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?"
.... There is more of this story ...