.

"And did they never teach you to remove the little band that the hospital puts around your wrist?" the man continued in the same pleasant tone.

A.J.'s face turned scarlet as he looked down at his left wrist, the hand he'd used to pass the cabbie the business card.  A clear plastic band containing his name and all his information was fastened to his wrist like one half of a pair of handcuffs.

"It's really important that I get to that address," A.J. said slowly.

"Aye, I figured that out on me own.  It's a little ways, so why don't ya just settle back and relax.  Nervous men with guns make me nervous too."

A.J. looked at the cabbie in amazement.  "You knew I had a gun?  Why did you–"

"Why'd I pick you up?  I figger any man runnin' from the hospital at midnight with a gun has got some powerful business to tend to.  And you look like a decent sort.  Figger you might need some help gettin' where you're goin'."

A.J. settled back against the smooth upholstery, breathing in the faint smell of cigarettes and pine air freshener.  "Thank you," A.J. said and he meant it.  For the first time since he'd woken up in the hospital, he felt the stir of hope.

"What's your name, man?" the cabbie asked.

"A.J., A.J. Simon."  He didn't see any point in lying to the man.

"And what does the A.J. stand for?"

A.J. gave a little laugh.  "Would you believe Andrew Jackson?"

"Your folks was patriotic.  Well, man, you're talking to Abraham Lincoln Brown, but you can call me Al."  For a moment, A.J. wondered if he had just imagined leaving the hospital and if he were really still trapped in his own mind.

"You're not by any chance related to M.P, I mean Marcel Proust Brown, are you?  He's a police officer." A.J. asked.  He knew Town's family was huge.

"Not directly.  I think he's one of the San Diego Browns.  I'm one of the Jamaica Browns.  They call me ‘On the Town' Brown."  The man gave a hearty laugh.  "If you're friends with one of the Browns, you're friends with all of the Browns.  I knew there was something I liked about you, man.  Well, here we are: Tandy Pharmaceuticals."


Part 6 - Pain

The gleaming glass monstrosity in front of A.J. looked like nothing so much as a collection of crystals that had been thrust violently upwards from the earth.  An intimidating construction of glass and steel, it rose into the sky like a sword.

"Man's greatest monument to himself," A.J. said quietly as he got out of the cab, waving off Brown's offer to wait for him.  He'd dated a drama student in college who used to call this building "the phallic palace."  Every time they'd drive by it, she'd say: "Is this a dagger which I see before me?," and burst into a fit of giggles watching A.J.'s face turn redder than a tropical sunset.

A.J. hurried up the granite steps of the building, not sure how long his energy was going to last or even what he hoped to find.  He'd seen no sign of Rick's truck or anything that looked like an undercover car, but that didn't mean anything.  He was sure they would be here somewhere–why else would the business card have been tucked under his pillow?  Rick would have known that their mom wouldn't let him leave the hospital, even to help Rick, so clearly Rick had left him a clue to follow.  They had done the same thing when they were kids and needed the other person to provide them with an alibi.  Of course, their parents had eventually caught on, but still, the card under the pillow was a classic Simon brothers' manoeuvre.

A.J. withdrew the business card from his pocket and looked at it again in the bright glow of the flourescent bulbs that illuminated the front of the building.  Even at this hour, A.J. could see people moving through the floors of the building, much like tiny ants in the see-through world of an ant farm.  Science never slept, apparently.  Well, he certainly hoped that Dr. Alice Penner, Lab 849-B, wasn't sleeping tonight.  Hers was the name on the card he was holding, and at the moment, she was his only lead.


"Would you get off me?" an irritated Town whispered, as he gave Rick a shove.  The climb down through the skylight had been less than graceful and more than a little noisy.

 "I thought you'd done this before," Town growled as he and Rick untangled themselves.

"I have!  Usually my partner is a short blond who knows enough to get out of the way once he's through the skylight," Rick replied with equal hostility.  They were standing in a disused storage loft that overlooked the main warehouse area.  The area was dimly lit and the outline of several empty boxes and crates cast lengthy shadows on the walls around them.  Both men checked and re-checked their equipment before making their way quietly to the edge that looked down into the warehouse proper.  For a moment, the two men, both dressed in black, Rick's face smudged with the burnt cork camouflage that had been second nature to him in Vietnam, stood and listened.  The building was silent except for the occasional fluttering of restless pigeons in the upper rafters, and the rhythmic hiss and wheeze from the pipes and other mechanical equipment.

"It's awfully quiet," Town said.

"Too quiet," Rick replied.

"Will you stop that!?" Town said, hitting Rick in the arm.  "This ain't no Mickey Spillane novel.  There's supposed to be at least three people working down there.  Where the hell are they?"  Town's anxious whisper sounded loud in the empty loft, and Rick felt a chill crawl slowly down his spine.

"We've been set up," Rick said in his regular tone.  There was no need for stealth or secrecy now, nor was it likely there had been the need for them since they'd arrived.  LeBarge was here, and he was waiting for them.  Worse, he'd been expecting them.  Rick hated the feeling of being led by the nose, the feeling of being predictable.  If there was anything he'd fought against in his life, it was being predictable.

"We've been set up," he said more loudly, Town looking at him as if he'd suddenly lost his mind.

Town was pulling at his arm, begging him with his eyes to get a grip, although he'd been a cop too long not to realize that Rick was right.  This had all been too easy, too neat.  Deep in his gut, Town felt a sliver of fear stab at him.  They had grossly underestimated Griffin LeBarge.


A.J. swung the large glass door open and strode purposefully across the lobby of Tandy Pharmaceuticals.  The security guard at the main desk glanced up as A.J. approached.

"I'm afraid the building's not open to the public now, sir.  You'll have to come back tomorrow."  The guard's manner was polite, but firm.  He had a trace of a Southern accent that A.J. couldn't quite place.

A.J. smiled, hoping that he looked sincere.  This time he made sure to keep the sleeves on Rick's field jacket pulled down as far as they could go.  He didn't need the guard to see the plastic tag from the hospital and assume he was some escapee from the mental ward.

"I know.  I work here.  Just started."  A.J. tried to appear young and zealous and a lot more naive than he felt.

"Is that so?" the guard said suspiciously.  "Where's your I.D.?"

"I left it in the lab," A.J. said trying to look sheepish.  "I know they told me not to take it off, but there was a risk that the hydro-chloric solution might contact the plastic and destabilise the entire experiment..."

"And ya forgot to put it back on, right?"  The guard smiled.  "Ya guys get so wrapped up in your experiments, don'tcha?  I'm surprised ya took the time to go home and get somethin' to eat."

"Man cannot live by science alone," A.J. said.

"Why didn'tcha just order in?  That's what most of ‘em do."

"My mom was expecting me," A.J. said looking down at his slightly-too-large loafers, trying to look like the kind of guy who probably still lived with his mother.

"Why didn'tcha just wait and pick up the badge in the mornin'?"

A.J. wished the man wouldn't ask so many questions.  "There are so many people around in the morning," A.J. said, "and I didn't want everyone to find out I messed up in my first week."  The guard nodded in a knowing way, and A.J. knew the con had worked.

"Well, ya'll know for next time.  Who ya workin' for?" the guard said, continuing to glance occasionally at the monitors in front of him.

"Dr. Penner," A.J. said.

The guard let out a low whistle.  "Working with the Dragon Lady, huh?  What's that like?"

"It's only been a week," A.J. said, not sure that he liked the sound of "Dragon Lady."

"Well, I'd better not keep ya here.  Her highness might get mad if she's kept waiting.  I'm surprised she let'ya out at all.  Just sign here," the guard said, thrusting a clipboard towards A.J..  He handed him a key card.  "Make sure ya don't forget your badge again, Mr...." the guard turned the clipboard around to read A.J.'s signature.  "Marlowe."

A.J. took the key card that was offered, gave a quick salute, and said: "No, sir, I won't," as he walked towards the elevators.  As the shimmering steel doors closed, he breathed a deep sigh of relief, slid the key card into the slot beside the door, and pressed the button for the eighth floor.


Rick would have laughed hysterically aside from the fact there was absolutely nothing funny about their predicament.  He had a tendency to laugh at the worst possible times–it had earned him more than one detention during his school years and groundings too numerous to count.  Other people always thought he was "failing to take things seriously" when he laughed; Rick knew, though, that sometimes laughter was the only response when you realized you were totally and completely screwed.

Rick moved closer to the edge of the storage area and looked down at the empty warehouse floor.  Nothing moved.

"LeBarge," Rick called.  "Or should I say Leopold?  Or maybe just Griffin?"

"Really, Mr. Simon, we're not exactly on a first name basis."  The voice was louder than Rick had expected it to be, nearer too.  Still, he couldn't pinpoint its exact location.

"Why not?  You asked me to kill a friend of mine, you poisoned my brother.  You seem to have taken a pretty personal interest in my life, Griff."

"I have no interest in your life whatsoever, Mr. Simon.  You have so far failed to keep your end of the bargain.  I can only hope that your bringing Lt. Brown here was part of your clever plan to lure him into complacency so you could deliver the fatal blow."  Again, the gravelly voice seemed to emanate from all around them.  The structure of the warehouse was making it difficult to tell exactly where LeBarge was hiding.

Town approached the edge, but Rick waved him back.  This was still a man who wanted Town dead, and Rick was quite sure that he didn't care who did it or how.

"Listen, Griff," Rick began.

"If you insist on using that ridiculous moniker, Mr. Simon, I will shoot you where you stand.  And don't think I'm not capable of such a thing.  Lt. Brown knows perfectly well.  I might not exactly pull the trigger myself, but I certainly know where to find people who can.  After graduate school, prison was certainly the biggest learning experience of my life.  Yes, a man learns a great deal in prison."  As if to punctuate his point, a shot rang off the edge of the loft less than a foot from Rick's hand.  He pulled back in alarm.

"You may address me as Dr. Lebarge, Mr. Simon.  We are all civilized men here," LeBarge continued, as if the shot in the dark had been nothing more than the annoying sting of a stray insect.  "Surely we can come to some agreement.  You have five minutes, gentlemen, to remove your weapons and to exit the loft area via the back stairs.  My men will help you to remember where you've stored any additional weapons, but it would be best if you removed them yourself.  They're not always the most gentle of creatures."

Rick and Town looked at each other.  They had known it might come to this, but somehow they had expected to get further, accomplish more, before this moment of surrender.

"And, please, Mr. Simon, don't even think about trying to shoot your way out of this.  I do so detest bloodshed, but I'm not above it and I assure you there is no way out.  Now is not the time to fulfill your childhood fantasies of Butch and Sundance going out in a blaze of glory."

Town and Rick looked at each other.  Town clapped Rick briefly on the back, and a faint smile crossed his face as he started to undo his shoulder holster: "Which one of us does he think is Sundance?"


A.J. stepped out of the elevator into the deserted corridor of the eighth floor.  He could hear the faint whirr of a vacuum from somewhere down the hallway, as well as a steady bass beat that seemed to have permeated the floors and the walls.  He couldn't hear any music, but the beat was enough to cause a slight vibration in the floor.  A.J. could only assume that the cleaning staff had pumped up the volume to be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

He wound his way down the hallway, following the numbers until he arrived at 849 A and B.  The areas appeared to be identical labs across the hallway from one another.  While 849-A was cast in semi-darkness, 849-B was a flourescent nightmare.  Every light in the place appeared to be on, and as A.J. peered through the wall of windows, he knew without a doubt that the steady bass beat originated in this lab.  If he'd pressed his hand to the glass, he was certain he would feel it reverberating with the relentless thump of a heavy metal musical orgy.  A young woman with bright pink spiked hair and a matching tank top was slowly spinning herself around on a lab stool and haphazardly attempting to insert a limp piece of pizza into her mouth at the same time.  A.J. banged on the door as loudly as he could.

The young woman, startled by the knock, stopped spinning and promptly fell off her stool and disappeared from view.  A.J. waited.  In a moment, he could see pink spikes emerging over the rim of the lab stool, just like the first rays of a spectacular sunrise.  The hair was followed by a small, heart-shaped face, but it was the eyes that caught A.J.'s attention immediately.  If looks could kill, he would've been dead where he stood.

The young woman continued to cast wordless daggers in his direction as she stood up, ripped a cord out of its nearby socket–miraculously the pounding beat stopped–and walked towards the door with all the timidity of a ravenous mountain lion.  A.J. steeled himself as the door swung open.

He was standing face to face–or rather face to hot pink hair–with a young woman who could have been no more than 27 or 28, by A.J.'s best guess, and who, even in her clunky leather boots, stood no more than his mother's height.  In spite of this, she seemed to fill up the doorway in front of him.  She was not someone that you'd immediately describe as good-looking, but with her dark eyes and fair skin, she was far from unattractive.

"Who the hell are you?" she asked, and her tone meant business.  "And what exactly are you doing interrupting my work at this time of night?"

"Work?"  A.J couldn't help it.  He'd come too far and taken too big a risk to be scolded by a girl who looked like a beauty school dropout.  "Is that what you call swinging on a stool and polluting the air with that garbage you were listening to?"

The young woman raised one eyebrow.  A.J. had always wondered how people seemed to do that so effortlessly.  "I suppose you'd prefer the soothing sounds of Barry Manilow?  Gee, I didn't bring my albums to work today, pops!"  She looked like she was about to slam the door in A.J.'s face when he reached out and gripped the steel edge of the door.

"Look, I don't have time for this.  Why don't you run along somewhere else–I need to talk to your supervisor, Dr. Alice Penner.  Is she here?"

"Oh, my supervisor," the girl said sarcastically.  "Why didn't you say so?  Of course, I'll just run along and get her."  She backed away from the door with a slight curtsey–which looked unbelievably difficult to do in a pair of what appeared to be leather pants–and waved A.J. into the lab.  "Have a seat," the girl continued, as she moved towards a small office at the back of the room.  "I won't be a minute," she called sweetly, and disappeared.

"Well," A.J. said mainly to himself as he looked at the pile of notes and complex calculations that were spread out over the table.  "Maybe I can finally get some answers."

"And just exactly what answers are you looking for, mister?" a female voice said behind him.  A.J. turned around and found himself face to face with the business end of a revolver.  The young woman with the pink hair looked at him darkly as he raised his arms in a gesture of surrender.

"Look, miss, you've got the wrong idea," A.J. said.  "I really need to speak to Dr. Penner.  It's an emergency."

"Emergency, my ass," she replied.  "You've been talking to her, bozo.  Now tell me why you're here, and it'd better be good or you're going to have a few more holes in you than when you came in."  She sat down on a lab stool about six feet away from A.J., never taking her eyes off of him.  "Talk, or I might just shoot you for the hell of it."

Judging from the look on her face, A.J. didn't think this was a threat he would want to put to the test.  He started talking.


Griffin LeBarge stood in the soft light of the warehouse and waited for his men to bring Rick and Town to him.  His white lab coat was gone, replaced by an only slightly less formal white shirt and blue striped tie.  Clipped neatly to his pocket was his Tandy Pharmaceuticals badge identifying him to the world as Leopold Griffin.

The warehouse itself was relatively quiet.  He'd managed to convince his fellow workers to take the night off.  LeBarge smiled to himself.  Well, they hadn't exactly volunteered to take the night off, but they were all resting comfortably now, tied up in one of the storage rooms, and when the drugs wore off they likely wouldn't even remember what had happened.

LeBarge looked at his watch.  It was almost 1:00.  If he was correct–and he was so rarely wrong–all the players should be in place within the hour.  Then the real fun would begin.  Then there would be nothing left except revenge and pain and death.

"A glorious start to the day," LeBarge whispered softly in the darkness, and a smile stole across his face like the shadow of a storm cloud.


"You really expect me to believe that?"  Alice Penner was still holding the gun on A.J..  He had told her everything that he knew, including his own unimaginable predicament.

"Why would I make up something like that?"  A.J. replied.  "Until I woke up in the hospital, I'd never heard of Griffin LeBarge.  I only came to you because someone–I thought it was my brother–left me a card with your name on it.  I thought maybe you would know something that might help.  I guess I was wrong."

A.J. was tired of talking and his head was beginning to ache.  He rubbed his eyes, which felt like they had tiny grains of sand rolling around their surface.  He sighed heavily and looked across at Dr. Penner, who was staring at him skeptically.

"You know, you don't look so good," Alice said.  "Maybe you're telling the truth, but there's nothing I can do.  Griffin's insane.  If I help you, he'll just kill me too."

"But you must know something.  Otherwise, why would I have your name?  You worked with him, you know him.  Please, if there's anything you can do, you have to help me.  Please, I'm desperate."  A.J. knew he must sound pathetic, begging this young woman to help him.  Suddenly he couldn't help it.  He felt so afraid.  The pounding in his head was worse than the steady beat of percussion that he'd followed to the lab earlier.  The lights in the laboratory were beginning to shimmer and take on different shapes.  He passed his hand in front of his eyes to try to block out the glare.  For a moment, he could have sworn that his hand disappeared completely in the glare from the lights.  He leaned forward, trying to get a better look, and promptly slipped off the stool he'd been sitting on.  His hand reached out to grab the edge of the counter, but only succeeded in upsetting a file folder and a pile of paper.  They fluttered around him like a flock of tiny white birds.  Alice leaped up, still holding the gun on A.J..

"What are you doing?  What's wrong with you?" she said.  She'd been trying to figure out how much she could afford to tell him when all of a sudden the blond guy had just keeled over.  He didn't appear to be able to get up, although he was struggling to.  His arms were flailing about ineffectively and he looked like he was drunk.

"Is this some kind of trick?"  Alice demanded, afraid to give up the edge of having the gun.  A.J. suddenly broke into uncontrollable laughter and began to roll back and forth on the floor, scattering paper everywhere.  Alice put the gun down and ran over to him, reaching to feel his pulse.  It was fast and erratic.  She wasn't a medical doctor, but she'd taken enough biology courses to know that something was very wrong.

"Mr. Simon," she said loudly, grabbing A.J. by the shoulders and shaking him as hard as she could.  "A.J.!  A.J.!"  He was now gulping for air as the bout of laughter seemed to leave him breathless and spent.  "A.J.!" she yelled, putting her face right up to his.  His eyes seem to focus momentarily.

"Alice?" he said between breaths.

"Okay, I believe you," Alice said, slipping an arm under one of A.J.'s and helping him get to his feet.  "We've got to get you out of here, get you some help."

"What the hell's happening to me?" A.J. said as he regained his feet with her help.  He leaned against the counter for a moment and tried to catch his breath.  Glassy spots were still dotting the air in front of his eyes and his head was pounding, but he didn't seem to be in danger of falling again.  At least not for the moment.

"It's Griffin's poison.  You're entering the next stage that you told me about.  We've got to get you back to the hospital."

"No–no way," A.J. said.  "I have to find my brother.  If he didn't come here, where would he go?"

"A.J., be reasonable," Alice said.  "I don't know what to do.  I'm a bio-chemist.  I work in a lab all day–"

"–and all night apparently," A.J. added, glad for the moment to have regained his sense of balance, but certain that this was only the beginning of what was to come.  He noticed the flurry of papers at his feet and started to gather them up as Alice went on.

"Sometimes, yes," Alice continued.  "Griffin was my mentor, my hero.  He was brilliant and totally unafraid of discovery.  He taught me everything I know.  I looked up to him, I practically worshipped him."

"You loved him," A.J. said simply, looking over what appeared to be some kind of order form or invoice for laboratory chemicals.

"No," Alice said, shaking her head.  "If he'd been a different sort of man, I could've loved him.  But no, I was afraid of him.  And I still am.  Just because science can achieve something, doesn't mean it should, but Griffin doesn't have any kind of a moral compass.  If he ever found out..." her voice trailed off as she realized she'd said too much.

"If he ever found out what?"  A.J. pressed, his hands full of paper.  "Please, Alice, you're the only hope I've got right now."

A.J.'s clear blue eyes held Alice's dark brown ones for a moment.  Alice looked away and sighed deeply.

"After Griffin went to prison, Jonathon Tandy and I stayed in touch.  We'd been let go, of course, from PharmaLife.  They didn't want anything to do with any of us on Griffin's team, even though we hadn't known about his plans.  Jonathon had taken extensive notes on everything–notes that he took out of the lab," Alice looked at A.J. pointedly.

"I take it that's not allowed," A.J. said.

"It's highly illegal.  Research findings belong to the company.  We were planning to start our own lab, continue the research that Griffin had been doing.  He had some really wonderful ideas, drugs that could make a real difference in people's lives.  But then Jonathon was killed, and I got scared.  I applied for a job here, hoping I could just fade into the woodwork.  A nice simple research position, a smaller company."

"What happened?"  A.J. sat down.  He was beginning to feel feverish again, and his stomach was doing backflips.  Just keep it together a little longer, he told himself.  He knew that Alice Penner was the key to finding Griffin.  He just had to figure out why.  He grabbed a pile of the invoices he'd been stacking and used them to fan himself.

"Veronica Tandy.  She had heard Jonathon mention me, I guess.  They were never on as bad terms as Jonathon and his father.  In fact, she had promised Jonathon a job here whenever their father died, but Jonathon was killed before that could happen.  When she realized who I was, she put a lot of pressure on me.  Jonathon had hinted that Griffin had been working on a super-drug that could deal with antibiotic resistant strains of disease, and that he and I were close to bringing Griffin's work to fruition.  This was her chance to make her father's company into a big success."

"So she blackmailed you, right?  If you didn't continue Griffin's work, she'd let it be known that you had appropriated the research from PharmaLife," A.J. said, struggling to make his brain work.  He could feel the beginnings of sharp stabbing pains working their way up his legs.

"And I'd never be able to work again.  I couldn't let that happen," Alice said softly.  "I'm the first person in my family to go to college.  I couldn't give up everything I'd worked for my whole life, especially when I know that it's for something that will do so much good.  I don't care if Tandy Pharmaceuticals gets rich off it–the fact is, the research can help save lives.  That's why I went into this field in the first place."

A.J. was beginning to drift out of focus again.  The pain in his legs was intensifying, and his arms were beginning to feel numb.  Alice's pink spikes were forming and reforming into cotton candy mountains in front of his eyes.  He shook his head to clear his vision.  He put down the stack of invoices he'd been using to fan himself, afraid that they might end up littering the floor again.  As he did so, something caught his eye.

"Alice, what's D1-hyoscyamine?"  A.J. said stumbling over the words and pointing to the stack of papers he'd gathered up off the floor.

"It's a drug.  It's also called atropine.  We use it in the lab all the time.  Why?"

"When Griffin poisoned the people at PharmaLife, what did he use?  I mean, did he use a regular poison, like arsenic or something?"  A.J. was starting to sweat profusely.  He reached into the pocket of his jeans for a handkerchief, then remembered these were Rick's jeans.  He settled for wiping the sleeve of Rick's jacket across his forehead.  It came away wet.

"No, he made his own out of materials in the lab," Alice replied.  She suddenly understood where A.J.'s line of thought was going.  "Something like atropine can be both a drug and a poison depending on what it's combined with and in what quantities.  If Griffin's still making his own poisons, he'd need easy access to chemicals.  Do you think he's getting them from here?"

"It seems likely.  Would anyone here know him?"

"Probably not.  He certainly wouldn't use his own name, I'm sure."  Alice looked at the invoices A.J. had been arranging.  "These are all things we use in the lab.  They come from the Tandy Warehouse–it's not far from here."  Suddenly she stopped and picked up one of the invoices.  Alice let out a small shriek.

"It's Griffin.  He's somehow got a job at the warehouse.  I don't know why I never noticed this before," Alice said pointing at the initials at the bottom of the page.  A.J. clutched her arm loosely as he followed her finger to the initials "L.G.".

"The initials are reversed, but that's got to be Griffin.  He had the most exact handwriting of any man I'd ever met."

A.J. looked closely at the sharp angled letters, and thought back to the crisp white Tandy Pharmaceuticals business card with Alice Penner's name and lab number written precisely on the back in the same distinctive writing.

"And he always signed one initial below the other, with the letters joined.  Exactly like this.  See how the bottom of the L forms part of the G.  That bastard," she finished, stamping her foot on the hard linoleum.  "He's going to ruin everything.  Again."

She turned sharply as she realized A.J. had slumped against the counter beside her.

"A.J.?" she said.

"It really hurts, Alice," A.J. said, his voice muffled as he rested his head face-down on the counter top.  "Feels like knives under my skin," he said breathlessly.

"Let me take you to the hospital.  I'll call the police and tell them where he is."

"Won't do any good.  Can't prove anything," A.J. said, his arms wrapped around his stomach, trying to keep from throwing up or passing out.

"I don't know what to do, A.J.!" Alice said helplessly.  "You need help that I can't give you."

"Just give me some aspirin or something to help with the pain, and then get me to the warehouse.  Rick'll be there."

"I can do better than that," Alice said, popping open a small door on the counter top and taking out a small bottle with a prescription label on it.  "Valium–food of the gods, staple of lab rats everywhere.  It should help with the pain and the convulsions you were having earlier."  She popped out two tablets and pushed her water bottle towards him.  A.J. took the pills and a swig of water.  The room still felt like it was about to slide out from underneath him at any moment, but he knew he had to keep going.  At least til they found Rick.  If he could just find Rick, he knew that everything would be all right.


Part 7 - Madness

"Left.  No, left!  Your left," Rick said with exasperation, turning his head as far as he could to try to get a glimpse of what Town was doing.

"It's too tight, Rick," Town said.  They were tied back-to-back on the floor of the warehouse's main level, near a set of wooden chairs scattered around a small table.  The floor around the table was littered with crumbs and old candy wrappers.

"Didn't you used to carry a knife in your belt buckle?"  Town asked as they continued to struggle.

"I still do," Rick said.


"It's on my other pants," Rick said, shrugging his shoulders.

Town hung his head.  "How do I let you get me into these things?"

"Would you rather I'd just shot you?" Rick replied.

"Would've been quicker," Town said.

"But not nearly as entertaining," a gravelly voice interjected.  Griffin LeBarge walked towards where the two men were tied together.  "I do hope you're enjoying your bonding experience," he said, smiling, "or perhaps I should say, bondage?"

"What exactly do you plan to do with us?" Rick asked.  "If all you wanted was to kill Town, you've got him.  What are you waiting for?"

"Don't help me, Rick," Town said between clenched teeth.

"So many questions, Mr. Simon.  Are you so anxious for your friend's death?  It still won't save your brother," LeBarge said, walking in a tight circle around them.

Rick felt a cold knot in the pit of his stomach.  Griffin LeBarge squatted down to look Rick in the eye.  "It's almost two," he said.  His voice was soft and intimate, as if the two of them were old friends sharing a secret.  "Little brother's moment of euphoria will have passed, and you will have missed it.  Your one shot to talk to your brother again while he's still a reasonable, lucid human being.  By now, he'll have started to experience shooting pains in his arms and legs, numbness, and a blazing headache.  He'll start seeing spots, distorted images; he'll experience blurring, double-vision.  And that's just the beginning."  LeBarge leaned closer, so that his lips were close to Rick's ear while they spilled their words like slow poison. "It only gets worse from there.  The pain intensifies.  He'll feel like he's being ripped apart from the inside.  But that'll be nothing compared to the horrors that his mind will create.  Paranoia, fear, panic, hallucinations.  He'll be living in his worst nightmare, and it will be all...your...fault."  LeBarge whispered the last three words directly into Rick's ear, and the feeling of the man's hot breath made Rick's skin crawl.

Rick kept looking straight ahead into the dark corners of the warehouse.  He wasn't about to give LeBarge the satisfaction of seeing the pain he was feeling inside.  He could feel the truth of the scientist's words sinking in.  He'd left A.J. at the hospital, planning to catch LeBarge off-guard, force him to hand over the antidote, and race back to give it to A.J..  His brother would recover, he'd tell him how sorry he was about their fight, they'd have a laugh over how close they came to checking out of the game–again–and life would return to normal.  Instead, he and Town were tied together in an empty warehouse, A.J. was lying in a hospital bed halfway across town, and they were all very likely to be dead in a few hours.  Rick silently cursed himself for being so wrong about everything.


Rick felt a sharp pain in his leg.  He looked up to see LeBarge now standing over him with an icy glare.  "Where'd you go, Simon?  It's not polite to zone out when someone's talking to you."  LeBarge kicked him in the thigh again, and this time Rick winced.

"And I thought you cared about your brother," LeBarge continued.  "Perhaps I was wrong.  You obviously care a great deal about the lieutenant here, or you would've just killed him outright.  You took a terrible risk letting him in on things, you know.  You risked your brother's life.  And you don't seem too broken up about the painful death A.J.'s going to suffer.  Maybe you're not as close as everyone says, hm?  Well, maybe it'll be different when you have to watch him die.  Would that make a difference?"  LeBarge needled Rick with the edge of his shoe.

"Look, LeBarge, we know you were in A.J.'s room at the hospital."  Town strained to see where LeBarge was.  He felt funny carrying on a conversation with someone standing behind him.  "But he's under police protection now.  You'll never get near him again."

"So trusting, Lt. Brown," LeBarge said.  "But I have it on good authority that Mr. Simon–the other Mr. Simon–will be here shortly."

"What?!" Rick and Town said together.

"So help me God, if you've hurt him any more," Rick said.

"Calm yourself, Rick.  May I call you, Rick?  It's going to be too confusing with two Mr. Simons here.  I haven't done anything to A.J..  I'm afraid you simply underestimated his desire to have a hand in his own destiny.  He left the hospital of his own accord."

"I'm gonna kill, Nixon," Town said shaking his head.

"Not if Mom gets to him first," Rick added under his breath.  "But how would A.J. know to come here?"

"He didn't.  He went to Tandy Pharmaceuticals to pick up a former associate of mine, Dr. Alice Penner.  A well-placed business card really does wonders, you know.  I must think of getting myself one when this is all finished.  Of course, I knew that they would eventually figure out that I was here."  LeBarge looked casually at his watch.  "I expect A.J. and Alice should be arriving any time.  Just relax, gentlemen.  I assure you, you'll have front row seats for all the action."

Something outside seemed to distract LeBarge momentarily.  He turned and headed for the front entrance of the building, the sound of his shoes echoing loudly against the concrete floor.

"Any chance he's lying, Town?" Rick asked, struggling again to get a grip on the ropes that bound them securely.

"I doubt it," Town replied.  "And A.J.'s just stubborn enough to come after us, which LeBarge suspected he would.  He's been playing us from the beginning.  Like pawns in a chess game, he's just been moving us all into position."

"Yeah, but position for what?" Rick asked.

"I guess we're about to find out."


"Can't this thing go any faster?" A.J. said as Alice's Festiva jolted down the street towards the warehouse.  "I could've walked there quicker.  It's like an icebox with wheels."

"Keep it up, A.J., and you will be walking.  Frankie doesn't go any faster when she's insulted."

"You named a Ford Festiva?"  A.J. said incredulously.  "I hate to break it to you, Alice, but this isn't exactly a classic."

"She gets the job done," Alice said, downshifting as she squealed around a corner.  A.J. said a silent prayer of thanks that the streets were relatively empty at this time of night since Alice's driving seemed more suited for the Paris-Dakar road rally than the streets of San Diego.

"And what is it with you and pink?" A.J. asked as the bubblegum-coloured car picked up speed.

"It's my favourite colour," Alice said.  "Got a problem with that?"

"No, ma'am," he replied with a grin, as she glanced sideways at him and stuck out her tongue.  The stud in the middle of it flashed briefly in the glow from a streetlight.  A.J. wanted to ask her if it hurt, but decided that he'd better not considering the kind of response it was likely to produce.  He kept his mouth shut and concentrated on keeping his stomach in check as the car lurched towards its destination.

He closed his eyes for a moment and let his head rest back on the seat.  He wasn't sure what waited for them at the warehouse, but he was almost positive that Rick would be there with Town.  There was no way that Rick would let LeBarge hurt Town, so they were either going to make some kind of a deal, or try to take LeBarge by force.  Either way, A.J. suspected they'd need backup.

"Here comes the cavalry," he muttered, eyes still closed.  Alice glanced over at him with concern and gave his arm a quick shake.

"A.J., are you hallucinating again?  There's no cavalry here," Alice said as the car made a chugging sound as she braked for a red light.

"No, we're the cavalry.  A semi-conscious hallucinating P.I. and a pink-haired Dragon Lady," A.J. said.  The words were out of his mouth before he realized it.  A.J. opened his eyes and saw that Alice's face had grown tight, her lips were pressed together as if holding her emotions in check.

"Alice, I'm really sorry–" A.J. started to say, but was cut off by a burst of raucous laughter from beside him.

"Dragon lady?" she said.  "You were in the building, like ten minutes, and someone already told you they call me the Dragon Lady?  God, that's hilarious.  Of course, no one's ever actually said it to my face," she continued.  Alice looked over and glimpsed the horrified look on A.J.'s face.  She gave him a quick pat on the arm.

"It's okay, really.  I've always been ambitious.  And way too smart for my own good.  I'm not trying to sound like a big shot or anything, it's just the truth.  You tend to rub people the wrong way when you finish your PhD when you're 26.  And when you've got pink hair and a tongue stud and you're the daughter of Chinese-Dutch immigrants rather than part of the accepted scientific pedigree, well, you tend to cause them to break out in a rash."

The Festiva suddenly made a hard right turn, and rumbled through a gravel parking lot beside a large warehouse.  Alice pulled up close to the building, and turned off the lights.

"Tandy's warehouse," she said triumphantly.  "Told you it wasn't far."

"Well, it seemed farther than it was," A.J. said stepping out of the passenger side unsteadily.  The Valium had taken some of the edge off the pains he was having, but he could tell they were starting to get worse.  His head continued to pound as if someone was chipping away at a stone wall inside his head.  The ringing and the vibrations were getting worse all the time–so much so that he hoped he wouldn't pass out.  If that happened, they were in big trouble.

"Well, do you see your brother's truck anywhere?" Alice asked, looking around.  The parking lot appeared to be deserted.

"No, but he probably would've parked it around the block anyway."

"Oh, should we've done that?" Alice said, looking suddenly concerned.  "I'm new at this private detective stuff, you know."

In spite of himself, A.J. smiled.  "LeBarge knows we're coming–he sent the invitation, after all–so I don't think there's any real point in trying to disguise our arrival.  However," A.J. continued, "it never hurts to have a few surprises."  He pulled out the gun he'd gotten from Nixon, made sure it was loaded, and slipped it back into his pocket.

"Cool," Alice said, obviously impressed.  She reached across to the glove compartment, opened it and removed a small handheld device.  "Now we've both got something," she said with satisfaction.

"What's that?" A.J. asked, finding it difficult to focus on the object as she slid out of the car and came around to stand beside him.

"Stun gun–every woman's best friend," she said with a smile.  "Shall we?"  She linked her arm though A.J.'s, and together they walked towards the warehouse.


"Just because they're expecting us, doesn't mean we have to go in the front door," A.J. whispered as the two of them quietly made their way around the side of the warehouse.  When they reached the back, A.J. ventured to take a quick glance around the corner.  Two guards were standing by the door.

"There are two of them," A.J. said.  "I'll see if I can distract them.  I can definitely take one of them, but you may have to zap the other with your stun gun there.  Think you can manage that?"

"You bet!" Alice whispered.  A.J. thought she was enjoying this a little too much.  Obviously she needed to get out of the lab more often.

A.J. walked towards the men standing by the door.  Both of them appeared to be dressed in identical dark suits and carrying semi-automatic weapons.  The men raised their weapons in perfect precision as A.J. ambled towards them trying to look casual.

"I believe you were expecting me, gentlemen," A.J. began as he approached the men.  "I'm A.J. Simon."  He reached out his hand towards the first guard in a gesture of friendship, and as the man naturally glanced downward, A.J. grabbed for his weapon.  He struggled to pull the gun from the man's hands and stay on his feet at the same time.  A quick blue flash and the noise of an electrical discharge, and A.J. lost his grip on the man as they both tumbled to the ground.

"Sorry, A.J.," Alice said, helping him to his feet.  She turned around to look at the prone figure of the guard lying in the dirt.  "But I got him!"

"Where's the other one?" A.J. said frantically, looking around.

"Um, there was only one," Alice said, picking up the man's weapon.  "I think you were seeing double, ‘cause you didn't seem to really be focussed on the guard."  Her voice was almost apologetic and there was more compassion in it than A.J. had heard from her all evening.

"Do you want me to take the gun?" Alice asked cautiously.

"Do you think you could use it?"  A.J. said, shaking his head to try to clear it.  He had been positive there'd been two men, even though it had seemed odd that their movements were so in-synch.

"I think I could use the one you brought," she said and A.J. traded her Nixon's handgun for the guard's Uzi.

"Dammit," A.J. said suddenly.  "We should've brought the .38 from the lab."

"It didn't have any bullets," Alice said sheepishly.  "Maybe we should just go in, now that we have two guns," she said, hoping to get A.J. moving and thinking about something else.

A.J. nodded and carefully opened the door.  The area was dimly lit and A.J. motioned that Alice should keep to the shadows as much as possible.  The longer they could delay their inevitable discovery, the better chance they might have to get out of here.  A.J. fought down a whimper that threatened to burst from his throat as his legs suddenly flashed with intense pain.  He leaned back against the wall and clenched his teeth together, concentrating on staying conscious.  He needed to be able to walk and move.  He was of no use to anyone if he couldn't do those things.  He'd needed Alice to help him get here, but he wouldn't be able to live with himself if something happened to her because of that.  Concentrating on keeping Alice safe was the one thing that was keeping his brain functioning at the moment.

A.J. listened.  He thought that he could hear voices and footsteps echoing in the cavernous space of the warehouse, but he couldn't be sure if they were real or imaginary.  He didn't think it was wise to stop and ask Alice either; somehow he didn't think it would inspire a great deal of confidence if the voices were just in his head. She'd already witnessed his stunning attack on the guard and his invisible twin.

A.J. tried to get a feel for the layout of the warehouse.  The area they were looking into appeared to be the main transit way for moving materials in and out, since it was large and very spacious.  To his right, appeared to be large storage areas, containing boxes and barrels of what he could only assume were various chemicals and other types of equipment needed to run Tandy Pharmaceuticals.  To his left there were some small office spaces and a set of stairs leading to an open area above the offices, which A.J. assumed was used for additional storage.

A.J. was still scanning the area when Alice tugged lightly on his sleeve.  She pointed to an area near the centre of the warehouse, where a table and chairs had been set up, probably as a lunch area for workers.  Through the jumble of furniture legs, A.J. could just make out two dark figures that appeared to be tied together.  He could now see the figure of a third man walking around the other two figures, but their conversation was muffled by other noises.  Stretching his vision farther, A.J. thought he could see two more men by the front entrance, but given his last attempt at counting guards, he couldn't be sure.

"Alice," A.J. whispered.  "Do you think you could make it around to the front door without being seen?"

"Yeah," she responded.

"I need a distraction."

"What kind of distraction?"

"Anything–just so long as it gets LeBarge and the guards out the front door and away from Rick and Town.  But be careful."

"Got it," she said and slipped back the way they came.

A.J. took a deep breath and closed his eyes.  Every part of his body was hurting.  He had never been so aware of pain in his entire life, and yet he knew that if he stopped, if he gave into it, they would all die because of it.  He knew he'd been the bait for the trap, but he was also the only chance they had at the moment.  LeBarge was waiting for him.

"It's now or never, A.J.," he said to himself, taking a deep breath and feeling his lungs catch fire.  If he had to run, he thought he would probably die on the spot, but if he could continue a slow steady pace towards Rick and Town, he might be able to do it.  He had to make sure he was close enough to them, when Alice created her distraction, whatever it might be.  He just prayed that it would be enough to draw everyone out of the building, at least for a few minutes.

As A.J. drew nearer, edging along behind the first set of shelves, he could hear voices.  The man speaking was someone who was unfamiliar to A.J., but he knew immediately that the voice belonged to Griffin Lebarge.

"A well-placed business card really does wonders, you know.  I must think of getting myself one when this is all finished.  Of course, I knew that they would eventually figure out that I was here.  I expect A.J. and Alice should be arriving any time.  Just relax, gentlemen.  I assure you, you'll have front row seats for all the action."

A.J. could hear the beginnings of some kind of commotion out front.  The pair of guards headed outside, and LeBarge walked sharply across the floor to the front entrance, his shoes clicking soundly against the concrete.

"Any chance he's lying, Town?" A.J.'s heart almost skipped a beat as he heard Rick's voice.

"I doubt it," Town replied.  "And A.J.'s just stubborn enough to come after us, which LeBarge suspected he would."  A.J. couldn't help but grin as he moved closer.  In spite of the enormous effort it was taking for him to move from one end of the warehouse to the other, he was so grateful to hear Town and Rick talking.  Somehow, if he could just get to them, he knew they'd pull him through.

"He's been playing us from the beginning.  Like pawns in a chess game, he's just been moving us all into position," Town concluded.

"Yeah, but position for what?" Rick asked, and A.J. finally got a clear glimpse of the two of them, both in black and bound back-to-back.  Rick's face was camouflaged with burnt cork, but the pattern was smudged where it looked like someone may have taken a swing at him.  A.J. knew that Rick was not one to go down without a fight.

"I guess we're about to find out."

At that moment, the building seemed to shake as if something large and heavy had plowed into the side of it.  They could hear yelling from outside, and the guttural rumblings of some kind of engine.  A.J. hoped that Alice's distraction did not involve crashing the Festiva into the front entrance, but he supposed it was too late to say anything now.

He stumbled out of the darkness of the shelves and dropped to his knees beside Rick.

"One rescue, coming right up," he said, trying to grin as his brother whipped around to look at him.

"A.J.," Rick said.  "You shouldn't be here."

"Nice to see you too, Rick," A.J. said as he patted Town on the shoulder.  "Hey, Town, I told you you'd get into trouble hangin' around with this guy."  A.J. could tell from the expression on Rick's face that he must look terrible.  He was staring at him as if he'd seen a ghost.

A.J. fumbled with the buckle on the belt he was wearing, and withdrew the small concealed blade.  He sawed awkwardly at the ropes binding Rick and Town's hands together.

"Why are you wearing my clothes?" Rick asked suddenly, but A.J. ignored the question and kept working on the ropes.

"My technique's a little off tonight," A.J. said, and he could feel exhaustion creeping into his voice, "but I can still get the job done."  He focussed on keeping the blade in one place, sawing downwards with the knife, keeping it clear of Rick and Town's wrists.  The only sound was the tearing of the rope and A.J.'s laboured breathing.  The building shook again and there were shouts from outside.

"What the hell is going on out there?" Town asked unable to see what was going on behind him.  He could feel the ropes loosening, but the tension that had frozen Rick in place when A.J. had appeared gave him an inkling of how bad things really were.

"A distraction," A.J. said briefly.  "I think Alice is ramming her pink Festiva into the building, but I wouldn't bet money on it.  My perception's a little off at the moment."

"Alice Penner?" Town asked.  "LeBarge wanted her here too for some reason."

"She and Tandy used his research ideas when he went to prison," A.J. said, still working at the ties.

With one final slice, the ropes slipped apart.  Rick tossed them off, then took the knife from A.J. and cut his ankle bonds in one smooth motion.  He got to his feet and handed the knife down to Town who did the same, before passing the knife back to A.J. who slid it back onto the belt.

"We'd better move," Rick said sharply, stepping away from the ropes, and reaching for his .44 Magnum that LeBarge had left on the nearby table.

"Guess he didn't think we'd be escaping," Town said as he grabbed his .9 mm handgun and headed for the darkened area that A.J. had just come from.

Both men stopped when they realized that A.J. hadn't moved.  He was still kneeling on the floor beside the spot where the men had been tied.  Town looked at Rick for direction.  Rick waved him on and then moved towards his brother.  He knelt on the concrete in front of A.J..

"A.J.?" Rick said quietly.  A.J. looked up.  His face was flushed and his usually clear blue eyes looked cloudy, distant.  His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat.  Rick pushed his guilt and anger back down inside and put his hands gently around A.J.'s face.  "A.J.?  Listen to me.  You're real sick, but we've gotta move.  Okay?  You've gotta get up and you've gotta move.  Now."

A.J. nodded weakly and allowed Rick to haul him to his feet by his jacket collar.  For a moment, Rick thought about swinging him up and over his shoulder, but he figured the longer he could keep A.J. on his feet and involved, the better it would be in the long run.  He slipped an arm under A.J.'s to give him some support.  If A.J. passed out, it probably meant that he was getting weaker and closer to death.  Rick gripped his brother a little tighter as he helped him stumble out of the open area and over to the shelves.

"He brought reinforcements," Town said as Rick and A.J. joined him.  Town raised the Uzi that A.J. had liberated from the outside guard.

"Not bad, kid," Rick said to A.J., still supporting his brother.  A.J. grinned weakly, but didn't seem to be able to formulate a response.  Town and Rick exchanged a worried glance.  They were losing A.J. fast; they didn't have a lot of time.  They had to get that antidote and get out.

The commotion outside seemed to have stopped.  LeBarge and one of his men re-emerged through the front door.  The guard was limping slightly as if he'd been kicked in the shins.  LeBarge was half-dragging a young woman with bright pink hair who was putting up an enormous fuss.

"You let me go, Griffin, you bastard!  You killed Jonathon, and now you've poisoned A.J. Simon.  You're not going to get away with it this time."

LeBarge held her as she struggled, but her fight was no more effective than a child's would be against a grown man's.  LeBarge's sheer size and weight gave him the advantage and he knew it.

LeBarge looked at the guard pleadingly.  "Would you please bring me something to stuff in her mouth?  You always did tend to go on and on, Alice."

As if for the first time, he glanced around to assess the reactions of his prisoners.  A pile of tattered ropes lying on the concrete was all that remained to show where Rick and Town had been moments before.

"Wonderful, Alice!  Bravo," LeBarge said with real bitterness in his voice.  "A clever little diversion so A.J. could come in here and release the others."  He took the ragged cloth that the guard offered him and roughly tied it around Alice's mouth while the guard held his gun against her side.

"Really well done, Mr. Simon," LeBarge called to the empty warehouse.  "Especially given your current condition.  I imagine that you're hurting pretty bad right now, if you're still conscious that is.  Truly, I have to give you credit.  You accomplished much more than I thought you would."

LeBarge said something quietly to the guard who nodded and moved away towards the entrance, after handing Griffin his handgun.  Alice continued to mutter beneath her gag, but with LeBarge's left arm wrapped solidly around her throat, she dared not struggle too much.

"And getting Alice to sacrifice that hideous little car of hers.  I give you points for that, A.J..  A distraction and the removal of a vehicular eyesore all in one stroke.  I couldn't have planned it better myself."  LeBarge scanned the area all around him, looking for movement, listening for the sound of a footfall, the cocking of a gun.  These weren't exactly the odds he had planned on, but he still held the ace card.  If they wanted A.J. Simon to live, they would do whatever he wanted.


In the dark shadows behind the shelves, A.J., Town and Rick stood motionless and listened to LeBarge's rant.  Peering around one of the boxes, Rick could make out LeBarge, who still had his arm draped around Alice's throat.

"You've had your fun, boys, but enough's enough," LeBarge continued.  "Time's up.  I can snap Alice's neck without even breaking a sweat and you know it, so why don't you just come out.  She doesn't have to die like this."  But she does have to die, he added internally.  Nobody stole his ideas and got away with it.  Nobody.

Rick had his gun out and was assessing his shot.  He was too far away to be certain of making it, and if LeBarge moved even a little and he missed, he'd know exactly where they were.

"Too risky," Town whispered.  "You could hit the girl."

Rick turned back towards Town and said, "She's a foot shorter than him.  I'm not that bad a shot."

A.J. had slumped to the floor beside Rick and now he started to mumble loudly: "Alice, gotta help Alice."  Rick squatted down and clamped his hand over A.J.'s mouth.  A.J. didn't even open his eyes, just continued to mumble against Rick's hand.

"We'll help Alice, but you gotta be quiet, A.J.." Rick looked up at Town, his eyes a burning question mark.  What were they going to do?  If they made a move to help the girl, they'd have to leave A.J. here.  Whatever they decided, A.J. wasn't going to be able to help them.  Yet, if they left him, there was no telling what condition he might be in when they returned.  He seemed to be moving in and out of reality as the seconds ticked by and Rick didn't like the thought of leaving A.J. even for a moment.  It was too great a risk.

LeBarge was talking again: "There's nowhere to go, you know.  One way or another, I will have my revenge.  My guards have locked the building from the outside.  There's really no way out unless I allow you to leave.  And I'm prepared to do that, Rick.  I'll let you and your brother leave.  All I really want is Lt. Brown and Dr. Penner to pay for their crimes.  You and A.J. were just a means to an end, and that end is now in sight."  LeBarge paused and the silence in the warehouse seemed to fill up the darkness around them.  "You don't have very long, Rick.  You know that.  You can see it in his eyes, the colour of his skin, the disjointed ramblings.  He can barely walk without help and you wonder if he even knows you're there.  You could put an end to all of that suffering, Rick.  You can still get your brother back, but you have to give me Brown."

Rick, still sitting with his hand over A.J.'s mouth, looked up at Town.  LeBarge's words washed over him like a cold shower.  He couldn't sit here and watch A.J. die, and yet there was no way he could give Town up either.  Town knelt down beside Rick, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"This is what we're going to do," he said, and Rick leaned closer to listen.


Part 8 - Death

LeBarge was getting tired of this.  He'd told them what he expected, and they weren't doing it.  He hadn't even heard so much as a shuffle of feet or a whisper since he'd spoken.  He wasn't used to being ignored like this and it was making him angry.  He gripped a handful of Alice's pink hair and pulled her head back sharply.  Beneath the gag, she let out a small sharp cry of pain and tears began to well up in her eyes.

"I'm tired of playing games, gentlemen," LeBarge said.  "If I don't see someone out here in two minutes, she's dead, and you'll never get that antidote."

At that, Rick emerged from behind the shelves about thirty feet away, half-holding, half-dragging a semi-conscious A.J..  Rick stopped and gently laid A.J. on the ground beside him.  He stood up slowly and raised his hands in the air.

"You win, LeBarge," Rick said, his voice sounding hollow in the large empty room.  "I'll do anything you want, but you can't let A.J. die."

"That's much better, Rick," LeBarge said smiling.  "I knew you'd come around to my way of thinking."

"Where's the antidote?" Rick asked desperately.

"Not so fast.  Where's the lieutenant?"

"Right here, LeBarge," a voice from the opposite side of the warehouse said.  LeBarge turned, still keeping an eye on Rick and never loosening his grip on Alice.  Town stepped out from behind a forklift, holding the Uzi and shifting its barrel slowly from LeBarge to Rick.

"So much for friendship, eh, Rick?"  Town yelled and his voice was bitter.  "In the end I knew you'd sell me out."

"He's my brother, Town.  I can't let him die," Rick yelled back, desperate for Town to understand his position.

"But you'll let me die?  You'll even pull the trigger?"

"I'm sorry, Town.  I didn't think it would come to this," Rick said lowering his hands.

"Sorry, old friend, but I don't go down that easily," Town said, spraying a quick burst of gun fire in Rick's direction.  Rick spun around and dived beside A.J., shielding his body with his own.  LeBarge, taken aback at the sudden turn of events, kicked over the wooden table with a solid blow, and pulled Alice with him as he sought refuge behind it

"Town," Rick was yelling.  "Don't make me do this."  From beneath the jacket A.J. was wearing, Rick withdrew his concealed .44 Magnum and aimed it at Brown who dove back behind the forklift as Rick's shot glanced off the metal frame.  Another round of machine gun fire pounded into the stacks of boxes just above Rick's head.

"I'm not going to stay here and wait for you to kill me," Town yelled moving away from the forklift, setting down a rain of bullets that kept the rest of them from moving.  Rick could feel A.J. struggling weakly beside him, and Rick put a hand on his chest.  His heartbeat seemed fainter than it had been before.  Rick whispered, "Just hang in there, A.J..  It'll be over in a few minutes."

LeBarge peered cautiously over the edge of the table as Brown let off another short burst.  Wooden splinters shot over their heads, as Alice's gag stifled a scream.  LeBarge let go of Alice, and cocked the handgun his guard had given him.  If he could just get a clear shot of Brown, this would be over in a moment.  Alice scrambled up and ran in the direction of Rick and A.J., and LeBarge couldn't be bothered to try to stop her.  He'd deal with her later; there was no getting out of here for any of them.  He looked around the edge of the table, saw Brown still working his way towards the front entrance, staying alert for any movement from the Simons.  LeBarge noted that Rick still had his head down, now pressed to A.J.'s chest and the younger Simon seemed like he'd stopped moving altogether.  Alice tore the gag from her mouth as she ran towards A.J.'s prone body and threw herself down beside him.

"Town," Rick suddenly yelled, sitting up, and the tone of this voice had changed completely.  Brown stopped in his progress towards the entrance and looked back at Rick with concern.  

"He's not breathing.  Dammit, he's not breathing."  Rick tore open A.J.'s shirt and bent his head to his bare chest to listen again.  The heartbeat was fainter, and the usual rise and fall of his chest had ceased entirely.

"Come on, A.J., breathe," he said desperately, pressing on his chest as Alice tilted A.J.'s head back and blew a deep breath into his mouth, filling his lungs.

For a moment, everything in the warehouse seemed frozen in time.  LeBarge watched the action around him as if he were watching characters in a snow globe that had suddenly and inexplicably been turned upside down.  It had all been an act.  Rick would never actually shoot Brown.  Brown's shots had clearly been high.  They were simply trying to get in position to launch an assault on him, and now he had lost his most important leverage.  Alice Penner was gone from his side and A.J. Simon was dying in front of him.  He had nothing left to bargain with.

"You tried to trick me," LeBarge said as he rose up like a ghost from behind the wooden table.  Town turned to face him, but moved too slowly, his attention still caught by Rick and Alice who were trying literally to breathe life back into A.J.'s limp body.

Town shuddered as the first shot pounded into his chest.  He looked up in shock as he saw LeBarge aiming at him.  A second shot rang out and a third, and Town toppled backwards into darkness.

At the sound of the first shot, Rick was on his feet, Magnum in hand, wheeling to fire at LeBarge.  His first shot went wild as two more bullets ripped from LeBarge's gun.  Rick saw Town fall and his heart leapt into his throat.  Then there was no more time to think as LeBarge turned on him and emptied the rest of his clip.  Rick felt his chest erupt in pain and he could have sworn he heard his ribs cracking as he slammed backward onto the floor.  He struggled to hold onto consciousness as he fell, still gripping his .44 tightly.  Breathlessly, he raised his head and saw LeBarge walking towards A.J. and Alice with a leer on his face.  Without another thought, Rick raised his gun and fired.  He kept firing until he heard the soft click of the hammer hitting the firing pin and the roar of the bullets had faded.  The smell of smoke and gun powder hung thickly in the air.  His last thought as his head hit the floor was that the world had exploded in a burst of red.


Alice blocked out the gunfire and the blood and the yelling of angry men.  The only thing she knew was the rise and fall of A.J.'s chest, the steady rhythm as she exchanged her breath for his life.  She didn't even notice the tears that were trickling down her face as she continued.  Breathe out, turn, listen, breathe in.  Repeat and repeat, like an endless loop in one of her computer programs.  Breathing to the power of infinity.  She didn't think it was doing any good, but she wouldn't stop, couldn't stop.

Then she heard it.  A sputtering cough as A.J. started to breathe again.  It was weak, but it was still breath.  She turned him roughly onto his side, as he began to cough more intensely, and finally he took in a deep breath with a shuddering sound.  She knelt behind him, her head resting on his side, her heart whispering a prayer of thanks.  She sat up and looked around, taking in the world around her for the first time since she'd pressed her lips against A.J.'s.

Rick was lying a few feet away, sprawled on his back, his gun still clutched in his hands.  It looked like there were torn patches in the front of his shirt, but she couldn't see any blood.  Across the warehouse floor, Town was getting to his feet, checking his own body for damage.  Behind her, Griffin LeBarge lay in a pool of blood.  His body was a macabre patchwork, and Alice thought for a moment that she might be sick.  She saw LeBarge's hand move jerkily beside his body, as if still reaching for something in his last moments.

A.J.'s erratic breathing brought Alice back to her senses.  These men had risked everything to stop LeBarge and she wasn't going to let A.J. die if she could do anything about it.  She got up and ran towards LeBarge's body, trying to ignore the sound as her boot splashed in a pool of blood.  She leaned over him and saw he was miraculously still alive, although it would have been more merciful if he'd died immediately.  His eyes were unfocused and his pale blond hair was dark and sticky with blood.

"Griffin," she said, and he seemed to register that someone was talking to him. He couldn't move his head, but his eyes turned in her direction and the corners of his mouth pulled upwards in a caricature of a smile.

"Alice," he whispered and blood ran from the side of his mouth.

"Where is it, Griffin?  Where's the antidote?"

"Such a smart girl, Alice."

Alice heard footsteps behind her and gasped as she saw Rick and Town coming towards her, both apparently unharmed..

"Bulletproof vests," Town said patting his chest, in answer to her unasked question.  "They stop you from getting killed, but the bullets can still do a certain amount of damage."

"Yeah, I think my ribs are busted," Rick said clutching his abdomen.  Alice noticed his breathing was ragged.

"You said we had 24 hours, Griff.  It's been less than twelve," Rick said, as he got closer to the dying man.  "Where's the antidote?"  If he'd had the strength left or if there'd been any point, Alice was sure that Rick would've beaten an answer out of him.

With obvious effort, LeBarge turned his face upwards, the overhead lights reflecting brightly in the cracked lens of his glasses as his blue-gray eyes met Rick's.  "I lied," he whispered and what seemed to be a laugh bubbled from his throat.  LeBarge's head slipped listlessly to the side, and one final stream of blood tumbled from his mouth.

Alice, Rick, and Town stood speechlessly.  They could hear A.J.'s sputtering cough in the background, and Rick knew that he didn't have long before A.J. would be slipping into eternal darkness as LeBarge just had.

Alice took a deep breath, ignored the blood and torn flesh, and started pulling at Griffin's pockets.  Rick and Town looked at each other in horror, as the young woman's hands became slick with blood.

"Alice," Town started, moving to pull her back from Griffin's body.  "He's dead."

"I know that," she said, continuing her frantic search.  "He always makes an antidote.  Always.  Where did you find the antidote at PharmaLife?"

"Tandy gave it to us," Town answered.

"But where did he get it?  Jonathon was a good chemist, but even he couldn't have pulled that rabbit out of the hat for you."  Town felt the sharp stab of memory, as Alice continued talking.  Something about this was familiar.  There was something important he was missing, something just out of reach.

"Griffin is–was–just that much better than all of us.  Jonathon must have said something to give you a clue.  He had to have found where Griffin had hidden it."

Town looked at Rick helplessly.  "It was three years ago, Alice."

"I'm going to check on A.J.," Rick said softly and left the two of them alone with the body.  Town watched Rick walk away, leaving a trail of bloody footprints.  When he reached A.J., he knelt down behind him, gently rolling A.J. backwards so that his upper body was cradled in Rick's lap.  Town saw Rick check A.J.'s pulse and he could hear Rick quietly speaking to his brother.  He turned away, not wanting to intrude.

"Dammit, lieutenant, you've got to think.  We're not going to let A.J. die.  That antidote is here somewhere.  We just have to find it," Alice said with frightening determination.  "When Jonathon brought you the antidote, did he say anything at all?  Anything unusual.  Jonathon liked to play little mind games with people.  Say things without really saying anything at all."

"Something you said just a minute ago seemed familiar.  Something about rabbits."

"Was it about the White Rabbit?" Alice said excitedly.  "That's what we used to call Griffin because he was always wearing that damn lab coat.  Even outside of work."

Town looked confused.  Alice's explanation hadn't helped any.  "You know Alice in Wonderland?  The book?  We used it as a paradigm for one of our experiments, and then we just kept using it as a kind of inside joke.  Because I was Alice and there's a character of a Gryphon–you know, with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion?  Anyway, only Jonathon and I called Griffin the White Rabbit, but I always think he knew about it."

Suddenly Alice turned and looked at Griffin's body.  "He's not wearing his lab coat.  We've got to find it.  That's where the antidote is; I'd bet my life on it."


Rick barely looked up as Town and Alice passed by him at a run heading for the office area of the main floor.  A.J. stirred restlessly in his arms.  His breathing had settled into a shallow, but regular pattern, but his pulse and heartbeat continued to rise and fall sporadically.

Rick brushed a few stray hairs out of A.J.'s eyes, and was surprised to see A.J.'s eyelashes fluttering open in response.  Rick stared down into his brother's cool blue eyes.

"Hey, kid, are you with me?" he said, hardly daring to believe that A.J. was really conscious.  The past few minutes, sitting here listening to his breathing and his heart beating, Rick had been readying himself for what seemed the inevitable conclusion of this nightmare.

"Rick?" came the soft and unsteady answer.  "What's going on?"  A.J. said, struggling to focus on Rick's face.

"Nothing important.  It's just you and me."

"I feel cold," A.J. said, and Rick gathered him closer, wrapping the green field jacket more closely around his little brother.  He could feel how cool A.J.'s body had gotten, how pallid his skin looked.  He pulled him more solidly into his chest, so that A.J.'s head was resting on Rick's shoulder.

"We'll get you warmed up in a minute," Rick said, attempting to sound positive.  He clung to A.J. fiercely, trying to pour his own body heat into his brother by the sheer force of his will.

"What's wrong?"  A.J. said.  There was something in Rick's face that he couldn't place.  Something that didn't seem to fit with his tough, no-nonsense older brother.  A.J. could feel Rick's arms tight around him and the warmth of Rick's chin leaning against his head as he shifted his body slightly.  A.J. heard Rick's sharp intake of breath as he moved, and he struggled to make sense of what his senses were telling him.

"Don't worry.  Everything's fine."

A.J. closed his eyes for a moment.  It was such an effort to keep them open.  Every part of him felt heavy, as if he had weights tied to his arms and legs.  Suddenly, he realized what seemed out of place about Rick's face.  The look he'd seen in his brother's eyes had been fear.

"A.J.?  A.J.?" Rick's voice was louder and there was an undercurrent of panic in his tone.

"Yeah" A.J. said softly.

"We might not have a lot of time, A.J., so just listen, okay?  The stuff that happened at the office.  I'm really sorry.  I didn't mean it.  You know I can be such a stupid jerk sometimes, and I don't always think about things, or how they're going to affect you.  And I'm just so sorry."  Rick's voice was shaking.  He didn't know if A.J. could still hear him, but somehow it didn't even matter.  Rick had never been much for talking about how he felt, but somehow everything just kept tumbling out of him.  All he could do was keep hanging on to A.J., rocking him gently back and forth, and saying how sorry he was over and over.  He could feel tears welling up in his eyes, but he didn't care.  A.J. was dying in his arms and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to save him.


"It's got to be here somewhere," Alice said as she pulled open drawers and cupboards in the main office of the warehouse.

Town popped his head in a moment later.  "Anything?"

"No," she said, not looking up from her search.  "I found his lab coat, but there was nothing there.  I was so sure that's where it would be."

"Nothing in the staff room, the washrooms, or the storage rooms either."

"Well, this is the last place we have to search, and we're running out of time."

"I already called an ambulance.  They're on the way,"  Town said.  "But without that antidote, there's not much hope."  He glanced out the door of the office where he could see Rick cradling A.J. and talking to him softly.  Town wasn't sure, but it looked like there might have been tears on Rick's face.  He felt his own insides knot up, and turned back towards Alice.

"If A.J. dies, I don't know what Rick will do," Town said, starting on the bookcase.

"He's not going to die," Alice said, as she began pulling open filing cabinet drawers and riffling through them for anything that looked like it might help.

The distant howl of sirens could be heard, as Alice and Town continued their search in silence.  Town let his thoughts drift back to his years with the Simons as his eyes scanned up and down the rows of scientific journals and reports, binders and textbooks.  The Simon brothers drove him crazy, interrupted him with requests for favours, screwed up his undercover work, and inevitably ended up saving the day, whether they intended to or not.  He'd seen them tied up, locked up, beaten up, dead drunk and stone cold sober.  He trusted them more than he trusted most of his officers, and there was no one he would rather have backing him up when it came down to the wire.  If A.J. died. . .Town tried to block the thought from his mind as his hand settled on a small threadbare volume with a dark green tattered cover.

"Alice, I think I found it," Town said.  In his hand he held a dog-eared copy of Alice in Wonderland.

Alice took the book from Town and flipped it open.  A small white envelope fell out.  Alice bent to retrieve it and saw that her name was printed on the outside of the envelope in distinct, angular letters.  With Town peering over her shoulder, she tore open the envelope.  A white piece of paper was wrapped around two small vials.  Printed on the paper were the words: "You're late."

"This is it," Alice said.  "We've got it."


Rick had no idea how much time had passed as he sat holding A.J. and talking to him, telling him that he was there, that somehow things would be all right.  Rick didn't know if he believed that, but he couldn't bear to give up hope.  A.J. was counting on him.  He had always looked up to Rick, depended on him.  Rick ran his hand gently through A.J.'s fine hair, tried to ignore how cold and pale his skin was.  Willed him to keep breathing just a little longer.

"God, A.J., where did our time go?"  Rick whispered.  "I'm going to be 40 soon–well, okay in a couple of years, but hey, it's still coming.  Can you imagine me at 40?"  He chuckled softly.

He knew that Alice and Town were searching the offices; he heard the distant swell of sirens, and knew that both police and ambulance were on their way to help them.  Rick didn't know what they would be able to do, but he was grateful for their efforts nonetheless.

"Where's that little kid who used to follow me around all the time?" Rick said.  "I'll tell you something, A.J..  Something I don't think I ever told you before.  Remember when I used to act all annoyed when you'd want to hang out with me and my friends?  Well, I didn't really mind.  I was always happy to have you around.  You were a good little kid, A.J..  You still are."  Rick felt his throat catch, and he knew his eyes were welling up again.

"Don't you die on me, A.J.," he said hoarsely.  "Dammit, don't you dare die on me.  Not here, not like this."  Rick pressed his lips gently to his brother's cool forehead.  "I love you, you know," he whispered against A.J.'s skin.  "You can hang around with me anytime, kid.  I want you hanging around for a long time.  Please don't die."

Rick looked up as he heard running footsteps coming towards him.  He quickly dashed the dampness from his eyes and turned expectantly to Town.  The sound of sirens was right outside the building.

Town pointed in the direction of the front entrance.  "I'll go see if I can help let them in."

"We've got it, Rick," Alice said, waving an envelope in the air.  She dropped to her knees beside A.J. and pulled out the two vials, each containing a small amount of yellowish liquid.

"Why two?" Rick said.  "Which one is the antidote?"

"Well," Alice said, "I'm not exactly sure, but I have an idea."

"He's barely breathing, Alice.  I'll take any idea you've got."  Rick looked at A.J.'s still face.

"One of the vials says: ‘Drink Me'; the other says, ‘Eat Me.'"

"You lost me," Rick said, confused.

"It's from Alice in Wonderland.  She drank one thing to make her grow larger, and ate something else to shrink ."  Alice looked at Rick's haggard face and knew that he didn't care about the explanation, as long as it worked.  "One of these is the poison; the other, the antidote."

"But which is which?"

"Well, I'd say the one marked ‘Drink Me' should be the poison and ‘Eat Me' should be the antidote.  But there was a long passage in the book about how Alice was unsure about drinking the first one because it might be poison, but when she found it didn't say poison, she drank it anyway."

"So, you're not sure," Rick said, finding it hard to believe that A.J.'s life was dependent on some obscure reference from a children's book.

"Griffin was brilliant and psychotic.  He could've switched things, knowing how I'd think if we got this far."

"What happens if we give A.J. the poison by accident and then give him the antidote?"  Rick asked.

"I think we'd kill him," Alice said quietly.  "The antidote probably wouldn't counteract another dose at this stage."

In the distance, they could hear Town and the ambulance crews working to get the doors open.  Griffin's other men had apparently split as soon as they'd heard the gunfire inside.

"It's up to you, Rick," Alice said.  "He's your brother.  There's nothing those people outside can do to help us if we choose wrong.  If we don't make a choice, A.J.'s going to die anyway.  At least this way we have a chance."  She held out the vials towards him.

"Just tell me one thing.  Did Griffin like games?"  Rick asked.

"Yeah, he loved them ‘cause he usually won."

"Did he ever cheat?"

"No.  He was a real prick about playing by the rules," Alice said.

Rick nodded and reached for the vial that said "Eat Me."  He uncapped it, and tilted A.J.'s head back, gently parting his lips with his fingers.

"Let's hope this leads to Wonderland," Rick said grimly as he tipped the amber liquid between A.J.'s parted lips.


Part 9 - Epilogue

"You bet my life on whether or not you figured the guy would cheat at games?" A.J. asked incredulously.  It was a week later and he and Rick, Town and Alice were sitting on the deck of A.J.'s house, enjoying the warm sun and the breeze off the canal.

"Well, A.J., it was much more complex than that," Rick said, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar.  "My brain went through a thousand calculations in that fraction of a second to arrive at the answer that saved your life."

"It's a wonder your brain survived the strain," A.J. said rolling his eyes.  He ducked as Rick fished an ice cube out of the cooler and tossed it at him.  "Hey, you just wait til I tell Mom!"

"Tell Mom what?" Cecelia Simon said as she walked around the corner of the house and onto the deck.  "No, no, don't get up," she said, waving the men back into their seats.  She walked over to hug Rick, and then embraced A.J..

"Tell Mom what?" Cecelia repeated looking from one son to the other.  She saw the two of them exchange a look that said they had no plans to tell her whatever it was they had been discussing before she walked in.  "I see everything is back to normal around here," she said.  Cecelia turned to Alice with a smile.  "When they were little and they didn't want me to know something, there was nothing I could do to make them talk."

"Well, almost nothing," Rick added.  "A.J. would rat me out pretty quickly for chocolate chip cookies."

"I was five," A.J. said, "and it was oatmeal."

Rick made a face as he looked at Alice.  "I told you he was a weird little kid.  Who likes plain oatmeal cookies when they're five?"  Alice couldn't help but laugh.  She hadn't known the brothers long, but she had some idea of exactly what they would've lost if A.J. had died that night in the warehouse.  She couldn't imagine one of the Simons without the other, now that she had spent time with them both together.  They were as different as night and day, but somehow they seemed to complete one another.  They played off one another, depended on one another, and clearly they cared deeply about each other, although she suspected they hadn't had any heartfelt talks about exactly what had transpired a week ago.  Still Rick's joy at having his brother back in the land of the living was written all over his face.

"How are you feeling?" Cecelia asked, looking A.J. over with a mother's appraising eye when the laughter had subsided.

"Just fine, Mom," A.J. said.  "Really, you can stop worrying.  The doctors said there would be no lasting effects."

"Thank God for that."

"Rick," she said, turning to her eldest son and reaching for the canvas bag she laid by her chair, "I brought that book you wanted to borrow," Cecelia said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a small paperback.

Rick scrambled quickly out of the lounge chair, but A.J. beat him to it.  He grabbed the book and sidestepped his brother gracefully.

"What's this?  Rick wants to read a real book for a change?  This should be interesting,"  A.J. said, keeping his back to Rick, the book held tight against his chest as if they were playing a game of one-on-one basketball.

"It's nothing," Rick said, trying to reach beyond his brother's arms to grab the small book.  The others on the deck just smiled and tried to stay out of the way.

"Hey, big brother, you reading any book that doesn't have pictures is big news," A.J. replied.  "Let's take a look shall we?  It's...Alice in Wonderland?"  He turned around to face Rick with a small smile on his face.

"I just figured that it's something I should probably read.  You never know when this stuff might prove important on a case," Rick said, grabbing the book out of A.J.'s hands and returning to his seat.  "Besides," Rick said with a bold wink at Alice, "it can't hurt to learn more about somebody named Alice."


Later that evening after everyone had gone, Rick and A.J. found themselves alone in A.J.'s living room.  Rick had taken the couch, and A.J. his usual chair.

"That Alice is a real smart lady," Rick said, taking a sip of beer.

"Way too smart for you, big brother," A.J. said smiling. "It's good, too, that she didn't get into any real trouble over borrowing Griffin's research."

"Yeah, it sounds like PharmaLife and Veronica Tandy are working out a compromise.  Since Tandy is in a bit of financial trouble, but they have a solid reputation, I guess PharmaLife is going to take them on as a subsidiary.  That way the research technically remains part of the larger corporation, and both companies benefit.  A reasonably happy ending for everyone."

"And a profitable one, too," A.J. added.  He took a long drink of his beer and the smile slipped from his face as a sense of deja vu came over him.

"What's wrong?" Rick said, catching his brother's look.

"Nothing," A.J. said quickly.

"Come on, it's me.  What's wrong?"

A.J. set his beer down on the coffee table and Rick could see that his hand was shaking slightly.  "It's just that the last time I was sitting here having a beer, I got hit over the head and a needle stuck in my arm."

"I'll watch your back this time," Rick said, but he knew exactly how A.J. felt.  He could still remember the sick feeling of walking through the patio doors and seeing his brother tied up and unconscious in the very chair he was sitting in now.  Rick leaned over and gave A.J. a quick pat on the leg.  "Hey, we got through it, like we always do.  Just try to put it out of your mind."

"That's not that hard considering I don't even remember most of it, Rick," A.J. said, "but I think that's what bothers me most.  I just have bits and pieces of memory."

"Well, maybe that's not so bad," Rick said.  He remembered every detail of what happened, every moment of believing that A.J. was going to die.

"Alice did fill in some of the gaps for me," A.J. said, looking over at Rick.  "She said you saved my life and that you never left me."

Rick felt his face growing warm. "Well, I couldn't exactly leave you there, could I?  I mean, what would Mom say?"  Rick finished his beer, and jumped off the couch to return the bottle to the kitchen.

"I know that must have been hard on you.  I know how I would've felt if it had been you instead of me."  A.J. knew that Rick didn't want to talk about this.  He could see in his eyes that he'd already stuffed those emotions back down where they came from.  But he needed Rick to know that he understood, that he was grateful, and that he was sorry.

Rick left the bottle on the kitchen counter and walked over to stand behind A.J.'s chair.  He didn't really want to talk about this, and he certainly didn't want A.J. to see his face.  He was having a hard time hiding his emotions these days.  Every since that night in the warehouse, he'd felt like a floodgate had opened and it wasn't as easy as it used to be to hold back what was behind the gate.

Rick sighed heavily and rested his hands lightly on A.J.'s shoulders.  "A.J., I'm only going to say this once and then I don't really want to talk about it anymore.  That was the worst night of my life and I don't ever want to go through anything like that again, so you'd better plan on being around for a long time because I'm not ready for you to not be around."  Rick paused, trying to keep his voice steady.  "You're the best part of my life, and it would kill me if something happened to you."

A.J. reached up a hand and clapped it over Rick's hand that was squeezing his shoulder with the force of emotion.  "I love you too," A.J. said quietly, and for a moment the only sound in the room was their breathing.

Rick's hands slipped off A.J.'s shoulders and A.J. felt a light touch tousling his hair, just as Rick had always done when they were kids.  "You'd better get some sleep, kid," Rick said gruffly.  "We've got work to do tomorrow."

A.J. heard Rick cross the room and slip out the garage door.  That was just as well, A.J. thought as he rubbed his eyes.  Neither of them did that well with showing their emotions.  They were a hell of a lot more comfortable with yelling at each other than being honest about their feelings.  But still, hard as it was, sometimes they just had to do it.

A.J. finished off his beer and set his bottle on the counter beside Rick's thinking how grateful he was that he was still able to share the simple things they'd been doing for years.  Taking the boat out, fishing off the coast, having a beer, teasing each other about women and just about everything else.  They'd come so close to losing it all.

A.J. was about to head up to bed when he noticed that Rick had left the copy of Alice in Wonderland on the table.  A.J. remembered reading it as a child, but it had been a very long time.  He flipped through it and chuckled to himself.

"Trust Rick to find a classic that actually does have pictures!"

He tucked the book under his arm, turned out the lights, and headed up to bed, thankful to live in a world that still provided a happy ending every now and then.


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