The landing at O’Hare was uneventful. They were met at the gate by a pair of agents who took them to the downtown Bureau offices. They went through the same set of briefings as O.K. City: the layout of the city, checking in with local authorities, and “bring the car back when you’re finished.” The only difference was the faces doing the talking. They ignored most of it, as usual.
Charlie was beginning to wish they’d brought their own vehicles instead of flying; he really hated checking in with each field office. But the distances involved in this part of the investigation made that impractical.
They were assigned a van that was identical to the one they’d had in Oklahoma, with the same caveat: bring it back before you leave. S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure.
There was a bit of unneeded disagreement from the Boulware brothers. On the plane, Robert had asked when they were going to Los Angeles. They wanted to go there, it seemed, because that’s where they’d lived briefly after their first adoption. That, however, wasn’t a good enough reason to go on Bureau time. The only other reason, the only acceptable one, was if it fit in with their investigation. But that was only under normal circumstances. California, at the present time, was not a normal circumstance.
“Out of the question,” Charlie had told them. “I want to stay out of California. We can’t go anywhere near there right now, not with the McMartin trial aftermath. We’d get roped in as soon as we landed. Then, no matter what happened, if we were found out, we’d be accused of having an undue influence, even though we weren’t there for the trial, especially when word of our investigation gets out. And it will, eventually.”
McMartin was the name of a preschool in L.A. whose employees and officers had been accused of sexually abusing the children in their care. The case, begun in 1983, had been flawed from the start by the unquestioning acceptance of wild, improbable allegations from a woman who had admitted beforehand to suffering from mental disorders.
The woman’s claims were not checked for accuracy or factual substance. The children were questioned in a manner inconsistent with any accepted standard of investigation. But the prosecution, with help from questionable “therapists”, convinced the judge that such questioning was the easiest way to obtain usable testimony from the children due to their young age and lack of understanding of sexuality and perversions of it.
What made matters worse, in many peoples’ opinions, was that the typical imaginations of children were either discounted in whole, or were intentionally manipulated to arrive at the desired accounts and accusations wanted by the examiners and their paid therapists. Give a young child a so-called “anatomically correct” doll and a set of leading questions, and some pretty wild tales will result. The therapists and the prosecution accepted these accounts as factual, with no supporting evidence whatsoever.
Charlie Richardson and his team were finding that this model was being propagated across the country. Child psychologists, protection workers and some teachers were being instructed in the use of these dolls along with leading questions much like those that were employed in that Los Angeles courtroom. And they were being taught that any dispute of findings was an indication of guilt that, while not an acceptable argument in a criminal proceeding, would be permissible in family courts. In fact, they were taught that the parents who refused to admit such things were in denial. This was one of many hotly debated results of a lower standard of proof, which was called “preponderance of the evidence”, allowed in many of those courts; the laws in the various states had been tweaked carefully to make sure this was so.
The preponderance standard required only that more than half of the evidence support one side or the other. Unfortunately, it also permitted hearsay evidence and personal opinion that would never be allowed in a criminal trial, especially when there was no corresponding physical evidence to back it up.
There had been many cases brought to the team’s awareness of the outcomes of such cases. Parental rights had been terminated by these courts, with the resulting destruction of family bonds and trust creating nightmares for all involved family members. The worst damage, perhaps, was in the children themselves, who were put at risk of developing long-term psychoses and emotional disorders from that disruption.
With Robert driving, Tracy studied the map they’d been given at the Bureau briefing. Following Tracy’s directions, he headed east on Roosevelt Road until they came to the I-90/94 southbound entrance ramp. They followed that to the
63rd Avenue exit, then turned left, heading toward the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Cottage Grove is on the western edge of Hyde Park. They were going to the second building on the west side of the road south of 62st Street. They’d been told that this group of buildings, called Grove Parc Plaza, was the newest of Chicago’s many housing projects for the lower socio-economic class. Charlie wondered silently, Why can’t they just say it’s for poor people?
Charlie told Robert to pull into the parking lot for the second building. Since they’d known it was a project, they’d agreed that Tracy and Raphael would make the first contact.
As the two headed for the door to the building, a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, came barreling out and almost ran into Tracy. Robert pulled her to the side, but the boy still clipped her arm as he went past, dropping something as he did so. The object hit her left foot and bounced to the side, and she stooped to pick it up. It was a cheap plastic ring, like the ones she used to find in boxes of Cracker Jacks when she was a kid herself.
She turned in the direction the child had gone, and was surprised to see him standing at the corner of the building. He was unwrapping a piece of candy or gum and trying to pretend he wasn’t watching her and Raphael.
“Hey,” she called. “You dropped something!”
The boy smiled. “I didn’t drop nothin’, lady; must be yours. Maybe you got a hole in yo’ bag!” He popped the candy into his mouth, then took off once more to wherever it was he was going.
Tracy was about to toss the ring into the garbage can by the door when she saw the corner of paper sticking out of the circlet. Then she remembered: some of the rings had ‘secret’ compartments for messages. She found the latch and opened it. A small, tightly folded piece of paper tumbled out into her hand.
She unfolded it carefully and read it.
She looked at Raphael. “Let’s go. We have to find Harper’s Court.”
Tracy and Raphael turned into the walkway between buildings and came to an area with chess tables and concrete benches. Several people playing chess, and nearly twice the number watching and kibitzing. The pair watched for a few minutes, then looked around the perimeter of the square. There were a variety of small businesses. Spotting a coffee shop, they decided to go in for a cup and a bite to eat.
“What about that chess pavilion?” Tracy asked. “I’d like to see more of that kind of thing around.”
“You play chess, Trace?” Raphael seemed surprised.
“No, but I like to watch folks doing peaceful stuff instead of going out gang-banging.”
When they came back out with their coffee and snacks, there was a youngish, shapely black woman, what a lot of men would call stacked, with narrow braids in her hair, standing near the entrance, openly watching them. She quickly looked them up and down, then said, “My daddy told me to look out for you.” She eyed them suspiciously. “But he said there were six people. Where are the others?”
Tracy answered, “They’re nearby. You must be Charmaine. We’re here to help, if we can.”
“He told me you’re Federal agents. How can you help? My problem is with the state of Illinois.”
“The state gets money from the Federal government for programs to help out when families need it and are qualified. They also get Federal money for child protection services. That makes it a Federal matter when there’s inconsistency in how they operate.”
The woman digested this, which she considered an admission of sorts. “Daddy said two of the men in your unit are my cousins. I know he already asked for this, but I want to see some proof.”
Tracy was surprised at how good this young woman’s English was, considering where she lived, where she came from, and what her current circumstances were. But then, she’d noticed that the father sometimes slipped into proper speech when he was deep in thought. So her surprise quickly turned to amusement, and she smiled as she motioned for Raphael to show his Bureau ID card.
“Miss Boulware,” she began, only to be interrupted.
“It’s Mrs. Johnston. I was married. Still am, but my husband decided to look for greener pastures. He went to some small town in New York after our son was taken. But call me Charmaine. Or just Char, if it’s all the same to you.”
She looked past Raphael and Tracy momentarily. Tracy turned to see what she was looking at; all she saw was a narrow young Hispanic-looking man lighting a cigarette. Or something else. None of my business, she thought.
Charmaine knew that look. She saw it very often when someone was doing something that wasn’t quite right and then noticed that someone else had seen it and was acting as though they hadn’t.
“It’s time to go. Where’s that van I saw you get out of?”
She walked with the pair of agents while paying close attention to everything and everyone. When they got to the van, the side door opened from the inside, apparently by a man who bore a strong resemblance to the one escorting her. The three climbed in. Tracy did the introductions, and Charmaine asked if they had a way to block anyone who might be listening electronically.
Tracy looked in her accessory case and pulled out a small gadget that looked like a miniature satellite dish. Using a power cord that plugged into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter, she switched it on and turned knob.
“This will generate what’s called white noise. That will prevent any but the highest of high-end snooping devices. You can talk here, within about ten yards or so of the van.”
Charlie, watching in renewed delight at Tracy’s talented use of hardware, asked Charmaine, “Now what’s going on? Why do you need this level of privacy?”
The woman looked him in the eye, taking the question as a challenge. “They’re watching me. Sometimes it’s an off-duty cop, sometimes a case worker, but more often than not it’s some private citizen just trying to make a little extra green. I’ve found ways to duck out, but they always find me within a few minutes of my getting to where I’m going.”
“How do you know this?”
“A couple ways. I have an information source in the welfare office. And I’ve caught ’em a couple times. Had help from friends around town.”
Charlie took a moment to digest this. Then he asked, “What’s the current status of your case?”
“They’re trying to get me to give blanket consent for medical treatment. I’ve refused, and there’s nothing they can say or do to change my mind. I’ve given consent for emergency treatment, but they have that anyway under the law, as temporary custodians.”
“Sounds like you’ve done some research.”
“Of course. I had to find out exactly what my parental rights are, and what I can legally do to protect them. But as you’re no doubt aware, Chicago has a well-earned reputation for not exactly conforming to law. You could say that they do things a little differently here.”
“So I see. This is the first place I’ve been where people in your position are watched so closely without court approval. Is your phone tapped?”
“It was, until I had it shut off. I have a friend who comes in to check my place for bugs, too.”
“Okay, we can deal with that best, at present, by doing nothing. Don’t upset the apple cart, as it were. We don’t want them to know you have help that’s higher up the food chain that they are.”
He turned to Tracy. “Can you do your computer trick again, Trace?”
“Not from here,” she replied. “I need a phone line, and these mobile phones don’t provide a stable enough connection. The best shot would be from the field office, but I know we can’t work from there, so next would be some place we can secure like we did back in New York.”
“Hotel room? It’ll have to be. At this point, and in this place, I don’t want to risk a Bureau safe house. They have quite a few here, but this is Chicago.”
Char said, “You’re right not to trust them. I know of a few myself, and some of my friends know more. You can bet that if we know, so does our enemy. I have a friend who might help you out. But he might take some convincing. Even with me vouching for you, he’s not very trusting, especially if you tell him you’re feds.”
Charlie bristled. “I wouldn’t go so far as calling another government agency an enemy. We all work for the same government. They’re just not being very diligent about clearing who they hire.”
“Well, why doesn’t that surprise me? But you got a lot to learn, Mister Charlie. They live by that old saying, ‘Don’t let the left hand know what the right is doing.’ What I’ve found out about how they work would rattle your cage pretty bad, I do believe. There’s other things goin’ on here besides your run-of-the-mill corruption you say you’re investigating. The same shit is goin’ on in other countries, like England, Australia and New Zealand. You ain’t even seen the tip of that iceberg, trust me on that.”
At the end of a short drive following Charmaine’s directions, Charlie pulled into the parking lot of the University of Chicago Medical Center. They went into the main entrance and stopped at reception.
“Hey, Daisy,” she said brightly to the woman behind the counter. “How you been doin’? Ain’t seen you in church lately.”
The older woman smiled. “Hi, Char! What are you in here for this time?”
“I’m here to see my man, girl, you know how it is. Got some friends with me this time to ’splain things better. Can you hook me up with some of them visitor passes?”
“Yo’ man, huh? Don’t you mean yo’ sugar daddy? You too wild for a man. To stick around.” Daisy looked over her friend’s companions. “Ooh, girl, they look rough! You sure they with you? I can call security if you want.”
Charmaine laughed softly. “Nah, Daisy, they with me all right. They come to help out with that little problem I got.”
“Oh, that problem. Well, why didn’t you say so?” She handed over seven of the passes, and Char passed them to Tracy, who distributed them among the team.
“You know you ain’t right, Daisy. Why you want to make my friends think we’s ignant up in here, huh?”
Daisy looked over the others, then said, “If I ain’t right, then what are you?” She looked once more at the others, then gazed directly at Charlie, and winked playfully. Turning back to her friend, she said, “Go on, now, get on out of here. You know where he is.”
She led the team through a double door and down a hallway to an elevator. We got off on the fourth floor, went down another hall, then entered an office through the open door.
A rotund, dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks sat behind the desk to the right. He looked up, saw the group, then saw Charmaine and smiled broadly.
“Ay, gyal,” he said in his odd mixture of Island patois and semi-formal English, “Wha’ be bringin’ you up here dis time?”
She smiled back. “Now you know what I come up here for, Doc Wooden. I brought some friends who want to help with that problem we talked about.” She made introductions, then added, “They’re from the FBI.”
“Well, now,” Wooden said in perfect English. “The words that strike fear in the hearts of people of ordinary means. ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ So, then, what kind of help can you offer? As long as it doesn’t mean the surrender of our immortal souls, that is.”
Charlie smiled tightly. “How does evidence of collusion sound to you? And there’s no need to barter your souls, we have plenty in stock right now.”
Wooden chuckled. “You’re all right. Of course, I knew that just from the fact that you came in here with Charmaine. So what can I do for you?”
Charlie indicated Tracy, who stepped forward.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Wooden. I’m Agent Williams. Tracy Williams. What I need is a secure phone line for my computer. I need to do a records search for things that will help Charmaine build a case against the state.”
Wooden looked at her appraisingly as he rubbed his chin beneath his scraggly goatee. “Well, well. Don’t your people have places to do that from?” He waved his hand as if shooing away a fly. “No, don’t answer. I already figured out you’re working undercover. I have a somewhat secure line, but not on the level you’re probably used to. However, I also have many of Charmaine’s records on my own computer. Her and her childrens’ medical files. I found nothing there that would indicate anything that the county claims are their reason for taking her children.”
Tracy smiled, a tight-lipped expression that showed her determination. “I think I can add something to that, Doc. Just get me that phone line, and I’ll get to work.”
Wooden stood up, beckoning his visitors to follow him. They went through a doorway to another office. This one was richly furnished with paintings of nature scenes, several framed certificates, a photo of the doctor in his younger and lighter weight days, another of reggae legend Bob Marley, and a large Jamaican flag on the paneled wall directly behind a huge oaken desk.
He took his seat and turned on the computer, then pointed toward the phone line going from the back of the machine to a wall outlet. “This is a dedicated line, so you can hook in directly.”
Tracy frowned. “I thought we could work somewhere more private, Doctor. I need to set up my computer.”
“Nonsense,” Wooden exclaimed. “You can work from my computer. This is my office, and it’s soundproof once the door is closed, so nobody can hear us.”
“I’m more concerned about not letting anyone see what I’m doing. My work requires privacy. I can use your computer, but there’s still the possibility of being monitored by another computer. Mine is protected from that.”
“Well, then, perhaps you can still use mine, if you can enter your protection on here. I’ll give you full access to do whatever you need to do. Just promise me you will leave it the way you found it, young lady, and we’re in business.”
“That won’t be a problem, Doc.” She waited while Wooden made the required adjustments to grant access to a new user. When that was done and he had rolled his chair to the side, she took a 3.5” floppy disc from a small case she’d brought with her. She walked around the desk so she could put it in the “B” drive. When the DOS prompt came on screen, she entered the command to go to that drive, then waited a few seconds for the discs’ contents to come up on the screen. Then she typed, “Execute.bat” and loaded her security program, a tool she had designed and written herself that would not only alert her to attempts to monitor activities but also provided a series if macros to enable her to block any number of such attempts with a single keystroke.
When that was loaded, she then typed, “Conn.exe” to load a state-of-the-art connection program loosely based on the Telnet dialing protocol but modified to make tracking nearly impossible. The program created a series of false Internet Protocol numbers to make her connection appear to come from somewhere other than where she is actually connecting. As one set of numbers was traced, it would disappear and be replaced by another, until either the monitoring stopped or she terminated her connection.
With both programs running, she knew it would be almost impossible to spot her connection and trace it back to her. Of course, there was always the chance that an expert programmer could get past these protections; but she knew it wasn’t likely in a local government office.
She connected to the Cook County Department of Social Services computer, then began searching the file system for the child protection documents. It didn’t take long; the agencies all used the same basic nomenclature.
When she found Charmaine’s records, she studied them closely. Interestingly, she found several similarities to the records she and Marissa had delivered to the guy in upstate New York. There was a doctor who had no record of qualification to do so, declaring that children were being sexually molested, with the only evidence being an interpretation of a nightmare rendered in childlike terminology and leading questions clearly intended to illicit desired answers.. Yet she found it rather odd that no actions had been taken, not even to notify Charmaine of the finding. If she had been notified, she would most likely be in a much more agitated state of mind by the time the team had met with her.
She minimized the file and started searching for similar cases. That didn’t take long, either. No sooner had she put in the search parameters than a list that almost filled the screen came up. She skimmed the list for basic common denominators, and found, first, that several cases had claims of child moestation by the parent without notification of any kind; and second, that only two doctors had signed off on all of those cases.
She expanded her search gradually, coming up with a little more information each time. Then she instructed the compter to search for the words “doctor”, “physician”, and “pediatrician”, without names. What she discovered was that many of the children had private doctors who were being systematically ignored by the CPS agency, especially when they stated or suggested that there were no signs of abuse.
Then she came across a file labeled “SA”. There was no other identifier, but that wasn’t unusual; after all, file names were limited to eight characters.
She clicked on the folder, watching as a list of file names appeared. They were all last names. Some shortened to stay within the eight-character requirement, and some followed by an underscore and a single letter that she assumed were initials of first names. Some had both shortened names and initials.
She scanned the list, which was in alphabetical order. She slowed when she came to the J’s. A moment of more careful scanning showed several file names “JONSTN” with the underscore and an initial, followed by a period and a three-letter extension indicating what type of file it was. Most were “.TXT”, but there were also a few that read “.GIF”. Text files and pictures. One of those was “JONSTN_C.TXT”.
She clicked on that to open it. The heading read, “Johnston, Charmaine; children: Davis (in care); Sandra (deceased)”. Following this was a short paragraph:
C. denies neglecting D and S.
Evid insuf to prove case.
Sent to Dr. Miller.
Eval expected soon.
Tracy called Doctor Wooden over to look at the file. The big Jamaican looked at Charmaine, then at Tracy, and finally at Charlie.
“Dis be impossible,” he said roughly, his patois coming through strongly. “I know dis woman like she be ma own daughter. Dis Doctor Miller be no good, he say all da t’ings wrong wit da children be from sexin’ dem up.”
Charmaine yelled, “What? What the fuck you talking about, sex with children? Oh, hell no! Ain’t no fuckin’ way! What did they do to my babies? Im’a kill me a muthafucka up in here!”
Wooden lowered his voice to a deep bass while increasing the volume and said sharply, “Charmaine! Enough of dis! You gotta keep it together, gyal! Otherwise dey win! You want dem to win?”
It was like a slap in the face. Her eyes got wide, her mouth opened as if to say something, but nothing came out. Then she started crying silently, the tears rolling down her face.
Marissa looked at Charlie, then went over to the distraught woman to comfort her. Charlie might tell her later that it wasn’t her job, but this was a mother thing that he wouldn’t understand. That was why they were no longer married. Sure, she still loved him, and yes, she worked with and for him on this team; but even if he asked, she wouldn’t marry him again. He was just too emotionally detached, as she saw it. Compassion is free and in situations like this, also priceless.
After Marissa had spoken to her softly for a few minutes, Charmaine nodded at her, wiped her face roughly, and whispered a quick thank you. She turned to face the others and said, “I’m okay now. Sorry I lost it like that.” She wiped a hand across her face again, then continued. “So what do we do now? Ain’t no way I’m gonna just sit here and not do nothin’ when someone might have messed with my kids.”
Tracy looked at Wooden. “Give me a minute, okay, Doc?” Without waiting for an answer, she stood up and walked around the desk to stand next with Marissa and Charmaine, surreptiously signaling the rest of her teammates to stand ready.
When she and Marissa were on either side of Charmaine, she nodded to Wooden.
The doctor breathed a heavy sigh, then said, “Charmaine, this Doctor Miller is not a doctor they take rape victims to. He writes reports stating that children were molested by their parents.”
Charmaine’s eyes widened. She tensed up, ready to fight. “What the fuck? What kind of shit is that? Why would they do that?” Everyone stood ready to restrain her if necessary, but she didn’t move from her spot.
Wooden continued in an unconscious mix of textbook English and Patoi, “He get about ten t’ousand dollar a month for this; I seen his contract; a friend showed me a copy a few months ago. He be the one they have when they see someone be fightin’ dey bullshit. When dey want to make an example of someone, to scare others so dey cooperate, he be writin’ dose reports like he their whore or somet’in’. But dere’s no paper trail, so it can’t be proved dat’s what he be gettin’ paid for.”
Charmaine looked at Wooden with an expression of shock that quickly turned to rage. Charlies’ team was still on guard, but she made no move. Instead, she said, “I got a friend who can go have a talk with this fucker, after which he won’t be writin’ no more reports for nobody.”
Charlie said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“What, you want that asshole to get away with this shit? Hell no!”
Gus Rivera replied, “That’s not it at all. We need to do this within the bounds of legality. You need a lawyer that’s not co-opted and a doctor who will testify against another doctor.” He turned to Wooden. “Sorry, Doc, but it can’t be you. You’re associated with her, so you’d be portrayed as biased. You need someone who has no connection to either of you.”
Wooden rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I know of a doctor who is also an attorney. I’ve never met him, but I know someone who went to law school with him and maintains a friendship. Perhaps he would be willing to help out.”
Charlie said, “Great. Get on it. Set up a meeting. Find out if he’s available to take the case. We have a blind fund we set up for exigent circumstances. We can use that to pay him and cover his expenses if he agrees to handle this.”
He looked at Charmaine, who in turn looked first to her cousins, Robert and Raphael, then at Wooden. The doctor looked back at her for a moment, weighing the issue, then nodded his agreement.
Charlie turned his attention to the newest member of his team. Rivera was still an unknown factor in this equation. He didn’t know a thing about the man beyond the fact that their mutual superior, Martin Rothman, vouched for him, and that he was Marissa’s cousin. That relationship seemed coincidental, but Charlie didn’t believe in coincidence; everything happened for a reason. So what was the reason for Rivera’s involvement? he asked himself silently.
In the meantime, he would follow the sage advice of whoever it was that first gave it, and not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Tracy came up beside him. “Charlie, we have a problem,” she said quietly.
Still looking at Rivera, he asked, “What is it?”
“We have to go back to Poughkeepsie.”
“While we were watching Charmaine in case she lost it, I got a message from Danny. Baxter’s dead. His house caught fire while he was passed out drunk. We have nobody there now to keep an eye on things, and we need one.”
“First, if we didn’t need one, you wouldn’t have recruited Baxter. But more to the point, Steve Winthrop is part of your family.”
“Part of Marissa’s, you mean.”
“She’s your wife, Charlie.”
“Was my wife, you mean.”
“In both of your hearts, still is and always will be. Roberto and Raphael won’t say anything because they still see you as the Major. But we all see it. I think Gus even sees it, and he doesn’t even know us, not really. But he’s family, and so is Steve Winthrop, through Marissa and her sister. Maybe it’s time to make some introductions. Steve could be our eyes and ears there, if he agrees.”
Charlie took a deep breath, then let it out, before responding. “Let me think about it while we put the finishing touches on this situation here.”
But he knew she was right. Family was family, and he had the leeway, within his job description, to go wherever he decided he needed to go.
And speaking of family, he wondered, When is Mare going to talk to the new guy? Like Trace just said, he’s her family, too.