What would you do when you see your daughter being led away by a stranger? Of course, you'd do exactly what Sam Reed did. Take him down and have him arrested for kidnapping.
But what would you do if you were Jared Thomas... "the stranger"... and not only were you taking the little girl to the nearest meeting point, but you were in fact Percy, the park's mascot? Would you forgive Sam... or have him arrested for assault?
“Hey, wake up Sleeping Beauty, you’re outta here.”
Jared sat up on the uncomfortable mattress and looked up as the officer who had locked him up nine hours ago, opened the cell. “I am?”
“Yeah,” the man replied, indicating that Jared should follow him. “You’re roommate and your boss have confirmed your story. You’re free to go.”
Standing up, Jared stretched his arms above his head, wincing at the complaint of his muscles with the movement. Nine hours he’d been lying on the mattress from hell with a snoring drunk on the bunk above him. Not exactly high up on his list of things to do on a Saturday night. The police hadn’t been able to find anyone to corroborate his story, so all he’d been able to do was wait and hope Andy had been struck down with a terrible illness, because if he hadn’t, he was going to kill him.
Jared followed the officer down the hall and up the stairs to the duty sergeant’s desk, where a very concerned looking Andy waited for him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Where the hell have you been?” Jared hissed in annoyance. “I’ve been here for nine hours, you asshole!”
Andy looked suitably contrite, “I went to Davey’s and played Guitar Hero. I’m so sorry, dude. If I’d known you were gonna get arrested, I’d have gone straight home. What the fuck did you do? What happened to your face?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Jared bit back. “Unless taking a lost child to a meeting point is a criminal offence these days. The kid’s father thought I was trying to kidnap her and he tackled me.” He lifted his fingers and gently prodded at the heavy graze on his right cheek where the other man had pushed his head down onto the ground. His bicep was sore where the guy had knelt on it and there was another knee shaped bruise in his lower back. They’d sent in someone to clean up his face and check him out, but he ached like a son of a bitch.
“You wanna press charges for assault?”
Jared’s eyes widened as he looked at the duty sergeant. “I can do that?”
“Well, he assaulted you, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but he thought his kid was in danger,” Jared began, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“I can’t believe you’re defending this asshat,” Andy said incredulously. “What the hell is wrong with you? You should press charges.”
“I just wanna get home and wash this place off me,” Jared glanced up at the duty sergeant and smiled ruefully, “no offense.” He scrubbed a hand through his unruly mop and then picked up the envelope containing his personal belongings. “I’ll sleep on it and let you know,” he mumbled, shoving Andy ahead of him toward the exit.
In Andy’s clapped out Chevy Nova, Jared wound down the window and leaned his elbow on the door, drawing in deep lungfuls of the cool night air. Everything ached and he felt dirty, his skin crawling from God alone knew what was on that disgusting mattress. He really didn’t want to give too much thought to that, or he might never feel clean again. Shaking his head in disbelief, he turned to Andy, who was grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel.
“So, dude, what was it like? Were you anybody’s bitch?”
“Where do you think I was? Alcatraz?” Jared said as he stared at his friend. “You watch way too much crap TV.” He gazed back out of the window and rubbed a hand across his eyes. In truth, though he would never admit it to Andy, or anyone else, he’d been absolutely terrified. When they hadn’t accepted his explanation, bundled him into the cruiser and then mirandized him, a brief glimpse of his mother’s horrified face had skittered across his brain as she watched him being carted off to the big house. Of course, the one day he’d needed someone to confirm he worked at the park he’d got the only security guard who had no idea who he was, and no one else around of any standing to back him up. Fucking typical. The headlines would have been fabulous. Key thrown away on Percy Penguin for kidnap of a minor. Penguin Park shunned because of Percy shame.”
Andy pulled into the parking lot serving their apartment block and eased into their allocated space. Jared felt the weight of his friend’s gaze but was grateful to him for not actually saying anything as they climbed out of the car. He stomped toward the entrance of their building, aware of Andy’s footsteps behind him, but not slowing to wait. A hot shower and his bed were all he cared about right now. It was nearly three in the morning and he had to be at the park for eleven. Tomorrow was his day off but, annoyingly, he had agreed to some overtime and was scheduled to help Steve with the sea lions’ training session. He hoped a hot shower and metaphorically washing the experience down the drain would help him relax enough to sleep and put the whole damn thing behind him. Trotting up the stairs to their third floor apartment, with Andy bringing up the rear, Jared had a feeling that the memory tearful green eyes and sheer horror on Casey’s face as they led him away, was going to take a lot longer to fade.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Sam complained almost falling over his own feet as he stumbled down the stairs toward the front door. Whoever it was, he was going to kill them. Seven-thirty on a Sunday was not exactly the time to catch Sam at his best, as the person knocking on the bright red wooden door was about to find out. “Do you know what—?” The rest of the sentence faltered on Sam’s lips as he found himself staring into the blue eyes of one of the cops who had arrested the freak yesterday. “Officer…” he mentally kicked himself for not remembering the man’s name.
“Fields,” the officer replied with a shrug, which suggested to Sam that he was used to repeating his name. “I’m sorry for calling at this early hour, Mr Reed, but you were on my way home and I thought you’d want to know that Mr Thomas has been released.”
“Released? How?” Sam’s mouth dropped open on its hinge in disbelief and he beckoned the officer inside. Leading the man down the hall so that their voices wouldn’t wake Casey, he waved to the kitchen table and sank onto one of the chairs, indicating that Officer Fields should do the same. “Did he get bail or something?”
“Or something,” Officer Fields said wryly, sitting down in the proffered chair, removing his notebook from his jacket pocket and flipping it open. “Mr Thomas was released without charge in the early hours of this morning. His story was verified by both a work colleague and his supervisor late last night. He’s been employed at the park for the last four years as Percy, the animal park’s mascot and has no criminal record.” The officer’s lips lifted in a reassuring smile. “It would seem it was all a big misunderstanding. He really was taking Casey to a meeting point.”
Sam’s eyes widened with each sentence that left the officer’s lips, his stomach sinking. Shit! It was true? Everything the guy had been shouting, well, screaming, was true? And Sam had just… shit… he’d accused him of being a pedophile… a child snatcher! He was aware the officer was still talking but his interest was only dragged from his inner turmoil by one word. Assault. “I’m sorry, what?” he asked.
“I said, Mr Thomas has been advised of his right to bring assault charges against you, but we’ve not received a complaint from him… yet.”
“He can do that?” Sam said, completely aghast.
“Well,” Officer Fields raised an eyebrow. “You did assault him, Mr Reed.”
“I thought he was taking my kid,” Sam spluttered. “I’m an investment banker for God’s sake, I can’t have a criminal record! I’ll lose my job!”
“Mr Reed,” Officer Fields said, holding up a hand. “As I said, Mr Thomas hasn’t made any such complaint. But we will keep you informed of any developments.” He stood up and put his notebook back into his pocket, the movement an indication to Sam that he was done. “Look, Mr Reed, if you want my advice, maybe an apology and a six pack wouldn’t be the worst idea you’ve ever had. I’ll see myself out.”