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Monday, September 17, 2012

Cookie Jack's Adventure - Part One

Summer was speeding along on its way to Autumn...the days were hot, but not really unpleasant because, where we lived, there was almost always a nice breeze in the afternoons this late in summer. Cookie Jack and I had been working at his Uncle Hank's Auto Repair business for several weeks now, and Jackie was beginning to take on a different look. He was changing. Something was happening to him and I was just beginning to take notice of it. Hmmmm, my curiosity was piqued when I saw him one morning. What was he up to?

"Good mornin',  Jackie! You're up mighty early this mornin'!"

"Oh, hi, AnnaBee! I jist thought I'd get an early start on the day. How are ya doin' this mornin'?" 

"Well, Jackie, my boy, I reckon maybe these old bones 'r gettin' kinda tired of sleepin' in doorways, but bein' homeless somehow requires it sometimes, don't 'cha know? Where have ya' been so early in the mornin', if ya don't mind my askin'?"

Jackie looked at me kinda shy like, and replied, "Oh, jist around, but I'm ready fer breakfast now, ain't you?"

We were standing on the street in front of the Mission, where we met up each morning to have breakfast. We were no longer eating for free, but paid something for our meals, because we were wage earners now. 

Jackie was looking fresh and neat in his work uniform that had his name, Jack Jones, on the upper left shoulder. He had taken back his original last name belonging to his unwed mother at the time he was born. We had consulted our lawyer friend, Sherri Gambini, and she helped him get it changed back from his adoptive mother's last name. Ms. Gambini does a lot of Pro Bono work. 

By the way, I'll bet you have been wondering about my good friend, Lucy Mae, haven't you? Well, Lucy Mae is quite recovered from her bout with Datura poisoning earlier this year and I'll be seeing her later this afternoon, She is spending quite a bit of time with her son and grandchildren these days. It is wonderful to see her so happy. 

Jackie and I headed into the Mission and were hailed by Pastor Joe as we walked to the breakfast line. 

"Good morning to you, folks! My goodness, Jackie, don't you look sharp today! Somehow, you're looking a little different these days! What have you been doing to yourself?"

"Oh, I ain't, I mean, I haven't been doin' anything, much, Pastor Joe.  I have a job now, ya know. I'm a workin' man now."

"Yes, Jackie, I realize that," grinned Pastor Joe, his dimples evident as he looked at me, with a wink. "Congratulations on your employment.  I hear you haven't missed a day in the time you've been working. Didn't I hear that you have already gotten a raise?"

"Oh, yeah, er...yes, I have. My uncle said I was doin' such a good job, that when I asked him for a little more money, he agreed to raise my salary. I've started a bank account to save some of my money!"

I looked at Pastor Joe and smiled. I lifted my eyebrows in a signal that we would talk later. Joe smiled back and said, "Well, I'll bet you two are hungry, eh? I'll let you get on in line and have breakfast."

"We'll see you later, Pastor Joe," we said almost in unison.

Jackie and I got into line and got our trays. We had each placed two dollars in the donation box as we came in the door. That would help defray the cost of our breakfast. Now that we were both working, we felt it only right to give what we could to help out the Mission. Neither of us were earning enough to have a place to live, but we didn't want to take without giving back.

As we went through the line, I noticed that Jackie was not piling his tray up as he used to. Hmmmm. Wonder if he was off his feed, so to speak? This would bear some looking into. He also only took one of the fresh oatmeal cookies. What could that mean? Arlissa, the server, looked at him as though she couldn't believe it, either.  

She looked at me with a question mark on her face (well, not really, but you know what I mean), and I just lifted my shoulders with an "I don't know" on mine.

Jackie and I headed for a table, with little Clancy, my Jack Russell terrier, at my heels. He had been awfully patient throughout all this exchange, but I knew he was hungry. I was thinking he probably thought I had forgotten him, but no way could I forget my little buddy. Jackie and I sat down, and I patted Clancy on the head, thanking him for being such a good dog. Jackie and I bowed our heads and gave thanks for our breakfast. Then I slipped Clancy a small beef bone the cook gave me as we came through the line.

I looked at Cookie Jack and asked, "What gives, Jackie? What is going on with you, anyway? Are you not feeling well?" 
"Why, AnnaBee, I'm feeling fine.. I'm not sick 'r anything. Why would you think that?"

"For one thing, you've jist about quit eatin' cookies. You sure you're not off your feed?"

Jackie looked at me kind of funny, as if to say "what are you talking about?" He actually looked a little uncomfortable talking about it. Then he just smiled, and said, "Don't worry, AnnaBee. I'm just fine. Why don't we eat our breakfast?"

Now it was my turn to look at him and smile and give it up for the time being. Jackie really was changing... he was growing into a mature person and I was beginning to see what he could have become much sooner if only he had someone to guide him. Aha!

Someone I didn't know must be influencing him...but who? This was going to require some detection on my part, but it would have to be done very quietly and surreptitiously, and I was going to have to keep my big mouth shut (a very difficult task, don't cha know?).

It was certainly influencing him to the good, there was no doubt of that! 

We finished our breakfast in a companionable way, chatting about work. 

"AnnaBee, you've really been making the shop look real home-like, what with the flowers you put on your desk, and the way you arranged the furniture in the waiting area."

"Thank ya, Jackie. I appreciate bein' appreciated. Ha!"

"Also, could you please call me Jack? Jackie sounds like a little boy, don't it?"

I nearly dropped my fork...
 

"Why, sure Jacki-, uh-Jack. No problem...well, I mean, it may take me awhile to remember, but I sure will. Say, I notice you're wearing a billed cap with the shop logo on it, instead of the porkpie hat you have worn for so long. It really looks good on you!"

"Thanks, AnnaBee! My Uncle Jack gave me a couple of them. It kind of advertises the business when I am not there, and keeps my hair clean when I am there." 

I leaned back and took a good look at Jack. He was slimming down; I could see it now that I was really paying attention to his appearance. I didn't know what he was doing to lose the round cheeks, and he was developing muscles. Was it from the work? I knew he didn't have the money to go to a gym to work out. I believed he was banking most of his money, because I went with him to set up the account. True, I no longer went with him to deposit it. Maybe he wasn't banking it. We had used the address of the shop in order to establish an address for his bank account. 

Yes, this definitely bore some looking into. 

"Well, Jack, it looks like we've about demolished our breakfast. I need to take a bathroom break and then I'll be ready to walk over to the shop with you. No telling what kind of wreck will come in today, ya know! Come on, Clancy! We need to take my tray to the window. Jacki- uh, sorry, Jack, I'll meet'cha out front, okay?"

"Sure, see ya out there."

I picked up the tray with one hand and grabbed my push cart with the other. All my worldly goods were in that cart, and I didn't aim to lose it. I was still without a permanent place to live, and there were items I needed in there. I took it with me to work every day and brought it back to wherever I was spending the night. 

Sometimes, I slept in a doorway when there was no room in the Mission. I never knew for sure where I would be sleeping, but I always felt perfectly safe. No one would bother an old lady like me. There were certainly quite a few of us around. I looked around the room, and saw a wide variety of ages and conditions. There were old people, middle aged people down on their luck, sick, or mentally ill. Some were wasted away and one could see that they were practicing addicts or recovering. There were teenagers, and little kids eating breakfast. What a mass of humanity surrounding me! A hundred or more different stories among them, and yet so many similar ones if they were to start relating them. A lot of these unfortunate souls were my friends or acquaintances. 

After depositing my tray, I headed for the bathroom, and while I was in there, I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I took the old purse out of my cart and rummaged around till I found my comb. I took it out and ran it through my short, grey hair. 

My hair was still a little damp from the shower I had that morning. There were showers that we could use, if we wished to avail ourselves of them. Not everyone did. After a while, some people just lose hope. 

Was that a new wrinkle under my chin? I lifted my chin and rubbed the skin as if to erase the wrinkle. Ha! As if I could, and who cared if I had wrinkles anyway? I put my billed Yankee's cap back on my head, washed my hands, and winked at my reflection. 

"Old gal, ya still got it...that charisma... don't cha' know? Ha. Let's go, Clancy. Daylight's a wastin' and we got places to go, things to do, and people to see!" 

Pushing my cart in front of me, with Clancy trotting along beside me, we went out to meet up with Jack and head for work. 

Wait...was that the Weasel I saw walking along behind me? What was he doing...was he following me?

Wondering what the Weasel was up to, I slowed down a little bit, and let him pass me; he opened the door for me, and tipped his hat, with just a ghost of a nod. I replied with a quiet "Thank you" and walked through the open doorway, with little Clancy trotting along beside me. Clancy, the little traitor, looked up at the Weasel and yipped a "hello". The Weasel smiled at him and leaning down, patted his head. It was like they were old buddies. I put it down to the fact that Clancy was just normally a friendly dog. 

"Come on, Clancy," I said, "we need to be makin' tracks. We got things to do. There's Jack waitin' fer us." 

Jack waved to us, and spoke to the Weasel. "Hey, Zeb, how ya' doin?" The Weasel stopped and shook hands with Jack, then tipped his hat at me again, and went on his way. Wait a minute! Where had I heard that name before? Zeb was the Weasel's name? Why hadn't I been aware of that fact? What else didn't I know? Quite a bit, apparently, had escaped my knowledge, things that were going on around me, in plain sight. 

It's funny, isn't it; life is, I mean. The only thing constant about it is that it is always changing. Several months ago, Lucy, Jack and I were embroiled in the murder of Jack's natural mother and his adoptive mother. Now, Lucy was spending time with her son and grandchildren, and Jackie and I were working at an auto repair shop. Jack was changing, too, right before my eyes, and I needed to find out who was responsible for that change.

Jack and I, along with Clancy, were on our way to the Jones Auto Repair Shop. We walked along companionably, taking in the fact that leaves on some of the trees were beginning to change color. I could feel the coolness of the morning flowing around me, and I knew really cool weather was not more than a month or so away. 

It would become increasingly difficult to find a bed in the Mission at night. A lot of people would be cold, including me. I wasn't sure, but I thought Jack was sleeping at his uncle's auto repair shop as a night watch man. That could be dangerous, don't cha know? 

"Say, Jack, what are ya doin' this afternoon, when we get off of work? I'm goin' over to spend some time with Lucy Mae; would you like to come with me and visit for a few minutes with us?"

"Well, sure, I would like to, but I have somethin' else I gotta do, so I won't be able to go. Maybe tomorrow? If I can, that is."

"Hmmm. Okay, Jackie... I mean Jack. I'll give her your love and then catch ya up tomorrow on how she's doin'. I know she'll miss seein' you. She always asks about ya." Hmm, come to think of it, Jack hadn't been with me for some time when I went to see Lucy. I just hadn't thought about that fact. My curiosity was really stirred up now.

It wasn't very long until we reached the auto repair shop. We were early and Jack opened the door with his key. Responsibility seemed to sit well on his shoulders; I looked at him with admiration. Jack pushed the switch that opened the bay doors, while I put on a pot of coffee. Nothing like fresh, hot Java to start the day of work. 

Actually, I was only putting in a half-day, since there was not so much to keeping up the book-keeping. Most of the business was brought in during the morning. What came in later in the day, Hank just left the billing on my desk in the "In" tray and I caught it up the next morning or the next Monday, if it was on the weekend.

The phone rang and before I could get to it to answer it, Jack picked it up and said, "Hank Jones and Sons Body Repair Shop. Jack Jones speaking." Then, turning his back to me, he continued talking in a low voice. I strained my ears to hear. I admit it, I am nosy. 

"Yes, yes, I will see you later. I have it finished." Then turning around to face me, Jack smiled and said, "Yes, it will be ready to pick up later today, probably around two p.m., if that is convenient for ya, I mean, you. Yes, thank you." 

Hmmm. Now that was strange...if he had the job finished, why would it take till two p.m. for them to pick it up? I looked through the billing and didn't see any jobs that fitted that information. What was going on anyway? Had I missed one of the bills? Why did Jack turn his back to talk to the caller? Something smelled fishy.

"Well, Jack, my boy...what's on the docket for today? Are we working on any big jobs? I see we have an Audi back there; wonder who owns that one? I don't see a work order for it. That must be one of Hank's special order jobs."

"We have some small jobs to be worked on today, AnnaBee. Lieutenant Shannon brought one in yesterday afternoon to be worked on. He said it was running kind of rough. I didn't have time to look at it when he brought it in. I told him I'd give it a good goin' over today." 

"I'm sure you will do a good job on it, too. You do seem to be a wizard with motors and engines. I wonder what the Looie is workin' on these days. Probably chasin' down killers 'n thieves. By the way, how do you come to know the fellow you called Zeb?"

"Oh, Zeb? I've seen him around town, and every once in a while at the Mission. He and I got to talkin' one day. In fact, he was askin' about you and if I knew how long you had been homeless. I told him I reckoned maybe for five or six years. I think maybe he has his eye on you, AnnaBee." Jack grinned at me, with a twinkle in his eyes.

"His eye on me? What do ya mean? Ya mean, romantic-wise? Get outta here, boy, and get busy on them cars you gotta repair!" I swiped at him with a dust cloth. He simply ducked and laughed, as he headed back to the work area. His eye on me, indeed! Ha! I reached up and pulled off the billed cap, kinda fluffin' my hair up.

"I got work to do... I got no time fer this romantic talk. I'm an old lady, anyhow!" I mumbled to myself. "Humph!"

Pulling out the books from the top drawer of  the desk, I placed them on the desk top, then went to the coffee pot and poured myself a cup of fresh, hot coffee. I looked at my reflection in the small mirror over the little sink and then I said, "Pshaw!" and smiled. 

Wait a minute, what was I thinkin'? I couldn't stand the Weasel, anyway. Maybe Zeb was just tryin' to stick his nose into my personal business...but why? Why, that no-account Weasel...he just better keep his nose out of my way.. I'll knock it off. That's what I'll do... I'll just knock it off! 

Carrying my coffee to my desk, I placed it on the coaster near the corner of the desk blotter, and took the bills out of the "In" tray. There were several bills, but it wouldn't take long to record them. Maybe I could just take a look around the shop and see what all was going on today. I kept intending to familiarize myself more with the stuff that went on, but somehow or other, Hank kept finding me things to do. That was okay with me, because I wanted to stay busy.

I heard a noise coming from outside. It was Hank and his two sons arriving. The twins were deep in a rather raucous discussion. It looked like it could very well come to blows. When they saw me, however, they stopped arguing and smiled. 

"Hey, AnnieBee, how's tricks?" they both asked together. Hmmm, they sounded like something was going on that they didn't want me to know about.There were several bills, but it wouldn't take long to record them. Maybe I could just take a look around the shop and see what all was going on today.

"Good morning, fellas, I'm doin' jist fine. Looks like you two were up to your usual animosity this mornin'. Somethin' not goin' right with you two?"

"Nah! We was jist a argying over somethin' that happened yesterday, when we was takin' a car apart," replied Mickey, the more aggressive of the twins. Mike looked at him as if to say, "Shut up, you idiot! You're talkin' outta turn."

Mike looked at me and said, "You know that car that came in just before you all left yesterday...that green Mustang...well, it needed the motor and the radiator taken out and repaired. Well, Mickey dropped a part of it and we nearly couldn't find it when we was puttin' it back together again. He gets in too big a hurry sometimes."

Hank was beginning to look a little uncomfortable and told Mickey and Mike to get their coffee and get on back to the shop where Jack was already hard at work, and 'for heaven's sake, to shut your mouths from that infernal arguing and get busy' !

Turning to me, Hank said apologetically, "Them boys is just always a argyin', AnnaBee. They've always been like that... one of 'em says the sun is shinin', and the other 'n 'll say, 'looks like rain ta me'. I don't know what I'm gonna do with 'em. Ya got any suggestions?" 

Well, yeah, I did, but I didn't think he'd want to hear them, don't cha know?   I just nodded my head and looked down at Clancy, who was sitting by my desk, chewing on a bone, and certainly minding his own business. I reached down and patted him on the head, happy that he was my good companion who never argued about anything much. He rolled over on his back and I rubbed his tummy. What a pal!

Getting to my work was what I needed to be doing. The morning was going to get away from me, if I didn't get with it soon. Picking up the bills, I noticed a business name I hadn't seen before. It was located in Mexico. Mexico! What were we doing shipping anything to Mexico? 

Looking at the bill of lading, I opened my mouth to say something, then changed my mind. I would just record it, and say nothing; but I was certainly not going to forget it. Furthermore, I would be keeping my eyes and ears open. Something was not quite copacetic here and I surely wanted to find out what was cooking before taking any action.

The morning went on and before I knew it, lunchtime had come. Lucy Mae had asked me over to have lunch with her at Melvin's. Her grandchildren were at school and we could have a good time visiting. She certainly seemed to be getting very comfortable at her son's home. 

I went back into the shop where Jack was finishing up his work on an engine. The few remaining parts were spread on a once-clean cloth. When Jack began working on a motor, he always began with a clean cloth upon which he placed the parts. He looked up and smiled at me. Oh, that young man's smile was really worth something to see. His eyes twinkled at me and he looked happier than I had ever in my life seen him. I wondered just what was going on with our Jackie. Well, whatever it was, I hoped it continued.

"Hey, Jack. I'm headed over to Lucy's for lunch; I'm sure she has enough for you, if you would like to come and say 'hello'. Wanna go?"

"No, AnnieBee, I happen to already have plans, but thanks for asking me. Please tell Lucy I miss seein' her and hope to see her soon. Okay?"

"Sure, Jackie...er Jack. I'll be sure to tell her. Are you about finished for the day?"

"I think maybe Uncle Hank has a couple of more cars coming in this afternoon, but he told me while ago that they can take care of them. So, after I finish up with this motor for the Henderson's car, I will be leaving, too. I'll see you in the morning about the usual time. Okay?"

"Right... see you in the morning, my boy!" I told Mike and Mickey goodbye then and turned to say goodbye to Hank, but he was busy on the phone. He was looking through papers on his desk, like he couldn't find something. Well, I patted him on the back and waved goodbye to him. 

He just looked up and nodded, lifting his right hand in a 'see you later, I'm busy' motion. I went to my desk and got my cart which was parked next to it, whistled to Clancy, and we were out of there. 

Gracious! It was wonderful to be back outdoors again, with the sun shining on my shoulders, I was no longer hunched over a desk, trying to figure out Hank Jones' business dealings. No wonder people get headaches and backaches, with such things to worry over. Now, with Clancy loping along beside me, I felt carefree. 

Looking down at little Clancy, I knew I was so very blessed. Here I was on my way to spend some time with my good friend, Lucy Mae Wilkins. The day was beautiful; we were going to have a marvelous time talking to one another. Life was good; no, life was great! I stepped along a little faster, hurrying to get to Melvin Wilkins' home. 

Whoa! What was that? I got out of the way just in time! A blue Chevy Camaro came speeding by, almost clipping me. What was that all about? Where was he going in such a hurry? Little Clancy began barking at the car speeding away from us, then stopped and looked up at me.

"You're a little late barkin', Clancy, old boy," I grinned. "They're long gone by now. Let's get on over to visit with Lucy. We ain't seen her in a couple of days. We got lots ta talk about." 

It was a pretty good walk to where Lucy was staying with Melvin, because he lived in a ritzy neighborhood, and the auto repair shop was definitely not in a great part of our town. In fact, the shop was not very far from the city dump. We saw all kinds of stuff (and people) out in that part of town, don't cha know?

Fortunately, over the past five or six years I've done a lot of walking to build up the strength in my legs, and worn out lots of shoes doing so. I'm happy for Lucy that she has been taken back into the bosom of her family. She was beginning to have some real issues with her health and all. Of course, her worries about her health almost ended when her daughter-in-law tried to take her out with a drug overdose several months ago. Little Marci was now doing jail time in the state prison for that gig. 

I wondered if Melvin was keeping in touch with Marci and if her influence over him was gone. Hmmmm. 

A body has a lot of time to think about stuff when they are walking along, don't cha know? I sure was doing a lot of it that day. I was thinking a lot about Jackie, too - a whole lot, in fact. I was wondering just what all he was up to. 

I knew all the changes taking place in Jack seemed to be good, but what about the way he was being deceptive about who he was talking to on the telephone? It wasn't like Jack to lie to me, or to anyone, for that matter. What was going on with him? I had to find out, that was for sure!



Funny, why did I feel like someone was following me? I stopped and looked around, but didn't see anyone. I glanced down at Clancy; he had stopped when I did. He was looking back up at me as if to say, 'why are we stopping, Mama?' (Now, I don't know if he called me Mama in his little dog mind or not, but in my human mind, he could be.)

Anyway, I answered what I thought his question might be. "I don't know, Clancy. I just thought somebody was following us. Come on, let's hotfoot it on, cause we're almost there."

We were soon turning in the little gate in front of Melvin's home. Lucy was looking out the window curtains, watching for us. I could see the curtains twitching. Lucy always was kinda anxious about things, and today was no exception. Wonder what it was all about today?

The front door flew open before I could even ring the doorbell. There stood Lucy in the doorway...her hair was all pretty, fluffed out, with her natural curls all neatly arranged. I kinda missed the way they used to be frizzied up. She looked too much uptown, but I couldn't blame her for looking good. Lucy was wearing a simply draped soft pink dress and I'll bet it set Melvin back a few dollars.

However, the look on her face made me take a step back and I almost tripped over Clancy. Lucy was wearing the most pitiful look I had seen in a long time. Her hands were shaking, and she urged me to come in. Well, naturally, she didn't have to ask me more than once. I was in that door like a flash, with Clancy right behind me. 

Lucy motioned me over to a chair in the living room and shut the front door. I parked my cart next to the chair. 

"Okay, friend, what gives? Why all the dramatics? What has happened?"

Lucy began crying...  

Lucy Mae practically fell into my arms, sobbing as though her heart was breaking. 

"Oh, AnnaBee...AnnaBee...what am I goin' ta do? It's jist so awful, I can hardly bear to think of it!"

"There, there, old friend, calm down now, and tell me what you're talkin' about. What's got ya so upset? One of the kids sick? Melvin throwin' ya out? What?" I was patting her on the shoulder and my shoulder was getting so wet, I felt like I had fallen into a puddle of water. 

Guiding her over to the couch, I got her seated and said, "Wait right here, I'm gonna get ya some water. Jist kinda sit there and calm yer nerves, and I'll be right back." I left her there for about thirty seconds while I went to get her a glass of water. Holding the water would give her something to do with her hands while she told me about her problem. It would help her to settle down enough to tell me what was bothering her. 

Clancy ran over and put his head on her knee, looking up at her with such sweet kindness in his eyes, and whimpering as if in sympathy. She reached down and patted his head, while the tears still flowed down her face. "Oh, Clancy, what ever am I gonna do?"

I came running back with the half glass of water, and said, "Drink this down, now, slowly...slowly..." 

Sitting down beside Lucy Mae, I took her hands in mine and said, "Now before you say anything, remember what we do in times of trouble? We talk to the Lord and ask His help in makin' decisions." 

Lucy Mae nodded and bowed her head. We prayed a simple entreaty to our Heavenly Father to help us know what to do, and to give us the strength to carry through. 

Then I looked Lucy in the eyes and said, "Okay, now. Do you feel calmer? Do you feel like tellin' me what all this is about?"

Lucy Mae hic-coughed and swallowed as if in preparation for telling something very difficult to relate. The empty glass was being twisted and turned in her hands. She was gripping it like it was a lifeline.

"Well, it's Melvin... he's planning on moving away... and you'll never believe why..." 

 
Looking around the living room, I noticed for the first time, all the partially packed boxes. This really looked serious. 

"He's changin'  jobs, maybe? He's losin'  the house and has to move? " I was guessing, but from watching Lucy's reactions, I knew I was way off base.

"No, nothin' like that. He's been gettin' phone calls from Marci, and she's been writin' letters. The kids have been cryin' for their mama, and wantin' to see her. You know how weak Melvin has always been, and so does Marci. She's really been workin' on his sympathy.  What with him bein' a lawyer and all, he's decided to go move closer to the state prison. He's goin' to work on gettin' her out, so they can be a fam'ly again. He keeps tellin' me how sorry she is that she tried to get me out of his life. What am I goin' to do?" 

Well, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I heard all that news coming out of Lucy Mae's mouth. What was  she going to do? That would be a decision only she could make.

"What about his law practice here? Is he going to sell it?"

"Oh, his business has been really fallin' off here, since Marci pulled her little deal, tryin' to kill me. People say if he can't manage his own wife, he sure can't manage their lawyerin' business for them. Nobody trusts him any more, so he says he might as well move closer to Marci and help her get out. He is sure she has learned her lesson."

"Yeah, sure.. She's been in prison, what, three whole months and she's already learned how wrong she was? Give me a break, please!  I reckon maybe everybody up there in the state prison is sorry, come to think of it. So, you are trying to decide whether to move with him or not? Or has he even asked you to go with him? Do you even want to go with him, if he gives you the choice?"

"That's just it, AnnaBee... He hasn't actually asked me to go with them. I don't know if he wants me to go, and I don't know if I would want to. I've really gotten close to my grandkids, too. Oh, I'm torn up about it in so many ways! What do you think I should do?"

"Tell me some more about how things have been goin' lately, Lucy Mae. Maybe that will give us a clue to Melvin's intentions concernin' you.  What about the kids, Trey and Flora Jean? Have they said anything about needin' you to come with 'em?"

"Well, they've been kinda cool to me lately. I know I told ya they're feelin' close ta me. That may not be quite accurate. They've been gettin' into fights at school. You know, they had to leave the private school and go to public school this year. Everybody knows about their mama and how she tried to hurt me. Just when I was gettin' close to them, it's beginnin' to seem like they're blamin' me for her bein' in prison. I caught Trey smokin' weed the other day. He gave me a nasty look for tellin' his dad. He's bein' punished for that by havin' his cell phone taken away for the rest of this week. No, I think the kids may be hopin' I'll be left behind."

My land sakes! What an awful mess! I didn't know how things could get much worse, but they probably could. 

"How old are Trey and Flora Jean, Lucy?"

"Well, Trey is twelve, and Flora Jean is eleven. She is runnin' around with some tough lookin' girls, and Melvin doesn't seem to notice how she's been changin' right in front of his eyes. She sneaks around like she always up ta somethin', and for all I know, she is. All Melvin can think about is that no-good wife a' his. The kids are quick ta pick up on vibes that adults send out. Yeah, they've been cryin' when nobody's lookin', cause they're hurtin' too."

"Lucy Mae, maybe movin' away from here is not a bad idea for the kids, to get them away from those bad influences at school. But, what about you? You say Melvin hasn't mentioned you movin' with them? Maybe he's just assumin' you would. You've gotta talk to him about it today. Don't waste any more time guessing. The big question is, what do you Want to do? "

"I don't know, AnnaBee. What do you think I should do? What will happen to Trey and Flora Jean if I don't go with them? I've been tryin' to look after them when they get home from school, but lately they've been comin' home later 'n later. Yesterday, they both came in after dark. They don't answer ta me, and their dad don't say anything to 'em, cause he's in his den watchin' television. They are gettin' the idea that he don't care. Oh, it's all such a mess!"

Lucy Mae began crying again. Well, I just couldn't stand that, so I picked up the phone and asked Lucy, "What is Melvin's number at his office?"  Yeah, I knew I was butting in, but I just figured it was time to take the bull by the horns and get some answers for my best friend.

Punching in the numbers to Melvin's office phone, I allowed myself a little time to think about what I was going to say. I definitely didn't want him to refuse to talk to me, so I took a deep breath and tried to control my blood pressure, which was boiling at the time.

Melvin answered the phone himself, which was a surprise, because I thought he must have a secretary, so I was caught a little off-guard. 

Melvin: "Melvin J. Wilkins, Attorney-at-law, speaking. Who is calling?"

Me: "Er... uh... this is Anna Belle Chasteen, Mr. Wilkins. You know, your mama's friend, from the Mission."

Melvin: "Yes, what can I do for you, Ms. Chasteen?"

Ah, he was keeping it very formal, don't cha know?

Me: "Well, I'm here with Lucy and she's really upset about the move and all. She's not quite sure what your intentions are concernin' her. She's also worried about your children. Lucy jist don't know how to ask ya about the move. Like, say, are you intendin' takin' her with ya?"

Melvin: "What business is it of yours, anyway? But, I'll tell you, since you're butting your nose in, that she is definitely not going with us. I've found a small house for me and the children, up near the prison. My children are just fine, thank you very much! We don't need her around as a reminder of their mother's little mistake. Marci is so very sorry and she needs us more than my mother does. After all, Ma was doing just fine on the streets before I took her in, out of the goodness of my heart."

I could hardly believe my ears when those words came out of his mouth like so much vitriol. I held the phone out and looked at it in astonishment. Then I put it back up to my ear, and let him have it with both barrels, trying to be mindful of the ears that were listening to the words on my side of the phone.

Me: "Now, you listen here to me, Melvin J. Wilkins! What you are needin' right now is somebody to take you over their checkedy apron and pound some decency, empathy and common sense into you. But, I reckon that ain't gonna happen right now. I will pass on the information the best I can to your dear Mama. I feel sorry for you, you rat, but even sorrier for your poor kids. God bless 'em. I'll be here till you get home, cause she'll want to talk to them after school.  I may have a few more things to say to you, then, too." 

Without giving Melvin a chance to say anything more, I hung up and turned to my dear friend, Lucy Mae.
Trying to school my face into a look that was pleasant, I looked at Lucy and suggested we go into the kitchen and make us some hot tea, since we hadn't had any lunch yet. 

"After all," I told her, "we're not gettin' any younger standing here in the living room, and quite frankly, I'm a little give out since walkin' over here from work."

"What did Melvin say, AnnieBee? I gotta know. You sounded like you were rippin' a strip a' hide offa' his backsides."

"Well, yeah, that woulda' been fun ta do, all righty! We'll talk about it when we've had some tea and toast with some of that good blackberry jelly you made this summer. How about it?" 

I realized that I was a bit hungry and besides I was putting off telling her what Melvin had said as long as I could. I had to figure out just how I was going to word it so as to not be too harsh with it.

As we sat at her kitchen table, I was reminded of all the times that Billy and I had sat at our kitchen table talking about problems and situations that had arisen. There is nothing like the kitchen table to rest your arms on, while you talk and reminisce. 

Lucy was stirring her tea, and fidgeting with her napkin, barely touching her toast or tasting her tea. "Come on and tell me, I'm a big girl; I can take whatever it is you have to tell me."

I took her hands into mine. This was not going to be easy for me to do, or for her to take.

"Well, my good friend, it's like this. Melvin has found a house for them near the prison. It is a small house, all he can afford right now. That means there won't be room for you in it. He knows the children will miss you, but he feels this is what is best for them at the present time. He also realizes that you will have to be living on the streets again, but that you were happy when you were there before. Just think, Lucy, at least he doesn't want to put you in a nursing home any more. So you will be free to do what you want."

I could see the tears rolling down her face, just as they were rolling down mine. 

"I know you're really concerned about Trey and Flora Jean. You can write to them, and keep in contact with them. He knows the trouble that they have been in and he is hoping, I know, that moving away will give them a fresh start." 

I was trying very hard to encourage my friend. I knew she was hurting and there was so very little I could do about it. I would wait with her until the children and Melvin came home. I could at the very least be there to support her in their presence.
Clancy sat under my chair, whimpering in sympathy. He didn't know what was going on, simply that we were upset. Somehow, pets can quite often pick up on our feelings. Clancy came out from under the chair and put his little head on my knee. I reached down and picked him up, holding him close to me. 

"That's okay, boy. We're all right and we're gonna be even better, ain't we, Lucy?"

"Sure, we are. Let's freshen our tea, and see what ideas we can come up with." Lucy got up and began bustling around. She picked up the tea kettle and poured a little more hot water into the porcelain tea pot on the table.  That little lady was absolutely amazing! Less than an hour ago, she was in shambles and now she was thinking in a positive manner. 

Lucy went to the pantry and got a couple of cinnamon buns, popping them into the microwave. I couldn't believe my eyes! Where was this coming from? She got down a couple of small plates, took two forks from the silverware drawer and sat down. 

"Since I'm going to be homeless again, I think I need to donate most of my new clothes to the thrift store, and get me some new jeans, shirts and walking shoes. What do you think, AnnieBee?"

My mouth must have resembled a cave door, and I was absolutely speechless. Who was this woman, anyway? Here I was all set to be sympathetic and supportive; she just was blowing me away with all this positivity. I closed my mouth and just looked at her. It didn't take anybody  bein' a rocket scientist to see the puzzlement on my face.

"Look, AnnieBee... Before you came, I was in a dither because I didn't know what was going to happen to me... I didn't know what Melvin's plans were. Now I know. I don't like it, but I know there is little I can do to change it. He is stubborn as any mule standin' out in a field, once he makes his mind up. Always has been. He's an only child, and used to gettin' his way. So, I accept what I can't change. I think we need to fortify ourselves with a little nourishment, grab a cab, and get our donatin' and shoppin' done, then come back here to wait for Melvin and the kids. Whadda ya say?"

"Where you gonna come up with all the money that you're gettin' ready ta spend? Cab fare, and new clothes and shoes... where is it comin' from?"

"Oh, don't worry, I've got a little saved back, and I have Melvin's credit card till he stops credit on it. He gave it to me to use for what ever I needed, so I'm gonna use it. I need a new coat, too, one that will be serviceable for the cold weather coming up before long. It's a good thing I kept my cart in the basement. It's folded up down there. Let's eat our cinnamon buns and drink our tea, then we'll be going."

I wasn't going to argue with any thing she said, so it wasn't too long before we were on our way downtown. I left my cart near the basement door. 

As we climbed into the taxi, Clancy was absolutely vibrating with excitement! It had been a while since he had ridden in a vehicle, so naturally he was shaking all over himself. Lucy had a good-sized bag of clothing in her hands and set it on the floor of the taxi before she got in. We told the driver we had a couple of stops to make and the first was at the downtown mission thrift store. The thrift store was run by volunteers. Profits from the items sold there were donated to the Mission and helped to keep it going, so a lot of people would be helped by the donations Lucy was making. Although her heart was aching, it was certainly in the right place. 

When we went in, we saw quite a few people we knew and they greeted us warmly. They were surprised to see Lucy, though, because they knew she was living with her son. She just told them that she was back and was glad to see them; said she had missed them. It was like an old class reunion, all the hugging that was going on, don't cha know? Clancy was running around, yipping excitedly around our feet, having a grand old time.

We went back out to the waiting taxi, and told him to take us uptown to a big department store, we didn't care which one.  When we got out, I picked up Clancy and carried him in my arms. I took his leash out of my pocket and put it on his collar. Lucy paid the driver and told him we would need another taxi in about an hour, either him or another one. 

He said, "Okay, ladies, have fun."

"Oh, we will!" we replied together, smiling.  Then we went through the automatic doors - arm in arm, and yelled "Charge!" just like Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintstone. 

We headed for the ladies department and had a lot of fun looking through the casual clothing. It had been awhile since I had bought any new clothes in a place like this. 

We looked at the jeans, and after trying on a pair, Lucy asked, "How can anybody our age wear jeans like these? They're hangin' below the belly button? They won't fit my frame."

I thought I would die laughing when I saw Lucy Mae in those jeans. She had more hanging over the top of them than what was inside them. After looking around some more, Lucy decided that she would have better luck back at the thrift store. Besides, she wouldn't feel comfortable walking around in new clothes amongst all her friends. They would think she had gone "uppity" on them. 

There was an ATM machine near the front door of the department store. We knew the thrift store only took cash, not credit cards or checks. Lucy drew out about seventy five dollars, and we went back out.  

Ah, the advantages of living in a fairly small southern town! There was our cab, back in front of the department store, waiting for us. We climbed in and said, "Take us back to the thrift store. They didn't have anything we wanted here." After a short ride, we got out; paid the driver and told him we wouldn't be too long if he would wait for us. 

"Sure," he replied, "no problem." He took out his newspaper, and turning to the crossword puzzle, settled down in his cab to wait. 

"Come on, Clancy, I'm puttin' you down. You may be little, but you can get mighty heavy after totin' you around for awhile." 

We went back into the thrift store and Lucy found exactly what she wanted. She found a coat that was almost new, and that fit her perfectly, too. With several bags of clothing, we came back out and climbing into the cab, we said, "Home, James!" and giggled. 

When the taxi driver let us out, he told us to take care and that if we ever needed him again, his name was Chuck Wilson and to ask for him by name. 

"What a really nice fellow he was, Lucy Mae! I reckon maybe we'll keep him in mind. Like we would ever need a taxi again, but ya never know, do ya?"

Lucy unlocked the door and we went inside to wait for Melvin and the kids. Our mellow mood kinda disappeared then, don't cha know?

The first words out of Lucy's mouth were a surprise to me - why that should be I don't know. 

"I'm going to make some supper fer all of us, so would ya please come into the kitchen with me, and maybe ya could even help me, if ya wish."

"Well, sure, but it's been awhile since I slung a skillet around or even boiled water. My Billy used ta say, 'how about gettin' in the kitchen and rattlin' some pots 'n pans, Babe?'. Ha, he was so funny."

Clancy was excited, too, He was running around until he started getting under our feet, then I told him to sit quietly under the table and he could watch. He might even get a tidbit of food or two, I promised him. So then he was turning his head this way and that waiting for me to drop him some food. Lucy found a beef bone from a roast she had cooked a few days earlier and gave that to him. Ahhhh! That made him happy. He wrapped his paw over the bone and zoned us out. 

It wasn't very long before Lucy had chicken baking in the oven, all crispy looking, potatoes on the boil on top of the stove and green beans simmering. She was making biscuits ready to go into the oven, and my mouth was watering like crazy. All we had for lunch, you remember, was tea and cinnamon buns. Then she put on a pot of coffee to go with the apple pie she had taken from the freezer and was baking in the oven, along with the chicken. My goodness! What a spread that was going to be. Lucy might not be happy about leaving, but she was sure going out on a positive note!

We set the table for five and Lucy put candles on the table, along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I never knew Lucy had that kind of talent. She must have been one dandy gem of a home maker! 

Pretty soon, the front door opened and in came the two children. Lucy kind of blanched a little, and then she straightened up, and said, "Come on into the kitchen, kids, and meet AnnaBelle, my good friend."

They kinda sidled in and stood somewhat ill at ease, looking at one another as if to say, 'How do we handle this?' Then Flora Jean, the oldest of the two, said, "Hey, AnnaBelle."

Trey took his cue from her and said, simply, "Hey."

"Hey, yourselves! I am pleased to meetcha! You must be Flora Jean, and you're Trey. I've heard a lot about ya. Your Grandma is awful proud of the two of ya."

"Ha! I'll just bet she is!" replied Flora Jean, popping the chewing gum she had in her mouth. She had gotten her attitude back on pretty fast. 

Lucy Mae's face grew flushed, but she just smiled and said, "You all wash up your hands and get ready fer supper. We'll eat when your dad gets home, or at six o'clock, whichever comes first. He knows that supper is served at six. Then we all have something ta discuss together. Run now, and get washed up. Be sure and take your belongin's upstairs with ya."

Flora Jean and Trey left the room in a hurry.  If one looked into the living room, one would see books and jackets lying in a pile on the living room couch. 

I looked into Lucy's face and saw anguish clearly written. I knew she was thinking about what would happen to the kids when they left our little town and headed for the larger one near the state prison. With their dad busy working to free their mother, there would be little to no supervision. Maybe they would get a fresh start. One could hope, anyway.

That made me think of Jack. I wondered again what he was up to. Something, that's for sure, but what? Well, Lucy and I would find out later. I sure didn't want our young friend getting into trouble, and it just seemed to find him without him looking for it, don't cha know? 

It was almost six p.m. and we heard the front door open. It was Melvin, of course, and I could see Lucy steel herself as he came into the kitchen. Observing him, I could see he was rather nervous about the upcoming evening, but he was putting on a blustery front. 

"Hey, Ma! That supper sure smells great! You've made my favorite meal. You're just the best! We sure are going to miss your cooking when we move away from here." 

He glanced over at me, rather quizzically, as if to say, 'did you tell her?' 

I didn't let on to anything, but just kind of let him simmer in his own stew. Lucy caught his look and said nothing, as well, except to suggest that he call the kids down for supper. 

"Hey, you kids get down here right now; we don't want this good meal to go to waste!" he shouted.

They came ambling down the stairs as though they were the condemned prisoners going to a last meal. They dragged into the dining room and sat down with a petulant manner. 

Lucy and I dished up supper and placed it on the table. Lucy asked Melvin if he would say Grace, and he mumbled something indistinguishable, and we proceeded to eat our meal. I could see that Lucy was forcing herself to be eat enough to keep her till in the morning. I knew we could be leaving sometime after supper. 

Clancy ran from one person to another, looking up for a spare tidbit to be dropped. The kids seemed to enjoy watching him, and dropping bits of food for him. That was about the only pleasantness on their faces during the whole meal. 

When the seemingly unending meal finally was drawing to a close, Lucy asked them all to wait in the living room before heading anywhere else. She had a few things to say to them. We cleared up the table and put the dishes into the dishwasher. Putting the leftovers away in the fridge didn't take very long. Then Lucy, Clancy and I went into the living room to join the others. 

As we entered the living room, we could sense the tension in the air; even though Melvin was seated casually in his easy chair, his fingers drummed a silent tattoo on the arm of the chair. The two children were draped on the couch, eying one another with a smirky grin on their faces, as if to say, 'Wonder what Gramma is goin' to lay on Dad?' 

I, too, was wondering what my good friend was going to say, because we had not discussed it. I took my seat in one of the occasional chairs near the couch, and Lucy chose to stand quietly, while she made her thoughts known to us.

"Melvin, when you brought me here from the hospital a few months ago, and hired the nurse to care for me till I got on my feet, I felt like we had reconnected as mother and son. It was wonderful to sense the love and concern comin'  from you. Then I was able to get up and begin carin' for you and the children.

Flora Jean and Trey, it was so heartwarmin'  to be able to finally know you and to see your youthful energy lightin' up the place. I felt like I was bein' given such a wonderful opportunity to be a positive influence in your lives. Then things began to change. Your lives began fallin' apart. Oh, I understand what happened; when summer was over and you went back to school, the other children began makin' your lives miserable, and you began takin' your frustration and unhappiness out on me and your father. 

You began disrespectin' both of us with your misbehavin'. Well, that's jist not acceptable. You are both old enough to know that life is not always fair. Now, you are all goin' to be movin' away, closer to your mama. I can understand your wantin' to be close ta her; she is your mama, after all, and you love her. Please know that when you are gone, I will be writing to you, and I expect to hear back from you. You can write to me in care of Pastor Joe at the Mission. I will leave the address for you on the refrigerator."

I looked over at Lucy, knowing that this long speech must be taking a lot out of her. She looked about ready to wilt and drop, but she kept on going. She put her hand on the back of my chair for support.

"Melvin, you have disappointed me, both as a son, and as a father. You have not only let me down, but let down your children as well. Instead of bein' here to listen to their problems, you've shut yourself up in your den in the evenin's, and ignored complaints that they've had. You should be ashamed of yourself! Now then, when you come home tomorrow, I will be gone, as you all wished for. However, tonight, Anna Belle is my guest and she is going to spend the night sleepin' in the guest bedroom. We are both tired. It's been a long day. Melvin, please leave your new address on the fridge for me before you go to bed. Children, come here and give your grandma a hug, please."

I could see the look of bewilderment on the children's faces. Apparently, they hadn't the faintest clue that she would not be going with them. They were not the hardened little varmints that they had pretended to be. I could see the water gathering in their eyes as they hugged Lucy. 

"We'll miss you, Gramma. Are you going back out on the streets? What will happen to you? Will you be okay?"

The tears were gathered in Lucy's eyes as well, as she hugged them close to her bosom. "I'll be fine. I know what I'm doing out there. I have a lot of friends out there who will look out for me. Please be good to your dad; he has a lot on him right now. Please write to me, okay?"

"Okay, Gramma, thanks for taking care of us! We really do love you. Will you make those pancakes for our breakfast in the morning?", asked Trey. 

Lucy smiled, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. "Would you like pancakes, as well, Flora Jean?"

"I reckon, Gramma, if you wanna make them. I really will miss you, too." 

The children ran up the stairs and Lucy turned to Melvin. "I have a few more words to say to you, son."

"Come over here and sit on the couch with me, son, please."

I was all ears, waiting to hear if she was going to chew him out good and proper, don't cha know? 

Melvin accommodated his mother by moving over to sit beside her on the couch. Taking his hands in hers, and forcing him to face her, Lucy looked lovingly into his eyes.

"Son, do you remember how when you were just a boy and would come up against a problem and you would come to me? Can you tell me what it was I would say to you?"

Melvin's eyes filled with moisture, and I could tell Lucy was getting to him. 

"Yes, you would say, 'Son, I want you to listen with your ears, but more importantly, listen with your heart to what I have to say,' or something like that."

"Ah, you haven't forgotten," Lucy smiled, lifting her eyebrows. "Well, now, I want you to listen with your ears, but more importantly, listen with your heart to what I have to say this evenin', and please don't forget it.

You are takin' your very impressionable children to a place that is far more dangerous for their souls than where they are right now. You are goin' to have to be very vigilant in their care. Don't ignore them or their needs. In fact, they are goin' to need you far more than ever. I won't be there to back you up. Don't get so involved in tryin' to free Marci that you forget the two people that depend on you far more than Marci ever could. 

Just remember, Marci is where she needs to be. You can get counselin' for her without gettin'  her out of prison. She needs work on the inner person, much more than she needs to be 'sprung' from jail. Anyone who thinks it's okay to take another person's life, like Marci tried twice to do to me, needs the kind of help you are not qualified to give her. Please seriously consider what I'm sayin' to you, Son. Your children need you much more than Marci does. Now, if your mind is set on movin' away, I can't stop you, but please, please think about what I've said this evenin', and consider the long-range effects on your children. Here in this town, they don't have to lie about where their mother is; they must face up to it.  When you all move, they're goin' to be lyin' their little faces off, just to prevent embarrassment. Facin' up to problems builds character. That's all I have to say, except, 'I love you, Son.' Please keep in touch with me. Goodnight, Melvin. I'll continue to keep you and the children in my daily prayers. Come on, AnnaBee, let's go up and get some rest." 

Melvin hugged his mother and said goodnight to her and me. I could see that Lucy was really hurting and my heart went out to her. She had to hold on to the bannister to pull herself up the stairs. I could see her hip was really hurting her, but her heart was in much more pain than her hip, I was sure. 

As we climbed the stairs wearily, my heart was aching for my friend, and I searched for what I hoped would be comforting words to her spirit.

 "Lucy, I know that must have been very difficult for you, but I am so very proud of how you managed to handle your emotions, and keep a cool head about you. I believe you really touched Melvin. I hope he will take to heart everything that you said and not forget any of it. It also seemed to me that the children will want to keep in touch after they are gone. Take heart, my friend, because you have done everything you could. Now, let's get a good night's rest, okay?"

 "Oh,Annie, do you really think so, or are you just trying to make me feel better?"

 "Of course, I mean it! Now, please get some rest before you drop!"

 After I entered the guest bedroom, I looked around at my surroundings. The bed was a huge four-poster with a canopy fringed with yellow. The windows had heavy velvet drapes, held back with fringed tie-backs. There were several landscapes with ornate frames. It struck me as being a very "heavy" room, suffocating in fact. Quite obviously it must have been Marci's mind that dreamed up this nightmare of a room.

Looking down at Clancy, I asked him if he thought he could sleep in here tonight, he looked up at me as if to say he could sleep anywhere that I was. You know how a dog will turn his head to one side and look at you, quizzically? Well, that was my Clancy. He lay down on the floor beside my bed, ready to guard me for the night.

 Well, I was here and I was grateful for a nice soft, clean bed for the night. I thanked the Lord for His blessings, went into the bath, took a quick shower and finished up my ablutions. Lily had told me to use a fresh gown in the dresser, and I was soon snuggled into bed. I wondered what tomorrow would hold for us.

Getting out of bed, I went into the bathroom and used the facility, then got me a drink of water, It was too early to be up yet and so I went back, crawling back into bed, and wishing for morning to come. Somehow, I drifted back off to sleep, and didn't awaken until I heard kids running down the stairway. 

Sitting up in bed, I realized that today we would be leaving this house, probably forever, and Lucy would once again be out on the street, without family or home. How very sad! Then an idea was beginning to form in my mind - I remembered something I had seen on my way over to Lucy Mae's house yesterday, I could hardly wait to tell my friend. Maybe I had a solution to part of her problem, 

I was soon up and about, getting ready and dressed for the day. Eager to tell Lucy my idea, I stripped the sheets from the bed and was soon on my way downstairs. The tantalizing aromas of sausage, eggs, and pancakes drifted up the stairs and drew me down to the kitchen where Lucy stood at the stove getting ready to dish up the scrambled eggs. I could hear the coffee maker dripping the brew into the carafe, and my mouth watered in anticipation. I had brought Clancy downstairs with me (he always sleeps close to me as a protector) and let him outside for a few minutes. He came back in, ready to eat some breakfast with us.

Flora Jean and Trey were already seated at the table, with orange juice glasses in their hands, an expectant look on their faces which were turned toward their grandmother, and waiting for their promised pancakes. Melvin looked like he hadn't slept a whole lot the night before, but he was seated at the table also. 

In minutes, we were all seated at the table and bowing our heads while Lucy said Grace. 

"Heavenly Father, you know we are separatin' today in body, but I am askin' for our continued connections as we go our separate ways. I am askin' you to watch over my family as they move away from here. I don't know if we will ever be reunited here on earth, but please watch over them and protect them. Thank you for providin' this food, and please bless it to our bodies' use. Amen."

I could see the moisture in several pair of eyes when heads were lifted. Lucy was definitely getting through to them. 

Breakfast passed rather quietly, but the food was certainly good and enjoyed by all. I had a huge lump in my throat as I observed the family that would no longer be a full unit, and I felt their pain. I was thinking that maybe Melvin would change his mind, but I could soon see that it wasn't going to happen.

When all the food was gone, we arose from the table and the kids ran over and hugged their grandmother, thanking her for cooking breakfast, and ran out to pick up their book bags and head out the front door to catch the school bus. Before they went out, they patted Clancy on the head, because he had run to the front door with them. He was very children-friendly, don't cha know?

Melvin looked at his mother, and said, "Well, Ma... I guess this is it. You all going to leave today? Thanks for taking care of us. I brought your cart up for you where I had put it in the basement. My new address is on the fridge like you asked for. Sorry it has to be like this, but I just have to see what I can do to get my family back together again. I know what Marci did was wrong, but I love her anyway. The kids love her and miss her. I hope you understand... I have movers coming in today to pack up everything. I'll be picking the kids up at school this afternoon, then we'll be gone. Goodbye, Ma." With that, he hugged Lucy and picked up his briefcase. Then he walked out the front door. 

Lucy, who had been so strong over the past twenty four hours, wrung her hands, wiping them on her apron, and sat down in a chair near the table, and wept, her shoulders shaking with the sobs that wracked her body. I felt so helpless, I looked around as though I could see something that would comfort her, but there was nothing to see, except my friend hurting almost beyond measure.

So, I did what any good friend would do; I simply wrapped my arms around her shoulders and cried with her. 

Clancy was resting his head on my knee, wondering what in the world was going on. He is such a sweet little fellow. He knows when his humans are in pain.

After a few minutes, Lucy's sobbing subsided. After all, one can only weep so long and then nature takes over and tells one that it is time to get on with life. Isn't it funny, though, how crying can make you feel better? We try to tell our men that, but somehow, they never believe it; at least, we never know if they do or not. Stiff upper lip and all that, don't cha know?

After we had blown our noses and wiped our reddened eyes, we decided to sit down and have a cup of hot coffee. There was just enough left in the coffee maker. Lucy had made some cinnamon rolls; you know, the kind with the gooey stuff drizzled on top, and we had one of those with our coffee, while we talked about what we were going to do afterwards.  Clancy was sitting near our chairs, hoping to get a crumb of cinnamon roll. He absolutely loves sweets!

Crying always makes me hungry, does it you? You know, kinda clears out the sinuses and the cobwebs.

"I need to get the kitchen cleared up, with the dishes in the dishwasher, and the leftovers put away. Then we can get my clothes packed into my cart, and we can be on our way. Anything else that needs doin', Melvin and the movers can take car of," stated Lucy, quite firmly. "Then I reckon we're outta here."

Lucy Mae looked around with affection. I knew she was thinking about how much she had loved being here with her son and grandchildren. She was really going to miss her family, so terribly. I saw the mist beginning to form in her eyes again, so I spoke quickly.

"Hey, Lucy, I got somethin' ta show ya. Ya ain't gonna believe it! It may be the answer to your problems. I saw somethin' on the way over here yesterday that is gonna knock yer socks off. Just wait!"

"What? AnnieBee... what is it? What are ya talkin' about?"

"Nah... I can't tell ya... I gotta show ya.. It's about ten blocks over. We pass it on our way to the place where Jack is workin'. Somethin' else, I gotta tell ya. About Jack. He don't wanta be called Jackie any more. He wants ta be called Jack; like a grown-up, he says. Our Jackie boy is changin' right in front of my eyes, don't cha know."

Clancy sensed the excitement in our voices and began yipping and looking back and forth between the two of us, wondering just what we were discussing. He seemed to sense that whatever it was, he was going to be going somewhere. 

We were soon out the door. Lucy had first gotten Melvin's new home address from the fridge. She left her key on the front hall table and turned the lock in the doorknob before we walked out the door. Once more, we were two homeless sidekicks, out on the town, so to speak, with my trusty little pal, Clancy, trotting along beside me. 

Looking over at Lucy, I smiled encouragingly, hoping to cheer her up. She gave me back a courageous, yet tremulous smile.

"Now, what is it you wanta show me, anyway, AnnieBee? You've got my curiosity up."

"Tell me somethin' about some of the jobs you had when you and Mel were putting Melvin through law school? Did you have more than one job or a bunch of different ones? We never have talked about that, and I had an idea when we had supper last night."

"Well, I did work in a restaurant as a cook; and I managed a school cafeteria for several years."

"I knew it! I just knew you must have done somethin' like that! You have the necessary qualifications for a job I saw advertised yesterday! It didn't look like it would be too difficult for you." I was really excited and almost felt like jumping up and down. 

"Now, wait...just hold on one minute, here! What makes you think I'd want to begin workin' now? Don't forget I'm sixty-two years old...who would want to hire me at my age?"

"What do you mean, 'at my age'? You're not Methuselah, you know. Lots of people work clear into their seventies. We're practically spring chickens compared to them, don't cha know?"

"Just where is this place that's lookin' for a cook? What kinda cook? Ya know, I don't feel like standin' on my feet fer eight er nine hours a day any more. Naw, it don't sound like a job I'd want!"

"Wait a minute, before you decide... you haven't heard any of the particulars yet, Lucy Mae Wilkins! I'm gettin' ready ta tell ya. We're almost there. Just wait'll ya see!"

Imagine Lucy's surprise when we stopped at a building with a white picket fence around it. The sign swinging over the top of the door said, "Sunny Bright Kindercare". 

"A kindergarden!" she exclaimed. "What in the world! Are you out of your mind, Anna Belle Chasteen? I don't know anything about little four and five year olds food requirements!"

"Well, they eat the same as grown-ups, jist less of it, don't they? See, the sign says they're lookin' for a lunchroom manager. You love kids, too, I know that. Think how much fun it'd be seeing the little buggers runnin' around, n' playin'. They'd be gettin' ta know ya, and callin' ya Miss Lucy and huggin' on ya. Wouldn't that be sweet, 'n all? Whatta ya say we go in and you can interview for the job? Ya got on your new duds and I'll betcha you can get it. Just be honest with em and tell em how your son is movin' away, and leavin'  you without a place. It won't hurt nothin' to see, will it?"

"Well.... maybe." Lucy looked down at Clancy. "Whatta ya think, boy? Should I go for it?" He looked back up at her and yipped his agreement and encouragement. "Okay, I guess. Are you comin' in with me?" 

"No, I think I should stay out here. You're able to handle it, I know. We have faith in you, don't we, Clancy?" He turned his head sideways in a querulous look. "Oh, and don't forget to tell them that you are available to begin right away. We are goin' to walk down the street a ways. so that we won't look suspicious hangin' around a kids' facility."

We watched Lucy go in, and then taking her buggy along with mine, Clancy and I walked on a ways in the direction we had been headed. I said a little prayer for Lucy's success as I walked along. She needed all the help she could get. This job would provide a way for her to earn some money and maybe have a small bank account. She might not have to be homeless anymore. Wouldn't that be great! Lucy had been so happy with Melvin and the kids, not having to sleep on the streets or in the Mission. A person can get used to anything; it doesn't mean they have to like it, don't cha know? 

In my mind, Lucy was meant to be a nurturer; some people really are, you know? She just naturally took to it and little kids loved her sweet nature. I saw how her grandkids had such a great affection for her, even though they didn't want to show it and I knew they were going to miss her. I'll just bet they'd be giving their daddy one great big fit when they got up there in that bunch of rowdies in the big city near that prison. I was strolling along like a snail, waiting for Lucy to show. I must admit I was beginning to look suspicious, the way I was kind of loitering. 

A patrol car slowly cruised up, and stopped a few feet from me. "Uh oh!" The driver's side window slowly rolled down, and the driver spoke to me. 

"Miss AnnaBelle! Is that you? What are you doing walking back and forth near the kindergarten here? What do you have two carts for; have you suddenly become wealthy enough to have two of them to carry your belongings?" 

It was Officer Greene from our local station. 

"Hey, Sgt. Green! I'm watching Lucy's cart for her. Her no-good son has just turned her out again on ta the streets, and she's applyin' for a job as cafeteria manager."

"Is that so? Well, whatta ya know? Hey, Clancy! Long time, no see, boy! This little lady treatin' ya right? Ha ha ha." Sgt. Green laughed when Clancy jumped up and licked his hand. "Well, I didn't know Miss Lucy had any experience with cooking for a lot of people. Does she?"

"Oh, yeah! She told me she had worked in a restaurant, cookin', and had managed a school cafeteria way back when Melvin was in school. Also, when she and Melvin, Sr. was puttin' him through college and law school, she did that kind a' work."

"Well, if she wants it, I hope she gets it. Let us know, down at the station, will ya?"

"Sure, Sgt. Greene, and tell the Looie I said 'hello', too, will ya?"

With a final wave to us, the Sergeant drove off, and I looked down at Clancy. "Well, we know our local police are doin' their best ta keep our streets safe, don't we? Oh, here comes Lucy!"


As I stood waiting for my friend, I realized the day was getting away from us. Then sun was pretty high overhead, and I realized Jack, along with his Uncle Hank, was probably wondering where I was, since I hadn't communicated with either one of them this morning. For the first time since I had begun working there, I was going to be late. Goodness! I was already late.

Lucy had a big smile on her face, so I figured that either things must have gone well or she had just heard a good joke. Ha!

"Wait'll ya hear, AnnieBee! I got the job and they want me to
begin right away! I'll be workin' five days a week, and I get a uniform ta wear. They have twenty-five kids that come there and I'll have a place ta live! They called the school that I worked in several years ago and they remembered me! Can you believe that? They told 'em here that I was the best cafeteria manager they had ever had!"

Well, blow me down! Now that was great news, and I was so happy for my friend, I near about broke down again. We hugged each other and danced around like two old sillies. Clancy looked at us like he thought we had lost our minds and then he began running around with us and jumping up and down, yip-yipping. What a sight we must have been!

"Ya gotta come inside and meet Mz. Wilson, AnnaBee! I told her all about ya; about what a good friend ya are and how you saved my life 'n all. She wants ta meet ya. Come on!"

Well, I figured I was already late to work so a few more minutes wouldn't make a lot of difference, so I followed Lucy into the building. I put the leash on Clancy so he wouldn't be disturbing anybody by being loose, and in we went. 

I looked around and saw what a clean, light and airy building it was. The walls were decorated with pictures of abc blocks, all colorful, and had murals of children playing. The background colors on the walls were the primary colors, not the institutional green that one sees in the public schools. It looked like a wonderful place to work, and I just knew Lucy had found a perfect place to work and live. 

We went into the office area, and the secretary sitting behind the reception desk looked up and seeing us, said, "Oh, hello, Miss Lucy! This must be your friend, Anna Belle! And who is this little fellow?"

"This is Clancy, ma'am. I am very pleased to meet cha!" I looked at the nameplate on her desk. "Harriet Pittard" 



"Would you like to go into Mrs. Wilson's office? I think she is waiting for you," Harriet smiled. 

"Wow!" I'm thinking to myself, "What a really nice staff they have here. I wonder when the other shoe is going to drop?  Can things really be this rosy? Hmmm. There's gotta be something we're not seeing." My natural skepticism was beginning to kick in.

We went on into the inner office. I had left our carts outside near the front door; I certainly hoped they would be okay. You know, you don't want to be dragging those into a place where you're planning on working. Sure, we were homeless and not ashamed of it, but we weren't advertising it either. Now, it seemed Lucy was not going to be homeless anymore, if this all worked out.

My eyes took in the plush office we had just entered. The easy chairs near the desk looked like the pictures out of one of these glossy magazines that you see in doctor's offices, like 'House Beautiful' or something. There was an antique Tiffany lamp on Mrs. Wilson's desk, and a gold pen desk set beside the name plaque gracing her huge desk. 

Looking up at us, she smiled a welcome, and asked us to have a seat. I sat down rather gingerly, and ill at ease. It had been a long time since being in this kind of place, if ever. The lady behind the desk was tall (I could tell by how tall she sat in the chair), with piercing blue eyes, and carrot red hair. (Wonder if that meant she had a flaming temper, to boot?) Her mouth was rather firm-looking, as though she could bite a ten-penny nail in two, if need-be, but then, as principal of a bunch of five year olds, she would have to be firm but kind. 

So this was going to be Lucy Mae's employer. I felt like I was in trouble. Ha. (Sitting in the principal's office, don't cha know?)

"I am so very pleased to meet you, Ms. Chasteen," smiled the principal. "Lucy has told me so very much about how you two have been friends over the last few years. You two are definitely not the usual definition of homeless people. Many of the general population have no idea what the homeless go through, and how they come to be in that predicament. However, I know personally how it happens, because many years ago, my parents and I were numbered among those unfortunates. 

"We lost our home due to bad investments, and wound up living in our automobile, then because we could no longer continue making payments on our car, we lost it as well. It was only because of my parents determination in working odd jobs and the aid we received along the way from the various help organizations that we were finally able to get back on our feet. I know what it is like to go without food in your stomach and to eat from dumpsters. I applaud your work ethics."

Well, now, I never expected words like that to come from the mouth of a person in Mrs. Wilson's position. She was all right, for sure! I realized my mouth was hanging open, because it immediately changed from amazement to displaying a huge grin. You just never know what you are going to hear in any given situation, do you? 

I jumped up and ran over to shake Ms. Wilson's hand. I was wiping tears from my eyes as I shook her hand, feeling so thankful for people like her who look beyond a person's appearance into their heart

"Thank you so very much for giving Lucy a chance, and a place to live. I know she's gonna do a good job for ya!"

Lucy just sat there, smiling, saying, "I told ya so, AnnieBee. Mz. Wilson is a good person." 

"Ms. Wilkins is going to start working today, so you all might want to bring her cart in from the front door," said that very knowledgeable lady. with a kind smile. "Anna Belle, you are welcome to visit her on any weekend, if you wish. She is free to come and go on the weekends as well."

Boy, Lucy had really fallen into a passel of good luck. We went to get her cart and then we were accompanied by the Ms. Pittard to the room at the back of the building where Lucy would be living. Clancy trotted along beside us, sniffing the walls as we went. I cautioned him about his manners, if you know what I mean. 

I noticed they had security cameras mounted in several places, and that was a good thing, I knew. I also noticed a security guard was on duty not far from the principal's office. I hadn't seen him before, or I probably just wasn't looking to see one. 

When we came to Lucy's room, the secretary handed Lucy a key to the door so that she could keep anyone out of her room. Wow! I was impressed! Lucy unlocked the door and we went in. We looked around at the furnishings. 

There were two windows in the room that reached almost to the eight foot ceiling. They were covered with lavender drapes that could keep out the sunlight, but could be tied back, revealing shimmering sheers.  The walls were sand-colored, and had several landscapes hanging on them. There was a very comfortable looking 3/4 bed, covered with a spread that matched the drapes. A bureau matching the bed stood against one wall, and a small walnut desk with matching chair occupied another wall. 

Lucy and I gazed around in disbelief. What an awesome room! Mrs. Pittard told Lucy that she would need to come back down to the office for some paperwork. Then she would be going to the cafeteria to observe the procedures.

Clancy and I walked with them back down to the office area, where I bade Lucy goodbye for awhile. We hugged each other, and said a little prayer of thanksgiving for this wonderful happening. 

Then Clancy and I left. (To be continued)

As Clancy and I made our way down the sidewalk, I pushed my cart along and reflected on the place we had just left, wondering why it seemed too good to be true. My mama used to tell me that if something seemed that way, it usually was. I was deep in thought, and looked up to see a big, fancy car pulling up to the sidewalk in front of the Sunny Bright Kindergarten building. 

As the car pulled up, the security guard from inside the building came out, and stood by the front door. The driver of the automobile emerged and came around to the rear of the car, opened the door, and out stepped a little girl decked out in a uniform. The driver was also in a chauffeur's uniform, and accompanied the little girl up to the security guard, who then took the little girl into the building.

Well, now! What was that all about? What kind of kids came to this place, anyway? Why the limousine to deliver a child to school?  Was this a private school for kids from wealthy families? What were they doing placing a sign in the window for a cafeteria manager? Why not go through an agency for their employees? If they have a security guard on duty twenty-four hours, why would they trust someone who had been homeless to be in their employ? 
These were all questions which I felt needed answers, but how to get them?
  
I walked on down the street a ways to observe more unobtrusively, and it wasn't long before the scene repeated itself. This time it was a little boy who got out of the car, accompanied by a chauffeur and met at the door by the security guard. The little boy had on a school uniform as well

Wondering how I was going to find the answers to my questions, and trusting that Lucy would be okay, I went on my way, heading for Jones and Sons Auto Repair Shop... speaking of jobs, I had one that I was late getting to. I am sure Jack was wondering (and Hank, as well) what was keeping me. I had a lot to tell Jack! Would he ever be surprised at this turn of events!

Clancy and I hurried on our way and were soon coming in the door and being greeted by Hank. He looked up from his desk, with a worried frown on his face. 

"There you are, AnnieBee! I was beginning to be worried that something had happened to you! I thought maybe you had been mugged last night or been in an accident. Are you okay? Hey, Jackie, AnnieBee is here! She seems to be all right!"

"Why, sure, Hank! I'm sorry to have worried you all. I just got detained this morning helping my friend, Lucy Mae."

Jack came rushing into the office area from the bay where he had been working. His face was wreathed in smiles as he saw I was okay. He ran over and hugged me. 

"I thought something must have happened. I'm so glad you're all right! I don't know what I would do without you. You're like a mama to me. You're never late! I didn't know what might have gone wrong!"

"Thank you, Jackie...er, I mean Jack. I have a lot to tell you, but it is all good, I think. I'll tell you after while when we have a break because it is a long story. Now, I need to get busy."

Hank spoke up then, kinda hesitant, and asked if I had seen any unusual bills of lading yesterday. I told him about the one from Mexico and said I didn't know we did any business with anyone down that way. He told me it was a new customer and he wasn't sure about whether we would continue with them or not, and where did  I file it? 

He said, "I been searching through the files for it, but since you've been here and reorganized my files, I can't find anything."

"Oh, it was here on my desk, because I was going to ask you about it, after I recorded it in my accounting books."

"Uh...uh...you recorded it without asking me about it?"

"Well, yes, wasn't I supposed to? Isn't that what you hired me to do?

"Oh, yes, of course! If you'll just give it to me, I need to look it over to check something on it. Then I'll take care of creating a new file for it. I have a decision to make about them, anyway. Thanks, AnnieBee. Well, I won't keep you from your work any longer. Say, how about making a fresh pot of coffee for us? I sure could use one, couldn't you?"

As I went into the small area where we kept the coffee pot, and emptied out the last few dregs of coffee that had turned very dark, I could hear Hank in the work repair area, chewing out his sons for being 'lame-brained', but he didn't go into any particulars. I wondered what could have happened in the few seconds since he asked me to make coffee

Then the light bulb came on in my head...ah ha! He was chewing them out about placing the receipt from the firm in Mexico on my desk yesterday, without actually mentioning the receipt. He didn't want Jackie or me knowing about the business that was going on between his shop and Mexico! He was keeping a second set of books! What kind of monkey business was good old Uncle Hank up to? I was going to need to keep my eyes open...that was for sure! Maybe do a little bit of investigating while he was not in the shop?

What about Jack? How much was he aware of? Did he suspect anything at all? He and I needed to talk, and soon! I finished making the coffee and took a cup back to my desk. Ah! There's nothing like a good cup of java to get the old brain cells charged up, at least, that is what I always believed. 

"Say, Hank! Do we have any snack food around here? This coffee smells so good, a sugared doughnut would really taste good with it. My sweet tooth is kinda houndin' me this mornin'."

"Nah, we don't have nothin' to eat in the shop right now, but I could run over to that sweet shop a few blocks over to get some. I'm thinking some of the doughnuts or sweet rolls they make would taste good, now that you mention it. I don't have anything to do right now, and I need to get out for a few minutes to run an errand anyway. I should be back in about thirty minutes. I'll just walk, Hold down the fort for me while I'm gone, okay?"

"Sure, Hank. You know I will. If anyone calls for you, I'll just take a message."

"Just get their number and tell 'em I'll call 'em back. No need to take any messages."

It's funny. He always says that, I thought, like he's afraid I'll hear something I'm not supposed to? Why shouldn't I take messages?  I knew about the business and all. But, wait a minute, maybe I didn't know all about the business! I decided to do a little checking around while he was out. At least that was my intention when he left.

I went over to his desk, and began searching through it, when I looked up and saw Jack watching me. He had come into the office for some coffee. I put my finger over my lips as if to say, "Mum's the word!" 

Then I went over to him and whispered, "We need to talk, but not right now! Don't say a word about this, okay? I believe somethin' shady is goin' on in this shop, and I need to find out what it is. Can we talk over lunch today?"

"Sure, AnnieBee. But I don't think you should be goin' through my uncle's desk. It ain't, I mean, it's not nice to be doin' that. You could get into real trouble doin' that, too!"

"Okay, Jack. Did you want some coffee? I just made a fresh pot. I'll get some for ya."

Jack took his cup of coffee and headed back to the bay area. I looked around and went back to Hank's desk. Nothing much in the top drawers, but the bottom right hand drawer was locked. I needed to get into that drawer!

Running over to my desk and grabbing up a paper clip, I quickly unbent it and ran back to Hank's desk.  Very gently probing the lock on the drawer, I kept looking up to watch for the return of Hank, also keeping my eyes on the door to the work bay. Knowing I couldn't chance getting caught doing my 'spy work', I worked furiously, and just as I heard the lock click, the sound of Hank whistling came through the doorway from outside. 

Oops! No chance to lock it back! Well, maybe he would just think he failed to lock the drawer. I ran back over to my desk and sat back down. Clancy had been watching the door as though he knew he needed to be my watchdog. Good Boy!

"Here ya go, AnnieBee! Say, I worked up quite an appetite with that walk!"

Looking in the box he handed me, I saw three of the goodies had already been devoured. Powdered sugar had dribbled down his shirt front, and spotted his belly that was hanging over his britches. Laughing nervously, I asked him if the doughnuts were as good as they usually are. He just looked at me quizzically and replied that of course they were. 

Walking over to the bay work area, I called out to the three young men working back there. 

"Hey fellows, the doughnuts are here! Come and have some before they disappear."

They came sauntering in and headed into the break area. Hank picked up his coffee cup, and went back into the coffee area where his two boys were getting coffee. I knew they would all sit down for about ten minutes to rest. I heard the rumbling of raised voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying. Jack continued to work; he had stopped eating so much snack food. He said he didn't need it so much any more. 

I ran back to the desk drawer, and silently pulled it open, watching the doorway to the 'break room' all the while. Sweating bullets, I looked in and saw what looked like an account book. Why would he need an account book? I was doing the book keeping, wasn't I? I needed to get a look inside it, but I didn't have time right now. Closing the drawer, I slipped the paperclip back inside the lock and twisted it till I heard it click. Looking up, I saw Hank heading my way. I quickly got down on the floor and pretended to be looking for a pencil that rolled away.

"That darned pencil! Where did it get to? My fumblin' fingers can't hold on to anything sometimes!"

Hank just laughed... "Seems like you're havin' trouble hangin' on to stuff, AnnieBee. Are ya sure you ain't gettin' too old fer this job?"

"Ha, ha! You're a real joker, you are! Nah, sometimes stuff can jist get away from anybody, don't cha know?"

I walked into the break room and refilled my coffee cup, picking up a chocolate covered doughnut. My hands were kinda shaking from the experience of almost getting caught at my spying. I noticed that Mickey and Mike had stopped talking as soon as I entered the area. They just looked at me and smiled. They had been getting a dressing down, it seemed, from their dad. Wonder what that was all about? 

Filling my coffee cup, I returned to my desk and sipping the drink slowly, I reflected on the happenings of the morning. My mind went back to Lucy, still wondering about that kindergarten place and what kind of situation I had gotten my friend into. On the surface, it looked really great, but then; things are not always what they appear to be, are they? I certainly hoped my friend was not in any kind of danger; we all know that there are many different ones, don't we? 

In the meantime, into what kind of mess had Jackie and I become involved? Only time would tell with both circumstances. In the meantime, I had to get busy with my bookwork. I had finished my coffee and set the cup aside, so I picked up the bills and receipts that were in my "in" box and began recording those. 

"You know," I was thinking to myself, "I don't see how Hank is keeping this place open with the little amount of profit he is making, according to these accounting books. I'll just bet he is 'cooking the books' and that is a separate set in his desk drawer. What kind of business is he keeping in them? Wonder if Jack knows what his Uncle Hank is up to? I've got to talk to him about it and very soon!" 

Another three hours of work did it for the morning and actually it was one p.m. before Jack had finished his work. I kind of waited around for him to get cleaned up so we could leave together. I had indicated earlier to him that I wanted to have lunch with him at the Mission. 
Clancy, Jack and I left the auto shop and were on our way, enjoying the fine weather, when whom should we meet but the Weasel! 

Jack gave him a shout out. "Hey, Zeb!"

"Howdy, Ms. AnnaBelle! Hello, Jack! How are you all doin' today?" He tipped his hat to me, and shook Jack's hand. Then he leaned down and patting Clancy casually on the head, he looked up and asked,  "Have you heard the weather forecast for this evening, Jack? Do you think it'll rain?"

They both stood there looking up at the clear sky. 

"What in the world?" I thought. "There's not a cloud in sight! What are they talkin' about?"

"Wel-l-l," drawls Jack, "seems to me I heard somethin' about a small storm headin' this way around midnight. I reckon we won't have ta worry about gettin' wet, since we'll be in out of it. Ha!"

"Well, you all take care, then. Are you headed to lunch, I guess?"

"Yeah, we are. See you later, Zeb. You take care, too."

Tipping his hat once again to me, he strolled away, seemingly unconcerned about anything. 

Turning to Jackie, I asked, "What was that talk about the weather all about, Jack?"

"Oh, we're always chattin' about the weather. It's just one of those things that people can talk about to be friendly, ya know.

"Listen, Jack, what do you know about your uncle trading with companies in Mexico?"

"Why... he trades with people all over, AnnieBee. What do you mean, exactly?

"Well, he got really upset when I recorded a bill of lading to a company in Mexico, and said he would take care of it. I am thinkin' he's got a second set of books and I'm wonderin' if he's doin' somethin' illegal. Whatta ya think? I'm goin' ta do some investigatin', cause I don't want either of us to get sent ta jail fer doin' federal crimes or even state crimes. I'm gonna get ta the bottom of this, don't cha know?"

"Now, AnnieBee, don't you go messin' inta stuff you shouldn't. There's nothin' goin' on. You jist got an overactive imagination, you know. Please, jist don't be pokin' around. I'm a big boy and I can take care of us if need be. Please promise?

I just kinda nodded my head at him and we continued walking. Watching Clancy running back and forth between us and telephone poles, I thought about how we often spend our time just running in circles and getting nowhere. That led me to remembering I wanted to tell Jack about what had happend with Lucy Mae.

"Say, Jack! Did you know that Lucy has a job now? She is newly employed as a cafeteria manager for the Sunny Bright Kindergarten several streets over in a much nicer section of town."

"Really? How did that happen, AnnaBee? I thought she was living with her son and grandkids."

"Well, seems like they're movin' up near the prison, so he can work on gettin' Marci outta prison. He told me that since Lucy was so happy livin' on the streets, she could jist go back to 'em. Can you believe that? It was heart-wrenchin' to see how sad it made her for him to just throw her out like that. It was hard for me to think that a son could treat his mama like that!"

"How did she get the job, then?"

I proceeded to tell him about the job and the place. I told him something didn't seem to be quite right about it. 

"Well, Jack, it seems like a really posh place for kindergartners, but then you  should see the automobiles that they arrive in, some of 'em are big limousines. I didn't know we had that many rich people in our town. They must live over in the neighborhood that your adoptive mama lived in. It was a very pricey neighborhood, don't cha know!"

"Maybe we just need to give Lucy some space till she gets adjusted to bein' there, AnnaBee. Then we can go see her in a week or so, and she might be able to tell us quite a bit more about how it goes over there." Jackie sounded very reasonable and not at all upset. He was certainly not the old Jackie I knew. The old Jackie would have been ready to go over there the next day, since tomorrow was Saturday, and see how Lucy was doing. This Jack was really maturing and becoming much more independent

After a few more blocks, we arrived at the Mission, and walking through the door to the dining room, we each dropped a couple of dollars into the donation box, and went over to get into line. We soon were greeting people we knew. They were looking at Jack in his work uniform and punching one another as if to say, "Look how neat Cookie Jack is lookin' these days." and smiling at him. These were good people and our friends. Of course this wasn't the first time they had seen him in his uniform, but they must have been noticing how he was slimming down. 

We had just sat down and said a prayer of thanks for our food when Pastor Joe came out of his office and headed our way. 

"Hey, there! Jack and AnnaBee! It's great to see you two together eating lunch here. I must have missed you yesterday evening, and this morning, AnnaBee! Jackie, I haven't seen you for a couple of days, either. Where have you two been keeping yourselves? Jack, are you sure you have enough food there? Where's your dessert?"

"Sit down here for a few minutes, if ya can, Pastor Joe. We got a lot to talk over with ya." I smiled back at him.

Then I related to him the saga of Lucy Mae, and he was that amazed at how Melvin had turned out our friend. Jack assured him that he was getting enough to eat and that dessert wasn't always necessary. Sometimes, he just didn't want it. Pastor Joe looked at me and lifted his eyebrows. I just shrugged and smiled, then asked him if he would do a little internet research on The Sunny Bright Kindergarten and on the lady who ran it. I was sure she would be listed on the web page. Her name was Mrs. Wilson. 

I told him that I had tomorrow off at the Jones Auto Repair shop, since it was Saturday. I had some things to do and I might check back with him tomorrow afternoon. 

"Sure, I'll be glad to do that for you and Lucy. Hey, Clancy! I didn't see you down there, boy. How are you doing? Are you keeping AnnaBee on the straight and narrow?" Leaning down to pat Clancy, he chuckled. "Pretty difficult to keep her out of trouble, isn't it?"

"Now, Pastor Joe, you know I don't get into trouble all the time! I stay out of it when I can. It jist kinda finds me, is what it does."

"I know, AnnaBee, I know. It just comes looking for you, and you never run from it, just head for it like a homing pigeon." He threw his head back and laughed out loud. It was a wonderfully pleasant sound. He just made people want to laugh with him; Jack and I obliged him.

He left and we finished our lunch. I asked Jack if he was going to stay around a while so we could talk. It had been a long time since we had gone to the park and fed the pigeons and just talked about nothing in general. I didn't mention that I had a few questions I wanted to ask him, but he said he had forgotten something at the shop and needed to go back and get it. I wondered what it was, but I knew no answers were forthcoming today. I declare, that boy was getting mighty shut-mouthed lately! Either that, or my methods of investigation were going to have to improve somewhat. 

So Jack went his way, and I was getting ready to go mine. I had some laundry to take care of, and now that I had a salary I could go to the laundromat, which was just down the street from the Mission. There might be a newspaper I could read while I was waiting for my laundry to wash and dry. 

"Come on, Clancy! We need ta be makin' tracks!" I got my cart and we headed for the door. I looked out and saw Jack talking to Zeb again. They were off to one side of the street, kind of in the shadows of the Mission. Jack was waving his arms around, and Zeb was kind of frowning. This was getting curious to me. Maybe if I went out quietly and got closer to them, sticking to the shadows, I might could hear what they were saying. 

Well, I was so intent on watching them, I missed the curb and fell on my hands and knees. Clancy started barking and yipping at me, and they looked up and saw me! Daggone! Some detective I was!

Within seconds, Zeb and Jack came flying over to help me up, and to pick up my belongings that had fallen out of my cart when it went askew. Was my face ever red! The Weasel had his hand under my elbow, helping me up. It seemed his presence brought out the clumsiness in me, since this was the second time I had fallen in front of him and he had assisted me in standing both times. 

This time, instead of being rude to him, I remembered my manners and thanked him kindly. As before, he just tipped his hat to me, and asked if I were okay. I replied that I was and kind of brushed off my knees where I had landed on them. The fall had made a hole in my worn jeans and one of my knees was slightly bleeding. 

Zeb, the Weasel, took hold of my elbow and said, "Mz. AnnaBelle, I think we should get you back inside so that you can get that knee cleaned off, and some medication put on it. Can you walk on it?"

Stepping rather gingerly, testing it out, I replied, "Of course I can. I can take myself back inside. You all don't need to come with me. Come on, Clancy."

Ignoring my statement, he kept hold of my elbow, very politely, mind you, and told Jack to bring in my cart. Naturally, I was quite embarrassed by this whole episode, but what could I do? It was all my own fault; I should have been more careful about what I was doing. Now, I wouldn't know what they had been discussing so animatedly. Phooey!

So, back indoors we all went, with Clancy running along beside me, looking up and yipping excitedly. What a spectacle! 

Pastor Joe looked up from the table where he sat, and seeing the  processsion coming indoors, jumped up and ran over. 

"What happened?" Glancing at my knee and seeing Zeb holding my elbow and Jack pushing my cart, the picture became quite clear to him. "Ah, you must have fallen! Are you okay? Do you need a trip to the emergency room? Do you think you have any broken bones?"

"Oh, my goodness! Such a big to-do over a little fall! I wasn't watching where I was going and simply took a dive onto my hands and knees." I turned my hands over and saw that I had skinned them up as well. 

"Bring her into the office, fellows. I've got some antiseptic and band-aids in there. I think maybe I can fix her up. Okay, AnnieBee?"

I went in to his office, guided by Zeb, and followed by Jack, Clancy and Pastor Joe. Taking me to one of the chairs where I sat down, Zeb knelt and gently examined my knee. Then he stood up and pronounced it to be just a little skinned up.   

"Well, I knew that! All this fuss over a little skinned knee and roughed up hands! Thank you, Zeb, for helping me up and bringing me in here. You all can go now, Pastor Joe will help me. Thank you, too, Jack. I'll see you later."

"You're welcome, ma'am!" was Zeb's reply.

The two of them left, and I could see through the office doorway that they had resumed their conversation. Arghh! I had no idea what they were talking about, but I bet myself, for sure, that it wasn't the weather!

My hands were smarting somewhat, but my dignity was in worse shape, falling like that out in the street like some drunk person. I vowed to find out what they were discussing in such an intense manner. It might not be right now, but I would eventually discover what they had in common other than the weather, don't cha know?

Right now, I was going to the laundromat and wash my dirty clothes, including the damaged blue jeans I was wearing. The stuff in my cart was all jumbled up, and I hoped I hadn't lost the small bottle of laundry detergent I had bought last week at the market. I would have to do some rearranging at the laundromat. 

It was only a couple of blocks to the laundromat, and I began thinking about Hank Jones and his second set of books. Maybe I could do some investigating tonight after the shop closed. I would have to figure out a way to get inside without getting caught. In the meantime, I could spend some time at the public library, doing some internet searching of my own.

"Come on, Clancy, we need to hurry and get my laundry done. We got a lot to get accomplished this evenin'."

As we entered the laundromat, I saw the lady that works there, cleaning the folding tables and checking the washers and dryers to make sure nothing was left in them. No one else was in there, so Clancy and I had the place all to ourselves. Looking around, I noticed an old newspaper in one of the folding chairs along the wall. I picked it up, intending to work the crossword puzzle in it.

"Hey, Nettie! How're you doin' today? Been very busy this mornin'?"

"Naw, AnnieBee! Nothin' much shakin' today. How are you?" Looking at my torn blue jeans, she laughed and said, "Hey, I see you got on a pair of them designer jeans with a hole in 'em, like all the young people are wearin' now-a-days!" She could tell that it was not expensive jeans I had on, but she had her little joke, and I just grinned, good-naturedly. 

"Yeah, don't cha know I gotta have the latest look? Gotta keep in fashion!"

Nettie was a plump little lady, in her late seventies,  agewise, and worked for her son, who owned the laundromat. I'm sure he paid her very little, but the work kept her off the streets and out of trouble. At one time, she must have been quite a looker, because she still kept her once auburn hair done up nice. It was pulled back from her oval-shaped face and always had curls in it. She wore calico dresses that apparently she made for herself. She had told me once that she lived with her son and daughter-in-law, in a garage apartment, at the back of the house. I think they call them "mother-in-law" apartments. 

Clancy lay down near one of the chairs while I took my cart with me back into the restroom. After I had used the facilities and washed my hands, I looked through the cart and found my detergent, and my purse. Taking out my last pair of clean blue jeans, I put them on and put the dirty ones into the cart with my others. Now I was ready to do my laundry.

After I had put my laundry into the washer, I sat down near Clancy and took out the newspaper. Searching my purse for a pencil, I realized I had left it on my desk at the Auto Repair shop. Well, I would just peruse the newspaper to see what was in it. Had to keep up on the news and all. I was flipping through it when I spotted the police blotter. A feller can learn a lot about what is going on around town by reading that, you know. 

"Well, now, that's mighty interestin', Clancy!" I muttered to my little companion.
There were several interesting items on the police blotter. It mentioned a late night arrest a few weeks ago of two Jones boys, for being in possession of schedule drugs. Oh, my gosh! That must be what Hank was chewing them out about. I wondered if it was for having them, or having been caught with them. Either way, I could see real trouble in mine and Jack's futures. That bit of information really made these old eyes bug out! Should I mention this to Jack? I sure didn't want him to be found guilty by association, don't cha know!

I flipped through the pages some more and saw a small article about some cars disappearing from streets downtown. It seems like crime was hitting our little burg in a huge way. I was going to have to keep my eyes open; also, I figured it was time to go visit my friend, Lieutenant Shannon, down at the midtown precinct. After all, I am a concerned citizen when it comes to keeping our town clean of crime and criminals. 

I wanted to tell him about Lucy and her latest situations. He was always interested in what was going on in our lives. He might be able to clue me in on the Sunny Bright Kindergarten, too. Something about that whole situation seemed to be off and I wanted to know what it was. 

After I finished my laundry, I headed to the local library to spend a few hours just reading for the pure enjoyment. They had some really good magazines, and it had been awhile since I had stopped in there. The librarian was a good friend of mine and I needed to touch base with her. 

As I entered the main room of  the library, my gaze wandered over to the educational stacks. To my great amazement, there stood Jack between two rows of shelves, animatedly talking to a young woman. She was a knockout of a beauty, with coal black hair, a pert nose, and a bewitching smile. She was looking up at Jack with adoring green eyes, that seemed to be sparkling with humor. Wow!
Where had she come from and how did he meet her? 

Just as I started over to meet her, I decided against it. I didn't want to interrupt them, and figured I could learn more by just observing. 
Who was she and how long would it take me to find out about her. This was going to take a bit of detective work for sure. But I was certain that I was up to the task. I quietly turned around and headed out the huge library doors. 

Clancy and I quietly made our way through the library doors to the outside. The afternoon was pretty warm, but I could feel a chill in the air that would soon herald much cooler nights. A soft breeze blew through the trees, as I chose a bench to rest on while I waited for Jack and the young lady to emerge from the library. I had brought the newspaper along with me when I left the laundromat, so I opened it up and pretended to read it as I kept my eyes on the doors. My intention was to follow them slowly and see where they would head. I was going to see how good I was at shadowing.

There they came! I hid my head behind the newspaper, and waited for them to pass me. Unfortunately, Clancy was not aware of my plans of subterfusion, because he stood up and ran over to Jack. When I heard Jack say, "Hey, boy! What are you doing here? Where's AnnaBee?" I knew the jig was up. 

I jumped up as though I was surprised to see Jack and his friend.  Well, that saved me from following them, I reckoned. 

"Hey, Jack! Imagine seein' you here!" I smiled at the two of them, disingenuously, I looked expectantly at the two of them, waiting for an introduction, smiling all the while. 

"Uh, AnnaBee, this is an old friend, Lily.Archer. Lily, this is my good friend, Anna Belle Chasteen."

Lily and I greeted one another and then Jack said, "We really do need to be gettin' along, AnnaBee; we were just on our way. I'll see you later, okay?"

"Sure, Jack. Nice to meetcha, Lily. Maybe we'll see one another again, soon, okay?"

Lily took my hand and said, "Of course, Mz. AnnaBelle. I hope we'll become good friends. Jack has told me so much about you. Thank you for looking after him." Lily's smile was charming, and she spoke with a soft, southern accent that seemed to be from Virginia or South Carolina. I could see why Jack was so taken with her. 

As they walked away, I began searching through my memory banks, trying to remember if I had ever heard him speak of anyone named Lily. He did call her an old friend. Hmmm.

Watching them walk away, I saw him take her hand in his. Ah ha! That kind of old friend was what Miss Lily was. I smiled to myself and looked down at Clancy.

"Well, it looks like our Jackie Boy has found romance, or perhaps it has found him at last. So that's where he has been disappearin' to. But what a strange place to be meetin' her! I wonder what they are doin' goin' to the library, anyway. I noticed he had a few books tucked under an arm. I never knew him for bein' much of a reader."

Then I got to wondering when it was that he had told me about anyone named Lily. I just couldn't remember, but I would think on it quite a bit till I came up with the answer. In the meantime, I went back into the library to use their computer to see what I could find out about the Sunny Bright Kindergarten. I knew enough about computers to know that I could type in a subject up at the top where it said 'Google' and it would take me to a place where I could read about the subject. I was not a computer whiz by any means.  

Clancy was on his leash, so he could not bother anyone. I parked my cart near one of the computers and Clancy sat very close to it. He knew to be quiet and not make any noise in the library. Since our town was fairly small, and I knew the people who worked in it, they allowed Clancy to come in with me. 

I typed in the name of the kindergarten and when the page came up, I saw it was just an advertisement for the school. It did say that they took children only with good references and that the staff were caring and protective of the children in their care. It went on to say that the children received a top notch education and it was approved by the state board of education. Everything it said seemed to point to nothing but good. 

I was going to have to talk to Lieutenant Shannon and get his take on it. Getting up to leave, I glanced over and saw Ms. Shelton, the head librarian. That gave me an idea. Maybe I could find out some more about Jack and Lily, before I left the building. I'll bet she could tell me a thing or two

Clancy and I strolled over to the circulation desk where she was working. I smiled sweetly and whispered a 'hello'. 

"Well, hello, AnnieBee! It's been a while since I read about you in the newspapers. How is everything going? Are you and Lucy investigating something? Where is she? Is she still with her son and his family? "

In case you hadn't guessed, Ms. Shelton had an innate curiosity, much like mine. So I obliged her by filling her in on all that was happening. Ah ha! I thought! Maybe she can tell me something about the kindergarten I was investigating. I asked her if she knew anything about it.

"Well," she whispered, leaning over the counter, conspiratorially, "I heard that there was some kind of funny business going on over there, and the cops had investigated it.  I don't know what they found out, but it seems they gave it a clean bill of health."

"Thank ya, Ms. Shelton, I sure appreciate the information! I'll be seein' ya." I had tracks to make, and forgot all about wanting to ask her about Jack and Lily. Grabbing my cart, and taking hold of Clancy's leash, we lit out of there like a hant was on our trail.

Clancy and I hurried along and since it was not far from the library to the police station, pretty soon we were going up the steps into the open area where the desk sergeant was seated. This first floor of the police station was always busy, what with the worst element in our fair city usually populating it, waiting to be booked for crimes committed. I knew that the lock-up was in the back part of the building on this floor. Sometimes I would see people that I knew from the Mission, because they could be counted on to get a snoot full of liquor when they got hold of some money. Other times, there would be those without funds who were caught shoplifting. 

Glancing around, I saw Zeb going up the back stairs to where the Lieutenant's office was located. A uniformed police officer was with him, and had him by the arm. Wait a minute! What was this? And here I was beginning to think he might be a nice guy after all! Well, it just proved I was right after all...he was a weasel, not to be trusted. That made me wonder even more what he had been discussing so animatedly with our Jack.  I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was Jack really mixed up in something nefarious? I had to find out. 

First, I had to hit the rest room. Taking my cart and Clancy in with me, I used the facility and washed my hands. What to do? Should I go up and talk to the Looie? Maybe I could just sneak up the stairs and listen in at the door to his office. Sometimes that worked for getting unsolicited info. I had to do something, though, because that young man, Jack, was so important to me. As far as I was concerned, he was just a babe-in-the-woods when it came to judging people and their intentions. He was just too trusting. 

'Well',I thought, 'I'm not getting any information in here, and I'm not getting any younger, either.' Taking one last look in the mirror, and then checking my hands and knees where I had taken a tumble earlier, I whistled to Clancy and we left the bathroom and were heading up the front stairs to the Looie's office. 

The desk sergeant apparently had not noticed us, since his eyes were trained on the young woman standing in front of him who was scantily clad in some kind of trashy garb. He couldn't take his eyes off of her, apparently. She was certainly an eye full, or even two eyes full. Ha. 

Clancy and I went on up the stairs and soon were rounding the top of them, when the door to the Looie's office opened and the officer left with walking beside Zeb, with him apparently in tow. 

When Zeb looked out and saw me, he averted his face as though he thought I would not see him, like he was embarrassed to be seen being escorted by a police officer. It was like the look of a deer caught in the headlights of a car. It seemed this was the last place he expected to see me

The two of them left, heading once again down the back stairway, and I went into Lieutenant Shannon's office. 

"Hey, AnnaBelle! Hey, Clancy! How ya' doing, fella? Would you like a donut, boy? Here you go! Well, AnnaBee, to what do I owe the pleasure of this surprise visit?" He was behaving in a very welcoming manner. I had apparently caught him in a very good mood. Hmmm. Wonder what was up, anyway?  

"Hello, Lieutenant! I'm happy to see you, too! It's good to see you in such a great mood! By the looks of your face, good things must be happenin'.

I lifted my eyebrows in expectation that he might share with me just what was going on, but not a word of information passed his lips. Well, after all, he was a cop, don't cha know, so he wasn't talking. 

So I tried another tack...

"Say, what can you tell me about that feller the patrolman just left with? I think his name is Zeb?"

"Oh, you saw Zeb leaving while ago? Well, he's one of the fellows who live on the street.  You must have seen him around some. He's harmless enough, I reckon. He just has a hard time keeping away from trouble, and I have to have him brought in every once in awhile so I can have a little chat with him. Nobody for you to be concerned about. I'm sure he wouldn't bring any harm to you. Now, I'm sure you didn't walk down here just for your health. What can I do for you?"

"My friend, Lucy, has been turned out by her no-good son again, and has begun working as a cafeteria manager for the Sunny Bright Kindergarten. It was the strangest thing how she got the job. I saw a sign in their window that they were lookin' for a new manager and when I told her about it, she went in and applied. Just like that, they hired her, even knowin' that for some time she had lived on the streets. It seems the principal, who apparently own the place, was once a street person, too, and likes to give people a chance to change their lives. She checked on Lucy's references and hired her on the spot! It just seemed a little too good to be true, so I thought I would come in and see what you thought."

As I related my story, I could see the Lieutenant straighten up from his relaxed position on the edge of his desk and take on a look that meant something was not quite as it should be. The smile on his face slowly fading, he gave me a look that said volumes. Uh oh! Seems like the librarian had been right about her story to me. What had I gotten my friend into, anyway?  Now what?

"AnnaBelle, tell me some more about Lucy and where she is right now."

"Well, it seems like it is a live-in position. She has her own livin' quarters which are very nice and she will be makin' a handsome salary. She can leave on the weekends, but with no place to go, it seems reasonable that she would jist stay there. I can visit with her on the weekends if I wish. The principal seemed very nice and understandin'. I reckon they don't want any visitors durin' the week because of the little kids 'n all. That is another thing, they have a security guard on the premises, apparently all the time, from what I could tell. To protect the kids, I suppose."

I had told the Looie everything I could think of...oh, except for the kind of kids that seemed to be coming there...rich kids, apparently.

"And, Lieutenant, you should see the cars the little kids come up in!  I saw several being brought to the place in limos! The driver would get out, and escort the kid up to the front door, where the security guard would take the kid by the hand and escort them inside. Can you believe that? I never saw the likes. These kids must come from the part of town where that Geneva what's-er-name lady that was Jack's adoptive mother lived. I didn't stick around much longer after I saw a couple of them arrive."

Lieutenant Shannon just sat there on the edge of his desk, listening to what I had to say, then told me that for right now, Lucy was okay where she was, but that I was to visit her every opportunity I had, and not to let on that there was any question about her being there. However, I was to find out from her as much as I could about the routines and all that were going on at the kindergarten, but not to let on to her that I was pumping her for info. She could not suspect that they had any questions about the place. It would put her in a bad position to have any ideas, because, let's face it. Lucy could not keep a secret. 

"So, it's true that the place was investigated by the police? When I heard that from the librarian, I just knew I had to come see you about it! What are you suspectin' them of, anyway?"

"Well, now, AnnaBelle, you know I can't divulge that information to you. It's police business...just know that Lucy is not in any danger as of right now, and we'll get her out before she is. We couldn't get enough evidence earlier, but with her inside, now maybe we can. The less she knows of our business, the better. So, mum's the word. Okay?"

"Okay, but it's gonna be hard, don't cha know? I've never lied to my friends, but if I just don't tell her, it won't exactly be lyin', I reckon. I sure will visit her often, too. Oh, by the way, I'm thinkin' I might be in the middle of a situation of my own, down where I'm workin' for Jack's uncle Hank. I think he might be cookin' the books, so to speak.I'm goin' to be doin' a little investigatin' as soon as I get the chance."

"Oh, now, AnnaBee, I don't think that is a good idea. I've seen Jack's Uncle Hank and he doesn't seem like someone you would want to get on the bad side of. You'd best leave that situation, as you call it, to me. I'll look into it. You just tend to your knitting, and let the police take care of such things. I promise you, I'll give it my personal attention, okay? Stay out of it, please!"

Wow! I certainly didn't expect such a reaction from the Looie to my little suggestion. Well, I was going to take another look at those books when I got a chance. He didn't have to know about it. I could do it without alerting anyone, and I knew exactly how I was going to do it!

After assuring the Lieutenant that everything was copacetic with me, I told him goodby and that I would keep in touch with him, and that I would most certainly keep a check on our friend, Lucy. No way was I going to let anything happen to her, if I could help it. I knew that I couldn't dog her steps at the kindergarten because that would certainly make the principal nervous and suspicious. The principal may not realize that we knew anything about the previous investigation, but then again, she couldn't be sure that we wouldn't. People who live on the streets are not unaware of events taking place in their city, after all.

Today was Friday, though, so I was going to be visiting Lucy on the morrow to see how everything was going with her. In the meantime, I had other fish to fry. There was some investigating that I had to do on another front, and tonight was the time to do it. I took Clancy's leash in my hand and the cart in my other hand, and going down the stairs, I began planning the rest of my day. I headed toward the Mission to speak to Pastor Joe. He was always a welcome ally and would be my back-up, so to speak. The Pastor always had good advice to share with us.

I'll bet you've wondered about him, and whether he was married or had a family...well, here's the answer to that. Joe was a product of the streets, a run-away from a foster home. But, when he was a young man, he found his true love and they were married. He had high hopes for their future. He worked hard, and they were happy for a few years until he got into debt by gambling. You see, he wanted more for her and so he wound up owing a great deal of money. So he soon was borrowing money from a loan shark to pay off his debts. Then the problem he had was much larger, because as you may know, gambling debts are nothing compared to owing on a loan you can't pay off.

It's an old story, one we've all heard many times. He tried to drown his sorrows in a bottle, and wound up wrecking his car and injuring his wife in the accident. As a result, Cindy (that was his wife's name) was unable to walk for awhile. That accident brought Joe to his knees and he became a Christian. Joe and Cindy went through a really rough time over the next few years. Fortunately for them, the old pastor that led Joe to Christ, had some resources that helped Joe find work to pay off his debts.

Cindy's mother and father stood by them and, even though they had no money to help them, they could provide a place for Joe and Cindy to live while Cindy recuperated. Joe had to work really hard at a day labor job and actually any work he could find. The doctors had told them that since Cindy was young, her condition was good, and she would heal with good care.

Then one day while Joe was at work, he couldn't concentrate on what he was doing. He had begun going to Bible class at his mother and father-in-law's church on Sunday mornings. He kept rememembering what the teacher had said about giving of our best to the Master. He asked himself, "What is my best? I'm not worth a whole lot. What does He want me to give? What does He want me to do? What...what???"

Joe began praying...'Lord, what do you want me to do? What do you want of me? I gave you my heart...what else do you want?'

The answer came back to him, as clear as day.

"I want YOU, Joe. I want YOU."

Yes, Joe had felt the call to become a minister, to serve his Lord in full time service.  He was a broken man, and now he was just where the Lord wanted him to be, ready to serve Him.

Joe finished his day's work and went to his pastor's home to talk with him. It wasn't long before Joe was in school studying to become a minister. From there it wasn't too big a leap for him to finally become our own Pastor Joe at the Mission. He and his wife, Cindy, were still together and they had an apartment at the Mission. She always welcomed him home after his many problems at work. She helped provide a sanctuary for him, but unfortunately, as a result of the accident, they were unable to have children. So the people of the Mission became their children.

How do I know all this? Pastor Joe sometimes shared his testimony with those who came to the Sunday services at the Mission.

Clancy and I were at the Mission doorway soon enough to see people coming in to have supper. Somehow, even though most did not wear watches, they knew when it was about time for the meals. Perhaps they told time by the location of the sun; but most often I guess it was the inner grumbling of the belly telling them. Sometimes there wasn't a lot to occupy time, and after an afternoon of just wandering the streets, they were anxious to get in for the evening.

There were a variety of people who came into the Mission, and many of them were in pain. One could see the pain and bewilderment on the faces of the new arrivals; perhaps many of them had just lost their homes and were trying to adjust to the terrors of homelessness. You could always spot those by the fact that their possessions were in a clean pillowcase or a suitcase. Their clothing was better than that of those who had been on the street for a long time. We called them "Newbies". Lucy Mae and I had always tried to help them adjust, but they were suspicious of all of us who had been around for awhile.

Anyway, when I went into the Mission, I saw Pastor Joe speaking to what appeared to be one of the Newbies. Joe had his arm around the fellow's shoulder and was speaking to him gently, guiding him to a chair. It was an elderly gentleman, and he was crying. I drew closer to see what the trouble was. Yeah, I'm nosy, I know, but I hate to see anyone in pain.

Clancy does too; so he ran over and put his chin on the old man's knee in sympathy to his plight, whatever it was. The man looked down at Clancy and patted him on the head, and said, "Hey, little feller! Where did you come from?"  Then he looked up and saw me headed towards them. "Is this your dog, ma'am? He sure is a sweet little feller!"

"Hello! Yes, he's mine. His name is Clancy. Say 'hello', Clancy."

Clancy held out his paw, like I had taught him to do, and the old man laughed in delight, apparently forgetting his troubles momentarily. He took Clancy's paw and shook it gently. Then Clancy wagged his tail like crazy, happy to be having all that attention.

Pastor Joe spoke then. "AnnaBelle, this is Sam Blake. One of our people found him wandering the streets and brought him here. He can't tell me where he lives, so if you would just sit here and chat with him for awhile, I am going to call the Police station and see if anyone has reported him missing."

"Sure thing, Pastor Joe. I'll be happy to. Clancy and I will keep him company." Turning to Sam, I pulled up a chair and sat down near by. "Can you tell me about your family, Mr. Blake? Do you have children?"

"Well, I think I must have, but I'm not real sure. I just can't remember anything." The tears began to roll down his weathered old cheeks again, as he wiped them with the handkerchief in his gnarled hands. He had what looked like crippling arthritis in his hands. Apparently the only thing he was really sure of was his name. I'd say Pastor Joe was lucky that the old man remembered that much.

"Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat? Why don't I go get you a tray? Clancy will stay here with you and keep you company while I get one, okay?"

"Sure. Thank you." The old man bent down and picked Clancy up and sat him on his lap, petting him and talking to him. Leaving my cart next to him, I went to get him a tray of food. I was gone about three minutes, but when I returned, the old man and Clancy were no longer sitting in the chair at the table.

Looking around in alarm, I nearly dropped the tray. There was my cart, but where were they? With my heart thrumming in my ears like a trip hammer, my eyes searched wildly about the room, casting about for any sight of my little dog and the old man. What had I done? I had so carelessly left Clancy in the care of someone I didn't know and had no real reason to trust. What had I been thinking, anyway? Is this what happens when you help someone and give them your trust?

I quickly dropped the tray onto the table and began walking about, trying to see around the people who were standing around, finding places to sit.

Then I saw them...the old man had taken Clancy over to the water fountain near the door, apparently to get him a drink of water. I ran over and it was all I could do not to chew out the old fellow for moving from the chair that way. There was Clancy drinking water from where it was pooling in the bowl of the fountain. The old man had put his handkerchief over the drain to keep water in the fountain. 'How very clever!' I thought to myself.

Old Sam looked up at me brightly. "The little fellow's tongue was hangin' out like he was thirsty, so I brought him over here to get a drink. I hope that was okay."

"Sure, Sam,  sure it was. Thank you ever so much. I am sure Clancy would thank you, if he could only speak. How very thoughtful of you."

"Well, I have a tray of food for you over at that table. You surely must be hungry! Come on and have some supper. Have a seat and I'll go get a tray for myself and we'll eat together."

When I returned with my food he bowed his head and murmured a prayer of thanks for our food. I knew for sure then that he was a fine person even though he couldn't remember who he was. 

Soon we were sitting there eating and chatting like old friends. Strangely enough, although there were many things he couldn't remember, he did know about World War II history. Apparently he had served near the end of the war, and could tell me a lot about it. He looked to be about 90. His hands shook as he ate his meal, and as he told me about atrocities he had seen taking place. 

I saw Pastor Joe leaving his office; he had spotted us and was heading our way, with a huge smile on his face. I knew he had good news for us. 

"Well, Sam, I just talked to the retirement home where you live, and they have been frantic looking for you. They are so glad we found you and are sending someone over to pick you up. The lady told me that you are their resident storyteller when it comes to World War II."

It wasn't long before they came to collect him, and we bade him a sweet goodbye. He patted Clancy on the head and went away with the attendants. Poor fellow; at least they seemed to appreciate him and he wouldn't end up on the streets like some older people do, homeless and alone. Maybe Clancy and I could go visit him sometime. Yeah, that would be a good thing to do. I am so glad he wandered into the shelter. 

Now I needed to talk to Pastor Joe after supper. I just knew he might have something to tell me about the kindergarten where Lucy Mae was working. I waited impatiently until finally he motioned me to come back into his office.

"Gee, Pastor Joe, I was beginnin' ta think you weren't ever goin' to be able to talk ta me! Yeah, I know, I get anxious and it's hard to wait sometimes, don't cha know? Have you found out anything more about that kindergarten for me? I looked it up on the web and could only find their web page. I didn't even find any stuff about the investigation that the police conducted. Apparently it was pretty much on the Q-T. The librarian knew about it, though, so I was figurin' that maybe you had heard somethin', too."

"Well, AnnaBee, I did hear something by way of the grapevine that there was an investigation, but it was all so very hush-hush, I couldn't get any details. Have you spoken to Lieutenant Shannon?"

"Yes, I just came from there before supper, and got literally no info from him, just a caution to visit Lucy as often as I could without stirrin' up any suspicion, and kinda find out anything I could about what goes on inside the place. It certainly has my curiousity workin' overtime, and as you know, it's bad enough on it's own. Ha."

"That is for sure, AnnaBee. Just you both be careful, and when you find out anything at all, tell the Lieutenant right away instead of investigating to find out more. You don't want to put Lucy in danger."

"Okay, Pastor Joe. One more thing I wanted to talk to you about, but I hate to be layin' my troubles on you. I think there is somethin' fishy goin' on down at the auto repair shop. I came across a bill of lading for a shipment sent to Mexico, and I had never seen one before. I went ahead and recorded it in the account books I keep for Hank. Later he was lookin' everywhere for it, and I gave it to him. I had made a file for it, and he nearly had a dyin' duck fit. He told me that it was a new account, but that he would be keepin' track of any bills that came in pertainin' to it. So, I thought that sounded mighty suspicious. While he was out today, I got a look in his locked lower desk drawer and saw a set of account books, but I didn't have time to look inside them before he got back."

"Oh, oh, that doesn't sound good, AnnaBelle, not good at all! You have something planned, don't you?  What are you up to, anyway?"

"Well, I thought I might could get another look at them some night when no one is there. I know Jackie is the nighttime watchman, but I'm not sure when he goes back to keep watch, and I'm not sure when Hank and his boys lock up and leave. I'm plannin' on jist goin' down tonight and observe. I know how ta keep outta sight, havin' lived on the streets for so long. It's not too awf'ly cool at night yet, and Clancy and I will jist watch tonight and not do anything. Gotta scout out the situation first, don't cha know? Then I'll  know when I have a chance to get a look at the books he keeps. Also, I'll get a look at the files he keeps locked in one of the file cabinets. I'll jist bet he's a crook and up ta no good!"

"AnnaBelle, you're like the cat that just can't keep away from trouble. Your curiosity is going to get the best of you someday. Please be extra careful! I can't afford to lose good friends like you."

"Oh, believe me, I will be careful. Careful is my middle name, don't cha know?"

Little did I know the trouble I was headed for sooner or later.

Looking outside, I saw the evening shadows getting longer and knew it would soon be darktime. I used the bathroom facilities one last time, held Clancy up to the basin so he could get a drink of water from my hand, and then we were on our way out. I had pulled my coat out of my cart and donned it, in preparation for our long night's vigil outside the Jones Body and Repair Shop. It was a pretty good walk to the shop from the Mission, so Clancy and I still had a little bit of daylight to make our journey.

If I hadn't spent so many nights on these familiar streets it might have felt kind of creepy walking along them this particular evening, but it was all familiar territory and I felt no fright at all. 

A gang of boys came along, hooting at one another and just generally having a good time. They took no notice of me; I was just another street person on her way to find a place to spend the night. Anyhow, I kept close to the buildings to stay out of their way, just in case they decided to "have some fun" with a bag lady. Clancy was riding in my cart, as he often did at night. He could get out when we reached our destination; keeping watch for trouble was part of his job.

By dark we had reached the building across the street from the repair shop and we walked quietly over to the shop. There was no obvious light showing from the windows, and I decided to walk around to the back, taking my cart with me as I went. Darn! I just noticed that squeaky wheel on my cart; it was getting louder! I parked it near one of the windows, lifted Clancy out, placing him on the ground, and went on around the building to where the bay doors were located. 

Wait a minute. I saw a flickering light through the crack in the bay doors...that meant someone was in there. Who was it? What were they doing? The hours written on the sign in front were 8 to 6 and it was after six p.m. Were the boys working in there past hours? Ha! Not them; they were so lazy that dead flies wouldn't fall off them. They didn't like to work during the daytime, much less at 7:30 in the evening. Who was it, anyway?

This called for a little closer investigation. Wait! Now I could hear a banging like metal hitting the floor. What was happening in there? I ran to one of the windows where there was a dumpster against the building. Quietly rummaging around, I was looking for a crate or something to stand on to get up on top of  the dumpster. Clancy sat on the ground watching me. The full moon overhead gave plenty of light for me to see him and everything around me. 

After finding a crate in the rubbish around the dumpster and placing it just so, I climbed onto it, then on to the dumpster. The slant of the dumpster lid made my progress slightly difficult, but I finally made it to the flat part at the back of it and looked into the window. I looked down at Clancy and whispered, "Boy, you'll never believe what I'm looking at!" as though he could understand me.
When I looked into the window, I could see four men gathered around an open car trunk. The lining had been removed and the wheel, also, along with the jack and any other tools that were in it. I quickly identified the four men standing around it looking at something inside the cavity of the trunk. Another man that I didn't know was standing off to the side, smoking a cigar, and keeping an eye on the men standing around the car. There was only a small light burning in the bay, apparently so as not to call attention to the fact someone was in the building. 

As I watched, Hank Jones pulled a white package from the trunk and, pulling a knife from his pocket, opened the knife and punctured the package with the tip of a blade. He rubbed a fore finger over the blade and then tasted his finger. How very odd! Why would he do that? Ah! That is what I had seen done in a movie when someone was buying drugs! He was holding a package of drugs in his hand. Heroin? Oh, my land, no! And here we were, Jack and I, working for a man who is involved in drugs. 

There was Jack, standing down there, right in the middle of it. Had he gone bad? My Jackie Boy? Oh, no, no! I was so upset that I forgot I was standing on the dumpster and leaned back, losing my balance, and before I knew it, I was falling, thumpety, thumpety, thump, bouncing on the dumpster lid and hitting the ground. That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up inside the garage, with my hands bound and my mouth taped. 

The look on Jack's face when I came to was a look of utter despair and dismay. It was as if he were saying, "AnnaBelle, what have you done now?" but he didn't say anything to me. 

Instead, he turned to his Uncle Hank, asking, "Now what, Uncle Hank? What are we going to do with her? We can't let her go to the police, but I don't want to hurt her either."

"Ah, don't worry none, son. We'll see to her, don't you be worrying your head none about it. Right now, we're more concerned about our deal. Since our delivery was earlier than we expected, I had to call our customer and he is going to be along in a few hours. He is on duty right now, and can't get away till around eleven. In the meantime, why don't you go fix us up some coffee while we wait."

"Okay, Uncle Hank, will do." Taking another worried look in my direction, Jack left to do his uncle's bidding. Mickey and Mike were joking around with one another about what a yokel Jack was. Their dad told them to shut their mouths, that at least Jack knew how to obey orders. 

I looked over at the stranger, who looked to me like a very tough individual who would brook no smart mouthed men like Mike and Mickey. I gave him the once over. I had not heard him say anything at all. He stood looking at me, sneering. He wore a pair of jeans and sweat shirt, and a bandana around his head. An earring and some chains completed his manner of clothing, of course, except for the expensive docker shoes he wore. Oh, and yes, he was Hispanic, and I gathered was from Mexico or some South American country originally. 

Jack was gone for some time, but came back with a pot of coffee and some cups. He seemed a little calmer when he came back from the area where he had made the coffee. I knew I was still sweating, wondering what was going to happen to me, and how my Jackie had gone over to the other side, so to speak. I was also wondering what had happened to Clancy. Had they hurt him?  Man, I was sure in some pickle, now, for sure!
Sitting there on the floor of the garage, I had time to think about the four "S's" I was feeling: sad, stupid, sore, and scared. Sad, because I knew this could be curtains for me; stupid for forgetting I was on top of the dumpster and getting caught; sore, because the lump on my head was hurting, along with my shoulders and back where I had hit the gravels in the alleyway; and scared because I couldn't think how I was going to get out of this Situation (the fifth "S").

Another thing bothered me, too, besides wondering where Clancy was, and that was about Jack. How could he have gone over to the "dark side" with his uncle and cousins? How could he? I just didn't get it? Was it because he felt he needed money? Had he been tricked into it? What had happened to him, anyway? I had to know the answers to those questions before I went on to meet my Maker, but, of course, I couldn't ask right now, because of the duct tape covering my mouth. I did know one thing that I could do, though, so I did it.

I began praying with all my might (I should have done that before getting up on the dumpster, I know, but as they say, 'hind sight is always better than foresight, don't cha know?') I'm not telling you what I prayed, cause that was private between me and the Lord, but I can tell you that I was believing that I was going to get out of that situation alive, cause I know the Lord delivers us from evil, one way or the other. If we trust in Him, that is, and I was trying might hard to be trusting. 

I watched the men standing around talking, and heard the fellow with the bandanna take out his gun and tell them in broken English that he was not waiting much longer. If their contact was not there soon, he was going to take the 'stuff' and head back to where he came from. Upon hearing that Hank left the room and soon came back telling him that the contact would be there within the hour. 

Hank asked if anyone wanted any more coffee or sandwiches while they were waiting, and was going to send Jack for them if they did. But they all replied in the negative, so Jack, who had arisen at Hank's words, sat back down and looked over at me. 

I wondered just what was going on in that head of Jack's, but had no clue. I couldn't think beyond right now, of course; just wondered what Hank's plans were for me after the deal went down. 

Within the hour, four rapid knocks followed by silence and one more knock sounded on the bay doors to the outside. Mike opened the door and in stepped an almost familiar figure. Hey! I had seen that fellow sometime in the not too distant past, but where? Where had I seen him? Was it at the Mission? Or on the streets? I would keep thinking about it. After all, that was all I could do right now, was think.  

He spoke to them in a very low tone and looked over at me. I could see the surprised look of recognition on his face. Who was he? I never forgot a face, but sometimes it took me awhile to remember where I had seen it. Wherever I had seen him, he had seen and noted my presence as well. Well, it would come to me, I was sure.

The stranger turned to them then and said, "You know you're going to have to get rid of her. We can't have our operations jeopardized like this. My boss will insist you make that old bag lady disappear."

"Don't worry your head none about that old nosy biddy, we're gonna take care of her, ain't we, Jackie Boy?" replied Mikey. 

As I watched them in the dim light, I could see the color draining from Jack's face. He didn't want anything to happen to me, I could tell. But then, he might not have any choice when it came down to it. He might die in the process of protecting me. Who knew what might happen? I certainly didn't. Now what? 

There was a scratching sound at the bay doors to the garage, followed by a whimper, then a bark. Of course, it was Clancy, trying to get in to me. I was overjoyed because, of course, I had no idea what had happened to him.

"I thought you took care of that mutt, Mikey!" exclaimed Hank.

"Yeah, I gave him a hard enough kick to land him in Never Never Land. I thought he was going to tear my leg off when we were picking up the old lady to bring her inside."

"Hah! Good boy, Clancy!" I was thinking, along with murderous thoughts about Mikey, wishing my hands were free. I would do my best to incapacitate him, for sure, if only I could get in the position to do so. 

"Well, he's going to bring attention to our little deal that's going on in here unless you do something permanent about him. At least bring him in here and let him close to the old lady, she'll keep him quiet if she don't want nothin' happenin' to him."

Mikey opened the bay door slightly and Clancy rushed in, running over to me and licking my face. He jumped up into my lap and sniffed at the tape over my mouth. He took the end of the tape in his mouth and began pulling at it. Ha! Some smart dog he was, for sure!

Ah! Now I could get a good breath, and I could also speak my mind once again, but I thought for the time being that, considering my situation, I'd be smart and keep it shut. I would just continue to keep my eyes open and watch the drama that was playing out in front of me. Clancy sat in my lap, satisfied that I was okay. I looked down and saw blood on his shoulder where Mikey had kicked him. I'd love to kick Mikey and fix him good and proper, but that would have to wait until I was in a better situation to do so. 

The man who came in to pick up the drugs had brought a bag of money with him, because they were counting it out, and dividing it up between the Joneses and the Hispanic tough guy. Then I remembered where I had seen the man with the money. He was the guard at the Sunny Bright Kindergarten! I looked at him, just as he was turning to pick up the drugs, and he knew I had recognized him. 

"The old broad has to go. She knows too much. I don't care how you do it, but you gotta get rid of her, now, tonight! The boss won't like having any loose ends, and she is definitely a loose end."

"Don't you worry none, Soames. I done got plans fer her. Now you best be on your way, and we'll see you next month, like usual," Hank replied. "Okay, boys, put our cash into the safe, and Hector here can take his and go. We'll see you next month, too, Hector. Don't worry about the old lady, we'll see to her."

"No, Senòr, I will go with you and be sure. I don't trust you gringos. I am ready to go and make sure. Let's get her into the car, along with the dog and get rid of it, too. We leave no evidence behind. It is my neck on the chopping block as well."

Mickey pulled me to my feet and hustled me into a van, along with Clancy. Then he and Mikey got in along with Hector, who was holding a gun on me. Last of all, Hank told Jack to open the bay doors, and then to close them after he drove out, and to climb into the passenger seat. 

"Where are you taking me? I won't tell anything, I promise. Mum's the word, my lips are zipped." Internally, I was saying my prayers, and knowing my time had most certainly come now for sure. 

Jack did as he was told and soon we were driving away.

In the distance I could hear a police siren. Wow! If they were coming our way, maybe I could somehow signal them, but how? I could hear the chatter of a radio in the van, and wondered about the strange noise coming from it. It sounded like static, followed by a few words, then more static. What kind of a radio made that kind of noises?

"Hey, Pop! That sounds like there's been a bomb go off somewhere in the city. They're calling for all available units. Ha! That'll keep the cops busy for awhile, and out of our hair while we take care of this nosy old witch. I get tired of her critical looks at us, like we was so much filth under her feet." This came from Mikey. Who knew he felt like that? He certainly was good at hiding his thoughts. I never realized I was looking at them that way. I certainly didn't like the way they treated Jack, their own cousin.

Then I got to thinking about my own situation. Mikey sounded like he'd like to pull the trigger to put me away. Where were they taking me, anyway? It looked like we were headed out of town. 

"Where are we going? Where are you taking me and why?"

"Ah, don't you  worry your old head none about where we're going," replied Mickey. "We're just goin' ta put you outta your misery, kinda neat like. Didja ever go huntin'? It's lotsa fun. Haw, haw!"

I had heard them talking about hunting one day. I knew they had a hunting cabin out in the wilderness, so I guessed that was where they were taking me. They would probably bury my body where it could never be found. 

Now what? No more Lucy Mae, no more Pastor Joe, no more Lieutenant Shannon - they would all be a thing of the past. I could feel the tears slipping down my face. No more Jackie- had he really gone over to the enemy? What about my little Clancy- would they kill him, too? Or would they let him go, because after all, he was just a little dog and didn't deserve death either. 

Man, I could feel the sweat dripping down my backbone, and down my chest. I was really feeling desperate and couldn't think of any way I was going to get out of this fix. After about an hour, (I guessed at the time), we were deep into the woods and I had no idea of where we actually were, the van stopped and we all got out. I had to have assistance, since my hands were still taped, and so Mikey lifted me to the ground, with Hector still holding the gun on me. 

In the headlights of  the van I could see the outline of a small cabin.
Hector pushed me inside and Hank lit a lantern, placing it in the middle of a wooden table. Mikey, Mickey, and Jack came in and kind of stood around like they were waiting for instructions. I sat down in one of the chairs at the table.

"Okay, boys, we're going to have a hunting party. First thing we gonna do is have us a little celebratory toast! Mickey, go over to our bar and get out the glasses and bourbon. We're gonna toast our business success. We've entered the big time tonight with our new business partners. Sorry, Mz. Calhoun, but you don't get no booze, cause you ain't gonna be around long enough to enjoy it." Hank got right down into my face, leering at me. 

I was busy thinking, wondering if there was any way I could escape from these jerks. I tried to catch Jack's attention, but he wasn't looking in my direction.

I noticed that when Hank poured Jack a slug of booze, he refused at first, until Hank forced it on him. However, Jack just kind of nursed it, only pretending to drink it. As I watched, he poured it little by little down the cracks in the rough flooring while no one was looking. Then he spoke to Hank.

"No more, Uncle Hank. I won't be able to stand up if I drink any more, and I don't want to miss any of the fun."

Well, that was my first inkling that Jack was not on board with the events taking place, so that gave me a bit of hope. I should have had more confidence in my young friend. 

The others drank for another thirty minutes, and were getting pretty sloshed. 

"Hey, boys, how about a good old fashioned hunt? We don't got any deer to hunt, since the season ain't open yet, but how about hunting some AnnaBelle? Yeah, that's a good idea; let's see how far she can run in thirty minutes, or even forty-five minutes...then we'll let her little dog find her. He knows her scent real good. It's a full moon tonight, so we're giving her a sportin' chance. Hey???" 

Hank went over to a locked chest and took out four scoped rifles and passed them out to Jack, Mikey, Mickey, and kept one for himself. He told Hector that since he already had a good pea-shooter, he could use that one.

Now I really was sweating, praying harder than I ever had in my life before. I was tired from the sitting so long, and from having my hands bound. I spoke up.

"At least, would you please remove the tape from my hands, so I can get some circulation going in them?"

"Sure, we'll even give you a few minutes to stretch. We aim to give you every chance possible to get away. It'll make it more sportin' for us," grinned Hank. "Have another drink, boys, while Mz. AnnaBelle stretches and gets ready to run!"

That fifteen minutes seemed to pass faster than it ever had before in my life. Then it was time for me to take off running.  

I reached down and picked up Clancy, giving him a hug that near about squeezed the life out of him and kissed him, while the tears rolled down my face. "Good-bye, boy! I love you." Then Hank picked him up to keep him from following me and I took off running through the woods. Looking back, I saw Hank and his sons lift their rifles and shoot them into the air!

The race was on...

It didn't take very long for me to run out of breath, besides the fact that I was literally scared out of my mind and that took my breath as well. Knowing I couldn't last long at this pace, I slowed myself and looked around. I had grown up in a wooded area, and knew quite a bit about survival in the woods. In fact, I had grown up not far from the town where I had lived all my life. 

I had no idea of the direction in which we had come from town tonight. I began looking in earnest at my surroundings, searching for what could be a familiar landmark that could indicate where I was. In the bright patches of moonlight, it was not difficult to see some of the landscape. Somehow, though, nothing looked really familiar, so I picked up my pace again and ran for all I was worth, which at that time didn't seem to be much. 

Thinking about the whole situation, I knew there was little hope of a rescue. I was on my own and therefore, all my skills and abilities were going to be needed. I didn't know if Jack would be able to help me at all. He did have a rifle, though, and maybe he would use it to our advantage. How could he have gotten involved with Hank's drug business? What could he have been thinking? Was he trying to get rich so he and his girl, Lily, could have some money to get married on? I thought his ideals were higher than that. All those thoughts were running through my mind, when I heard the sound of water flowing over rocks. 

Water! Goodness, but I could sure use a drink right now. My throat was dry and parched, and I didn't care if it was pure or not; I was thirsty and it sounded like a fountain of life to me. I ran over and knelt by the stream, cupping my hands to get a drink of water. I drank until my thirst was slaked, knowing I had to be on the run within seconds. Then I happened to remember reading that dogs couldn't pick up your scent if you ran through water, so I jumped into the stream and began running downstream for several minutes, looking for a good place to leave it. 

There! That looked like a good place, where the woods were dense, and it would be difficult to see where I had left the stream. The banks were a little higher here, and after I climbed out, I threw leaves down on the bank to cover where I had left the water. Perhaps they wouldn't be able to track me here. 

What an anomaly! Running away from my own dog! Who would ever have imagined such a thing? Certainly not I; it took a scheming mind like Hank's to think of it. He certainly wasn't as dumb as he looked. I took off running again, still looking around for any familiar landmarks. 

Then I saw it! The old farmhouse that sat in the distance seemed vaguely familiar to my remembrance. I believed I had seen it before, when my Billy and I were out driving around. In fact, if it was the same one, we had stopped nearby and had a picnic and walked around these very woods, exploring. I had to get closer, but the time was passing and I knew, before long, the five men would be coming after me. Their legs were longer and they were younger, thus able to move faster, besides the fact that they had guns and were ready to use them. 

It had been many years since I had been "in this neck of the woods", but I believed I could find what I was looking for if I had the time. That is, if it wasn't all grown over; I was going to search anyway. It wouldn't give me very long, but at least would be a respite, so that I could get some rest.

Wait! Was that rifles shooting off in the distance? I listened hard, my heart beating in my throat and throbbing in my ears. They had begun their search for me, and had followed me to the creek already. Should I climb one of the low-branched trees and hide it it? No, Clancy would get as far as the tree and sniff around the base of it and go no farther. Then I would be treed like a raccoon.  I couldn't do that. 

Frantically, I continued my search for the place I knew had to be nearby. My arms and legs were all scratched up and I knew I was leaving a trail through the low brush that, even without my Clancy, they would be able to follow. Panic filled me; my legs were shaking, my heart pounding, and I almost fell several times in my wild-eyed search for safety. 

A snake slithered over my foot and I nearly screamed. I did gasp quite loudly, but continued on in my search. I sounded like a buffalo thrashing through all the underbrush, but I had to find what I was searching for. I knew it had to be somewhere close. Trying to think back to that day Billy and I had picnicked, I closed my eyes and stopped moving. 

"Think, Annie, think," I said to myself. Then I heard the rifles and voices. They were closer. Hideous laughter rang out through the trees, drunken taunts, and the barking of my little Clancy, hot on my trail.

"Hah! We've about caught up to ya, old lady! Ya better be sayin' yer  'holier than thou' prayers', cause we've jist about gotcha! Haw, haw, haw!" This must have come from either Mikey or Mickey; they both sounded just alike. Then I heard the firing of the rifles again. Maybe they would run out of ammunition, but I knew that was not likely. 

Just then, I saw the huge boulder I had been looking for. It was unmistakable in its size. I knew then that the hiding place I had been searching for was nearby. It would buy me some time, perhaps. 

There was quite a bit of dirt surrounding my hiding place, so grabbed a branch and ran it back and forth over the dirt as I walked backwards toward the place I was headed. I knew now exactly where I was. My old memories had kicked in, and perhaps I would be safe for awhile. In case you are wondering why I swished the dirt around, that was to destroy or scatter the scent into all directions. I didn't know if it would work or not, but I had to try. 

I turned around once more to be sure I was heading in the right direction. Yes! There it was! Carefully swishing the dirt, and trying not to stir up a cloud of it, I moved the branches of the huge bush enough to get behind it and entered the cave. Hopefully, they didn't know about the cave, because it was well-hidden. I pulled as much brush as I could up against the opening and hoped there was no other creature occupying it with me. That is, other than maybe a few spiders and such. Then I sat and waited, praying and listening.

It wasn't long before they came closer. I could hear little Clancy snuffling around, not very far from the cave. Somehow, in spite of my precautions, they found the opening to the cave, and I was discovered. They dragged me out, and Clancy ran up to me, jumping around, trying to get to me, but Hank had other plans.

"Okay, Jackie Boy, we're gonna let you do the honors, just to prove you're really one of us.  We're gonna tie her to one of those trees, and that way you can't miss her. Then we'll just hide her body in the cave and nobody'll ever find her.

Jack was in between a rock and a hard place. I knew he didn't have it in him to kill me, but they all had guns trained on him. What was he to do? He was turning to speak to Hank.
  
Then I heard another sound, a 'whap-whap-whapping' sound. What was it? What?  Then all around us, there was a bright light and it wasn't the moon. There was a big helicopter overhead, circling us. 

All at once, out of the bushes came a SWAT team. Apparently they had been following the hunters, waiting for an opportune time to arrest them.

Then a loud voice saying, "All right, fellows! Put down your weapons! You're all under arrest! Lie down! Lie down! Hands over your heads! Don't make a move, or you're dead!" Needless to say, they all complied.
  
I had been rescued! I leaned down to pick up Clancy, and I fainted.
When I once again opened my eyes, I was sitting against a tree and Clancy was licking my face. Jack was kneeling beside me, rubbing my hands, and asking if I was okay. 

"What happened? Where am I?"

Then it came slowly back to me, when I felt all the scratches on my arms hurting me. I couldn't believe it! I had survived, after all. And Jack was not a criminal, either. He had been trying to look out for me as much as he could. I thought for sure I was a goner, when I was dragged out of that cave.

"AnnieBee, I'm so glad you're okay. I was so worried when we were chasing behind you in the woods. I kept dragging back as much as I could, hoping to delay them, but it was no use. They were determined to get you and shoot you. I was praying the whole time, wanting you to escape, and them to get caught, somehow. Then, when Hank told me I had to shoot you, I thought I would faint myself."

I looked up to see the SWAT team taking the men away through the woods, and then I saw Lieutenant Shannon heading my way. Apparently he must have been in the helicopter that had landed in a clearing near the old farmhouse I had seen in the distance. 

He came up to me and squatted down to talk to me. Shaking his head, and tsk-tsking, he asked, "Can't you stay out of trouble for just a little while? It seems all my men are kept busy rescuing you from danger. When I promised Billy Calhoun that I'd watch out for you, little did I dream it would be such a job! What are we going to do with you, anyway?"

Then he reached over and pulled me to my feet, giving me a bear hug, and squooshing Clancy between us. 

"Why,  Looie, how you do carry on!"  I replied, like any Southern Belle would, tapping his arm lightly. Then I hugged him back, glad to be alive, and thankful that he was looking out for me.

"How did you find us, anyway?" I continued.

"Well, we had intended to be on hand when the deal for the drugs went down at midnight, but the time moved up when the dealer came to pick them up earlier. Jack had contacted us that the deal had been moved up an hour earlier to eleven p.m. Then it was moved up even earlier, so that we missed the connection. About that time, we were called to another part of town when a bomb exploded in a bank. Every available unit was called and we were distracted by that."

"How did you know where we were? How did you track us?" I wanted to know. "We wound up at Hank's cabin in the woods. Did you know about his cabin?"

"Yes, we knew it was a possibility he had taken you all there."

"Wait a minute! How did you even know I was with them?" I wanted to know.

"Ah, we found your cart next to one of the windows at the side of the building. When we went in, we saw the tape that apparently had been used for something not related to the business. It just stood to reason that you had been there poking your nose into things."

"Okay, I understand how you found the cabin, and all, but how did you track us to the cave area?"

"A simple little gadget called GPS that we had installed in one of Jack's shoe heels, unbeknownst to him, so that he could just act natural and not give anything away by looking for us." It seemed the Lieutenant had covered all bases. 

He  continued, "Our SWAT team is trained to follow through dense woods to any location, so we had you all in sight. We just needed to wait until they had you in their sights and actually threatened your life, then we had them on charges of attempted murder. We also have them on charges of receiving and resale of unlawful drugs. When we broke into the auto shop, we found evidence of the heroin in the trunk of the car."

"What about the guy that came and picked up the drugs earlier than you expected him to come?" I wanted to know.

"Well, we don't know who it is yet. Hank and his boys are not talking or admitting to anything. They lawyered up as soon as we let them say anything. The guy named Hector was admitting to nothing, as well," replied Lieutenant Shannon

"I can tell you who he is," I exclaimed. "I remember seeing him at that fancy kindergarten. He's the security guard that works there. He kept talkin' about 'the boss'. I'll bet anything it is the old lady that runs the school. She certainly seemed to have a connection with the seamier side of life. She talked about livin' on the streets at one time. Ya know, not everybody that lives on the streets is honest like me and my friends."

"How would they be passing the drugs out to customers? Do you have any ideas on that?" inquired the Looie. 

"Well, yeah, I had some time to think about it while I was sittin' on the floor in Hank's garage, all bound up like a sausage, waitin' ta be grilled on a spit. I figured maybe he was handin' the stuff off to the drivers that was bringin' the little kids to school. They would get outta the cars and take the kid by the hand and walk  'em up to the guard and hand 'em over to him. He could just as easily slip the drivers a package of drugs without anyone suspectin' anything. Then the drivers could deliver the money they had collected at the end of the day when they picked up the kids, the same way."

"AnnaBelle, you are one clever lady! I'm sure glad you're on the side of the law instead of on the other side. You would be a formidable foe. We will certainly investigate your idea and wait to pick him up. We will need to keep the men we arrested in isolation so that they can't contact the guard or Mrs. Wilson. We also have to keep this bust out of the newspapers. Nobody knows about it yet. We need to catch him red-handed. I knew there was something about that kindergarten being involved in the drug trade, but wasn't able to prove it. Now we've got a definite connection to trace. 

Now, let's get you  back to town. You and Jack and Clancy are going to have a ride on the helicopter. How would you like that? We need to get you checked out at the hospital. I understand you had a bad bump on your noggin' and we need to get all those scratches on your face, arms and legs doctored up."

"Sure thing, Looie! I'd never pass up a chance to ride in a whirly bird, don't cha know? Say, we need to get Lucy outta there before you start raidin' the kindergarten, don't we?"

"I'll make sure she doesn't get caught in any crossfire, AnnieBee! We will do all this very quietly, and she won't be in any danger. We are going to put the place under surveillance so that we can catch him in the act."

Knowing the security guard and what he was involved in didn't assure me any at all. I was still worried about the safety of my friend. The people she was surrounded by right now were some of the dregs of humankind, and she wouldn't be safe until they were in custody and she was out of their reach. 

I wouldn't rest easy until she was out of there, and the awful thing was, she didn't even have any idea what was going on. She thought she had landed in a flower garden, but I knew it was full of stinkweed. How long before we could get her out?