Sunday, January 13, 2013

Always & Forever - Chapter Seven

Chase and Madison teamed up to see if they could get any more information about Mr. New Orleans.  Chase called in a few favors and was glued to the computer for most of the day.  Madison followed the tuition trail in hopes of finding names and addresses that way.
With a little assistance from Sawyer, they were able to get a list of companies that were targeted by Morgan's group.  There were two in New Orleans.  One was a small pharmaceutical company.  The other was an old factory.
Chase claimed to have ties in the medical field and jumped on the drug company.  He scurried off to his office and was working on it before Madison could counter him.  Not that she would have, but there was always the temptation to call him out on his connections.  She was yet to meet a single one.
It was almost too simple to get a list of the employees of the factory.  It was a family run, sheet metal fabricating shop.  They specialized in making lockers for schools and display shelving and racks for stores.  A total of forty-seven workers were left without employment.  Many had spent decades there.  And several were second and third generation workers.
Madison sat down at the table with her laptop and scanned the list of employees.  What were the chances of finding the one person out of forty-seven in less than twenty-four hours?  The phone numbers and addresses were up to date according to Sawyer.  Contacts were established when Morgan's case first began.  Each victim was given a chance to give a testimony, either in person or written.  Very few agreed to.  Most never knew they were victims to begin with.
The first twelve phone calls resulted in nothing.  They were answered, but either the person she was looking for was not available or had no idea what she was talking about.  She made a note to return the unavailable calls soon.
"My name is Madison.  I am calling on behalf of Mr. Skyler Andrew concerning your recent transaction with Atlas Corps.  Would you be able to answer a few questions?"
"Skyler who?  Atlas Corps went under six years ago.  I wouldn't exactly call that recent, lady."
While dialing the thirteenth number on the list, Madison made a search on-line for any information about the individual.  Not much came up.  But there was a link to view driver license photos.
Clicking on the link, she entered the name once more and hit enter.
A man's voice came over the line and caught her off guard.  "Hello." 
"Hi.  Hello.  How are you this evening?"
"Fine," he answered.  "May I help you?"
"Yes," she stammered.  "At least, I hope so.  My name is Madison Andrew.  I am calling for Mr. Timothy Sounders on behalf of Skyler Andrew."
"This is Tim."
The picture came up after his answer.  It was the man who brought papers to Skyler the day of their wedding, the balding man who acted so nervously.  Madison could hardly believe her eyes.  "Mr. Sounders?"
"But I'm sorry, I don't know a Skyler Andrew."
She feared he was about to hang up.  "Sir?  Sir!"
There was a moment of silence.  "Ma'am."
"Mr. Sounders, I don't mean to bother you, but you are exactly who I'm needing to speak with.  Please, I just need a few moments of your time."
"I don't know what you're talking about, ma'am."
"I know," she answered, "and I don't blame you.  But we really need your help right now.  Skyler needs your help."
Silence continued.
"You were at our wedding," she started slowly.  "You got the papers we needed.  Thank you."
"Mr. Sounders, I know you don't want to have anything to do with this, and I'm sorry to have to bring this to you, but Skyler is going on trial tomorrow for his part in the Atlas Corps scandal."
"Forgive me, ma'am," he said quietly, "but I believe everyone involved in that mess should be made to answer for it.  They wrecked lives.  Those people had families.  They were left with nothing.  There wasn't even a warning."
"I know," she returned, "and I'm sorry.  I know how hard that can be."
"Do you?"
She thought on her answer.  It was not completely honest.  "Only, I didn't have a family to care for at the time."
"Then you don't know what it's like."
"I do know."  Madison did not want to bring her personal situation into the discussion, but she felt it was already too late for that.  The entire scandal was personal.  Mr. Sounders was right, families suffered.  "I didn't then.  But I do now.  And I need your help to keep my family together."
Silence again.  Madison held her breath.  There was no going back from the direction she had gone.  Either the man felt Skyler was the criminal that had a hand in taking away his family's provisions, or he saw Skyler as the man who supported his family after the loss of a career.
"I'm sorry, ma'am."
"You have two kids in college, am I wrong?"
"Yes, you're wrong."
It felt as if he knocked her legs right out from under her.  That as all she had.  Her hope was founded on his kids' higher educations.  It was something they would undoubtedly not have gotten on a factory worker's salary.
"My only daughter is in college.  She's studying to become a doctor."
A sliver of hoped remained.  She clung to it.  "I'm happy for you.  That is really good to hear."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said with a little more warmth in his tone.  "We're all proud of her."
Madison smiled.  But not just for the relief of knowing she found her witness.  She imagined the smile on his face as a father.  He was able to provide his daughter with what she needed.  She could hear it in his voice.  "That's wonderful.  Congratulations to you all."
"What about you?" Mr. Sounders asked.  "How is your family?"
Her breath eluded her.  She didn't know where to begin.  She didn't want to scare him away by sounding too desperate, but that was what she was.  "Trying to get started," she began, searching for the right words.  "We're trying to have a baby, Skyler and I.  We were working on the nursery."
"Oh, congratulations."
She had to swallow the lump in her throat and took a deep breath to change her approach.  "We're still hoping."
"That is good news," Mr. Sounders said, "but, Mrs. Andrew, I'm not sure I can give you what you are looking for.  I can't say that I like what you're asking of me."
Madison nodded.  "I understand."  She wanted to beg and plead for his help, but she knew that would accomplish nothing.  The man had his reasoning.  It was rational.  Again the right words eluded her.
Mr. Sounders seemed to be having the same difficulty.  He hesitated, puffing out a sigh into the phone.  "What exactly are you wanting from me, Mrs. Andrew?  Be specific."
"Um …” The stammering returned.  "Sir, I need for you to …” Should she give him every last detail she had?  Did he want to know about Skyler being abducted, or the rescheduled hearing, or to know that Skyler was not even planning to fight for his freedom, he already surrendered, and she was the one hunting for a defense?
"Yes.  I'm sorry.  I don't know exactly.  His sentencing hearing has been moved up to tomorrow.  Our attorney is trying to get a little more time, but I don't know how that works.
"I need to find someone who will testify on behalf of Skyler.  I need someone to prove that he does not deserve to be locked away."
"You do understand that he took part in closing down that company, right?  He helped put us all out in one night.  We were left with nothing."
She nodded slowly.  "I know.  And you're right.  But he did not leave you with nothing, sir.  Not really."
"As a whole," Mr. Sanders said in sharp tone.  "I was two years from retiring.  I had friends who were planning to retire the following year.  No one wants to hire a bunch of old men.  We were left with nothing."
Madison cringed.  This man was not going to help Skyler.  If anything, he would probably show up just to make sure he gets the harshest punishment allowed.  "I understand," she answered, "and I'm sorry to hear that.  I know Skyler never wanted anyone to be abandoned like that.  He would have helped everyone if he could."
"He could have.  He could have turned himself in back then.  He could have stopped it before it even happened."
Another blow.  She regretted calling him.  Now she understood why Skyler did not even bother to look for assistance.  No one would come.
"I did not meet Mr. Andrew until after the company was shut down.  I didn't know who he was.  He handed me a piece of paper with some numbers on it and told me to keep it to myself.  I had no idea what it was.  I threw it away.  If I knew what it meant or who he was from the start, I would have called the police.
"My father was the one who found out.  He came across the numbers after I threw them away and he tried to find what they went to.  He tracked it down.  He learned of the trust fund.
"I didn't believe him.  I knew someone was looking to make us take the fall for something.  Someone set us up.  Who leaves strangers with their life savings?  How can someone destroy your livelihood with one hand, and expect you to trust them with the other?"
His reasoning was sound.  "Yes, sir.  I understand."
"I'm not finished," he growled.  "I wanted to turn it all over.  There had to be a way to track him down through the money.  He had no idea who he was messing with.
"So I used some of it to hire a private investigator.  I had his name, phone number, date of birth, everything I needed within two days.  Two days!  He didn't even try to cover his tracks.
"I took all my information and evidence and confronted him.  I told him I was turning him in.  I already phoned the police.  They were on their way.   He was finished."
He paused in his telling.  Madison closed her eyes and held her breath knowing she just complicated things for Skyler.  She was looking for the one person who would stand up for him.  Instead, she found the one person who wanted him thrown in prison.
"Do you know what he said to me?"
Nervous, she bit her lip.  "No, sir."
Another sigh was puffed into the phone.  "He said to make sure we had what we needed from the account."  He paused as if awaiting her reaction.  Madison could think of nothing to say.  She was completely lost.  "What kind of guy hands out bank numbers, doesn't bother to hide it, and couldn't care less if he was locked up?"
He had it right.  That was exactly something Skyler would do.  He felt he was stuck working for Morgan, thus he could only hope for someone to step up and turn him in.  That was his only escape.
"I told him to go," Mr. Sounders went on.  "He took his time.  He explained that the account would probably be suspended for a little while, but then would eventually be up and running again.  He asked me to take it, to use it, no matter where he went."
"He still does," she said without thinking, and then wished she could take it back.
Silence took over.  Madison wanted to bring an end to the call, but was reluctant to speak another word.  Mr. Sounders offered nothing.  He just sat there on the line, letting her squirm in discomfort.
Then he finally spoke up.  "I don't think there is anything I can do for you, Mrs. Andrew.  I don't know what to tell you.  I'm sorry if you thought differently of me.  But his hand outs do not make up for his part in taking down our company."
"Yes, sir.  I understand."
"All right.  Well, congratulations on your family.  I hope things work out for you somehow."
"Yes, sir.  Thank you."
"Take care, Mrs. Andrew."
"Thank you.  You too, sir."
And that was it.  Mr. Sounders hung up and smashed the only plan she had to help Skyler.  It was done.  Over.  They lost.
The sound of Chase's door opening followed the endless silence.  She didn't turn to see if he had any news.  She found the one they were looking for.  Chase would not have had any luck.
"Oh," Chase grunted, "Hi.  I didn't hear you come in."
Madison spun around.  A tall man in a dark suit with a long black coat stood just inside the open doorway.  His buzz-cut, brown hair sparkled with tiny drops of melted snowflakes.  He nodded at Chase, and then shifted his dark brown eyes to Madison.  His expression was blank, giving no hint to his thoughts or intentions.
"You seem busy," he said from his place.  "I can come back another time."
Chase waved away his offer.  "You're here.  Come on in.  We're never too busy to chat with you, Detective Payne."
The detective flashed an appreciative grin.  It was then gone so quickly that Madison thought she might have imagined it.  "I won't be long."
Chase and Detective Payne joined Madison at the table as she straightened the file in her hands.  With a careful and quiet movement, she guided the laptop closed.
She had nothing to hide, but she still felt as if he was looking for something.  She had never spoken with the detective in the past.  All she knew of him was from his dealings with Skyler.  He didn't say anything negative about the detective, but neither did he put faith in him.  In the end, all Payne wanted was to see Morgan Bristow behind bars.
"Madison Addley, I presume."  He said her name as if he was trying to sell her something.  A painted smile tightened his lips.
"Andrew," she corrected.  "Detective Payne."
He bowed his head in greeting.  Light caught the glistening winter water that specked his hair and shoulders of his coat.  "Please, call me Brock."
Chase took the seat beside Madison.  "What can we do for you?"
The detective looked to him and acknowledged his asking.  He shrugged the coat off his broad shoulders and draped it over the chair across from Chase, then slowly sat in the one next to it.  "I heard you were in town," he said to Madison.  "I just thought I'd drop by and see if there was anything I could do for you?"
She shook her head once and forced a kind smile.  "Thank you, sir, but I understand you have done all you can.  Still, I appreciate your coming."
He glanced at Chase, and then returned his gaze to Madison.  "Have you been in town long, Mrs. Andrew?"
"Only a few days, sir."
"May I ask how long you plan to stay here?"
She nodded, and then bit her lip.  "I don't know how long, to be honest, sir.  However long it takes to bring Skyler home."
Payne shifted his attention to Chase.  "I understand you found a lawyer to replace Jones.  I have to say I'm glad to hear it."
Chase shrugged.  "I did what I could.  I'd like to think it would help."
"Sawyer comes well recommended.  I'd say it couldn't hurt.  But, why now?  Why not at the start of Mr. Andrew's trial?"
"We didn't get the chance," Chase answered in a firm tone.  "This all kind of blind sided us.  His trial was scheduled and carried out before we were ready."
"Didn't I tell you about the warrant last week?"
"Yes, you did.  But a week wasn't much time to get everything together.  The prosecution seemed to get the memo a little earlier than we did."
"I understand," Payne conceded.  "I have to agree with you there.  They definitely had a head start."
"Why is that?" Madison spoke up.  "How come we only recently learned about this while the courts apparently knew it was coming?"
His brows arched.  "That, Mrs. Andrew, is what happens when you take on someone like Morgan Bristow.  I don't know exactly how far his reach is, but he is still a major contender in this."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
He steepled his fingers and leaned forward.  His voice lowered as if he was struggling to give her an answer.  "Mr. Bristow has more connections than we originally thought."
"Do you think he has someone inside the courts?"
His eyes narrowed and he clenched his teeth, slower to make a reply.  "I'm not sure.  But I would not rule it out."
That would complicate things.  Madison leaned back in her chair.  She traced the cracks in the laptop casing with her fingertips.  "Can I ask what is being done about that?"
Payne shook his head.  "It is only a theory.  I can't say anything for sure, but I am looking into it."
"What could be done about it … if it turns out that he does?"
"Sawyer could always move for a mistrial."
"I don't think Skyler would go for that," Chase said quietly.  "He plead no contest the first time around.  He wouldn't change it even if he was given the chance."
Madison bowed her head knowing everything he said was true.  It felt as if everything they did to benefit Skyler was met with two setbacks.  How much more could go wrong?
"Then I suggest you do what you can with the situation you have," Payne said.  "You have a very talented attorney on your side and a dedicated group of supporters," he said with a nod at Madison.  "I would say you should go ahead with whatever it is you two were doing.  If Sawyer manages to gain you some time, then you will have that much more going for you."
Madison looked to Chase out the corner of her eye.  "I found Timothy Sounders."
Chase perked up.  "You did?  Did you talk to him?  What did he say?"
She nodded.  "I spoke with him, but he won't help us."  She lowered her eyes.  "He said he believes Skyler should have done more to stop it, that he is just as responsible as the others who were involved."
"That's it?"  Chase tilted his head.  "He won't even help us a little bit?"
She shook her head.
"Now what?"
She shook her head again.  "That was all I had."
"What about the others?  There are two more."
"Two more what?" Payne asked.  His dark eyes shifted from Chase to Madison and back again.
Chase jabbed his fingers through his hair.  "Three people took hefty amounts from that account Skyler set up for some of Bristow's victims.  One was Mr. Sounders.  His was the most recent."
"You were able to trace it to him?"  Payne sounded surprised.
"Yes, sir," Madison answered as she raised her head.  "I guess we'll have to find one of the others now."
"It wasn't that hard," Chase said with a smirk.  "A few bank statements, match it up with locations of companies Bristow stomped on, and run through the payroll list.  Sooner or later, you get a witness."
"You didn't even try," said Madison quietly, "did you?"
Payne looked even more surprised.  "Mrs. Andrew, I assure you, we did everything we could to find a way to help your husband.  He would not give us the names of the people making withdrawals from that account.  I told him we would not interfere with it, but he just wouldn't cooperate."
"So you let him be prosecuted like another one of Bristow's men?"
"No, ma'am," he answered quickly.  "I did all I could.  I told him what we needed.  He worked with us to a point."
"What point would that be?"
He clenched his teeth again.  Payne's eyes darted to Chase, then back to Madison.  "I told him we needed to question you and the victims he had contact with after each job.  He gave us neither."
"So that's it.  He's no different from the rest of the goon squad?"  She didn't mean to sound hateful, but that's how it came out.
Payne's look was just shy of a glare.  "I told him what would happen.  I gave him every chance I could.  It was out of my hands."
"And if I agree to the questioning and give you the names of those accessing the account?"
He blinked and immediately softened.  "I don't know.  It's beyond me.  We can always try."
Madison shifted forward, leaning on the table to meet Payne's gaze.  "Could you tell me what you think?  Do you believe he's a criminal?"
Chase took a deep breath beside her.  He seemed to hold it in as Payne thought over his answer.  Madison bit her lip.  It was beginning to feel raw from the habit.
Payne finally shook his head.  "He took part in criminal activity.  That cannot be ignored.  But I don't think that's who Mr. Andrew is.  So, no ma'am, I don't believe your husband is a criminal."
Though she knew the detective's opinion would not add much weight to Skyler's case, she was glad to hear him say the words.  She knew Skyler, his heart and soul.  She loved him for all she was worth.  Perhaps she was not objective enough.  But for Payne to agree with her, that let her hold onto a twinge of hope, no matter how small it was.
"With that said," Payne went on, "I also believe you might be facing the same predicament.  Your name has come up on both sides of our investigation.  Skyler did a good job keeping you from us, but he is out of the picture now.  You need to be careful.  The fewer people who know you are here, the better."
Chase cleared his throat.  "Are you saying Madison could be in trouble, too?"
Payne nodded.  "I don't need to remind you of the Meredith Turner adventure, do I?"
Madison looked to Chase and shook her head.  "No, sir.  I understand."
"There isn't much I can do there, either."
She continued to nod.  "I understand."
"Are you planning on going to the hearing in the morning?"
"Yes, sir."
Payne looked to Chase, who nodded.  "Could I make a suggestion?"
They both agreed with another nod.
"It might be best for you to keep to the back of the room.  Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself.  And I know Skyler is not a fan of you being here, so give him some space.  It might be best for him to think you've gone back to Caicos.  He needs to be himself tomorrow to get on the judge's good side.  If he's being his overly-protective-guardian-of-Madison version, he won't be gaining anyone’s approval.  We need the business Skyler in that courtroom tomorrow."
"That's a few suggestions," Chase said with a chuckle.
Payne pointed at him.  "And make sure to get her out of there as soon as it is over.  I don't want you two hanging around outside this apartment much more than what's absolutely necessary.  Bristow still has his ties.  He knows too many people even now."
Chase raised his hand.  "Yeah, about that.  Are you more worried about this Bristow character or the law looking for Madison?"
It was a good question, but Madison turned to him wide eyed.  She gaped at him for a moment, and then snapped her mouth shut.  She didn't know if she wanted to know the answer.  Neither sounded like anything she wanted to tangle with.
Payne took a deep breath and leaned forward resting his elbows on the table.  He looked down at the smooth top, his eyes following the bends and waves of the wood grain.  "I can't answer that.  Both could be trouble.  Just stay out of sight.  Don't rule out going home."
Madison exchanged nervous glances with Chase.  It still was not an answer she liked.  Why was it so difficult for her and Skyler to disappear?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Always & Forever - Chapter Six

Madison kept her reply to herself.  Skyler didn't want her to stay and Chase didn't want her to go.  She disagreed with both, but seemingly had no say on the matter.
"Come on," Chase said as he backed out of the parking space.  "I'll even let you push the cart."
She lowered her gaze and surveyed the collar of his jacket across her knees.  It was an older garment, but well cared for.  That was a rarity for him.  The tan stitching along the dark denim made her think of summer time instead of the cold weather that surrounded her.
"He told me to go home," she said without looking away from the stitching.  "Skyler said for me to go back without him."
"Of course he did," he replied with a chuckle.
She bit her lip to keep from snapping at him.  There was nothing humorous about the situation.  She refused to accept his jesting.
"You're all he has left, Madison.  Just you.  Of course he wants you to go home.  He thinks you will be safer there."
"How would I be safer there?  They got him from there.  They wrecked our house."
"And that's exactly why I didn't put you back on a plane the moment you got here.  I'm not going to tell you where to go.  I think here and there would be no different safety-wise.  You have to figure out where you would do the most good.  Where do you want to be?"
That was an easy one.  "Here."
Chase gave a nod of satisfaction.  "Then I suggest that you behave and stay out of trouble.  Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself."
His approval was a comfort.  It did little to affect the overwhelming feat that Skyler would not be there, but it made breathing just a tad easier.  She was glad he understood.  "Thank you, Chase."
He shook his head.  "Not yet.  I'm not finished."  He wiggled in his seat as if preparing for a big speech.  "If you plan on staying here, no more of this 'Poor me, I'm gonna sit in a dark corner brooding' bit.  Sawyer sounds pretty confident about this.  It's far from over.  And you need to take good care of yourself."
He was being reasonable.  She gave a nod.
"Good.  Now, do you want to find a coat first or groceries?"
She chuckled and snuggled into the warm seat.  "That coat sounds pretty good."
"Good," he said with even more cheer.  "It's a deal.  Coat.  Groceries. Sleepover."
She looked at him sideways.  He answered with a smirk.  Once again, Chase's positive outlook helped pull her back.  His assistance was priceless.
Chase drove them back to the Magnificent Mile.  Madison laughed when he pulled up in front of a store that was only a block from his apartment.  "What?" he asked in a surprised tone.  "It's a good space.  These are never open."
She shrugged and shook her head.  "Nothing."  She leaned forward and looked out the window at his building and parking garage.
"I'm doing you a favor.  Would you rather walk through the snow in your island-wear?  I don't mind."
Madison shook her head again.  "You're so thoughtful."
"That's what I thought."  He cut off the engine and stepped out.  Madison followed after him.
The shop he chose had plenty to offer.  The racks were loaded with winter-wear worthy of the frost trimmed storefront windows.  Madison was quick to grab a long, brown coat with lots of pockets and try it on.
"Not bad," Chase said, and then yawned.  "If that's what you're into."
She peered at him.  "I'm only going to need it for a two weeks.  Three at most.  No use being too picky."
He bobbed his head and moved on to the next rack.  "That's cool.  Just sayin'."
Madison shrugged the coat off and put it back on its hanger, but carried it with her as she trailed him farther into the store.  He was acting suspicious.
"The one you ordered last year was fine, too.  It made you look like a bum, but who am I to judge?"
She smiled to herself.  The one he spoke of was about two sizes larger than she realized when she placed the order.  It, too, was a plain brown coat.  She felt like she was wearing a hand-me-down each time she put it on.  But she rarely wore it.  It was not worth fussing over.  The majority of her time was spent in the confines of the apartment. 
Chase wandered to the far side of the store.  He stopped in an area with much more fashionable coats.  They were the kinds she would love to have if she was to see more of the winter weather.  The short time she would see of it did not deserve such a trendy coat.
He didn't seem to notice her hesitation.  Chase pulled a coat from the rack and held it out to her.  He didn't wait to see her reaction.  He was back to scanning the collection of coats before she accepted it from him.
It was another long coat.  But this one was a green khaki color.  It had a zip closure with big, wooden button accents.  The two deep pockets had dark zippers across the tops of them.  A waist belt with a square buckle matched the zippers.  The tall collar was just a shade darker green than the rest of the coat.
What she liked the most about the garment was the heavy lining within.  She pulled off the hoodie, then tried on the coat, zipped it up, and leaned on the rack to strike a pose.
"Not bad," Chase said as he took the hoodie from her.  His brows bounced as he withheld a smirk.  "You look like you almost belong here."
He nodded, turned away holding up his finger, and strolled around to the other side of the rack.  There was a display of wool scarves set up.  Blues, grays, reds, yellow, and pinks hung from the arms of mannequins wearing slender, black coats.
Chase tugged a gray scarf loose and tossed it over the rack.  She held it up and shook her head.  "Really?"
"Everyone wears a scarf, Madison."  He pointed at the mannequin behind her.  "See?  Even he has one."
She nodded in understanding.  Scarves were pretty much a necessity when staying in Chicago.  Then again, she didn't feel she would be there long enough to warrant it.
"I'm done," Chase shrugged.  "Do you want the boring brown or the lively green?"
"That's my only choice?"
"Nope."  He walked up to her, took the brown coat away, and moseyed to the front of the store.  Chase hung it on its original rack and looked over his shoulder.  "That's your only choice."
Madison laughed at him.  She did like the green one better.  If he were not there, she would have stuck with the brown one.  It was more reasonable in her opinion.  Bland, yes.  But a coat was a coat.  She just wanted something warm, not particularly fancy.
She went to the front of the store and joined Chase at the counter.  A young man stopped sorting sweaters from a box and came to meet them.  "Found what you were looking for?"
"Yep," Chase answered.  He held up his hoodie.  "All I wanted was my hoodie back."
"I see," said Madison.  "That's how it is."
"Hey," he said as he hugged it to his chest, "Not even Tabatha gets to wear this thing.  This isn't just any hoodie, you know."
Madison nodded.  "Gotcha.  Thanks for letting me borrow it."  She matched his smirk and reached in her purse.  "I'll be sure to let Tabatha know the next time I see her."
Chase had his wallet out before she finished speaking, and handed a card to the cashier.  "It's 'The Hoodie'.  It's sacred."
"Don't take that card," she said to the young man behind the counter.  She pulled out her own and passed it to him.  "Thanks anyway."
Chase leaned over and peeked at the card she handed to the cashier.  "Sure, use a stolen card.  That always works."
The young man behind the counter looked up at them both.  His brown eyes widened as he paused in swiping the card, one in each hand.
Madison let out a sigh and turned to Chase with a glare.  He simply shrugged and nodded to the cashier.  "The first one would be safest."
"It's not stolen," she growled at Chase.  She looked to the cashier.  "It's not stolen.  Do you want my ID?"
The young man ran Chase's card through the machine.  He passed both cards back to their carriers.  "I believe you, ma'am."
Tucking her card back into her purse, she shook her head at Chase.  "That wasn't necessary.  But thank you."
Chase grinned.  The cashier handed him a receipt and pen.  Chase signed and passed it back.  "Don't mention it.  It's in The Hoodie's best interest."
She couldn't help but smile at him.  He finished at the counter and looked to her.  Madison held up the scarf, and then tossed it over his shoulder.  With another smirk, he wrapped it around his neck once and flicked the ends over his shoulders.
Chase took a bow and waved for her to go ahead of him.  Madison thanked the cashier and headed for the door, but before she could reach it, Chase dashed around her to hold it open.
She made a point to stop and zip up her new coat.  He nodded in approval.  "You don't have to push the cart if you don't want to," he said as she passed by.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, she waited for him to come beside her.  She knew he only went to the grocery store when it entailed the use of a cart.  He was as fascinated with them as he was with snow.  "As long as you promise not to run over my toes."
Chase started down the sidewalk with the bounce returned to his step.  "Maybe we should have set you up with boots, too."
He led the way to a store only a few doors down.  List in hand; Chase claimed the first cart inside the door.  He made noises of squealing wheels with each turn and throttled take off.
Madison was pleasantly surprised at how quickly they tackled the shopping list.  She held their place in line as Chase took the cart for a few victory laps around the store.  She exchanged smiles with women her age that had their children standing quietly at their sides.  Their eyes would wander at times to the grown man racing around with a well-stocked grocery cart when he would zoom by.  While they looked on with faint disapproval, their children squirmed with envy.
Once they had their purchases bagged, the two carried everything out to Chase's car in one trip.  He snatched up the weighty bags before Madison could and ended up carrying twice as much.
His drive back to the apartment was much more controlled than his time with the cart.  Satisfaction with knowing the eggs would not be scrambled in the short distance made Madison smile.  They were the only items she worried about.  She meant to hold them in her lap, but Chase took them and tucked them in a sack with the bread.
Back at the apartment, Madison called Richard as she put the groceries away to let him know how things were going.  She kept to herself about the part where Skyler wished her to go home, but filled him in on Sawyer and Chase's help.  He voiced his appreciation of the added assistance.  Madison could hear the relief in his words.
She spent what little was left of the afternoon putting together a dinner for her and Chase.  He was in his office the whole time making phone calls.  Madison kept the three files of the mystery witnesses close and glanced over them yet again.  There had to be something they were missing.
With the table set and meal prepared, Chase and Madison sat down for dinner.  It was not one of Madison's more spectacular spreads, but it was plenty for the two of them: Lemon pepper chicken breast with a tossed salad and corn on the cob.
Chase gave his usual praises for the hot, home cooked meal, and then readily dove in.  The conversation was sparse for the majority of the shared dinner.  They both had their noses in files and textbooks.  At times, one would speak up about something they've found to get the other's opinion.  That was the limit of their discussions.
When they were both finished, Chase returned to his office while Madison cleared off the table and put away the left overs.  She let herself cheat on the dishes.  They went straight from the table to the dishwasher.  No pre-rinse.  She wanted to spend more time on her small collection of files.
Madison opened each file on the table and arranged their papers across its width.  She borrowed a stack of sticky notes from Chase's office, and then pulled one of the tall stools from the counter over to the table.  From her raised perch, she jotted down thoughts and ideas on the stickies and stuck them to the edge of the table.
Of the three mystery witnesses, the one from New Orleans seemed to be their best shot at recruiting.  All three were family men, but that one in particular made the most recent and most noticeable withdrawals from Skyler's recovery account.
Madison matched up the times and amounts with the bank records.  One of the larger transactions went to a university.  It covered tuition and what she guessed to be textbooks.  It was not just any university, but a prestigious medical school.
With a good collection of notes on each witness, Madison began to concentrate more so on Mr. New Orleans.  The others had potential, but with her limited amount of time, she felt it would be wise to consolidate all her resources on one witness.  One amazing testimony would do more good than three sparse stories.
It was late in the evening when Madison stepped back from her research.  Her eyes were dry and ached.  Switching back and forth between the laptop and paper documents helped, but was still exhausting.
She looked to Chase's office.  His lights were on, but the room was quiet.  She wondered how he was managing, so she went to check on him.
He had his head down on his desk with a thick textbook propped up in front of him.  The music from his headphones had enough volume for Madison so hear it by the door.  He glanced to her when she peeked in.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
Chase dropped the headphones down to his neck.  "Doing good.  You?"
She rubbed at her brow with the back of her hand.  "I think I've found a few things, but I think I need to go to bed."
"Good idea," he said with a nod.  "I'm going to work on this a little while longer.  Go ahead and rest.  We'll see what Sawyer says in the morning."
"Do you need anything before I go?'
He shook his head and reached for the headphones.  Before he had them on once again, he cocked his head.  "Maybe some coffee?"
Madison nodded with a tired smile.  "I'll put some on.  Goodnight."
He bobbed his head.  "Goodnight."
She turned down the lights in the front room as she made her way back to the kitchen.  While it brewed, she put on her nightclothes and got ready for bed.  She opened the blinds in the bedroom and reveled in the city's winter-kissed glow.  She could have easily fallen asleep where she stood if not for the aroma of the coffee calling her back to the kitchen.
Picking Chase's favorite mug, a tall one with an embossed keyboard around its body, she filled it with the steaming coffee.  She nearly added a dash of creamer as Skyler liked it, but caught herself.  Chase took his black.
She set the mug on his desk and went on to bed.  A dreary sadness attached itself to her tiredness.  She could still feel the cool carton of creamer against her hand.  It reminded her of why she was not at home in her own bed, as did most everything that hinted at her life with Skyler.
The lonely time between curling up in bed and falling asleep was the worst.  Even her dreams made her miss Skyler's presence.  A major piece of her heart was missing.
She hugged a pillow to her chest.  It was in no way a close replica of Skyler, but it helped.  Even still, she missed his arms around her, the feel of his breath against her neck, and the comfort of knowing they were together, the way they were meant to be.
Mornings seemed to come earlier and earlier for Madison.  She felt as if she had only just fallen asleep when she senses the start of a new day.  The sun was only beginning to cast a golden glow on the snowy world when she awoke.
Normally, she would lie in bed and wait out the early hours and snuggle against Skyler.  If he were still asleep, she would simply watch him dream and match his breaths.  If he was already awake, they would hold each other in the quiet warmth of the morning while the shadows on the walls grew as the sun climbed higher into the sky.
But the empty bed she woke to only urged her to get up and find a way to bring him home.  She would never take another night in his arms for granted.  He'd be lucky if she ever let him out of her sight again.
As she sat on the side of the bed touched her feet to the plush carpet, the sounds of Chase's phone came from the main room. Madison held her place for a couple rings.  She got up to hurry to catch it after the third.
But when she opened the door, Chase was rolling over on the couch and reaching for the phone.  He answered it with sleep heavy on his voice.
"Hello.  Yeah.  No, I'm up."  He sat up and ran his fingers through his messy hair.  His eyes narrowed as he listened to whoever was on the line.  "When was this?"
He waited and listened awhile longer.  Madison leaned on the doorframe for a moment, but then decided it would be better for her to keep busy.  She made her way into the kitchen and started another pot of coffee for Chase.
"And what did he say?"
Madison figured making omelets would hold her over long enough to wait out his call.  It was not normal for Chase to do more listening than talking.  Cooking breakfast might keep her from planting herself on the couch and trying to listen in on the conversation.
"Is there anything we can do to help?"  He paused, and then looked back at her.  She froze in place.  The cold yolk of the egg she just cracked oozed over her fingertips.  "Yeah, she's here.  I know."  He shook his head.  "It wouldn't make any difference."
Chase stood up and stretched.  He waddled into this office while nodding his head.  His door silently closed behind him.
The call had to be from Sawyer.  That would be the only person who would know about the dilemma of whether she was still in the city or on her way back to the island.  Was there an update about Skyler?  Was he asking for her?  Would she get to see him once more, and be well received?
She shook her head and turned her focus to the mess she made with the egg.  Most of the yolk that seeped out landed in the pan.  There was only a small spill on the stovetop.  She wiped it up with a wet rag, and then threw the emptied shell away.
One omelet was finished and the second was almost ready when Chase finally emerged from his office.  Madison watched him out the corner of her eye as she added pieces of red pepper to the sizzling breakfast.  But neither the smell of the omelet nor the fresh coffee earned a fraction of her attention.
"Well," Chase started as he sat down at the counter.  "That was Sawyer.  There's been a change in Skyler's case."
Madison peered at him in anticipation of what kind of change occurred.  Was it a good change?  Was it a bad change?  Why was he taking his sweet time getting to the point?
He nodded as if he felt her mental push for him to continue.  "His sentencing hearing has been moved up.  It's tomorrow."
That was too soon.  Madison's eyes widened.  "But we're not ready.  We can't get any witnesses here by then."
"I know.  Sawyer said he would go with what he has if …"
She leaned over the crackling egg.  Why couldn't he just spit it out?  Was he still asleep?
"He's going to try to get it rescheduled," Chase said with a confused look on his face.  "The prosecution had it moved up.  But a different judge will be hearing the case.  Sawyer is going to let him know of our situation and ask for a little more time.  If he gets it, we'll just pick up our pace a bit.  If he doesn't, well, we'll just have to manage with what we have."
"And what would that be?"
Chase shook his head.  "Not much.  We need more time."
How could someone get the hearing moved up?  Why were they making things so difficult?
What was that horrid stench?
Madison's mind quit racing long enough for her to remember the egg in the pan.  She jumped back when she realized how much heat she was getting from the burner.  Grabbing the pan with one hand, and switching off the stove with the other, she frowned at the blackened mess that was once edible.
"I'm sorry," she muttered.
Chase snorted.  "What for?"
"I burned it.  I wasn't paying attention."
"Yeah," he said with a nod.  "I noticed."
She glared at him, and then stepped to the trashcan.
"You're forgiven," he smirked.
It took some encouragement from the spatula to get the egg to release its hold on the pan.  Ham, cheese, and peppers were hardly distinguishable from the peeling egg.  The smell of burnt eggs ruined what little appetite Madison had left.
"I'm assuming that one was yours."
She looked across the counter at him.  The grin on his face said that he was teasing, but her frustration made her want to throw an egg at him.
"Oh, come on.  I'll share."
Chase reached over the counter and grabbed a hotplate.  Madison followed his meaning and set the pan down.  She let herself chuckle when he finally burst out laughing.
"It's going to smell like that all day," she said with another frown.  "Yuck."
Still laughing to himself, Chase got up and jogged to the front door.  He pulled it open and fanned at the air as if he could push the foul smell out of the apartment.  He stood there for a while before propping the door open with the hall tree.  He turned around and shrugged.  "It happens.  But I'll still share."
"No, thank you," Madison said as she held the plate with the good omelet out for him.  "I think it's another bagel morning."
She moved about the kitchen and stuffed a bagel into the toaster.  Chase came back to the counter and poked at the omelet in front of him.  Madison expected him to scarf it down.
"Do you not want it?"
His head popped up and his eyes widened.  "What?  No!  I mean, yes!  I was just waiting for you."
She swallowed a surprised chuckle.  "Ok.  Thanks."  It came out sounding like a question.  She hurried to the fridge and found the cream cheese.  The toaster hadn't finished yet, but she bumped the lever and grabbed the bagel as it hopped up.
As soon as she sat down, Chase took a few bites of the omelet and chewed at it quickly.  "Don't worry about anything, Madison.  I know Sawyer will make this work.  He can recover anything no matter the time crunch."
"Did he say if there was anything for us to do?"
He nodded as he took another bite.  "He said to keep up our research.  We should go on as if nothing's happened.  But he did suggest we move a little faster."
Again his reasoning tickled her.  He couldn't give a straight answer.  Even still, she trusted his judgment.  If he said Sawyer could still pull them through, she believed him.  Not only was it worth a try, it was their only chance.
"Did you find anything new?"
Chase wagged his head.  "Not really.  You?"
"Hmm," she hesitated in calling her thoughts new on Mr. New Orleans.  "Maybe.  Kind of.  Not really."
He raised a brow.  Madison realized how much she sounded like him with that answer.
"Ok," she started.  "Those three files you said would be the biggest help, well, I think we need to concentrate on one.  The guy in New Orleans, to be specific.  I think that if we can get ahold of him, he would be the most likely to testify for Skyler."
"How come?"
She shrugged.  "Just a feeling."
Chase raised a brow again.  He was unimpressed.  "A feeling?"
"He's paid a tuition recently.  One of his kids is in med school.  He took out an amount close to it a few years ago.  He has another kid in law school.  This guy is doing better with what Skyler set up with than he would have with the company Morgan shut down."
"Can you prove that?"
"Maybe," she answered with a wince.  "If I can get ahold of him."
Chase nodded slowly.  That was all she got from him.  Whether or not he approved was beyond her.
"At least, that's what I would like to do."
"Ok," he said with a shrug.  "Go for it."
She was reluctant to accept his approval.  "But I won't have anything by tomorrow.  There's no way."
"Get what you can.  It's better than nothing, right?"
Madison nodded.  He was right.  But it would only be beneficial if Sawyer won them more time.  And only if she was able to actually contact Mr. New Orleans.  "I guess I better get busy."
Chase scraped up what was left of the omelet.  It looked to be a mouthful when he finally tackled it.  He gave another shrug.  "Where do we start?"
"A name would be helpful."