Than to fade away . . . ."
Prologue: Out of the Blue
Jane Jankowski pulled her rusty six-year-old sedan, bought used for a song because of the high mileage, to a stop outside the big wrought iron gate and switched off the ignition. "Why me?" she sighed.
"Because you're the best one for the job."
That's what her boss had said, late the previous afternoon after calling her into his office for one of his private 'chats.' "This case needs . . . finesse, and when I think of the word 'tact,' I think of you, Janey."
As susceptible to flattery as the next person, Jane had nevertheless smelled a rat. She gave her boss a wry face. "All right, Doug, what's the catch?"
Doug Schmidt might have been described as good-looking -- for about two weeks in his senior year of high school, between the time the acne went away and the paunch started to develop and the hairline recede. Twenty-five years of struggling to make ends meet on a low-paid civil servant's salary and the recent stress of having two daughters needing college tuition had not helped matters. Jane had a soft spot for him anyway. 'That will be me in about twenty years,' she told herself. ' A middle-aged single woman with a non-existent retirement portfolio and a head full of grey hairs. Except, instead of the daughters, I'll have a cat.' Hell, she thought, she might throw caution to the winds and get herself two cats.
"Catch?" said Doug innocently. "No catch -- just a nice scenic drive out to Lake Forest. Your Kia gets the best gas mileage of all of us. And I know you're not the type to be intimidated by a lot of money."
Jane rolled her eyes. Not likely! In her eight years as a Child Protective Services caseworker, she had learned that in this regard the rich were no different than the general population. Their children could be just as badly abused. Jane had seen welts caused by Gucci belts and emotionally scarred youngsters locked in the bedrooms of one point five million dollar McMansions. The only difference was that people with money could be incredibly touchy when called to account, and they had the means to make it very unpleasant for those doing the calling if not handled carefully. No wonder her boss felt the need for diplomacy.
"Give me the case file, Doug." She took the sheaf of paper and skimmed. Subject name, one Galen Ernilson. Birth certificate on file in Lake County, Illinois. Parents, Leif Aransen and Linda Singer, no marriage license on record. In this day and age that lack, and the differing parental surnames, barely raised an eyebrow, but Jane set aside the tidbit for later. Sometimes every little fact added up to a larger picture.
According to the complainants, who were listed as 'Agents' Angus Duncan and James Fitzhugh, the child at risk was a home birth and home schooled. Again, Jane crinkled her forehead, making a mental note. She knew many excellent and devoted parents who home schooled their children, but a child with no exposure to outsiders could be a recipe for disaster in the wrong hands. The file gave a Lake Forest address and noted that the subject resided with his paternal grandfather . . . .
"Oh, forgodssake, Doug, you have got to be kidding me!" She glared at her boss. "Aaron Rivers?"
He shrugged. "That was the name on the complaint."
"THE Aaron Rivers? With the jewelry business and the shipping company and all the downtown real estate? That Aaron Rivers?"
"Yes, that's the one." Doug looked as unhappy as Jane felt. "You have to admit he's . . . unusual. From what I've read he runs that company of his like some kind of crazy cult. Bunch of long-haired hippie types in all the top positions. There are no photographs of him or his family, at his own request. Some kind of religious thing, I think."
"He's at half the charity events in Northern Illinois," Jane protested. "How does he avoid getting his picture taken?"
"If they want his money, they humor him," said Doug. "But if someone forgets and snaps one, he pays off the photographer. That usually works, but Duncan told me that last year his security goons broke the camera of a Paparazzo who wouldn't deal. The guy sounds batshit crazy if you ask me."
"Eccentric, Doug," she said. "Anyone with as much money as Rivers is eccentric, not crazy."
"Call him what you want, but this case is tricky. The guy owns half of Chicago, and this could bite us in the ass if we don't handle the case discreetly."
"Then why mess into it just on some vague suspicions? I don't see anything in here to indicate that the grandchild is being abused or neglected. Rivers has always seemed to me to be more of a Bill Gates than a David Koresh type. Besides, you're exaggerating; he only owns one tenth of Chicago."
Doug made a face. "Duncan and Fizhugh seemed very . . . insistent."
Jane raised an eyebrow. "Correct me, but isn't that your code word for, 'they are assholes'?"
"You said, it; I didn't."
"Oh, wonderful! Now I'm between a rock and a hard place -- either piss off a rich, powerful man or have two government spooks on my neck for dereliction of duty. Since when do we give in to blackmail and persecute innocent citizens?"
"Maybe not so entirely innocent," Doug said. "Rivers got into some hot water with the IRS about eight years back. I get the feeling Duncan and Fitzhugh were behind that too, although they couldn't make it stick. There is definitely something fishy about him. Money laundering, maybe?"
"So he's Vito Corleone rather than David Koresh. What does that have to do with us?"
"It can't be healthy for the child. You know, Rivers' whole family and staff seems to live up in that locked compound in Lake Forest, like it's some kind of commune." Doug stopped for breath. "I'll share one thing that Duncan and Fitzhugh told me, and my own investigation bore it out -- that kid has never seen a doctor in his entire life."
Jane frowned. "Hmm, you're right. That is odd. Definitely something that needs to be checked into." No vaccinations, in this day in age! Measles, Mumps, chicken pox -- most likely no fluoride treatments either. Poor kid probably wasn't even circumcised!
"All I'm asking, Jane is that you drive up there, take a look at the home life, and see what you can learn about this boy that no one seems to have seen. Is that so hard?"
Jane allowed herself the luxury of a second eye roll in one day. "Of course not. It'll be a piece of cake. So why, may I ask, are you not sending Martha or Kate?" she said, referring to her two superiors, tenured caseworkers both.
"Because you're smart, Jane," Doug said. "And you're not burned out yet. You won't just do it by the numbers. If there's anything to be seen, you'll see it."
"When you put it that way, Doug . . . ," she sighed.
"Yes, I'm putting it that way," Doug smiled. "That's my girl, Janey."
"I'll take a drive out there tomorrow morning. It's the weekend -- they should all be at home." She paused with her hand on the door. "And Doug? I'm not your girl. I'm nobody's girl."