Joseph gently wiped away Kristin’s tears. “It’s really all right, Kristin. It’s really over.” He hugged her tightly, then held her at arm’s length and fixed his gaze on her. “What do you call a cop who comes in from undercover?” he asked.
“If it wasn’t Florida, you’d call him the spy who came in from the cold,” she answered quickly. She put her arms around him. They stood together locked in a quiet embrace until Joseph backed away and pulled a small microphone and short wire from under his vest.
“We got them all this time, Kristin. For the sex crimes, assault on a minor, lewd and lascivious behavior and a bonus. Attempted murder. Prison for life. No one’s getting out this time.”
Kristin fingered the wire like it was extraordinary, almost sacred. A bit ironic too.
“Mikayla wasn’t part of the plan,” Joseph said. That little gal gave me a scare. Mary did too. I thought Haller would have waited for me to get back with the restraints before he started in with Mikayla. If Mary hadn’t jumped in, Mikayla could have been traumatized. We had to do a little improvisation when we discovered her. But because of Mikayla we’ve got them for attempted murder. Snuff film–no way.”
Kristin ran her fingers up his chest to his lips. He bent to kiss her and she quickly responded, her lips urgent against his.
“Let’s go home,” she said softly.
“I haven’t been fishing in a while,” he whispered back.
Mary couldn’t take her eyes off them. It was as if they were alone in the warehouse, oblivious to what was happening around them. She watched the deputies securing the crime scene. They were photographing the mattress, camera and lighting equipment, as well as Germaine, and Luke Haller who was still nearly naked. Turnabout’s fair play, she thought, with a tight smile.
Raphael finished signing off on the paperwork with the deputy in charge. He walked over to Mary and hugged her as the prisoners marched to the van.
“Crazy bitch,” Germaine sneered at Mary. The deputy yanked him away, ordering him to keep his mouth shut.
Raphael put his fingers under Mary’s chin.
“What happened to ‘sit tight’?”
Mary met his gaze. “You could have been clearer in your communications. If I’d known you were here, I wouldn’t have jumped thought the window.” She held up the torn sleeve of her silk blouse.
“Yeah, we still have to work on communication a bit, I guess.”
He took her hands in his and smiled at her, his big brown eyes filled with emotion.
“I love your passion for these kids, for everyone. You gave no thought to your own safety. It’s one of the things I love best about you. And the one that scares me to death.”
He held her tightly, brushing his lips against hers.
Joseph coughed loudly.
“Hey, you two, we’re headed out. Kristin and I have some catching up to do. Do you want to meet tomorrow night at the Gulfview Grill for oysters and beers?”
“Sounds good, Joseph,” Mary said. “Raphael and I are going to practice communication skills for a bit,” she said, playfully swatting his arm.
Then she turned to Kristin. “Thanks for following me here, for having my back. I love you for that.”
“Anytime, my friend. We make an incredible team.”
Colorful posters framed the hallways and ballroom of the Hilton Hotel the first Saturday in February at the annual Mad Hatter Tea Party.
“Anders, look, there’s Alice in Wonderland. Let’s get her autograph,” Berit said as she dragged Anders over to the girl with the golden hair, bright red lips and a wide smile. She was dressed in a pale blue dress with a starched white apron. She carried a white wicker basket filled with trinkets and she actually “cooed” as she bent to each child.
Following close behind, Kristin and Joseph watched as they saw Anders pull away, looking embarrassed.
“Alice in Wonderland?” he asked. “Isn’t there a Robin Hood or Hobbit character around here, or even someone from Diary of a Wimpy Kid?”
“All boy,” Kristin commented.
Joseph pointed to Berit. She was running towards the King and Queen of Hearts, in bright red costumes with matching wigs and black hats.
“All girl,” Joseph responded.
“Berit,” they heard Anders call. “Come over here. It’s the Cat in the Hat.”
“Anders, don’t be dumb. That’s not the Cat in the Hat. It’s the Mad Hatter! Get it?”
Kristin turned as Ron and Jackson came up behind them, in costumes..
“Wow, guys! Look at you. You didn’t have to dress up. What fun.”
“What good sports you are,” Joseph added.
Ron and Jackson bowed slightly. They were dressed in multi-colored velvet capes thrown over red sweaters and black jeans.
“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum for the older crowd,” Ron said, sweeping his wide-brimmed, feathered hat along the floor. A line of laughing kids ran behind them, holding balloons twisted and tied into the shapes of hats, swords and slinky dogs.
Kristin smiled at Joseph. He was so unexpectedly kind sometimes, so open and non-judgmental. In blue chinos, a navy turtleneck and top siders, he joked that he was dressed as an undercover cop. A sexy one, she thought. He nuzzled her neck, repeating that she looked svelte and alluring in her wide black pants, jailor’s bronze belt and a gold silk blouse.
The four of them followed Anders and Berit as they ran from one attraction to another, stopping to hug the striped Cheshire Cat, collect gift bags and Mad Hatter tee shirts and finally sitting down to make their own Mad Hatter hats.
“There are almost three hundred foster children here today, fellows,” Kristin said. “The adults are their foster parents, caseworkers, grandparents or other relatives, and occasionally a mom or dad who has just been reunited with their children. It’s nice to see them out of court.”
“Angels Against Abuse,” Kristin answered Joseph’s question. “They are a volunteer organization doing amazing things for children in foster care, like back packs for school, bicycles when they need them, Christmas presents for all. Look at the happiness they have brought today. We try to thank them--”
“In court…. and you always do, Judge.”
Kristin was startled at the interruption and turned to face the Mad Hatter herself. Kathleen Scott, the founder and director of Angels Against Abuse, was an elegant, pencil thin woman devoted to serving the needs of foster children. On this day she became the Mad Hatter, with slinky black knickers, a wide black and white checked shirt and matching socks, red suspenders, a frizzy orange-red wig, and the tallest stovepipe checkered hat of all.
She grinned at Kristin through a face painted white and sparkly black cat’s paw glasses.
“You always remember to thank us, Judge, even though you are new to juvenile court. I hope you enjoy your first Mad Hatter party. And Detective Russo, thank you for saving our kids.”
Joseph nodded at her. He looked uncomfortable and Kristin laughed.
They entered the ballroom, leaving Anders and Berit to explore the activities on their own before the tea party and entertainment began.
“We want to sit with Nonna,” Berit had reminded them.
“And Nonno,” Anders had added.
Kristin and Mary had reserved two tables of twelve. Mary’s parents were more than welcome at her table, Kristin thought. Ready-made grandparents. What a nice addition to their complicated family.
“Wow,” Joseph said, gesturing with both hands, as they walked around the ballroom. “Get a look at this.”
The ballroom was simply joyful. Mad Hatter hats sat on each table. Multi-colored balloons tied to them almost reached the high ceiling. China tea cups and glasses of pink lemonade with strawberries sat next to fancy plates piled with red and green grapes, carrot sticks and triangles of tea sandwiches, ham, cheese, egg salad. The White Rabbit and the Caterpillar scurried around putting small gifts on each table.
Mary stood and waived, pointing to their tables. She was easy to spot in a floral sundress and pearls. Raphael sat next to her, beaming. Except for work, he hadn’t left her side since the arrests two weeks ago.
Mary broke away and walked towards Kristin and Joseph.
“Hi, Kristin. Hey there, big guy. You clean up nice.”
Joseph winked at her. “You are glowing, yourself. Big plans between you two, maybe?”
She blushed, but grinned from ear to ear. “We’re going to spend ten days in Cuba, much to his dad’s dismay, but we’re both looking forward to the time away.”
Mary turned and waved toward the tables. “The gang is all here,” she said, pointing to Lee Ann from the public defender’s office, Jamie, the juvenile probation officer and Phil McLeod, sitting between the women but directing all his attention to Jamie. Mary’s gaze swept to her family, including baby Julia dressed in a white rabbit costume.
MaryAnn Visconti cornered Ron and Jackson with questions about their recent wedding.
“Kristin officiated in our back yard. The twins stood up for us, and Mary baked an Italian wedding cake,” Ron began.
“Raphael brought the champagne and Joseph said he was there to provide security,” Jackson laughed. “You can catch the pictures on Facebook and the comments on Twitter.”
MaryAnn rolled her eyes.
Kristin noticed Jordan with her newly adopted mom, Cecilia Holland, as well as Robby and his grandmother, Joyce Hartman, seated together. Skip, his wife Karen and Mikayla signaled her over.
“You’re looking at our new foster child, when the paperwork goes through. First step to a real adoption.” Karen pulled Mikayla closer.
Kristin congratulated all of them. She wasn’t surprised. She knew Skip and Karen had been yearning for a child of their own. It was terrific that they’d chosen Mikayla who would really benefit from their love and guidance.
The small band made up of young men and women who’d aged out of foster care played the theme song, “A Very Happy Unbirthday To You, To You” and the noise level skyrocketed as gleeful kids and adults filled the room.
Joseph rose from his seat, squeezed Kristin’s shoulder and pointed to a couple standing patiently behind them, escorted by the White Queen and the Red King.
“Oh my God,” Kristin gasped.
She wrapped her arms around Allan and Claire Sanders. What a surprise. They were like parents to her. They had taken her in to their Tallahassee home as an exchange student from Norway all those years ago. They supported her every move from high school to college to law school to a law practice and judge. She tried to teach them Norwegian. They refused. They tried to teach her how to cook. She succeeded, somewhat. Most of all they taught her just by example how to be a good parent. She was still working on that.
Kristin found seats for them as the Mad Hatter took the microphone.
“Are you having fun?” she shouted.
The roar from the foster kids was deafening.
“That’s what I expected,” she responded.
“Today, however, we have something to celebrate besides getting together for this event. Just recently, less than a month ago, three of our foster kids turned out to be heroes, saving lives and gathering evidence to prosecute very bad men in this county. I can’t go into more detail at this time, but I can tell you that the State Attorney and the Sheriff are praising these children for what they accomplished.
“To honor them, Florida’s foremost advocate for children, Allan Sanders, has a special presentation. Our Sheriff will assist with the honors.”
Kristin and Mary watched like proud parents. Mikayla, Jordan and Robby were called to the stage where they were presented with a “Golden Egg” award for their valor, as well as brand new, hi-tech tablets.
The Sheriff shook their hands. Mikayla, who hadn’t left Karen’s side all afternoon, two-stepped to the podium on spidery slim legs. Jordan’s unruly red hair was swept up into a fashionable bun. Robby’s buzz cut had grown a lot, parted down the middle to grow over his ears.
Two minutes later the floor was filled with kids and adults doing the chicken dance.
“I’m so proud of the three of you,” Mary told them. “Each of you has faced your fear and become stronger and more confident. What’s more, when anyone in the community hears your name, they will associate you with being a hero.”
The three kids looked puzzled. The moment was transforming, Mary realized. Being the kid who stabbed the police officer or the girl sleeping with older men or the daughter of an unfit mother were no longer their primary labels, their identities.
They nodded their heads, slowly catching on. Leeann, Jamie and Phil were first in the long line of people wanting to congratulate them.
Kristin pulled the Sheriff’s sleeve as he was leaving the podium. She couldn’t resist a dig.
“You told me to stay out of this. Do you still think that way?”
He stopped, smiled and saluted her. “I am eternally grateful that you didn’t get shot in the mix, though,” he said. Raphael grabbed Mary’s hand. “Come on, let’s dance. I do a mean chicken step.”
Kristin watched each of the three children pass their Golden Eggs around the table for everyone to hold. How special they are, she thought. As special as her own. Anders and Berit had been up and down during the event, leaving the table to collect a game prize, showing their hats and balloons to Nonna.
They had agreed to donate all their prizes back to foster homes. It made them even more eager to win at the games. She turned to see Berit showing Nonna a stuffed caterpillar. She looked around her table, and then Mary’s table.
“Where is Anders?” she asked. All other eleven heads at the table turned right and left. He wasn’t there. His seat was vacant.
“Berit, you were with Anders. Where do you think he is?” she asked.
“Oh,” she said, turning from Nonna. “When we left the games he said a clown wanted to take him somewhere to teach him new tricks.”
“A clown?” Kristin asked again, nudging Joseph to pay attention.
“That’s what he said, “Berit answered, nibbling on a pink cupcake.
“Joseph, do you remember seeing any clowns out there?”
But Joseph was already on his feet and moving towards the Mad Hatter as she left the stage.
Kristin rose as she heard her speak.
“Clowns? This is an Alice in Wonderland theme party. We don’t have clowns.”
Kristin and Joseph ran out of the ballroom. They scanned the hallway, but most games and characters were closing down. The action was in the ballroom. They couldn’t find a clown, only adults shirking off large costumes and wiping away tired make up.
They were about to split up to take different hallways when Berit burst through the ballroom door.
“Dad and Daddy said to come to get you. Anders is back. He’s sitting next to me at our table.”
Kristin and Joseph exhaled sighs of relief. Joseph leaned into her, nuzzling her neck with a small kiss.
“Great,” Kristin said. “We’ll be right there. Thanks, Berit, for telling us.”
“You’re welcome,” Berit said, and then almost shyly, “Mommy.”
Kristin hugged her tightly.
When they returned to the ballroom, Anders looked unperturbed and sat watching the people dancing. Kristin caught Mary’s glance from the other table and signaled that everything was ok. Mary wasn’t satisfied.
“Where was Anders, during all that worry?” she asked, joining Kristin at her table.
“Let’s ask him,” Kristin said, turning to her son. His hands held presents for the foster kids.
“Anders, where were you?”
“The clown, Mommy,” he said. “The clown wanted to make me a new twisty balloon and to tell me about clown tricks and make up.”
“What did he do?”
“Well, we didn’t have much time, so he took one of those little sticks with a white top, those things you use for makeup, and he ran it up and down the inside of my mouth.”
“Then he just told me to leave. I was kind of surprised but I knew all of you were here in the ballroom so I just came back here.”
“Swab?” Mary said. “Did he swab Anders’ mouth?”
Kristin bowed her head. Anders ran off to join Berit.
“Why would a clown swab Anders’ mouth?” Mary asked. “It sounds like a DNA collection.”
Kristin wouldn’t look up. She covered her face with her hands.
“Kristin.” Mary put her hand on Kristin’s arm. “What’s going on? Who was that clown?”
She finally looked up at Mary, distraught. “It’s starting, Mary. That wasn’t a clown. That was Chad.”
“Chad?” Mary asked, confused. “I know he was released from prison, but why would Chad want Anders’ DNA? It doesn’t make sense.”
Kristin held her gaze but didn’t say a word.
Mary hated to ask the next question.
“Kristin, it’s not possible that Chad is the twins’ father. It’s not possible, is it?”
Ron and Jackson stepped into the conversation before Kristin could respond.
“No, Mary, it’s not possible that Chad is the twins’ father,” Ron said.
Kristin looked up at him in surprise. Please let him be right….
Jackson put his arm around Kristin as Ron continued, never taking his eyes off her.
“You didn’t hide your relationship with Chad and we knew it was over, but well, sometimes things happen. We didn’t want it to seem like we didn’t trust you, so we had DNA swabs done on the two of us and the twins, shortly after their birth, without telling you. We thought if we told you it would hurt your feelings.
“You have nothing to worry about, Kristin. I am the biological father of the twins, for certain,” Ron finished.
“And I’m about to become their stepfather through adoption, now that Ron and I are married,” Jackson added. “They are safe from him, Kristin. You both are.”
“And I’m forever grateful to you both,” Kristin said, rising to kiss both men on their cheeks.
“And I’m speechless,” Mary said. She reached out the hand that wasn’t holding Raphael’s and took Kristin’s in hers. Then Kristin reached for Joseph’s, who took Jackson’s, who took Ron’s, who took Raphael’s which completed the circle.
Kristin looked at Mary, then around the circle of friendship she was now a part of. Could any woman have come any further and have so much? She strongly doubted it.
“I have learned and gained so much since I came to this country–and into this position. Some days I thought there was no love big enough to help these kids, and now I see how wrong I was.”
Joseph squeezed her hand. “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”
Kristin smiled through her tears of joy. “Have you found a new favorite band, my love?”
“Nope, that was written by a very old bard, actually. William Shakespeare. One of the lesser known quotes from Hamlet.”
Kristin laughed. “Sounds like a wonderful Norwegian saying to me….”
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