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By Nonie Norton
Before you begin to read this book, I want to tell you that this mystery takes place when cell phones were new, and we didn’t have all the electronics that we have today. I know it’s hard for you to picture not having the internet, earphones for music, apps on tablets, etc. I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Man in the Red Sweater
“It’s another hang-up,” Jennifer called from the den. She opened the vertical shades on the sliding glass doors and saw a panoramic view of the changing fall colors. Jennifer loved the rainbow of colors, the crisp air, the crunchy leaves, and the smell of winter around the corner. It’s a shame winter has to pounce in and take control, she thought as she turned away.
Mom walked into the room and started to straighten the papers and books strewn over the floor. “These hang-ups are getting more frequent. It’s starting to bother me,” she said.
Jennifer watched as her Mom made a neat pile on the bottom shelf of the ceiling-to-floor bookcases. How Mom hates clutter!
Jennifer flopped down on the comfortable white sectional sofa. The pictures on the wall caught her eye. They were a pictorial history of the family—her growing up, the trips they had taken, the milestones and the happy times.
Dad looked so handsome and relaxed in the oversized beach chair. Mom was on Dad’s lap, and they were smiling at the camera. She remembered the pride radiating from Dad’s face as he and I stood in front of our new house. Jennifer’s favorite, though, was the picture she had taken of Mom and Dad having a snowball fight on the front lawn. They were like two kids. Would anything ever be normal and comfortable again? Jennifer sighed and propped her feet up on the mauve hassock. How I miss those days,She thought. Poor Mom! After three years, she still cried at night.
Jennifer said, “I know, Mom. There have been at least five or six hang-ups this week alone. Someone is definitely on the line, Mom, because I can hear them breathing.”
Mom said, “If it keeps up, we ought to consider an unlisted number. We just have to make sure Grandma has the number in her purse, near her phone, and in her wallet. Her memory problems are getting worse.”
Jennifer was absently pulling her long blonde hair back into a ponytail, holding it for a minute, then setting it free to fall around her face and halfway down her back.
Jennifer started walking toward her bedroom at the back of the rancher. She stopped in front of the snow-fight picture and smiled. “Uh, Mom,” Jennifer called. “I know we’re having company for dinner, but is it OK if I go to the Mall with Susan? Her mom will take us both ways, and we won’t be long.”
Mom answered, “I guess so. I really could use some help this evening. It’s been a long time since I’ve entertained, and I’m actually nervous.”
Jennifer turned and looked surprised. “I don’t know why,” she said. “You’ve done it a trillion times.”
“Yes, but always with your father,” Mom said softly. She checked her list and said, “Jen, while you’re at the Mall, would you pick up some after-dinner mints in the drugstore? I’ll give you money.”
“Sure,” Jen said, and started toward her room again. She wondered about the guests. Mom said she had met Mike at a “Parents Without Partners” meeting, and he was coming with his daughter. She couldn’t remember her name, but she did remember that she was a Junior. I wonder why his daughter would come with him, Jennifer thought.
What was even stranger was that her mother had invited them to dinner on a Sunday night. Sunday dinners had always been a solid anchor in her life because they were reserved for family and close friends.
Both her parents were lawyers and were always running in a hundred directions during the week. They brought work home, and it was impossible to get them to concentrate on her. No matter how hard they tried, she knew they were preoccupied with business problems.
Sunday dinners were special. They were together as a family. Nothing intruded. They talked, shared, and enjoyed each other’s company. Most big family decisions were made on Sunday nights, and the discussions could get very loud and lively.
Did Mom say that she had just met this man? That made it all the more strange that she would invite him to Sunday dinner. Well, she would find out soon enough. It was going to be a very different dinner.
Jennifer opened her dresser drawer and found a sweatshirt to wear. She found her favorite jeans and pulled them out. Looking around the closet, she remembered Mom’s frequent suggestion of going through the clutter and throwing out what she didn’t wear, use, or need. How could she throw out her memories?
She thought how lucky she was to have a friend like Susan. High school was so different and so big. She and Susan had been best friends since they met in kindergarten. They’d found each other the very first day of school.
Jen remembered how scared she had been. All her mother’s talking and preschool visits hadn’t prepared her for that first day. The school looked enormous to her, and there were so many people. Some of the children had older brothers or sisters, but she and Susan were alone. Susan’s frightened look mirrored her own butterflies. They had both been on the verge of tears when they started talking. They hadn’t stopped talking yet.
Jennifer had made lots of new friends in school, but she and Susan always stuck together. They even got interested in boys at the same time. They’d never gone out alone with a boy on a date, but they talked about single-dating endlessly.
Jennifer dialed Susan’s number as she paced the floor. What did we ever do before portable phones? she wondered.
“Hi, Susan,” Jennifer said. “I can go to the Mall as long as I’m not late going home.” She was rummaging through her jewelry box looking for a pair of earrings to wear. “Mom’s having company for dinner, and I have to help.” Jen found the pair she wanted and was balancing the phone trying to put them on.
“It won’t be late,” Susan said. “Mom just has a few things to pick up. It’ll give us time to walk around and see who’s there. See you soon. We’ll honk.”
Jennifer came to the front of the house to wait for Susan. She hoped she would bump into Jeff. He was a Junior she had met on her way to class the first week of school. She must have looked lost because now when he talked to her, he always asked if she were lost. He even came over to talk to her and Susan in the cafeteria. Susan said that he liked her.
When the horn sounded outside, Jennifer yelled, “It’s Susan, Mom. I’m going. See you later.”
Mom called, “Try to remember mints.”
As she got into the car, Jennifer said to Susan, “It’s really strange that Mom’s having guests on a Sunday night that I’ve never met. What’s stranger, though, is all the trouble she’s going to for this dinner. Something must be going on.”
“Maybe she likes this guy,” Susan said. “After all, it’s been about three years since your father passed away, isn’t it?”
“You’re right, but it’s still hard to believe,” Jen said. “I still miss him so much. So many times when something will happen that I want to share with him, I’ll run to the phone, start to dial, and then realize that I’ll never share with him again.”
Jen lowered her head and began rubbing the palms of her hands together on her lap. Her voice sounded very small when she said, “It’s so hard without him.” She continued in a very low voice. “I know that Mom feels the loss even more than I do. Her whole life has changed.”
Jennifer thought about those early days. “It was so hard on Mom. She was constantly reminded of Dad since they did everything together. Mom walked around as if in a dream. Jen sometimes thought that Mom held together because of her. The look in her eyes was heartbreaking, and the crying in her bedroom at night was so pathetic it sounded like a wounded animal.”
Jen wished there was something she could do. Mom and Dad were so close, and it was so fast. One day Dad was healthy, and the next day he was fighting for his life after a massive heart attack.
“Are you all right, Jen?” Susan said, putting her hand on Jen’s shoulder.
Jen came back to reality as Susan’s mom parked the car at the Mall.
“I guess,” Jen said, shaking her head. “It was just the memories crowding in again. Thanks.”
As they walked inside, Susan’s mom said, “Girls, meet me right here at 4 o’clock sharp. Please don’t make me wait.”
Susan and Jen started walking toward the food court. “I hope Jeff’s here,” Jen said, looking around.
She caught a quick glimpse of a man in jeans and a red sweater staring at them. When he saw Jennifer had noticed him, he slipped into a store. It was really-i0]= eerie. She was about to tell Susan when they spotted some friends from school, and they went to join them.
After catching up on the gossip, Jen and Susan walked around the Mall. Some jeans in the window caught Susan’s eye. When they went into the store, Jen saw the man in the red sweater through the window. This time she told Susan about him, but when Susan turned to look, he was gone.
Jen said, “I know he’s the same man that I saw when we came into the Mall. He just stares at us. Let’s go into another store and see if he follows.”
The girls went into a toy store and pretended to be interested in a display of stuffed animals. Sure enough, the man in the red sweater watched through the window.
“You’re right,” Susan said. “He tried to duck a few times, but he didn’t move quickly enough. We’ve seen him everywhere. What should we do?”
Jen thought for a while and said, “I guess we just watch out for him. We can’t call security because our word is our only proof.”
The girls walked around the Mall going in and out of stores. They got sodas and sat on a bench in the middle of the Mall and watched for the man in the red sweater. If he were following them, he was more careful now because they didn’t see him again that afternoon.
When it was time for them to meet Susan’s mother, the girls ran into Jeff turning the corner into the Eatery.
“Hi, Jeff,” said Jennifer.
“Are you lost, Jen?” Jeff asked.
Jennifer smiled and said, “Not this time. I know my way around the Mall.”
Susan asked, “Are you just hanging out, or are you here for something special?”
Jeff answered, “I came to buy a birthday gift for my Dad. Do you think he’d like it?” he said as he opened the package and held up a beautiful red V-neck sweater.
“I’m sure he’ll like it,” Jen said, thinking that it was the last colored sweater she could get enthused about right now.
“You girls have time for a soda?” Jeff asked.
Susan said, “We’d love to, but my mother will be waiting. Have fun. See you in school tomorrow.”
When Jeff walked away, Susan said, “You like him, Jen, don’t you?”
“Yes, we have a lot of fun together, and he’s so easy to talk to. We can talk for hours about anything and everything. When he calls, we never seem to get off the phone.”
“You’re lucky,” said Susan. “Now it’s my turn to find someone to go out with. That could be our next project: a date for Susan.”
“There’s not much to choose from in our year,” said Jennifer. “They all seem so young. You should take a good look at the juniors and seniors. That’s where the possibilities are.”
As they walked and talked, they saw Susan’s mom coming toward them. “Great timing,” said Susan. They went to the car and had just started driving home when Jennifer noticed a beat-up blue car passing them on her side. For a glimmer of a second she thought she saw the man in the red sweater at the wheel. She poked Susan and pointed. All Susan could see was a car speeding ahead.
Jennifer said, “That was the man from the mall that just passed us in an old blue car.”
“Are you sure?” asked Susan.
“Almost,” said Jennifer.
Mike and Megan
When they pulled up in front of Jennifer’s house, she thanked Susan’s mom and promised to talk to Susan later. Jennifer noticed a black two-seater sports car parked in her driveway and glanced at her watch. She was early enough. It was just 4:30, and Mike and his daughter weren’t due until 5:30 pm. Just then she remembered the mints.
“Hi, Mom,” Jen called as she came in. “Please don’t be upset, but I forgot the mints.”
As the word “mints” left her lips, she found herself in front of a tall, handsome man dressed in grey slacks and a white shirt. He wore a grey plaid sweater-jacket and smiled as he extended his hand and said, “Hi, you must be Jennifer. I’m Mike Sloan, and this is my daughter, Megan.”
Jennifer shook his hand and smiled at Megan. “Are you early, or is my watch fast?” Jennifer asked.
Jen’s mom came over as he said, “Oh, we finished our errands early and were so close, we thought we’d come over.”
“Carol was very gracious,” Mike continued. “She said she had everything ready and insisted we stay. So here we are.”
“I’m glad,” Jennifer said. “I thought I was late.” She turned to her mom and said, “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Well, you can set the table if you would, Jen,” Mom said. “Megan can keep you company.”
Megan said, “Sure, I’d like that.”
The girls started talking as they went through the living room to the dining room. As they passed the desk in the living room, Megan said, “That must be very old. It’s just beautiful. I love old pieces like this.” She ran her hand over the top of the desk, feeling and appreciating the wood. “Have you had it long?”
“Mom picked it up at an antique show a few weeks ago,” Jennifer said. “She is always going to antique shows and flea markets, and bought different pieces. That’s why our house is done in modern antique.”
Jennifer opened the center drawer and showed Megan a secret compartment. A flap of wood in the back of the drawer sprung open, revealing a well that ran down the side of the desk.
“That’s great,” said Megan. “Old things are always full of surprises. Is your mom going to leave it the way it is?”
Jen said, “I think she has plans to take the desk down to the original wood and bring it back to life. She’s very excited about it, and this corner is the perfect place to show it off.”
“I’d love to see it when it’s finished,” said Megan. “I love anything old…furniture, jewelry, china—anything from the past. My aunt got me interested when she took me to flea markets when I was ten or eleven.”
As she looked around the room, Megan said, “My aunt collects everything from plates to thimbles. It was fun going with her and helping her add to her collections. She always bought something. You should see her house!”
Megan made a sweep around the room with her arm. She laughed and said, “There is very little room to walk in my aunt’s house, and you can’t see a sliver of the walls because they are covered with hanging treasures.”
“Is she still collecting?” asked Jennifer.
“I guess so,” Megan answered. “I haven’t seen her for a long time. She is related on my mother’s side, and I lost touch with her when my mother left.”
Jennifer had a million questions but felt she didn’t know Megan well enough to ask her. Still, she wondered what had happened to Megan’s mother. It would have been about seven years since she’d left. How do you just leave a daughter? she thought.
When dinner was served, they talked about anything and everything. They all acted like they were old friends and not just new acquaintances. There was never a lull in the conversation. Jennifer noticed the way Mike looked at her mom. He seemed fascinated by her, and her mother’s face hadn’t lit up like that for a very long time.
Jennifer told them about the man in the mall. Her mother was alarmed, and Mike kept asking questions like, “What did he look like?”
“He was very tall, thin, and wore jeans with a red pullover sweater,” Jennifer said. She was gesturing when she talked, and when she stood up to her full 5’5” to emphasize a point, she looked much taller because she was so thin.
“I couldn’t get a good look at his face,” she said. “It definitely looked like he was following us.” She took a sip of soda and continued. “Actually, in the beginning he didn’t do a very good job of staying hidden. We didn’t see him later on, but I don’t know whether he wasn’t there or whether he just got better at hiding.”
“Did he make any attempt to approach you or talk to you?” Mike asked.
“No, it was really weird,” said Jennifer. She got up and asked if anyone needed more ice or anything. Since no one did, she went to the kitchen with her glass.
When she sat down, she said, “You know how you just get a feeling that someone is watching you. You don’t actually see anybody. It’s just a feeling that eyes are on you. Well, that’s how I felt before I saw this man. Then, as I was looking at the clothes in the store, I could feel his eyes on me.”
“I don’t like this,” said Jennifer’s mom.
“When we were in the car on the way home,” Jennifer continued, “I thought I saw him pass us in an old car. I know I didn’t imagine it.”
“Did you notice the make of the car?” Mike asked.
“No. It was big, blue, and very dirty. I’m not sure whether it was old or just looked old because it was so dirty,” said Jennifer.
“You be careful,” said Jennifer’s mom. She looked at Mike and said, “The next time you see him following you, we’re going to report it to the police. You will tell me if it happens again, won’t you, Jen?”
“Sure,” said Jennifer, wondering if it would happen again.
After dinner Jennifer’s mom and Mike went into the den with their coffee, and Jennifer and Megan cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Jennifer tried to get Megan to just sit since she was a guest, but Megan insisted on helping.
The girls talked like they had been friends forever. I suppose some seniors are OK, Jennifer thought.
When they finished in the kitchen, Megan asked if she could look at the desk again. Jennifer went with her, and Megan opened the drawers and looked in every crevice. “It surely is a lot like my aunt’s desk,” Megan said. “I can’t remember. It’s odd when you see something in one place all the time, you can’t picture it somewhere else. It’s funny, though, how much it looks like my aunt’s, but I can’t imagine her getting rid of it.”
As they were talking, the telephone rang. Jennifer picked it up.
Jennifer said, “There goes those hang-ups again. The phone rings and there’s dead silence when you answer. It’s been happening very often lately.”
“That’s so annoying,” said Megan. “We just got an unlisted number.”
“We were talking about getting one too,” Jennifer said.
The girls talked about school and the upcoming pep rally. Jennifer was dying to ask Megan more about her aunt. The only thing she did say was, “Megan, does your aunt live far from here?”
“Oh, no,” said Megan. “She lives in Frederick, a little town about an hour north of here. It’s so small that if you step on the gas or blink, you pass by. My mother’s family, the Nelsons, owned most of the town.”
“Do you still have a lot of family there?” Jennifer asked.
“No,” Megan replied, “just my Aunt Victoria. It’s strange because Mom said Aunt Victoria always wanted to leave Frederick, and she did for a little while, but when she married Jim Gallant, she moved back to the family house and stayed there ever since.”
“It’s a shame that you don’t see her anymore,” said Jennifer. “Maybe one day you can drive up there yourself.”
“I don’t even know if she’s still alive. I thought she was old then, but through the eyes of a two-year-old, anyone over 15 looked old.” Megan thought a minute and said, “I haven’t thought about her for a long time. When I saw the desk, it brought back all the memories.”
A little later, Mike came for Megan, and they said their good-byes. Jennifer had unexpectedly enjoyed the evening, and Megan’s interest in the desk was intriguing. She wanted to know more.
Since it was still early, Jennifer and Mom got comfortable in the den and turned on the television. “Mom,” Jennifer began, “I could tell by looking at you that you really like Mike. Have you known him long?”
“Not really,” Mom said. “We met at the ‘Parents Without Partners’ meeting a month or so ago. Then I bumped into him at the supermarket a few weeks ago. We started talking and ended up at the diner for coffee. Is it too early for news?”
“The news will be on in about twenty minutes,” said Jennifer. “Mom, I like Mike, and I like Megan, too. I didn’t think I would like her—her being a senior and everything—but I was pleasantly surprised.”
When the news came on, they selectively listened.
“I’m glad,” Mom said. “Mike and I do have a lot in common. He’s lots of fun, and he’s also bright.” She smiled and added, “He’s very good-looking too. When he called last week, I invited him and his daughter to dinner tonight. Why?”
“I just wondered,” said Jen. At first she thought her mother must be very interested in him to invite him to dinner on Sunday night. Then she realized that it is the only night they had a leisurely dinner together.
“Mom, Megan really liked the desk you just bought,” Jen said. She took the afghan from the back of the sofa and threw it over her lap. Cuddling under it, she said, “Actually she wasn’t just admiring it, she examined it. She looked in every nook and corner as if expecting to find something.”
Jennifer glanced at the TV. She held up one side of the afghan and said, “Mom, do you want to share half? You look so cold.”
Mom nodded. She pulled the afghan over her and snuggled down. She absently flipped through the channels.
“I like that old desk too,” Mom said. “I think it’ll be a conversation piece after it’s finished.” The news came on, and they selectively listened.
“When are you going to start stripping the wood?” Jennifer asked.
Mom was leafing through a fashion magazine that was on the top of the magazine rack next to the sofa.
“I hope to get to it one night this week,” Mom answered. “That is, I hope to start if I don’t get home from work too late, and if I’m not too tired. I know that’s a lot of ifs.”
Jen said, “I’d like to be there when you start to get a better look at all those cubbyholes. Anyway, if I don’t find anything, I’ll be keeping you company.”
“Sure,” Mom said, getting up. She never was a sports fan. She turned off the television and began turning out the lights. Jen kissed her good night as she checked the doors to be sure they were locked on the way to her room. Checking the doors before going to sleep was a ritual for her. It was what her father used to do. She could picture him doing it, and it made her feel safe.
When Jen got to her room, she put out her clothes and got her books ready for school. She always got everything together the night before. She was not a morning person. It helped to have everything in place so all she had to cope with was getting up, showering, and leaving the house.
When she went to bed, the man in the red sweater kept popping into mind. It took her such a long time to fall asleep. She kept replaying all the events of the day.
The next day Susan had a make-up exam during lunch. Jennifer went to the cafeteria and sat with some people in her classes. They had just finished eating and were just sitting around talking. The big topic was the pep rally after school. There were posters all over, and different football players urged everyone to attend the game on the morning announcements.
Jennifer was so excited about it because it was her first big event in high school. All the spirit and excitement were building, and she was caught up in the fun. Everyone couldn’t wait until school was over today.
Suddenly, Jennifer saw Jeff across the room, and it looked like he was heading straight for her table. She couldn’t believe that a junior would come over to a table with all these freshmen.
He walked right up and said, “Jen, may I talk to you for a minute? Will you excuse us?” he asked the group at the table. They all just stared from Jen to Jeff. He motioned for Jen to come with him, and she followed him over to the corner of the cafeteria.
Jeff leaned with his elbow against the wall and his hand supporting his head. He crossed one leg over the other and looked so relaxed. That’s what happens when you’re a junior, Jen thought. She was still working on being a comfortable freshman.
Jeff said, “Jen, do you want to go out Saturday night? There are a lot of good movies playing, and we’ll see whatever you choose.”
Time stopped. Jennifer’s heart jumped. A single date, a single date, she kept repeating in her head. She was sure Jeff could hear her heart pounding. She couldn’t believe he was actually asking her to the movies. Me, Jennifer, a new freshman in high school, am going out on a “single” date.
She tried to keep her voice steady when she said, “I’d love to, Jeff, but we can choose a movie together. I’m sure we can come up with a good one.”
Jeff nodded, straightened up, and said, “It’s a deal. I’ll pick you up at seven. I’m sure I’ll talk to you before then.”
As they talked, people walked by and waved to Jeff. He waved back and smiled, but he gave his attention to Jennifer. She felt like everyone was watching them, but Jennifer liked that feeling.
Jeff asked, “Where’s Susan? You two are like twins.”
“Oh, she had a make-up exam,” Jen said. “By the way, did you give your dad the sweater you bought for him at the mall on Sunday?”
“No, not yet. His birthday isn’t until the end of the week. How did you know that?” Jeff asked.
Jen said, “I remembered because there was a man in a red sweater following Susan and me at the mall.”
He looked at her steadily and said, “No wonder you didn’t say much when I showed you the sweater. Were you sure this man was following you? It could just look that way.”
“No, I’m sure he was following Susan and me. We kept going in and out of stores, and he was always there. He got better at it as the day got later.”
Jen looked around and said, “I think I just saw him in the hall when I came to lunch.”
“What was he doing?” Jeff asked.
Jen said, “He was just standing near the door as I came in.”
“Where’s your next class?” Jeff asked.
“It’s algebra on the third floor. Why?” Jennifer wanted to know.
Jeff said, “Well, I was going to stop at my locker first, but I’d rather walk with you to your class. I hope we run into this man because I’d like to see what he looks like. Maybe there’s a perfectly good explanation for his being here.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Jennifer.
Jen and Jeff left the cafeteria, walked down the hall, and took the stairs to the third floor. They were talking and looking at the same time. As they were coming out of the stairway, Jen spied the man.
She yelled and pointed. “That’s him! That’s him!” But by the time Jeff looked, he only saw his figure vanish around the corner.
“I’d love to get a good look at him,” said Jeff.
“I would too,” said Jennifer. “What worries me is that first he was at the mall, and now he’s in school. I can’t imagine why he’s doing this.”
When they got to Jennifer’s class, her hands were shaking. She put her hand on Jeff’s arm and said, “I’m so glad you were with me. It’s so strange. He seems to be everywhere.”
Jeff took her hand and said, “I wish I could do more. I don’t like this either.” Jennifer had a funny look on her face. He looked puzzled and said, “What’s the matter, Jen?”
Jennifer was staring down the hall. “That man just went into the teachers’ lounge at the end of the hall,” she said. She was very pale and scared.
“I wish you had gotten a look at him,” she said.
“I do too. Be careful, Jen. If you see him again, please tell someone. Promise?” Jeff said.
Still staring down the hall, Jen said, “Yes, I promise.”
“OK,” Jeff said. “Have you any idea why he’s following you?”
“I wish I knew,” Jen answered.
Jeff said, “Take care, Jen. I’ll see you later.”
The rest of the day, Jennifer looked for the man in the red sweater around every corner, but she didn’t see him. Her thoughts kept going back to Jeff. Thank goodness he was with me. Maybe Jeff will get to see him and know who he is. I’ve just got to know why he’s following me.
Then she smiled to herself and kept repeating, I’m going on a “single” date to the movies. I can’t wait to tell Susan.
Jennifer couldn’t talk to Susan until school was over. It was hard waiting. When she found Susan after school, she ran over and whispered in her ear, “Guess who asked me out on Saturday night?”
“That’s really hard,” said Susan. “It has to be Jeff, right?”
“Yes. He just walked right up to the table at lunch with everyone sitting there and asked to talk to me. We walked over to the corner of the cafeteria, and he asked me to go to the movies. I was so excited that I was ready to burst.”
“That’s so great,” said Susan. “I knew it was just a matter of time before he asked you out. I told you he liked you.”
“Susan, I saw the man in the red sweater in the hall outside lunch today,” Jen said.
“Oh, no,” said Susan. “What was he doing?”
Jen said, “He was standing outside the cafeteria watching the door. It really shook me up.
“Jeff walked me to class, but he didn’t see him. He turned the corner too fast. I saw him go into the teachers’ lounge on the third floor when I was talking to Jeff outside algebra.”
Now Susan was upset, too. “Jen, we have to find out why that man is following us. Now I think it’s just you he’s following.”
“I think you’re right,” said Jennifer. She couldn’t think of any reason, but it certainly looked that way. She was really glad Jeff had walked her to her class.
Why would he go into the teachers’ lounge? Could he be a teacher at the school? It was possible. She was so new here that she didn’t know all the teachers.
The girls talked all the way to the field to watch football practice. It seemed like the whole school was walking to the field at the same time. This is what high school is all about, thought Jennifer. This is great!!
Traditionally, the fans came to this practice as a combination social event and pep rally. There was a big turnout. Everybody was yelling and talking at once. The noise in the stands was deafening. There were banners waving and horns blaring from every section. The only things missing were the band and the cheerleaders. It looked and sounded like a championship game.
The players on the field were also waving and laughing, and Jennifer could see that they were enjoying all the attention. The first game of the season was in two weeks, and the powers-that-be at the school wanted everybody to get in the spirit to boost attendance at the games. Just looking at the crowds, Jennifer thought it was working. They were in a frenzy!
Susan yelled over the noise, “You’re too quiet, Jen. Noise is the order of the day. Forget that man for a while. There are a lot of people around now.”
Jennifer nodded. She took one more look around and tried to concentrate on the rally. She started yelling and cheering and desperately tried to push the events of the past few days to the back of her mind. It wasn’t easy. She kept seeing the face of the man in the red sweater in the crowd. There was one time when she actually thought she saw him coming down the steps. She had to get her mind on the game. When one of her friends tapped her on her shoulder to say hello, she was so startled that she screamed!
After the rally, the girls got a ride home. Jennifer thought that was one of the best parts of high school. Friends had cars, and you didn’t have to depend on parents for every ride anymore. It was a grownup feeling and Jennifer loved it.
She went into the house, put her books in her room, and changed into jeans. As she was going into the kitchen to get a snack, she was drawn to the desk. Megan had piqued her interest. Wouldn’t it be something if this desk had belonged to Megan’s aunt? she thought.
Instead of a snack, Jennifer got a flashlight from the kitchen. She opened every drawer and hinged compartment of the desk and carefully looked in each crevice with the flashlight. All of a sudden she saw a glimmer of movement. It was so slight that she wasn’t sure she’d seen it. She got as close as she could to the place where she thought she saw the movement. She focused the flashlight right on the spot. Nothing. She did it again. Nothing.
She turned to another part of the desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the motion again. There definitely was something moving. She pulled the desk away from the wall and looked in the back. A paper was jammed in a drawer on the side. It was jammed so completely that it was folded like an accordion and nestled flush against the drawer. All the motion of opening and closing drawers must have freed a corner. That was the piece that Jennifer saw.
She carefully tried to maneuver the paper without tearing it. She slowly wiggled and inched a tiny piece at a time out of its hiding place. It was a very slow process. She didn’t want to pull or twist because the paper was jammed in so tightly that it would surely tear. It could also be so old and brittle that the slightest pull could cause it to rip. As she slowly coaxed the paper out, Jennifer was getting more and more curious. Something was definitely there. As the whole paper emerged, Jennifer brought it under the light. She could see that it was a letter. The handwriting was very large, and words were painfully and carefully formed. It looked like a child’s early attempt at handwriting. Parts of the letter were faded, and parts were smeared as if something had spilled on it. Jennifer was so excited. She quickly brought it as close as she could to the light and started to read.
December 28, 1924
Words cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am that you had to refuse my proposal of marriage. I do understand your position, but my heart is broken. Please keep my gifts as a token of my deep love and esteem.
Jennifer read and reread the letter. She was as fascinated with the language as she was with the contents. She couldn’t imagine people actually talking like that.
She couldn’t wait to show it to her mother. Morgan was right. Old things are fun.
She carefully put the letter in a manila envelope to protect it. It was so fragile. 1924! That was really long ago. Jennifer wondered why they couldn’t get married. The woman in that letter had to be in her eighties today, she thought. She put the desk back together again and thought about the letter. What were the parting gifts? It was so romantic!
As questions ran through her mind, she heard her mother’s car and ran to the door to meet her. “Hi, Mom. When you get settled, could we talk?” She followed her mother around until she took off her coat.
Mom put her briefcase down, kicked off her shoes, and said, “Just give me a few minutes, Jen, and I’ll be right with you. I want to get out of these clothes. It’s been a long day.”
When Jen’s mom changed into jeans, sweatshirt, and socks, she called Jennifer into the den and asked, “What is it, Jen? Is something wrong?”
“No, Mom,” Jennifer said, sitting down on the sofa. “It’s just that I’m sure I saw the man in the red sweater in the hall in school today. Jeff walked me to class, but he couldn’t get a look at him.”
“Maybe this man had a perfectly good reason for being there,” said Mom.
“That’s what Jeff said, too,” said Jen. “Maybe he does belong at the school, but he still was the man in the mall. He went into the teachers’ lounge.” Following her mother around, she said, “I really want to see the man in the red sweater when some of my friends are around. Maybe someone will know who he is.”
Jennifer took a deep breath and said, “There’s more, Mom. I found a piece of paper jammed in the side of the desk. Actually, it’s a letter. I want you to read it.”
“Who’s Jeff?” Mom asked. “Do I know him?”
“He’s a boy I met at school,” Jennifer answered.
She handed it to her mom. “Please be careful,” she said. “It’s very old. The date on it is December 28, 1924.”
Jennifer’s mom took the letter and read it. She didn’t say anything, but Jen could see how closely she was looking at it and how slowly she was reading it.
“What do you think?” Jennifer asked.
“I think that if this letter is authentic, it’s amazing that it survived all these years,” Mom said.
“I’d like to know more about it,” Jen answered. “Who would I call to find out?” Jen carefully put the letter back in the envelope to keep it safe.
Mom said, “You could call the library or the History Department at the university. If they can’t help you, they can direct you to the proper source.”
Jen answered, “I think I will. Were you given anything about the desk at the auction? Do you have the receipt?”
“I’ll look in the filing cabinet when I go in the back,” said Mom. “Just remind me.”
The ringing of the telephone interrupted their conversation. Jennifer and her mom looked at each other when Jennifer reached for the phone.
“Hello,” she said. “Hi, Susan.”
“Have you done this math homework?” Susan said. “I can’t do a thing with it.”
“I haven’t looked at any homework yet, but I’ll start with the math,” Jen answered.
Susan said, “It’s giving me a hard time. I give up. The answers are in the back of the book, but I can’t even get close. You’ll probably get them all, smarty.”
“You give up too easily,” said Jennifer. “I’ll call you back after I try it.”
As Jennifer hung up, the phone rang again. “Hello, hello, hello,” she said.
The phone line was open, but no one answered. “Who is this?” Then the connection was broken.
“That was another call, Mom,” said Jennifer. “Now they’re staying on the line and not just hanging up when we answer.”
Jennifer went to her room to start her homework, but the letter haunted her. Every time she began the math, her mind wandered to the letter. It sounded like a Victorian novel. A young girl gave up her love for some unknown reason, but he let her keep all his gifts. The letter made it sound like these gifts were more than a token. She wanted to know what they were. Jennifer wondered why she couldn’t or wouldn’t marry.
Coming back to the present, Jennifer looked down at the math and made herself concentrate on the numbers. She got the same answers as the back of the book for all but one problem.
Dialing Susan’s number, Jennifer remembered an ad on the radio for “Who’s Calling.” She would have to get more information from the telephone company. Maybe they could identify the hang-ups.
When Susan answered, Jennifer’s thoughts came back to the math. “Hi, Susan, I got all but one. Grab a pencil, and I’ll tell you what I did.”
Jennifer went through all the problems and explained to Susan how she got the answers. They talked about school until they heard Jen’s mom calling.
“Sorry, Susan, that’s Mom calling. I’ve got to go,” Jen said and hung up.
“You called, Mom?” Jen asked as she went into the kitchen to see what her mother wanted.
“I forgot that I have a seminar out of town this weekend,” Mom said.
“With everything that’s going on here, I’d feel better if you didn’t stay in the house alone.” As she talked, Mom was putting seasoned chicken with cheese into the oven. “Do you think you could stay over at Susan’s Friday and Saturday nights? If not, I can skip the seminar. I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving you alone.”
She opened the pantry and said, “What do you want with the chicken?”
“It doesn’t matter,” answered Jen. “Whatever you feel like. I’ll call Susan back and have her ask her parents. I’m sure it’ll be okay. I’ll be right back.”
Susan answered the phone and told Jen she was waiting for an answer from her parents. Jen was waiting for an answer when she heard the doorbell ring. Susan came back and said her parents would be pleased to have her. Jen thanked her and went to the front of the house to see who rang the bell.
“Who was at the door just now, Mom?” Jennifer asked.
“No one,” Jen’s mom answered.
Jen opened the door and saw a big flash of light. It was as if a camera were taking a flash photograph.
“Mom,” Jennifer said, coming inside. “Did you see a flash of light when you went out? I can still see spots in front of my eyes.”
Mom said, “Now that you mention it, I did see a light. I thought it was a car’s headlights.”
“I don’t think so,” Jen said. “Headlights don’t leave you with spots in front of your eyes unless you stare at them for a long time. Someone took our pictures.”
“Do you really think so?” Mom said. “Jen, let’s talk about this over dinner before everything gets cold. This whole thing is starting to make me very nervous.”
“The kitchen smells like the seasoning from the chicken,” Jennifer said. “That smell makes me even hungrier.”
Jennifer started to set the table, and Mom put chicken and baked potatoes on the plates and brought them to the table. She put the bowl of green beans in the center with a serving spoon. They both looked at the table to make sure they had everything they needed before they sat down. They looked at each other and laughed. Checking the table before sitting down was a habit Mom had taught her.
Mom always said it was easier to look first and see if anything was missing. That way you didn’t have to be a yo-yo once you sat down.
“This looks good,” Jennifer said as she started spooning green beans on her plate.
“Mom, why do you think anyone would need our pictures?” Jen said.
“I can’t imagine,” Mom said. “If they were taking pictures, they couldn’t have gotten very good ones in that light.”
Jennifer went to get the butter for her baked potato. She said, “Mom, I was thinking about Megan’s mother. Do you know anything about her? I was wondering why she left, and Megan remained with her father.”
Mom said, “The only thing I do know is that Mike said there was a very bitter divorce. Megan was only ten at the time.” Mom helped herself to the green beans. “Megan’s lived with her father since.”
“Yes,” said Jennifer. “I can understand the divorce. What I can’t understand is why she would leave her daughter and not at least keep in touch with her. According to Megan, she hasn’t seen her mother since she left.”
“I don’t know about that,” Mom continued. “I do know that Megan’s mother is a physician. Mike said she got a very good offer from a teaching hospital out somewhere out west. I can’t remember exactly where. Since she’d always wanted to do research and there was nothing holding her here, she took it.”
“What about Megan?” said Jennifer. “I can’t picture our not seeing each other under any conditions.”
Mom just shook her head. The phone rang again, and Jennifer got up to answer it. “It was another hang-up,” Jen said sitting down. “Please go on, Mom.”
“I was thinking that maybe she didn’t want to uproot Megan,” Mom said.
“Since it was a messy divorce, she might have thought that Megan’s staying with her father would give her some stability. Children, especially that age, are the true victims in this situation. They’re on an emotional merry-go-round. Maybe her mother thought it would help her to better cope with the situation in familiar surroundings. A few of the divorce cases in my office are like that. It’s really sad for the children—no matter what age.”
“I could buy that,” said Jennifer. “The part I can’t buy is the fact that she hasn’t seen Megan for about seven years.”
Jen took another small piece of chicken and said, “This is really good, Mom. Did you do something different?”
Mom said, “It’s a recipe on the back of the bread crumbs box. I like it too. The chicken is so moist.”
“Anyway,” Jennifer said. “I also got the idea from talking to Megan that she has no contact with her mother at all. You have to admit that’s strange.”
“You’ll have to ask Megan,” Mom said. “I don’t know when or if I’ll see Mike again.”
“Why, is something wrong?” Jen asked. “It looked like you two were at the beginning of something.”
“It’s not that,” Mom answered, “and don’t go reading things into it. We did hit it off, but I’m so busy at work that I don’t have time for Mike right now.”
“I hate to tell you, Mom, but you ought to make time,” said Jen.
“We’ll see,” said Mom.
When dinner was over and the kitchen cleaned up, Mom spread out her books and papers on the kitchen table. Jennifer went to her room to finish her homework. When she heard her mother come to the back, she reminded her to look for the receipt for the desk and any literature from the antique show. Mom found the receipt, but it was generic.
The only name printed on the top was “Times Past.” The literature did have a phone number to call for information about being a dealer. Jennifer asked if she could keep the brochure and receipt until she could call.
Mom said, “Sure. Just give it back to me when you’re finished so I can have it for my records.”
Jennifer assured her she would return it and went back to her room. She made a list of calls she wanted to make in between finishing her homework. First, she had to call about the desk. Then she wanted to call the telephone company about “Who’s Calling,” and there was one more call. She couldn’t think what it was. Then it hit her: the letter. She wanted to call to find out how she could authenticate it.
There were two more hang-up calls before she went to sleep that night.
When Jennifer got home from school the next day, she called the local telephone company and got information about “Who’s Calling.” They told her there was a machine much like an answering machine that attached to your telephone. There was a display that showed you the last calls received. Depending on the model and price of the machine, you could get anywhere from the last five to fifteen telephone numbers. You could buy the machine from them with free installation, or you could purchase one at any electronics store. She asked them to put the literature in the mail so her mother could review it. Her mother always felt better if she saw something in writing. Jennifer thought that was the lawyer in her.
Next, Jennifer called the local Historical Society about the authenticity of the letter. The only thing she learned from them was that she would have to have the ink and the paper examined to find out if it were real.
The university couldn’t help her but referred her to the information section of the library. She held on for the General Information Department, who ultimately referred her to bookstores that dealt in rare books and manuscripts. They said that the letter could be treated as a manuscript.
After calling two or three shops with no success, Jennifer finally spoke to a gentleman who was a wealth of information. He said that he could tell if it were real from the ink and paper. The only way to truly tell the exact time period was to take it to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. They had the equipment to run a chemical analysis on the paper and pinpoint an exact date. Jennifer said that she would accept the letter as being real unless it were proven differently.
Her last call was to the information operator in Frederick to find a listing for Victoria Gallant. There was none. She was very disappointed. She asked the operator if there was a listing for “Nelson,” but there were too many and Jennifer didn’t have a first name. The operator did connect her to the Chamber of Commerce to see if they could help her. She hung on the line so long that she finally hung up. Every time she tried the number, the line was busy.
The week passed quickly as Jennifer was very busy with school. Her mother didn’t have time to refinish the desk either. Thursday night Jennifer packed to go over to Susan’s for the weekend even though Susan’s house was within walking distance. Her mom drove her over early Friday morning. She convinced her mom that she had too much to carry, and it was too early to walk alone.
The girls took the school bus in the morning. Jennifer rarely rode the bus and wasn’t ready for the mass pandemonium in such an enclosed area. By the time she got to school, she had a splitting headache that forgetting her English composition did little to cure.
The one redeeming feature of the day was having lunch with Jeff. He walked over with his tray and sat down with her and Susan. Before they left the cafeteria, Jeff took Jennifer aside and reminded her that he would pick her up at seven tomorrow night.
“Sure,” Jennifer said. “I’ll be ready. I did tell you that I would be at Susan’s house for the weekend since Mom’s at a seminar.”
“No problem,” Jeff said. “I think it’s a good idea. See you then.” He joined his friends walking down the hall, and Jennifer watched him go. She thought about him all the way to class.
Jennifer and Susan got up late on Saturday morning. When they were getting dressed, Jennifer said, “I’m going to put out all the combinations I can wear tonight. Tell me which you like the most.” Jennifer laid out her jeans and her good slacks. Then she lined up three sweaters on top of the pants. “Now, which sweater should I wear with which pants?” she asked as she moved the sweaters over each pair of jeans and pants.
Susan concentrated on the clothes on the bed. “To tell you the truth, Jen, I think you should wear your pink flowered sweater with your jeans.” She examined a long blue sweater, and then said, “No, I still like the pink flowered top. It’s your color and it really looks so good on you.”
“I almost brought that,” said Jen. “I don’t know why I didn’t. I think you’re right, though. It is my color. Do you think we can stop at my house and pick it up on the way home from the mall?”
“Sure we can,” said Susan. “We’ll get a ride to your house, pick up the sweater, and walk back here.”
“Great,” said Jen as she started putting her clothes away. “How are we getting to the mall?”
Susan answered, “Marci said she’d pick us up at 12:30. Is that OK?”
“That’s perfect,” said Jennifer. “We’ll see if anybody gets a big table at the Eatery, and we’ll have lunch and catch up on the news. Did Marci say if she could take us back?”
“She didn’t say what her plans are, but I’m sure we can get a ride back,” Susan said.
When the girls were ready, they went outside to meet Marci just as she was pulling into the driveway. When Jen got into the car, she saw a blue car parked in front of the house next door. She felt uneasy as the car pulled out behind them. Jen turned around once or twice. She saw the blue car a few car’s lengths behind, but it was still following. She didn’t want to say anything to Susan until they were alone, but she did turn occasionally to check on the car.
Susan had a list of errands to do for her mother. They managed to browse in the bookstore, the record shop, and the card store between errands. Jen was half expecting to see the man in the red sweater, but she did not.
When they got everything on the list, they stopped in the Eatery to see if they could bum a ride home. Marci waved as they walked up and asked if they were ready to go. She said she was leaving and would be glad to take them since it was on her way home anyway.
As they neared her house, Jennifer got the house keys out of her purse. She was playing with them on her lap, and they dropped to the floor. As she turned toward the side window and bent over to pick them up, her eyes locked on the driver in the car next to them. She froze. It was the man in the red sweater. When his eyes met Jennifer’s, he turned his head quickly and sped ahead. He disappeared in traffic.
When they pulled up in front of the house, Jennifer and Susan got out of the car and thanked Marci for the ride. With the key in her hand, Jennifer walked up the path to the front door. Susan was balancing her packages and trying to keep up. When Jen got to the front door, she leaned forward and put the key in the lock. The door moved. It was already open. Jennifer was startled and let out a scream. She looked at Susan and gingerly opened the door all the way. Both girls just stared.
The sun was streaming through the picture window in the kitchen directly in front of them. Jennifer could see the contents of the drawers and cabinets scattered all over the floor. It looked like a hurricane had blown through the room. Jennifer looked stunned. Thinking quickly, she carefully closed and locked the door. She began running across the lawn toward her neighbor’s house. Her legs felt like jelly, and her heart was pounding.
“Somebody broke in,” Jen said over her shoulder to Susan. “I’ve got to call the police.” Susan was running frantically to catch up to her.
Jennifer impatiently rang and rang her neighbor’s doorbell. She was shifting her weight from her right foot to her left foot. She had to keep moving. Any movement was better than standing still. What if she’s not home? she thought.
When Mrs. Hudson opened the door, Jennifer could hardly get the words out. “Please, Mrs. Hudson,” Jennifer said, panting and gulping for air.
“Why, Jennifer,” Mrs. Hudson asked. “What’s the matter? Take it easy. Calm down. Come on in, girls. Come in.”
She ushered the girls into the house and closed the door. Putting her hand on Jennifer’s shoulder, she said, “What happened? Do sit down and catch your breath.”
Jen sat on a chair in the living room, and Susan collapsed on the sofa. Mrs. Hudson went to the kitchen for water. She brought back a glass for each girl. Jen took a long drink. She took a deep breath, and the words came rushing out in gasping spurts.
Jen said, “Someone broke into my house. We didn’t go all the way in, but from what I could see from the door, there are things all over the place.” She put the glass on the table and said, “May I use your phone to call the police?”
“Of course, dear,” said Mrs. Hudson. She pointed to the phone on the wall in the kitchen. “Do you need any help?”
“No, thanks. I’m better now. It was such a shock seeing the house like that,” Jen said as she dialed the operator.
Mrs. Hudson and Susan were talking quietly in the background as Jen waited to be connected to the nearest police station. They all sat at the kitchen table, and Mrs. Hudson gave Jennifer a pencil and a pad of paper in case she needed to take notes.
“Yes,” said Jennifer when the desk sergeant answered. “I’d like to report a robbery, I think. My name is Jennifer Blair.” She gave the sergeant her address and said, “Nobody has been home since yesterday afternoon. I was staying with a friend because my mother is out of town on business. My friend and I only came to my house to pick up a sweater.” She listened and then said, “My friend Susan and me....”
Jennifer listened again and continued, “When I went to put the key in the lock to open the door, I noticed that the door was already unlocked. I opened it all the way, and that’s when I saw everything all over the place.” She paused a moment and said, “No, we didn’t go in any further. I was afraid. I just closed and locked the door and came next door to call you.”
The police sergeant asked her a lot of questions. He took out a book and wanted to know the name, address, and phone number of the neighbor. Jennifer answered all of the questions, sounding much calmer than she felt. Her stomach was churning, and her mind was spinning. She kept picturing what the house looked like from the door.
The sergeant told her to stay at the neighbor’s and wait for the officers to arrive. Under no condition was she to go back to her house. The police officers would take her there after they checked to make sure it was safe.
Jennifer went into the living room and got her glass of water. She refilled it at the sink and joined Susan and Mrs. Hudson at the table.
She said, “The sergeant said to wait here until the officers come. He wants to make sure that no one is still in the house. They should be here soon.”
Susan was sitting at the kitchen table playing with a piece of coffee cake and a can of soda that Mrs. Hudson had served. There was a piece of cake and a soda for Jennifer at the table, but she was too nervous to sit. Susan was staring at the cake when she said, “Jen, do you think you ought to call your mom? She won’t be home until tomorrow night.”
“I thought about that,” said Jen, “but I think it would be better to wait until after the police come. That way I can tell her everything we know.”
Jen walked to the living-room window. She looked out but didn’t see anything unusual. She told Susan that there was nothing more her mom could do from there, and she didn’t want to worry her.
As Jen turned from the window, she saw something move. She quickly looked back and saw a beat-up blue car passing her house. She ran out the door, but the car was speeding out of sight.
Jen came back to the kitchen, but she didn’t say anything about the car. She sat down at the table with Susan and Mrs. Hudson, but her mind was racing. Did that car come out of her driveway, or was it just riding down the street? She remembered seeing that car pass by when Marci dropped them off from the mall. If it came from the driveway, it had to come after they came to Mrs. Hudson’s house. If it were just passing by, she wanted to know why it was there in the first place. It had been hanging around for a long time. I bet that car belonged to the man in the red sweater. Jen went to the window several more times to see if the police were there yet.
Finally, the doorbell rang. Mrs. Hudson went to the door with the girls close behind her. She opened the door and found two policemen standing there. They introduced themselves and showed their identifications.
“You must be Mrs. Hudson,” the first officer said. Mrs. Hudson nodded. “We’re here to see Jennifer Blair.”
“I’m Jennifer,” Jennifer said.
“You said in the report that you locked the door to your house before you came over here. If you give us the key, we’ll check it out to make sure no one is still inside,” the second officer said. “We have a back-up team waiting to help us cover all points of exit.”
As Jennifer gave him the key, he said, “As soon as we finish, we’ll come back and bring you over. You can go in and see if anything is missing.”
Jennifer, Susan, and Mrs. Hudson waited for the policemen to return. Jen was very quiet. She got that way when she was worried about something or was deep in thought. This silence was for both. Now, Jennifer realized that the calls and the man in the red sweater wouldn’t go away until he found what he was looking for. What could he be looking for? she thought. Maybe it was a random robbery and wasn’t connected to either the telephone calls or the man in the red sweater. She would have to see what was missing. Poor Mom had to come back to this mess. Thank goodness she was staying at Susan’s. What if she had been home?
All these thoughts were going through Jennifer’s mind when the policemen came to the door. They told Jennifer that she could go home, and they would go in with her. Jennifer thanked Mrs. Hudson, and she and Susan went with the policemen.
When Jennifer opened the door, she had the same sinking feeling all over again. The thought that someone had broken into their home and gone into their belongings gave her chills. Every drawer was emptied. Every closet was rummaged through, and every book was thrown from the bookshelf.
“It looks like whoever broke in was desperately looking for something,” the first policeman said. “Don’t touch anything until we dust for fingerprints. The team should be here any minute. On the surface do you see anything missing, Jennifer?”
“I can’t tell,” said Jennifer. “There’s stuff everywhere. I would have to look closer, and my mother would have to take inventory.” She was looking at an unbelievable mess. “May I try to get my mother on the phone while you’re here to tell her what happened?”
“That’s a very good idea,” the first policeman said. “We can’t do anything here until the fingerprint experts are finished. Why don’t you call her?”
Jennifer got her purse and found the number. She went into the kitchen and dialed the hotel. When the hotel clerk rang the room, she was praying her mother was in. It would be so much easier to tell her with the police here. The phone rang for a long time before her mother breathlessly picked it up.
“Mom,” Jennifer said calmly. “Don’t get upset. I’m fine. I’m calling from the house.”
“You just caught me,” Mom said. “I forgot something and came back to the room to get it. What’s the matter, Jen? You sound funny.”
Jen said, “I went home to get a sweater to wear tonight and found that someone had broken in. The house is a wreck, and I don’t know what was taken.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Mom asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, Mom,” Jen said. “The police came in with me. I called from Mrs. Hudson’s house. I want you to talk to the policeman, and then I’ll get back on.”
She handed the phone to the policeman. He introduced himself and began telling Jennifer’s mom what had happened. Jennifer went into the living room with Susan and the other policeman.
The doorbell rang, and the fingerprint team came in carrying many suitcases.
Jennifer thought it looked just like it did in the movies. They had all kinds of equipment, and they dusted everything looking for fingerprints. The fingerprint man told her that they rarely find an intruder from prints. Their only chance would be if there were multiple break-ins.
Jennifer was watching them when the policeman, who was talking to her mom, called her and said, “Your mom wants to talk to you. She told me about all the phone calls and the man that you thought was following you at the mall. When you’re finished, I want to hear all about that man in the red sweater.” He gave Jennifer the phone.
“Hi, Mom,” Jennifer said. “You should see this place.”
“Jen,” Mom said. “I’m coming home. I’ll see if I can catch a plane out as soon as possible tonight.”
“Mom,” Jen said. “Try to get an earlier plane tomorrow instead. I’ll be over at Susan’s tonight anyway. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“I guess you’re right, Jen,” Mom said. “That does make more sense. We’ll put everything away together tomorrow.” She paused a minute and said, “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” Jen said. “Call me at Susan’s, and give me your new flight information.”
“All right,” said Mom. “Be careful. I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you, Jen.”
“I love you too, Mom,” Jennifer said and hung up. She went to find the policemen and tell them about the man in the red sweater. They were talking to the fingerprint team as they were packing up to leave. Jennifer waited until he was finished, and she started telling him about the man.
“Hold it,” he said. “Let’s go in the kitchen, sit down, and talk about this. My partner is going to take notes. Come on, girls.”
They followed him into the kitchen and sat around the table. The girls told him about the man that was following them. They told him about first seeing the man at various times in the mall. Jen told them about seeing him outside the cafeteria in school. She described his beat-up blue car that followed them to and from the mall.
Jennifer asked if it was all right to touch things now since the fingerprint team had gone. When the policemen said yes, she moved some of the debris away from the table so they had room for their feet. When she finished, she said, “When I was waiting for you to come, I saw the car going past my house.”
The first policeman, Bill, said, “By any chance, did you notice the license number?”
“I’ve been trying to,” Jennifer said. She went to her purse and took out her calendar. She turned to the back of the book and said, “The only part I have is 422 _ _ 5. I can never seem to see the other numbers. Did you notice what it was, Susan?”
Susan looked surprised. She said, “I think it’s amazing that you got that much. I never thought to get the license number at all.”
“Oh,” said Jen, “the car was parked in front of the Hudsons’ house this afternoon. When our friend, Marci, picked Susan and me up to go to the mall, I saw it pull out behind us.”
The second policeman, John, was taking notes as the girls talked. He asked if there was anything else they could remember that would help. He wanted to know if any of the antiques, electronic equipment, or other large items were registered with the police.
“I don’t think so,” said Jennifer, “but I’ll have to ask my mom to make sure.”
“We will need a full inventory of everything that is missing,” Officer John continued. “Unfortunately, very little property is ever recovered.”
He closed his book and said, “We’re going to leave you our cards in case you think of anything else. Please let us know as soon as you get that list together.” He put his book away and said, “Don’t hesitate to call for any reason.”
Officer Bill said, “We’ll walk out with you, and you can lock up. I wouldn’t come back here until your mother comes home.”
“I won’t,” Jennifer said. They started to walk out, and Jen suddenly remembered. “Oh, could you wait a minute until I run back and get my sweater? That was why we came here in the first place.”
“Sure, go ahead,” said Officer Bill.
Jennifer ran to her room and returned a few minutes later with the pink sweater.
“I’m ready,” she said. They all left the house, and Jennifer locked and checked the door. The girls thanked the policemen and started walking.
They hadn’t gotten very far when the police car pulled up next to them. Officer John asked where they were going.
“We’re just walking over to Susan’s,” Jennifer said. “It’s only ten minutes from here.”
“No, you’re not,” Officer John said. “It’s starting to get dark, and I don’t want you two walking alone. I wouldn’t want you walking alone under any conditions. After what’s happened today, it’s especially not a good idea.” He got out of the police car and opened the door to the back of the car. “Hop in, girls,” he said. “Just direct us.”
The policemen dropped the girls in front of Susan’s house and reminded them to call if they remembered anything. They watched them go in before they left.
Susan’s mother was standing at the door when the girls came in. She looked alarmed and said, “A police car brought you home? What is going on, Susan? Jennifer?”
“Mom,” Susan began, “we went to Jennifer’s house to pick up her sweater, and someone broke into the house.” The girls told her what happened beginning with the man in the red sweater and ending with the break-in.
Susan continued, “Jennifer called the police from a neighbor’s house, and the police wouldn’t let us walk here alone so they gave us a ride.”
Jennifer said, “I called my mom, and she’ll be home earlier tomorrow. She said she would call here with the new flight time.”
Susan’s mother asked a lot of questions. When she was satisfied with the answers, she gave the girls a few choices for dinner. They both chose turkey sandwiches, and she went into the kitchen to prepare the food.
Jennifer was thinking about her date all through dinner. As the time got closer, she was getting more and more nervous.
She couldn’t believe that she was actually going out on a “single” date.
She kept wondering what she would say to Jeff all night. Wouldn’t it be terrible if she ran out of things to say? There would be long and longer periods of silence.
What if he forgot all about it and forgot to come? All the articles said to talk about what boys were interested in. What was Jeff interested in? What did she really know about him? They talked in school and on the phone, but she didn’t really KNOW him. Maybe she should have waited to know him better. She should have talked to some of the girls who had already gone on dates.
Jennifer was getting that terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach. That was the feeling where her stomach was tied in such tight knots that she could hardly move. All that food was only making it worse. What if she got sick and couldn’t go?
When someone asked Jennifer a question, she brought her mind back to the table. She was beginning to panic. She had almost spilled her soda twice. Sipping soda was supposed to calm her stomach. It didn’t. She was picking at her food and moving it around her plate. She was sure that Susan and her mom thought she was nervous because of the break-in. She couldn’t believe how nervous she was. She must have answered that question properly because the conversation continued around her. She kept thinking about Jeff. She did like him, but what if he wanted to hold her hand during the movie? Should she get popcorn? She had read somewhere that it’s easy to choke on popcorn. Suppose Jeff had to take her out of the movies to an emergency room. She made herself stop thinking.
When dinner was finally over, the girls went to Susan’s room. Susan said, “You’re so quiet, Jen. What’s up?” Jen said, “I was thinking. Should I wear my hair straight, or should I curl it? What shoes should I wear? I hope I brought the right ones.”
Jennifer was pacing up and down the room. She got out three pair of earrings, put them on the bed, and said, “Which one do you like, Susan?”
“Slow down, Jen,” Susan said. “I can’t believe you’re this nervous. You’ve talked to him a lot, and you like him. What are you so nervous about? Just relax!”
“I wish I could,” said Jennifer.
“Wear the pearls,” said Susan.
“What do you mean?” said Jennifer.
“Wear the pearl earrings,” Susan said again.
“Oh, OK,” Jennifer said, and put the other earrings away.
“I also think you should curl your hair and wear your navy suede flats,” said Susan.
“What?” said Jen.
Susan gave her a strange look and said, “You asked me what to do with your hair and what shoes to wear.” She paused and said, “I hope you last until Jeff comes.”
Jennifer put everything she was going to wear on the bed and went to take her shower. That helped. She did feel better. She started dressing and talking to Susan. She was glad to have someone to talk to. At least she could concentrate on getting dressed and not imagining what was going to happen. When she put on the pink sweater, she could picture her ransacked house and was glad she had something to do tonight that would take her mind off of it. Now she wished the time would go quicker so Jeff would get here. She almost wore a hole in the carpet from pacing.
Susan said, “You look great, Jen. Relax. You’re going to have a great time. Remember all the details.”
“I’ll try,” said Jennifer, giving her a weak smile.
Jeff picked her up at exactly seven o’clock. Jen thought he looked so handsome. He wore a blue plaid shirt that looked great with his coloring, and made his eyes look a deeper blue. Jennifer was beaming as she introduced Jeff to Susan’s mom. He helped Jen with her coat, and they said their good nights.
Jeff opened the car door for her. She had trouble fastening her seat belt because her hands were shaking. If Jeff noticed, he didn’t say anything. He asked Jen if she had ever been to the Capital Theatre. She told him she was there once with her dad to see a Disney movie, but she didn’t remember the theatre at all.
“You’re in for a treat,” said Jeff. “This theatre dates back to pre-television days. I’m not going to spoil it by telling you about it. I want you to see it for yourself. All I’ll tell you is that the screen is giant size, and the sound comes from everywhere.” No matter how much Jen questioned him, he wouldn’t tell her any more.
They talked and laughed all the way to the movies. The theatre had its own parking lot, and Jen and Jeff got into a long line to wait for tickets. Jeff pointed out the sidewalk in front.
Each cement square represented a movie that had its premiere at the theatre. Some squares had footprints, and some had handprints. Some just had the name of the movie and the stars, and some were ornately decorated in colors. Jen was fascinated and was reading them as they moved up in line.
When they finally got inside, they had to wait in the largest, grandest lobby Jen had ever seen. The floor was sparkling white marble with swirls of pink, blue, and black circles. There were ornate stone benches and tall plants scattered along the sides. The walls were covered with a history of the theatre in pictures dating back to 1939. There were two enclosed glass showcases on each side displaying movie artifacts. Jen looked at the showcases, but the lobby was getting very crowded.
When she looked up, she realized there was a balcony that made a horseshoe round the lobby with a railing made of gleaming brass columns. Jeff said there was a glass-enclosed viewing area upstairs that was used for private parties.
“That’s a wonderful, different idea,” said Jen. “I bet it’s fun to see a movie like that.”
Jeff said, “I knew you would like this theatre. It’s a throwback to the time when there was no television, and the only place to see movies was a theatre with a certain mystique.”
Jen couldn’t get over such grandeur and elegance. She said, “Now movies have four or more tiny theatres under one roof. It is a shame that these large theatres are all gone.” She smiled and said, “For some reason they call that progress.”
Jen looked up, and her mouth and eyes opened wide. She was looking at a colorful, circular stained-glass dome that looked like it belonged in a museum rather than a movie. A huge chandelier with curved golden arms holding tiny candlelike lights suspended from the dome on a long chain.
Jen was looking up when the door to the movie opened, and Jeff was leading her inside. They found seats, and Jen was still talking about the lobby. She noticed the plush reclining seats with enough room for someone to walk through without her having to get up.
Jen said, “The screen is endless. This is a wonderful place to relax and see a movie. Any movie would be great on this screen.”
“Wait until you hear the sound,” said Jeff. “It’s stereo.”
“I can’t wait,” said Jen. “About how many people does this movie hold?” She looked around and said, “It’s enormous!”
Jeff said, “Before the movie starts, I’m going to get some popcorn and a soda we can share. How do you like your popcorn, or would you like something else?”
“Popcorn is fine,” said Jen. “With butter.”
“I’ll be right back,” said Jeff as he got up and made his way through the seats.
While he was gone, Jen told herself that she would only have a few pieces of popcorn, and she would be very careful. No choking, she thought.
When Jeff came back, the only time they stopped talking was when the movie started. Jeff reached for Jen’s hand, and her heart skipped a beat. It felt so comfortable and natural with her hand in his. She thought that hand made her enjoy the movie more.
After the movies, they decided to get something to eat at Burger’s Choice. Since the restaurant was close, they walked over hand in hand. Jen felt so special. She watched all the couples walking over. When she looked at Jeff, she was so proud to be with him. Yes, she was definitely going to like dating.
Everybody must have decided to go to Burger’s Choice because it was almost as crowded as the movie. The waiting went fast since they were talking about the movie and everything under the sun. When they were seated, they were lucky to get a booth in a semi-quiet corner.
Over hamburgers and the biggest fries Jen had ever seen, she told Jeff what had happened that day. He was a good listener and only interrupted once to ask a question.
Jeff’s question was, “How long did it take the police to get there?”
“Oh, it took about twenty minutes from the time I called,” said Jen.
“That’s not bad at all,” said Jeff.
When she described what the house looked like, Jeff told her he was glad she was staying with Susan. She asked him if there was a chance that he could get the car some Saturday and go with her to Frederick for the day.
Jen said, “Maybe we can talk to Megan’s aunt. I’d love to find out more about the desk. I don’t know whether it was Megan or the letter that got me so interested in the desk.”
“I would like that, Jen,” Jeff said. “I’ll ask my parents what Saturday the car will be available, and I’ll let you know.”
Jen thought that she and Jeff always had fun when they were together. They laughed and joked like two little kids. She liked the way she felt when she was with him. It was a cross between the anticipation of Christmas and the excitement on the first day of school each year. She was comfortable with him, too. She felt like she could tell him anything, and he would give her his full attention. She felt so important. As always time passed so quickly that, suddenly, it was late.
Jeff took Jen back to Susan’s house. He pulled in the driveway, but he didn’t get out. He turned to Jen. Jen thought he had a funny look on his face. He put his arm around her shoulders and said softly, “I had a good time tonight, Jen. I really like you.” He slowly leaned over, and his kiss gently brushed her lips. Jen melted. From the distance she heard sounds coming from Jeff’s mouth. It took time before she realized the sounds were words. He was asking her if she had a key.
“Yes,” she mumbled, and he walked around to open the door for her. She felt like a princess. Jeff slipped his hand in hers as they walked to the door. He squeezed her hand and told her he would talk to her soon.
Jen went inside. She went upstairs and found Susan sound asleep. There was a note on her pillow with her mom’s new flight and time. She got ready for bed, making as much noise as she could. She was floating on air. She felt all warm and nice. She had to tell Susan. JEFF KISSED ME!!
It was no wonder Susan was stirring. Jen tapped her arm and whispered loudly, “Susan, Susan, wake up.” Susan opened one eye. “Wake up. I have to tell you this when you’re awake.” She watched as Susan struggled to open her eyes. “What time is it?” Susan whispered.
“Late,” said Jen. “Susan, are you awake enough for this news?”
“I think so,” said Susan, rubbing her eyes and starting to sit up.
“No, I don’t want to hear ‘I think so.’ Let me know when you’re sure,” Jen said.
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” countered Susan, now wide awake and curious.
“Susan,” Jen said in a very soft voice. “On my first date, I got my first real kiss.” She enunciated each word very slowly. Speaking louder, Jen said, “JEFF KISSED ME.”
“You’re kidding,” Susan said with her eyes and mouth wide open. “I knew he liked you. Well, how was it?”
“Great,” Jen said. “It happened so fast. We were in his car.” Jen excitedly told Susan the whole story. “I’m trying to convince myself that it really happened,” Jen said.
Susan said, “Your eyes are so dreamy.”
Now Susan was completely up. She had a million questions. She asked for every detail over and over again. She was as excited as Jen. They talked well into the night about boys and dating, but the subject always came back to “the kiss.” It was the wee hours of the morning before the girls fell asleep.
Jen’s mom called early Sunday morning. She had just gotten home and wanted to know when she could come for Jen. Jen was in the shower and called her back.
“Hi, Mom,” Jen said when her mom answered the phone. “The house must have been a shock for you. Isn’t it awful? I’ll tell you the whole story when I get home.” She paused a minute and continued, “I can’t wait to tell you all about my date with Jeff last night. I had a super time.”
Jen’s mom said, “I didn’t know you had a date, I want to hear all about it. When can I pick you up? I can’t wait to see you. We’ve got some job here.”
Jen’s mom parked in Susan’s driveway and came into the house. While she was waiting for Jen, she and Susan’s mom were discussing the break-in. Susan’s mom was telling her about the police bringing the girls home. Jen’s mom was saying how glad she was that they did when Jen came in. She went over and gave her mom a big hug and kiss.
Jen was thinking that the break-in seemed so long ago. She was still reliving her date with Jeff. She smiled every time she thought about him. She didn’t even mind Susan’s endless questions because it gave her a chance to talk about Jeff.
When Jen had all her things together, Mom helped her carry everything to the car. As soon as they pulled out of the driveway, Mom said, “Tell me all about your date. I wish I had known. I wanted to be home when you went on your first date. Who is he?”
“I think I mentioned him before,” Jen said. “His name is Jeff, and he’s a junior in school.”
Jen sighed and said, “He’s so nice and cute. We went to the movies and to get something to eat afterwards. I had such a good time.”
“I’m glad,” said Mom. “I still wish I had been here to see you get ready to go out. It’s a milestone in your life, and you only have a first date once.”
They talked all the way home about Jen’s date and Mom’s trip. Jen loved when they talked like friends. She realized how lucky she was. Some of the girls could never talk to their moms like that. She was sorry for what they missed without that closeness.
As they walked into the house, the phone was ringing. Jen ran to answer it. She came back and said, “Whoever is making these calls must know we’re home. That was a hang-up again.” Her mom nodded. Jen started to take her things to her room but stopped and said, “By the way, Mom, some information is coming about ‘Who’s Calling.’ It’s probably in the mail. It sounds like we need to find out who is calling.”
Mom said, “We’ll get to it later. Right now I think this mess is the priority.” She looked around and said, “I can’t believe what this house looks like.” She went into the kitchen and stood in the middle of the floor. It was like moving into an empty house. Only this time someone had dumped the contents of every box on the floor. She didn’t know where to start.
After Jen put her things in her room, she returned to find her mom just standing and staring at the kitchen floor. Jen walked up behind her and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just wiggle your nose and everything went back in place? Look at the bright side, Mom. It’s a sure way to clean out the cabinets and drawers.”
Mom said, “It certainly is, but I would like to choose the time to do it. Forced cleaning isn’t my thing. Unfortunately, this time I have no choice.”
She bent down and started picking up things from the floor and sorting them into piles on the countertop. She said, “Grab a garbage bag, Jen. As you suggested, we might as well start to weed out as we put things out.”
Jen brought the garbage bag over and said, “I’ll be right back, Mom. There is something I want to check.” She went into the living room to look at the desk. She walked over to the corner where it had been standing. It was gone.
“Mom,” she yelled, “did you start to refinish the desk?”
“I took it down to the basement before I left,” Mom said as she came into the room. “Why?” They looked at each other and simultaneously headed down the stairs to the back of the basement. Mom switched on the light and said, “It’s exactly where I left it.” The desk was sitting on newspapers waiting. It looked untouched. In fact, the whole basement looked untouched.
Jen and her mom came upstairs and worked into late afternoon putting things away in drawers, closets, and bookshelves. Everything was emptied. There wasn’t one book on the bookshelf. It looked like someone had fanned through each book and carelessly discarded it. Jen thought that it was like a spilled glass of milk. The glass could be half filled, but when the milk spilled, it looked like gallons came out.
It was a tedious and time-consuming job. They tried to put everything in its place, or at least get it off the floor into a pile on the cabinets. They had “put-away piles,” “see-if-you-want-to-keep piles,” and “take-one-more-look-before-throwing-it-out piles.”
Jen thought they were just moving things from place to place. The mess didn’t get any smaller, but it did look neater. They found things that Jen had never seen, and found pictures they hadn’t looked at in years. They laughed and cried over bittersweet memories.
Jen and Mom tried to see if anything was missing, but it was impossible. There was so much scattered all over the floor that they had to concentrate on items a thief would be obviously after. None of the antiques were disturbed. No electronic equipment was missing, and all their jewelry was accounted for. Mom said nothing was registered with the police.
Jen thought of the envelope with the letter from the desk. She hoped that it wasn’t lost or destroyed. She ran to her room to see if it was still there. It was. Even though it had been pushed from the desk to the floor, it was not opened or disturbed. At least that was a relief. The letter was the only link she had with the desk’s history.
A thought suddenly hit Jen. She remembered the Polaroid camera her father had gotten for a party at the house. She wondered if she could still get film for it. It wasn’t that long ago, was it? She could take some pictures of the desk and the letter to take to Frederick. She and her mother had just put the camera in a cabinet in the bookcase.
Cleaning did have some advantages. She ran to the bookcase and found it. There was an unopened roll of film in the box. The date had just expired, but it wouldn’t hurt to try it before she bought a new roll. She pulled out the instruction book and loaded the camera.
She quickly went to the basement, turned on all the lights, and took a picture of the desk. It worked. The picture developed beautifully. She took a few more pictures and went to her room to photograph the letter. That was a little more difficult. She used up the whole roll trying to get the lighting just right so you could read the writing. Finally, she got two good pictures of the letter. If you put them together, you could read the entire letter.
She heard the phone ring again, and she ran to answer it. This time it was Mike calling for her mom. Jen asked him about Megan before she called her mom to the phone. She could hear her mom talking, but the best part was that she could hear her laughing. I don’t know why Mom makes a production of everything, she thought. How hard is it to go out with Mike? She obviously enjoyed talking to him.
Jen went to get a garbage bag and started straightening her room. There were a lot of things she could get rid of since she was forced into housecleaning. She plodded through the wreckage for some time and filled three bags with throwaways. When the piles seemed to be growing instead of shrinking, she put everything that was left in a pile in the corner of her room. She would have to get back to it. She decided if she didn’t need it in the next month or so, it could be thrown away.
With the room semi-livable, Jen moved the manila envelope with the letter to a safer place in her sock drawer. When she moved the socks aside to put the envelope on the bottom, a ring was shaken from its hiding place and dropped to the bottom.
She picked it up and examined it. It was a gold signet ring with what looked like scrolled letters on top. If they were initials, the scrolling was so ornate that they couldn’t be read. She thought it had to be a woman’s ring because it didn’t even fit her little finger. She looked through the drawer again, but there was nothing else there.
When Mom got off the phone, Jen called her. “Please come down to the basement for a minute. I want to show you what I found.” Jen held the ring out to her when she came into the room. She said, “Do you recognize this ring? I found it in my drawer, but it’s not mine. I never saw it before.”
After Jen’s mom looked more closely at the ring, she said, “I never saw it before either.” Handing it back to Jen, she asked, “You just found it in your drawer?”
“Yes,” said Jen. “It made a noise when I moved the socks aside to put the envelope on the bottom. I didn’t notice it when I put the socks back. Do you think I should tell the police about it?”
“I definitely do,” Mom said. “Do you know the names of the officers who were here and how to reach them?”
“Yes. They gave me their cards,” Jen said. “I put them under a magnet on the fridge so they wouldn’t get lost. With all the moving we’ve been doing, it’s a good thing I did.”
Jen turned the ring around on her finger and said, “Mom, I forgot to tell them about the pictures that were taken of us in front of the house. That was before the break-in, wasn’t it?”
Mom said, “I think so, but I don’t even remember what I did at the seminar this weekend.”
Jen said, “That’s it. I remember now. It was Thursday night. I’m sure it was the night before you took me over to Susan’s because you were going to the seminar. Remember?”
Mom said, “I think so.”
Jen put the ring in a round porcelain box on her dresser. She said, “I’ll make some calls this week. It shouldn’t be too late to get in touch with people after school. If I can’t reach them, I can always call at lunchtime.”
Mom said, “The only problem I can see you having is if the person has to return your call. If you have trouble reaching anyone, give me the information, and I’ll try to call during the day.”
Jen and her mom straightened up until they couldn’t look at it anymore. They both collapsed on the sofa in the den and turned on the television. Jen wasn’t watching the television. She was planning her calls for the next day.
The next morning Jen saw Jeff at school. They talked about going to Frederick. Jeff said it would take a few more weeks before a car would be available to him all day on a Saturday. He would let her know as soon as he could. “I’m looking forward to going,” he said.
Jen said, “I am too, even though I haven’t thought about it with all that’s happening.” She told him about the ring she found, and they talked about the break-in. Jeff wanted all the details. He seemed surprised that someone could be that careless.
As they were talking, Jennifer couldn’t help but notice the reaction she was getting from the girls as they passed. They stared at her with a look between wonder and envy. She liked the feeling.
Except for the hang-ups, things were uneventful for the next couple weeks. Jen got in touch with Officer Bill and told him about the ring. He and Officer John came over one afternoon when Jen got home from school. They examined the ring, but they couldn’t read any initials either. They said they would send it to the lab to see if they could learn anything from it.
Jen told them about the pictures that were taken of her and her mom in front of the house. The officers seemed very interested and wanted to know if she saw anything other than the flash. Jen said, “No, because the light was so bright.”
She talked to the officers about getting “Who’s Calling” to trace the hang-ups. Officer Bill said they would be able to get the telephone numbers and find the origin of the calls. However, there was only a slight chance they would be able to find the caller because he doubted if only one phone was used. If he didn’t use a public phone, he probably moved around a lot. The officers thanked Jennifer, and told her they would be in touch as soon as they knew anything.
When Jen’s mom came home that evening, Jen told her about the officers’ visit.
Jen asked, “Have you had a chance to look at the information on ‘Who’s Calling’ yet?”
“Yes, and I think it’s worth getting,” Mom said. “If the police can get something from it, it will be somewhere to start. I’ll stop at the store on my way home tomorrow and get one.”
“That’s great,” Jennifer said. “If we have trouble hooking it up, maybe Jeff can help.”
It was another three weeks before Jeff could get the car all day Saturday for a trip to Frederick. Jen was so excited that she had been up since the crack of dawn. She was trying to keep the questions she needed answered straight in her mind. Her head was spinning. There were so many questions and so few answers.
She had been ready for hours when Jeff picked her up at exactly eight o’clock. Jen was so excited. She would spend the whole day with Jeff, and, hopefully, she would find out something about the desk. She didn’t know which she looked forward to more: being with Jeff or having her questions answered.
The desk and the letter fascinated her. If she were able to speak to Mrs. Gallant, she would have a starting point. She wanted to know if Mrs. Gallant had ever owned the desk. Jen thought it would be exciting if she had. She checked her purse to see if she had the Polaroid pictures she had taken of the desk and the letter. They were there!
Her mind kept racing. If she had owned the desk, why had it been sold to an antique dealer? Was she the girl in the letter? If she was, Jen would love to hear the story behind it. It sounded like a soap opera, and she wondered what the gifts were.
Did she dare ask about Megan’s mother? She must have been close to the family at one time because Megan always visited and went to antique shows with her. She had to be Megan’s great-aunt, Jennifer thought. Megan’s mother couldn’t possibly have a sister in her eighties. Even if Megan wasn’t born until her mother graduated from medical school, her mom would only be in her forties now. Then she thought that she could have waited some years before she went to medical school, and Mike didn’t look older than his late forties.
Jeff said, “Jen, you’re so quiet and so deep in thought. You’re missing some pretty spectacular scenery.”
Jen answered, “I was just going over some unanswered questions in my mind. I hope we get some answers today.”
Jen looked out the window. The road was lined with beautiful, colorful foliage. When she looked down from the top of a hill coming around the bend in the road, the view was breathtaking. It was beautiful watching the colors compete for attention, which made the scene look like a painting.
“I bet the people who live here take all this for granted,” she said with the sweep of her hand.
Jeff said, “It doesn’t look real, and they see it all the time.”
Jen said, “I was thinking about the desk, the letter, and Megan. It almost sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it?”
Jeff took her hand and said, “It does, Jen. I hope we can see Mrs. Gallant today. Did you call Frederick yesterday to find out where we’re going?”
Jen was trying to answer, but the only thing on her mind was Jeff’s hand on hers. She swallowed hard and said, “I tried. After hanging on the line for ten minutes at the courthouse, I was disconnected. When I tried to call back, the line stayed busy.”
“None of the offices are open today, but maybe we can get directions from the store owners,” Jeff said. “If Mrs. Gallant still lives there, someone should know her and be able to tell us where she lives.”
The hours flew by. They talked and planned. Before they knew it, they saw a sign that said, Frederick – 10 miles. As they entered the town, Jen realized why Megan said that if you sneezed or blinked, you missed the whole town.
Main Street was over two blocks long. It was easy to find a parking space. As they started walking around, they came to a large county store on the corner of Main and Center streets.
A life-size stuffed farmer with a corncob pipe was sitting on a large wooden porch swing. The swing was suspended from the roof and could seat six easily. There were butter churners and different-size painted vats scattered all over the porch. Old rattan clothes baskets were painted with scenes and stacked in a corner. An American flag was flying from the flagpole on the side of the porch, and little American flags formed a ‘V’ around a candle in the many windows of the store.
Jen and Jeff went in. Jen thought she had stepped into another century. The store looked like a quaint movie set with souvenirs and homemade country decorations everywhere. There wasn’t an empty space, and tiny, colorful tickets dangled from everything. It looked like there wasn’t a thing that wasn’t for sale. They were given a rattan basket to carry their purchases.
There was a counter where you could buy bulk penny candy, and another where you could buy homemade jellies and jams. Jen thought the smells were heavenly. They went over to pick out some penny candies. There were so many flavors, and they were laughing and giggling like two kids as they made their selections.
One salesperson handled both counters. The only other employee in the store was a cashier in a central checkout at the front of the store.
Jen turned to Jeff and said, “The honor system is alive and well. I suppose it could only work in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. No wonder small towns are so suspicious of strangers.”
They took their selections to the cashier—an elderly woman with snow white hair and very thick Ben Franklin glasses. Jen asked if she knew where Victoria Gallant lived.
“Of course, dear,” she said, “but she’s not living there anymore.” Shaking her head and pointing to her forehead, she said, “Poor Vicky. She started forgetting where she was and where she was going. Many times she was found wandering around. Why, she came in here once and didn’t know where she was, and she’s been here at least a million times.”
Jen said, “That sounds like Alzheimer’s, doesn’t it? How old is she?”
The cashier said, winking at them, “I don’t know.” She thought for a minute and said, “She must be around ninety, I imagine.”
Jeff asked, “Do you know where she is now? She’s still alive, isn’t she?”
The cashier said, “Oh my goodness, yes.” She took the candy from Jeff and began weighing the different bags.
She said, “Let me think a minute. It’ll come to me. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I just can’t—Havenwood, that’s where she is.” The cashier smiled and seemed very proud of herself.
“Havenwood,” Jen said. “Is that near here?”
The cashier said, “I know it’s not far, but I can’t tell you just how to get there.” She yelled to Bessie, “Would you tell these nice young people how to get to Havenwood?”
“Stop and talk to Bessie on your way out, and she’ll tell you all about Vicky. They’ve been best friends for 60 or 70 years, and she still visits her.”
Jen and Jeff thanked the cashier. They looked around the store for a little while and then went over to Bessie. When she saw them coming, she beckoned to them with her finger. As they approached, she said, “Why are you asking about Vicky?”
Jen said, “We’ve heard so much about her from her great-niece that we wanted to meet her and talk to her.”
“Who would that be?” asked Bessie. “I didn’t know she had family still living. Nobody has visited her for quite some time.”
“My friend’s name is Megan Sloan. She’s related on her mother’s side, but I don’t know her mother’s maiden name. Could it be Nelson?”
“It could well be,” said Bessie. “The Nelsons have lived here forever.”
She put her hand on her chin, stared at the ceiling, and said, “Let’s see, Havenwood is in the next town about 15 minutes up the road.”
Jeff asked if there was a phone nearby that he could use. “Sure,” Bessie said. “Come around here and use my phone. I can’t leave the counter to take you to the back.” Jeff asked for a pencil and paper. He called information and got Havenwood’s number. While he was writing down directions, Jen talked to Bessie.
Jen asked, “Is her house far from here?”
“No, dear,” Bessie continued. “The Nelson house is on Church Lane. It’s number 9, I believe. You’ll pass it on your way to Havenwood.”
Jen asked, “Did Mrs. Gallant sell her house?”
Bessie said, “I don’t know if she sold it or rented it. There’s a young couple with two or three children living there. Vicky hasn’t lived there for almost a year.”
Jen asked, “Do you remember her selling her belongings before this young couple moved in?”
“No, not that I recall,” said Bessie, “but I understand the woman who took care of her stayed after she went to Havenwood. I can’t remember her name. She stayed and put the house in order. She might be able to help you.”
Jen asked, “Is there anyone who would remember her name and where she lives?”
Jeff came back with the address and directions to Havenwood. He said, “It’s easy to get to. It’s about 15 or 20 minutes further up the road we came in on. You were right about that, Bessie.”
Bessie was concentrating so hard that her eyes were wrinkled, and she was staring straight ahead. All of a sudden, she looked up and said, “Harvard, like the school. That was her name: Harvard. Sarah Harvard. She was a little bit of a woman, but she was so strong. She took care of Vicky and cooked and cleaned. She lives right here in Frederick. I’m sure you could find her.”
Bessie looked so satisfied with herself. She was smiling and nodding with her hands crossed in front of her chest. She kept repeating, “Harvard, Sarah Harvard.”
Jen said, “Thank you so much for your help.”
“We appreciate your talking with us,” Jeff said.
“I’m glad to be of help,” Bessie said. “You will stop in and tell me about Vicky if you see her, won’t you? Please give her my love.”
“We will, and thanks again,” Jen said as they left the store.
There was a telephone booth on the corner across the street from the store. Jeff went over and called information again for a phone number for Sarah Harvard. Jeff called the number, and a woman answered.
“Hi, my name is Jeff. We were told that you stayed with Mrs. Gallant before she went to Havenwood.”
The woman asked, “Where did you get my name?”
“Bessie, at the Country Store, told us about you,” said Jeff. “My friend, Jennifer, and I would love to talk to you if you could spare some time.”
“When did you want to come?” asked Mrs. Harvard.
“We’re at the phone booth across from the Country Store,” said Jeff. “If it would be all right, we would love to come right over. Can you give us directions?”
Mrs. Harvard asked Jeff to hold on for a minute, and he could hear muffled conversation as she held her hand over the receiver. When she came back, she said, “You can come right over. I live at 611 North Main Street. It’s two blocks down the street from the Country Store.”
“Thank you so very much,” said Jeff. “We’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Jeff and Jen left the car where it was and walked. It took only a few minutes, and they found that 611 Main Street was in the middle of the block. It was an old but well-cared-for house. The paint looked fresh, the porch was neat, and the lawn was well taken care of.
They rang the doorbell and waited. Jen could hear footsteps coming to the door. The door opened, and a petite, smiling, grey-haired lady said, “Jeff?”
“Yes,” said Jeff, “and this is my friend Jennifer.” Mrs. Harvard smiled at Jennifer. As Jeff shook Mrs. Harvard’s hand, she opened the door a little wider.
“Come in,” she said. “You were asking about Vicky Gallant?” She took them into the living room and motioned for them to sit down.
“Yes,” Jennifer said. When they were seated, she showed Mrs. Harvard the picture of the antique desk. Jen asked, “Do you know if this desk belonged to Mrs. Gallant?”
Mrs. Harvard studied the picture. She looked suspiciously at Jennifer and Jeff and said, “Where did you get this picture? It certainly looks like Vicky’s desk.”
“My mom bought it at an antique show,” Jennifer said.
“Oh dear, yes. I remember now,” said Mrs. Harvard. “Vicky gave me the desk before she went to Havenwood. She said it was a thank you for the years I took care of her.” She lowered her eyes and said in a small voice, “I sold the desk to an antique dealer. I needed the money.”
“I understand,” said Jennifer. “Are you sure this is the same desk?” Jen showed Mrs. Harvard the picture again. “Do you still have a receipt from the dealer?”
“Why, yes. Yes, I do. I’ll get it and be right back,” Mrs. Harvard said as she headed to the back of the house. Jen could hear drawers opening and closing and papers rustling. She and Jeff smiled at each other.
Mrs. Harvard came back in the room waving a piece of paper in the air like a prize. She said, “Here it is, I knew I had it,” and she handed the paper to Jennifer. When Jennifer looked at the paper, she saw the name “Times Past” printed across the top.
“This is it,” Jennifer said excitedly. “My mom bought the desk from Times Past,” she said, handing the paper to Jeff. She also noticed that Mrs. Harvard was paid $1,200.00 for it. She had to remember to tell her mother.
Mrs. Harvard was looking at Jen and Jeff as if deciding whether to volunteer any more information. She did say, “As I recall, there was quite a lot of interest in that desk before Mrs. Gallant went to Havenwood. I sometimes think that’s why she gave it to me. That way they would stop torturing and begging her.”
“Who are they?” asked Jennifer.
Mrs. Harvard said, “Oh, the Sloan family. They were always pestering her about that desk. They had many loud, angry arguments with Mrs. Gallant.” She sighed and said, “I didn’t really pay any attention to the particulars.
“So your mother bought it,” she said to Jennifer.
“Yes, she did,” Jennifer said. “We want to thank you for your time,” and she motioned for Jeff to do the same. “You’ve been most kind, and we appreciate your help.”
“No trouble at all,” Mrs. Harvard said, walking them to the door. “I like Vicky very much, but the Sloan family were a different story. Mr. Sloan was worse than Mrs. Sloan. He was determined to get anything and everything he could for his daughter. Mrs. Sloan cared only for herself.” She shook her head in disbelief and said, “If you see Vicky, please give her my love.”
“We certainly will,” Jen said as they began the short walk to the car.
“You can call me ‘Jen’ now,” she said, smiling. “I think she liked the formal name better. Let’s stop by Mrs. Gallant’s house. Bessie said it was on the way, and I’m curious to see what it looks like.”
Jeff said, “OK. You be on the lookout for Church Lane as we go up the road.”
They hadn’t been riding for ten minutes when Jen saw the street sign for Church Lane. Jeff turned into a wide, tree-lined street with very few houses and lots of land. The houses were set far back from the road, and they had to read the mailboxes to find a number. Number 9 was in the court at the end of the street.
They drove up the winding driveway and found themselves in front of a beautiful, large colonial house. Jeff stayed in the car, and Jennifer went to the door and rang the doorbell. The chimes seemed to go on forever, but no one answered. She walked around the front of the house and admired the elegance and grace of times past.
Jennifer saw the name “Nelson” etched in the column on the porch. She sighed as they got back in the car and continued to Havenwood.
The directions were good, and the ride went quickly. Jen’s mind was spinning. She was excited that Mrs. Harvard had identified the desk and even had the sales slip from Times Past. Jen thought it was a shame that Mrs. Harvard had to sell the desk. She seemed genuinely fond of Mrs. Gallant and was so upset over the family’s bickering.
Jen thought it must be hard to get attached to an elderly person in your care and then have the family be so combative. There is so much contention that you are torn between pleasing your charge or pleasing the family members. If your salary is dependent on the family members, it would be a no-win situation. Either way, the elderly person is the loser.
They found Havenwood set back from the road and nestled in a parklike setting. The entrance was a wide, long, winding driveway with signs clustered at every intersection pointing to buildings and services. Jen said, “Doesn’t this remind you of a sprawling college campus instead of a retirement community?”
“Yes,” said Jeff. “I visited colleges last summer that weren’t as big and didn’t look as nice.”
They found the visitors’ parking area and walked to the Administration Building. When they entered the building, Jen said, “This reception area looks like a gigantic living room. Look how the sofas are scattered around the room in little groups. Each group has its own table, lamp, and coffee table. It looks cozy, doesn’t it?”
“It does look comfortable,” said Jeff. “I think they wanted to make each section as private as possible. I like it.”
They went to the reception desk and asked to see Mrs. Gallant. The girl behind the desk said, “May I have your names, please, and your relationship to Mrs. Gallant.”
“We’re friends of her niece,” Jen said, reluctant to go into further detail.
“Please have a seat,” the receptionist said, gesturing to the large room. “I’ll tell our administrator you’re here.”
They both sat on a sofa facing the receptionist. Jen felt very comfortable in this mini living room. They weren’t waiting long when a tall young woman in a conservative, dark business suit approached. As she got closer, she smiled at Jennifer and said, “You must be Jennifer Blair. I recognize you from your pictures.” She offered her hand and said, “I’m Nicole Paige, Havenwood’s administrator. How may I help you?”
“I don’t understand,” said Jennifer. “What pictures?”
“I saw the pictures Mr. Lawrence brought in,” Nicole said. “He said you would be visiting Mrs. Gallant soon, and he asked me to call him when you came here.”
Jennifer looked puzzled. “I still don’t understand,” she said. “Who is Mr. Lawrence, and where did he get my pictures?”
“I’m so sorry,” said Nicole. “I thought you knew. Mr. Lawrence is our maintenance supervisor. He told me that you were a friend of the family.”
Quickly regaining her composure, Jennifer said, “Yes, that’s true, but how would he know that? I still don’t understand how he got my pictures.” She was thinking back to the evening when a flash went off in front of her house. That could be it. But why?
Jennifer introduced Jeff and said, “We wanted to talk to Mrs. Gallant. Mrs. Harvard told us she was here.”
“Mrs. Harvard. Yes. She was her nurse, wasn’t she?” said Nicole.
“Yes, and she was very fond of Mrs. Gallant.”
“Mrs. Gallant often speaks of her. They were good friends,” said Nicole.
“In answer to your question, I don’t know where he got the pictures, but he did show me two or three. You were on one of them.” Nicole started to say something more but stopped. She said, “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’ll see if Mrs. Gallant is up to company.”
“Nicole,” said Jeff as she was turning to leave. “Can we talk to Mr. Lawrence for a few minutes? He did say he wanted to know when Jennifer was here.”
“I’ll see if he’s available,” Nicole said. “I’ll be right back.”
Nicole disappeared through the double glass doors at the end of the room.
Jen and Jeff looked at each other. Jen said, “I wonder. We came for some answers, and all we’ve gotten is more questions. Where would Mr. Lawrence get my picture? Why does he want to know if and when I visit Mrs. Gallant?” Jennifer shook her head and said, “What do you think, Jeff? This doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Jeff said, “Maybe it’ll become clearer after we talk to Mrs. Gallant and Mr. Lawrence.”
“I hope so,” said Jennifer.
Less than ten minutes later, Nicole was coming toward them with a big smile on her face. She said, “Mrs. Gallant is thrilled to have company, but let me give you some background before you see her.”
Jennifer said, “She’s all right, isn’t she?”
“Oh, she’s fine,” Nicole said. “She’s just beginning to have age-related problems. Generally, she’s alert and remembers everything, but sometimes she draws a complete blank. When that happens, she gets very upset with herself and stops trying to remember. Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to remember.”
Jen said, “I hope this is one of her good days.”
Nicole said, “Won’t you come with me, please. She’s in the lounge on the third floor. I’ve prepared her for your visit.”
As they went up the elevator, Jen thought that from the inside Havenwood resembled an elegant hotel. Everything looked new and orderly, and the staff smiled and nodded as they passed. As soon as they got off the elevator, they saw Mrs. Gallant sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the lounge. She watched them approach, and turned to face them.
She was a slight woman and looked lost in the wheelchair. She had perfectly beautiful white hair. Her alert grey eyes twinkled behind thick glasses. She wore a loose blue dress with matching blue print slippers. Her nails were manicured, and she wore a beautiful pearl ring on her right hand.
Nicole said, “Vicky, this is Jennifer and Jeff. They’re Megan’s friends, and they came to visit you.” Mrs. Gallant greeted them warmly, and Jennifer and Jeff sat down on rattan chairs facing Mrs. Gallant. Mrs. Gallant wanted to know how they knew Megan and how she was doing. She said she hadn’t seen her in a long time.
Nicole said, “I’ll leave you to have a nice chat.” She turned to Jennifer and said, “When you’re ready to leave, just call one of the nurses.” She smiled and walked down the hall.
Jennifer said, “My mother met Mike at a meeting. He and Megan came to my house for dinner, and I see Megan at school.”
Mrs. Gallant said, “I miss taking my niece on antiquing trips. She was a delightful child. I really enjoyed her company.”
Jen said, “She’s not a child anymore. She’s a senior in high school. I wish I had thought to bring you a picture.”
“Maybe next time,” said Mrs. Gallant wistfully.
Jennifer could almost see that her mind was visualizing the little girl she remembered. Her face was serene, and her smile was only half formed.
Jennifer said, “Megan told me how she loved visiting you. In fact, that’s why we’re here.”
Jennifer watched Mrs. Gallant. She looked like a miniature china doll. Everything about her was fragile and elegant. As Mrs. Gallant came back to the present, she slowly focused on Jennifer. Jennifer continued, “Oh, I don’t want to forget to tell you that Sarah Harvard sends her love. She’s the one who told us where we could find you.”
“Sarah Howard, Sarah Howard...,” Mrs. Gallant chanted. “I don’t recall that name.” She was licking her lips and having difficulty swallowing.
Jennifer said, “Can we get you water, or a fruit juice? Mrs. Gallant?”
“No, dear. Thank you. I’m fine,” Mrs. Gallant said. She cleared her throat many times before adding, “Please tell me about the desk?”
“Well, my mother bought a desk at an antique show,” Jennifer said.
“When Megan was over for dinner, she was fascinated with the desk. She said you had one just like it, and that’s when she told me all about going to the flea markets and antique shows with you.”
“Ah, yes, the desk,” said Mrs. Gallant. “How I loved that desk.” Her eyes had a faraway, dreamy look again. Jennifer thought she had forgotten that she and Jeff were there. Just then, she turned back to them and said, “That desk brings back such memories. Jim never liked it.” She fell silent.
“Jim never liked it?” said Jennifer. “Oh, you mean your husband?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Gallant. “He thought I should have gotten rid of it when we married, but I couldn’t part with it. It was so beautiful, and I wanted the memories with me always.”
Jennifer said, “Mrs. Gallant, I have a picture of the desk. Would you like to look at it, and see if you think it’s yours?” Jennifer took the picture out of her pocketbook and handed it to Mrs. Gallant.
Holding the picture in front of her, Mrs. Gallant moved it from side to side. She said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t see it very clearly. If Megan said it was mine, that’s good enough for me.”
Jennifer said, “I found something in the desk,” as she took out a picture of the letter.
“What was that, dear?” Mrs. Gallant asked.
Jennifer said, “It’s a love letter.”
Mrs. Gallant turned her head away and was quiet for a long time. When she spoke again, her voice shook and tears were running down her cheeks. “It was so long ago,” she began, “and I haven’t thought about it for many, many years. It was painful then, and it’s still painful after all this time.”
Jennifer asked, “Are you talking about Paul?”
Mrs. Gallant slowly nodded her head yes. “I was so young, and we were so in love. My mother needed me to take care of her.” Her voice trailed off, and she stared off in the distance.
Jennifer and Jeff waited for her to resume, but when she turned to face them, she said, “Where are my manners? Did I tell you how much I enjoyed your visit? Please do it again soon.”
Jennifer asked, “Has Cynthia Sloan been to visit you?”
Mrs. Gallant said sadly, “Cynthia is only interested in my money. Lord only knows why money, not people, is the most important thing in her life. One day she’ll realize what she lost in Megan, but it’ll be too late.”
Jeff said, “What about Paul, Mrs. Gallant?”
“I don’t know anyone by that name,” Mrs. Gallant said softly.
Jeff said, “He wrote you the letter we found in the desk.”
“I don’t remember,” Mrs. Gallant said and smiled sweetly.
“Please try to remember,” said Jennifer, kneeling on the floor in front of Mrs. Gallant’s chair. She was staring down the hall, but her mind was in another time and another place. She wouldn’t or couldn’t answer any more questions no matter how gently Jennifer prodded. Jennifer went to find a nurse to tell her they were leaving. The nurse sent an aide to take Mrs. Gallant to her room. Jennifer kissed her on the cheek, and Mrs. Gallant smiled and waved daintily as she was wheeled down the hall.
Jen and Jeff found an elevator, and Jeff pushed the “down” floor. When the door opened, Jen froze. A workman talking into a walkie-talkie got off the elevator. He was so absorbed in his discussion that he didn’t pay any attention to Jen and Jeff.
“Jennifer, Jennifer,” said Jeff, holding the elevator door open. “Come in. What’s the matter? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“J-J-Jeff,” Jennifer said, trying to get her words out. “That must be Mr. Lawrence, and J-J-Jeff, I could swear that he is the man in the red sweater.”
Now Jeff stared at Jennifer. Jeff said, “It can’t be. Are you sure?”
“Y-e-s,” Jen said, taking a deep breath and grasping Jeff’s hand. “Let’s see if Nicole has set up a meeting with Mr. Lawrence. Then we’ll know.”
Nicole was sitting at her desk when they came into her office. She looked up, smiled, and said, “I hope you had a good visit. Mrs. Gallant loves company.”
“We did,” Jen said. “She’s an elegant lady in every sense of the word. She’s so sweet and gentle. I wish I had known her before.”
“I know seeing her like this is difficult even if you didn’t know her before,” said Nicole. “You can still sense what she was before she began fading.”
“It must be even sadder to watch the aging process day by day,” Jen said slowly, shaking her head.
Jeff asked, “Nicole, can we speak to Mr. Lawrence?”
“He was very disappointed that he couldn’t see you,” said Nicole, “but he has his hands full with a temperamental heating system. He asked if he could take a rain check until your next visit.”
Jen was disappointed and said, “That’s too bad. I did want to ask him about the photographs.”
Jen and Jeff thanked Nicole as she walked with them to the door. Suddenly Jennifer turned and said, “Where do the employees park?”
Nicole looked puzzled and asked, “Why would you want to know that?”
“I was just curious,” said Jennifer. “There doesn’t seem to be enough parking around the building for visitors and staff.”
Nicole said, “That’s very true. Unfortunately, the staff has to park behind the building across that road. In bad weather it’s a long hike to the building.” Nicole stopped at the door and said, “It’s funny that you would notice that.”
“It just popped into my head,” Jennifer laughed as she and Jeff left.
Walking to the car, Jen said, “Let’s drive around to the staff parking lot. I want to see if there is a large, beat-up blue car.”
“What could the connection be between a maintenance supervisor and the man in the red sweater?” Jeff asked as they drove around to the back of the building. “I wish we could have spoken to Mr. Lawrence.”
“I do too,” said Jen as they easily found the lot. It certainly was a healthy walk to the main building. Driving around very slowly, Jen spied a beat-up blue car. It was diagonally backed into a corner with the license plate against the fence.
Jen pointed to the car and said excitedly, “Let’s go around to the road and look at the plate.” The poles on the chain-link fence blocked the numbers. Jeff took a pencil and paper and walked up to the car. He wrote down the license number and handed it to Jen as he got back into the car.
Jen looked at the numbers Jeff had written. She compared them to the numbers she had taken from the car that had been following her. Looking steadily at Jeff, she said, “We found the man in the red sweater. The license number I saw was 422 _ _ 5, and Mr. Lawrence’s license number is 422-235.”
“Now what?” said Jeff. “Can you make any sense out of this?”
“I wish I could,” said Jen. “Look, Jeff,” Jennifer said, pointing. “Isn’t that Mr. Lawrence walking toward us?”
Jen and Jeff slumped down on the seats just enough so they could still see out of the window. Jen watched the man walk to the blue car. It was Mr. Lawrence. He glanced around, got in, and started the car. Jen and Jeff looked at each other. They said at the same time, “Let’s follow him and see where he goes.”
Jeff started the car and began to follow at a safe distance. Jen’s whole body was tense, and she stared out the window. She didn’t have any idea what to expect.
Why, Mr. Lawrence? she kept asking herself.
Bits and Pieces
Jennifer kept her eyes glued on the blue car. After following it for about ten minutes, the car haphazardly parked in front of an old, dilapidated building. There was a pole in front with a cracked shingle hanging precariously on one side. They watched Mr. Lawrence nervously glance around, unlock the door, and go inside. Jen saw a light go on in the front window. Since the shades were drawn, all she could see were shadows moving rapidly from side to side as if searching for something.
Jeff drove slowly by the house, but it was getting dark, and it was impossible to read the sign with the twilight shadows. Jen suggested that they have something to eat and come back later. “Maybe by then Mr. Lawrence will be home, and we can get close enough to read the sign.”
Jen said, “Do you remember the diner we passed on the way into town? It looked really nice. Do you want to eat there?”
Jeff said, “I think it was just before where the highways intersected above Main Street. That’s a good idea now that you mention it, Jen. I am hungry.”
“No wonder,” said Jen. “It’s after six, and we haven’t eaten since early morning.”
Jen and Jeff found the diner and were surprised at how crowded it was. There was a long line, and the hostess said it would take about half an hour before they were seated. They found a seat in the waiting area, looked over the menu, and were so deep in deciding what to order that they almost missed their name being called.
They were seated in a comfortable booth, and it wasn’t long before the waitress came over to take their order. She was very friendly and enjoyed telling them about the specials of the day. When she left, Jen looked around. She noticed the waitresses greeting most of the diners by name. The room had a homey, warm feeling with many families eating there. The menu was so varied that you could choose anything from pancakes to a full meal. She would have loved to have something like this near home.
The time went quickly, and even though the prices were very reasonable, Jeff and Jen had to pull their resources to pay the bill.
“I’m stuffed,” Jen said as they got into the car. “It’s funny how you can be starving one minute and so full the next.”
“The food was great,” Jeff said. “It’s my treat the next time we go to dinner. I’m sorry I didn’t think to bring money for food.” He looked from side to side and said, “Do you remember if I turn left or right at the light?”
Jen said, “It’s a right, and you don’t have to pay for my dinner. I was the one that asked you to come.”
“We’ll talk about that later,” said Jeff.
As they slowly approached the building, it looked dark and deserted. Jen suggested that they wait and watch for a few minutes to make sure no one was around. Nothing stirred. There wasn’t a car in sight. They took the flashlight from the glove compartment and cautiously walked up to the sign. The light illuminated the peeling and faded letters. Since all the a’s were missing, the sign read, H L wrence, Priv te Investig tor.
Jennifer looked surprised and said, “Mr. Lawrence certainly wears many hats. He couldn’t be in a better place if he were hired to watch Mrs. Gallant.”
“I don’t understand why anyone would want Mrs. Gallant watched,” Jeff said. “Where would she possibly go?”
Jen answered, “I guess he’s watching her visitors and her state of mind. What I don’t understand is why he is following me.”
Jeff said, “I wish I knew, but that could explain why he didn’t want to talk to us. He knows that you would recognize him.”
As they got closer to the building, Jennifer noticed a break in the shades. She thought that a shade must have caught on something and didn’t close completely. She said, “Quick, Jeff,” pointing to the opening. “Shine the light over here.” They both craned their necks to see inside as Jeff focused the light.
Jen saw a mass of papers and files that looked like her house after the break-in. There was a blackboard standing in the near corner that had a chart with arrows and question marks going to all directions. It resembled a very detailed and confusing road map. The top said “Sloan,” and the names dividing the sections were “Megan,” “Michael,” and “Cynthia.” Cynthia was circled many times in yellow chalk.
“Look at the blackboard,” said Jennifer, pointing. “Don’t move the light.” She was squinting with her head pressed to the window. “I wish we could get in there.”
“Hold this a minute, please,” Jeff said and handed her the flashlight.
“I’ll try the door and the windows.” He found that everything was tightly locked. Jennifer strained to read the scribbling, but it was impossible to decipher. Finally, they gave up and returned to the car.
Jennifer was so disappointed. She said, “It’s so frustrating to come this far and learn so much only to come to a dead end.”
Jeff said, “We did talk to Mrs. Gallant, and we did find the man in the red sweater. That was something we didn’t expect. We also found out that Mrs. Gallant’s first name is Cynthia.”
“I guess so,” said Jennifer, “but I really wanted to talk to Mr. Lawrence. Someone in the Sloan family must have hired him.” She was pretty sure it wasn’t Megan. Could it be Mike, or could it be Megan’s mom, Cynthia Sloan? Suddenly a thought hit Jennifer.
Jen said, “Jeff, when I was thinking about who could have hired Mr. Lawrence, I started wondering whether Mike met my mom by accident.”
“What does that mean?” asked Jeff.
“Well,” Jennifer answered, “Mom said they met at a ‘Parents Without Partners’ meeting. Then she said they bumped into each other in the supermarket. What do you think?”
“I think it could have been just that,” said Jeff. “She met him at a meeting, bumped into him later, and then they got together for dinner.”
“I wonder,” Jennifer answered. At that moment there was a tapping on the car window. Jen jumped and let out a piercing scream. She grabbed Jeff’s arm and tried to speak. All she could manage were some guttural sounds as she pointed to the window.
Jeff turned and saw someone motioning for him to get out of the car. He nervously fidgeted with the key and started the car. He was about to drive off when Jen yelled, “Stop, Jeff, stop! It’s Mr. Lawrence.”
Jen rolled down her window a crack so she could hear what Mr. Lawrence was saying. “I know you wanted to talk to me earlier,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Come on in, and we’ll talk now.”
Jen just stared at him. Finally she said, “Why wouldn’t you talk to us at Havenwood?”
“Didn’t Ms. Paige explain that I was tied up with a heat emergency? Those people are always cold. I’d be more than happy to talk to you now. Why don’t you come into my office?”
Jen turned to Jeff. “What do you think?” she asked.
“Why have you been following her?” Jeff said, pointing to Jennifer.
“I think things will become clearer once we talk,” Mr. Lawrence assured them. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Very softly Jennifer said, “Jeff, we were going to meet with him today. Why not meet with him now?”
“There are all kinds of people around at Havenwood. Now we’ll be alone with him in a deserted building. I don’t think it’s safe,” Jeff said.
Jennifer suddenly made a decision and said, “Maybe not, but let’s go anyway. We’ll never find out anything if we don’t.” She started to get out of the car and turned to Jeff. “Are you coming with me?”
Nodding his head, Jeff took her hand and said, “I hope we’re not going to be sorry.”
They got out of the car and followed Mr. Lawrence back to the building. Mr. Lawrence opened the door, turned on the lights, and led them down the hall to his office.
“Please clear a chair and sit down,” he said, sitting behind his desk and putting a pencil and yellow legal pad in front of him. Jennifer was trying to decide where to put the files when Mr. Lawrence laughed and said, “Just put them on the floor. I’ll find them when I need them. I always do.
“I’m sorry that I scared you, Jennifer,” Mr. Lawrence said. Looking at Jeff, he said, “And who are you, young man?”
“I’m Jennifer’s friend,” Jeff answered.
“I assume you know what’s been going on then,” Mr. Lawrence said.
When Jeff nodded his head, Mr. Lawrence continued. “You can see,” he said, pointing to the blackboard, “I’m working on the Sloan case.”
Jennifer asked, “What are you investigating and for whom? I want to know how I fit into this?”
“My, my, young lady,” Mr. Lawrence answered. “You certainly have a lot of questions. Let me ask you one first. How do you know the Sloan family?”
Jennifer said, “We really just met them. My mom met Mike Sloan at a ‘Parents Without Partners’ meeting not long ago. She invited him and his daughter, Megan, to dinner. That’s really all there is.”
“That recent, huh,” Mr. Lawrence said, rubbing his chin and thinking. “Let’s see. How can I begin to tell you about this case?”
He was doodling on the yellow pad as he talked. “It began when Cynthia Sloan hired me. At first I thought it had something to do with her divorce from Mike. I followed him and his daughter and reported their whereabouts. Then, about a month ago, she asked me to watch you and your mom.”
“Why?” Jennifer was so puzzled.
“I wish I could tell you,” Mr. Lawrence answered. “I honestly don’t know.”
“But you followed me everywhere,” Jennifer said. “I even saw you in school. What were you looking for?”
“I never ask. My job was to observe and report everything in detail to Mr. Sloan,” Mr. Lawrence replied. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I can tell you, though, that she was more interested in your break-in.”
“Really,” said Jennifer. “Why would she be so interested in that?”
“I don’t get paid to ask the whys, but she wanted information so badly that she put me on overtime. Usually she wants me to stick to the normal hours even if I’m in the middle of something.” Mr. Lawrence chuckled.
“Is that why I saw you pass my house before the police arrived?” Jennifer asked.
“Yup, that’s it,” Mr. Lawrence answered.
“You were near my house earlier that day, too. I saw you parked next door, and you followed Susan and me to the mall,” Jennifer added.
“You’re quite a little detective, young lady,” said Mr. Lawrence. “If I had known that, we could have worked together,” Mr. Lawrence said, smiling.
Jennifer laughed. She was trying to read the maze on the blackboard. She walked over to look closer and said, “Were you doodling here, or do all these lines mean something?”
“It’s a little of both,” Mr. Lawrence answered. “I was just trying to put thoughts in some sort of order.”
Jeff asked, “Are you really the maintenance supervisor here?”
“That I am,” said Mr. Lawrence. “It’s my real job. I couldn’t make a living as an investigator in this small town, but I still like to keep my hand in it.”
“You’re asking us to believe that you just happen to work where Mrs. Gallant is staying?” Jeff asked.
“Maybe that’s part of the reason I was hired,” Mr. Lawrence said with a grin on his face. “It’s kind of a two-for-the-price-of-one deal.”
“Mr. Lawrence,” said Jennifer. “I know it was you who took the pictures in front of my house, but are you also the person who keeps calling my house and hanging up?”
“Nope, that’s not my style,” Mr. Lawrence said, sitting back in his overstuffed chair and giving Jennifer his full attention.
Mr. Lawrence asked, “How long have these calls been going on?”
“It’s been going on for a long time,” Jennifer said. “I don’t remember exactly when they started. I’ll have to think about it,” Jennifer said, glancing at her watch. “I didn’t realize how late it was,” she said, standing up.
“I know you kids have a good hour ride in front of you, but I am glad that we finally met. Maybe we can compare notes again sometime soon,” Mr. Lawrence said.
“We’d like that,” Jennifer said as she and Jeff walked toward the door.
Mr. Lawrence reluctantly stood up. “You be careful,” he said, not moving from his desk. “Keep in touch, you hear?” Jennifer noticed that he was already writing on the yellow pad as they left.
She was so excited when they got into the car. Her head was spinning, and she had to get her thoughts down on paper so they weren’t forgotten. She pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil from her pocketbook and asked Jeff to turn on the overhead light for a few minutes. She began writing furiously. Every now and then she would pause for a minute to think, and she would begin to scribble again. When she finished, she said, “I’m so glad we went in to talk to Mr. Lawrence. He’s really very nice, but he doesn’t know too much more than we do.”
“At least we found out who hired him,” Jeff said as he started the car.
“Jen, I think we should stop at the diner and call home. We’ll be getting back much later than we thought, and our parents will worry.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Jen. “When we stop, I’d also like to call Mrs. Harvard. She asked us to give her love to Mrs. Gallant, and I want to tell her that we spent some time with her at Havenwood.”
They drove for a few minutes in silence with each involved in their own thoughts. All of a sudden, as if a dam broke, they started to talk all at once.
Jen said, “Mrs. Gallant makes no bones about not liking Cynthia Sloan.”
Jeff said, “No, but she misses Megan.”
“I know,” Jen said. “Something is not right about this, Jeff. Why would money be so important to Mrs. Sloan? She grew up as part of the most prominent families in Frederick. There was never any lack of money or material things. She could have a lot more if she had chosen to go into private practice instead of into research.”
Jeff said, “No. You’re right, Jen, it doesn’t make any sense.”
They stopped at the diner again, and they took turns calling home to say they would be later than originally planned. Jen called Mrs. Harvard, who answered the phone on the first ring as if expecting the call. As soon as she heard Jen’s voice, she said excitedly, “Did you see Vicky?”
Jen said, “We did, and we sent her your love. She looks wonderful, and we had a nice visit with her.”
“Did she send a message to me?” asked Mrs. Harvard.
Jen hesitated a minute and said, “She didn’t exactly send a message, but she told us how wonderful you were to her. She also said she wouldn’t have known what she would have done without you.” Jennifer could almost see Mrs. Harvard smiling at the other end of the line.
Mrs. Harvard said, “Thank you so much, Jennifer. My mind is more at ease knowing she is comfortable and well. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your calling, young lady.”
Jennifer hung up feeling good. A little white lie made a nice woman so happy. There couldn’t be any harm in that, she thought.
All the way home, Jen was haunted by the idea of Cynthia Sloan caring more for money than for Megan. No, I can’t accept that, she thought. She considered her mother’s point of not uprooting an already upset and confused child. That might have been true all these years. Why didn’t she ever have any contact with her? Why did she just disappear? After all, Megan is grown now and could have handled any explanation. No, there was still something missing, thought Jen.
The ride went quickly. Jen and Jeff went over the events of the day. They talked about the man in the red sweater now having a name, Mr. Lawrence. Jen couldn’t get over how little he knew about what he was investigating.
Jeff said, “I always thought private investigators knew or found out everything about their cases. I guess I’ve been watching too much TV.”
Tightening Loose Ends
When they got home, Jeff walked Jen to her door and said, “I really enjoyed today, Jen.”
She thought he wanted to say more, but he turned and began walking to the car. All of a sudden, he stopped, turned around, and ran back to catch Jen before she closed the door.
He was winded, and taking a deep breath he said, “Jen, will you go to the Junior Prom with me?” He began talking very fast. “It’s on May 22. That’s a Saturday night. It’s formal. It’s at the Grand Belvedere Hotel. You can let me know later.” He took another deep breath, smiled, and waited expectantly.
“I would love to go with you,” said Jen. “Thank you for asking me. You’ll have to give me all that information again later.”
He stood still and nodded.
She smiled as she went into the house. Jen noticed that Jeff was still standing in the same position and staring ahead. Her smile got broader.
The whole day faded in Jen’s mind. The only thing she could think about was the Junior Prom. She had to tell her mom. She walked from room to room and called for her, but the house was deserted. When she got to the kitchen, she found a note on the table saying that her mom would be home late. Jen glanced at the clock and wondered if it was too late to call Susan. She decided it was. She was walking out of the kitchen when the phone rang. Jen picked it up expecting another hang-up. It was Susan, who said, “Jen, I’m so glad you’re home! I was going to burst if you weren’t there. Sit down. Are you sitting?”
“Yes,” said Jen, “I’m sitting. Are you all right?”
“I’m great!! David Howard asked me to go to the movies next Saturday night. Now I know how you felt when Jeff asked you out. I’m so excited that I can’t think of anything else.”
Jen said, “That’s great, Susan. Isn’t he tall, blond, and hot? I know who he is. He’s in some of Jeff’s classes.”
“That’s the one,” said Susan. “I saw him at the mall this afternoon. We started talking and walking around, and he asked me out. Can you believe it?” she said, laughing.
“Where were you when I needed to talk? Oh, by the way, Jen, what happened in Frederick?”
Jennifer decided to wait to tell Susan about the prom. She understood how excited she was about her date, and Jen was so happy for her. Who knows, she thought. Maybe Susan will be invited to the prom, too.
When she started telling Susan about her day, Jen realized how much she and Jeff had accomplished. She didn’t leave out one detail beginning with the second Jeff picked her up that morning. They talked for over an hour.
When Jen hung up, she got ready for bed. She tried to read her book, but she kept thinking about Mr. Gallant, Mr. Lawrence, and the Sloans. Jen couldn’t sleep. She got out of bed, put on her slippers, and went down to the basement.
Her mother had sanded the desk and it was ready to refinish. It was sitting on its side waiting for the operation to begin. Jen was drawn to the secret compartment. She got her flashlight, sprung open the flap of wood in the back of the drawer, and tried to look down the well that ran along the side of the desk. Everything was pitch-black. Why was that? Jen wondered. Of course, the well wasn’t hollow! It had a bottom! The light would have shone right through if it were hollow.
Jen was excited. She struggled to turn the desk upside down. There was no opening at the bottom of the well. But wait, there is something there! She got down on the floor and put the flashlight in her mouth. Lying face up with her hands free, she pushed the end of the desk higher in the air.
Now she saw it! It was a hinged door with a small combination lock. The numbers were barely legible, and only the combination would set it free. She pulled and tried to open the sticky rotating lock.
All kinds of possibilities were going through Jennifer’s mind. She put the desk upright and went upstairs. Before she got into bed, she gathered her notes from her pocketbook, some paper, and a pen. She was listing her discoveries and her questions when she fell asleep.
Jen was surprised to find the pen and all the papers in her bed when she got up. She scrambled to her feet and called her mother. There was no answer. Quickly putting on her robe and slippers, she hurried to the kitchen.
She heard them before she saw them. Her mom and Mike were sitting at the table laughing and eating.
Mike started talking about Cynthia. He said her career ambitions didn’t include a family. She wouldn’t have lasted much longer in Bel Air because she felt smothered in a small town. The offer from the teaching hospital in Denver gave her the perfect opportunity to leave, and she never looked back.
Mike said he had always lived in Bel Air, and he thought it would be a perfect place to raise Megan. It was a small enough town to be cozy, but it was close enough to the big city to go in as often as he liked. He and Megan only lived there three years because a substantially better job fell in his lap.
With a big “good morning,” Jen came into the room. As she went to the cabinet for cereal, she said to Mike, “How’s Megan? I haven’t seen her for a while.”
Mike said, “She’s fine. She’s excited about being a senior, and she’s getting all her applications for college together.”
“That part scares me too, because I’ll only be seventeen when I start college,” Jen said. “I don’t know how you decide what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
“Megan’s only seventeen too, and she won’t be eighteen until October 3, and she’ll be in college then,” said Mike.
Jen asked where Megan was applying, and the conversation branched off in other directions. Jen ate quickly and excused herself. She went to her room, grabbed the pen, and wrote down Megan’s birthday and place of birth. She was writing from the notes she had made, and became so engrossed that she didn’t hear her mother come into the room. When her mom spoke, Jen jumped.
“Calm down, Jen. It’s only me,” Mom said as she sat down on the bed.
Mom said, “Have you noticed that the hang-up phone calls have almost stopped?”
Jen said, “I haven’t thought about it until now that you mention it. You’re right. We’ve only had a few lately.”
“I’ve been keeping a record of the telephone numbers from the ‘Who’s Calling’ machine,” Jen’s mom said. “Wait a minute. I’ll get it for you.” She went to her room and returned with a pile of papers. Handing them to Jen, she said, “Jen, I know this is going to sound strange, but I have this funny feeling about Mike. Don’t get me wrong. I do like him, but something is not right.”
Jen asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, his coming here this morning was a complete surprise,” said Mom. “He just stopped by at 8:30 on a Sunday morning when all he wanted was to ask me to have dinner with him tonight. Actually, the doorbell woke me up.”
Jen said, “Maybe your meeting wasn’t the accident you thought it was.”
Mom said, “I honestly don’t know.”
Jen was looking at the paper with the telephone numbers. “Most of these start with the same three numbers. I’ll call Officer Bill or Officer John tomorrow. Maybe this will tell them something.”
It took almost a week before Officer John got back to Jennifer. They stopped at the house one afternoon after Jennifer got home from school. Officer John said that the three prefix numbers that were on the list most often meant that they came from a pay phone. There wasn’t anything they could do with them. However, there were a few numbers that weren’t from a pay phone that Officer John said they would trace and get back to her.
Another week passed before Officer Bill called Jennifer. She and Susan had just come home from school. She picked up the phone, and Officer Bill said, “Those numbers did turn up something. Do you know a Michael Sloan?”
Jennifer said, “Yes, my mother met him a few months ago.”
“Well,” said Officer Bill, “one number was a cell phone belonging to a Michael Sloan. That number was used most often. Another number was Michael Sloan’s office. Please alert your mother, and tell her to be careful. If she has any questions or wants to talk to us, tell her to call.”
They said good-bye, and Jennifer just sat there staring at the phone. She told Susan what the officer said. “I’m getting scared,” Jen said. “My mom’s been going out with him a lot, and I have a funny feeling that he’s the one who broke into the house. I wish I knew what he was looking for.”
“Whatever it is, he has gone to a lot of trouble and broken the law for it,” Susan said. “The police already know about the telephone calls. If you’re right and he did break into your house, it’s because he’s getting more desperate.”
“I know,” said Jen, “and I’m getting a feeling more and more lately that the antique desk holds a vital clue. I just can’t think of any numbers that could be the combination.”
“I bet it has to be something you already have,” said Susan. “After all, I would think the safe was meant to be opened.”
“You’re so right,” Jen said, speaking very slowly. “There just isn’t anything, unless-unless-unless… Susan, this is very far-fetched, but I have an idea,” Jen said as she ran to her room with Susan behind her.
She grabbed the envelope with the letter from the bottom of her sock drawer, and ran to the basement steps with Susan closely behind. “Help me, Susan,” Jen said as she tried to turn the desk upside down. Together they maneuvered the desk so Jen could show Susan the safe.
“I guess the combination could be a birthday date. Susan, I know this sounds crazy, but I’m going to try the only other numbers that make sense.”
She took the letter from the envelope. Looking at the letter, she began to turn the combination lock. Jen said, “This is the moment of truth.” They heard a click, and the door sprung open. Both girls stood with their mouths open!
Jennifer was so excited. She ran for the flashlight and put the light into the gaping hole.
“Come here, Susan, I’ll pull them out and hand them to you.” Jen gingerly began pulling two long envelopes out from their hiding place. They were dusty and crinkled, but they looked otherwise unharmed. “Howard and Howard, Attorneys and Counselors-At-Law” was printed in black script on the left-hand corner of each envelope. As she handed them to Susan, something dropped on the floor at her feet.
Jen bent down and picked up a tiny ring. Even though dirt replaced the sparkle, she could see how beautiful it once was and how delicately it was made. It was too small to fit her pinky, and she had very thin fingers. The wide top had one large round stone nestled in prongs in the center. Surrounding this stone were many minute chips that formed ever-widening circles until the top was filled.
When Jen held the ring up to the light, she said, “I bet this is magnificent when it’s cleaned up. Who knows how long it’s been in this desk?” She put the ring in her pocket and locked the safe. Susan put the envelopes down and helped bring the desk upright again. When everything was in order, Jen took the envelope, and she and Susan went upstairs to the kitchen.
As Jen tried to open one envelope, she said, “These envelopes are so old. Just look how the tape over the seal is so yellow and cracked that I hope it doesn’t tear.” Very carefully she unsealed the flap and slipped the papers out. They were thick and folded in thirds. Slowly, Jen unfurled the papers and realized it was a will. Written across the top in elaborate script was, Last Will and Testament of Paul Goucher. The will was dated January 4, 1925.
Jennifer and Susan tried to read it, but the only thing they could understand was that everything Paul Goucher owned was left to Victoria Nelson. Jen told Susan that when she and Jeff talked to Victoria Nelson, it was a shame that she couldn’t tell them the story of Paul and why they didn’t end up together.
Susan said, “I wonder if he ever married, and if this will is still in effect.” As Jen put the will back in the envelope, she said, “I’ll show these to my mom. She’ll either know what it’s about, or be able to find out.”
Jen reached on top of the refrigerator and got the yellow pages of the telephone book. She said, “I wonder if this law firm still exists.” She turned to the “Lawyers” and found a listing for “Howard & Howard” located downtown.
Susan said, “I wonder if it would be the same firm.”
“My mom could probably help us with that, too,” Jen said. “I’m beginning to think that Cynthia Sloan is the key to this puzzle. There are too many things about her that simply don’t make sense.”
Susan said, “Like what?”
“Oh, the way she left seems funny,” Jen began. “She went so far away, and divorced Megan as well as Mike. She made such a complete break that she’s never gotten in touch with Megan in all these years. Even if she left because her career came first, it’s as if Megan doesn’t exist to her.”
Both girls got quiet just thinking about what they’d just found. Jen was trying to understand how a mother could do what Cynthia Sloan did to Megan. It was beyond her. She said, “I know that she is at a teaching hospital in Denver.” She walked to the phone and said, “Do you think my mom will kill me for making some long-distance calls?”
“It’s the only way you’re going to get some answers. You said that even Mr. Lawrence didn’t know why Mrs. Sloan hired him,” said Susan.
Jen picked up the phone and dialed information. When the operator answered, she said, “I hope you can help me. How do I get information for Denver, Colorado?” She listened and wrote down the number. “Well here goes. Susan, will you bring that paper over here, please,” Jen said, pointing to the counter. I might need it.”
Susan handed Jen the pad just as the operator in Colorado answered.
“Yes,” said Jennifer. “I would appreciate your giving me the telephone numbers of any teaching hospitals in Denver.” Jen listened and said, “Yes, I’ll take all four of them.”
She wrote quickly and read the numbers back to the operator. “Thank you for your help,” Jen said and hung up.
She called the first two hospitals and was told that Dr. Cynthia Sloan was not an employee. When she called the third hospital, the operator said to wait while she connected her. Jennifer asked for Dr. Sloan’s extension in case they were disconnected. “What am I going to say to her?” Jen asked. “Now I’m nervous. I should have prepared what I wanted to say before I called.” She started jotting notes on the pad.
Much too soon, the voice at the other end of the line said, “Dr. Sloan speaking. May I help you?”
“Yes,” said Jennifer, speaking very quietly. “My name is Jennifer Blair. My mother bought Victoria Gallant’s desk at an antique show. I visited Mrs. Gallant at Havenwood. I know your ex-husband, Mike, and your daughter, Megan, is my friend.”
Jen waited. There was dead silence at the other end of the line. Jen asked, “Are you still there, Dr. Sloan?”
A low voice said, “Yes, I’m here. How did you get my number?”
Jen said, “It wasn’t very difficult. I knew you were at a teaching hospital in Denver. I kept calling hospitals until I found you.”
“Why are you calling me?” asked Dr. Sloan. “I’ve had no contact with Mike or Megan for years now. Is something wrong?”
“I’m not sure,” said Jennifer. “I have so many questions I want to ask, but one thing puzzles me. How could you have no contact with your daughter, Megan, all these years?”
Dr. Sloan answered, “I’m going to hang up. I don’t know you, and I don’t have to answer your questions.”
“Wait,” said Jennifer. “You hired Mr. Lawrence, and I’ve spoken to him.”
Dr. Sloan said, “What did you say your name was again?”
“Jennifer Blair,” said Jen.
“OK, Jennifer Blair. I will speak to Mr. Lawrence about you. If he says you’re all right, I will give him any information you need, and he will convey it to you. I’m going to terminate this conversation now.” Dr. Cynthia Sloan promptly hung up.
“I wonder if Mr. Lawrence is in his office,” Jen said. “I want to give him a list of questions to ask Dr. Sloan.” She found his number in her wallet. As she dialed the number, she said, “Here goes another long-distance call.”
The phone rang six times. As the recorder answered, Mr. Lawrence clicked it off and said, “Good afternoon, Howard Lawrence speaking. May I help you?”
Jen said, “Mr. Lawrence, this is Jennifer Blair. Do you remember me?”
Mr. Lawrence said, “I sure do. You’re the girl who was so interested in Victoria Gallant. What can I do for you?”
Jen said, “I need your help.” She told him about her conversation with Dr. Cynthia Sloan. “Can we meet and talk?”
“You actually found her?” asked Mr. Lawrence. “I knew you were a good detective.”
He thought for a minute and said, “Why don’t you give me your questions so I can get answers from Cynthia before we meet. That way we can save a lot of going back and forth.”
Jennifer agreed and started shooting questions at him. One question led to another, and they were coming fast and furious. Mr. Lawrence said, “Hold it. Stop! Do you mind if I record our conversation? I can’t write as fast as you’re talking.”
Jen said, “That’s fine as long as I can call later with anything I might have forgotten. I haven’t given it any thought, and I don’t want to leave out something important.”
“Agreed,” said Mr. Lawrence, and the questions continued. When Jennifer finally stopped, they made arrangements to meet at the mall after school on Friday.
“If I can’t reach Cynthia before then, I’ll get in touch with you, and we’ll change our meeting,” said Mr. Lawrence.
Jen asked, “How is Mrs. Gallant? I’m sorry I didn’t know her when she was younger and could remember the details of her life. She’s such an interesting person.”
“That’s still one very special lady, and she’s the same,” said Mr. Lawrence.
They said good-bye, and as soon as Jennifer hung up, her mom called. She said, “I’m afraid I’ll be very late, Jen. Something came up that has to be done yesterday. I was so looking forward to just the two of us for dinner. Sorry.”
“I was late too,” said Jen, “and I have so much to tell you about the Sloans.”
“We’ll talk soon,” said Mom. “I’ve got to run. See you later.” The phone clicked.
Susan invited Jen to go home with her for dinner. Jen thanked her but said she could use the quiet time to get her thoughts together. Before Susan went home, she and Jen tried to write down all the questions they could remember giving Mr. Lawrence.
Jen was so startled when her mother came home. “I thought you were going to be so late,” said Jen. “What time is it?”
“It’s after 11,” said Mom. “I hope you’ve eaten.”
Jen stood up and stretched. “You won’t believe it, Mom, but this is the first time that I’ve gotten up since Susan left. That was right after I talked to you. I completely forgot about dinner.”
“That couldn’t possibly be homework,” Mom said, smiling and walking over.
Jen said, “It’s not. It’s all the questions I want Mr. Lawrence to ask Dr. Cynthia Sloan.”
Mom said, “You asked Mr. Lawrence to ask Dr. Sloan questions? Come into the kitchen, and we’ll talk while we get something light to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.”
Jen said, “I’m hungry too. I think this is the first time that I completely forgot about eating.”
They headed for the kitchen, and Jen took her papers with her. She put them in a neat pile with wills on top.
While Mom was preparing sandwiches, Jen caught her up on what was happening. She told her about Havenwood, Mrs. Gallant, and Mr. Lawrence.
“We went to see Sarah Harvard, too,” Jen said. “She took care of Mrs. Gallant before she went to Havenwood. Oh, guess what, Mom? Sarah Harvard showed us her receipt from Times Past. She was paid $1,200.00 for the desk you bought. She said she needed the money more than the desk.”
Mom said, “I’m sorry that was the reason she sold it, but I see what a bargain I got.”
Then Jen told her about the arguments between Mike and Cynthia and her conversations with Dr. Sloan and Mr. Lawrence. Jen’s mom stopped what she was doing and stared at her.
Jen said, “What is it, Mom?”
Mom spoke very slowly as if she were in a dream. She wasn’t moving and was looking straight ahead. She said, “Jen, I think you were right when you suggested that my meeting with Mike wasn’t an accident.”
Jen said, “Why do you say that?”
“There were a lot of little things when he brought me home Friday night,” said Mom. “I went to my room to change. When I came back to the living room, Mike had drinks ready.”
As she was talking, she walked to the breakfront and opened the bottom left drawer. She took out a glass behind a stack of serving pieces and said, “The drinks Mike served were in these glasses, and I had never used them before. They are so far in the back that he couldn’t possibly see them by opening the door. I always use the glasses in the kitchen cabinet. How could he know about these unless he had been through the drawers?”
Jen said, “A better question is why would he go in the breakfront in the first place? Could it have something to do with these?” She handed her mom the wills that she’d found in the desk.
“This paper is so old and fragile,” Mom said, turning the documents over in her hands. “I hope they don’t crack when I open them.” She gingerly unfolded the documents and began skimming the contents.
When she finished, she looked at Jen and said, “Jen, I’ll have to ask the estate and trust attorneys at my office about these. Paul Goucher’s will left his entire estate of blue-chip stocks, a variety of bonds, and massive property holdings. It is worth a fortune today!”
She continued, “Victoria, in turn, set up a first codicil to her will when Megan was born, leaving Paul Goucher’s estate to Megan’s parents. Victoria never touched one thing. She left the estate the way it was given to her, and it accumulated and compounded all these years.
“Let me see,” said Mom. She started lightly flipping through the pages. Suddenly she stopped and said, “This codicil supersedes the original. It says, ‘Second Codicil to the Last Will and Testament of Victoria Gallant.’ It divides Paul Goucher’s estate equally between Cynthia Nelson Sloan and Megan Sloan. The estate can be distributed when Megan turns 18. This second codicil is also handwritten.”
Jen asked, “What about Mike? He isn’t mentioned in the second codicil. Do you think this could be the only copy since it’s handwritten? Why do you think that Mike would be left out?”
“I don’t know the answer to either question,” said Mom. “If it’s all right with you, I would like to take these to show Ray at my office,” she said, holding up the wills. “He should know what to do.”
“Just be careful with them,” Jen said. “By the way, Mom, Howard & Howard Attorneys and Counselors-At-Law are listed in the telephone book.”
Mom said, “That’s incredible. If it’s the same firm, they have been in existence a long time. I wonder how they handle such old records.”
When they finished eating, Jen got up to clear the table. “Just leave everything in the sink,” Mom said. “It’s late, and we have school and work tomorrow. The dishes can wait.”
Jen said, “I don’t mind. I’m all wound up anyway. I’ll finish here, Mom.”
“Thanks,” said Mom, who headed toward the back of the house to the bedroom.
Jennifer cleaned up the kitchen and performed the nightly ritual of checking the doors before going to her room. When she got into bed, she found the harder she tried to fall asleep, the more awake she became. She finally got up, sat at her desk, and tried to figure out why Mike would be left out of the will.
The omission explained why he became friendly with her mom and why he broke into the house. Jennifer thought that if she could find out where Mom got the desk, Mike certainly could. Her thinking kept going around in circles, but she didn’t come up with a logical answer. She couldn’t wait to talk to Mr. Lawrence.
Jennifer assumed she would be meeting Mr. Lawrence at the mall after school on Friday since she hadn’t heard differently. On Friday morning she told her mom she would be late coming home, but she didn’t tell her exactly why. She thought it would be better to tell her about the meeting after her questions were answered. Since Jeff wanted to be with her when she met Mr. Lawrence, she was doubly excited about the day.
Jennifer couldn’t concentrate at all and had a terrible time waiting for school to be over. It seemed like three days before she met Jeff. Every time she looked at her watch, it was standing still.
Finally, the bell rang, and she met Jeff in front of his dad’s car. From the time they got into the car until they got to the mall, Jen couldn’t stop talking. “You can tell that I’m nervous,” Jen said. “I always get talking jags when I’m nervous.”
“I noticed,” said Jeff, smiling.
“I can’t wait to hear the answers,” said Jen. “I feel like all the pieces are finally going to fit.”
Mr. Lawrence was waiting near the mall entrance when they walked in. He was surprised to see Jeff and motioned for them to come over. “Come,” he waved. “Let’s sit over here,” he said, indicating a bench off to the side.
When they were seated, Mr. Lawrence said, “I didn’t expect you, Jeff. I hope it doesn’t complicate things.” He turned to Jennifer and said, “Instead of answering your questions myself, I was going to let you ask Cynthia Sloan directly.”
“How can that be?” asked Jennifer.
“May I talk in front of him?” Mr. Lawrence said, indicating Jeff.
“Of course,” said Jennifer. “He was with me when I met you. Remember?”
“OK,” said Mr. Lawrence. “When I called Dr. Sloan and told her about our meeting and all the questions you had, she said that she preferred to answer them in person.”
“She was rude to me on the phone,” said Jennifer.
“She was shocked by your call,” said Mr. Lawrence. “After thinking it over, she decided she would rather talk to you personally.”
“Are you telling me that she’s making a special trip here to speak to me?” asked Jennifer.
“Oh, no,” Mr. Lawrence said. “She is attending a seminar about an hour away, and it gave her a perfect opportunity to come here. You’ll see.”
Mr. Lawrence turned to Jeff and said, “Do you want to leave your car, and we’ll all go in my car? It’ll be easier that way.”
Jeff asked, “How far are we going?”
Mr. Lawrence said that Dr. Sloan’s hotel was about 45 minutes away. “She thought it best to meet there.”
Jennifer said, “I’d better call home and leave a message for my mom. We should be later than I’d thought, and I don’t want her to worry.” She turned to Jeff and said, “Are you going to call home, Jeff? Are you sure you still want to go with me?”
“Of course I want to go,” said Jeff. “Mr. Lawrence, we’ll be right back as soon as we use the phones over there,” he said, pointing.
Jennifer and Jeff left messages at home and squeezed in the front of the car with Mr. Lawrence. He had the directions written on a small scrap of paper and was having trouble reading in the dim light.
“If you have a flashlight, Mr. Lawrence, I can read the directions while you drive,” Jennifer said.
“Thanks,” he said, handing the directions to Jennifer. “There’s one in the glove compartment.”
The ride went smoothly, and the closer they got to their destination, the more anxious Jennifer became. How could Dr. Sloan’s job mean more to her than her family? How do you leave a seven-year-old child and never see or speak to her again?
She felt sorry for Megan and Dr. Sloan. Megan grew up without a mother, and Dr. Sloan missed Megan’s childhood and a whole lot more. They didn’t know each other, and they’d each missed a special relationship. She couldn’t imagine not being close with her mom. They were as much friends as mother and daughter.
Jennifer was surprised when Mr. Lawrence pulled up in front of the hotel. It was so ornate that it looked out of place in a small town. When they went inside, Mr. Lawrence went to the desk and had them tell Dr. Sloan we were here. Mr. Lawrence led them to a private corner of the lobby to wait for Dr. Sloan. They were waiting a few minutes when a petite lady, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, walked toward them. Mr. Lawrence went over to her, took her hand, and led her to our corner. He introduced Dr. Cynthia Sloan to an obviously surprised Jennifer and Jeff. Jennifer thought she looked more like Megan’s sister than Megan’s mother.
“I had to come,” Dr. Sloan said when they were seated. “Mike has gone too far this time. I won’t let him get away with it. When you told me that he broke into your house, Jennifer, I had to break my silence. Mike can’t threaten me any longer.”
“I don’t understand,” Jen said, confused. “Why would Mike threaten you?”
Dr. Sloan leaned back in the chair. She sighed deeply and said, “I’ve never told this to anyone, but now I must. I probably waited too long as it is.” She spoke in a monotone, and the deep pain was evident in her eyes.
She said, “I married Mike when I was in my second year of medical school. My family violently opposed the marriage and desperately tried to talk me out of it. When that didn’t work, they immediately carried out their threat to disinherit me. The only thing I got was tuition until graduation.” She smiled and said, “I guess they wanted me to be able to support myself.”
Jeff asked, “Why were they so against your marriage?”
“That is the very heart of this problem,” Dr. Sloan said. “My family thought I deserved someone better than Mike and someone who had never been married. They didn’t want me to marry a divorced man with a two-month-old daughter. You see,” she said slowly, “I am not Megan’s biological mother.”
Mr. Lawrence was sitting with his arms folded in front of him. He was watching Jeff and Jennifer closely. Jennifer opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. Her head was spinning. Finally, she said, “Why didn’t Megan go with her mother?”
“To quote her,” Dr. Sloan said, “she didn’t want a brat cramping her style. She was a free spirit and wanted space to find herself. The last thing she wanted was the responsibility of a child. The funny thing is that, as far as I know, she has never made contact with Megan. I don’t even know if Mike knows where she is.”
“That explains the wills I found and the updated codicil,” Jennifer said.
“Wills,” said Dr. Sloan. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. “As you probably guessed, I found them in the desk my mother bought from the antique dealer. The first codicil was made when Megan was an infant, and Victoria Gallant left Paul Goucher’s entire estate to Megan’s parents. Now I realize that her parents would be Mike and his first wife.”
Dr. Sloan said, “Yes. Despite how she felt about me, Victoria became part of my life again when Megan was born. She adored the child and was determined to provide for her future. When she learned that there was no hope of my adopting her, she revised her will and left Paul’s estate to Megan and me.”
Jennifer asked, “Why didn’t you adopt her?”
Dr. Sloan said, “I tried to, but her natural mother would never release her claim. Mike was against an adoption too because he didn’t want me to have any legal rights to Megan.”
Jeff said, “You were her mother. You were raising her.”
Dr. Sloan said, “Yes, and I couldn’t love her any more if I had given birth to her.” She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “You see, I was never able to have children.”
Mr. Lawrence had quietly gotten coffee for himself and Dr. Sloan and sodas for Jennifer and Jeff. He put them on the table, and Jennifer absently picked up the soda. She noticed that it was getting dark outside, but she was so fascinated with the story that she didn’t want to leave. She said, “Please go on, Dr. Sloan. I still can’t understand why you had no relationship with Megan all these years. You were the only mother she ever knew.”
“That’s true,” Dr. Sloan said, “but Megan was only seven when we went through a bitter, spiteful divorce. Mike threatened to tell Megan I wasn’t her real mother if I fought him for custody. Part of the divorce agreement stated that I could neither speak to nor contact Megan until she was eighteen.”
Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she took a sip of her coffee and continued. “Megan was going through a traumatic upheaval. Her whole world was falling apart, and I didn’t want to add to it. After much soul searching, I finally signed the agreement, but I had to get as far away as I could.”
Jennifer rummaged in her purse for a tissue. She wiped her eyes and said, “Does Megan know you are not her biological mother?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Sloan. “Mike told her when she was sixteen. By then Mike’s brainwashing over the years had taken their toll, and she had no desire to have any contact with me.”
“I feel sorry for both of you,” Jennifer said. “You both missed so much, and those years are gone.”
“I realize that now,” Dr. Sloan said. “Mike was selfish then, and he’s selfish now. He wants the first codicil to be enacted in October. That way he, his first wife, and Megan will divide the Goucher legacy.”
“Then the handwritten revision I found must be the only copy,” Jennifer said.
“I believe so,” Dr. Sloan said. “That’s why he is so desperate. He would do anything to get his hands on it and destroy it.”
Dr. Sloan asked a million questions about Megan. Jennifer and Jeff were sorry they couldn’t tell her more, but they didn’t know Megan very well. After talking for another hour, Dr. Sloan reluctantly got up.
She said, “It’s getting late, and it will be almost an hour before you get home. I wasn’t looking forward to this meeting, but it was a genuine pleasure meeting you both. I’m sorry you had to get involved in my family’s mess.
“Howard,” she said, turning to Mr. Lawrence, “you have done your job well. I’ll call you early next week, and we’ll discuss where we go from here. Thank you for arranging this meeting.”
Mr. Lawrence looked pleased and acknowledged the compliment by nodding his head. Dr. Sloan walked the small group to the door.
The ride back to the mall went very quickly. As they got out of the car, Mr. Lawrence laughed and said, “If you ever want to be my assistant, Jennifer, the job is always open.”
Questions and Answers
It was after twelve when Jeff pulled into Jen’s driveway. They sat in the car and talked about the incredible night.
“I can’t go in right now,” Jen said, turning to Jeff. There were tears in her eyes as she said, “My heart goes out to Dr. Sloan.”
“I know,” said Jeff. He took Jen’s hand, and they sat quietly in the dark for a long time. Squeezing Jen’s hand, he said, “Dr. Sloan’s decision gave her many empty years without Megan. She missed her growing up, but the gift she gave Megan was the most selfless act of love.”
“It certainly was,” Jen said. “Dr. Sloan made a painful and lonely decision, and she was thinking only of Megan.” Jen said in a small voice, “I wonder. I can’t imagine my life without my mom. Knowing she’s always there is like having a security blanket. It’s a warm, safe feeling. I think Dr. Sloan should have contacted her before she was grown. She would have gotten through to her eventually, and they could have had some kind of relationship. Talking on the phone would have been better than this.”
“I agree,” Jeff said, “but you have to remember that Megan grew up with her father. He did everything to keep them apart. That’s why I wonder if it’s too late to get together now.”
“I hope not,” Jen said. “I also hope that Mom is not hurt that Mike used her. She liked him until she found out she was part of his calculating plans.”
Jeff said, “I never would have guessed that Mike was behind this. He fooled a lot of people. Those people include Mrs. Harvard, Mrs. Gallant, and, of course, you and me.”
Jen said, “I’d better get into the house. It’s late, and it’s been a long day. Thanks for going with me.”
Jeff answered, “I wouldn’t have missed it. Mr. Lawrence is right. You are a good detective.” He walked her to the door and said good night with a light kiss.
She found her mother sitting at the kitchen table writing on a yellow pad.
“Hi,” Jennifer said. “I’m sorry to be so late.”
Mom said, “Thanks for leaving a message. I would have been frantic.” She put her pen down and said, “Now, tell me all about Cynthia Sloan.”
Jennifer said, “I think you would like her. She was very candid with us. She regrets the years she lost with Megan, but she felt she had no choice at the time.” Jennifer tried to remember every detail as she told her mother about their meeting.
“That’s too bad,” said Mom. She flipped the yellow pad to the beginning and said, “I was busy too, Jen. To begin with, the Howard & Howard law firm listed in the phone book is the same firm Victoria Gallant used and is still using today. The senior partner, who handled Ms. Gallant’s account, believes the second codicil you found is the only copy.”
Mom said, “The lawyer was most anxious to see it and establish its authenticity. Mr. Sloan and he were working closely to carry out the first codicil when Megan turns eighteen in October, and he was clearly shocked at the existence of a later codicil.”
Mom said, “This is what I imagine happened. Dr. Sloan was in a no-win situation with no claim to Megan. You are the one, Jen, that spoiled Mike’s plans.”
“Why is that?” Jen asked.
“Mom said, “You found the letter and the will in the desk. Without them Dr. Sloan couldn’t prove anything.”
Jen said, “You know, Mom, everyone we spoke to thinks Dr. Sloan is the bad guy. Mike did a good job of covering his real motives. Over the years that break cemented with more than a little help from Mike.” Jen asked, “Are you upset about Mike?”
“Do you mean because I liked him?” Mom asked. “I was originally, but the more I found out about him, the less interested I became. Now I’m just thankful that I didn’t have time to get more involved. This is a switch, isn’t it, Jen? Your being involved with my love life,” Mom said with a smile.
Jen said, “You know I care about you.”
Mom got up to hug Jennifer and said, “Jen, they threw the mold away when they made you. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom,” Jen said. “By the way, did you finish the desk?”
“Yes, I did finish it,” Mom said. “It’s drying downstairs, and I can’t wait to put it in the living room and start enjoying it. I think the desk and the mystery surrounding it finished at the same time. It’s so late. Let’s continue in the morning.”
A New Beginning
The next morning with very little sleep, they continued their conversation from late last night.
The phone rang, and Jen looked at Mom. “I hope we’re not starting with hang-ups again.”
Jen picked up the phone and listened. She showed surprise and nodded her head more than once in agreement. Finally, she said, “I’m so glad. Did you call her? That’s wonderful!” She listened again, and she smilingly said, “Hang on a minute, and I’ll see.”
Jen put her hand over the receiver and said, “Mom, Dr. Sloan and Megan want to come over at 1:00 pm. Is that okay?”
Now it was Mom’s turn to be surprised. “They want to come here?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jen said. “I’m talking to Dr. Sloan. She said she called Megan, and they talked for four hours. They said they both would feel more comfortable if they came here on their first meeting since I brought them together.”
Mom answered, “Of course. Tell her we look forward to their visit.”
At precisely 1:00 pm, Jennifer answered the doorbell and greeted Dr. Sloan and Megan. She brought them into the den and introduced Dr. Sloan to her mom. Jennifer smiled as they immediately began talking like long lost friends. Megan stayed close to Dr. Sloan, and Jen could see a relationship developing.
All of a sudden, there was complete silence. Everyone’s eyes were on Jennifer. “What’s the matter?” Jen asked. “What happened? What did I do?”
Her mom and Dr. Sloan looked at each other, and her mom said, “Jen, how did you know the combination to the safe in the desk?”
“Oh, that,” said Jennifer, smiling. “It was a lucky guess. The only numbers that made any sense to me turned out to be the combination.” She paused and continued, “It was the date of the letter I found in the desk. 12-28-24.”
“That’s amazing,” said Dr. Sloan, and Jen’s mom smiled and shook her head. “I can see why Howard wants you to be his assistant,” Dr. Sloan said, winking at Jen. She turned to Jen’s mom and said, “Howard is the private detective I hired. He arranged my meeting with Jen, and he’s very impressed with her detective work.”
Jen said, “I still wonder about the phone calls. When Megan and Mike were here for dinner, we got some hang-ups. Mike couldn’t have made those calls, and Megan said she was getting hang-ups at times, too.”
“I think everyone gets some hang-ups, but Mike made those calls to see if anyone was home. He wanted to examine the desk to make sure nothing came up to threaten his inheritance. He is so obsessive that after a while, it becomes a sick game.”
“Dr. Sloan,” Jen said, “do you remember Mike’s having a gold ring with a swirled engraving on the top?”
“No, I don’t recall anything like that,” answered Dr. Sloan.
Megan suddenly became interested in the conversation. She turned and said, “Yes, he does, Mom. Don’t you remember the ring he used to wear on his pinky finger?”
“No, I don’t remember that,” said Dr. Sloan. “Why?”
“Oh, I found a ring like that in my dresser drawer,” Jen said. “It must have slipped off.”
Dr. Sloan said, “Let me see it, please.”
“The policemen took it, but they couldn’t find out anything,” said Jen. “Speaking of rings, I found a ring in the desk with the wills.”
“That must have been Paul’s engagement ring,” Dr. Sloan said. “May I see the letter you found in the desk?”
“Sure,” Jen said. She went to her room and got the brown envelope with the letter. “Please be careful,” Jen said, handing the envelope to Dr. Sloan.
Dr. Sloan gingerly opened the envelope and withdrew the letter. She read it silently and returned it to the envelope. Handing the envelope back to Jen, she said, “You should have known Aunt Victoria when she was younger. She was a genteel, elegant, and painfully proper lady. She lowered her eyes when speaking, and she left the room when voices became raised in anger.”
Megan said softly, “That probably was why she couldn’t stand all the contention over the desk.”
The girls left the room and went into the kitchen for a soda.
Cynthia and Carol were becoming fast friends. They decided that they would make an appointment at Howard & Howard law firm to discuss the new codicil and where we’d go from here.
The hours flew by, and Megan and Dr. Sloan said they really enjoyed the afternoon and had to do it again soon.
As they opened the door, Cynthia said, “I almost forgot Howard told me that he would be getting in touch with Jennifer soon to help with another case. He enjoyed working with her so much. He said anything you were working with wouldn’t be dangerous. He’ll give you a call soon.”
Jen was so excited, and Mom said, “You’ll put puzzle pieces together and interview people involved.”
Jen said, “It sounds GREAT!! I can’t wait to start! Thanks, Dr. Sloan!”
When the guests said their good-byes, Mom said, “I’m glad they came. We each have a new friend thanks to you, Jen.”d for four hours. They said they both would feel more comfortable if they came here on their first meeting since I brought them together.”
When the guests said their good-byes, Mom said, “I’m glad they c