Alex paid rapt attention to Polly’s abbreviated bio of Joanna and Sam’s almost twenty-year friendship until she described Sam as Joanna’s imaginary friend. Then, he zoned out. He didn’t ascribe to the belief that ghosts, witches, guardian angels, and imaginary friends walked among the living.
When Polly realized that Alex’s mind was wandering, she stopped in mid-sentence and rose to her feet. “I have something I think you should see. Help yourself to another cup of coffee. I won’t be long.”
Alex found the situation extremely uncomfortable. In truth he wished that he had not called Polly. It would be disrespectful to make an excuse and leave since he had initiated the meeting. He found it perplexing that woman as level-headed as Polly would believe in supernatural beings.
When she reentered the kitchen, she was carrying a photo album.
“I haven’t seen an album since I was a kid.”
She laughed. “I’m not surprised. Enlightened people find photo albums archaic. The old and young of today are more apt to take selfies and flip through photos on a smart phone. I prefer a good camera and old-fashioned photo albums. On a rainy or snowy day, nothing makes me happier than to make a cup of hot cocoa, curl up with a blanket and browse through my albums. I have four.
“I inherited an album my folks put together when Charles, Tamara and I were growing up. Tamara and I were two years apart in age. We were close, but not as close as we might have been because she was born with a heart condition. She was restricted from participating in strenuous activities and sports, but she was an avid fan of tennis and volleyball. She was my greatest cheerleader, but there were times when I could see tears in her eyes because she didn’t have the strength to participate in sports. She died when I was fourteen. Charles was born two years after her death, so I never really knew him as a child. The album helps keep my memories of Tamara alive, and I have been able to see Charles grow up.
“I have two albums that contain miscellaneous photos of events and people who have shared my life. The fourth contains photos of Joanna’s artwork.” She placed the album she was carrying on the table, opened it, and turned it so Alex could see the drawing inside. “The drawing was done by Joanna when she was five. Natalie didn’t save her drawings, so the one you see is the only early drawing left.
“When Joanna was grieving for her mother, she disappeared into her own make-believe world, a world she shared with her dad and me through her drawings. She began taping her artwork to the walls in her bedroom. As you might expect, the fastidious Mrs. Sims was furious. Fortunately, Charles intervened, purchased two over-sized bulletin boards, and installed the boards in her bedroom.” She turned the page. “The photos on the facing pages were taken three months after the boards were installed.”
Charles gazed at the photos in disbelief. “Her drawings are amazing. She is truly gifted.”
Polly nodded. “As I recall, she didn’t name her fantasy land, but when I asked about her drawings she said that every person needed a happy place.”
“That is especially true for children who are dependent on the adults who are unstable. It makes sense that a sad and lonely child would prefer to spend his or her time in a magical land filled with whimsical creatures, magnificent waterfalls and days that are filled with sunshine.”
“Sounds like Utopia to me. Over the years, Joanna’s talent was recognized by the art community. She won dozens of special awards and blue ribbons. If you would like to look at the album more closely, feel free to keep it for a few days.”
“Thank you Polly, but if I leave the album with you, I have an excuse to come see you again.”
“Alex, you don’t need an excuse. Now, if you will turn to the last three pages of the album, you will find snapshots of Joanna’s classroom.”
“It looks as though Joanna has created a second fantasy land. What an exciting environment for learning.” He paused, then looked up from the album and locked eyes with Polly. “There has to be a story behind the Ask Sam board.”
Polly explained how Joanna used the board as a learning tool.
“Hm-m. Her friend Sam looks vaguely familiar.”
“He should. If you need a better description of him, look in a mirror. The two of you look enough alike to be twins.”
Alex’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“When I met you, I wondered if Sam was playing a trick on me. He’s a trickster at heart. There is one detail that can’t be seen in the photograph. Sam has a small mole on his right cheek, I believed the placement of the mole was unique to Sam until I met you.”
Puzzled, Alex asked, “You have seen him?”
“Once. The day of Joanna’s high school graduation, I noticed an unfamiliar young man standing with a group of her friends. Something seemed off. Even though the other young people were joking and laughing, no one spoke to him. I mentioned their rudeness to Joanna, and she laughed. She told me not to worry about Sam, that he was a great listener. The truth is he likes to eavesdrop.”
“That’s obviously why he likes to investigate crimes. Has Charles seen Sam?”
“No, but he has talked to him. I have been given credit for convincing Charles to let Joanna live with me after her mom’s death. I did make the suggestion, but it was Sam who convinced Charles. Sam accused Charles of being an irresponsible father. Charles would never share the rest of their conversation, but whatever he said built a fire under Charles. He moved Joanna into my home shortly after his conversation with Sam.
“Their second conversation took place after Joanna was pushed into traffic. Sam identified Chip Singleton as her assailant. He gave Charles the license number of Chip’s car, described the clothes Chip was wearing, and described the two witnesses.”
“Two witnesses who didn’t see Chip’s face. The worst part of this current situation is that Chip is free to cause all kinds of havoc. If he is not stopped, he will eventually end up dead or someone else will.”
“Is that your phone?”
“The call can wait.”
“Take it Alex. The call might be important.