Bradford Seton looked up into the rear-view mirror of the bus, shook his head and swore under his breath - then caught himself and hoped no one heard him. That was one of the tough things about being married to a minister; always having to make sure his Dorchester heritage didn't kick in at the wrong time.
No one seemed to paying any attention to him now that the floor show was under way - half the teenaged bus passengers were crowding into the aisle as the shout "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!" echoed off the metal walls. The mob of about forty thirteen-to-sixteen-year-olds hoped to catch sight of fists flying at the very least and, if they were lucky, a little blood splatter. The other half stood on their seats, necks craned and eager for the same display.
Brad had seen the warning signs by the time he'd exited the parking lot from the State Reservation, steering onto North End Boulevard but hadn't said anything; the boys involved all hung out together and he'd figured they were just playing out a game of verbal snap-ass, the by-product of a long day spent under the sun, in the surf, and running wild through the carnie atmosphere of Salisbury Center. He'd written it all off - just guys being guys and running their mouths a little.
It's been a good day, he grumbled to himself. Too good. Something had to go wrong sooner or later. At least no one got lost this time.
Brad barked a warning and a few of the kids up front dropped and sat quickly, but most hadn't heard him or didn't care to. Still muttering, he carefully edged the bus out of the center lane of the heavy end-of-day traffic that stretched further north to the beaches of Maine and ended in Central Massachusetts He steered for the breakdown lane of 495, hoping the second bus driven by his wife would be able to follow. Usually he kept to the first lane when he drove the bus, but the kamikaze entries of drivers from the entry ramps - somehow interpreting Yield as "Gun it!" - had gotten to him and he been using the center lane, cars passing him on both sides.
He managed to get clear of the traffic after a motorcycle in his blind spot made a last second mad dash to pass the bus on the inside, rather than slow down and let him over. The shirtless driver sounded his horn and chucked Brad the finger as he passed. Without thinking Brad scanned the small plate, memorized the registration number for future reference - it wasn't too likely their paths would cross again, but being a lieutenant in the Massachusetts State Police had its advantages. He could have the ticket mailed.
The bus rolled to a slow stop and Brad set the parking brake and switched on the emergency flashers. Traffic naturally slowed down to gawk, hoping for the worst. Brad Seton edged his brawny, six-foot-plus frame into the aisle, snapping orders the way only a State Trooper - on or off duty - could. Bodies dropped in their seats. Others jumped out of his way and the din began to die down. Lieutenant Seton might not have been wearing his jack-booted uniform and snap-brim cap generation of drivers swore were inspired by the Third Reich, but his booming voice had that firm tone of intimidation that tended to freeze people in their tracks.
Teenaged boys and girls - no longer as intent on satisfying their blood lust - obediently got out of his way, sat, and closed their mouths. But they still craned necks and gawked backward once he passed. An angry Brad Seton was rarely seen but too interesting to pass up. It was almost as good as watching someone bleed - and there was still the chance they'd see both. As far as most were concerned, this was the signature moment of a well-spent day at the beach.
Seton picked up the first Brayce and tossed him with a casual roughness into the nearest double-seat head first. He peeled the second Brayce off Randy Shiner and deposited him in roughly the same space with an absolute lack of delicacy, not much caring about the sound of cracking skulls as Robby landed on top of his brother Paul. The boys swore and slapped at one another briefly as they scrambled up in their seats.
"Shut up," he said low and deadly as he pushed a suddenly quiet Randy into another row before he stepped up to break the last battle.
He saw the two boys locked together in a seat, a smaller blond-haired boy he didn't recognize straddling a taller one, pounding with blurring fists on the other. The two exchanged a steady stream of words as they flailed - "Cocksucker!" seemed favored by both, but in all fairness "Dickhead!" and "Asshole!" with the usual modifiers tacked on got equal play. The abusive streams weren't rich in originality, but they had the usual, expected effect. Both boys were furious. So furious they forgot to hide their cracking voices when they shouted.
Brad reached down and picked up the shorter of the boys by the waistband of his shorts and jerked him up and away. The boy swore at him and swung his arms but halted when he realized it was a rather grim-faced and large adult that had hold of him this time. A thoroughly pissed off, red-faced Kyle Sterner without a weight on his chest popped up out of the seat where he'd been trapped, sputtered, and lunged at the boy in Brad's grip. Seton held the smaller boy up and away, then planted a hand in Kyle's face and shoved him easily back into his seat. He wasn't delicate about it. Kyle was far from pleased but had second thoughts about expanding the fight to Bradford Seton. He hadn't been doing well with someone half his size as it was.
"Stay there," Brad snapped, noticing the larger boy's bleeding nose and bruised eye. Gonna be a nice shiner, he mused, looking over Kyle's face and the blood-spattered tee shirt. Kyle snapped his mouth shut but glared.
"Now who's the pussy?" the shorter, dangling boy crowed, an evil smile plastered across his face and eyes shining with the satisfaction of knowing he's been the one to take first blood.
Brad swung the smaller kid down and around and glared at the boy, now holding him by the neck of his shirt. "Shut up," he said calmly. The boy's mouth snapped shut and he swallowed. Hard.
And speakin' of Shiners -
Randy Shiner and the Brayce Brothers were at it again, growling invectives over the back of the seat and about one "Eat me!" from throwing punches again.
Brad kept his grip on the boy who'd successfully beat the hell out of Kyle. "You three - can it!" he snapped.
Robby and Paul Brayce looked up nervously and their mouths closed. Randy Shiner sneered. Sharp hand gestures briefly replaced words.
Brad snapped his fingers in the boys' faces to break the spell and three sets of nervous, angry eyes were on him again. "Up front, you," he ordered Randy. "And keep the traps shut - the whole lot of you." He eyed a sullen Randy, who now stood with his fists clenched in the aisle, waiting for either a Brayce or Kyle to try something.
Brad blinked. "Move!"
Randy sprinted to the front of the bus.
Brad Seton set the blond boy down again and planted his ham-hock of a hand firmly atop the boy's head and fast-walked him up the aisle. Once up front he hit the crank and popped open the door, satisfied to see the second bus parked just behind him. His wife was standing at the door and looking up, confused.
"Off the bus," he ordered Randy.
Randy paused on the step for one last shot. "Go ahead Kyle," he shouted. "Say it again! Prove how a real low life acts when he talks about someone behind their back! Just like you were sayin' this morning, right, buddy?"
A red faced Brad Seton planted a foot in Randy's backside and urged the boy forward. A startled Randy stumbled down the steps of the bus and into the equally startled Betty Seton's arms, who staggered back. Brad still held his other troublemaker.
Betty Seton shouted over the roar of the late-day mid-summer traffic returning from day trips and vacations at the New England shore. "What's - "
"Fight," Brad scowled, eyeing the two boys. "These two, that Kyle kid and the Idiot Twins," he growled. "Take these two misfits on your bus - I don't dare put all five of 'em together, and these two seemed to be teamed up against the others."
Betty Seton shook her head, studying Randy Shiner's face first. She tsked. Randy suddenly looked shifty eyed, then decided to focus on the ground. Then she turned her attention to the second boy with the blondish hair. She frowned, confused even more.
"Who's this?"
Brad Seton looked up, startled. "Wasn't he on your bus this morning?"
The boy stuck out his lower lip, rocked back on his heels, and dug his hands in his pockets. He lowered his head and edged closer to Randy. "Uh, I'm Martin. Martin Seduko."
"That's nice," Betty answered vaguely, not knowing what else to say. She looked back at her husband. "I don't know how to tell you this, honey, but we've got a stowaway. I've never seen this kid before."
* * * * *

Betty Seton tossed back her long red hair and wished again she hadn't untied it when they'd returned from the road trip. She studied the two young men in her vestibule. They hadn't exactly barged into the rectory, but the shorter, less attractive of the pair with the stumpy build and the short thick neck had been pushy and abrasive - even if she'd written him off as harmless once she'd gotten a better look at him. He looked threatening and talked loud, but the eyes under the thick mono-brow were anxious and excited, but she didn't see malice in them.
The taller, more attractive boy was another story. His manner was polite and his voice smooth when he broke in to say they'd come to collect Martin; but the eyes…
Hostile? Not quite. Deeply suspicious, though. And definitely filled with resentment.
She kept the door half-closed, and eyed the baseball bat out-of-sight but handily placed near the door jamb. Her part of Lawrence may have looked nice in the daylight hours, but there were ample reasons for the metal grids on her full-length beveled-glass front door and on first-floor windows, all secured with heavy-duty locks. Her neighborhood fit the local profile for the new trend in home invasions: upscale enough to have nice things, but not rich enough to warrant extra attention from the police. In Lawrence, `extra' was defined as `adequate' anywhere else - unless another cop lived on the street.
The tree-stump with the big mouth demanded to see her husband, the Reverend Seton.
"I'm the Reverend Elizabeth Seton," she said pointedly, crossing her arms and standing her ground, standing to her full five-foot-nine. She locked her sharp green eyes onto them. "And just who are you? I expected to see Martin's parents - and you guys make a cute couple, but you don't look old enough to have a fifteen year-old," she jibed.
"He's fourteen," Leo corrected, unflustered and either ignoring or not quite getting the joke, but she saw a flicker of anger from the second boy when she said it, and that told her volumes.
Leo wasn't finished with his own bad first impression and buried himself. "Wow. They let chicks be priests?"
He watched the eyes narrow and the color drained from his face "Women, I mean," Leo amended quickly. "They let women be priests."
"We're Protestants," she said politely and fought back a smile, keeping her features hard. "We don't do priests, and there have been women in ministries for years. Not everyone does the Roman rules, boys."
Leo studied the attractive woman. Late twenties, dressed in a floral blouse neither too low nor too high… and jeans just snug enough so she looked good. Pretty damn hot for a reverend, he thought, then flushed. Embarrassed, he decided to back off.
The boy with the resentful eyes gave Leo a withering look, introduced himself as David, and when Leo spoke again kicked him just shy of savagely. "We're Martin's friends," he explained.
Betty opened the door more. Let's see… you don't like me but you're polite, and your friend is closing his mouth - so you I'll cut a break here. She'd at least listen - but kept herself well within grabbing distance of the bat.
David cleared his throat and continued carefully. "Uh, Martin's mother… well, she's not home."
Betty's jaw twitched, and her left eyebrow shot up; Great - another one that just runs wild all day. "Does she even know he's gone?" she asked icily.
"Uh, well… when she got out of work it was early, so she just figured Martin was out… Monday's she gets with some friends for an early dinner and they play Bingo." Thank God Leo told me that much in the car, David thought. "She… she figured Martin was just out for a little while," he repeated. It sounded lame.
"Right," Leo picked up. "Listen, can we move things along here? Where's Martin?" he demanded.
David turned to him fast and his eyes screamed Shut-up! but Leo's flashed Kiss-ass! back at David and ignored him.
"I go out with Martin's sister Sandy," Leo explained. "The kid called her at work. She doesn't have a car, so that's why I'm here." He thumbed to David. "I brung him 'cuz Martin asked me to."
Close enough to be brothers, Betty Seton thought wryly. Cain and Able come to mind. Okay, so maybe they're not exactly crazies… just close.
"I can deal with that," she said sharply, just to keep them on their toes. "What about the boy's father?"
"Warmin' a bar stool somewhere," Leo muttered tactlessly. And just as tactlessly, switched back to confrontational mode. "Why's he with you guys anyways?" he demanded. "How come you took him to the beach without anyone knowin'? Don't you need some kinda permission?"
She jabbed him in the chest with a forefinger. "Listen, you. I may be an ordained minister, but I grew up in the Summerville projects, so I'm used to loud-mouthed punks who think they're tough." She leaned closer and narrowed her eyes. "And you know what? I'm not impressed. So just back off, butch, and show a modicum of respect - and maybe we'll get somewhere. Otherwise, I don't have any scruples about where to sink my foot… and I don't mean in the tail. Are we clear?"
David smiled, nervously slipped his hands in his pockets, and stared off to the left. Leo's eyes bulged, then he swallowed hard and nodded.
Okay. You're harmless - now, she thought. "Alright," she began quietly, watching Leo. "I'm going to let you boys in. But if anyone starts in with the testosterone again, I'll put one of you out on the street. Are we clear?"
"Yes'm," replied a subdued Leo, eyes wide and suddenly very conscious of his behavior.
David basked in the glow, and fought the urge to give Leo a smug look - almost. When Mrs. Seton turned her back, Leo flared a nostril and snarled at David, who'd decided smirking was in order, after all.
They stepped into the house, both taking careful note of the now-conspicuous bat. David's eyes took in the entryway - from the well-kept mahogany rails and balusters of the stairwell with their delicate turnings that turned twice until it reached the second floor to the bleached-white oak floor. He eyed the carefully painted woodwork, was conscious of the faint cracks and amateur repairs to the lath and plaster walls behind the simple wall paper - conspicuous under the harsh glow of the overhead light. Not a sign of rough use, but the testament of what he guessed to be a century of settling and shifting. Stepping through single glass door, they were lead into a small, wainscoted formal dining room with a drop-leaf table. Straight ahead David saw an open doorway and enough old-fashioned painted cabinetry to know it lead to a kitchen, but Betty Seton steered them to the right and through a pair of twin French doors that lead into the large living area of the house - actually two smallish rooms that had been joined together at some point. As they stepped through they felt the cool blast of a large window-unit air conditioner, a welcome change from the steamy mid-summer air.
The first space-within-the-space was dominated by three tall windows hung with sheers to soften the look of the metal bars. Along the only full wall was a large computer hutch jammed with equipment; the monitor displayed the home page of the Massachusetts State Police. "That's my husband's," she explained briefly, leading them into the second, larger area. She pointed to a worn but comfortable-looking cloth couch that lived up to it's appearance, David noted with satisfaction. Betty Seton leaned casually against a mismatched vinyl recliner. Leo eyed an impressive array of audio-video equipment set up against the dominant wall.
"I guess the reverend business pays pretty good," Leo said with admiration, particularly enamored with the plasma television.
Betty chuckled, perched herself on the arm of the recliner. "Overtime on the state police force pays well - what I pull down barely covers the cost of the knockdown cabinet it's set up in." She eyed David again, who still stole suspicious glances at her but she said nothing. The police reference had been noted.
"Now, gentlemen" she began with a disarming smile and a smoother voice, but uncompromising eyes still locked on them. "I'm assuming we're going to be a lot more civil from this point on. Agreed?" She waited for the proper grunts and nods, smiled again when they came. We're making progress, she told herself.
"Now - Leo? Martin's sister asked you to come here, so under all that bluster and big talk, I guess you're pretty concerned. I'm glad to see that, because he seems like a nice kid and he's pretty scared right now. Is it David? Fine. I'll assume you're here because Martin asked his sister to send you. He's a lot more upset about some things than just being stuck for a ride."
She looked at them expectantly. More grunts and nods.
"Now," she continued. "In answer to a not-so-polite but legitimate question, Martin didn't come down with us. I'm absolutely sure of that - we did a check before the busses loaded. And no one goes on a PF field trip without a signed parental slip - Martin got down to Salisbury some other way, but he doesn't want to say how."
Leo's long eyebrow wrinkled. "Uh, what's a `PF'?"
"Pilgrim Fellowship," she explained. Blank stares. Betty sighed. "Okay… you both look Italian, so this is a pretty safe bet - it's like the Catholic Youth Organization - the CYO. Religion classes one day a week, and we organize events for the kids in the congregation - like trips to the shore. These events are also open to the friends of my kids - as long as their parents say it's okay and they act decent."
"CYO," Leo finally grunted. "Uh, yeah. I heard of that."
"Good," she continued, wondering idly when the last time either boy had had anything to do with a religion class. The mention of it seemed to make David bristle, but he said nothing. She let the matter slide… for the moment. "Today was a free-day at the beach for the kids old enough for minimal supervision - they can roam around and have fun, as long as they stay in groups and out of trouble. Anyway, at the end of the day Martin showed up with one of my kids - Randy Shiner."
Leo shook his head. "So you just took him? No questions asked? Jesus, lady!"
I'll allow that one, she thought, narrowing her eyes but keeping control. "No," she answered quietly. "We didn't just take him. From what little I can get out of those two, Martin got stranded somehow and Randy snuck him onto the bus before our join up time. After we checked in and did a head count my husband and I just got everyone on a bus and set out - we didn't know he was there until we were on the highway and half-way home."
Leo crossed his arms and frowned. David shifted and tried to quiet him but Leo blew him off. "He coulda been a runaway. You coulda notified the cops."
"And I could have left him in the breakdown lane of 495, too, but I didn't," she broke in. "He showed me his high school ID - so I at least knew the Salem, New Hampshire, thing was true… and runaways aren't usually heading for home. I tried calling his house on my cell to verify it by no one was there - and as for getting off the highway and going to the local police, what was the point? Salem's a lot closer to Lawrence than Groveland or West Newbury. Besides, as soon as they heard the word `police', Randy went dead white and I thought Martin was ready to cut and run… so that was that. If we had to, Brad and I could drive him home ourselves - as long as we got to talk with someone about him." She shifted around uncomfortably. "And that brings us to our next point," she said slowly. "Leo? Would you mind if I had a word with David here? Alone?"
David's head snapped up; Leo started to protest. "What - ?"
She held up a hand. "You're being here isn't a surprise, Leo… I talked to the sister, and I suppose it's only natural she'd call you if she didn't have a car." Her eyes flicked to David. "On the other hand - David, I heard Martin specifically tell her to get in touch with you. And when we got back home tonight, I overheard Martin telling Randy not to worry, he knew someone who could help." She paused, eyed Leo, and licked her lips. "So, I think I better have a word with David, and I think that word should be in private. You can head up the stairs and see that Martin's all right - or if you don't like that idea, you can always wait out in your car."
Leo's face flushed and his eyes flashed, but before he could get sounds out of his mouth Betty Seton cut him off at the knees. Her finger was on a switch to a small silver box on her end table. "And just so you don't get lost looking for your car, I can have my husband - the off-duty state police lieutenant - escort you out of the house."
She watched the mouth snap shut with a defeated growl. The eyes were still sullen but Leo decided against arguing. Betty Seton tried not to rub it in and nodded with only a hint of the victory she'd scored. "Yeah, I had a feeling that might do it. Just head back the way we came in and go up the stairs - on the top landing, you'll see my office right in front of you; the door should be open. Brad's in there keeping an eye on Martin and Randy." She smiled, gestured to the equipment Leo had so openly admired. "You and Brad should have a lot to talk about - he likes his toys, too."
Leo grumbled, shot David a malevolent look but cut a wide berth around his hostess. They heard the snap of the ball catch on the French door, and Betty noted the sounds on the stairwell.
She shifted her attention back to David, didn't miss his stiffness… or the resentful eyes that stared back at her.
"You don't like me for some reason, but that doesn't matter," she began.
David didn't look away or try to make any excuse. "Not you, exactly…" he said slowly and coldly. "You might say I have a thing about people in the Salvation business, Reverend Seton."
"Business, huh? You don't have to like me, kid, but it couldn't hurt to be civil," she replied, trying to cut through the ice wall. "And if the title bothers you so much - put what I do for a living out of your mind. You can call me Betty if its easier on you - even the kids do that, unless it's a formal occasion. I'm not big on ceremony. And it wouldn't hurt if you and I had a little talk."
David raised an eyebrow. "Have I said anything disrespectful? Sorry," he answered, not meaning it particularly… or sounding like he cared if she liked it or not. "And as for you and I having a little talk - I'll pass; my business is my own concern, thanks. I'm only here for one reason -"
"Martin," she cut in. David nodded. Betty Seton cocked her head for a moment, studying him. The eyes say it all, she thought to herself. There's a lot more than anger there… plenty of that, sure. But he's afraid, too, but not of me. "We'll stick to the business at hand then."
"I'd appreciate that."
"So tell me - why is Martin so insistent about talking to you more than anyone else? And what have you got to do with Randy Shiner?"
David shook his head. "I never heard of the guy," David said evenly. "And like I said… my business is my own. Martin and I - well, lets just say we know each other. He knows he can talk openly with me - he trusts me. And before you go reading anything into that, we know each other through a group we belong to."
She pursed her lips. "And just as a guess - and you don't have to comment on it - I think I know what that group is. Something run by the Unitarians up at the Franciscan Christian Formation Center up in Andover? Good. I've referred a couple of young people there from time to time. They do a lot of good work with gay youth."
David's eyes narrowed. "We're getting into my business again."
Betty let out an impatient breath. "Look - no more fencing with words, okay? I'll be blunt - I don't give a damn about that stuff, never did and never will. Don't judge everyone in my business by the right-wingers who want to ban everything they don't like or bother to understand, okay? Because you're doing exactly what they do - judging others before you even know them. Quiet! I'm not looking for an argument - but I'm not pushing an agenda here!"
David settled sullenly back onto the couch with his arms and legs crossed, eyes fixed on her and mouth closed.
If you're jaw was clenched any harder the bones would snap, she thought to herself. "Listen… I've been at South Side Methodist for three years, and Randy was always a good kid - sweet, smart, fun and generous. People liked him, I liked him," she began. "Then late last summer… well, suddenly he sort of disappeared from around here." She shrugged and grimaced. "Hey. I know kids grow up - today's outing was for kids up to eighteen, but if there were more than three sixteen year-olds, I'd be shocked. I expect that… they grow up, get a driver's license and ZOOM watch the dust!"
"Then what's the big deal?" David asked coldly. "I mean, it's like you said - kids grow up. People change."
Betty Seton's mouth twitched. "Change is one thing…" she began in a grim voice. "But an entire personality switch is something else. That kid's suspicious and scared of everyone now... my husband came up behind him a few weeks ago and put a hand on his shoulder - Randy jumped away and almost swung at him. He's withdrawn from all his friends and suddenly secretive about everything he does. His parents confirm that, because they're worried about him too - worse, he's gone from having a healthy respect for God to a religious mania." She pursed her lips. "Sounds odd coming from me, doesn't it? Well, that can't be helped… Even Randy's father's is worried about him, and he's a bit of a holy roller for my taste - but he's not the type who forces things onto other people. But he says what the kid is reading, listening to and saying scares him. Randy's shut everything and everyone out of his life - and that is not normal."
She paused for effect and studied David again, her head rolled to one side. David felt the green eyes searching him for information. "So that's the background here… and out of the blue today, he's suddenly attached to a stranger named Martin who's in some kind of trouble. And Martin's convinced him that someone he's never even met before can help him. So tonight, I'm going to let that stranger into a room with those two boys so they can talk whatever it is out."
David scowled back. "And report back to you? I don't think so, Reverend Seton."
She shook her head. "I'd like to know… but I won't ask anything unless Randy decides it's okay to tell me," she answered, waving it off and leaning towards David again more confidentially. "I do a lot of counseling, kid. Adults can be touchy, but young teens?" She snorted. "They're a minefield. The wrong thing said once or a hint of betrayal won't be forgotten." She pointed a finger at him. "I don't know you, but I'm in a position where I have to trust you because Martin does - and right now, Randy only trusts Martin." She paused, ran her hands up and down the worn blue denim. "There is one condition I'm going to set here."
David squinted at her, still rigid.
"You have to tell me if he's thinking of doing something stupid," Betty said firmly. "Funerals are a sad fact in my position," she offered quietly. "but funerals for a child are the worst… especially if the death is by their own hand. That's the one demand I'll make; if Randal's even thinking of something like that, I want to be told. That's it."
"And what'll you do?"
"To stop it? Anything I have to," she shot back. "even if it means having him locked up for observation."
David shifted around, watching her. She seemed sincere… he shuddered, remembering the last time he'd spoken to one of his own priests, hoping for help. Maybe this one actually gives a damn… finally he nodded. He eyed a clock in the A/V center. "What about Randy's parents? I mean, it's gettin' late. Aren't they gonna worry about him?"
"No," she said calmly. "I had a feeling tonight might be a long one, so I called the Shiners and asked to keep Randy here tonight." She paused. "I sort of suggested it was a counseling situation, so they agreed."
David sniggered. "You mean, you lied?"
She shook her head and smiled mischievously. "Not at all - I just wasn't specific about who'd be doing the counseling." She eyed David again. "Or what it was about."
David fidgeted. "And that's it? No questions about me and Martin?"
She shrugged. "No questions. Martin - well, he sort of gives a certain impression, but that's none of my business. As I said before, it's nothing I'm concerned about. You might mention that last part to Randy," she added. "If you think it'll help. Oh," she added as an afterthought. "I should have warned Leo, but Brad can handle him… About Martin. There was some trouble on the bus, but don't be upset. He's not."
David nodded, rose from the chair. "Is Martin hurt?"
"I was chaperoning the other bus, but my husband says it started as kid stuff - boys running their mouths so he didn't pay too much attention. I guess along the way they ran out of words so guys being guys, they kicked it up a notch."
"Started swingin'?" David offered.
"You've got it. All of a sudden there were five of 'em climbing over seats and spilling into the aisle until he broke it up. There were a couple of bloody noses, some bruises and ripped clothing all the way around, but, well…" She shook her head and managed a small grin and a shrug. "I could see there was nothing really serious. Besides, it's the kid code - and no one will say who started it or who swung first." She paused, looked thoughtful. "The strange thing was the three other boys are friends of Randy's - the Brayce twins and Kyle Sterner. They all go to the same school, they all hang out together. I, uh… well, I have to assume someone said something about Martin." She hesitated. "Something you would know about, maybe."
David grimaced. "Yeah… I guess I know something about that."
She looked around uncomfortably. "We pushed Martin, but that's when Randy got all nervous and evasive again… that's when I heard Martin saying how Dave'll know what to do," she added. She pushed off the arm of the old recliner and David got to his feet to follow. "Martin and Randy are with my husband in my private study, like I told Leo - just don't forget what I said."
At the top of the stairs they strode into a good sized room cut in under the eaves of the roof. David caught sight of a tall, well-built man with brush-cut sandy hair and a pleasant smile. He leaned against a large desk placed in front of the front windows and he looked up - Brad Seton, David assumed. He was chatting with Leo but the man looked relieved to see reinforcements.
David scanned the room when they stepped in - like the rest of the house, old but well taken care of, furnished with nice if mismatched furniture running the gamut from antique to department store knockdown - what could be found in almost any lived-in home.
Martin was seated in the center of an overstuffed sofa likely as old as the house itself, close to another boy with dark hair and a sullen expression on his face which David assumed was Randy. David noted Randy could have easily slid away but he was sitting flush against Martin, staring at the floor and gripping his knees so hard he could see the whitened fingers. Martin brightened immediately and called his name, reached over and patted the boy's shoulder. Randy flinched from the unexpected contact at first but didn't pull away or push back. David took in the blood-stained T-shirt Martin wore, noted it was ripped out at the sleeve. The boy's face had a few bruises and his nose was slightly swollen - David assumed that was the source of the blood. You'll live, he thought with some relief.
Betty Seton introduced them as "Martin's friend" and caught her husband's eye. They closed the door softly behind them.
Leo jumped right in. "Get a load of Marty!" he crowed with a grin.
Martin looked around, red faced. "Jesus, Leo - don't call me Marty," he said, making a face. "Marty's a wuss name… It's Mart."
Leo shrugged. "Yeah, yeah… sorry. Now, Brad didn't cough up details - so what happened?" He gestured to Randy. "Did that one slug you?"
"No!" Martin barked. The dark-haired boy looked up at the newcomers for the first time, glanced away from Leo quickly but lingering longer than he should have on David, eyes unconsciously raking over his body.
David caught the look, tried not to snicker. He understood a bit more about Betty Seton's broad suggestions. Got your number, kid.
Martin grabbed Randy's arm proudly. "Some guys on the bus started sayin' stuff about me. Then Randy said some sh… stuff back to 'em, so they started callin' him names."
"Names, huh?" Leo's single eyebrow arched. "What'd they start sayin'?"
Martin shrugged. David wondered… for someone who'd just been slapped around Martin seemed pretty charged up. "The same ol' stuff I hear at school, Leo. Nothin' new, nothin' original." His giggled. "Might be interesting if someone did come up with a new one for once."
"Who swung on you?" David asked, fairly certain what `the usual stuff' meant.
Martin looked uncomfortable. "Uh, well… no one else swung first. I mean, they didn't. I threw the first punch." He squirmed.
Leo looked surprised. David noticed the quick look Martin gave Randy; he was proud of it.
"I mean," Martin continued, "I'm used to hearin' all that crap about me… I don't pay any attention to it. But when I didn't bother sayin' anything, Randy got mad an' told 'em to shut up. Then they started in on him." Martin nodded, eyes gleaming. "That's when I busted the first guy, Bobby - slammed him right in the nose." He grinned. "It was real cool! Blood an' snot everywhere."
"Robby," Randy corrected, not looking up.
Martin nodded impatiently. "Yeah, yeah. Robby and his twin brother, what's-his-name."
Martin rolled his eyes. "Who cares, Randy? Lemme tell the story. Then this third guy gets into it, grabbed me and… well, you can see what happened."
"Kyle's got a black eye," Randy added with a sense of satisfaction, looking up for the first time. "And he's the one that mouthed off first."
"You never get in fights," Leo said doubtfully. "I mean - you always just… well, you act like you don't even hear it."
Martin preened. "Hey," he said proudly, "sometimes you gotta be a guy."
Leo jammed a finger in his chest. "No, you don't - fightin' is bullshit. You don't need to hit somebody to be a guy."
Martin nodded, didn't care, and shrugged. He felt too good being on the distribution end of a smack for a change. He grinned at Randy, who gave a weak smile back, and for the first time relaxed his grip on Martin's hand.
David recalled his first meeting with Leo but decided not to make an issue of fighting… for now. "So that's the big stuff? That's why you wanted me down here? I don't get it."
Martin's smile disappeared and Randy's face turned to stone and his eyes traveled back to the floor again. Martin felt a vice grip on his hand, flinched. The four of them remained motionless for a long, cold thirty seconds before Leo felt the three sets of eyes on him and looked up. He made a slight coughing sound.
"I, uh… sorta get the feelin' maybe there's an extra guy in here. Would it help if I left?" He looked at Martin and the boy next to him, didn't wait for a reply. "Yeah. Guess I don't have to buy a clue on this one," he muttered, heading for the door. "Jesus, I get tossed out of everything."
David pulled up a small wood chair and sat down in front of the two teens. Randy shook. If I push, he'll start bawling. He shifted his attention back to Martin, voice firm. "No games, Mart - I want the truth. You did something I warned you about, didn't you?" He gripped Martin's knee. "You met with Danny."
Martin's bravado disappeared, but he didn't move away from the rigid Randy. David watched the boy's surreptitious move to keep contact with Martin.
"What makes you sure?"
David raised an eyebrow. "Don't even think of denying, kid - Chris St. Jacques saw you with him last week at the Salem Mall, and all of a sudden you wind up stranded thirty miles away in Salisbury? I'm not stupid, so don't even bother lying," he said firmly. "Did Danny get to you, Martin? Is that what this is all about?"
"It didn't get that far," Martin began defensively. "Okay. Yeah, I met Danny last week and… and we had a good time. Today, we went down to the beach, but all we did was get on the rides and hang in the arcades, David - honest!" he added quickly. "In the car… all we did was hold hands an' stuff. Then… today at the park, Randy saw him with me and… well, he started screamin' to run, over and over again. I - I thought he was tellin' Danny to run away from me but… then," Martin tried to keep the quivering out of his voice. Danger or not, he'd been abandoned. It hurt. "Then Danny just left me there. I went after him, but I got all twisted around." He looked at David again and a trace of a smile came onto his lips. "Randy came after me, made me stop. He told me he was yelling at me to run - he knew Danny. Knew he was dangerous."
David looked at Randy sharply but the boy's face was still frozen and his eyes flicked away. "He punched me," was all he said.
"Yeah," Martin continued. "I got him right in the gut, 'cuz I was pissed at him for chasing Danny off. Then I ran for where we parked - me and Danny, I mean. Made it through all the traffic on North End Avenue but - I heard the tires, and there's Danny's car tearin' into the street." He stole another glance at Randy. "Then I hear horns honkin' and brakes lockin' up, and this one comes chargin' after me - never waited for the cars to stop or nuthin', just ran right through." He looked at Randy with admiration. "He was worried about me," he added, pleased.
David took it in, tried not to smile. Scared or not, it was pretty certain Martin's heart was on the mend as long as Randy was nearby… and Randy didn't seem all that concerned about Martin being close, even if he wasn't comfortable about what they were talking about. He still only stole furtive glances at David.
"Is that when he told you how he knew Danny?"
Go slow, David, he told himself. You know most of the answers but try to remember what it was like. Go slow. He swung his attention back to Martin. "But you swear to me Martin," he said coldly. "No foolin' around here! Did you and Danny do anything you're leavin' out?"
The toes dug into the floor. Randy looked up, curious and worried, studying Martin. "No," the fourteen year-old said slowly. "But… I'm pretty sure today was gonna be the day we…" He looked away. "You know," he said in a small voice.
David grunted. Yeah, I know. Jesus, do I know - just like I know who else would show up. Later. "But you guys never did anything? You swear? You didn't stop at his house before you went to Salisbury?"
Martin felt awkward and scowled, eyeing Randal for a reaction and avoiding David's look. "We kissed one time," he said grudgingly. "But that was it. I swear."
And why do I think stopping wasn't your idea? "But later today was gonna be different, wasn't it?" David snapped. "Don't answer, Mart. I already know."
Martin looked pensive, thankful he didn't have to say anything.
David turned to Randy, spoke more softly. "How about you?" he asked gently. "How did you get into this?"
"I stopped 'em," Randy said quietly. "I knew. Knew what was gonna happen to Martin." His voice strained and he looked into David's face for the first time - almost defiant. Randy turned and looked at Martin, eyes pleading. "He won't tell, right? You swear?"
"He's like us," Martin said quietly. Randy looked up, angry, and Martin caught the mistake. "I mean, he's like me, Randy. And he knows Danny, too."
`Like us - no, like me.' Okay, Randy, I get it. We'll play by your rules, for now. "Randy?" David said softly, reaching out. His finger tips touched Randy's knee and the boy jerked away and David snatched his hand back, held it up to calm him. Probably not too anxious to have someone older touching him, he cautioned himself, resolving to keep his distance.
"I'm not like those people!" Randy snapped.
"I'm sorry, Randy, calm down - I won't get near you again, okay? I should've known better."
Randy fidgeted, looked from Martin to David again, nodded.
"Now, I just want you to know something," David said calmly. "What you say here stays here, okay? Not back to your parents, not back to your friends, not back to your minister." David licked his lips. "And you have to understand something - we're not like Danny, got that?"
"You're queer," a sullen Randy replied. "Queers are like that."
"No," David answered. "No, we're not `like that.' I'm gay, and Martin is pretty sure he is."
Martin snorted and David gave him a dirty look; the younger boy decided not to comment.
"But…" David continued, "but we're not trying to trick and force other people into doing things, okay? Not everyone's like that. I don't know you, I don't know what you are… but I know what I am. And Martin and I know each other only because we went to a group for young guys like us - not because we could mess around with each other. You understand?"
Randal looked around suspiciously - and took his cue from Martin's nod. "Okay," he allowed, trying to relax. "Then how do you know Danny?"
David sighed. This'll be the first time I've ever said this to anyone. He took a deep breath. "I knew Danny a long time ago," he said. "And we became friends. And eventually, we did… things together, like maybe he did with you. I'll be honest: I was scared, but I wanted to do those things - sexual things, Randy."
The boy started to interrupt, but David held up his hand.
"No! I'm not sayin' you wanted to! But I did."
"I didn't want to do any things," Randy said in a nasty voice, glaring at David. Then he bit his lip and looked down. "I ain't gay. Honest."
No, but I never asked that. And you still haven't let go of Martin's hand. David looked at Martin, who sat owlish, then gave him a sad look and shook his head slightly.
"Randy, I'm not sayin' you are," and gave the boy an easy out. "But I know Danny. I know what he does… and I think he, uh, made you do some things with him."
The boy mulled it over, eyed the door with a longing. Finally he looked up again, face still drained of color.
"Yeah. They made me do stuff. Sick, sinful stuff."
"They," David said slowly. "You said they."
Randy's face was transfixed with horror, his eyes widening.
"NO!" David quickly added. "Don't get upset, Randy. Uh… I'm gonna describe a situation, okay? I think it's what happened, and you can tell me if I'm wrong." He hesitated, cleared his throat. "A few days after Danny talked you into doing some stuff, he talked you into meeting him again."
He waited. Finally, Randy nodded again.
David continued. "Who else? Was there anyone else?" He reached out and touched the boy's hand again and this time Randy didn't pull back. The terrified eyes locked onto David's own, and he reached over to grab Martin's arm instead of his hand when the boy's tear ducts began to give way. His whole body shook.
"After the first time," Randy began, "Danny said it was all cool, and he drove me home… or almost home. I didn't let him know where I lived. Then the next say - it was a Saturday. I got an email from Danny."
"He wanted to see you again?"
"Yeah," he said slowly. "I said sure." He looked up again, desperately afraid. "I - I really liked Danny, okay? Those things we did - I did 'em to make him happy, that's all. But I'm not really like that! I know that stuff is wrong!"
David shook his head, spoke softly again. "Randy? Take it easy, man. You don't have to worry about what I think. I just want to know what happened; I don't need to know about what kinds of stuff you guys did. I'm not judging you."
Randal tried to relax, but his voice still shook as he tried to go on. "Well, we had a place where we could meet… I walked to this big fountain near me, but not too close to my own neighborhood, okay? That's where we met the first time. Well, I'm walkin' down my street the next morning, and... and I hear a horn. It - it's Danny in his car. He figured out where I lived!"
David looked hard at Martin, who flinched. "Lemme guess - you talked on-line with him for months, right? Just talking about stuff?"
Randy nodded. "I never said nothin' but he knew everything!" he continued. "My school, my parents' names… the kinds of cars they drove! He even named some of my friends!"
David shook his head. That little weasel's a regular Columbo. "Danny probably picked up some clues, Randy. Things that slipped out when you chatted - but you didn't realize it."
Martin looked away before David would continue.
"But it wasn't your fault, Randy," David added. "And you didn't have anyone to warn you about him."
Randy choked back a sob. "He told me to get in the car and… well, I did. That's when he started tellin' me all this stuff, and drove to my house - parked across from it, just to prove he knew! Then… then he showed me some pictures of us…" he trailed, fidgeting with the sides of his shorts, trying to pull them down lower to cover his knees. "Doin' those things. He said I was gonna spend the day with him and a friend… or else."
"So you went with him?"
"I had to! The - the pictures were on printer paper - he had my name, phone number - everything on the paper! Said he'd give copies to all my friends at school! I mean, you could see my face when I was gettin'…" He halted, turned red, and stopped.
"Never mind what was happening in the picture, Randy," David interrupted. "So you went with him - do you know where?"
Randy shook his head. "I don't know, honest. I mean, we started headin' for North Andover - I know the main roads and stuff… but then we started goin' up and down all these weird streets way out in the country, and I lost track of the turns. And I didn't see any street names or anything. It took almost an hour to get where we were goin'," he said with a shrug. "But I could tell we didn't come home the same way."
David frowned. There's hundreds of back country roads… and if he just drove in circles for a little, he could have been ten minutes from the kid's house. "What about plates? Did you notice?"
"Mass plates," he said firmly, wiping some of the tears off his cheek. "I remember 'em. 486-AIY. I'm good with stuff like that."
But you were too scared to tell anyone, so what's the difference? Well, it might help now. David got up and grabbed a pencil off the desk and scribbled the number. "Now look," David said carefully, keeping his voice low and his eyes off Randy. "Be honest about the rest of this, Randy - don't leave stuff out because you're embarrassed. Most - well, most of this stuff happened to me the same way, you're not alone. You got tricked, then you got taken advantage of because you were scared, okay? I believe that, so don't hold back."
The boy looked up doubtfully, eyes almost scornful. David felt a coldness in his stomach, then swallowed hard and forced the words. "That's how they did it with me."
Randy struggled to keep what little control he had left working. His voice not only got raspy and his whole body quivered. "We got to the same house and there was a guy. Danny called him Griff." The haunted eyes sought David's, locked onto them even as David tried to look away. "Not just older like you, but a man, older 'n my dad. They - they said I had to do everything they wanted me to or they'd tell everyone! And all those pictures…" he shook his head then let it slump, stared at the floor again. "They had my voice on tape," he added miserably. "With me askin' Danny if I could… you know. Do things to him."
Randy looked up again with a pleading expression, eyes wide with fright.
"It's okay," David interrupted in a scratchy voice. "I told you - Griff had pictures of me, too. He said I had to keep on coming, no matter what. I meant it Randy - you're not the only one."
The younger boy shook harder and finally the tears flowed. Martin put an arm around him and said it was okay, over and over.
David swung himself onto the couch and gently put his own arm around the boy's back. "Let him do it, Martin. Go ahead, Randy. Let it go. It'll still hurt, but it won't hurt as much if you let it out now."
"It was almost a year," Randy gasped. "Almost a whole year before they let me go. Every night I prayed, and it'd go for weeks without hearin' from them, and I'd start thinkin' it was all done… then I'd get an email, with a picture of me naked," he whispered. "Or a phone call, and he play a tape. And I'd have to go over there, or else."
He swung around frantically towards David. "Don't tell anyone," Randy begged, his voice thick with emotion. "My parents - my parents won't understand. They think that stuff's sick. Please? Don't tell anyone, ever?"
David rocked the boy back and forth, trying to make the tears stop, to will away the pain. What the hell have I done? Why didn't I ever say anything? Why did this one have to get hurt?
"I won't tell anyone," David promised. "Not about you. Not ever."

* * * * *

David and Leo sat in the car watching Martin getting dragged by his sister to the mobile home. Sandy snapped at him for "being stupid" again and both sniggered when she whacked him across the back of the head.
"Man, she's a tough one," David chuckled. "Guess I'm glad to be an `only.'"
Leo nodded. "Yeah, Sandy doesn't take much in the way of crap." He gave David a sideways look. "Good thing she only thinks he got stranded at the beach, huh?"
Avoiding the lead-in, David studied Martin's indifference to his sister's wrath and slaps. Back at the rectory, he'd given everyone the `official' version of Martin's trip: the boy had taken a bus down, then lost his money and return ticket. He'd met Randy who decided to help. No one bought it, but Betty Seton was true to her word, even after ordering a red-eyed Randy to the bathroom to clean himself up. Her husband kept quiet in the background, missing nothing and saying as much.
David scanned the empty reserved parking for the Seduko lot. "Doesn't anyone watch that kid?
Leo flicked the transmission of his Honda into reverse and turned the car around. "Don't judge - Helen does the best she can," he said quietly. "She's just one of those people that works too much. Two nights a week she goes out - and plays Bingo. What little nice stuff Martin and Sandy got is because Helen works." He paused at the exit of the park, inching the Honda forward onto the busy commercial strip. Finally he leaned his face into the windshield to see. "That goddam bush. I should hack it back - can't see what's coming up." He gunned the engine into an opening. "Now the father, Bert - he's a waste of skin. Worthless boozer."
David snorted. "You don't hold back much on the opinions, do you?"
Leo flashed his big smile, the space in his front teeth advertising Jack-o-lanterns. He pulled into the far right lane queuing up to take the turn for the Interstate. "I guess I tend to say what I think. Seriously - you can ask Sandy some time. She figures as soon as Martin's grown up enough, Helen'll toss the old man out. I wasn't kiddin' about the bar stool at Betty's - he spends all his time down at the White Buffalo. When he isn't there, he suckin' down suds at home."
David took it in, shook his head. "If he's that bad, I don't get why she stays."
The right end of Leo's eyebrow arched. "Helen stays 'cuz she's got two kids and a crap job. The old man isn't much, but he's a paycheck for luxuries - like rent and food." He paused. "You don't think much of that, do you? Stayin' around for money. Not everyone's got bucks, you know," he said in a low voice.
"I didn't say anything," David cut in, feeling the heat on his face. "Look, I don't know what it is with you - but it's like you resent me because my family's got money! Okay, we do - but I've never been the type who rubs my wallet in someone's face, so get off my ass, okay? I know some mothers have to work!" He paused, then muttered. "Hell, I wish mine worked - that way she'd have another set of balls to break."
Leo sniggered, pulled up at the last light before the final stretch of road, waiting for the mall traffic to sweep out. They sat quietly for a few minutes until the light changed. "Mine just smacks me every now and then."
David looked up, curious. "I never thought of you as the abused type."
Leo's eyes crinkled and he wriggled his nose. "Nah. She just smacks me when she's tired of me goin' `yeah, ma' when I tune her out - it's just to get my attention. She told Sandy and now she does the same thing."
David caved in and chuckled.
Leo's grin broadened. "Listen… we started wrong when I thought you were messin' with Martin. But when I asked him, Chris said you were… well, you were okay."
That caught David's attention. "You know Chris?"
Leo nodded. "Yeah, from the bookstore. I ran into him one night and we talked." He shot David a look. "That's right, I was checkin' you out - makin' sure you were a right guy."
"A right guy," he mused. "What's that supposed to mean? A straight one?"
Leo floundered for the right words. "Nah, it's just an expression… A right guy is just someone who doesn't use people or screw 'em, okay? It's got nothing to do with what turns you on." he paused. "Well, maybe it does, but not about what sex they are. Martin… well, Martin's only fourteen, and never mind his crap about bein' `almost fifteen' - he's still a kid, ya know? And he's smart about a lot of stuff, but not people. Kid like that, he'll do anything to please just so's they'll like him. His life ain't that easy and he hasn't got many friends. For the wrong kind of guy, he's a target."
"So what made you think I was the wrong kind of guy?"
Leo paused. "Goddam traffic on this road… Well, as I recall, it looked like you were about to pound on him when we first met. That was strike one."
David nodded, conceding the point. "I'll buy that - I lost my temper, but I wouldn't have hurt him." Much, he added mentally. "I'll give you that one. So what was strike two?"
Leo shrugged uncomfortably, shot David a quick look and looked embarrassed. "Bein' a pretty boy didn't help."
"Oh man, you are somethin'," David began, disgusted. "So, I'm good looking - that makes me some drooling monster?"
Leo scowled. "No. I just got a thing about guys like you, okay? People fall all over pretty boys - chicks or guys, straight or not - and guys like you get away with murder." He snorted. "Then they see someone like me and, well… tell me the truth. What flashed in your head first? Stupid or vicious?"
David sputtered. Leo waved him off.
"Don't even bother," he answered lightly. "I pretty much know what people think right off. Hell, when I was little, kids used to ask me why I wore a Halloween costume all year. Assholes."
David snorted and Leo flashed another smile and chuckled himself. "Plus, I gotta think when we met, my knee in your throat and bein' ready to put your lights out kinda tilted your perception."
David was ready to deny it, but - "I figured both," he answered honestly. "But how 'bout the needling about the gay stuff? Where'd that come from, if it doesn't matter to you so much?"
Leo wrinkled his nose again and flashed an evil grin. "Partly because Martin said you were his friend, so I did some guessin', and partly 'cuz it was a good shot either way. But mostly just to piss you off for that `dumb guinea' crack," he sniggered. "Out of the mouth of another Italian, no less! So Dave, what's it gonna be? Do we keep up the pissin' contest, or can we cut a deal? I'm gettin' tired of seein' whose is bigger."
"The deal, I guess," David snorted, feeling a little relief and relaxing for the first time since he'd left work. He glanced out the window and jerked up. "Whoa! We just passed my exit!"
Leo nodded. "I know. But we still got some talkin' to do… we'll just head down to 495 and swing the long way for the Loop." He paused, but when he spoke his voice was serious again. "While you were with Martin and Randy, I did some damage control with Reverend Seton," he began. "We figure the three of you were into something heavy."
David shook his head. "I can't talk about that. I gave my word," he said firmly.
Leo grunted, thought carefully. "I won't ask details. Martin was okay, so nothin' happened to him - I could tell that much. He's shaken up - probably a good thing, he'll be more careful with… well, he'll be more careful. But that other kid…" He shook his head sadly, then hesitated, confused. His jaw twitched. Finally: "I'd have to be blind not to see it, David. I only seen one other kid scared that much before: my sister. When she found out she was pregnant. At age thirteen."
David stole a cautious look at Leo, who watched the road ahead intently, expressionless. "She was so scared about our parents finding out, she didn't even want to tell me. Christ, she was ready to get an abortion in Massachusetts… which she can do there, I guess. I really don't know what the law is. But by the time I found out… well, it didn't matter. She couldn't go through with it, and that's when she broke down and told me. It was rough… I didn't know what to expect from 'em either - our parents, I mean. They weren't thrilled, I'll say that much. But they didn't make Tina's life hell, either."
He frowned and his voice dropped lower. "But that wasn't all. Once we peeled my Dad off the ceiling and my mother stopped crying, we went to see the guy who did it."
"What were you gonna do? Force a marriage?"
Leo snorted. "Hell no! Tina had enough troubles - she didn't need that jerk. But dad was out for blood - he wanted that guy bad. Went right to the Rockingham County Attorney and swore out a complaint for statutory rape - she was under fourteen. Even if she said `yes,' it didn't matter, and both Massachusetts and New Hampshire agree on that. Plus he wanted to paste the family so they'd cough up their share to raise the kid. Not a big settlement, mind you - just maintenance for the kid to pay for his upbringing, share in his education and all that stuff. Just like any parent has to pay in a divorce. And that's supposed to be black-letter law too." He slammed the wheel angrily. "They could afford it, too," he muttered. "They had a house in Andover big enough to house half my neighborhood. But the guy's father was some big wheel, with all kinds of connections."
David nodded grimly. "Let me guess. They sicced a pack of lawyers on you?"
Leo scowled. "You got that right… the kind that specialize in rape cases - and they win by smearin' the victim anyway they can. All of a sudden the guy comes up with five buddies from his school, all claimin' Tina offered to do 'em - and of course bein' such decent guys, they refused. They all swore she was got up to look older, had no idea she was only thirteen. And it gets better: they're all represented by the same pack of legal lice and got coached on every word they said."
"Leo, get real," David broke in. "No way any of that gets around - your sister's a minor. The court's sealed - no media, and no one's supposed to release any information."
Leo chuckled ruefully. "Sure," he said bitterly. "Officially, it's a sealed court - that's what they told my dad. But have you ever heard the term `an informed source'?"
"C'mon," David argued. "I mean, who's gonna cover something like this? No responsible newspaper!"
"When you've got money, Dave, you can do anything," Leo said soberly. "There are rags who'll print details like that - and if they happen to be outside the jurisdiction of the court involved, no one can get 'em. And you're right - the case is small-time for most papers, unless you create some interest. Money can manufacture interest in anything with the right spin. Suddenly there's this noble young guy who works `for the community' and all that crap, and he's being railroaded for a possible lapse of judgment. Imagine that, a whole future of a gifted young man wasted," he said sarcastically. "Why? Because he gave into temptation and some greedy, stupid slut was puttin' the screws to his family for money. At least that's the way it might look to some people."
David flinched. He'd seen enough lawyers on the news, shredding the character of a witness. They played to the public instead of a judge and jury, until no one could remember what the case was actually about.
"Yeah, Tina likely could win eventually," Leo continued, "but what was the cost? They were gonna paste her to the walls! We even got a notice about a new web site that went up - and there was the whole story, with a new angle. It stopped just short of givin' her name - but it gave the school, what part of town we lived in, even a physical description! Everything but a name and address. After that, Tina broke down. Even if no one knew she was pregnant yet - hell, how do you hide that? Everyone could put two and two together. It was gonna be miserable enough for her with the way people are - but after a knife job like that? She'd never live it down. The County Attorney did what he could, but too much was out of his hands. The web site was from a server in New Jersey and paid for by some bullshit committee that paid six months in advance with a money order. The IP on the account was from the Bahamas." He shrugged. "There was no way to nail 'em."
"Civil court," David continued. "I mean, all you need is a good lawyer to research it, get them to shut the site down. You could force the issue, and…"
"You're forgettin' something," Leo cut in, without anger but making his point carefully. "My dad's a supervisor for the Public Works Department - an okay livin', nothin' big. And my mom - well, she used to work at AT&T/Lucent before they decided to `outsource' everything - now she's a part-time dispatcher at the Town Hall for the police. I mean, my father makes okay money… but for a case like that? Against a squad of high-price jackals?" He snorted. "Dad's lawyer told him flat out - those sharpies were totally out of his league. It might say `and justice for all' in all the books and maybe money can't buy a verdict in court, dude - but it can sure the hell make that verdict expensive to get. And what happens in the meantime? My sister's a wreck, because of all the stories goin' around. My mom's bouncin' off the walls, and my father's ready to kill - and there isn't a friggin' thing we can do because the lawyers are passin' paper with one delay after another. Even a simple extradition hearing to bring the guy from Massachusetts to New Hampshire got tied up in wrangling - he never even got charged formally. We couldn't even get a DNA sample or any of that stuff to establish paternity."
Leo sighed, then changed lanes and put on the gas. "So in the end, we quit. We quit everything. So," he finished looking over to David again, sounding tired, "that's why I sort of got a thing about good lookin' guys with money foolin' around with kids. You… well, you just got some of my fall out. Sorry."
David looked out the window and shuddered, taking it all in. "I guess I understand. Sure answers about why you were worried about Martin."
Leo nodded in the darkness. "I never liked seein' people getting screwed with even before that," he added in a low voice. "And not just gettin' kicked around at school, like Martin was. I would've stopped that whether I was goin' out with Sandy or not if I saw it. And I'm still worried about Martin…" he paused, knitting his forehead. "Just like I'm interested in Randy all of a sudden. So I'll ask - did some one do somethin' to him? And try the same kinda shit with Martin? No details."
David shifted uncomfortably. "Yes."
Leo nodded, the green glow of the dashboard lighting up his features, staring at the road. "This is just me thinkin' out loud now," he said, still in the same low voice. "But this Randy kid… well, I'm gonna guess that Randy knew who it was and got involved. And, of course, it's still just a guess, but I figure it's because the same guy - and yeah, I'm making another assumption - did some things maybe you would know more about, which is why they'd only talk to you." He looked up sharply at David. "There's no judgment there, and I don't think you had a part in it. You don't have to tell me about it, unless of course I'm wrong. If I am, tell me that much, but keep something in mind: I only look dumb."
David chose his words carefully. "I wouldn't lie," he said simply. Then said nothing else.
Leo nodded. "Chris said you were a good friend," he mused. "I got the feeling he meant you stand by a friend when he needs it. I like that." He paused. "Uh, about my sister… you know I don't want that talked about, right? That web site disappeared the same day we saw it - just a warning posted for people to watch for news about `railroad justice.' As far as we knew, it was only up for the one day, and no one knew about it but us. It was a warning shot."
David leaned back in the seat. "I sorta picked up on that, dude. All those things they say about pretty faces and brains isn't true, either." He shook his head. "I still can't believe the guy could skate like that."
"Well, it wasn't a total loss… the old man's lawyer came up with a `donation' for little Leo's education - out of the goodness of his heart," Leo added bitterly. "And all we had to do was sign a non-disclosure agreement and drop the `silly pretense' that his son had anything to do with Tina." He grimaced. "I thought my old man was gonna rip that smart-mouth bastard's face off… then my mother stepped in and said take it, since there was no way to get back at them. They put it in a trust for my nephew for when he gets older."
"I don't know," David said, shaking his head. "I mean, getting away with that! Then not even acknowledging the kid! That's… that's…" He made an exasperated expression.
"It's perverted," Leo said with a deadly calm. Then a slow, mirthless smile spread over his face. "But there was some good news, later. I mean, it was nothin' that was gonna help Tina or her kid but - well, let's just say it made my dad feel a lot better. I read in the paper a few months later how Leo's daddy had a little accident down in Rhode Island. Seemed like the old man got jumped one night - wound up with six busted ribs, and an arm I think. His right kneecap was a little screwed-up too - but the word was it was gonna be about eighty-percent okay after some therapy. As for his nose and jaw… well, I bet the surgeons did some class work, and the family could afford the best. Even implants instead of dentures. Very expensive though." He shook his head and his eyes narrowed. "But I wouldn't want one of those stainless-steel kneecaps when the weather turns," he added almost sympathetically.
David studied the emotionless face. "Funny how things work out."
They settled into a quiet drive. Leo was almost to the 213 exit before David spoke again. "Uh, you wouldn't know about when that all happened, would you?"
"Oh, yeah - I remember real good," Leo said smoothly. "It was the first weekend after I got my driver's license, that's why it stood out in my head. Saw it in the BrownDaily Herald the day after it happened." He looked David and smiled. "I got an interest in what goes on around New England - the Boston Globe doesn't carry all the smaller stuff, you know? Plus they got a real good website down there."
Leo took the exit, then slid into the parking lot of the Loop. "Hey - there's your car," he said, pulling up before turning back to David. "Now, like I told Martin about fightin' on that bus - violence sucks. But a guy that could handle things… I think somebody like that would be good to know." The left end of his eyebrow curved up. "I mean, if you had some kind of special problem."
David gave him a sideways glance. "I notice you've been pretty cagey about giving up a name," he observed. "Your nephew's father, I mean."
Leo's Halloween smile flashed again. "Gee, that's a funny thing about non-disclosure clauses. Guess if anyone ever asked you questions about something like that… well, you really couldn't answer, could you?"
Something popped into David's head and he dug in his pocket for the slip of paper. "You said your dad worked for the town. Does he know anyone that could check an out-of-state license plate?"
He shrugged. "My mom could. All she'd have to do is request the information. In a border town they do inquiries with the Mass Registry all the time. Why?"
"Like you said about non-disclosure things," David said with a smile, handing over the note with a six-digit number on it. "The less you know, the less you could say if someone asked. Okay?"
"No problem," Leo agreed with a snort, and slipped the paper into his shirt pocket.
David opened the door of the Honda, paused with one foot on the tar. He studied Leo DiStefano's face carefully before he spoke. "Tell me something," he began slowly and deliberately. "In a situation that was… well, where a kid could get used as bad as your sister. How far would you go? Especially if you knew it wasn't just one kid, that there were more? Maybe a lot more."
Leo flashed a cruel travesty of a smile this time, lacking all warmth. His eyes locked on David's. "Maybe I wouldn't exactly kill 'em," he said slowly. "But beyond that…" he shrugged, cocked his head. "I'd do whatever it might take. Let's just say they'd walk with a limp for the rest of their lives. And maybe take a whiz sittin' down."
David looked around the nearly empty lot of the closed shopping plaza, nodded and pulled his leg back into the car. I don't wanna do this, he told himself. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Leo? Lemme tell you a story about me," he began slowly. "One I've never told anyone else."
* * * * *
An hour later, David turned the Jetta into the driveway and spotted the light in the living room. He winced. Just what I don't need - she's gonna grill me. C'mon, mom - the last thing I need is you getting me all wound up again.
He eased the black Jetta into `his' spot on the far right of the driveway, clear of the garage his parents used. David sat for a moment, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, then glanced at his watch. After telling Leo at least part of his story, he'd driven around for almost an hour running everything over in his mind. He had things to do and another argument wasn't part of the plan. Get a spine implant and tell her to go to hell. This crap's got to end.
The sensors spotted him and lights came on. David used his key on the lightweight door that opened onto the breezeway, then moved swiftly for the inner door and punched in the alarm code. Once inside the kitchen he punched in the second code to stop the countdown that started as soon as he'd opened the flimsy outer door of the porch. Once inside he eyed the dim light off the kitchen from the foyer.
He drew a glass of water, sipped slowly preparing for a new round. He eyed the doorway. Nothing.
Maybe I got lucky and she fell asleep in the chair - she shoulda started by now. David splashed the rest of the water down the sink and dropped the glass into the top tier of the dishwasher, then tried to move as quietly as possible through the foyer. He kept his head low and eyes forward, not wanting to jinx good luck by risking a glance at the living room. He breathed again when his left foot hit the first step.
The teen stepped back to the doorway, forcing a smile.
"Hi, Dad. Uh… up kinda late, aren't you?"
Albert Sciuoto smiled up at his son, slipped a place marker into the latest Tom Clancey and set the book aside on the lamp table. He was dressed the way he usually liked after work: casual shorts and a loose shirt. Out of old habit, his hand went up and pushed back a lock of hair that stopped growing in fifteen years ago.
David eyed the marker in the book - almost exactly the same spot as the night before. His father's regimen was predictable Sunday through Thursday: 10:00 news on Channel 38, one hour ahead of all the other Boston stations unless there was a hockey, baseball or basketball game running over. Then he'd settle in and read for a half-hour before heading to bed. It hardly ever varied, unless something was on his mind. It still wasn't that late, but late enough for him.
"Guess I got into the book more than I thought," Albert Sciuoto said in a warm voice, still smiling.
David looked at the man's eyes. They weren't happy or relaxed.
"Didn't realize how late it was until I heard you pull into the driveway," the man continued.
David appraised his father carefully, still maintaining a faint smile. Gimme a break Dad - you're a lawyer. You can lie a lot better 'n that.
"I, uh, stopped off at Chris' house after work," he lied, trying to keep his voice calm. "We had some stuff to talk over."
His father nodded. "He's a nice kid…" he said, voice trailing. "I like all your friends, Davey - did you know that?" He paused. "And that includes Alan," he added quickly and pointed a thick finger at David. "I especially like Alan. You know that, right?"
David kept his eyes steady and the smile frozen on his face. He wants to talk! Jesus, what lousy timin'. Not tonight, please?
"Cool," was the lame reply.
Al Sciuoto pulled at the floral shirt slightly so the buttons weren't as strained across his thick middle. He shifted his legs in front of him, leaned back in the chair and crossed his ankles… "relaxation mode number three," opposition lawyers called it, but his voice was awkward. "Uh, Alan called. Twice," he added. "Actually, I guess it was more like three times." He made a face. "Your mother talked to him once. Wasn't a long call, either." He let it hang in the air, waiting for a comment, didn't get one. I spend my life getting people to agree to things, he thought. Why can't I get anyone in my own house to even talk?
He looked expectantly at his son. "Is there something you want to tell me, kid?"
David plugged in a fake smile. "About what? Everything's great, Dad."
The left corner of his father's mouth twitched; he drummed the fingers of his left hand on his knee. "Then I guess it's just my imagination that you and you're mother never talk when I'm around, huh? Or when I mention one to the other, I get stonewalled?"
David rocked on his heels, eyes on the carpet. He shrugged, waited. And waited more.
Al Sciuoto's eyes searched David's face.
He nodded his head, resigned. Both of 'em. Why did he get her stubbornness along with her looks?
"Figured as much - your mother's not talking either. But I thought I'd at least give it a shot," he said in a tired voice, reaching for his book again without looking up. "Good night, David."
Head down, the teenager nodded and avoided the pained expression on his father's face. As David turned, his father gave out a small sigh of resignation, which cut into his flesh. He took the stairs two at a time and moved rapidly down the hall, locked his door, then walked over to his computer and powered it up.
I got too much to do and he can't be in on it, he thought. And it's just way too late to get into anything with him - let the guy get some rest. There'll be a better time.
He eyed the clock and went to work on the keyboard and started the first stage of a long search.