A challenging day forces Callen to recall his past and revisit one of his better foster homes. Features the team, but the focus is of course, on Callen. Written for NCISLA Magazine and #CallenAppreciationWeek
The team's most recent case had proven to be tough on all of them, including those behind the scenes in the Operations Centre. Marine Intelligence Officer Southerly was suspected of feeding misinformation to his superiors about terrorist activities in Iraq and the case had been assigned to NCIS after the suspicious death of Southerly's co-worker the previous day. Their first task had been to locate and arrest Southerly, which had proven to be easier said than done. Information on his whereabouts was secured by Nell and Eric, who had advised the team to go tactical at zero seven hundred hours that morning. The raid had yielded no results; there had been no sign of Southerly and no evidence he had ever been present in the leafy suburban house by the beach. Nell had subsequently found a small office space in the name of O'Kiefe, which was his mother's maiden name, and she directed the team to an address twenty miles west of their current location. Again the raid was fruitless.
Meanwhile, Eric had managed to hack into Southerly's personnel records and realised that he had been deliberately falsifying evidence of property ownership. Backtracking through a twenty year history, Eric had uncovered a third, previously hidden address. With more confidence than he felt, Eric had instructed the team to raid their third address of the day; a three storey house in an unassuming neighbourhood in Van Nuys.
The team assumed their usual pairing positions, with Sam and Callen taking the front of the house; Kensi and Deeks the rear. Up on a count of three, doors were knocked off their hinges and each floor was quickly and methodically cleared. All four finally converged in front of the locked door to the converted attic.
Callen signalled to his team, and on the hand signal for three, Deeks rammed the door open and stood swiftly to one side, allowing Callen, Sam and Kensi to enter and sweep the room. It was empty. Again, no Southerly. Callen lowered his weapon.
"Eric," he growled in frustration. "Southerly is not here. We've run out of places to search."
"Sorry Callen," Eric's response came through the team's earwigs. "That's all I have."
"Don't worry Eric, we know he lives here. There's plenty of evidence and we've found several laptops," Kensi assured him.
Deeks wandered around the attic room, which was sparsely furnished with a wooden wardrobe and a grotty single bed.
"Looks like this room has more furniture than your entire house, G." Sam stated with a smile as he moved back towards the door.
"Whoa," Deeks exclaimed as he opened the wardrobe doors. "Unless he's kept all of these from his own childhood, I would say Southerly has a kid."
"There is nothing in his files to suggest that," Nell said through the earwig. "But I'll check further."
Callen looked around him and hesitated. "The door was locked," He said slowly. He clenched his jaw as he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The clothes in the wardrobe looked dirty, and the bed covers were filthy and smelt musty, with a faint hint of urine. He held his finger up to his lips motioning his team to be quiet and pointed to the bed. Crouching down, gun in hand just in case, Callen squinted as he looked in to the dark cavernous space beneath. A small pair of wide eyes stared back at him.
"Hey, it's Ok, you can come out now," Callen said quietly.
Sam looked at Callen and quickly offered his support, crouching down next to him. "It's all good. We're here to rescue you. Take my hand."
The child's breathing became louder and faster at Sam's words and a slight whining noise escaped the child's lips.
"You're scaring him Sam," Callen said. "I think we need to back off a bit."
"Let me try," Deeks offered as Sam stood and walked back towards the broken door, followed by Callen and Kensi.
Nell spoke again through their earwigs. "Guys, I've done some digging and looks like Southerly was hiding not just property details but also adoption papers. All I can find is that thirteen months ago he adopted a boy named Dylan, born April 10th 2004, so he's ten. There is no other information on him."
"Thanks Nell," Sam replied. Lowering his voice he spoke to Callen and Kensi. "What kind of a man, let alone a Marine, adopts a child, hides the paper trail and the child. And then keeps him locked up."
Callen shook his head, but it was Kensi who replied. "This world is full of sick bastards. Eric, have you any idea where this one is?"
"Err, I may have another lead."
"We can't go tactical again, not until the boy is safe." Callen said.
"I don't think you'll need to. LAPD has just reported that a man matching Southerly's description has been found slumped in a car in Carson. They're sending a photo through...got it. Yep, that's our guy. Barely alive, looks like he tried to gas himself."
"An ambulance is on its way, so you probably want to meet them in the ER. LAPD will recover the vehicle." Nell added. "Oh and Social Services are sending a case manager, Ava Peters over. ETA of about thirty minutes."
"Thanks Nell, Eric," Callen said, glancing back into the room. Deeks was now lying on the floor in front of the bed, talking quietly and constantly to the boy who was still refusing to come out.
Callen assessed the situation. The child was absolutely terrified. He had clearly been neglected and possibly even abused. And the NCIS team's sudden storming of the house had made him even more frightened and confused. The presence of armed agents was not reassuring for a petrified boy. Callen made a snap decision.
"Kensi, guard the door. Sam you go that side of the bed. On three we'll lift it up, Deeks you grab the child."
"But that'll just scare him more," Sam rationalised.
"We don't have time. The sooner he's out from under the bed, the sooner he'll feel safe."
Sam shook his head in disagreement and looked at Deeks who was ready to reach for the boy. Deeks simply shrugged his shoulders in response to Sam.
"On three. One, two, three."
Sam and Callen lifted the bed high, but before Deeks could move forward, the boy shot out towards the exit. Deeks lunged after him, catching him in a bear hug and immediately started talking to him.
"It's Ok, it's all OK now," Deeks murmured repeatedly.
"Dylan," Callen knelt down in front of the ten year old. "Dylan, you're safe now OK? We're Federal Agents and we came here to find the man who did this to you." Dylan refused to meet Callen's eyes and continued to look at the floor, wrestling against Deeks' grip. "I'm sorry we scared you even more just now, but we needed to get you out from under the bed and then we can get you away from this room and this house."
"We're here to help you," Sam said. Dylan visibly shrank away from Sam and in to Deeks, his breathing becoming more rapid.
"Sam," Kensi laid a hand on Sam's shoulder and eased him away. Hurt was etched across his face at the negative effect his presence was having on the abused child.
Callen sighed and looked at Sam. "Sam, take Kensi and meet LAPD at the ER. I'll stay here with Deeks and wait for Social Services." Callen brought his hand up to his ear. "Nell, tell the Social Worker to stay downstairs and to call me when she arrives."
Realising they could not help any further, Sam and Kensi reluctantly left the attic room, after reassurances they would be called with an update as soon as the boy was safe.
Dylan sniffed and blinked away his tears, his breathing starting to calm down as Deeks continued to hold him. After thirty minutes, Dylan finally lifted his head and looked Callen in the eyes. Callen returned the look and with a slight nod, again re-iterated that he was now safe.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs alerted them to the arrival of the Social Services Manager. Callen stood up, anger flashing across his face, as a tall middle aged woman entered the room. Upon seeing her, Dylan looked up at both men.
"You lied to me. You said I was safe..." Tears welled in his eyes as he struggled to remain defiant, but his body language admitted he was defeated. "You're all the same. Liars!"
Deeks and Callen exchanged glances and Deeks re-started the process of placating the confused and upset boy.
Callen looked at the Social Worker and with a slight shake of the head, he guided the woman to the broken attic door and ushered her through. Attempting to pull the door to, he took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes.
"NCIS - Special Agent Callen. I know my colleagues have briefed you on the situation and you now have a job to do, but..."
"Ava Peters," Ava held out her hand to Callen who shook it firmly. "I understand how distressing it can be to find a child in such a condition but I need to get Dylan assessed both medically and physically, so if you don't mind."
Ava reached past Callen to the door, causing Callen to move in front of her, blocking her way. "I won't let you in while the boy is so hysterical, you'll do him more harm than good."
"I'll be the judge of that. From what I can gather you and your team broke down the front door and the attic door and will have no doubt contributed to Dylan's condition. Now move away from the door and let me in or do I need to call your boss.
"I am the boss," Callen said, narrowing his eyes. "And if we hadn't broken down the doors, this child would have starved to death as he obviously wasn't on social services radar...or maybe he was and you just did nothing?"
"That 'child' as you refer to him, has a name – Dylan, he is ten years old and was reported to LAPD as a runaway five months ago." Ava kept her voice low and even as she began to tear in to Callen, furious at his insinuations. "Do you honestly think that Social Services would find and then leave a neglected child in an abusive home? I don't know what kind of..."
Ava stopped mid flow as Callen broke eye contact with her and stared at a point on the far wall above her left shoulder. Ok, she thought, something else is going on here...
"Let us help him first," Callen insisted. "Detective Deeks is our LAPD Liaison – he's great with children and you could see he was calming him down."
"And what about you, Agent Callen?" Ava prodded. "You also seemed to have been a reassuring presence for Dylan."
"Yeah, well I'm not so great with kids." Callen retreated emotionally. Changing the subject abruptly he continued. "He was in foster care quite a while before he was adopted; how long?"
"From birth to the age of nine, when he was adopted. How did you know?" Suspicion was forming in Ava's mind.
"How many homes? Bad experiences?" Callen asked, ignoring the question.
"Only three homes; Dylan was removed from two of them due to abuse. Most of his time was spent in a children's home."
"And you wonder why he panicked when he saw you." Despite his efforts at self control, a hint of sarcasm crept in. "We told him he was safe and he accused us of lying to him."
"OK," Ava said slowly. "Why don't you go back in there and talk to Dylan like you did earlier. You connected with him too, so he'll listen and believe you. Reassure him that he'll be safe and I will personally find him the best foster home."
"No," Callen interrupted. "I already know two." Callen patted down the pockets of his combat trousers to find a pen and scrap of paper and wrote hastily. "Here, both of these are good homes, hopefully one has room for Dylan."
Ava took the paper and looked at the names and numbers. "Hmm, 'Spring Meadows' run by Elizabeth and Anthony Field. They've had that place about thirty years now – never heard one single complaint. The other is quite new, run by Mia Davidson, again a good reputation. How do you know of these?"
"A kid, Alex Fryman has been with Mia for about a year. His father is serving a life sentence for murder and also the attempted murder of a Federal Agent." Callen pointed to himself. "I've visited Alex a few times. It's one of the good ones."
"And you have firsthand experience of the bad ones," murmured Ava. "But you can recommend the Field's."
Callen remained silent. He pursed his lips and glanced at the floor quickly before making eye contact again. "So try those two first," he instructed, again ignoring the probing questions of the social worker.
"Ok." Ava nodded, knowing from her years of experience not to push any further. "I'll try these first but the deal is this door remains open - if the hinges will last. It's important that Dylan understands that I'm not a threat."
"Done," Callen nodded his own acceptance of the conditions and re-entered the room to face Dylan.
It had been another two hours before a space at the Field's had been confirmed and Dylan was calm enough to leave his attic prison. Deeks had accompanied him to the waiting paramedic team who carefully checked him over. Further medical follow-ups would be necessary, but there had been no immediate requirement to hospitalise the already traumatised boy. Deeks and Callen had taken the opportunity to talk quietly amongst themselves and it was agreed that Deeks would travel to the home with Dylan before returning to the Ops centre for the operational de-brief.
Callen's journey back to Ops took place in solitude and silence. Kensi had jumped in the Challenger with Sam earlier, leaving Callen to drive Kensi's SUV. With no one to interrupt his thoughts, Callen's mind wandered repeatedly to Dylan. He had recognised all too well the frightened, hostile and almost feral look that had haunted the ten year old when they found him earlier that afternoon. The sheer size of Sam had petrified the boy, and Kensi had been lost for words. It had been Deeks' naturalness which had shone through and finally placed Dylan at ease. He considered the social workers words; that his own presence had reassured Dylan that he was safe, and he wondered why. He knew he wasn't a natural with children and often thought he came across as being just as intimidating as Sam was huge. On reflection, it must have been his sincerity. Sincerity that he had communicated through his words, actions and the honesty reflected in his eyes as he had tried to look into the boy's soul.
Callen thought back to his childhood as he recalled how many people had made him feel safe and secure when he was young. He could count them on the fingers of one hand. He remembered each of their names, the dates and all too vividly the circumstances surrounding how he had met such people. Only one had actually been an authority figure and that was Anthony Field. He had been an LAPD beat cop whose heart was as big as Sam's, and whose sense of humour could almost – but not quite – rival that of Deeks'. Callen smiled as he remembered; the smile faltering slightly as the forgotten past came flooding back.
At the age of fourteen he had been living rough for a few months. Field had come across him a few times. The first time they met, Field had caught him stealing from a local food stall on the Venice beach front. He had hauled a wide eyed and seemingly frightened Callen back to the vendor, who had taken one look at the scrawny teenager and just handed him a bag of fresh fruit. Field had roared with laughter as the teen grabbed the food and twisted out of the arm lock the officer had him in. Several yards down the boardwalk, when Callen realised he was not being arrested for theft, he had turned around, his demeanour changing into one of cocky triumph. He had waved to both the vendor and the cop and sauntered back amongst the crowds, leaving Field smiling in amusement at having been played so easily.
During the following weeks, Callen had been caught by Field begging and loitering but the LAPD cop had never arrested him. Instead he had attempted to make conversation. Callen had no cause to trust him and no desire to converse with an officer of the law, so the conversations had been short and one sided. The turning point came when Callen realised Field had witnessed him lifting a purse and book out of a tourist's beach bag. Callen had looked up and caught the eye of the ever present cop, just as he committed the crime. With his heart in his mouth he slowly replaced the purse and backed away from Field, still clutching the book, all the time remaining focused on the police officer, whose jaw had dropped open in amazement. Field had stood rooted to the spot, shaking his head slightly as a smile drew across his face. Callen had continued to back slowly away, ready to dart in to the nearby crowd as soon as Field made his move, but there had been nothing.
Two days later, Field had been the first on the scene to a vicious beating in a Venice back alley. A witness had claimed it was gang and drug related, but when Field had rolled the victim over and found Callen, he had refused to believe it. Field had later told Callen that he had viewed him as an opportunist and a petty thief with the potential to develop in to a con artist. He had seen no indication of drink or drugs and Callen had never confirmed or denied if those were the reasons for his attack.
Callen pulled up at a red light and rubbed his hand across his forehead, subconsciously fingering the small scar just inside his hairline. He remembered coming round in the ambulance with the familiar face staring at him, full of genuine concern. Callen had been secretly relieved that Field had accompanied him to the ER and thankful that he had thought to gather up the measly items that had been found next to him; namely an old army bed roll printed with G. CALLEN, and a half emptied rucksack containing stale and stolen biscuits and a pristine hardback copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
The lights changed green and Callen accelerated across the junction and on with his journey. Those events had taken place about thirty years ago however at this moment in time, it seemed like only yesterday. He had been one of the Field's first foster children; he and his wife Elizabeth had only recently been approved and despite the fact that Callen had barely spoken to Anthony Field, the police officer had argued with social services that he had bonded with Callen on the streets and eventually Callen had been discharged into his care.
Callen knew it was only a temporary fix while he healed, but the three weeks he spent with Elizabeth and Anthony Field had enabled the fourteen year old to finally start relaxing, to stop living constantly on his instincts and adrenalin as he had been for the past few months. He read books and sat out in the garden, enjoying the California sunshine and even playing soccer with their youngest son, who was only a few years older than Callen. Sleep still refused to come easily and the temporary tranquillity was tempered by visits from welfare officers wanting to quiz him over the manner in which his last foster placement in the north of the county had ended. Before he could become accustomed to a normal family life, Callen was removed from the emergency placement and sent to a local children's home.
Without realising he had changed his course, Callen found himself pulling up along the curb outside 'Spring Meadows'. The double fronted house was as close to idyllic as he had ever found and it still looked the same as it had thirty years ago. Roses adorned the edge of the lush front garden, with neatly trimmed bushes providing a green border behind the small brick wall which marked the boundary of the house. There was a small garage to the left, set slightly back from the house and garden, with an entrance door to the side. Callen smiled as he wondered if Anthony Field realised how many times he had used this as his safe place in times of desperation. Sure, Field had caught him there asleep twice; once about two months after his three week stint with them and again about eighteen months later. He had never asked questions but the garage door had always been left unlocked, with blankets and a pillow stored on the shelving racks.
Callen watched as the front door opened and Deeks exited, shaking Anthony Field's hand and waving – presumably to Dylan. The door closed and Deeks made his way down the path to the gate. He opened it and looked to the road, catching a glimpse of the familiar white SUV. Deeks gave a brief nod and smile in Callen's direction as he walked off in the opposite direction.
Callen lingered in the car and considered his options. He had no intention of visiting Dylan and his old foster family that evening, knowing full well it was best to allow Dylan to settle down for his first night. His visit could disturb the boy even more, causing him to think he was checking that he was being treated right. Callen turned the key in the ignition and listened to the engine hum gently. He pulled away from the curb and drove round the block, parking down a quiet side road. Callen leant back in his seat and rested his head against the headrest, closing his eyes. When he opened them again it was dusk. The streets had a rather gray look about them and behind the houses the sun's last rays of light were exuding a burnt orange glow. Callen exited the car and cautiously made his way to the small side door of the garage. He reached out a hand and tentatively turned the handle; unlocked. Callen smiled as he opened the door and entered, closing it quietly behind him until the room was engulfed in darkness. He turned to his left and walked three paces so he was in front of the rack of shelves. He reached and found the blanket box as he had expected. Spreading the bedding out around him, Callen lay down and finally glanced at his cell. Several missed calls from Sam and Hetty, and a text from Deeks:
I saw the photo – I know - it's a good home
Fifty minutes later, Callen woke suddenly as torchlight filled the garage. He sat up and squinted, blinking away sleep and the metaphoric cobwebs.
"I thought I might find you here," Anthony Field's gravelly voice cut through the silence of the garage.
"I didn't want to knock and disturb Dylan," Callen replied, accepting the steaming mug of coffee which Anthony was offering.
"Ah yes, he's had a rough time of it. The phone call from the local Welfare Manager Ava Peters said an NCIS agent strongly recommended us." Anthony laughed at the emphasis he had placed on the word strongly. "I'm intrigued about which method of persuasion you adopted with her?"
"Deeks explained the situation too?" Callen asked, changing the subject.
"Ah yes, and what an interesting character he is. I can see that he has a story to tell about his life. You two work closely together? You'd be good for each other; he talks so much that you don't have to."
Callen looked at Anthony and wondered in amazement, at how perceptive he was. "We work together but we're not partners."
"So, you're not a troubled teenager anymore, so why the garage tonight?"
Callen leaned back against the shelves and cradled his coffee. "I just wanted to say thank you. I promised Dylan this was one of the good ones. And I'll keep my promise to visit him tomorrow afternoon."
"You're welcome Callen, and I know you'll keep your word," Anthony said with a smile. He knew thanking others did not come easily to Callen, as to him it was an admission that he had needed help. "Dylan's a good kid, I can tell. After all it's not like I caught him stealing, begging, pick pocketing, lying and pretending to be someone he's not."
"People change," Callen said returning the smile. "Well, mostly..."