The Little Pipsqueak
© 2012 Matthew Templar
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
From Chapter Sixteen:
"Is AJ going to be up there for a while?" Dan asked. He took a cursory glance toward the hall, but of course, he couldn't see or hear anything.
"Yup. He's taking a hot bath. He'll be a while. Now what's up?"
He held up a folder secured with a string wrapped around one of those little buttons. It looked very official.
"Just tell me, are you going to take him away from me?"
"Oh, no, no. Well, at least I'm not."
Dan still didn't feel comfortable enough to come and sit down with me. That wasn't good.
"Tim, Children's Services found no record of AJ actually being born. The birth certificate that the school had on file is a forgery. The hospital where he was supposed to have been born has no record of an Andrew J. Vitale being born there twelve and a half years ago or at any time, for that matter. Legally, he doesn't exist. Oh, and his Social Security number is for a man that died 13 years ago of complications to Parkinson Disease in another state."
"So, if he doesn't exist, they have no one to take away from me, right?"
"Well, it's possible, I suppose, except now he's really a ward of the court and they want to see him. That's why I'm here to serve you and him a subpoena to show up in court in a week."
"Well, I wanted him to have a suit all along, now I have the incentive."
"Tim, it just means we need to find out some answers. It shouldn't change anything about your relationship or your desire to adopt the boy."
"I think this must be why labor pains are worth it. At least then you're pretty sure the kids are yours from the start."
"Oh, there's more; a lot more. Stefanie Vitale, AJ's mother? They found records on her going back a long way. At least that was her real name. The problem is, one of the reports came back from the autopsy. She was barren. In looking for more medical records they found an admittance record to an emergency room visit that showed she was operated on, due to a domestic dispute that left her almost dead. She ended up with two broken bones, massive bruising and abrasions and . . . a hysterectomy . . . fifteen years ago."
"Well, I guess I saw that coming. If she was his mother, why wouldn't she have his records? What if he was named after his dad? Wouldn't that have been hard to find?"
"Yes, but his Social Security number? Why would that have been stolen from a dead man? Honestly, I think AJ, or whoever he was, was abandoned and somehow she got him."
I looked up at him then got up to get myself a cup of coffee. As I waited for it to drip enough to pour a cup, I held up the cup to ask Dan if he wanted some. He nodded.
"What's going to happen?"
"We'll see in court. He really needs you now, you know, and if I know Linda Sue Cottington, she'll do everything she can to see that he stays with the perfect person for him."
I looked up at my friend and smiled, though pretty weakly.
"Perfect person for who? Me?" asked my wet boy as he came into the kitchen in his pajamas which were sticking to his body.
"AJ, I think you were supposed to dry off before you dressed," grinned Dan.
"I did, but I had ta kinda hurry cuz I didn't wanna miss you."
"That was nice of you."
"Yeah, almost every time you come over here, something exciting happens, like someone getting' shot or something. I didn't wanna miss anything like that, for sure." He laughed but I wasn't too sure if he was kidding or serious.
"Well, thanks a lot, brat. I do come over sometimes just to see you guys, ya know."
'However, not this time,' I thought to myself.
Dan had handed me the subpoenas from the envelope and they sat on the table. AJ went into the kitchen to get himself a drink. We hadn't told him what was going on or what would be expected of him.
"So, tell me, Dan, is Ralph's concern about your welfare a fair assessment of what you've been going through at work lately?"
"I don't know. What did he say?" asked Dan, finally sipping some coffee.
"He said you were working long hours and he was afraid you'd be too tired to defend yourself if something came down."
"Yes, I have been working a lot. Recently, one of the deputies started going over some cold cases and decided there were far too many to leave them be, especially when many of them looked to be related somehow."
"Yeah, over the last twenty or thirty years there's been an unusual number of murders and then kidnappings of younger children, even babies, in the county. Sometimes they were just kidnapped, too, of course. He told the sheriff and it took most of the guys to persuade the sheriff that it needed looking into. The sheriff, bless his lazy soul, was just going to pass over it all again. So, while this deputy that made the discovery, Deputy Norfolk, studies all the cases, the sheriff assigned me the job of following up on any leads that may be still available. It's actually gotten pretty involved, but I don't see a quick outcome, if any, in all of our work."
"Wow, Dan, that must be pretty frustrating, to go to all that work just to file it all away again."
"It's something we just learn to take with a grain of salt, I'm afraid; the name of the game, so to speak."
"Is there any possibility that it's at all connected to the murder of your family? It just seems so weird to have it be the same kind of thing. But there was no baby involved, right? Your brother was what, almost a teen? Dan?"
Dan was just looking at his cup of coffee getting cold. He had a blank look on his face and his mouth was open just a tad. I could swear the blood was rushing out of his face, his color was getting paler. Then he looked up at me.
"My mom," he said. His voice was different, like he was younger somehow as his memory beat away useless information to get back to that time years before.
"Your mom? What about your . . .?"
"My . . . my mom had a miscarriage after going almost full term. To be exact, the baby was stillborn."
"Then why . . .?"
"Don't you see? No one really knew the circumstances. I can remember getting calls and having to hand the phone to Dad to tell whoever was on the phone the details. My family kept the whole thing so wrapped up, quiet, that he even had to call the paper to have them take out a birth announcement. It all happened so fast."
"How could the paper . . .?"
"Oh, believe me, anything is possible in this little burg. And you'll note, the paper isn't around anymore, and hasn't been since forever, partly because of blunders like that. In fact, it was for that very reason that Billy went to the game with me, like the very next day or so, I think; to get him away from all the turmoil and pain my parents were going through. Hmmmm."
My head started swimming like it does when it's trying to figure out something just beyond its reach. Then . . .
"I . . . I gotta go, Tim. I have some things I need to talk to the other deputy about and Norfolk's house is on the way home."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Babies kidnapped? What if they didn't disappear? What if at least one of them is still in the county?"
"What are you getting at, Tim?"
AJ walked in with a can of root beer, his favorite. You could tell by the huge smile on his face when he took a gulp.
"Now what are you guys talkin' about? Me, again?" he asked smiling.
I hated gardening. First, it reminded me of my dear Vivian, who adored coming out in all kinds of weather and performing her magic on all these beds. Second, it just wasn't my thing. Maybe if I brain-washed the boy at night with hypnosis or . . .
Speaking of whom . . .
I saw him walking up our driveway. He had something around his neck, brightly colored and hanging down, part of it in front and partly in back.
"So, how was your time over . . . AJ? Are you okay? Did you fall or something?"
My boy just shook his head, his chin in his chest, a container of blueberries in one hand, an empty one in the other, both hanging at his sides. As he slowly walked toward me, he raised his hand to hand me the blueberries. I thought he was the saddest kid in the whole world right then, like his favorite dog had died, or maybe his favorite friend.
But then he raised up his head and he had a nice smile on his tear-streaked face. The color around his neck was what appeared to be a big hand-knitted scarf.
"Oh, Dad, he knows," said AJ, as he kept walking into me until I wrapped my arms around him.
"He knows? He knows what, son? You mean Mr. Harding knows something about . . .?" I asked, trying to prompt him to complete my sentence.
"He knows it was me that stole his blueberries." His voice choked just a bit as he got the revelation out of his mouth.
"Uh, oh. And you're still alive? Was he angry at you? What happened? Let's go inside and sit down. 'Kay?"
He was kind of mumbling and shaking his head like he was mulling over what he was about to say as we walked into the kitchen and took our regular chairs, one across from the other. I set the blueberries on the table next to his empty container and waited.
He looked at me and smiled, his eyes and cheeks wet with his tears. It wasn't a huge smile. I couldn't quite figure it out.
"Come here, boy. I need to hold you, I think," I said, holding out my arms.
He loped over and turned to sit on me, my arms immediately going around his waist to pull him firmly into me. His head came up to my cheek, too tall to kiss on top of his head, so I planted a good one on his temple. The smell of mothballs assaulted my senses from the scarf but I could still smell good clean boy in his hair.
"Mmmm, thanks. I love you, ya know."
"Yeah, I was kinda hoping you did, cuz I sure love you a lot."
He kind of squiggled into me and lay back against me.
"So, tell me what happened."
"I'm hot," he said. He unwrapped the scarf from around his neck and carefully laid it on the table; a treasure to protect and obviously a gift to cherish from someone AJ was growing very fond of.
"Okay, so, I picked two things of blueberries like I always do and walked up to his house and knocked. He had all the curtains pulled back and you could see that there was more light in the house because of it.
"Anyway, I heard him call to come on aboard," said AJ with some laughter in his voice. "He's so funny sometimes, Dad. He gots this way of saying stuff someway that no one else has. Anyway, I went in and showed him the berries and he got real funny lookin'. I can't explain it.
"But I still took 'em into the kitchen and got out the bowl from the refrigerator and the colander thing from under the counter where we keep it. I rinsed 'em and poured 'em into the bowl and there he was standing beside me. That was like a first. He's never bothered to come in before. He's always just waited 'til I came back inta the room where he was sitting so I could listen to some more stuff from his past."
AJ paused for a few seconds and then shook his head slowly before he started again.
"He scared me when he put his hand on mine and turned it over. He was looking at the stains from me pickin' the berries I guess. He did his 'Humph' thing and said he had it all figured out. Then he asked me if I was the one that had been stealing his berries before."
AJ turned a bit to look at me and shivered. I think I may have too. I remembered a confrontation with a very angry Jeb when we'd first met not too many weeks before.
"But you lived?"
He gave me a half-smile and continued, "He's so neat, Dad. I started to get all mushy and teary and stuff and he put his big ole arms around me and hugged me. He smells like old clothes and some kind of cologne or something, but it wasn't a bad smell. It was just his smell. Anyway, he held me like that and I really kinda gave up and cried. I was sad cuz I hurt my friend and never told him."
I held on a little tighter but AJ seemed to be doing okay with it right then. I guess he was cried out.
"He said he'd figured it out sometime ago and was just waiting for the right time to ask me."
"What did you say?"
"What could I say? I 'membered what Ralph said that day about always saying the truth cuz it's easier to remember than lyin' and stuff. And, besides, I didn't have to worry cuz I could tell he wouldn't a been holding me like that if he was really, truly mad at me. So I nodded my head."
"Good choice, son. I'm proud of you."
"Yeah, maybe but then he said something that made me mad at me. He said he woulda liked it if I'd been the one to tell him first but that he was happy that I didn't lie to him."
AJ slumped just a bit and pushed back into me a tad more.
"Well, don't be too disappointed in yourself, AJ. You've been helping him out for the last few weeks or so, so I'm sure he's more than happy with what you've been doing for him."
Again, AJ turned a bit to look at me over his shoulder, then he leaned back again.
"And, you know what? That's almost 'xactly what he told me too. He wasn't mad at me and he hugged me tighter and said he had this thing for me."
He reached for the scarf, a mass of billowing colors made of soft and fluffy variegated yarns. It was pretty good-sized too. It was by no means something I would call masculine, but I'm sure that never occurred to AJ.
"It's kinda old and has that old people smell to it, ya know. But I like it and he said I should have it because it made me look even more handsome and stuff. He was pretty funny when he handed it to me. He had a hard time sayin' it to me."
"That tells me it meant a lot to him to have given it to you. It must have been something very special to him."
"Yeah, he said his wife made it for someone a long time ago but it never got sent because his wife died or something. So, he thought it would look good on me. I like all the colors in it and it sure is warm, huh?"
He leaned back into me then, a big sigh coming from him.
"You are one special boy to have such a good friend as Mr. Harding, aren't you?"
His nodding head knocked me in the chin twice before I could stop it from bouncing around.
"Oops. Sorry, Dad," he laughed, turning almost completely around to look at my chin up close.
So, I kissed him on his nose.
"Hey! I'm not your girlfriend," he exclaimed, wiping off my kiss with great flourish.
"Hey, yourself. I can get all lovey-dovey if I want to. You're my special guy too, you know."
"Oh, okay, I suppose," he told me, pointing his nose at me again, I guess for me to kiss it again. He was being so funny.
I put my hands on either side of his head and made a big deal about puckering up, licking my lips and slowly moving in for the kill, or a big sloppy wet smooch. His eyes got wide and then he closed them tight and scrunched up his nose, waiting for the inevitable sacrifice he was about to make.
So I kissed the top of his head and released him.
"That's all?" he asked, sounding a little put out, like all that scrunching effort was wasted.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
Not to disappoint him, I grabbed him up and started kissing him every which way and all over him. I had him trapped in my arms and he was losing that battle before it started, laughing like a hyena, squirming and pushing to get away until we were both laughing and exhausted and almost falling to the floor.
And I didn't know if I was going to lose him or not.
Where was that boy when I needed him, like to take over turning this flower bed over? Yard work! Yuck. And, of course, as I was putting away my tools who should walk up the path, carrying two containers full of berries . . .?
"Dad, he's not home; Mr. Harding's not home. When I was pickin' berries I saw a big black car come up the road. Then a few minutes after that it left again. You s'pose he was in it? It looked pretty important like; had government plates and everything. I didn't know Mr. Harding was so important, did you?"
"Nope, son, I sure didn't. I can't imagine what it could be about, but I wouldn't bring it up unless he does. I don't think it would be polite. It might be kind of personal or something."
"O-o-o-h, like meetin' someone special?" said AJ with a grin on his face.
"Well, I hadn't thought of that but, yes, I suppose it could be, but it's much more likely, by the way you described the car, that it's official stuff in the city."
"Wow! And all this time I just thought he was a farmer, huh?"
"Me too, boy, me too."
Several minutes later, in fact the exact time it took to be driven into the city, he was let out at the side door of the concrete monstrosity in the center of the city, and whisked up to the fourth floor in less time than it took to say to the walls, "in one o' them pesky elevator contraptions, all boxed in and no air and . . .," he was met by a cute young lady that knew just where to guide him.
Once in the prestigious office, he was shown to a leather chair on the other side of a huge desk which was covered with file folders, though neatly stacked in piles only a few inches high. He had just been offered coffee the way he liked and was about to burn his tongue when he heard a
Then the door on the other side of the desk opened and in walked his old friend. He handed his cloak to the young lady, saying thank you and plunked himself down in his high backed armed leather chair. He was a handsome man with a shock of lustrous silver hair that would be the envy of any man his age.
"Umph! I'm getting' too old for this, you old goat! Why haven't you convinced me to retire yet? I thought you liked me."
"I never once said I liked you, you scarecrow, you. I said I put up with you, you know, a friend I can abuse. You were just so pleased to have me near that you thought it was more. Humph! Besides, I need you right where you are more than ever before."
Ignoring the last sentence, the thin, tall, dignified looking man, who was about ten years younger than Jed Harding, asked, "Ha, ha! You old sidewinder, how long has it been since we had lunch together?"
"Well, it would have been several years ago when I could still afford to buy yours, you skinflint."
"You know I always buy. And what's this afford thing? Why we both know you could buy this town twice over and have some left to, um, to, ah-h, buy me lunch."
"Now, Homer, you are always on about food. Why is that?"
"Well, they don't give me enough time to eat here, and Penny has had me on a diet since I met her eons ago."
"Well, just get that eatin' crap out of your little head. We got bigger fish to fry and I do mean fry."
"See now, how am I supposed to concentrate if you keep talking about food? You sure we shouldn't be discussing this over some of the diner's hot beef sandwiches? I've only got an hour left."
"You won't even want to eat when you hear what's goin' on my dear old friend. Oops! There I said it! Nope, you'll be sick as I was when I heard about . . ."
And they talked on, only taking time to order dry sandwiches from the Deli in the basement.
AJ and I were playing catch in the front yard. I had all the work done in front so I wouldn't feel guilty playing instead of digging, as long as I couldn't see the backyard. Oh, he turned out to be quite a little athlete when I gave him the knowledge to learn how.
"Dad, Dad, that's that big car. I bet it's got Mr. Harding in it. I'm gonna go get his berries."
"Here, here, driver, let me off here. Turn, turn. They'll take me home. That's my neighbor and his son. I think if I handle this just right I'll be able to wrangle another meal out of them," he said with that contagious laughter in his voice.
The driver knew Mr. Harding well enough to know he was always using that kind of humor. Still, it was good to hear that day, as his rider had been very quiet all the way to and from the offices of his boss.
AJ took off for the house as I watched the car pull up our driveway. That was sure unexpected. Just as AJ came running out of the house, jumping down the three steps from the porch, steps I'm sure he hadn't touched since he walked into my life a few weeks before, Jeb Harding got out of the car before the driver could run around to open the door for the man.
"Jeb? How are you?" I asked as we saw the car drive away.
"Fine. Damn fine, boy. How's my two favorite neighbors?"
"We're just great and . . ."
"Mr. Harding, I came to give you your berries and you were gone. And I saw that big black car that brought you up here and everything." AJ was practically dancing around he was so antsy and excited, for some reason, that Jeb was riding around in an official car.
"Son, if you don't pull in your reins some, we're gonna have jam in those boxes instead of whole berries. Now, what's so great about riding in a big car? Just so happens I know someone that has a driver and he knows I like to get into town for a bite once in a great while, don'tcha know. No big deal, really."
I wasn't convinced but I was glad that AJ was just happy to see his friend, that he was well and that he had made it over to our house again.
"So, Jeb, as long as you're here, would you like to have dinner with us? It won't be for a couple of hours but I'm sure we'll have plenty to do, what with you-know-who flying around like a crazy person."
"Who? There's a . . . Hey! I'm not crazy! I'm just a kid and I'm s'posed ta get all excited and stuff, 'specially when someone special comes over, huh, Mr. Harding?"
"Yup, you got 'er boy! Someone special. And when they get here, you'll be sure to introduce me to 'em, right?"
"Huh?" said AJ, stopped in midflight. "Hey! You both are goofin' with me, right?"
So, we convinced AJ to show us how to catch wild game in the backyard while I shared a beer with my neighbor on the deck chairs.
"This is all very nice, Tim. Time was when my wife and I would watch our two youngun's scamper and play much like your boy. Long time ago, now. Long time ago."
"You had two children, Jeb? I didn't know. Do they still visit?"
"No, no. Haven't seen hide nor hair of my daughter in oh, it must be goin' on thirty years now, no, thirty-one, I think. And my son, well he went off to war and never came back, almost forty years ago now. He was just a young man, younger than you, Tim. You're the lucky one on that count, young man. You've come back without a scrape unless you hide it well."
"No, sir, I was very lucky. In fact I didn't lose any of my men in all the maneuvers we did over there. I'm very sorry for your loss, Jeb, very sorry."
"Well, thank you, Tim. As I said it was long ago. Almost killed the wife, you know, but we made it through. Still had the daughter until she decided to run off and marry some no good . . . But that's for another time.
"Say, I hear you're lookin' out for the boy that almost shot you here a few weeks back, Tim, before we met; more 'n' a month now as I reckon," Jeb said, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. "You sure have a big heart to help someone who didn't much like you."
"Oh, Jeb, he was so mixed up and still is, I think. He's had so much going on in his life . . . But how did you know all about that?"
"S'nothin' really. Just gossip you hear if you have your ear in the right place at the right time. All over the newspaper at the time and I do get around you know, even if it takes a driver and a big black car to get me there, ha!" He ended with his classic outburst of laughter, a guffaw really, which had AJ running over to see what he'd missed.
Dinner was nice as Jeb told stories about the area and its history that had me very interested and AJ mesmerized by his special friend's tone and timber of voice, enough to keep his fork in the air and his mouth open.
"Now, boy, see here," said Jeb in the middle of a story about when he bought his farm from the biggest land owner in the state at the time. "You gots ta be eatin' or you'll go weak and I won't get any berries out of you. What's wrong with your supper?"
"Huh? Oh, I . . . uh, Dad, I uh . . ."
"It's okay to say, AJ. You won't offend me if there's something wrong with your dinner, but let's find out so we don't do it again."
"Okay, well, I didn't want ya all mad, cuz I really do like what you cook, usually. But, what's this green stuff the meat is in? It tastes awf . . . Um, I'm sorry. I don't like it. It's like bitter or somethin'."
"Ha! Ha!" laughed Jeb. "That's green pepper and it's mighty good for you. Your dad cooked it just like I like it. You don't like it, huh? That's funny. My boy wouldn't eat it either, not ever."
"Is it okay if you just pick it out or eat around it? It's just us so it's okay if you leave it on your plate," I told AJ.
"Yeah, but I think it got on the meat and now it tastes like it too," AJ whined.
"Just try to eat as much of the meat as you can and I'll take Stuffed Green Peppers off the list unless it's just Jeb and I, okay?"
"'Kay. Sorry," said AJ, picking at his dinner.
"Boy, most important thing is honesty. We all learn that all our lives. You been learnin' it real good. You were honest with your daddy and he was good to you for it. That's the way it is. You were honest to me too the other day and I love ya for it too."
I think AJ couldn't have been prouder right then.
Later, over coffee, Jeb mentioned our neighbors.
"You see anything peculiar goin' on over to the Tarrington place 'cross from my place, Tim? Somethin's goin' on over there and it just don't feel right, you know?"
"I haven't even noticed, to be honest."
"Good, Dad. You were honest! That means you get dessert!" quipped AJ from his place on the ottoman in front of Jeb.
"Ha! Good one, boy. Ha! But I don't think you're supposed to use his honesty to get what you want," laughed Jeb as he raised his foot and pushed AJ right off his perch and onto his behind.
We had a good laugh, well Jeb and I did. Yeah, AJ was laughing too. But AJ got his ice cream. I didn't think about it until we were walking, excuse me, moseying back from taking Jeb home when I realized Jeb hadn't told me what he thought was so unusual about his neighbor's goings-on. I'd forgotten to look over there too.
But I had more important things on my mind that night. And I leaned over and kissed him on his forehead and we said our 'goodnight.'
The next day I answered the phone to hear,
"Sergeant McGill? Tim? This is Ms., um, Linda Sue Cottington."
"Oh, hello there. I was kind of expecting your call. Dan delivered the subpoenas yesterday. I figured you'd want to talk, before we get to court, about what is going to happen on Monday. It's all so weird."
"Yes, we do need to talk and yes, it is extremely weird as you put it. I've never run into anything quite like this, that's for sure. But rest assured, Tim, we'll see you both through this unscathed. We have a great judge in our juvenile court system that cares almost as much as you and I do about AJ's welfare."
"I can't imagine anyone caring for AJ more than I do, Linda Sue. I don't know if I could survive another blow if I had my family ripped from me again. There may not be papers signed that I'm his dad, but we couldn't be any closer if he was a part of my bloodline."
"I know, Tim, and for that reason we all want what is best for both of you. So, in the meantime, like Deputy Perkins should have told you, nothing has changed regarding our goal of keeping you two together permanently. It's just taking a little tumble off course before we get back to the important issues."
"So, what happens now? When do we see the judge?"
"Well, the clerk was a little vague about something going on with another case, but said we would probably be called in on Wednesday morning. I'm sorry but you'll have to arrange for AJ to be out of school, at least for the morning. I'm not sure how long this will take."
"Oh, so not until Wednesday now?"
"Yes, it seems there is some pressure to have a case brought forward that involves a shooting. The clerk said I wasn't to mention anything but, Tim, weren't you and Deputy Perkins involved in a shooting at your house?"
"Oh, well yes. And I think the whole mess has been on hold for far too long. I hope that's what this is all about."
"Well, I do too. That poor boy."
End of Chapter Seventeen