Child Protection: A Novel of Deception by Don Rice, Jr.

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Skeletons

August 1991

Gustavo Rivera got off the plane at JFK International still thinking about his meeting with the ex-cop in Saint Pete. He wondered if there was something more than what he’d been told about the girl, Tracy Williams. He understood what she’d done and why, though he couldn’t condone it, even though he wanted to. Hell, he thought, I might have done the same thing in those circumstances. But I wouldn’t have done it out in the open like that and ruined my life and career.

Yet from another crevice in his brain came another, possibly more honest assessment: Or maybe I would have, had I been her in that time and place.

There were so many things about this that puzzled him. How was she let out on her first parole hearing, and why wasn’t she required to stay in her home area, or at least Florida, until her parole was finished? That was a major concern for him, and it went right to the heart of the system of parole and probation in the state. Never had he seen or heard of such a thing unless it was a special case for witness protection. But there was no false identity or background created.

Even more troubling was that his own agency, the FBI, seemed to have no record of her in their public archives. Yes, he’d seen the classified records, which were redacted enough to prevent the casual observer from knowing who was involved in this, what she was doing, and for whom she was working. It all seemed very fishy.

But the thing that really stuck in his mind was the Hispanic woman that he’d glimpsed in the car. She’d looked familiar, like he should have known her from somewhere but couldn’t recall where. That was why he’d tried to follow her, and then gotten waylaid by those guys in the Ford Mustang. If only I’d gotten a better view of her, he thought. Then maybe I’d be able to place her, maybe recall a name if I’d seen her face clearly.

And what was the connection between them and those three men?

He also found it interesting, to say the least, that seeing that Latina had led him to Williams, and then back to the so-called “small city” of Poughkeepsie. The stray thought came to him, How can they call a little town like that a city, anyway? Total population can’t be more than thirty thousand. New York, Philly and Chicago are cities. Albany barely qualifies, his logic told him.

He set that line of mental inquiry aside as useless and got back to the task at hand. He made his way through the jostling crowd to the unmarked office the Bureau kept in the airport, pulled out his identification and asked for a car. The agent in charge asked for a briefing, and he replied that he was following up on a set of leads and would report to his superior in Washington shortly. The agent gave him the keys to a white Dodge Diplomat in the long-term parking area, so he decided to leave his own Toyota behind since he’d already been seen driving it, and Rivera was on his way.


Charlie put the phone down and looked at the rest of his crew gathered around the dinner table watching him. They knew, as he did, that the only person outside the team who had that number was their boss, Martin Bowman, director of special operations at the Agency. Even the local man, Baxter, whom they’d just recruited a couple nights ago had a different number, one that was used only for team members and outside sources.

“Rivera is on the way. He just touched down at La Guardia. Tracy, do you have that package Martin sent us? He won’t believe what we have to tell him without evidence. I want to give it to him straight and see how he responds. And Trace, tell Danny thanks for the info about this guy. I think that’s what will tip the scales in our favor with him.”

Then he looked at his ex-wife. “You ready for this, Marissa?” When she nodded, he said to the group, “Okay, people, on your toes. All surveillance active in one hour. We don’t know how fast he’s gonna be driving, so we have to be ready when he gets here. Go to it.”


Agent Rivera pulled into the parking lot of the Texas Lunch on the corner of Main and Cherry streets. It was a small hole-in-the-wall joint that served mostly a breakfast and lunch crowd, but stayed open until six each evening. He parked near the entrance and got out of the car. Inside, he ordered a gyro, slice of carrot cake, and a small cup of coffee with cream and two sugars to go. He sat in his car and wolfed the food down, took a few sips from the rank coffee, and tossed it in the open garbage can near the diner’s entrance. ‘Two points,’ he thought smugly but with little real satisfaction.

He sat there thinking about how to approach those people he’d been after. He was surprised he didn’t have a plan; he was always so careful to think it all out in every situation he’d ever been in. But here he was, no idea how to proceed. And he understood that it was because of the girl he’d followed.

He still knew nothing about her, only about the Williams woman. And he hadn’t been able to get anything from his contact at the Agency either; Jimmy wasn’t answering his private numbers, and the switchboard told him that “Agent Tomlinson is currently unavailable. May I take a message?”

He finally started the engine and headed off to the house where he would hopefully have his questions answered. He thought about what questions he wanted to ask on the way, but decided to let his quarry take the lead to begin with.

After what seemed to him like forever, he pulled into the driveway got out and locked the car. The front door opened as he climbed the porch steps, and a stocky but fit middle-aged white man with a crew cut bade him enter. Not a word was spoken, and it was clear, when he saw the others, that everyone had been waiting for him.

The living room was painted off-white everywhere but the highly polished old hardwood floor, and was furnished with sofa, loveseat, an overstuffed chair, recliner, a coffee table and two end tables. There was nothing on the walls, no decorations, no table lamps or doilies; it was strictly functional. A passageway opened past a breakfast counter into a kitchen. He saw a two captain’s chairs on this side of the counter; he thought there were probably a couple more on the other side of that counter. Other than the captain’s chairs, not a single piece matched. Another passageway led down a hall, presumably to a den and a bathroom, when he considering the apparent age of the house. Between the two halls there was a staircase to the second floor.

He looked from the man who let him in to the others in turn. He saw the Williams woman; two medium-brown men with curly black hair who could easily be brothers; and finally, in a shadowy corner, the Hispanic woman who had originally caught his attention in front of the social services building. His gaze lingered; her appearance shocked him much more than he expected.

“Maria,” he whispered, more to himself than the others. “It can’t be.” She looked exactly like his cousin who had died a couple years ago. He hadn’t seen Maria since he’d joined the Agency, and didn’t know where she’d lived or how she’d died, only that she was no longer alive. Almost all of his family refused to talk to him about her, and they wouldn’t tell him why.

The woman stepped into the light and said, “Mi nombre no es María. Mi nombre es Marissa, cabron. Everyone knew she was under stress; her team because she was speaking in Spanish, and Rivera from her body language.

My God, she even sounds like Maria, he thought, stiffening perceptibly at the insult but not speaking.

The man who had let him in spoke as he sat in a recliner. “Welcome, Agent Rivera. Have a seat. I’m Charlie Richardson. These others with me are Tracy Williams, Robert and Raphael Boulware, and Marissa Richardson. You already know a bit about Tracy. We work for the same man you do. Marty Rothman. He didn’t tell you about us because you didn’t have a need to know; you know how that works. But you spotted us, and got curious. And that’s exactly why you’re here. You want to know. Just like we want to know about you. We want to know if you will fit in with us.” He paused for effect, it seemed to Rivera, then asked, “so what do you want to know first?”

Rivera stared at Charlie for a moment, thinking hard. He took the only empty chair, then ran his hand over his face as if trying to wake himself up. “Hell, I don’t even know where to start. My training tells me to start with what you’re doing here, what you were doing in Jersey City and N.Y.C. But what I really want to know first,” his eyes moved toward Marissa, “is who this lady here is. You all know I was following her the other day, because you three stopped me. I also have a personal interest here, now that I see her clearly.” He took a breath, then asked Marissa, “So who are you, and why do you look like someone I know?”

Marissa didn’t answer; she just stood there, looking at him, not knowing what to say and therefore not wanting to say anything. So Charlie answered, as he’d already planned to do anyway.

“Marissa looks like someone you know because she is someone you should know, and would have known, if things had happened as they normally do. I have something you need to read before I tell you anything more.” He passed Rivera a manila folder. “When you finish, you’ll have the main part of your answer. Then we can talk about it with a minimum of confusion.” Charlie picked up the can of Dr. Pepper from the end table next to his chair.

Rivera slowly opened the folder. Inside was a copy of a medical record. The letterhead at the top said “Bellevue Hospital, New York, New York”. The patient’s name made him hitch his breath: Anna Montalvo. His aunt. Oh, shit, what’s going on here? Why is Tia’s medical record here? he wondered silently. He turned the page. There was a birth certificate there. It had his cousin’s name: Maria Montalvo. There was the date and time, father and mothers’ names, all the normal information.

He turned the page again. Another birth certificate; this one had the name Marissa Montalvo. He looked at Marissa, understanding dawning, then back at the paper. It gave the same birth date as his Maria, with a time only eight minutes later. He looked at Marissa again, incredulous. “You’re her twin? How could that be?”

Again, Marissa didn’t answer. Charlie motioned for him to continue reading.

The next page was an adoption document. He knew Maria had been adopted by his uncle Eduardo Garcia. But there had never been any mention of any twin. The Garcias lived in the Bronx, while his family, the Riveras, lived in Brooklyn and the Montalvos in Spanish Harlem. Nobody had much to do with the Montalvos, he recalled. Tia Anna was known to be crazy with her religious beliefs, mixing up the traditional Catholic with the Santeria cult.

He turned another page. It was the carbon copies of two plane tickets, from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for one adult and one child. Angel Montalvo Gustovo’s uncle, and Maria. Tio Angel’s ticket was the only one that was round trip.

He pondered briefly how these tickets had survived the nearly thirty years since their purchase, and how they’d been found and then be made part of this packet. His mind boggled at the man-hours that must have gone into the task. But it was clear that either Luis or Anna hadn’t wanted anyone to know that there had been twins. And to think that Tia Anna, of all people, had actually tried to raise one of them! She’s the family fruitcake, for Gods’ sake!

He kept reading the packet, turning pages slowly, as though sensing that something even more shocking was coming. As it turned out, the two girls had similar health issues. Both were epileptic. Both had one visibly shorter arm and leg and too much curve in the spine. Both were extremely nearsighted and had what was called “lazy eye”. But those outward traits were on opposing sides of the body, with Maria’s on the left and Marissa’s on the right.

Beyond the medical records, there were other parallels. Marissa had been sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Puerto Rico; Maria had gone with the family on summer vacations with the paternal grandparents. Both showed signs of great intelligence when tested, but Maria was encouraged to do her best while Marissa had been neglected and given almost no support. As a result, where Maria had had excellent grades, Marissa had lagged behind her classmates, even to the point of failing English after getting back from her familial exile.

He carefully read each document while the others sat and watched, taking occasional breaks when needed.

On the last few pages, he read that Maria had died two years ago, choking to death from vomiting during an early-morning seizure. Several months later her son had been taken from her surviving husband, Steven Winthrop, by the county child protection agency. And it had happened right here, in this hole in the wall town calling itself a city.

He set the folder on the coffee table in front of him and put his head down, with his hands covering his face. He’d never thought that his job, his career, could bring him into such proximity with his own family’s skeletons trying to come out of their closets, especially in front of strangers he’d been tracking as if they were outlaws.

Charlie waited. It was obvious that the new knowledge was having an effect on their visitor. Hell, it had already had an effect on Marissa, since it was her family as well as Rivera’s. What that effect would turn out to be, for both of them, wasn’t yet clear. But they had to wait for a reaction, and based on that would be their next set of options.

He wasn’t too concerned with Marissa’s reaction at this point; he already knew she was capable of integrating the information into her awareness, but it would take time. He assumed it would be something similar with Rivera, given his own background and obvious intelligence; the man is an FBI agent, after all, he thought. And he hoped Agent Rivera’s response would be a positive one.

As he thought about this situation, he watched as Rivera took a sip of his coffee, which had gotten cold by then. He empathized as the man grimaced and set the cup back down on the table; he hated cold java too. And when he looked up to survey the team, Charlie could almost see the man thinking in his eyes.

Gustavo Rivera took out his Agency I.D. Card and set it on the table, next to the cardboard cup. He took a deep breath, then said, “I’ve spent the last eighteen years working for the government in one capacity or another. First as a soldier, then a cop, and finally with the Bureau. But all the things I saw during those years never prepared me for this.” He sighed loudly, then asked Marissa, “Why didn’t you let anyone know you even existed?”

Marissa looked down, then looked at Charlie, who nodded, almost but not quite imperceptibly. Then she looked at Rivera. “I did not know I had any other family. And whenever I asked, I was told there was nobody but my grand-mother.” Her Spanish accent was very thick, showing her stress levels clearly to anyone who knew her.

“We didn’t know until last night, Mr. Rivera,” Charlie added. “The packet you just read came from an outside source that is beyond reproach. We can’t tell you yet who, just that it all checks out. We made some inquiries ourselves throughout the night and before you got here today. One of those inquiries was with Angel Montalvo.”

Rivera was taken aback with that statement. “You actually spoke with Uncle Angel?” He took a pack of Winston’s and a lighter from his suit jacket pocket, extracted a cigarette, and lit it.

Charlie smiled. “We left no stone unturned if we could help it. Of course, we had a bit of difficulty with your own parents, but that was to be expected. They’re very proud of you, by the way.”

Rivera grinned in return. “I know.” He took a puff of his smoke, flicked the ash into the cold coffee. Now I guess it’s time for the big question. What do you expect from me? I know you contacted that ex-cop in Florida, Mitchell, and told him to tell me about Mrs. Williams.”

“Call me Tracy,” the dark-skinned woman said with a smile.

Rivera smiled back. “Tracy it is. Thank you. All of you can call me Gus, I guess, since it looks like we’ll be working together. That is where this is leading, right?”

Charlie nodded. “If you agree, Gus. But we won’t ask until you’ve heard what it is we’re doing. Marty wanted me to bring you on board right away, as soon as I reported that you were tailing my people. But I told him I wanted to see if you’d fit with my team first. That would include your take on the job we’re doing.”

“Okay, I can respect that. What is that job?”

“You got a clue from your interview of Mr. Mitchell. Can you guess what that clue is?”

“It seems pretty clear. The report you handed me made special mention of Maria’s kid being taken; that’s not our usual type of assignment, I know. But add that to the fact that Tracy lost her kid when she went to prison, and it starts to add up. I still don’t understand how she got on your team though. The Bureau doesn’t hire anyone with a record. But apparently you think there’s something fishy going on, and it involves children.”

Charlie looked pleased. “Marty told me you were quick on the draw, but he also said you were a straight arrow, that you had problems seeing abuse of authority on the government payroll.”

Gus laughed quietly, then said, “I like to give that impression. Makes it easier to hear and see things that people don’t think I notice.”

Tracy laughed and said, “Oh, I like him, Charlie! Can we keep him?”

“That depends, Trace.” He turned to Rivera and asked, “What’s your take on this issue, Gus?”

“Well, having seen Tracy’s records and talked to that cop, Mitchell... Well, as the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But is there a good reason for Bureau involvement? Clearly you think there is, or you wouldn’t be here like this. And Rothman and Tomlinson must think so too, because they seem to have sanctioned you and your team. I’m thinking there must be reason, because those two are rarely in such complete agreement on how a mission should proceed. So you can count me in.”

Charlie smiled. “I’m glad to hear that, Gus.”

Tracy’s computer beeped; she turned to see what had come up. There was an incoming message from her son, Danny.

Mom, u there?

She keyed in her pass code so she could respond. Then she typed, Yes, I’m here, Danny.

She watched as Danny’s words appeared on her screen. Bad scene going on. Something about R&R. U gotta check it out

R&R?

Ur friends

She thought a minute; then it came to her. R&R meant Robert and Raphael! She typed, What about them?

Their family is in trouble

Where?

Start in Tulsa

Then she noticed her compatriots around her, watching the screen. Even Agent Rivera was paying attention. Robert and Raphael looked rather pale, as if they’d seen a ghost. And Charlie …

Charlie had a look of grim determination that almost made her look away; even Marissa was watching him, clearly wondering what he knew about the Boulware brothers...

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