“Your son does not want to see you. Can’t you see how terrified he is?” Owen said, arguing with a child’s abusive father.
Carlos Gomez stood toe to toe with Owen in the visitation room, faces mere inches from one another. Gomez’s son, Diego, cowered and shook behind Owen. Ethan stood off to the side while observing the standoff, ready to intervene if necessary.
Carlos—being a recovering alcoholic—was trying to visit his son. He had become confrontational because Diego refused to go near him, begging Owen to keep his father away.
“You had better back away and let me spend my hour with Diego. It’s my fucking right to see him! You can’t treat me like an illegal immigrant!”
“I can smell alcohol on your breath, sir. You’re in violation of the conditions that allow you to have visitation rights. Don’t try to make this about something else, and don’t make us call the police,” Owen said.
Carlos poked his index finger into Owen’s chest. “I’m going to beat the living shit out of you in a second, pendejo.”
Ethan felt the same anger that Owen must have, as well as the same urge to put the drunk asshole in his place.
Owen couldn’t maintain professionalism any longer, though he spoke calmly. “You’re a piece of shit, Carlos. I’m going to make damn sure you won’t see your son ever again. If you’re not willing to get help at this point, you’re a lost cause. I would love it if you made a move. You’d quickly realize that you made another lifelong mistake.”
Carlos looked over at Ethan who scowled at him in return. “I’m going to go have a chat with my lawyer. I’ll see you again soon,” Carlos said, backing down from his offensive stance. He hastily left the building.
Owen crouched down and gave Diego a hug. “It’s going to be okay, little guy. We will not let your father hurt you again. You have my word.”
Diego pathetically looked up at Owen, watery eyes nearly bulging out of his face like a puppy dog. “Do I get to go home with Mami yet?”
“Not yet, pal. You only have to be in foster care for a little while. I’m sure it will be less than a year. Once your mother gets out of rehab, becomes able to support you and herself, and after regaining custody in court, you’ll be able to go home. It might seem like a long time, but it will go quick. But you’re really lucky to have foster parents that are so cool.”
Holding Diego’s hand, Owen turned to thank Ethan. “Thanks for the assist, pal. Don’t forget about tonight. Eight sharp.”
“We’ll be there, buddy,” Ethan said.
He had a case to check up on, so he walked outside toward his car. Once he slid his key into the car door, an orange Mustang rumbled and rolled to a stop next to him. Carlos sat in the driver’s seat and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Hey, dickhead. You tell your buddy to watch his back. You better keep an eye on yours, too. No one gets away with coming between me and my boy. It’s not smart to prevent a father from being with his son.”
“You probably shouldn’t be driving,” Ethan said with a smile.
The tires on the Mustang squealed as he sped out of the parking lot. He was amused with himself, knowing that Carlos had no idea who he was talking to.
During his drive to Karen Copeland’s house, Ethan began mentally developing a plan to capture Bill. Bill was undoubtedly a predator seeking out single women with a young daughter, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. How many unsuspecting women had he manipulated already, and even worse, how many children had he subverted?
The man was an accomplice in Kathy’s kidnapping, had participated in solicited rape, and trafficked in child pornography. He deserved more than prison—he deserved physical punishment. Ethan felt that he was the only one that could do it properly. He was the only one that could assure Bill would get what he rightfully deserved.
A disguise was necessary when attacking him. Cameras were everywhere, as well as witnesses. Why not wear a tried and true ski mask? He would have to follow Bill until the opportunity presented itself. Somewhere without witnesses. But where would he take him?
For every child that had been terrified and caused pain at the hands of Bill, Ethan would make sure that Bill experienced the pain and suffering of every victim he was responsible for.
Ethan barely noticed he had reached Karen’s house because of how visceral his fantasy was. He was dumbfounded by his instinctual driving skills, not having noticed every turn and stop he had made.
Deputy Perez from the Sherriff’s department and Craig Shillman had already arrived as he pulled up to the curb. Any time a case was known to involve drugs, an officer from the Sherriff’s department and the deputy district attorney had to be present.
A little over a month ago, her son, Ryan, was spotted at school with serious bruises on his body, which he admitted to his teacher had been caused by his mother. The boy claimed it was the drink’s fault, not his mother. Karen had been found in the driver’s seat of her Ford Focus when Ethan and the police arrived, unconscious from using heroin. Luckily, she hadn’t made it out of the driveway.
“Nice to see you again Craig and Deputy Perez,” Ethan said as he approached the men.
Once the three of them loomed on the front door, Ethan knocked with his inspection sheet in hand. “Mrs. Copeland, it’s Ethan Harper with Child and Family Services. Mr. Shillman and the deputy sheriff is here, too. We need to inspect your home.”
Karen Copeland, a blonde woman who would be quite pretty if her face wasn’t currently pale and sickly, opened the door. Granted, she probably had not applied any make-up yet. Because of her complexion, the dark bags under her eyes were accentuated.
Ethan reached out to shake her hand, which she clearly ignored. “Hello, Mrs. Copeland. We’re just doing a follow-up inspection.”
She paused for a minute to comprehend the situation. Her facial expression exuded shock and panic. She began to stutter while giving her response. “Uh . . . well . . . give me just a second.”
The door shut, causing suspicion immediately. He looked at the other two men to confirm that he wasn’t the only one feeling like asshole for being forced to wait. They stood in silence for a minute before Karen reopened the door. “Please, come in, gentlemen.”
“It’s nice to see you again, Karen,” Ethan said as he took a seat at the dining room table with Craig. “Congratulations on your reunion with Ryan two weeks ago. I’m glad you made it through rehab successfully. I heard good things.”
“Thank you. I’ve been very happy to have him home. Would you guys like some coffee?”
“Sure, that would be great,” he said.
Perez began searching the household, ignoring her offer.
“I’m good, thank you. I think I had a bit too much today,” Craig said.
When Karen brought Ethan a mug, he could smell alcohol on her breath as she exhaled. “Where is Ryan hiding at, Mrs. Copeland?” Ethan said, looking over his shoulder.
“He’s in trouble right now, so I sent him to his room to play.”
“May I ask why?”
“He was being very loud and ignored me when I told him to be quiet. I have a headache and was trying to watch television.”
“That’s not good. Are you feeling alright? What do you think is causing your headache?”
Karen squeezed her forehead with her hand. “I think I’m alright. I just didn’t eat that well today.”
Craig looked confused watching as Ethan intentionally spilled some coffee on the table while taking a sip. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Copeland. Could I have a napkin?”
Karen walked into the kitchen and stumbled over one of Ryan’s toys on her way there. “God dammit, Ryan. I told you to pick up your toys,” she said under her breath, but loud enough that Ethan overheard.
She brought him a paper towel that he then used to wipe off the table, after which he rose from his chair. “Where’s your trash can?”
Karen took the paper towel from him. “I’ll take that, Mr. Harper.”
She opened a cupboard underneath the kitchen sink and tossed it in the trash can. Either she was just being polite, or she was hiding something in the trash can. Maybe evidence of her drinking?
Based on what he had seen already, Ethan didn’t feel like wasting time beating around the bush. “Have you been drinking today, Mrs. Copeland?”
“No, no, no . . . of course not!”
“And you’ve been attending the AA meetings regularly like we talked about?”
“Of course I have, sir.”
“When was the last time you had a drink?”
Karen hesitated, biting her lip. “Earlier in the week. I went out with some friends and had one drink.”
Ethan pulled out his recorder. “Could you go get your son, please? I need to speak with him as well.” Ethan held his hand up, facing his palm toward Karen to stop her from speaking. “Before you say anything, I must insist.”
Karen stormed off as if she had been offended. Once she left the dining room, Ethan rushed over to the kitchen sink and looked in the trash. The can contained multiple empty bottles of flavored vodka.
Karen walked back into the room with Ryan following behind her, shouting at Ethan as she realized he had found the evidence she poorly hid. “That was left over from our girl’s night!”
Her shouting attracted the attention of the deputy as Ethan pulled an empty vodka bottle out of the trash can. “Mrs. Copeland, clearly, your drinking is out of control. You have violated the plan we agreed upon to provide a safe environment for Ryan.”
“Look, I had some friends over last night and we did a little drinking. No one got out of control, and Ryan was just fine. Sound asleep in bed all night!”
“Does your husband know you were drinking?”
“No. I didn’t talk to him last night. He’s been helping me keep my drinking under control. I never drink more than one or two beverages. I love my son too much to go back to being that person!”
Ethan dropped the bottle back into the trash can and approached Karen, coming within inches of her face. “Do you understand how often I’ve seen this situation? Maybe Ryan was fine this time, but what about the next time? I’m never willing to take that risk, not for any child. All this proves is that alcohol must be more important than Ryan.”
“You have to trust me, Mr. Harper. I know this looks bad, but I will give up drinking completely if you give me one more chance. Don’t take Ryan away from me,” she said, holding her clenched hands toward him.
Ryan ran into her arms. “I don’t want to leave, Mommy. Don’t let them take me.”
Noticing that Perez was about to intervene, Ethan walked over to talk with him. “Find any sign of heroin or any other drugs?”
“No, the place is clean. What do you want to do here? I respect your call. Do you think the boy is in danger?”
Looking over at Karen holding her terrified son in her arms, he concluded that there probably wasn’t any threat. “No, I don’t think so.”
Craig got out of his seat and approached both men. “Ethan, I don’t want to be responsible if something happens to Ryan. Are we really going to let this slide?”
After the past week Ethan had had, he was concerned that cynicism may have seeped into his subconscious. How could he trust any parent knowing how diabolical they could be? He could never forget every child that had been lost due to inaction. He could never forget Kevin East, the first child he had detrimentally failed. But picturing his own daughter and how devastating it would be to lose her for even a day because of a false assumption, Ethan reconsidered the situation.
Sitting down at the table next to the sobbing woman with her son holding her tight, Ethan took a moment to relax and control his nerves. “Okay. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. But, we need to have a quick chat. Could you have Ryan go back to his room?”
Karen sighed in relief and a smile returned to her face. “Oh God, thank you. Ryan, please go back upstairs and play in your room. The adults need to talk.”
Ryan didn’t understand what was happening and still looked afraid. “They’re not taking me away, right Mom?”
“No, honey. Everything is alright. You’re not going anywhere and your daddy will be back tomorrow night.”
Ryan cautiously walked back to his room, looking over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure everything was fine.
Karen sat attentively listening to what Ethan was going to say.
“So, here’s the deal. I’m taking a dangerous chance here. As that young boy’s mother, it’s your responsibility to admit if you have a problem and are a danger to yourself or your son. Staying in control while your husband is overseas is the most important thing that you must do,” Ethan said. “We understand how hard it is to be a single mother while your husband is off on deployments for long periods of time.”
“I completely agree, sir. Ryan is my rock, keeping me from going over the edge again. I am not a danger to anyone. I promise to give up drinking altogether, just like I did with heroin. You will not be disappointed with me,” Karen said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Ethan reached over and grabbed her hand. “The most important thing to me, in every case, is the child. I have firsthand knowledge of losing a child that I left in the care of an abusive parent. So, Karen, I want you to understand something. No, I need you to understand, that when it happens again, I’m bringing the wrath of God down on that person. Look me in the eye and tell me you understand. Then I’ll fill out my report with no mention of the alcohol you consumed.”
Karen’s tears ceased as she stared at Ethan with frightened and compliant eyes, nodding her head. “Yes, Mr. Harper, I understand. You have my word.”
With that, Ethan stood up from the table and walked into the kitchen. “I’m going to need every ounce of alcohol you have, please.”
Karen bolted for the kitchen, pulling two bottles of wine out of the cupboard and a bottle with a fourth of rum. She handed them to Ethan. “This is all I have left from last night.”
Taking the bottles from Karen, he walked toward the front door, followed by the other two men. “Don’t let anyone bring any alcohol over anymore. Just remember that it’s not worth losing Ryan.”
Karen opened the door for them. “Thank you so much, gentlemen. Ryan appreciates this, too.”
The door shut behind them as they returned to their vehicles. “I hope you’re right about this, Ethan. If you aren’t, this is the last time I ever take a chance,” Craig said, climbing back into his car.
“I think we did the right thing, Mr. Harper. I hate taking children away from their mothers, as long as there isn’t a threat, of course,” Perez said.
“Thanks for all your help, Deputy. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”
Ethan poured out the rum and threw the bottle toward a trash can on the curb. The bottle barely made it, bouncing off the rim and into the can. He figured he would take the wine bottles home to Maria. She would surely appreciate the gesture.
The sun began dipping beneath the horizon, reflecting fiery, golden colors across the sky. A small breeze cooled the comfortably warm air as the evening progressed, blowing Maria’s bangs away from her forehead as she admired the sunset.
Walking together, with their palms pressed together and fingers interlocked, Ethan and Maria stepped into the light cast by the classy facade of The Château, the restaurant they were supposed to meet Owen at. The interior was dimly lit, so they could only make out dark figures moving around inside. The large, Roman-clay roof tiles gave the building a European appeal among the asphalt shingled rooftops that surrounded it.
“I love sunsets like that, especially on a date night,” Maria said.
While admiring the sunset himself, Ethan couldn’t help but wish he was back in Northern California for the autumn season. While the weather in Southern California was pleasant year-round, he missed the colder temperatures in the north that motivated people to light their fire places. The aroma of a wood burning fire and the sight of chimneys emitting smoke throughout a neighborhood, combined with the sight of golden corn fields, pumpkin patches, and multi-colored leaves raining from the tree tops, was the definitive representation of a true autumn season.
Interrupting his own reminiscent thoughts, Ethan opened the door for his wife. Being married for five years was no excuse to stop being a gentleman. He noticed Maria’s surprised reaction once the door was opened.
“Hey! Nice timing, buddy. We just got here about five minutes ago,” Owen said.
Ethan and Maria looked at one another—both aware of what the other was thinking—shocked that Owen and Kelly were already waiting for a table. Uncharacteristic of Owen, he had arrived earlier than they did, and they always arrived ten minutes prior to the agreed upon meeting time.
Standing with Owen, arms interlocked, was his fiancé, Kelly, who turned out to be a woman with beyond average beauty. Ethan’s first thought was that she must not be conceited. She probably liked goofy men despite their physical characteristics. She was taller, thinner, and better dressed than Owen. However, Ethan had to give him credit for wearing a dressy, button up shirt that gave the impression he was classier than he actually was.
Maria introduced herself to Kelly and reached out to shake her hand, prompting Owen to jump in to prove he had manners.
“I’m sorry, honey. This is Maria and her husband Ethan,” Owen said, pointing to each of them respectively.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Kelly. I’ve heard so much about you,” Ethan said.
Both Maria and Owen looked at him with wide eyes, knowing that Owen had not talked about her much and had just announced the engagement to Ethan the day prior.
Kelly shook Ethan’s hand. “I’ve heard a lot about the both of you, too. Not to mention, I saw you on the news yesterday, Ethan. That’s amazing you know, what you did.”
Ethan blushed as he usually did when complimented. Saving him from further embarrassment, a server announced that their table was ready. The four of them followed the server as he escorted them to their table. It was located next to a large window with a view of the gorgeous sunset that had become dark blue and purple as the sun was nearly set.
“What do you guys say we order some wine to set the mood?”
His question must have been rhetorical because a waitress stopped at the table to ask for drink orders, but Owen pre-emptively asked her to bring a bottle of Pinot Noir to the table and a beer for himself before anyone else could answer her.
“Alright, you got it,” the waitress said, not hesitating to leave and grab the drinks.
“I was going to ask for some water too, pal,” Ethan said.
“She’ll be back in a second. I just wanted to liven the mood, buddy. How often do you guys get out for a date night anymore?” Owen asked.
Ethan and Maria looked at one another and nodded their heads simultaneously. “True,” Maria said.
Ethan was unconsciously present for the small talk that commenced. He was too engrossed thinking about Bill. Every minute that animal was on the loose, another innocent life could be destroyed. The only things keeping him from pursuing Bill were the wine and Maria’s presence.
His concentration broke at the same time as everyone’s chatter when the waitress arrived. The effects of the Pinot were kicking in, encouraging him to stop thinking about terrible human beings for the rest of the evening.
After placing their orders, Maria verbally acknowledged that all their glasses were empty. “Looks like we’re going to need another bottle.”
Kelly stretched out her arm with wine glass in hand as Ethan poured himself a refill. “Do you mind pouring me a glass, Ethan?”
He smiled in self-amusement before cracking a joke. “By all means. You had better get some more before Maria gets hold of it.”
Maria punched him in the bicep, then snatched the wine bottle out of his hand to pour herself a full glass, emptying the bottle.
Saving Maria from a berating, Ethan distracted Kelly with conversation. “I’m glad we finally had the chance to meet you, Kelly. You must be something special because Owen doesn’t typically ask women to marry him.”
She giggled and grabbed Owen’s hand. “Trust me, I know it. We met several years ago, and since then, I’ve seen him with several different women. You probably don’t remember, but we were all supposed to have dinner years ago.”
Ethan shook his head. “No, I don’t remember. He’s needed me to be his wing man at several dinner dates, though. I’ve lost count in fact.”
Kelly took a sip, then swirled the wine around in her glass while she appeared to contemplate a thought. “Owen tells me you have a daughter?”
“Yes, a five-year-old daddy’s girl,” Maria blurted out.
“Doesn’t it scare you bringing up a child in today’s environment? I mean, especially seeing what you see on a daily basis. Owen has told me a few horror stories,” Kelly said, looking over at Owen to express her distaste by revealing her clenched teeth.
Ethan nodded and took a sip of wine while everyone at the table had their eyes locked on him. “Well, I can’t say that work doesn’t affect how cynical I am about other parents, but I believe Maria and I will be able to guide Renee in the right direction.”
Kelly raised her glass a foot above the table. “Here’s to saving helpless children, and to the difficult task of parenting. You seem like good parents, and Lord knows that you are definitely braver than I.”
Ethan laughed. “Thank you. We’ll need all the bravery and luck we can get when she becomes a teenager. But, it’s not really about bravery. I just think that when you’re ready for a child, you’ll have one. Everyone has their own checklist of needs that they believe must be satisfied before having a child. Whether that’s a career, true love, or a specific age. You know, whatever the reasoning may be. But sometimes accidents happen. Even to those that do everything they can to prevent it.”
“Now I have to ask, how did you two know you were ready?” Kelly said.
“Ha, Maria was off and on about being ready. It just so happens that when she found out she was pregnant, she was in the off stage. I couldn’t help but laugh, though, because I was always ready. I’ve never been afraid of children. I had the typical expectations of being comfortable in my career and acting on as many selfish needs as possible before having a child, but those are superficial needs that aren’t necessary to be a successful and loving parent.”
“You mean, like, travelling and throwing money around? I guess I can understand that. It just feels like I could die tomorrow and not regret having children,” Kelly said without any qualms.
“But, Kelly, you also don’t know how you’ll feel when you do have a child. That’s like saying you wouldn’t regret not tasting ice cream when you’ve never actually tasted it. I can’t speak for the pregnancy term itself, but once you hold that tiny human being you created and birthed, things change. Your sense of accomplishment, responsibility, and purpose, they all change completely. You even forget what life was like before having a child. Yeah, you make some sacrifices, but you can’t imagine life any other way afterwards. Then, you get to witness your child grow up. I found myself looking forward to every new stage in Renee’s life. Every sacrifice, headache, and sad moment you experience in life, they all pale in comparison to every moment that your child gives you a great big hug and says, ‘I love you.’”
Owen yawned and chugged the last quarter of his beer. “All this talk about parenting is killing the mood, man. I don’t like you giving Kelly ideas either.”
Ethan chuckled. “Yeah, I guess I just started rambling on there. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t honestly believe everyone is meant to be a parent. It just makes me sad to think about anyone missing out on how fulfilling it is. People that don’t have kids often focus on the negative aspects, but everything in life has negative aspects.”
“I do find it fascinating. All my friends are getting pregnant and some of them just aren’t ready. Their kids act like little shitheads. Not that I’m any expert though,” Kelly said. She placed her wine glass down and stood up from her chair. “You need to go to the bathroom, Maria?”
“Yeah, I’ll come with you,” Maria said.
Both women got up from their seats and walked toward the restroom. “Be good while we’re gone, boys. And Owen, make sure you order another bottle please,” Kelly said.
Once the girls were out of sight, Owen leaned in close to Ethan. “So, man, what was it like?”
Ethan knew exactly what Owen was asking him. “Thomas was a disgusting human being. I had never met someone I despised more than him in my entire life. If I’m being honest, I enjoyed taking his life a little.” Little was an understatement made to make sure he didn’t come off as sadistic.
“I’ve met guys that I wanted to destroy, but they don’t make a move on me. It’s kind of disappointing. And you’ve got two under your belt. Do you feel any different?”
“The first time, I did feel a lot of guilt. I just had to realize that it was either him or me. I did nothing wrong in defending myself. With Thomas, I had absolutely no guilt. None whatsoever.”
Owen had a large grin on his face while listening to Ethan admit his enjoyment. “I think I should have been a cop, that way I could take some of these creeps out. But nowadays, officers get crucified by the media if they shoot someone. It’s fucking crazy. People are so damn stupid. I say police strike in the cities where they are protested. See how much violence breaks out then. Apparently, people don’t remember the wild west.”
Feeling slightly dizzy, but also warm and carefree, Ethan downed the last gulp of wine in his glass. “I’ll tell you something, Owen. I’m at a point where I would do anything for these poor, innocent children that we meet every day. I’d do the same thing for Renee. Life or death, I’m all in.”
“That’s deep, buddy. I get it. Helps that you’re fucked up, too!” Owen said, just loud enough to avoid disturbing other diners, but the people sitting closest to them did give him unfriendly looks. “What’s with chicks, by the way? I don’t understand why they like to go to the bathroom together. When guys go to the bathroom, alone unless we can’t hold it, we keep as many urinals as possible between us.”
“They just love to chit chat. They don’t care that they’re sitting in stalls next to one another taking a dump. It’s actually pretty funny.”
The food arrived at the same time that the ladies returned to the table. “So, Maria and I were talking, and we want to hit a few clubs or bars after dinner. What do you boys say?” Kelly said.
“We were just saying the same thing,” Owen said.
Maria leaned over to kiss Ethan, who at the same time reached over and gave her ass a squeeze. “I might have to call-in tomorrow,” Ethan whispered in her ear.
“You’re kidding, right? You never call-in unless you’re bedridden.”
“I know, and I’m guessing I will be tomorrow after how much I’ve had to drink.”
“Just take it easy, honey. Guess it’s just water for the rest of the night. Eat your dinner, it will help. I don’t want you to be sick when we get home. At that point, you’re useless to me.”
Ethan perked up at her suggestion. “Yes, dear.”