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Phantom of Riverside Park



by Peggy Webb



Chapter One


When you live in the middle of your own tragedy you get so used to the daily terror that you can sail unharmed past the boulders that drop into your path at every turn. It's the pebbles that make you trip and fall.

Elizabeth Jennings’ pebble was a pack of peanuts that wouldn't open. She'd waited all day for them, standing on her feet in Celine's Bakery where she worked, smelling the sugar and the hot oil used to fry the doughnuts and humming "Amazing Grace" every now and then to cover the sound of her rumbling stomach.

By the grace of God and some tough genes passed on to her from Papa and Mae Mae, the grandparents who practically raised her, she survived till the clock on the wall chimed five and she was free at last.

She put her money in the machine then snatched her peanuts and dropped them into her purse. She wasn't about to eat them in front of Celine, the Simon Legree of bosses. Show the least bit of weakness and some people will run all over you. Celine was one of those.

When Elizabeth had first started working at the bakery, she'd asked Celine about taking some of the day-old doughnuts home to her son and her grandfather. Her boss had yelled at her as if she'd suggested something obscene.

"What do you think I'm running here? A charity? I take the culls home to Mama."

Looking at the huge pile of culls, Elizabeth had pictured an elephantine woman sucking up sugar like a vacuum cleaner. Celine obviously ate her share, too. Her mean little eyes made Elizabeth think of raisins set in a glob of yeast-rising dough.

"You want doughnuts," her boss had screamed, "you pay for doughnuts, Lizzie."

Right then and there Elizabeth swore to herself she would walk a mile on razor blades before she'd ever buy a doughnut from Celine Delinsky. Furthermore, she wasn't fixing to cow down to her, even if it meant losing her job before she ever got started good.

"My name is not Lizzie. It's Elizabeth. Like the queen." She picked up her purse and headed toward the door.

"Where do you think you're going? You've got work to do."

Elizabeth stood at the door with her back to Celine, stiff-necked and proud. The silence that stretched between them was so deep and wide, you could drive a truck through it. With her hand on the door Elizabeth thought of herself traipsing the streets looking for another job. She thought of her grandfather and her son depending on her.

Lord, what had she done now and when was she ever going to learn? Torn between swallowing her pride or walking out the door, she heard Celine clear her throat.

"Ahhh. . . Elizabeth, I'll let you put your purse in my office. There's no telling what all kind of riff raff will be coming in here today. A body can't be too careful."

Elizabeth accepted the grudging concession, and in the three and a half years she'd worked there it was the only one Celine had ever made. They worked together in a state of uneasy truce. When Elizabeth got hungry she bought peanuts, and when she wanted doughnuts she walked to Levitt's Bakery, six blocks out of her way.

"You're stubborn as that old mule I used to keep," Papa would sometimes tell her, and Elizabeth guessed it was true.

Otherwise why did she walk three blocks before she ever opened her peanuts, her stomach growling every step of the way?

She wanted to make sure Celine didn't see, that's why. The crowd jostled around her as Elizabeth pulled at the corner that said open here. The cellophane didn't budge. Not the slightest tear. She tried using her teeth. No luck. She tried poking a hole with her fingernails.

Elizabeth who was normally a soft-spoken, easy-going woman wanted to throw the bag on the sidewalk and stomp it, screaming. Instead she gouged it with her car keys. All of a sudden the bag split and peanuts flew every which way. Pigeons swooped out of trees and off the roofs of tall buildings. Swarms of them. Greedy, nasty birds feasting on her lunch/supper.

The peanuts magnified in significance, metamorphosed into dreams spent and wasted, and all of a sudden Elizabeth's whole history swam past her in the heat waves that rose up from the sidewalk. She crumpled onto the stoop of the Lassiter Building and cried, great gulping sobs that provided the soundtrack for the movie playing through her head.

She saw herself hiding under the bed while her mother Judith railed about Elizabeth's shortcomings and her father Manny sat on a handmade kitchen chair with his head bowed. In Judith's tirade, Manny Jennings' own transgressions got mixed up with his daughter's, and his infamous ancestor Major Hiram Jennings thundered through in disgrace. The walls shook as Judith built to her finale where she put her dead hero Gladys Presley, mother of the famous icon, on a pedestal that Judith, herself, would have joined if she hadn’t given birth to a daughter whose lineage doomed her to failure. Elizabeth will never amount to a hill of beans.

That had been Judith's oft-expressed prediction, and Elizabeth had made it come true.

Tears burned her cheeks and people on the street stopped to stare, but Elizabeth was only vaguely aware of them. She saw herself pregnant and scared, exiled from school, exiled from her father's house. She saw her flight from the Delta in an old pickup truck with Papa at the wheel acting as if they were embarking on a grand adventure instead of leaving her hometown in disgrace.

"Can I help you, young woman?"

The man bending over her was wearing some sort of red uniform and his skin was the color of old parchment. His kindness made Elizabeth cry even harder.

"Let me get you inside. I'll get you something cool to drink. This heat is enough to upset anybody." He fluttered to a stop, a large and benevolent bird out of his element.

"No, thank you. I have to go."

"You shouldn't be walking about all upset like that. Let me call you a cab."

She had fourteen dollars and forty-five cents in her pocket, and she had to stretch it over six days and three people. He might as well have suggested a ride to the moon.

"No, really. Thank you, but no. It's just up the street. It's the. . .the Peabody. They're expecting me."

Elizabeth left the old man standing on the sidewalk like some molting, skinny-legged red bird.

What if she just kept on going? What if she went clear out of Memphis and hitchhiked across the Arkansas Bridge with a trucker who was headed south all the way to the border of Mexico? Elizabeth could cross over and call herself Chiquita like the banana and find a job in a nice cantina where she would earn enough money to live like a queen. All by herself. She could loll on the beach when she wanted to. She'd read good books. She'd learn to sip margaritas.

Across the street was Riverside Park where her grandfather and her child waited for her, Papa with his hope he carried around like a battered battle flag and Nicky with his disfigured lip that made him the brunt of bullies. Just last week they’d surrounded him at the park, calling him fat lips till Nicky burst into tears and Papa chased them off with his walking cane.

"It's not your fault," Papa had told her when Nicky was born. "I'm gonna take care of you and the baby."

"Who will take care of you, Papa?"

"God."

Elizabeth supposed He did, with a little help from her. She worked two jobs, and ought to be grateful to get them.

Today, though, she was all out of gratitude and courage and a stiff upper lip. She couldn't bear to pick up her little family at the park and take them to a house sinking down on itself in a neighborhood where drug dealing was more common than sandlot basketball.

"I am running away."

She said this aloud, and a man with two snooty-looking poodles jerked the leashes to remove his dogs from her path. As if she were crazy. As if she were a woman who had lost her marbles and didn't know where to find them.

Suddenly there ahead of her was the Peabody Hotel, symbol of everything that was good about the Old South, the easy grace, the unstudied charm, the slow drifting of days that afforded time to sit on verandahs or in bars with brass foot railings and sip mint juleps.

Elizabeth pushed open the heavy doors and was suddenly caught up in the past. Her parents had brought her to see the Peabody ducks when she was five and still owned the world.

It was only when she entered school that she realized she didn't own the world at all. She was a dirt poor country girl in a borrowed dress and hand-me-down shoes. Her classmates, all those little girls bound with pink ribbons and prejudices handed down by generations of landed Delta gentry, had formed a circle around her, chanting, cotton patch trash.

By the time she was eight, Elizabeth decided a shadowy ancestor named Major Hiram Jennings must have stolen her future, for her mother had repeated the story of his folly so often she knew it by heart:

In l872 when gambling was as common as grand balls in the South, Elizabeth's ancestor had swaggered into the Peabody full of bravado and bourbon and won two hands of seven-card stud. Holding a king-high straight flush he'd yelled, "Lady Luck's sittin' on my lap tonight, boys," then he'd wagered the only thing he had worth wagering, a thousand acres of the richest Delta land east of the Mississippi.

With one draw of the card, Elizabeth's whole history changed. Major Hiram Jennings lost to the ace.

Sometimes it seemed to Elizabeth that she had not been born in the Delta at all, but had sprung to life in the Peabody more than a hundred years ago when Hiram Jennings played his losing hand. She closed her eyes and gathered her strength. She had to go to Riverside Park and fetch her family. She had supper to prepare, bedtime rituals to perform. She had a night job waiting with Quincy's Cleaning Service.

“I thought I might find you here." Suddenly there was Papa, his back stooped and his hands spotted with age and gnarled with arthritis. He squeezed her shoulder, knowing why she was there, knowing and understanding. "Don't look back, Elizabeth. It does no good."

"Mommy!" Nicky launched himself at her squealing with laughter then covered her face with kisses; and Elizabeth thought, this is the reason I can never in a million years run away and call myself Chiquita.

"Did I grow in your belly?" Nicky pressed his smudged face right up to hers, and she felt defeated all over again. Nicky’s lips had been left disfigured by a severe infection from the welfare-paid surgery that had corrected his garbled speech from a cleft palate. I wish I could help you, the doctor had told Elizabeth when she went back to him about the new problem. But welfare doesn’t pay for cosmetic surgery.

Since then she’d been turned down by every agency she knew, so she was saving up for the surgery, cramming whatever cash she could spare into a ceramic cookie jar that had belonged to the grandmother she called Mae Mae.

“Did I grow there,” Nicky said. “Quincy said I did."

"Lord, that woman." Papa beseeched the ceiling, but Elizabeth only laughed.

"You certainly did."

"Am I a belly button?"

"No, you're a boy. A hungry little boy. Let's get you home and feed you."

She linked herself to her little family with Nicky swinging between her and Papa, a four-year-old boy who owned the world. And why shouldn't he? He had Papa and Elizabeth to shield him from the ugly truth of his life, Papa who watched over him with the fierce protectiveness of an avenging angel and Elizabeth who edited out Judith's harsh legacy and taught him to sing Mae Mae's theme song, “Look for the Silver Lining.”

Nicky embraced it as his own. As they approached their house, he shouted, "Look, Papa. I see a silber lining."

"I see it too," he said, then shielded his eyes and looked toward the west where the sun lay almost hidden behind a gray cloud, a thin rim of gold barely showing.

Hoping she'd find the same magic, Elizabeth looked, but all she could see were the sagging shutters and the broken front steps and the ugly spotted roof where brown shingles had been used to patch the black ones already there. The rude rental house was all her fault. She never saw it without remembering Papa's neatly kept white farmhouse with the bright blue shutters and the swing on the front porch. She never viewed the unkempt yards and scraggly flowerbeds of her present neighborhood without picturing the massive magnolia trees Papa had been so proud of, the rolling green pastures and the lake where in the hot summertime fat cows waded up to their ankles to keep cool, the gardens Mae Mae tended. A rainbow of color had bloomed there season after season.

Papa never spoke of his farm, never mentioned the big barn with its rows of stables and its stacks of clean smelling hay. But Elizabeth knew he missed it. She could see longing in the faraway look he sometimes got, in the way he would tip his head forward and close his eyes when mention of farm prices would come on the six o'clock news.

The sense of loss Elizabeth felt would suck her soul right out of her if she'd let it. Instead she left Papa and Nicky admiring his latest silver lining while she went inside to prepare their dinner.

The refrigerator was bare save for a carton of milk, a carrot and two beef and bean patties. Elizabeth grated the carrot over the patties to look like cat whiskers.

"Oh boy, kitty cats for supper," Nicky yelled. "Yay!"

"Let us pray." Papa bowed his head and lifted his praises, strong and sure, toward the Maker he'd believed in all his life. "Master, thank you for the bountiful blessings you heap upon us. Thank you steering my little family through the rough and murky waters of the past, and if it's not too much trouble, keep our course clear for the future. I'm not as young as I used to be, You know, or I wouldn't ask so much of You all the time. I hope You understand. Amen."

Without another word, Papa cut his patty in two and put half of it on the edge of the saucer where Elizabeth's teacup rested.

"What's murphy waters?" Nicky asked.

"It's like your bathtub water after you've been playing all day in the dirt." Elizabeth tousled his hair, then glanced from her saucer to Papa.

"Eat it," he said, and Elizabeth went to get a fork. "Did I ever tell you about the time I met Lola Mae?" he asked when she sat back down.

He had. About a million times, but she and Nicky never tired of hearing stories of their beloved Mae Mae. "Tell it, Papa," she said, and Nicky added, "Yay! Tell it."

"Well, there was this big county fair," Papa said, "biggest thing the Delta had going for it except cotton." And as he began to talk, the bloodlines of Elizabeth's ancestors flowed through her like a river, leaving behind a history as rich as the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta.

"When the carnival people started setting up their Ferris wheel we'd leave our cotton sacks in the field to go and watch."

"Can I ride a Ferris wheel?"

"Someday, Nicky. . . Yessir, it was the hottest fall you'd ever seen that year, so hot the June bugs had stuck around thinking it was still summer. My cousin Hiram. . .named after the old major, you know . . .decided to put the portable outhouse on top of the building where the Home Demonstration ladies were selling lemon pies and pickled peaches, and being full of oats I decided to help him."

"What's full’a oats, Papa?" Nicky asked.

"Young."

"Like me?"

"Not quite. I was old enough to shave."

"Can I shave?"

"Not yet. But someday you will. Anyhow. . .we waited till Miss Sudie Cummings pulled up her drawers and came out, then Hiram grabbed one side and I grabbed the other and off we went down the hill with the outhouse between us. Things were looking pretty good till a bumblebee got up Hiram's britches. He let go his end, and the toilet went tumbling down the hill with me hanging on for dear life trying to steer the thing."

Nicky was already laughing and clapping, but the part Elizabeth loved best was yet to come.

"I was yelling at the toilet like it had ears. 'Hold on just a minute, wait up there.' But that old outhouse just kept on going like it knew something I didn't know. And sure enough, waiting at the bottom of the hill was Lola Mae Johnson. We crashed headlong into her booth and banners went flying every which way. When the toilet finally came to rest, I looked up into the bluest eyes this side of heaven and a face like an angel."

"Tell about the red banner, Papa." Nicky was clapping so hard his little palms looked blistered.

"Well, sir, one of the banners that had come loose was draped around Lola Mae's neck, and when I read what was printed on it I said, 'Is this the kissing booth?' and she said, 'By golly, it is,' and she kissed me smack dab on the mouth."

Papa got tears in his eyes. "She was the first woman I ever kissed and I never kissed another. Never even wanted to. Not once."

"Except Mommy. You kiss mommy."

"On the cheek, and that's different."

"How different?"

Papa gave Elizabeth a look that said, he's all yours now, and she said, "Let's go make some murphy water, Nicky."

"I'll race you down the hall." Nicky streaked off with Elizabeth not far behind, and the water he made was indeed murphy.

"There's so much of the park in the tub I wonder if you left any for tomorrow," she said when she dried him off.

He climbed into bed giggling. Tonight he didn't demand another story of Mae Mae, as he often did, but instead settled down after hearing of the adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood, an innocent child who still owned the world.

"Sweet dreams, Nicky." As she leaned down to kiss him, leaned close to the disfigured lip, her heart squeezed. In another year he would be old enough for kindergarten and the often cruel honesty of other children. That little incident in the park would be nothing compared to the reign of bullies in a school yard.

"Sing me a song, Mommy. Sing about look for the silber lining."

Instead, she chose one based on her own needs. Proving she hadn't escaped Judith's influence entirely, she sang a song that was pure Elvis, not one of the rockabilly ballads but one of the hymns he'd first heard in a small country church and then later had made his own, “Precious Lord.”

And while she sang she silently prayed that Somebody was leaning down to listen, and that He would take Nicky's hand and hold on tight. She would ask Him to take hers, too, but she figured God had enough to do without watching out for a woman perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

When she went back to the den, Papa looked up from the Psalm he was reading.

"I should have let Judith name you Elvisina," he said, deadpan.

They broke up laughing, laughing to keep from crying.

It's the way of the wounded everywhere.

Chapter Two


Thomas resettled himself on the park bench, trying to stay awake. Mornings were fine. Fresh from a good night's sleep, he'd watch Elizabeth kiss Nicky before she headed off to work, and then he'd settle in to watch his great grandson dig a hole to China. But getting through the afternoons without falling asleep took some concentration. He'd tried everything, counting the number of people who walked by, trying to guess how many squirrels he'd see. Today, he was hanging onto wakefulness by counting his blessings. He was grateful for the sausage and biscuit he and Nicky had shared for lunch; he was grateful for sunny Southern days that made it possible to bring the boy here to play instead of staying cooped up in that little house; he was grateful he'd known the love of his life with Lola Mae; but most of all, he was grateful to still be alive.

He was wondering how long an old codger like him would be around when this man he didn't know from Adam's house cat walked right up to him and called him by name.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Jennings."

As if that weren't shock enough, the young man sat right down on the bench beside him without even being invited.

"This is my bench you're sittin' on, young man."

Thomas didn't tolerate bad manners. Besides that, the man seemed kind of sleazy to him - hair slicked back under a gangster hat, reeking of Old Spice and a shave so close you couldn't make out a single hair on his face. Not that Thomas could anyhow, his eyesight not being what it used to be, but he simply didn't trust a man who looked that smooth.

"I won't be here long, Mr. Jennings. Just long enough to give you this." Thomas' mouth dropped open when he saw the check. "This is not a joke, it's not a prank. It's real."

Thomas was in a trance staring at the check, disbelieving.

"I'm leaving now and you'll never see me again. Don't try to follow me, don't try to find out who I am, and don't tell anybody about your good fortune. Except your granddaughter, of course."

The man swore him to secrecy, especially with the press, then tipped his hat in a latent display of Southern breeding. "Good day, Mr. Jennings," he said, then vanished as quickly as he'd come.

Hot tears squeezed out of the corners of Thomas's eyes blurring everything except his great grandson playing under the oak tree where Jefferson Davis once tied his horse. All he could think of was that suddenly there was God, right in the middle of Memphis, Tennessee, smiling down on him and saying, "You can rest now, Thomas."

Miracles happen when you least expect them.

Thomas had always known that, even five years ago after he'd sold the land he'd poured his sweat as well as his heart into and headed up here with Elizabeth pregnant with the baby nobody wanted.

Elizabeth had cried all the way from the Mississippi Delta to South Haven, big fat tears that flattened his heart like a steamroller, and he'd wondered what sort of fool notion would make a dried up old prune like him think he could start over. It didn't take him long to come up with the answer: the fool notion was love. Elizabeth was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bones, blood of his blood, the granddaughter he loved more than he'd ever loved his own son who'd sired her.

Thomas Jennings would die for her. It was that simple. Kill for her, too. Or at least try.

When they'd pulled over at the 7-Eleven for gas, a trucker had yelled, "Hey, old man, ain't you too old to be knocking up a pretty little thing like that," and Thomas flew into him like a duck on a June bug. Would have whipped him, too, if Elizabeth hadn't begged him to stop.

Thomas had bought them cherry ice cream floats. "As a consolation prize," he'd told Elizabeth, which didn't make a lick of sense to her. But it did make her smile which was the purpose all along.

"Eat your ice cream, Elizabeth. Everything's going to be all right."

She dried her tears on the sleeve of her shirt. "You shouldn't have, Papa."

He knew what she meant. Thanks to Major Hiram Jennings he was not one of those rich Delta land barons, but merely a hard-working farmer who knew how to scratch a living out of his hundred acres of dirt.

Knew the back end of a mule when he saw one, too, which was more than most folks could say.

The money from the sale of the farm wouldn't last forever, especially since neither one of them had a job and neither one of them had a prayer of getting one, her with a belly so big she couldn't see her toes and him twenty years past the age when most folks draw retirement.

Even a cherry ice cream float was a luxury for them, but by cracky, nobody had better tell Thomas Jennings he couldn't afford it.

He'd rammed his hat down over his eyes and coaxed the old truck back to life.

"It'll be a cold day in the bad place when a man can't buy ice cream for his own granddaughter."

Now he won't ever have to worry about the price of ice cream. He can buy twenty-five cones at the same time, one in every flavor. He can buy the whole store if he wants to.

Thomas sat on the park bench with his head bent staring down at the check. Folks passing by probably thought he was napping. Or praying.

Maybe he was doing a little bit of both. He napped every now and then, even when he hadn't planned on it, and he'd prayed so much he had calluses on his knees.

"God, just don't let this be a joke," he prayed.

He smelled Elizabeth coming before he saw her. His daddy used to tell him the sense of smell was one of the last to go, and Thomas reckoned that might be true. When Elizabeth picked him and the boy up at Riverside Park, she always smelled like sugar.

"It flies like fairy dust at the bakery," she always told them.

Won't she be surprised at who got sprinkled with fairy dust today?

She scooped up Nicky who was earnestly digging a hole underneath the oak, received his sandy hug, then sat beside Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. "Hi, Papa. Was my little boy good today?"

"He tripped an old lady trying to get to the other side of the street, then robbed Union Planters Bank."

This was a game they played, their who’s on first routine Elizabeth called it. Thomas knew what it was: it was the same thing he'd felt every night when he'd crawled under the patchwork quilt with Lola Mae, comfort in the familiar.

"Where did he stash the money?"

When Elizabeth laughed she outdid them all for beauty, all the cover girls and glamour girls and movie stars, even his favorite Betty Grable. He figured that nearly everybody who ever heard of her was long dead and gone, except him, of course, and he's not fixing to die, not if he has any say so in the matter.

Lately, though, he'd been lying awake nights worrying what would happen to Elizabeth and the boy if he up and died.

Now he won't have to worry about that anymore.

"The money's right here." He pulled the check out of his pocket and handed it to her.

Her smile disappeared as fast as Houdini in one of his magic acts, which Thomas didn't believe for a New York minute. No sir, you couldn't fool him about Houdini.

But you could have knocked him over with a feather at how anxious his granddaughter looked as she counted all the zeroes on the check.

"This is a joke. Right, Papa?"

"It's not a joke, Elizabeth."

"But it can't be real. Where did it come from?"

Thomas Jennings didn't mind being wrong. Heck, he guessed he'd been wrong more than any man who ever lived, and he wasn't afraid to admit it. But he hated being foolish. And her questions made him feel foolish. They made him feel old. Senile. Like he ought to be locked up in one of those fancy jails they called retirement homes.

He puffed out his chest like a turkey cock.

"A man brought it to me. I was just sittin' here mindin' my own business, and this complete stranger walked up to me and handed me the check."

"People don't do that, Papa. They don't go around giving away fortunes, especially not to strangers. And certainly not without a reason."

Every speck of color drained out of her face, and she looked like ghosts were chasing her.

Thomas wished he'd never seen the check. He wished he'd never laid eyes on the man who delivered it. Anyhow, what kind of man would wear a suit and a tie to the park in ninety degree weather? What kind of man handed out fortunes to perfect strangers, then wouldn't even tell his own name? Hoodlums maybe. Powerful hoodlums with motives so bad Thomas broke out in a sweat just thinking about what they could do.

He was nothing but an old fool. Too old to take care of Elizabeth and Nicky anymore. Too old to sit in the park in the hot sun. So old he couldn't even tell the difference between charity and blackmail.

"Tear it up," he said.

He tried to snatch it out of her hands but she was too quick.

"Just tear the thing up. I never should have taken it, that's all."

He felt the dampness behind his eyes, and he knew his granddaughter was too smart to mistake it for the rheumy look of age.

"I'm too old to know what to do anymore."

He used to use the bandana he dragged out of his pocket to mop up sweat. He'd come in from plowing the cotton fields mopping his face with the red bandana, and Lola Mae would be waiting with a big glass of iced tea with a sprig of fresh mint floating on top.

If his wife had lived through a bout of pneumonia, she'd have known better than to take the check. She'd have sent that slick dude packing with a few well chosen words. Lady-like ones, too. Lola Mae was always a lady.

"You're not too old, Papa, and I won't hear such talk. I'm not going to sit here and let you act like some old codger who can't find his nose on his face. Do you hear me?"

"See. The money's already set us to quarrelin'."

A breeze that shouldn't have been there on such a still day snatched the end of the check, and it suddenly became a living breathing thing rising up between them in the summer heat, enormous in its power. Angel or beast? Thomas's head ached with all the possibilities, and he wished Elizabeth would take him home and let him lie down on the couch under the ceiling fan.

Instead she chased the check, catching up when it landed in a gardenia bush. The cloying scent reminded Thomas of Lola Mae's funeral. She'd had a pall of a hundred gardenias picked from the bushes beside their front door.

Now, the breeze set the willow trees alongside the Mississippi River to swaying, and Thomas had to pull up his collar to keep his teeth from chattering.

Intuition is God whispering in your ear, his daddy used to say. Always listen.

"Tear it up and throw it away, Elizabeth."

"I can't, Papa. I can't bring myself to destroy a million dollars."




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