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By Eralides E. Cabrera
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Eralides E. Cabrera
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGloria was in her late fifties, but you would never guess it. She was tall, about five feet eleven. She had ash blonde hair that she kept short and flanked over her ears. She had an athletic figure that she kept toned with daily workouts, and she was still sought by many men. She was skillful in her handling of the male sex, and was so far successful in her attempts to remain free and uncommitted. She had two girls, who were now in their teens, the product of a five-year relationship with a Southern man she had never married. Gloria lived in a townhouse in the town of Holmdel, a city in central New Jersey known for its lavish homes and quiet neighborhoods.
Sprawled on her sofa bed in the living room, she turned sluggishly from side to side. She extended her left hand so she could read the time on her wristwatch. It was almost 11:00 in the morning and she had chores to do. As a matter of fact, they were the kind of chores that might just lead her into a big windfall in her very questionable and daring career. Gloria Sanders was a master of deceit and fraudulent schemes that she had been practicing for years. She had made a living from them since she had been on her own as a teen.
She got up and picked up the pillow and blanket from the sofa, and brought them to the bed in the master bedroom. Then she went to the bathroom and removed her nightgown. She put on a pair of soft jeans and adjusted her black bra by sliding it from back to front to cover her breasts. She needed to work on her disguise. She had decided to wear one today, although the situation did not call for one. She was going to meet a man whom she had dealt with before. He always made her feel skeptical, more so than when dealing with a stranger.
She went into the kitchen and set a frying pan on the burner to make herself some breakfast. She loved to do that. She had been up early this morning and had taken her daughters to school, before napping on the sofa for two hours. Cooking always relaxed her, because she thought as she did it. Today's menu included scrambled eggs, a rare treat since she ate very healthy. Normally, she avoided dairy products, but she felt an urge to deviate from her diet today. She would skip the bananas and the fruit cocktail. She took her time shaking the eggs, flipping the toast until it was almost burned. She needed to think, and think analytically, about what she was going to do.
By the time she was sitting at one of the stools by the kitchen counter, picking at her breakfast, she had made up her mind. She thought she would work a little on her face makeup. She was not going to wear a face mask, something she occasionally did, especially on night jobs. She would slim her eyebrows and stretch them out to give herself an Asian look. Then she would throw on a wig with thin black hair to accentuate the Asian facial features and use makeup to erase any trace of having a Caucasian background. That should prove enough for this job, she thought. Better get going. She only had four hours before it was time to bring her daughters back from school.
She returned to the bathroom and took a quick shower. Then she went to her bedroom and sat in front of her dresser. It was an old Mediterranean with three partitioned mirrors. It could have been considered an antique. Because of its age, the piece seemed out of place with the rest of the furniture in the room which was all oak but Gloria kept it. She said it was her working tool and had been with her for a long time. Her daughters, who mocked her constantly about it, had come to accept it. They knew that their mother would never rid herself of that old thing. "That's how old people are," they said. And to them, their mom was ancient, older than most other moms anyway.
Gloria worked fast. She fastened the wig on her head and shifted it from side to side until she was satisfied with a secure fit. Then she went to work on the makeup, coloring her face a light brown. She then did her eyebrows. She did not pluck them, but rather penciled them up and out. She thought of some of those arrogant Asian queens portrayed in the early kung fu movies she had seen as a teen. She did her best to reproduce their thin, curved eyebrows and their tempting smiles on her face. This is how she worked most of the time. She fished for an image of how she wanted to look and stamped it in her brain, as if she was looking into a mirror that she could see herself in. The job was not done until her eyes reflected what she saw in her brain.
She put on a long-sleeved silky black blouse that made the upper half of her body seem conservative in comparison to her bottom, but she felt comfortable with that. She wore flat, black round shoes. For a purse, she got herself a small change holder made of brown and black leather. She glanced at the wall clock before opening the front door; it was almost noon.
She drove a gray Honda Civic that she had owned for over a month and kept going over the purchase in her mind. She had a habit of doing that, going over the details of past transactions over and over. If she did it for too long, she would suddenly decide to undo it-that is, sell it at the first opportunity that came along, even if it meant losing money. You could say she was superstitious that way.
She went north on the Garden State Parkway, passing the Route 9 bridge. She got off at the Woodbridge exit and headed for the mall. She parked her car at the Macy's parking lot and entered the mall through the store. She walked steadily but not hastily. She did not look around too much, and once out of the store, she seemed even more resolute. She took the aisle that connected the mall's stores internally. She enjoyed the long corridors because of the vigor they seemed to display. People on the go, up and down the aisles. She appreciated the benches and outdoor plants among small shops, and kept an active eye on the shoppers streaming by, even at this early hour. She made a turn at the first intersection and went inside a pizza restaurant. She grabbed a tray from the pile and began to make her choices. She took a ladleful of carrots, rice, and meatballs, and grabbed a bottle of water. She sat at a table for two, facing the front door. She was meeting someone she knew well, but he would never recognize her in her current disguise. She kept an eye on the door as she ate. Well into the course of her meal, a lean man in his mid-thirties came to stand by the food cart. He swept his eyes over all the tables. She waited. He finally grabbed a tray and began to serve himself. As he came to the counter to pay for his meal, she walked up to him.
"Hi," she said. "Are you alone?"
He was about to hand a ten-dollar bill to the cashier, but instead he stopped to look at Gloria.
"Do I know you?"
"Hardly, but come over my table anyway."
She casually walked away from him and sat down at her table. He followed her hesitantly and laid his tray down.
"You don't look anything like the Gloria I know."
"Who says I am?"
"I need to know."
She laughed and kept eating. He fidgeted on his seat as he tried to make up his mind.
"All right. Have you been waiting long? I don't want to keep you."
"You are not. Don't worry."
"I got some brand new cards," he said, eyeing her cautiously.
She raised her eyes from her plate. She tapped the right side of the table with her index finger to get his attention. He took an envelope out of his breast pocket and placed it on the table near her hand. She went to retrieve the envelope, but he held it back.
"I get paid first, sorry."
She pointed to a small envelope on her tray.
"Oh, I didn't see that. What a place to put it, no?"
He grabbed it and she took his envelope. She placed it on her lap and examined its contents.
"You want to know something? I like you," he said, smiling. "But there's no need for all that jazz, you know."
"Right," she said. She glanced down at her cell phone's screen and saw his number flashing. He was calling her and she picked up.
"I don't do business with strangers," he uttered on the phone, right in front of her. "You don't need to worry. I'm not being followed, if that's what you're thinking. I don't do business that way."
"Hey, look at it this way. We've already made an exchange and it worked out fine. If I had any heat on me, you would know about it already."
"You've gotta trust somebody. You can't do this alone. You can't survive in this business on your own."
She nodded and turned her phone off. She was done with her food, and took a sip of water from her bottle. She was looking past him toward the mall area, regretting that she had ever agreed to see him. It had not been a wise move. She was ready to leave.
"I'll see you, John."
"Wait," he said, putting his phone away.
He looked up as she had picked up the tray from the table.
"I can feed you with a lot more."
"We'll talk. Gotta go."
She walked straight to the trash can and emptied the contents of her tray. She uncapped her water bottle again as she left the restaurant and took a drink. With her small purse and bottle, she looked like any other shopper in the busy mall. Soon, she was lost in the crowd.
Chapter TwoThe two teens Gloria picked up at school could pass for twins. They had the same ash blonde hair as their mother, and were only a year apart. At fourteen, the oldest had already reached five feet six, and her sister was about an inch shorter. They both had lean bodies and beautiful, oblong faces with no sign of acne. They squeezed in the back seat of the Honda, one from each door, and threw their backpacks on the seat.
"Mom, you could have been a little late, you know. There are still a lot of kids out there. I hate leaving when they're there."
"Joan, what you don't want to do is be there alone."
"Mom, we're not ten anymore, you know."
"Right, you're fourteen. You're so grown up."
"And I'm thirteen, though I'll never admit it," the other one said.
"Anyway, go, now that you're here."
"Yeah, go Mom."
"Laura, I'm waiting for you to shut that door. I'm not going to drive around with an open car door."
The two girls giggled and then got busy with their cell phones. They passed the time plugging away on their keyboards, texting the friends they had just left only a few minutes ago. Gloria drove slowly out of the school parking lot until she got into the main road. The area was rural-suburban, skirted by luxury homes that challenged the imagination. Each one showed a new leap in architecture and aesthetics. Her home was off this main highway, in a small complex of row houses that had been built in the proximity of Route 36, to the chagrin of many of the local residents. She had chosen this location mainly because of the quality of education that the town offered, even though she knew deep inside that it was not the best choice for her line of work. For many years, she had chosen to live a frugal life, keeping her presence out of the limelight and remaining as unnoticeable as possible. Yet, when it came to the welfare of her daughters, she was willing to cross the line. That is how she had come to live in a wealthy area where the reasons for her financial success and her spurious life and identity could come under scrutiny.
She drove the Honda to a strip of houses right off the main highway, and was immediately on guard as she saw the blinking blue and red lights of a police car.
"Mom, the cops are in our house! Look!"
"I see them, Joan."
"Mom, what's going on?" Laura, her younger daughter, asked.
"I don't know. You girls just sit in the back and I'll go out and see, okay?"
She got out of the car, not showing the faintest hesitation. She did an expert job of concealing the enormous apprehension she felt inside. When she took her first step toward the police car, she felt she could be walking toward the end of a strange journey-the end of her freedom, and the loss of her daughters and everything she had built in her life that she held dear.
One of the two officers began walking toward her. The other one remained leaning against the passenger's door. She immediately interpreted that as a positive sign. In her long life of living in the shadows, she had learned to read people's movements, especially those of law-enforcement agents. If they walked toward you it generally meant they were confident and did not consider you be to be dangerous. That was good.
"Hello," she said, looking straight at him.
"Do you live here?" the young officer asked.
He was a tall, husky man with heavy eyebrows. She figured he could have been in his mid-twenties.
"It looks like your alarm went off. We've checked all the windows, and they seem secure. The door is shut tight. Let us in and we'll take a peek inside for you."
She walked ahead of him and climbed the steps to the front door. She took a key out of her purse. She moved to open the door with it, but the officer stopped her.
"Wait, we'll take over from here. Stay back."
He grabbed the key from her and slowly pushed the door open, hiding his body behind the frame. The other officer freed his gun, and both went inside, taking small steps. Gloria remained standing on the top step, looking back at her car to check on the girls. She was getting an uneasy feeling that someone may have actually gotten inside her house. Whoever it was would be gone by now, she was sure, but what troubled her was their purpose in trespassing. It meant someone was tracking her down. For Gloria, everything came down to that. It was her biggest worry; one might even call it her biggest weakness as well. She was still deep in thought when the officers returned.
"We find no signs of a break-in. Nothing seems out of place. Are those your girls in the car?"
"You want to bring them in? We'll walk in with you and keep you company for a few minutes, just to make sure everything is all right."
She waved for her daughters to get out of the car.
"Mom, what is it?" Joan asked as she approached. "What's going on?"
"Nothing, honey. The officers here showed up because our alarm was activated in the house."
The two girls suddenly clung to her, and she embraced them in a gesture of protection. They both kept looking inside the home as their mother got ready to go in. Just then, another patrol car showed up and blocked the driveway. Two officers got out of the car.
"Are you the owner?" one of them said.
"All right. Maybe you and your girls ought to step over to the side here."
He waved for them to retreat, and Gloria walked back on the sidewalk toward the next property. The first two officers came outside and spoke with the other pair for a few minutes.
"There are no signs of a break-in, ma'am," one of them said. "Everything seems to be in place. Something must have tripped your alarm. It happens sometimes. It could have been a pet or just someone walking by. I think you are going to have to call your maintenance people about your alarm network. Maybe the detectors are way too sensitive."
"Just so you know," another officer cut in, "you could be subject to a summons if it keeps going off like that. We won't do that. We won't issue you any summons, but you need to do something about your alarm. Call your company."
"Is it safe to go in?" Gloria asked, ignoring their other comments.
"Mom, I'm scared," her younger daughter said. "I don't want to go in."
"It's all right, honey. These officers are going to walk us in. It's fine."
She took them by the hand and walked in the direction of the door. The two officers who had inspected the home stood right behind them.
"Wait a minute," one of the others two said. "We'll walk in with you too."
They went inside the home, followed by the four of them. The first officers had left the door wide open. She knew instantly someone had been inside. One of the shades behind the couch in the living room dragged a bit. What was more telling to her than anything else she saw was the red family album, lying on the dining room table. She did not mention it. She and her daughters followed the officers as they took them through the house.
"As you can see, everything looks neat. No signs of disturbance. You keep a nice house."
They went through the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs.
"You have no basement, but we looked into the attic room upstairs," one of the officers said, pointing to the trap door above them. "Nothing there but a whole bunch of boxes. Everything is fine."
Excerpted from Gloria's Cradle by Eralides E. Cabrera Copyright © 2010 by Eralides E. Cabrera. Excerpted by permission.
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