Castle Roland

Family Values

by Rilbur


Chapter 6

Posted: N/A

Family Values

Copyright © 2012 - 2014 by Rilbur and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

Family Values LogoLaura held Sarah back, keeping her from charging off half-cocked. "Wait for our lawyer to do his job," she reminded her other half.

"I know," Sarah sighed, settling back on her heels. "That's what we hired him for. It's just hard. Especially after the house."

"The house is the best news I've had all day," Laura smiled. "The twins got in, got out, and pissed off my colleagues. All of whom deserve a nice punch in the nose for deliberately tying me up with work that kept me from hearing what was going on."

"But our babies-" Sarah began to protest.

"Our babies have taken off for overnight camping trips more often than you know," Laura soothed her. "More than once I've checked on their room at night, only to discover them gone, and their bags with them."

"What?" Sarah stiffened.

"Gone after bed time, but back before they were supposed to wake up," Laura nodded. "I debated bringing it up with them, but frankly at least this way I know exactly what's going on. Sure, they aren't taking half the sleep they're supposed to need, but my boys inherited more than my love of rough and tumble." Laura drove Sarah nuts with her frequent bursts of insomnia, even though she remained perfectly functional. She'd done the same thing to her parents, though they'd been a tad bit harsher about enforcing things like staying in the house. By the time she'd turned fourteen, they'd given up on sleeping hour. She slept six hours a night if that, and they just put up with it. Besides, about the twentieth time she'd 'surprised' them with breakfast in bed, they'd decided the benefits were worth a degree of unconventionality. Understanding that, Laura knew full well that trying to force the twins to sleep the regulation eight hours simply wasn't going to happen. And knowing the twins, trying to force them to stay in the house was even less likely to happen. The twins were the twins. Unique, even if they pretended to be identical to each other.

"Alright everyone, this way," their lawyer shouted, guiding them into a courtroom. Laura didn't feel the slightest bit of shame about using her large bulk and badge to elbow her way to the front row of the crowd.

"All rise for the Honorable Judge Edward Haran," the bailiff intoned, ignoring the fact that the crowd hadn't ever really sat down.

"Sit, sit," the judge ordered as he swept in. "Given the hour, I'm not inclined to stand on ceremony. I'd like to at least try and make it home to dinner before it gets cold on the table. Also, given that this hearing was set up at literally the last minute, I'm officially waiving the normal dress requirements for the court. Anxious parents should not be made to wait outside the court to hear what has happened to their children. Or have a bailiff try to harass them because they entered the court dressed inappropriately. Mr. Warren, if you would be so kind as to ensure that any of your clients who might be waiting outside are aware of that order, I'd appreciate it."

"Your dispensation was announced before we entered the court, Your Honor," Mr. Warren announced. "All parents who can attend, are attending. Several are still driving here, as we weren't able to contact them in time."

"Very well," the judge nodded, then sat at his chair. With a deep breath, Judge Haran held up a pile of papers. "This is a request for an emergency injunction against the state. I'll tell everyone involved right now that I'm inclined to grant it. Unless the state can show some pretty damned good reasoning, I intend to have all the children effected back home with their mommies and daddies by nightfall. Or should I say, their mommies or their daddies, since that appears to be the central junction of the state's complaints."

"Your Honor, I object," the state's lawyer rose back to his feet. "I request you recuse yourself, as you've clearly shown that you are prejudiced-"

"I don't recall inviting any posturing, Mr. Rice," the judge cut him off. "I will not recuse myself simply because I know what any first-year law student would understand, that the Executive Order signed this morning was on it's face unconstitutional. And given the Supreme Court's already announced decision to accelerate matters by directly hearing challenges to the order, it doesn't require even that much education to realize that the piece of drivel your case hinges on is on shaky legal ground. Hell, all it takes is the least bit of attention to the news, to realize that the last several Executive Orders Ashwood has signed have all been overturned by the courts. He's stretching his luck, and you are pushing your neck out alongside his. Now. Sit. Down."

Laura almost winced at the harsh tone of those last three words, understanding exactly why the lawyer had referred to the judge as 'Hang'Em Haran'. His voice had a cutting edge that you didn't learn by simply being sarcastic. "Given the number of people waiting for a result, let's cut to the core of the matter," the judge continued. "Mr. Warren, would you like to add anything to the written documentation already provided the court?"

"Your Honor, shortly before entering the court room, I discovered that one of the minor children involved in the complaint, a Joseph Randolph Peters, has been arrested," Mr. Warren stood to announce. "His arrest, as far as we have been able to determine, was for the so-called crime of calling his mothers, to inform them of the situation. Subsequent to that arrest, he was not given his legally mandated phone call to a responsible adult, to summon additional aide. If it hadn't been for external sources of information, he would have been stuck with a state appointed lawyer whose intentions were to act against his wishes. We'd appreciate it if this court would make explicit note of his case and order his release, as well as legally returning him to the guardianship of his parents."

"Would you care to provide us with any additional information, Mr. Rice?" Judge Haran asked.

"As I don't have any knowledge of the situation, Your Honor, I'm afraid I must decline your invitation," Mr. Rice tugged at his collar as he spoke. "I have no knowledge of the case at hand. I'd like to request that you postpone any discussion until I've head a chance to learn more."

"Mr. Warren, under the circumstances I'd like to apologize," Judge Haran sighed. "I will not be able to grant your motion. However, I do order that cause for arrest be presented to this court first thing in the morning. You, or another qualified attorney chosen by the young man or his parents, should be present to hear the charges and make initial rebuttal."

"Thank you Your Honor," Mr. Warren nodded. "Might I ask that you issue an order requiring the local police and social services to allow access for both myself and the young man's parents?"

"Consider it done," Judge Haran nodded. "If you have any difficulties, call me. My clerk will forward the call to my cell if needed. Under the circumstances, consider that a twenty-four hour line."

"Thank you Your Honor," Mr. Warren said again.

"In that case, unless there are objections, I'd like to hear from the State at this time. Why on God's green earth should I hesitate to sign this injunction?" Judge Haran looked at Mr. Rice.

"As our brief outlines, Your Honor, social services is obeying a legally mandated directive from the President of the United States of America," Mr. Rice rose to his feet. "It is now illegal for those children to be in contact with their parents."

"On what grounds?" Judge Haran demanded. "Reading the order, it says that sexual amorality and deviancy are cause for removing children from their families. Even assuming this order is valid, why have you removed these children from their families? What deviancy or amorality is involved?"

"As the president explained in the news conferences that supplemented the actual text of the order, it was aimed at homosexuals, Your Honor," Mr. Rice announced. "As these parents are all known homosexuals-"

"Objection, Your Honor," Mr. Warren shot to his feet. "Facts not in order. While many of my clients are homosexuals and we will stipulate to that fact, many are bisexual."

"Objection sustained," Judge Haran said gravely, clearly struggling not to laugh.

"Very well," Mr. Rice ground out, "as all of these parents are known to engage in homosexual activities — if that pleases the court-"

"Actually it doesn't matter to the court at all," Judge Haran cut him off. "This court takes no notice, now or ever, of the private activities engaged in in the privacy of the bedroom."

Mr. Rice took a deep breath. "If the phrasing pleases the court, I should say," Mr. Rice said.

"Ah, that phrasing will be accepted. Continue," Judge Haran ordered.

Laura stifled the urge to laugh. She appreciated the judge's declaration of exactly which side he was on, but she wanted her babies home. Now. She looked over her shoulder as a commotion at the door showed another man arriving, He rushed up the aisle, then whispered in Mr. Warren's ear.

"Your Honor, I'm afraid I must ask permission to interrupt Mr. Rice's stirring rendition of 'Just Following The Fuehrer's Orders', as I have additional information regarding Joseph Peters that the court may be interested in."

"Please, continue," Judge Haran nodded.

Sarah clutched painfully at Laura's arms, and Laura held her harder as Mr. Warren glanced back at them. "He's being taking to the local hospital for emergency medical treatment, as is his younger sister Abigail. A man, supposedly a social services worker, yanked on her arm hard enough to pull it out of it's socket, and then proceeded to drag her off by the dislocated arm. Joseph reacted negatively to this, decisively defending the child, only to himself be knocked unconscious by the police officer escorting him. While investigating the incident, it was discovered that the man purporting to be working for social services is, in fact, a member of a local church whose normal day job involves janitorial duties."

"Actually, Your Honor, the man was almost certainly one of several volunteers who agreed to help social services, as an intervention of this scale is outside their normal operations," Mr. Rice disagreed.

"Whatever the exact circumstances, Your Honor, the fact remains that two of the children given into the tender mercies of social services have wound up grievously injured," Mr. Warren argued. "One of them was, perhaps, justifiably injured, but there can be no acceptable reason for yanking a child's arm sharply enough to dislocate the shoulder, much less trying to drag them off afterward by the same arm. This is exactly the type of situation this court exists to investigate and intervene in."

"Whatever facts may be argued by the state," Judge Haran said gravely, "Mr. Warren's position is quite valid. I am ordering the state to investigate the situation and provide me a report by the morning. I also want to see both children here, pending medical permission."

"What about his other sister?" Sarah asked, standing up. Laura quickly stood up beside her to offer support, even as she silently ground her teeth. Sarah knew she was supposed to stay quiet.

"Excuse me?" Judge Haran asked, annoyed.

"Mr. Warren has only discussed one of our two girls," Laura stepped forward. "They've always been together. Where was our other girl during all of this?"

"Mr. Warren, do you have any information?" the judge asked, slightly less annoyed. Laura had never had to deal with him personally, but she recalled something about him approving of family bonds. Maybe his approval of a mother's concern for her children outweighed his anger at someone interrupting his court.

"I'm sorry Your Honor, my report only mentioned the one girl," Mr. Warren spread his hands. "I can attempt to contact my colleague, but I can't imagine that he would have failed to mention the second if she were involved."

"They've separated the girls," Sarah fell back into her chair, sobbing. "They've always turned to each other, and now they don't have anyone."

"They're strong," Laura said quietly, sitting down and rubbing Sarah's back soothingly. "They'll hold up. And we will get them back."

"Continuing with the business of the court," Judge Haran banged his gravel, "having ordered that the minor children involved be presented tomorrow, along with a report by the state on it's position regarding the events, can we please resume our originally planned discussion on the state's egregious overstepping of it's authority?" Mr. Rice clearly winced at that. "I believe you were attempting to explain why the children were removed? Preferably without referencing to what the parents do in the privacy of their own bedrooms?"

"As I was explaining, Your Honor, the state has been ordered to remove children from environments that expose them to deviant and immoral sexuality, such as homosexuality," Mr. Rice spread his hands. "Whether that homosexuality is practiced by homosexuals or bisexuals," he added acidly.

"I'm sorry, I seem to have missed a step in there," Judge Haran said. "Somehow, you jumped from immorality and deviancy to homosexuality, but there wasn't any connective material there. What immorality?"

"As explained by the President, the homosexuality is the deviancy, as well as being immoral," Mr. Rice tried.

"That is the sum total of your reasoning?" the judge demanded.

"At this time, Your Honor, I'd like to state that that is the reasoning of the State, as promulgated and directed by my superior," Mr. Rice agreed.

"Nicely phrased," Judge Haran nodded. "As Mr. Warren has already commented, I'm sure the Fuehrer will be more than happy to hear you're obeying orders, like a nice, obedient soldier."

Mr Rice winced. "Off the record, your honor, I deserve that," he sighed. "I can't afford to quit or I'd have given two weeks notice."

"All arguments having been presented," Judge Haran intoned, "this court grants the emergency injunction. All children are to be returned to the custody of their parents immediately."

"Objection!" another lawyer pushed his way in from the back. "My apologies Your Honor, I was unable to get here on time. I'm here to represent Mr. Peters, who is suing to regain custody of his son. As his mother has been stripped of custody-"

"If Mr. Peters wishes to bring such a suit, he may do so," Judge Haran cut the lawyer off. "However, this hearing is not the appropriate venue, as the matter it argues has already been resolved in favor of the plaintiff. The order stripping these parents of custody is revoked, and may not be used as the basis for a custody suit. Any attempt to bring a suit under such authority would be a violation of this court's authority, and I would be forced to consider anyone bringing such a suit to be in contempt of court. Am I quite clear?"

"Crystal clear, Your Honor," the lawyer shrank back. "My apologies."

"You are attempting to zealously represent your client," the judge spread his hands. "Given the emergency nature of the hearing, I'm willing to accept that you had to rush off half-cocked. That's why I usually avoid these things."

"If I may beg the indulgence of the court," the lawyer asked, "I got here late. From what I heard, you explicitly overturned the social services order, not the President's Executive order, on the grounds that homosexuality is neither 'deviant' nor 'amoral'. If other matters are brought forward showing deviant or amoral behavior, would that also be considered contempt of court?"

Judge Haran frowned. "I anticipate the Supreme Court to overturn that order come tomorrow," he announced. "However, if you wish to bring such a suit forward, with the stipulation that the immorality or deviancy is not related to homosexual behavior, this court would be forced to hear it. Be warned, however, that this court will not look kindly on any attempt to skirt it's decisions. Have your facts clearly in order before you move. And if and when the Supreme Court overturns the executive order, your suit will almost certainly be dropped."

"Thank you your honor," the lawyer nodded, then stepped back.

Sarah started sobbing. "Not again," she said softly. "Oh God, I don't know if I can handle it again."

Laura helped her stand as the judge rose to depart. "Don't worry, honey, we'll handle it. I promise you, we'll handle it."

Joe's return to consciousness wasn't pleasant. His head hurt. His head was pounding. Throb, throb, goes the headache. With each throb, his vision darkened, leaving him to enjoy the world in a strobe light. He couldn't quite make out where he was. What was even more annoying was the way things seemed to be lit by a second strobe light, so sometimes he didn't get to see anything when his vision cleared. Of course, even when all those aspects came into alignment, all he really made out was a giant blur. Oh. Focus. He had to focus his eyes. Suddenly the world came into a degree of clarity, an angel standing over him, her blonde hair tucked neatly into a braid that was itself knotted tightly at the back of her head. She was talking to him, saying something.

Hearing. He had to listen. That's right. "-Pressure is still good, but it's lower than I like. Other than that it looks like he'll be okay. The bleeding is responding well to a simple pressure bandage." The angel's voice was actually halfway pretty, but the pain-filled shriek that lay behind it was the source of at least some of Joe's pain. It sounded like a little girl was being murdered. Abigail had sounded-

Abigail! Joe tried to jerk upright, only to discover that he was strapped firmly in place. "Stay still," the emergency technician ordered him, pressing down on Joe's shoulders authoritatively. "We're taking you to the hospital. Don't worry, you're going to be fine."

"My sister," Joe mumbled, trying to look over at her.

"She's in pain, but she'll be alright," the technician reassured him. "The doctors will have her patched up quickly."

"Have to protect her," Joe struggled, trying to get to his feet. Oh. Straps.

The room jerked, and Joe felt the darkness claim him again. When he came back to, he was being wheeled out of an ambulance. Strange that he couldn't remember traveling in one. It felt like he'd only been out for a few minutes. Surely it took longer to travel between the police station and hospital than that. Two or three days, right? No, wait, hours. Or was it seconds? Joe got so caught up in trying to remember how time worked that he barely even noticed being wheeled into the hospital.

A few minutes later, Joe realized that he was staring at daylight coming in through his window. Which was cool, except he could clearly see that his window faced east. East, not west. Which meant it was morning. Which didn't make sense. Just a few minutes ago he'd been locked up in the police station, and it was most definitely evening, not morning.

Moving his head to look left abruptly explained part of his issue, as red hot pokers began slicing in through his scalp. "Oh," he groaned, raising his right hand to his head. Or rather, trying to. It moved all of about a foot before it stopped, held in place by handcuffs. Great. Just great. Hopefully he wouldn't need to do anything as unimportant as scratch his nose. An itch there could be quite maddening if he couldn't-

As if summoned by the thought, Joe's nose began to itch. He jerked his right hand up several times trying to reach his face, then tried leaning forward to bring his face closer to his hand. Unfortunately his head didn't approve of that idea at all. Finally he gave up and leaned back, resigned to an itch he couldn't scratch. He absentmindedly raised his left hand and rubbed his chin, trying to remember-

Oh. Two hands. And only one was restrained. He spent a good five seconds enjoying the scratch before returning to the problem at hand. Hospital. Police station. A pain in his head that just would not go away. And something about Abigail. The last one he couldn't quite pin down, but he could figure out how to connect the first three. Obviously he'd hit his head on something. That's why it hurt, and they took him to the hospital because it was bad enough to knock him out.

"Joe!" a familiar voice shouted from the door.

"Mom?" Joe groaned.

"Oh Joe," his mother said, smiling as she sat down beside him. "Figures you'd wake up while I was grabbing breakfast," she laughed. "You always were obstinate."

"Hey Mom," Joe croaked. "Um, can I get some water?"

"Let me get the nurse," Mom said, vanishing out the door. In a moment, a nurse came in, carrying a glass of iced water.

"Sip slowly," the nurse ordered, handing the glass over. Joe wasn't used to drinking with his left hand, but thanks to the straw he didn't spill too much of the drink over himself. Even a small bit of water helped moisten his mouth, reinvigorating him. Even his headache seemed to diminish as the nurse began to investigate Joe's health. Blood pressure tests Joe was familiar with, but Joe couldn't even begin to guess what the other things the nurse was doing were meant for.

"Can I get my hand free?" he asked, raising the troublesome appendage. It'd be nice to get more of the water down his throat than his front, he felt.

"Sorry," a man Joe hadn't noticed said. Which, Joe realized, said something about his current condition. It wasn't like the officer was hiding.

"If you have to restrain me, could you at least restrain the other hand?" Joe asked, taking a deeper sip of the water.

"That much I can do," the guard nodded.

"Thanks," Joe said as the guard fiddled with the cuffs. "Um, actually, would you mind leaving them off long enough for me to use the restroom?"

"Sorry," the nurse interrupted. "The doctor wants you to remain in bed for now. Once he's examined you, he may decide to revoke that order."

"I kinda need to go," Joe told the nurse. "And my other option is to wet the bed."

Chuckling, the nurse grabbed hold of a privacy curtain and began pulling it around the bed. "We can manage slightly better than that," he told Joe.

"Really?" Joe asked, raising an eyebrow as he took another sip of water. "Only slightly better?" Joe tried to take another sip, only to find that all that was left was ice. He looked down at the cup in surprise. Wow, he really was thirsty if he'd drank that much without noticing it. The cop took one look at the nurse, who was busy digging in a cabinet, and finished securing Joe to the bed before discretely closing the curtain behind himself.

"Here you go," the nurse held up a plastic jug. Reaching over, he pulled the blanket off of Joe. Joe realized what was about to happen just in time to prevent the man from lifting up the skirt of his medical gown.

"Hey!" Joe protested, jerking his legs away. The rest of his protest vanished in a groan as he triggered his headache again, along with a surge from his stomach warning him that unless he wanted yesterday's lunch back, he really needed to take it easy. "Then again," Joe croaked, "I guess there are worse things."

The nurse managed to keep the following events completely impersonal, which was the only thing that made it even vaguely tolerable for Joe. With the nurse's help, the process was quickly finished and Joe restored back to a state of decency in just minutes. Despite the nurse's best efforts, Joe still felt it necessary to take a quick moment to pray that the doctor would let him out of this bed sometime soon. Before the next time he had to pee would be nice, but at the very least, Oh Lord, please make it before Joe had other eliminatory matters to attend to. Please.

"When is the doctor going to be here?" Joe asked as the nurse opened up the curtain.

"Any minute now, actually," Mom said.

"How did I end up in here?" Joe asked. "Hit myself over the head?"

Mom looked at him, surprised. "You don't remember?"

"Last thing I remember was being at the police station," Joe shrugged. "Bits and pieces after that, but nothing coherent. Just flashes. An ambulance trip, I think. Then some kind of machinery. Big, and painfully loud."

Mom sighed. "Laura was so pissed off," she said thoughtfully. "I bet now she's going to be even angrier. Alright, I guess I'd better fill you in." Mom's review wouldn't have passed muster with anyone else, but Joe knew how to prod her back onto track whenever she derailed herself. They'd just finished discussing the events of the courtroom last night when the doctor arrived, interrupting them.

The doctor repeated all of the tests the nurse did, then added a few more. "I'd like you to stay in bed as much as possible," he said eventually. "It looks like the concussion is healing nicely, but you took a very nasty blow. So long as any dizziness or nausea persist, I'd ask that you not try to walk anywhere on your own. Another blow to the head could cause serious injury at this point, which means you really need to avoid falling." The doctor looked nastily over at the officer. "Or being assaulted by an officer whose feeling their cheerios a little too much."

"Her," the cop drawled, "and the Captain has already had words with her over the issue."

"Good," the doctor nodded sharply. "I get enough people in here without the cops adding to my workload. Especially when the people who are getting added are doing the cops' jobs for them." The cop clearly decided to leave it at that as the doctor pulled out a chart and made some notes. "The judge would like to see you in court, but I'm not comfortable with you leaving the building just yet," the doctor said thoughtfully. "I'm going to ask him to see you here, if he needs to see you at all."

"Thanks," Joe leaned back in the bed. "Doc, you said you wanted me to avoid walking. Can I at least use the restroom?"

The doctor laughed. "Yes. You'll need to accept help from a nurse, but you can at least use a proper toilet. No shower, however. You'll have to make do with a sponge bath. I'll have the kitchens whip up a breakfast for you now that you're awake."

The doctor swept out as quickly as he'd swept in, and it was only after he was gone that Joe realized he'd forgotten to ask the man his name.

"So," Joe turned back to his mother, "Where are the girls? School?"

"Abigail is still in the hospital," Mom told him. "The staff is doing their best to try and protect her from the Social Services investigation into how she was injured."

"Protect her?" Joe asked, confused.

"Social Services doesn't want to admit they were in the wrong," Mom shrugged. "Laura says that they're investigation is going to consist of trying to pin the blame on you, or on Abi."

"I see," Joe said, resisting the urge to shake his head. "How petty. So where's Ami? You said you got her back, and I'm surprised you're letting her out of your sight."

Mom sighed, blinking back a few tears. "Social Services claims that they've misplaced the paperwork showing which home she was assigned to," she said after a moment.

"They what?" Joe struggled upright, ignoring his headache. "So she's just, what, vanished?"

Mom nodded. "We think we'll get her back later today. When the judge heard about it this morning, well, from what I've heard he's on a rampage."

"I don't understand," Joe let himself slowly fall back into the bed. "What is going on with Social Services? This isn't like them at all!"

"Laura says that someone is pressuring them," Mom shrugged. "She's seen similar things in the police department. This has nothing to do with the local office, it's about whatever is going on at the state capitol. Even the local DAs are being hit by it. Someone fairly far up in the government is throwing their weight around, and they planned this a lot better than we had a chance to."

"What, the Governor?" Joe asked. "He's been one of the ones fighting Ashwood's stupidity."

"Someone in his office, at least," Mom shrugged. "Laura says it might not even be one of his people, but a bureaucrat of some kind under him. She says whoever it is, they're probably trying to curry favor with the Ashwood administration as a career move."

"Remind me to find a nice dark alley," Joe grumbled. "Not that I mean that seriously, officer," Joe looked over at his watchdog.

The officer laughed. "You need any company in that alley, just ask for it," he told Joe. "I've got an entire precinct full of buddies who'd love to provide it. The bastard tried to hold our jobs over our heads."

"Judge Haran!" Mom exclaimed. Joe carefully turned his face to the door.

"Hello," the judge nodded his head to her. "And hello, Joe," he nodded to Joe as well. "I'm Judge Haran," he offered his hand.

"Hello Judge," Joe took the offered hand. "I'd get up to say hello, but the doctor wants me to stay in bed. Between the way I feel, and the local dress code," Joe raised his hand to show off the handcuff on his wrist, "I think I may just follow orders for once."

The judge laughed, but reached over to touch the handcuffs. "Is this really necessary, officer?" he asked.

"Procedure," the officer shrugged. "We're in enough trouble over the idiot who whacked him upside the skull without violating procedure in other ways."

The judge nodded. "Well, I can help with that. Mr. Rice? Mr. Chase?"

Two lawyers stepped in through the door. "Young man," the judge told Joe, "I was out here to personally investigate your sister's condition. After hearing that the doctor didn't want to release you, I decided to hold a bedside hearing. We're going to be relatively informal today, but we have all the important people here."

The judge reached over and knocked on the cabinet beside Joe's bed. "Hear ye, hear ye," he intoned, "The Honorable Judge Haran presiding, I now call this court into session to consider the case of the State Vs. Joseph Peters. How pleads the defense?"

"Not guilty, your honor," Mr. Chase answered.

"Very well. Would the state care to make a motion?" the judge smiled down at Joe, then winked.

Mr. Rice stepped forward, and pulled a sheet of paper out of his briefcase. "In the case of the State of West Virginia Vs. Joseph Peters on the charge of assault, the state would like to dismiss with prejudice. Investigation clearly shows that he was acting in defense of his younger sister, Abigail Bryant, and was justified in his use of force. We apologize for wasting the court's time."

"The motion is granted," the judge intoned, smiling. "This court is now in recess," the judge knocked on the cabinet again. "And that, young man, could be considered a belated birthday gift from my court," he told Joe. "I believe you'll find that Mr. Rice has something he wants to tell you. Your mother, your lawyer, and I will wait out in the hallway. Officer, as this young man is no longer under arrest, and is therefore free to go, might I suggest your remove the handcuffs and depart?"

"With pleasure, your honor," the officer agreed instantly. It seemed like seconds later the room drained of people, leaving Joe alone with Mr. Rice.

"Thanks for dismissing the charges," Joe said, rubbing his wrist. "Why?"

"Why what? Dismiss the charges? They should never have been brought," Mr. Rice shrugged. "Why am I being so nice, when I was the one running point, legally speaking, for Social Services yesterday? Well, that's not a question I should answer. Though I imagine you could ask Mr. Chase why his firm was so busy researching the applicable civil law yesterday. Specifically, they dropped everything they were doing, right after he got back from lunch. A lunch, I'd add, that he shared with me, like he does every Monday. Not that I would have warned him. I'll go to my grave able to swear I never did such a thing. The closest I came was having to take a phone call during lunch, and he couldn't have overheard anything about what I was doing with Social Services, just that I was incredibly unhappy with the orders I was being given. And that those orders might have been caused by orders from 'the top'. But the exact details, no, I never gave him those."

"I… see…" Joe said, confused. "Why are you telling me this?"

Mr. Rice sighed. "Because I need to thank you," he said after a moment. "I have to follow orders, but your action managed to get the ball rolling even faster than it would have otherwise. Your stepmother called the lawyers a good hour earlier than any of us expected anyone to. My nephew actually had to interrupt her yellow pages search, to make certain she knew he had the number of an exceptionally skilled law firm that would be glad to take the case. Not that my nephew advertises our relationship, in fact he does his damnedest to keep it quiet. Doesn't want any suspicions of nepotism." Mr. Rice smiled. "We had to do what we did. If we didn't, someone else would have been sent in to do it, and they would have done the job right."

Joe smiled. "I had to do it, somebody else could have gotten it right?" he laughed. "That's probably a first."

Mr. Rice shrugged. "Don't let it out too much, but I, and a few other key movers, thought you should know. We figure that if you've managed to consistently put yourself in the center of things so far, you'll probably keep managing it. Which means that having you aware of who your friends are, and aren't, is important. You might try something either stupid or desperate, otherwise."

Mr. Rice turned to leave, then hesitated. "As for your sister being misplaced, that I am sorry for. I suspect someone knew what we were planning, or maybe they were planning against the Supreme Court's actions. None of us anticipated that."

"Do you know anything that can help us find her?" Joe asked.

Mr. Rice shook his head. "All I can tell you is that Judge Haran and my boss are on the warpath, and once they find someone to charge, I intend to do my job much more effectively than I did yesterday."

"Mr. Rice," Joe said when the lawyer had his hand on the doorknob.

"Yes?" Mr. Rice asked.

"From the sounds of it, I think you mean to do your job just as effectively as you did yesterday," Joe told him. "Because from what I hear, you did a damn fine job of serving the people of this city. Damn fine."

"Thank you," Mr. Rice said quietly. "That means a lot."

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