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A biting cold wind whipped around the corner of East Jefferson and Mt. Elliot. The boy wrapped his arms more tightly around his ribs. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to ignore cramps that had taken up residence in the muscles of his hips and legs. He stared at the Walgreens building across the street.
People pointedly avoided him as they stepped around his position. He was aware of it, but didn’t have the energy to stare at them. Nor did he have the desire. Dead people didn’t interact with the living, so why should he pay them any mind?
How long had it been? He wasn’t sure how many times night had fallen, how many mornings had come, and how many yesterdays there were.
The pedestrian light changed and people brushed past him to cross the avenue. It took him a moment to remember how to move his feet. Halfway across, the yellow warning started. He was not able to move as fast as it suggested. He was still a car’s length from the curb when the light flashed, “Wait.”
A driver honked.
He looked up. Was the driver looking for a boy?
The driver hit the dash with his hand, and thrust his middle finger into the air. He honked his horn two more times and revved his engine.
The boy put one foot in front of the other. It was the best he could do.
When he reached the sidewalk, the man honked again. His tires squealed as he peeled away.
The boy stumbled onto the curb and lurched toward the Walgreens building. He hesitated at the door. Was this the best choice? He had heard that there was a man here who always wore a cobalt tie on the days he was looking for someone. He paid really well, but he would probably want more than a hand job. Soul sapped by the stress of life on the streets, and a beating he had survived, he would probably do whatever the man asked.
He shouldered the door and kept his head down. Edging toward the left row of shelves, he glanced quickly at the cashier’s counter to see if the person there noticed him. She was staring off into space, seemingly unaware of anyone. As fast as he could manage, he hid behind the first shelf, just out of her sight.
His heart was in his throat. God, this was a stupid idea. He could slip out again and take his chances on the avenue.
“Can I help you?” said a man to his right. He was dressed in a hoodie with a ripped front pocket; his jeans had big holes at the knees and rode low on his hips. His runners were impressive and did not match the rest of his outfit.
“Can you see me?” said the boy.
“Are you high on something?” said the man in the hoodie.
“Do you work here?” said the boy. He was looking for the man in the cobalt tie.
“Sure,” said the man. He was not wearing a nametag.
The boy shook his head and backed away from him. He turned and headed toward the back of the store. When he glanced back toward the man in the hoodie, he was playing with his phone. Perhaps aware that someone was observing, he looked up and caught the boy’s eye.
Shit, shit, shit. This was a stupid idea.
On the shelf in front of him was a display of Nabisco’s Fig Newtons. His stomach suddenly cramped with hunger. Did dead men feel hunger? He hesitated a moment trying to remember why he had come into the store. It must have been for food. He grabbed a package and ripped it open.
The man in the hoodie moved closer. He stood quietly in the aisle perusing shaving supplies. When he looked up, he caught the boy’s eyes. Once again, he smiled.
Mouth full of fig cakes, the boy moved farther into the store. The pharmacy area was empty. Beyond that was a section filled with fishing gear. He stuffed one more fig cake into his mouth and shoved the partially emptied package into his pants. Then he covered it with his shirt and went toward the fishing supplies.
From behind him, someone said, “Excuse me.”
The boy looked up. A thin man in a silver suit with a crooked cobalt tie leaned against the counter of the pharmacy, arms crossed, staring at him.
Oh, yeah. He was looking for a man with a tie.
“Did you pay for that?” The man with the tie spoke quietly.
“Pay for what?” said the boy.
“The Fig Newtons,” said the man. He uncrossed his arms and disappeared for a second. Then he came through a door labeled ‘Employees Only.’ He stepped close. He carefully skimmed his hand over the boy’s torso to the hem of his shirt. Then he pulled it up. “These,” he said. “Have you paid for them?”
“N, n, not yet,” the boy stammered.
“I see.” said the man. “I can help you with that.” As he said it, he lowered the boy’s shirt, letting his fingers gently skim the bruised skin beneath it. “I can help with those, too.”
The boy backed up one step, but the man reached out and wrapped his long, graceful fingers around his wrist. He pulled the boy close enough to whisper, “I pay very well.”
The boy shivered as the man placed a foot in the space between his feet and scooted his knee up his thigh. His cobalt tie tickled his arm where it brushed against it. He leaned into the boy and nipped his ear.
The boy shrank from the touch, but he didn’t step away. He needed food. He needed a warm place to stay. He needed someplace safe where he didn’t have to keep watch for predators.
Behind the man in the cobalt tie, the man in the hoodie stepped into view. “Detroit Police,” he said, flashing a badge that had been hidden under his sweatshirt.
The boy pulled away from the man in the silver suit and tried to run, but he tripped. While he was down, the man in the hoodie cuffed the man in the silver suit. “You two are under arrest for solicitation and prostitution.”
Another man, dressed in uniform, pulled the boy off the floor. He sneered at his face and said, “You like it rough, huh?”
The man in the silver suit swooned.
“Shit,” said the officer in the hoodie. He slapped the suited man’s cheek until he got a reaction.
The uniformed officer patted down the boy and found the Fig Newtons. “Looks like we’re charging you with shoplifting as well,” he said, jerking on the zip ties around the boy’s wrists.
“Hey, careful with that one,” said the officer in the hoodie. “He may be a minor.”
“Well, wouldn’t that be dandy for you,” said the uniformed officer to the boy, but he was gentle as he hauled him out of the store and into the back of his squad car.
Marcus Balmario sat at the counter mulling over the cases he and Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson were working. It was something to do while he waited for the two squads bringing in the prostitution and solicitation cases. The first was a younger man, the second, from his description, was none other than Rodney Heathe. Marcus had a gut feeling that no matter what happened in the next nine hours, today was a win if they could slam cell doors on that man.
Benny Brown strode in dressed in his favorite hoodie, the one he wore undercover all the time. It was a miracle the crooks in Detroit didn’t recognize him by now. He had with him a dapper man dressed in a silver suit accented with a cobalt tie.
“Well, well, well,” said Marcus. “Mr. Heathe. Here you are again.”
Benny said, “We may have a child prostitution case on our hands. Smith is worried about bringing the other one in here. He’s wondering if he should just head over to the hospital.”
Marcus stepped up to Heathe and looked him up and down. He smiled. “Book him.” Then he strode out the door to check on the other detainee.
The uniformed officer was leaning against the roof of his cruiser with one arm. With the other hand, he held the back passenger door open, leaning in toward the person in his backseat cage. He looked up and nodded to Marcus when he stepped out of the building. Then he said, “This one was trembling when I cuffed his hands behind him, sir. Now he’s shaking down to his bones and breathing funny. I’m worried.”
Balmario took his place at the open door and looked at the passenger. His face was a battleground. His gut told him he was looking at a child if fifteen – maybe sixteen years old. “What’s your name, son,” he said softly.
The boy lifted his head, but he was too shaky to look directly at him.
“Are you on something?” said Balmario.
The boy shook his head no and lowered his gaze to his lap.
Balmario ducked into the back seat and propped himself on a knee to get low enough to catch his young prisoner’s eyes. “What’s your name?”
The boy hiccoughed, trying to catch his breath.
Balmario backed out of the vehicle and said, “Get a camera and a fingerprint kit. We’ll start booking here and finish at the hospital. His face looks like someone used him as a punching bag.”
The boy shuddered.
“I know, son. We’re going to take a couple of pictures and get your prints. Then we’ll go to the hospital, probably take more pictures when we clean you up. I want to have a doctor look at those contusions on your face.”
The next breath that the boy took was a sob. Marcus patted his knee.
The boy flinched.
Balmario uttered quietly, “Damn.” Then he backed off and reassured the boy. “We’ll be quick about it.”
Twenty minutes later, Balmario told his officer, “I’ll drive him. You get on those fingerprints. I want to know if this one is in the system as soon as possible.” He was getting a hunch about this boy. The hair color and height matched the description, but he didn’t want to sound the alarm until he knew if he was right, and the boy had no ID and wasn’t speaking to him.
In the hospital, Marcus Balmario stayed with him as witness for the exams but also for comfort. The boy stared into an abyss, shivering while a photographer recorded his injuries. Balmario had never seen such deep contusions. How was this kid alive? He bagged the boy’s clothes. Then he tied his hospital gown so he was fully covered, and helped him sit on the exam table.
A male nurse from Special Services stepped into the room. “I am here for the forensics exam.”
The boy looked at Balmario with big eyes, eyes that said, “I’ve been through enough already. Can’t you stop this?” His shivering intensified.
Balmario shook his head. “It’s protocol. I will be just outside the door.
When done, the Special Services nurse joined Balmario in the hall. He said, “I see no indication that he has been raped. I took samples anyway. He wouldn’t tell me who beat him or why. He didn’t say anything at all. He just stared at me with those big, sad eyes. I’ll set up Protective Services. Do we know who he is?”
“I’m waiting on fingerprints.”
“Okay. Well, that one cannot go back to his family until we clear them.”
“You’ve seen the FBI BOLO about Inspector Tyler’s son?”
“The runaway? You think that’s who this is?”
Balmario put his hands up. “I hope to God not, but word cannot get out about any of it. We have this kid’s solicitor in booking right now. Jackson Tyler cannot get wind of this until I can confirm my hunch.”
“Keep me in the loop.” He handed Balmario his card.
“I will.” Balmario handed the nurse his.
Balmario opened the door for a second nurse who was entering to start IV’s. He asked her, “Are you testing for drugs?”
She said, “Yes. We are following all the protocols. We’ll be taking him to get X-rays as soon as we have him set up. Has his family been notified? We’ll need signatures.”
“Family has not been determined yet. I’d like to stay with him if I may. Social Services will sign if necessary.”
“Of course.” She held the door with her back, letting him enter first.
While the boy was getting X-rays, Balmario’s phone buzzed. “Benny, what do ya’ got?”
“It’s what you got, man. Jonathan Tyler.”
“Shit,” said Marcus. “Has Tyler been notified?”
“Chief’s on her way to pick him up. No way we’re letting him in here with Heathe.”
“If it’s any consolation, Jon wasn’t raped.”
“Well, that’s one bit of good news then. I’ll pass the word.”
Marcus rubbed his forehead. “ETA on Tyler?”
“Twenty, at most, I’d say. Chief Thompson flew out of here.”
“Got it. I’ll keep an eye.”
“Good. See ya,” said Benny.
“Yeah,” said Balmario. He walked up to Registration and flashed his badge to move forward to the counter. “Anyway I can get word to the folks inside with the boy I brought in?”
“Tell them his name is Jon Tyler, and his father is on his way.”
“Got it.” She finished scrawling the information.
“How long will he be in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“I am going to go to the main reception area to wait for his father. Please have them call me as soon as he is done in there.” He handed over his card.
Balmario hoped to meet Jack at the door and fill him in before he saw his brutalized son. He sure as hell would want some warning if the kid was his.