After the two cops had left, the four of them sat in the family room near the hidden wine cellar in case the rough policemen decided to come back. Jim had the floor.
“We’ve got to do whatever we’re doing quickly. I didn’t like those guys coming here like that. Their attitude is that they can pretty much get away with anything they want. Maybe they can. Had Tris been found, they’d have taken him away, no matter what resistance we put up. We’re in the middle of some kind of major conspiracy if the cops, the head of Putnam House, a councilman’s chief aide and one of our city’s social workers are all involved. Maybe we should do as Jordy advised: just get the hell out of here.”
“I don’t think so,” Tris countered. “We have a lot of information, but it’s a lot of things with no center, no connection. Let’s look at what we know. There are a bunch of people involved, a lot of them important. That’s one thing. We don’t know what they’re doing or why, but we do know they’re in it together. Two, everything that’s happened seems to involve Putnam House, one way or another. All the people have some connection with it. Burrows is the head of the place. Coppinger sends boys there. The two policemen who were here both work for Marv, and their daily detail seems to be Putnam; at the very least, they showed up here and wanted me, and it’s not stretching things to think they were going to take me to Putnam. My dad is on the committee that controls the Putnam budget. So whatever this is, I think we can assume it involves Putnam.”
Jim spoke up then. “I haven’t had time for a good analysis of all the numbers I have available to me, but I’ve found some things that need further, deeper investigation. I’ve looked at payments going out of Putnam, and there have been electronic transfers made into the accounts of Coppinger and Cooley. These transfers happen irregularly. I haven’t figured out if there’s a pattern yet. I’ve also found transfers to the police chief. They’re more regular. But overall, expenditures don’t match invoices, and people who shouldn’t be getting money seem to be doing so.”
“So one possible motive for what’s going on is financial,” Garlen said.
“There’s a lot of money floating around. Putnam House has a substantial budget. And the people getting funds transferred to them have a say in either financing the place or in the operation of it. All of them.”
Tris spoke up. “Jim, you have their records. I just had a thought. Can you check the names of the boys there? They must have records of what boys go there, how long they’re there and when they leave. The total number of boys at any one time should match food expenses, medications, clothing, whatever. But I’m really interested in matching their incoming dates with the money transfers to Coppinger.”
“You think she’s getting paid for sending boys there?” Jordy asked.
Tris nodded. “Well, she did mention getting paid if I was sent there. Maybe she gets paid for every boy sent there. The more boys, the more justification for raising the budget. That means more money available for kickbacks. Perhaps that’s what this is all about—funding Putnam from the city treasury and then using it as a giant cash register for the ones in charge.”
“Is that possible?” Garlen asked Jim.
He nodded. “I’ve seen some suspicious things in the records. That could certainly be true, but with all the people getting paid, I’d think the money would be nice but hardly worth the risk. Maybe that’s part of it, but I’d guess there’s more, too. We need to keep looking. I’ll continue going through the records I have with Tris’s theory in mind and see if anything else pops up.”
Garlen looked at the two boys. “I don’t think you should stay here alone tomorrow. Those cops came and looked and found nothing, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back. And if they bring a dog…I don’t know how scent-proof that wine closet is. I think you should come with me to my office tomorrow. You’ll be safe there.”
Jim agreed. “They may decide to watch the house, but they probably haven’t done so yet. Anyway, it makes sense that you’d drive home from here tonight, Garlen. Why don’t you take the boys with you when you go, then take them into work with you tomorrow? Then you all can come here for dinner tomorrow, driving into the garage before getting out of the car.”
They decided that would be best, and Tris and Jordy gathered up the clothes and laptops and other things they’d need. They had to figure out how to get the boys into Garlen’s car, which was parked in the street in front of the house. If someone were now watching the house, they didn’t want to be seen.
“I know,” said Jordy. “You just leave like you normally would. Then drive around a little, making sure you’re not being followed. If not, then come back, but down the street parallel to ours but behind us. Tris and I will go out the back door and come through both back yards and meet you there. Call me and let me know when you’re about 30 seconds away, and we’ll come out, jump in your car, and we should be safe to go.”
The boys enjoyed their night at Garlen’s house. He was married with two small children, a boy and girl who were respectively five and three years old. His wife was a pretty lady who exuded Southern charm. It was late and the younger children were already in bed; the boys would meet them in the morning.
Tris was ready to turn in and had been stifling yawns. Mrs. Beeks saw that and told them to go on up, the first room at the top of the stairs to the left was theirs, and there were fresh towels in the en-suite bathroom. “I’m sorry, but there’s only the one spare bedroom,” she said apologetically. “Is that going to be OK? One of you could sleep on the living-room couch, but you wouldn't have much privacy there.”
Jordy looked a little embarrassed, but Tris said, “We’re a couple, Mrs. Beeks. We share a bedroom at home. One room is fine. And just so you won’t be uncomfortable letting us stay here tonight, we won’t do anything while we’re here that you wouldn’t approve of.”
Mrs. Beeks blushed. “Oh, my. You’re so young! Well, uh….” She stopped, not knowing how to respond further.
Garlen laughed. “You’ve done it! You’ve done the impossible! You got my wife tongue-tied. Never happened before, probably never will again. You boys have a good night, and we have no problem at all with you doing whatever you do. We’re an equal-opportunity home-away-from-home.”
With that, both Tris and Jordy started to blush, and it was Mrs. Beeks’s turn to laugh. The boys said goodnight, and Mrs. Beeks quickly kissed them both on the cheek.
They rode into the offices of Garlen’s law firm in the morning. Garlen had gone out earlier and bought a box of donuts. When he came back, he told the boys no one was watching their house or following him that he could see—no suspicious or unfamiliar vehicles parked on their street, no unusual activity at any of the houses on the street, no one tailing him to and from the donut shop—and that they could ride to work with him without having to lie down on the floor or on the backseat of the car.
“Sorry, I don’t have much entertainment for you guys,” he told them when they were in his office.
“That’s fine,” Tris said. “We’ve been getting school
assignments online and haven’t had much time to work on them. We’ll do that
“Yeah, and I’ll help him with his math,” Jordy said, grinning.
That evening, Mildred Coppinger stopped at Ben’s house at dinnertime. Ben had a drink in his hand when she walked into the kitchen. He usually had a drink in his hand when he was at home.
She made herself a large martini, noticing the gin bottle was getting low. She opened the cupboard and saw another handle of gin and smiled.
At the table, after taking a healthy sip and feeling the pleasant burn in her throat, she asked, “Any news on Marco?”
“Yeah, they’re officially calling it murder. Marv assigned his youngest detective to it. He told me if the papers got hold of it and complained, he’d say it was a low-priority case, as Marco had a history of drug usage and arrests and his getting killed was probably because a dealer was afraid Marco would give him up and so hired a professional hit to take him out. A professional hit isn’t likely to be solved by any of his detectives, the perp will be long gone by now, and he didn’t want to waste any of his more experienced guys’ time on a case that most likely never will be solved. He doesn’t think there’ll be any problem with that statement if he makes it an off-the-record, just-background explanation.”
“So you got away with it!”
“Yeah. If you’d have done it, you’d have fucked it up. Like most things you try. I waltzed right by the cop guarding the door. Like to see you do that!”
“Fuck you. I do my part. I keep the supply of boys coming, don’t I?”
Ben took time for a pull on his drink before conceding, “I’ll hand you that.”
Mildred smiled. “You, uh, want to go upstairs before we eat?”
“Yeah. You’ve heard of that three-peckered billy goat, haven’t you? That’s me. A couple of drinks and I’m always ready. And I’ve had a couple. Watching you suck down your gin and lean forward so I can see halfway down to your bellybutton just makes it worse. Let’s go.”
“OK. Let me take a fresh one up with me.” She drained her drink and stood up. “Go on up. I’ll be there in a second.”
Ben got up, grabbed his glass and took it with him to the stairs, where he turned and said, “Hurry up.”
“Be right there,” she called back. Then she took a memory stick from her purse and stuck it in the back of the cupboard that held the spices his wife had used to cook with. She doubted the cupboard had been opened since the woman had died. This was a little bit of security. She knew he was perfectly capable of throwing her to the wolves if the heat ever got turned up. With this being found in his house, he’d be deeper in the shit than she was and so less credible as a witness against her.
Upstairs, they were quickly undressed and in bed. With the gin sloshing around in her gut, she was feeling ready for some rough sex, and Ben was always ready to accommodate her with that wish.
Afterwards, sore but happy, she lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, feeling very relaxed. She asked, “Marv making any progress finding your kid?”
“Nothing yet. You know, if the kid simply disappears, then he’s no problem.”
“We’d miss our fee,” Mildred complained. “Couldn’t put him on the books, either.”
“Chickenfeed,” Ben said. “And you can make it up. Just find another one.”
“It ain’t that easy,” she complained. “With that last one, we got a flyer from out of state looking for a kid matching his description. If anyone else had seen him before I did and didn’t pick him up but knew he was still out there, and then saw me with him in the office questioning him and then saw the flyer, there could have been questions I wouldn’t have liked answering. I have to be careful.”
“You do all right. Anyway, want to go again?”
“You want to?” Mildred asked. “I thought you were getting too old for twice in under an hour.” She reached down and began massaging what was only partially flaccid.
“Well,” he said, “I can go easily enough, but actually, I’m starved, and it would be better if we’d wait. Why don’t we go eat first?” He slid his legs over the side of the bed. “I’m going to shower. You can, too, if you want. Use the large bathroom.”
“OK. Where we going to eat?”
Ben’s answer, from inside the small bathroom with his back turned to the door as he turned on the shower, wasn’t loud enough to be picked up by the bug. Tris had been listening to the entire conversation since Mildred had come into the kitchen. Now there was a pause, and then he saw the green light blink on the receiving unit that was tied to the bug Jordy had planted; Tris heard the shower in that bathroom come on.
There was about a five minute wait with no conversation at all and the two bugs both picking up the sounds of showers running, the one in the master bedroom en suite bathroom’s being very soft, while the one Mildred was using was quite loud. Tris heard the water go off in both. There was silence again for a short time; both people were drying themselves, Tris assumed. Then, he heard a noise he couldn’t identify from the bathroom Mildred was in, followed by a loud swear word from her. That was followed by, “Ben! Come in here. Now!”
“What?” Tris barely heard Ben’s reply on both receivers, softly from the one in the master bedroom, louder from the one in the bathroom where Coppinger was. Obviously, Ben was on his way, between rooms as he was speaking.
“Hurry!” There was an edge of panic in Mildred’s voice.
Ben spoke next, now as close to the bathroom bug as Mildred was. “What’s the matter?”
“I pulled out the drawer with the hair dryer in it, but pulled it too far, and it came out and fell on the floor. LOOK!”
“Oh my god! You know what that is?”
“I think so. Whatever it is, it doesn’t look like something that belongs there. I can guess what it is.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you can. And you’d be right. It’s a goddamn bug!”
“Who put it there?”
“How the hell would I know?! But it wouldn’t be Marv. Why would he? We already have as much on him without him bugging us as he has on us. Hey, you know who it could be? That guy who’s got my kid! Has to be. He’s spying on us! No one who knows what we’re doing would do this. He’s the only one who might have a reason to. And Tristan has a key. He could get in here without my knowing it.
“This is bad. We have to send Charlie and Sam—”
At that point, there was a sudden short-lived electrical phizzing sound and then silence. Tris didn’t hesitate. He ran out of the wine closet, yelling.
“Jim, Jordy, Garlen, we’re in trouble. They found one of the bugs and are sending those two cops over here. Probably right now! What should we do?”
“Run,” said Jim.
“And immediately!” Garlen added. “We have to scoot. Grab whatever you can in less than a minute and get in the car. They might have a car within a couple minutes of here. Go!”
Jordy and Tris ran upstairs. They grabbed their computers and phones. Then their toothbrushes.
“Clothes?” Jordy asked.
“No. Let’s go,” said Tris, his voice full of urgency, and they rushed downstairs, Jordy leading the way. Garlen was already in the car, Jim on his way out the door to the garage. “Keep going,” Tris said to Jordy. “I’ll make sure the doors are locked and be right behind you.”
They pulled out of the driveway, and Jim drove down the street away from town, figuring that a cop car would come from that direction. Tris sat looking out the back window. Just as Jim was turning onto a cross street, Tris saw an unmarked black car with an old-fashioned whip antenna on it turn into the far end of their street. He couldn’t see anything else because by then Jim had turned and was driving on.
“There was a cop car back there. Better hurry and turn again, Jim. I doubt he saw us, but he might have. He might follow us.”
Jim gunned it, came to the next cross street and turned down it, working away from his house. He made the next turn as well, then drove a distance before turning again. “Where should we go?” he asked no one in particular.
“The airport,” Garlen suggested. “We need to ditch the car. They can check with DMV and see what kind of car you have, then have all their patrol cars looking for it. All of them; they don’t need to give them a reason. You can park in the lot with all the other cars. Drop me near the baggage-claim doors. I’ll grab a cab there back to my house, get my car and come pick you up. This way they can check cab drivers’ log books all they want, but none will show three or four guys leaving the airport together going anywhere we have to worry about. They’ll find the car, eventually, but not us.”
An hour later, Garlen had delivered them to where they’d decided it would be safe, at least for a short while: Garlen’s law offices. There was a conference room where they could sleep on the floor, and it was very unlikely even the police would be willing to break into the premises of the leading law firm in town, especially one that had night-security men on duty. It would even be difficult to secure a search warrant for the place.
Jordy switched on the TV set, wanting to check the news. He joked to Tris that while it was not likely they’d been reported as fugitives and the press alerted or that they were now at the top of the most-wanted list and their pictures were getting full press coverage on TV, it would be best to know if that were indeed the case.
What he saw as the picture came on was nothing he could have imagined.
Jim’s house was shown on the screen. And it was fully engaged in flames.
Jim looked like he was in shock. The house was completely involved, and there was no sign of fire trucks in the wide-angled TV shot of the blaze.
Garlen was on his phone to the fire department. He knew a captain there and spoke with him. After a short time, he hung up and turned to Jim. “They got a call on the fire, sending them to the wrong address a long way away. They’re on their way back, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to do anything except protect the surrounding buildings.”
“My house!” Jim moaned. Jordy put his arm around him and walked him to the sofa.
Jim sat and put his face in his hands for a few moments. Then he looked up. “Those bastards,” he said. “I know what they were doing. They were destroying any evidence that we might have had there.”
“They knew about the bugs,” Tris said. “I heard them when they found one. That’s how I knew we were in trouble.”
“When they didn’t find us there, they torched the place, hoping to burn the receivers and anything that’d been recorded,” said Jim. “And in the process, they destroyed my house.”
Jim sat still for a few moments, then suddenly stood. “OK. The house is insured. The only things that can’t be replaced are photos of Jordy when he was young. And I had most of them transferred to computer files not long ago, so those are still good. I can’t let the loss of the house distract us. We’re going to get these bastards. They’re scared now. Garlen, do you think it’s time to talk to your friend, the DA?”
“Yeah. I just wish we still had the recordings.” Garlen looked frazzled and stood up, then sat again. “Without that hard evidence,” he continued, “we have a story, but it’s a fantastic one that would be hard to believe. You’ve got some financial records that support what we think this is about, but it’s all supposition and circumstantial and involves well-known and respected people. With what you have gathered from the records and with the recordings, we had plenty. Without those….”
The room was quiet for a moment, then Tris smiled. “What, these?” he asked, and pulled out the receiving/recording devices from the bag of stuff he’d brought when they’d fled the house.
The other three stared at him. He grinned. “I grabbed them when I checked that the doors were locked. I kinda thought they could be important!”
Jordy jumped up and hugged him. It became a group hug. Jim said, “Now I’d guess we have enough for the DA.”
“More than enough when you hear what I heard today,” Tris said. Then he set the devices on the table and turned them on to play back what he’d heard a short time earlier.