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Frankie dropped the newspaper on her desk at FreeZone and saw the headline: Douglas Bascombe New Chief of DCFS. As she set the bag of tacos down and stowed her tote in a drawer, she wondered why she hadn't heard about the change before now. FreeZone, her after-school center for at-risk teens, had occasional contact with the Division of Children and Family Services. One of its social workers was a friend.
She probably hadn't heard because she rarely had time to actually read a newspaper. She had a free hour today only because the bakery had hired an extra worker and they'd finished early.
She unwrapped her first bean-and-corn taco and began to read as she ate. "Social worker who rose through the ranks."
"Longtime employee." Yada yada. In other words, a bureaucrat.
Frankie and the previous DCFS head had worked together well, so she didn't anticipate problems with Bascombe.
She thumbed through the paper, reading the articles, relishing the luxury of a little downtime. Her kids would be here in less than an hour, and so would her new community-service person. The football player. She didn't have high expectations for him, but he could no doubt clean the place and play basketball with the boys. That would suit her fine. As long as he didn't try to take over.
The last CS person she'd had had tried to organize her office.
As Frankie turned the next page, she found the rest of the article about the new DCFS director. She didn't need to read itshe knew exactly what it would say. She glanced at the picture, though, wondering if she'd ever met the guy.
Taco filling landed on the newspaper in a smear of beans, corn and sauce. Her stomach twisted into a tight, hard knot. Oh, my God.
Doug Bascombe was Dave. One picture in the newspaper and she was right back in that roomwith the terror, the fear, the revulsion. The violation.
The man who had assaulted her in juvie was now the head of DCFS.
Her stomach heaved, and she raced to the washroom just in time. After vomiting everything she'd eaten and more, she slumped on the tile floor next to the toilet. Her head ached and her hands shook.
Finally, she struggled to her feet, rinsed out her mouth and splashed cold water on her face. The kids would be arriving soon. She couldn't let them find her like this.
She wobbled back to her office, dumped the rest of her lunch in the garbage and stared at the picture. He was older, but there was no doubt Bascombe was Dave.
A social worker who molested the kids he worked with.
Now in charge of the entire agency that dealt with abused, neglected and abandoned children.
She wrapped her arms around herself. She had to do something. She had to make sure he couldn't hurt any more children.
She had to make sure everyone knew what a monster he was.
The front door opened, and she heard kids talking. Laughing as they walked in. Frankie closed her eyes and struggled to calm herself. She couldn't do anything about Bascombe right now. And she couldn't let the kids see how upset she was. She took a deep breath to regain her composure. Another. Plastered a smile on her face and stepped out of her office, only to see that she had another, more urgent problem. The kids stood in a circle around three boys. One was Ramon, a former member of the Insane Street Vipers gang. The others were Speedball and T-Man, two of his former associates in the gang.
Why couldn't she have an easy day, with no problems and no drama?
She strode toward the crowd.
Cal rolled his truck to a stop in front of FreeZone. The name on the building was unevenly painted in shades of green, blue and yellow, and drips of paint dotted the glass beneath the letters.
Blinds covered the windows, but it looked as if the building had started life as a supermarket. There weren't many of those in the Manor neighborhood anymore.
There wasn't much of anything here besides liquor stores, currency exchanges and bars. It was the last place on earth he wanted to be.
He slipped on his sunglasses as he stepped out of the Escalade, and car doors slammed behind him. He waved to the reporters, waiting for them to crowd around.
"Cal, how do you feel about being sentenced to a hundred hours of community service?" one of them asked.
Pissed off was how he felt. He smiled easily. "FreeZone is going to get every bit of my effort until I've paid my debt to society."
Another reporter shoved a microphone beneath his nose. "With all the time you have to spend here, will you be ready for training camp?"
Cal smiled at the Chicago Cougars beat reporter for the Herald Times. "FreeZone is open three hours every day. Other than that, I'll be at Cougars Hall, just like every day since my surgery." Until he made a deal with the woman who ran this place. Frankie Devereux would let him out of his community service if the price was right, and Cal would make sure it was. Then he'd be at Cougars Hall all day. "The doctors say I'm good to go, and I'm looking forward to getting back on the field in six weeks."
"So your knee is as good as new? You'll be the starting strong safety for the Cougars?" the first reporter asked.
"That's the plan." He waved to the journalists as he headed for the door. "Got to go. The sooner I start, the sooner I'll be back at Cougars Hall full-time."
"You got off pretty easily with just community service for that fight," a young woman called as he reached the door. "Have you heard from the commissioner? Are you going to be suspended for any games?"
"Haven't heard anything about that." He smiled, thankful for the sunglasses. "That's up to the commissioner. Take care, guys." He yanked open the door and stepped inside.
As the door clicked shut behind him, his easy camaraderie dropped away like a shrugged-off coat. Tension swirled in the air of the huge, mostly empty space. Fifteen or twenty teens of both genders milled around, the boys shuffling their feet, calling out to a group of four others who were standing off to the side.
Cal zeroed in on the four.
The three kids facing him were stocky and muscular, with identical soul patches beneath their lower lips. Two wore red baseball caps, brims turned to the side. The aggression in their faces made the back of his neck tingle and had him shifting his weight to the balls of his feet.
The fourth teenager was a lot smaller, with short dark hair, slightly baggy pants and a ragged-looking tank top. From behind, he appeared to be facing down the three bigger kids.
The place smelled like cake, disinfectant and fear.
A couple of boys in the group of spectators spotted Cal and whooped. "Look at that big dude. He can kick your ass, Ramon, and your friends, too," one called.
Without looking at them, the smallest of the four kids said, "That's enough." His low voice snapped over the others like a whip. "Everyone sit at the homework tables. Now."
Although he didn't turn his head or speak loudly, his words carried the ring of authority. The mass of youths hesitated, nervous energy flowing from one to the next. Funny that one of their peers would have so much authority, but it didn't matter how big he talked. Each of the three guys he was facing outweighed him by fifty or sixty pounds.
The mass of teens shifted, and Cal gathered himself to intervene. This was the moment when everything could go to hell.
Finally, they began drifting toward a cluster of tables in the far corner. Two boys hung back, circling behind the other four. "Hey, Ramon, what are you gonna do?" One boy danced forward and nudged the kid standing in the middle. "You staying here? You going?"
"Gotta choose, dude," the other one said as he toed a basketball off the floor and began dribbling effortlessly.
Where the hell was the woman who was supposed to be running this place? As Cal made his way toward the four teens, the smallest one said, "Ramon, did you invite these guys here?"
"No, man," the boy without the red cap said. "I don't want nothing to do with them." He glanced at the other two and his eyes flickered. The speculative expression in them disappeared so quickly Cal wondered if it had been there at all.
The short kid crossed his arms across his chest and stepped closer, somehow seeming taller. "T-Man, Speed-ball, you're not welcome here. Get out. Now."
"We just want to talk to Ramon," one of them said, smirking.
Short Guy took another step. "You're not going to do it here."
The two red caps stood their ground, and Ramon backed away. Cal frowned. But he wouldn't interfere unless it was absolutely necessary.
A murmur rippled through the kids clustered around the table. All of them were standing. The two closer ones glanced at the short kid uneasily. Were they afraid for him?
Every football player knew when a scene was turning ugly, and Cal's antennae were twitching.
He strode toward the group of four, flexing his hands. He wanted to grab and throw. Toss the bullies to the side. But he'd stay cool. Unless they gave him grief.
When he reached them, he grasped the cloth of the short kid's tank top and yanked him back. Cal's arm brushed the kid's side, which felt softer than a typical teenage boy's. Even worse that these three were threatening him.
Cal braced himself on splayed legs and looked from one to the other. "You boys have been asked to leave." He held their gaze. "You going on your own, or do you need help?"
One of the two red caps, reeking of sweat and stale cigarette smoke, said, "You gonna make us?"
"If I have to."
The mouthy guy nudged his buddy. "He thinks he can take us," he said, giggling.
The kid's pupils were dilated. He was high. Cal checked the other one, and found his eyes were ink-black, too.
As Cal gathered himself, the boy behind him tried to step forward. He collided with the arm Cal instinctively stuck out. More softness bumped his forearm. Then the kid elbowed him and shoved Cal's arm aside.
"Stop this right now." The kid wasn't a boy. She was a slender young woman who vibrated with intensity. His new boss, probably. Frankie something.
Cal didn't care.
He stepped in front of her again. "Bring it on, shitheads."
The two exchanged a look, then charged. Cal held up his hands, palms out, and the teens stumbled as they ran into them. While they were off balance, he grabbed them by the backs of their shirts, lifted them off the floor and held them out to the side.
As they kicked and flailed, the kids behind him hooted. "Where you running to, Speedball?" one yelled, making the rest laugh. Speedball, on his left, punched wildly.
As Cal carried them toward the door, Frankie shouted, "put them down. Right now."
"Gladly. As soon as they're out of here."
A whiff of citrus was his only warning before Frankie curled her fingers around his right biceps. "Let go of them."