Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Nine

“. . . law enforcement officers retain their identity, training, experience, and dedication to the safety and welfare of the community regardless of whether they are on duty.~unknown


Hazelton . . .

The man Susan opened the door to looked more like an action hero than an FBI agent. He was wearing Chinos and a black t-shirt, not the typical dark blue suit, white shirt and polished shoes She was as nervous as teenager who’d had just been introduced to the coolest guy in town. She usually didn’t have trouble talking to strangers, but Wesley Tillman was not only handsome, he was a handsome FBI agent. She forced herself to remain calm. “You must be Wesley. Hi, I’m Maddie’s niece, Susan Townsend. Your friends Dora and Sam are my parents, and my daughter Lara is a friend of your son Chris."

“I could have picked you out of a line-up. Lara looks like you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Susan, and I’m looking forward to seeing Maddie.”

“She’s excited about seeing you again.”

“Any words of forewarning? Your dad couldn’t tell me what to expect.”

“She’s having a good day, but expect changes. She’s less irreverent than she used to be, but she’s still sassy. She and Travis are swapping stories about the good ole days. You need to be a masterful storyteller to compete with those two.”

“I’ll settle for being their audience. I understand that she has migraines. Any subjects that trigger episodes.”

“That’s the 64,000-dollar question. My advice is to switch topics if she gets testy. Watch her eyes. If her eyes begin to glaze over, excuse yourself and find Leah.”

Maddie stood when they entered the room. She hurriedly crossed to Wesley and hugged him. “Look at you. You’ve always been a handsome devil. Except for being six inches taller and sporting a buzz cut, you could pass for Tom Cruise.”

“Maybe fifteen years ago, Maddie. I’ve aged. He hasn’t.”

“That’s why you are more mysterious looking than he is. A sprinkling of gray hair adds a dash of intrigue.”

“What about crow’s feet and wrinkles?”

“If I was fifteen years younger or you were fifteen years older, I’d marry you in a minute.”

He joked. “My loss.”

“I’m so sorry about Shannon, Wesley. She was beautiful inside and out. Her death was a tragedy.”

“It seems that we’ve both had our share of grief. I regret that I didn’t know about your accident or your nephew’s disappearance until recently.”

“Life goes on.” She turned toward Travis. “Wesley, I would like for you to meet my new friend Travis Silverstein. Travis is a former police detective. Since his retirement, he’s been working as a private investigator. Travis, meet Wesley Tillman.”

Wesley didn’t bother to tell her that he had an appointment with Travis later that day.

Travis said, “Maddie has been entertaining me with stories about her crime reporting days in New York.

Susan slipped out of the room and went in search of Leah.

Leah looked up from the pan of beans she was shelling when Susan entered the cozy, country kitchen. Susan had spent many an afternoon in front of the oversized bay window drinking tea and chatting with Maddie.

Susan’s relationship with Maddie had not always been amiable. After a few disagreements that didn’t end well, they agreed to disagree about politics, religion and crime prevention. It was their mutual love for Charles that bridged their differences. When Lara was born, any residual hard feelings were forgotten.

Leah said in amusement, “I recognize that look. No stomach for blood and guts, Susan?”

Susan crossed the room, took a large plastic bowl out of the cabinet and filled it with beans. “It’s beyond me why anyone chooses to work as a crime reporter or a law enforcement officer. I would be a basket-case before I completed my first week on the job. Shelling beans is a better fit for my personality and my skills.”

“And yet here you are enmeshed in Hazelton’s first ever major crime story.”

“Not by choice.”

“I thought you had an appointment this afternoon.”

“I do, but I can shell a lot of beans in forty-five minutes.”

“Then shell away. I’m delighted to have your company. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell you that my realtor found a buyer for my house.”

“Leah, that’s wonderful. Have you decided what your next step is going to be?”

“Maryanne, my daughter in Florida, insists that I relocate to Shelburne. I like the idea of being close to her family, but I’m not happy about leaving my friends in Hazelton.”

“Change is difficult, but can have unexpected rewards. There are interesting and good people everywhere, Leah. You’ll still have your Hazelton friends, and you’ll make new ones. Consider the move an adventure.”

“Maryanne has made that same argument. I would prefer that her family move here, but that’s not going to happen. My biggest regret will be that I’ve put you in the position of having to find another companion for Maddie. Especially now with the uncertainty in your life.”

“You’ve been a good friend to Maddie, Leah. There comes a time in a person’s life when he or she has to consider his or her own needs. Please know that I understand that, and she will too. I’ve known this was coming. Without your help, my life would have been ever more difficult than it has been. Now. . . Maddie and I are both stronger.”

Leah said, “I had a long talk with Dr. Madison this past week. He assured me that Maddie can manage on her own if she has part-time help. She’ll need supervision with meal preparation because of the safety issues. She will probably always need chauffeuring and reminders about medication. A housekeeper can handle those tasks quite easily. How would you feel about that kind of arrangement?”

“It’s one of the possibilities that Charles and I discussed. I also have to consider Lara’s needs. My situation will change again when Lara leaves for college. For the immediate future, our best option might be for Maddie to move in with us, or vice versa. We’ll just have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring. When do you need to move?”

“The house closing is in six weeks, but I need time to make moving arrangements and tie up loose ends. If I’m back home by the end of the month, I should be able to manage all of the last-minute details. Susan, rest assured that I’m not walking away from my friendship with Maddie. I’ll call and write.”

“The thought never occurred to me, Leah. I’ve always considered you one of Maddie’s forever friends.” She glanced at her watch. “I need to get moving if I’m going to be on time for my appointment. We’ll talk soon. In the meantime, you do whatever you need to do. If I need to take over the chauffeuring or handle anything else, give me a call.”

“Thank you for your understanding, Susan.”

When Susan entered the den to say good-bye to Maddie and her guests, Wesley stood.

Susan said, “I hate to interrupt, but I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye. Aunt Maddie, I have an appointment, but I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon. Travis and Wesley, I’ll be in touch.”

Wesley crossed the room to her side. “Let me walk you out.”

As soon as the front door closed behind them, Wesley asked, “Any chance you can have dinner with me tonight? I’m playing catch-up in Charles’ disappearance investigation.”

Susan wasn’t in the mood to be quizzed, even if the questioner was handsome and personable. “You’ll be wasting your time, Wesley. Everything I know is in the police file or in Travis’ notes.”

“Interrogation can be grueling, but you can’t solve cases without answers. After what you’ve been through, why wouldn’t you be cynical. Consider this; as someone unfamiliar with the case, I might be able to spot inconsistencies that were overlooked by the local police. No offense intended.”

When they reached her car, he opened the door, but didn’t close it. He stood waiting for an answer.

Susan would have liked to say no, but it was madness to turn down Wesley’s offer of help. She needed to explore any and all options that would result in uncovering the truth. “What time?”

“Seven?”

“That’ll work. Do you have my address?”

“I do. I’ll let you decide where we dine since you are a Hazelton native.”

That evening, Wesley arrived at Susan’s house promptly at seven. As he entered the front door he sniffed. “Do I smell dinner?”

Susan said apologetically, “I hope you don’t mind eating in. I’m squeamish about discussing the case in public.”

“No problem at all. If I’d known, I could have brought pizza.”

Susan said, “We’ll be fine as long as you don’t expect the Ritz. My mom stocked my freezer with quick and easy to prepare dinner entrees when she was in town a couple of weeks ago. All I did this evening, was put rice in the rice cooker and throw together a couple of salads.”

“When I’m not on the road, I rarely dine out. I enjoy cooking.”

Susan’s eyes widened. “You keep surprising me, Wesley. You don’t dress like an agent, and cooking certainly isn’t the kind of hobby that I’d associate with an agent.”

“You can’t judge a book by its cover, Lara.”

“Apparently not. It’s such a balmy evening, I thought we’d eat on the deck. Is that okay with you?”

“It beats a crowded restaurant any day. Can I help?”

She served up a plate of Chicken stir-fry over a bed of rice and handed him a plate. “The salads and drinks are already on the table.”

When they were seated, Lara said, “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to talk about Charles while we’re eating.”

“Excellent idea. I’d much prefer to hear about your upcoming concert. Chris tells me that you are a gifted pianist. He likes to sit on the steps at the lake house and listen to you practice.”

“If I’d known he was outside, I would have invited him in. Music has been a big part of my life since I was a child, but I’m not sure that I’m ready for the big stage. As a piano instructor at the School of the Arts for fifteen years, I’ve performed for small audiences on occasion. My guest appearance with the symphony will be a new experience.”

“Are you hoping to do more concerts?”

“If you’re asking if I want to tour, the answer is no. There’s nothing glamorous about life on the road. I would need to hire a publicist and a manager, and I’d have to be willing to deal with the inconveniences of travel, fatigue and concert crowds. Besides, even some of the music aficionados, seem content to listen to piano concerts on YouTube. It’s easier and less expensive.”

“Fascinating. The internet is going to put all kinds of entertainment venues out of business. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily good.”

Susan said, “I couldn’t agree more. Am I correct in assuming that you can’t talk about your job?”

“That’s true of current cases. I can sum up my job in one sentence. The job can be boring, tedious, risky or dangerous depending on the case. There are parts of the job I like, but just as many things about it that I despise. My least favorite aspect of the job is that I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with Chris.”

“Dad says that you plan to retire in two years.”

“As of now, that is the plan.”

“What about after your retirement?”

“No definite plans. So much depends on Chris.”

After the table was cleared and the kitchen back in order, Susan suggested that they continue their conversation in the den. When they were seated, Susan asked, “Before I answer your questions, can I ask you one?”

“I’ll answer if I can.”

“As much as I appreciate your help, why would an FBI agent get involved in the case of a local missing person?”

“I’m here as a friend of your parents, not an agent. I have some free time, and I agreed to read the police files. Sam has been a good friend and a mentor for Chris. I owe him.”

“But you could be spending time with Chris.”

“Chis adores your parents, thinks Lara is cool, and thinks you are a star. He knows about Charles’ disappearance, and he’s in favor of my helping your family.”

Susan said, “You might be on vacation, but I expect a bill.”

“I don’t take money for favors, Lara.”

“Then, thank you.”

“Anything else.”

She shook her head.

“I know that talking about Charles is difficult, but your perspective is unique. Some of my questions might seem irrelevant to you, but they are important. I need to understand who Charles was and how he thought, but first I need to know if there was anything unusual about his moods or actions the week before he disappeared.”

“No. Because of our hectic schedules, our family time was limited, but that wasn’t because we were at odds with each other. May’s always a busy month. The media didn’t want a simple answer. They did a hatchet job on his reputation. They got his name correct, but very little else. Charles wasn’t having an affair, he wasn’t depressed, and he wasn’t involved in illegal activities.”

“I didn’t read the media accounts, so you needn’t worry that I will judge his character because of what I read. Next question. What happened to his personal calendar?”

“He communicated with clients and handled contracts on either his smartphone or laptop. The police have tried, but haven’t been able to track his phone. He hasn’t sent emails and he hasn’t been on Linkin, Facebook or Twitter.

“Even though Charles didn’t typically bring work home, I checked his desk. The only thing I found were the thumb drives in his coat pocket. Travis knows about the flash drives. Regrettably, I don’t know what kind of information was on them. I was not in the habit of reading Charles’ email messages, going through his mail or his business files. We respected each other’s privacy.”

“What about the personal items in his desk at work? The police’s notes mention a search of his business files, but made no mention of personal items.”

Susan’s eyes widened. “I can’t believe I forgot! Charles’ administrative assistant called and asked me to stop by his office to pick up a box of items that he kept in his desk drawer. The day Lara and I left for Shafer Lake, I did. Our bank is located directly across the street from his office, so I make a spur of the moment decision to put the items in our safety deposit box.”

“Was there anything questionable or unusual in the box?”

She grimaced. “The first thing I saw when I opened the box was the family photograph that he kept on his desk. I broke down in tears. Our objective in leaving Hazelton, was to escape all reminders of Charles. Everywhere we turned, Charles was there. Perhaps I should have gone through the items, but I didn’t.”

Wesley said, “The items may or may not be of any value to Travis’ investigation, but you need to find out.”

“The bank opens at ten. If you meet me there, I’ll give the box to you. I am due at the School of the Arts at eleven, and I don’t want to be late. Actually, it’s probably not a good idea for me to see the photograph again. I don’t want to be an emotional wreck when I turn in my resignation. I’ll call Travis later in the day to find out if I need to take a look.”

“You’re leaving your job?”

“Temporarily. Under the circumstances, I’m too distracted to be an effective teacher.”

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