Chapter 1 Fall had set in and trees yielded leaves that were beautiful shades of reds, yellows and browns. It was late October and the temperature was at least ten degrees below normal for this time of year and for North Carolina. The forecasters had called for rain showers and high winds. It was not the news George and Michelle Bradley wanted to hear. The couple had spent the last couple of days doing yard work and raking leaves from their two-acre, tree-lined property. The newsletter that accompanied the monthly water bill had instructions for residents in the neighborhood to have their leaves raked and on the curb by the first of November and the city would pick them up any time between November and January. Michelle thought it was silly for there to be such a stretch of time before the leaves were picked up. Experience had taught them that the city’s leaf collection workers would always show up when there were no leaves by the side of the street. When they did put the leaves by the curb, the collectors would take forever to pick them up, and by then, they would have blown all over the yard, into the lake out back, down the street, and anywhere else the wind took them. Another thing Michelle thought was silly—George. With all the garden tools and machinery he had in the shed and garage, she didn’t know why he didn’t just mulch or bag the darn leaves. However, George was the King of his castle, or so she let him believe that he was. He had to do things his way—no matter how impractical. “All that hard work gone to waste,” Michelle mumbled to herself as she looked out the bay window in their eat-in kitchen. “What’d you say?” George asked, entering the open kitchen and placing a glass in the dishwasher. He joined his wife in the window and put his arm around her waist. “The wind blew our leaf piles away.” “I knew I should have mulched or bagged them,” he said. Michelle looked at him and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. The couple played the game often. Michelle would suggest something and George, being a man, thinking he knew everything, would not take her advice, and later act as if he was the one who had the thought of the great idea. A car door caught their attention. They both repositioned themselves in front of the window as not to be seen. The house across the street had been vacant for three months now. It would be an understatement to say the Bradleys were happy to see their former neighbors go. They lived in an affluent neighborhood in Greensboro where properties sat on generous acreage. The houses were large in stature and square footage, and they were made of brick and stone. Landscapes were neatly groomed and lush, and everyone took pride in where they lived. Unfortunately, the house across the street was a rental. Michelle never cared for sharing her living space with renters. Many of them did not care about the property they leased—it was not theirs. People did not take pride in things they did not have to work for. The Bradleys lived on a cul-de-sac, and from the kitchen window, could see the front of their neighbor’s house. It was a bit smaller than theirs was—a different make and model—and a three-car garage was on the side of the house. There was a long driveway that curved from the street, one slab leading to the garage bay and another that winded to the back of the house. On the side of one slab was a grassy area. It used to be nice. The owner had planted flowerbeds, a few shrubs and a couple of small Japanese maple trees. The former tenants had destroyed them all, housing junk cars and other debris. Michelle could not remember a time when the renters took it upon themselves to cut the lawn or care for the landscaping. The owners of the property drove from miles away on a regular basis to keep up what they could. Then there were the teenagers. They were in and out of the front door far too much, leaving the wrought iron screen door swinging freely in the wind. No one stopped to close the door, so on occasion, the Bradleys would hear it clapping against the exterior of the home. If the wind was blowing hard, it would sound like a gun shot. This kind of riff-raff brought down the property values of their suburban neighborhood. The owner had been cited several times by the city after several complaints from the neighbors. But that didn’t seem to matter. The tenants just did not give a damn. Eventually, the owners had to evict them. George and Michelle watched as a large U-Haul backed into the driveway and parked in front of the garage. Two other cars pulled onto the front lawn, a black newer model Chevy Suburban and an old blue Chevy Celebrity. Michelle held her breath as she and George waited to see who would exit the vehicles. They wanted to see whom they would be sharing their space with. First out of what appeared to be an eighty-seven Chevy Celebrity—Michelle knew cars pretty well and used to own one back in the day—was a middle-aged Black man. He looked like he was about five-foot seven inches and weighed somewhere around two-hundred and twenty pounds. His unkempt afro rose two inches above his head. He wore a blue and white basketball jersey, jeans, and white tennis shoes. His dark skinned showed either years of hard work or years of neglect. “Ohhh, he’s as dark as midnight,” Michelle commented. “You need to stop,” George said. “But he is a bit dark.” They both chuckled as they continued to watch the scene across the street unfold. Two teenage boys and a young girl exited the passenger sides of the SUV, while a light-skinned woman exited the driver’s side. Another bright-skinned woman exited the U-Haul, while two young, black males exited the passenger side of the moving truck. George and Michelle gave each other a puzzled look. “There goes the neighborhood,” Michelle said. “Well, we actually don’t know if they’ll all be living there,” George said giving the strangers the benefit of the doubt. Michelle wasn’t so sure. She knew no one dressed up while moving boxes and furniture, but these people looked downright dirty, extra dirty. After the previous tenants had destroyed the house and moved out, the owner had to pay thousands of dollars to return it to rentable condition. She had told Michelle months before, that due to the fall of the economy and the housing market, she and her husband couldn’t sell the house without suffering a huge financial loss. They owned two other properties and lived on a twenty acre-farm in Boone, North Carolina. Michelle told her that if she continued to rent to unsavory tenants, she would be out of more money than had she sold it for a loss. Paying for major repairs and constant fees and fines, the costs mounted. Not to mention the times when the tenants could not or would pay the rent. Michelle could not tell if they had been spotted through the blinds, but one of the older boys began to put on a show. He started dancing and performing what appeared to be the Holy Ghost. She knew that dance anywhere. The boy’s Holy Ghost façade faded as he turned into R. Kelly. He started bobbing his head and gyrating around, humping his stuff into the air. Michelle could not believe her eyes. “What in the world is he doing?” George asked. “Faking the Holy Ghost and acting a fool,” she answered. “And going straight to hell.” The young man finally stopped dancing and unlocked the side door to the house that was right next to the garage bay. He entered and reappeared through the open garage doors. One of the men backed the U-haul in front of the double bay garage doors, and moments later, the Bradleys could hear the back of the U-Haul lifting. Michelle sucked her teeth as they watched the other teenage boy, who looked like he was eighteen or nineteen. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the side of the moving truck. He took long, slow puffs as he scoured the neighborhood. He was tall and slim, had short dreadlocks and his dirty white t-shirt and jeans were torn. He had so many tattoos it was hard to tell where they ended and his actual skin color began. “I bet he just got out of jail,” Michelle guessed. “I bet they both just got out of jail. Thank God we’ve got ADT, Louisville Slugger and ammonia.” Michelle had not added that fact that she had purchased a taser and stun gun without George’s knowledge. “You and your ammonia,” he laughed. Laugh all you want, she thought to herself. She knew if she sprayed ammonia in someone’s face it would disable them just enough to give her a chance to get away. She kept a bottle handy on the inside of her nightstand cabinet and other strategic locations around the house. Ammonia was not just for cleaning. She used it to kill bugs and anything else she needed it for. In addition, if she needed to use it as a weapon against an intruder, then so be it. “You’re not even giving them a chance. They haven’t even finished moving in yet.” “I’m telling you George, I don’t have a good feeling about these people.” Michelle left the window and went to the kitchen island to pour herself a cup of coffee. She liked it with two packets of Splenda and two tablespoons of cream. She could drink it without the sugar, but not without the cream. “And you know,” she said in between sips,”I’m seldom wrong about these things. My intuition has never failed me.” “I know babe, but I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt.” Michelle returned to her spot in the window and handed George a cup of coffee. He took his any way it was given to him. He said thank you as he always did. They continued their surveillance. The young man with the cigarette took one last puff and flicked it into the grass. “Not even moved in, and already littering. I’m telling you, those boys are trouble,” Michelle warned. While the other men did whatever they were doing in the U-Haul and the garage, the two young men removed several storage chests, boxes and over sized trash bags from the SUV. Moments later, the U-Haul, pulled away from the garage bay and parked on the street in front of the home. “What? No furniture? That’s mighty odd.” “Michelle, stop it. Maybe they have to make multiple trips, or just maybe they’re going to buy new furniture.” George was always the voice of reason. Michelle, on the other hand, was always suspecting and she was usually right. George always tried to find the good in everyone. In light of daily news reports and tragedy in the world, Michelle stayed on high alert. Besides, she was good at reading people. George decided to take a break from spying on their new neighbors. He found his way to the double oven and opened the top door. He inhaled the simmering pot roast that was surrounded by potatoes, carrots, onions, jalapenos and bubbling gravy. “MmMmm. Baby, you know I love your roast!” he said taking in the flavorful aroma with his eyes closed. “Which one?” Michelle teased. He smiled and gave her a smack on her backside. “Don’t be starting nothing woman.” Michelle decided to take a break from spying and checked the homemade gluten free zucchini bread that was baking in the lower oven. Even though she still cooked meat for George, she was a self-proclaimed vegetarian. Earlier, she had made stuffed portabella mushrooms with blue cheese and vegetable dressing. She just couldn’t go all the way Vegan. She didn’t mind giving up meat, it really wasn’t hard. But there was no way she was going to give up eggs and cheese. She shut the stove and as soon as she had done so, she was nearly jolted out of her skin. A continuous boom shook the house. “What in the world?” George asked as he looked out the window. “Like I said, there goes the neighborhood.” “Is that them?” he asked. “Yes sir.” The two teenage lads had turned the volume in the SUV to a deafening level as horrifying thuds and expletive rap lyrics escaped the shaky speakers. One of the thugs made gestures as if he was an all-star gangster rapper, while the other performed the latest club dance. The young girl exited the house and stood in between the two boys, looking back and forth between them as if she was taking notes. She looked to be nine or ten years of age. The two men who rode in the U-Haul got into the truck and drove away. The woman that drove the U-Haul now sat inside the old Chevy with one of her feet hanging out of the window. “What in the hell?” Michelle gasped. “She’s got her dirty foot hanging out the car window and she doesn’t have any shoes on.” She looked around the neighborhood. And even though there were only a couple of houses in sight from the view from the window, surely she and George were not the only ones watching this scene unravel. “I think you’re right babe,” George sad. “This doesn’t look like it’s going to end well,” he finally agreed. Michelle pried herself from the window and prepared their dinner plates. She sat the plates on serving trays in the great room. George blessed the food and they ate, watched television and discussed their new neighbors. George and Michelle both had children from previous marriages. George’s son was thirty years old, and Michelle had a twenty-four year old son and a twenty-nine year old daughter. They had been married for ten years and despite the old wives tale about the seven-year itch, their marriage was as strong as ever. Michelle was a retired financial advisor, but owned her own marketing firm. George was retired from the United States Air Force and was soon to retire from the post office. They had met at a party that was given by a mutual friend. George said when he laid eyes on her, he knew, then and there, Michelle was going to be his wife. He instantly fell in love with her smooth brown skin, dark brown eyes and hourglass figure. Michelle, on the other hand, was not so sure. George was not her type. He was tall and built like a linebacker. She did not go for the athletic type. Nevertheless, it worked out because they had been hitched at the hip ever since. Even though they worked well together, George and Michelle were as different as night and day. Michelle was usually a serious straight shooter who rarely held her tongue. She didn’t like sugar coating anything and she didn’t like people who took forever to make a point. She believed a person should get the point. She did not need the storytelling or theatrics. If she wanted that, she would read a book. George on the other hand, was a laid-back type of person. He was always nice to people, always spoke, and was more forgiving. This also opened the door for him to be more non-suspecting, a target for people to take advantage of. Sometimes it irritated his wife, but she dealt with it because she needed one of them to keep her out of jail. They both loved football. They were avid football fans. If it was football Sunday, it had better be life or death for a person to call them on the phone or knock on their door. Michelle was a die-hard, proud, shout it from the mountain top, Dallas Cowboys fan. She had been since she was a small child. She was from Denver, Colorado, but her family was from East Texas. Nobody had better not say anything bad about America’s Team because she could trash talk with the best of them. Ironically, George was from Atlantic City, but he loved the Denver Broncos. Even though Michelle was from Denver, she never liked them. She could remember her days as an insurance examiner. It was nothing for her and her team of employees to have lunch or dinner with John Elway and his wife. Michelle’s employer performed the super star and his wife’s insurance physicals every year, or every time John increased his life insurance. They were good friends, but Michelle had made it known, she was not an Orange Crush fan. John told her it was okay, he wouldn’t hold it against her as long as she continued to pass him on his insurance physicals, and she did. But it was all him, he was in tip-top shape. Another difference between George and Michelle was that George loved watching reality television. He was always trying to tell Michelle what the characters had done on one of the Real Housewives franchises, or give her the recap of some other garbage show. Each time she would tell him she did not want to hear it. She still could not believe he watched that crap. Then there were the history shows. George was a history buff and he made it known. Michelle always warned people that if they asked George a question, they had better be ready for the back-story. You could ask him, “Honey, what year did George Washington become president?” and he would say, “1789. You know who his father was right? And you also know he chopped down a cherry tree while his wife was in labor.” Michelle always responded, “I asked you one simple question, I didn’t want to know all that.” Nevertheless, he would do it every time, no matter what was asked of him. He knew history like the back of his hand. Michelle did not like watching much television, but when she did, she watched HGTV, the Food Network and crime shows. NCIS was among her favorites. She would always tease George and tell him if Mark Harmon asked her to leave him, she would go in a heartbeat. One of their biggest differences, Michelle was a staunch Republican and George was a diehard Democrat, which made for some interesting conversation in the Bradley household. He argued about how Republicans were only willing to help the rich and what big idiots they were, while Michelle argued that democrats were lazy and always looking for a hand out. They had never put political signs in their yard, but they were the talk of the neighborhood when George posted a Barrack Obama sign in the yard back in 2007. He was the first African-American president and George was proud. Michelle could not be outdone, a John McCain sign followed soon after, but truth be told, for the first time in her voting life, she voted for a democratic president. Yes, she voted for President Barack Obama. These were some of the reasons the two worked so well, they were just so darn interesting. George would be retiring from the United States Postal Service in less than two years. Michelle had already retired from her financial career in corporate America, but turned right around and opened a marketing firm. However, she informed George that as soon as he retired, she would be closing shop. They both loved to travel and did so often. They kept a collection of artifacts and mementos from their excursions. They had been to several states around the country, to the Bahamas, France, Italy, Africa, Australia, Hong Kong and Dubai. “Would you like another glass of wine sir?” Michelle asked her husband. “Yes, please. Thank you.” George was always so polite and rarely did a bad word leave his lips. It was one of the few things Michelle disliked about him. She could not understand how, during some of the direst of situations, George could stay so calm, while she, on the other hand, blew her top. Every now and then, she wanted him to get angry, say a curse word or something. The closest he came to curse words were hell and damn, and when he used those two words, she knew something was wrong. Michelle looked out the window, on her way to the kitchen. It had gotten awfully quiet across the street. No one was outside the house, until she looked a bit closer. “Can you believe that crazy woman is still sitting in that car with her foot hanging out the window?” “Maybe she’s dead?” George joked. “Dead people don’t smoke cigarettes.” Michelle returned with the entire bottle of wine and topped off both their glasses. They were also wine connoisseurs. Not professional, but they had built a wine cellar in the walk-out basement and it housed three-hundred bottles of wine. They loved going to wine tastings, and with over one hundred wineries in North Carolina, they had several to choose from. They weren’t experts yet, but they were having fun learning. Besides wine, the Bradleys did not drink any other alcohol and that included beer. Wine made Michelle slumber sometimes and she did not need anything else complicating her sometimes-cloudy judgment. After dinner and CNN, and after taking a couple’s shower, Michelle made the trek down stairs and into the kitchen to take her evening medication. LED lights from the floorboards illuminated and guided her path. She gave herself a shot of insulin and took her other medications before rinsing the glass she had used and placing it in the dishwasher. She turned it on and headed to join George in their bedroom. On the way, she stopped and peeked through the blinds. She could not see much, but she could see that crazy woman, still sitting in the old Chevy, with her foot hanging out the window.