A Place to Start: Wander Creek Book One
PRE-ORDER FOR APRIL 14, 2021 Amazon
A clean and uplifting novel about overcoming the past and opening a closed heart to find a full and happy life because of the obstacles that block your way, not in spite of them.
Abby Barrett swallowed hard as she rang up more than five-hundred-dollars’ worth of greeting cards, rolls of glossy gift wrap, stationery and other sundry paper items at the upscale paper store where she worked. It wasn’t that she was surprised that someone could spend that amount of money in a stationery store. It was because she, herself, used to spend that amount of money here at the Paperie, before her life imploded and she lost everything. In fact, she could drop that amount of money in ten minutes, then have an expensive lunch with her fashionable friends, and then drop another five hundred dollars at a shoe store, then at the gourmet food store she and her husband, Jake, liked to frequent.
Ex-husband she had to remind herself.
There was a time when money was plentiful. It kept rolling in, day after day. But that day eventually came to an end. And now Abby worked in her favorite stationery store, instead of patronizing it.
“Here you go,” Abby said as she handed the bulging bags across the counter to the customer. “Enjoy.”
As she watched the impeccably dressed customer leave the store, Abby thought to herself that nowadays five hundred dollars would pay for groceries and her electricity, gas and cell phone bills for a month.
The store was empty and Abby took advantage of the lull in shoppers to take a break. She took off her smock and draped it over the stool behind the cash register.
“Going to take my fifteen minutes,” she said to Carmen, the sympathetic shop owner who had hired her. In fact, Carmen, a sixty-something, five-foot-two bundle of energy, had been the only person from Abby’s old life who had stuck by her during the entire sordid ordeal—from the government seizure of her lake-front mansion and belongings to the trial where her husband was sentenced to fifty years in federal prison. All her fashionable, fair-weather “friends” had dropped off, one by one. Most of them were appalled at Jake’s “light” sentence. After all, Bernie Maddoff, who pulled off a similar, albeit larger, Ponzi scheme, got one-hundred-and-fifty years.
“Okay, honey,” Carmen called from where she was stacking boxes of Crane stationery. “Take thirty if you need to. I doubt we’ll get much more traffic before closing, and I know you haven’t eaten yet today. Plus, you look exhausted.”
“Thanks, I’ll owe you forever,” Abby quipped. “Someday, when my fabulous fortune is restored, I will take you to New York City for an all-expenses-paid girls’ weekend. We’ll go to the Elizabeth Arden spa and have seaweed wraps and mud baths while hunky Swedish guys serve us mojitos in crystal glasses rimmed with real gold.”
“Can we get hot stone massages and facials, too?” Carmen asked, playing along. “And I want a manicure with real diamonds imbedded in the polish. Something to make my nails really sparkle.”
“Of course,” Abby said. “We’ll do all that and more. I’ll hire a personal shopper and we’ll get private shopping sprees at all the best stores. It’ll be fun. Just like the old days.”
“I won’t hold my breath,” Carmen said, bringing them both down to earth again. She turned to look Abby. “And neither should you.”
Abby paused beside her. “I’m not holding my breath,” she said defensively. “Not really. I know there’s no chance of getting back any assets. And I’m totally through with Jake. That goes without saying.”
“Then why don’t you get out of Minneapolis?” Carmen asked. “God knows I’ll miss you, and not just as an employee—you’re the best I’ve ever had—but as a friend, too. You need to go somewhere where no one knows who you are, and start over. It’s been more than a year now. It’s time. Do you know you were on the news again earlier this week? Jake’s lawyers filed for another appeal, and the whole story splashed over the local networks again, along with questions about your guilt or innocence. You have to take control of your life, girl. You can’t change the past. It’s time to face your future and get on with it.”
“Where would I go?” Abby asked, pausing in front of Carmen and lovingly fingering a box of Christmas cards adorned with delicate drawings of holly boughs tied with red and white ribbon. Abby sent out similar cards the previous year to her Christmas list of almost four hundred people. She mentally did the math, as she found herself doing frequently these days. Four hundred people. Ten cards to a box. Thirty dollars a box. That was twelve hundred dollars that she had spent on Christmas cards. That amount would now cover one month’s rent.
“Minneapolis is my home,” Abby said wistfully. “I can’t imagine living any place else.”
Abby had grown up in a working class neighborhood, attended the University of Minnesota where she earned a bachelor’s degree, and because she enjoyed school so much, two master’s degrees. She worked for a trendy event management firm for a year, and that is how she meet real estate mogul and finance entrepreneur Jake Barrett. She hadn’t held a job since. That seemed like a lifetime ago.
Carmen just shrugged and went back to her boxes. They had been over this old chestnut many times in the past few months, and at the end of the day, there was nothing new to say. They would just have to agree to disagree.
Abby entered the break room, took a carton of yogurt from the fridge and sat down. As she peeled off the foil wrapper, she considered her situation. Why should she have to leave? It was Jake, not her, who stole millions of dollars from his clients in an intricate and decade-long Ponzi scheme. She hadn’t known a thing until FBI agents came knocking at their door and seized computers and files from Jake’s office. It had taken them almost a month to find and seize Jake himself. He had been tipped off somehow, emptied their bank accounts, and fled to Costa Rica with his twenty-something assistant named Dee. Abby had no idea where Dee was now. And frankly, she didn’t care. For weeks during the trial, Jake called her collect from prison every day. And every day, she refused the charges, or just didn’t answer. She wasn’t holding a grudge, exactly. But come on. FBI raid? Collect calls from prison? Extradition? Abby felt as if she deserved the right to some self-pity, just for a little while longer. It had only been three months since the trial had ended, though she had endured these awful circumstances for more than a year, which was how long it took to make the case against Jake and prosecute him.
Abby took a bite of her yogurt. It was as bland as she felt, but these days she bought only generic brands. She was terrified to spend any more money than necessary. She had gone from spending freely without a thought to what things cost, to saving thirty cents by buying a store brand yogurt instead of the kind with the real fruit on the bottom, and little side pocket with nuts and raisins. Who knew, but those things cost a fortune!
At closing time, Abby and Carmen cashed out the register and straightened the store. This was the part of the work day that Abby enjoyed the most. She loved looking at all the beautiful things and slipping them back into their rightful places. The large, loose sheets of thick and vibrant gift wrap hung from a floor-to-ceiling rack on dowels. Abby arranged a stack of blank journals into a fan-shape stack. As she walked past a table dedicated to every imaginable type of pen, she paused to return the rogue drifters to their rightful places, based on color or nib size. There were so many variations of pens, it made her head swim.
Abby sighed. She might not be able to bring order to her own life, but she could impose it on the store, and for now, that would have to be enough.
As Carmen walked Abby to the bus stop, she slipped her arm through Abby’s.
“I’ve never said this before, because I know it’s harsh. But you need to hear it. You’re lucky you aren’t in prison, too. And you need to grab hold of that blessing and run with it.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Abby said flatly.
“I know that, and you know that,” Carmen said patiently. “But the rest of the world is asking how a woman with a master’s degree in philosophy and another in English literature was so clueless that for an entire decade, she missed the fact that her husband was lining his pockets—your pockets—with hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from innocent people.”
“You’re right, of course,” Abby conceded. “And that’s a question I ask myself every night when I can’t sleep because I'm worrying about all of those people Jake stole from. I know what those people are going through. I didn’t grow up with money. My parents had to struggle and scrape to get by. Maybe that’s why it’s just killing me. I know what they are going through. I know the toll of Jake’s crimes on them.”
“There’s nothing you can do about that,” Carmen observed. “Even if you gave every cent you ever earn to the victims, you couldn’t even make a dent in the amount of money Jake stole. You need to stop worrying about what you can’t control, and start worrying about what you can. Beginning with yourself.”
That evening, Abby let herself into her fourth-floor apartment located in a modest—okay sketchy—Minneapolis neighborhood, not far from where she grew up. Compared to the thirty-room lakefront mansion, with a screening room, indoor pool and basketball court, the apartment was claustrophobically small. It was actually closer in size to her former walk-in closet. And whenever she turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door and stepped into the dingy room, she found herself wishing that it had all been a terrible dream, and she would walk into the huge front foyer of her former home. But of course that never happened.
She hung her jacket and purse on the hook next to the front door and snapped on the light. She had furnished the studio apartment with a navy pull-out couch and a banged-up Formica dinette set from a second-hand store. The only things the FBI allowed Abby to keep were her clothes, childhood keepsakes, and her laptop, which they had kindly, as the agent in charge put it, “cleaned” for her. They had replaced her cell phone, for which she was actually grateful because it meant no one knew how to get ahold of her, including Jake. Of course it would only be a matter of time until one of her old “friends” came into the Paperie. But she wouldn’t worry about that now.
No sense in borrowing trouble.
Abby’s “closet” consisted of a beat-up dresser and a metal rolling clothes rack. Her beautiful Chanel suits, Louis Vuitton purses, Jimmy Choo shoes, and countless other designer clothes were folded in tissue paper and lovingly packed away in suitcases and cardboard boxes that lined one entire wall of the apartment. When she got home in the evenings, instead of changing into something more comfortable, she would take off her casual pants and tops and randomly pull out something from her treasure trove of clothes. It made her feel strong and powerful to wear the clothes she loved.
That evening, she pulled out a fuchsia evening gown that had cost her thousands of dollars. Enough to buy a small used car. She rummaged around in the box and found a pair of strappy gold stilettos. In the tiny bathroom, she pulled back her shoulder-length, honey blonde hair into a high pony-tail, then expertly fashioned it into an elaborate up-do, fastening it with a gold hair clip. Next, she pulled out her box of designer make-up and applied eye liner and shadow, rouge and a pink lipstick that perfectly matched her dress. For every day, she used make-up she bought at the drugstore, and saved her designer stash for the special occasions she created for herself. One day, she knew, it would run out so she used it sparingly.
“Not bad, if I do say so myself,” she told her reflection.
She admired her high cheekbones, emerald green eyes, and swan-like neck. At thirty-eight, her jawline had begun to sag a little and crow’s feet had appeared at the edges of her eyes, but she still had her looks. She leaned over the sink and examined the bags under her eyes. Carmen had been right. She did look tired and worn down. Sleepless nights had left dark circles under her eyes. On the positive note, her complexion had never been better. Instead of fancy coffees and expensive wines, she drank water from the tap. No sodas. No juices. No energy drinks. Sometimes, she splurged and bought a fresh lemon to squeeze over ice cubes before pouring in the water, and for one beautiful second, the zest of the fruit was so decadent that she moaned aloud. She had learned that now she needed to find joy in simple pleasures.
In the galley kitchen, she put on a large apron and made a BLT sandwich to go with a bowl of tomato soup. Outside her window, she could practically feel the icy Minnesota winter making plans to descend upon the city. But it was mid-September, and the leaves rustled, and although the sun set earlier and earlier, the vibrant leaves during the day were beautiful. Abby had contemplated buying a stand-alone gas fireplace to cheer up her dim apartment. If she could find one on sale, she would splurge. It would be worth it to eat cheese sandwiches for a month in order to have the beautiful red and orange gas flames to help her through a long Minnesota winter. She thought of her bedroom back home and the heated floor in her en suite bathroom, and sighed at the memory.
After eating her dinner at the dinette table, Abby settled on the couch, still in her designer dress and shoes, and picked up a library book, and finding her place, allowed herself the pleasure of losing herself entirely in a story. For just a few hours every day, she could almost forget her circumstances. But before she got past the first page, her phone rang. Glancing at it, she shook her head. This number had been calling her for weeks now, and the caller was leaving messages about some timeshare property or something in a place called Wander Creek in northern Minnesota. She only half listened to the messages because they were all practically the same. The ringing stopped, and Abby returned to her book. Then it started again. And again. And again. This time there were no messages.
Probably some reporter trying to trick me into talking about Jake, she told herself.
After ten minutes, the caller finally gave up. And then the knocking started.
“Mrs. Barrett,” a male voice said from outside her apartment door. “I need to speak with you, urgently. I’ve been calling and leaving messages but you haven’t returned my calls. I’m sorry for just showing up like this but you left me little choice.”
Abby crept toward the door and peered through the peephole. A small, prim-looking man in a three-piece grey suit stood on the other side holding a briefcase. He sported a fairly decent attempt at a comb-over and wore small wire-rimmed glasses. Abby guessed he was about seventy. He looked more like a lawyer than a reporter. Or maybe he was an FBI agent coming to interrogate her again. Abby knew, all too well, that looks could be deceiving when it came to reporters and agents.
“Go away,” she barked through the door. “I’m not interested in your timeshare. And if you’re a reporter, well, then just go away and don’t come back.”
“What timeshare?” the man asked.
“The one in your messages,” Abby said. “The one in Wander Creek.”
Abby leaned against the wall. Why had she engaged with this man? She had waited out many a reporter simply by outlasting their persistence at the door. All of them eventually gave up. And every time one of them came knocking at her door, she flashed back to that early morning more than a year earlier when she had woken up to the sound of her front door crashing open, and men and women in FBI windbreakers, guns drawn, crowding into her bedroom. By that time she had gotten out of bed and pulled on a peach silk bathrobe that matched her silk negligee. She was just cinching the belt around her waist when the first agent entered and demanded to know where Jake was.
“Mrs. Barrett, it’s not a timeshare. It’s a bequest of property. To you.” The man’s muffled voice behind her apartment door jerked Abby back into reality.
She heard something on the floor and picked up a business card as it was slipped under the door.
She read to herself, Monroe, Able and Associates, Attorneys at Law.
So he was a lawyer. Moreover, Abby recognized the name of the law firm. Each year, Monroe, Able and Associates purchased several tables at a fundraiser she co-chaired for a local children’s hospital. Correction. Used to co-chair. The firm’s donations and pro bono work were legendary on the charity circuit. She also knew the name Jerome Monroe. She peeked through the peephole again. Sure enough, it was the Jerome Monroe who had been featured recently on the cover of Minnesota Business magazine.
“What kind of property?” she asked through the door.
Jerome Monroe shifted the briefcase to his other hand. She saw him visibly sag at her question. She almost felt sorry for him. It was a cold night and her stingy landlord would not turn on the heat in the hallways until the first snow, and the lawyer wasn’t wearing an overcoat or gloves.
“Mrs. Barrett, please let me in. I promise it will be worth your while.” He paused, then continued. “I think we’ve met before at the charity auctions for the children’s hospital. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”
That hadn’t even occurred to her. She worked out every day at her home gym and swam laps four times a week. Correction. Had worked out. But she was still reasonably fit. Her Spartan diet certainly hadn’t added any weight to her five-foot-seven-inch frame. And walking up and down the stairs twice a day and to and from the bus stop kept her in reasonably good shape. Jerome Monroe was decades older than her. She could take him. Unless he had a gun. Or what if he had an accomplice who was lurking out of site?
Stop it right now Abby! You are being insane, not to mention ridiculous.
She turned the three locks on the door and stepped aside to let him in.
Jerome Monroe walked into the apartment and blinked at her in surprise, and Abby realized he was probably not expecting to find her in an evening gown. The juxtaposition of the colorful dress against the shabbiness of the apartment almost made her laugh.
Jerome Monroe held out his hand and she accepted it. “It’s nice to see you again,” he said. “Can we sit down and talk?”
She nodded, and glided over to the small table where she invited him to take a seat.
“Can I get you a glass of tap water?” she asked, always the gracious hostess. “Or maybe you’d prefer a glass of tap water?”
As she had hoped, Jerome Monroe laughed. She had broken the ice, and with that accomplished, Abby sat down opposite him and waited for him to tell his story.
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