The hands of the mantel clock were inching toward two forty-five, when shortly after putting Mary to bed, Angelia, handing Michael sheets, blankets and a pillow had also retired suggesting that Michael too, should get some rest.
The weather was just the way he liked it, clear and cold, with billions of stars sending twinkling diamonds of light cascading across the endless sky. What he needed was a breath of fresh air to clear the fog from his head so he could sleep.
Grabbing his coat off a chair, Michael took the path that started at the cul-de-sac just down the alley from Carter’s gas station, ran past Angelia’s, and ended at the old Gilfords mansion. The path also had a zillion branches that led from the Gilfords Estate to every building, boulder, cabin, shed and tree stump on the once magnificent, thriving estate.
He stopped to contemplate the giant red and black sign with all our Memories lane written upon it. The sign had appeared the day after the abduction of Caroline’s granddaughter, Mary Sue Jackson Gilfords, his sister and four other children.
Michael deep in thought, had walked the length of the lane and was now standing in front of the huge dilapidated old Manor House. The place had known many names, but Michael knew it as either Gilfords Hall or Gilfords Manor.
The house had been built in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds with money acquired from an enormous gold strike. The owner’s family having moved into the manor house, had given the twenty eight room refurbished cottage to the overseer, his wife and their twelve children, where generations later, their descendants still lived.
Years later, twenty three year old Cole Michael Gilfords had married his sweetheart, sixteen year old Caroline Ann Storm.
He had, upon his marriage, inherited the Gilfords Mansion, millions of dollars worth of land and other holdings, stocks, bonds, jewelry, and nine-hundred-ninety-nine-million, nine- hundred-eighty-six-thousand, six-hundred-seventy-three dollars from his great, great, great Grandfather, for whom Cole had been named shortly before the old man’s death.
The grandchildren of the old man’s half brothers and sisters on Cole’s mother’s side had venomously contested the inheritance. After losing the court battle, they’d sworn vengeance on the young couple.
The Gilfords only grandchild Mary, had as a toddler called the mansion, Gran friend’s house, which had gradually changed to Gilfords Hall or Gilfords Manor as she became older. The Manor in its hey-day and not so distant past, had been a happy place filled with love, laughter, family and friends.
Michael’s thoughts drifted back to the events that had led to the sad condition of the once beautiful estate now standing empty and forlorn in the moonlight, badly in need of repair.
On that fateful day, as Mary Sue Gilfords Jackson celebrated her fifth birthday, happiness had suddenly turned to sorrow. Tragedy had, not only raised its ugly head to strike the Gilfords, but five other guests at Mary’s party.
The weather had been bright, clear and warm, with the guests arriving at exactly two-thirty that afternoon. The party games over, Caroline had taken the children’s photos, with a new-fangled camera that developed the pictures as fast as she could take them! The photos were to be a special memento from Mary to her little friends.
In each photo, a little girl wearing a long pink dress was sitting between two beautiful, life size china dolls at a little child’s table. The exception was Maggie kneeling beside Mary in her photo. The dolls were a gift to Mary from her adoring Grandparents, and little Red whom her parents were in the last stages of adopting.
Approximately one hundred feet beyond the Mansion, her Grandfather had built Mary a beautiful garden playground for her fourth birthday. His little princess loved her garden and when not in the great hall or at home, she spent many happy hours there with her friends.
Everyone had laughed when he’d built a ten-foot high twenty-inch thick brick wall around the whole five acre garden. “It’s to keep the wee-ones from wandering away and getting lost,” he’d say in his own defense, whenever anyone would tease him about it.
The only way into the garden, was through a specifically designed gate that had locked and coded security pads built into it. The gate faced the house, and was connected to the same highly sophisticated alarm system used to protect the valuable livestock Cole was famous for the world over. Even though Caroline and Maggie had teased him about being overly protective, he’d smiled and hooked the alarm up anyway.
Cole had filled the garden with miniature fruit trees, benches, slides, and swings. Then to Mary’s utter delight, he had added an electrically run, miniature, ten passenger, riding train, a large underground train station, and several tunnels, bridges and overpasses.
Mary loved all of her garden paradise, but best of all she loved the three story nine hundred square foot, heated castle and train her grandfather had built just for his little Princess.
The children would have almost thirty minutes to play before their parents arrived at four fifteen to pick them up. Thinking they would be safe they had locked the children in the garden as they had several times in the past.
They had then removed the party remains from the picnic area to the kitchen, while Maggie and Karen ran into Beasley to collect a much-anticipated gift that had just arrived for Mary.
They’d returned to the garden approximately six minutes later. The children were gone! It was as if they’d vanished into thin air! In a state of shock they had called the sheriff. His deputies and he had arrived shortly before the children’s parents, and moments before the sun suddenly disappeared.
Almost immediately the sky had filled with huge black clouds. The clouds had turned dark and ugly as the heavens opened pouring torrents of rain from the sky. The howling wind had whipped about them so fiercely they had been forced to make a mad dash to the house or be blown away! It was as if the very heavens themselves mourned the children’s disappearance.
Mary’s grandfather, Cole Michael Gilfords, had hired the Morrison detective agency to find the missing children. He had also offered a one million five hundred thousand dollar reward for any information leading to the capture of the kidnappers and the whereabouts of the children.
Two months after posting the reward every parent except Maggie, had received the photo Caroline had taken at the party, and a ransom note demanding five million dollars.
Six months later, a man claiming to be affiliated with the Morrison Detective Agency, had inform the Gilfords that a brown and yellow camper was under their surveillance. He then insinuated that no arrests or rescues could be made until they arrived to make an identification.
Maggie, Kevin, Karen and Kyle had immediately left for the Gilfords private jet. They had just charted their flight plan when a social worker arrived with their son Randy.
They had no sooner said their goodbyes to Caroline and Cole and boarded the plane, then another caseworker had arrived to inform them that the judge had signed the wrong papers.
Because the adoption wasn’t final after all, Randy would not be allowed to leave the state or go with them to bring his sister home. Heart sick at not being able to accompany his parents, Little Red, Grandma Caroline and Grampa Cole had watched the plane taxi down the runway, then lift into the air, when they heard what sounded like a sonic boom. Moments later the plane exploded in midair lighting up the sky and killing everyone on board.
A thorough police investigation proved what everyone had suspected, but no one wanted to believe. The explosion was no accident. Someone had deliberately planted a bomb on board the plane.
It seemed the kidnappers had done their work well. The life seemed to go out of the old man. His only child and little princess were gone. His heart was shattered into a million pieces. Less than a year after the loss of his beloved Maggie and his little princess, he had quietly put all his affairs in order, kissed his wife long and lovingly, then gone to bed never to awake.
The Morrison Detective Agency had quickly filed a disclaimer stating they had no knowledge whatsoever of either the sighting or the phone calls that had led to the tragic deaths of the four young people.
Michael was eleven the year his mother had dragged him along with her to drop his five year old sister off at Mary’s party. He had fiercely protested going, until Mary had graciously greeted them at the door, a vision of loveliness in a long pink dress and matching slippers. One look at the lovely Mary, and his heart had nearly leapt from his chest.
I’ve met many Mary’s in my line of work, so why does this particular Mary conjured up so many oddly stirring, half-forgotten memories? He wondered. Then there’s that ridiculous conversation between Caroline and Angelia! What in the world is going on! What am I missing? He asked himself for what seemed the millionth time that night.
Recalculating the possibilities, he suddenly realized a piece of the puzzle was still missing, but what piece?
He’d listened, as Angelia practically demanded her old friend and employer return immediately. Listening to her you’d think Caroline’s very existence hinged on her returning to Gilfords Falls.
He’d nearly laughed when Angelia had insisted she could care less if Caroline came home or not. He’d keep his fingers crossed that Angelia’s reverse psychology had worked, he sure would like to see Caroline again.
An incident from earlier that day flashed through his mind. Mary had fainted, when he picked her up, he’d seen something fall from her pocket. In his mind’s eye, he could see an old photo, a card, something. Whatever it was, Michael would bet the farm it was very important to Mary, and that she’d held on to it for a very long time.
Suddenly he knew what the other piece of the puzzle was. After he’d laid Mary onto the daybed, whatever she’d dropped had disappeared from the floor. He’d meant to ask Angelia about it, but the incident had slipped his mind until now.
The lane was the only direct path to Gilfords Manor, but he hadn’t returned since the tragic day the girls had disappeared. He could have taken any of the other paths. Why had he chosen this one, and why was he there?
Michael suddenly felt so very tired, it felt as if the weight of the world had suddenly snuck right up and settled onto his shoulders. He hadn’t cleared his head by taking a walk. He’d opened the proverbial can of worms! He didn’t know if he wanted to explore them or not.
He felt as if something ugly, dangerous and evil, had suddenly appeared and was standing beside him taking his measure. Glancing uneasily around, he almost ran as he quickly hurried away.