Castle Roland

Family Values

by Rilbur


Chapter 8

Posted: N/A

Family Values

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

All Rights Reserved

Family Values Logo"Thank you for coming," Joe smiled.

"Have a pleasant day," he beamed.

"Good morning, how can I help you?" he asked, bestowing the most pleasant grin he could manage.

"Did you find everything you were looking for?" Joe asked a gift shop customer.

"Hello Judge Moran, what are you doing here on this fine day?" Joe said through bared teeth. After eight hours of community service, Joe's smile was worn through. Hopefully the judge wouldn't hold it against him.

"Just checking up on you," the judge smiled, puttering around in the aisle of the hospital gift shop. "A tad bit overpriced," he said to himself, looking at a display of chewing gum. "Oh well," he picked one up. Turning back to Joe, he asked, "how are things going today, Mr. Peters?"

Joe winced as the judge emphasized the name. It was his own fault for snapping at the judge not to call him 'son'. Thankfully everyone had put that off to a side effect of the concussion, rather than just plain stupidity. On the other hand, this torture sentence might have been the judge's way of getting even. "I've nearly finished my first shift of community service," Joe told the judge. "And now I know why they don't sell any type of rope or yarn or string in gift shops."

"Oh?" the judge asked, smiling.

"Because otherwise the workers would be hanging themselves before lunch," Joe finished. "Please tell me that you've come by to tell me that now that you've scared me straight, I don't have to work the other seventy two hours. Please."

"Sorry, Mr. Peters," the judge smiled. "That wouldn't achieve our goal very well, now would it."

Joe sighed. He'd rather expected the judge to turn him down. "I'd almost rather have been sentenced to jury," he complained, ringing up the judge's purchase.

"Perhaps," the judge agreed with a smile. "I hear you were quite insistent on only working on the weekends. The hospital administration actually called me to see if I could exert myself on their behalf. Frankly, I agree with them. Working eight hour days five days a week is fine, but you're doing school then turning around and working away your days off. That was not what I intended. I'd wish you'd reconsider."

"No," Joe said flatly. "And you can't make me." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Joe regretted them. "I mean to say, Your Honor-"

"I can tell by the look on your face you realize exactly how stupid it is to speak that way to the judge overseeing your case," Judge Moran cut him off. "So I'm going to give you a chance to make it up. You can either take weekday shifts, or I'll add amend my ruling to add some additional hours to your sentence. Keep you here for six weeks instead of four. Perhaps then you'll learn to watch your tongue a little better."

Joe sighed. "Bring the paperwork and I'll sign it," he told the judge. "I am not working after school, however. That's just not an option."

"Why not?" the judge asked. "The hospital said you were adamant, but they didn't seem to know why."

Joe blinked in surprise. He'd gone head to head with the hospital administrator, and the officer assigned to oversee his case, over the decision not to work after school, but now that the judge mentioned it, he couldn't remember anyone discussing why. Just the hospital insisting that they needed him to cover weekdays, and him responding with a thesaurus's worth of words meaning 'no'.

"My younger sisters need someone to walk them home after they get out of school," Joe told the judge. "My parents can't afford a babysitter, and the twins aren't mature enough to trust. And if my parents can't afford a babysitter, they can hardly afford to take the afternoons off."

The judge nodded thoughtfully. "I stand corrected, young man," he said. "I take back what I said about additional hours. But I will discuss matters with the hospital. Will you take hours in the evening, after your parents are home to watch your sisters?"

Joe shrugged. "I wouldn't object, but my mothers will if I'm out too late."

"Not a problem," the judge nodded. "I'll talk to the administration and make the arrangements."

"Oh," Joe added as the judge turned. "As far as the new schedule goes, I have a date Tuesday."

"And you think that's more important than your punishment?" the judge raised an eyebrow. "Young man, you're here because you need to learn control. Even I can't object to the first set of assault charges being dropped, but to turn around and break a woman's jaw later that day was a tad foolish. Yes, you had a concussion and genuinely believed she'd issued a death threat and then followed that up with force, but that belief wasn't reasonable. And now you want to try and argue your way out of that punishment to have a date?"

Joe spread his hands. "Your honor, I made a commitment after we had my schedule set. If you wish to change the schedule, that's fair. I simply want to be able to honestly tell the girl I tried to keep my promise. And a big, mean judge ignored my efforts."

The judge burst out laughing. "Oh, is that all," he giggled. Judge Moran drew himself up and made a clear effort to compose himself. "In that case, I'll make certain to leave you this Tuesday evening off."

"Thanks, judge," Joe nodded.

"That said, I'm still going to ask you to pick either Saturday or Sunday off," the judge added. "I'll let you work tomorrow, but after that at least one day a week off."

"I'd rather get the sentence finished," Joe protested.

"Everyone needs time off," the judge shook his head firmly. "A day here or there to relax, and take for themselves."

"Judge, I have four younger siblings," Joe protested. "I don't get 'days off'; I get hours when they aren't driving me out of my mind!"

The judge laughed again. "That may be, but the policy of my court has always been at least one day a week off for any minor who passes through it. If circumstances don't allow it, then I find a way to make them allow it. Understand?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Joe sighed.

"Good," the judge nodded sharply. "I know you don't like me much, s… Mr. Peters. If I had to guess, between reading your file and watching your reactions, you have one hell of a father issue. You don't want anyone trying to take over the paternal role. And reading between the lines, I can't blame you. But I'm going to give you some fatherly advice, and I suggest you take the advice rather than complain about the fact that it's fatherly, if you catch my drift."

"I'll try, Your Honor," Joe replied when it became clear the judge was waiting for a response.

"Trying is all I can ask, I suppose," the judge nodded. "Learn to pick your battles. Just because you don't like someone, or even happen to be on the opposite side in a given situation, doesn't mean they're you're enemy. We both know that what has been floating around the past week or two isn't normal for our town. Quite frankly, the President's efforts are slowly but surely bearing fruit, and the nut cases are coming out of the woodwork all over the place. You're going to be one of the lynch pins of the coming fight, whether you like it or not. Come election, people are going to make you the issue. It's not fair. It's not right. But it's going to happen. You're too big to avoid it. Star quarterback for the local high school. Child of two gay parents. And before you make any comments about not wanting it, not having done anything to deserve it, you're also the elder brother willing to go to jail to protect his family. You've pushed yourself into the limelight, and when people tried to help you cover it up you just pushed yourself further into it."

"I'm not going to pretend to even guess all of what's going to happen from here," Judge Moran shrugged. "Frankly, Judge Haran and I are going to be working overtime to help clean out Social Services. Ms. Dixon was the center of the rot, from what we can tell, but there's plenty more rot to dig out, and just throwing her in jail on contempt of court isn't going to keep her out of action indefinitely."

"So stop picking fights," Judge Moran ordered. "Or God help us all, if you have to pick them, pick them smartly. Find allies, and stop pissing all over the efforts of everyone whose trying to help you out!"

"That," Joe said after a moment, "Is fatherly advice I can accept. And try to follow."

"Try?" Judge Moran raised an eyebrow.

"If Ms. Dixon comes within five feet of either of the girls, I'm going to make what I did to her last time look like a love tap," Joe shrugged. "I'm not going to let her harm them, and whether or not anyone believes me, she threatened us. She threatened my mothers, she threatened me, and by implication she threatened the entire family. And beyond that, I'm not letting her expose the girls to the sheer hatred she showed."

Judge Moran's jaw worked for a moment, then he nodded. "Given that there's already a restraining order in effect, I'm not going to take judicial notice of what you just said," he responded. "But if that order lapses, you'll keep your hands off her unless and until she gives you provocation. Can you do that much, at least?"

Joe bowed his head. "Yes, Your Honor," he promised. "I'll wait. But once she provides it, I'm acting. I won't let her hurt the girls. I just can't."

Judge Moran shook his head. "I'm tempted to order counseling, but I suspect even the best headshrinker in the world would tell me that what I'm hearing is nothing more or less than an earnest young man who knows exactly what his limits are. And that those limits are, fundamentally, quite healthy. So I'm going to say one last thing, off the record. And if you quote me on this, I will deny it shortly before kicking your ass up one side and down the other."

"Your Honor?" Joe asked, confused.

"I see a lot of broken families run through my court," the judge said softly. "Sometimes bad luck. Sometimes bad planning. Sometimes just plain bad people. But I rarely, if ever, see such strong family values as your family holds to. My wife and son died in childbirth, and I never found another woman I could love. I never got to hold my son in my hands. I never got to see him walk, or grow into a man I could be proud of." The judge wiped away a few tears. "But it would be beyond my wildest dreams if he'd grown up to be like you. Never could I have imagined a son I could be more proud of. And if your father had an ounce of sense, he'd be proud of what you've become, not jealous of the wealth you'll one day inherit."

"Thank you," Joe said softly, holding back a few tears of his own.

"Your welcome," the judge nodded. "Just remember, if you quote me…"

"You'll deny it and kick my ass in return," Joe chuckled. "I'll remember."

"See that you do," the judge said over his shoulder as he left the gift shop.

Glancing at the clock, Joe sighed. Officer Boyd was running late, and at a guess both he and the administrator would be talking to the judge for a while. And until one or the other of them showed up, Joe was stuck here. He reached under the counter and grabbed the phone to call home and let the Moms know he was going to be running late.

"Thanks for the ride, Officer Boyd," Joe said as he hoped out of the car.

"Part of the job," the officer shrugged. "Don't abuse it."

"I don't plan to," Joe told her. "Sorry the judge kept you late."

Officer Boyd laughed. "Don't worry about it," she told him. "I didn't exactly like your schedule either, and he had a point when he read us the riot act over not asking why you were so stubborn about the hours you were willing to work. Your sisters are lucky."

"I'm lucky to have them," Joe told her. "See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," the officer replied. Joe closed the door behind himself and walked to the front door.

"I see you've made a new friend," Mrs. B commented as he put his hand on the doorknob.

"Hey, didn't see you there," Joe told her, turning to face the chairs on the porch. All the screens were down to provide shade during the summer, and with the sun coming in from behind the house the porch was in deep shadow.

"You probably didn't see much of anything," she commented. "Hungry?"

"Yeah," Joe nodded. "What's for dinner?"

"Well, we were thinking about Richardson's Pasta," Mrs. B suggested. "You're back from the hospital, the twins are at home, the girls are rescued, and everything has been settled. Except for your own run in with the law, that is. But all's well that ends well, as they say."

"There's news about the other kids?" Joe asked.

"Yup," Mrs. B nodded. "The lawyers are still tallying up the numbers, and the paperwork was well and truly scrambled, but we think we have everyone. Hence why I suggested Richardson's. Their nephews are some of the ones we haven't been able to confirm. It looks like they got shuffled out of town because there weren't enough foster families in the area, and we're having to drive out to various houses to physically check which foster kids are there. We've retrieved four or five other kids, but their nephews are persistently missing."

Joe nodded in understanding. Mrs. B didn't often bring her work home, but this was one case that she didn't feel right leaving her family out of. After all, they had all been at the heart of it. Normally the department lawyers would have kept her at arms length from the process to avoid phrases like 'conflict of interest', but Judge Haran had practically blown up at the idea. 'You want to take the one woman who I can trust to not just do the job, but do the job right, off the case?' had been the mildest of the phrases Joe had read in the newspaper.

"I'd think you'd want to stay away," Joe said hesitantly. "I mean, you don't have any results for them."

"They asked us over," she admitted. "Apparently, the rumor mill has been in overdrive about how I'm busting my butt to get things fixed. They don't blame me for failing them. They know how hard those idiots at Social Services made it. They appreciate the effort, and want to show it." There was a slight catch to her voice that made Joe ignore the growling of his stomach.

"What aren't you saying?" he asked.

"They have a small proposal," she said slowly. "I promised them I'd discuss it with my family. We'll talk about it over dinner."

"Alright," Joe shrugged. "I need a shower, then I'll be ready to go."

"Let your mom know," Mrs. B said softly. "I need to think."

"All right," Joe nodded, then stepped into the house.

"Oh, hey Mom," he said, running into her first thing.

"I thought I heard voices," she smiled.

"I just need to shower, then I'll be ready to go," Joe told her. "I'm sure the twins are starving. It's pretty late for dinner."

Mom smiled and shook her head. "We've all been keeping ourselves going on snacks. Take as much time as you need."

"Thanks," Joe told her. Running up to his room, he took as much time as he needed to quickly snatch clean clothes. He took just long enough at the restroom door to make sure no one was inside, then sealed it shut behind him. He was halfway undressed before the sound of it's slam finished echoing through the house, and kicked out of his underwear and socks while pulling the curtain shut and turning the water on. He took a quick moment to get his uniform hung on a hanger and toss his dirty clothes in the hamper while the water heated up. Stepping into the tub, he shivered as the cool spray hit his body.

Sure, he'd take as long as he needed. But even if everyone else wasn't starving to death, he was!

Knowing full well that however distracted she was, Mrs. B would come down on him like a ton of bricks if he skimped on hygiene, he took the time to wash properly, constantly adjusting the temperature as the hot water slowly went from cool, to luke warm, to comfortable, and finally to burning hot. While rinsing, he debated shaving, but unlike hygiene Mrs. B would let that pass, so he skipped it. Besides, he didn't really need to shave that often yet anyway. His five o'clock shadow was more of a five o'clock dimming, even if he did usually shave it off for his dates. After all, you never knew when you might get a chance to neck, and he'd learned the hard way some girls just did not care for stubble. At all. At the top of their lungs.

Anyway, he shook himself loose from that train of thought to dry off and finish preparing to depart. Less than eight minutes after entering the house, he charged down the stairs, ready to go.

Richardson's Pasta was one of their favorite restaurants. Family friendly, reasonably priced, and overflowing with good food, there was nothing not to like. A variety of seating options allowed one to choose the desired ambiance. Cozy nooks for two were lit by candlelight, while larger tables in another room could host a family outing. What Joe was not expecting was to have Mr. Richardson himself conduct them to a private dining room. Oh, sure, on any given day he was likely to be around, but he didn't wait on customers, and he sure as hell didn't seat just anyone in one of the private dining rooms. Unlike their dating nooks, the private dining rooms cost money to rent.

"Ah, Mrs. Bryant, it is a pleasure to have you here tonight," Mr. Richardson said as he lead them to the table. Which, again confounding Joe's expectations, already had several people sitting there. He didn't recognize all of them, but he'd recently encountered Judge Haran, Mr. Rice, and Chief of Police Greene.

"I wasn't expecting so many people," Mrs. B told Mr. Richardson. "I actually, well…" Joe blinked in surprise. Whatever her many faults, one thing Mrs. B had never been accused of was waffling. She was perhaps a bit too decisive, but waffling? Never.

"I'm sorry," Mr. Richardson apologized. "I thought my husband told you it would be a dinner meeting."

"I misunderstood him," Mrs. B shook her head. "I thought him, maybe you, just a chance to discuss matters before continuing."

"What's there to discuss?" a man said, fiddling with the tie of his business suit. "Well, other than with your family, of course," he added when several others glared at him.

"I haven't really told them anything," Mrs. B sailed in to cover the gap. "You've said enough to make me think about it, but I just wouldn't know where to begin convincing them one way or the other. They'd probably think I was insane if I tried to explain it."

"Or, perhaps, you mean that you yourself do not yet know if you believe it to be a good idea," Mr. Richardson's husband Jake cut in. "We presented reasons to you that you found compelling, but you don't yet know if you believe those reasons yourself, which makes it difficult to present them to others effectively."

"You have taken the words out of my mouth," Mrs. B nodded gracefully.

"And that's just one more reason in favor of our proposal, I think," Jake said, receiving thoughtful nods from around the table.

"I'm not sure I understand," Mrs. B said.

"And I'm sure I am completely lost," Mom added suspiciously, looking at the expensive clothing worn by the men and women waiting for them. "And we weren't warned to dress up."

"My fault," Mr. Richardson said smoothly. "The original intention was a much less formal meeting."

"Trying to cut us out of the action," one of the women at the table snorted. Joe could already see other mouths forming cutting remarks, and the noise level began to rise as the men and women at the table started to argue.

"Enough!" Mrs. B snapped, ending the fight before it had a chance to start. "Plans may have changed, but we will get nowhere by assuming ill intent on the part of those who originally made the plans. Under the circumstances, I can certainly see where it was necessary and appropriate to increase the number of people attending. Each of you is an important person, and given the request that was made today it is not unreasonable for you to be involved. Indeed, it would be most unreasonable to cut you out. But my family and I were only recently involved in this, and it would behoove you to give us a chance to get our legs under us before you resume your internal conflicts!"

The stunned silence was quickly broken by Jake Richardson clapping. "As I said, she's perfect," he told the stunned group. "Each of us belongs where we are. We run our businesses, or do our jobs, and have no time to take on additional responsibilities. Besides, we do quite well where we currently are, or we'd have moved on already anyway. We're needed where we are, and even if we could get around that, the fact is that we could never agree to help one of our rivals up. In the end, no matter how much we cooperate, we're too competitive to give someone else that much pleasure."

"And you were right," one of the woman agreed thoughtfully, looking back and forth between Mrs. B and Mom. "No one person can be all that we need. We need someone capable of being decisive, of imposing…" she drew the silence out thoughtfully before settling, "discipline. And we also need someone who understands the unspoken language."

"I still say an alcoholic, recovered or otherwise, is too risky," one of the businessmen commented.

"Yes, but we aren't going to elect her," someone else pointed out. "She'll simply be Mrs. Bryant's anchor."

"Yes, true," the first businessman agreed. "And my apologies for being so direct, Sarah."

"It's fine," Mom held her head up, "I'm used to people throwing my past in my face. I earned it."

"You've also earned a degree of respect," Jake Richardson cut in, annoyed. "You've redeemed yourself quite amply."

"There can be no redemption for some crimes," she said sadly. "I can only remember the words of an old teacher, who reminded me that simply because you can never reach perfection doesn't mean you cannot strive for it."

"Mrs. B," Joe leaned forward and tugged on her sleeve, "can we at least sit down and start eating?"

He thought he'd been quiet, but Mr. Richardson immediately swung into action. Or maybe he'd heard Joe's stomach growl. "Oh dear, where are my manners, please, sit, sit!" Mr. Richardson pulled a chair out for Mrs. B. "Please, sit," he told the entire family. Joe didn't understand how, but quickly Mr. Richardson had them seated in what obviously a planned seating arrangement, with Joe between the girls, the Moms to his left, and the twins on his right. Of course, the Moms seating was obvious, as they had empty wine glasses in front of them to go with the glasses of water, but how did he get the twins to sit exactly where he wanted? Joe would have taken notes, but it was over before he could act.

And besides, someone slid a basket of fresh bread in front of them. Between Joe, the twins, and the girls, the basket was empty before you could blink twice. "Mmm," Joe said, "I love fresh bread."

"I remember when my boys were your age," the woman seated across from him commented, amused. "They could sure pack it away too — and they didn't have the excuse of being athletes. Or being as handsome as you are."

"Lay off it, love," the man seated next to her commented nastily. "He's a little young, even for you."

"True, but I can always ask when he turns eighteen," she purred. "Make certain he has a very… entertaining birthday present."

Joe almost choked on his bread when he realized what was being said. Covering his mouth, he took a sip of the water to help wash the bread down. "And I'm certain I'll appreciate whatever present I'm given," Joe told her politely, before turning to address the man beside her. "Even if, perhaps, others don't know how to be polite to a lady."

"Lady?" the man sneered.

"Yes," Joe cut the man off before he could continue. "It would be rude to call her anything else."

"Yeah!" Ami cut in. "You always treat girls nice!"

Abi giggled on the other side of Joe. "Your mother should have taught you better," she added.

"Now girls, it's not polite to point out others flaws," Joe told them. "Our Moms taught us better, but it's not nice to tell him that."

"But you did!" Abi pointed out.

"No, I didn't," Joe disagreed with her. "I said that a certain behavior was rude, not that he was. And since he hadn't had a chance to do it yet, it's not rude. And I probably shouldn't have done it, either. His poor behavior doesn't excuse mine."

"A true gentleman," another lady smiled. "My husband would approve."

"Your husband-" the first lady began.

"Enough," Mr. Richardson's voice cut through the din. "Perhaps you should let the children look at their menus."

Joe helped the girls when they needed help reading something on the menu. For himself, he quickly chose the chicken parmigiana. The twins equally rapidly chose their favorites, Tim choosing lasagna al forno while Tom picked the 'create your own dish' to mix chicken chunks with alfredo over a bed of fettuccine.

"All right then, perhaps we should get down to business," Mr. Richardson suggested. "Jake?"

"Given the presence of little children, I'll skip some of the details," Jake Richardson stated, "but we represent a wide selection of individuals who have a great deal at stake in Morgantown. You might call us the upper crust, or at least a large selection of it. This group comes together from time to time to discuss issues of importance."

"Not that we form a ruling cabal, of course," Judge Haran smiled.

"No, thank you for pointing that out," Jake Richardson nodded. "When I say 'this group', I don't mean that we have any type of official or unofficial membership. Just a network of friends, business associates, and like-minded individuals. We generally don't come together in a group this large, and this is less than half the people who might have tried to attend if we'd tried to invite everyone. It's very unofficial and unstructured. I'm sure Joe is familiar with the type of organization we run, though I'd probably be kicked out of the room if I called it a clique."

Instantly, Joe did understand exactly what the man was saying. High school was filled with unofficial, but powerful and defining groups. The geeks, the outcasts, the preppies, and of course the jocks. In this case, he and his family had been invited to talk matters over with the adult equivalent.

"Simply put, we have been busy for the last week dealing with an unfortunate situation. Normally this wouldn't involve you ladies and gentlemen, but the fact is we need additional help," Jake Richardson smiled. "I'll skip the details, but some of the people who should have been helping us sort matters were either ineffective at doing so, or were actively hindering us. You saw some of this at Social Services; the director of the local department has resigned in shame, but we privately estimate that at least half of the troublemakers weren't caught. Some were lucky, others are skilled enough that even though we think we know who they are, we can't prove it."

Mr. Richardson took his husband's hand. "We've appreciated your support over the last several days, Laura," he said softly. "You've been decisive, effective, tactful where possible, a bludgeon where necessary. You've worked absurdly long hours, and you've avoided getting caught up in the little details."

Jake Richardson nodded. "As my husband says, you've been most impressive. You've built compromises where you could, getting people who would normally have been on opposite sides of the argument to cooperate, while ruthlessly cutting out those who have no interest in cooperating. Despite the best efforts of the caseworkers assigned-"

Mr. Richardson cut his husband off. "We aren't in public. Let's call a spade a spade. Despite the best efforts of their legal kidnappers, you've returned all but three of the children involved, and unless our opposition comes up with a new maneuver we expect those three home by the end of next week. All of us are busy with our own lives, our own cogs in the great machine that runs this town. We couldn't do what you did. Some of us here, such as myself, simply lack the necessary talents and abilities. Others are busy holding down the legal system, to ensure that the opposition can't reverse our gains with a clever legal maneuver. Or trying to keep the opposition out of the school system."

Jake Richardson nodded. "Right about now, we probably sound like a conspiracy theory. We didn't start that way. We were just like-minded businessmen, lawyers, politicians, and so forth. We had little meetings, tweaked things, moved on. It's only lately, in the last two or three years, that we've noticed a trend."

"And by two or three years, let's be honest, it really started when Ashwood took office," someone else grumbled.

"I still say that the problems started earlier," someone else pointed out.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's stick to the point," Mr. Richardson called them to order. "Whether it started a year ago, or two years, or ten, or fifty or a hundred, it doesn't matter. What matters is that we've built a fine nation, a country to be proud of, and people are trying to turn back the clock. And I won't have it. I. Will not. Allow it. And neither will anyone else in this room."

A small rumble off assent answered his statement. "And so," Jake Richardson said, "we come back to you, Laura. We don't know if the opposition, as we've come to call them, is an actual organization, a group of shared interests like ourselves, or just a bunch of idiots accidentally pulling in the same direction. We all have our theories. But the evidence is pointing, more-so with each passing day, towards one of the first two. Recent events weren't just random chance; they were planned, organized. Ours isn't the only town to have suddenly blown up in the face of those who lived there, and we don't think it will be the last. We need to build up our forces, our options, and prepare. The problem we are discussing today is that the mayor is one of those who proved less than effective in the recent crisis. He didn't act directly, he didn't exert any influence, he just waffled. We don't know why. As far as we can tell, it's not blackmail. The man is scrupulously honest, for a politician. Nothing to blackmail him over. And we know it's not bribery. And truthfully, it doesn't matter why he failed at his job. The fact is, he failed."

"We can't afford an ineffective mayor," Judge Haran leaned forward. "The mayor's office is the executive branch of local government. He has significantly less power than a governor or the President, but he's still an important, even vital cog in keeping things running." Judge Haran's eyes drifted towards Jake Richardson for a moment. "And if — if — this opposition is real, we can't afford to allow them to control that cog. So we need to replace the mayor."

"And we need that replacement to be above reproach," Mr. Rice added. "Someone who has shown that they can, and will, act decisively in the face of the opposition."

Joe realized that his jaw had dropped. The sudden, complete silence from the twins suggested they were just as shocked. These people couldn't be suggesting what he thought they were suggesting. It was insane. Crazy! Lunatics!

"At the same time, our opposition clearly has their roots deep in what you might call the moral uprights," Mr. Richardson continued. "The people who are so morally upright they deny having ever had an impure thought. The type of people who aren't just good, honest folk, but that also make a point of being self-righteous about it."

"So we need someone who, while in and of themselves are above reproach, still has something of the 'common touch'," Jake continued. "Someone who won't be vulnerable to the counter tactics we're already planning. "Someone who can say, 'here are my flaws. Here are my faults. I own up to them, I admit them. What has my opponent done, that he can't follow suit?' We've got a dozen variations on it, and you're perfect."

"The fact that you have a wife, rather than a husband, lets us get your sexual hangups out of the way," Mr. Richardson smiled. "Everyone knows that everyone has some type of hangup, but we can let yours flap in the breeze. Hell, we can milk it for political capital and sing it to the four corners of the earth."

"And your wife is an alcoholic, and admits it," Judge Haran agreed. "She's fallen off the bandwagon, and you've just helped her right back up."

Mr. Rice jumped in. "And your son is a raving lunatic when it comes to family. He's every girls dream, tall, handsome, soon to be quarterback of the varsity football team, and absolutely lethal when it comes to protecting his family. A perfect boy, with a flaw just bad enough to be a flaw, while still just adding to the image of perfection."

Jake Richardson took up the thread. "The girls, of course, are just adorable. Nobody could look at them and even think of trying anything. As for the twins, well, every family needs a black sheep or two. And they're probably the best black sheep you can hope for. Trouble, oh are they trouble, but they're the right kind of trouble. The kind people like to see."

"We will, of course, help you out," Mr. Richardson picked the thread back up. "Money, it goes without saying. You need lots of money to run a campaign. But also advice, instruction, connections, invitations to the right type of parties, help setting up the right kinds of parties, all sorts of resources."

"We need you," Jake argued. "We need all of you. You embody the new age of family values. Ones based not on appearances, or being 'the right people', but on the reality of family. Of love. Of circling the wagons to protect each other, without hesitation. Of holding to your principals and beliefs come hell or high water."

"So what do you think, Mrs. Bryant? And family, of course. Will you be our mayor?"

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