“Leave me alone! I don’t want you here.” The teenager glowered at Anna Ward from behind the screen door of the old farmhouse, his stare scorching the social services counselor. “Go away!”
According to the file sitting on the front seat of Anna’s car, Jose Garcia was fourteen, but his arms and legs were so thin and scrawny the Hispanic boy looked much younger. The T-shirt and blue jeans he wore added to the image. They were huge and ragged and had obviously been purchased—and worn—by someone much larger.
Working for Bay County social services, Anna encountered more than her share of woeful kids but she hadn’t seen one this hungry-looking in a while. Hungry for food, maybe, but more so for care. From her spot on the porch, she inched forward and rested her hand against the door frame, its curling paint flaking at her touch.
“I understand.” She made her voice as neutral as she could, hiding her concern. “But there’s no reason for you to be worried.” She smiled. “Is your mom here? My office called yesterday and told her I might drop by.”
“I don’t know nothing about a phone call, but we don’t need no help. And you don’t understand shit. So get outta here.”
“Go and get your mother, please,” she said quietly.
“She went to the store for milk.”
Just like her father, Anna had a built-in radar that detected two things. The first was a lie. She knew when someone wasn’t telling the truth, and that warning system went off full force as the boy spoke. She wondered if his mother had sent him to the door herself. Maybe she’d had second thoughts about talking with Anna. Too bad, she thought. When someone, especially a school teacher, raised the specter of child abuse, the allegation was investigated, regardless.
She decided to try a different tactic. “It took me forty-five minutes to drive out here and find this place. Can you at least let me in and give me a glass of water while I wait for her?” Anna fanned her face with an exaggerated flap of her hand. The heat would be even worse inside the tiny shack but she wasn’t leaving. Not if she could help this child. “It’s too hot out here to stand around and argue.”
His frown deepened as only a teenager’s can, then he threw open the door with such force she had to jump out of the way or be hit. She caught it at the last minute and stepped inside as he crossed the room to a small corner kitchen. Hitching his jeans as he walked, he promptly stuffed his hands in the pockets and pushed them back down, curling his shoulders forward as if he could protect himself from the situation they were about to discuss.
Anna wished it was that easy but in her job, nothing was easy. She’d been with the department for five years, and she had yet to see a child in need whose situation was simple to resolve. She was sure this case was no exception. Jose’s physical education teacher had reported seeing deep bruises on his legs and chest that had nothing to do with the hits he took on the football field and everything to do with his mother’s boyfriend who’d left a nearby correctional facility the month before. The coach had hinted of other, darker injuries, too, the kind that left no physical marks but caused a far deeper pain. Jose had a little sister, too.
Anna started to sit down on the nearest chair, a ratty recliner with stuffing escaping from a hole near one seam, then she had second thoughts, setting her purse down instead. It was a good decision. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer wafted up from the cushions, dust motes dancing in the stuffy air. It wouldn’t get cool for another two or three months and there was clearly no air conditioning in the house. How did they live here during the summer?
They didn’t, she answered herself, looking around as she followed him into the kitchen. They only existed and barely.
He slouched toward the sink, grabbing a smudged plastic glass and filling it from the tap. When he handed it to her, she took a quick sip. “Is your mom’s friend at home? Maybe I can talk to him while we wait.”
The boy met her eyes, and she caught a glimpse of the child who lived behind the wall of defense. “He’s asleep. We…we can’t wake him up. He won’t like that.”
“What happens when he doesn’t like something?”
She didn’t think he was going to answer. Finally, he spoke, his voice subdued. “Nothing good.”
A coworker of Anna’s had originally been assigned to the Garcia family. She had already witnessed one confrontation between the boy and his mother’s boyfriend, Adam Cahill, and it had almost resulted in bloodshed. Cahill was nothing but trouble, and she’d told Anna that next time there would be no “almost” about it. A simmering anger boiled inside the boy, and if he didn’t get some serious help soon, things would only worsen.
If the cops had to come out, things would go to hell, and Anna knew whose version of the story would be go down as the truth at that point. Jose would never win that game: He was Hispanic, young, and poor. A stacked deck if she’d ever seen one.
“Talk to me,” she said. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“Why should I talk to you?” He crossed his arms and deepened his glare. “I don’t even know why you’re here.”
“I’m here because I care what happens to your family,” she said.
“You don’t care. You’re just doing your job.”
“And my job is to care. That’s why I do what I do.”
“That’s what the other one said, too. But she didn’t do squat.”
Anna agreed with him. Her colleague was older and about to retire. She’d told Anna she didn’t have what it took anymore to deal with a “lost cause” like the Garcias. Anna had immediately offered to take the family as one of her cases.
“You have to help us do our jobs,” Anna said. “We’re not fairy godmothers with magic wands. We can’t sprinkle gold dust and give anyone a brand new life. You have to talk to us and explain what’s going on. Then we work out some solutions that help the whole family.”
“Like what? Splitting us up? Giving mi hermana to somebody else to take care of? Is that what you mean by helping?”
“Your sister needs a safe place to live. You do, too—”
“A safe place?” His eyes widened as if he couldn’t believe what she’d just said. His words tumbled out. “Anywhere we go, he can find us. Why do you think we came to this punk town anyway? We were trying to get away from him, and he tracked us down as soon as he got outta jail. That’s when he started beating on my mom again. That’s when he…he…”
Her radar pinged again, this time with the second issue it always detected.
Jose turned away from her so she couldn’t see his face, his hands clenching into fists at his side. Anger rolled off his tightly coiled body in waves. She felt a corresponding wave of her own—a wave of sympathy—and moved toward him, lifting her hand to touch his shoulder. He cringed before her fingers could even brush his sleeve.
A second later, Anna flinched, too, at a startling crash sounding from somewhere down the hall. A screamed curse followed hard on its heels, then a child’s stunned cries exploded. Anna whirled, her gasp of surprise loud in the single second of silence that followed before the unseen child drew air and screamed again. Anna had assumed Jose’s sister was in school. She barely had time to register the thought before a man careened into the room from the hallway, dragging a little girl with him.
Anna recognized him instantly from the booking photo that’d been in the Garcia file. Other details shot into her brain. Six foot one, two hundred twenty-one pounds, brown eyes, shaved head. Two prior misdemeanors, one felony charge, later dropped. Charges pending on another offense, that one committed in the days just after his last release from jail. The only detail missing from the file had been the total lack of humanity in Adam Cahill’s eyes, but there was no mistaking it in real life.
He gripped the upper arm of a child Anna assumed was Jose’s sister so tightly her tiny face was screwed up with pain. He was so tall and she was so small, her twinkling sneaker wasn’t even touching the floor. In his free hand, he held a belt. The width of it matched the vivid stripe of red that painted the child’s cheek.
“Who the hell are you?” His voice was icy cold. He was totally and completely in control of himself and the child he held. Which made Anna more nervous than if he’d been ranting and crazy-eyed.
“I’m Anna Ward,” she said calmly. Lifting her ID from the lanyard around her neck, she held it out so he could see. “I’m with Social Services. Are you Adam Ca—”
“You leave my sister alone, asshole.” Jose stepped between Anna and the man before he had a chance to answer, reaching for the belt Cahill held. “Gimme that, too. It’s mine.”
In an instant fury, Cahill turned on the boy, the little girl all but forgotten. Anna dropped to her knees and held out her arms. “Come to me, sweetheart.”
The child squirmed out of Cahill’s grip and tumbled toward Anna, who scooped her up and rushed for the screen door.
As they stepped outside, Anna set the child down on the warped floorboards of the porch then took her chin in her hand and tilted her face upward. She looked into the child’s terrified eyes. “Do not come back inside no matter what. Promise me? Get away and hide.”
A noise sounded inside the room, a chair falling over, something crashing, someone crying out. The girl nodded soundlessly. Anna pivoted and threw open the screen door. Then she froze, her heart jumping into her throat.
Jose held a pistol in both hands, and it was pointed straight at Adam Cahill. The ex-con stood with his back against one wall.
Anna swallowed, her mouth so dry she could hardly speak, the metallic taste of fear coating her tongue. “Jose, put the gun down, and let’s talk, okay? Th-this isn’t going to solve anything.”
“It will if I kill him,” the boy replied without looking at her. “He’ll be gone, and he won’t be able to hurt any of us ever again.”
“But you’ll be in jail,” Anna said. “There’re better ways to fix this.”
Adam started to speak, but Jose waved the gun and the man snapped his mouth shut. He clearly understood the power of violence if nothing else.
“There’s an extension cord behind the table,” Jose said to Anna. “Get it.”
“What do you—”
“Do it,” he yelled, “or I’ll kill him right now!”
Anna whirled, spotted the bright yellow cord, and grabbed it.
“Sit down,” Jose ordered Adam. “And put your arms behind the chair.” He tilted his head at Anna, his voice as steady as his grip on the pistol. “Tie him up. And do a good job.”
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