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

All Rights Reserved ©

Double Down

September 1991

Charlie looked at the burned-out husk, along with the rest of his team. Yellow and black safety tape was wrapped around posts set in the ground surrounding the property. Between the stripes was written, ‘POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS’. The There were a couple officers poking around, picking up bits and pieces of scorched debris and putting them in clear ZipLoc baggies labeled ‘Evidence’.

The Hyde Park fire chief walked around, supervising people who didn’t need supervising. Even in small towns like this one, they still play the game of politics, Charlie thought, thinking they have to give the appearance of being in control.

A third officer came up to the team. Even though he wasn’t in uniform, but wore a light blue heavy cotton shirt, faded jeans, and a New York Mets baseball cap, Charlie knew he was a cop before he ever opened his mouth to speak.

“I’m Detective Jensen,” he said, looking straight into Charlies’ eyes, judging him to be the one in charge of the group. “Who might you people be?”

Charlie whipped out his I.D. wallet and opened it, showing him the card as he asked, “What happened here, Detective?”

Jensen looked somewhat out of sorts as he asked in turn, “What’s your interest, Agent Richardson?”

“We had business to discuss with Mr. Baxter.”

“What kind of business might that be, Agent?”

“That’s not your concern. But I’ll tell you this much. We’re conducting a high-level investigation that we believe Mr. Baxter had some small knowledge of. Fact is, I shouldn’t have told you that much; it’s against Bureau policy to disclose any facet of our work without authorization.”

Jensen looked annoyed as he said, “I don’t like you Federal types coming into my area and not at least letting us know you’re here.”

Charlie smiled, a hard, shark-like grin. “You’ve been watching too many cop shows on T.V., Detective. We just got here and haven’t had time to stop by your office. So now that you’ve been duly informed, I’ll ask again. What happened here?”

Jensen smirked. “A fire happened, Agent Richardson. What’s it look like to you?”

Charlie was about to say something about nobody liking a smart-ass when Gus stepped forward, putting a hand lightly on his arm. “Detective Jensen, didn’t you go to the police academy down in New York?”

Jensen turned his attention to the newest team member. “Yeah, so what? A lot of cops in this area went there. What about it?”

Gus smiled like a card sharp holding an inside straight. “I’ve seen you before, in a class picture. You remember a guy named Forsberg? David Forsberg?”

“Yeah, I remember him. We had a bet on the pistol range there, who would get the highest score. He was a stand-up guy. What about it?”

“He’s still a stand-up guy. He’s Chief of Detectives down in Jersey City now. We’ve known each other for quite a while. I was just a kid when I met him; he kept me out of trouble. I became a cop myself for a few years down in the City because of him. He has that class picture on the wall in his office, and another one, of you and him at the graduation party, on the mantle above his fireplace at home. We go out every so often for a drink. He likes his Baileys’.”

Jensen smiled, remembering. “He still drinking that rot-gut Irish whiskey? Only Jew I ever met that liked that stuff.” He looked again at Gus. “Okay, so I guess you’re okay. And if these folks are with you, I figure they’re okay too, even if you are all Feds.

“Here’s the deal. This house went up too fast and too hot to be a normal fire, like from an electrical short or a lit cigarette falling out of the hand of a passed-out drunk or something. So we figured right away it was set. We’re looking now for evidence of accelerants. Not gasoline, there’s no smell of that here. Something else. And nothing explosive, either; there wasn’t any boom. Around here, we’d have heard that miles away. So we’re collecting what we can to send to the lab for analysis.”

That’s about what the team expected after Dannys’ message about Baxter’s death, but nobody was about to say so. Instead, Charlie asked handed him a card with his mobile phone number. “If you don’t mind, Detective Jensen, I’d like you to call me when your people get the autopsy report. We won’t step on your investigation at this point, but it may very well tie in to ours in the near future. Your local insights may prove helpful.”

Jensen scratched his head through his cap. “I’m sorry, but I gotta ask. Are all Feds like you guys? ’Cause everything I ever heard, even from the old-timers, is that you’re all ball-busters when you come into a local jurisdiction.”

Charlie smiled again, though it was more a genuine ‘I like this guy’ grin. “I can’t answer for the others, but this is just the way I and my team are.” He looked around at the rest of his team, and saw that they were watching closely but had relaxed just a tiny bit with their leader’s response. Then he glanced at his watch. “We have to go, Detective. We’ll be in the area for a while, just so you know. Call me when you get that report. And thanks.”

Jensen looked puzzled. “What for?”

“For not being an asshole, Detective. So many local cops are, you know.”

Charlie looked at his team. “Are we all ready for this?” Everyone nodded affirmatively. “Let’s do it.” They went through the back door of their safe house, Charlie exiting last to lock the deadbolt. They got into the vehicles: Tracy in the Diplomat with Gus, Robert and Raphael in the Challenger, Charlie in the van, and Marissa in the Mustang. They pulled out and went to their assigned locations.

Steve hadjust returned from the corner store on Main and Pershing. “Al, you won’t believe this, but I swear, I saw a chic who looked just like Maria, man! I swear it looked just like her! She came out of the store and got in a car and drove off! I mean, I know she’s dead, but if I believed in ghosts, I would’ve thought I’d seen one, dude!”

Allen Hall didn’t say anything in response, but instead looked across the room; anywhere but at this man who had become more than a friend, more like a brother. It didn’t matter that Steve was white and he was black, their bond had grown into one of brothers almost overnight, it seemed. He had to find a way to bring Steve back to the here and now, or this lawsuit would never get off the ground.

Allen was a great conceptual thinker, but Steve was the one who could write it out with all the details in proper legal format, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. They worked well together that way, and these papers had to be just right, or the federal court would throw it out. And with all that CPS was throwing at them, this was the only way they would ever get their respective children back.

The bitch of it is, Allen thought, that they took my boys because I’m helping Steve get his kid back. It’s such a fucked up system that it has to be taken down.

“Yeah, I know, bro.” Allen stood up. “But you remember how you told me how everywhere you traveled to, you met someone who swore that you looked exactly like someone they knew? This could be the same kinda thing; you could just be seeing someone who looks like Maria.” He paused a moment, then said, “Listen, why don’t you go for a walk? Get some fresh air, chill out a bit. Clear your mind. All this will still be here when you get back.” The one thing both were thinking but neither said aloud was that Steve imagined the whole thing.

Steve agreed. He put his shoes on, grabbed his cigarettes and hat, and headed through the kitchen to the back door. On the way, he stopped at the refrigerator to see if they needed anything. Out of milk, he thought. Looking in the pantry, he also saw that there was no more cereal. Okay, to the Grand Union then.

Out the door he went, onto Pershing and north to Main Street, across at the corner, and west for the walk to the store. He thought about how he’d gotten to this juncture, having to stay with Allen. It was really fucked up, he thought, although he was glad Al was there, and that Al was Al.

Just a few months after meeting his new friend … no, my brother, he corrected himself, he’d received a notice from the management office of Tubman Terrace Apartments informing him that since he was now single and did not have custody of his child, he had to give up his apartment. Project rules reserved all apartments for either poor families or the disabled, and he no longer qualified. So if it hadn’t been for Al, he would have been homeless, with winter coming up soon.

When he reached the intersection where Main and Church Streets intersected with Fountain Place, about a half a block from the store entrance, he noticed a white four-door sedan sitting at the end of Church. He looked harder, saw that it was a Diplomat. He couldn’t see the face of the driver, who was talking into a radio mic. Damn those assholes, they keep watching us, he thought. They should just give us our kids back and leave us the fuck alone!

He kept walking, another half a block, then went into the store. He went right to the cereal aisle, grabbed a box each of Honey Nut cheerios for Al and Shredded Wheat for himself. Then he headed to the back for the milk. He almost bumped into another shopper, a dark, thin woman of maybe thirty or so, pushing a cart. He smiled sheepishly, said, “Excuse me.” He noticed that she was looking at him and smiling secretively, but he kept on going; he was in no frame of mind for anything remotely resembling socializing. But damn, she looks pretty good! He always had liked dark, thin women. Otherwise I’d never have looked twice at Maria. She wasn’t as dark as this chick, though.

He continued on to the dairy area, grabbed a gallon. Then the checkout line, through it, and out the door with a doubled paper bag in his hand, the top rolled into a makeshift handle.

Out the door, he saw the black woman again, getting into the passenger seat of the Diplomat. Damn, he thought; is she one of them too? If this keeps up, I’m gonna end up even more paranoid than I already am! He watched openly as the car pulled away from the curb, but he kept walking, taking deep breaths to get his anger under control. He finally succeeded by the time he reached the Salvation Army Thrift Store at the south end of Pershing Street, where he turned for the last block of his walk; he was almost home.

A white sedan came around the corner off of Maple Street, which at that point was the west-bound arterial highway known as Route 44/55. As it got closer, he saw that it was the Diplomat that he’d seen at the Grand Union. Oh, crap, he thought. But it kept going past him as a red Mustang drove by coming from the other direction and pulled to the curb in front of him.

He glanced over as he walked by, saw through the open window, and stopped dead in his tracks. His ghost was real, sitting there in that car.

She turned her head, looking straight at him, and smiled the same cat-got-the-canary grin that said she was up to something. He missed seeing the man get out of the black van, or the white Diplomat as it did a three-point turn and pulled in behind the Mustang. Nor did he see the two men in the green Challenger.

Thefour men and the black woman surrounded him. He realized that the one in the Mustang who was a dead ringer for his wife had been the bait to allow the others to get the drop on him. The oldest of those said, “Mr. Winthrop, we’re from the FBI. We’d like to talk with you, if you don’t mind.”

Steve looked at all of them. “Why? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, sir, you didn’t. We just need to discuss your current difficulties with. We may be able to help you out.”

Steve decided not to try to brazen this out; there were too many for him to even think about taking on. He nodded, once, in acquiescence.

One of the men took the bag from him and handed it to the black woman. She took off at a fast walk through the parking lot, turned slightly as she passed the corner of the building, which was the local offices of the Salvation Army. He watched her take the bag up the sturdy treated-wood back stairs, set it on top of the old rusty grill, then knock loudly.

She was back before Allen opened the door. They had let him see this before ushering him into the van.

After a brief pause to consider his predicament, Steve said, “I have a question of my own. Who’s the lady in the Mustang?”

“All in good time, Mr. Winthrop. All in good time.”

They led him up a set of wooden stairs and through a door, both of which were creaking badly; three of those steps sagged as he stepped on them, which told him only that the house itself was probably pretty old. He was sure it was a house, but couldn’t say why. But he’d noticed on the ride that the van had made a left turn that he thought had to be onto Maple, though he couldn’t tell for sure; the rear window of the van had been covered with a heavy curtain blocking his sight. couple minutes later it had turned right. Finally there had been two more right turns in rapid succession, within a second of each other. The only thing he felt he could correctly assume was that it was a house on or very close to an intersection. But which intersection, he couldn’t say.

Inside, he heard the door close and the turning of a deadbolt; that sound was unmistakable to him. He looked around. The first thing he noticed was that the only light came from a ceiling fixture. The windows were covered with heavy black cloth that was sealed to the surrounding walls with duct tape.

He saw old mismatched furniture: a sofa, a loveseat, an overstuffed recliner, a couple end tables and a coffee table. He noted the breakfast bar separating the living room from the kitchen, and the captain’s chairs. And finally he looked at his erstwhile hosts; all except the woman from the Mustang. He tried to avoid seeing her at all, but morbid curiosity got the better of him. He finally looked. And kept glancing at her throughout the meeting. Or interrogation, or whatever this was.

Yes, it was her. No it wasn’t. He saw some subtle differences that anyone who hadn’t known his wife wouldn’t notice. Like the nose that had been broken some long time ago, that Maria didn’t have. And her eyes were shaped a bit differently. There were a number of little things that, as a whole, showed him that this wasn’t his deceased wife at all. He knew Maria was dead, but there was still something in him, his soul maybe, that was in denial.

He let out a long, quiet sigh of a breath and looked back at the others. He picked out the older man, the one who had told him that they only wanted to ask some questions. This must be the squad leader, he thought.

“Well,” he began, “It seems obvious that you all know my name and where I’m living at present. Would you care to introduce yourselves, or should I just guess?”

This elicited a short, quiet chuckle from the black woman. The leader, if that’s what he was, replied, “In a minute, Mr. Winthrop. First I’d like to demonstrate my sincerity. Some of what I’m about to say isn’t even known to my team, so just bear with me for a few.” He saw nods of assent go around the room, then continued.

“I know you, Mr. Winthrop, but you most likely don’t recall me. I was present at your court-martial, when you were found not guilty on charges of destruction of government property for getting a second degree sunburn.”

Steve looked at the man more carefully, but couldn’t place him. “Okay, you’re right, I don’t remember you. I only recall the incident, the charges, and how I beat them. At the time, I’d hoped the case would change things, but they didn’t; service personnel are still being charged under that rule.”

“You weren’t the only one hoping for that change, Mr. Winthrop. It violates the Constitutional protection afforded by the 14th Amendment, that no-one who comes under the jurisdiction of the United States can be property. But it’s never made it to the Supreme Court, and it won’t as long as the generals keep reversing their own decisions like they did yours.

“I was involved in a case at the same time as you, and when I heard what they were putting you through, I watched as much as I could get away with. I admired your courage in standing up to the top brass like that. But beating those charges made things more difficult for you, whether you knew it or not. I heard talk about you not being a team player. That’s why you had to fight for the two promotions you got, and why they took the opportunity to bust you down after you had that incident with your legal sergeant, what was his name? Folker? Voelcker?

“Anyway, I’m Charlie Richardson. My rank was Major. I was able to keep an eye on you because I was the officer in charge of the shop in MAG-14 where your gunny sent those black boxes when they went on the fritz.”

Steve looked sharply at Charlie, a man he had only known by name and rank on those problem description forms that he’d filled out for the techs at the Marine Aircraft Group 14. He found it interesting that the Majorhad been observing him so closely, and even more fascinating that he was here now, some kind of cop but not a local or even with the county or state. So he must be a Fed. FBI? Probably. But what would they want with a nobody like me? Unless they think I might be some kind of security risk...

He broke off that line of thought, but kept it in the back of his mind just in case something might come of it. “Well, now that I know who you are, or were, at any rate, are you gonna introduce the rest of your squad?”

This was the cue everyone had been waiting for, it seemed to Steve; something to show that he would cooperate. They all found seats; the brothers (They had to be, they look so much alike, he thought) on the sofa; the two women on the love-seat; the swarthy-looking guy on a captains’ chair. After all of them were seated, Charlie took the recliner, motioning for Steve to sit in the other captain’s chair. Charlie smiled disarmingly as he answered, “Yes, I noticed you seemed a bit taken with my wife, Marissa.” He caught the woman’s glare. “Well, ex-wife. Long story; maybe we’ll get to that later.” He introduced the rest of his team, and finished up with the newest member, Gustavo Rivera. “I think you’ll find that you have some common interests, Mr. Winthrop.”

Nobody shook hands; there were only nods acknowledging each other all the way around, but under the circumstances, it was enough. Steve told everyone to use his given name. “I dislike formalities, especially being called Mister, when it can be avoided. Do any of you mind if we continue on a first-name basis?” Nods all around again. Okay, this seems like a tight-lipped bunch, Steve mused.

“Since you pulled me in wanting to ask a few questions, I suppose I can reign in my curiosity about … certain things, for the moment. Let’s get started then.”

Charlie looked at him curiously, assessing where to start, what to ask first. He did a quick mental review of what he’d seen in the reports, both from the Bureau and from the local social services agency. He decided to preface his first question with a statement of his intentions.

“Okay, Steve, here’s the deal. We’re here to interview a few people involved with certain aspects of state services. This includes child protection. Your case was brought to our attention because of irregularities in the application of the rules for removal of children from their homes.

“We’ve seen the records, and would like to get your side of the story. So that’s the first question. From your perspective, what was it that led to your son being placed in state care?”

Steve looked like a deer caught in the headlights, so surprised was he by that question. He’d never been asked, in any official capacity, his view of this matter.

But he recovered quickly, Charlie noted, and told him the chain of events leading up to the day that Martin had been taken from him.

The team listened attentively as Steve spoke. He could tell that even Marissa was paying close attention, though she tried to act nonchalant. She’s so much like Maria, it’s scary, he thought. And as he had that thought, she looked hard at him for just an instant, as though she’d heard the thought.

It took about ten minutes to get through his story, and he was sure that there would be follow-up questions seeking details and explanations of much of what he’d said. Nor was he mistaken. But first, Charlie offered him a soda, or coffee or tea if he preferred. He took the soda, a can of Pepsi, because that’s what Maria had liked.

When they’d all gotten their cans or cups, Charlie said, “Okay, Steve, I can see the basics of your situation. But we need to back up a bit. The record states that the initial report was from an anonymous caller to the state central registry. Do you know of anyone who might make such a call?”

Steve thought for a moment, then answered, “Well, I have my suspicions, but nothing I can prove.”

“Okay, let’s leave that alone for now then. Tell us about the priest. What’s his name? Father Paul Cantor? What’s his involvement in this?”

“He’s been my friend, and my wife’s friend, for several years. He’s pretty much supported me in this, even to the point of trying to get his superiors in New York City to send one of their lawyers up here.”

“What was the response? Did he tell you?”

“They said they had a policy of non-involvement because of the scandal in the Roman church.”

Marissa asked, “What do you mean by that? He’s a priest, he’s with the Roman church.”

“No, he’s Catholic, but not Roman. He was ordained by the American branch of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brazil. They have a bishop down in the City who is in charge of their priests in North America. They don’t follow the Roman rites; they’re more in line with the Orthodox churches, like the Greek or Russian. And they don’t recognize the Pope; all the bishops are considered equal, with no one bishop set above the others. At least, that’s how Paul explained it to me.”

“Okay, we can check that out,” Charlie said. “Have there been any indications that they’re going after this guy?”

“Yeah, but it looks like they only want to deprive me of any support system I might have through that church. They tried to get me to implicate him in the same bullshit they’re accusing me of. I figure with all the crap about the Roman priests molesting children, if they had anything at all on Paul, they’d have already busted him.”

“You’re talking about the child prostitution charge, right? That would fit with the scenario that seems to be playing out here.”

“Yeah, that. They’re also trying to say that he beat my son. But I know that’s a bunch of crap.”

Charlie noticed that Steve’s voice had climbed a couple notches in pitch. This told him that the man was getting upset. But he also saw him make the effort to reign himself in. Good so far. They were past the first hairy part.

He continued, “Okay, Steve. Now, there’s mention in the records that you called in a complaint to the central registry a couple months ago. The record also says that you threatened the foster mother outside her home.”

“What? No fuckin’ way! I don’t threaten people, especially women!”

Here was the second hairy item; unfortunately, it came right on the heels of the first. “Okay, take a deep breath and calm down a bit, Steve. I take it from your response that you knew nothing about that, right?”

“This is the first I ever heard of that! If they had that in their records, why the hell didn’t they tell me? For that matter, why didn’t they have me arrested? It is against the law to threaten people, right?”

“We can only guess the answer to that. So tell us what happened that made you call in a complaint.”

Steve took a sip of his soda, then set the can down on the bar. “I was walking down Delafield, going to visit a friend, a woman who had invited me over. I heard my son calling me, and looked around. I saw him in a yard with a fence around it. I went over to talk to him for a minute, to try to explain that I wasn’t allowed to see him outside the visits at the social services offices. I asked him a couple questions about how he was being treated. Then the foster mother came out and told me I had to leave, and that was a shock, I gotta tell ya.”

Gus Rivera asked, “Why was that a shock, Steve?”

“Because the foster mother was Martin’s day care teacher, Doreen Claremont. And that concerned me, because of a couple things. First, the woman is a lesbian, and I later found out that she’s living with her lover, a bus driver named Theresa something or other. But before Doreen came out, I asked Martin about the dolls.”

Charlie asked, “Dolls?”

“Those would be the anatomically correct dolls used by the pediatrician, I bet,”

Tracy said with just a hint of sarcasm.

Steve laughed bitterly. “Anatomically correct. Yeah, right, if any man had a dick twice the size of John Holmes or any woman had a pussy big enough to put a telephone pole in it or tits big enough to need a damn wheelbarrow. Anatomically correct my ass.”

Tracy laughed. “I did some research on these things, Steve, and you’re right; if they were people, I’d call them freakazoids.”

Steve grinned at Tracy. “Yeah, I did too, when I found out about them. Disgusting.”

Charlie asked, “How did you find out about them?”

“From a book about false allegations.”

“When you asked your son about these dolls, what did he say?”

The smile on Steve’s face faded quickly. “He said that the woman doctor told him to play with them, and when he took a bath with Doreen, that there were dolls in the bath too. That’s why I called in a report on her. But she’s the CPS approved foster mother, so they covered it up, and I was told to stay out of that area or I’d be arrested for harassment. I can’t even walk down Delafield to visit my friend who lives a few blocks past that house.”

“What did your attorney say about that?”

“Actually, he’s been pretty good for the most part. At first he was a shithead, but when I showed him that I know how the law works, or is supposed to work anyway, he started actually working with me. Of course, I happened to mention something about filing a complaint with the bar association if I thought he wasn’t working in my best interest.

“But what he told me then was some crap about not giving them anything that they might try to use against me. He suggested that if I wanted to visit that friend, I should either use a different route, take a cab, or invite her to my place.”

The questions went on for about another hour, getting more specific in details required to answer them. Steve did his best, and Charlie seemed satisfied with the answers.

Charlie called a halt to the questions, then asked Steve if he was hungry. The Boulware brothers said they’d like pizza, and the women agreed that would be a nice break. Steve suggested, “There’s a place on Main Street, not far from where you guys picked me up at. It’s called T.J.’s. It’s the best pizza in town, and when you ask for extra, they really give you extra.”

Robert and Raphael volunteered to get the pizzas after everyone writing down what toppings everyone wanted. When they came back, paper plates were set on the bar, sodas were passed around, and everyone dug in. It was like a get-together with old friends, except that Steve had just met these people. Yet his instinct told him they were alright, so he relaxed a bit more.

Charlie said, “Now let’s see if we can answer at least some of your questions, Steve. No guarantees though, I’m sure you understand that.”

Steve took a big sip of his soda to wash down a big bite, then said, “Sure thing, Major.”

“No, call me Charlie; I’m not in the Corps any more, Steve.”

“Okay, Charlie. I guess the first question I had isn’t relevant any more. That was who you guys are and what you want with me. At first I thought you were cops brought in from some other town, looking to rough me up or something. But that didn’t add up, and anyway, you soon proved otherwise when you told me you’re FBI. You’re not regular Feds, though; you’re on some kind of special assignment, I think. Not my business unless you want to tell me.

“So my next question is, Why me? It can’t be because you remember me from way back when; there has to be something else.”

Charlie took his time answering, again gauging his response. How much to say, and how to say it? Always a critical consideration at this stage of the game. Then he said, “Steve, it is because I remember you from back then. But it’s more than that. I remember an easy-going guy in a tough spot, one that far too many would have just rolled over and played dead in. But you stuck to your guns, you fought your way through those charges. And you won; against all the odds, you came up with a defense that pulled your chestnuts out of the fire. That made you a pariah with the brass, which is why you had to fight for those two promotions you got. And you did fight, just as you fought later to keep them from busting you back to E-1. Even though you lost that fight, you stuck to your guns again; you refused to back down until there was no chance.

“I gotta say, that was a nasty stunt they pulled on you, Steve, telling you the only way you would get out short of a special court martial was to request a good of the service discharge. And then when you did that, they rejected that request, going against every reg I ever heard of. G.O.S. is supposed to be general under honorable conditions, but they told you they wouldn’t even process it unless you requested an undesirable discharge.

“Hell, even your appointed lawyer, Captain, what was his name, Anselm? Yeah, Captain Anselm was one of the best JAG lawyers on the East Coast back then, and he couldn’t do anything; once you were out, regulations kept him from helping you appeal. Oh, you maybe could’ve called him as a witness if it went that far, but as I recall, he got transferred out not long afterward, and you would have had a hell of a time tracking him down.

“But the point is, you kept on fighting until there was nothing left to fight for. Are you still a fighter? I think you are, based on this interview and the records we … acquired on your current situation.”

Steve finished the slice of pizza he was working on as he thought about what Charlie had just told him. Then he asked, “You’re not trying to recruit me for the Feds, are you? God, I hope not!”

Tracy, listening as they all were, piped up, “Steve, trust me, that’s definitely not his recruitment speech. You should hear how he sweet-talked me into this outfit!”

Charlie motioned for her to be quiet with a quick slash of his hand. “Actually, that was my recruitment speech, Steve. But not for the Bureau. I want you to be our eyes and ears in this town, especially whenever you enter certain buildings or other areas. We’ve all agreed, if this interview worked out, I’d ask you to do this.

“Before you answer, let me be honest with you. There will probably be no pay for this, and no official position of course, but we can provide some logistical and other forms of support if you need it. And we can run interference in certain areas if necessary, as long as we do it quietly.

“So what do you say? Yea or nay?”

Steve looked around, saw that they were all watching him. “So I would be sort of like an informer? You know, in some places, that could get me killed.”

Charlie smiled grimly. “Well, yes, there is that. But that’s one of those areas where we can run interference. You’ll be perfectly safe. And there will always be someone ready to help out if you need it. We’re not going anywhere for a while. But we do have to stay under the radar while we’re here.”

Steve didn’t answer right away; he just sat there, thinking, considering the offer and the possible outcomes, at least those few he could see. Gus started to speak, but Charlie held up his hand in the universal signal for stop.

Finally, Steve spoke up. “Okay, I said there are a few things I’d like to ask you. As it stands now, my answer will be dependent on the answers I get. It’s not that I don’t appreciate your offer; I do, very much. But I have other considerations. The first, of course, is getting my son back.”

“The process we’re engaging in will have that as one goal, Steve. Rest assured on that point. We want to help. I know that sounds odd, coming from a bunch of Feds as you call us, but it’s true. We’re a special investigative unit. For the most part, we choose where we go and what we do. And what we want to do now is help you and your friend Allen. If you agree to help us, we will help you. Quid pro quo.”

“That’s my next question. I don’t keep any secrets from Allen. What do I tell him about where I’ve been?”

“Easy. Out for a walk, thinking. And you ran into a couple old Marine Corps buddies. Me. Robert and Raphael. Don’t look so surprised, Steve. The only one in this house not previously associated with the Corps is Tracy. But she’s a special case, and she fits in well with the rest of us. Right, Trace?” Tracy nodded, giving Steve a bright smile. Charlie added, “Is there anything else, Steve?”

Steve took a deep breath, held it for half a minute, then let it out slowly. “Yes, there is one more thing I need to know.” He looked over at Marissa. But before he could ask his question, Gus spoke up.

“Steve, before you ask that question, I have one more for you. Tell us about your wife. Tell me about Maria.”

Steve looked confused. He asked, “Why? What does she have to do with any of this? She’s been dead for over a year and a half.”

Gus looked at Marissa, who kept watching Steve. Then Gus said, “Because she was my cousin.”

And Marissa, who had only watched the entire proceedings without saying one word, not even asking a question, added with a very slight stutter from the stress she felt, “And she was my twin sister.”

Steve was dumbstruck; he couldn’t say or do anything in response. Tracy came over, took his soda from the counter, and gently put it in his hand. He didn’t resist at all, just looked at her hands on the can, then up at her eyes, saw the compassion in them. He shuddered, then took a sip, then a long swallow, almost choking on it before setting it down again.

Then he began to tell them all what they wanted to know, and more...

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