It was a cold, dark night as Dante Strong patrolled the small rural town he swore to protect. All was quiet except for the bar at the east end of town, but that was to be expected since it was Friday night. He’d already driven by twice, and the bartender hadn’t called for assistance so far, but it wasn’t uncommon for fights to break out. He had noticed a woman sitting in a truck the first time he drove by and thought she was alone, but the second time he noticed she was holding a baby. His stomach turned at the thought of her man inside the bar while she sat waiting for him. He decided to drive by again to see if the truck was still there; he wanted to make sure the woman and baby were warm. He was glad it was gone. Hopefully the woman was driving because it had been parked in front of the bar for the past six hours. It was two thirty in the morning so the parking lot was empty except for the bartender’s car and two others he recognized. He drove around the building to see if there were any people lurking in the back, but it all seemed to be clear.
To be sure, he turned the spotlight on and shone it in all the shadows, and then noticed a bare foot sticking out from behind the dumpster. He positioned the cruiser so the headlights were shining directly on the person attached to the foot, and recognized the woman who he’d seen sitting in the truck. His gut twisted once again, seeing her holding the baby and a small boy tightly against her frail body. He got out and walked toward her, blocking the light that had been shining in her eyes. “Ma’am, what happened to the truck you were sitting in earlier this evening?”
“Walt left with a real woman, but he’ll be back to pick us up,” she said softly.
By the way she answered he knew it wasn’t the first time she and the children were made to wait on the asshole. “Who is Walt?”
“He’s…he’s my friend.”
“Is he the father of your children?”
“Mommy, I’m cold,” the little boy said as he tried to snuggle closer to his mother.
Dante’s heart broke for the three of them. “What’s your name?”
“What is Walt’s surname?”
She hesitated. “His name is Walter Black.”
“Do you have any identification?”
She hesitated again before answering his question. “No.”
“What is your birthdate?” She hitched the baby up onto her shoulder and tugged her son closer to her. She was stalling for some reason, and Dante wanted to know why. “Ms. James, I need you to answer the question.”
“It’s in June.”
That was a lie if Dante ever heard one. “I need to ask you more questions, and these children need to get out of the cold, so I’ll be taking you to the station.”
“No, I can’t leave. Walt said to stay here,” she rushed to say.
“Ma’am, I wasn’t giving you a choice.” Dante crouched down and held out his hands to the boy, and to his surprise the little guy leaned right into them. He lifted him up and settled him above his gun belt and then held out his hand to Eliza. “Ma’am, it’ll be warm at the station and the children can sleep comfortably there.”
“After I answer the questions, will you bring us back?”
“Yeah. Grab my hand and I’ll help you to your feet.” Dante had no intention of bringing her and the children back. If Walt wanted to find them he would show up at the station sooner or later. He didn’t have car seats for the children, so he put them in the back and buckled them in with a little ingenuity, and drove at a snail’s pace. “Do you live here in the mountains, or were you traveling?”
“We came from Oregon.”
“Do you have family in Oregon?” He snuck a peek at her in the mirror; he wanted to see her face when she answered so he could determine if she was lying again.
That wasn’t a lie so he decided to ask another question. “What were you doing in Oregon?” She had no idea his specialty was interrogation and intelligence; he’d been one of the best the armed forces had ever known.
“We were living with a friend of Walt’s until the baby was born.”
“What are the names of your children?”
“My name is Junior,” the boy said softly.
“So you’re named after your father?”
“His name is Ken, and my daughter’s name is Barbie.”
Dante just about choked. Who the hell would name their children Barbie and Ken? Or was that a lie? “Those are great names.”
“Thank you,” she said as her chin jutted out.
Dante caught the pride in Eliza’s voice and knew that their names really were Barbie and Ken, and all he could think was, How bizarre. When he pulled into the parking lot, he parked next to Garrison’s cruiser. The night had been slow, and if he had to guess, he’d say he’d find his brother playing solitaire on the computer.
He walked in with the boy on his hip and Eliza following close behind. Garrison was taking a huge bite of his burger when he looked up and proceeded to chew quickly.
“Dante,” he said with question in his voice.
It wasn’t every day he came walking into the station with a woman and children; in fact he had never done such a thing. “Garrison, this is Eliza James and her two children, Ken and Barbie.” He gave his brother a glare so he would know not to say anything about the names.
Garrison stood to shake Eliza’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Go ahead and have a seat here.” Dante put his hand on the metal chair in front of his desk.
Eliza sat and a shiver ran through her. “I’ll get you a coat and blankets for the children.” Dante said.
“I’ll get them,” Garrison said as he walked away.
Now that he had ample light he could see how underweight Eliza and her son were. They were also dirty enough to not have bathed in a couple of weeks. His moral code held women and children in the highest regard and men like Walt in the opposite. Dante was fully on board to inflict as much pain as he possibly could into the piece of shit if the opportunity presented itself. The woman and children who sat before him needed help, and he had the means to make life better for the three of them. His mind whirled thinking of ways to make that happen without exposing himself and his brothers to the world. They had chosen this rural area to live in peace; it was far away from the headquarters of the multibillion-dollar company they owned and ran from behind the scenes. The corporate world didn’t interest Dante or his brothers; wearing a suit and tie made Dante’s neck itch just thinking about it. But that wasn’t the only reason why they were running their business from afar. When Dante and his brothers were boys, their parents had been killed in a plane crash because someone had tampered with the engine. Eliza shivered again and his thoughts focused on her and also what he would do if Walt did show up and Eliza insisted on going with him.
Garrison walked back into the room. “I’ll hold the baby while you put the jacket on.”
Eliza handed her sleeping daughter to Garrison, put the jacket on, and then tucked her daughter underneath it when Garrison handed the baby girl back to her. She sat and Ken crawled up onto her lap. Garrison draped the blanket around him and took a seat at his desk. “Can you ask the questions quickly, please? I need to get back to the bar,” she said politely, but with desperation.
Dante’s eyes locked with Garrison’s and he knew his brother understood what was going on. Garrison was just as pissed off as Dante was about Eliza’s situation. “I’ll need you to tell me of your whereabouts for the past two weeks.” Dante asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“Where have you been for the past two weeks?”
“I’ve been in the truck.”
Dante heard Garrison growl and shot him a look. “Where did you meet Walt?”
“He’s my brother.”
Dante and Garrison both shot out of their chairs, and Dante ran his hand through his short hair. Garrison paced while Dante got his emotions under control. “Why don’t you have the same surname as Walt?” Dante asked.
“I don’t know.” Eliza softly moved her son’s head so he wasn’t staring at the food on Garrison’s desk.
Dante gave Garrison a nod and his brother grabbed his jacket before leaving the station. Dante then made eye contact with Eliza. “So you grew up together in the same house.”
“We lived in a mobile home, that’s what Walt called it.”
“And how long has it been since you lived in the mobile home?”
“I don’t know, we left when Nora died. Walt said when her check came we would leave. He said that we couldn’t stay there any longer because the police would be coming. Do you know why Nora died?”
“No, was she ill?” Dante didn’t know if Eliza was crazy, abused, or telling the truth.
Dante thought maybe Walt had something to do with Nora’s death, but there was no way of knowing for sure without an investigation taking place. “What town was the mobile home located in?”
“What was Nora’s full name?”
“Her name was Nora Black, and that’s all I know.”
“What was her relationship with Walt?”
“Nora was Walt’s mom.”
“So Nora was also your mom?” Dante was hoping the depravity didn’t go this deep, but he had to ask.
“Walt called her Mom, but I always called her Nora.”
That answer indicated Nora was not her mother. “Did Nora have a job?”
“Yes, she worked in the strawberry fields sometimes. She drove the truck to work and it made Walt mad.”
“Does Walt drink a lot of alcohol?” Dante was having a hard time asking her questions, because he knew the answers were only going to get more disturbing.
“He likes beer a lot; he always has some in the back of the truck.”
“Did you go to school in St. Helens?”
“No, but Walt did. He went all the way to ninth grade.”
If she hadn’t been to school, it would mean Nora had been hiding her. “What did you do while he was in school?”
“I did what Nora told me to do and she gave me food.”
Garrison walked in and Dante thanked God. He needed to go outside for a moment to get his emotions under control. “Eliza, I want you and Ken to eat the food Garrison brought. I’ll be right back, I just need to get something out of the car.”
“No, we’re not hungry.”
“Please, Mommy,” Ken begged his mother.
Eliza ran her hand lovingly through her son’s unkempt hair. “Okay, you stay here with Barbie while I go with the policeman.”
“Okay, Mommy, I’ll take care of her.”
“Thank you for being a good boy.”
Ken scrambled off her lap and sat on the floor with his legs crossed and took his sister in his arms.
“I’ll hold the baby while you eat,” Garrison offered.
“No, I want Ken to hold her here so they don’t see,” Eliza said with conviction.
“See what?” Dante asked.
“What?” Garrison screeched.
“There won’t be any sex. The food is free,” Dante stated. “I need to go outside.”
“Hurry, I need to go outside too,” Garrison said.
Dante hit the door a little too hard as he burst from the building. He walked the length of the parking lot, taking in huge breaths to calm himself down. He tried to assimilate the information, but was hard-pressed to make his brain function, the situation was that disgusting. In the back of his mind, he knew that Eliza had been kidnapped or maybe abandoned by her parents and ended up with Nora and Walt as a young child. Why else would she be denied school and made to work for food? He assumed Walt demanded sex before he fed Eliza or his son, and with that thought bile rose swiftly and he bent over to vomit. When the heaving stopped, he heard Garrison doing the same not far from him. Their radios chirped, and his fellow deputy’s voice came with a crackle reporting a traffic accident with two deceased. Dante answered the call and walked over to Garrison. “Can you assist?”
“Yeah, dealing with two dead bodies sounds a lot better than what’s transpired inside the station.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve as he straightened up.
“What are your thoughts on me taking them home?”
“That woman has been abused her entire life and those children…”
“Is that a yes?”
“Absolutely, I’ll call Patrick and fill him in.”
“Thanks, and keep me updated on the accident.”
“Will do,” Garrison said as he walked to his cruiser.
Dante went back inside to find Eliza breastfeeding her daughter. He turned his head to give her some privacy as he walked over to the coffee maker. He noticed Ken sleeping on the sofa with a blanket tucked in around him, and he felt a sense of peace for the boy. Dante thought his age to be five or six, and he wondered if he’d ever been to school. His next thought was how old Eliza must have been when she gave birth to him. She appeared young, maybe twenty-one or two at the oldest. Dante heard movement and peered over his shoulder to see that Eliza was now burping the baby. He filled his cup with coffee and went back to his desk. He sat down and made eye contact with Eliza. “Did you get enough to eat?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Dante watched her lovingly pat her daughter’s back; she was a good mother, even with her current state of affairs. She had everything stacked against her—age, money, and education—yet love poured out of her. He was completely perplexed by her actions. He made eye contact with her again. “Eliza, Walt didn’t return to the bar so I’m going to take you and the children to my house. You can stay there as long as you like.”
“No, Walt will be back. He always comes back for us.”
“The bar owner will be looking out for him, and when Walt shows up, he’ll call me and I can take you to the bar.” Dante hoped she bought the lie, because he didn’t intend on reuniting her with Walt ever. He would however find her birth family.
“Alright, do you have a mobile home?”
“No, I live in a ranch house with my two brothers—Garrison, who you’ve already met, and Patrick.” He was glad she didn’t insist on going to the bar; he didn’t know what he’d do if that was the case. “I’ll carry Ken out to the car.”
Once he got them buckled in again, he slid behind the wheel and headed for home. He wanted Eliza and the children to be comfortable, and once they were cleaned up and rested he knew they would feel a lot better.
When he pulled up to the sprawling house he announced, “This is home.” The porch light came on and Patrick stepped outside. “That’s my brother Patrick, he’s also a deputy.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Dante got out and when Patrick went to greet him, he said in a low tone, “Roll with it and don’t question her.” Dante was afraid she would want to leave if they pressured her too much. Patrick gave him a nod and they walked over to the back door of the cruiser. “Why don’t you hand Barbie to me, and Patrick can carry Ken into the house?” Eliza handed her daughter to him and proceeded to unbuckle the seat belt while Patrick went to the other side of the cruiser and lifted the sleeping boy into his arms.
“Where are the other people?”
“What other people?”
“The other people that live here?”
“It’s just the three of us.”
“Oh, you have a lot of houses inside.”
Patrick gave Dante a look. “You can see for yourself how the place is set up once you get inside.”
“I’m Patrick. It’s nice to meet you.”
“What’s your name?”
They went inside and Dante watched as Eliza regarded the opulent interior. The ranch house was a humongous structure even to him, so he wondered what Eliza must think of the place.
“I put clean sheets on the bed in the room next to yours,” Patrick informed Dante.
“Thanks.” The room Patrick was talking about was large, so large that he passed it up for the smaller bedroom next to it when they moved in.
“I spoke with Charlie about an hour ago; he and Mary were already headed to town, so I asked them to get a crib and car seats for the children and clothing for all of them.” Patrick said as the alarm set for seven o’clock went off on his phone.
Dante walked up the grand stairs. “We’ll need something for the staircases.” He didn’t know how long Eliza and the children would stay, and it might be premature in thinking they would stay at all. The necessity to help them gripped his heart, and he knew his brothers would feel the same.
“I’ll call Charlie and let him know.”
Charlie was one of the six employees they hired shortly after purchasing the property. It worked out perfectly because Charlie’s two brothers also agreed to work for them. All three of their wives worked inside the house while the men worked the sizeable ranch.
“Here it is.” Dante walked inside the room and again watched Eliza’s reaction. “This is where you and the children will sleep.”
“It’s very pretty, thank you.”
“I’m glad you approve, and we hope you’ll be comfortable here.”
“Is Walt going to be staying here too?”
Her worry didn’t go unnoticed, and he searched for the right words. “If Walt shows up at the bar I’ll get a phone call.” No way in hell he’d let that bastard come near Eliza and the children, even if he didn’t have the right.
Patrick’s phone beeped and he read the screen. “That’s Garrison.”
“Put Ken on the bed and take the call, I’ll get Eliza settled.” Eliza ran her fingers over the quilt on the bed and Dante cringed at the sight of her filthy hand. “Why don’t you get in the shower and get cleaned up? I’ll watch the children and find some clothes for you to wear.” Her eyes went round. “Is there a problem?”
“No, I would love to take a shower.”
“Everything you need should be in there. I’m sure Patrick stocked it with towels and essentials for you.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” Dante gave her a smile.
Eliza disappeared into the bathroom and Patrick walked back into the bedroom. He pointed toward the bathroom and Dante gave him a nod. Patrick got close and softly asked, “Was her man driving an old beat-up red Ford?”
“Yeah, did Garrison find him?”
“I believe he’s one of the deceased along with Anna Howell.”
Dante secretly hoped Walt was one of the deceased. If he was, it would be that much easier to give Eliza and the children a better life. “Let me know when a positive ID has been made.” Dante’s phone chimed and he plucked it from his pocket to peer at the screen. “It’s Kelly. Will you look out for the children while I speak with her?”
Dante went down the hallway so he could speak in private. He and Kelly had been dating for about six months, and he’d forgotten about meeting her for breakfast at seven. He answered and explained that he was caught up with work and that he’d call her later after getting some sleep. She wasn’t happy and he was really getting annoyed with that type of behavior. There were more important things to do at the moment, and making Eliza and her children comfortable was at the top of his list.
He went back into the bedroom and gave Patrick a smile. “You look comfy.” Patrick had Barbie lying on his chest and Ken was lying next to him.
“I am, but I think you need to go see why the shower hasn’t been turned on.”
Dante knocked on the bathroom door and Eliza swung it open. “Do you need help with the shower?”
“Yes, I don’t know how to turn it on.”
“I can do that for you.” Dante moved past her and turned the shower on. He waited until the water was warm and moved toward the door only to realize she wasn’t in the bathroom any longer. He looked out to see her standing next to Patrick and rubbing her daughter’s back. “Eliza, your shower is ready.”
She breezed past him and soon called out, “Policeman?”
Dante turned around and went back into the bathroom. “You can call me Dante. What can I help you with?”
“Dante, the water is warm. If Walt finds out he’s going to be angry, so can you make it cold?”
He wanted to punch Walt in the throat and the nuts at the same time. “He won’t find out. Please enjoy your shower.”
She was such a contradiction to her situation. Her politeness never wavered, she wasn’t mad at the world for dealing her a fucked-up hand, and he realized that he liked her.
“You want me to take the baby?” he asked Patrick when he stood next to the bed.
“No, I got her. She’s a cutie-pie.”
“Both of the children look like Eliza.” Dante gazed at the sleeping children; their bellies were full and they were both in a deep sleep. “We need to get their weight up to where it should be.”
“They are thin. Barbie feels like she weighs about the same as a package of cookies. What’s the deal with their names?”
“I don’t think Eliza knows any better; she didn’t go to school. She told me she stayed home and worked for her meals.”
Patrick’s brows drew together in a frown. “Well, the baby is young enough that her name can be changed.” Patrick lifted her hand with his pinkie finger and marveled at the size. “You should take them to the clinic to be checked out.”
Dante’s phone beeped and he pulled it from his pocket. “It’s Garrison.” He listened to his brother rattle off the registered owner’s name of the truck and knew Walt had been driving, since the vehicle was registered to Nora Black. “That dead man is Walt, the father of these children.” Dante slipped his phone back in his pocket.
“It sounds like you’re happy about that news,” Patrick stated.
“He’s one less excuse of a human being for society to deal with.”
“Yes, but now these children don’t have a father.”
“I’ll be their father.” Dante had no idea why he said that. “I mean, I want them to have a better life.”
“Reel it in, big guy, you don’t know anything about them. What if it’s all a setup to get close to us and our money?”
Dante rolled his eyes. There was no way Eliza knew who he or his brothers were, or that they were worth billions of dollars. He leaned down close to Patrick’s ear. “They didn’t eat unless Eliza had sex with their father.”
“What?” Patrick said in a loud whisper.
Dante nodded, reiterating what he had said. “I’ll tell you the rest later.”
They heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “That’s probably Charlie and Mary,” Patrick said.
Dante poked his head out the door. “In here,” he said to Charlie.
“We picked up clothing that wouldn’t have to be an exact fit for the woman, and we picked up a couple different sizes for the boy and the baby. Can one of you help me with the crib and the other stuff?” Charlie asked.
Mary looked at the children. “They’re beautiful, and you, young man, look perfect with a baby lying on your chest.”
Patrick gave her a wink. “I look perfect all the time.”
“Hogwash. Remember the time you overdrank at the barn dance?”
“Oh God, do I ever. That day is forever burned into my brain.” His face screwed up with the memory.
Charlie said, “Enough chitchat. We need to get these packages sorted out.”
Dante heard the shower shut off. “I need to find Eliza some clothes.”
“Here, this bag of clothes is for her.” Mary handed the bag to Dante.
Dante knocked on the bathroom door and discreetly set the bag inside. “Eliza, I’ve brought you some clothes.”