Authors: Wanda Degolier
Mustard on Top
Mustard on Top
A Books to Go Now Publication
Books to Go Now
For information on the cover illustration and design, contact [email protected]
First eBook Edition –September 2012
Warning: the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously.
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Look for Wanda DeGolier’s
The Secret Portal
The Magic Pearl
Helen had just balanced the cutting board on the pot’s edge, when a brief, loud buzz interrupted her thoughts. Her doorbell.
“Theo! Can you get that?” She swiped chopped parsley into the pot and peered at a series of bottled food additives she’d recently purchased. She picked one up labeled
Her introduction to the additives came from her the college chemistry class she was taking. As soon as she’d learned about the flavorings, she couldn’t wait to experiment. She twisted the bottle open, and a cinnamon scent with a hint of curry wafted out. She tapped a few drops into the sizzling concoction. She picked up the spoon then nearly dropped it when a longer, more insistent buzz startled her. Abandoning her creation, Helen rinsed her hands.
“Theo!” Her seventeen-year-old son was likely in the garage working on his non-running, vintage Corvette.
She grabbed a dishtowel on her way to the front door. Once in the living room, she peeked through the picture window.
A tall, trim, broad-shouldered man with dark hair sprinkled through with gray stood on her front porch. If not for his rigid posture and frown, he could have graced the cover of a magazine. Based on the fit, Helen guessed he wore designer jeans. An unbuttoned, azure blue shirt over a white T-shirt contrasted nicely. Too good-looking and too well dressed to be anything but trouble, Helen braced herself and opened the door. “Can I help you?”
His gaze sauntered from her hair to her chin, then back to her nose before settling on her eyes. Helen’s heart raced as apprehension crept over her.
She studied him. Somewhere in the recesses of her memory the man before her lurked. “Who are you?”
That was it! The thrill of discovery was short-lived. The last time she’d seen Ben was eighteen years earlier, the night she’d told him she was pregnant with his child. Helen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “You’re late.”
“Can we talk?”
Anger that had long ago been packed and put into storage worked its way to the surface. Helen jammed her clenched fist against one hip. “What do you want?”
“To explain. Maybe meet—”
Helen cocked an eyebrow. If he said ‘Theo,’ she’d punch him.
Ben seemed to sense her angst because he backtracked. “I want to explain what happened. Just talk,” he said, splaying his hands out before him in a silent plea.
Helen considered. Not wanting Theo to wander from the garage and run into the father who’d abandoned him, she said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
Ben stepped off the porch onto the narrow slip of cracked concrete that ran through her postage-stamp, weed-prone yard to the sidewalk. He’d filled out since she’d last seen him, or perhaps she’d conveniently forgotten his powerful build. He looked as though he spent hours in the gym. The idea he had time to sculpt his body annoyed her.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Helen hurried past. A navy-blue BMW with Illinois plates was parked at the curb. The car looked out of place among the tiny, single-story homes in her post-WWII neighborhood where tall trees lined the pot-holed streets.
She figured the fancy car cost more than her home. Not caring that Ben trailed, she headed away from the house toward a small park. Ben caught up then matched her steps. “You came here to talk. Talk,” she said.
When Ben glanced back at the house, Helen did too. Where she saw a home, bought and paid for, she assumed he saw a pocked roof and peeling paint. Helen quickened her stride.
The setting sun made everything look neon. Soon the light would fade, and they’d be cloaked in darkness.
“Did you got the money I sent?” Ben asked.
Helen guffawed. Over the years, she’d pondered the one-time payment of $245, and had concluded the money had been meant for an abortion. She’d received the whopping sum a month before her mother, who’d also favored abortion, kicked her out of the house. Six months later, her mom, ashamed of her daughter’s status, moved to Florida. How long had it been since she’d thought about that? “Oh yeah. Thank you.” Sugarcoated cow dung.
Ben remained quiet, and Helen fought the urge to apologize. She wasn’t sarcastic by nature and wanted to soften the blow. They walked to the end of the block, and she turned at the corner. The park’s expanse of grass and tall shade trees came into view.
Finally, Ben spoke. “Five thousand a month. You got the money, right? I just want to confirm.”
Helen spun and faced him. “What are you talking about?”
“I sent you $5,000 a month for the past ten years. Before that, I sent less, just a couple of hundred in the beginning while I was in college, but I sent money every month. When I made more, I raised it. Tell me you got the money.”
He looked so distraught, Helen almost felt sorry for him.
Though she’d never been adept at detecting liars, she studied his face. Smirk free, he had at least two days’ beard growth. He looked older than his thirty-six years, and his deep-brown eyes held an unexpected depth. Worry lines creased his forehead.
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” she asked.
His nostrils flared as he inhaled. “I’ve been in a witness protection program. I wasn’t able to make direct contact with you.”
A headache had started behind Helen’s eyes and she squeezed the bridge of her nose. His showing up was—she pried the word from her mind—ridiculous. She walked again.
“So you honestly never received the money?”
“You are a broken record. Two hundred forty-five dollars. That’s what we got. You want it back?”
“That’s a relief.” She whirled away from him. They reached the park and rather than going to one of the benches or to the only picnic table, Helen scampered up the giant, wooden jungle gym and perched herself atop a platform, hoping to keep her distance.
To her dismay, Ben followed and sat next to her.
“You remember the day we talked? That last one when you came to my parents’ home,” he asked.
How could she forget the moment that had defined the course of her life? Abandoned by Ben and disowned by her mother, Helen had dropped out of high school to work full-time. “Yes.” She dragged the word out.
Ben continued, “After we talked, I went for a long drive to do some soul-searching.”
Soul-searching is a luxury afforded the rich
, Helen thought bitterly.
Ordinary people tuck their dreams in a corner of their hearts
. To do anything else was an exercise in futility. Helen held her thoughts and her tongue; the less she interrupted him, the sooner he’d be gone.
Ben wove her a tale. He’d stumbled into a major drug trade, he said, and had witnessed a murder. Helen’s heart remained cold as the sun descended. A streetlight came on encasing them in stretchy shadows. The shooter, Freckles, had evaded conviction for years because the trial witnesses tended to end up dead. Neat.
“Okay, good to know.” Helen hoped he was finished.
“I had no choice. I could stop this drug lord or let him keep delivering drugs to kids. And murdering,” Ben added. “They told me that he’d come after me whether I testified or not.”
“Okay. I got it.” Helen wanted to go back home and forget Ben had ever appeared. She didn’t care what his excuse was.
“Entering the Witness Protection Program sounded like an adventure at the time,” Ben said. He paused, and Helen glanced his way. He sat cross-legged and was hunched over staring down. His frown lengthened his entire face. “When they set me up at Purdue, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”
“Lucky you.” She tossed the words down a well of disappointment. Unable to attend a university herself, she’d scrimped for years saving for Theo’s college education. The kicker was, Theo insisted he didn’t want to go to college. Helen decided to lead by example and had enrolled at the local community college. The class choices were limited, and she could only earn and an associates degree, but they were inexpensive enough that she could afford to take one at a time without dipping into Theo’s nest egg.
“I sure felt lucky at the time. Lucky and scared,” Ben went on. “I didn’t stay at Purdue. They feared Freckles had learned my identity. Then I got shipped off to Massachusetts. Cambridge. New state. New name. Anyway, I attended four different universities before I got my law degree.”
Was she supposed to have empathy for him? “You’re an attorney?”
“Where do you live now?”
“Chicago. I’ve been there nine years, which is a record.”
“And you’re here to meet Theo?”
Ben swallowed. “Yes.”
Helen’s stomach twisted at hearing the confirmation. She worried how the news would affect Theo. “He thinks you’re dead.”
The week after she’d told Ben about her pregnancy, she’d gone by his house twice. Ben’s car, typically parked out front, had been missing. She’d assumed he’d left for college. She struggled with whether to tell his parents. Deciding she would, she went back a third time and found the home vacant and up for sale. The entire family had disappeared. After Theo had been born, she’d sent a letter to Ben in care of Florida State University. The letter was returned unopened and with no forwarding address.
When Theo inevitably asked about his dad, Helen opted to tell him his father had loved him mightily, but that he’d died. More questions prompted more lies. Theo’s father, loving but dead, had become Theo’s hero.
“He thinks your name is Harvey.”
Helen exhaled. She’d never dreamt she’d be repeating this to anyone. “I’d watched Harvey, the movie the night before Theo asked about you,” Helen admitted. “You know the movie with Jimmy Stewart and the giant invisible rabbit named Harvey?” At the time, it seemed fitting to name him after something invisible.
Ben stayed silence for several seconds. “I’m not blaming you for anything, but Theo deserves to know the truth.”
“Probably, but what makes you think showing up on our doorstep is the best way to go about it? What if Theo had answered the door?”
“I thought coming in person… would be best.”
“Seriously? Theo may be seventeen, but he’s still a kid. He deserves more forewarning.”
“I’m sorry.” Ben studied his hands.
“You’re going to be here how long?” Helen asked.
“I’m on a two-week vacation.”
“So you plan to flip his world upside down then leave?”
Ben paused. “We have to meet sometime. I’m ready now.”
“I’m so glad you’re ready.”
Ben’s chest rose and fell with each breath as if he’d just run a marathon. Even if he had valid reasons for what he’d done, they did nothing to calm Helen’s anxiety. “What prompted this little reunion?” Helen asked.
“Freckles died a couple of months ago. I finally thought it was safe enough to make an appearance.” He shook his head. “I’m ashamed for the way I acted, and I want to rectify it.”
Helen laughed more out of disbelief than humor. “Rectify? Now? He graduated from high school last month. You’re too late.”
Ben rubbed his hand across his chin. “I’m sorry for the way things worked out.”
“Worked out? Is that what you call it?”
Ben met her gaze. He had drooping brows and a mouth to match. Helen’s disgust didn’t stop her from noticing his rugged good looks. Life was unfair.
“Do your parents know about Theo?” she asked.
The air around her stilled as if awaiting his answer.
“My dad died not knowing,” Ben’s voice cracked. “I told my mom a few days before I came here. You don’t know how much I regret never telling my dad.”
Ben had denied Theo grandparents. Murky anger filled her. Theo had been a needy child. He’d had severe colic as a baby, and in school he’d struggled with learning. Helen had spent countless hours helping him, often frustrating them both to the point of tears. Theo would have benefitted from having another person’s assistance. Why had Ben kept Theo a secret? Her conclusion hit her.
“You’re ashamed,” she accused. “You’re ashamed of Theo. Why in the hell are you even here?” Her voice shook. She wanted to push him off the jungle gym, but her instincts kept her rooted. Theo would turn eighteen in a month, and she wouldn’t be able to keep Ben from seeing him then. The more information she had about Ben, the more she could help Theo cope.
“Ashamed? No. Not ashamed. I thought I was protecting my parents. Once you enter the Witness Protection Program, you’re cut off from your family. Period.” He spoke quickly as if reciting the fine print on a radio ad. “It’s the only way the marshals can keep the family members safe. Since I was an only child, my parents chose to enter the program with me.” He paused. “Besides, at the time I wasn’t sure you were going to keep—”
“What’s the point of even saying that?”
Ben sighed. “I meant at the time. I had to make the decision whether I should enter the program and whether to tell my parents. I was eighteen, stupid, worried, and scared. I didn’t want to lose my parents. If I could, I would change everything.”
Helen scowled. “What are you hoping to gain from meeting Theo?”
His answer took her aback. When she’d thought of him over the years, she’d assumed he had it all. Men like Ben Smiley had careers, not jobs; BMW’s, not economy cars; kids in private school, not public. He’d have a mistress and a beautiful, doting wife. The Ben Smileys of the world didn’t pine for anything.
“You don’t have other children?”
Ben pursed his lips. “I couldn’t bring anyone into my mess. I’ve had four identities and have had to move all over the place. The guy I helped to put away was like… Al Capone. He had a long reach.”
Helen wondered if he’d forsaken marriage too. He wasn’t wearing a band, but that didn’t mean much. She looked toward the sliver of white left by the setting sun. The disappearing light reminded her of Ben. He’d been a bright spot in her life once, but had faded too. The difference was the sun reappeared every day, not once every other decade.
“I’m sorry—” Ben began, but Helen lifted a hand to stop him. His apology didn’t change the fact Theo’s world was about to be shattered.
A piercing siren cut the air. The sound grew louder and was accompanied by more screeching from emergency vehicles. Belatedly, Helen remembered leaving food cooking on her stove. “Oh crap.”
She slid down the slide and ran. She smelled smoke. By the time she exited the park, two fire trucks had whizzed by. When she turned the corner onto her street, gray smoke was billowing above her house. As she drew near, she heard crackling. Then bright orange-and-yellow flames broke through her roof and began dancing atop the house.
People were everywhere. A steady hum of voices was accented by the occasional crackle as the fire gorged itself. The scene faded into a clamorous, black, yellow, and gray smear as Helen’s fear grew. She couldn’t find Theo.
Wound like a spring and ready to charge into the house if he didn’t appear, she shouted, “Theo!”
Helen spun and spotted him near a fire truck.