What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Paul’s office was just as before, too crowded with his desk and chairs overwhelming the space available, papers on his desk, the room bright with overhead fluorescents, a bulletin board covered with flyers and notices, file cabinets filling the corners of the room. Paul sat behind his desk and told them that, while it was Bryan he needed to talk to, Josh was welcome to stay. Accordingly, Bryan sat down facing Paul. Josh, not knowing whether to sit or not, stayed on his feet, feeling both separate and part of whatever was happening. When Paul started talking, he began to wander around, looking at all the flyers on the bulletin board as a way to distance himself and afford the other two some pseudo-privacy.
“Bryan, about a week ago, one of the stores turned in a duffle bag they found in their back room. It was a standard army bag with a name stenciled on it. It was old and the printing was faded and a little hard to read, but we could make it out. Fletcherson, Theodore. A sort of unusual name, not at all common. The store people said they didn’t know anyone by that name and had no idea how it got where they found it, or how long it had been there.
“The name seemed to ring a bell, but I didn’t give it too much thought. The first thing we do to find a name is go through the phone book. Sure enough, there was a Ted Fletcherson listed. It was the only Fletcherson in the book. So, I called the number. I called the number several times. Never could get an answer.
“That name, though. It seemed familiar. I kept chewing on it, and it suddenly came back. I’d written that name on a report not long ago. I went back through my paperwork, and I found it.
“I thought of calling Josh’s number, but thought I’d wait first. I reread your statement, and you’d told me you were here a lot. I was pretty sure you’d show up soon. If not, I was going to try Josh eventually.
“So, anyway, I figured you’d know something about this bag, and maybe how it got into that store, and I wanted to ask you about that. Can you tell me about it?”
Bryan was trying to keep a calm face and not give anything away. Josh was still standing with his back turned to them, looking at the bulletin board, not showing his face, his back now rigid. Bryan was thinking of the possible repercussions of telling the truth to Paul. Paul was employed by the mall as a security officer. He seemed nice, he seemed to be a caring man, but his job was to stop unlawful behavior in the mall, and take into custody any miscreants. It was very unlikely any sympathy towards anyone who had broken the law would prevent him from doing his job.
The penalty coming to Bryan, once he was identified and questioned, could be extreme. He might be forcibly reunited with his father, he might be put in a foster home, he might be put in a juvenile detention facility. He was scared at the thought of any of these outcomes. It was possible he wouldn’t be allowed to go home with Josh. That’s the one thing he was most scared of. From that moment on, his life would be different.
“I don’t know anything about that bag, sir. I’ve never seen it before.” He kept his voice as strong and convincing as he could.
Paul looked at him for a moment, and his eyes became sad. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that, Bryan. I really was.”
He reached into his top desk drawer and removed a flat object. He handed it to Bryan. Bryan turned it over and looked at it. It was the picture he’d taken from home of his mother and him. He’d been a couple years younger then, but it was still undeniably a picture of him.
“I have to know what the story is, Bryan. I’d like to help you as much as I can, but I have to follow the rules. Your best bet is to talk to me, tell me the truth. Lying will just make people mad, and there’ll be less motivation for anyone to cut you any slack. You have to trust me here.”
Before Bryan could speak, Josh turned around and interrupted. “Paul, you were really nice to me. I think we can trust you. But you just told Bryan you have to follow the rules. Hypothetically, only hypothetically, say Bryan told you he did something wrong. He could give you a good reason for it, but it was wrong. Illegal, let’s suppose, but still very hypothetically. You’d have to do your job, wouldn’t you? Even if you didn’t like it, you’d really have no choice, right?”
Paul looked at Josh, then said, “It would really depend on what it was. Some things, we just let guys go with a warning. Especially young guys Bryan’s age. I can’t answer the question because I don’t know what he did.”
“I didn’t say he did anything. I’m just talking here, supposing. But, what you’re saying is, you don’t have a lot of leeway if the crime is severe enough. The problem is, we don’t know what is severe enough. Which makes it difficult for us to decide how much we can tell you. Hypothetically.”
“But Josh, if you don’t tell me, my hands are tied. I have to tell the captain we found Bryan’s bag in the store, and that Bryan won’t answer questions, and the captain will call the police. Actually, right now I should call the police. You have to talk to me.”
He said that in an emotional voice, beseeching Bryan to speak, and Josh answered in kind. “Paul, we can’t do that! And we can’t tell you why. But, maybe we can work something out, some sort of a trade. I have to ask you another question. Another hypothetical one.”
Paul started to smile, but stopped himself. He wasn’t used to dealing with precocious 14-year-olds, but remembering the seriousness of what was happening, and hearing Josh’s tone of voice, he realized smiling was out of place.
“All right. Let’s assume for a moment that whatever Bryan did, if he did anything, which he probably didn’t, let’s assume it was really petty, really minor, and that perhaps it was something he had little choice about doing. Maybe it was a misdemeanor, maybe a very low-level felony, or maybe not even anything that bad. Very minor. If it was illegal, it was barely so, and there were no consequences of any kind eventuating from it. So that’s where we are with that part. Now for the next part.
“Let’s assume something more serious has happened, a serious crime, and you are really trying hard to catch the people responsible for it. This, whatever it was, let’s say it has nothing to do with Bryan. Absolutely nothing. But whatever it was, it was serious and it is really important for you to catch the perpetrators; they need to be caught. What I was wondering was, well, suppose Bryan could help you catch these guys. I’ve heard of things like plea bargains, and agreeing to testify against someone to get a lighter sentence yourself and things like that; trade-offs. I know deals get made. What would you say about not doing anything about Bryan’s little misdeed—assuming he committed one, which is an assumption I’d certainly be reluctant to believe, knowing Bryan as I do—if you were able to catch some major offenders with his help? You know, as a sort of a bargain?”
Paul was staring at Josh. Then he scratched his head and rubbed his face with his hands. Then he swiveled in his chair, looked at his back wall for a moment, and swiveled back.
“How can I answer that, Josh? There’s too many suppositions and I don’t have any facts. I understand the thrust of what you’re saying, and sure it’s possible, but I can’t promise you anything. I’m just a mall security officer anyway, not a policeman. If Bryan committed a crime, it’s out of my hands, making that sort of deal.”
“Not entirely,” said Josh forcefully. “It is in your hands whether you turn him in or not. It’s within your power and authority to drop the investigation into the duffle bag. It’s only a duffle bag and Bryan’s a good kid who didn’t do anything that hurt anyone or caused any damage. That’s not hypothetical, that’s a fact. What he can do, or I can do in his place, is help you clear up a real crime that will be beneficial to the mall and its customers. You’d be doing a lot of good, you’d probably get some sort of citation or raise or something, at the very least a lot of recognition, employee of the month, maybe, or a preferred parking place, and what you’d be excusing Bryan for is trifling in comparison as well as in fact. If you don’t excuse Bryan, he’s going to be in a really tough spot, and he doesn’t deserve that.”
Bryan was surprised at the force of Josh’s statement. He hadn’t heard him speak that way before. Paul, too, was taken aback. Josh was being very compelling and persuasive, and his presence was commanding.
“But Josh, what if I agree, then you tell me what Bryan did and it’s something I just can’t excuse that easily? You’d be trusting me, and I’d let you down.”
“Paul, I’ll ask you another question then. How bad is it if someone does something, something illegal, but no one gets hurt or bothered in any way, no property gets damaged, nothing gets stolen, no costs are involved in making things the way they were before the incident? In other words, there were no adverse effects of the, well, I won’t even call it a crime. Something like, say jaywalking across a street that had no traffic on it at 2:30 in the morning. If it were that type of incident, could it be traded for information that was crucial to solving a real crime?”
“I’d say sure. But you’d have to trust me, and I can’t guarantee you you’ll be happy. I just can’t commit without any facts.”
Josh turned to Bryan. They looked at each other, then Josh said, “Bryan, I think we can trust him. I think we don’t have any choice. But you have to agree. My opinion is, tell him what you did. But it’s only my opinion. It’s up to you.”
Bryan was confused. He had no idea what Josh was talking about. What was all this about a major crime? They’d never talked about anything like that. Still, Josh seemed so confident. And, whether or not he trusted Paul, there was no question at all that he did trust Josh.
“Okay, Paul. I’ll tell you. For a short time, I was living in the back of that store. I didn’t hurt anything, I didn’t steal anything, I was just sleeping there. I stored my duffle bag there so I didn’t have to carry it around. I thought someone had stolen it. I forgot all about my dad’s name being on it.”
“How’d you get in?”
“I rigged the door during the day so I could open it from the outside at night. I didn’t damage it at all.”
“And you never stole anything? Bryan, there’s a bottle of coins on the counter of all stores here. They’re collected for Muscular Dystrophy research. Most stores just leave them there at night. That money would just be in plain sight for you. Some of those jars have a lot of money in them.”
“Yeah, and I did see that one sitting there. I never touched any of it. I wouldn’t do that. Paul, I’m not like that. I’m not a thief.”
Paul looked at him without speaking, then turned to Josh. “And you have something to trade for this?”
“Yeah, but first, how bad is that, what he did?”
“You’re right, it’s pretty minor. I’d have to check with the store people, make sure no damage was done, but if not, yeah, I could turn my back on it. Easily, in fact. The store people weren’t even concerned. They just handed in the bag, said they’d found it. But I want to know why he was staying there. I want to know more about it. Now, this other crime?”
Both Bryan and Josh felt a huge relief. Maybe they’d be able to walk away from this. It hadn’t seemed that way a few minutes earlier.
“Okay. But I need you to tell me one other thing first. I was looking at some of the stuff on your bulletin board. There are sketches of some guys there and a heading over them asking, “DO YOU KNOW ME?” Underneath it says, “Wanted for questioning in the Ryan Martinez case.” I remember reading about Ryan in the paper, but would like to hear you explain what happened.”
“Sure. Ryan Martinez is a 13-year-old kid. Cute kid. He was here at the mall and went to use the restroom. He got jumped by three guys. They beat the crap out of him. Someone found him on the floor there, and we got him to the hospital. He’d been badly beaten, and he’d been kicked in the crotch so hard it damaged both testicles. They had to remove one and are hoping the swelling in the other goes down and it still functions. He also had two broken ribs, and busted nose and bruises all over. When he was able to talk to us, a couple of days after this happened, he was pretty doped up but gave us a description of the guys and we had a sketch artist draw them. The police took them to all the schools and passed them around, but no one’s been able to identify them.”
“Did he say why he was beaten?” Josh asked.
“We asked him, and he started crying. Finally, he was able to say they kept calling him gay, and hitting and kicking him. He told us he isn’t gay, but that’s the only thing they said, the only reason he could come up with. He’d never seen them before.
“Josh, if you know who those guys are, tell me. You’re damn right, catching those guys is ten times, a hundred times more important than Bryan’s situation. Do you know who they are?”
“I might. But there’s more to this. We have more to talk about. What I’d like you to do, first, is tell me you’re going to let Bryan go. Without a trade. Just not pursue that investigation. Bryan,” he asked, turning to him, “can I tell Paul why you were in that room?”
Bryan nodded at Josh. Josh turned back to Paul. “Paul, Bryan’s father tried to rape him. He ran away and didn’t have any place to stay. He managed to stay here till he came to stay with me. That’s all he did, and it was to protect himself. To survive. He won’t do it again, he won’t need to. Can you agree to turn your back on this? He’s the best friend I’ve ever had and as good a person as I’ve ever met. He doesn’t deserve to get in trouble for this, he was on his own and terrified and couldn’t go to anyone for help without getting his father in trouble and if the authorities get involved, I don’t know what’ll happen to him, but it’ll be bad out of all proportion to what he did. You have to let this go.”
Paul started to say something, then paused. Then he walked to the front of his desk and sat down next to Bryan and put his hand on his arm. “I’m sorry for the trouble you’ve had, Bryan. I don’t think reporting this to anyone would do any good at all and I can sure see where it might cause more problems for you. I don’t blame you for not admitting you owned the duffle bag. As far as I’m concerned, nothing ever happened. That duffle bag must have been there for years. Probably some tramp took it out of your trash can ten years ago and somehow it ended up on that shelf. Oh, here, this is yours.” He picked up the picture and handed it to Bryan.
“Can he have the clothes, too?” asked Josh.
“Sure. Get a large bag from one of the stores so we can put them in it. I have to keep the duffle bag in case anyone asks to see it. It’s mentioned in a report, so I can’t just lose it. There’s no mention of the contents.”
Paul went back to his chair and sat down. Then he turned to Josh. “Okay, now how about telling me who those guys are?”
Josh didn’t answer right away. He was thinking of several things, working things out in his head. Finally, he said, “This is tricky, Paul. I can tell you who I think they are. You’ll tell the police. The police will pick them up. They’ll question them. The guys will deny it, they’ll all have an alibi, probably including all of them together but still an alibi. The police will show a picture of them to the kid. The kid may identify them. Say he does. The guys strongly deny they had anything to do with it. They’ll be outraged and shocked. It’ll go to court, and the defense attorney will ask the kid, Ryan, how he can be sure of his ID, he was scared, it happened fast, he was knocked unconscious, maybe that’s affected his mind, he only had a brief look at them, when they were caught they didn’t have any bruises or cuts on their knuckles, and they weren’t even at the mall that day, and it’s too bad he got hurt and all but it’s all of their words against his and they’re not the ones who did this. That’s what’ll happen.”
Paul opened his mouth, then closed it. He stared at Josh. Then he said, “How’d you do that?”
“How’d you just come up with all that? You’re right, you know. That’s the way these things frequently go. There’s no evidence, no proof of anything. This happened a couple of weeks ago. If we pick those guys up right now, there’ll be no trace of anything that happened that day. The kid will be compelling on the stand, the jurors might even cry, but with the right defense lawyer, it won’t make any difference. The guys’ll walk.”
“So that’s why I don’t want to tell you who they are until we decide what to do. I have an idea about that. But you have to allow me to help.”
“I want to help you catch them so they get convicted.”
“Wait a minute, Josh. I’m not sure what you’re saying, but you don’t want to get near these guys. They’re dangerous. If you want to help by naming them or something like that, sure. But nothing more than that.”
“Paul, I want to catch them. I want to talk to them and get them to admit what they did to Ryan. I want you to hook me up with a transmitter so you and the police can hear them say what they did to Ryan. On the TV shows, they call it wearing a wire. That’s what I want to do.”
“Josh!” Bryan was suddenly on his feet. “You can’t do that. You know what happens on those shows, don’t you? They always find the wire and then the guy wearing it gets killed. You can’t do that!”
“I’ll be safe. I’ve got it all worked out in my head. But I want to do this. For my own sake. I’ve always thought I was a coward. I never stood up for myself. You’ve made me change the way I look at myself, Bryan. I want to do this. I want to get these guys. My dad told me I should fight my battles on a battlefield where I have the best chance of winning. That’s what I’m going to do. They won’t have a chance.”
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