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Randy was intensely nervous as he sat in the diner, nursing a too-watery Coke. This cop, an Officer Kowalski, seemed on the level in offering him an alternative to the group home he feared, but like every teen, he "knew" to be skeptical of anything a cop said. He sat across from Randy, chatting idly with his wife and the little Asian girl he said was his daughter, who seemed excited at the prospect of meeting somebody. Every so often she'd ask something in a language that sounded something like Chinese to Randy, all sing-song sounds, and the cop or his wife would answer her in what he supposed was the same language. Billy Barstow, who had picked his pocket, sat in a corner booth in handcuffs, glowering at Randy and the cop.
The door to the diner opened, and in strode a tall, blond, hunky-looking man with a take-charge attitude. Tagging along behind him were two boys who looked to be about Randy's age, 13, one who looked a lot like the cop's little girl – Randy wondered if he was her big brother – and another who looked something like a younger version of the man – blond, slender, kind of cute. He wondered if the kid was the man's son, or maybe a much younger brother.
The little girl gave a delighted squeal, and called out something in that funny language. The boy gave her a delighted smile, and answered in the same language. She ran over to him; he picked her up and held her, with a lot less effort than Randy would have thought. Then the boy winced, and let out a small involuntary groan of pain. The cop quickly darted over and took the girl.
"Chay was hurt today in a fight, defending some other kids, Liang," he said gently to her. "Holding you hurt his side, where he got cut."
"Oh, I'm sorry!" the little girl said to the boy.
"It's all right; I just tried to stand up too straight while I was holding you," he said back to her. "Come here; let's sit down together." He slipped into a booth, gave her a really warm smile, and patted the seat next to him. She gave him a great smile, slipped in next to him and snuggled up to him, talking in that Asian language a mile a minute to him.
The cop's wife hovered, evidently not trusting the boy fully. "It's all right, Radomila," the cop said. "He's a good boy; I'll tell you about him later, privately." He made a gesture to her that even Randy could read – 'there's things I don't want to say in front of the kid'. Still concerned but mollified, she slipped into the booth across from the Asian boy and girl.
The blond kid came up to Randy. "Hi, I'm Andy," he said. "C'mon, we need to talk privately," gesturing at another booth a short ways away. The tall blond guy began talking with the cop in hushed voices.
Randy joined Andy in the booth. "Listen," Andy said to him abruptly as he sat down, "I don't know you at all, but I don't believe in conning people. Why'n't you start by telling me why my friends and I ought to help you, how you got into a situation where Kowalski called for us. Then I'll tell you about us – assumin' you convince me you're cool."
"Hey, I didn't ask for you guys to do anything," Randy said, beginning to get mad. "I'm supposed to go into a sucky group home 'cause my parents got killed yesterday evening, and when I told the cop that, he called some lawyer dude. I don't know nothing about you guys, and I didn't ask for your help."
"Your parents got killed last night?" Andy was startled.
"Um, yeah. A drunk driver slammed into them, and they died in the hospital. And this bitch of a social worker acted like she couldn't wait to get me into a group home. So I took off out the window and ran. If the kid hadn't took my wallet, I'd be laying low now, not waiting to get hauled away. So take your 'convince me' attitude and stick it – I didn't ask for you. Maybe the lawyer can do something to help."
"Hey, dude, I'm really sorry," Andy said. "I didn't know … I mean, about your parents and all. But, um, the world's full of con artists, and before we ask somebody to live with us, we gotta know they're somebody we can trust. Just what you said, and how you said it, means you're somebody we want. Now I gotta ask you to forgive me for coming on like I did. The only time I ever asked anybody to join us before you was Ray, and, well, that was special."
"I guess." Randy was begrudging. "But what's this about living with you? What about what the lawyer was going to do?"
"We're 'what the lawyer was going to do', dude. Maybe I ought to explain. By the way, I'm Andy."
"Randy Hollister." Randy's temper had cooled, but he was still a little guarded about Andy's attitude.
"Hmm... I know what Donny and Gil would want me to say right now, but I think I'll level with you completely. Then you can make a decision with all the facts. And I am sorry for the attitude I copped before."
"'S all right," Randy said, not quite meaning it.
"No, it ain't," Andy answered. "But maybe it will be. Anyway, for the last few months, I've been living in an apartment with six other guys. We made our own rules, didn't answer to anyone except each other. It was great. A few days ago I brought home Ray – he was number eight. Then this morning the cops were at the door, and I found out some stuff about us that I'm still not sure how to deal with. You see, I thought we were more or less squatting in the apartment, with Donny – he's the oldest of us – pulling off some sort of con to keep us there. Well, by the time the cops were through, I found out that Donny actually owns the building we live in, and Gil – he's the lawyer over there talking with the cop – was our legal guardian. I'd never met him before. Supposedly he keeps a hands off approach, lets Donny run things – and how Donny runs things is to have us all agree on how we'll handle things. And he's sure come through for us, two or three times today alone. But I'm still not totally sure I trust him. You know how that works – trust a grown-up, and he makes a decision out of 'responsibility' that messes up your life. He told me bluntly he wouldn't do that except in one case, and what that case was. So I'm ready to give him the benefit of the doubt – but I can't tell you that you need to do the same thing."
Randy was following this along. "So who's in charge there?" he asked.
"We are," Andy said. "I suppose Donny is – he's the oldest of us, and mostly everybody looks to him to say what's what. But most of what he does is to get us to talk things through and make decisions together, and then agree to live by them. He speaks up, says what he thinks, but he doesn't try to boss us."
"So basically, you're free to do what you want?" Randy was intrigued despite himself.
'Yeah, pretty much." Andy changed the subject. "Let me see if I got this right: your parents were killed in a car accident last night, you spent the night at the hospital with them and saw them die, then a social worker was ready to haul you off to a group home first thing, and you grabbed your chance and ran?"
"Yep, that's pretty much it," Randy agreed.
"So, how did you end up here with Officer Kowalski holding you for the juvy authorities and calling Gil in?"
"Well, I ran into this kid, and he offered to take me to their hideout for the night. That's him over there," Randy said, pointing at Billy.
"And he picked your pocket and ran, and you chased him?"
"Sort of. Um, lean over here; this is kind of embarrassing," Randy said, feeling a blush come on. He leaned towards Andy and said, "He offered to give me a blow job, and lifted my billfold out of my hip pocket while he was doing it."
Andy laughed, then sobered as Randy looked hurt. "Sorry; I wasn't laughing at you, just at the embarrassing way he got your wallet. He'll have fun explaining that one to the other guys in juvy lockup!"
Randy laughed this time, seeing the humor in it. Andy said, "For what it's worth, I'd have probably been in your shoes if the same thing had happened to me. But I guess that means you won't have any problem with the fact that, um, some of the guys in the apartment are gay?"
Randy's blush redoubled. "No, um, I don't have a problem with that." He felt flustered and tongue-tied as to what to say next.
Chay slipped away from his one-girl fan club and joined them. "Hi, Randy, I'm Chay," he said easily. "I guess Andy's been telling you a bit about us, and finding out about what your situation is?"
Andy spoke up. "Yeah. I leveled with him about Gil and the stuff that came out this morning. Told him a little about the apartment, and found out his parents got killed last night, and child welfare wants to put him in a group home. Naturally, he took his chance and ran."
"So what would you like to know?" Chay asked Randy.
"Well, um..." Whatever it was that was on Randy's mind was destined to remain unsaid, as a husky man in his 40s and a gaunt, hatchet-faced woman of about the same age walked in.
"Ah, there you are; come with us," the man said, advancing on Randy and reaching for his shoulder.
"Not so fast!" Gil and Kowalski were both up off the stools they'd been sitting on at the counter, talking over coffee.
Gil looked at Andy and Chay. "Has he agreed yet?" he asked.
"I was filling him in," Andy said defensively. "I was gonna give him the choice after he knew what he was getting into."
"Well, he'll have to work with just what he's learned so far; we're out of time," Gil replied. He looked at Randy and said, "Have you heard enough to be willing to live with these guys and their roommates?"
"You'll be Gil's ward legally, but you'll never notice it," Chay volunteered. Gil smiled at him.
"Um, yeah, I guess," Randy said, feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.
"Enough of this; we have a pickup order on a runaway to execute," the husky man said.
"Stop right there, Burton," Kowalski said. "You too, Amelia. This kid lost his parents less than 24 hours ago, and it's a sign of what's wrong with social services in this burg that nobody has had a minute's compassion for him, just a need to establish custody and get him where you want him."
"We have an order from Child Services authorizing us to pick him up as a runaway," the woman, evidently Amelia, said belligerently.
"In this state, custody of minors is set by a judge, not by a bureaucrat in Child Services," Gil said. "I am prepared to assume emergency custody of young Mr. Hollister, if it is his wish. And I do have authority to take emergency placements."
"And just who are you?" Amelia asked with a touch of pique.
Gil wordlessly handed her his business card, then thought about it, and gave additional cards to Burton, Kowalski, and to Randy. "In case you need to get in touch with me," he said to Randy.
Chay meanwhile had said something to Mrs. Kowalski quietly in his and Liang's native language. Smiling, she handed him her cellphone. "Call Jonah?" he now asked Gil, who looked startled for a moment and then nodded agreement. Chay smiled and began punching in a number.
Kowalski cocked an eyebrow at Gil. "We may as well get the custody question resolved right now," Gil said by way of explanation. This answer, however, was met with puzzled looks from everyone but Chay, who giggled.
"We got our orders," Burton said truculently, grabbing Randy's arm to pull him bodily from the booth.
"Unhand him!" Gil ordered. Then, rapid-fire, "Randy, I am prepared to act as your attorney, regardless of whether you choose to join Andy and Chay and their brothers. If you do not wish me to do so, speak up now; otherwise I'll assume that role. Officer, I have reason to believe that a formal custody order has not yet been filed, and our trusty Child Services bureaucracy is seeking to build up its empire. Kindly examine any paperwork they have with them, and if you do not see a valid custody order signed by a judge, and they persist in attempting to seize this young man's person, we will press charges for assault and attempted kidnapping."
"Jonah will be here shortly," Chay interjected. "He did not sound pleased."
"No surprise there," Gil smirked.
"I'm scared, Mommy," Liang said.
Chay turned to her and calmly began chanting something rhythmical in their language. She smiled and snuggled up to her mother. Kowalski looked on with a pleased smile.
"Thank you, Chay; I'd forgotten that lullaby," he said. "Amelia, let's see your paperwork." He looked through it, and held a page up to Gil, who took it and looked at it carefully.
"That's a commitment order, with Judge Markham's signature, all right," Gil said. "But I notice three interesting things about it. First, see the blank where Randy's name has been filled in. There's something missing there. Second, notice the date. And finally, look at the signature."
Kowalski looked at the paper carefully. "It does seem strange there's a commitment order dated three weeks ago for a boy who had two parents until yesterday. But what about the name?"
"I've seen enough of those forms; they're produced with a blank line where the social worker fills in the name before bringing it to a judge – a three-inch long black line where the name can be written in. There's no line there; it looks like someone used white-out on a copy of a form to produce this one. And that's backed up by the signature: it's in black. Jonah Markham always signs in blue and then embosses his signature with his seal of office."
"Yeah, he does," Chay agreed. "When he did Keith and Lucas's custody orders this afternoon, he did just that."
"Where did this paperwork come from, Amelia?" Gil asked, and there was steel in his voice now. Kowalski tensed.
"Albert sent us out with it," she said. "He called Burton and me into his office right after the cops called, and said to come get the Hollister kid, and take the Barstow kid to secure detention." Everyone looked over at the largely-ignored handcuffed boy.
Andy gathered Chay and Randy's eyes with his own. "We're not taking him home, unless there's something more here than we know already. But I have a hunch that sending him to secure detention is not the right move. Any of us could have ended up there, after all."
Chay nodded. "Let's go talk to him," he said. "Gil, it'll be a few minutes before Jonah gets here; let us see what we can come up with. Randy, you were his victim; you're in with us on this conversation."
Gil nodded. "Don't commit to any risks, guys," he said.
"I just want answers," Andy said back. The three boys walked over to the corner booth.
"You two, park it right there," Kowalski said to Randy's erstwhile detainers, pointing to the booth they'd just vacated. "If I need to, I can come up with reasons to place you under arrest, on suspicion of one thing or another. We'll just wait on the judge, and see what he has to say, instead." He turned to his wife. "Looks like I'll be a while. Maybe you'd better take Liang home."
"I wanna stay and see Chay," the little girl said with a pout.
"Now, honey...." Mrs. Kowalski began.
Chay spoke up from the corner booth. "Liang, I'm going to be tied up helping these boys. Come give me a kiss and go home with your Mama, and I'll come see you sometime soon."
"Okay," she said, less than happy but mollified by the compromise. She ran over, gave Chay a big kiss, and darted back to her mother, who took her hand and walked her out of the diner.
Chay turned on his warm smile to the fullest as he sat down with Billy. "Hey, Billy, I'm Chay. and this is Andy. You already met Randy here. Now you can believe us or not, just as you choose, but we came over here to see if we can help, and to get you to convince us we should help you. Street smarts will tell you you ought to dummy up, and not say anything without a lawyer. What we've got to tell you is the exact opposite – if there's any reason why we ought to stick our necks out for you, it's definitely in your best interests to tell us."
Andy took the ball. "What you need to know is that we're a bunch of guys who've been where you've been, and we don't willingly let anyone get sent to juvy secure facility if we can do anything to help. And we have a couple of friends in high places – just how many, I'm only now learning myself." He paused and gave Billy a crocodile smile. "Friends in low places, too. If you do go to juvy, it's really easy for us to pass the word that you ripped off another runaway, and just how you got his billfold from him." He smiled mirthlessly; Randy blushed. "If we do that, you'll be guaranteed a high protein diet in lockup, but you may get tired of what you have to do to get it."
"Another runaway?" Billy said. "He was wearing nice clothes and had beaucoup bucks in his billfold."
"And he lost both his parents in a car accident last night, and was on the run from Child Services," Chay said, all serious now. "And the money you took was all the money he had in the world."
A look of shock came across Billy's face. "I'm sorry, dude; I didn't know. You looked like a rich kid who'd taken off because his parents refused to give in to one of his whims. And you know, you do what you gotta to keep alive."
"Ripping off other kids is not what you gotta do," Andy said heatedly.
"Besides," Randy said, "if what you gave me was a fair sample, you could earn as much as you almost took me for in a single night!"
"He was that good?" Chay asked with a grin.
Randy reddened. "Well, it's not like I've had all that many for comparison, but, um...." Chay and Andy were laughing at his discomfiture; after a second, Billy did too.
"Glad you enjoyed it," he said.
"Well, yeah, just not a hundred dollars worth!" a thoroughly embarrassed Randy replied, causing everyone to laugh harder. Gil gave them an eagle eye.
"So, how did you end up on the streets?" Andy asked Billy.
"What difference does it make? I'm going to get locked up anyway, now," Billy said, abruptly sobering.
"See that guy over here?" Chay said. "Today alone he's kept ten kids from having to go into Child Services custody – eleven if you count Randy." Randy looked startled at this. "If we say to help, I can almost guarantee he'll give you all the help you need – and he's one of the top lawyers in town. And, um, I have an in with the judge who's coming here to straighten out Randy's custody in a few minutes."
"More like the other way around, so I hear!" Andy couldn't help ribbing Chay, who blushed but laughed.
Billy thought about this for a minute, seemed to reach a conclusion, and said, "Well, it's like this...."
Editor's Notes: Now that is just plain not fair. I think that we readers should strike for longer chapters, or fewer cliffhangers. Somehow, I had a feeling that Billy was not going to turn out to be a total piece of crap. I think he might actually turn out to be a good kid.
Thanks, D and B, for another great chapter in this heartwarming story.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher