Drafting–Colton & Sandy arrive in NYC and discover they’ve been duped

It was almost 4:00 PM when Colton drove across the George Washington bridge into Manhattan. Two things had delayed them by four hours.

Swapping vehicles had cost them over three hours. Unfortunately, a direct trade, or a sale and repurchase weren’t feasible given the lack of title for Mildred’s Mercedes. At Exit 260B they’d detoured and taken I-81 North to Scranton, Pennsylvania to purchase a 2011 Ford E-Series E-250 Cargo Van they’d found on the Internet. The cash price, after a little negotiating, was $19,800. From there, after another Google search, they’d driven both vehicles fifteen miles northeast to Jermyn Self-Storage in a town of the same name and spent $1,300 to hide the Sprinter for a year. Unlike the business where they’d stored Colton’s RAM in Rockford, Jermyn didn’t provide an APP or any other service for offsite viewing and inspecting their vehicle.

Then luck or fate had intervened to offer a flat tire on the Ford. This had caused another forty-minute delay. It had happened on I-80 in Teterboro, New Jersey. Thankfully, a tire repair outfit located at a local truck stop quickly responded and had Colton and Sandy back on the road less than a half-hour ago.

As they exited the bridge, Sandy noticed a small metal sign for The Little Red Lighthouse. During the flat tire incident he’d learned the place he and his family had visited on vacation while he was just a kid, although decommissioned, was still open to visitors. The Lighthouse was underneath the bridge on the eastern shore of the Hudson River. “Take the next right, the tour will take thirty minutes and I’ll check it off my bucket list.”

However, the visit was not to be. Colton quashed the idea, preferring not to waste any more time. Plus, he wanted to arrive at Millie’s place before dark. Sandy didn’t articulately respond, instead mumbled something under his breath.

Colton continued east on I-95, crossed the Harlem River, and slowed to a near crawl as he navigated the loop before merging onto I-87 South. The traffic was heavy, and, along with two tolls, consumed another thirty-five minutes before the pair reached The Allendale building in Jackson Heights, a Brooklyn suburb. Eighty-second street was one-way but thankfully, there was an open parking spot in front of the six story, well-kept Co-Op.

Sandy noticed two middle-aged women approaching on the sidewalk, heads buried in their cell phones. They walked up the stairs to the Allendale door, entered a code on an electronic keypunch pad, allowed the double doors to open automatically, and walked inside. “Okay, Mr. Brainiac, what do we do now?” Sandy asked an anxious Colton.

“Wait” was all he said as he opened the driver’s side door and exited the vehicle. He walked to the front bumper and stared upwards and across the beautiful brick building. From its architecture, including equally separated brick columns built into the facade, it was reasonable to conclude there were four apartments on each floor. Sandy joined him, and watched as Colton walked the sidewalk to the corner of the building.

He stood, stared, and concluded the Co-Op was deep enough for a total of eight, equal-sized apartments per floor. With six floors, that meant he and Sandy might have to knock on a maximum of forty-eight doors before finding Molly and Millie. Time-consuming, but doable.

Colton continued to ponder. There might be another option. If there was an intercom panel in the first floor foyer they could use it to call each unit, assuming they weren’t labeled with the resident’s name which was unlikely for Millie and Molly’s apartment buzzer since they’d just moved in a few days ago. Either way, Colton didn’t like this contact method. Millie would recognize either his or Sandy’s voice. This would cause panic and likely a quick reaction. She probably would call the police before Colton and Sandy could reach her and Molly’s apartment.

Of course, both contact methods—knocking on doors throughout the building and using the intercom system to call the apartments—assumed Colton and Sandy could gain access through the exterior door to begin with.

After ten minutes of Colton’s staring at the Allendale and leaning against the hood of the van, Sandy walked up the stairs to the main entrance. “Here’s an idea. We watch someone enter their code, write it down, wait a few minutes, then use it to gain access.”

Colton was surprised that he hadn’t thought about that. So far, his best idea was to use Google to learn if there are any apartments for sale within The Allendale. Then, hopefully tomorrow, gain access with the help of a local realtor who would show-up thinking he had a potential buyer. Colton nodded at Sandy who was returning to the van. “Not bad. Let’s give it a try.”

They both retook their respective seats. “Even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while.” Sandy said, proud of himself.

“Okay Mr. Hog, go back to the door and pretend you are entering your code. I want to see if your idea will work and whether we need to move the van a little.” Sandy did as instructed while Colton reached behind him and retrieved a pair of binoculars from a duffel. He’d had them for years, often using them for closeups of pretty women traversing a college campus or a mall parking lot.
After a few minutes, and backing the van one parking spot, Colton motioned Sandy to return. “Now, we just need someone to be our guinea pig.” Sandy said, wondering why the address Ray in Perrysburg had given them didn’t include an apartment number.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and Millie and Molly will show up after a leisurely stroll.” Colton said, looking up 82nd street through the binoculars.

At 8:00 PM, a short oriental man crossed the street in front of the van and approached the Allendale. “Here we go,” Sandy said. They’d spent the past two hours being bored but studying a drawing of the keypad Colton had made in a notebook. The numbers were laid out the same way as his iPhone, which was the opposite of the old adding machine he used at work. Obviously, there were ten options: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, & 9. The numbers, one, two, and three were left to right and at the top of the keypad; four, five and six filled the second row; and seven, eight, and nine completing the third row. The zero occupied the center spot in the fourth row at the bottom.

Colton watched as the man quickly used his right index finger to press four buttons. Per agreement, Sandy’s assignment was to use a second drawing of the keypad to record the keystrokes themselves. That is, the sequence and exact movement of the oriental man’s hands. Colton’s job was to focus on the numbers, more particularly, the numbers that appeared in the small rectangular window directly above the keypad.

The doors opened and the short man went inside. Colton and Sandy conversed and finally agreed the man had entered 3 6 1 9.

They waited five minutes and walked to the Allendale’s front door. Colton noted there were no intercom system built into the exterior wall beside the entrance, unlike some buildings he’d visited in Chicago. He turned his focus to the keypad. His first attempt failed. As did his second: 3 6 1 6. Success came on the third try. The correct code was 3 6 1 8. Both he and Sandy had been wrong but, surprisingly, by only one digit.

The double doors swung open. They were in.

Colton and Sandy passed through a small, unadorned foyer into the hallway. To their left was a bank of post office boxes, forty-eight to be exact. They paused and noted that underneath each five-inch by five-inch box was an apartment number; no names at all. “That narrow, single-door to the left of the main entrance must be for the mailman.” Colton said, turning to continue the walk to a bank of two elevators straight ahead, located approximately in the center of the building.

While waiting in the van, Sandy had conducted research on the Allendale. From its website, he’d confirmed Colton’s thesis that there were forty-eight units (the post office boxes confirmed this). Sandy also learned each unit had the same floor plan, except possibly for the first floor apartment that had given up square footage for the mail room. He concluded the hallways and the space for the elevator shafts were extra space, making the building larger to begin with, and hadn’t come at the expense of any of the apartments.

In addition, the website briefly described the apartment numbering scheme. The first digit for each apartment represented the floor number. The second and third digits represented the individual apartment number. Per the site’s example, apartment 317 was on the third floor, which indicated the forty-eight apartments were numbered sequentially (the first two floors would contain sixteen apartments, eight per floor).

After Sandy and Colton walked to the elevators, they noticed one was marked Service Elevator, and the other, Resident Elevator. They also saw the intercom system wedged between the elevators. There were eight rows of six buttons. Thankfully, all but four of the apartment buttons had a small bronze plate underneath containing a first initial and a last name, likely representing the apartment’s owner. Both men stared at the rows and bronze plates.

“I bet apartments 212, 429, 538, and 644 are empty.” Sandy said.

“Or, they have new residents and the building super hasn’t updated the plates.” Colton quickly added. He removed his iPhone and snapped a photo of the intercom wall while Sandy heard a door closing to their right.

The two men waited until a roundish woman wearing a tan toboggan exited an apartment. She walked their way and completely ignored them as she continued to the main entrance. After she departed, they walked the hallway toward where she’d originated and noted apartment numbers 103 and 104. These were closer to 82nd Avenue and the front of the building, while apartments 107 and 108 were directly across, towards the rear of the building. They returned to the elevators and continued walking down the opposite hallway, this time noticing the two front apartments were number 101 and 102, with the latter closest to the elevator. Directly across from these were apartment numbers 105 and 106, again, with the latter closest to the elevator.

“Now, I think we know, apartment 212 is on the second floor, toward the front and down this hallway.” Colton pointed toward the roundish woman’s apartment.

Sandy chimed in and followed the same logic and mentally located apartment numbers 429, 538, and 644. “Do we intercom these or knock on their doors?” He asked as Colton scanned the bronze plates underneath the buttons.

“Before we do anything, see if you can determine if any of these four are for sale. The website might say.”

It didn’t take Sandy two minutes to discover the answer. The website had a menu item labeled “Apartments For Sale.” Numbers 212 and 538 were the only two listed. “Looks like 429 and 644 are our best bet. They’re not listed for sale. Seems reasonable to conclude they have new residents.

Sandy stared at Colton as to say, ‘well, do we use the intercom or head on up?’

“I think it’s a no brainer. Using the intercom will give Millie more time to react.” Colton pressed the ‘Resident Elevator’ button and the door opened. Inside Sandy pressed button number four.

The older sounding woman in Apartment 429 would not open the door, but did answer, in the negative, Colton’s question whether she knew Millie Anderson. Surprisingly, under Sandy’s ruse of being a plumber and asking if she was having any problem with hot water, the patient woman announced the kitchen sink and bathroom laboratory were fine but since moving in two days ago she hadn’t tried the shower.

Sandy and Colton fared a little better at Apartment 644. Better and worse. A middle-aged man opened the door in response to Sandy’s knock, but, he too, didn’t know a Millie Anderson. They didn’t bother with the hot water ruse but asked how long he’d lived here. He’d responded by asking if they were cops or just casing the joint. His seriousness had quickly turned light. He finally admitted he wasn’t the owner but just a father helping his daughter move from Topeka, Kansas to New York City. The pair arrived last Monday.

Sandy and Colton returned to the elevator and descended to the first floor. They walked to the main entrance but stopped for Colton to snap a photo of the post office boxes. “Let’s go find a hotel. Tomorrow we’ll confirm whether 212 and 538 are truly unoccupied and for sale. Then, we’ll return and watch the building all day.”

Sandy said what Colton was feeling. “Are you starting to think we’ve been snookered, that the nice couple in Perrysburg gave us the wrong address?”

“Shit, shit, shit. You might be right. Come on.” Colton couldn’t believe he’d been so dumb, and so overconfident after he’d used restraint, only politely threatening Ray and his wife to handover Millie’s address. Now, it looked like the young, prosperous couple had outsmarted him and Sandy.

Drafting–Millie and Molly make Keylime pies & meet the couple across the hall

“You make the crust. I’ll make the filling.” Millie said tossing an apron to Molly. Yesterday afternoon they had taken the five minute walk to Gristedes Supermarket, the store Matt had hired to deliver a mountain of groceries last Saturday. The only ingredients they’d purchased were those needed to make two Keylime pies.

That short round-trip jaunt had prompted Molly to suggest visiting Central Park. Reluctantly, Millie had agreed. Both were surprised to learn their street, E. 79th, led straight to the Park and transformed to 79th Street Traverse, which unfortunately still allowed cars. However, this hadn’t prevented them from enjoying the thick wooded maze of paved walkways open to only cyclists and walkers.

Molly removed twenty-two graham cracker sheets from the box and placed eleven of them in a large ziploc bag. She would smash half of them at a time. “I miss our food processor,” she said, remembering the recently-purchased Hamilton-Beach they’d left in Chicago. With light hand strikes Molly started pulverizing the graham crackers. Millie set the oven to preheat at 375 degrees.
“Here, use this.” Millie opened a drawer, removed a rolling pin, and handed it to Molly.

“Thanks.” Ever since the three hours yesterday in the park, Molly had noticed her mother’s improved state of mind. Probably, it had something to do with their still-developing idea of going to the Park several times per week for a jog, something Millie had routinely done in Chicago. Molly finished crushing the first bag of graham crackers and thought about how today Millie seemed even more like her former self, especially that can-do-anything person she was before the Colton frankensteinian transformation.

“I hope these are as good as the ones you made for Thanksgiving.” For years, Millie had taught her daughter how to cook. This skill had become paramount when Colton started demanding dinner each day at 5:00 PM, usually, through the week, before Millie arrived home from work.

“They’ll be better since you’re helping.” Molly said as Millie finished whisking together sweetened condensed milk, sour cream, lime juice, and lime zest. She wiped her hands on a towel before giving Molly a hug. “By the way, are we going to church this Sunday?” Molly asked while laying her head on her mother’s shoulder.

Millie removed two 9.5 inch Pyrex pie plates from a lower cabinet and slid them toward Molly as she pondered her question and their church back home. “Do you want to?”

Molly didn’t hesitate in responding. “Yes, we just need to pick one that sounds good. There are several within walking distance.” Molly’s eagerness was rooted in her and Millie’s experience attending St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. It wasn’t so much what Pastor Richter had preached but the love and support from the members. Molly knew they both, especially her mother, needed an extended family.

Millie watched as Molly mixed and stirred the cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter in a bowl. “Okay, I’ll let you choose.”

Molly liked the idea. Her mother had grown up in a Baptist church in Sanford, North Carolina naturally taking on fundamentalist beliefs, mainly that the Bible was inspired by God and was without error. But Molly, even at twelve, was more liberal, probably because of the influence Alisha and her family had on her.
Molly spent several minutes pressing the crumb mixture into the pie plates while her mother washed dishes in the sink. “Finished.” You want me to pour in the pie filling?”

Millie turned to face Molly. “What are you forgetting?”

She knew her mother always baked the crust for seven minutes before adding the filling. “Idea. I’ve read you don’t have to heat the crust. And, the pies are just as good. Can we try it?”

“Sure, if you want.” Millie said, turning the oven to ‘OFF.’

Molly poured the filling into both pie pans and placed them in the refrigerator. “Done and done. Let’s sit, I have a few questions and you can wash the rest of the dishes after while.” Molly laughed.

Millie popped her daughter’s behind with the towel, tossed it on the counter, and joined her at the dining room table.

“I made some notes.” Molly said, pulling a folded sheet of paper from her pocket.

“Okay.” Millie loved that her daughter was organized and judicious.

“Yesterday, while we were in the Park you said you were going to ask Dr. Hanover to suggest a child psychiatrist I could talk to.”

“I did. Unfortunately, the woman she recommended—Dr. Francis Winter—is out of the country and, obviously, not accepting new patients until she returns.

Molly paused and smoothed out the wrinkled paper. “I don’t disagree but was hoping you would let me talk with Tracey and maybe she could help. You know, teach me how to meditate. Her website is interesting.”

Shaking her head sideways, Millie voiced her concern. “You wouldn’t go to a chiropractor for surgery, or a plumber for legal advice. Tracey probably means well but she’s not a medical doctor. A psychiatrist is.”

“Again, I’m not disagreeing. All I’m asking is for you to let me give Tracey a chance. She’s a Zen master, with over fifteen years of practice and teaching under her belt.”

“Honey, you have been through so much, with Colton and the rape, leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and now, pregnant and anticipating an abortion. You need professional advice and counseling just like I do.”

“Tracey’s a professional too, and she specifically deals with trauma. Her website says this.” Molly turned her notes over to the back side and read: “‘Meditation helps the traumatized heal by offering a new perspective on past and current events, and ultimately, by changing the structure of their brain.’”

Millie stared at Molly and knew from her serious expression, and the two pages of notes she’d written, this subject was highly important to her. “Here’s my current thought. Let’s talk to Dr. Winter when you meet with her. Hopefully, she’ll have some solid advice.”

This was positive but Molly was impatient. “In the mean time, why don’t we talk with Tracey? If we can’t tonight, then maybe she’ll have time tomorrow.” Molly left it there, but continued to think to herself. Maybe talking with Tracey would be enough for Millie, enough to convince her to give the go-ahead and not wait two weeks to talk with Dr. Winter.

Just as Molly was about to read another quote from Tracey’s website, someone knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it.” Molly said, standing and looking at Millie to make sure it was okay.

She nodded and pointed to her right temple, tapping it two times. “Think.”

“Yes?” Molly said, waiting.

“Miss, we’re Kenneth and Nita Eldridge from across the hall.” A woman said in a monotone voice. “We just wanted to say hello to our new neighbors.” Molly turned and looked for guidance from Millie who was now walking toward her.

“It’s okay.” Millie motioned for Molly to flip the deadbolt.

She did, opened the door, and said “hello. I’m Molly. This is Millie, my mom.”

“Nice to meet you. We just got back into town late last night or we’d have come earlier.” The short, thick man with gray hair, a close-cropped beard, and receding hairline said standing closer to the half-opened door across the hall than to Millie and Molly’s.

Millie reached out her hand and shook Nita’s and waited for Kenneth to come closer. “Nice to meet ya’ll.” Millie said, quickly noticing her Southern expression, and recalling her father’s oft-cited phrase: ‘you can take the girl out of the country but can’t take the country out of the girl.’

“What brings you to New York City?” Nita asked.

Before either Millie or Molly could respond, Kenneth tried to clarify his wife’s question. “Honey, they may have moved here from across town, or around the corner.”

“Chicago.” Millie said, believing it okay to be open and truthful. These two were complete strangers, wholly unconnected to her and Molly’s former life.

“Dear,” Kenneth said looking at Molly. “You’re about our granddaughter’s age. Fifteen, sixteen?”

This got Molly’s attention and triggered a respectful laugh. “Twelve going on thirteen.”

“She’s mature for her age.” Millie added, looking at the top of Molly’s head which was almost the height of her own. Changing the subject, Millie asked, “how long have you guys lived here?”

“Oh,” Nita looked at Kenneth and started counting on her fingers.

“Seven months.” Kenneth answered. “We moved here last May. To be closer to our grandchildren, Olivia and Otto.”

Nita took a deep breath and placed a hand on Millie’s arm. “Their mother, our daughter, has cancer. We’re just trying to help.”

“I’m so sorry. That must be a difficult time for your daughter, and her family, all of you.” Millie started to ask if there was a son-in-law in the picture but thought better of it.

“Listen, we don’t want to bother you. Know that we’re here at night and most weekends if you need anything.” Kenneth handed Millie a card. “That’s our cell number on the back.”

On the front was written, Kenneth Eldridge, Detective, Albuquerque Police Department with address and phone number. “Wow, I bet you’ve got some stories to tell.”

“Don’t get him started. He’ll blather on until midnight.” Nita said, reaching out and taking Molly’s hand. The woman was no doubt a toucher. “You do good in school honey and forget about the boys. They’re nothing but trouble.”

Molly smiled and wondered if the heavyset woman was relaying advice she wished her granddaughter would take.

As the older couple retreated, Kenneth made one final announcement. “We rarely see our other neighbors. The couple next to us are siblings. He works at some Wall Street firm, and she’s a teacher. The couple next to you, they’re lesbians, work at some nightclub.”

Neither Millie or Molly responded as Nita reprimanded her husband.

Drafting–Colton & Sandy head to NYC

“I’ve got to call my sister.” Sandy said as he exited the tiny bath, shirtless and rolling on deodorant, cursing to himself why there was no cell service. “Plus, I’m tired of cooking.”

Since late Tuesday afternoon Sandy and Colton had been off the grid, parked at camping spot #70 inside Black Moshannon State Park just west of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. It was now Wednesday afternoon and the two were restless as hell.

“It was your idea, not mine, to come to this god-forsaken place.” Colton declared, reclining on the rear couch. Tuesday afternoon, while the pair drove east on I-90 Sandy had suggested they spend a couple of days where he and his parents had come when he was seven years old. He could still remember the week him, his sister, and his parents had spent exploring the 3,480 acres that comprised the Pennsylvania state park. But, there had been another reason, one just as important, at least to Sandy: he wanted Millie and Molly, especially Molly, to have a peaceful Christmas together in their new home. Of course, Sandy hadn’t mentioned this to Colton.

Sandy slipped on a Chicago Bears sweatshirt, and a jacket from the tiny closet. “Let’s go to Philipsburg and let me make my call. We can eat while we’re there.”

“Like something in that tiny town will be open.” Colton said, slipping on his boots and standing.

Ten minutes later, when passing Philipsburg Elementary School on State Highway 504, Sandy noticed he had cell service. He clicked on the Google icon and typed, “restaurants in Philipsburg open on Christmas.” RJ’s Pub & Grill was the second one listed. He pressed the link. “Looks like a good spot on 9th street.” Sandy held his phone out to Colton who was fiddling with his own cell. Sandy clicked on the address link and activated Google Maps. He then dialed his sister.

“I’m not interested in turkey and dressing or sweet potato pie.” Colton said, reading a series of texts he’d received since they’d parked at Black Moshannon.

“Hey sis. Merry Christmas. Hold on.” Sandy covered the receiver and described to Colton the chicken fajita wrap RJ’s had on special from opening at 3:00 PM until 6:00 when the Logyard Beer on tap party started.

“That’ll work,” was Colton’s reply.

“Sis, sorry about that. How’s your day?” Although Sandy and Sarah weren’t close they were compelled to keep the promise they’d made their late mother—to talk every Christmas.

“Blessed. And you?” Sarah started to ask how Pop’s place was working out but wasn’t truly interested in anything her little brother would say.

“Listen Sarah, I wanted you to know I’ve messed up my checking account and will be setting up another one in a few days. Don’t transfer any money to my old account.”

This wasn’t a surprise to Sarah. Sandy couldn’t point a broom handle straight ahead. “Overdraw again?” She could ask a dozen questions if she cared but couldn’t wash away the many memories of Sandy draining their mother’s bank account over the last few years of her life.

“Turn right on 322.” Sandy said pointing to a large “Welcome to Philipsburg” sign touting two of the town’s historic landmarks: the Union “Old Mud” Church, completed in 1842, and the Simler House, the oldest known structure in Philipsburg.

Colton made the right turn and was thankful his finances were in good shape, unlike Sandy’s. He’d had no trouble setting up a new account at Republic Bank of Chicago, but they wouldn’t work with Sandy since his credit score was so low. He’d begged for some of Mildred’s money to use but Colton had refused.
For the next five miles Sandy and Sarah’s conversation devolved into an argument. The only thing Colton could surmise from the one voice he was hearing was Sandy still believed he should be paid something for caring for their mother the last few months of her life.

“Take the next left.” Sandy said as they approached 9th Street.

Colton pulled into a near-full parking lot outside RJ’s Bar and Grill. It wasn’t quite 2:30. “Oh boy, I guess a lot of folks didn’t want to cook on Christmas.”

It turned out the parking lot served not only RJ’s but two other restaurants: Hogs Galore and Main Won, the first, a barbecue joint; the second served Asian and Chinese dishes.

Inside RJ’s, the crowd consisted of four older men sitting at the bar; all overweight. A teenager-looking girl whisked Sandy and Colton to a table for two in a back corner next to the building’s front windows. “Not much demand for chicken fajita wraps,” Colton remarked, but acknowledging RJ’s didn’t officially open until 3:00.

Both men ordered today’s special and Wildcat Hollow beers. Sandy asked, “how’s your plan coming?” So far, all his partner had said was ‘he was thinking about how to handle the situation once we knock on Millie’s door.’

“You have less than a day. If we leave early tomorrow we should be there by noon, so you better think of something.” Sandy paused and stared at his phone, contemplating whether to send a text to Sarah just to make sure she didn’t forget his request. “And, it better not include kidnapping.”

After departing Perrysburg yesterday, Sandy had researched the address Ray and his wife had given them. The easy part was determining the location. There was no doubt, Millie and Molly lived in Queens, New York, in an apartment building known as The Allendale. According to Google, it’s a pre-war co-op building in Queens’s Jackson Heights neighborhood. The building contains 48 units and rises 6 stories. Sandy had learned a co-op was cooperative housing, which is a type of homeownership, a building jointly owned by a corporation made up of its inhabitants. Neither Colton or Sandy could imagine how Millie could afford to purchase an apartment. The only logical thing either could fathom was someone had given or loaned her the money.

Colton concluded he might as well share with Sandy the first phase of the plan he’d mentally constructed. “The second Millie opens the door, I’m going to apologize for everything bad I’ve ever done to her, including surprising her in New York City. Then, I’m going to do my best to humbly request she return to Chicago with us and give a statement to DA Hooks.”

The waitress delivered their food and drinks and invited them to attend RJ’s half-price beer night starting at 6:oo PM. “Thanks.” Sandy said, waiting until the tight-jeaned teenager walked away. “Even if Millie returns to Chicago and meets with the DA, you won’t be there to know what she tells him.”

Colton took a bite of his fajita and said with a mouthful: “I don’t see that as a problem since Molly will be with us.” Colton knew the first phase of his plan involved a little coercion but at least it wasn’t violent. That would come later, but only if necessary.

“So much for your ‘humble request.’ And what about the outstanding arrest warrants?” Sandy covered his fries with ketchup.

Colton doubted his first phase plan would work but he believed they had to try. “I’m hoping our attorneys can persuade the DA and the Judge to withdraw them, maybe they can throw in a good excuse. How about, we thought the hearing was next Monday; we just got our dates wrong?”

Sandy downed half his bottle of Wildcat Hollow beer. “Oh yea, that’ll work.”

“Well what else can we do?” There was no way Colton could share what he strongly believed. His response was his way to throw the issue back on Sandy. There was no way Millie’s statement would be enough to stop the trial. To Colton, that lion’s den was inevitable, and the only thing that would change that nightmare was the disappearance of Gina Patton. Of course, even her absence might not stop the trial. His attorney had told Colton that the admissibility of evidence was strictly up to Judge Stewart and even if he was wrong, the only way to attack the ruling was an appeal. Colton imagined sitting in prison for months before an appeals court would even consider the issue. The bottom line, what Colton wouldn’t share, was that his and Sandy’s crimes most likely had destined them to a life on the run. What this necessarily included, at least to Colton’s twisted mind, was that Sandy would become a liability at some point and have to be eliminated.”

Sandy pondered his response and finally said, “everything we’ve done, attacking the two students and killing Ellen in the fire we set, killing Mildred, and what we’re planning on doing, virtually kidnapping Millie and Molly, not to mention missing court, is simply guaranteeing we’re going to prison.” He pushed back his plate. “I’ve lost my appetite.” Colton cleaned his plate and ordered another fajita while Sandy stared through the window at the parking lot.

After leaving RJ’s, Colton drove them back to Spot #70 at Black Moshannon State Park. Neither spoke to the other the rest of the day.

It was 8:00 AM Friday morning before Colton and Sandy headed to New York City. The stomach bug, food poisoning, or whatever it was had struck eight hours after they’d left RJ’s. According to Sandy’s research, their sickness was likely Norovirus, contracted from the teenage waitress who’d handled their plates. Whatever it was, the vomiting, diarrhea, and listlessness had lasted until midnight last night. Seven hours of sleep was welcome.

Colton stopped to fill up the van where Pennsylvania Route 99 intersected with I-80. When he returned from the convenience store with two coffees Sandy relayed troubling news. “We made the papers. Well, at least the online version of the Chicago Tribune. The asshole Andrew Spivey’s like a dog after a bone.”

Staying silent to think was a common habit Colton had learned years ago. Although he frequently let his emotions dictate, today he realized it wouldn’t do any good to cuss and threaten the persistent journalist. He waited until the van was at seventy-miles per hour before responding. “Well, what did he write?”

Sandy sipped coffee and reread the short article titled, “Have you seen these two men?” “Spivey repeats his earlier story about us missing the hearing but apparently the guy’s been spying on us.”

“Why do you say that?” Colton asked, slowing the van and resetting the cruise to sixty-four miles per hour.

“He checked your garbage can, or somebody did and told him about it. He writes, ‘Last Friday, two men matching Colton Atwood and Sanford Brown’s descriptions entered Atwood’s house on Princeton Avenue. They exited less than an hour later and tossed two stuffed bags into the garbage can at the street. After the men drove away in a dark grey Sprinter van, this writer’s assistant searched the bags. One bag contained cold-to-the-touch items likely removed from a refrigerator. Things like: half-filled ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and pickle jars, left-over pizza, unopened bags of salad mix, and, an out-of-date gallon of milk. The other bag contained an assortment of old clothes, and files filled with several years worth of water, gas, and electric bills. The bills were all in the name of Millie Anderson.’”

“Shit. Now the world knows we’re in this damn van.” Colton said, banging his fist on the steering wheel.

“Listen to Spivey’s final paragraph. ‘These facts strongly indicate all former members of 7925 Princeton Avenue are now on the run, along with Atwood’s friend Sanford Brown. The two men are running from the law. The bigger question is why Millie Anderson and her twelve year old daughter are running? Are they running from the two men? Are the two men running after Millie and her daughter? Whatever the question, one thing’s for sure, there are outstanding arrest warrants for both men. If you see them, or know anything about this situation, call me, Andrew Spivey, at 1-800-4583-7198.’”

Colton drove ten minutes before speaking. “We’re probably safe until Mildred’s body is discovered, or her neighbor … what’s her name?”

“Alice, Alice Landers.” Sandy replied.

“Or, until Alice puts two and two together and concludes both Mildred and her van are missing. That’s when she’ll call the police. Damn, we intended to call Alice and replay one of Mildred’s recordings.” It wasn’t that Colton had forgotten, but he’d concluded Sandy’s idea was dumb as fuck. There’s no way the neighbor would believe it was Mildred calling.

Sandy tried to imagine what would make Alice suspicious, even if she didn’t hear from Mildred. “Here’s a thought. I’d bet Alice will eventually call Mildred on her cell. We still have it. So, when Alice calls, I could answer playing like I’m Mason.”

“Who’s Mason?”

“Mildred’s son. Dumbass, we’ve talked about him. I could make up some excuse why she couldn’t come to the phone. She’s asleep, or she’s not feeling well. I could tell her we’re in Montana or Arizona or someplace.”

“Won’t work. Not for long. Eventually, Alice will get suspicious and we’re toast, or headed there.” Colton knew what they had to do: ditch the van. At the latest, get rid of it soon after they arrive in New York City. “We’ll trade vehicles before we head back to Chicago with Millie and Molly. Maybe we can find a car-crusher place.”

Sandy grabbed his cell from the console and searched Google. “That’s a bust, at least in Pennsylvania. You have to have a title to scrap a vehicle or sell it to a salvage yard.”

“Good work. Maybe we’ll just hide it like we did my RAM.” Colton said and Sandy groaned. He closed his eyes and pictured him and Colton driving their lives into an ever narrowing funnel already past the point of choosing to turn around.

Drafting—Christmas Day and Invitation to Tracey’s Friday night party

Molly knew for certain her mother was deeply depressed when she didn’t knock on the bathroom door. Like yesterday morning, Molly had awakened nauseated and rushed to the toilet.

Millie’s slide had begun after she learned of Molly’s pregnancy. Somehow she’d found the energy to go Christmas shopping, but the power emanating from that maternal chore was fully depleted by dinner time. Millie had gone to bed, early, and without eating a bite. Molly had stayed up until nearly 11:00 PM, watching TV and exchanging texts with Alisha.

“Mom. Mom.” Molly stood beside her mother’s bed and kept repeating her name. Finally, Millie opened her eyes and managed the weakest of smiles.

“Here’s your Depokote, and time to open presents.” Molly thought if she acted normal and excited that might persuade her mother to do the same. Or, at least, give it a shot.

Millie sat-up, swallowed her tablets, and untangled from her covers. “I’m sorry,” she managed to whisper, not wanting the most important person in her life to know she was overwhelmed with guilt concerning Molly’s pregnancy. If only she’d never let Colton move in. If, if, if. Millie finally stood and inched to the bathroom, recalling an even worse thought she’d had, or had she dreamed it? Thoughts of suicide. Never before had it gotten this bad.

“Tomorrow, we’re going to see your psychiatrist.” Molly said from the kitchen, thinking of Dr. Ginger Hanover, the woman Millie’s Chicago psychiatrist had recommended.

Without responding, Millie motioned Molly to join her at the table. She’d insisted her mother buy a Christmas tree. Yesterday, she had, one eight inches tall. Now, it was set in the middle of the dining table, surrounded by Molly’s presents, four to be exact.

To the twelve-year-old, the size and shape of the wrapped presents told her they were books, although the larger one, flatter, might be some type of fold-out game board.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Millie asked.

This was all the prompting Molly needed. She had little doubt Millie would buy her the novels she’d requested. The first one was It Sounded Better in my Head by Nina Kenwood. Since the second grade, Molly had always preferred coming-of-age books where the protagonist was older. Natalie was 18, a high school graduate with separated parents. She despises her appearance and has a skin disorder. Her world falls apart, including her relationship with her boyfriend. Molly hoped Natalie’s experience would help her navigate her new life in New York City.

The second book was Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow by Siobhan Curham. Alisha had recommended it. Fourteen-year-old Stevie is having it rough. Her dad has passed away, leaving her mum severely depressed so she is unable to work. Stevie has a passion for her dad’s music and that is what gets her by in tough times. Again, Molly seeks a pathway to survival, maybe even happiness.

The third book was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Another girl protagonist. This one, living in a time Hitler was gaining power over Germany. A story of tragedy and suffering, and how the protagonist copes with the pain. No doubt, all three shared the common theme of overcoming hardship to find a better life. Just what Molly needed.

The fourth present was totally unexpected. It wasn’t a board game, but a 12.9‑inch iPad Pro. “Wow. I don’t deserve this.” Molly couldn’t believe her mother had spent so much money, especially now.

Millie managed a smile and reached out and laid a hand on her daughter’s. “It’s not about deserving. It’s about the joy of seeing your eyes sparkle.” Even though she was deeply depressed, buying such an expensive gift was such a small way of saying, ‘I’m sorry for all the pain and heartache I’ve caused you.’ Millie couldn’t erase the nightmare image fixed in the center of her mind, the horrendous reality of Colton atop Molly, legs spread, him thrusting inside her. Her thoughts of payback would have continued if not for her daughter’s request.

“Okay, my turn. Please close your eyes.” Millie complied and Molly stood, walked to her back pack lying on the floor next to her bed, and removed a red and green gift wrapped box without bow. No doubt, a book. She returned, lay the gift in front of Millie, and asked, “well, what are you waiting for?”

The book was Bipolar Disorder for Dummies by Candida Fink. Molly was halfway nervous whether her choice was appropriate but had confidence her mother would know her daughter’s intent was noble. Molly had purchased the combination scholarly, self-help book at Barnes & Noble last Thursday night after her, Alisha, and her parents had eaten out at Miss Ricky’s. If Mr. Maynard didn’t get his fix of Charred Octopus at least once per month he wouldn’t survive.

“Thank you dear. I promise I’ll read it through and take its message to heart.”
The homemade Christmas card tucked inside was intended to motivate Millie to keep a long-range perspective. On the outside front, Molly had pencil-drawn the cabin her and Millie had chosen for their next-summer’s vacation. It was in the heart of the beautiful Catskill’s Mountains, and would be their reward for the trials and hardships they were guaranteed to face during their first year living in New York City.

“It’s just what I need. To the refrigerator it goes.” Millie opened the card and read Molly’s well-crafted words, ‘To the best mother in the world. I love you with all my heart and know we can survive and thrive in our new home. Never forget, we are a team forever and always.’ Millie cried and insisted Molly stand and join her in a long hug.

After thirty minutes of trying to stay awake Millie returned to bed. ‘Oh well, this is going to be a good Christmas,’ Molly thought as she sat on the couch and started flipping channels on the TV. The preliminaries to The Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade were in full force but didn’t spark her interest. Instead, she decided to call Mama and Papa Anderson.

This call was overdue and had been a major point of contention since Millie had made the final decision for her and Molly to move to New York City. Once the two had decided that fleeing Colton and Chicago was their best option, Molly had argued for Sanford, North Carolina. That’s where Mama and Papa, Brad and Charlotte Anderson, lived. It was a small, safe town, with a good school system, and plenty of aunts and uncles around for support.

But, Millie had rejected the idea. For two main reasons, actually three. First, her hometown would be one of the first places Colton would look for her and Molly. Second, Millie didn’t want to work for her father. And third, she wanted to raise Molly on her own; Mama and Papa had been equally dominating when it came to Millie’s upbringing. It would be the same with Molly, even if they didn’t live in the same household.

During the bus ride, Molly had finally convinced her mother they needed to call Papa and Mama and tell them about the move. Millie had agreed they would do this on Christmas Day. Well, it’s Christmas Day and the agreement’s in place, even if Millie isn’t awake to take part. Molly looked toward her mother and listened. The breathing puffs were regular. This meant she was sound asleep.
Molly inserted her ear plugs and walked to the kitchen. It was the furtherest point in the apartment from Millie’s bed that had a wall to block sound waves.
After several rings, Papa answered. “Hello.”

“Papa, it’s Molly. Merry Christmas.” The precocious twelve-year-old’s mind was far advanced for her age but her feelings about the importance of family was underdeveloped. Molly had seen her maternal grandparents once-per-year for eleven straight years, although she didn’t recall the first few times. Out of all these annual visits, Molly had only visited Mama and Papa’s place one time, and that was two years ago. Now, something was motivating her to get to know them. It might have to do with Millie’s illness, and Molly’s fear of bad days to come.

“Hey baby. Merry Christmas to you. Hold on, let me get your grandmother.” Molly glanced around the kitchen corner. Millie was still asleep.

“What a wonderful surprise. Merry Christmas to my only granddaughter.” Mama asked where Millie was. Molly wanted to be truthful, but lied instead. Her mother had instructed her to keep her diagnosis a secret. At least for now.

“We were late sending Christmas presents, and we’ve been trying to call.” Papa said, which led into a discussion of Millie and Molly’s move to New York City and the need to ditch their old phones. She knew they hadn’t received the packages and wondered what would become of them.

“Oh my gosh. You’re mother knows we want you here. This is awful. How could she be so naive, so selfish?” Molly could sense Mama was exactly like Millie described: judgmental and controlling. “It’s always about Millie.” For the first time, Molly was glad her and her mother hadn’t moved to Sanford.

The conversation went silent. Finally, Papa said, “Mama and I are finally taking that vacation we’ve talked about for years.”

“That sounds good.” Molly hoped to travel someday, of being on her own and doing anything she wanted. “Tell me about it.”

“We’re going to Europe. We’ll fly to London, spending our first week in England and Ireland, then hopscotch to Germany, France, Italy. Our last stop will be in Athens, Greece.” Mama said.

“Wish you could come with us.” Papa said, but added, “I guess that’s not a good idea since we’ll be gone a month, and you need to be in school.” Papa sounded excited, but Millie had said since he was a lawyer he could put on a good act.

Mama announced they were leaving on the sixth, before listing all the other cities they would visit. Again, the conversation went silent. The call ended with Molly lying about someone knocking on the door.

There hadn’t been a sound coming from the front door but for some strange reason—maybe Molly’s interest in honesty—she walked outside into the hallway. No one in either direction. Instead of returning to the couch Molly ventured across the hall to an identical door. To the right of the door knob, just past the door frame, was a bronze plaque engraved with the names, Kenneth and Nita Eldridge. “Neighbors.” Molly whispered. She walked down the hall and looked at the other two doors, one across the hallway from the other. There must be four apartments per floor, all likely matching hers and Millie’s, Molly thought then remembered theirs was a studio apartment in a building with at least three different layouts: studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom.

Molly made a mental note of the names on the bronze plaques beside these two doors: “Rob Fitzgerald and Taylor Morgan, and Audrey Givings and Hannah Morrison. “Neighbors,” she whispered again.

The elevator dinged and Molly rushed back to her own apartment, noticing for the first time the identical plaque now beside her and Millie’s door. “Millie and Molly Anderson.” She knew it wasn’t there yesterday afternoon. The super must have installed it this morning, she thought.

Millie was still asleep, even more so now since she was snoring. Molly heated two waffles in the toaster and returned to the couch. After connecting her new iPad to the WiFi (thanks Matt or somebody), she began searching for a movie to watch. The ten minute search resulted in The Journey of Natty Gann, a choice which made Molly wonder if it was fate, God, chance, or something else that spun up this uniquely related show.

The protagonist, Natty Gann, is a 12-year-old Depression-era girl. “Now that’s weird; my age,” Molly whispered louder than in the hallway. Natty’s father previously left her in Chicago. “Now, that’s even more weird.” He goes to Washington State looking for work in the timber industry. Natty runs away to follow her father. “Now, that would be totally weird.”

She couldn’t resist. For the next hour and a half, Molly connected with Natty, following her adventures and misadventures in various farmhouses, police stations, hobo camps, reform schools, and boxcars. Molly’s favorite part was Natty being befriended by a wolf that had been abused in dog fights. Her least favorite was the near failure of Natty to find her father. Although they did unite at the end, Molly found the scene unsatisfying, even depressing. Natty is attempting to catch a ride on a truck but it gets away. That’s when she hears a voice calling her name. It’s her father. The best thing about this ending, at least to Molly, was Wolf standing atop a cliff looking down on the reunion.

After the movie ended, Molly lay across the couch and thought of her own father, and what adventures she would experience if she ran away. At least, unlike Natty, she knew exactly where her father was: a small town in North Alabama, a thousand miles away. It was past 2:00 PM when she was awakened by the vibrating of her new cell phone. It was Tracey, Tracey from the Greyhound bus ride.

This also is a little weird, Molly thought as she reached for her phone on the side table. “Hey Tracey.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You saved my phone number.” Molly had entered it into Contacts as soon as Tracey departed the bus in King of Prussia.

“I did, hoping to reconnect.” Things were just strange today. During her hallway investigation Molly had thought about Tracey, even hoping to see her name, Tracey Dawson, on one of the bronze plaques. The thought was silly because her bus friend had told her where she lived, the Glenwood Building, which obviously wasn’t the building her and Millie now called home.
There was some traditional Christmas music playing in the background, a little surprising to Molly who’d pegged Tracey more as an alternative genre type.

“Girl, you’re spot on. That’s exactly why I’m calling. How about Friday night? My place. For dinner.”

Millie was starting to stir. She’d already thrown down her covers and was untangling her feet from the sheet and thermal blanket. “Who’s that?”

Molly held out her phone and whispered. “It’s Tracey. Remember?” The invitation was good news to Molly. She was already tired of being stuck on the tenth floor. She needed something to look forward to.
“Sounds good to me but I better ask Mom.”

“Oh, she’s also invited. It’s just a small gathering of family and friends.” Tracey said, knowing the mother-daughter team might be a little lonely in a city of nine million.

Molly laid her phone on the table and walked to Millie. She was sitting on the edge of her bed staring out the window. “Mom, Tracey wants us to come to her place for dinner Friday night.”

A social event was the last thing Millie wanted but remembered how quickly Molly and Tracey had connected during their bus ride, and the meal they’d shared in Pittsburg. A baby-sitter type, no, a friend and companion for Molly might be needed someday. “I guess we can. If you want to.” Millie paused, stood, and headed toward the bathroom. “Ask her what time and if we can bring anything.”

Molly returned to the couch and her cell phone. “Tracey, we’d love to. What time?”

“How about seven?” The two talked another minute or so, mainly about the remaining bus ride after Tracey departed, and the specifics of her address. The call ended with Molly winning the argument over bringing a dessert. Millie’s Keylime pie was the twelve-year-old’s favorite.

Drafting–Colton & Sandy dispose of Mildred, and make key discovery

Colton, Sandy, and Mildred had spent all of Sunday and most of Monday at O’Hare International Airport, nestled inside Parking Lot C along with hundreds of other vehicles. To Colton, it was a place they would be invisible until he could make three significant decisions.

While Sandy and Mildred stayed in the back, sitting or lying on separate couches, visiting the tiny bathroom, or trying to prepare edible food from the groceries they’d grabbed from Mildred’s pantry and refrigerator, Colton sat in the drivers seat and contemplated.

The first decision wasn’t so much whether to rid themselves of Mildred, he’d already committed to that, but where to dispose of her body. The second issue was her money, more particularly, the $700 plus thousand dollars sitting inside three banks. And, the third was who would be the next person he and Sandy would confront concerning Millie’s whereabouts.

With the aid of a near-extinct item—AKA Rand McNally Road Atlas that Colton had purchased at an Elk Grove Shell station—he’d located Schiller Woods, a deeply-forested area just a few miles to southeast of the Airport.

It was early Monday afternoon when Colton decided they should return to Rolling Meadows and have Mildred, along with Sandy, politely rob three banks, all with the once-in-a-lifetime cover of the one who owned the money.
After successfully cashing out one CD from First American Bank, Colton abruptly changed his mind. The dumb-ass Sandy wouldn’t see a tiger if it was right in front of him; Mildred could write out a damn note and hand it to the banker and Sandy would miss it.

The moment Mildred and Sandy returned to the van, Colton drove away, never to attempt such a foolhardy venture again. The money simply wasn’t worth the risk. Even if they were successful and cashed in the entire lot of CDs, and hide the money so no one could ever find it, what did that get them if he and Sandy were locked away for life in prison? Colton, silently screamed to himself, “how in hell could I have been so dumb?” His thoughts continued: all banks have security cameras. First American Bank now had not only Mildred and Sandy, together, inside the bank, but her Sprinter van in the parking lot, with possibly a closeup of his face nervously watching the front door. Well, at least the return to Rolling Meadows hadn’t been a total bust, he thankfully had remembered to drop by Phone Mart and pickup his and Sandy’s new cell phones, paying the balance with some of Mildred’s cash.

After returning to Parking Lot C, Sandy and Mildred had whipped up a double-batch of Hamburger Helper. Both men had gorged themselves while Mildred had only nibbled, likely pondering her fate.

Monday night was one of the longest Colton ever experienced. The van was too small for three to sleep comfortably. Although the couch along the rear doors transformed into a double there was no way he was going to lay that close to Sandy. At 9:00 PM, Colton reclined in the driver’s side captain’s chair, while Sandy and Mildred stretched out on the two couches.

There was no way Colton could sleep, especially with so much to contemplate. Unknown to Sandy, with the aid of his new, untraceable cell phone, he’d decided the three of them would arrive at Schiller Woods before dawn and park at a picnic area Google Maps labeled, ‘Grove 5.’ He had little doubt that they’d have the place to themselves. From there, Colton, with Sandy’s assistance, would secure Mildred’s hands and stuff a sock in her mouth. Sandy would stay inside the van while Colton led her north into the woods several hundred feet. There, he would take Mildred’s life with one massive blow with a rock, hoping and intending she’d die instantly. He had no plan to bury or otherwise hide her body. Nature would take care of that, with everything from dogs, cats, rodents, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and birds devouring her corpse and scattering her bones throughout the thick forest.

That venture was a long seven hours away. Now, unable to sleep, Colton pondered who would be the best person to intimidate and convince that he or she should share Millie and Molly’s current location. Top of the list was Matt Canna. Colton knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was involved and knew the answer to Colton’s question. But, Matt was a stout guy, both mentally and physically. It might take some time to break him, and that meant a possibly worse scenario than the one with Mildred. And, this ignored the risk of confronting and abducting the six-foot two, two-hundred pound former athlete. Colton gave the Matt option a solid 8 out of a possible 10 for risk.
That left Alisha Maynard as Colton’s second possibility. Again, he had little doubt Molly’s best friend would know most everything, especially since they’d been sharing secrets since Kindergarten. Colton knew from two years of living with Millie and Molly, that the two six-graders were as intimate with their words as two romantic adults.

On the plus side of this option, Alisha would be a push-over as far as strength needed for an abduction, but there was a downside. She’s a twelve-year old child and would be better protected than Matt; she’d rarely be without adult supervision. Colton knew they’d have to get creative to develop a plan to kidnap her without being seen.

Colton reclined the captain’s chair as far as it would go and closed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t eaten an extra helping of Hamburger Helper. But, that wasn’t what was making him nauseous, it was the idiocy of committing murder and kidnapping in order to avoid a lifetime of prison for murder and kidnapping, not to mention the arson. Finally, surprisingly, Colton dosed and fell into a deep sleep, just to be awakened several hours later by Sandy nudging his shoulder. As planned, the two had agreed to swap places during the middle of the night.
However, Mildred’s every half-hour trip to the bathroom, and the slowly emerging smell of strong pee, prompted Colton to get up, go outside, and take a long walk around Parking Lot C. Four AM could not come quick enough.

When he returned to the van, Sandy was again on the rear couch, laying on his back, snoring like Hunter, a bulldog Colton had when he was a kid. Mildred was between trips to the bathroom, staring sadly at him as she inched her way back to the other couch.

Colton reconfigured the driver’s side captain’s chair and activated his new cell. It was 2:30 AM and he was wide awake. He inclined his seat and searched for the Spyware APP for the camera he’d hidden inside Molly’s black lama. He knew the battery was long dead but the prior recordings were safely stored in the cloud. The last recording of the two young girls still troubled him. Who were they? What in hell had become of Molly’s stuffed animals?

The APP was simple. As long as the camera had power—whether from a wall plug or its tiny battery, the motion-activated recordings were captured. If there was an available, non-password protected WiFi, the APP uploaded the recordings to a secure server.

Colton clicked on “Prior Recordings” and activated the most recent one. After turning up the volume and listening to the two curly-headed girls he guessed were five or six years old, to his surprise he was able to zoom in touching the screen with his thumb and forefinger and slowly spreading them apart. Earlier, he’d seen the white board on the wall in the background and that’s where he’d seen “Ray’s Garage.” This had prompted his search which ultimately had been a complete waste of time, an abrupt dead end, finding hundreds of Ray’s Garages throughout the country.

Now, with the APP’s new feature, he could make out what was clearly a row of crayon sketches taped side-by-side along the bottom of the board. None of the seven or eight interested Colton; they were all rudimentary drawings of sunsets, farm animals, pets including a dog, a cat, and a turtle, and, one each, of ‘Mom,’ and ‘Dad.’

What caught Colton’s attention was a flyer next to ‘Rufus’ the dog in the lower right corner of the white board. It was professionally done, at least compared to the girls’ sketches, in black and gold that announced an end-of-day school program last Friday where the Kindergarten students read their letters to Santa. At the bottom of the flyer, next to what had to be the school systems mascot, a yellow jacket, was printed in large letters: Fort Meigs Elementary School. The wording included a street address, along with the city, a place called Perrysburg, Ohio. “Bingo,” Colton said so loud that it disturbed the rhythm of Sandy’s snoring.

It took Colton less than a minute to type his Google query: “Ray’s Garage in Perrysburg, Ohio.” The first result read, “Auto Repair | Ray’s Service Center & Towing in Perrysburg, OH.” He clicked the link and after ignoring several customer reviews at the top of the page, read the following aloud, but softly: “Welcome to Ray’s Service Center & Towing, your car service in Perrysburg, OH!”

Colton smiled, although still confused. He asked himself, why would the black lama be here? His answer came quickly. The only logical explanation, given this place worked on dysfunctional vehicles, is that Millie’s Sentra had broken down. After locating Perrysburg on Google Maps, Colton announced to everyone within ear shot, “Shit, I bet the two escapees broke down on I-94 and had old Ray come get them with his tow truck.”

Nothing seemed to awaken the two snoring zombies as Colton continued to dissect what he’d discovered, At 4:00 AM he still hadn’t figured out why the black lama camera had captured the scene inside Ray’s office.

Stepping outside the van, all Colton could think was that he’d just experienced a miracle. It might have come from God but he doubted it. One thing was for sure, his and Sandy’s luck had just changed. For the better.

“Get up.” He said, opening the sliding side door. “We’ve got a full day ahead of us.”

It took fifteen-minutes to drive to Schiller Woods and Grove 5. Neither man had seen a single vehicle since passing the Dunkin coffee shop at the North River Road intersection, but what worried Colton the most was his stupidity—he’d failed to plan for the two I-90 toll booths, with both likely having cameras.
He eased the van off the cemented, circular drive and into the thick woods, just enough to be hidden. Mildred, still laying on her couch, was humming what had to be a gospel song. From his mother, Sandy knew it to be “Victory in Jesus.” He looked at Colton and shook his head sideways, making one final attempt to dissuade his best friend from taking yet another life.

It didn’t work. “Wake up mama, let’s take a little walk.” The lumberjack icon said as he exited the van.

By the time Colton reached the sliding door, Mildred was sitting up and buttoning her coat. She stuffed both hands in pockets as he motioned her to follow.

They slowly marched fifteen minutes due north with Mildred in the lead listening to her killer. Instead of his words, “right,” “left,” along the way her mind leaped eighty years past to her father plowing his mule with occasional “gee” and “haw” commands to guide old Sally alongside the rows of corn.
“Okay, stop here.” Colton said after they crossed a narrow stream of snow-melt alongside an outcropping of rocks ten feet ahead.

“Whoa,” thought Mildred. She listened for “come up” or a cluck for get going but heard only a sigh from her killer. Turning just enough to see Colton out of the corner of her eye, she saw he was staring at his cell phone.

Mildred squeezed her right hand around the handle of the only boning knife she carried in the van. Neither Sandy nor Colton had thought she might have a weapon, much less have the guts to use it. She withdrew her hand clutching the knife and fell to the ground resting on her knees, leaning forward with only her left hand visible. “Ooooh, she screamed.” Her plan, her hope, was that Colton would either kill her instantly with a rock or limb, or he’d try to make her stand. He might even kneel beside her and ask what was wrong. The latter, she doubted, but he might grab an arm and start pulling her upward. If she didn’t die from a hard blow to the head, she might get her chance.

“What the fuck?” Colton turned back toward the little creek. Mildred caught his movement in the corner of her eye. He found a rock bigger than his hand and walked toward her.

As luck or fate would have it, Colton’s first strike missed Mildred’s head and landed between her neck and shoulder. Miraculously, she spun on her knees to her left and brought her right arm and hand upwards as hard as she could. The blade penetrated his left thigh, just above the knee on the inner side.

Fortunately for Colton, the knife missed his femoral artery by an inch.
“You fucking bitch.” The second blow struck the left side of Mildred’s head, just above the ear. With a groan she slumped sideways onto the snow-soaked ground. Colton watched for what seem like several minutes before she took her last breath.

He quickly unbuckled his pants and slid them down to his knees to look at the wound. There wasn’t much blood. Thankfully, it was a flesh wound, above the thigh bone. Regardless, Colton used a bandanna to make a tourniquet.

Before returning to the van, he eyed the scene and saw the knife half submerged in mud lying beside Mildred’s body. Apparently, after the scuffle and during his wound inspection, he’d stepped on the six-inch blade.

After searching the dead woman’s pockets, Colton returned to the van and a sad-faced Sandy who’s voice trembled as he asked, “is she gone?”

Colton nodded, opened the driver’s side door, and tucked the knife underneath the seat fully intending to toss it out the window somewhere in between Chicago and Perrysburg. “Come on.” He hollered at Sandy who was slouching toward the van.

Drafting–Millie & Molly visit the law firm of Bird & Foley

It was almost noon Monday when the heating & air guys showed up. Millie and Molly’s two nights and one day without heat hadn’t been unbearable but still left them with that ‘tent-camping’ feeling of tiredness, not to mention Molly’s irritability.

Like yesterday, they each had stayed under the covers until there was an interruption. Sunday’s was the super knocking on the door, just checking in and updating them on when to expect the repairmen. This morning, at 10:30, it was Alisha’s text. To Molly’s chagrin, the notification beep had spawned an instant lie.

“Who’s that?” Millie had asked three feet away head barely visible from beneath a mountain of covers.

“Oh, someone offering psychic reading services.”

While untangling from the twisted coverlet and thermal blanket, Millie had responded with a multi-sentence castigation of Google and its ‘listening’ ability. “Dang, it must have picked up on our conversation last night about psychiatrists in New York City.”

Molly dared not reveal she’d used her new phone to communicate with Alisha during the last leg of her and her mother’s bus ride. The battery in Alistar’s secret phone had been low and Molly couldn’t wait to tell her best friend they’d almost reached the Big Apple.

“Me first.” Molly was out of bed in a flash, running to the bathroom, iPhone in hand. “I’m about to bust.” Millie just stared and walked to the kitchen.

Inside, on the commode, Molly sent Alisha a text. “Me here, you here. Morning. Can’t talk now, and don’t use this number. I used it Saturday by mistake. I’ll text you later from Alistar’s phone. Love you.” The lack of privacy was definitely going to be an issue, Molly thought as she stood, washed her face, and rolled her eyes as Millie knocked on the bathroom door.

Molly and Millie took showers, dressed, and were out of the apartment by 12:30 PM, leaving the hard work to the two heating and air guys.

Yesterday afternoon, Millie had called her new boss as he’d requested. Like Matt in Chicago, Stephen Canna was polite, respectful, generous, and anxious to acclimate Millie to her new work home, a few of her associates, and a summary of her initial job assignments. The two had agreed on 1:15 as a convenient time for all parties to meet.

With Molly’s help, Millie had decided the best way to travel to (and from) the law firm of Bird & Foley at the Woolworth Building in south Manhattan was New York City’s subway system; it definitely was cheaper than Uber or a taxi. The journey planning, with the aid of Google Maps, was relatively simple, although it included two walks, a nine minute one from their apartment building at 334 East 79th Street to the 77th Street subway station, and a second one, five minutes at the tail end, from the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall Station to the Woolworth Building. The cost, each way, per person, was only $2.75. Even better, Millie had discovered the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) offered a monthly discount card for $127.00 which provided unlimited use of the subway system. Again, per person.

The walk to the 77th Street station was enjoyable with a blue sky and an unusually warm temperature. Thank goodness the snow had stopped and the streets and sidewalk were clear. Two things caught Molly’s attention during the nine minute walk: the Yorkville Library on 79th Street just before turning left on 3rd Avenue, and the Spectrum Store on 3rd Avenue before turning right on East 77th Street. To her, it wasn’t too early to start thinking about things to do after school and while waiting on her mom to arrive home from work, which, from past history, could often be as late as six or seven PM.

Millie and Molly descended the stairs to the subway tunnel at 12:33 PM. A train was departing as they approached. Per the overhead digital sign, the next train would arrive in four minutes. Both Millie and Molly had downloaded the OMNY App (One Metro New York) to use in paying fares. They approached a turnstile and tapped their smart phones. The dings meant they’d successfully paid the $2.75 fare.

Molly wasn’t really surprised at the eclectic mix of strangers busing around the platform: business professionals in suits, pink-haired teenagers with piercings and tattoos, mothers pushing strollers, vagrants sleeping on the benches along the concrete walls, and older men or women with tattered back packs likely containing everything they owned.

Like Greyhound bus-lines, the next train arrived on time. The second it stopped the narrow doors opened. Although there were available seats, Millie insisted they stand next to one of the vertical poles equally spaced along the center of the train, and hold onto the leather hand loops dangling from the ceiling. Her reasoning was this would be good practice for the time they’d have no choice given a large crowd of weary travelers.

Molly counted thirteen stops along their twenty-two minute ride; none took longer than a minute or two. Over the creaks and squeaks of the metal tube shimming at high speed, Millie was lost in thought the entire trip, mostly imagining a typical day once she started work at Bird & Foley. What she dreaded and hated the most was Molly having to fend for herself. Although the two would leave the apartment at the same time each morning five days per week, their walk paths would diverge at 2nd Avenue where Molly would go left and walk three blocks to Robert F. Wagner Middle School, while Millie continued onward to the 77th Street station. She made a mental note to search for another student who attended Molly’s school. Maybe the two could become friends, but, at least walk together the seven minutes to and from school. Somehow the air changed directions and the putrid smell of body odor racked Millie back into reality. A greasy haired man in a dirty hooded jacket stood beside her anxious to exit the train.

As expected, the train ride ended at the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall Station. After waiting for a dozen other passengers to depart, including two well-dressed professionals, three older women lugging shopping bags, and a young mother clutching a young child, Millie and Molly exited the train.

After ascending the stairs, Millie immediately recognized the Woolworth Building although they were a five minute walk away. It was grand, beautiful, and no doubt, commanded a premium monthly rental. Bird and Foley had to be a financially solid firm. From Millie’s research, she’d learned the neo-Gothic structure was built in 1913, and once was the world’s tallest building. No doubt, it remains an architectural landmark.

After their five minute walk, both Molly and Millie shed their jackets. The wind had calmed and the temperature was approaching sixty degrees.

They were several minutes early so they took the time to stare at the Woolworth Building’s unbelievably beautiful lobby. It was ornate to say the least, not only for its marble floors and granite walls, but for the various sculptures, mosaic ceiling, and other architectural touches. In a word, it was dazzling.

Millie’s favorite sculpture was rather grotesque, one depicting the building’s original owner, Frank W. Woolworth, with him holding one of the nickels that created his five-and-dime empire. Molly liked the sculpture depicting Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building, holding a model of the tower.
During the elevator ride to the twenty-eighth floor all Millie could think about was the boring, uncreative design of the Chicago skyscraper that housed Matt’s office. She hoped the Woolworth Building foreshadowed a new and exciting world, one intricately designed to shed wonder, hope, and vision to its occupants. When they reached their floor, Molly asked, “what world did you go to?”

The elevator doors opened, and a tall, thin man with close-cropped red hair stood smiling in the hallway outside double mahogany doors. When Millie sent Stephen a text announcing they were in the building she hadn’t expected him to give them such a welcome. He took three steps toward them and held out his right hand as though to shake but quickly removed it and gave Millie a hug.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He turned to the precocious twelve-year-old. “Gosh, this can’t be Molly. You could pass for my ninth grade daughter.” Instead of hugging, they did a fist bump.

After a few questions about the new apartment, and both Molly and Millie thanking Stephen for the groceries, he guided them through the giant mahogany doors to the law firm of Bird & Foley.

“This is Candice, our receptionist.” Stephen said as he walked toward a sixty’ish looking woman with narrow eye-glasses perched on her nose, wearing a denim jacket, and standing behind a semicircular counter built to match the heavy wooden front doors. “If you’re ever in doubt who to ask for something, start with Candice.”

“Hello Millie and Molly, welcome to Bird & Foley.” Candice said, smiling, but quickly returning her attention to a document she’d been reading.

The office was huge, encompassing the entire twenty-eighth floor. Stephen’s tour consisted of two phases. First, he quickly led them past an assortment of multi-sized conference rooms, associate attorneys offices that were as nice as any at Quinn Law in Chicago, a giant room filled with cubicles for support staff, and through another set of double-oak doors, and past ten offices with great views along the south and west sides of the Woolworth Building. These larger offices were reserved for the partners. So far, other than Candice, neither Millie or Molly had seen another person.

The second phase started with a brisk walk to the eastern side of the building and into a large room that housed the firm’s kitchen and dining room. There, Stephen paraded Millie and Molly around and introduced them to at least forty people of all shapes and sizes, many wearing Santa hats. Obviously, the casually dressed hoard was enjoying a final party and exchange of gag gifts before departing early for a long Christmas holiday.

Not once did Stephen attach a label to identify what the person’s role was within the firm. There was no, “Ken is a partner”; “Sally is Ken’s secretary”; or, “Billy is our custodian.” The same feeling Millie had sensed when Candice welcomed her and Molly, instantly recognizing them, was how she felt. Wow, every employee was aware of her joining the firm.

Before exiting the dining room, Stephen, who seemed to possess detailed knowledge about each of the firm’s employees, introduced Millie and Molly to a man named Ed, whose daughter, Elizabeth, is an eighth grader at Robert Wagner Middle School. “Give me your number and I’ll have Lizzie call you.” Ed said looking at Molly, who looked at Millie before announcing her phone number.

Surprisingly, Stephen’s office was the most unkempt of all the partners. Unlike theirs, created, designed, and selected, Stephen’s was random, chaotic, and accumulated. The bookcases on two walls were anything but neat and orderly. The two arm chairs facing his giant, drawer-less desk were piled with an assortment of multi-colored folders. The small round table in the corner was strewn with pencils, markers, opened envelopes, and both letter and legal size documents in disarray. Even the couch that backed to the floor-to-ceiling windows was a mess. A New York Giants coverlet that likely was intended to lay across the length of the couch was pushed to one end and titled. The thermal blanket and two pillows in white cases loudly declared its occupant spent nights in the office.

Stephen quickly removed the bed items, tossed them into one of two chairs at the round table, and motioned for Millie and Molly to sit on the couch. “I’ll grab some water.” Stephen said without asking. He walked to and opened a small refrigerator on the credenza behind his desk. Millie hadn’t noticed it before. He returned, handed each of them a bottle, and repositioned the remaining chair to face Millie and Molly.

“I won’t take long since I know you have tons of things you need to do. But, I wanted to give you an idea of what to expect on the sixth when you start. Millie was thankful for two weeks before the roller-coaster ride of work and life outside the Woolworth Building began.

“First, if it’s acceptable to you, I want you to work on the civil side of the practice.” Millie recognized Stephan’s politeness and consideration. She was his employee, her work assignments didn’t have to meet her approval. Anyway, it was the thought that counted. He digressed a little and gave an overview of the firm’s practice: pretty much equally divided between the law’s two main divisions, criminal and civil. “Oh, to start with, you’ll be in the trenches, that’s what we call the large room we walked by with all the cubicles. This is where all the paralegals and other support staff have their homes. Except for the four supervisors. These experienced paralegals direct a team that corresponds to the four main practice areas, criminal, blue-collar; criminal, white-collar; civil, personal injury, non-death cases; and, civil, personal injury, death cases.

Molly raised a hand as though she was in class. “Where’s the nearest restroom?” Millie made a mental note to ask her daughter if she was having any health problems. It seemed she’d been going to the bathroom a lot lately.

“Through that door.” Stephen pointed to an oak door beside his credenza at the opposite side from the small refrigerator. Molly thanked him and left Millie and Stephen alone. He leaned forward and asked, “I want you to tell you in person that you can confide in me, about anything. I can only imagine what you’ve gone through and continue to go through.”

Millie thought about Matt’s caring and compassion. Now, Stephen seemed to be a spitting image. How fortunate could she be? “Thanks so much. That means the world to me, but I don’t want to be a burden. It’s imperative for me to do my job and become an asset to your firm.”

“Our firm. It belongs to all of us. You’ll see when you receive your first bonus. But, let’s talk about that during orientation.” Molly returned and started surfing her phone.

There was a soft knock on the door next to the hallway. It was Candice. Millie and Stephen had arranged this yesterday afternoon. Candice would take Molly to the front desk and start introducing her to the phone system. His ninth grade daughter was already adept at receiving and transferring calls and had offered the same to Millie on behalf of Molly. “We’ll be along in thirty or forty minutes.” Stephen said as Molly followed Candice.

“Now, here’s my plan. The supervising paralegals all have private offices. They’re scattered among the associate offices we passed. The other partners and I have agreed to create a whole new division, which will necessiate another supervising paralegal. The placeholder name, for now, is civil, personal injury, churches. Notice, I didn’t distinguish death and non-death because these lawsuits ….” Stephen paused as though to catch his breath, he seemed so excited, or to scan his mind for what he hadn’t previously said but should have. “Bird & Foley is a criminal defense and plaintiff’s firm. We do not represent defendants in civil cases. Now, back to this new division.

“Over the past few years we’ve represented a number of individuals who have been hurt by the church and other religious organizations. Of late, we’ve been inundated with cases against Southern Baptist Churches. I don’t know if you’ve heard but the Southern Baptist Convention has recently released a report that details widespread sexual abuse cases. We have several new cases in this area. But, that’s not the only type case we’re involved with and continually trying to add to our inventory.

One such case, a fairly new case is the wrongful death case brought by the family of Deanna Parisi. Here it is in a nutshell, obviously, we’ll discuss it at length on the sixth. Our claim is Mount Zion Baptist Church and its lead pastor, Carl Warren, were negligent in the counsel they provided Ms. Parisi, which later committed suicide. There’s also a claim of sexual misconduct against a currently unidentified person, who also was or is still a member of Mount Zion.

Stephen paused to give Millie a chance to speak. “I assume I’ll do typical paralegal work on this case, things like conduct legal research and write memos that will go to an associate for review; prepare discovery requests, review discovery requests, and index depositions.”

Stephen raised a hand, palm out. “Of course, but I’m interested in you becoming much more involved. For now, let me just say, I’ll want you to do some investigating on your own. Nothing dangerous mind you, but scouting out and interviewing potential witnesses.”

This is something Millie didn’t have much experience in. “Isn’t this normally done by the firm’s investigative team?”

Before Stephen could answer, Ed from the dining room, stuck his head inside and asked if he could have a few minutes. Stephen nodded and motioned him inside, and looked again at Millie. “Our investigators are currently swamped, and, I hate to say, pretty well known in Manhattan. I need you to be more incognito, and disarming.”

Ed seemed anxious to speak with Stephen alone so he dismissed Millie but not before reminding her to call if she had questions or needed any help at all.

Drafting–Hearing on District Attorney’s motion to revoke Colton & Sandy’s bonds

“The court calls The State of Illinois vs. Colton Lee Atwood.” The bailiff announced with a deep voice, scanning the courtroom, and registering four people present other than himself, the judge, and the court reporter. Three of the four were attorneys, two sitting to his right at the defense table, the other was the assistant district attorney, looming large at the prosecutor’s table to his left. The fourth was Andrew Spivey in the galley, the Chicago Tribune reporter who was always present for the criminal motions docket.

The bailiff handed the court file to the judge who started slowly reading the incident and offense reports, and the indictment.

Assistant District Attorney George Hooks stood from the prosecutor’s table. “Your honor, the State asks this case and the case of State of Illinois vs. J. Sanford Brown be heard together. They’re companion cases and are both set for today on the State’s motions to revoke bond. And, as the file indicates, Judge Stewart granted my office’s joinder motion.” Hooks was a giant, six foot seven, and had played center for the national champion Kentucky Wildcats in the late nineties; his weight now approached three-hundred pounds. His bald head, long neck, and appetite for devouring defendants, most of whom suffer from the delusion they are still alive, had earned him the nickname, the vulture. His eighty-six inch wingspan and octupus-like fingers intimidated the toughest defense attorney, not only when standing next to him before the bench, but also by teasing their heads with the metaphorical thought Hooks could secretly reach inside the inner pages of their files and strategies.

“I’ll allow it.” Judge Joe Rhodes, a thick man with a mass of thick gray curls hanging to his shoulders and concealing much of his face, was sitting on his perch fiddling with his glasses, and sucking on an unlit cigar.

The court reporter handed the Brown file to the bailiff who handed it to the judge.

Defense attorney Cliff Blackwell leaned toward Sandy’s attorney, Patrick Meyers, and whispered. “Where in hell are these bastards?” Earlier today, both defense attorneys had attempted to call their clients to remind them their appearance in court this morning was mandatory. The two calls had gone to voicemail. And, late Saturday afternoon, and three times yesterday, Blackwell had dialed Millie Anderson’s cell. These calls too had gone to voicemail. He had wanted her in court as a backup strategy, knowing she was the key to Atwood’s hope of surviving the indictment but also knowing that revealing her as an alibi at this stage would take away the benefit of surprise she would be at the actual trial, and give ADA Hooks and his investigative team ample time to microscopically inspect the truth or falseness of Millie’s statement.

The judge looked toward the defense table and saw two familiar faces, but not the defendants. Quickly, he asked the bailiff to summon the court clerk from her office, who, after appearing, assured the judge written notices had been mailed to both defendant’s. He dismissed her and said, “Mr. Hooks, I see we’re here today on your motion to revoke bond. What say you?” Rhodes was newly appointed and had spent the prior twenty-years as a prosecutor, often trying cases in this very courtroom.

Hooks stood. “Your Honor, it should be clear why the defendants aren’t here this morning. They know they’ve been skating on thin ice every since Judge Stewart granted their bond for $50,000. With no disrespect for your predecessor, the horror of these crimes mandates one response: jail, without bail.” Hooks paused, not wanting to get long-winded without Judge Rhoades permission.

The judge inhaled a long draw of his unlit cigar. “Continue.”

Hooks glanced at the defense table and then back to Judge Rhoades. “The defendants kidnapped and raped two University of Chicago students, and in an effort to destroy evidence torched the young ladies’ home. One victim, Ms. Ellen Heppner, died in the fire. The other, Ms. Gina Patton, barely escaped and still suffers greatly, including having to quit school. She’s now undergoing deep therapy and living with her parents. We ask this court to revoke the defendants’ bond and incarcerate them until trial.” The ADA sat, then quickly re-stood. “One final thing your honor, our investigation has revealed that defendant Atwood has on more than one occasion, one within the past six weeks, physically abused the woman he lives with. Plus, she has a twelve-year-old daughter living in the same household. The State contends Atwood is a threat to not only to his girlfriend, Ms. Millie Anderson, and her daughter, but potentially to Ms. Patton herself since her testimony is critical to this case. Thank you your honor.”

Attorney Meyers continued to doodle on his yellow legal pad, thankful Blackwell had agreed to take the lead and speak on behalf of both defendants. It was good Colton hadn’t confessed, unlike Sandy. “I’m limited in what I can say on my client’s behalf,” is all Meyers had relayed to Blackwell when they’d received copies of the State’s motion to revoke bond. Now, drawing a hangman’s noose, he swore to himself he would never accept another murder case. And, it wasn’t for lack of financial resources. Both Sandy and his sister had signed promissory notes, and pledged their grandfather’s estate as collateral. Plus, the sister had paid twenty thousand dollars toward the fifty-thousand retainer. Meyers problem was the approaching storm. Blackwell was a good friend but that didn’t dissipate the duty to represent his client. At some point, Meyers knew he had to negotiate a deal on behalf of Brown. This meant offering Brown’s testimony of Colton’s guilt in exchange for a lesser sentence. This would have been so much easier if Brown hadn’t described in detail what had gone that horrible night. It would have been easier if he hadn’t revealed that he and Colton had no alibi, that he was forcing Millie Anderson to testify falsely. Meyers drew a larger noose underneath the small one at the top of the page, wondering if his client and Colton were now on the run, and, for the second time today, wondered if Colton was a physical threat to his client.

“I assume the defendants have something to say.” Judge Rhoades lay his unlit cigar aside and poured himself a cup of coffee from an old green thermos.

Attorney Cliff Blackwell stood, glancing down at the two nooses Meyers had drawn. Blackwell comes from a long line of lawyers. His grandfather had started the firm in 1925. His father had joined the firm in 1954, after Harvard law school, and a two-year stint in the Army. Cliff had become a partner in 1984 after graduating Harvard Law School, clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court, and five years as an FBI agent. “Thank you your Honor. I admit I do not know where the defendants are at the present moment but there are certain things in their favor we do know. First, there isn’t a shred of physical evidence tying my client or Mr. Meyers’ client to the charged crimes. We’re here because of the slender reed of Ms. Patton’s testimony. In that, she admits the perpetrators wore masks. At best, she contends her and Ms. Heffener’s attackers could have been the men they partied with at Mitchell’s Tab. As to Mr. Hooks’ allegation my client has abused his girlfriend, unsurprisingly, there’s no evidence for that either, no police reports, no eyewitness testimony. Further, the defendant’s are both gainfully employed and have deep ties to the community, both having lived in Chicago all their lives. They have no reason to avoid the workings of this court. In the event this Court grants the State’s motion I would ask on behalf of both defendants that it be a conditional order, that Mr. Meyers and I be given ten business days to present them to this court, and, in that event, the Court would void it’s order. Finally, Mr. Meyers and I need easy and frequent access to our clients to assist in the preparation of their defense. Thank you your Honor.”

Judge Rhoades used both hands to push back his gray curls from his narrow face. “Let’s take a fifteen minute break while I ponder my ruling.” The three attorneys stood while the judge and the court reporter retreated to chambers. Blackwell and Meyers stared at each other and shook their heads, knowing what was coming. ADA Hooks turned and raced outside the courtroom with iPhone to his ear, and motioning Reporter Spivey to join him.

After the courtroom emptied, Meyers decided there would be no better time than the present to tell Blackwell what he’d decided. “Cliff, I have no choice but to file a motion to sever.” Severance is a legal term and is used to separate defendants, giving them each their own trial, their own jury, their own opportunity to defend themselves without appearing as one with their co-defendant. For one less guilty, it provides a way to remove the taint of association with one more likely to be convicted.

Cliff took the news better than Patrick imagined. “Do what you got to do. As you know, my client has an alibi, he has never wavered from that.” Cliff personally believed his client had lied to him but since he didn’t have contradictory proof, he had a legal obligation to go forward with his client’s set of facts. “And, don’t worry about cutting a deal with the vulpine Hooks. Just remember, I’ll cross-examine your client if he testifies against mine.”

Meyers sat, picked up his pencil, and started writing something on his legal pad. “Vulpine?” How do you spell that. Blackwell responded, saying the letters slowly. “Never heard that word. What does it mean?”

“Relates to a fox. In our context, it means Hooks is clever, cunning, shrewd, wily. You know, wily as a fox.”

Just then Judge Rhoades, his court reporter, and the bailiff rushed back into the courtroom from chambers. Patrick joined Cliff in standing. “I have a family emergency so let’s make this quick. Where’s Hooks?”

It took less than a minute for the bailiff to retrieve Hooks from the hallway. “Sorry, your honor.” Cliff sighed to himself, and whispered, “the bastard is always sucking up to the judge.”

“Gentlemen, I’ve made my ruling. I hereby revoke the defendants’ bond and order warrants for their immediate arrest. They will be incarcerated until trial.” The bailiff walked up the steps toward the judge and handed him a note. He paused and read for ten seconds. “I have an update. The clerk has sent word that neither defendant showed for work today. But, I will say this. If either defense attorney can provide me a justifiable reason his client could not be here, for example, they were in a car wreck with injuries and taken to the hospital, I will rescind my order, at least temporarily. Now, I have to go. This hearing is adjourned.”

Cliff replayed in his head what the judge had just said. He couldn’t make sense of it. If good cause for not appearing was presented why not rescind the revocation order entirely. The only thing Cliff could figure was the judge believed the defendants were dangerous and belonged in jail. The damn judge was simply trying to placate, trying to appear fair to both sides. To Cliff, nothing was further from the truth. Judge Rhoades was a diehard pro-prosecution judge.

Reporter Spivey followed ADA Hooks outside the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building. “Mr. Hooks, may I have a quick word?” The ADA was in a hurry to return to his office to meet with Todd Lacey his chief investigator.

“You have as long as it takes for me to hail a cab.” Hooks hated driving, always preferring to work on cases, either reading files or talking on his cell with investigators, witnesses, and associates.

Spivey stood beside Hooks on South California Avenue feeling like a midget. Although he was a little over six feet tall himself, the ADA’s height and heft flooded his mind with a wave of weakness. “Let’s deal. I get the inside scoop on the Atwood & Brown case and I’ll keep you up-to-date on Millie Anderson.”
“Who?” Hooks temporarily forgot the name of Defendant Atwood’s girlfriend.
“I guess you know she’s left town.” Spivey had interviewed Sandy Brown shortly after the indictments were released. He’d let it slip that he and Atwood had an alibi.

“How the hell do you know that?” Hooks waved a long arm toward a passing cab. To no avail.

“I’ve been stalking her. Legally. My sources say she was seen last Friday morning, along with her daughter, heading east on I-90. Plus, I’ve verified she wasn’t at work that day, nor has she been seen coming or going from her house on Princeton Avenue since early Friday morning. I suspect there’s a story there.”

A cab stopped and Hooks opened the door. Before contorting his huge frame into the back seat he looked down at Spivey. “You got a deal but I warn you. No bullshit.”

As the cab drove away, the reporter clinched his right hand into a fist and quickly pulled it to his side. “Yes.”

Drafting–Colton and Sandy abduct Mildred and steal her van

Colton awoke Sunday morning at 3:00 AM in a cold sweat. For a minute the dream or whatever it was didn’t stop. The picture in his head was threatening and foreboding. After Mildred had left last night she’d gone straight to Alice’s house across the street. She’d told her everything. Alice had insisted they call the police. Mildred had agreed but wanted to talk with Sandy first; she knew him and believed she had an obligation to Pop to try and protect his only grandson, plus, Sandy had been kind and nice to her. However, the monster named Colton had treated her with disdain. Anyone could tell he was the devil, mean as hell, and therefore should be locked up.

Still in his underwear, Colton went to the bathroom, then the kitchen to make coffee. He had no doubt they had to act today, as soon as possible. Waiting until tomorrow would give Mildred time to slip a noose around their necks. Hopefully, she hadn’t already.

He drank coffee at the dining room table and pondered a hurried plan before waking Sandy. Colton tip-toed into his friend’s bedroom and with a deep and powerful tone meant to imitate a pro-prosecution judge’s voice, announced, “Sanford Brown, I hereby sentence you to life in prison.”

Sandy’s eyes popped open instantly. He plopped up on his elbows. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Reality check my friend. Get up. No time to waste.”

After peeing and slipping on yesterday’s clothes Sandy joined Colton over coffee at the dining room table. “Man, I’d just fell asleep when you shouted in my ear. The thought of killing Mildred is wrong and I can’t be a part of it.”

Colton was the master at manipulating Sandy. Okay, pack your bags and take Pop’s Buick back home to South Farrell Street. And, don’t forget to be at court tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM. Do you want me to give you a wake-up call? Oh, by the way, tell the DA and the judge I said hi.” Sarcasm seemed to always work.

“Shit man, stop that. You know I don’t want to go to jail, but there’s got to be another way.”

“I’m listening. Take your best shot, naming at least one other, workable, alternative.” Colton knew Sandy had no viable idea.

Sandy walked to the kitchen and returned with the near-empty coffee pot. He poured it into Colton’s cup. “I’ll make some more.”

“Thanks.” Against his better judgment, Colton decided to give Sandy some rope. “I tell you what. Why don’t you go see Mildred and be totally honest with her, don’t hold back. Tell her what we’re planning unless she cooperates.”
Sandy interrupted from the kitchen. “Man, that’s not being honest, you said we were going to kill her.”

It was time for some lying. “Okay, I’ll change my mind if you can convince Mildred to fully cooperate. But, just know, the van is going to get awfully small with her tagging along.”

Sandy poured water into the coffee maker, then leaned against the sink. “You’re not pulling my leg are you?”

“Hell no. I’m trying to do everything I can to save our asses.”

“Money, luggage, Alice. What else does Mildred need to do to cooperate?” Sandy started to ask Colton how he planned on withdrawing money at her bank without being video-recorded, but let it slide.

“Don’t worry, I’ve made a list and will explain it to her if you convince her to cooperate. But, here’s the deal, either way, you do not leave Mildred alone. Just send me a text of her decision and I’ll walk over. Again, don’t let her out of your sight. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” Sandy said, wishing he’d never met Colton Lee Atwood.

At 6:00 AM Sandy knocked on Mildred’s back door. As expected, she was already up, in the kitchen, washing the breakfast dishes.

She walked to the door. Sandy saw her worried face and forced smile. She didn’t unlock and open the door but stared through the glass panels. “Good morning. What you got?” Sandy had brought a frozen Caramel Apple Creme Pie he’d purchased at Walmart.

“Got you a pie. You can share with Alice if you want.” He didn’t know why he’d brought Alice into the conversation. Maybe as a subtle threat but that was more Colton’s style, not his.

For a minute, Mildred, her face expressionless, didn’t move. However, probably unaware, she mumbled, “uhhhhhhh.”

“Mildred, we need to talk. I promise it’s in your best interest.” An icy wind was wearing on Sandy’s patience. As the wrinkled-faced woman continued staring, he wondered what he would do if she turned and walked away. Return to Pop’s? No, Colton said this was life or death. He had the answer, he’d bust the door down. That would show Colton he was serious.

The dead-bolt clicked and the door opened. “Come in. Have you had breakfast?” Mildred couldn’t resist being nice.

Sandy rejected Mildred’s offer, sat her across from him in the den and played good cop to Colton’s bad cop. Surprisingly, after repeating the offer and highlighting Colton’s propensity to violence, Mildred relented. “I’ll do whatever you ask me to do. I may be old but I’m no idiot, and I’m not ready to die.”

Sandy sent Colton a text: “she’s agreed to help.”

Colton immediately responded. “Don’t let her out of your sight. I’ll be there in fifteen to twenty minutes. I’m packing and bringing the van.”

Sandy and Mildred were sitting at the kitchen table when Colton walked in. After removing his jacket, he didn’t waste any time. “We need all your cash. Where is it?”

The old woman stared at the table weighing her options. None were good.
“Damn it, look at me.” The pistol stuck inside Colton’s belt caught her eye. Mildred complied. “That’s your one and only break. From now on, when I ask you something, if you hesitate, I’ll punish you.”

“Come on man, she’s agreed to help.” Sandy stood and faced Colton, but knew better. “Hey man, did you bring my electric toothbrush?”

Colton ignored Sandy’s question and inched forward toward Mildred, removing his Sig Sauer P226. “This is your last chance old lady, where’s your cash?” Colton was confident Mildred would have hidden some amount of legal tender, probably in two or three places.

This time, Mildred stood. “I’ll show you. Follow me.” Colton complied.

Three thousand dollars was in her late husband’s shaving bag hidden behind a dozen pairs of shoes at the bottom of her closet. Sixteen hundred dollars was stuffed inside a Raggedy Ann doll sitting at the center of her chest-of-drawers. A thousand dollars was in a zip-lock bag floating inside the toilet tank in the hall bathroom. The mother load was ten thousand dollars Mildred had ignored until Colton had bored his dark eyes into and asked if she had a safe.

Cash wasn’t the only thing she kept locked in the old Mosler floor safe hidden behind a row of long dresses in the master bedroom’s walk-in-closet. Colton ignored Mildred’s last will and testament, two deeds, and a burial policy. What caught his attention was the folder containing copies of twenty-eight Certificates of Deposit. They were purchased from three local banks: First American Bank, Palatine Bank & Trust, and Ben Franklin Bank of Illinois. Colton used his phone’s calculator to add the face values of the twenty-eight CDs: seven hundred twenty nine thousand dollars. None had the same maturity date. The closest was February 15th, the longest was July 1st, 2024.

“We can go tomorrow and I’ll cash them in. But, there’ll be an early withdrawal penalty on each of them.” Mildred said, standing in the closet doorway. To Colton, the old lady was being too cooperative. She knows if we let her inside a bank she’ll be able to signal for help. Yet, three-quarters of a million dollars was tempting. Colton made a mental note to work on a plan to steal this money.

“Sandy, help Mildred pack two suitcases. I’ll be at the kitchen table writing out a script.” Both men believed it necessary for her to call Alice and tell her she’d had enough of the snow and cold and was going on a trip, probably to Florida.

To Sandy and Colton’s surprise, the old woman was convincing, both on the phone and when Alice came to say goodbye. With the men hiding in the pantry, Mildred had calmly resisted her friend’s attempt to come in for a short visit and a cup of coffee. “Dear, you know I’d like to but Rev. Mahonge has agreed to meet me for confession at 7:00, and I’ve still got a ton of things to do.” Alice would know the reverend since both women were members of St. Colette Parish.

“I understand. Now, you be careful. Call me at least once a week, and know I love postcards.” Colton thought Mildred was bolting when she opened the back door. Instead, she gave the obese, half-bald Alice a long hug. Hopefully, she hadn’t whispered something in her ear.

Mildred did equally well on three short audio recordings. When Alice requested the weekly calls, Sandy had whispered, “use voice memos to record Mildred calling Alice and leaving a message.” Colton had liked the idea, which, to him, meant Sandy assumed Alice wouldn’t be alive to make the calls.

Sandy shut off the lights, locked the back door, and loaded two suitcases in the rear of the van while directing Mildred to buckle-up in one of the two couches.

After stashing the bag of cash in an overhead compartment, Colton steered the van onto Ruskin Drive, wondering how in Hell he’d gotten into such a fucking mess.

Drafting–Colton and Sandy inspect Mildred’s van inside the detached garage

Colton and Sandy waited until 9:00 PM to walk to the detached garage and inspect Mildred’s van. Sandy new from his younger days that she was an early-to-bed, early-to rise woman. Pop had always said Mildred was like a chicken at night, taking to her roost fifteen to thirty minutes before sunset. But, in the mornings, she was up by 4:00 AM, a good two to three hours before sunrise, the normal chicken-rising time. Mildred no longer had chickens but Sandy and Colton doubted she’d changed her habits.

The dark gray, almost black, van was a 2017 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 4×4. According to paperwork in the console, Mildred had purchased the like-new RV for $79,000 from a man named Angelo Danesi out of Marietta, Georgia. He had bought the Sanctuary model from Thor Motor Coach in Elkhart, Indiana.

To say the van was luxurious was a gross understatement. It had everything two people would need to comfortably travel year round, even off-road. Up front were two ergonomic captain chairs facing a high-tech dashboard. Behind them was the well-designed living quarters, accessible directly from the captain chairs or via the exterior sliding door located behind the passenger seat.

As Sandy walked around the van marveling the sleek design, Colton inspected the well-equipped rolling apartment. At dinner, while considering whether the van might provide a better option than Pop’s house, he’d inventoried what a mobile set-up should include. The van more than met his expectations: inside the living quarters was a two-burner stove and sink (outside, he’d noticed an attached grill toward the right rear side), a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a surprisingly large shower/commode bathroom combination, two couches that made into beds, and plenty of storage.

Sandy joined Colton in the other captain’s chair. “Sorry, but I’m still confused. Won’t getting rid of Mildred and stealing her van just put us more in the cross-hairs than getting rid of her and using Pop’s as our command center?”

It wasn’t a bad way to frame the central issue but Colton had a twist. “Here’s a third option. Before we get rid of Mildred we use her to eliminate us from the cross-hairs you mention, the one you think is based on her missing van.”

Sandy reached to the steering column and turned the key but stopped short of starting the engine. He then fiddled with the large computerized touch screen in the center of the dash. “Explain. What do you mean, ‘use her’?”

“We make her do the normal things she would otherwise do if she were about to take a trip. Things like withdraw money, pack her bags, maybe call a neighbor to collect her mail and watch the house.” Colton lowered his left hand and felt the seat controls. He activated each one, sequentially. “Unbelievable. My seat will do everything but make coffee.”

“That’s like a horse and wagon compared to this thing.” Sandy said, scrolling through FaceBook. “Mildred must have a data-plan.”

“Maybe it’s connected to WiFi.” Colton added. “Question. Does Mildred have children?” It was something he hadn’t considered until now.

“One, a son, Mason, but they’ve been estranged since I was a kid.”

“Why? What happened?” Colton knew that if the two reconciled, a problem for him and Sandy was certain to arise.

“Not sure. I’d guess it had to do with Mason’s father. I only met him a time or two but Pop said the man was crazy. Anyway, the son left after high school and probably never returned.”

Colton used his fingers to calculate Mason’s age. “Mildred is eighty-five. Son would be sixty-five. Seventy?”

“Sounds about right. I’d say he could care less what’s going on with his mother, but Alice is another matter.” Whether he knew it or not, Sandy was offering valuable assistance.

“Who’s Alice?” Colton hoped Mildred didn’t have a close friend.

“Best friend and neighbor. Lives right over there.” Sandy pointed diagonally to his left into the dark, and looked at Colton. “Don’t you dare say, she has to go.”
“No stupid, but Mildred will have to call her. And, convince her she’s taking a trip.”

“I can’t wait to see that. Plus watch her withdraw money from her bank.” Sandy turned up the volume on a YouTube he’d found tauting the benefits of an air-fryer.

Colton looked at the computer screen, saw it was 9:45, and wondered where Millie was and what her and Molly were doing. Damn, why hadn’t he installed the new GPS car tracker Thursday night. “Let’s get some rest. Tomorrow we need to nail down all the details to enable us to pull this off Monday morning.”

Sandy could be hopeless in his predictions. “So, we’re going to kidnap Mildred and take her along to God know’s where?”

Colton pushed a button on the dash to his left marked, ‘Reset seat.’ “You’re right about the kidnapping part, but her ride will only be as long as needed to find a secluded spot to dump her body.” He turned off the key and exited the van fully aware Sandy wasn’t convinced what they were about to do would help keep them out of prison.

“Shit, shit, shit.” Is all Sandy could say as they closed the garage door and trod back to Pop’s house.

Drafting–Millie and Molly arrive in NYC

Millie had a splitting headache when the bus pulled into the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. Finally, they were in New York City. After twenty-eight hours from the moment Uber had dropped them off in Toledo, they’d reached their destination, weary, disheveled, and in desperate need of a hot shower.

Molly stuffed a novel and her journal in her book-bag, and stared at her phone. “Note the time,” she said handing her mother a glove she had dropped on the floor.

“Pretty amazing, huh?” Millie replied, popping three Tylenol in her mouth. It was 7:35. The exact NYC arrival time Greyhound had promised when Millie had purchased their tickets in Toledo.

Mother and daughter stood and started making their way down the aisle toward the EXIT. “Mom, remind me, when it’s safe, to post a review for Greyhound. Molly slung her book bag over her shoulder. “I think it’s a quasi-miracle, especially given the snow storm we went through.”

Millie smiled and nodded, wondering if that day would ever come.
During the last hour waiting in Newark and the thirty-minute drive to NYC, Millie had made a number of calls. The first was to Youngblood Properties, her and Molly’s new landlord. Just thinking of the 576 square foot studio apartment made Millie claustrophobic, not to mention the near-total lack of privacy. The bedroom, living room, and kitchen were inside the same four walls, thus her and Molly would be living, eating, and sleeping in one open room. The six by six foot bathroom was the sole exception. However, one bright spot was the apartment should be quiet since it didn’t face heavily-trafficked 79th street. Plus, it had floor to ceiling windows along the outer wall which should provide more-than-ample daytime light.

The Youngblood rep delivered good news and bad. The painting had been completed and Ikea had delivered their order: a set of twin beds (including sheets, pillows, pillow cases, thermal blankets, and comforters), two bedside tables, a high-back naugahyde couch and two matching arm chairs, two glass-top desks with accompanying three-caster cushioned chairs, a small pine-constructed dining room table with two matching chairs, and a starter set of pots, pans, glasses, dishes, Tupperware, and cutlery. Thankfully, the kitchen was furnished with a refrigerator, a two-burner stove, a microwave, a dishwasher, and a Keurig coffee-maker. The bad news was the central heating system wasn’t working. It would be Monday before the service company could respond but the rep assured Millie the apartment was well-insulated and should maintain at least fifty degrees unless the outside temperature dipped below zero. The bottom line was Millie and Molly had a place, a safe place, far away from Colton.

Millie had also called Catherine for an status report, hoping Colton had not contacted her again. He hadn’t. The call ended with Catherine gently reminding Millie to keep her in the loop with photos, and frequent updates on her new job.
Millie had also called Matt who, uncharacteristically, had been too busy to talk, but, had insisted she call him as soon as they arrived in New York City.
Inside the nicest bus station so far, they made a quick trip to the restroom before locating luggage pickup. While waiting, Millie ordered an UBER and dialed Matt, who, again short, asked if she and Molly were going straight to their apartment. Odd. Matt’s normally respectful, attentive, and interesting. Fifteen minutes later, a talkative, pinkish-haired Greta raced her Cadillac Escalade south on Harlem River Drive determined to deliver Molly and Millie to their new home on East 79th Street before heading to LaGuardia Airport to snag a $130 fare to Peekskill, where ever that was.

Within a minute after exiting the UBER, a boy of maybe 15 on a bicycle approached and asked if they were Millie and Molly Anderson. After showing him a photo ID he handed her a key and a business card with a four-digit code on the back. “That’s changed every month. Have a good life.” The kid said and pedaled away.

“Well, that’s efficient. The Youngblood rep had requested Millie send him a text when their bus arrived in New York City. “Yeah Greyhound, UBER, and Youngblood Properties. Now, all’s good if our home is better than expected.

The apartment building was old but well kept. The security door worked flawlessly after she entered the code in a keypad protected by a metal umbrella. Inside, the foyer smelled of new paint and the carpet was hardly worn. The elevator to the tenth floor was relatively new, having been replaced in 2016 according to the certification plaque beside the floor control panel. “This is so sterile, so unlike our home and street in Chicago.” Molly remembered what it was like before Colton moved in. Her and Millie, in spring and summer would work in the flower beds, they even had a small garden they’d created in raised planters in the small back yard.

“Baby, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but, as you’ve just witnessed, good things can happen.” Molly squinted and gave her mother a look wondering who this oft-negative woman is. The elevator stopped, the door opened, and Millie’s phone rang. It was Matt.

“Hey, we’re here.” Millie followed Molly to the right, down a long hall to Apartment 10-D, and handed over the key.

“Your surprise should be there in no more than ten minutes. Be sure to answer the knock. Call me later if you want.” Something was up but Millie couldn’t put her finger on it, but she’d trust Matt with her life.

Apartment 10-D was better than expected. Not only had the landlord perfectly matched the mauve paint sample Millie had mailed, the sandstone low-pile carpet was the perfect compliment. And, even better, it was new.

“Wow, I didn’t know you ordered a TV?” Molly asked setting her book-bag and suitcase beside the dining table.

Millie slowly conducted a 360 degree pirouette. “I didn’t.” She had no doubt Matt was involved.

Molly walked between the arm chairs and couch, selected the twin bed on the left, and plopped down. “Not bad. A lot firmer than mine at home.”

Before Millie could join her, there was a knock at the door. “I’m going to kill Matt. He’s lost his mind.”

“Let me get it.” Molly said, standing and racing across the room. “Practice.” Her and Millie had talked at length about the process she should use when responding to a knock at the door. “Yes, who is it?”

“Delivery” was the complete response from a high-pitched voice that sounded safe enough.

“We didn’t order anything.” Molly said, sliding the dead bolt to the right. She knew they couldn’t be too cautious.

“Miss, I’m delivering groceries from Gristedes Supermarket. They were ordered by a man named Matt Quinn. This is the address he gave.”

“Hold on just a minute.” Molly quickly grabbed her phone from the table and asked. “How do you spell that? The name of the grocery store.” After the man slowly pronounced the nine letters, Google did it’s thing and returned several listings. “That’s a real grocery store.” Molly said looking at her mother.
Millie gave Molly a thumbs up and joined her precocious daughter as she slid back the dead-bolt and opened the door.

Two large boxes were setting on the floor in front of a man about Millie’s height wearing a pair of green pants and a thick pullover gray sweater. From the exposed collar, he was wearing a yellow shirt underneath his sweater. One box was weighted down with can goods which made Millie and Molly wonder how the older gentleman could carry it and the other box at the same time. Although the other box contained lighter items such as chips, bread, cookies, several types of noodles, and large sleeves of napkins and toilet paper, it was still big and bulky. After depositing the two boxes on the kitchen counter, the man announced, “there’s more to come so don’t abandon me.”

The man with a low melodious hum made another trip, delivering two similarly sized boxes. Millie palmed him a ten-dollar bill, thanked him profusely, and closed the door.

Molly unboxed and shelved can goods in the cabinets, while Millie stuffed packages of hamburger, hot dogs, boneless chicken, two large rib-eyes, and at least a dozen frozen dinners inside the refrigerator. The pair worked together on the fourth box concluding Matt must love mayonaise, ketchup, mustard, Dale’s sauce, Ranch dressing, salsa, and dill pickles, since he sent two containers of each. He’d also included a five-pound bag of onions, ten pounds of Russett potatoes, one pound each of whole carrots, and slaw and salad mix.

“Unbelievable,” Molly exclaimed, “pretty nice Christmas present don’t you think?”

All Millie could say was, “we won’t need to buy groceries until Spring.”