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Chapter 33


Kristin and Mary raised their wine glasses in sync to tap Detective Joseph Russo’s foamy beer mug. The detective blushed, looking a little embarrassed. He had teased them before about being surrounded by beautiful women.

Kristin suspected that he was acting modest about his key role in the Internet sting that his office had just announced. A number of local men were arrested for soliciting children on line for sex. It was a federal crime supported by local law enforcement and Joseph was right in the middle of it. Kristin was very proud of him.

“How many arrests after three nights of work? Tell us again,” Mary said. “It’s unbelievable and shocking, but I’m so glad that you got these creeps off the street.” She gave Joseph a double thumbs up.

“Forty-seven so far and I think we’ll hit fifty once we tie together some additional tips.” His smile was wide and natural following Mary’s words of praise.

The detective was clearly still smitten with her friend, hanging on her every word, Kristin thought.

Kristin was just as skilled at flattery. “Tell us how the sting was organized, please. I’m fascinated by police work.”

Joseph’s face lit up. “There were five of us: two police detectives from the Clearwater and St. Pete police and three sheriff’s deputies from their human trafficking squad. We coordinated with the Feds. We set up headquarters in the back room of a small precinct and for four nights straight we pretended to be kids in online chat rooms, mostly girls, willing to talk sex.

“It was really pretty easy, easier than bass fishing. Once the bait was out, those jokers practically fought each other to arrange so-called dates or places to meet, such as in the mall, at the movies or even on a street corner, to be picked up.

“We used teenage girl slang, and identified ourselves as twelve, thirteen, fourteen, whatever. Clearly minors. We’ve been studying these kids a long time. After a week of practice, it was easier than I thought to engage these assholes in online conversations that led to an invitation to meet for real sex.”

“But how did you make an actual arrest?” Kristin was determined to keep asking questions until Joseph gave her the same attention he gave Mary. She found him very attractive. They’d had that night at the One Direction concert and she’d run into him at the gym near the courthouse, where they both worked out. She knew Mary had lost interest in him, at least romantically, and she was almost surprised that she found him so attractive.

Mary nudged her knee under the table, and when Kristin looked her way, gave a nod of approval. You go, girl. Kristin grinned at the girl signals. She clearly wasn’t used to it.

“It wasn’t difficult. As soon as we’d made arrangements to get together for sex and exchanged cell phone numbers, we’d send another undercover cop to the meeting place. As soon as that cop got a text, he’d nab the perp, cuff him and away he goes. Actually, that was boring, hanging around teenage gathering places and dealing with some no shows. The fun part was talking dirty on line and in chat rooms. I learned a lot of different teenage girl words for body parts and sex acts.”

“Like what?” Kristin asked, leaning towards him.

“Please don’t go there,” Mary said. “Both of us have been there and have great memories of teenage trash talk.”

“Come on, Mary,” Joseph said, his hand on her forearm. “Don’t be a prude. You’re the shrink. You hear these words and thoughts all the time from kids, girls and boys. New ones are invented at least every generation, probably sooner. Don’t kill a cop’s fun. Remember, most of the time I’m after adult criminals.”

“This is adult crime, Joseph. I don’t see how you can call it ‘cop’s fun’.” Mary took his hand off her arm. She looked uneasy.

Kristin sighed. Maybe she didn’t have a chance here after all.

“Mare,” he tried again, stretching out her name and trying to get her attention.

Mary shook her head. “You’re starting to sound like you enjoyed it.”

“Mary,” Kristin rebuked her, “it’s his job. Don’t read more into it.”

Joseph nodded. “Right you are, Judge. Getting paid to talk sex, to pretend to be an innocent young girl or boy was indeed my assignment. It beats arresting homeless folks or responding to domestic violence calls. The more realistic I was, the more irresistible I became, the more arrests we made. If I was going to be the bait, I was damned sure I’d be as juicy and tasty as I could be. Remember, these perps are like bass, going for a big fat worm.”

He looked at Mary, clearly seeking her approval. When Mary turned away from him, Kristin saw another opening.

“Tell us about some of the perps who were caught.”

“It’s hard to believe,” Joseph said, turning to Kristin. “We nabbed a high-security prison guard from New York who bought a purple Rapunzel costume from a Disney store and sent it to Florida as part of a plot to have sex with an eleven-year-old girl. Then we nabbed a guy whose screen name was ‘Daddysknee’ who responded to me posing as a ‘mom’ wanting cash for sex with her thirteen-year-old daughter. The jerk actually sent me a camera to take nude pictures of her. There were dozens of explicit e-mails between us.”

“It makes me sick,” Mary said. “For all that you do, and it is realism, real children are being exploited every day without the perps being caught.”

“You’re right,” Joseph said. “But one of the other guys in our unit, not undercover, arrested a man who sexually battered a twelve-year-old girl at knife point for several hours. He just got sentenced to more than thirty-five years in prison. And his girlfriend, who held the knife and didn’t stop the attack, was sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to false imprisonment.”

“Sickening,” Mary said. “She should have received the same sentence. How can a woman do that to a little girl?”

“Well, I think you’re a hero, Joseph,” Kristin chimed in. “Whatever works to put these sickos out of commission is fine with me.”

“Putting them out of commission is the real problem. Remember, no sex has occurred, no real children are involved, so it’s just an Internet crime, soliciting minors for sex on line. The men usually bond out overnight and make a plea deal, pay a fine or do probation for the first arrest. Only if we catch them in the act and the child testifies, do we really put them away.

“But, the Times published their names and pictures in a story about the sting. That’s punishment enough, especially if they’ve got a wife or mother or daughter who reads about it. Our hope is that they won’t take the risk again.”

“I see these kids in my courtroom all the time,” Kristin said. “Why do they do it? What’s the attraction that makes it worthwhile to do something as dangerous as having sex with a stranger? They’re old enough to understand the risks.”

“A lot of reasons, Judge,” Joseph said. “Some of these guys actually want a relationship. They want to come back again and again. It’s not exactly prostitution, as no money is exchanged upfront. It’s the promise of gifts, cell phones, cosmetics, fancy dinners, and the sex itself. Believe it or not, the risk involved is a lure to the kids.”

“Joseph, you sound as if you condone this,” Mary said. “Don’t describe it that way. The predators—and that’s what they are—are pedophiles who would be jailed for years and years if the girls were younger or not so willing.”

“But that’s true, Mary,” Kristin said. “Girls that age often don’t even think of disease, or pregnancy or even death. Boys their own age just aren’t attractive to them. They go so willingly to an older man. Many don’t have fathers to set any kind of example. You know that. The thrill of an older man’s affections seems to be what attracts them.”

“And the promise of love,” Mary jumped in, her eyes seeking Joseph’s. “And if they’ve been sexually abused themselves, they become sexualized very early in life. We see this in group homes or foster homes where they force sex on younger children. They become the perpetrators. You sound like this is just some girlish stage. Do you really believe that, Joseph?”

Before he could answer, Kristin covered both their hands with hers. That got their attention.

“Who do I turn to, where do I hide, when the whole world turns against me?”

“Huh?” Joseph grunted.

“Who said that?” Mary asked at the same time.

“I heard it at the Poynter Institute in St. Pete,” Kristin replied. “Byron Pitts, a well- known broadcast journalist, met an eleven-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. ‘Who do I turn to, where do I hide, when the whole world turns against me?’

“The little girl asked Byron that question,” Kristin continued. “He couldn’t answer her. He actually cried. I’m telling you this story because it may seem like Joseph is joking, but he isn’t. And what he is doing is so important. So very important.”

Mary put her hand on Kristin’s arm. “Excuse me,” she told them. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Mary found an empty bench outside the bar, facing the beach. She shook her head, trying to gather her thoughts. She dialed down feelings of discomfort. Although she didn’t intend to date Joseph anymore, they were friends and there was a strong bond between them.

They’d shared stories of their past. Joseph was kind when Mary talked about her feeling of loss when Chris died. His own mother had battled cancer for years when he was young. His father traveled for work a lot, so he was placed in the care of various relatives. One, an older female cousin, sexually abused him when he was nine. He told his father, who laughed it off and said Joseph was lucky to be so experienced so young. Joseph became sexually active with girls soon after that.

Mary held this in confidence. She certainly wasn’t going to tell Kristin. But she wondered if Joseph’s assignments might be dangerous for him psychologically. She could understand his excitement at the successful arrests, but was there something else there? Indeed, he’d been sexually abused as a child and sexualized at an early age. Was he playing with fire in this assignment?

She pulled out her cell phone and texted Raphael.

U Ok, lover boy?

The ping was almost immediate.

Yes. Having cigar with pop on back porch

Mary smiled, knowing he was enjoying time with his family.

Out with K anD J leaving soon. Skype tonight?


Can’t wait. Miss you. Next time come here. Family wants to meEt dream girl

Mary felt Joseph’s eyes on her as she walked back to join them, pocketing her cell phone. The silence between them was electric. Kristin clearly wasn’t part of it, and Mary decided to let it go.

“Let’s change the subject,” Joseph said as he stood up. “Order me another beer, please, while I hit the men’s room.” A few feet from to them he turned back.

“Oh, by the way, I got two more free concert tickets. This time Jenny Lewis at Janus Landing, downtown St. Pete. She’s got a sweet voice and nails the retro on her latest album. You guys would probably like her as she sings about her ticking biological clock and aging out of a rock world dominated by men.

“Which one of you wants to go with me?”

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