Brandon groaned theatrically when Ken van Meter mentioned another reason for the meeting between them, including the Director of Social Welfare, Catherine Grice. Ken grinned at his friend’s antics, but plunged into the business at hand.
“We have a really unusual case, brought to our attention only last night. It’s not like any other I’ve encountered, and I don’t think anyone else in the Department has any experience with anything like this, either,” he began.
Catherine nodded agreement. “Certainly not since I’ve been with the Department, and that’s since I graduated from the University when I was 22. I’ve been head since I was 39, and I’m now 55, and I have never seen anything like this.”
“Wow,” Brandon said, “so, what’s up?”
“A cult,” Ken said, “and I don’t mean just some new version of the Baptists. This is more like you’d expect coming from California. A genuine satanic cult, including human sacrifice.”
“What! You’re kidding, I hope!” Brandon exclaimed.
“No, unfortunately not. The police interrupted a ritual of some sort last night, and there are unmistakable remains of a newborn infant involved. The people arrested also had blood smeared on their faces, presumably that of the infant. There were only six of them, thank goodness, and they are all in jail now, awaiting a hearing, but there does not seem to be much doubt. The police received an anonymous tip and broke in right in the middle of everything. Anonymous tips can be useful at times, even though, as you said, there needs to be more solid evidence before doing anything,” Ken reported. “These people were already being watched.”
“And you want me to take in a boy who was involved in this?” Brandon queried.
“Not exactly. The boy in our care was not one of the six arrested at the scene. He was a kind of lookout. He seems unhappy not to be included, but said something about not having passed a final test as yet. As I said, all this happened last night. In fact, I guess appropriately enough, it was just a minute or two after midnight when the police arrived, so, I guess, technically it was this morning.”
Brandon looked stunned. “I’m having trouble taking this in. Devil worship here in Clifton. It just doesn’t seem possible. I guess we have our share of loonies, like everyone else, but this takes the cake. Tell me about the boy.”
“His name is evidently Eric Raglan,” Ken began. He consulted a new page on his laptop. “We have no documentation yet, but apparently he’s 13, and lives here in Clifton. The youngest person actually arrested is 18, so not under our care. Like I said, Eric was something like a lookout, but he was paying more attention to the sounds coming from inside than to anything else and did not notice the police arrival until he was grabbed by the first officer in the building. This was all taking place in an abandoned warehouse down near the river. We have not yet located any school records for him. He seems to be in good health. He’s blond, a little on the small size, dressed only in jeans and a tee, even though it was a bit chilly last night. He has refused to cooperate with us at all. We only know his name because of identification on his person at the time of arrest. He’s got a real foul mouth. He’s come up with a few insults even I haven’t heard before. I think this will tax your abilities, Brandon. But we hate to just toss him in with the others in juvenile detention. He’s belligerent, and I strongly suspect would be involved in fights from the outset. Despite his attitude, he’s not all that strong.”
“Reminds me of Clarence,” Brandon mused.
“Oh, Bruiser was a piece of cake compared to this one,” Ken said.
“Are you trying to discourage me?” Brandon asked.
“No. Actually, we’d be pathetically grateful if you agreed to take on Eric. But I don’t want to mislead you about the difficulties,” Ken said.
“What does Eric have to say for himself?” Brandon asked.
“Oh, he and the adult members of the group are crying police brutality and violation of their rights. They claim they were exercising their right to freedom of religion,” Ken informed him.
Brandon scoffed. “As you know, I’m a strong supporter of religious freedom, including the freedom not to have my tax money used for immoral purposes, like forcing medical personnel to engage in immoral actions like abortions. But there are limits even to the freedom of religion. All our rights have limits. I believe it was Henry Clay who said, ‘My right to swing my hand ends where the other guy’s nose begins,’ and there is the classic example of no right to freedom of speech when it involves yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded auditorium. It looks like, from what you tell me, that their freedom of religion involves violating another person’s right to life. I am strongly pro-life. But it also seems to me that what these cultists are accused of is not much different from what Dr. Aubrey does every day down at the abortion mill with the support of the Supreme Court. The right to life is about the most basic right there is. If you don’t have life, the other rights we are so fond of claiming don’t mean a hill of beans.”
“I sure can’t disagree with that,” Ken replied.
Catherine Grice blushed. Although Brandon had mentioned Dr. Geraldine Aubrey rather than the late Dr. Hawley Grice, those two had been partners in the abortion clinic called ‘A Woman’s Choice’ located downtown. Catherine was constantly embarrassed by her ‘cousin’ even though he has been dead now for several years. Hawley was not a well-liked man.
“I won’t make a commitment at this time,” Brandon decided. “I want to talk this over with Chris, with Aunt Barbara, and with the other boys. I’ll let you know first thing tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Brandon. We need you now, buddy, so please give it some serious thought,” Ken pled.
Ken and Catherine rose from their seats. “I can see why you two get along so well,” Catherine said. “It’s been instructive.”
“Thanks for coming. I usually have to deal with underlings like Ken,” Brandon teased. “As you’re here, would you like a tour of the facilities next door?”
“Good idea. But we do need to get back to the office before too long,” she replied.
And so the three of them went next door to 1322 Chestnut Street. They went in the back way, and encountered Aunt Barbara. Barbara Menendez, ‘Aunt Barbara’ to the denizens of Brandon’s Boys, was now in her early sixties. The boy Catherine and Ken wanted him to take on would put a strain on her, so she would have to be consulted, too, Brandon considered. But for now, she was simply introduced, along with her assistant, Aunt Anne, a.k.a., Anne Carter Payne. Aunt Barbara lived on the site, and was a certified foster parent, but Aunt Anne came and went each day. Then, there were the boys. Not all of them were around in the late afternoon on that Tuesday, but most definitely would be for dinner. Those available were found in the rec room, watching television or playing computer games, or in the library doing homework. Freddy was in his room reading. The house was well maintained. A bit messy – we are dealing with boys – but clean, and the boys were polite. They encountered Bert, the most recent recruit, who talked excitedly about getting back out to the Farm tomorrow to see Beauty and to ride. Although it was a quick tour, Catherine was impressed. She hoped what she and Ken were asking would not cause too much disruption to the scene she saw before her.
After Catherine and Ken left, Brandon considered his next step. First of all, he had to consult his partner, Chris Todd. Chris had come in from Todd Farm, and would have dinner with Brandon and their son, but he was most likely at present across the street at his parents’ place. So, Brandon directed his feet to 1327 Chestnut. He always liked being at Todd House, as it exuded the feeling of welcome. Appreciating this feeling, although unconsciously, Brandon entered and found his partner and his mother, Sandy Todd, going over a brochure about the upcoming horse show in Columbus, Ohio in a few weeks. They saw that, whatever Brandon had on his mind, it was something important, and so interrupted their planning. Brandon shared with Chris all that he had learned about Eric, the boy Catherine and Ken wanted them to take in.
Chris considered. Then he replied, “I’ll go along with whatever you decide. Brandon’s Boys is your show, just like horses is mine. You help me out at the Farm, and I help you out with the boys, but it’s your call. You know I’ll support you. This kid sounds like a royal headache, but it also sounds like this boy Eric really needs help. Just your cup of tea.”
Brandon kissed Chris. They both knew taking on Eric would be a trial for both of them. Brandon really appreciated the support. Then they sought out Chris’s father, Zip Todd, and gave him whatever information Brandon had about Eric Raglan, and asked him to be on the lookout for additional information about him or the cult. Brandon then walked back across the street, and asked Aunt Barbara to set aside her dinner preparations for a few minutes.
Allowing Aunt Anne to take over in the kitchen, Barbara Menendez sat with Brandon and listened to what he had to say about the purpose of the visit by Catherine Grice and Ken van Meter. After Brandon explained the request, she sat and thought for a few minutes. “Well,” she decided, “that poor boy has had his head all messed up. I don’t know anybody better than you to straighten out a messed up boy. I’ll do my share.”
Brandon surprised her by kissing her. “You’re wonderful,” he insisted. “But you be sure to tell me if anything gets out of hand.”
“Yes, of course,” a flustered Aunt Barbara agreed.
That evening, Brandon and Chris met again at their own home at 1324 Chestnut, next door to Brandon’s Boys, for dinner with their son, Little Chris, who was not so little any more. Aunt Luisa, the cook and housekeeper there, would be insulted if they did not eat there. And they did want to clue Little Chris in on what was going on. After all, he would be affected, too, and was not that much younger than the boy Eric. ‘Little’ Chris was now almost eleven years old. He was about four foot eight inches tall, and weighed in at about 80 pounds. No, not all that little. And he had a wealth of experience from living with his dads to prepare him for just about anything. Like most boys his age, he also had a vivid imagination.
“Wow, they were eating babies!” he exclaimed.
“Now Chris, Mrs. Grice did not say anything about eating babies. Don’t go around spreading rumors,” Brandon admonished him.
“Well, what else were they going to do with the kid?” Chris logically asked. But he agreed not to say anything to anyone else. He definitely intended to keep his eyes and ears open, however. Like many boys, he was fascinated by tales of gore.
After dinner, Brandon and Chris went back next door to meet with the boys. All those who were there for dinner had been asked to stay for a meeting. Daniel and Raman were out on the Farm, so they’d have to be brought up to snuff later. Brandon laid out the situation as clearly as he could. He tried not to pre-judge either Eric Raglan or the response of the boys.
“The guy sounds looney,” Mike said.
“A real wacko,” Bobby Seale agreed.
“Now boys,” Brandon interposed, “if Eric does come to live with us, you can’t treat him any different than anyone else.”
“Well, okay, I guess,” Joe said. “But he’d better not try any of this devil stuff on me.”
Freddy uncharacteristically volunteered, “He sounds like he needs lots of help.”
“Are you guys willing to give him a chance?” Brandon asked. “If things absolutely do not work out, he can be sent back to Social Services.”
“Back to juvie. That’s hard,” Clarence said.
The boys looked around, sort of checking with each other. It was as if each was remembering his own acceptance at Brandon’s Boys.
“Okay, let’s give the guy a chance,” Oliver summed up. The others nodded agreement.
And so, early the next morning, Brandon called down town, and told Catherine Grice that they agreed to give Eric a chance. She breathed a sigh of relief. Brandon brought Oliver and Bobby Seale with him. Oliver seemed the most balanced of the boys, and Bobby was closest in age to Eric. They met Ken, and were told that the agency had managed to locate a birth certificate, which showed the boy as having been born on 8 October 2002 to Ronald Raglan and Doreen Hunt. Both parents were dead, and he had been living with an aunt, who was one of the people arrested with the cultists. Eric was in the eighth grade at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in the Near West section of town. It was not the worst school in the public system, but was far from the best.
After they were given this information, Brandon and the two boys were shown into a conference room, where they awaited the arrival of Eric. In only a few minutes, there was the sound of footsteps in the corridor, and then Ken escorted a boy into the room. “Eric, this is Mr. Dowling, who will be your foster parent, and the others are Oliver Ballard and Bobby Ferguson, who also live at the group home. Guys, this is Eric Raglan.”
Eric was a boy about the same size as Bobby. He looked a little over five foot, and scrawny. He also looked angry. When Oliver and Bobby tried greeting him, he only scowled at them Eric had a look on his face which left no doubt that he was not pleased with his current situation. Brandon also noted that there were several scars on his face, including what looked to be a recent one, as it was red and looked like it might be infected. It ran across his left cheek. He was dressed in cheap canvas shoes, worn jeans, and a tee-shirt. Over the next twenty minutes, efforts to get Eric to talk with the others were largely unsuccessful. He either remained silent or else he engaged in tirades of vulgarity and blasphemy, with no obvious connection with what he had been asked.
After a particularly vicious blasphemy indicating that Jesus had sex with his mother, Brandon stepped around the table to confront the boy and grabbed him by his shirt. He pulled him up so he was on his tiptoes. In a voice which admitted no doubt, Brandon said, “Eric, we will try to respect your beliefs, but we will not put up with you insulting ours. Got it?” With that, Brandon shook the boy.
A flash of fear crossed Eric’s face. He looked to Ken, who simply sat there, saying nothing. Brandon shook him again. Reluctantly, Eric nodded.
“Good,” Brandon said, allowing him to settle some. “Now, there are rules at Brandon’s Boys which you will have to observe while you are with us, and you just learned one of the most important ones. We do not tolerate insults which really hurt the other people there. That includes all the boys. It includes Aunt Barbara and Aunt Anne. It includes my partner Chris and our son, who is also named Chris. And it includes me. Like I said, we will try to respect your beliefs, but that works both ways. In addition, you will work along with the other boys to keep the place decent. You will return to school and do a decent job there. When on the Farm, you will respect those there as well, and will treat them decently. You will do no harm to the horses. You will work with the other boys there, too. And you will cooperate as far as such matters as your health exams, your school placement, and the rest are concerned. Now, I know you don’t like this. I’m not asking you to like it. But these are the rules. You follow the rules or there will be consequences. If you simply won’t cooperate, and create problems for everyone else, I will personally tie you up, lock you in your room, and call Ken here to come get you so you can be brought back to juvie. Got it?”
Again, Eric looked to Ken, and again got no indication of a way out. So he nodded again.
With that unsatisfactory beginning, Brandon was handed a folder with Eric’s information in it, and they left for Brandon’s Boys group home. When they got there, the other boys were waiting for them. They gathered around Eric, and peppered him with a thousand questions.
After a short time, Eric exploded, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t give a damn what you like or don’t like. But I don’t have much choice, do I? Just leave me alone.”
Brandon sighed, but decided to just let Eric get settled in his room. Freddy, ever accommodating, had volunteered to share a room with Eric, so Eric’s things were carried up there, and he was left to put them away. Freddy stayed to help if he could, but Eric simply ignored his presence.
Brandon retired to the library and studied the packet of materials which accompanied his new charge. As Ken told him, the boy was named Eric Donald Raglan. With both parents dead, he had been the charge of his mother’s sister, a twenty-six year old woman named Allison Poteet, who, according to the information on file with Social Welfare, worked at General Automotive Corporation and was a member of a church called ‘His Power is Great.’ There was no mention on Eric’s data sheet that the so-called church worshiped Satan. She supposedly had a husband, but the dossier had nothing about him except a name. Eric was listed as having no assets. His grades were erratic, and he had many absent days noted. Eric was in the eighth grade. He had been given a cursory health examination by the physician on call at the juvenile detention center, who noted the scar, poor posture, poor eating habits, acne, and lice.
The file contained very little on the cult to which Eric belonged. A few new additions evidently made that morning indicated that it was sui generis, not part of any larger group. It seemed to focus on power and strength, but not much else was known.
Brandon went up to the room assigned to Eric and Freddy. Eric was performing some kind of ritual, mumbling to himself and moving about, while Freddy just sat and observed. When Brandon came in, he asked Freddy, “How’s it going?”
“He won’t talk to me,” Freddy sighed.
“What’s he doing?” Brandon asked.
“I think it’s something like an exorcism. Trying to get rid of all the good influences or something,” Freddy grinned. “It won’t work. Good vibes here are strong.”
Brandon grasped Freddy’s shoulder and gave him a squeeze. At that moment, he knew Freddy was just what Eric needed.
“Eric,” Brandon said, “as soon as you’re finished there, come down to the library. We can start your placement tests for school. After lunch, I’ll take you to see a doctor for a really thorough check-up. Then, we’ll leave for the Farm. You need to meet the horses.”
At the mention of horses, Eric’s eyes grew wide. Just what was going through his mind was by no means clear, but he seemed disturbed. Brandon said quietly to Freddy, “Keep up the good work.” He then departed. About fifteen minutes later, Eric showed up. He grumbled about having to take placement tests, saying he was in the eighth grade. But Brandon insisted. The tests he graded before lunch looked like Eric was abysmally ignorant, but it occurred to Brandon that he might be purposely screwing up. No one was really that ignorant, were they?
After lunch, Brandon, this time accompanied by Joe, took Eric to the Todd Medical Clinic, where he would be seen by Dr. Castleman. He told Oliver that he appreciated his help that morning, but he’d take Joe, as he looked meaner.
Oliver laughed. “Joe wouldn’t hurt anyone unless he was threatening one of us.”
“I said he looks mean. I didn’t say he was mean,” Brandon replied.
At the Clinic, Josh Castleman gave Eric a very thorough examination. His head was shaved as part of the process of getting rid of lice. Josh said the scar on Eric’s left cheek was infected, and needed treatment. He also needed care for his acne, and most importantly he needed a healthy diet and exercise. Some breathing problems seemed present, and would need to be monitored. It could be a form of asthma. Prescriptions were written, and an appointment for a follow up next week scheduled.
Then they took off for the Farm. An hour later, Brandon pulled into the courtyard at Todd Farm in Jouett County, about three miles out of the county seat, Westbrook. Chris Todd, Chris Dowling, and most of Brandon’s Boys were already there, and there were a large number of others who normally lived or worked on Todd Farm, so Eric felt totally swamped in new people. He stood to one side, as though he were afraid to move, and scowled. He seemed to be good at that Brandon had given Eric some basic information about the Farm and so was uncertain why he was having such a negative first impression. He tried for several minutes to assure him that no one would harm him, and the other boys thoroughly enjoyed their visits to the Farm. Eric was then led by Brandon and Freddy from the courtyard to another building a short distance away. When they got there, it was obviously a stable, and Eric was distinctly uncomfortable. There were several boys congregated around one stall.
“Here’s the new guy,” Raman called out.
“Come on, Eric. Meet Beauty,” Daniel yelled.
Hesitantly, Eric approached the stall. There was CH Todd’s Beauty nuzzling one of the boys and looking splendid. She was now twenty years old, and no longer engaged in competition, but was in great shape, and always friendly to anyone Chris was friendly with. She turned towards the new boy.
Eric stood still. His face froze. He began to tremble. He pissed his pants. He passed out.
To be continued