Steve looked down at his wristwatch while sipping his coffee. Seeing how he had another hour to kill before his meeting with Oscar he decided to grab another slice of apple pie and take a few more minutes to read the morning paper. It wasn’t long before a loud thumping on the front door came to disturb his peace. Puzzled, he set his cup of coffee on the counter and stepped up to the door that he opened at a crack.
“Mister please,” the ten-year-old battered boy whimpered. “Please, help me.” Steve grabbed him by the waist before his knees buckled. He lifted him in his arms and carried him to the sofa.
“What happened to you?”
“My mom. She…she wants to hurt me,” the boy wept, his hands clawing at Steve’s arms with an iron grip. “Please don’t let her find me,” he pleaded with terror in his eyes.
“I won’t. I promise.” Steve assured. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.” He started to rise to go fetch a wet towel when the boy gripped his arm.
Steve squatted down and ran a hand through the boy’s hair. “I’m not. I’m just going to the kitchen to get a towel and some water.” The boy nodded but fearing his saviour would disappear out of sight, he follow his every move until he returned to his side with the items. Gingerly Steve peeled off the boy’s crumpled shirt to reveal an appalling number of fresh cuts and bruises. It was hard for him not to feel disgusted by the barbaric treatment inflicted on the young boy. He felt his anger simmer with each red patch he cleaned. “I’m going to ask a doctor to look at those cuts. They might get infected.”
“No please. You can’t tell anyone or my mom and dad will find me.”
“Tell me. Did they follow you here?”
“I don’t think so,” he sniffed. “I escaped through the window that was left open. I think she didn’t know it was unlocked. I had to get out.”
“You did good.” Steve’s proud smile wrung a flickering curl on the boy’s lips. “You’re going to stay with me today, okay?” The boy nodded enthusiastically. “What’s your name?”
“Hi Andy, I’m Steve. Do you have a last name?”
“I don’t know my last name.”
“What about your parents? What are their names?”
“Jane and--- and Henry. That’s what they call each other.”
“Okay. Are you hungry?”
“I have some apple pie and milk. Would you like some?” The boy nodded excitedly. He clasped Steve’s hand and followed him to the kitchen. “Do you hurt much?”
“A little. But it’s not like before.”
“Before? How often do they beat you?”
“Almost everyday because they say I’m not being a good boy but I don’t do anything bad, honest.”
“I believe you.” Steve sliced a piece of pie and put it in a plate in front of Andy who’s eyes widened and mouth watered in anticipation of sinking his teeth into the only solid food he’s had for three days. Steve stood amazed at the swiftness with which the boy wolfed down his snack. ‘Not only mistreated but mal nourished as well,’ he surmised to himself. He didn’t have to ask the famished child if he wanted another slice; his appetite speaking for itself.
While Andy enjoyed his slice of heaven, Steve made his way to the phone to call Oscar. Andy panicked and jumped down the stool to lunge to Steve. “NO!” He shrieked with terrorized eyes. “No, please, don’t call anyone or they’ll find me.”
Steve hunched down in front of the boy and clasped both his hands. “I’m calling a good friend of mine I was supposed to meet this morning. I just want to tell him that I won’t be there.”
“He’ll ask why.”
“I suppose he will but don’t worry. He knows how to keep a secret.”
“Yeah, I promise.” Steve tousled the boy’s hair. Andy reciprocated the gesture by messing up Steve’s neatly combed hair. Both broke into a laugh. The boy’s eyes filled up with tears as he fell into Steve’s arms and hugged him with all of his might. Taken aback by the sudden outburst of affection Steve knelt down and slowly wrapped his arms around the shivering body; his heart aching for the helpless child that found his way to his doorstep.
“Thank you, Steve,” the boy sniffled, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
“You’re welcomed.” With his thumbs Steve dabbed at the remaining tears underneath the boy’s eyes and then gave him a gentle slap on the buttock. “Go on, chap. You finish your snack while I talk to my friend.”
Steve picked up the phone and dialled Oscar’s office number. Callahan picked up the call and put the communication through. “Steve? Why are you calling? We meet in less than an hour.”
“That’s the reason I’m calling, Oscar. I’m afraid I won’t be able to make the meeting. Something unexpected came up.”
Oscar removed his reading glasses and leaned forward on his desk with a concern frown on his face. “Anything wrong?”
“Yes and no. I have a young visitor. His name is Andy and---well you should see him Oscar. The boy is covered with cuts and bruises. Says he ran away from an abusive home.”
“Do you know who he is?”
“I have no idea.” Steve stole a glance at Andy enjoying his snack. “He doesn’t look familiar. He can’t tell me his last name. I thought maybe you could run a check on him. He’s about nine, ten year of age, light-brown hair, and blue eyes. Says his parents are named Jane and Henry. He must be living in the vicinity or how else could he have landed on my doorstep?”
Oscar jogged down the information on a pad. “Got it. I’ll put Harry on it and with any luck will have…” he choked on the sentence upon hearing a loud crashing noise on the other end. “Steve? Steve are you there?” Oscar shouted frantically, catching Russ off guard as he entered the office. He waved him in.
“Steve? You scared me half to death. What was that crash?”
“Someone threw a rock through the window. Don’t worry we’re both safe. Just a little shaken up.” Steve looked down at Andy latching on to his pants with a vice-like grip and put a reassuring hand on his shivering shoulder. “I caught the license number.”
Oscar quickly noted down the info that he passed along to Russ and motioned to the guest phone. Russ gave an acknowledging nod and contacted Danny to get an ID on the car’s owner.
“There’s a message attached to the rock.”
“What does it say?” Oscar stole a glance at Russ on the other line as he waited for Steve to smooth out the crumpled paper and read the note.
“It says: ‘Let the boy go now and no harm will come to you.’”
Andy’s head jerked up. “No!” he shrieked.
“Don’t worry, Andy,” Steve mollified the hysterical boy, pulling him closer to him. “I’m not letting you go.”
“But it says…”
“I don’t care what the note says. I’ve dealt with these kinds of people before. I know how to stop them.”
“Pal, that doesn’t sound like an idle threat to me,” Oscar surmised on the other end. “I’ll dispatch a few men around your house to keep the varmints away while we get an ID on them.”
“That’d be a good idea. I don’t know who these people are but clearly they don’t know who they’re dealing with,” Steve said with an edge of anger.
“Steve, don’t you go do anything foolish,” Oscar warned.
“I won’t, Oscar. I have the boy to think about.”
“You stay put. Russ and I will be right there.”
“Be careful. There’s not telling what they are capable of. Me I’ve got the tools.”
“You’re not bullet proof, Steve. Don’t be a hero until we get there.”
“I won’t if they don’t try anything.”
“We’re on our way.” No sooner had Oscar hung up and grabbed his jacket that Callahan buzzed his desk. “What is it Callahan?”
“It’s Danny Whelan. He says he has your information regarding a license number?”
“Put him through.” Oscar finished putting on his jacket and stood ready to scribble down the information. “Danny? What have you got?”
“Something more than you bargained for.”
Meanwhile, at the Austin residence….
“This is where I live,” Andy showed the sketchy drawing of a split-level house that Steve found strangely familiar.
“Very good, Andy. And you say it’s not far from here?” Andy nodded. “Would you be able to show it to me?”
“I guess so. But I don’t want them to find me.”
“We will go in my friend’s car. That way no one will see you.”
“Will you come with me?”
“Of course. Can’t get rid of me that easily, kiddo.” Steve playfully ruffled Andy’s hair, making him giggle. Steve’s breath caught in his throat at the boy’s laugh. He locked eyes with those mesmerizing sapphire blues that stirred emotion deep down inside. What was it about Andy that sent his senses reeling? He was awakening a feeling he had resigned himself never to contemplate: Fatherhood.
Realizing he was treading on dangerous territory, Steve shook his head clear of that white-picket-fence prospect to concentrate to the matter at hand. A knock at the door triggered his inner alarm. He felt a grip on his arm.
“Steve please, don’t go,” Andy begged.
Steve held up his finger in the air. “Wait a second.” He flashed a lopsided gin at the coded knock. “That’s my friend.” He clasped Andy’s hand and led him to the door. One look at Oscar and Russ and Andy cowered behind Steve’s legs, latching on to his pants.
“Not yet. Hi Russ.”
“And I presume this is Andy?” Oscar hunched down and extended his arm to the frightened boy who buried his face in Steve’s pants.
“Andy, this is my friend Oscar. Don’t be afraid. He’s here to help you.”
“Hi Andy.” The boy risked a peek at the intimidating man but refused to clasp his hand.
“Andy did a great drawing of his house. He says he could recognize it if we were to drive around the block.”
“That won’t be necessary. We have all the information we need. Huh listen…is there somewhere private we can talk?”
“Sure,” Steve answered with an eyebrow raised in suspicion at Oscar’s request. “We can go in the study.” Oscar nodded and made his way down the hall while Steve asked Andy to remain in the living room with Russ, who instantly caught the boy’s attention with his walkie-talkie.
“Okay Oscar, what do you have?” Steve asked boldly as he closed the door behind him.
“Do you remember a woman by the name of Leslie Rawlings?”
“That’s a dumb question,” Steve scoffed. “She and I were an item for a good ten months before she was transferred to another branch. Long distance relationships never worked for me,” he ended on a wistful tone.
“Did you know she had a son?”
Steve’s eyes widened in shock. “No.”
“He disappeared eight years ago. Here’s his picture of him as a toddler.” He handed the photo of a two-year-old to Steve. “I say the resemblance is striking. Leslie thought maybe he’d been kidnapped by an old foe but there was no ransom note, no threats, nothing. Then she thought of the father but he denied having taken the boy and there was no proof that he did. Apparently we were wrong.”
“But Andy referred to Jane and Henry as his parents.”
“Henry Tyler is. Not his wife. Or so he thinks.”
Steve’s frown deepened. “What is it that you’re not telling me?”
“We checked the birth certificate. Leslie listed you as the father.”
Steve sprung up in his bed with a sharp intake of air and glanced at the alarm clock glimmering a bright red 4:15 AM. He ran a hand over his flushed face and eased his head back on the pillow. He took a couple of deep breaths to regulate his respiration, then turned on his right side to hug his other pillow. He spent the next two hours searching the meaning behind this odd dream. When the clock struck seven he picked up the phone and contacted Oscar at his house.
Oscar was in the bathroom shaving when the phone rang. With a puzzled frown on his face he set the razor down and went to answer it in his bedroom. “Hello?”
“Oscar? It’s Steve.”
“Steve?” He perched himself on the edge of the mattress. “Something wrong?”
“I don’t know maybe. Can we meet at your office today? I need to talk to you about something. It’s been bugging me for the past three hours and I need answers.”
“Sure. No problem. I should be at the office at nine. I’ll be waiting for you.”