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Out of the Woods ©2020 by Gamin Paramour

Comments are incredibly welcome, and I intend to answer everyone.(ail)

1) This is fiction: complete, utter bullshit made up by yours truly. Never happened, and nobody depicted ever drew breath on planet Earth.

2) Stay safe. Don”t break the law.

3) Please donate to Nifty if you possibly can.

Previously:

Andy became Johnny”s new boy.

Chapter 12 Wednesday, January 20, 1988
11:22 am

This time the beige-tinted bedroom felt like home. Andy looked eagerly for Johnny but he was gone, and though that was disappointing he still smiled to himself and stretched like a kitten.

He felt terrific, and unlike the first time he awoke here his head was clear and his memory sharp. After their wonderful shower they had playfully dried each other and then Johnny had lifted Andy into his arms and carried him back to the big, soft bed. There was no more sex, per se, but a thoroughly enjoyable hour of cuddling and deep, wet kisses as they traded corny words of love and giggled like schoolgirls until Andy finally drifted off with his cheek on Johnny”s broad, warm chest.

He rolled happily out of bed and found the clothes Mark had lent him. What he wanted now was something to eat and to see his Johnny, not necessarily in that order. He stepped barefoot into the long hallway — Mark never did give him any socks — and made his way toward the sounds of civilization.

The apartment was a hive of activity. A boy with long, fiery red hair energetically polished the coffee table, every scrap of last night”s refuse now removed. He wore nothing but a pair of gold and blue athletic shorts with “Notre Dame Football” stenciled across one leg, but they were obviously in a child”s size and not a college jock”s and so they couldn”t be authentic. The boy was skeletally thin, the bones jutting out on his pale chest like a standing rib roast. Andy concentrated and the name James swam before his mind.

Two fully-dressed boys, who looked familiar but whose identities escaped Andy at the moment, struggled with overstuffed garbage bags and argued loudly over who should hold the door for whom. A blond boy in a sweatshirt and jeans was bent over plugging in a vacuum cleaner, and when he stood Andy saw that it was Mark. He grinned and called out Mark”s name.

“Hey, Andy!” Mark returned cheerfully. “We thought you were gonna sleep all day.”

“What time is it?”

Mark consulted his watch. “Eleven thirty. We”re practically done with the chores already.”

“Can I help?”

“Nah, that”s OK. We”re almost done. So how”s your head? You were pretty wiped out last night.”

“I feel great, except I”m starving,” Andy said, a hand on his stomach.

“So go in the kitchen and get something to eat!” Mark had the tone of someone with a death-grip on the obvious. “Sometimes we have, like, a big supper together, but mostly everybody just gets their own whenever they want to. Hey, after I get done vacuuming you want to play Nintendo?”

“Sure! You got any race car games?”

“We”ve got a million games! I just bought two new ones on Saturday.”

“Those things cost a ton,” Andy said. “Where”d you get the money?”

Mark waved his hand. “Money”s easy to get. You”ll see. Look, I gotta finish this. I”ll come get you when I”m done.”

“Cool,” Andy said and watched for a moment as his new friend kicked the vacuum cleaner to whining life and began to wrestle it over the ornate rug.

In the kitchen a smaller boy stood before the sink on a step-stool, up to his elbows in sudsy water. He was very fair, his hair so blond it was almost white, and he had a cute, baby-fatted roundness to him. He turned and flashed an impish smile as Andy approached.

“You must be Andy,” he said. “I”m Kevin. I wasn”t home yesterday when you came.”

“Hi,” Andy said. “Boy, you can”t even reach the sink without a stool, huh? How old are you?”

“Ten,” the boy said in his soft, high voice. “Well… pretty soon. How about you?”

“I”m eleven.”

“Oh,” Kevin said. “You”re kind of big for your age, and I”m kind of small. Johnny says it”s better to be small.”

Andy was completely baffled by this statement but he didn”t pursue it. “I”m gonna have a bowl of cereal,” he said, “but I can wash my own dish when I”m done.”

“Fuck that,” Kevin said, and Andy was surprised at the casual vulgarity from such an angelic face. “I”m Dish Boy today,” Kevin went on. “When it”s your day you can wash my dish for me.”

“Whatever,” Andy said with a shrug and went about scrounging up a bowl, a spoon and a box of Frosted Flakes. He hesitated, then decided to give the sugary cereal a try. “Everybody takes turns with the chores, huh?”

“Yeah,” Kevin said. “But we have to work around our schedules, too.”

Andy pulled milk from the refrigerator, whistling softly in appreciation of the soda and treats that filled it. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, like tonight I”m supposed to be at this guy Jim”s house at five o”clock. It”s an all-nighter and I won”t be here to do the supper dishes so I traded with Daryl.”

“Oh,” Andy brightened. “You get to sleep over with a friend tonight?”

Kevin giggled. “He”s not my friend, silly! I”m working tonight.”

Andy frowned as he carefully poured the milk. “And it”ll take all night?”

Kevin laughed out loud. “You”re funny, Andy.”

Before he could ask exactly what he”d said that was so funny Johnny and Kenny appeared. Andy broke into a grin and jumped up from the table. “Johnny!” he cried, rushing to him.

“Hey, kiddo!” Johnny said, lifting Andy easily into his arms. “I thought I heard you up and about.”

Andy clutched Johnny”s neck and gave him an eager kiss. “You weren”t there when I woke up,” he whined, as clearly this could only be explained as an error of cosmic proportions.

“Things to do, pal,” Johnny said, giving Andy a second, quick smooch before setting him firmly back on his feet. “It can”t always be playtime, you know.”

“I know. Kevin was just telling me how everybody takes turns doing chores. I want to help too, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled. “You, my friend, are already on the schedule.” He opened a kitchen cabinet to reveal a large calendar taped to the inside of the door. There were tiny notations written in for each day. “See, right here on Thursday it has Andy with a G after it. Danny has a G that day, too, so you and Danny will take out the garbage. Then on Friday you have a V. What do you think that means?”

“Vacuum?”

“Right!” Johnny turned to Kenny. “See, he”s not as dumb as he looks.”

Andy grinned. “No, I… Hey! Wait a minute!”

Johnny laughed and mussed Andy”s hair. “Just teasing,” he said. “But, yeah, V means vacuum the living room, the play room and the den. Plus, every boy is responsible for his own room so you get to clean our room — including the bathroom — every day. And you need to do a good job, too, OK? I”m not going to have this place look like a bunch of pigs live here.”

“Sure, Johnny,” Andy beamed. He would be glad to clean Johnny”s room. He”d vacuum and haul garbage and scrub toilets and anything else Johnny wanted. It felt great seeing his name on the calendar with everyone else”s.

“Andy just said a funny joke,” Kevin piped from the sink.

“Oh, yeah?” Johnny playfully bit the little boy on the back of the neck while growling like a tiger. Kevin scrunched up his shoulders and giggled.

“Yeah,” the boy said. “I told him I was doing an all-nighter with that guy Jim and he said “It”ll take all night?” That”s funny, `cause Jim is always done in, like, one minute.”

Before Andy could ask what that meant Johnny grabbed little Kevin again doing the tiger-bite thing, only this time on the side of his neck. Soapy water splashed up and the boy shrieked in glee. Johnny whispered something into his ear and Kevin”s laughter trailed away. He glanced Andy”s way, mild confusion in his huge blue eyes, then cryptically said, “OK, Johnny,” and went back to his dishes.

Andy looked to Johnny questioningly but Johnny took him by the shoulders and turned him away from Kevin.

“I told him to finish his chores and leave the jokes for later,” Johnny said. “He has all afternoon for that stuff.”

Andy allowed himself to be steered back to the table. “You want to have breakfast with me?” he asked eagerly.

“I had breakfast hours ago,” Johnny said. “This ain”t no rest home, you know. We work around here or there”s no breakfast to eat.”

“Yeah,” Andy said, remembering. “Kenny told me that everybody chips in to pay the bills.”

“That”s the way it works, kiddo,” Johnny said, smiling. “And you”ll pull your weight, too, soon enough. For now, though, just hang out. Relax, get high, watch some tube. You need a break from the street.”

“Will you hang out with me?”

“Can”t, kid,” Johnny said pleasantly, but with no room for contradiction. “I”ve got a business meeting.” He looked pointedly at Kenny. “I think Kenny is free, though. Isn”t that right, Kenny? Nothing on your calendar today?”

Andy thought the look that passed between them was not entirely friendly but Kenny finally smiled and said, “Yeah, sure. I”ll hang out with you, Andy.”

“Cool!” Andy said. He liked the idea of hanging with Kenny almost as much as with Johnny.

“OK, I”m out of here,” Johnny said, bending to put the usual quick departing kiss onto Andy”s lips. He did the same for Kevin and Kenny and then he was gone.

Andy sighed happily as he turned back to his cereal, which, he noted, was pretty good. His heart had never been so light in his life. He heard the vacuum cleaner in the other room wind down to silence and it made him remember.

“Me and Mark are gonna play Nintendo,” Andy said to Kenny through a second mouthful of Frosted Flakes. “Want to play with us?”

“OK,” Kenny said. He had a strange little smile as he watched Andy eat, as if he was thinking of a private joke.

“What”s so funny?” Andy asked, smiling himself.

“Nothin”,” Kenny said and forced the smile away. Andy sakarya escort was about to press the question when Mark came in and the subject turned abruptly to Nintendo and who would kick the butt of whom. Andy tipped the cereal bowl to his mouth and drank the dregs of his milk, then handed the bowl to Kevin.

“Do you want to play too, Kevin?” he asked. “It”s better with even teams.”

The boy smiled in a way that brought to mind little Petey back home. “OK! Thanks, Andy! I”ll be done in a few minutes.”

“Cool,” Andy said, and he and his two saviors of the previous day hurried off to the play room.

Mark had not been exaggerating. Andy gaped at the cabinet stuffed with video games.

“Whoa! There must be a hundred of “em!”

“Sixty-six,” Mark said proudly. “Counting the two new ones I just bought.”

“Sixty-six!” Andy repeated in awe. “Holy crap!”

Kenny and Mark laughed. “They don”t all belong to Mark,” Kenny said. “Some of those games belong to kids who aren”t even here anymore.”

Andy thought surely a kid would take his games with him if he moved away. He knew he sure would.

In minutes the controllers were hooked up and Mark and Andy sat cross-legged on the floor before the 25-inch TV, piloting digital Indy cars at breakneck speed and earache volume. Andy crashed a lot and lost the race by a mile but nevertheless had a wonderful time. He didn”t even notice that Kevin had joined them until his turn was over.

“All right!” Mark crowed. He thrust his controller at Kenny. “Let”s see you beat that, chump!”

“Oh, now you”re really gonna get beat!” Kenny said, grinning broadly. “C”mon Kevin. Let”s both beat his time and really piss him off.”

Kenny did, in fact, beat Mark”s time but Kevin fell short. Not as short as Andy, though. Andy didn”t really mind coming in last, even behind a nine-year-old. He had never gotten to play much Nintendo back home — only when he visited Billy”s house — so he didn”t have nearly as much practice as these guys. Nobody razzed him about it anyway so he just had fun doing his mediocre best as the four faced off in every possible combination. Finally after more than an hour he managed to beat Kevin, and taking his cue from the others he decided not to rub it in. Kevin seemed just as happy as the times he had won.

The redhead, James, appeared at the door. “Kevin,” he said, “Johnny called and he wants you to do a double with me tomorrow night.”

“Sure, I guess,” Kevin replied. “Who”s it with?”

“Some new guy,” James said. “Up in Evanston, I think.”

“OK, I”m there,” Kevin said, and with a nod James ducked out.

“What are you guys talking about?” Andy asked Kevin, but the boy just looked at him with wide, sky-blue eyes. Andy didn”t break the stare.

“It”s about work,” Kevin finally said.

“I figured,” Andy said. “But what kind of work?”

“C”mon, Andy!” Kenny urged. “It”s your turn to race against Mark.”

“Just a second,” Andy said. “What kind of work, Kevin?”

“I… I can”t tell you,” the boy said sheepishly.

“What do you mean? Why can”t you tell me?”

“Because Johnny told me not to bother you with work talk.”

“You heard what Johnny said,” Kenny broke in. “You need a break, so just relax and don”t worry about work yet.”

“What”s the big secret?” Andy pressed, addressing all three of his friends now with a sly smile.

“OK, I”ll tell you,” Mark said, and Kenny gave him a surprised look. Mark crawled over and cupped one hand around Andy”s ear, leaning his face in to whispering distance. Andy listened attentively for the mysterious secret his friend was about to divulge.

“Sneak attack!” Mark shouted into Andy”s ear and with his other hand perfectly executed a maneuver familiar to boys across the globe, the just-hard-enough-to-scare-you punch to the nuts.

Andy doubled over, more in alarm than in pain, and in a second Mark was atop him, jabbing knuckles at his sides and reaching in to tickle whatever sensitive area of armpit or belly might be accessible at any given instant. Andy screeched in laughter and scrambled to elude Mark”s grasp but by then the other two boys had joined the fray and poor Andy didn”t have a chance.

“I can”t breathe, you guys!” he protested, but his attackers showed no mercy and presently Andy found himself the victim of the ultimate indignity: Mark and Kenny held him immobile while little Kevin sat astride Andy”s legs and tickled the soles of his bare feet.

“Oh God! Please stop!” Andy wailed between guffaws. “I can”t breathe! I can”t breathe!”

“OK, OK, let him up,” Kenny said, and the three disengaged from the wriggling and giggling boy and let their laughter wind down to heavy breathing.

“Boy, that was fun!” Mark said, and flopped flat on his back to rest from his exertions. The tent in the front of his jeans was small but unmistakable.

“Yeah, I can see you”re having fun,” Kevin said, laughing.

Mark looked down at himself with a grin, completely at ease. “I always get a boner when I wrestle,” he said. “Don”t you?”

“Sometimes,” Kevin admitted. “But not this time.”

“That”s too bad,” Mark said. “Two of them are a lot more fun than one.”

The boys held each other with sly smiles and looks full of meaning, negotiating with their eyes. Bursting into giggles Mark and Kevin suddenly leapt to their feet and dashed from the room.

“Where are they going?” Andy exclaimed.

“Where do you think?” Kenny said.

“I don”t know,” Andy insisted innocently.

“Oh come on,” Kenny chided. “Don”t guys get boners in Missouri? They went to fool around.”

Andy”s eyes widened. “You mean, like, sex?”

“Sure. You and Johnny don”t get to have all the fun.”

Andy”s jaw fell open. “He told you?” he whispered, aghast.

“He didn”t have to,” Kenny said. “I could hear you right through the walls. You really got excited there, bud.”

Andy”s chest went hollow. He felt heat in his cheeks and turned away.

“It”s no big deal,” Kenny said. “Everybody does it.”

Andy managed to glance back at him, but still couldn”t face him directly. “Everybody?”

“Well, everybody who lives here,” Kenny said. “And lots of guys everywhere else, too. They don”t admit it “cause they don”t want to get teased, but most boys fool around at least once in a while.”

“You?” Andy asked softly.

Kenny smiled devilishly. “All the time.”

Andy met Kenny”s eyes with a confused look. “Back home that was the worst thing you could say about a guy.”

“Things are different here than they were back home.”

“That”s for sure,” Andy said.

Kenny gave him a sly look. “Did you guys do it in the shower?”

Andy flushed pink, but smiled as he replied, “Yeah.”

“Johnny likes the shower,” Kenny said. “I remember once he had four of us in there. It was crazy, but fun.”

After a short, uncomfortable pause they turned back to their game and concentrated on the race, which Kenny won handily. Andy was somewhat preoccupied, actually, picturing a jumble of bare flesh in a big glass shower and then the more specific image of two little blond boys intertwined in Mark”s bed. Kenny gave him that half-smirk again, then broke the silence.

“Mark and Kevin wouldn”t mind,” he said, his eyebrows arched suggestively. “You want to go in and watch?”

“No!” Andy insisted with a nervous laugh.

“Whatever,” Kenny said patiently. “But it”s really no big deal. It”s only sex.”

No big deal, Andy thought. It had seemed like a pretty big deal in that shower with Johnny. He remembered hungry lips on his sensitive flesh and his heart began to quicken. He looked at Kenny and suddenly imagined the handsome older boy in the shower, sleek and wet, and Andy flushed even deeper. This place would definitely take some getting used to.

Thursday, January 21, 1988
10:00 am

Modern Photography looked like anything but. The sign out front was simple painted wood, weathered and faded until it was barely legible, which might have had a certain retro charm had it been done on purpose. The sample portraits in the front window were warped and yellowed with age, their subjects grinning in blissful ignorance of their own shabbiness. Here a bride in a flowing, once virgin-white gown. There a family so clean-cut they made Ron and Nancy Reagan look like hippies; the mom in her prim pillbox hat and the cute, dark-haired son displaying his prominently missing front tooth. Over there a proud graduate in cap and gown, blond and square-jawed enough to be a poster boy for the Hitler Youth.

The overall effect was decidedly low-rent and did not exactly inspire confidence. It was the only portrait studio in Paxton, though, and as such apparently squeezed a living out of whatever slim market there was for professional photography.

Charlie paused outside and nervously licked his dry lips. It had been pretty easy to deduce that the only photographer in town must have shot the annual pictures for the only elementary school in town, and would thus be a logical place to look for a recent picture of Andy and hopefully the mysterious Billy. He”d had to think of something or face another ration of shit from Frank, who had burned up the long-distance wires the previous evening telling Charlie in profane detail exactly how difficult it is to find a kid when you don”t know what he looks like.

The deduction had been elementary, my dear Watson, but now came the hard part. Now he had to scam the picture out of the photographer and the whole idea went one hundred and eighty degrees against his better judgment. A convicted child molester wanted for yet another offense was walking into a photographer”s studio and asking for pictures of little boys. It sounded to Charlie like a one-way ticket back to the Gray Bar Hotel but he couldn”t think of anything else.

He squared his shoulders and stepped into the dim warmth of the shop, grimacing as chemical fumes pounced upon him like they”d been waiting all morning for fresh meat. Somewhere a muffled chime announced his presence but there was no other sound and for a moment he thought the place was deserted.

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Evacuated due to a chemical spill, no doubt.

After a few seconds, which Charlie spent breathing through his mouth, an impatient voice called out, “Yeah, just a minute!” Charlie took that minute to straighten himself and run over his cock-and-bull story one more time.

He had invented an elaborate tale of a student yearbook and his plan to put old pictures of some of the kids next to their current pictures, to “symbolically unite the past and present.” He had all sorts of details ready to be trotted out but he reminded himself not to rush through it or offer more information than he was asked for.

This he had learned from one of the greatest confidence men ever to grace the Menard Correctional Center. Amateurs, this sage had pronounced, are so proud of their well-rehearsed spiel that they pour it out in one long sentence, as if to prove that they really have memorized the whole thing. They answer questions the mark hasn”t even asked yet, and nothing sounds fishier than complicated information out of the blue. Make them pull it out of you, he said, if you want them to believe it. Charlie was nervous but he”d had pretty good success as a liar in his years on the lam and thought he could probably pull it off.

“Yeah,” said the man with the thick mop of black hair as he stepped through a dingy curtain behind the counter. “I”m busy in the darkroom,” he snapped, clearly no believer that the customer is always right. He looked about forty, a nervous, edgy sort with oversize glasses and eyes to match, like a cartoon owl on amphetamines. He drummed his chemical-stained fingers on the counter as Charlie hesitated, taking in the sight of him and furiously rewriting the script in his head. He already knew it was probably doomed. He felt about as welcome as Jane Fonda at the VFW hall.

“I want to get some reprints of old student pictures from the elementary school,” Charlie blurted, immediately pissed at himself for short-circuiting his own story. There was supposed to be a conversational buildup about how he had been pressed into service as a volunteer for this experiment of a yearbook for the lower grades. The photographer”s abrupt manner had spooked him more than he realized. He fought to control his voice and added, “You see, they want to try a sort of yearbook this year and I”m acting as advisor…”

“Yeah, whatever,” the photographer said. “You”re planning to pay the regular reprint price, right? Not tryin” to jew me down with some “Help the kiddies” bullshit?”

Jeez. What a humanitarian. “No, the regular price is fine,” he said.

“In that case I don”t care if you paper your walls with “em. Take whatever you want.” He waved Charlie to follow him through the unwashed curtain. “The proof sheets are in those filing cabinets,” he said, striding already for the light-proof entrance to the darkroom. “They”re organized by date they were taken, grade and teacher. Don”t get “em messed up. Write down the numbers of the ones you want and when I get done with what I”m doing I”ll make the prints. They should be ready about two o”clock. You can let yourself out.” With that the photographer slid closed the door of his inner sanctum and was gone.

Charlie stared after him for a moment, but really it couldn”t have worked out better. He could now go through the photos at his leisure and take only those he needed. He had expected to have to buy a bunch of pictures of little girls just for appearances but now he knew the photographer wouldn”t give a damn what he took or didn”t take.

Charlie went immediately to the drawer marked with the most recent date, April of the previous year, and pulled it open. Each folder was marked with the grade and teacher”s name, much more neatly and carefully than he would have expected given his impression of the photographer. Andy had said he was in fifth grade and apparently this year”s pictures had not yet been taken so Charlie quickly zeroed in on the fourth grade folders and grabbed one.

Inside was a neatly typed sheet with each child”s name and index number and two eight-by-ten sheets of photographic paper, each containing four strips of small photographs. They showed sprocket holes at the top and bottom and had tiny lettering identifying the film”s manufacturer and type, with a number for each image.

Something clicked in the back of Charlie”s brain from his few months working on his high school newspaper (the better to know a certain freshman reporter named Brian) and he remembered these were called “contact sheets.” They were made by placing the negative strips directly against the photo-sensitive paper and exposing them. Sadly he never got to place himself directly against Brian and expose anything, but that was another story.

His eye fell upon Andy”s picture almost immediately. Even in this tiny image the boy looked beautiful and Charlie misted up at the thought of him alone and terrified on the city streets. He quickly wrote down the negative number and forced himself back to his other and perhaps even more important objective: identifying Billy.

It would have been nice if there was only one William in the pictures, which could certainly have been possible in such a small town. However, Murphy”s Law having its way, there were three Williams on the neatly typed lists, thus three possible Billys, plus any that might have been absent the day the pictures were taken, plus, he realized with horror, any that might get the nickname “Billy” from a middle name or some such. His brilliant plan suddenly had more holes than the PGA tour, but he just shrugged and pressed on since it was all that he had.

Charlie wrote the three names and negative numbers below Andy”s and left the note in a prominent spot on the counter. “Thank you!” he called out loudly but got no reply from the surly shutterbug behind closed doors and so he let himself out as instructed.

He went to work but his heart wasn”t in it. Karen had given up on asking what the devil was the matter with him. His funk had lasted over a week, the longest on record, and now she just gazed at him with concern in her eyes, sighed, and went back to her work. Charlie managed to wrench his mind off of Andy long enough to go over an offer for the long-listed Michaelson place. With little hope in his heart he punched the phone number he”d called so many times before with so many similar offers.

“Yallo,” came Old Man Michaelson”s raspy voice. The guy must plop himself next to the phone all day because he always answered on the first ring.

“Mr. Michaelson, how are you, sir? This is Charlie Topps.”

“You gonna try and talk me into droppin” my price again?” the old man said. “Told you before it ain”t no use.”

“Look, Mr. Michaelson,” Charlie flared, in no mood for more of this old fool”s stubbornness. “You have a great old house, everybody agrees on that. But it”s an old house. Really, really old, with really old plumbing and really old wiring and a really old roof. I know you built the house yourself and raised your kids there and your wife died there and all that, but nobody wants to buy your memories. They want to buy the house, and they have to consider what it will cost to upgrade all that stuff and bring the place into the twentieth century. You came to me and said you wanted to sell the house, I didn”t come to you, so you need to decide once and for all if you really want to sell it or not. The Rogans came up to eighty-two thousand. That”s a damn good offer in this market and probably the best you”re going to see. My advice to you is to take the offer or pull the house off the market, “cause I for one am not interested in beating this dead horse any longer. So what”s it going to be? Shit or get off the goddamn pot!”

It wasn”t until the end of this outburst that Charlie realized he was gripping the phone so tightly his fingers were cramping. Through his open office door Karen was gaping and it suddenly caught up to him what had just happened. He had gone ballistic on a crotchety but harmless, lonely old man whose only pride left in this world was the house he”d built and spent a lifetime in. This was not Charlie. He didn”t know who the hell it was but it sure wasn”t Charlie.

“Mr. Michaelson, I…” he said, but the old man cut him off.

“No, no, you”re right,” he said softly. “I know I have to give up the house. Known it for a long time. I can”t get around to keep it up myself and can”t afford to hire it done. Guess I didn”t really want to part with it, deep down. You tell those people I”ll take their offer.”

“I”m really sorry for the way I spoke to you, Mr. Michaelson. I had no right.”

The old man chuckled. “The way I”ve been running you around I”m surprised you didn”t blow up on me sooner. Tell me one thing, though. These people, the Rogans, do they have any children?”

“A boy and a girl, preschool.”

“Good,” Michaelson said. “That”s what”s missing around here, a little noise and mess. “Bout time the house had kids in it again.”

Charlie should have been turning handsprings over finally closing this deal but about all he could muster was a wan smile. At least the commission would help keep Frank on the trail. He was pretty sure his ex-friend would drop Andy”s case instantly if the money ran out. Of course they wouldn”t close on the house for a month or so and it was usually a week or two after that before he finally got his money. Because of his situation he didn”t get the money directly. He didn”t even have a real estate license, for obvious reasons, and had to filter everything through his boss.

Ed Carver owned the agency and ran it by himself for thirty years before Charlie came along. Charlie was not quite out of money at that time but starting to worry, and Ed wanted to semi-retire, needing someone he could trust to run the business. They became friends over burgers and beer at the roadhouse halfway to Washburn, trading jokes and bullshit every evening for a week. When Charlie invented a ruthless ex-wife from whom he had to hide his money Ed jumped at the chance to put one over on a female and her lawyer, since he himself was divorced ankara sarışın escort from the Wicked Witch of the Midwest.

For the next year and a half they worked together, Charlie gradually taking over more and more until Ed finally stopped coming in completely and began spending his days in a hammock in the back yard. Since then Charlie had run the business and in fact had grown it well beyond Ed”s one-man operation. He”d brought on a secretary and another agent, Mike Armbruster, which was about all the real estate activity this fly-speck town could handle. But it was still Ed Carver”s name on the front window and every commission check was made out to Ed.

For his efforts Charlie got twenty percent of the money and a small house to live in while Ed paid the office rent, advertising, Karen”s salary, and all the rest of the overhead. It was a living wage, since Charlie paid no taxes and no rent, but it was still frustrating since he knew he could be cleaning up if he ran his own agency under his own name. Yet another thing straight society and its laws had stolen from him.

He often suspected Ed must know there was more to it than a money-hungry ex-wife. Ed was too sharp to believe anybody would work so hard for so little if he had a choice, but since Charlie was firmly and irretrievably over a barrel he just did the job and shut his mouth. It was a hell of a lot better than prison, he kept telling himself.

At one-thirty Charlie nibbled at a grilled cheese sandwich at the little lunch counter across from the courthouse, killing time until he could pick up the photos at two. By two-thirty he was parked just up the block and across the street from the elementary school, carefully positioned so that he had a clear view of the doors yet was partially hidden by a small evergreen in someone”s front yard. Even so, being there made him nervous. The last thing he needed was to be reported as “a suspicious character hanging around the school yard”. He had never been one for that sort of thing even before he was an escaped sex offender, but now it could be fatal.

Between paranoid glances around for cops he slid the pictures of the three Billys out of their manila envelope and studied one intently. He smiled a bit in spite of himself as he heard in his head, “Your assignment, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it…”

It was only by spotting these boys in the crowd that he could eliminate them from consideration. If luck was on his side he”d spot two of the three and identify Billy by process of elimination. It wouldn”t be easy, given the way kids dash from school and the hats and scarves and hoods they”d be sporting this chill January day, but it was the only way he could think of. There was also the possibility that more than one Billy had moved away in the intervening year, as so many families had since the foundry closed down. Another flaw discovered in Charlie”s master plan.

The least likely candidate for Billy was the one who was not in Andy”s class but who had been in the other fourth grade class. It was not impossible for this to be the one but if Billy and Andy were close friends they were probably classmates. So, Charlie studied William Patterson quite closely, expecting him to be one that would still be in town. He concentrated on the round little face in the photo, memorizing the slant of his eyebrows, the shape of his ears, the prominent freckles across the bridge of his nose. William Patterson was no beauty but he had soulful eyes and Charlie had to mentally nudge himself back to business. There was no time now to be looking at pictures of boys the way boylovers look at pictures of boys.

The next Billy was William North, a classmate of Andy”s and quite a cute little thing in his own right. He was small and delicate with thin lips, a tiny nose, thin eyebrows, and wispy blond hair. “Thin” was definitely the word for little Billy North. His smile seemed particularly genuine because it shone also in his bright hazel eyes. Under other circumstances this picture would have a well-known effect on Charlie, but now the boy”s cuteness merely served to ensure that he would be spotted in the crowd. Assuming he was not absent from school today, that is. Add yet another defect to the list.

The last young William to smile for the camera had the surname Dekker, a solid, stocky, fireplug of a boy with more than a hint of mischief in his black onyx eyes. The boy”s head was a bit on the square side, and with those uneven black bangs across his high forehead it wouldn”t take much more than green makeup and bolts in his neck to spend Halloween as Frankenstein. No, make that Herman Munster. The kid was too cute in an all-boy-and-a-yard-wide sort of way to appear at all monstrous. He”d never get picked to model for the J.C. Penny catalog but there was something about him that reached out to Charlie anyway. He”d always been able to trust his first impressions of people, especially of boys, and somehow he knew this was a good kid.

When he was sure he could spot all three Billys at a glance he allowed himself a moment to gaze wistfully at the nine-month-old picture of Andy Barnes. Except for looking a whole lot healthier the boy appeared exactly the way Charlie knew him. Even here Andy”s home life intruded, for a hint of a shiner could be seen under one beautiful brown eye. He wondered if there was even one photograph in which poor Andy didn”t have some sort of injury inflicted by his rat bastard of a father, and Charlie frowned sourly as he realized that, now that Andy had a permanent scar across his lip, there never would be such a picture in his whole life. Charlie was as far from a violent person as you could imagine but he would gladly kill the son of a bitch who could do such a thing.

A loud bell suddenly cut the silence and Charlie felt anxiety rise in his chest. He had to do this and he had to do it now. About twenty seconds later the double doors at the front of the school burst open like a ripe seed pod. A small tidal wave of happy little faces poured through the opening and Charlie frantically scanned them for a glimpse of the three Billys. His heart was pounding, afraid he”d miss them in the rush, and his desperate need to help find Andy would be thwarted yet again. He”d felt so impotent sitting there in Paxton while the days ticked by, knowing that each passing minute made it less and less likely Andy would be found. He had to find Billy and that trail had to lead to Andy. It just had to.

A head of wispy blond hair caught his attention and he sucked in his breath in anticipation, but a second later the child turned to reveal an adorable little face that was definitely not William North. Indeed, unless the North family had a terrific sense of humor the day-glow orange coat, green tights and pink gym shoes almost certainly belonged to a girl. Charlie allowed a split second to wonder if Billy North had a sister. Black bangs grabbed him next but the boy was far too young to be Billy Dekker, a third-grader at most. Feverishly he scanned the sea of faces, too intent on his task to be discouraged by a few false alarms. And then his eyes widened and his pulse quickened even more as a familiar round face leaped out of the crowd at him. Soulful hazel eyes seemed to connect with Charlie”s and that same little smile beamed just like in the photo. Then the moment was done and the boy disappeared behind a bush, but that one crystal instant had been enough. Charlie”s heart leaped and he could have shouted in glee. He”d found Billy Patterson! Just one more bit of luck would do the trick.

Grinning broadly, he resumed his face-to-face search of the student body. He had the luxury now of focusing on unusual attributes, Billy North”s wispy blondness and Billy Dekker”s dark squareness. The seconds rushed by, child after child holding his gaze just long enough to be rejected. The crowd began to thin and Charlie”s grin began to fade. They came out of the school in twos and threes now, no longer the open floodgates of young humanity that had followed the bell. A group of about six raised his hopes for an instant until he realized they were all girls. A fat boy came out by himself. Three more girls. Two tiny boys, then another who ran to catch up. Then just the closed doors and nothing more.

Charlie couldn”t believe it. It felt like all the air had been let out of his chest, to be this close to his quest and fail. He should have known it wouldn”t work, a plan with so many holes in it. It had to go perfectly to work and obviously something had gone wrong. He watched as a few more kids straggled out of the school, his heart pounding for a second each time until he saw that it wasn”t a Billy, and finally the closed doors simply stayed that way.

He sat a few minutes, staring and feeling as though he”d let Andy down. He wasn”t yet prepared to give up totally but it seemed pretty clear he wasn”t going to solve the mystery today. When teachers began coming out Charlie decided to hang it up and give it another try tomorrow.

He started the car and nosed into the street but had to wait as a school bus roared by. In one of the bus windows the back of a hooded head was framed, and as he watched small hands reached up and pulled the hood back and down revealing a head of wispy blond hair. Charlie felt the air rushing back into his lungs as his hopes involuntarily rose once again. The boy in the window was three-quarters turned away, and Charlie held his breath as the seconds passed like an eternity.

“Turn around, baby,” he said out loud. “Just give me one look at that pretty face…” And just as the bus window pulled even with the car the grinning face of Billy North turned full to the window.

“Hoo-haa!” Charlie crowed, slapping the steering wheel with an open palm as if high-fiving the old Pontiac. Billy North was still in town! With a broad grin he pulled the car behind the school bus and followed it a block before turning off, having a premonition that he was about to sleep through the night for the first time since Andy left. He hoped he”d dream of Andy living happily in the loving home of Billy Dekker and his family, safe and content, never to be threatened by an adult again.

Next time:

Figuring it out.

If you enjoy my writing please let me know by emailing me at ail and I will do my best to reply quickly.

If you”re a glutton for punishment you can find my archived stories here on my Prolific Authors page.

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