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Final Orders
Author: Gregory Ashe



 MAY 14


 7:06 PM

 “I AM HERE today because I care about our children.”

 Hazard snorted. He glanced over, hoping for some shared sentiment, and then scowled. He whispered, “Put away your phone.”

 His foster-son, Colt, hunched over the device and tapped the screen faster.

 “As an American, I believe in the rights and dignity of every citizen.”

 The words pulled Hazard’s attention back up to the podium. The speaker was a woman in her early forties, trim but obviously fighting for it, hair expensively bleached so that she almost looked like a natural blonde. She was wearing a dark suit; Hazard guessed she had a closetful of them at home, all of them described on the tag with phrases like “flattering to the figure” and “bold lines” and “boardroom-ready.” Her name was Joyce Sturgis, and she’d contoured on her makeup so thickly that it looked like a peel-away.

 Most of the audience, though, was gazing at her with respect bordering on worship. A couple of middle-aged white ladies to Hazard’s right were clutching hands with an intensity that suggested cliff diving or the plunge of a roller coaster. The man directly in front of Hazard—older, white, with thick graying fur on his arms—wore a t-shirt that showed American-flag-themed boxing gloves and the words USA—CONSECUTIVE CHAMPION—TWO WORLD WARS. A heavyset Asian man in a rumpled suit had propped a sign against his chest that said WOULD JESUS READ YOUR BOOK?; he’d been waving it before one of the police officers in attendance made him put it down.

 The mere fact that they needed police in attendance at a school board meeting should have been ridiculous. Had been ridiculous, in fact, when Hazard had been home, talking it over with his husband. But only a few months before, a group of concerned parents had stormed a school board meeting and sent the board running—literally. And now, glancing across the room toward his husband, John-Henry Somerset, in his police chief’s uniform, Hazard didn’t think it was quite so ridiculous. Somers’s face was set in hard lines as he scanned the crowd. Opposite him, Sam Yarmark was in uniform and providing additional security at the event; maybe it was the fluorescent lighting, or maybe Somers was having an effect as Yarmark’s mentor, but Hazard had to admit that Yarmark no longer looked like a little wiener in that uniform.

 People filled the high school gymnasium—standing room only—and the number of bodies, combined with a warm May evening, meant that the room was simmering. The smell of sweat mixed with wax from the floorboards. The spaces between Joyce’s words were filled with the hum of the old speaker system and the restless squeak of soles on wood.

 “But as a Christian—” Joyce didn’t exactly pause, but she timed her breath right, and it stirred a murmur of approval from the crowd. “—I believe in Jesus Christ, and my faith and my responsibility to our children mean I have to be here today, even if I wish I didn’t. I thank God for my family, who have chosen to support me in spite of the opposition we’re facing from certain members of our community.”

 That last jab was doubtless directed at Hazard and others who had come to speak against Joyce tonight. The group included a wide range of people from Wahredua’s communities, among them several of Hazard’s friends: Dulac, Somers’s former partner, and his boyfriend, Darnell; Noah and Rebeca, Hazard’s neighbors; Nico, Hazard’s onetime ex and current administrative assistant; and Cora, Somers’s ex-wife. Dulac’s current partner, Detective Yolanda Palomo, had joined them too, although she stood a few feet off, an invisible line separating her from the friends.

 “My daughter is a student at Wahredua High,” Joyce said, indicating a girl near the podium. The girl was stout, and she had black, frizzy hair and a bad complexion. She’d taken a page from her mother’s book; her makeup aimed for Vogue, but it had ended up closer to Mad Magazine. “And my husband and I are alumni.” Her husband, seated next to the girl, had to be in his mid-forties. His face had something too pathetic to be called a beard, and he’d squeezed himself into a turquoise knit polo and cargo shorts—Hazard assumed that since the Pope wasn’t in attendance, pants were optional. “It makes me sad to see how far this institution has fallen. I’m ashamed of what these men and women are doing to our community.”

 “Bitch,” Dulac whispered.

 Hazard glanced over. Darnell had a hand on Dulac’s arm, but the detective ignored him. Something—anger?—pinched his face, and his hands were curled into fists so tightly that his knuckles blanched. Hazard was about to ask Dulac to be quiet, but then harsh breathing made him turn his head. Nico was pushing back shaggy hair. Sweat dotted his forehead, and under the coppery tone to his skin, he looked pale.

 “Are you—” Hazard started to ask.

 Nico cut him off with a violent shake of his head.

 “Come on,” Cora whispered. “I need some air.”

 After a moment, Nico nodded, and he stumbled along with her as they forced a path through the crowd. Cora cast a backward glance, and Hazard didn’t need a cue card to know what that meant; Nico’s panic attacks had been getting worse.

 “She’s a fucking bitch,” Dulac whispered a little more loudly. The two women clutching hands turned to glare at him, and Hazard glared back until they looked away.

 “She’s full of it,” Noah whispered. “She’s just doing this for the attention.”

 Rebeca made a disagreeing noise. “I got into that ‘concerned parents’ group for a few days.” She drew the air quotes with her fingers. “The one they have on Facebook. That was how long it took them to drill down into my profile and realize I was a crazy liberal. I don’t think they’re doing it for the attention, at least, not all of them. Some of those people are legit nuts.”

 “And that’s a public health expert’s opinion,” Noah said with a grin.

 “We have to face an ugly truth,” Joyce said, her voice booming over the speakers with new volume. “And the truth is that the adults we have entrusted our children to are peddling pornography.”

 A ripple went through the crowd, and in its wake, an ugly murmur. The man in the CONSECUTIVE CHAMPIONS shirt leaned forward like he was at a dog fight.

 “They are using that pornography to warp our children’s minds. They are using it to groom them for sexual predators.”

 “Fucking bullshit,” Dulac muttered. His mouth was white on one side where he was biting it. “I fucking love that book.”

 “This man is part of that. He’s preparing to deliver our children up to pedophiles.”

 Another ugly shiver went through the throng, and Hazard felt it, saw it, something stirring and stretching—this crowd was about to become a mob. When Joyce turned to point behind her, everyone followed her finger.

 Theo Stratford was around Hazard’s age. He was a good-looking man, built wide across the shoulders, with strawberry-blond hair tied up in a bun as a concession to the formality of the evening. He had a heavy beard, and it accented his jaw and his cheekbones. He kept his face neutral, but he had one hand wrapped around a hardback book, and even from across the room Hazard could see the strain there.

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