Cold calling was no fun, but at least it wasn't telemarketing. His light flashed, indicating that one of the automatic dialers had found a real live person.
Ethan Sanders took a deep breath and spoke into his headset, looking at his monitor to see the name.
"Hello, could I speak to Mr. Houpt?"
"This is Northeast Market Research. We are conducting a study, and if you qualify, you could earn $150 for giving us your opinions."
"What's the catch?"
"I understand ... We realize many callers are trying to sell you something. All we want is your opinions. Many people are reluctant to give their opinions for free, so we are willing to compensate you $150 to come in to our office for at most an hour."
In the distance he heard, "Daddy? Who is it? Is it mommy?"
Mr. Houpt covered the mouthpiece, but still Ethan heard, "It is not your mother, now will you go to your room and be quiet, or should I make you!"
"But I want to talk to mommy? Or is it one of the court ladies?"
Mr. Houpt returned to the phone. "Excuse me," he said in a kindly voice and after a moment put the phone down.
Then he heard, "How many times do I have to tell you?" in a low tone.
Then he heard a loud slap. The child screeched and wailed after the second, louder slap.
"Be quiet while I'm teaching you to mind!" the voice said, and the next crack of flesh on flesh was alarmingly loud. He heard what sounded like muffled agony.
Ethan was alarmed. Thinking quickly, he decided to change the script.
After a moment he heard footsteps return to the phone.
The line went dead briefly. "What the heck?" he heard Mr. Houpt mumble to himself. "Are you there?"
"Sorry for the interruption," Mr. Houpt said. "These new phones! For a moment I thought my 'mute' button wasn't working."
"Yes, they sure can be frustrating! Let me ask you just a few questions."
"Are you above 25 years of age?"
"Do you ever watch professional or college sports on TV?"
"Do you ever drink beer, wine, coffee, tea, soda, or juice?" Oh shit, that was lame! What else was there?
"Well, then you qualify! I realize now that we have someone who can come to your house and interview you there. It should take at most 30 minutes. Can you name some convenient times?"
"Well, let me see ... This evening would work, say 8pm."
"Great! Someone will be at your house then."
"And you're going to pay me $150?"
"Yes, that's right."
Ethan hung up. There was a child being beaten, and he wanted to help. He suspected that a call to social services based on hearing a few noises in the background wouldn't be enough. He needed to learn more to be able to help.
Ethan parked the car a couple houses down -- not sure exactly why. He had arranged to arrive ten minutes early; he wanted to catch the man off guard if possible.
He was on the lookout for icy patches. In March it was still quite dark at 8pm in Boston, and the snow from the recent storm hadn't all melted yet.
"Hi, Mr. Houpt? I'm Mr. Smith," he said. "We spoke on the phone today."
"You're the same guy who called me?"
"Yeah, they're short people to do the interviews, so I signed up to do this work too. I can sure use the extra money."
"And you're going to give me $150?"
"Yes, $150 in cash," and showed him the envelope with the bills.
"Come in, come in," said Mr. Houpt.
"So, let me begin. Do you ever watch professional sports?"
"Do you watch professional ice hockey?"
"Do you watch professional football?"
"On a typical week during the regular season, how many hours would you say you spend watching football? Zero to one, one to three, three to five, five to seven, or more than seven?"
Just then a girl peeked around the corner and came into the room. She looked to be about 8, blond hair and blue eyes. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance except a red scratch mark across her face and a large bruise on her upper arm.
"Who are you talking to, daddy?" she asked.
Mr. Houpt turned in his chair, and said, "Anna! It is just a man doing a survey. You go back to your room!"
The girl hesitated, looking at Ethan for a moment.
"Now!" the man yelled.
Anna disappeared around the corner.
"Sorry for the interruption," he said.
"No, that's quite all right," Ethan said.
Ethan continued through the rest of the script he had planned, though he was asking totally different questions from what his company was polling about. He cut it short, since he had seen the girl.
"Goodbye, then, and thanks for your help," Ethan said, handing the man the envelope with the money.
After the front door shut behind him, Ethan crept around the side of the house where the girl had appeared from.
He followed the sound of voices to a window on the side of the house. The window was cracked just a little.
"How many times do I have to tell you to stay in your room when I'm busy with other people and not bother me? What will it take to teach you?"
Ethan heard a dull thud and a stifled sob, then a louder slap, then one even louder followed by a scream.
After describing what he had heard to the 911 operator, he was told that he should call the social service department when they opened the next day.
The natural way to reach them was an anonymous tip line. When Ethan phoned at 9:01, he was told that no one was available yet. He tried again at 9:45, and finally got through at 10:30. The woman did not seem alarmed. But she promised that they would send someone out that afternoon to investigate.
After calling the next day several times, he finally got through to the woman. She said that while the girl did have a couple bruises, she said they were from falling down and denied he was hitting her. There was nothing the department could do without a much more thorough investigation. She added that the mother, who normally had custody of the child, had had a serious accident and was in the hospital. She and the child's father were divorced and not on good terms. Nonetheless, the father naturally got temporary custody while the mother was unable to care for the child. The mother was expected to make a full recovery within several months, so any situation would resolve itself when she was well. Given the budget cuts, the department was short on staff and they couldn't follow up on all the cases they should.
Ethan's protests were to no avail.
What he ought to do was put it out of his mind. It wasn't any of his business. Confronting the father would probably do no good, and it could certainly backfire.
But lying in bed that night, he couldn't get that sound out of his mind. The sound of flesh hitting flesh all too hard. He couldn't stand the thought of that girl getting beaten every day. He brainstormed different ideas for hours. And by the time he went to sleep at 5am, he had his plan worked out. It was an insane plan. He must be an insane man to even consider it.
He called in sick from his job the next day and staked out the girl's house. He didn't see any chance. The car never left the driveway. If Mr. Houpt worked, it was not at a job with regular hours.
He had his opening the second day. He wasn't close enough to see the house itself, but he saw a car pull out of the driveway, and there was no one in the car but the driver.
He rang the bell. Anna answered promptly.
"Are you Anna Houpt?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said shyly.
"I am here from the hospital. Your mother would like to see you at once."
"Really!" The child's eyes lit up.
"Can you come with me?"
"My daddy isn't here."
"I have specific instructions to take you to the hospital regardless of what he says."
The idea of a hospital working in this fashion was totally farfetched, but he was gambling that the young girl's desire to see her mother was so strong that she would put her doubts aside.
"Right now," he said, holding the door open.
She walked right out with him and took the hand he offered! He walked briskly to his car, and she began peppering him with questions.
"Why does she want to see me? Can she talk OK now? Do I come back here when it's done?"
"I'm just here to pick you up; I don't know more than what I already told you."
Once she was in his car, he drove to a secluded spot next to the park, turned off the engine and turned to her.
"Anna, I have some things to tell you. First, I lied to you. I'm not from the hospital, and your mother didn't ask to see you."
The girl looked alarmed.
"I'm the man who came to interview your father the other night," he said.
She looked and nodded, apparently recognizing him.
"I also called him on the phone earlier that day. I heard him hitting you and heard you screaming after he put the phone down. That night when I visited I saw the mark on your cheek and the bruise on your arm. After I left that night, I didn't go straight to my car. I went around the side of the house and heard him hitting you again."
Anna looked at him then, a tear in her eye but agitated. "It's not him doing it! It's ... um ... just hitting a pillow," she said lamely.
Ethan ignored her feeble excuse. "I reported it to the police. They sent someone out to investigate. Did you have a visitor the next day, someone who asked you questions?"
"And I bet you told her the same thing you told me, about how nothing was happening. Let me guess: your daddy said he would do something really awful if you told anyone."
Anna didn't react.
"I got through to the police after that visit and they said they weren't sure there was a problem. What's supposed to happen is they take you to the station, convince you you'll be safe and get you to tell the truth. Then they take you away for your protection. You go to live with people who don't beat you up until your mother gets better."
"When will she be better?" Anna asked eagerly.
"They said it could be months."
"So that comes to why I'm here. I'm giving you a choice. I can take you back to your father's house right now. If he's not home, you can just walk back in and pretend nothing happened. If he is home, you can tell him whatever you want. If you say you just took a walk without asking, I don't know what he'll do. I wonder if he'll beat you."
"He'd beat me, but I don't think he'll be back for a while." Anna covered her mouth with horror at what she had just said.
"Don't worry, Anna, I knew already. I heard it with my own ears. You could tell him what actually happened, but I kind of doubt he'll believe you." Right, he thought to himself, because what I am doing is unbelievable.
"There's another choice. I could take you to the police station. You can tell them your daddy beats you and you ran away."
"I can't tell anyone what he does," she said. "You won't tell anyone, will you? Please?"
He ignored her plea. "Now I don't know what the police will do, but after asking you lots of questions they might send you back to your daddy, who will know you told them he beats you. Or they might send you to some strange people's house until your mommy gets better. If they do that, the strange people would probably be good to you, but I don't know for sure. Because the police don't have much money, I bet they'll send you back to your father."
"He told me that if I tell, he's going to kill my mommy!" she said, tears welling up.
"Oh, shit," Ethan mumbled to himself. He was about to tell her that her daddy wouldn't really do that, but could he be so sure?
"There's one more choice," he said, his heart in his throat.
"I can take you home with me so you can live with me until your mommy gets better. Now if anyone found out about that, they would send me to jail for a long time, but that's a chance I'm willing to take."
He felt sick in the pit of his stomach as he put that into words. "I'm willing to do that so you don't get beaten by your dad any more," and a few tears welled up in his eyes.
"Before you make a choice, I'll tell you a little more about that last one. Like I said, if anyone found out you were with me, they would take you to the police, and maybe back to your dad -- I don't know, like I said before. You will be listed as a kidnapped child, and your picture will be all over the TV. So you'd have to stay out of sight. You won't be able to go to school and won't be able to play with other kids. You won't be able to visit your mommy."
"Daddy never takes me to see her anyway," she said.
"Figures. OK, next, people will worry. We can try to tell them secretly that you're OK, but they might not really believe it. Next, I've never been a dad, so I don't even know what it's like to take care of a girl. But I'll try to get you everything you need. How old are you? Six? Seven?"
Anna looked at him reproachfully. "I am nine years old."
"Sorry," he said meekly. He really didn't know much about kids. "Anyway, you get this so far?"
"I think so, kind of," Anna said.
"I go to work every day, so you would be home alone. Now, no one is supposed to leave a child alone like that, but I'll have a cell phone so you could call me any time. You would also be able to run away. If you go to any neighbor's house and say what happened, they'll take you to the police, like we said before."
Ethan took a deep breath. "Now, if you asked you mommy or your teachers or a friend's mom, everyone would tell you that you should either go to the police or to your daddy's. Everyone would be worried I will do bad things with you. I won't, but they would say you shouldn't trust me. You can trust me, but you don't know that."
Yikes, this was getting complicated as he explained it. Was he getting past her cognitive capacity here? It occurred to him that there was a good reason minors weren't allowed to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.
"When your mommy gets better, I'll drop you off with her."
Ethan wondered if he had left out anything important. "Oh right, and if they ever find out that it was me who took you, I'll go to jail."
Summing up, he said, So, it's your choice."
Anna paused a few seconds. "Would those other people the police sent me to take me to see my mommy?"
"Yes, I think they would -- but I'm pretty sure they'll send you back to your daddy instead."
She was silent a moment and stole a glance at him, shifting uneasily. "Still, I'd like to go to the police."
Ethan felt a rush of mixed emotions. He would at least not be guilty of a terrible crime if he just took her to the police. But he saw her back with her daddy and his heart was heavy realizing he would beat her worse than ever.
When they got to the police station, he looked at her and said, tears welling up, "I'm so sorry your daddy beat you, and I hope things go better for you."
Anna gave him a long look, then hopped out of the car.
He watched her go. She looked back at him once and waved, and he waved back. Then she got to the front door of the station and turned again. She hesitated a few seconds, and then she came running back to him and got in the car.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I wanted to see if you'd really let me go," she said. "And you did. I was thinking I could go with you and see, and now I want to try."
Ethan's heart pounded in his chest. Oh shit, what had he done?
Anna continued, "I can't stand my daddy hitting me!" and she began to cry. "I just can't stand it! He has all these rules, and I try to be good, but I'm always messing up and sometimes I don't even know rule I broke. If I were a good girl maybe he wouldn't hit me, and I try, but I can't do it!"
"Listen, Anna!" he said, heatedly. "You don't deserve to get hit no matter what you do! There's nothing you could ever do that would make it OK for him to hit you! I'm sure you're a fine girl -- or at least good enough."
The Houpts lived in Massachusetts, and Ethan lived over the line in New Hampshire. It was a two-hour drive.
Ethan gave her a tour of his two-bedroom ranch house and showed her her room.
He reiterated that any time she wanted, he could take her to the police. If she didn't trust him, she could go to any of the neighbors when he was out. He pointed out one house in particular where he said the people were friendly and would know just what to do.
He got a short list of some clothes she might need -- if she couldn't go out, she wouldn't need much in the way of variety! He got an order for a hairbrush and the right kind of toothpaste. He made a list of the stuff she ate. This was a bit like getting a new pet, he decided, though at least this one could talk.
When he was out he picked up an iPod and a cell phone, and took a wild guess at a couple toys and a stuffed animal she might like.
He considered how it would look for a young man to be buying a dozen pairs of girls' underwear, among other clothes, and made up the story that his niece was visiting for a month, her luggage was lost, and his wife had sent him to get some bare necessities. It seemed to go over OK.
As he drove back, he considered that she might have already run to the neighbors'. The police might be waiting for him. He hoped they wouldn't take him away right then before she'd had a chance to use any of the stuff he'd gotten for her -- then chuckled to realize how dumb a concern that was.
There were no police, and she was still there when he got back. When he gave her the shape sorter toy she held it up and looked at him like he was crazy. The afternoon and evening were fairly calm, though they were still jarring to him. He had been an only child and had lived alone since college. There was a dinner half-eaten, a dirty ice cream dish and milk glass on the nicely finished wooden living room table, unfamiliar TV shows, and then a bedtime routine involving face washing, teeth brushing, and pajamas. Anna came out of her room a number of times. Finally at 11pm he peeked in and saw she was asleep.
Exhausted himself, Ethan settled into bed. One big question was whether the authorities had enough information to find him. What did her father know? He had mentioned the name "Northeast Market Research" when he first spoke to Anna's father, but hadn't repeated it. When he went to the man's house, he had brought with him printed material with "Norford Market Research", an actual company but one located in California. And while his fake survey had contained questions about sports and beverages, the actual project he was working on concerned cars. To report on Anna, he had been calling an anonymous tip line -- he hoped it was anonymous! If no one had been suspicious enough to take down his license plate, he decided had a decent shot at pulling it off.
The second evening he made a point of surfing on the TV so they could watch the prominent news reports of her disappearance. He watched her closely. She was briefly excited to see her picture on TV, but as she listened to the commentary she got more thoughtful. Fortunately they had no description of his appearance and said that the police had no leads. When he turned the TV off, they sat. He waited for her reaction.
'You really, really weren't supposed to take me away, were you?"
"No. Everyone is worried about your safety, as you can see."
"Why are they so worried?"
Ethan took a moment to formulate his explanation. "Since most men know how serious a crime it is, they would never do what I've done unless they were kind of sick and wanted to hurt you."
"Do you want to hurt me?"
"No! I guess I'm an even weirder guy who is willing to risk everything to keep you safe from your father."
She thought a moment. "And from the way they talk, I can see how you'd be in a lot of trouble if they found you!"
"Yup, you got it."
"It's sad they're all so worried. Is my mommy worried?" she asked suddenly.
"Yeah," he said, "she probably is if she's recovered enough to understand. But I have an idea. It will help a little, maybe."
"Dear mommy, I see on the news everyone's worried about me. I'm OK! This man E took me away so daddy wouldn't beat me any more, but he's going to bring me back when he knows I'll be safe. I can run away any time I want but he thinks the police will take me back to daddy, so I decided to stay. Love, xoxxoooxoxoxooxxx, Anna"
They drove an hour away to mail the letter.
Later that same evening she mentioned she wanted to take a bath. Baths! Right, you needed to coordinate with kids about baths. He dimly recalled that sometimes they didn't want to take them. He was greatly relieved to learn that she could do that all by herself -- he didn't really know enough about girls to know at what age that change happened.
He learned that one of his jobs was brushing the snarls out of her hair in the morning. He had no idea how to do it and she was exasperated explaining things as simple as how he needed to start at the bottom and work up. But he caught on quickly.
She started out being subdued and polite and obedient, but as she got more comfortable she didn't always do as she was told. Faced with that troublesome development, he spent long sessions online late at night taking a crash course in parenting. He decided her behavior was classified as "testing limits", so he made some limits, though some adjustments were required. When he announced a maximum of one hour of TV per day, her jaw dropped so far that he decided he'd have to allow two.
Her bruises faded rapidly and he became more fully aware just how gorgeous a girl she was! She was mostly cheerful and energetic. Above all, her expressive face captivated him. But this girl missed her mother and had horrible memories of her father, and her face was as expressive in its sorrow as in its happiness.
A week after she came to live with him, she sat beside him on the sofa and leaned her head on his shoulder. A little uncertain what to do, he just sat motionless. She then kind of wriggled her head into his armpit, and he tentatively put his arm around her. Her brief smile indicated that he had at least hit on something acceptable to her. But her brooding, faraway look returned.
He had trouble making sense of his own feelings. She was a beautiful child and delightful company. He felt a tender ache for her and a fierce protectiveness. Was that what parents felt? If so, he decided he wanted to be a parent some day. As soon as this was over he would start dating more seriously. At 33, it was none too early to think about a family.
Ethan felt he was faced with a balancing act. On the one hand he didn't want to be an adult who set no limits and let her run wild. On the other hand, if she got really annoyed with him, she could go to one of the neighbors' houses and he would quickly be in prison.
He had found some online curriculum for third graders and with a reward system had gotten her to study a few hours a day. He went over the material with her in the evenings. They played board games together. He got her computer games of various sorts but did not give her access to the internet. It would be too easy for her to slip up and reveal something.
She initially complained of being bored during the day when he was at work. Some days he allowed TV and other days he locked it up completely. But after complaining of boredom for a while, she found her inner resources. She found she liked reading and whipped through books about as fast as he could pick them up from the library. She did craft projects and make believe with pillows and empty boxes from the basement. When he was home, he got dragged into her play sometimes and with some trial and error he got the hang of playing his role -- whatever that was at the moment.
A few days after she had leaned against him on the sofa, she plopped herself down in his lap and curled up with her head against his chest. He was surprised and pleased that she trusted him that much. After a minute she started crying softly, and when he asked what was wrong, she said she missed her mother. He felt very sad himself to see her so sad. This pattern went on for weeks.
With occasional calls to the hospital, he was able to coax out of the nurses a fair sense of her mother's condition. He relayed to Anna the good news that her recovery was progressing well.
She kept writing weekly letters to her mother.
Ethan kept a sort of online diary by writing himself emails. He was proud that he knew to keep himself safe by using a password that was 15 characters long, included digits and punctuation, and contained no common words.
"Dear Diary, She has been here -- almost four weeks now. Off and on I've heard her crying in the night, and I've gone in, and within about a week she seemed to like it when I sat and held her hand until she went back to sleep. Then last night she arrived at my bedside sniffling and crawled into bed with me. I thought about making her go back to her own bed but I didn't have the heart to. She lay spooned back against me and I stroked her hair.
I am trying to sort out my feelings. I feel very protective of her, and she takes my breath away, she is so wonderful and creative and vibrant -- and affectionate. Is this what daddies feel for their daughters? I think I'm going to be very sad when she goes back to live with her mother. I'll get over it though, somehow.
But there was something about her body there in front of me in bed -- it didn't feel right. On the web it says children shouldn't get into bed with their parents after age six or so -- unless you read the "family bed" people, who say you should never kick them out. So who's to know?
After she fell asleep I tried carrying her back to her own bed. But she's too big to carry easily, and she woke up. She got real upset at having to leave, so I let her snuggle in with me again. Then when she was asleep, I went to her room to sleep and left her in mine. That feels a little weird too, but not as bad as the other."
"Dear Diary, Oh shit. I'm scared.
She came in again last night. When I was stroking her hair, it came to me that I could also stroke her shoulder, or her front, and I felt uncomfortable. I thought about stroking her panties and my heart started pounding. I started getting an erection! I pulled my pelvis back to make sure she couldn't feel it, and I'm sure she didn't, but still.
But daddies don't feel that way, right? I looked on the web and there's not much of help. Some parents report "flesh hunger" where they want to kiss and hug their children all over, but it's mostly mothers who report that. Make that only mothers who report it, but I wonder if the fathers are too embarrassed or worried what people will think.
Ever since she's been here I've been jerking off as always in my bed, being careful to wipe up all the traces and hide the evidence. Since she's here I lock the door first. But now I've found that when I'm getting excited, I get fantasies of her popping into my mind along with my old girlfriends. I don't like it! Last night I could just imagine the feel of my hand reaching down the front of her panties, cupping -- and then I imagined one finger sliding into her little vagina, and that sent me over the edge. It's sick, but it's also exciting.
I guess I don't need to be scared since I know I won't do anything with her, and fantasies don't hurt, right? But I don't like feeling this way. I don't want to be turned on by young girls."
"Dear diary, She came in again last night. I was going to tell her no, but she was so sad that I couldn't resist.
I feel uncomfortable when she snuggles up out in the living room in the evening, too. But I can't push her away. I want her to feel loved and accepted. But there's something more than just parental love and acceptance too. I keep it at bay, but I can feel it lurking.
When I was very sure she was asleep I locked my door and easily enough found some free soft porn. I then poked around and found "child modeling sites". They have pictures of girls as young as three or four posed in cute ways -- including some in bathing suits. It's completely legal. Then I realized I found the pictures of those 8 and 9 year olds a lot more exciting than the adult porn! I don't like this one bit.
I wonder if this has been lurking all the time and is why I took such a crazy risk taking her in the first place. In all my years, I've never heard of any stranger reacting to child abuse by kidnapping the child. It's mostly pedophiles who kidnap strange kids, so of course anyone who does it will get put in that category. So now I guess maybe I am, though I didn't know it! Sane guys, unlike me, would never do it.