Sunday, October 8, 2017
Phoenix from the Ashes Part 14
Written by Snarks, Rosemarie & PJ
The next morning James's friend, a private detective named Gordon Leward, sat in his car about halfway down the street from the Striker residence, his camera and high-powered lens at the ready. Once he'd heard that it might involve child abuse or neglect he'd immediately agreed to take on the case. He had a bone to pick with anyone who abused children. He knew his friend had a dim view of people who did such things as well.
He didn't have to wait long. As soon as the front door opened, Gordon began to take high speed photographs which showed Callie Striker dragging her two sons outside to the curb. The boys were crying. It looked to Gordon as though they were trying to break away from their mother's grip. All of them looked disheveled, but where the boys looked distressed, the mother only looked angry.
She yanked them closer to her and leaned down to say something to them. They immediately quieted down, though they were still obviously upset and crying softly.
Mikey’s bus arrived first and the boy couldn't get in fast enough, ignoring the outstretched arms of his 'loving' mother as she tried to hug and kiss him goodbye. She looked up at Tessa with a wan smile and explained that the boys were having a hard morning.
"I'll have the aid keep an extra close eye on him today," the bus driver promised with an understanding smile. She was used to the kids on her bus having off days and how stressful it could be for the parents.
"Thanks, I'll see you later today then," Callie smiled.
"Later, Mrs. Striker," Tessa grinned as she shut the door and pulled away from the curb.
Callie made a quick mental note to start going by her maiden name again and then waited impatiently for Sam's bus to arrive. It was only a few minutes but to the woman it seemed to take forever. She put on the same act she had for Mike's driver which was swallowed hook, line and sinker, then went inside to get ready for work.
She looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror after she'd showered and gotten into her waitress uniform. She hated the thing but had to admit to herself that she looked damned good in it. She had gained weight back during her 'rehabilitation' and now looked much healthier than she had when she'd been first found.
'Time to class up that old dump,' she said to herself with a smile, ruffling her hair to make it fuller before pulling it into a neat pony tail. She touched up her makeup and deciding that she passed inspection, headed out to the restaurant. Callie had decided that she wasn't as worried about the reduction in hours as she had been at first, since she'd discovered that a smile and a wink along with showing a little extra cleavage to the right people earned her a bigger tip. Thank God for horny old men and hornier young ones, she thought.
Gordon carefully followed Callie to the restaurant where she worked. He called James to tell him what he had witnessed so far while he patiently waited for her shift to be over.
A few hours later, he followed her back to the apartment in time for the boys to get home from school.
As each of them arrived, Callie hurried her boys into the apartment. Once he knew they were all home Gordon drove to a local diner for carry out before he settled down for a long, quiet and hopefully uneventful night watching the apartment.
Later that evening, Mark, Roman and 'Keen decided to go out for dinner. There was a surf and turf place that had Mark salivating just thinking about it. Due to road construction and detours they were forced to go through one of the seedier neighborhoods. The houses were in disrepair and there were sneakers draped over the wires every few hundred yards, which made the men uncomfortable.
Suddenly Roman stepped on the brakes and took out his phone. He turned on the camera and began to record something.
"What's going on?" Mark asked, astounded, "What on earth are you stopping on this street for!?"
Joaquin was wondering much the same thing but before he had a chance to ask, he looked in the direction in which the camera was being aimed.
There was Callie, staggering slightly up the sidewalk toward them and laughing to herself, or perhaps she was on a Bluetooth. Either way whatever she was talking about was apparently very amusing. She came to rest on the steps of an all but dilapidated house, its windows covered with newspaper.
The door swung open and there was Ick, grinning, arms wide which was a good thing since it seemed that Callie had used up the last of her equilibrium just getting there in one piece. She fell into her boyfriend's arms, laughing. He gathered her up despite the bottle in his hand, dipped her to deliver a kiss and swept her into the house, slamming the door behind them.
"Mikey!" 'Keen exclaimed. "Sam!"
Roman turned off his camera and peeled out of the neighborhood as quickly as he could.
The three men arrived at the apartment complex in record time and jumped out of the car.
"You stay here," Mark ordered the young man as he pulled out his phone to call the police.
"No! Something's wrong! They're gonna need a familiar face! I'm not staying here," the boy said angrily, silently daring either man to argue with him.
Roman didn't think twice. He took 'Keen by the shoulder and rushed toward the door. Once they were closer to the apartment they could hear muffled crying from the closed window of the boy's room which faced the open courtyard.
Callie's apartment was the last one, closest to the street. Trying her door, they found that it was locked up tight. In frustration, they turned to the apartment next door and knocked loudly.
Through the door they could hear locks and chains being engaged just before a man's voice yelled, "I called the cops! Whoever you are you better get lost now!"
"We called the police also," Roman replied heatedly.
"What the... why'd you call 'em? Who are you?" the man asked suspiciously through the still closed door.
"The kids are alone in there!" Roman replied, ignoring the question and doing his best not to yell. "Couldn't you hear them crying? Call the building manager! Please!"
The amused voice that answered them angered the men. "I am the building manager!" he scoffed as he finally opened his door slightly, chains still in place, to get a good view of the men standing outside. "See the sign on the door?" he asked, pointing to an empty rectangular space at eye level that was surrounded by old glue.
The three men were dumbfounded. It took several seconds for Roman to recover. "There's no sign on the door!" he replied angrily, "and I'll ask you again, couldn't you hear them crying?"
The man frowned and muttered under his breath, "Damned thing keeps fallin' off."
'Keen had no problem with yelling. "You're worried about your stupid plaque? My brothers are in there! Are you honestly telling us that you didn't hear them crying?" he demanded again.
The older man frowned at the little boy who had the nerve to raise his voice to him. Turning his attention back toward the waiting men he replied, "To answer your question, I don't hear 'em, not really. Got a bit of a hearing problem as it is, but when they get too loud even for me, I just turn up the volume on my television. 'Sides they cry all the time. Callie says they're just havin' a bad day. I just kinda got used to it. You know they ain't right in the head." he said dismissively.
"So, you know that she leaves them alone and goes out?" 'Keen demanded.
"Well no, 'course not," the man replied uncomfortably. "I'm sure she's in there, prob'ly takin' a shower or somethin'. Havin' kids like that is real stressful."
"What would you do if they opened the windows and climbed through? They'd get hurt falling from there!" Roman exclaimed.
The building manager smiled, showing some missing teeth, "Ain't gonna happen. Callie was worried 'bout the same thing when she moved in and I put some nails in the window sill to keep 'em from openin' too wide."
"You did what?!" Mark demanded, "Do you realize that it's against the fire codes to nail windows shut, especially in rooms where there are elderly folk or children?!"
The smile faded from the man's face. He had known that, but the woman had convinced him that doing so was for her children's safety. And, he rationalized to himself, he hadn't nailed them completely shut. The windows would still open a few inches. Enough to let air in but not wide enough for children to climb out.
"I want you to open that door. Now!" Roman said through gritted teeth. "I can assure you that she is not home with those kids. We just saw her a few blocks away at her boyfriend's house."
The man's eyebrows rose somewhat. "I thought she was done wit' that guy," he said more to himself than the angry men.
"Open. The. Door. Now," Roman said curtly. "Or I'll break the damned thing in."
"Alright, alright, keep your panties on," the manager replied with a frown. "Lemme jus' get the key. Only take a minute."
"It had better take less than a minute, mister," Mark said as he watched the man disappear into his apartment once again. "It doesn't take that long to find one key."
Mark turned toward Roman and said quietly, "I called James also, they're heading our way as soon as his friend Dex can fly them out."
Roman only nodded. 'Keen never took his eyes off of the manager's door, counting the seconds until he reappeared. He had a feeling that the man was calling Callie. When the old man still hadn't shown up after nearly a minute, he was sure of it.
Ro was about to go in after him when the manager came out of his apartment with a large key ring, looking somewhat nervous. The first key didn't fit so the man tried some others, hands shaking as he glanced anxiously at the furious men around him, he fumbled with the keys until he heard the police cars pulling up, sirens cutting off abruptly.
"Thank God!" the manager yelled. "Over here! These guys are nuts!"
Several officers approached, looking casual with their hands resting calmly on the butts of their guns.
"Who would like to tell us what's going on?" the first policeman asked in a carefully moderated tone.
The building manager was the first to speak... or rather... babble. "I was jus' watchin' some tv here when these guys come up and start poundin' on this lady's door! Then they started to pound on mine and for some reason they expected I was just going to open my door?! That's when I called you! She's prob'ly in there scared half to death!"
At the officer's prodding, the manager gave his information, the woman's name and the names of the children.
"And who are you gentlemen?"
Roman introduced himself and the others quickly as the officer wrote down their names. "This man here is their brother, and he's very concerned for their welfare," he said, placing a hand on Joaquin's shoulder.
Doing his best to remain calm in the presence of the spineless manager, Roman turned to the officer and told him what he and the others had seen, and what they'd been treated to when they'd arrived at the apartment.
The police officer held up a hand for silence. Even muffled by the closed window as it was, he could hear that the cries had a tone of desperation to them.
"Open the door, please, sir," the lead officer requested politely as another took out a camera and began recording.
With an angry glance at the three intruders, the manager said, "Yeah, jus' gimme a sec." He went back into his apartment and came out seconds later with the master key.
The police preceded the other men in and looked around before turning on the lights. They did a quick search of the downstairs but as expected, found no one. While the officer in charge went down into the cellar to investigate, the others climbed the stairs to the second floor. Behind a locked door they could clearly hear the sounds of distressed crying.
"Do you have the key for this room, sir?" the first officer asked.
"Door ain't supposed to have a lock on it," the man replied, confused. "Against fire regs and all that." As soon as he'd said that his face flushed with heat. He hoped with all of the excitement that no one would mention or notice the windows.
One of the officers ran outside to his car and came back with a device to use to unlock the door. The lock clicked and the crying stopped momentarily, turning to fearful whimpers.
"Mikey? Sam?" 'Keen called softly as he opened the door. The smell of waste assailed his nostrils.
The two boys ran out of the room and straight into their brother's arms, squinting their eyes against the brighter light. Sam had had an accident, but 'Keen didn't care. He hugged his brothers to him with all his might. Even Sam hung on as though for dear life which was a huge indicator to Joaquin as to just how upset his little brother was.
The police immediately began to take pictures of the chip bags and empty cola cans. The room was a mess, the beds had no sheets or blankets on them. One of the officers took note of the fact that the light bulb in the ceiling fixture had been removed, and the smoke detector was missing.
When Joaquin could finally convince his brothers to release him, he nearly cried. Across the left side of Sammy's face was a dark red imprint of a hand which was already beginning to bruise along the outer edge. One of the policemen quietly and as unobtrusively as he could, took several quick pictures.
'Keen quickly checked Mike over and found a lump on the side of his head. The little boy winced when he put a little pressure on it. On a hunch, he checked Sammy's head as well, to find a matching lump on the opposite side and he had to take deep breaths to remain calm for his brother's sake.
"I think she knocked their heads together," he said, his voice tight.
Paramedics arrived outside the bedroom with their gear just as 'Keen made that announcement and they approached the two still frightened children with soft, friendly voices. They also made sure not to make any sudden moves that might upset the children even more.
Since the hallway was becoming overcrowded, Joaquin led his brothers back into their bedroom where Sam climbed onto his bed, his hands covering his ears as he rocked back and forth.
'Keen, seeing that Sam was about to lose it, took his brother's hands, quietly explaining who the new people were and that they were only there to help.
In an effort to put his brothers at ease he allowed one of the medics to touch his face and head to show the children that the woman had no intention of hurting them, but the boys kept shying away from her with expressions of unmistakable fear on their faces.
Joaquin kept his arm around Sam's shoulders while Mike kept a strong grip on his hand. He worried what would happen if Sammy had a meltdown with all of those people in the room.
It didn't take 'Keen long to figure out what was wrong. "Ma'am, no offense, but I think it might be better if one of the men examined them... see... our mother... their mother..."
The woman nodded in understanding and with a reassuring smile and very graceful movements, backed away to prevent the children from becoming more spooked than they already were.
"We'll need to take them to the hospital for further examination and observation," the male medic quietly said to 'Keen after he'd done all he could at the scene. "I'd ask you to ride in the back with them but I'm afraid there won't be enough room. Will you be able to follow?"
'Keen nodded but asked, "Is it ok if I get Sammy cleaned up first? I don't want him to feel embarrassed."
"Sure," the man said with a smile, "but we'll have to take the clothing in as evidence." He reached into a bag and pulled out a pair of latex gloves and a large, clear evidence bag.
"That's fine, thank you," Joaquin said as he reached for the items. Mike began to cry again so 'Keen wrapped his free arm around his youngest brother's shoulders to comfort him. He was interrupted by a strident voice he recognized all too well.
"No, tha's not fine!" came the loud, female voice from the doorway. "Who the fuck said you cou' come in 'ere!?" She had pushed past the officer at the door and stomped up the steps to the second floor before she barged into the boy's room. "Morse? You let 'em in?" Callie demanded, rounding on the building manager who had tried to hide himself away in a corner of the room preparing to slip out as soon as he could.
This situation didn't look good, he thought, and he didn't want to be any more involved than he already was. He was pretty sure he'd broken some kind of law by calling the boys' mother and wasn't looking forward to explaining himself in court.
"I tole ya da stall 'em!" she yelled, losing her balance as she turned toward the unfortunate man, falling into the arms of one of the officers who wrinkled his nose at the strong odors of whiskey and cigarette smoke on her breath.
"Ms. Striker, where did you go tonight?" the officer asked in a friendly tone, carefully setting her back on her feet.
"Didn' go nowheres, I was jus'... nowhere. Here an' there, ya know?" she replied evasively.
"Can you be more specific, please, Mrs. Striker?" he asked gently.
Her demeanor changed. "Look, I jus' wen' out, ya know? I wasn' gone long," she said defensively, "see, occi... officers," she began in her long-suffering tone, "I left my oldes' son ...," she indicated Joaquin, "that one there, in charge of the liddle ones when I wen' out… 'e was 'ere when I lef'," she said, sounding just as shocked as she thought she should, "an' I though' fer sure my liddle boys'd be safe enough. But'cha see, we ain't been gettin' 'long real well lately an' he threaten' to make up stories 'bout me an' tha's jus' what 'e did! 'e's just'ryin'a cause trouble by makin' all this fuss," she said, nearly losing her balance once again. "I knew he didn' like me," she said, beginning to cry, "but it never 'curred to me tha' he'd do somethin' like this."
"Mrs. Striker," Roman said conversationally, "exactly when did you call Joaquin, because you see, he lives in my house, and he works in my store, so when a call comes in, I hear it, and I can tell you two things. One, Keeno never got a call from you, and two, he was with me and Mark when we saw you walking into your boyfriend's house."
"Tha's a lie!" the woman shouted, seeming to become another woman altogether. The tears stopped immediately as she whirled around to confront her eldest. "I knew you were gonna cause trouble fer me 'gain, you liddle turd! I warned you..." she yelled, raising a fist, ready to strike him.
‘Keen flinched, turning slightly to present his shoulder to take any blows, instinctively protecting his still sore chest and gathering his brothers to him to prevent them from being hurt in any way by a stray blow.
The officers noticed the woman's clenched fist and the boy's reaction. One of the officers took Callie gently by the hand, and with a charming smile looked into her eyes.
"Just what kind of warning did you give him, Mrs. Striker?" he asked casually.
Once again, the unseen switch in her brain flipped. "I ain't talkin' no more 'thout a lawyer," the woman said angrily as she yanked her hand out of his and crossed her arms, but not before she gave her oldest son a dark look.
Gordon, who had been watching the activity at the apartment complex, had seen Joaquin, along with Roman and Mark arrive, he assumed for one of their promised visits with the boys. Glad of the reprieve he sat back in his seat and took another bite of the sandwich he'd bought for his dinner.
It wasn't long after the men arrived that he saw and heard yelling. He immediately called James who told him to stand by.
Not five minutes later he observed three police cars pulling up at the apartment building and he became concerned. It was becoming harder and harder to 'stand by' as he'd been requested to do. He was about to run toward the building when he heard an argument several car lengths behind him on the opposite side of the street. He saw two people in a car on the corner. He picked up his camera and zoomed in, his heart freezing in his chest as he realized what had happened.
To his horror he saw Callie Striker and the driver, who was unmistakably Ickory Huckster, shouting at each other and gesturing wildly.
Feeling foolish and incredibly guilty for not realizing that she'd been gone the whole time, he set his video camera to record and began to snap pictures just as she stumbled out of the passenger's side door, still shouting and swearing over her shoulder as she half staggered, half ran toward her apartment.
The PI saw Ickory flip the bird at his girlfriend before pulling an awkward U turn and leaving the scene as quickly as he could. Gordon didn't bother to try to duck down as Callie staggered past him, knowing that the woman was too far gone and much to angry to notice much else around her.
Anger and guilt warred inside his chest. As far as he had known she had been in the apartment with her two boys. The only explanation he could think of was that she had slipped out while he was picking up his dinner. He left his car and strode purposefully toward the apartment where he whispered to the officer who was guarding it. The young officer then turned toward and passed the message onto another policeman who walked calmly upstairs to repeat Gordon's message to his captain.
"Mrs. Striker, I'd appreciate it if you'd come down to the station with us. We have some questions we need to ask you regarding this boy who abandoned your kids," the man said in an understanding tone.
'Keen's eyes widened and he was about to protest when Roman gently squeezed his shoulder and shook his head. It was then that he realized what the officer was doing and he shut his mouth.
Immediately Callie's expression changed to one of vindictive pleasure. "Oh, c'n I tell you some things 'bout him!"
"You've obviously had a very upsetting time of it," he continued, "so Officers Davis and Barnavelt will give you a ride to the station where you can write out a full complaint," he said, still smiling at her. "Will that be alright?"
"You bet it will," she said with one final triumphant look at 'Keen before she allowed the officers to escort her out to their car.
The captain then turned to the apartment manager, "Mr...?" he paused, waiting for the man to offer his name.
"Croft," the man repeated grudgingly. "Morris Croft."
"We'll need to ask you some questions as well, if you'd be so kind as to accompany us to the station please." The man's tone was pleasant but there was no doubt that it was not a request.
Morris sighed and after locking his own apartment, followed two of the men to their car.
At a nod from the lieutenant, one of the remaining officers smiled at 'Keen and said, "Go on ahead and get them cleaned up, son. We'll take the clothing once you have him in the shower." He offered ‘Keen the gloves and bag once again.
"Thank you, officer," Joaquin replied as he drew his brothers into the bathroom. He folded the soiled clothing carefully and slid them into the plastic bag that he'd been given for that purpose. The officer who took the bag noticed how the young man winced at even the slightest movement, and took shallow breaths.
'Keen nearly cried when he saw the bruising on his little brother's arms, legs and back. Some of it was new, but a lot of it was old judging by the colors. Despite how angry he was becoming, he forced himself to smile and joke with his brothers while he tended to them. He knew he couldn't say or do anything that might cause one or both of them to have a meltdown. Not when they were so close.
While the young man was helping his brother, one of the officers that had witnessed the exchange between Callie and 'Keen as she'd threatened him walked over to Roman and said quietly, “I think we should get your young friend checked out while we’re at the hospital,” he explained. “If my guess is right he's a victim as well.”
“He has been acting different…tired and achy, but he won’t tell me what, if anything, happened,” Roman said.
Once Callie and Morris had gone, the investigator introduced himself to all of the men in the room.
“Gentlemen,” the average looking man said holding out his hand to Roman, “my name is Gordon Leward. I've been employed by James Harrington and Forrest Green to gather evidence to ensure the safety of these young men.”
After Roman, then Mark greeted him, Gordon sighed. “I watched her bring the boys into the apartment after they got off their buses. Things seemed quiet, so I left to pick up dinner. I don't think I could have been away more than twenty minutes. She must have slipped out while I was gone. I certainly didn't expect her to leave the apartment in that short time," he admitted guiltily.
"She may have gone out the cellar door,” Captain Edelman suggested as he returned from his inspection of the basement. "It looks like she has a fully stocked bar down there, if you don't mind searching around for the bottles."
Mark shook his head sadly and said, "She might have left as soon as they got home, or she had a few and then left, since she wasn't too steady on her feet by the time we saw her."
Roman's fists were clenched. "She looked about three sheets when we saw her."
'Keen sighed as he exited the bathroom with his now clean and relatively calmer brothers. "Yeah," he said, catching the last part of the conversation, "she was always good at that kind of thing. I'd wake up in the middle of the night because Sammy or Mike were crying and she'd be gone. Not like she ever paid any attention to them anyway," he added bitterly.
After a brief introduction to Gordon, 'Keen, Roman, and Mark were following the ambulance to the hospital to check on the boys before going to the station to file their reports. Joaquin, despite the fact that he knew they were in good hands, was worried about his brothers who had been given mild sedatives so that they would remain calm during the ride.
Gordon followed the police car, planning to file his report immediately and using his car's Bluetooth to update James and Jeff on the situation.
'Keen couldn't contain his anxiety. It was nearly a solid object in the car, and both Roman and Mark could feel it.
"Spill," Roman said in his usual, frank way.
"I'm afraid!" 'Keen said quietly. "She's gonna get me sent to prison! She said so!"
Roman momentarily took his eyes off the road to look at the teen in his rearview mirror, worried about the kid's pallor.
"What on earth are you talking about?" Mark asked quietly, turning in his seat as best he could to look at his young friend.
'Keen was close to tears himself, not only from fear and the memory of his little brother's cries and bruises, but also the idea that somehow, Callie might once again regain custody of them.
"Callie... she said if I made any more trouble for her she'd have me arrested. She said she'd... tell things about me and I'd end up in prison and never see Mike and Sam again," he said quietly.
"What things would she tell about you? Anything we should know about?" Roman asked gently.
"Well, that I stole that money when I left, and I took the cell phones," 'Keen replied, his face getting hot with embarrassment. "The fact that I ran away in the first place, and... she said she'd make things up, and if she does that then who'd believe me?"
"Keeno, I’m sure Gordon must have made a full report by now. Whatever he said, plus the police report and what we recorded tonight should be enough to cook her goose but good."
"I'm sure he's already given James and Jeff his report. After we've checked on Sam and Mike, I'll call and let them know what we've seen."
"But what if they believe her?" 'Keen began worriedly, unable or unwilling to change the subject, "I mean, it was like nothing she'd done mattered. She got them back after everything she did to us. If a judge can ignore all of that..." he hesitated once again and then said quietly, "and I did run away..."
Roman took a hand off of the steering wheel long enough to put it to his chin and rub the bristles that were beginning to form there. "Let's look at this logically, shall we?"
Joaquin remained quiet while the other man made a list.
"I spoke at length with James and Gideon when they asked me to hire you on as my assistant, and here are some of the facts. You were never reported missing, nor did she report the theft of the money or the cell phones. So, if she tries to bring any of that up, it looks bad on her, not you. All you did was move on to find an honest job doing an honest day's work for honest pay in the hopes that you would someday get your brothers back and into a safe home."
"If she had reported any of those things at the time she might have a case. Right now, I don't believe she has a leg to stand on."
"Your neighbor, Mrs. Hines," he continued with a smile in his voice, "couldn't remember making the 911 call or going into the house. She said that perhaps her terrier had been the one who had called and then told her about it later. She said she was so proud of him for making the call and saving all of those people," he laughed.
'Keen snorted a laugh. He was very fond of the elderly woman who had always been very sweet and kind to his little brothers, but, he had to admit, she was as dotty as a Dalmatian.
"So, kiddo," Roman said with a wry grin as he pulled out his phone again, "after we show them what we have, the police reports, plus the report from the PI, and all of the character witnesses in your favor, no one is going to believe a word out of her mouth. You have nothing to worry about."
Despite the sedatives, the little boys were crying and screaming so Joaquin was allowed into the examination room with them at the hospital. Doctor Canfield's examination of the younger kids was upsetting them, and he knew that if their older brother hadn't been there, they would never have stood still for the police to take pictures of their condition.
There were expertly placed bruises beneath the clothing where no one would see. It appeared as though their mother had taken great pains to make sure that the injuries wouldn't be visible.
The most recent and most obvious ones were the clear imprint of her fingers, which had dug into their flesh as she'd dragged them out to their buses, and the hand print on Sam's face. The lumps on their heads were tender but luckily there was no broken skin, and the doctor gave the boys funny, animal shaped ice packs for them to put on the lumps and told them jokes that had both of them giggling despite what they'd been through.
"It's Friday now," the doctor remarked to 'Keen, "so she may have been hoping that it would appear as no more than a splotch by Monday. I'm wondering what she'd been going to tell people to explain that away," he sighed. It disturbed him greatly that anyone could treat their children like this, any children, but especially ones who were disabled.
While the younger children were entertained by an orderly who blew up latex gloves for them and showed them how to use sterile masks, and a stethoscope, the doctor and the young man spoke quietly and at length about his brothers, especially Mikey who, according to Joaquin, had begun to speak at the age of one and then by age three had stopped speaking. It wasn't long after that that their father had left them.
Canfield wondered what terrible things the youngest one might have seen that had caused him to remain silent over the years, and his heart broke at the thought. He knew that as a doctor he wasn't supposed to become emotionally attached to his patients, but these kids were special.
Knowing that there was still much left to do, the doctor knelt down to look Mikey in the eyes, "I need to talk to your big brother for a little while, understand?" he asked gently. "So, can you and Sam go with my buddy Bill here, to a room where you can be with your friends and watch television? I promise I'll send 'Keen to you as soon as I can. Alright?"
Mike solemnly nodded his head, took Sam gently by the hand, and followed the orderly to a nearby room where Roman, Mark and Gordon sat impatiently. They smiled when they saw the boys and quickly had them engaged in a television show.
Back in the examination room the doctor shook his head to get his feelings back under control, he turned toward the eldest of the three.
"Have a seat here on the bed, please?"
"I don't need to, I'm not sick," 'Keen argued at first, distrust written all over his face.
The doctor smiled gently and replied, "I know you're not sick, young man, but I'd like to sit down and I can't do that until you do. It's just how I was raised."
Reluctantly, 'Keen sat down and looked expectantly at the doctor. He only wanted to be with his brothers and rather resented this man taking up more of his time.
"Now, Joaquin, you know your friends care about you, right?" he began.
'Keen frowned slightly and nodded uncertainly, unsure of where the doctor was going.
"Let me ask you a question... if one of your friends, Mark say, was injured... wouldn't you want to help him in any way you could?"
"Well, yeah," the young man replied, his frown deepening. It seemed like such a ridiculous question to ask that he felt that it didn't even deserve a full answer.
"Well, your friends are concerned about you. They believe something happened between you and your mother... Callie, I mean...," he amended, knowing that the boy didn't want to be associated with her, "and they're worried about you."
"There's nothing to be worried about," 'Keen replied, chewing the inside of his cheek and looking somewhat mutinous.
"Joaquin, even I've noticed your breathing is shallow, and we can all see that you're in pain. Your boss... Roman? He told me that you've been moving somewhat stiffly, that even picking up more than a couple of books at a time seems to cause you pain."
He could see the boy shutting down and he added quickly, "Your friends and I want to help you, but we can't if you don't tell us what happened. Joaquin," he said gently, “if it had been one of your brothers, wouldn't you want to know what happened?"
Suddenly the boy became angry and stared ahead as though at something else, "If she ever did that to them I'd...." he growled, his fists clenched.
"Joaquin..." the doctor said softly but forcefully, breaking the young man out of his thoughts.
'Keen stopped suddenly, looking surprised as though he'd just woken up, he gazed at the doctor and let out a sigh, causing him to wince again. To the doctor it seemed as though 'Keen was suddenly not only exhausted, but also much older than his years.
In a gentle tone that no one he worked with would have believed could come from his mouth the doctor asked, "Now, can you tell me what happened to you?"
Being a resident of Washington, and because CPS didn’t want to keep the younger boys from their brother any longer, Roman was given emergency temporary guardianship of the children.
Mark moved into Ro’s house to be close to the boys. It wasn’t long before James, Gideon, and Ken arrived in Seattle again. Roman sighed and shook his head before turning toward Joaquin, "I'm glad I was able to get custody of the boys. I'd have hated for them to have to have spent a night in a facility, possibly separated again."
"Me too," Joaquin said quietly, "I don't know what another night of... uncertainty would do to them." He looked up at the men and said, "We're so lucky to have found friends like all of you."
"I'm lucky I have not only a brother who lives in Seattle but also for one who is willing to put his life on hold and open up his house to some great people. Myself included," Gideon grinned with exaggerated humility.
Roman put an arm around his brother's shoulders and squeezed tight. "That's what family is for, brat," he teased.
Although they were skittish in the new place, the younger boys had learned during the times that Roman and Mark had accompanied their big brother to the apartment, that they could trust the men, and with 'Keen's help they were able to settle in without incident.
The case against Calla Lily Striker was open and shut with her not only being declared an unfit mother and losing custody of her children but also facing the possibility of jail time.
She snarled at Joaquin, who had been allowed into the courtroom during the proceedings, as an officer escorted her out of the courtroom, "It's all your fault you little shit! This is all your fault! I'll get you! My friends'll get you! I warned you!"
Her attorney put his face in the palms of his hands. He'd cautioned her several times throughout the hearing to keep her peace, but she had chosen to ignore his advice and had succeeded in digging her grave deeper, with room to spare.
A week later, Joaquin and his brothers were at the court house again, only this time to decide their fate which made 'Keen nervous, though he kept it hidden for his brother's sake. To Joaquin it seemed to take forever for their names to be called.
Attorney Green presented Gideon and Ken’s petition for guardianship along with character references from James, Jeff, Shorty & Roman. It didn’t take long for the judge to award full custody of Sam and Mikey to the two men.
As a celebration, James took everyone, including Dex, Forrest and Gordon out to an early lunch. It was fun to watch the two young boys as they had never been treated to anything fancier than McDonald’s.
During the meal, Gideon and Ken exchanged looks and a hug. "I'm so relieved that we were awarded full custody of the boys." Gideon sighed contentedly, "Now it's just a matter of heading back to Maine, unless you have any objections, Ro?" he teased his oldest brother with a grin.
"Well, I'll miss my Keeno," the man said, giving the boy a hug around the shoulders, "but I'm more than happy to have him and his brothers reunited, and in a safe place. I will come out to visit though, so make sure you keep one room open for me. Understand?" he said with mock severity.
He looked down once again at his young friend. "It's going to be difficult finding another assistant like you, Keeno," he said a little wistfully. He looked at James and with a wry smile asked, "I don't suppose you have a couple more like him on the resort, do you?"
James chuckled at the by play and shook his head at the man. “Joaquin is one of a kind.” He turned to the teen, "Everyone at the resort has been missing you. It will be good to have you back." He looked at Gideon and Ken. "Dex has the jet ready to go whenever we want it." Then he turned to Roman. "Thanks again, Roman for allowing all of us to stay at your place."
"You're all welcome, any time." The man grinned. "It was great having a full house again, even if it was only for a little while."
The next morning, at the airport the men said their goodbyes. 'Keen grinned up at his friend. "I had a great time here, Ro, thank you," he said, giving the man a hug around his middle. Roman smiled and gave the boy a bear hug, lifting him off of his feet slightly before putting him back down. "You'd better email and call me, 'Keeno, or else," he said, waggling a finger at the kid.
Joaquin chuckled and then with a wave, walked over to his brothers. He could already tell that Sam was nervous so it was important to him to be nearby. Mike had grown fond of Ken rather quickly. He'd played fun games with him the night before. Now he stood beside the man, holding onto his hand as though they'd known each other for years.
Once on the plane, James said, "Joaquin, don't worry about those threats your mother made as she left the courtroom, they hold no weight. You know you're safe with us," he reassured.
'Keen smiled gratefully. "I know. It's just that... after so many years of hearing her... like that... saying those things...” he trailed off. “I'm so grateful to all of you for taking us in and treating us like family..." he looked over at Ken and Gideon and smiled shyly, "making us family. I never thought it could ever really happen."
The older man chuckled. "Well, believe it. It's happening."
Gideon grinned and pulled the boy into a hug as well. "I like the sound of that. We're family."
James smiled to see the boys doing well on the trip back.
'Keen and Ken, unwilling to make use of the sedatives the doctor had given the boys for the flight home unless it became absolutely necessary, made sure to keep Sam calm by distracting him with games and movies that they knew he liked. They read to the boys or continued to play hand games with Sam and Mikey, whenever they grew tired of watching movies.
While he didn't make a sound, Mike conveyed his happiness by stretching out his arms and pretending to be a jet, running up and down the aisle to burn off some energy.
As the jet landed, Gideon looked out of the window and saw the unmistakable image of Jeff standing by the resort van. He waved at the man even though he knew that he couldn't see him yet.
James smiled when he saw his best friend waiting for them. "We'll go to your home and help you get the boys settled in before we head back. 'Keen can wait a few days before reporting to work again."
Smiling widely, Joaquin thanked the man. "I appreciate the extra time," he admitted.
"Dex, you'll come with us, right? I'd hate to think of you by yourself all night with nothing to do and no company. Come and join us, won't you?" Ken asked sincerely.
The pilot, who had been apprehensive about much the same thing, happily agreed and sat in the back seat with a wide eyed and curious looking Mikey on his lap while Sam sat on Gideon's lap, leaning backwards contentedly with his head on the man's chest, already half asleep.
Once they arrived at Gideon and Ken's house, the little boys got out of the van and stood still, taking it all in. They'd never seen a house this large that didn't have a dozen foster kids already living in it. 'Keen took his brother's hands and led them through the front door.
James smiled. "Looks like everyone likes what they see."
"I loved it from the first time I spent a weekend here." 'Keen said quietly.
"Do you guys want to share a room tonight? Or at least until they get used to the place?" Gideon asked ‘Keen with an understanding smile.
'Keen smiled in relief. He had been dreading trying to get his brothers to sleep in a strange room by themselves after everything they'd been through.
Sam and Mike sat on the couch like book ends, leaning against their big brother and seeming comfortable for the time being.
"Well," Gideon said with a smile as he looked at the gathering of men, "how about you all hanging out and relaxing for a bit. Maybe stay for dinner?"
"We'd love the company," Ken added with a grin.
James smiled. "I'd like that." He turned to his pilot, "Dex?"
The man smiled. "Sounds good. I'm hungry."
Jeff also smiled. “I’ll have to stay too then, since I’m the transport back to Teardrop Lake.” He winked at James. “I’ll have to call Mutt, he’ll understand and I’ll make it up to him later.”
Taking the hint, Gideon quickly called the local Chinese restaurant and ordered a large selection from the menu, knowing that whatever was left would be eaten the next day.
The men and children gathered around in the comfortably furnished living room where Ken continued to play another game with Mikey. He spoke slowly and twisted his fingers into funny shapes. "Know what this means?" he asked as his fingers contorted somewhat, very slowly. "This spells Mike! Do you think you can do that?" he grinned.
Mike and Sam both looked intently at what Ken was doing. Mike did his best to imitate the older man.
"Good job, Mike!" Ken praised.
The little boy once again spelled his name and then pointed to himself with a questioning look.
"Yes, that's you. M I K E," he finger spelled. "Mike! Great job."
"Sam?" asked the older boy, keeping his gaze on the man's hands. Smiling, Ken slowly spelled out the child's name. "S A M," he announced.
The little boy repeated the finger positions and asked, "Sam?"
"You did it Sam," Ken praised. "Good job."
Sam repeated the motions and grinned, "Sam!"
Ken smiled over at Gideon and Joaquin. "Do you want to try guys?"
With wide grins, the two men joined in on the 'game'.
James smiled at Ken trying to use sign language with Mikey and turned to Mark, Jeff and Dex, talking quietly until the doorbell rang. Mark and James got up quickly and quietly and answered the door. The resort owner paid for the food and tipped the delivery person generously before helping his new friend carry it all into the kitchen where they began to unpack the meal while Mark and Jeff gathered the plates, bowls and utensils.
The others 'played' a while longer until the smell of the food reached them and Sam's stomach growled loudly, causing the two younger boys to giggle.
'Keen's ears pricked up in an attempt to catch the happy sounds emanating from his younger brothers and grinned. Things were going to be alright now. He sighed in contentment, the pain in his chest, considerably lessened now that he'd taken the muscle relaxants the doctor had prescribed. He leaned backward against the recliner he'd been sitting in, the reality of their situation finally sinking in. They were fed. They were warm. They were safe. They were wanted. They were loved. They were home.