Jeff didn’t see or hear the blue sedan roll into the parking lot through the fog with its lights off. Moments later, he felt the cold steel of a gun pressed behind his ear. Although it was Halloween, this was no trick or treat. Jefferson Smith was being kidnapped.
The old women closed the curtain, laid the pencil down and put the scrap of paper in the pocket of her cardigan. She sat back in her rocker and continued with her knitting, letting her mind drift back 70 years when she was a sixteen-year-old girl. It was Halloween night and she sat at the piano in the Hope Chapel Church practicing her piece for Sunday services, when Homer Potts came busting through the front door, waving his arms and hollering.
“They’re here, the Martians! They’ve landed.”
Terror gripped the citizens of Grover Mills, located in the central part of New Jersey, by the broadcast read over the airwaves by famed radio actor Orson Welles. ‘The Martians had landed in Grovers Mill, New Jersey,’ echoed the melodic voice of Welles, stirring the people of Grovers Mill into action as defenders of the world against the Martian invaders. Not since the Revolutionary War, when reports of Hessian soldiers hiding in George Grovers’ carriage house, did the citizens arm themselves.
Lolly could only think about her mother, home alone.
“And if this is the end of the world,” she feared, “I want to be with her.” Lolly closed the piano and ran home to find her terrified mother glued to the Philco, mesmerized by the pudgy dispassionate voice of Welles, describing the following conditions in Grovers Mill.
“Good heavens,” he cried. “Something’s wriggling out of the shadows like a gray snake. Now there’s another one and another. They have tentacles…ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable.”
Wait a minute. Let’s get back to the present. It’s Halloween and we’re at the Yankee Doodle bar and grill, located inside the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ, where John Cruckle, VP of Geothermal Energy (GEM), is making arrangements for a dinner party in honor of Jefferson Smith’s retirement. The dinner is set for tomorrow night at 8 pm, in the Paul Revere room.
What’s the big deal about Jefferson Smith? He just happens to be the President and Director of GEM and one of the richest men in the country. He reintroduced GEM back into the country.
Jeff Smith and his wife Jane moved from the old home office in Norman, Oklahoma, to their new retirement home in Princeton, New Jersey.
I might add Jeff is a UFO buff. He never saw one, but he thinks they’re out there.
“Thank God that’s over, Jane sighed, as she watched the Mayflower van drive down the street.
Jeff opened the door to the Mercedes.
“Jane,” he called to his wife. “I’ll be right back.”
” Where are you going?" Jane said. "We have to unpack all this stuff.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said, clipping his seat belt. “I’m going to take a ride over to where they have that monument, before it gets too late.”
“Monument! What monument?” she asked.
“Don’t you remember me telling you about it? You know…the Martians.”
“Martians? Oh, come on, Jeff,” her arms akimbo.“Where did you read about that? In that silly magazine you get every month?” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly, honey, I wish you would grow up. Its four o’clock and we have a lot of work to do. It’s going to be dark soon—what about all these boxes?”
“Jane, I’ll be right back, it’s not far—”
“How far? And what’s the name of the town? Remember we have the testimonial dinner tomorrow night, there’s a lot to do. I still have to get my hair done…did you check your tux? I hope—”
“Stop! Don’t worry, it fits,” he said, turning on the ignition. “The town’s only a few miles from here. It’s called Grovers Mill. I’ll be back in plenty of time. Now let me go before it gets dark.” He backed out of the driveway, stopped and rolled down the window. “Oh, if John Cruckle calls, tell him to make me a copy of the VIP seating list. You know him. The last dinner party he tucked the McLeans away in some far corner. Harry’s wife still talks about it. Love ya.” Jeff then drove off.
After driving up and down Hightstown Road several times, Jeff gave up and pulled into the Gulf station. The guy with the turban knew less than he did. The pickup with a bad muffler rattled in behind Jeff. The washed-out sign on the truck door read ‘Homer’s Hay and Feed, Deans, NJ. An old man stepped out of the pickup, wearing blue overalls and a plaid shirt topped off with a straw hat.
Jeff called out, “Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for Grovers Mill.”
The old man took the pipe out of his mouth “Grovers Mill! Why, it’s just down the road apiece,” he said, spitting in the dirt. “Can’t miss it neighbor.”
“Thank you,” Jeff said. “Could you direct me there? I’m new to this area.”
The old-timer wiped his hand on his overalls and stuck it out.
“Welcome, neighbor. The name’s Horner; just call me Percy. As ya can see, I’m in the hay and feed business. Course it’s not like it was years back. All the chicken farmers left.”
“Is that a fact,” Jeff said, looking at the setting sun, “Uh…Grovers Mill?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the old man said with a toothless grin. “I suppose you’re looking for the monument.”
Yes,” Jeff said, getting out of his the Mercedes. “Do you know about the monument?”
“Know about it, course,” the old man said. “Doesn’t everybody? It’s in Van Ness Park.”
“Tell me, sir,” Jeff said, excited. “Do you remember the night it happened?”
“Ya mean, when the Martians landed? Well, I’d tell ya what, neighbor,” the old man said, pulling his hat down to block the setting sun. “I do and I don’t. I slept through the whole thing. But I’d tell ya what. Lolly remembers.”
“Lolly? Who’s Lolly?” Jeff said. “Did she see—”
“Why, everybody knows Lolly. Lolly Day. She saw the landing and everything. Yep, seen it with her own eyes. Well, that’s what Lolly says. She lives right across from the park. Yes sir, that was some doings. That Hollywood feller, the big fat guy. he had everybody scared shitless,” the old man said, slapping his knee with a hearty laugh.
“Okay, thank you, sir,” Jeff said, looking at his watch. “I better get there before dark if I want to see anything. So…uh, what’s the best way to get there?”
“Get where?” The old man gaped. “Oh, the park. That’s whatcha asked me in the first place, didn’t ya,” he cackled.
Jeff nodded with impatience as he watched the sun fade in the west.
“This is Hightstown Road,” the old man said, pointing with his pipe. “Straight down that-a-way…I’d say about a mile…you’ll see Angus’s barn—”
“Excuse me,” Jeff said with a hint of annoyance. “How would I know its Angus’s barn?”
“Can’t miss it, neighbor. It’s a big red thing with a hanging door.” (he spit again) “He never did fix it. Scotchman, ya know, he’s got the first penny he ever earned, if ya know what I mean,” he said with a wink.
Jeff gave a half a grin. “Then what?”
“Let’s see…ya make a left, that’s Clarkville Road. Follow that right into Cranbury Road. You’ll come to a fork, stay right, you’ll see the pond.” The old man stepped closer. “If ya ever want to catch some big catfish, that’s the place,” he whispered.
“And Van Ness Park?” Jeff pressed.
“Oh yeah…sorry bout that. A little further up is Van Ness Park. You’ll see the driveway, pull right in. The monument’s about fifty yards, right behind the swings, this side of the pond, can’t miss it.”
Jeff put the Mercedes in drive and drove off with a wave of thanks. The old-timer hollered out, “Watch where ya walk, Sonny, that park is full of goose shit. Good luck.”
Jeff pulled down the visor against the glare of the waning sun, with an eye out for Angus’s barn.
His odometer showed he went a mile; and there it was, the barn, even the hanging door. Jeff stretched his neck out the window. No road signs. This must be it.
He made the left till it came to the fork, kept right and there it was, the pond. A little further, the park. Jeff drove in and parked the Mercedes close to the swings. A cool breeze blew off the pond. He zipped up his jacket. The old man was right. But not everything was right. Jeff failed to notice the blue sedan that followed him into the park. His watch showed 6:30 pm. The sun almost gone, he turned to the voice behind him and observed two men walking through the smoky fog. The tall one had something in his hand, the smaller one lagged behind.
“Please, sir, could maybe you help us?” the tall one asked, with Middle-Eastern accent and features. “We are trying to find Turnpike of New Jersey. Please, maybe you help. Thank you very much.” He presented an open road map of New Jersey to Jeff.
Jeff took the road map—Must be tourists—Jeff thought and spread it on the hood of the Mercedes. “Look here,” Jeff said, putting his finger to the long green line on the map. “This is the New Jersey Turn—” His body stiffened against the cold steel pressed behind his ear and froze to the whisper.
“Please, mister, you don’t move. Keep mouth shut. Move. Get in car.”
Jeff complied and got into the back seat of the blue sedan. A black bag quickly covered his head, his hands secured with tape. The blue sedan drove to the end of the lot, stopped and made a left-hand turn.
Jeff thought about Jane.
The foreign voice over the phone told Jane to write down what he said and then read it back. When she finished reading it back, the phone went dead. Jane Jefferson sat terrified, her body shaking. The last part of the message reaffirmed her fears. “If you call the police, we will send you his head in a box.”
John Cruckle got to his cell phone, which was on the third ring before he found it in his jacket pocket, hanging in the closet. He couldn’t identify the hysterical voice. “Who? Jane! Janie, calm down. What?..What about Jeff?..I can’t under…What? Where are you?...Stay there. I’ll be right over, don’t call anyone.”
The bells on Sean O’Connor’s cell phone chimed out “Anchors Aweigh.” He pulled to the curb and flipped the lid on his cell. “Hello. Who? John! Oh, John Cruckle, is that you? Last time I saw you, you were—what? Say that again, our Jeff Smith. Where are you now? Jeff’s house—Princeton. Give me the address and whatever else you have. Did you call anybody? Good. I’ll be right over. Keep the locals out of it, we need to find Jeff alive.”
Sean dialed the FBI at the Newark office. “Yeah, I want to talk to Jim Booth. This is Sean O’Connor.
“Hello, this is Special Agent Booth, can I—“
“ Jimbo, this is Sean. Did you ever hear of a town in Jersey called Grovers Mill? Yeah, Grovers Mill. Somebody put the snatch on Jefferson Smith—yeah, that’s right, our Jefferson Smith. You know what he looks like, right? Good. Here’s his plate number. Get over there and see what you can find. Keep in touch.”
John Cruckle arrived at the Smiths’ house with his wife Mildred and two VPs from GEM, Jerry West and Charlie Casey.
Jane opened the front and was immediately embraced by Mildred Cruckle.
John Cruckle took Jane’s arm and introduced her to West and Casey. He sat her down. She handed him the note. He read it, then turned it over. “Jane, is this all he said? Did you ask to speak with Jeff?”
She shook with tears. “No, that’s all, he said he would call back with further instructions, then the cell phone went dead. John, what can we do? They’re going to kill Jeff.”
“Listen to me, Jane,” Cruckle said, “nobody’s going to kill anybody. I contacted Sean O’Connor. You remember Sean. He served with Jeff in Vietnam. He’s now the FBI’s head man in the tri-state area. He should be here soon.”
The air around Jeff felt clammy. The darkness clouded his senses. He heard no sound beyond the noise of breathing and the smell of cigarette smoke. He wanted to speak, but dismissed it, remembering the cold steel against his ear. He knew the temptation to struggle against the tape around his wrist was useless. But it was real. And it was happening to him. He had to say something. He opened his mouth.
“Who are you?” he said.
The blue sedan turned onto a gravel road for a short distance, then stopped. He heard both front doors open, then his door. Hands pulled him out of the car. He was pushed further, then up a few steps, through a door. They took everything out of his pockets before shoving him in a closet. The last sound he heard was the click of the lock.
At the Smith house, all parties were introduced. Sean established a command post in the library, strewn with unwrapped furniture. Sean ripped the bubble wrap off the hunt table and spread the map of New Jersey out. “Okay, what do we have so far, besides the phone call, the note?”
“Mr. O’Connor,” Jerry West interrupted, “don’t…you think we–we should call the State Police?”
“State Police?” Sean said, eyeballing West. “What are they going to do, besides make a lot of noise? Nooo. We keep this thing as small as possible. If we bring in the locals, it’ll turn into a Chinese fire drill.” Sean eyed everyone in the room. “Everyone follow?”
All heads nodded.
Sean flipped the lid of his cell to answer the ring. It was Jim Booth. “Jimbo! Whata we got? Really.” Sean looked at Jane. “They found Jeff’s car.”
She moved toward Sean, then stopped when he raised his hand, “Just the car, I’m sorry, Janie.”
Sean reached for his pen. “Where? Van Ness Park. Go ahead…Grovers Mill, gotcha. Who’s with you? Marino, good. Jim, I want you to stake out the car, I’m sending a team down. Let me talk to Carmine.
“Yeah boss.” Carmine resonded.
“What’s it look like Carmine?”
“Quiet!” Carmine said. “This burg looks like Brigadoon, except for the fire hydrants. The only noise ya hear is the rustle of the leaves, real quiet boss. We have the car, a Mercedes. It’s parked in what looks like a community park. In the rear of the park is a pond. Can’t see too much. We have a pea soup fog covering the entire area—”
“Carmine,” Sean barked. “Ya got a photo of Smith? Good. Start knocking on some doors…maybe somebody saw something. Don’t panic the local yokels. The last panic they had was in ’38.”
“What happened in ’38, boss?” Carmine quizzed.
“Martians,” Sean said.
“We’ll talk later, go to work.”
Most of the houses on Cranbury Road were set back across from the park. The white Victorian with a wraparound porch topped off with a widow’s walk caught Carmine’s interest. It overlooked the park and the pond. The second floor had a light in the window. He stepped closer. I wonder… Then the light went out. He walked up the front steps quietly with his I.D. in his hand. His watch showed 9:30 pm. He rang the bell. A soft voice on the other side spoke.
“Is that you, Viola? I’ll be right there.” When the door opened, a middle-aged woman appeared with a welcoming smile, wearing a printed dress with an apron, holding a wooden spoon.
“Well, good evening, sir.”
Carmine identified himself.
“Land’s sakes,” she said “the FBI. Is there anything wrong?” she said, peaking around the door.
“No, nothing’s wrong, ma’am,” Carmine said. “I’d like to ask you a few questions…do you mind if I come in?”
“Of course not. excuse my manners. Come right in. I was expecting our neighbor, Viola. She lives right next door. Come this way.”
Carmine followed her into the parlor. “Thank you, Miss…”
“Rebecca. Rebecca Day, but everybody calls me Becky. Sit right here. How about a nice glass of cider?”
Carmine set down in a fluffy settee with crochet doilies, “No, thank you,” he said, “I just have a few questions. We’re looking for a certain individual. We have information that he may be in this area.”
“Oh my goodness,” Becky said, putting her hands to her throat. “Did he murder someone?”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing serious. This man is a friend of ours. We thought he might have had car trouble and stopped by to make a phone call. Did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary tonight or hear of any strangers about?” Carmine showed her Smith’s photo.
“No,” she said, handing the photo back to Carmine. “I did go over to Nellie Ouch’s earlier…stayed a bit.” She looked over at the stairs. “Don’t like to leave Lolly alone too long.”
“Oh, someone else lives here?” Carmine said, following her gaze.
“Yes, my aunt, Mabel Day, course, everyone calls her Lolly. This is her house, I live right next door. I look in on her now and then,” Becky said, fidgeting with her apron.
“Would it be possible to speak with her?” Carmine said.
“Well, she is eighty-five years old…I don’t know how much help she can give you…she doesn’t go out that much, stays up in her room most of the time, listens to the radio and of course tends to her knitting and a little crocheting—”
“Becky is that Viola down there?” a crackled voice called from upstairs.
“No, Lolly, we have a visitor…” Becky leaned toward Marino. “Should I tell her you’re from the FBI?” she whispered.
“Of course,” Carmine said. “Would it be easier if I went upstairs to speak with her?”
“No,” Becky said, “I think I hear her coming now.” Becky raised her voice. “Lolly, come downstairs, there’s a very important man here, he wants to ask you a few questions.”
“He does, about what?” Lolly hollered back.
“Oh Lolly!” Becky said in a louder voice. “Why don’t you come down, he seems like a very nice gentlemen.”
Lolly came down the stairs, stopping at the last two steps, supported by a black briar cane. “Is this the fellar?” she squinted.
Carmine stood up and walked over to Lolly. She wore a long black housedress with a white lace collar, and had hair as white as snow. Her wire-rim eyeglasses looked like two mason jars. She reminded him of George Bailey’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life, bun and all.
“Lolly,” Becky said, helping the old lady down the last two steps “This is Mr. Marino, he’s from the FBI. He would like to ask you some questions. Mr. Marino, this is Lolly. I’ll be in the kitchen, icing Henry’s birthday cake,” she said to Marino. “Henry is Viola’s husband,” she said to Carmine. “He’s wonderful man. They’ll be married fifty-two years come November or December. Or was it last month? Lolly, do you remember? Land sakes, time seems to move so fast these days, especially when ya get to be my age.” Becky giggled.
Becky walked toward the kitchen, stopped and turned. “Oh! Lolly. If Viola comes, let her in. Nice meeting you, Mr. Marino. I’ll be right in the kitchen, in case you need me. You’re sure you don’t want a glass of cider? I just bought a fresh jug today from Nellie Ouch’s. She makes the best cider in the county, you know.”
“No, thank you,” he said and glanced at his watch—9:45 pm—then over to Lolly. “Mrs. Day—”
“Just call me Lolly,” she said as she lowered herself into the mission rocker, supported by the black briar. “Everybody does.”
“Okay, Lolly. I have just a few questions to ask you.”
“Questions!” Lolly said. “Question about what, young man?” she said with a jaundiced eye.
“Oh…nothing special, Uh…your niece tells me that you spend a great deal of time in your room.”
“Yes, I do. I like listening to the radio. And of course I have my knitting.”
“Were you up in your room most of the afternoon?”
“Why, yes, I was, I had my nap around two this afternoon. I always take my nap at two; it helps me function better. Always did, ever since I was a little girl. Don’t you agree, Mr. Martin?”
“That’s Marino,” Carmine said. “Well, I—”
“’Course, back then,” Lolly continued with folded arms, “there was so much work that had to be done on the farm. Poppa had two cows that had to be milked. I would start the fire, prime the pump, by then Poppa was up and ready for work, not before I made him his breakfast. Back then, there was no school bus, we had to walk…almost two miles…I believe. I used to walk with Viola Heap. Did I tell you about Viola? She lives right next door.”
Carmine leaned closer. “Lolly,” he said, “I’m going to ask you something very important. And before you answer I want you to think about it.”
“I always think, Mr. Martin, about everything,” she said. “I can remember the last time they were here—”
“It’s Marino.” Carmine said. “They?” Carmine questioned.
“Why, the police, of course. I answered all their questions.”
“About what?” Carmine frowned.
“About the Lindbergh baby.” Lolly’s eyes shifted around the room. “And when they caught that murderer, they put him in the electric chair.”
“Interesting,” Carmine said. His watch showed 10:00 pm.
“Lolly!” Carmine pressed. “Let’s talk about tonight and—”
A knock at the door, followed by, “Yoo hoo, I’m here,” a voice sang out.
“Come right in, Viola,” Lolly said, leaning from her rocker as she peered around Carmine. “The door’s open.”
“Hello, every—oh,” Viola Heap said. “I see you have company. I didn’t know…I’ll come back later—”
“Viola! You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Lolly said. “I want you to meet Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin is with the FBI and I’m helping him solve a—” Lolly motioned to Carmine with her arthritic finger to come closer. “What are we trying to solve?” she whispered.
“Nothing.” Carmine shook his head with raised eyes. “Nothing.”
“Hello, Mr. Martin,” Viola beamed. “Has there been a murder?”
“Why, hello, Viola,” Becky said, coming to Carmine’s rescue, still holding the wooden spoon. “Come in the kitchen, Vi, I think Mr. Marino wants to talk with Lolly a few minutes more. You know, Vi, the FBI are very busy people and they have a lot of work to do. Come, I want to show you Henry’s cake. It’s chocolate, his favorite.”
After Becky and Viola went into the kitchen, Marino continued questioning Lolly.
“So Lolly, you were in your room most of the afternoon and part of the night?”
“Yes. I just said that,” Lolly said, giving Carmine a concerned look.
“Yes, you did; and during that time, did you notice anything unusual going on in the park across the street?”
“Unusual! Like what?” she said, with a wrinkled brow.
“Earlier today, a man drove a gray Mercedes into the park,” Carmine said, showing her the photo of Smith. “Do you remember him driving in?”
Lolly adjusted her glasses. “No…I don’t. I didn’t see him drive in. But I did see the other car drive out.”
“Other car!” Carmine paused ” There was another car.” Carmine said in a direct voice.
“Yes, there was,” she said, as she rocked back and forth.
The bells on Carmine’s cell chimed out the tune of “Garry Owen.”
“Excuse me,” Carmine said, taking out his cell. He flipped the lid and saw Sean’s name on the screen. “Yeah, boss.”
Carmine stood up and turned his back to Lolly. “I got a ‘maybe’ going. Boss! There was another car.”
“We got any numbers?” Sean fired back.
“I’m working on it, I’ll call you ba—”
“Carmine” Sean shot back. “We got a second call…they want ten million in two hours, or Smith’s fertilizer.”
“Give me a few minutes.” Carmine checked the time on the cell: 10:10 pm. “I’ll get back to you.” Carmine closed his cell.
“Okay, Lolly,” Carmine said, taking out his pen and pad. “The color, make, year, anything about the car.”
“The fog made it hard for me to see any faces,” she gestured with her hands. “Might have been dark blue…maybe black or…I don’t know…”
Lolly took off her wire-rim glasses and let them dangle between her thumb and index finger in thought. “Well, like I say, Mr. Martin—oh, excuse me, Marino. The car had no headlights. But when it turned out of the park, the headlights went on; even that little light in the back, you know the one that lights up the license plate? I don’t know what they call it. Do you?”
“No,” Carmine said, losing patience. That’s not important.”
“Well, Mr. Marino—what do you know? I got right that time. I remembered what happened the last time the police came to the house.”
“Last time!” he said with indifference. “Do you remember the plate number? That’s what’s important—”
“No, I don’t,” Lolly said. “If you let me continue…Mr….yes, Marino. It was when them Martians landed. Matter a fact, it was a night just like tonight, ’cept I was at church, playing the piano—well, just practicing really, for Sunday services, and guess what?”
“I don’t think that really matters now, Lolly.” Carmine cringed. “What’s important—”
“So how is everybody?” Becky said, followed by Viola into the parlor. “Viola’s leaving now. Don’t forget Henry’s cake, Vi. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Viola kissed Lolly and gave a nod to Carmine. “Nice meeting you, sir.” Viola left.
“Well now,” Becky beamed. “Were you helpful to Mr. Marino, Lolly?”
“A little bit,” Carmine said with a silent groan. “I’ll have to leave. I want to thank both of you for your cooperation.”
“Oh…” Becky said. “The kettle’s on the boil, I thought you might want a cup of tea before you left.”
“No, thank you,” Carmine said, walking to the front door. His watch showed 10:20 pm. “I really must go.”
“Mr. Marino,” Lolly said, getting up, bracing herself on the rocker. “You didn’t let me finish about the car.”
Carmine walked back to Lolly, supporting her to stand. “Yes, Lolly, go ahead, tell me.”
“Well! I was telling you about the last time the police were here. They questioned me about the Martians, if I saw them or if I saw anything funny, you know. Well, I did see something. I don’t know what it was, kind of hard when you’re scared. That’s what I told the policeman. Well, I don’t think he believed me. He kind of smiled and said, ‘Young lady, next time you see something strange, write it down on a piece of paper so you won’t forget.’
“So I did,” Lolly said, taking the piece of scrap paper out of her cardigan pocket and handing it to Carmine. “I wrote down the plate number of the car, so I wouldn’t forget it. I may have a hard time reading the paper, but I can spot a ripe tomato fifty feet away in a field.”
Carmine took the paper from Lolly and stared at the number written on it. He heard the bells of “Garry Owen.” It was Sean.
“I hope ya got something, Marino.”
“I sure do, boss. Are you ready to copy. If I’m not mistaken, here’s the kidnapper’s plate number.” Carmine read the number on the paper to Sean. “Ya got it? Good. I’m on my way over.”
A federal SWAT team broke into a farmhouse located at the end of a gravel road in Hightstown, New Jersey and rescued Jefferson Smith out of the broom closet, no cuts or bruises; and arrested two men of Middle Eastern extraction.
The next day, the dinner party went off as scheduled, with Lolly as the guest of honor, sitting next to Jefferson Smith.
Jeff Smith stopped believing in UFO’s. Now he believes in miracles.