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The Tangled Web Job

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PROLOGUE

“Nana?”

Caroline Bushnell wiped hastily at her eyes before looking up from the papers she’d been reading. “What is it, honey?” she asked, trying not to snap at the small figure in the kitchen doorway. It’s not his fault.

“Reisha’s throwing up again,” the small boy said. He was clutching a tattered pale-blue blanket; Caroline was always tempted to call him Linus, even though six year old Jeffrey had no idea something as idyllic as Peanuts even existed. “She woke up the baby.”

Startled, Caroline held her breath and listened. She’d been so wrapped up in the letter from DCFS that she’d missed the building chaos upstairs. Sure enough, now that she was paying attention, she could hear her youngest wailing in his crib. “Go wake up Mary,” she said, getting to her feet. “Tell her to come make Makeen a bottle and do what she can to get him settled. I’ll see to Reisha.”

The six year old Afghani girl who’d recently joined their little family was lying in bed, covered in vomit. Her skin was flushed, and her large, dark eyes were glassy with fever. “What’s wrong, baby?” Caroline murmured, laying the back of her hand on the child’s forehead. 102 or 103, she thought. “Keitha honey,” she said, glancing at the room’s other occupant, “fetch me the thermometer from the bathroom, will you?”

“She smells bad,” the eight year old announced gravely.

Caroline ducked her head for a moment, praying for patience. “Do what I tell you, baby,” she said finally. “And bring me a damp washcloth, so we can start cleaning up this mess.”

“Sorry, Nana,” the girl whimpered as Caroline helped her sit up. Her English was still limited, but she was learning quickly. “Sorry.”

“Shhh,” Caroline soothed. “It’s okay, Reisha. Not your fault.” Working steadily, she got the girl cleaned up, bundled into a fresh nightgown and blanket and deposited in the room’s rocking chair with a thermometer under her tongue. “Don’t play with it,” she cautioned, before turning back to the task of stripping down the bed.

“No, Keitha!” she snapped, before the other girl could grab at the stained sheets. “Go wash your hands, then bringing me a clean set from the hallway.” She watched the girl trot off to do as she was told and saw twelve year old Mary in the doorway, bouncing the five month old Makeen on her hip.

“Nana?” the girl asked, “what was that letter on the kitchen table? They’re not taking us away, are they?”

The question caused an immediate ripple of distress among the children – even Reisha, who Caroline would have bet didn’t entirely understand what had been said, but who was sensitive enough to understand a stressful situation when she was around one. “I don’t want to leave!” Keitha wailed, tears filling her large, dark eyes. “Nana, don’t make me go! I’ll be good!”

Once upon a time Caroline would have been able to take immediate charge of the situation. She would have comforted the crying children with one hand and cleaned up the mess with the other – all the while plotting how she was going to make the government drones at DCF back off and leave her family alone.

Now, all she wanted to do was sink to the floor and cry herself. God, what am I going to do? How am I going to keep them from taking my babies?