Every time Ethan entered a hospital, he asked himself why hospitals had to be so aesthetically unpleasing? As if the smell in the hallways wasn’t bad enough, the plain white walls were decorated with uninspired and boring paintings. The decor evoked depression. Patients would appreciate livelier colors and images when surrounded by sickness. Fortunately, the children’s wing had the right idea. Ethan appreciated that he often spent most of his time there when visiting the hospital.
Ethan’s walk to the children’s wing transformed from the boring hallways of the main hospital, into the colorful and cartoon themed children’s ward. The change was uplifting, and if ever visiting the hospital as a patient, he would prefer to be admitted into the children’s ward. Despite the positive atmosphere, a melancholy mood could not be escaped due to the sick children that inhabited each room.
Ethan walked up to the nurse’s desk and smiled at the young lady who sat typing at her computer. “Good evening, Miss. Could I see Kathy and Dillon? I’m the social worker that helped them today,” he said, trying to be modest.
She looked up from her computer screen and smiled. “Mr. Harper. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m so thankful that you saved those children. It’s just horrible what they went through.”
“It is terrible. It could have been a lot worse if I hadn’t gotten them out of there when I did.”
“You are quite a hero.”
Ethan began to blush. He wasn’t used to receiving such appreciation for doing his job, at least not on a regular basis. Many of his cases were atrocious, but this particular event was high profile and received national news coverage, forcing people to see what was happening across the U.S. To Ethan, every case was just as important. “Really, it’s my job to save children. I take it seriously, but there are a ton of social workers out there like me, saving children daily.”
“Well, just know that you’re all over the news. You’re going to be considered a hero by many people. Especially those children and their parents,” the nurse said. “The children are down the hall in rooms three and four.”
“Thank you very much,” Ethan said, smiling back at her with rosy cheeks.
He walked down the corridor to room three, still flattered by being acknowledged as a hero. He felt like one for saving the children, but would people still consider him one if they knew that he had deliberately murdered Thomas? It didn’t really matter to him personally, because he had come to believe that any person abusing children didn’t deserve to live.
Thomas would have gone to jail for rape, kidnapping, and child pornography, but would he be put away forever? Prisoners of all offenses were seeing early parole due to overcrowding and under funding. What then? Who would be his next victim?
Ethan slowly opened the door to room three and poked his head inside. Dillon sat awake in his hospital bed while his parents and older sister surrounded him. Seven hours had passed since Dillon was rescued, and there were already around twenty presents and several flower bouquets scattered around the room.
Ethan awkwardly smiled. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to check on Dillon and make sure he is okay.”
Before he could quietly sneak away, Dillon’s father stood up and opened the door, reaching his hand out to shake Ethan’s. “Mr. Harper. Thank you so much. If it wasn’t for you, well, we can’t even imagine what would have happened to him. He disappeared two days ago, and we’ve been terrified for him ever since. I’ve barely slept, and I can tell you that I wouldn’t wish anything like this on my worst enemies. Not knowing where he was or if we’d ever see him again . . . ”
Dillon’s father choked up when talking about the mentality he had while Dillon was missing. It would take time for him to get over those emotions, but he would surely never forget them.
Ethan acknowledged that the defeated father standing before him could be himself if anything happened to Renee. The pain he felt just imagining such a thing could not compare to the actuality of it. He silently prayed to God that he would never have to experience such a thing.
“Finding out that Dillon is safe and sound after thinking we may never see him again . . . it’s just such—”
The father’s eyes began to flood with tears as Ethan placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. Ethan could feel his own eyes begin producing tears and his vision started to blur. “Say no more, sir. As a father myself, I completely understand. There’s no doubt that this has been a traumatic experience for everyone involved. Luckily, we can safely move on from here. He’s safe and back with you. No need to revisit that dark time.”
The mother gave Ethan a big hug, tears streaming down her cheeks as well. Dillon’s sister was holding back tears and just nodded at Ethan, quietly acknowledging her appreciation to him. Finally, he turned to Dillon and ran his hand through the boy’s hair, shuffling it around. “You look much better than the last time I saw you, buddy.”
Dillon stood up on the bed and wrapped his arms around Ethan’s waist. “Thank you for saving me, Ethan. I missed my family so much. I’m very happy now.”
The gratitude of Dillon’s family humbled him, causing his face to glow and heat up in a way that he was sure everyone in the room could feel the heat emitting from his head. He shook Dillon’s hand. “You’re one tough little guy, Dillon. And it looks like you have some presents to open. We’re not the only ones proud of you, buddy.”
Ethan made his way back to the door and waved to everyone. “You all enjoy your evening. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
After shutting the door and approaching room four, Ethan had to mentally prepare himself to visit Kathy. The young girl had been abused both physically and mentally by Thomas for a longer period of time than Dillon. On top of those emotions was the guilt of being used as bait to lure in other children.
He slowly opened the door to room four, the same way he did entering room three. Kathy’s room was also littered with gifts and flowers. Kathy’s mother sat next to her bed, holding hands with her daughter. An elderly couple that were most likely her grandparents sat on the other side.
The mother turned to see who opened the door. “Mr. Harper?” she said.
“Yes, I just came by to see how Kathy is doing.”
The woman got up and began walking toward him. Her straight, dark hair was frazzled, and her swollen, red eyes with dark bags below, was evidence of how difficult the whole situation must have been for her.
The distraught woman squeezed him tightly, refusing to let go. He squeezed her petite body in return. “We owe everything to you,” she whispered in his ear.
Finally releasing her grip, Ethan followed her back to Kathy’s bed. “What’s your name, ma’am?”
“I’m Sarah, Kathy’s mother.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Ethan said, turning to face Kathy. “And how are you doing, Kathy? Are you doing better?”
Kathy looked at Ethan and forced a smile. “Yeah. I’m alright. It’s nice to see my mom again.”
“I’m sure it is. I just wanted to remind you that not one thing that happened with Thomas was your fault, honey. Thomas was a sick and disturbed man that forced you to do what he wanted. You are not responsible in any way.”
“Tell that to Dillon’s parents. They’re basically blaming her for his kidnapping,” Sarah said.
Everyone’s eyes were focused on Ethan, waiting for a response that would put them at ease. “Everyone is emotional right now. They will realize that Kathy was fearful for her life and had been subjected to abuse by Thomas. Just give them some time to cope with their emotions. No one will blame Kathy. ”
The expressions of everyone in the room developed faint smiles, but they were smiling none the less. Heads nodded in acceptance of Ethan’s statement. Kathy grabbed Ethan’s hand and looked up at him with tearful eyes. “You saved my life, Ethan. I’ll never forget what you did. I thought I was going to die and never see my family again. He showed me his knives and told me how good I would taste. I was so scared.” Kathy trembled.
Kneeling, Ethan bent over to whisper in Kathy’s ear. “Don’t be scared anymore. Thomas is dead and can’t ever hurt you again.”
Before he could back away, her arms wrapped around his neck and she whispered back. “Thank you.”
Nothing was more rewarding than hearing a child’s appreciation directly. Ethan shook the grandparents’ hands and walked back to the door to leave. “Let me know if you guys need anything. You hang in there, Kathy.”
Sarah stopped Ethan as he reached for the door knob. She handed him a sealed envelope that had a stamp on it, prepared to be mailed. “Here, this is a thank you letter that we were going to send you. We appreciate how considerate you are, coming here to check on her in person.”
Ethan nodded and squeezed her shoulder, then left the room before breaking out in tears. After shutting the door, Ethan tipped his head back against it and exhaled. Saving children that were considered lost to the people that loved them most, well that was the reason he became a social worker. When a child goes missing, a parent can’t help but imagine the worst, but there is always hope that their child is alive. For these parents, he was able to make that hope a reality. He had not felt anything more gratifying than bringing families back together—aside from ending the destructive existence that was Thomas’s life.
“Mr. Harper. Can I have a moment of your time?” said a voice that echoed down the long hallway.
Ethan observed a man approaching him who wore a dark gray suit. He wasn’t especially menacing, being a few inches shorter than six feet, and his appearance was more pudgy than burly. He looked to be in his late forties and was partially balding. His forehead and top of the scalp was smooth, while the hair he did have on the sides and back of his head were salt and peppered.
Ethan reached out his hand. “And you are?”
Accepting his greeting, the man shook his hand. “I’m federal agent Chase Ramsey. I head the FBI’s California Child Exploitation Task Force, and we work closely with the Crimes Against Children International Task Force. I just wanted to ask you a few questions.”
“I gave my statement to a few different officers earlier today. I have no problem repeating myself again, but I would appreciate if you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions that I had?”
“I’ll answer what I can. But first, I just wanted a little clarification.” Chase looked down at the notepad he was holding. “You said that when you arrived at the residence, you, ‘Knocked on the front door and told Thomas that a neighbor had reported hearing a child scream.’ Did he question you about that statement? Maybe, ask for details about when the report came in?”
Ethan pointed to the chairs at the end of the hall in the waiting area. “Would you mind if we sit down?”
Chase raised his hand and waved toward the chairs to signify that Ethan could lead the way, then followed him and they both sat down.
Folding his hands in his lap, Ethan proceeded to answer Chase’s question. He focused on keeping the details of his story consistent, while adding new ones based on Chase’s questioning. “Thomas did ask about the complaint. I told him it was reported earlier in the morning, but that I didn’t know the specific time. I explained to him that I was asked to take the case while out on another job and that we rarely received much detail in reports.”
Chase nodded his head and scribbled notes on his notepad.
Ethan glanced at the notepad. Chase’s handwriting was so illegible, it could have been a code that only he could decipher as far as Ethan knew.
“He didn’t ask you for a warrant? He just let you in?” Chase said.
“Nope. Most people don’t put up a fight at the risk of looking suspicious. Especially the guilty, but not for lack of trying as hard as they can to hide any possible evidence of guilt. When they do resist, I remind them that the police can be involved if they don’t cooperate.
“I could see how that would be intimidating. How did you get into the dungeon? I don’t imagine he invited you into the basement?”
Ethan wanted to laugh, but knew he should keep up the appearance of a traumatized, self-defense victim. “No. No he didn’t. I noticed the suspicious door covered by a mattress. He claimed to be rearranging rooms for whatever reason. So I went to the bathroom and snuck through the door while he made coffee. Once I witnessed the atrocities he was hiding, I knew he would probably not let me leave safely. By that point, he was on his way down the steps. He had a bat with him . . .”
Ethan trailed off, acting distraught from having to relive the events. “Sorry, it’s still hard to believe everything that happened. He tried to hit me with the bat. He would have done the same thing I did to him had I not reacted quickly. Due to his size, his swing was slow enough to dodge. When I moved out of the way, I bumped into the table of knives. I realized a knife was the only option to defend myself.”
Chase raised his palm to stop Ethan. “Then, in self-defense, you stab Thomas. I get that, but then why bludgeon him with the bat?” Chase’s eyes revealed how suspicious he was.
“Thomas is a big guy. The knife didn’t do much to stop him. He tried to push me away with the bat, but I wrestled it away from him. Then, this creep pulls the knife out and says he’s going to kill me. Sure enough, he lunged at me with the knife and I had no other choice but to crack him in the head with it. It was intense. I’ve never been more terrified. I immediately decided that I wasn’t going to die in that dungeon, effectively leaving those children to fend for themselves.” Ethan regretted claiming Thomas had lunged at him, knowing damn well how ridiculously incapable Thomas was of such an action. Luckily, Chase seemed to buy it.
Chase wrote down more notes, then flipped back a page in his notebook. “Would you say that you were more terrified in this case than when you defended yourself against Marcus Stewart, resulting in his death?”
According to Ethan’s perception, the question had an underlying purpose. Was Chase trying to make a connection between the two events? He took it personally that Chase was insinuating he wasn’t being truthful. “Yeah, I was more terrified this time. Marcus caught me by surprise. In this case, I knew in the back of my mind, once Thomas came down those stairs with the bat, that I was going to have to protect myself and the children. Thomas was a monster of a human being. I still can’t get everything I witnessed down in that dungeon out of my head.”
Chase put his notebook away in his suit jacket pocket. “That’s all I wanted to know for now.”
Ethan stopped Chase before he could get out of his seat to walk away. “Whoa, wait a minute. I still have questions for you, agent.”
“Oh, yeah. What is it you want to know?”
“Kathy apologized to me for helping lure Dillon away from his parents, but how did Thomas capture Kathy?”
Looking irritated, Chase pulled his notepad back out. He looked over his notes before answering Ethan. “Kathy said that she was threatened at knifepoint to get into his car. She walked home three days a week, and usually travelled through a back alley to get home. I’m guessing he watched her for some time, then decided that the alley was the perfect spot to grab her. Anything else you’re curious about?”
“Well, why is the head of the FBI International Task Force concerned with this case, and why are you questioning me?”
“I just want to make sure that I personally have all the facts straight, and I wanted to confirm your involvement. I’m here because Thomas was one of several individuals involved in a child pornography ring. So far, we’ve analyzed most of his computer data and have leads on eight other individuals that should be arrested within the next few days. Unfortunately, several of the larger contributors have covered their tracks well enough to evade our experts. One man even gave Thomas most of the advice he used to carry out the kidnappings, going as far as to request first hand participation in return. It’s a high-profile case, especially since Saint Nicholas communicated with some of the suspects.”
“Santa Claus? What does he have to do with it?” Ethan said, knowing it didn’t mean what he thought it did.
“He’s not the Santa Claus you’re familiar with. He uses the alias in an intentionally disturbing and ironic way by relating himself to the Catholic, patron saint for children. While the Catholic saint gave gifts to well behaved children, this man would rather take them away. He’s possibly the most prolific child pornographer and exploiter alive, but the extent of his crimes is difficult to assess. His digital footprint is nonexistent as far as identity is concerned. He could be considered the most disturbing human being alive. He’s guilty of every crime in the book, well, at least the worst ones. We’re not sure how he has access to so much illegal media. I’d give anything to catch this guy.” Chase said, pointing his index finger at the table top and tapping it.
Before Chase closed his notepad, Ethan was able to read a significant clue that Chase didn’t want to share. “Unknown mentor knew Kathy and requested her by name,” it read.
“Could this mystery advisor be someone that Sarah and Kathy know personally?” Ethan asked.
Chase put his notepad away for the final time. “Sarah dated a few men over the last few years, but she wasn’t concerned that any of them were involved. Two of the guys had no criminal records, and the other one just had a few traffic tickets. That’s all the information that I can share with you at this time.”
Satisfied with the information he received, Ethan stood up from the table at the same time as Chase. Ethan wasn’t quite sure whether to consider Chase an ally or an enemy at that point.
Chase waved his hand as a farewell and handed Ethan his business card. “If you have anything else for me, you can give me a call. In any case, I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
Ethan stopped Chase in his tracks after the agent began walking away by blurting out one final question. “So, this advice guy, he could be local?”
Chase turned his head and looked over his shoulder at Ethan. “Possible. But most of these child predators are willing to travel long distances, even across state lines, just for the opportunity to have relations with a child. He could live anywhere, essentially.”
That was disappointing news to Ethan’s ears. He was ready to seek out the accomplice to Thomas’s heinous crime.