"Hey, what's the news?" he asked.
"That...bitch took him from school. I don't know where he is. His guidance counselor indicated Sondra was shady, protecting that detective who is apparently her nephew. I don't know where she is. The lawyer is on it, Mom and Dad are on the way."
"Okay. I'm leaving here now. I'm going to pick up Kari because I can't later. Then...we'll figure this out. Don't worry, babe. Isaac will be home before you know it."
"Thank you," I said, my voice becoming a whine and tears pricking my eyes. "I love you."
"I love you. I'm on the way."
I set the phone down and paced. The tea was ready to so I made my cup and it gave my hands something to do. The phone rang and I nearly dropped the tea.
"Brandon? Joyce," said the lawyer. "Are you home?"
"Yes. What's going on?"
"A couple of things. First, I got in touch with Sondra's supervisor – not easy, by the way. He's concerned to say the least. Second I sent a man down to subpoena the audio and video recordings pertaining to your evening with the police. I also filed a petition for Detective Mosher's service history – it would be good to know who else has accused him of exceeding his authority. Third, who is the judge who placed Isaac with you?"
"Um, Heller. What does that matter?"
"Unless the county can show imminent danger, they had no right to remove him from your custody. Kinship care, which is what you have, is much less formal than foster care. Foster care parents are far more regulated and restricted. In essence, a kid in foster care is in the custody of the county and the foster parents are like glorified babysitters. In kinship care, the county doesn't have custody, just an open file."
"Bottom line is she kidnapped Isaac."
I sat down, hard. "She...she must know that, right?"
"Yes, but she believes that you think she has you over a barrel. That she makes the decisions about Isaac. She'd been counting on you meekly playing along with her while she dangled Isaac to keep you compliant. Then when Mona came back, she'd 'too bad, so sad' him right back into the mother's unloving embrace, and be rid of you at the same time. The whole key to her power play is you not having called a lawyer."
"Okay, so...what? You're calling the judge?"
"I'll have judge Heller found, since he made the custody decision. Judges hate when people don't follow their orders. Hate it. That will set us up for court. Next thing is does Isaac have a cell phone?"
"Does he have it with him?"
"He'd sooner leave his balls at home," I snorted and then covered my eyes. "Sorry. I'm...rattled."
A knocking came from my front door and I opened it while still talking to Joyce. My parents barreled in and Joyce started talking again.
"Don't worry about that. He sounds like a typical teen boy; I hear girls are worse. I'm sending a private investigator to your house. His name is Freddy Menendez. He's going to work with you to get the tracking turned on in Isaac's phone and find him."
"Okay, okay," I said, trying not to hyperventilate. I put the phone down, picked it up and thanked her, turned it off and set it back down.
"What's the latest?" my dad demanded. I filled him in on where we were at the moment, and before I was done Hal was there. I burst into tears again and hugged him tightly. In the middle of my confusion, my mother took over to apply some order. She ordered in some Chinese to start, engaged Kari in getting things ready for people to eat, and hustled my dad, Hal and I out to the living room. While she was bustling, someone knocked on the door.
"That must be the PI," I said quickly, dashing over and opening the door. A middle-aged Hispanic man stood in the doorway with a laptop case in his left hand.
"Mr. Menendez?" I asked, backing up.
"Freddy, please," he said, giving me a tight smile. "Let me get set up and find your boy."
He opened his laptop on the coffee table and I gave him the wifi password so he could get his program set up. He asked for the phone number and carrier, then pulled up a list of numbers for said carriers. After I told him which one, he had me call in on speaker to explain which phone I'd like to enable tracking on. It took a stupidly long amount of time and red tape, and while that was going on the food arrived. Finally the carrier turned the tracking on and provided us with some sort of code that would let us find the phone. Freddy started tweaking the program, slowly as far as I could tell. After more than fifteen minutes of fiddling he sighed.
"There is some interference," he said. "The phone must be in a place with little or no signal. We're going to have to give it some time."
I started to panic.
"Is there a history? Can you see where the phone has been?"
"Yes," Freddy said. "If you look at this view here, you can see the direction it was going from triangulating off active cell towers. Unfortunately, the signal degraded and we can't be sure exactly where we lost it or why we lost it – it's just not accurate enough."
"So what do we do?"
"For the short term, we wait. There are a lot of reasons for cell signals to degrade. For instance, there could be a lot of trees. Trees have a lot of water in them, and because water conducts electricity, it can interfere with cell reception. The phone could be at a low position – meaning if you climb to a higher place, like a hilltop then your reception will be better than in a valley. If it's raining where the phone is, that water can interfere."
I sighed and then let out a frustrated groan.
"Let me do some work on where the signal history stops, see what I can find," Freddy said and as he bent over his computer, Hal dragged me over to the table and put a plate down in front of me.
I put an elbow on the table and a hand on my forehead, feeling a splitting headache developing.
"It'll be okay," Hal soothed. "We'll find him. He'll bitch about us having Chinese without him. Don't worry, babe."
I patted his hand, grateful for his presence.
"Eat something, baby. Once we find him you don't want to collapse from hunger. You'll need your strength to strangle that bitch before I get my hands on her," my mother said.
I turned to look at her, wide eyed.
"What?" she asked. "I'm old. I need you to strangle her a little for me. My grip isn't what it used to be."
I covered my mouth in shock and then burst out in uncontrollable laughter. I wasn't happy, and maybe the laughter was just as scary to others as my crying – or more so. I don't know. Something shifted, though. I felt stronger after laughing, like I'd dumped some of the pain and maybe a few cracks weren't closing up, exactly, but weren't widening any either.
We ate with just the murmur of lowered voices floating through the room. There was tension, but it felt like busy tension. It was moving, trying to work itself out. After I ate a little, and tasted nothing, I went out on the little balcony to get some air. I closed my eyes and took a few breaths to try and clear my head. When we found Isaac, I was going to need my wits. The sliding door opened behind me and I assumed it was one of my parents or Hal. I was surprised to hear Kari's voice, instead.
"Brandon...I'm sure this completely isn't the time, but I can't really...I'm sorry. I can't imagine...Isaac loves you. I know Hal does. I'm sorry for being such a bitch to you," she said, her voice wavering. She was pulling at the bottom of her sleeves, stretching them over her palms and trapping them with her fingers.
I smiled at her, a tired one but it was the best I could do. "You've been through a lot, sweetie. Sometimes we just need a target. It's okay. I have big shoulders. Your brother," I said, tilting my head toward the apartment, "he's a great guy. I love him. I hope you can come to see me as more of a...person."
Her eyes were wet and she nodded, and that was all I could ask for right then from a stressed out girl still grieving the loss of her parents and the stress of her life being turned upside down. But it was a start. I was in no position to be overly flexible or worried about anyone else's emotions, given my own situation.
The door slid open and Hal stuck his head out. "Bran! Freddy has something!"
I dashed inside and over to Freddy's side. He had his cellphone pressed to his ear, speaking to someone. He was handing out coordinates. "Target is stationary, has been for approximately ten minutes." He made a few other one word replies and then turned the phone off.
"What is it?"
He stood. "We got a signal triangulation. Probably with the sun going down and the reduction of electromagnetic – oh, shit, you don't care!" he said and waved his hand. "We got a lock on the phone. Joyce called in the staties since the locals are an issue. We should head over."
My hands shook too much to drive, so my father drove Hal and I. Kari stayed with my mother, at my mother's request, to help straighten things up. That was my mother, being tactful and making a scared girl who was feeling out of place feel useful.
We followed Freddy's car, and the trip took nearly forty minutes. We were drawn up short by a large metal gate blocking the driveway of a long, two-story, institutional-looking building. There were bars on the windows and large vans that were usually reserved for church groups and group homes. The gate was locked, with a buzzer off to one side. Freddy pulled onto the grass by the side of the road and we pulled up behind him.
Freddy walked back toward us, but we had barely reached speaking range before Joyce's car pulled in near ours and a state trooper arrived as she climbed from her car.
The trooper stepped out and walked toward our group. "Evening, folks. Joyce Whitaker?"
"That's me, officer," she said, taking a half step forward with a folder of papers. "I have the court order placing Isaac Aaron Shelters in the custody of my client, Brandon Andrew Maddox. Sondra Du Morne, county worker, illegally removed my client's child and has placed him in this facility. I have here a sworn document by Ms. Du Morne's supervisor that there is no report on file of there being cause to remove Isaac from his home. We have requested an arrest warrant for Ms. Du Morne, and require your help to recover Isaac from this facility."
The trooper looked over the documents in Joyce's hand, repeating some of the information as if confirming the statements she'd made. "How do we know Mr. Shelters is inside this facility?"
"Officer, I'm Frederick Menendez, licensed private investigator," Freddy said and showed the officer his credentials. "I used tracking software on Isaac's phone that indicate the phone is on site."
"Okay, let's have us a look-see," the trooper said and strode to the stand that had a keypad, and what appeared to be a small camera mounted to it. He hit a button which was accompanied by a buzzing noise.
"Yes?" A static tinged voice filtered from a speaker.
"This is officer Gilbert from the state police, I am showing you my identification. I am ordering you to open this gate and produce a minor by the name of Isaac Aaron Shelters, who is believed to be on the campus."
"Of course, officer," the voice stated after a moment's hesitation. A loud buzzer sounded and a light flashed at the top of the gate as it rolled back. We walked across the parking lot as a group, trailing the police officer. We were met at a set of double doors and escorted to a sort of waiting room.
"The supervisor is on his way down, officer," the lady who'd let us in said. A minute and a half later a man in khakis, a polo shirt with the facility name over his heart and a tired expression walked in.
"Hello. What seems to be the problem?" he asked. The officer presented the documents and restated the requirement to produce Isaac.
The supervisor frowned. "This is very strange. Sondra Du Morne from social services just had Isaac placed here. We...This doesn't make sense."
"Where's my kid?" I demanded. The officer turned to look at me and held a hand up.
"Sir, remain calm," he said and turned back to the supervisor. "This paperwork seems legit. We can make some phone calls, but in the meantime let's get Issac down here."
The supervisor nodded, and turned away with a troubled expression on his face. Joyce gave me a thumbs up. I gave her a weak smile. Hal took my hand while my dad placed a steadying hand on my shoulder.
"This is a hell of a thing," the trooper said to us. "Has this Sondra lady lost her marbles?"
"I don't completely understand her game," Joyce said to him, shielding me from having to attempt a response. "Personally I think she uses the system to her advantage, holding kids out as a prize if people cooperate with her; her and her nephew, Detective Mosher."
He crossed his arms. "Mosher. I know that name. I wasn't aware he was still an officer."
"Maybe not for much longer," Joyce said grimly. We fell into silence. What was taking so long? Had he been hurt? Could they be smuggling him out a back door as we stood here, stupidly waiting? Was he-
"Brandon? Brandon!" The door opened and Isaac dashed across the space wearing some strange, thin garments and paper slippers. I scooped him close, turning him from the facility door in an effort to shield him. The tears were falling once more, but I felt nothing but strength as I redoubled my grip and lifted him from the ground, pulling his thin frame against my chest.
"I've got you. I've got you," I told him over and over. Or maybe I told myself. I placed a hand on the back of his head, keeping his cheek pressed to mine as I whispered my liturgy of belief that I had him, that he was safe. He felt so small in my arms, so thin and fragile. I almost imagined he'd been starved, even though it hadn't been a day since I'd seen him. My eyes were wet, overcome with emotion. My breath came in ragged gasps, but I had him. He was safe.
I finally set Isaac on his feet and my dad and Hal checked him over while I held his face in my hands. "Are you all right?" I asked, my voice shaking.
"Yeah," he said with a nod. "I knew you'd come. Sondra was acting kind of weird. She made up some crap about someone calling the abuse hotline on you and how she had to stash me someplace. I just didn't catch on until we were already here." He leaned to look past me at at the supervisor. "I told you!"
The supervisor glanced up, but immediately returned to the paperwork between Joyce and the officer.
"Joyce? Can we get his stuff and go?" I asked.
She held up a finger and turned back to the two men. After a few minutes the supervisor left and the officer turned toward us.
"He's going to grab Isaac's things. I'm going to grab my laptop and get statements from everyone."
"Officer, my client, would agree to meet at the barracks within forty-eight hours. As you can see, the family is exhausted and I believe I can fill in all the legal needs of your report in the short term."
The officer nodded briskly. "I understand. Sorry, regs are regs. I'll get my gear."
I sighed, but pulled Isaac by his shoulders close to my side. "You had me scared, kid."
"I don't know what it is with all these crazy people trying to steal me," Isaac said, shaking his head. It was such an unintentionally funny statement, we all started to chuckle. It only got worse as he repeatedly asked 'what?', looking at us in confusion. God, I love this kid.
It took us another hour and a half before we got to my apartment. Kari was asleep on the couch and Mom was sitting up in the kitchen, reading her phone and waiting.
"We're going to go over to the Motel 6 and get some rest," my dad said. "Let's get brunch tomorrow before we drive back, huh?"
"Okay. Thank you for coming Dad, Mom. I really needed you tonight."
"Of course, darling," my mother said quietly. "That girl is so smart! I loved talking to her. You have your work cut out for you, handsome," she said to Hal and gave him a small kiss on the cheek. I hugged my parents goodbye and they headed out.
"I'm tired, Dad – Bran!" Isaac said, turning red at his verbal stumble.
"Brush your teeth, buddy," I said to him. He leaned in and I hugged him close, kissed the top of his head and let him go. He surprised me by giving Hal a small hug before heading off to brush. He paused suddenly, turned around and lifted his nose in the air.
Hal snorted. "See?" He grinned at me.
"There may be some leftovers," I said, rolling my eyes. He pumped his fist and left the room.
"Well, I guess I should get Kari out to the car," Hal said.
"No. Stay with me?"
Hal smiled. "I didn't want to suggest it."
"You should. I could use someone to be close to tonight."
It took me a long time to drift off to sleep. I wasn't used to sleeping with anyone, but that wasn't it. The stress, the fear were all slow to roll off me. I knew it wasn't over, even if the outcome was decided. What did keep coming back to me was Isaac and his confidence that I would come for him. That I would, Isaac. That I would.
Hal was up and out the door to run Kari home so they could be fresh for work and school respectively. I took another day off, not that people seemed to be noticing. I kept Isaac from school as well, despite his argument to go.
"I'm sorry, I just feel better having you where I can see you until they catch Sondra, and until this Mosher guy isn't a threat," I told him.
"But now that I know, I wouldn't go with her. Didn't you say Mrs. Okoye was holding things up?"
"She was going to hold up your transcript, presumably from that place Sondra took you to. That doesn't mean she'd prevent anyone from kidnapping you. Sorry, I won't risk it." I stood firm, crossing my arms in front of him.
He sighed and flopped onto the couch as if this were just another point of disagreement on any other day. Was this resilience or idiocy? A little of both?
"Isaac," I said slowly, settling into the opposite end of the couch. "I was terrified yesterday. I thought the possibility was very real that I'd lost you. You seem...unaffected. What's going on?"
He looked up at me and the crease in his forehead eased considerably. "I told you. I knew you'd come for me. I was pissed when I figured it out, even felt pretty stupid if you want the truth, but I knew it wouldn't last. I knew you were coming for me."
I leaned back into the couch, mouth open. "That was enough for you?"
He tilted his head. "Duh. Someone tried to kidnap me once, but you wouldn't let them. What chance did she have, really?"
I shook my head and his expression softened.
"I'm sorry you were worried. I just..." he looked down at his phone and back up at me. "Tim asked me to the movies Friday, and I want to go. We were going to plan it in school today, but I'm not there and he's texting me...."
I smiled and wiped at my eyes. "Who's Tim? What about Liz?"
He shrugged. "Friends."
I smiled at him, just a little one. "Nothing more?"
He appeared to consider that. "Maybe. We'll see, I guess."
I cleared my throat. "Does one have the edge?"
His eyes narrowed. "Maybe," he said again, emphasizing the 'meh' sound. "Does it matter?"
I laughed and he grinned. "No, not at all."
We went to brunch with my parents, and they fawned over Isaac. Me too, if I'm being honest. Isaac told them in detail about how Sondra had picked him up and the line of weird garbage she'd spun at him to keep him where she'd wanted him. "She always seemed like she was the one in charge, you know? Or that she could make things happen. My mom was afraid of her, in a way. Not because she was afraid she'd take her kids, but I think just because it seemed like Sondra had power."
"You're very perceptive," my dad said to him.
We did some light grocery shopping, and back home, marinated steaks to grill for dinner with Hal and Kari that night. While the meat marinated, Isaac went to play a game and I went into my room to call Joyce to see where things stood.
"I'm glad you called," she said. "It looks like the district attorney may do some of the heavy lifting for us. I think the trail of wrong-doing by Sondra Du Morne and Detective Dontre Mosher could be deeper than we realized. The detective is on administrative leave pending an investigation, and Sondra was found at her home this morning. She's also been suspended pending investigation."
"Isaac wants to go back to school, but I'm a little leery," I told her.
"Give me a little time to work on getting the school legally notified that only you can pick him up. I'm guessing you'd have no problem with picking him up and dropping him for school?"
"Not at all. I'll figure out what to do for work, but his safety is the first priority."
"Okay, well let me do what you're paying me for, and I'll reach out as soon as I have something. Relax a bit, I don't think these two want to make things worse for themselves. You never know, but try to relax. Enjoy your son."
I sat quietly, thinking. As long as we were where Mosher or Du Morne could find Isaac, he was potentially in danger. He would probably love a house with a yard. Maybe close to my parents, so they could see him or maybe help if I had to work. I let the idea work through my head and decided to call my dad to see what he thought. I laid out my thoughts for him and he let out a small sigh.
"Brandon, you're a good man," he said. "I'm proud of you. I don't think you're thinking completely clearly, but let's walk through this, okay?"
"That's why I called," I said to him as I stood and paced my room. "These people, I don't know what they might or might not do – and that's what has me so worried. Plus, Isaac deserves a yard to play in, a school where he's safe and can be close to family."
"Son, it's not that I disagree with any of those things in theory. In practice, the real world gets in the way. I think you're right to worry about those people. I'm not there and it concerns me, I can tell you. As far as a house, sure it's nice. Great. But Isaac is a teen. At most you'll have him at home for another five years or so, right? Why would you buy a larger home and then no longer need all that room before it would be paid for?"
I frowned lightly. "Yeah, that is a consideration. Kids are living with their parents longer these days, though."
"Sure. But he'll be an adult, then. He won't need you to protect him forever, Brandon."
"I don't know. I needed my parents yesterday."
He chuckled. "You needed support and love, but not protection. Besides, what about Hal? Do you really want to move an hour away from him? What about Isaac's friends at school? It's hard on a kid to change schools at his age." He paused and said, "As a parent, son, sometimes we have to live with our fear, rather than being able to change what scares us. It's a horrible price."
"You're right," I said with a sigh, nodding my head. "I hadn't even thought to ask Hal. I haven't asked Isaac – he's completely recovered, by the way."
My dad laughed. "His faith is all in you, Brandon. He was pretty defiant last night, telling that guy how he told them you would be coming for him. He's going to be okay as long as he has you, and that's no small thing."
I paused, feeling that out. "It's a little overwhelming. I can't protect him from everything."
"No parent can, son. We learned that the hard way with your brother. Your sister too, after a fashion. We learned it with you, as we tried to hold you together after Ray and Amber. It's not about keeping the world out, son. It's about being there. He's figured out that you'll be there for him, and that gives him faith enough to face the world."
"It's a lot to live up to" I said quietly.
"Eh. Just keep doing what you're doing. Speaking of moving, though...maybe your mom and I should move closer to you. At our age, having someone close by in case we needed help isn't a bad thing. We could be closer to see Isaac more frequently. I think your mother is dying to take Kari shopping. It could be a good thing."
I smiled. "I think that would be a great thing."