Ethan pulled into the parking lot just before eight in the morning, parking in the empty space next to Lin’s car. He had arrived early to have a heart to heart with Lin, who probably wasn’t going to take his decision well, considering that she acknowledged him as one of her best social workers.
The cloudy and overcast sky was a direct representation of his mood, a stark contrast to the pleasantly sunny day prior. The air was brisk and breezy, yet still not considered cold to anyone north of Grapevine, especially considering that winter was approaching.
He sat in his vehicle, contemplating his day’s schedule, dreading the conversations he was to have with Lin and Chase. After pouring his heart out to Maria the night before, he knew he should quit and had promised to, but wasn’t convinced he wanted to stop being a social worker. However, after speaking with Chase, chances were pretty good that he may be facing some sort of punishment, probably resulting in the loss of his job at the very least.
Owen arrived in the parking lot and parked next to him. The two exited their vehicles at the same time, greeting one another. Ethan was ready to be ridiculed for his appearance.
“Holy shit! What the hell happened to you, man?” Owen said.
“It’s kind of a long story. The condensed version is that I fucked up. We can talk about it later.”
“Wait, don’t tell me. You pissed off Maria, didn’t you?”
Ethan didn’t smile as he was in no mood for jokes. “I’m sure you crack yourself up, pal, but do realize that very few people laugh with you.”
Ethan took the first steps as the two began slowly walking toward the entrance, Owen unrelenting with his self-proclaimed comedic genius. “Take a chill pill, buddy. I’m just messing with you. I’m sure there’s a completely logical explanation for why your face looks like you joined a fight club. But don’t worry, I know the first and second rules.”
While attempting to keep pace in front of Owen, Ethan heard footsteps rapidly approach from behind them, followed by a thud sound and a moan from Owen. Immediately upon turning around to see what had happened, he only had a brief second to see a man wearing a nylon over his head and swinging his fist, hitting the damaged left side of his face.
The jolt of pain to his face made him stagger back, but avoided losing his balance and falling down. Ignoring the throbbing pain that returned to his cheek, he witnessed the man attack Owen repeatedly. Owen lay helplessly on the ground while the assailant hit him in the back with a baseball bat, forced to curl into the fetal position to protect himself.
Ethan charged at the thug, tackling the coward to the ground. While straddling him, he noticed that the assailant was Carlos Gomez. It became clear why Owen received the brunt of the attack.
Using his fist like a hammer, Ethan slammed it down on Carlos’s fingers that clung to the bat. As the bat rolled away, he pummeled the now submissive drunk in the face with his fists. Blood splashed from the nylon covering Carlos’s face. He and Owen had both been threatened, and he was going to make sure the bastard regretted his decision to stage a sneak attack.
Before Ethan ran out of breath while vigorously attempting to beat Carlos into a coma, Owen grabbed him by the shoulders to end the uncontrollable onslaught. While Carlos lay on the ground motionless at their feet, Owen reached down and removed the nylon from the perpetrator’s head, revealing that Ethan was correct.
“Damn, Ethan,” Owen said, holding up the bloody nylon that had one of Carlos’s teeth protruding from it. “You might have killed the guy.”
Ethan crouched down to one knee and placed his fingers on Carlos’s jugular. “No. He’s still alive.” He looked at Owen with a shocked expression. “I’m sorry, buddy. I don’t know what came over me.”
“What a gutless piece of shit this guy is. Do you think it would be too much if I took a picture of him to show Diego?”
“Too much I think. But you could tell him that he won’t have to see his dad any time soon.”
John Allen pulled into the parking lot, swiftly getting out of his car to investigate the scene. John wasn’t very proactive as a social worker, but he could always be counted on to involve himself in his coworkers’ business. “What happened here? You guys in some trouble?”
Ethan and Owen looked at one another, well aware of what the other was thinking. “No, John, we have it under control. Just another disgruntled parent,” Ethan said.
Owen pulled out his phone and dialed emergency services. Ethan walked with John to get him moving toward the office and out of their hair. “Would you mind doing us a favor? Could you go in and tell Lin about our situation? Just tell her Carlos attacked us. She’ll know what you’re talking about.”
“No problem, Ethan. I’ll go let everyone know what happened,” John said. He was gleeful to be asked to spread gossip around the office.
Ethan knew it would be no problem because John was going to gossip about it regardless. As much as he talked about other people’s problems, he avoided any drama in his personal life.
“Make sure you take care of your face. That guy really did a number on you two,” John said while walking away.
Out of masculine arrogance, Ethan was about to clarify that Carlos had not done any damage to his face. Biting his tongue, he conceived the idea to use the attack as an excuse for his injuries. Discovering a way to avoid imprisonment was a big relief, but now he had a big decision to make after promising Maria that he would confess to Chase.
After Owen hung up the phone, Ethan approached him, gesturing for him to come in close to be told a secret. “Could you tell everyone that I got my facial injuries from Carlos? It would be a huge favor to me if you did.”
“Of course, buddy. You always have my back, and I’ll have yours. I appreciate you stopping Carlos from tenderizing my ass.”
Ethan smiled, appreciating Owen’s sense of humor. “Shit, man. Are you alright? You took a bat to your back.”
“I’m going to have some serious bruises, but I think my back rolls protected me. Absorbed quite a bit of the force I think. He got me good in the back of my thigh, though.”
“You really never stop cracking jokes, do you? I’m sure Kelly really appreciates that during sex.”
“Actually, she loves it,” Owen said, in a more serious manner than usual.
They both decided to catch their breath, sitting in silence for the next few minutes as other coworkers arrived for work. They took turns repeating their story to each individual that curiously approached them until the police showed up. When the police finally pulled into the parking lot ten minutes later, they pleasantly watched as Carlos regained consciousness when the officers placed handcuffs around his wrists. The two officers lifted him to his feet and escorted him to the squad car.
“Bye, Carlos. I hope you get treated in prison the same way you treated your son, dickhead,” Owen said as Carlos passed by.
They both shared a moment of satisfaction seeing Carlos placed in the back of the patrol car, on his way to a jail cell. “The beating was worth it,” Owen said.
Ethan parted with Owen when they entered the office and walked to Lin’s office. “I’ll see you later, buddy. I’ve got to have a chat with Lin,” Ethan said.
Lin didn’t take her attention away from her computer screen when Ethan entered her office. “Never a dull moment for you, eh?” Lin said.
He sat down in the chair across from her desk. “So, I’m thinking about making a career change.”
Waiting for a shocked response that he didn’t receive, Ethan continued. “Well, I’ve been through a lot the past several years here at Child and Family Services, and I think I should take at least a break from the job and try something else. It’s been taking a toll and me and my—”
“Ethan,” Lin said, interrupting him and now looking directly into his eyes, “you can tell all your personal feelings to Janelle. I can understand your decision after everything you’ve been through. Honestly, I question my own sanity from time to time. This is a difficult and painful job. I would rather you didn’t leave because you are one of the best social workers I’ve seen. As your team leader, I just need to know if you’re giving me your two-week’s notice, or if you’re going to get back to work?”
Even though her response was blunt, he could appreciate not having to go through the process of getting into details. “I’m giving you notice, but it might be more than a few weeks. I haven’t actually decided on what I’m going to do yet.”
Lin focused back on her computer. Her typing became more aggressive, so he could tell his news had upset her. “That’s fine. Just let me know when you’ve decided. I have to make sure your open cases are covered and that you brief those taking them over. I’ll have to start cutting back your cases then. Well, back to work then?”
He considered apologizing for upsetting her, but decided there was no reason to. He appreciated the fact that his leaving emotionally upset her. He had always felt they had a professional, but close relationship compared to other employees in the office.
As he opened the door, Lin stopped him with a final remark. “I do hope you stay with us, Ethan. You’re a good social worker and the children in Citrus County will be worse off without you.”
“Thanks, Lin. That means a lot, especially coming from you.”
He walked over to his desk, sitting down and laying his head over the back of his chair. What would he do other than social work?
He thought about returning to his hometown in Northern California, possibly getting involved in agriculture. Growing up there as a child, he enjoyed walking through the many orchards and fields that surrounded his home. The country was peaceful, allowing him to take a break from everything and think clearly. The different aromas throughout the air of wild flowers and grass produced vivid memories, something that smog and car exhaust just weren’t capable of.
But, he knew he’d have to go back to school to do so. It would take time to change careers, but the point was that he’d be with his family without the stress of being responsible for the lives of strangers.
While trying to brainstorm ideas for his future, he glanced at the missing child posters on the wall. One aspect of the job he enjoyed was the investigation aspect. He felt that understanding human nature and identifying the motivations of people was his strong suit. He may be able to utilize his skills as a private investigator.
Ready to get back to work, he began processing paperwork on the Copeland case, which he was supposed to have done the day before. He kept his promise and left out any mention of the alcohol she had consumed the night before. During which, he couldn’t help biting his lip, swearing to himself what he would do if she was lying to him—especially if Ryan got hurt.
As he finished with the monotonous grind of report filing, he struggled to decide whether to pursue the next case or to concentrate on developing his future. Watching his coworker, Michelle, exit Janelle’s office, gave him the inclination that he could use the advice and guidance of a professional.
He approached Janelle’s office door and knocked.
“Come in,” Janelle called out from inside her office.
Ethan entered. “Good morning, Janelle. I was hoping you had a moment so we could talk for a bit?”
“I’m free at the moment,” she said. “How are you doing?”
He took a seat on her couch. “My wife and I talked last night, and we both feel that I’ve become too involved with work. I’ve been bringing baggage home with me and it’s affecting all of us. I’m looking for a career change, but I’m not sure what else I would do?”
Janelle nodded her head and smiled. “You’re not the first one to tell me this. It’s a common response from social workers, having been affected by the disturbing things they see so often. You’d have to be either sociopathic or completely uncaring to not be affected by it, and we both know you’re neither.”
“What do you say to people that tell you that?”
“There’s not much I can say to help. The most important thing is deciding whether or not you can keep all the drama at work, without taking it home with you. If not, do you feel it’s even worth continuing to be a social worker?”
“I take pride in the job. I would like to continue helping children because I’ve made a commitment to do so, to myself, and to God. But if I can’t maintain my sanity, then maybe it’s not my calling after all.”
Janelle’s eyebrows raised. “Well, why did you become a social worker in the first place?”
He sat quietly for a moment, contemplating her question. “Why does anyone get into social work? I assume it’s usually for the same reason I did; To help people and change lives. I started out working with adults, witnessing their self-destruction through alcohol, drugs, greed, and selfishness. After a very short time doing that, I quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted to help children.”
“Do you have a harder time empathizing with adults?”
“Maybe, somewhat, but I don’t think that’s it. The way I see it, adults make conscious decisions to ruin their own lives. Some being able to overcome their problems, while many others aren’t. But with children, their lives are ruined before they even have a chance to start living. Oftentimes, because of those adults I just mentioned whom have zero concern for their children’s well being. Someone needs to fight for those children. That’s why I am a social worker and why I work with Child and Family Services.”
“You sound like someone that knows exactly why they do what they do. So, what exactly has caused you to question your current position in life?”
“I’ve seen too much. Just like a soldier on the battlefield, there comes a time when you’ve seen too much and every soul destroying, tragic, unimaginable sight begins to change who you are. I feel like I’m becoming a monster myself, no different than the disgusting human beings I have to deal with on a daily business.”
“Well, how exactly are you changing? Is this about the two men whose deaths you’re responsible for?”
“It’s my nightmares, my thoughts, and even some actions. So many of these abusive parents have me wanting to take matters into my own hands. I hate them and what they do to their children, because as a parent, I couldn’t even imagine most of the things I’ve witnessed them being capable of. When I get home, I can’t get the images out of my head.”
She seemed surprised by his confession. “You appear to be dealing with those strong feelings very well. I’m a little surprised to hear how distraught you’ve become. Based on our last few meetings, I figured you were dealing with all the trauma you’ve experienced quite exceptionally. But, if this is how you truly feel, I would agree that you may need to find a new job that would bring you more pleasure and less stress.”
“Yeah, that’s why I came to talk with you this morning. I was hoping you had some advice as to what I should pursue?” he said, lifting his hands palms up and tilting his head in bewilderment.
She smiled and acted as if she had discovered the perfect solution. “You could go into psychology! You’ve got the education under your belt having become a social worker.”
Ethan tried to hold back from laughing out loud, but could not contain a few chuckles. “That’s true, but I don’t really want to hear about the problems that other people are having either.”
“I’m not really sure how else I could help, but maybe you could just get out of field work and do a job behind the scenes. One that requires much less interaction with the victims. Whatever you do decide, I’m sure you’ll be successful, Ethan. It’s been a pleasure talking with you over the years, and I sincerely hope I’ve helped you during your time here.”
Ethan smirked. “Of course you have. I may not have lasted this long without you. And trust me, I was skeptical before our first session. You’ve been a pleasure to open up to.”
Janelle stood up and reached her arms out, initiating a hug. Though he felt a little awkward embracing his therapist, Ethan wasn’t about to turn her down, so he stood up and tried to not make it dramatic. As their hug ended, they just stood looking at one another for a few seconds.
“Well then, have a good day and let me know if you need anything else,” she said, breaking the awkward silence.
He looked down at his watch while leaving Janelle’s office, confirming it was time to go have a chat with Chase. He had just enough time to grab a sandwich for lunch before heading to the precinct. Eager to get the conversation over with, he hastily grabbed his keys and phone before leaving the office.
Approaching his Escape, he was appalled to find that his tires were flat. Kneeling to look closer, he found a horizontal slice in the wall of the tire about three inches wide. After checking the other three tires, he identified the same puncture marks on all four. He also checked the cars parked next to him that weren’t damaged, so it was simple to conclude that it wasn’t a randomly vandalized.
Knowing that Carlos had been taken into custody by police, only one other person could be responsible. Roger was demonstrating how serious he was about his vendetta, probably expecting Ethan to become paranoid. He had made it clear that Ethan was going to regret picking a fight.
Despite the turn of events, he did not forget about the important meeting with Chase, so he went back inside the office and asked Owen for a ride. “Owen, could you help me out? Someone slashed my tires. I need to grab some lunch quick, and then I have to go down to the police station to talk with the FBI,” Ethan said.
Owen’s eyes grew wide. “F . . . B . . . I . . .? What have you gotten yourself into?”
He lifted his wrist to show Owen his watch. “The car ride would be a good time for me to explain, but we need to go now if you want to eat.”
“You bet your ass I want to eat!” Owen said, pulling his keys out of his desk.
Never had he seen Owen so giddy, practically jogging out to his Prius, which Ethan was slightly embarrassed about climbing into. Once inside and their seatbelts were fastened, Owen shifted into reverse. “Alright, let’s hear it.”
Ethan nodded and took a deep breath. “Okay. So, that Thomas guy that I killed, there may be a chance that he would have survived until the paramedics arrived. Maybe.”
Owen looked over at him in shock. “No way! Are you serious, dude?”
“Did you see everything that this guy was capable of? He did attack me, but I got the upper hand. After talking with him, I knew he showed no remorse and could never possibly change. I really couldn’t stop myself. Rage just completely took over.”
Owen shook his head. “Damn, man. I don’t know what to say. I mean, I can totally understand it.”
“So then, I figured out that a man named Roger was the man that helped Thomas kidnap Kathy, and her mother used to date the creep. Not only that, I saw this fucker coming out of the house where I helped that teen who was being prostituted by her own mother. So clearly, this guy is as sick as they come. I decided to case his apartment.”
Owen, for one of the few times in his life, was completely speechless. He only looked ahead at the road in front of them, processing the incredible story he had just been told.
“Then I fucked up. I took it upon myself to punish this guy, but he got away from me. Now—”
“Hold on,” Owen said, interrupting him mid-sentence. Then he parked the car outside of a deli. “This psycho is on the loose? Obviously, this guy is the one that slashed your tires. You need to go to the police.”
“That’s what I’m going to do right now. Agent Ramsey works on a specialized FBI task force. I’m just not sure how to tell him yet.”
“I’d like mine on wheat, turkey, and pepper jack, with everything but onions,” Owen said, looking off into the distance.
Ethan raised an eyebrow even though Owen wasn’t looking at him to notice. “I helped save your ass back there with Carlos, but I still owe you a sandwich?”
Still refusing to look at him, Owen just nodded his head.
“Fine!” he said, climbing out of the car.
Once he returned with the sandwiches, Owen finally looked at him. “You know I’m an accomplice now? Not only that, but you have your family to worry about. You’ve got to tell this Ramsey guy about Roger before it’s too late.”
“Look, I know I’m in too deep, but we might be talking about jail time. I committed some serious crimes. Even if I don’t mention the murder, I could be charged with kidnapping, attempted manslaughter, and maybe even obstruction of justice.”
Chewing rapidly to swallow a mouthful of sandwich, Owen coughed, nearly choking. “I understand that, but you are in some serious danger. What’s the alternative? You go on a personal manhunt to kill this guy?”
After finishing the bite he had just taken, Ethan tilted his head and raised his eyebrows to Owen’s insinuation. “I’m pretty sure I can get this guy.”
Owen reached over and slapped Ethan on the side of his head. “Come on, man. Come back to reality. And consider for a second who is telling you such a thing. Even I think this is crazy, and dangerous.”
Ethan set his half-eaten sandwich down on the wrapper. “I know, I know. I swore to Maria and myself that I would come clean. It’s the only real choice I have.”
Owen started the engine again, leaving the deli parking lot and heading to the police station. They sat in silence for the rest of the drive, allowing both men time to think.
Looking out the window, watching the city streets, buildings, and pedestrians left behind in a blurry streak, Ethan thought about being taken away from his family for an undetermined amount of time. Most likely years of life being forfeited, leaving Renee without a father and Maria without a husband. He couldn’t do that to them, but was he just delaying the inevitable and maybe even making it worse by waiting? He could not find the courage to confess. Not when hotheaded Carlos had given him the perfect alibi for his injuries.
Arriving at the precinct, Owen parked in the parking lot and shut off the engine. “Okay, man. I’ll be waiting for you. Good luck in there.”
“You’re a really good friend, Owen. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever respected you as much as I do right now,” he said. Knowing how dramatic he sounded, Ethan couldn’t resist adding some levity. “Now that you’ve entered adulthood, my job as a parent is complete.”
Owen rolled his eyes and shooed Ethan away with his hand. “I hope you do some hard time.”
Ethan exited the car forcefully, pretending to be angry. “Too soon, man.”