A Strange Twist

A Dark Flame story

Episode 3 of Relativity

by Michelle and James Lehmann

 

Author's Note: This story takes place at the same time as Highway Robbery.

 

Chapter 1

 

The air was chilly and Dark Flame shivered as a cold wind gust through the alley. It was the time of the year where the days were warm and the evenings cool. It made it difficult to dress properly, and she chided herself for not having worn layers. Stepping into the narrow gangway, she checked the lock on her motorcycle before she pushed a heavy piece of plywood against it.

When patrolling in the Fourth District, Sara often chose to hide her bike here. The two buildings had been gutted by a fire years before, and were still boarded up and abandoned. The block itself had few inhabitable buildings, which meant there weren’t a lot of prying eyes. With a plethora of debris around, she never had trouble finding boards and boxes to camouflage her vehicle.

Satisfied it was hidden well, she headed down the alley.

It took her about five minutes to make it to her target destination. It was the small employee’s parking lot of a candy factory which operated only three days a week. The area was secluded around the back of the building, affording her some privacy. Sara set down her bag and started to dig through it. She pulled out a pair of ankle weights and strapped them on. She then pulled out a spray paint can. It wasn’t actual spray paint, but water-soluble hair color that was used for Halloween costumes. She found it made a good substitute for tagging walls and sidewalks, as it washed off easily. Spraying a variety of marks on the back wall, she then pulled the last item out of the bag—a container of tennis balls.

Crime had been down since her last real case, which had coincidentally been her last contact with Team Torrent. Though the burns on her arm had healed, she still found herself self-conscious and insecure. Sara knew if she ever wanted to be regarded equally by the team, she would have to get better... at everything. Realizing her deficiency in fighting, she had started strength training with several of the teens at the Home. Other training had to be done alone, as she didn’t want anyone guessing her motivation.

Gripping one of the tennis balls, she threw it at a target. She then began to run, leap, and shoot at the marks from various positions. She was hitting about two out of five, which was better than she had been, but still far from where she wanted to be. After several rotations, Dark Flame started to sprint. She jumped on top of the nearby dumpster and vaulted over. She practiced dodging around the debris in the lot. There was a fire escape at the back of the building and she leapt upwards to grab the bottom rung of the ladder. Unfortunately, that was one task she couldn’t manage. Returning to the tennis balls, she moved back a few feet and started throwing again. This time, she hit three out of five.

An older man stepped out from behind a pile of boxes at the far end of the lot. His brown skin was stained with soot, and his grey hair matted down under a torn floppy hat. The man’s black coat had large holes in it, and despite the distance between them, the smell of alcohol was strong on his breath.

“Hey, you’re pretty good at that.”

Dark Flame gave a shy smile. “You think so?”

“Uh-huh. Those bad guys better watch out. You’re gonna kick their tail.”

Sara glanced down and hoped the man couldn’t see that she was blushing.

“There’s one thing, though. When you’re throwing those long shots, you’re doing it wrong. You have to use your shoulder.”

The advice intrigued her. “Really?”

“Yeah, you need to get some power behind it, not just your arm muscle.”

“Will you show me how?” She tossed him a ball.

The man stepped back and shifted into a pose, his movements exaggerated for illustration. “See, you have to use your shoulder more. Use momentum to give you that extra power.” His hand shot forward, the tennis ball flying through the air and hitting just short of the smallest target. “Damn,” he said with a laugh. “I’m rusty.”

“I dunno. That was amazing.” Mimicking the man’s stance, she tried it herself. The ball missed the target, but hit the wall with a solid-sounding smack.

“Better,” he commended.

“I need more practice.” Glancing at her watch, Dark Flame started to gather her gear. “Where’d you learn to throw like that?”

“Navy.”

“Really? Were you in special services or something?”

“Nah. I was on the official baseball team.” Dark Flame couldn’t help but laugh. The man glanced down, suddenly embarrassed. “That was a long time ago.”

“What happened?” she asked, her voice softening.

“Ah, wife got sick and died. Started drinking. Lost my job and things just went from there.”

Walking up to the man, she pulled a twenty dollar bill from her belt. “There’s agencies that can help you get back on your feet. If you ever need anything, I can see what I can do.”

“No help for me, Miss.” He shoved the money into his pocket, then smiled. “Well, maybe. Someday.”

Slinging the dufflebag over her shoulder, Sara headed back to the street. It was still early and she was pumped up with adrenaline. Noticing a fire escape ahead, she darted forward, leaping up. This time she caught the bottom rung. As the ladder rolled down to the ground, she shimmied up and climbed the three flights up to the roof. From her location, she had a good view of the street. Things were quiet, no activity. Pulling a granola bar from her bag, she broke off a piece and popped it into her mouth.

Without a lot to look at, Sara’s mind began to wander, and it moved to Michael Bruce.

It had been three weeks since she had worked up the nerve to meet him, and accept the fact they were related. Since then, Michael had been making a constant effort to connect with her, even coming to the Home twice to get to know more about her work. During one of the visits, he had started a game of football with some of the kids and ended up spending the whole day there. After he had gone, the children had told her how much they loved him—and she realized that she had grown to love him, too.

However, it was that fact which made her other family connection much more difficult.

Sara had yet to meet Matthew Bruce... or Ulysses David as he was now called. Michael had told her the story of how her father had hidden for years, finally coming back when he felt enough time had passed. It was still necessary for him to keep his true identity a secret, as his reappearance would raise too many questions. To explain who he was, and the closeness between the men, they had created the cover-story that Yule was a distant relative who had become a surrogate father to Michael—so much that Michael would refer to him as “Dad” on occasion. Sara thought it was all terribly clever, but it saddened her because she wondered if she would ever have the opportunity to call the man “Dad” herself.

She didn’t want to press the issue, but Sara was desperate to meet Yule. Throughout her childhood, she had always dreamed of knowing her real father. The fact that she could be with him now excited her. But as the days and weeks passed, and she still hadn’t connected with him, she worried that he didn’t want anything to do with her.

Below, there was some activity and Dark Flame returned her attention to the street. There were two teen boys standing in front of a middle-aged woman. They were dressed in tattered formal clothing with thin trench coats on. At first they appeared to be talking to the woman, then they started to skip around and dance. Sara wondered if they were some sort of street performers and tried to remember if there were any circuses in town. The woman seemed entertained and smiled, even clapping as one of the boys started to juggle some rocks. Since it was getting late and didn’t look like there was any problem, Dark Flame gathered her things and headed back towards the fire escape.

The crimefighter had made it about a block away when she heard the scream. Dropping her bag, she darted back in the direction she had come from.

“Help, thief!” The woman she had seen earlier was running down the street, but it was clear she was having a hard time of it.

Moving to her side, Dark Flame held her steady. “Are you all right? Don’t exert yourself.”

“I have asthma,” she panted. “There were these boys dancing for me, then one grabbed my purse. I tried to fight him, but the other one pushed me down and they ran away.”

“Which direction did they go?”

The woman pointed to the south end of the street.

Dark Flame sprinted ahead, scanning the houses and gangways as she ran past. She quickly covered two blocks, but saw no sign of the boys anywhere.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t find them,” she informed as she returned to the woman.

“It’s okay. I just can’t believe kids would do that.”

“Sadly, a lot of kids that age are into bad stuff. You need to report this to the police.”

“I live right down there. I’ll call them when I get home.”

Dark Flame walked the woman to her door. When she returned to the spot where she had first heard the scream, she was relieved to find her bag was still there. Grabbing it, she slung it over her shoulder and headed back towards her motorcycle.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was a bright Monday afternoon. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. The temperature was in the low 60s, which made it just right for outdoor fun. Most of the kids at the Gale Home were engaged in a variety of activities, from running around on the playground to impromptu games of baseball and soccer. A small group stood at the far end of the back lawn, hooking together tubing to create an odd-looking structure. Sara observed the scene for a while before curiosity got the best of her.

“What are you doing?” she asked Johnny as she wandered over.

The boy twisted two PVC pipes together. “It’s a ladder game.” The tubes all fit together, with large gaps in-between, and that’s exactly what it looked like—a ladder. “I was at a friend’s birthday party a few weeks ago and they had one of these. I found some spare piping in the garage, so I thought we could make one, too.”

Reaching down, the teen pulled something from a small pile. At first Sara thought it was simply nylon rope, but as he lifted it up, she could see the cording was cut into short lengths and that colored balls were attached to each end.

“You toss these and depending on what rung they catch on, it determines how many points you get.”

Sara grabbed one of the makeshift bolas and smiled. “I was wondering why you guys were drilling holes into golf balls the other day. That’s really neat.”

“It’s all ready to go,” the other teen, Trenton, announced. “You wanna play a round with us, Miss Wolff?”

“Oh no. You guys go ahead. I’ll just watch a bit.”

“Please, Miss Wolff,” the smallest girl begged. “We need someone to help us beat the boys. They’re so much bigger than us.”

Sara sighed. “All right, but I’m not going to be much help. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Johnny handed the girls’ team the bolas with the red balls, the boys’ team used the blue. “Okay. Top rung is three points, middle two points, bottom one point. First team to twenty-one wins.” The boy flashed a smug smile. “This isn’t gonna take long.”

Sara narrowed her eyes and smirked. “Oh, really?”

The young man swung the ball around, releasing it. It shot past the mark, onto the lawn. The second one hit just short of the ladder. The third hit the bottom rung.

“One point,” the administrator teased.

Giving her a pout, Johnny stepped aside. Sara grasped the ball and swung the bola, consciously aware of how fast it was spinning and the pull of the centrifugal force. She released it on the upswing, watching it fly through the air and hook the middle rung.

“Hey, that was pretty good,” one of the middle-school kids remarked.

Grabbing the second bola, she poised herself slightly to the side, adjusting her arm movement when she tossed. The corded balls flew through the air, catching the top rung. “I used my shoulder,” she said with a smile. Repeating the motion, the third bola also hit the top rung. “Eight points!”

“I thought you said you never did this before,” Johnny asked.

The redhead was about to respond when the Home’s receptionist appeared from the back door of the building, speaking in a harsh whisper. “Sara. There was some guy out front, trying to talk to the kids.”

“What? Where’s Jerry?”

“He went out and confronted him. He brought the guy back to your office.”

Excusing herself from the game, Sara headed into the building.

After his initial tour of the facility, Michael Bruce had pledged a sizable donation to the Gale Home for Children. While she’d been free to use most of the money as she saw fit, he had required that part of the funds be earmarked for security updates. Aside from additional cameras and monitoring equipment, he’d insisted she take on two full-time guards. Sara had been reluctant to do so, but she was now happy she’d given in to her brother’s request.

When she entered her office, Sara saw the security guard, arms crossed, staring down at the man seated in her guest chair. Jerry Connolly had been a construction worker for a good deal of his life, and while he had been doing security for the past five years, he still sported broad shoulders and a strong build, making him quite intimidating.

The man in the chair looked nervous. He appeared to be in his late forties, with ashy blonde hair and brown eyes which were bloodshot and swollen. As Sara approached her desk, she could see he sported a manicure and gold wedding band.

“Miss Wolff?” he asked, his voice shaky.

“That’s right. I’m Sara Wolff. I’m the administrator here.” She moved to his side, her hands clasped in front of her. “And you are—?”

“Jacob Komarek.” He stood and grabbed her palm. “It’s nice to meet you.”

The man didn’t appear to be threatening, so Sara felt comfortable enough to move to her chair. “It’s not prudent to approach an orphanage and try to talk to the children, unannounced. We have to be careful, what with all of the child abductions.”

Shifting nervously, the man glanced up at the guard who was still leering at him. “I was just asking if any of them had seen my son. But I really came here to see you.” The man pulled a small photograph from his coat pocket. “That’s my son, Jimmy. He ran away two weeks ago.”

“He looks just like you.” Noticing the man was trembling, Sara motioned to the guard. “Jerry, could you give us some time alone?”

“Sure, Miss Wolff. But I’ll be right outside the door, just in case.”

As the man left, Komarek sighed. “I really am sorry. I’ve been so distraught since my son’s been gone.”

“I understand. I’m just sorry to say we haven’t had any runaways here in over a week. I haven’t seen your son.”

“That’s not really why I’m here.” Sara was a bit surprised but remained silent as the man leaned closer. “I know that the Dark Flame sometimes brings the kids she’s rescued here. That means you must know her.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, Sara shifted in her seat. “Dark Flame is a superhero. Yes, I’ll admit, she’s brought some kids to the Home, but I have no relationship with her. I’m lucky if I’ve said a dozen words to her. I mostly work with law enforcement.” She looked back at the picture. “Have you gone to the police with this?”

“I have. They’ve taken all the information, but they won’t do anything because he’s a runaway. If he were abducted by a serial killer, they’d have teams out looking for him. Because he got mad over an argument and left, they won’t actively search for him.” Komarek looked down. “I’m so worried about my son. I know if I can get word to the Dark Flame, she can help him.”

It was quite surreal sitting with the man and hearing him talk about her alter-ego. She wondered if other superheroes had similar experiences. “I understand your concern, but I just don’t know if I’ll be able to get a hold of her—”

The man broke down into tears, burying his face in his hands. Sara couldn’t help but leave her chair and kneel down next to him.

“I feel like it’s all my fault,” the man admitted. “It was a stupid fight. We always have these stupid fights. It’s not easy being a parent, y’know.”

Sara hated seeing the man so upset, and she hated feeling so guilty. “I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll try to get word to the Dark Flame.”

“Oh, that would be great. Thank you.”

Returning to her desk, she grabbed a pen. “I’m going to need some details from you.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Dark Flame hit the streets with the picture of Jimmy Komarek in her hand. The boy’s father was a prominent stock broker and lived in the uptown area, a short distance from Crystal Towers. Assuming the boy wouldn’t travel too far, she figured she would start her search in the Third District and move on from there.

Most of the street gangs in the area were afraid of superheroes. Team Torrent was notorious for rounding up drug dealers and breaking up narcotics rings, and the gangs avoided them whenever they could. Their view of Dark Flame was different, however. Even though she was on the side of the law, her motivations were less threatening—she was there to help the kids. The gangs recognized that, and while they weren’t quick to hang around when she was in the area, they would provide her with help in certain situations. Getting word to one of their runners, the female crimefighter arranged to meet a group of the Latin Gladiators at the corner of King and Commerce.

Sara had spent a good deal of her childhood in South America. Though she hadn’t spoken a word of the language when she arrived there, she had quickly become fluent. Her proficiency in Spanish turned out to be a big help when dealing with the area’s gangs. “I’m looking for this kid,” she said, handing them a picture of Komarek. “Have you seen him?”

The leader of the group studied the picture, then shook his head. “Nah, he’s too clean. He’d stand out. Haven’t seen him.”

That was the answer she’d gotten most of the night from the various people she’d talked to. “What about some other kids? They’re dressed up in old-fashioned clothes.”

“Payasos,” the boy said with a nod. The group laughed. “Yeah, we’ve seen them around. They’re working in teams and stealing things.”

Payasos meant clowns. “Who do they work for?”

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. They’re very secretive. They don’t deal, though. Only theft.”

With a nod, Dark Flame thanked them. “If you see that boy, get word to me, okay?”

“Cosa segura, bebĂ©,” the teen answered with a nod. Another gave a wolf call.

Rolling her eyes, Dark Flame continued on her search.

It was three hours and several miles later when Sara returned to her motorcycle. As she feared, no one had seen the lost boy and there was no word of a runaway joining any of the area’s pimps or dealers. However, she did learn one thing that piqued her interest. The flamboyant pick-pockets were more well-known than she realized. Apparently, they had been working the area for a couple of months and often recruited young boys.

“If that’s the case, the police must know about them.” Making a mental note to visit Aaron Brooks the following night, Dark Flame headed home.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“How much?”

Madge placed the invoice in front of the administrator. “He says his normal rate is $175 an hour.”

“He quoted me $75 an hour on the phone. I’m sure of it.” This was not the first time a vendor had tried to pull a switch. They figured because the Home was primarily funded by the government, that they were a deep pocket that could be soaked. “Recalculate it at $75 an hour and send that in for a payment. If he complains, we’ll have Franklin take care of it.”

There was a light tap at the door. Kim Monroe, the director of the Home’s Crisis Center, peeked her head in. “Cops just brought in a young boy. You said you wanted to be notified immediately if we got any runaways.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you. I’ll be right over.” Sara hastily scribbled her signature on the remaining bank checks, then headed to the far end of the building.

The Gale Home housed a small low-income clinic and crisis center. The clinic operated four days a week and was usually packed from open to close. Weaving through the lobby full of patients, Sara made her way to one of the intake rooms. There was a young boy, about twelve years old, with grime on his face and hands. He wore a tattered pair of jeans, a torn button down shirt, and a wool overcoat. Despite Sara’s hopes, it was not Jimmy Komarek.

“What’s you name, son?” she asked as the nurse tried to get his vitals.

The boy struggled against the woman. “I don’t have a name. And I’m not your son.”

The police officer who had brought the boy in rolled his eyes. “His name is Roger Carey. We picked him up near Holman Park. He was trying to scam a woman out of twenty bucks.”

“Have you searched him?” Sara asked.

The officer shook his head. “Just patted him down for weapons.”

“Empty your pockets,” she ordered.

The boy first looked scared, then angry. “No way. I want a lawyer.”

“We’re not asking you any questions. Now, do as the lady says. Empty your pockets,” the officer said.

The boy pulled out several pieces of bubble gum, a small pencil case, and two leather wallets.

“What do you need two wallets for?” the officer asked, grabbing the billfolds.

“I was holding one for a friend.”

Flipping one open, the policeman looked at the cards inside. “Is your friend an elderly man on 59th street?”

“He’s my grampa.”

“Should I call your grandfather and have him pick you up?” Sara asked with a raised eyebrow.

Jutting his lip out, Roger turned his head and stared silently out the window.

“This is stolen property. I’m going to have to take it back to the station for processing.”

Standing up, Sara nodded and shook the officer’s hand. “Of course. Unless there’s anything else, we can take it from here. Thank you, officer.”

The nurse finished taking the boy’s bloodpressure just as the policeman left. It was determined that aside from hygiene, Roger was generally well.

“You look like you could use something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” the boy sneered, right before his stomach made a terrible growling noise.

Taking him by the hand, Sara led him into the main building.

The Home’s main dining area resembled a school cafeteria and could seat fifty people. There was a collection of tables and chairs, and additional tables were folded up and stored upright in the walls. As it was nearing two o’clock, the room was empty. Sara motioned for the boy to sit down, then moved to the attached kitchen area.

“Oh great, you’re going to give me gruel.”

Sara cocked her head. “Gruel? Where the heck did you hear that?”

“That’s always what they give kids in orphanages. Bread and water and gruel.”

“You watch too much t.v. We have to follow a USDA dietary plan here. No gruel.” Opening the large industrial refrigerator, she pulled out two sandwiches, as well as a banana and a bottle of juice. She returned to the boy, placing the food in front of him. “Ham-and-cheese or egg salad.”

Roger clenched his jaw, staring at the woman. “I said I’m not hungry.”

“Fine.” she said, folding her arms. “Then we can just sit here and stare at it.”

The boy turned his head, but it wasn’t long before his stomach started making noises again. Eyes moving between the woman and the food, he finally grabbed the sandwiches, ripping off the wrappers, and devouring them under two minutes. Washing them down with the juice in three gulps, he peeled the banana and leaned back in his chair.

“Where’s your family?” Sara asked.

“I dunno. My mom died when I was a little kid. My dad ran off with some woman. He dropped me off at the convenience mart and told me to go find a new home.”

Even though it was sensational, Sara believed the boy. Sadly, in her job, she’d heard similar stories, and some far worse than his. “Where have you been staying since then?”

“Mostly the street. But then I found a new dad and a new family. Lots of brothers.” The boy glanced up, realizing he’d said more than he should have. He took the last bite of banana and stared down at the floor.

“I want you to tell me where you were staying. Those other boys need help too. I’m sure they haven’t eaten and need a bath.”

“No they don’t,” the boy yelled. “My dad gives us everything we need.” In a fluid movement, he shoved the table forward, knocking the administrator over before darting out of the room.

Scurrying to her feet, Sara chased the boy to the end of the hallway. He was right near the exit when Jerry stepped from an adjacent hallway and grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Let me go,” Roger said. “I need to go home.”

“Not unless you tell me where home is,” Sara demanded.

“I can’t. I won’t.”

“Then you’re staying here.”

“You can’t keep me here, it’s against my Constitutional Rights.”

“You’re a minor. I have an obligation to keep you safe. Now, get this. You either stay here and stop trying to fight us, or we move you to the juvenile detention center where they’ll lock you up for your own safety.” The administrator stared hard at the boy. “Trust me, you’ll be a lot more comfortable here.”

Roger stopped struggling. By now a few staff members and kids had come to see what all the commotion was about, including Johnny.

“Madge, please take Mr. Carey here to the boys’ area. Have Winston see that he bathes and gets some clean clothes on.”

“No problem.”

As her assistant led the boy away, Sara moved to Johnny’s side. “I want you to shadow him. I don’t trust this kid. I think he’s part of that pick-pocket ring. Watch him and keep an ear open in case he says anything.”

“Don’t worry, he won’t get away from me.”

Remembering the pencil box, Sara pulled it from her pocket and opened it. Inside were several pens... and lock picking tools.

“Hmm,” she said, as she headed back to her office.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was nearly 9:00 p.m. when Dark Flame climbed up the metal tower which supported the radio antenna outside the back wall of the Fourth District police station. She knew that she would be seen on security camera, but she also knew that the police were used to occasional visits from superheroes and wouldn’t do anything about her presence.

Reaching the second floor, she saw that the light was on in Aaron Brooks’s office. She felt along the bottom of the window and soon had it open enough to raise it fully. When she leaned in, an unfamiliar man stared back at her, eyes wide. Though she was startled, she realized that he was even more surprised than she was. She forced a smile and tried to act nonchalant.

“Is Captain Brooks in?”

“No,” the cop managed to say. “He had to go to a meeting... outside the station.”

He was a white man with dark brown hair who appeared to be in his late thirties. He was somewhat overweight and wore a suit one size too small. As Dark Flame took in his appearance, she realized she’d seen him once at a crime scene. “You’re Detective Pechyvych, aren’t you?”

The man stood and extended his hand to help her climb in. “Yes. You should come inside, it’s cold out there. Miss...?”

“Call me Dark Flame.” She shut the window. “I was hoping to ask the Captain about this group of pickpockets I’ve run into.”

“Well, maybe I could help you.” He sat down behind the desk and opened a drawer, taking out a stack of forms and a pen. Dark Flame sighed. She wasn’t looking forward to the paperwork of proper police procedure.

The man seemed to pick up on her apprehension; he set down the forms and ignored them. “So, what did you want to talk to Aaron about? I work with him a lot, so maybe I can assist you.”

For a moment, Dark Flame considered just leaving and waiting until Brooks returned. But then she decided that Pechyvych was right, he could probably help her just as much as the police captain could. It would also be helpful to have a second contact on the police force.

The crimefighter told the detective the details of the pickpocketing children and the scant information she had gotten from talking to the area gangs.

“Actually,” said Pechyvych, stroking his chin. “This sounds familiar. Let me pull up the theft reports for the past month.” He started to type on Brooks’s computer. “Legally, I can only give you so much. What kind of information were you looking for?”

“Just the locations and dates.”

“I could read them off to you. Or, wait.” He stood up. “You could sit here and read them off the screen yourself.”

“Thank you.” Dark Flame pulled a small notepad and pen out of her utility belt and sat in Brooks’s chair. As she copied the information down, Pechyvych rested his hand on her shoulder, leaning forward to read the screen from behind. It seemed casual at first, but after a while it was unsettling. The crimefighter finished her task and stood up, thankful that Pechyvych’s hand dropped away when she did so.

“Now, those boys you saw,” said the detective. “What did you say they looked like again? It might be good if we put a bulletin out on them.”

Dark Flame smiled. She wanted to go. She had work to do and was still a bit uneasy about the man’s inappropriate touch. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Honestly, that’s really only part of the reason I’m in the area tonight. I’m looking for a runaway and my thought was that he might be with them. I really can’t waste any more time.”

The man nodded, then gave a shy smile. “Do you ever go out for coffee or drinks after work?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, climbing out the window. “There’s someplace I really need to be right now. Thank you for your help.”

“Maybe another time,” the detective called.

Relieved she was out of there, Dark Flame hurried down and back to her motorcycle.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Madge Sinclaire and Sara Wolff stared at the large map of Gale City which was laid out across the desk. There was a series of red circles at various locations within the Fourth District.

“Those are where all the pick-pocketings and purse snatchings occurred. The boys are all travelling by foot, so they’re most likely within walking distance of their home.”

Madge nodded. “That would put their base in this area.” She pointed to a several block grid directly in the center.

Sara studied the map, her lips puckering. “Yeah, but how do I track them to there?”

“I dunno, maybe you need some help.”

“Help? ...as in you? I thought you hated my crimefighting.”

“I never hated it. I just worry about you getting hurt. But if I’m there to help, maybe I’ll worry less.”

Sara smiled just as the phone rang. She pulled it to her ear. “Yes?”

“Your brother is on the line.”

“Oh. Put him through.” Covering the receiver, Sara mouthed to Madge, “It’s Michael.”

“Sara. How are you?” came the voice over the phone.

Michael sounded chipper and Sara couldn’t help but smile. “Busy, as usual. What’s up?”

“I’m having a small football party this Sunday, for the Generals’ first game of the season. I’d love if you could come.”

Sara grimaced and was happy her brother couldn’t see her over the phone. “That sounds nice, but I’m not really a big football fan. I don’t know what I’d do there.”

“It’s okay. There’ll be other people to talk to. Ravenswood and Melody will be there. We can get a game of pool or darts started.”

Sara was about the decline when the thought occurred to her...

Maybe Dad will be there.

“All right,” she said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’ll see if I can stop by for a little while.”

“Great. It’s going to be at O’Connor’s Pub. Party starts at 2:00, and—”

The door to the room flew open, Trenton frantically waving his hand. “Sara, quick, you have to come. Hurry.”

Terrified, Sara cut her brother off. “Michael, I’m sorry, I have an emergency here, I have to go. I’ll see you there on Sunday.” Hanging up the receiver, Sara and Madge rushed out.

The women followed the boy to the garage. Several of the kids were gathered around, blocking the view. Winston Mann, the Home’s Kid Care Coordinator, was hanging over a body on the floor. For a moment, Sara panicked, fearing something terrible had happened to one of the children. Then she heard Johnny’s voice.

“That little shit!”

“Johnny, mind your language.” She pushed past the kids and realized why the teen was so upset. He was on the floor, his hands and feet bound with bolas. From the scarf around his mouth, it appeared he had also been gagged. “Oh, my gosh, what happened?”

“Roger,” Johnny spat as Winston struggled with the ropes. “I shouldn’t have trusted him. He said he was gonna show me a new way to throw the bolas. He had me put my hands behind my back, then he jumped on me and tied me up. While I was trying to get free, he tangled my legs and put a rag over my mouth. I was mugged by a 6th grader!”

Pulling a pair of garden shears from the cabinet, Sara started to snip through the cording. “Do you have any idea where he would go? Did you hear him say anything?”

“No. All he kept talking about was his family.” Johnny rubbed his sore wrists. “But who is his family?”

Standing up, Sara glanced out the window, staring at the buildings far in the distance. “I don’t know. But that’s exactly what I intend to find out.”