Chapter 7

Corinth.

7:25pm

Frank stood by the window. He looked out, scanning the street for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. So far, nothing. The town was as it always was, or had been up until recently. Yet it was different somehow, more hostile as though they were out there, behind the shops and houses, in the cars, behind the facade of normalcy, waiting for him, for her. Siege mentality, he thought. Still it was justified. The crowd that had gathered and the scenes he had witnessed earlier made it that way. They had gone more or less dissipated now, but who was to say they wouldn't be back. He looked at his watch; seven-thirty. If a few of them hit the local bars and got tanked up there could be real trouble. He knew he had to come up with something quickly.

Peter found a number of messages waiting for him when he signed on in the morning, but he skipped them all to the one from Frank.

To: PWatts

From: FBlack

Subject: Grace

Peter-

The situation here is rapidly moving beyond my control. This young girl has been cast in the role of scapegoat, in the Old Testament sense, where she is imbued with all the sins of the community and then cast out to carry away those sins. The problem remains that she has not gone away, and the people hate her for her personification of their weakness.

The only crime here is the one done to her, not by her. I see removal of both her and her father as the only solution.

I spoke to Catherine, and she agrees. There are a number of programs Grace's father could qualify for, good ones that include employment and psychological counselling, even with medical supervision. One very good program runs out of the VA hospital in Tacoma. My concern is with Grace. You and I both know that leaving her to the uncertain mercy of the foster home system may be as bad as the situation she is in now.

I hesitate to involve the Group for anything beyond consulting. You know how I feel, particularly after what happened in Alaska. But, if you can, if you will, if you or the Group have the resources to help Grace, I'm asking.

Frank.

Peter read the last lines, guilt burning like acid in his throat, knowing what it took for Frank to ask him for a favour. Alaska. Shit. He owed Frank big time after that mess, but he would find some other way to pay him back. This was not a favour. This was right. He picked up the phone and pressed the quick dial for Frank's pre-programmed number.


Corinth

Sheriff's Dept.

Frank set the phone down and looked at Daly. He knew Peter would come through. Now all I got to do is sell it to these people, he thought. He sat down in front of the two men and began to plead his, or rather Grace's case. As he explained that the best answer was for Grace to go to a foster home, he could see the grief mingled with relief in Will's eyes. He felt sympathy for the man, who had inadvertently failed his daughter, and he thought of Jordan and prayed he would never experience those feelings himself.

"She's a bright, intelligent kid, Will. She can go far, given the chance. Give her the chance?" Frank pushed.

Weakly he nodded.

Daly looked relieved, but curiously unsatisfied. "How do you know?" he asked Frank quietly a few minutes later, while Grace and her father faced each other silently across an interview table. Even now they had nothing to say to each other. "How can you be sure she didn't threaten or intimidate Shari-Ann into doing what she did?"

Frank smoothed the note left in the barn against the tabletop. Next to it he opened Grace's notebook to a random page. Even a casual glance showed that they were quite different. "The writing..." Daly wondered almost to himself. "You knew from the writing?"

Frank shook his head. "I knew before that, but the note is something you can use to prove it to the townspeople. You might have a talk with the young man who was actually in the barn with Shari-Ann last night, who left this note implicating Grace."

Daly's lips pursed, and he nodded, putting the pieces together. "Dale Crowley," he said, rubbing his eyebrows with one hand. "And then they were... Ah shit, they... that explains..." He shook his head. "They couldn't have just gone down to the lake like all the other kids?"

"It's February," Frank said.


Seattle

7:30pm

Catherine phoned Peter as soon as she was sure. "Geibelhouse arrested him this afternoon. He was going to phone you, but I persuaded him to let me. Corey Garnier gave her statement this morning, and we caught him just as he was packing to leave once more. Cases of it, Peter. Photos, videos, data discs for web sites - you name it, this guy provided it. It looks like he was supplying a whole network. Geibs thinks they may be able to get a bunch more names, even without cutting a deal." She took a deep breath. "Nothing of Chelsea, I'm pretty sure. I found the stuff of her friend, but nothing of Chelsea."

Peter didn't answer right away. Only as the weight dropped away from him did he realize how worried he had been. "Thank you, Catherine," he said, a little unsteadily. "Thank you."

"Peter-" This time she hesitated, as if she had something more she wanted to add. Peter could almost hear her shake her head. "Never mind," she said. "Just... mark one down for the good guys today."

He smiled. "I'll tell her. Me too."

He found Chelsea watching TV with her sisters. "You did good, kiddo," he said to her quietly, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "I'm very proud of you today."

Taylor looked absorbed in the program, and Erin in her book, pointedly uncurious about the attention given to Chelsea. Well, so be it, Peter thought. Evidently they had settled things between themselves. "Nice to see you home this evening, Taylor," he said without irony. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"Nothing going on tonight, that's all."

"No date with Jerry?"

"Jerry is old news, Dad. I'm not seeing him anymore."

"What happened?"

Taylor looked up, noticing how his hand still rested lightly on Chelsea's shoulder. Jealousy squirted through her, but she quelled it immediately. Chelsea got a 'you did good' for the way she dealt with her problem, and she got a 'I'm disappointed' for getting into trouble with her friends. Perhaps he would be proud of her for not getting a tattoo, but compared with Chelsea, it was such a little thing. It was only what he expected.

"Nothing happened," she said. "Nothing important."

Peter glanced at Erin, finding her watching them. She flushed and looked down. The best thing that could happen to her, he thought, is for her to go away to college and quit trying to take care of all of us. It was his fault for letting her assume the role in the first place, and for relying on her when she did. The best way for her to go to college is with her goals firmly in sight and the support of her parents in those goals.

"Bob Rawlins is head of the Seattle Bureau," he told her. She looked as if this was not news, but not sure what he meant by it. "I've known him since Syracuse. Your mother and I should really have him over for dinner one day soon."

Erin stared, appearing finally not as if she was holding back, but as if she really didn't know what to say. "And if I wanted - a year or two down the road - to ask him for a recommendation to Quantico..."

"He'd be the one to ask," Peter said.

"You're sure?" she asked, glowing.

He nodded. "Probably. If I think of someone else, I'll let you know."

"Oh, Da-ad!"


Seattle

1:20am

The house was in darkness as the cab pulled up outside. Of course it's in darkness, Barbara thought to herself as she paid the driver his fare. It'll soon be two in the morning. She unlocked the door, wincing as it creaked, trying to be as quiet as possible, but not succeeding very well. She hung her jacket over a chair and tiptoed upstairs leaving her suitcase in the hall to be unpacked in the morning. Peter was fast asleep but wakened when she switched on the small lamp by her side of the bed.

"What time is it?" he mumbled.

"Just gone one-thirty. I caught the last flight.

"You should have phoned. I would have picked you up."

"No need. I caught a cab without any problems." She began to undress, dropping clothes in a pile on the floor to be laundered in the morning. Peter watched each graceful movement.

"I'm just going to shower," she said. "Won't be long."

He began to drift off again as he listened to the running water, but came awake as she slipped in beside him and he turned towards her, his arms encircling her, kissing her still-damp hair. "The girls missed you," he whispered. Then he kissed her lips.

"And you?" she teased, smiling in the darkness.

"Me, too."

Much later, sleep still someways distant, he brought her up to date on the things she has missed out on while she was away. Normal family things, phone calls, bills to be paid. Just all the usual things. Then, almost as an afterthought, though it was far from being that, he told her about Chelsea.

"But there's no problem. Nothing to worry about. Chels was not involved in any way," he concluded, biting his lip in the darkness.

He thought at first she was not going to answer.

"Peter, you should have told me." When she did speak there was an edge to her voice and it was nothing less than he expected.

"I know, but - well, I got the impression Chelsea wanted to talk to the cop in me, not the parent."

"Even so -" she let it pass. "How did she take all of it? Is she okay? Really?"

"She's fine Barbara, honestly."

"Still, I want to talk to her tomorrow about it."

"If there had been more-if it had been more serious I would have told you."

"I know," that was all she said, almost, but not quite letting him off the hook. She would phone Catherine in the morning, maybe meet her for lunch and find out the entire story from her. Although, more than a little angry with Peter, she knew him well enough to know if there had been a problem he would have told her. This secrecy of his was just his attempt to shield her from the outside world. It didn't work, and it was so dammed frustrating at times, but how could she tell him that?

But she loved him because of it and with that thought in mind she laid her head on his shoulder and drifted off to sleep beside him.


Seattle

2 days later.

Female chatter greeted them as they walked up the steps.

"What's the capital of Montana?"

"Chelsea, I told you to do your homework last night!"

"What's the capital of Wyoming?"

Peter opened the door on organised chaos. Erin was trying to make lunch for herself and Chelsea and have her own breakfast. Chelsea ignored the cereal in front of her in order to do the neglected homework. Taylor paced back and forth with the phone in one hand, a piece of toast in another.

"Oh, thank God, you're home," Erin said, catching sight of Peter. "Mom's left early for a meeting in Tacoma. I have an nine o'clock class -" He hauled her back with one hand when she pecked him on the cheek and would have run off.

Silence fell as they caught sight of Grace.

"Taylor, hang up the phone. You'll talk to your friends in ten minutes at school, anyway."

"Gotta go," Taylor said, and obeyed her father. This looked to be more interesting anyway.

Grace stood there, one bag in hand, an orphan in deed if not in fact. She couldn't meet their eyes.

"Everyone, this is Grace. She's going to be staying with us for a while." No one said anything. "Grace, this is Erin."

They shook hands. "Da-ad..." she said to her father, warning.

Peter smoothed her hair. "This is not your concern. It is mine. Don't you have a class, or something?"

"God! Yes. Nice to meet you, Grace."

"This is Taylor."

Taylor gathered her books in her arms in front of her as if as a defensive shield. She glanced once at her father, but reserved her curiosity for Grace. The two girls examined one another. Grace was closer to Chelsea in age, but experience made her seem older. If there was going to be a conflict, it would be here.

"I suppose you'll be rooming with me," Taylor said. "I use the bed on the right. The dresser - Dad! The dresser-"

"Go to school," Peter said. "We'll figure it out this afternoon."

The screen door slammed behind her. Chelsea remained, still sitting at the table, both homework and breakfast forgotten. Grace put her bag on a chair. Peter moved down the hall, shedding shoes and jacket. "What is the capital of Montana?" Chelsea asked, pitching it so her father could hear, but watching Grace.

"Did you not have time to look that up last night?" Peter called back.

"Helena," Grace supplied.

"What is the capital of Wyoming?" Chelsea whispered to Grace, beaming, and scribbling down the answer. Her sisters always made her work for the answers.

"Cheyenne," Grace said, and spelled it for her.

"Cool. Thanks," Chelsea said, flipping her books closed. "Welcome home."

Peter came back to the kitchen to find only Grace there, looking as if the ground had suddenly shifted from under her feet. He started to reassure her that the girls would open up once they knew her better, but she only looked even more distraught. He seriously did not know what to do when she teared up and started laughing and crying at the same time.

He asked her what was wrong. "Nothing," she said, shaking her head. "I just never had sisters before."

THE END.