The Lucky Winner

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Chapter 32

I needed to get my parents out of the house so that I could investigate their room.

Conveniently, we received a call from the police station the next morning, informing us that Kyle’s bail hearing in court was scheduled for that day.

My parents rushed to get ready to go to court. I had no idea what could happen at the hearing but I knew two things for a fact: one, I needed more clues; and two, I didn’t have much time to find them.

I heard Dad talking to the number one defense lawyer in Bismarck, which was approximately two hours away from our town. He was urgently requesting that the attorney visit Kyle before the hearing. I didn’t know how much they were paying for that courtesy but I knew money wasn’t the issue. Dad made sure the lawyer convinced Kyle to never plead guilty, so they could bail him out. I couldn’t see why Kyle would plead not guilty after confessing to the crime himself, but I supposed that was why the best defense lawyer was there. I knew paying the bail wouldn’t be a problem, so once he pleaded not guilty, time would be up for me. He’d be released from police custody, and that would mark the end of my life. I’d be forced to say sayonara for my little life and embrace my new role as a fugitive inside the cuckoo’s nest.

I slowly began remembering all my complaints and demands from my teenage years. I wanted to take them back so desperately. I wished I could go back in time and just appreciate my former little life in my little den in our little house. It wasn’t so bad. I had plenty of great laughs with my besties. I never starved. I couldn’t compete with Sophia, but I could afford sufficient clothes—enough to keep my popular girl status at school.

I wished Mom had never won that damn money.

I looked at Mom. She looked like a zombie without the ability to think any longer. She somehow managed to retain one memory—to get to the court. I didn’t hear her say one word during the entire morning.

I figured, by then, she probably suspected her son was involved in something nefarious. Either Jerry’s murder—if he were telling the truth—or the theft, or Misty’s death. But she was his mother. Without knowing it for a fact, because I’d never been a mother, it was commonly said that children were the apples of their mother’s eyes. Mothers would do anything to protect their children and go to any extreme. Even if that might have included helping them cover up their crimes…

“Ella, hurry up and get ready.” Dad’s voice gave me a little jolt.

“I’m not going to the court. I have school,” I lied. How could I miss such a perfect opportunity to snoop around? Well, perfect wasn’t quite the right word. It was my only opportunity.

“You don’t need to go to school. That’s not important right now.”

Of course he didn’t give a damn about school. Sure. Mom and Dad had a thing about school attendance. They never allowed me to skip school unless my temperature exceeded 103 degrees. Since I never had fevers, I used to warm the thermometer up in my hand to fake my fevers. So, sure, school was not important to him.

But, I supposed, when you were about to flee the country, school would be the last thing that mattered.

“No, I really don’t want to miss class. Grades are important to me. You taught me that.” Perhaps it was a bit too much over acting, since I’d never said anything like that in my life before. Even worse still, my exaggerated expression was as bad as those actresses in the cheesy soap operas. Boy, did I really think I could succeed in Hollywood.

Dad’s gaze held mine a bit longer than I wished.

“Please,” I made a sad face. I couldn’t fail no matter what.

“Okay, but come home as soon as it ends. You know the plan.”

Maybe I did have a chance of succeeding in Hollywood, after all!

After they left, I got right down to business. There was no time to waste. I entered my parents’ bedroom with my pink gloves on.

I knew I had to be very careful and move everything back to where it was. I couldn’t risk making Mom freak out anymore than she already had. Well, the zombie version of Mom might not have been as OCD as it was human. At any rate, it was better to be safe than sorry.

I began my search. What was I looking for in their room exactly? I wasn’t sure. I supposed, it could have been anything. Anything that might possibly lead me to something. All I knew was there was no time to debate over what made sense and what did not. After all, everything that had been happening since the day of Mom’s winning made absolutely no sense.

I started with their drawers and closets. I looked between the neatly folded clothes inside the dresser. It was a bit of work because I had to fold those clothes just as neatly afterwards. I didn’t have to do that with Kyle’s messy room.

Spending a full two hours inspecting the entire room from one edge to the other, nothing peculiar was found. I was exhausted. I wasn’t OCD like Mom so I had no idea how energy-consuming it was to put everything back in exactly the same place, and exactly the way it was. I wondered—where did Mom’s side of the family genes go? We were supposed to inherit our genes from both parents. I wasn’t at all detail-oriented, and Kyle was even further from it. Anyway…

I yanked the door open and a jacket that was hanging on the door fell off. It was Dad’s. That day’s temperature was almost a record high, and he didn’t need to bring his jacket. I reached to pick it up, and noticed something peeking out of the pocket. I pulled it out. There were four pictures. Our family pictures.

I didn’t know Dad carried around our pictures. That’s kinda sweet, I guess, I thought.

Then my eyes grew larger and couldn’t blink.

I realized the pictures fit the descriptions that Mom claimed were stolen. Four of us in front of Cinderella Castle at Disneyland, in front of the hospital where I was born, etc…

Mom had surely told him about the missing pictures, hadn’t she? If he were the one who took them, why wouldn’t he have told her he did?

Thing were getting beyond strange.

Ding.

My phone rang. I put the pictures back in the pocket, and hung the jacket back on the door before I left the room.

It was a text message from Dad.

The judge decided on the bail amount. Ten million. We’re good.

Crap.

Kyle was getting out.

As a standard rule, there was no right to bail when it came to charges of first degree murder. However, the judge took into account that there was no substantial evidence whatsoever to support Kyle’s confession.

I had no idea how they got him to plead not guilty. But again, they’d gotten the best defense lawyer all the way from the state capital. I knew for a fact, though, that Kyle would have never settled for leaving Sophia in her holding cell. They probably had some kind of an arrangement to bail Sophia out of there as well.

That was when I noticed I’d missed a million text messages from Zoe. She’d found out about Sophia. She was wondering where I was, desperately wanting to talk to me. I suddenly felt like a horrible friend. Being too preoccupied with my own investigation, I’d momentarily forgotten about Zoe.

It was evident that once my parents bailed both Kyle and Sophia out of jail, it would most certainly unveil the mystery of the century. Now we were practically announcing to the whole town that we had millions of dollars and that we were, indeed, the lucky winner.

First things first. Right at the moment, I had to focus on my latest finding—Dad’s strange behavior of secretly taking our pictures from the albums. Determined to search the entire house, I raised my head. Who knew when I could be all alone in the house again?

I sent Zoe a quick text; Sophia’s safe and out of jail. I’ll tell you more later. I promise.

As I hit send, my eyes traveled toward the window, and I begged God this wouldn’t be the last text I could send to Zoe.

My heart stopped—well, almost—when I saw a glimpse of a shadow outside the window. It looked like a bald head. It was gone in a flash. Suddenly feeling very vulnerable, I ducked down low and tiptoed over to the alarm system’s keypad. I quietly punched in our code, so if someone broke in, they’d set it off. Supposedly.

I hid where nobody could see me from any of the windows, literally holding my breath, as if they could hear me breathing through the wall. I tried to think—who could be snooping around our house? The only people I could think of were Zoe, Detective Lake, or the cyber criminals who were stealing our money. Surely Zoe wasn’t bald. Neither was Detective Lake.

My eyes searched for a weapon. I knew Mom had a baseball bat in her closet, but it was way too cliche. I predicted a five percent chance of my winning, tops, as I assessed the odds of possibly fighting a big, bald man with tongue rings and tattoos.

So then, what could I use? Knives. My eyes darted toward the kitchen. There were four knives in the knife stand. I could crawl over there and grab one of them. But there was also a very good chance he would grab it from me before stabbing me with it. That sounded so much worse than getting hit by a baseball bat.

Heck, what should I do?

I wished my parents had insisted I train in martial arts when I was a kid.

Tap, tap.

I flinched at hearing a sudden knock at the front door. I took a moment to think. And I knew I had to make it record short. Would criminals knock before breaking in?

Most likely not.

But wait. Criminals nowadays might think outside the box. Just like all the technology companies constantly coming up with new revolutionary ideas, criminals had to be smarter and more unpredictable. So knocking on the door could have been their new MO.

But wait a second here. Wasn’t it only logical to check and see if anyone were home before robbing a house? So maybe it wasn’t such revolutionary thinking. It was simply what they’d always been doing.

I realized that my brain didn’t work very well under dire circumstances. If I were forced to make a decision when I wanted to pee really badly, I’d probably pick the poorest choice of my life, like picking a pencil case over a gold ingot.

There was another knock.

Okay, a cautious thief it is.

I had two choices: Ignore the door or open it—well, how obvious was that?

If I ignored it, the criminal would break in, find me and kill me. Or kidnap me and sell me on the sex slave market. If he wore a mask and I couldn’t see his face, he might be convinced to let me go. But honestly, I’d never heard of any criminals robbing people’s houses with funny masks on, like they did when they robbed banks. If I hid somewhere and he couldn’t find me until the home security company called the police, I supposed I might live and not be sold as a sex slave. But how quickly would the police respond? Think of how slow Officer Jones moved. Chances were, the criminal would find me before the police ever got here. Or the alarm might not go off at all, like it failed to do when Misty broke in.

If I opened it, what would he do? Pretend to be a door-to-door, lawn fertilizer salesman, and leave as soon as I said, No thank you? Or would he figure out I was the only one in the house and tie me to the chair while he robbed the house? He would, no doubt, threaten to kill me if I didn’t stop the alarm. And once he finished robbing the house, he’d probably kill me or sell me anyway.

“Kathleen?”

What?

That voice sounded familiar.

“Are you all right?” the voice said, “It’s me, Matthew.”

Matthew?

Who was Matthew? Who would visit Mom at home, and say, It’s me? Was she having an affair with this Matthew guy? No way. An asteroid would have to hit Earth before that happened.

In any event, it wasn’t our cyber criminal, it seemed like.

A man who knew Mom very well was at the door, wanting to talk to her. Normally, I couldn’t care less about what anyone had to say to her, but at that moment, I could not restrain the urge to talk to this Matthew guy and find out what he wanted.

So I canceled the alarm and opened the door.

“Oh, hi, Ella. I thought I saw someone.”

Our priest, Father Matthew Paul, stood at the door. Sure he was bald, but no tongue rings or tattoos.

“Oh… Father Paul. I forgot your first name was Matthew. And you always go by your last name.” I said awkwardly.

“I heard about Kyle… I wanted to come over to see how you all are.”

That struck me as strange. Well, first of all, I didn’t know he and Mom were on a first-name-basis as friends.

“I know your mother was taking a break from work. So how are you holding up, Ella?”

So he knew Mom hadn’t worked since the hospital. Although rumors spread fast in this town, someone just calling in sick from work didn’t sound like a very exciting topic for gossipers to chat about. I hadn’t gone to church lately and I didn’t know how often my parents went anymore. They used to go every Sunday, but I wasn’t sure if they had been since the whole mess started.

“I’m okay,” I said.

So, evidently, Father Paul thought Mom was inside the house. Alone. Otherwise he wouldn’t have called her name from outside. Was Mom really cheating with him? Could that be possible? Last time I checked, priests weren’t allowed to date.

“So you came here to see my mom?” I asked.

Father Paul looked at me for a second. Maybe I sounded too accusatory. I changed the tone of my voice. “She’s not here. She went to the court with my dad.”

“How are your parents handling that?” asked Father Paul compassionately.

I figured it was better to act as though everything were fine. I didn’t think even a priest had an answer for what was going on and being planned in this house. “I think they’re… okay. The judge set the bail amount. They just texted me.”

“Oh, good. So at least they can bail him out of jail.”

That stopped me for a second. He should have very well known we had no ability to pay bail. Sure, bail amounts always varied, but I was fairly certain a priest could guess an approximate bail amount for a murder charge.

“It’s ten million dollars.”

Father Paul nodded sympathetically. “Did your parents find a lawyer yet?”

Okay, it was official. Father Matthew Paul knew the secret—that we were the lottery winner.

The question was:

Was Father Paul part of the theft?

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