Dinner was over, and my two sons were busy decorating our Christmas tree. Instead of glorious evergreen branches smelling of the north woods, it was an old artificial tree I had rescued from the trash. Money was tight. My husband was in prison, and both boys needed new shoes. As the last of the candy canes,  popcorn strings, and tinsel were in place, the doorbell rang—UPS with a package.

“You’re working late?” I said.

“Time of year,” he replied. “And I have about 20 more stops.”

The boys tore open the package and lifted out a beautiful tree-top ornament—an elegant Christmas Angel. The box was labeled Filene’s, a high-end store here in Boston, but no gift card or receipt was inside. David, my eldest, had already carried a chair over to the tree, so I climbed up and hung our new angel right at the top. She looked wonderful!

After Christmas, I tried to discover who had sent that gift. Filene’s didn’t know; the clerk said it hadn’t been purchased there. And my husband denied it when I saw him on visiting day. Who had the money to spend on something so expensive?

“Don’t worry about it,” Kenny remarked. “Someone made a stupid mistake. No one will track it down.”

But then Kenny went quiet, and for a minute or two, he seemed lost in thought. Then he turned to me and said, “Listen, honey, keep that thing safe. Don’t tell anyone about it. I’ll check into it when I get out of here.”

When I got home, I couldn’t help thinking about my husband’s change of attitude. He’d gone from “Don’t worry,” to “Don’t tell.” So, I brought the angel out of the closet, determined to take a better look at her.

She’s about 18 inches tall and made for a large tree. Her dress is delicate gold lace over a white satin slip, and her wings are white ostrich feathers. Even her slippers are special; they’re covered with tiny gold stars. It was then I realized she was a collector doll, not a Christmas ornament. The attachment for hanging was cheaply made and obviously an add-on. Then I lifted her dress, looking for a label. Strange…I’d never seen a doll with a wide seam circling her waist.

I don’t know what made me decide to try to open her—probably because she seemed heavier than she looked. But I was very careful as I turned each end slowly in opposite directions; I didn’t want to damage her. After a few turns, she came apart.

That’s when my life changed forever.

I saw that white powder—the powder that had put Kenny in jail. Small amounts had been carefully packed into tiny zip-top bags. Hundreds of them were stuffed into her body. When I dumped them out, I noticed something else. Duct-taped inside her body was a key. By now my heart was thumping, and a million thoughts were racing through my head. No one must find any of this! I’d go to jail. Who would take care of my boys? Should I call the police? What if they don’t believe me? My husband must know something about this. Oh, Kenny! Why did you put our children in such danger? I’m so frightened, I almost throw up. But I must protect my sons.

I make the call.

Later, the detectives told me a drug ring was using those fancy dolls to ship fentanyl all over the country. And when they found out that Kenny was a part of that gang, I was furious! I never wanted to see him again. He’ll be in prison for many years, and our divorce will be final in a few weeks.

There was no reward. Instead, I got a lot of suspicious looks, nasty remarks, long hours of police questioning, and obnoxious reporters. Then I lost my job and had a hard time getting another because of the publicity. We’ve had to move. I think I deserve something for suffering through it all.

I never told the police about that key, but I’ve been thinking about it for almost two years now. This isn’t the key to someone’s gym locker and their stinky workout clothes. Something valuable is involved, and I want it!

I knew it was called a barrel key. Before he was arrested, Kenny had a job filling vending machines, and his key looked just like this one. All the machines on his route were at the airport. I know, because I’d tagged along with him one day. The guys who service these things are on a tight schedule. They have no time do anything but put bottles in the empty slots at the top and collect the money. If something is hidden in one of those machines, it’s probably still there.

I must be careful. I only go searching on weekends when the crowds are massive, and it would be difficult for anyone to follow me. And I only open a few machines each time I go.

Today, I’m checking the vending machines near the short-term parking area. No one’s paying any attention to me. There’s one right in front of me now. I open it, bend down, and brush my hand around the bottom. This time, there’s something there. I pull out a dust-covered package wrapped in black plastic, close the machine and walk away smiling.

It was full of new hundred-dollar bills—almost $100,000 was in that box.

Who put it there? Who does it belong to? Who knows? I can think of a dozen different scenarios.

I put most of that cash in a new safety deposit box. I’ll spend only a small amount at a time—new clothes for me and the boys right away, then later, maybe a larger apartment or a car. Definitely, a real Christmas tree.

By four o’clock the next afternoon, I’m in jail, talking to a court-appointed attorney.

That money was counterfeit, every single bill!

***