“Hello.” Dale Rittenhouse answered his cell phone and listened intently. A frown covered his broad, suntanned face. His end of the conversation gave nothing away. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Okay. Thanks, J. R.” Amanda, his daughter, sitting across the table at their favorite restaurant, realized there was a major problem. Their ranch manager never bothered her father except for dire emergencies.
Dale hung up as anguish played across his face. “There’s been a break-in at the house. We need to finish eating and go back home. There is a lot of damage in your office. J. R. thinks computer equipment is missing. The sheriff is on his way there.” Her father’s attention went to his plate of steak and a baked potato.
Fear clutched Amanda’s stomach. “Should we get this to-go?” Amanda pointed at her trout dinner.
“No, just eat fast.” Dale recognized the worry on Amanda’s face as she hurriedly wolfed down part of her dinner.
“Dad, do you think . . .”
“Don’t worry ‘til we find out more.”
They finished eating, paid and hurried to their black SUV. Slow panic and dread reflected on Amanda’s face as they headed back to the ranch in silence.
Looking over at his daughter, Dale couldn’t see her face. With her head down, her long brown hair hid her profile. Unconsciously her thumbnail scrapped at her nail polish, slowly demolishing her new manicure. He knew her thoughts; they were the same fears nagging his mind. He gripped the steering wheel tighter and sighed.
Dale started the Women’s Underground, for battered women, after his drunk, abusive brother-in-law (now on death-row) shot Dale’s wife and her sister. The killings were a tragic awakening for Dale and Amanda. Dale wanted to stop the killing of other women by a boyfriend or spouse. He hoped this alleviated his guilt for not recognizing the prospective violence in his own family.
After researching women’s shelter organizations in large cities, he realized their business model would not work in rural areas. Close-knit communities didn’t air their dirty laundry in public. The shelters needed to be more discreet. They could not be openly advertised; the locations would be kept secret. Their existence conveyed by brochures at public gatherings and word of mouth. The contact would be a 1-800 number.
The other problem with larger shelters was the lack of communication with the women after they left the shelter. He wanted better follow-up and support. The high recidivism with abused women occurred because the dependency was not fully addressed.
Five years ago Dale funded the first location and got it up and running, then he used his political influence to help fund the others. The non-profit’s goal remained simple: to help women leave the abuser, give them temporary refuge, counseling, and permanent placement as far from the abuser as practical. Amanda took over as administrator of the Underground when Dale got re-elected County Commissioner, two years ago.
The large limestone gate announcing the entrance to the Rittenhouse ranch shined in the headlights before Amanda found her voice, “Dad, do you think someone found out? Were they after the records?”
“Let’s not panic ‘til we find out more.” Dale always assessed the facts before putting forth an opinion. The records being stolen was his first thought too, but he hoped the burglars were after valuables, not information.
Arriving at the ranch-style house, Dale pulled the Tahoe into the driveway beside the Sheriff’s cruiser. Amanda and Dale emerged from the car, hurried through the front door and down the hall to her back office. Amanda felt her father’s hands on her shoulders stopping her in the doorway. They stared at the damage as a deputy scurried around taking photos. Someone swept everything off the top of her desk onto the floor. The receipt files, notepaper, paperclips, pens, and folders were strewn across the rug between the door and her desk. Most of the files on the computer consisted of ranch accounting, cattle records, ranch mail and Dale’s correspondence. She surveyed the room and acknowledged that her computer, an external hard-drive and a large CD case were missing.
The separate hard drive held the records of the Women’s Underground. Part of the information was coded, but the final placements had actual street and city addresses. Amanda’s eyes went to the crack behind her desk where a stapler hit the wall. The horse photos from her wall were on the floor with broken glass and frames. The overturned chairs were by the cracked window behind her desk.
After the deputy finished taking photographs and lifting fingerprints, he allowed the Rittenhouses into the room. Amanda, shaken but concentrating on the scene, gave them a list of the missing equipment. She even rummaged through her files and found serial numbers. The Sheriff started speculating as to what the burglar was after, something specific on the computers or the computers to sell for pocket money. Then, assessing the mess, he commented, “Whoever did this needs a course in anger management.”
The remark didn’t sit well with Dale. The sheriff made the break-in personal, not random. He glanced at Amanda who took a deep breath but didn’t flinch.
“Dale, is there county information stored on the computer? Something someone would break in to steal?”
“Can’t think of any. Once in awhile, I’ll send a note to another commissioner or a constituent. Just routine reminders. Stuff like that. Nothin’ to do with county contracts or bids.” Dale was not a keyboarder; anything that he needed done could be delegated to the commission secretary.
“No ranch secrets someone wanted?” the sheriff gave a half laugh but stared at Dale. Amanda’s eyes widened. The two deputies taking photos and fingerprints listened with interest.
“Can I talk to you outside, Sheriff?”
Dale led the sheriff down the hall and out through the patio doors in the den. They passed J. R. sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs playing nervously with his hat. Standing on the patio and taking a deep breath, Dale said. “The hard drive held the Underground’s records.”
“I was wondering.” The Sheriff Scott took off his hat and scratched his head. “You think that’s what they were after?”
The worried frown on Dale’s face answered his question. The Sheriff was advised of the Underground when it first started and referred three women to it over the years. He also spread the 1-800 number around to other rural law enforcement officers. “I’ll start looking for the hard-drive first thing tomorrow, Dale. I’ll have the pawnshops and computer geeks checked out first thing in the morning. If it’s okay, I’ll suggest to my men that the equipment contains confidential county information? That’d give it a sense of importance without mentioning the Underground.”
Dale nodded, no less worried, but still grateful. “Sounds good, thanks, Sheriff. Keep me informed, especially when you find anything.”
Dale went back to Amanda’s office, J. R. left with a nod of his head and the Sheriff met his men at their cars. The sheriff and his deputies were driving away when Amanda turned to her father.
“Did you tell the Sheriff?”
“Yes. He‘ll tell them the computer and hard-drive contain county information. First thing tomorrow I will go buy a new computer. You send the attorney a back-up of all the records, don’t you?”
Amanda nodded trying to follow her father’s train of thought.
“Call him first thing in the morning and get a copy, go through it and see if anything relevant jumps out. How many people in this county have knowledge of the Underground?”
Amanda paused for a minute. “Besides you, me, the Sheriff and the attorney . . . maybe two . . . three. The entire organization only employees seven people, just the women who run the safe houses.”
“How about volunteers?”
“There are eleven full-time volunteers, and the doctors and psychologists work on a contract basis. The problem is the addresses of the safe houses were on the payroll records. Most expenses and other information pass through the attorneys in Ft. Worth. I’m hoping whoever took the equipment needed money like the sheriff suggested.” She tried to be logical. After all, they took the petty cash box with two hundred dollars in it. “We’ve gone through so much to keep any evidence of the Underground away from the ranch,” Amanda lamented.
“You’re probably right. A need for money,” he let out a sigh. “However, let the directors of the safe houses know what’s happened. Tell them not to panic. Keep accepting women. Business as usual. I’ll do a phone conference with John and the others directors tomorrow morning.”
Still worrying, they retired to their bedrooms. Dale took care of funding for the Underground. Amanda screened the women’s information and set up the contacts, the safe houses, and the transportation arrangements. Trying to assess what information could be retrieved from the scattered and coded records, Amanda finally got up and went down stairs for a glass of wine. It was after one in the morning when she returned to her bed and fell asleep.
Meanwhile, Dale sat on the bed making notes for the directors meeting. He knew he would need to discuss the worst-case scenario: an angry, abusive husband going after his wife. And worse still there was always the possibility of the burglar selling the remaining information to other abusive husbands. The thought of hot-headed, violent men looking for and finding their wives sent shivers of fear and regret through his body. He would come up with his own plan to catch the thief. Worst problem: the public knowing he, Amanda and the ranch ran the Women’s Underground.
They would be visitors, abused women seeking shelter and dangerous husbands looking for missing wives. The ranch didn’t have the security for that. He doubted if the ranch could even be made secure for such visitors. The Underground taking over his life and family ranch was not an option. He would pull the plug on it before he would live with it on his doorstep. If it came to that, he could always help raise money for a shelter in Houston or San Antonio. He had a contingency plan for later. Now he would deal with the immediate problem. Dale lay back on the bed remembering his murdered wife and the best years of his life with the only woman he ever loved.