Allen had just come in from taking a long walk. He did this quite often, as a means of relieving stress. Steve had learned quickly not to ask him where he was going or how long he’d be out. They had a lot of work to do, both on the lawsuit and their custody cases against Dutchess County, but it was hard to concentrate when the stress got too high for either of them.
The past couple of weeks, he’d gone out even more often. Although he didn’t say, Steve thought it had to do with the scene they’d had down in front of Social Services on Market and Church Streets. Allen had come out of the building in a rage, and the more he talked, the more angry he became.
The CPS worker assigned to Allens’ case, a heavy-set black woman named Althea Mitchell, had told him that his children claimed he’d abused them sexually. She had then berated him because, in her words, “Black men don’t do things like that, Mr. Hall. You’re a disgrace to the black race. I’ll see you in prison, and you’ll never see those boys again!”
Allen got himself so worked up over it that he said in a low, hard tone of voice,
“I’ll kill that son of a bitch Jack Overton. Althea showed me the report he wrote, and that fuckin’ curly-haired motherfucker had his signature on it. I’ll kill him, I swear I will.” Then he started marching back toward the door, leaning forward as though it would propel him faster, tears streaming down his face.
It was a good thing his ex, Barbara, mother of two of his sons, had been there as well as Steve, Father Paul, and Wendy McClane, a heavy muscular woman whom he’d known for several years. It took all four of them to hold on to Allen to slow, then stop his progress, then hold him fast until they were sure he’d calmed down enough to be rational.
Steve looked up from the Brother typewriter, where he was putting together a first draft of the Federal civil rights complaint they were planning to file. Allen does not look like a happy camper, he thought. Aloud, he asked, “What’s up?”
“We have a problem,” Allen replied. “Wilbur Steinmetz is gonna ask you to come into his office to talk.”
“And why is that a problem?”
“Willie’s one of those cops who gets kickbacks from various people like the director of CPS. So he has a vested interest in helping them make their cases, and the truth be damned.”
“How do you know that, Al?”
“A friend of a friend in the P.D., bro. He’s never led me wrong. So we better have a strategy in place before you go in there.”
Steve turned from the typewriter, swivelling in his seat. “Okay. How do we handle this?”
“That depends on if you can keep from blowing your cool like I did a couple weeks ago. I think you can. I can prep you, but you’ll have to be in there alone with that asshole.”
“You mean if I can keep from jumping across the desk and choking the fuck out of him? Yeah, I can do that. You know I don’t like violence, Al.”
“That’s what worries me, Steve. People who don’t like violence can wind up using it all the quicker than someone who’s used to it, and not judisiously either. So when you go in there, you really have to be in control of yourself, because what he’ll probably say will be designed to get a reaction he can use against you.”
“Okay, so I take a few deep breaths before I go in, calm my nerves and such.”
“Right. If I thought you could handle it, I’d suggest taking a couple tokes of some good weed before going there. But you get scatterbrained when you smoke, so I won’t even suggest it.”
“Okay. Should I go see him, or wait ’til he calls?”
“You should wait. That way he’ll never know we’re aware of his interest in you.”
Charlie and the rest of the team listened to the tape. When it was over, Tracy shut the player off.
“It looks like we have a wild card in play. Any ideas how Mr. Hall got that information about Detective Steinmetz?”
Roberto looked at Raphael, who raised an eyebrow and asked, “Does it matter, Charlie?”
“Sure it matters, Rafe. If he can find out about something that was being held close, then he could find out about us. If he did that, he’d lose the trust he’s built up in Steve, and he’d be out the door.”
“Maybe not,” Tracy chimed in. “Maybe we can work an outcome in our favor. Think about it a minute. If we set it up so that Hall knows beyond a doubt that we are on his side, or at least on Steve’s side, then we’ve gained another ally, one who has proven his worth in keeping Steve safe and out of trouble.”
“What do you mean, keeping him safe?”
“Remember that guy a few weeks back who tried to mug him? Hall put a stop to that just by showing up and literally calling him off.”
Everyone looked at Charlie. The senior agent said, “Okay, what do you guys think? Personally, I don’t like it much; Hall is too much of a renegade for my taste. But Tracy has a good point.”
The Boulwares agreed with Tracy; Gus Rivera agreed with Charlie. They all turned to look at Marissa, who shrugged and said, “Even though we don’t really know him, Steve is family to three of us, and since half of us are family to each other, I think we should do whatever it takes to help him out. That includes bringing his friend into the fold, because it would take the pressure off Steve; he wouldn’t have to keep Mr. Hall in the dark about us, and we could communicate more openly as well.”
Charlie looked around at the other team members, then back at Marissa with renewed appreciation of the way her mind worked. Then he said, “Okay, people, I want to know everything there is to know about this Detective Wilbur Steinmetz. Let’s get on it. You each have your areas of expertise. Get on it.”
Detective Steinmetz’ office was on the west side of the parking garage on Church Street, between Hamilton and Academy Streets. Steve stood outside on the sidewalk, looked at the ramp leading up to the door, and took a deep breath, held it for ten seconds, let it out, then did it once more. When he was sure he’d calmed himself sufficiently, he walked up the ramp and knocked on the door, then entered before receiving a response.
To the right were two desks with nobody sitting at them. Steinmetz was at a desk in a small room straight ahead. He looked up as Steve came toward him, a strangely curious expression on his angular face. The detective was at least ten years older than Steve’s thirty-six, and looked older still. He didn’t stand up, but instead motioned Steve into a chair facing him across the desk.
Steve studied the desk, taking a measure of the man behind it. About six inches from the closest edge was a nameplate: “Lt. Robert Steinmetz”, it read. Directly behind that, in the center, here was a manila folder. To the left, the detectives’ right, a photo of Steinmetz with his wife and two kids. And opposite that, a tape recorder with an external microphone. Next to that lay a yellow legal pad with a pen on top, precisely placed between two lines on the paper. Very neatly laid out. Steinmetz wanted to give the appearance of attention to details, Steve surmised.
The detective pointed casually toward the recorder; and Steve shrugged as if to say, ‘Be my guest.’ He turned it on as soon as Steve was seated.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Winthrop. Have seat.”
“Yes, it is a good afternoon, Detective.” He took the seat opposite Steinmetz. “You requested my presence. So here I am. What can I do for you?”
He picked up the pen, looked at it before he met Steve’s gaze when he spoke. “I’d like to ask you some questions concerning your case with CPS.”
“Ask away. But before we start, I want to let you know that I’m preparing a Federal civil rights lawsuit against them.”
Steinmetz scribbled a few words as he asked, “And you’re telling me this .... why, exactly, Mr. Winthrop?”
“You’re a reasonably intelligent man, Detective. Otherwise they wouldn’t let you have an office separate from the police department. And you most probably wouldn’t have been promoted to detective. I’m sure you can figure that out.”
“Of course. You’re putting me on notice that I could be included in that suit. Let me assure you that I’m not taking sides; I’m only interested in the facts of the case.”
“Forgive me if I don’t take your word, Detective. I haven’t had much in the way of good experiences in this matter. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
“Of course.” He opened the folder and shuffled through the first few papers, chose one. “You know why you’re under investigation, correct?”
“Certainly. A false child abuse report was filed against me, and CPS refuses to admit that it’s false. In fact, every time I prove an allegation to be untrue, they come up with a new claim. That’s what you should be investigating, sir.”
“Would it surprise you to know that your son verified the claim of excessive corporal punishment?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, it would. But I expected either you or one of those caseworkers to make such a statement.”
“That’s interesting, Mr. Winthrop, that you would be surprised, yet also expect the claim. Isn’t that a bit, oh, I don’t know. Irrational?”
“Not in the least, Detective. I would be surprised if Martin verified the claim. But it comes as no surprise, though I am somewhat disappointed, that you would make the statement or suggestion that he did.”
“Are you saying that I’m lieing?”
“Not in the least. I think you might even believe what you’re saying. But I’m telling you I don’t believe it. And I won’t believe it unless and until you provide documentation, including audio, of him saying it, without him being coerced or coached in any way. Video would be even better. Did you, or whoever conducted the interview, happen to record it?”
“I did the interview, here in this office, with a Mr. Fred Davidson from Social Services present as a witness.”
“Interesting that Davidson was here for that. He’s a jackass, and I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. In other words, not at all, because I couldn’t pick up all that fat anyway.”
“I understand your antagonism toward him, since he was the one who, in his capacity as a child protection caseworker, actually removed your son from your custody so you wouldn’t hurt him again.”
“Let’s get this clear right now, Detective Steinmetz. I did not hurt my son in any way, at any time. This entire case is a bunch of bullshit. If you insist that I did, then this interview is over right now.”
The older man looked at him briefly, then took another paper from the folder and scanned it. “I’ve had a report that your son was sexually molested. Were you aware of that?”
“Bullshit. If that was true, he would have told me someone hurt him. He had the ‘good touch, bad touch’ thing taught to him in day care.”
“I asked him about it in my interview. He said that Father Paul was one of the men who did it. And he said that someone named Bobby also did it. He also said that you knew about it, and that they gave you money.”
“That’s a crock of shit, Steinmetz, and you know it. If you weren’t a cop, I’d punch your running lights out right now.”
“I’m just telling you what he said, Mr. Winthrop.”
“And I’m telling you I don’t believe it. You’re either lieing or you or Davidson told him to say it.”
“Why would we do that, Mr. Winthrop?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe to get me to lose my temper and attack you so you can arrest me on a legitimate charge.” He paused, then continued. “Let me ask you a question, Lieutenant. Did you record that interview with my son? Audio or video?”
Steinmetz pursed his lips, then answered, “No.”
“Why not? It seems to me that should be standard procedure.”
“Why would that be standard procedure, Mr. Winthrop?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe to be able to prove you weren’t coaching or coaxing him to answer a certain way.”
The detective ignored Steve’s jab, instead changed the topic under discussion. “Your wife, Maria, died last year, while sleeping next to you. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is. In fact, it’s a matter of record, since four officers and the medical examiner came to my apartment that morning. But you already know that.”
“She choked to death. How did that happen exactly?”
“That’s in the record too. Why don’t you read it?”
“I’d like to hear it in your own words.”
“Fine. She had an epileptic seizure sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The coroner said sometime between three and five o’clock. She threw up during the seizure and choked on it. When I woke up around eight o’clock, I found her body next to me.”
“So she died from choking. I interviewed one of her co-workers last week, at the K-Mart on route 44/55. As I recall, she said that Maria came to work wearing a turtleneck for several days the summer before her death. This worker said that Maria had marks on her neck and that she wore the turtleneck to cover them up.”
“Is there a question in there, Detective?”
“As a matter of fact, there is. Why would your wife have marks on her neck?”
“Normally it wouldn’t be any of your business. But under the circmstances, I’ll tell you. Those marks were hickeys. She liked getting them, but didn’t like having them, especially when others might see.”
“Aren’t you a little old to be giving hickeys, Mr. Winthrop?”
“Like I said, it’s none of your business.”
“Your son told me that the morning she died, he saw you with your hands on her neck.”
“That’s not possible because it didn’t happen. Like the autopsy report said, she died between three and five in the morming. Martin was asleep, like any normal child that age. And so was I.”
“Children don’t lie, Mr. Winthrop.”
“If my son did say that, then somebody had to coach him to say it.”
“That’s the same thing you said a minute ago about the molestation charge, Mr. Winthrop. Do I detect a pattern of denial?”
“Have you read the autopsy report?”
“Let me refresh your memory. It states clearly that my wife died from anoxia secondary to vomiting secondary to seizure. And it was signed by two doctors with extensive experience in determining causes of death.”
Steinmetz waved his hand in dismissal as he said, “That’s just a piece of paper.”
Steve was shocked that the detective would say such a thing. “Do you really believe that bullshit?”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Winthrop.”
“Steve stood up and held out his hands, wrists close together. “Then you better fucking arrest me, right here, right now.”
Steinmetz leaned back in his chair. “I can’t do that,” he admitted quietly.
Steve lowered his arms. “Then get the fuck out of my face. Don’t even think of calling me back unless it’s to apologize, or I will file a harassment complaint against you. You got that, you son of a bitch?”
He turned and left without waiting for an answer.
“We might get some support from outside the system,” Allen said out of the blue. “There’s a former mayor who has a talk show on local cable access. He’s agreed to do a show with us as guests.”
He explained that this would be some time after the holidays, as the host was going away on vacation and wouldn’t be back until mid-January. It might not be until February or March, so they’d have plenty of time to prepare.
Three days before Christmas, Steve came into the conference room at social services just as the holiday luncheon was getting under way. Martin was waiting quietly by the door with their caseworker, Lacey Garfield. He saw Allen with his three boys, gathered up his son and went over to say hello.
Allen said, “I saved a couple seats for you.”
Steve smiled quickly and sat Martin in one of the chair, then sat down next to Allen. “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”
“So this is your son, huh?”
“Yep, this is Martin. Martin, say hi to my friend Al.”
The boy looked up shyly at the stranger, then said, “Hi, Al.”
Allen smiled. He’d just seen two caseworkers closing on them. One was Jack Overton, Allens’ caseworker. The other was Lacey Garfield. When they were within earshot, Allen said, “Hi, Martin. Have you ever seen me before?”
The boy shook his head and said, “No.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“You’re my daddy’s friend; he just told me that.”
“Yep, that’s right. And I’m helping him get you back home. I want you to remember that, okay?”
“You know, Steve, they call this a party. But no matter what they call it or how much they decorate this room, it can’t cover up the fact that they’re destroying the families of everyone here.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Tracy?”
“Charlie, it’s the only option we’ve got. If we’re going to keep feeding Steve this information, we have to bring Hall into it. Otherwise it could get really iffy for our boy. Hall is instinctively suspicious, and sooner or later he’ll smell a rat. And the way he found out about that detective wanting to meet with Steve before even we knew is troubling. It suggests that he could sniff us out just as easily.”
Charlie sighed loudly. “Okay. I don’t like this, but as you say, what choice do we have? Let’s do this.”
“While you were out, we got a delivery,” Allen said.
“What kind of delivery?”
“More papers. Case law citations to feed to our attorneys.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Really? Yes, that is interesting, Al. Let’s see.”
Allen handed over a large manila envelope. “There was also a note for you.”
Steve looked at his friend, then back at the envelope as he extracted a thick sheaf of papers. The one on top was the note Al had mentioned. Steve read it.
Steve, meet me at Acropolis Diner ASAP. Bring your friend.
“Who’s Tracy, dude?”
“A chick I met a couple weeks back.”
“How does she know we needed info on Steinmetz?”
“She knows a lot of things. I don’t know how she knows, but she does. And she offered to help.”
Allen walked toward the window of the dining room, looked out at the neighboring house, then walked back. “I don’t like this, man. Why didn’t you tell me about her? This could be a set-up.”
“Yeah, it could be, Al. But a good one, I think. Trust me, bro. I may not be from the streets like you, but you know where I’ve been back in the day.”
“All right, no problem. Let’s go.”
The two men arrived at the Greek diner about half an hour later later, after a slow walk to conserve their energy. They looked around, Al out of curiosity to see who had gotten Steves’ attention. After a minute, Steve tapped his friend on the arm and indicated a table on their left. they walked to the table where Tracy sat waiting.
“Hi, Tracy. This is Allen.”
Tracy smiled. “I know; I’ve seen him before.” She held out her hand. “Nice to finally meet you, Mr. Hall.”
Allen returned the smile. “Same here, Tracy. But I’m curious. Why would you want to meet me if you’re interested in Steve?”
“That’s simple. I have a proposition for you. I represent a group interested in your... shall we say, difficulties.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with a few of Steves’ old Marine buddies, would it?”
She looked at Steve. “He’s quick on the uptake. You didn’t say anything to him, did you?”
“Nope, not a word. But I’m not surprised he figured it out. He sees the big picture, while I work the details.”
Just then Charlie came in with the rest of the team. Introductions were made and seats were taken, pulling two tables together. Allen said, “You guys are Feds, aren’t you? This setup was too well organised to be local law enforcement. So what’s the deal?”
Charlie grinned momentarily. “Straight to business, huh? Okay, no problem. We want to help you. Assist with research, run interference if needed. All under the table, as they say, with nobody knowing the connection.”
Allen asked, “Why would you want to help us?”
“Federal laws have been violated without so much as a by-your-leave. You know something about that, don’t you, Mr. Hall?”
“Yeah, I know something about that all right. But where were you guys when all this shit was going down? When they took me from my family? When they took my boys from me a few months ago?”
“We didn’t even exist as a unit until about a year ago, Mr. Hall. We’ve been in training for this investigation, going over records from the Department of Health and Human Services, learning about the why and how of foster care, child abuse allegations and adoption. There’s a great deal of material there. We had to learn exactly what to look for, so we could see clearly when things were right. That way, when things were off, even just a little bit, we’d know to look for a problem or issue. And believe me, the issues are usually well covered up and take some serious digging to get at most of the time.”
“Okay, I’ll but that. But what made you decide to help us out? Not that I don’t appreciate it, but... Why us?”
Charlie nodded toward Steve, who was watching Marissa. Staring, really. Al
studied the scene for a brief moment, then said, sotto voce, “I guess he was right. He told me he’d seen someone who looked like his wife. I thought it was just one of those mind twists from the grieving.”
Gustavo turned his head to Allen and said, “You don’t know even half of it, my friend. Half of us are family. Literally. The other half, well, the two brothers do some of the best undercover I’ve seen since I was a street cop down in New York. Tracy does the electronic stuff, the computer work. She gets us the information we need for this investigation. She’s the one who found the information in the first packet you two received.”
“That was her work, huh? I think I want to get to know her.”
“That might be difficult. She has her eye on your partner.”
“He’s oblivious. His whole attention is on the little Spanish chick.”
“Hey, hombre, I meant it when I said we’re family. Let me explain it to you. Marissa is my cousin, just like Maria was. Fearless Leader there is her husband. There’s no way she’d be interested in Steve. Tracy, on the other hand … ”
Allen rubbed his forehead. “Man, this is nuts. Are you guys for real?”
Charlie, who had been listening, said, “Gus, too much. He hasn’t agreed to work with us yet.”
Gustavo smiled. “He’s about to, Charlie. He can’t help himself. He’s been out in the cold too long.”
“Mr. Hall? How about it?”
“I think Gus is right. As long as you guys understand that I have to do my own thing sometimes. But that won’t interfere with you at all.”
They had dinner, talked some more about the case, and left. As they were paying their bill, Steve went to the men’s room, giving Allen an opportunity. He took Tracy aside and said he wanted to speak with her some time soon. As she looked back at him, she could sense he thought he knew something that none of her teammates even suspected, not even Marissa, with whom she was closest. Yeah, even closer than Charlie, bless his soul, she thought to herself.
On the way back to the safe house, she decided that she would meet with Mr. Allen Hall, perhaps in that little restaurant across from the store where she’d run into Steve Winthrop. Of course, that encounter had been by design, intended to bring him into the fold and set him as their eyes and ears to replace the guy up in Hyde Park who got himself burned to death.
She sincerely hoped nothing bad happened to Mr. Winthrop …
She walked into the place, noticed it was a bit dimmer than most lunch counter restaurants she was familiar with. Nothing like the Gold Cup in Saint Pete, she thought wistfully. Odd how thinking about that doesn’t upset me any more; but it was quite a few years ago when I had my last dinner with Lee, just before that asshole Tommy shot us all.
She saw Allen Hall at a table back near the rest rooms, and walked over to join him. After ordering breakfast with orange juice and coffee, Allen began by asking her what her interest was in Steve, his brother-by-choice.
“He’s a fighter. He’s like a swimmer out of his depth but fighting to stay afloat. I respect that. It’s what I had to do, in a different setting. A few different settings, actually.”
Allen looked at her. “Do you understand that if you hook his attention, it will take his mind off what we’re doing? That’s not a good thing.”
She smiled tightly. “I think you misread the situation, Mr. Hall.”
“Call me Allen. And how do I misread it?”
“His mind is already off of what you’re doing. I can help get it back on track, where you wouldn’t be able to.”
He thought back to how Steve had just stared at the little Puerto Rican. What was her name? Marissa. Twin to Steves’ dead wife Maria. “I see your point,” he said. “But I can bring women to him to relieve that kind of stress.”
Tracy shook her head. “No, you can’t, Allen, because it won’t work. Haven’t you figured out yet that he has to engage with a woman all the way, body, mind and heart, or it’s no good for him? I saw that almost right away. That’s why he reminds me of … someone from my past.”
Allen smiled his own secretive grin. “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. That someone from your past was very important to you, right? Boyfriend? Husband? Doesn’t matter, it has to be one of those or something close to it. But you can’t go back to the past, Tracy. So what can you do for my brother?”
“I can keep him focussed on the work you’re doing. If he’s seeing me, he won’t be looking at Marissa. Besides, Marissa is still in love with Charlie, even though they’re divorced. Don’t ask, it’s a long story, and it’s a major part of why this team of agents exists. We’ve all had our dealings with child protective services, to one degree or another. But I’ll tell you this. Not only does Steve need me, I think I might need him as well.”
The waitress, a tall, slender young woman, brought their food. She smiled and said, “Hey, Al, I need to talk with you later. You know what about. Okay?”
Allen looked up, saw the smile was forced. “Sure thing, Liz. What time you getting off today?”
“Whenever you have the time to get me off,” she said in imitation of Mae West as she winked at him. “But seriously, I’m off the clock at two. I’ve moved into the apartment above this place. The stairs are around the side. I’m on the top floor. Get inside the door and go all the way to your right.”
“Okay, Lizzie, I’ll be there around four. Got a few things I gotta do first. You know how it is. But we’ll get your kid back.”
“I hope so, Al. See ya around four then.”
Allen watched as Tracy picked up her coffee. She took a sip, then said, “She seems like a nice girl. But I think she was a bit startled when you mentioned her child. Her eyes got pretty big there for a second.”
“Yeah, she was. But it’s a code phrase I set up with her. I only say it if I’m with someone, to let her know the person is okay. I’d have said I couldn’t see her right now if I was with someone I didn’t trust at least a bit.”
Tracy smiled tightly. “Pretty smart. I’m glad I rate at least a little trust.”
Allen returned the tight smile. “It’s not you in particular, it’s unknown factors. Once I trust someone a little, it usually doesn’t take long to build on it. Like now. I need to know something about you, or I’ll do everything I can to keep you away from my brother, at least until he has his son back.”
She looked at him thoughtfully for a fee quiet moments. “Okay. I’m going to tell you things that very few people know. Like the people on my team, whom you’ve met. I see that I can’t bullshit you easily, and that’s not my nature anyway.
“How I got here, to this point in my life, goes back to a couple years after high school.” She told him about the redneck who tried to kill her and her family, but only succeeded in killing her husband. She described the trial of Tommy Babbitt, who had tried to rape her in high school, and how he’d been exonerated of murder and attempted murder. She told of losing her son to the child protection system, and how it happened. And she told Allen of what she’d done afterwards, and the repercussions to her of that …