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

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Work To Do

April 1991

Charlie Richardson was dressed, head to foot, in black. Loose, rugged khaki pants and long-sleeved shirt, combat boots, balaclava and thin but durable leather gloves. Three of his four teammates, spread throughout the immediate area, behind trees or large boulders, were dressed likewise. They were watching for vehicles entering the long driveway of a parking lot; the subject of their vigil lived in this apartment complex, a well-built set of five buildings that was home to many upper-middle class families in Jersey City, New Jersey.

There were few children living here; these families were mostly upwardly-mobile managers and supervisors in government and industry, education and child care, with a smattering of successful sales reps thrown in. They were either empty-nesters or young couples who had no time and little inclination for children in their lives. For some of them, it was ironic, because their jobs involved helping poor and troubled families resolve their problems and improve their situations. At least, that’s what their jobs were supposed to be.

But bureaucratic inefficiency and wasteful policies were the norm, especially in government jobs, and turnover was high. Those who lasted were the ones who had compromised their ideals in order to keep getting a paycheck. This was especially true in the social services field; the result was the marginalizing of people who needed help.

There was a click and a split-second burst of static in the team leader’s wireless earpiece. “He’s late,” came the voice of the team member closest to the driveway.

Charlie keyed the tiny microphone clipped to his shirt pocket as he looked at the miniature display readout on his wrist where most people would have a watch. “Sat shows heavy traffic on the northbound. GPS is clear; he’s coming.” Sat, of course, was shorthand for “satellite”. They had the latest gadgets for the mission, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Handheld global positioning monitors with built-in up-links to an array of military satellites orbiting the globe; single-ear headsets, all wireless; nearly instant high-band communication through the same satellite system and the rapidly developing computer technology. At the rate things were progressing now, in 1991, he sometimes wondered what would be possible by the turn of the century.

The silence resumed, broken only by the sounds of nature at night and the passing of cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road a quarter mile distant. A few minutes later, moving lights indicated that someone had turned into the drive. The click and static came again. “Heads up.”

“Affirm,” came the response from all team members.

Charlie looked at his monitor, saw the GPS signal at his position. He keyed his mic again. “By the numbers.”

The car, a late-model sporty two-door sedan, made the turn into the parking lot and pulled into an open space near the door. As it came under the street light, the bright red color almost shone. The pale, balding man who got out was short and starting to turn pudgy.

As he approached the door of the building, a skinny figure in nondescript clothes approached him staggering slightly, running hands through an Afro. He thought to himself, “Damn drunks everywhere.” The bum spoke in a slightly slurred Spanish accent as the man was reaching for the door.

“Hey, hombre, got a light? I lost my matches somewhere.”

The man looked around, saw that there was no help to be found, and reached into his pocket. He came out with a switchblade and pushed the button to spring it open, holding it in front of him in the hope of scaring the bum off.

The bum stopped short, focused on the blade, then smiled widely and started weaving slightly toward the man again. “Oh, esse, there’s no need for that. I just need a light is all.”

The man could smell the beer on the bum’s breath now. “Get away from me!” he yelled. “I’ll cut you open if you don’t!” And as the bum continued to come closer, the man swung his knife wildly, his fear clear in his eyes and stance.

But the bum, instead of backing away, quickly moved into the swing and grabbed the man’s arm, then ducked down and pulled so that the man was thrown overhead to land with a “whump” on the pavement.

The man scrambled to his feet, much faster than would be expected. He swung the knife again, but his assailant was faster. As the bum came in close a second time, the man was distracted by the sound of running feet. He glanced around quickly, and in doing so, lost his balance and started to fall forward. The thug came in at the same time, and the two connected, tangled, and fell together.

Then the thin attacker was kneeling over the man, looking down at the knife stuck between his ribs, right at the heart. The man coughed once, whispered raggedly, “I knew you were coming for me,” then exhaled his last breath.

“No! Dios mio! Pinche’ cabron!” The fifth team member gestured sharply, clearly upset. “Why you have to do that, huh? We just wanted to talk to you!”

The rest of the team arrived from their hiding places. The struggle had begun and ended so quickly that they couldn’t have gotten there in time to stop it.

Charlie spoke quietly but firmly. “Marissa, cool it. We have to get to the safe-house A.S.A.P.” He then stooped down and did a quick but thorough search of the dead man’s body, finding a wallet, some neatly folded bills, and a few coins in the pants pockets, and a mobile phone in the inside pocket of the suit jacket. He put everything but the phone back where he found it.

Marissa had just straightened out to her full five feet three inch height after bending over nearly double and taking a slow deep breath. She nodded her head once, then moved quickly with the rest of the team, into the trees surrounding the parking lot, and then to their vehicle, a nondescript dark blue panel van concealed behind a stand of wild bushes just off of the main road, a quarter mile away.

Nobody spoke during the short trip across the bridge into New York. When they arrived at their hotel, they quickly changed into stylish clothes they’d had in the van.

Charlie and Marissa entered the building first and went straight to the elevators. A few minutes later, the remaining team members entered: two men with curly reddish hair, one of whom held the door for the slender black woman coming in behind them. The doorman was apparently on break somewhere.

The two red-haired men stopped at the desk and asked if there were any messages, while the black woman went to the elevators and got on the first one available. A moment later, the twins did the same.

They all met up again in Charlies’ suite, bypassing their own, knowing that a debriefing was needed. S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure. All three of the men were former military and knew the drill. Marissa knew it as well, having once been known as Mrs. Charles Richardson. Tracy Williams was the only one who had no military experience; but she made up for it with her uncanny ability to learn the ropes faster that anyone Charlie had ever known.

She was damn near a technical genius and had an athletic background in multiple disciplines.

After everyone had gotten a cold sandwich and drink from the kitchen, Charlie called for their attention. When everyone had taken a seat and all eyes were on him, he began the meeting.

“Okay, we ran into a problem. It’s not our first, and it won’t be the last. But our target apparently expected us. That’s never happened before. We need to find out how it happened. Anyone have any ideas?”

The black woman spoke up quickly. “I need to go over that phone. I can check any calls he made or received, cross-reference to known players, and see what turns up. It would also be nice if we can get a hold of the GPS data on the car.”

Charlie considered her words for a split second, then took the phone out of his pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it easily as the team leader said, “Robert and Raphael can work on getting the GPS. Anything else?”

“Nope, not until I run this cell through my diagnostic scanners.”

“Okay, Tracy, Robert and Raphael will get on that.” He turned to face the two men. “Guys, you’ve got your assignment.” The two men nodded, and one said, “Sure thing, Major.”

“I’m not a major any more, Robert; can that crap.” Without waiting for an answer, Charlie turned to the remaining team member. “Marissa, what happened out there? I’ve never seen you break down like that before, even when situations went south.”

Marissa took a moment to answer; she looked down at the floor before she spoke. What she said was totally unexpected. “I don’t want to talk about it right now. I need to be alone for a while.”

“We need to talk about it, Marissa. You know that. If there’s a problem, we need to nip it in the bud.”

Marissa replied softly with only a trace of emotion, “I can’t right now, Charlie. Just leave me be until tomorrow, okay? I’ll be able to talk about it then.” She looked up at him finally, tears forming in her eyes, and added, “I need a shower.” She stood up and walked into the master bedroom and closed the door.

As the old euphemism goes, the silence was deafening. Everyone just stared at the door through which their friend had gone. Then Charlie said, “Okay, you’ve all got your work to do. It can wait until tomorrow, but we need it done as quickly as possible. Now go get some sleep; it’s been a long day.” Everyone finished eating in silence and took their soda cans out the door with them.

After the others had left, Charlie sat down at the bar counter dividing the main room of the suite. He sipped on his unsweetened green tea, which had cooled off considerably during the debriefing. He replayed the mission in his head, trying to find anything that could explain what went wrong. His crew had performed admirably except for Marissa’s momentary breakdown and her current uncommunicative behavior. This troubled him, but he decided to not pursue it until tomorrow. If she kept her word (and he had no reason to believe she wouldn’t), then they would get to the bottom of that matter then. If not, he would have to sideline her with a psychiatric referral. He didn’t want to do that, but he recognized that he might have no other choice. The mission was too important, too all-encompassing, to do otherwise.

Having made his decision, he looked at the cup in his hand. He hated cold tea unless it was iced tea specifically made to be cold. He screwed up his face and drained the cup, because he’d been taught as a child not to waste anything. “Waste not, want not” was the way his father had put it. Then he got up from the stool, washed the cup at the sink, turned out the lights and went to the couch to lie down. But sleep was a long time coming; in spite of his resolve, the failure of the day’s endeavor troubled him. And, of course, so did Marissa’s state of mind.

Over his years in the Marine Corps, Charlie had learned to sleep deeply yet still awaken instantly when something disturbed his rest. Such was the case still, six years after his forced retirement.

His eyes opened to a mere slit when the bedroom door opened; he knew it was the bedroom door from the direction of the sound. He was lying on his side, facing the kitchen, so he saw Marissa tiptoe over to the refrigerator and get a bottle of iced tea. He was slightly amused that she would still do that.

He remained still as he watched her in the white terrycloth bathrobe provided by the hotel.

She turned to look at him as she took a long draft of her drink. Then she took another sip, looked at the bottle for a moment, and put it back in the fridge. She tiptoed over to the couch and looked down at him.

“I know you’re awake,” she said softly. “Move over so I can lay down with you. I just want you to hold me.”

Without a word, Charlie did as he was asked. Marissa slid onto the couch in front of him, he put his arms around her from the back, and they both just lay there in silence. After a while, Marissa dozed off into a fitful sleep. Her rest soon became easy and relaxed. He allowed himself to go back to sleep, remembering how they’d met...

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