THREE YEARS HAD passed since I joined Benson and Stein. I found myself a much different man than I had been before Beth’s disappearance. On the positive side, joining their firm had been the best possible thing I could have done. Given the successes I had been having with the cases I’d been assigned, they were talking seriously about making me a third partner in the next year. Everything with my career had taken off like a rocket once I joined up with them! I’d led dozens of successful suits against companies, people, and the government on behalf of Littles, Mids, and even a few Bigs because their Littles had been wronged.
My bonuses based on cuts from settlements and jury awards became bigger than my main salary, and I had invested in a house not far from where Judge Jones had used to live. I had paid it off in one year, and appreciated having a place away from the city where I could go and think in quiet.
Though I sort of avoided that ability to think at the same time, because Beth’s disappearance had merely been the start of the worst year of my life! It was a year that had very nearly broken me completely...
By Thanksgiving of the year I should have been married, all four of my grandparents passed away! From cancer, a stroke, and then finally a car accident caused when Grandpa Frank had a sudden massive heart attack while manually driving his classic sports car. Their vehicle rolled out of control and off a Cliff, killing Grandma Suzy who was in the passenger seat.
Dad and I had been devastated by all of the loss, but at least we had each other!
Then… that next May Dad passed away.
He was on his way home from work and a dumbass drunk Big overrode his self-driving controls, ran a red light, and smashed head-on into his car.
Leaving me truly an orphan…
I would honestly have taken being hugged by my overbearing Grandma Suzy just one more time!
Fortunately for me, ‘Aunt Ruth’ had followed my news, and regularly invited me down to spend time with her and her husband. Occasionally her kids would join too, and I soon found myself a welcome adopted son more or less in their family.
In the last eighteen months I had coped pretty much by being single-mindedly focused on the cases at hand. I had no life outside of work…
“Hey Cameron, we have a new client coming in a half-hour to discuss taking their case. Any chance you can come join us?” Kendra asked.
I looked up at her smiling form and again appreciated that she was an amazing person to work with. “Sure, I’m just about done here with my pre-trial motions here on the Weber case. Who is it?”
“Honestly, Desiree took the call and David did the follow-up, so I don’t remember.”
“Okay, I’ll see if I can’t grab a look at the notes in the system before I head in there.”
I got back to work, and soon I had typed a few last sentences on my project. After saving it, I looked up at the clock and realized time had gotten away from me. Noticing I now only had a few minutes, I took a quick hop into the restroom, and carried a cup of coffee to the conference room we met most of our clients. David and Kendra had set up a great office here, with our firm controlling all of the forty-second floor of the building. It let us have the conference room on a window side that overlooked the capital building and the nearby courthouse. I was known to sometimes come work there just to have a break and enjoy the view. I knew that was why both of their corner offices overlooked the same view on either end of the building!
I placed my coffee down, and was about to sit down in the chair, when Kendra’s voice became clear and I heard her talking to the man she was with. “We really are the best you can get for something like this…”
I was grateful I had set my coffee down, because I would have dropped it otherwise!
“Ca… Cameron,” he said nervously.
Over the last few years my soul had broken, and it had all started with the day they had disappeared!
“Where is she?!?!?!?” I shouted.
Kendra looked taken aback. “Umm… You know this man?”
“I’m supposed to marry his daughter! Where is Beth?!?” I asked in a hoarse voice as I rounded the table and prepared to confront him.
Mr. Fehler clearly didn’t know how to react, but as the tears reached both of our eyes, he wrapped me in a hug, “I’m sorry Cameron… We had to run… but I had no idea the damage was done… and… well…”
The hug broke, and he said, “I’m sorry, but I guess let me tell the story… it’s a long one.”
“Maybe we can all sit down?” David appeared and joined us, using a hand on my shoulder to steer me to the table.
I nodded and sat back down with my coffee cup in front of me. I took a sip, the black bitterness helping calm me back down. In front of me sat the only link I had to the love of my life, and I needed to know what had happened to her!
I managed to take a second sip and said, “Sorry about that… Umm… Full disclosure before Mr. Fehler speaks. I was engaged to his daughter who has been a lifelong friend of mine growing up when they just disappeared without a trace or a word on what happened.”
“Fair enough Cameron,” Kendra said.
“Mr. Fehler, what brings you here today?” David asked.
He sighed, “I had no idea Cameron was working for you all. I hope that doesn’t make for some sort of conflict of interest?”
“We’re not prosecutors,” David said, “and I have a feeling his passion may make for a better case here. Tell us why you’re here?”
“A little over three years ago life was going really well for my family and I! Our daughter, Beth, was a Little by just two inches, but had managed to end up having to turn herself in at Emerson University to their Student Services, when it became apparent that she was going to be demerited out. She would have been forced into an adoption with no choices otherwise. I used every connection I had to help me get a hearing and the judge allowed for her to return home with me, but put in place some very strict monitoring and restrictions for a few years after her re-adoption to ensure I was properly caring for her case of Maturosis. In the process I had also divorced from my wife, a Mid, in the hopes that it would strengthen my case.”
He sighed, “I cared for Beth as kindly as I could with the requirements as long as the court ordered monitoring was in place. When the monitoring finally came to a close, I waited a few months and then began helping her to regain all that she had lost. In the process she reconnected with Cameron here, and their young love was something they finally admitted to each other.”
Kendra shot me a curious look - I had never mentioned Beth to her or David because I just couldn’t talk about it. “Go on?”
“Well, I decided that it was time to help her go the full route to emancipation, so I moved her to New Albany, a state that I knew had the loosest laws for emancipating an adopted Little. My ex-wife had moved there right after the divorce in the hopes that we would be able to do this at some point… It was nice for all of us to be reunited as a family again, and I even remarried her officially a year later. We worked hard to potty train Beth again, get her an associate’s degree from a community college, and meet all of the emancipation requirements of the law. The June before Cameron’s final year at Harlan, we visited him and she showed him her emancipation papers. That weekend he proposed, and they planned to be married in June after he graduated the next year.”
I took the tissue that Kendra offered me then, as no attempts at trying to be tough were going to work here.
“You all were doing fine, what happened?” I asked hoarsely.
He sighed, “My wife, Ashley, had retired from her job and was looking for something else to occupy her free time. She came across an ad looking for Mids to test products. The descriptions seemed harmless, and she signed both herself and Beth up since her height was just below that level. They’d both already tested things when…”
“Do you have the ad still?” I managed to ask.
He reached into an envelope and passed it over to me. I felt my blood freeze as I recognized the very same ad that had been in my own mailbox around the time they disappeared. Serendipity Industries… “This is a front for SafeFoods,” I found myself saying without hesitation.
“How do you know that from just looking at it?” Kendra asked.
I sighed, “I received this very same ad years ago… about the time they disappeared, and remember looking into it later. It’s one of their shell companies that they use to test items because people have figured out not to trust stuff from SafeFoods.”
Her dad nodded, “If they had said anything to me, I would have done the same research… Well… I did the same research later on.” He wrung his hands and ran them through what remained along the sides of his large head. “They tested things for nearly a month before I found out about it. Apparently, it started innocently enough with some shampoo and body wash. From what I can tell those didn’t do anything directly to them, but acted as catalysts later. Some deodorant, and lip gloss, and then some new tampons were next. Nothing of course gave them any sort of red flags…”
I nodded, ‘I doubt I would have seen any of those as dangerous…’
“What happened next?” I asked.
“Well, the day we disappeared they tried a new body lotion that they had been sent. They thought it smelled pretty good, and put that opinion down on the form they would have to return about it. I figure that I came home two hours after they had tried it, and found Beth laying catatonic having wet and messed herself on the living room floor, and my wife not much better upstairs. She just managed to tell me what she thought had happened before she too… well…” he cried then, “basically became an infant for all intents and purposes. Both of them! All they can do now is crawl with some effort, drool, and cry…”
Hearing this brought to life my worst nightmare for the past few years. Everything I had ever considered in my darkest thoughts had basically been the truth all along. I felt my stomach twist in horror, my heart was wrenched open, and I quickly made a run down the hall to the bathroom and emptied my stomach out in the toilet!
I sobbed for several minutes afterwards. ‘Beth…’
I felt a hand on my shoulder, “You okay?”
I turned and saw David looking at me with concern. I shook my head, “I’m about as not okay as you can get David… but let me rinse my mouth out and hopefully I can get back in there. You’d think after I said goodbye to her once, the second time couldn’t be worse…”
He patted me on the back as we re-entered, and Beth’s dad looked at me sadly. “I’m sorry Cameron…”
I sighed, “I know, it’s not your fault. I’m sorry I freaked out here… To say I’ve been heartbroken and worried for all of these years since I got a ‘We’re sorry, your call cannot be completed’ message on your phones would be an understatement…”
“I know… I’m sorry, I wanted to let you know… but I also didn’t want you to try and hold yourself back for her.”
“So, what happened after you found them?” I asked as calmly as I could. There was a part of me that now wanted to find a way to beat him to death for not telling me, but another part needed to demand to immediately see Beth anyway.
He took a deep breath, “Well… I hit the practical side first. We still had some diapers for Beth that I dressed them both in. It was a squeeze for Ashley since they were the wrong size for her… but at least I knew it would protect a little. I carefully swaddled them on the floor of our bedroom, then ran to the store down the road and picked up some diapers in Ashley’s size. I had just finished changing Ashley into a better fitting diaper, when the doorbell rang. People never visited us out in the country where we lived, so I went down cautiously and was surprised to see a van with a logo of Serendipity Industries. One of the men said, ‘They’re probably drooling by now, just break in and let’s get them out of here…’”
I gasped, understanding more of what happened there. “What did you do?”
“Bluffed,” he told me. “I opened the door and said, ‘Hi, may I help you?’ If not me maybe the sheriff officer who is on their way?” He smiled, “One of them was pretty sure I was bluffing, but they hightailed it out of there anyway. Understanding we were in danger I got them in the car with a few changes of clothes for everyone, the products, a few mementos, all of the diapers, and hightailed it out of there.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” I asked. “I bet I could have helped…”
He shook his head, “Honestly I left our phones and electronics at the house. I had some cash and a bag just in case we needed to get out if someone from Ames was looking for us still. I bought a new car the next town over and then kept driving…”
He looked physically drained at that point. “We kept hopping from place to place for two years before I finally found an apartment and a daycare that I could trust to leave them. I don’t know what to do anymore, but I do know that whoever this company is can’t be allowed to get away with this!”
“Can I see them?” I asked him softly.
“I don’t think Beth would want that Cameron…” he said softly.
“You have no idea how hard she worked to grow up for you! The tears and screams when she missed going to the toilet and had a stinky pair of panties instead, before that the hard work to just be able to bring a spoon back to her face… I can’t let you see her like this… It’s worse than before! A lot worse...”
I shook my head, but said, “I think she would want to see me, but I’ll respect your wishes. What do you want to do?”
“I want justice for her and my wife, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who have been abused by this company!” His body visibly shook while he clenched his hands. “I don’t have much money remaining, but I’ll pay you what I can…”
“This will be pro bono,” I found myself saying in unison with Kendra and David.
I gave them both a small smile. “We’re going to need them both examined, and I want to know exactly what it is they’ve done to them so we can prepare the best case.”
“I think we also need to move you all to a more secure housing arrangement if you’re going to be a star witness in this trial… SafeFoods is not a safe company to deal with,” Kendra said.
“I’ll get Desiree on it,” David said as he hopped up.
Soon David took Mr. Fehler to go get his wife and Beth to take them to a remote location that we owned for cases like this. Several security guards were stationed round the clock, and the actual house was one of the most physically secure places I knew of! I wanted to go meet them there and see Beth for myself, but a part of me knew he was telling me the truth…
Kendra put her hand on my shoulder, “I don’t have a problem with you staying on this case, but are you sure you want to?”
I nodded, “If this company intentionally did this, or at the very least knowingly did this, I want their bank accounts emptied. I’d prefer their entire board and owners rot in prison, but I doubt that is possible.”
“Let’s get to work then, huh?”