Answers My challenge of the day was moving through Paris undetected. I rolled my hair into a bun and wore a floppy dark green hat with a short brim over it. To further my disguise I considered wearing heavy makeup, using bold chunks of color, but feared it would bring too much unwanted attention. I needed to blend, not stand out, so I settled for no makeup. I arrived at the airport and boarded the plane without one paparazzo chasing after me and snapping pictures. Security had been an ordeal when I showed the security agent my ID - he asked for an autograph. I leaned towards him and asked him to keep it quiet, then I signed my John Hancock, or rather Justine’s. On the second flight into the U.S. a fellow passenger of male persuasion shouted, “Hey, you’re Justine Holmes.” Thank my goodies most passengers were sleeping. I looked him square in the eye and said, “Nope, but thank you for the comparison.” Baffled, he scrunched his brows and pinched his lips. I ignored him and he went away. The next forty-eight hours I attempted to stay hidden, with a book in front of my face, in the most vacated areas of the airport. I purchased a last minute flight taking me from Paris to Berlin then to Chicago. When I landed in Chicago I wasted no time in changing my appearance and identity. I stopped at a twenty-four hour drug store and purchased blond hair coloring and strange glasses. The glasses had thin round gold frames with tinted lenses to dull my eye color. They looked like reading glasses, but the lenses lacked magnification. I checked into a low budget motel using cash under an assumed name. I didn’t want to leave a trail. In my room I pulled an old pair of scissors I found during my dumpster diving days out of my backpack and cut my hair, which reached to my waist. After I finished chopping, it reached to the bottom of my neck, just above my shoulders. I brushed out my hair and turned my head upside down to cut leaving it with short layers. Next, I bleached it turning it an orangey yellow. I didn’t look like Justine anymore. Mission accomplished. I sat on my bed plotting out my next move and contacted my friend James, hoping to gain yet another ID, and catch up on his and LulaBell’s lives. Luckily, he still lived in the motel, hiding out, using code I explained what I needed, he seemed to understand. “Got it! See you in a few days sweetie.” I planned on paying him generously for his assistance. Happy with my appearance, I left. The next few days I spent weaving around the country on busses until I reached my location. It was strange being back where I lost my love Einstein. Fear and sadness welled up in my belly, but I needed to do this. I knocked on James’ door, he opened it wide, placed his large hands on my shoulders and widened his eyes scanning me head to toe with intensity. “Wow! You have changed. I saw your picture on a magazine one day and I thought, ‘I know that girl’. You’re stunning even with that tangerine hair.” “It looks like a straw mop, but I don’t look like the girl on that magazine do I?” “No, you do not!” He maneuvered his head back and forth as if to emphasis No. I followed him inside the room. “Justine’s disappearance is going to break many a young man’s heart,” he said with a softness in his eyes. The crow’s feet around them deeper and a few more wrinkles graced his forehead, but he still looked like James. He was the only person alive who understood anything about my woes. “They will have to miss her. Where is LulaBell?” “She is taking classes at the junior college. She should be home within the hour.” “College? She is only a couple years younger than me, but I can’t imagine her as old enough to of graduated.” “Dual enrollment, highschool classes along with college classes.” We spent the next couple hours waiting for LulaBell, catching up on our lives. I relayed my entire experience in Paris. How Halette stalked me and the nasty trick I played that started with a confrontation between her and I ending with her flipping over the railing, being carried off and thrown into a river by Mr. Dancy Eyes. I told him about Didier and leaving him at the altar because I was afraid the police would find Halette’s body and trace it back to me which was partly true. I figured if I couldn’t trust the man who made me a new ID every time I called, who could I trust? With all I confided in him, somehow I still refused to discuss my search for the truth behind my birth and “kidnapping”. The words in my mom’s letter, Don’t ever let them find ya. They won’t hestate to kill ya, pounded in my head forcing my brain to resist any efforts to seek another soul’s help in my search. However he proved a good, confidential friend, and I needed to get most of the craziness and secrecy off my chest. He listened as I poured out my heart, once again I cried in his comforting arms. He said that Einstein’s death was a big thing. After I finished my crying bout, he handed me a beer, and we sat in the courtyard like old times. “It almost seems as though I never left,” I said, sitting across the table from him and feeling as though Einstein would at any moment walk up and plop in the seat beside me, planting a kiss upon my cheek. “Those were good times we had. Do you still cook?” “I haven’t much. There was no need Didier gave me everything. I miss it.” “You were some cook.” His voice reminded me of the best time in my life when Einstein and I made a life together. “I don’t want to bring up sad times for you, but how much did you learn of Einstein’s death?” “Only what I found online through papers. As much as it hurts, I want to know more.” “His family’s wealthy, rich people’s runaway children don’t turn up dead every day. When Einstein disappeared he was fifteen, at first the police suggested kidnapping, but no ransom request or any contact from the ‘would be’ kidnappers appeared. Their next possible scenario was abduction by a random pervert or killed and his body dumped. But his body never turned up anywhere. The police even suspected his parent’s, but with no body there was nothing for them to pursue. Last they deduced he ran away. His parents’ money and contacts made it impossible for the police and newspaper gossips to discover why.” I realized from personal experience now that money bought almost anything, even steel walls. “I am curious myself why Einstein ran away. He must’ve had everything. Why leave it?” I paused contemplating my words for a moment. “I had everything, and I ran away too. Money can buy a lot, but not happiness. I ran because I was in trouble, fear of a commitment to a man who really didn’t know me… I told myself it wasn’t fair to him. Maybe Einstein had been in trouble - something that money couldn’t fix. It makes sense how he moved through homes like a ghost, understood the basics of alarms, and robbed the home owners’ blind.” James changed the flow of the conversation. “It seems you lived a privileged life in Paris.” “Yeah… I’m exhausted and turning in for the night, tell LulaBell we’ll catch up later.” “Will do, night Cleo.” I paid cash up front for three days, figuring it would take at least that for my new ID to arrive. Every room looked similar and everything reminded me of Einstein, from the cheesy bed cover with vines patterned across it to the curtains. I flash-backed to the night we arrived here several years ago, how happy we both were with the simplicity of taking a hot shower. After years of living on the streets, jumping cities, stealing anything we could find of value and running innocentish scams on people to pickpocket their wallets, a hot shower and warm bed felt like a dream that night. My eyes filled with tears, I buried my head in a pillow crying myself to sleep. The following day I contemplated everything I learned and considered what I still needed to learn compiling a short list. My mom was obviously not my real mom, but I needed to understand who she was to find my biological family - who she was hiding from, and why Slug wanted to kill a baby? To move forward I needed to work backwards. It seemed that’s always what made sense. 1. find out about mom/ follow every lead 2. find real family/ be cautious 3. find out who wanted me dead/ be extremely cautious 4. Why did Einstein run?
My first order of business was to buy a cell phone equipped with internet and GPS with a pay-as-you-go plan. After doing so I found an internet coffee house. The unknown assailant murdered my mom at age thirty-five, which made her twenty-three when she acquired me. She wasn’t in with good people, she had survival skills and street smarts, but no formal education judging by her childlike spelling and penmanship. I deduced she ran away from home. Hundreds, thousands of children went missing daily, no shocker to me as I had fit that category myself. I didn’t know where she lived as a child. I searched and searched missing children assuming my mom ran away between the ages of thirteen to sixteen, scanning the three year window state to state. Nothing. Nothing fitting my mom; although I found strange, disturbing stories. In North Carolina I read about the discovery of a young woman who took a nasty spill down a mountain. Her clothing torn to shreds and her face, hands and legs bruised and bleeding. She lay in a hospital bed in a catatonic state. The police believed she witnessed a brutal murder across the street from her home. Although intriguing the story had nothing to do with my search. I clicked off the page getting back on track. The coffee house was closing. In the morning I’d get up early and visit the public library. At the library the next day, I again searched like a hound dog chasing a fox. My eyes went buggy from reading the computer screen, then something caught my eye. A young girl, fifteen, went missing at approximately the same year my mom would have turned fifteen. There was a picture, and the girl looked like a young version of my mom - freckles, long light hair, dark eyes, approximate weight 95 lbs., a height of five feet. Her name was Perdita Ferguson and her parents were Thane and Leila Ferguson. I pulled my tablet with questions out of my backpack, scribbled the information onto a blank paper inside and continued searching, looking for an address. I found one in Georgia. Her parents strange names made address finding possible, had they been Jane or John Smith’ I’d never found them. After three days, James produced my new identity. LulaBell, now a stunning, shapely young woman, and James transported me to the local bus station. My ID said I was twenty-one year old Shanna Nu. As I stepped out of the car I slipped him an envelope with a wad of cash. “It’s time for me to leave again. Thank you so much for your help and making me of legal drinking age.” I gave him a huge bear hug. The corners of his mouth turned upwards at the ends in a smile. “No problem, you find those answers. If you need help again, you know where to find me.” LulaBell stepped out of the truck, wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “Be careful, Cleo.” I wasn’t sure how much she understood about her father’s illegal dealings, although she wasn’t a young child anymore, I imagined she understood quite a bit. I entered the station catching the next bus to Allentown, Georgia. LulaBell’s words stuck with me during the ride. Be careful Cleo. If only she knew the half of it. I had money from my nest egg, and self-defense skills that already paid off in Paris. Armed for battle and ready to uncover the secrets to my existence I plotted my moves. How would I approach Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson? I couldn’t walk up to the Fergusons’ door and tell them about their missing child/child abductor/junkie/murdered daughter. This situation must be approached with care, maybe I’d stake-out their home for a couple days. That’s it! I had a kid’s play police badge from my dumpster diving days, but it looked real at a quick glance. I’d pretend to be a detective and with respect pick their brains. With that in mind, I got off at the next stop, bought a navy blue women’s suit, a white blouse, along with conservative heels and a flip pad and blue pen. I’d wrap my hair into a bun going heavy on the makeup to appear older.
Upon arrival in Dublin, Georgia - Allentown sat outside the city limits - the sun set as dusk settled. I checked into a motel for the night, stiff from the bus ride I perused the small city. My stomach gurgled nasty words, so I stopped at a bar and grill for dinner. As I ate, I reflected on how good it felt to be back in the States. In Paris I forgot how much I loved the U.S. and how vast its borders are, causing the perception I was looking for a needle in a haystack. A young man uninvited, sat in the booth across from me and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Bub Richards.” He extended his hand in greeting. I didn’t extend mine back. It floored me how he plopped into the booth like I invited him. He had soft blue eyes, chestnut wavy hair and a baby face - not too shabby to look at, but he had an awful lot of gall. “I’m leaving, nice to meet you, Bub.” I said standing up to leave. “You’re a dazzling beautiful woman and I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry.” A poor try to remediate his failed attempt. “Like I said, I’m leaving.” I slipped money to the server and walked out the door. No sooner did I walk out the door than I heard footsteps behind me. Fear surfaced inside me as the terrors of my past came rushing back. I slipped around the corner and waited. Soon enough, a form drew closer as I watched its shadow through the street lights glide across the pavement. I positioned myself and brought my leg out in front of me as the shadow person walked past my spot. This caused him to trip and fall flat on his face. Familiar tufts of chestnut hair crashed forward. “Bub? Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought maybe… nevermind. Why are you following me?” I offered my hand to help him up from the pavement. His nose was bloody. My self-defense skills affected people that way, I reflected, remembering when I threw Halette over my shoulder in Paris, twice. He took my hand and sheepishly said, “I just think you’re beautiful and wanted to know you better.” Ay yi yi, what was it with men? “OK, your nose is bleeding. I’ll buy you a drink.” A small pang of guilt crept into my soul. His face lit up and a huge smile creased his lips as blood trickled down his chin in a slow but steady stream. “That’d be nice.” I bought him a drink while the bartender readied a rag and ice for his nose. “It might be broken.” Pangs of guilt shot through my soul. The bartender, a young dark haired woman with surreal emerald eyes, chuckled. “He’ll be okay. At least once a week he incurs the wrath of one young lady or another.” “So you’re a lady chaser and I was on the menu for tonight?” His face turned as red as a tomato. “Can’t we enjoy this drink before you run off again?” He stared into my eyes with ferocity, it made me uncomfortable. Then he drew closer. “You look a lot like that model. The one who’s dating the really rich French guy, umm Jennifer… no Juniper… I got it” As if he found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow he shouted, “Justine!” Was it ever going to end? Would I always be Justine to people? “Sure, yup, that’s me.” His eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped from its jaw, I thought I would have to catch it and glue it back on his face. “I’m joking, allow me to introduce myself, since I bloodied your nose I suppose it’s the least I can do. I’m Shanna.” He picked his jaw off the ground. “Nice to meet you, Shanna. You aren’t from here, cause I know everyone and no one beautiful as you lives anywhere near here. So, you visiting?” Gees, were his syrupy pick-up lines ever going to stop? “No, more like business.” I used my best cop voice as practice before meeting the “grandparents” tomorrow and picked his brain since he claimed he knew everyone. “Have you met Thane and Leila Ferguson?” “Oh yeah, Thane was a mean S.O.B. when he drank liquor. Heart disease killed him, maybe it was something else, but he’s dead. Leila is a sweet lady, real quiet, always home.” A mean drunk father, no wonder my mom ran. Bub and I enjoyed several drinks before he insisted on giving me his number and attempting to go back to my cheap motel room with me. I gave him a peck on the cheek and told him good night. He would never be aware that he met the famous Justine Holmes.
I awoke early the following morning and headed to Allentown by way of taxi, which I thought blew my cop persona, but it couldn’t be helped. I never learned to drive anything larger than a golf cart. Their house was small and their yard in desperate need of help. The overgrown grass and plants looked as though at one time the yard must have been picturesque; daisies, marigolds and tulips peeked between the weeds around the house. Morning glories coiled around the dilapidated fence swallowing it. Two plastic chairs and a table sat to the side under a makeshift covered porch in front of the house. As I pressed the doorbell button it popped off the wall and hung by two colored cords. I tried knocking. When nobody answered, I walked around the house, and saw an elderly woman bent over, somewhat tending an overgrown garden. My assumption was, this is Mrs. Ferguson, my grandmother - well aware Perdy kidnapped me. I walked up to her, and she stood. “Can I help you?” Her gray hair was thinning and wrinkles webbed across her face. She had a small frame and a slight hunch curved her back. I answered while I flashed my badge quick as possible, so she wouldn’t notice it was a fake. “I hope so, ma’am. Are you Mrs. Ferguson?” She eyed the badge, but not too close. “I am, would you like to come in and have some lemonade? I’ve been in the garden all morning; it’s time for a break.” I followed her up to the porch where she motioned me to sit down in one of the plastic chairs. The porch was in such poor condition, I feared it would crumble beneath my feet. She disappeared inside the small house. Then reappeared with a plastic pitcher and glasses on a weathered plastic serving tray - Georgia fine china. I opened the door for her. As she poured the lemonade, I spoke in my most police-like voice. “Mrs. Ferguson, you had a daughter, Perdita, who disappeared about twenty-six years ago.” I opened my flip pad and cleared my throat for extra cop-like effect. “May I ask you some questions?” “Perdy, yes, that’s been so long ago. So long ago...” She seemed nostalgic. “Would you have any pictures of her I could look at?” My voice police-like but with a touch of true concern. I had to see color pictures to be positive. “Yes, yes, please come in.” She reminded me of a black and white TV show mom whom all the neighborhood kids loved and went to her house for milk and cookies. The inside of her home was clean and organized, but the furniture must have been as old as Perdita. Leila rummaged around in a chest and brought out a single photo album. She showed me pictures of Perdy throughout her childhood. This child was without a doubt my mom - her eyes, hair, freckles, and facial expressions. Memories of Perdy flooded my mind and sorrow mixed with anger arose in my heart. I gulped back my emotions. “Mrs. Ferguson when Perdy disappeared was she having any trouble in school?” “She was a good girl, but always had trouble with her grades. She didn’t read or write well, but she had friends.” Mrs. Ferguson was compliant, I didn’t want to push my luck, but I wanted - needed to know more. “How about at home?” “She… never got along well with her father. He was a hard man. He’s gone now. Cirrhosis of the liver.” “I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Ferguson.” My heart bled for her, missing daughter, dead husband, and now alone. “Did anything happen between them the night before she disappeared?” “Yes, yes… she hung out with a young man. Her father didn’t approve of him. He thought he… Her father had opinions and said the young man would take advantage of her. You understand?” “Yes, of course. We worry for our children.” I didn’t have any, but she didn’t know that. “Could you describe the young man?” “It was so long ago. Let me think… brown eyes, long brown hair that hung over his face, like a sheepdog. I don’t reckon he brushed it much. His name was...” She remained quiet for a minute until his name clicked in her mind. “Frank Tomey, but he liked to be called Slug.” Slug was my predator, but Frank Tomey? I recognized the name and made a mental note to search my records when I got back to the motel. I slipped a picture of Perdy out of its sleeve, and slid it into the bottom of my flip pad while Leila turned her head, then casually handed her back the single album. She asked the question I dreaded. “Have you found my daughter?” Telling someone their child is dead is equal to stabbing them over and over with a pitchfork into the heart, although Mrs. Ferguson seemed to be accepting. I guess because so much time passed. “Yes, we did, about seven years ago. We recently made the connection.” “Is she alive?” Her grave voice quivered. I held back my own tears. “I’m sorry, but no. Her body was found… in a river… That is why I am here now. I wanted to make sure it was your daughter and give you a name you could contact to make arrangements for her, to bury her properly. Thank you for your time and I’m very sorry Mrs. Ferguson.” I scribbled Officer Han’s name and number down and handed it to her, “Officer Han will assist you.” “Thank-you.” Tears filled her eyes, but she seemed happy, peaceful, not remorseful. I understood and felt envy. Now she had closure, something I wanted. I left. My mother, or Perdy, didn’t grow up in a big house, but she had a mom who loved and cared for her. On the flip side, her heavy handed drunk father assisted in getting her mixed up with Slug. The story started making sense. How did I fit into the picture? Back at the motel, I rummaged through my research. Frank Tomey, A.K.A. Slug killed Einstein. If Slug was still in jail, he wouldn’t be a threat, but who was he? I read the article again. The pieces hadn’t fit the first time. I read it again and they still didn’t fit. Slug was a fall guy, but for whom? I rolled the information over in my mind. My mom ran away at fifteen because of Slug, or to escape her abusive father. She and Slug were friends. Had she crossed him? I looked at the letters again. They met every three years at various places. The letter referred to me: bring the girl. She always came home with money. She blackmailed him! No, not him! He didn’t have anything. Who did she blackmail? A deal gone wrong? He was a fall guy but for whom? She blackmailed his employer! How did I fit into this? She used me to blackmail his employer! That had to be it! Now I needed to find his employer. I never checked to see if the Tomato Shack was a real place, so I withdrew my phone from its slot in my purse and did a map search. It was a real place of business, a restaurant. Tanwood Dr.; their other meeting place existed too. Both were in California, an hour’s drive from the shack I lived in with Perdy playing my mom. I saved the address in my phone map, then emptied the contents of my backpack onto the floor and rummaged through my history, jotting the names I discovered so far onto my notepad. I used the motel’s guest computers to do internet searches and found little - one name stood out, with a fantastic opportunity attached to it. My next stop the West Coast City by the Bay.