When Stephen's home videophone tweeted, he touched the control to find his father waiting. The Judge looked serious so Stephen took his cue from him. It was going to be one of those ‘get right down to it and decide on a solution’ calls.
“Stephen, you mother has just had a rather frantic call from her sister Charlotte in Charlotte,” the Judge began.
This was an old joke within the family, that Suzanne’s sister Charlotte should live in Charlotte, North Carolina, but Stephen had already received the message that this was no time for levity.
“Here, I’m going to put her on.”
Stephen motioned for Alicia to join him.
“Hello, Darling,” Suzanne began. “Oh, there’s Alicia, Hi!” Suzanne waived. She was one of the few people Stephen knew that waived over the videophone. “Charlotte says that her granddaughter is in a terrible fix, well, probably. You know your cousin Agnes’ daughter.” She waited for a nod or a grunt from Stephen. He nodded. He also knew that this was no occasion to grunt at his mother, to grunt at the Judge would be all right, but not to the great lady.
Suzanne continued, “Well, sweetheart, you may remember I told you that little Kim fell in love with some welder or something in Chicago and they finally got married. Now they have a little boy about four, Clifford of all names, they call him “Little Cliff.” Well, the father, his name’s Bill, got into trouble with some reaaaaly bottom shelf ‘business men,’ if you get my drift…”
Susanne always blinked very rapidly when she was saying something that she really didn’t approve of saying, then there was a pause. Stephen and Alicia waited patiently. “Well, Stephen, they’re gone, all three of them, just gone.”
“Gone where, Mom?” Stephen asked.
“We don’t know. Charlotte doesn’t know. Agnes lives in Colorado now. A neighbor, God only knows how trustworthy she is,…,” more rapid blinking, “says two men in a gray van picked them up three days ago and they have never returned. Kim had asked this neighbor to call Charlotte if anything like this ‘evaah’ happened. Well, I’ll tell you, Charlotte is beside herself and Agnes is even acting somewhat concerned. I told Charlotte not to marry that Healey boy. Agnes is just like her father was.” Suzanne paused for a breath.
Judge Hampton appeared back on the screen with his arm around his wife. “Stephen, I’m thinking if we can’t find out anything promising within the next forty eight hours, you and I might have to go up there and find them”
“I think you’re right, Dad,” Stephen responded. He knew that the Judge would have some contacts.
“I’ll call a couple of my friends and get back to you. If we have to go, we can meet at the Memphis airport and go right up to Chicago. Say Son, do you think one of those Deputized Retrieval Squads would be of any help?”
“No, Dad, No, let’s leave them out of it,” Stephen said with a note of alarm in his voice.
“Well, you would know best about that, I just remembered that you went on a mission with them once before.”
“Yes, Sir, and they eliminate much better than they retrieve,” Stephen said.
“All right, then, I’ll call you tomorrow and the next day with updates. You be ready to go.”
“Yes, sir,” Stephen said, “We’ll be praying,” Alicia added.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Suzanne added.
Twenty four hours yielded nothing. Stephen packed a back pack with several handy articles. As a Congressman of the Texican Republic he would check the bag to Memphis under a diplomatic ticket. As an honorary Under Secretary of State for the Southern Confederation the Judge would do the same. There would be a few surprises in their luggage that might come in handy.
Forty eight hours and still nothing. Stephen used his reservation to Memphis. They connected easily to the Chicago flight and to their surprise they were met at O’Hare Airport by a diplomat from State Department of The United States Of America and two men in black suits. Stephen had to work hard to properly ignore the two men, He kept wanting to smile. The Judge was all business. Stephen whispered in his father’s ear, “If we allow these men to ‘help’ us Bill, Kim and Cliff could end up hurt or worse.”
“We’re just here on some family matters,” the Judge said in his most official voice. “Really nice of you fellows to meet us, but there’s nothing to bother you with.”
The Diplomat smiled and showed them to the waiting limo. It was a long quiet ride to the Drake hotel where the Judge had made reservations. They passed through two police check points and one army checkpoint. At the army checkpoint Stephen noticed several fires to their left and so did his father. No one said anything. It certainly looked like a dismal ‘no man’s land’ out there and both Stephen and his father knew that was the direction they would have to go to find their three lost relatives.
The next morning they both put on informal clothing with extra coats and lace up hiking boots. It was early March in Chicago and still quite cold. The Judge had reserved the suite for two weeks. They took a cab as far as they dared to a point just outside the worst of it. The cabbie got them past two police check points but balked at attempting the military one. They got out to walk and gradually walked back to what seemed like a war zone a hundred years in the past. Stephen had brought a machine pistol for himself and his dad. He was forced to use his earlier than he wanted to. He fired close but not directly at the gang members who fled right away as they had nothing like it. There was an extreme shortage of firearms in the United States.
When they had finally rooted them all out, it gave away that they had such weapons and they would be marked from then on. Before this was over they might actually kill some people. Since they were in an area where Retrieval Squads were used, that would not matter much. If worse came to worse, the Judge would call the number the diplomat had given them on his satellite phone and request an immediate military rescue and pay the diplomatic price later. One thing was true, this was a family matter.
Starting with Kim’s neighbor and moving on, within seven hours they had bribed four people and been led to an ‘abandoned’ warehouse where Kim and her husband and baby were supposed to be hiding. But they were nowhere to be found.
They decided to ‘camp out’ on the top floor of an abandoned office building. It was a six story building and with no electricity the elevator was not working. The Judge kept up well with Stephen on the stairs and they chose the room at the top of the stairs and checked that floor to be sure that they were alone there. As humans they were alone, but there was an abundance of scurrying ‘varmints and critters’ as Suzanne loved to call them. From this vantage point Stephen could guard the stairs and his father could keep an eye on the streets below through the windows. They slept lightly on and off and were both awake just before dawn. They ate some of their rations and were back on the street as soon as it was light enough to see.
After avoiding several gangs they ran across a different looking young man on the deserted street. He was different looking because he seemed fairly civilized and clean. He was also very large. Stephen guessed that he was at least 6’6” and over 250 pounds. He even asked if he could help them.
“Yes, we’re hunting for my great-niece Kim Collier and her husband Bill Collier. They have a little boy with them. Oh, by the way, I’m Charles Hampton, this is my son Stephen.”
“My name’s Paul,” the giant said extending his hand. They both shook hands with him.
“Nice to meet you, Paul,” the Judge said. “So nice to meet a fine fellow like yourself, ah, in a place like,…well,…”
“I understand, sir. It is a God forsaken place. I am, well, sort of a missionary here.”
“A missionary. I see.”
“Yes, a self-appointed missionary, but a missionary all the same.”
“I’m from the Apostle's Church Of The Cross, we have a feeding station a few blocks away.”
“I see. Well, I’m an Episcopalian and my son here has become a Baptist,” the Judge volunteered.
“A Baptist, I know Baptists,” Paul answered shaking Stephen’s hand again. “Can’t say I’ve ever met an Episcopalian though.”
“Well, there’s not many around here,” the Judge said.
“If you will come with me to our little mission, we will see if anyone has seen your folks,” Paul said striding off down the street. Stephen and his father were hard pressed to keep up.
The mission was an isolated two story building next to what had once been a gasoline station. The streets all around were cluttered with trash and junk. There was several abandoned old cars and one burned out car. The little mission building was fortified with a variety of bars on the windows and even a few sandbag barriers.
“I learned how to secure a position in the army,” Paul said.
“The United States army?” Stephen blurted. Then he realized that he may have made a mistake.
“Yes, you’re not from the United States, are you?” Paul said.
Stephen decided quickly that he might as well come clean now. “No, I am from Texas.”
“Yes, the Texican Republic. I’ve been there,” Paul said.
By now they were inside the mission. There were at least a dozen people eagerly eating some soup and bread. A tall young woman quickly emerged and kissed Paul.
“My wife, Nancy,” Paul said.
There were greetings all around. Paul motioned to a rather disheveled middle aged man to come over to their table and introduced him as Charlie. Paul chatted with Charlie quietly for a few minutes while asking Stephen to describe Kim and Bill and the child. Then Charlie moved away without ever making eye contact with any of them.
Paul leaned forward and talked quietly. “Your folks might be being held in a basement nearby,” Paul said. “Now, I can’t go with you. It would impact too heavily on my work here because we live here. But you have machine pistols, I believe, and you can probably get them out.”
Stephen and his father exchanged glances. No use denying this. No use saying anything.
Paul began again, “But what I can do is drive you out of this area with your folks afterward. I have a good vehicle hidden here and I’ll show you where to meet me.”
“Stephen and Charles Hampton did not have to speak to each other about it. They both knew that if Paul was not the person they thought he was, they could all be captured or killed at the rendezvous. They also realized that they had little choice. Charles motioned for his son to make the decision.
“I don’t know how we can thank you,” Stephen said.
“No need,” Paul said. “This is one of the many reasons we are here. Now, let me show you the location of the meeting place.” Paul took out a flat carpenter’s pencil and drew on a somewhat used paper bag that Nancy provided. The meeting place was only three blocks North and two blocks East of the Mission. In a few minutes Stephen and Charles were on their way.
Stephen and Charles went straight to the outside basement stairs of the building after holding two scruffy looking guards at gunpoint and tying them up. They pushed through the shabby double doors with the machine pistols covering the entire area. They didn’t notice anybody, the area must have been empty. They heard shouts of “help” from a room about 50 feet inside and Stephen shouted, “Kim!”
“Yes, here, oh, please hurry!” she responded. Both Stephen and Charles recognized her voice.
They found the door locked. So Stephen told them to clear away from the door and shot off the lock. But this made a lot of noise and they knew it was time to move very quickly.
Kim wanted to kiss and hug a lot. Charles told her that there was no time for that. Bill was walking with a limp but he still picked up his son and they all cleared the basement door, the steps and crossed the main street to a side street in a hurry where they rested for a short time. Stephen and Charles looked at the hand drawn map and saw what they must do. Stephen picked up little Cliff and Charles pulled one of Bill’s arms around his neck and they moved as fast as they could to meet Paul.
Paul was there. His vehicle was an ancient Hummer that had evidently been painted several colors over the years, but once inside they all felt safer. Paul proceeded quickly but carefully toward where Stephen and Charles had stepped out of their last cab into the no man’s land of the carcass of Chicago. They were far enough into the safer part of the city to find a cab.
“Charles gave Paul a large amount of United States currency and they all thanked him profusely. A cab returned them to the Drake hotel where several people including the doorman looked at Kim and Bill and Cliff disapprovingly. Security was called. Only Secretary Charles Hampton’s credentials kept them from being denied access. They went to their suite and the Judge actually ordered clothes for them all from a shop in the hotel over the phone.
They rested and ate and rested and ate. The house doctor cleaned up Bill’s foot and treated the infection. The next day they dealt with the next problem. They had no entry papers for their three relatives. The judge had brought some temporary papers with him for them so they could all fly to Memphis. Stephen had papers and a car waiting for them in Memphis to take them to Dalhart, Texas near the Colorado border so Agnes could visit her daughter and Bill and her grandson from where she lived in Colorado in the United States. Bill would work at the ranch of a friend of Stephen’s near Dalhart. It was good that these three refugees had powerful relatives.
“We did it together, son. We planned it and we pulled it off,” the Judge said on the plane to Memphis.
“We sure did, Dad.”
“When I was a child, the whole country was free and prosperous and open. Look down there. America the beautiful,” the Judge said.
“I hope and pray my children will have it all back,” Stephen said. “But,” he added, “it may take longer.
“I’m afraid so, son,” the Judge said.
“There’s so much to rebuild,” Stephen said. “The very concept of liberty. The economy built on free enterprise. The work ethic. The faith in God.”
“And they threw it all away,” his father said.