Grace wakes up on her second day home, sleeping on a quilt on the floor because her furniture was moved into storage by Cora’s law firm. She goes to get a coffee. As she’s riding the bus across town to meet the movers at the storage units, Lily calls her. Grace tells her about losing both houses and being financially broke. Lily tells her about her jewelry box at Stefon’s apartment in the Bronx and asks her how she feels about breaking in and getting it for her. She tells Lily she’ll think about it. Then, she wonders if that could be connected to the FIND IT notes.
Grace thinks back to meeting Lily in prison and what prison was like.
Grace wakes up the next morning at 2:30 am. She remembers that she set the alarm so that she could do a drive-by of Stefon’s house to see if she could break in or not. On the way, she thinks about Lily and Stefon and how Stefon hid his drugs and a knife in her shop and the police found them and arrested her.
Grace drives past Stefon’s apartment house. It looks dark and deserted so she drives to a convenience store to decide what to do.
Suddenly, it was seven o’clock the next morning. As I was drowsily trying to wake up, I had this disorganized sense that everything around me was out of place. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know where I was – I felt like I didn’t know when it was. Was it a workday and was I running late? Wait a minute, no. I’m in prison. But why didn’t I hear the other women going to breakfast? Why didn’t they wake me up? I’m lying on the floor for some reason. Why did I wear my jeans to bed?
When I heard a click and a rumbling noise far below me, I recognized the sound of the boiler turning on in the basement and I remembered that I was home and that all of my furniture was in storage and I needed to call the movers this morning. Yesterday had been a long day; making my way home to an empty house, hearing the news that it wasn’t even my house anymore, then visiting Cora at the cemetery. I was so exhausted I came straight home.
“Coffee,” I mumbled to myself, silently thanking God for access to caffeine again, “I need coffee.” I grabbed my toothbrush and some clean clothes from my duffle bag.
The sun was bright, just starting to rise in a clear blue sky, but the air was cool and there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. When I programmed the weather app with this location, I received a warning about the ‘calm before the storm.’ Sure enough, looking to the west there was a low bank of dark gray, billowing clouds. It was headed directly toward Edgemont but it a slow moving storm and wasn’t forecasted to hit until late afternoon, which was good because I had a busy day planned.
At the café, the barista handed me a large coffee and a bagel without a second glance. I stirred in a little milk and sugar and found a table outside under the awning. The sidewalk was crowded with groups of young professionals having a coffee before getting the workday started. It was a scene I used to be a part of, though that seemed like a lifetime ago. I listened to a group of women at the table next to me as they were chatting each other up, fabricating some workplace drama that would make the day interesting. Their conversation shifted and they agreed on a bar to meet at later in the day. Then they got up to leave. As self-conscious as I was still feeling, I knew enough about them to know that they hadn’t noticed me at all. Their gossip had sounded self-involved and vacant and I was surprised to realize that I didn’t wish I was on my way to a busy day at the firm. I wondered, though, if the confidence that I was lacking would ever return. I guessed that it wouldn’t for a long time. Another call I had to make today was to my parole officer. What I feared most, though, was being recognized from the front-page news coverage of the trial three years ago. My reputation had been damaged, possibly destroyed, by the harsh and invasive things that the press had written about me. When I spoke to Connor yesterday, he had said the same thing. I put my sunglasses on, tucked my short hair behind my ears, and appeared to be preoccupied with my phone.
I knew that I would eventually have to make a clean break, although moving away from Cora was something I was definitely not ready to do. The complicated part of it all was that I truly was innocent of the crime that I’d been accused of but I was the only one who knew it. To any outsider looking in, I had been found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to prison. Cora’s suicide three months later would appear to be related to my criminal charges.
Strike three, you’re out.
As I finished my bagel, I accessed the Notes app on my phone and made two lists: the first one a shopping list for the deli down the street, and the second, a list of household items and furniture that I needed from the storage units. I put my phone away just as the remaining crowd started to disperse. I had to hurry too. The movers were scheduled to meet me at the storage unit first thing, and I had to ride the bus across town to North Road.
As soon as I’d boarded the bus and sat down, I heard a chirp from my phone. The screen lit up dark blue and Lily’s name appeared. It was good to finally connect with her. For the next thirty minutes, she talked on and on about news from Watertown, keeping me company as I arrived at North Road Storage, collected the keys from the office, and found the two units that contained the contents of my and Cora’s homes.
The movers hadn’t arrived yet, so when she’d finished filling me in, I sat on Cora’s sofa and told her about everything that had happened the day before; that I’d come home to an empty house, visited my mother at the cemetery, and then I told her about the call from Connor. I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of working through my feelings of betrayal, and I hoped that I’d been able to explain everything to her in a voice that conveyed that I wasn’t at all surprised at what the law firm had done and I didn’t consider it much of a setback. Despite my calm demeanor and matter-of-fact attitude, I could tell Lily wasn’t fooled. She knew that I knew I was screwed.
“So, you’re squatting in what used to be your own place. That sucks, but it’s decent for now,” Lily reasoned. “They came through on Cora’s burial. That’s cool. Sets your mind at ease about that. You said you pretty much cleared your mother’s firm from having any involvement in her death. Check that off.”
“Yea. Except that they had both our places packed up and cleaned out. So, now I’m broke. I have about four hundred left in cash, a few thousand in my savings account and everything else was restitution. Gone.”
“Even though the money was recovered and immediately returned to your client and no one even lost a single dollar?”
“That particular client never even suspected that their account was involved. The firm kept it all internal. Starting again at zero is part of doing the time.”
“What are you going to do now? What’s next?”
“Yeah,” I said, with some despair settling into my voice, “Contacting parole. Setting up an appointment. Finding work and eventually a crappy apartment somewhere. I’m not allowed to leave the county without permission and anyway this is where Cora is – and where I’ll start my own investigation into why any of this happened.” Just then, a box truck pulled up to the storage building. “Look, I have to go. The movers are here.”
“Ok, well, just a minute. Might be a good idea to hit you up with this, then,” Lily said, hesitating slightly, “It’s a favor I was going to talk to you about anyway, but I didn’t bring it up sooner because I knew that you were just getting into the mindset of being out of this place.”
“What is it?” I indicated to the movers that I needed one minute to finish my call.
“Just before Stefon decided to use my shop to stockpile his crap, we were practically living together at his place in the Bronx. I talked to his sister a while ago and pretty much threatened to break her jaw if he tried to sell any of my stuff. The only thing I care about is the jewelry box. My Grandfather passed it down to me. How freaked out would you be about breaking in and finding it? Stefon flew to Los Angeles a few days ago and he’s staying on the west coast for at least a month. The place is empty.” Lily paused, “Ok. Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“I’m listening. I get it. What if you’re wrong about no one being there?” My immediate thought was the stack of paper-clipped notes in my purse. FIND IT.
“Then just leave. Don’t risk a single thing if you aren’t sure it’s safe.”
“Lily. Is anyone else aware of this? The jewelry box being at Stefon’s?” I hadn’t even told Lily about the notes. Could this possibly be a coincidence? They started appearing soon after Cora died – usually tucked inside whatever book I was reading at the time, but also under my pillow or taped to the underside of the bunk so that I’d find it when I went to sleep. Nothing else, just FIND IT. I had no idea what I was supposed to find, or for whom.
“No. Absolutely no one. Why would they? It really only has sentimental value.”
“Okay. Give me some time to think about it. Maybe do a drive-by first to check out the neighborhood?” I knew that Lily wouldn’t ask me to do this if she thought that there was a chance that I’d get hurt … or caught. Also, she was trusting me to not only be smart enough to pull it off, but also to have the guts to go through with it. That was no small thing between us.
“Good idea. Oh, and one other thing – and this is the reason that I think this could benefit us both. There’s a closet in the back bedroom with a false wall. It’s where he usually hid the drugs and where he keeps all of his cash. If you make it in you should definitely find it and help yourself to whatever is there.”
Waking up again, this time in my own bed and in my old room, I pressed the button on my phone to turn off the alarm, wondering why I’d set it for two-thirty am. I turned my head and looked through the curtainless window at the dark sky, letting my thoughts drift back to yesterday.
At the storage units, the guys with the rental truck had packed up my bed, kitchen table, and a comfortable reading chair and a floor lamp. It was all I needed for now since I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. Later that evening, I put some dishes away in the kitchen and walked to the corner store for coffee, herbal tea, fresh vegetables and pasta. Switching on the heat had dispelled the late October chill from the empty rooms, but I was beginning to realize that the house would never again be the home that it used to be. Everything was different now. It wasn’t just that Cora was gone and I no longer had a career to focus on. I was different too, and in ways that I was just now beginning to realize.
Then it hit me – my conversation with Lily. With a surge of adrenaline, I woke up completely and remembered the reason why I’d set the alarm for this early in the morning. I swung my feet to the floor and put my head in my hands, forcefully grounding my thoughts in the day. Sure, I was in my own bed, in my own room at home, but that was the end to any similarities between this life and the way things used to be. When I tried to organize my thoughts around what I had to do, I realized that I was more disconnected and directionless now than I had been in prison. At least then I could just fall in line with the daily routine of mealtimes, work assignments, socializing in the evenings. I couldn’t just call Cora up and talk with her about what was on my mind. As a matter of fact, I was startled to find that I had to keep reminding myself that she was gone. Ironically, the only women I felt like I could trust were 300 miles away in Watertown prison. I was starting to resign myself to this disconcerted feeling that nothing in my life was under my control anymore. I wondered if I would ever regain my sense of self. What if there was no other choice but to completely let go of the past and somehow adapt to these new circumstances? I knew I would have to, eventually, but not just yet. I needed answers first. I had to find a trail that led to the past and follow it, to keep searching for information, for the reason Cora had been killed. This reality of having powerful enemies capable of causing such deep losses made me feel unsafe. I needed peace of mind and closure but I was unsure about whether or not I could even do this.
This morning, though, I had to set aside thoughts of Cora and focus on the favor that Lily asked me to do for her. A drive-by of Stefon’s house in the Bronx. I got up slowly and straightened the quilt and pillows. Padding over to my closet, I found jeans, a dark sweater, and my boots. With my hair tucked into a cap, I slung a small duffle bag over my shoulder and walked downstairs without turning on any lights. I didn’t have much of an appetite but I had some juice and a peanut-butter sandwich anyway.
After I locked the deadbolt, I closed the outer metal door – soundlessly, since I’d sprayed the hinges with cooking oil the night before. As I walked across the patio to the garage, I thought with relief that at least I hadn’t attracted the attention of any of the neighbors. The sky was the deepest black and a light rain was falling. After the storm front hit around dinner time, the news report indicated that the worst of it was past but to expect some light rain with temperatures in the high-50’s by midday. I didn’t bother with a jacket, thinking that the cool air would keep me alert.
I tossed my duffle bag on the passenger seat, closed the car door as quietly as possible, and turned the key in the ignition. The engine echoed loudly inside the small garage, so I drove out without letting it warm up. Yesterday afternoon, I had gotten it started after a few tries. At the gas station, I added a quart of oil to what was probably sludge since it hadn’t been properly serviced in years. When I returned home, I unscrewed the light fixture in the garage and left the door rolled up. I knew how quiet the street would be in the early hours and it was never more important to not draw attention to myself. I was driving an unregistered, uninsured car on an expired license at three in the morning into a south side neighborhood known for drug activity. I thought to myself that something about that might possibly be a violation of my parole.
“Move along, girl. Who’s next?”
I met Lily on my first day in Watertown Correctional Facility. My mind hadn’t been functioning very well since I arrived and it felt like I’d forgotten how to blink. Her duty assignment included working in the kitchen so she was on the food line at dinnertime that day. I looked down at my plastic tray that contained a cardboard container of milk, some pasta with tomato sauce, and a scoop of canned green beans.
“You up, dear?”
“Put your tray up.” A tall, thin black woman behind the glass partition placed a piece of cornbread and a brownie on my tray. She was pretty enough to be a model and I remember thinking that maybe she was doing time for being a prostitute.
“New girl,” she said, a little too loudly and with a sharp glare, “Genius tried to steal a couple of mil. We’re all impressed with you here, honey. No worries.”
“Huh?” I said again, stupidly.
For the first few days I was in a cell of my own, with a single bed, a toilet, and a small desk. At the end of the week, though, I was told to gather my things and they led me to a larger room with two sets of bunk beds. Lily was laying on the lower bunk on one side of the room reading a book. Wordlessly, the guard took my bag from me, placed it on the bed on the opposite side, and walked out of the room.
Lily didn’t speak to me for months. None of the women did. They excluded me from every mealtime conversation, completely ignoring me as if I weren’t even there. Walking through the hallway, I’d get shouldered into the wall by a passer-by or kicked in the heels. In the evenings, I stayed in our cell and quietly pretended to read. I worked it out in my mind, as I lay awake at night, that this was probably some sort of a hazing ritual. A test of mental strength. They knew perfectly well that the isolation of being in prison, the separation from everything familiar, was the most terrifying part at first. They knew about the shock that remained after an often years-long legal process leading up to a jury trial, the conviction and sentencing. And in my case – a white woman accused of a white-collar crime – all of the negative publicity that went along with that.
The time passed, though, and eventually I guess they were satisfied that I’d fully accepted this change in circumstances. I think that the news that Cora had died was the catalyst that led them to finally begin to acknowledge my existence. Her weekly visits had kept me connected to a life outside of Watertown but when those ended, I think they sensed that I’d reached a breaking point that was well beyond anything they’d even had to face.
With Cora’s death, it was clear to me: the threat was ongoing and had intensified. It was no longer a matter of simply making it through the next three years and finding a way to salvage my career. I felt almost naïve remembering how devastated I had been just weeks ago. I couldn’t say exactly what changes the other women saw in me. I only knew that, after a month or so of silent despondency, my focus shifted and I became singularly preoccupied – almost obsessed – with who and where this enemy was. I was undoubtedly being stalked by some coward hiding in the shadows, sabotaging my life and taking Cora’s away from her. There were never any demands, no explanations. No one tried to contact me to inform me of what I had done wrong or why they thought that I deserved this depth of loss. It was as if they knew that their silence was the perfect way to intensify the anguish. Soon after that, the notes started.
Was all of this somehow connected to FIND IT?
For two-and-a-half more years, every day was pretty much the same. Lily introduced me around and the other women shared with me why they were at Watertown and what they had waiting for them when their time was served. We started to trust each other. The most valuable advice they could give me, according to them, was how to avoid being reprimanded by the guards. Lily explained that some of the women lacked caution about that and ended up with incident reports added to their file. She warned me that if I had a life that I wanted to return to, then I should focus on being paroled as soon as I was eligible. She told me not to start any trouble and not to get in the way of it.
I heeded her advice. Within the first year, my work assignment changed and I was spending almost every day in the classroom wing tutoring some of the other women in the math and accounting courses they were taking to complete their degrees. I enjoyed teaching and I felt a cautious stirring of hope that maybe it was the answer to how I could get my life back on track.
Not right away, though. Every day I woke up thinking about this invisible enemy just out of reach that had the access and the power to tear my life apart. There had to be a reason this was happening. Finding that reason meant identifying and confronting an adversary who had effortlessly demonstrated just how vulnerable I was. I needed to do everything I could to make sure that was no longer the case and to inflict on them the same depth of pain that they caused for me when they killed Cora.
I dispelled these thoughts about Lily and focused again on my driving. There weren’t many other cars on the road, which wasn’t surprising since it was cold and raining and three-fifteen in the morning. I guessed that I was about twenty minutes away from Stefon’s apartment on Rosedale Street. The downpour had tapered off to a light drizzle but it was still enough to need the wipers on. I was incredibly relieved that not a single cop car had driven past me yet. Nevertheless, I was searching my mind for an answer to every question that they’d probably ask. The minute they pulled up my driving record that would no doubt inform them that I’d just been released from prison, they’d realize that I would have to have a really good reason to be out on the road in the first place.
“License and registration, please.” Uh, yeah, Officer, I’m going to the DMV later this morning and I called to get the car inspected but they couldn’t fit me in until the end of the week (This was partially true since I’d covered my ass and set up an appointment).
“Ma’am, you’re aware that you’re on parole and that you have a 9 pm curfew? Where exactly are you going at this early hour?“ Well, officer, I have low-blood sugar and none of the stores in my neighborhood are open 24-hours (this wasn’t true at all since I’d driven past no fewer than five all-night convenient stores).
The roads were practically deserted, though, and I started to relax my grip on the steering wheel. I’d never driven through this part of the Bronx before, though from what I’d heard about these neighborhoods, they were downright unfriendly, if not dangerously unwelcoming to outsiders. On the news, a reporter standing in front of a strip of yellow crime scene tape interviewing a bystander about a shooting, a robbery, or a drug raid. Once in a while there would be a body on the ground covered with a bloody sheet. I tried to envision Lily here. Obviously she must have felt reasonably safe. She warned me, though, that if I did decide to break into Stefon’s apartment, then I should try to get in and out without anyone seeing me. There were eyes everywhere, day and night, she said, and someone would get word to him.
In prison, Lily never liked to talk about Stefon because she had truly loved him and trusted him and he was the reason she was incarcerated. She had met him at her shop, describing him as clean-cut, intelligent, well-mannered … and a drug dealer. Although she’d known about his involvement from the start, he had kept a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a catering service. And as for the drugs, he was only a distributor on the periphery of the organization. Lily said she knew it wasn’t ideal but that she had been as cautious as she could be, never allowing anything to change hands in her shop. And no matter how much time they were spending together, she kept her own place. The day the police came to question her about Stefon, she pretended to be surprised. She told them that of course she’d cooperate fully, to go ahead and look around. But she was genuinely stunned when they found two pounds of cocaine and a 7 inch ballistic knife in the back of a drawer beneath the register.
Since the cocaine was bundled up in square, taped-up packages, they didn’t accuse her of ‘intent to distribute.’ They knew she wasn’t involved in the drug business. Lily said they charged her with possession of both the drugs and an illegal knife hoping that she’d be angry enough to provide information about her boyfriend’s connection to the drug scene. She was angry but not enough to inform on anyone.
Lily reasoned that she didn’t have any kids, her mother had passed away and her father wasn’t in the picture. There was a brother in the south somewhere but they didn’t keep in touch. To her way of thinking, the years in prison would go by quickly and then she’d work to get her shop back.
Safely. Time served.
My hands were sweating as I turned left onto the street one block north of Rosedale. I wanted to be on the opposite side of the road when I drove past Stefon’s building. The rain had finally stopped. The street was well-lit and the homes appeared to be large estates that, in another day and age, belonged to wealthy families but were now renovated and partitioned into apartments. I was trying to drive slow enough to see the house numbers, but not so slow that I appeared conspicuous. Then I found it. Stefon’s apartment was on the third floor of a Tudor-style mansion whose past grandeur was now marred by fire escape ladders and air-conditioning units propped on the window sills.
The third floor apartment – and the ones on the first and second floor for that matter – looked dark and uninhabited. But again, it was nearing 3:30 am and the residents were probably all asleep. Lily said that without a key to the front hallway, I’d have to climb up the fire escape on the back of the house and access the window on the top floor. She thought that her jewelry box was on a shelf in the living room, but if not, then I might have to search the back bedroom – specifically, the one with the closet that had a false wall.
I drove past and kept on going. There were no other cars on the road, no one walking on the sidewalk, and every apartment or house on the street was dark and quiet – the exact conditions that needed to be in place if I was going to go through with this. Would there ever be a better time? Needing to think, I pulled into the parking lot of a deserted convenience store and went inside to fix a cup of tea. I paid the cashier and then returned to my car. I decided to wait a few more minutes before driving down the street again. I sipped the warm tea and tried to calm my nerves but I was still shivering, either from the cold or because I was possibly about to climb a rusted ladder three-stories up to break into a drug dealer’s apartment.
The jewelry box I had no qualms about. It was the drug money and my empty duffle bag that was scaring me shitless.