Protecting the Innocent



September 1983



Paul parked in the visitors' lot and took the steps to the high school two at a time. All the way in the car he'd been swearing under his breath. This was the third such call in as many weeks, and Paul had had enough. Peter was this close to being suspended from school, and Paul wondered why all of a sudden there was this problem. He burst through the front doors and stalked unerringly to the dean's office.

"I'm Captain Paul Blaisdell," he said gruffly, "I received a call about my foster son, Peter Caine."

The secretary looked up at him. "Oh, yes, Captain. Peter's at the nurse's station, three doors down on the left."

Paul frowned. "Is he hurt?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't know anything else."

Paul was about to turn and leave when Richard Patterson, the dean, came out of his office.

"Captain Blaisdell," he extended his hand, "thank you for coming."

"Is Peter hurt?" Paul accepted the handshake.

"He's got a bloody nose. One of the other boys has a black eye. I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on what's happening--why all of a sudden Peter is finding it necessary to get into fights."

Paul shook his head. "I haven't got a clue. I know Peter's got a temper--always has. But he doesn't lash out indiscriminately. That's not like him at all."

"Well, it might not have been before, but it is now."

"No," Paul shook his head again, walking with the dean down to the nurse's office. "There's a reason. With Peter, there's always a reason. Nothing unusual going on here at school that provokes him?"

"He seems to always fight with the same group of junior boys--there are five of them that hang out together. the suburban equivalent of a gang. They're rowdy, but generally harmless. These last three fights have been with members of that gang."

"Then that has to be it, some bad blood between these boys and Peter."

"Maybe, but why won't Peter say anything; when he's asked, he clams up tight. Nothing out of the ordinary happening at home?"

"No, nothing. In fact, I'd've thought everything was going well, if not for this."

Further discussion was curtailed by their arrival at the nurse's station.

"Mrs. Klein, this is Captain Blaisdell, Peter Caine's foster father," Dean Patterson made the introductions.

"Hello, Captain," the nurse shook Paul's hand.

"How is Peter?" Paul asked.

"You should take him to his doctor," she answered. "It looks like his nose is broken."

Paul rolled his eyes. "Damn!"

She smiled. "I wouldn't worry too much, sir, I don't know a boy who's died of a broken nose yet."

"Can I see him?"

"Of course. This way." She started toward the back and Paul made to follow her.

"Captain Blaisdell--" the dean's voice brought him back. "I'm sure you understand the seriousness of the situation. We cannot allow this sort of behavior to continue. One more fight and we won't have any choice but to suspend him."

"I understand," Paul nodded gravely. "We'll get to the bottom of this."

"Good." The dean smiled. "Good luck."

Paul couldn't help smiling in return. Luck was just one small portion of what he'd need. Not to mention patience, tolerance, wisdom, and all the detective skills he possessed. He followed the nurse into one of the back rooms.

His foster son was reclining on a cot, a bloody rag held to his nose. His eyes were closed, and Paul could already see the puffiness under his eyes that hinted at a broken nose. He sighed.

"What's the other guy look like?"

Peter opened his eyes and looked at his foster father. "I don't know about the other two, but I think one of 'em's got a black eye," he smirked.

"Don't sound so pleased about that, Peter," Blaisdell admonished, "I'm sure as hell not. You've got a lot of explaining to do. But first I've got to get you to a doctor. Annie's gonna have conniptions, you know."

"I know," Peter replied, sounding chagrined. Then he sniffed and swore. "Shit, that hurts!"

Paul smiled in spite of himself. No one could do pathetic quite as well as Peter. "Yeah, I'll bet it does. You still bleeding?"

"I dunno." Peter took the rag away from his face. His entire lip was bloody, and Paul thought it looked split as well. He gingerly sat up, putting a finger to his nose, then bringing it away again. "I think I've stopped leakin'--for the moment. Damn, Paul, this hurts."

"I'd like to feel sorry for you, kid, but you brought it on yourself," Blaisdell told him. "Come on, let's get you seen to."

He escorted his foster son out of the room, stopping by the nurse's desk to sign Peter's release.

"Bring a copy of the doctor's note for the file, Peter," she said. He nodded, then groaned at the movement.

Paul smiled to himself and led Peter out of the office.



~~~~~



Almost two hours later, they were heading home again. While Peter was in with the doctor, Paul had taken the opportunity to call Annie and tell her the latest developments. She was upset about Peter's injury, naturally, but also angry that he should practically inflict the injury on himself.

Beside him in the car, Peter sat, looking pale and miserable. There was a bandage over the bridge of his broken nose, and both eyes were blacking nicely. They hadn't talked any more about what had happened. Paul decided he'd let Peter settle in at home, let Annie get her worry out of the way, before he grilled him. But come hell or high water, he'd get to the bottom of this.

They pulled into the driveway. "Come on, kid--inside."

Peter sighed. "I don't suppose you'd care to run interference for me."

"Oh, no," Paul chuckled, "you get to face your mother all on your own. Come on, get it over with."

So with another sigh, Peter hauled himself out of the car and into the house.

Carolyn was in the kitchen, took one look at Peter and snickered, "Oh, very attractive." He smiled feebly at her, but she wasn't finished. "Peter, everyone knows those guys are jerks--so you know what that makes you for fighting with them."

"Shut up, Carolyn," he mumbled. "Where's Mom?"

"Upstairs."

Peter turned and wordlessly walked out of the kitchen, heading for the stairs.

"She's gonna kill him," Carolyn commented.

"No she's not," Paul corrected, "she's just going to want to kill him."

Carolyn giggled, and went back to fixing her after school snack, a hot pretzel. She put a second one on the baking sheet for her father, then reconsidered and put one more on for Peter.

"Babe," Paul began, "you know these boys Peter's been fighting with?"

"Sure, they're in my class."

"Why do you think he's fighting with them?"

"I don't know. Everybody knows they're bullies--try to be the tough guys. But they're jerks, and everybody knows it. Mostly we ignore them."

"Have these guys been doing the bully act for awhile, or just this year?"

"No, they've always been bullies. In Jr. Hi, it was just Steve and Joe. Then freshman year they hooked up with Mike, Phil, and the other Joe--they went to St. Elizabeth's. They hang out together, talk big--you know, how they trashed someone's lawn, or slashed someone's tires. This year they're acting like they own the school, but everyone knows it's just talk. They're assholes--sorry, jerks--so we ignore them."

"Well obviously, Peter's not ignoring them," Paul mused, "and if these boys have been pulling their bully act for years, then Peter's ignored them in the past. Have they done anything recently to make him upset?"

She shrugged. "I don't know; I think he's acting like as much of a jerk as they are. You don't play their game, that gives them what they want--makes them seem important. By fighting with them, he's bringing himself down to their level. It's pathetic."

Paul just shook his head. Secretly, he thought the boys sounded like they needed a pounding. But it wasn't his son's place to do it. He sighed and went to the phone, calling into the precinct, telling them that he wouldn't be back for the rest of the day, as Peter was hurt and he wanted to get him seen to.

Also yelled at, Paul thought, but didn't relay that bit of information to the desk sergeant.

Paul went to the desk in the family room, sorting through the mail.

"Dad--your pretzel's ready if you want it," Carolyn called.

"Thanks, babe," he nodded, setting the bills in their box to be gotten to later, and throwing out the ads and solicitations. He carried a letter for Carolyn into the kitchen. "This is for you."

"Oh, good--Rachel!" his daughter exclaimed, taking the note and going into the family room with her letter and pretzel.

Paul went to the intercom. "Peter--there's a hot pretzel down here for you," he called, but didn't bother to wait for a response. His son would either be down or he wouldn't--that pretty well depended on what his mother decided regarding his condition. He took his own pretzel, liberally smeared with mustard, and sat down at the kitchen table with it and Peter's Sports Illustrated magazine.

A few minutes later, Peter came downstairs with Annie. She looked angry but resigned. Peter just looked chastised. And in pain. She patted his shoulder and took herself into the family room, giving her husband's arm a squeeze as she passed. Peter, meanwhile, put mustard and cheese on his pretzel, poured himself a Coke, and turned to leave the kitchen.

"Uh-uh," Paul stopped him. "Put your butt in that chair."

Peter took a deep breath but did what he was told.

"Now you want to tell me what that was all about?"

Peter stared at his pretzel silently.

"No good, Peter," Paul went on. "You tell me or you're gonna find yourself kicked out of school. Three fights in three weeks is unacceptable."

"They just--got on my nerves," Peter mumbled.

"Then you ignore them, you don't pound their faces into the floor!"

"I-- I can't just ignore them."

"Why not?"

"I just can't."

"What's going on between you and those boys?" Again, Peter was silent. "Peter?"

"It's nothing--" Peter insisted, hunching down in his chair. "I just--they're jerks. Bullies. They piss me off and I let my temper get away from me. It won't happen again."

"It better not; Dean Patterson said the next time they won't have any choice but to suspend you."

"I know."

"You'd better. Whatever bad blood is between you and those boys, it stops here, it stops now. This is the last time, Peter, do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Paul nodded. He opened his magazine and took a bite of his pretzel, signaling that the conversation was at an end. In a moment, Peter started to eat his pretzel as well. Then he set it down again.

"Paul?"

"Hmmm?"

"How are you supposed to deal with it--I mean, other than givin' 'em a pasting?"

"Deal with what?"

"Them being jerks--doing stupid, rotten things."

Paul looked up. "Rotten things to you?" Peter was silent. "Or to someone else? Peter are you fighting with these guys to defend someone?" Peter remained silent. "Are they harassing someone? A girl?"

"No," Peter shook his head. "Look, I can handle it--I won't fight with them anymore, I'll find some other way to deal with them."

"You shouldn't be dealing with them at all. If these guys are harassing someone, then you should go to the dean; the authorities should know about it. It's not up to you to play knight in shining armor, you know."

"It's not like that, I-- I don't want anyone else involved. I'll take care of it--without fighting. I promise."

Paul couldn't help smiling. "Peter, you can't save the world. Not even from jerks."

Peter looked up. "Someone must protect those who cannot protect themselves," he said, and his voice took on that litany-like quality by which Paul knew he was quoting someone--probably his father.

"You can't protect everyone, kid. Sometimes you just need to protect yourself."

Peter shrugged. "I won't fight anymore," he promised.

"I have your word?"

"Yes," Peter nodded.

"That's good enough for me." He winked at his foster son, rewarded by a flush and a smile.

Paul went back to his magazine, though in his mind, he was still concerned. He believed Peter's promise not to fight anymore, but the source of the problem remained. And with an untypical stoicism, Peter was refusing to elaborate on the nature of the difficulties. He only hoped the kid was up to the challenge of dealing with it without his fists; he didn't look forward to the prospect of his foster son suspended from school--or worse.



~~~~~



It was barely a week later when Paul got a call from Dean Patterson.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Blaisdell, could you come down for a conference--we've got a very serious problem on our hands involving Peter and one of the freshmen."

"What kind of problem?"

"The young man came home from school last night sporting a black eye and several bruises, and told his mother he'd been beaten up by Peter Caine."

Paul went cold. "I'll be right down."

All the way to the school, Paul played the conversation over in his head. It was too unlikely to credit; Peter simply wouldn't beat up on someone for no reason--especially not someone younger and smaller than him. But why would the younger boy lie?

He arrived at the dean's office more upset than angry, and seeing Peter sitting there, mixed emotions of fear and indignity on his young face, compounded his feelings. Peter didn't beat the younger boy up, Paul was willing to swear to that. But if not Peter, who? And why lay the blame on his foster son?

"Hey there," He winked at Peter. Peter's eyes widened in surprise, obviously expecting Paul to be furious.

"I didn't do it, Paul," he whispered desperately.

Paul sat down next to him. "I know. We'll get this sorted out, don't worry," he said softly. Peter just looked down and shook his head.

"Thank you for coming, Captain," the dean began. "These charges against Peter are very serious ones, and we need to get to the bottom of this fighting business. Peter, you've already been warned about fighting. I'm afraid this time we don't have any choice but to suspend you."

"But I didn't do it!" Peter protested.

"Jason Miller has stated that you did," the dean told him.

"Jason's lying," Peter mumbled.

"Why would he do that?"

"Why don't you ask Steve DiLeo?"

"What does Steve DiLeo have to do with your beating up on Jason Miller?"

Peter looked from the dean to Paul, back to the dean again. "Look, you've already made up your mind, why bother to go through this monkey trial. I'm screwed no matter what I say."

"Peter--" Paul put a hand on his shoulder. "I don't believe you'd beat a boy up for no reason, especially not a freshman like Jason Miller. That's not your style. But if Jason accused you, there has to be a reason. Do you know what that could be?"

Peter looked at Paul, as if trying to assess the truth in Paul's words. He sighed. "He was put up to it."

"For what reason?" the dean asked. "I can't imagine a boy willingly having his eye blacked simply so that he could accuse you of blacking it."

"No--someone else beat him up, then told him to blame me--probably under a threat if he didn't."

"And who would do that--no, let me guess--Steve DiLeo." Paul was beginning to see the pattern.

"Or one of his gang--only Jason can tell you the truth, but he's too shit-scared to. So I take the fall."

"And that's why you've been fighting with these guys? Because they've been beating up on freshmen?"

"No," the dean shook his head. "We haven't had any other reports of freshmen being beaten."

"They didn't have to actually beat them. All they had to do is threaten. Maybe rough them up a little. These kids--the ones they pick on--they're the little guys, you know, the ones who don't make the football team, the ones who aren't in the popular crowd. So they're easy marks." Peter squirmed in his seat. "Look, if DiLeo's gang find out you know, I wouldn't give a rat's ass for those freshmen surviving--they'll kill them."

"Who will kill whom?" Dean Patterson asked.

"DiLeo's gang--they'll kill the freshmen--Jason, Paul Wright, Jamie Caldwell, I think there are a couple of others, too. Hell, I've already seen Little Joe pull a switchblade on Jamie."

"Why didn't you report it?" the dean asked

"Why should I? He'd only deny it. Then he'd beat up on Jamie and the others for talking. I figured it was easier, and safer for the kids, if I tried to stop them on my own."

"Peter, you can't fight thuggery with thuggery," Paul told him.

"I dunno," Peter shrugged, "it used to work when I was a kid."

"Well it doesn't now."

"Yeah," he rubbed at his nose, "I noticed."

"What exactly are these boys doing to the freshmen?" Dean Patterson asked.

Peter shrugged again. "Extortion, probably. I came across three of DiLeo's gang scaring the hell out of one of the freshmen by the 3rd floor lockers. You know, give us your lunch money or we'll beat the crap out of you. The freshmen--they're just kids--they don't know how to defend themselves against bullies like that. So they give in. And that makes the gang keep extorting. Law of the jungle--survival of the fittest. I don't know who beat up Jason Miller, except that it wasn't me. But I know you probably won't get him to tell you, because whoever it was probably said that if Jason told, he'd finish the job."

"But why accuse you?"

"I'm a thorn in their side--I keep trying to stop them. They figure they get me out of the way, then they've got a clear field, they can mess up anyone they want. What better way to do it than by getting me suspended."

Paul took a deep breath and blew the air out between his lips. "What he's saying makes sense, Dick," he said.

"But we have no proof," the dean countered. "It's his word against Jason's."

Peter just smiled resignedly and shook his head. "Like I said--I'm screwed either way." Then his head shot up. "No, wait a minute--Paul, in the real legal system, doesn't the accused have the right to face his accusers?"

"That's right."

"So--let me face Jason. Here. See what he says."

"Won't that put Jason at risk?" Paul asked.

"Jason's at risk anyway. I've already told you what's going on--that means when the dean comes down hard on DiLeo and his gang, they're gonna turn around and clobber the freshmen. I can't stop that from happening, not anymore. But at least he can set the record straight."

"But if we get the truth out of Jason--and the truth is as you say," the dean amended, "then we can take care of DiLeo's gang, and Jason and his friends will be free from harassment." The dean nodded. "Very well--I'll call for Jason Miller to be brought to my office."



Twenty minutes later, a nervous, scared looking Jason Miller was led into the dean's office. He sported an impressive black eye, a bruised cheek, and a puffy lip. He sat down opposite the dean.

"Jason, you know Peter Caine--and this is his foster father, Captain Paul Blaisdell of the Metro Police."

Jason's eyes went wide and Paul nodded gravely, all the while smiling inside--it was a good technique, stressing that Paul was a cop--tended to intimidate kids--especially the easily intimidated. Too bad it never worked that way for Peter.

The dean was continuing. "Jason, these accusations you've leveled against Peter are very serious; I want to make sure we have our facts straight."

Jason hesitated, then nodded.

"Now, then--" Dean Patterson began, "you say that Peter cornered you behind the gym after school yesterday and beat you up. Is that right?"

Jason looked wide-eyed at Peter, and said, "Uh, yeah."

"Did he give a reason for his action?"

"N-no."

"He just grabbed you and punched you because he felt like it?" Paul asked.

"I--I dunno--I-I guess."

"When did this beating occur?" Dean Patterson asked.

"Yesterday--after school," Jason said.

"What time after school?"

"Umm--4:00?"

"That's very interesting," Paul mused, "seeing as how at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, Peter was at home--his mother will vouch for that."

"Well, I-I might have the time wrong--I-I wasn't really paying attention to the time." Jason swallowed nervously.

Peter sighed. "Oh, come on, Jase--cut the crap. You know I didn't do it and so does everybody else. They know what's been going on--I had to tell them. I tried to protect you guys, but they're gonna kick me out of school for this, and I can't let that happen; I'm sorry. They have to be told the truth. I can't save you anymore--maybe they can."

"Oh jeez, Pete--I-I'm sorry, but Big Joe--he 'n' DiLeo said I had to finger you--I wouldn't've done it, but--but he said if I didn't he was gonna hurt Lucy!"

Jason took a swallow of air and the entire story poured out of him. It seemed that no longer satisfied with their petty extortions, the DiLeo gang was working to convince the younger boys to start stealing for them. When Jason refused, "Big Joe" Malkowski beat him up. Steve DiLeo told Jason to say that he'd been beaten by Peter Caine, in order to get Peter in trouble. He said that he knew which bus Jason's younger sister Lucy took home from Jr. Hi, and that if Jason didn't do as he was told, they'd be waiting for her. Jason, too terrified to do anything else, agreed. So he'd gone home and laid the blame for his injuries at Peter's feet--just as he'd been instructed.

By the end of his story, tears were streaming down Jason's face, and his left eye was almost as puffy as his right blackened one--but from crying.

"Why didn't you come to us in the first place, Jason?" the dean asked.

"I--I couldn't--I was afraid," Jason hiccupped. "They--they said they were gonna kill us. They'd beat us up, they shoved Tony's head in the john, Little Joe even pulled a knife on Jamie. We were scared. Peter found out what was happening and tried to help, but--but there are too many of them--he couldn't fight them all. And--and we couldn't fight back--they're too big. Too good. We were scared. We all agreed that we'd do what they said--there was safety in numbers, kind of. If all we needed to do was give them our lunch money, we could handle that. But then they wanted us to do other stuff, and we got even scareder."

Dean Patterson sighed and Paul shook his head. "Well, you don't have to be scared anymore, son," Paul said. "You've done the right thing, telling us the truth. The dean will make sure you don't suffer any reprisals on account of your honesty."

"That's right," the dean nodded. "Now we know what's going on, we can take steps to stop it, keep it from happening again."

"B-but what about my sister?"

Paul looked at the dean, who nodded. "If they try anything to hurt her, it becomes a police matter," Paul said. "We'll make sure she's protected."

Jason sighed and the tension left him. "Thanks," he said. Then he looked up at Peter. "S-sorry, Pete--"

"Doesn't matter," Peter shrugged. "As long as the truth came out. Sorry I couldn't do more."

"It wasn't your place to do anything at all, Peter," Dean Patterson told him. "Except to come to the authorities and report the harassment. If you'd have done that from the start, then we all might have avoided this unpleasantness, and Jason might have been spared a beating."

"Yes, sir," Peter looked at the floor guiltily. "I just--I didn't want to make it worse for them--and I thought it would."

"I understand that," Paul said. "But you could have told me--unofficially. Then when these accusations got leveled, we'd have been able to deal with them simply, instead of conferences and confrontations."

"Oh," Peter looked at Paul, contrite.

"Now," the dean went on, "needless to say, because you were not responsible for the attack on Jason, we're not going to suspend you, but this doesn't erase your three previous fights. You're still on probation, Peter--you've got to keep your nose clean between now and the end of the year or you could find yourself not graduating. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Peter repeated.

"Captain, thank you for coming in this morning; I'm glad we could finally get this problem resolved."

"Not at all," Paul nodded. "I'm just glad to get to the bottom of it, too. Let me know if you need some 'official' intervention in dealing with Steve DiLeo and his gang."

"I will. Thank you. Okay, boys, get back to your classes." Both boys wordlessly stood to leave the office. Paul winked at his foster son and made a small sign with his finger--a indication he wanted Peter to wait a minute. Peter nodded almost imperceptibly and left the office with Jason.

"Well, I hope I won't be back here for awhile, Dick," Paul smiled, shaking the dean's hand. "At least not 'til Peter's graduation in June."

"Me too," the dean smiled. "Thanks for your help."

Paul left the office and found Peter waiting just outside. Wordlessly, he put a hand to the back of his foster son's neck and walked with him through the front doors.

"What?" Peter asked impatiently.

"There's nothing else you wanted to say?" Paul asked.

"You didn't actually think I'd hit him, did you?" Peter frowned.

"No. But I was hoping for more of an apology. The dean's right--if you'd told me what was going on right from the start, we all could have been spared this very nasty business."

Peter shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said. "It--well, it seemed the thing to do at the time."

Paul sighed. "While I appreciate your wanting to protect those boys, and even applaud the sentiment, Peter, I don't ever want to hear about you doing something like this again. If there's trouble, you go to someone who can sort it out--talk to me or to the dean. Don't you try and take it all on yourself."

"You wouldn't need to go for help," Peter countered.

"Don't be so sure about that," Paul challenged. "Besides which, I think I've got a few more years' experience than you have. Even cops request backup, Peter. And you're not a cop yet--not by a long shot. Don't be so ready to take on the world."

"Are you saying I should have just ignored what was happening?"

"No, of course not. But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about handling a situation like this."

"And you're saying I went about it the wrong way."

"You got it," Paul smiled. "Next time, try and diffuse the situation without getting yourself or anyone else pummeled. There's no shame in asking for help. Okay, sport?"

Peter grinned. "Okay."

Paul clapped him on the back. "Now get to class before you get in trouble for cutting. I'll see you tonight."

"Right," Peter nodded, heading back into the building. Then he stopped, turning back around. "Oh, Paul--"

"What?"

"Thanks."

"I'll see you tonight," Paul repeated and Peter grinned before ducking back into the hall and sprinting off to his classroom.

Paul walked down to his car shaking his head. With any luck, they'd not have another incident of fighting like this one. But on the other hand, protecting the innocent was as natural to Peter as breathing. Paul didn't imagine the kid would ignore the ills of the world for too long.

Paul suspected that some day, when Peter was older, and hopefully wiser, his foster son would make one hell of a cop.





Chapter 17: Crossroads

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