Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Ten

“It’s hard to fight when the fight ain’t fair.”
~ Taylor Swift

Susan was making notations on the student files when there was a knock on her office door. She looked up to see Henry Kline, the dean of admissions, standing in the doorway.

He asked hesitantly, “Am I interrupting?”

“Nothing that can’t wait. Please come in.” Henry was a smart, dedicated man, one she respected but rarely had dealings with.

“Cleaning out your desk?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“Director Carmichael passed on the news about your leave of absence. You’ll be missed around here, and not just by your students. There are teachers and extraordinary teachers. You’re one of the latter.”

Susan teared up. “Thank you, Henry. I love the school and I love my students. Unfortunately, I have more on my plate than I can handle.”

Henry strolled to the chair normally reserved for students and sat down. “Families come first, or should. When you’re in a better place, your position will be waiting for you.”

“I turned in my resignation, but Director Carmichael convinced me to take a leave of absence instead. I’m grateful. I hope that I will be able to return in January, but there’s no guarantee.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed. How’s Lara doing?”

“Considering the circumstances, remarkably well. Currently, she’s visiting with my parents in Shafer Lake.”

“What about your Aunt Maddie? How’s she dealing with the added stress?”

“She’s depressed. She’s one of the reasons that I’m in Hazelton and Lara is in Lake Shafer.”

“My wife, Millicent, and I miss seeing Maddie at Giovanni’s Eatery. Millie and I are regulars on Thursday night. Before the accident, Maddie showed up at least once a month. She once told Millie and me that she liked coming to Giovanni’s because the people treated her like a friend, not a celebrity.”

“I’ve heard that the food’s good at Giovanni’s, but I haven’t eaten there.”

“It’s a cozy little café on the corner of Third and Glenwood. It’s owned by two brothers. They, their wives and children all work at the restaurant. If you like country Italian, you’ll love Giovanni’s. Is Maddie getting out now?”

“She is, but she’s still not driving. I’m glad you told me about Giovanni’s, Henry. She needs people, but she’s nervous about going out. Giovanni’s sounds like a good place to start.”

“Is she working on another novel?”

“No, and it’s doubtful that she will ever write another one. Have you read her books?

“As a matter of fact, I have. A college classmate recommended her book, Deceived. When one of the locally owned bookstores held a book signing for her, I attended. I knew that she had been crime reporter, so I expected to meet a profane, tough woman. Instead I discovered that she was charismatic, funny and gracious. She seemed to genuinely enjoy chatting with the people who attended her book signings. I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

“When she learned that I was a School of the Arts employee, she asked if I knew you. It was obvious that she adored you, Charles and Lara. About five years ago, she showed up at Giovanni’s one Thursday night. Millie and I invited her to share our table, and she did. After that, we got to know the real Maddie Sorenson.”

“That settles it. By hook or crook, I’m going to get her to Giovanni’s.”

“One last thing. Several of us from the school plan to attend your concert. You are an inspiration to your students, and to the school.”

“I’m delighted that you will be there, Henry. I need all of the support I can get.”

When the last notation was made on the student files, Susan called Travis.

“Travis. Hey. It’s me.”

“I wondered when you’d call.”

“Did you and Wesley find anything helpful?”

“Maybe. We need to talk. Where are you?”

“I’m getting ready to leave the school. I’m going to swing through the drive through at Crabtree’s to pick up a sandwich.”

“Bring me a Club, and I’ll reimburse you”

Susan took a deep breath. “Should I take a valium before I get there?”

He laughed. “You’ll handle the information as valiantly as you’ve handled everything else.”

“Thank you for the confidence. See you in twenty.”

Twenty-two minutes later, Travis met Susan at his back door and motioned her in. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

“You’re off the beaten track out here in the boondocks, Travis. Have you ever given any thought to opening an office in the business district?”

“When Lt. Traynor suggested that I get a PI license, I gave the idea some thought. I nixed the idea, because too many walk-in cases involve spying on spouses who have roving eyes. Traynor directs enough cases my way to keep me busy.”

“Thank the good Lord he talked you into investigating Charles’ disappearance. You’ve at least given me hope that my family will have some kind of closure. So, what do you think of Mr. FBI?”

Travis chuckled. “Frankly, I wasn’t all that thrilled about talking to him. Some of the Feds I’ve worked with are all talk. Wesley isn’t. The man has a head on his shoulders. The thing that works to your advantage is that agents have more resources than I do. That’s a plus in a complicated case. By the way, there are drinks in the fridge. Help yourself.”

Susan grabbed a peach tea out of the fridge and carried it to the table where Travis was taking the sandwiches out of the carry-out bag.

Travis said, “Why don’t you tell me about your morning while we’re eating.”

“As nonsensical as it sounds, it was harder and easier than I expected.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. How’d the director react?”

“He suggested a leave of absence instead of my resignation.”

Travis’ face brightened. “I hope to high heaven you took him up on his offer. When your life has settled down a bit, it will be good to know that you have a job waiting.”

“I did take him up on his offer, but now I’m feeling guilty. I might not be able to fulfill my part of the bargain.”

“I’m sure he knows that’s a possibility.”

“I have to keep making adjustments to my changing circumstances. Leah has a buyer for her house. That means that I’m going to have to come up with an alternative plan for Maddie’s care. Then there’s Lara. She’s is still debating whether to come back to Hazelton High for her senior year, or stay in Shafer Lake. I can’t be in two places at one time.”

Travis’s words were measured, “If you find yourself in a bind, I can help out with Maddie.”

Susan’s eyes widened. “I know that you two get along like gangbusters, but you haven’t been around when she’s confused or dealing with a migraine. Her behavior can be disconcerting.”

“I know that I don’t seem like the logical choice, but I’ve had experience taking care of a person with a life changing illness. During my wife’s last illness, she faced many of the same emotional issues that Maddie’s facing. It was an emotional time for both of us, but I feel privileged that I was given that time with her. The experience was both enlightening and humbling. Helen and I talked on a deeper level than we’d ever talked.

“Being a caregiver can be difficult, but it can also be rewarding. As crazy as it sounds, keeping track of Maddie’s medications, chauffeuring her to appointments and listening to her stories would give me pleasure. I don’t mind admitting that I need to be needed.”

“I’m overwhelmed by your generosity. You look and act tough, Travis, but you’re a softie.”

“Don’t spoil my tough-guy image by letting that get out. We’ll talk about the logistics when and if the need arrives.”

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now that you’ve saved my sanity once again, why don’t you tell me what you found among Charles’ personal items?”

“Finish your sandwich and then we’ll discuss the items in the box.”

Susan pushed the uneaten portion of her sandwich away. “I’m not as hungry as I thought I was. You know how I hate delaying tactics, Travis. I promise not to have a meltdown.”

“That thought didn’t cross my mind. Most of the items were typical office items, but there were two flash drives.”

Susan’s eyebrows shot up. “Everything in this case seems to come down to flash drives. Have you checked the content?”

“I have. They contain Maddie’s research notes for an unnamed book, her schedule for the six months preceding the accident and what I suspect are the photographs that were on the thumb drive sent to the police.”

Susan’s voice was a trifle unsteady. “When I’m wrong, I’m really wrong. Since the drives were in Charles’ desk drawer, I can no longer deny his involvement.”

“Charles might not have known until after Maddie’s accident. It’s possible that both of the drives belonged to her. Who knows. Perhaps she talked to the police about her suspicion that corruption was going on in Keller’s administration. It’s possible that Charles was trying to finish the job that Maddie started.

“We can speculate, but only Maddie knows the answers, and she says she doesn’t remember. From her notes, it’s obvious that she was deeply disturbed by the corruption and was convinced that McCorkle influenced Donovan. I’m sure she agonized over involving Charles, but he knew Donovan better than she did.

“When Charles learned what Maddie was involved in, he probably became involved because of his concern for his aunt. As for his reasons for keeping you and Lara in the dark, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he didn’t share with you because of safety concerns.”

Susan said, “Charles wouldn’t have been any happier with the police’s failure to act than Maddie was. When he saw a problem, he attempted to solve it. He probably sent the photos anonymously because he was protecting Albrights. He wouldn’t have wanted his company’s name dragged into an investigation. Obviously, someone figured out that he was the sender.”

Travis shrugged. “Again, that’s speculation. Up until now, there was no reason to think that you and Lara were in danger. As long as you were in Shafer Lake, the man or men behind the corruption, probably assumed that the two of you were innocent bystanders. Now that you’re back and have hired me, who knows. You mentioned a strange car in your neighborhood last week, have you seen it again?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. There’s a black sedan that I see every time I’m out and about. The driver stays a couple of cars back, but it always seems to be there. I haven’t seen the license plate, so I can’t prove that it’s the same car. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to sound like an alarmist.”

“I’d rather know, Susan. Wesley and I didn’t discuss security for you and your family, but I’m beginning to think that we haven’t been vigilant enough. At least, for the immediate future. I’ll keep an eye on Maddie’s house and I’ll speak to Traynor about security for you. Now . . . if you’ll follow me into my office, I’ll show you what’s in the files.”

“Is there any way to keep Maddie out of this.”

“Susan, it’s looking more and more like Maddie has always been one of the central players.”

“I don’t doubt you, Travis. It’s just that I’ve never viewed her as a threat to anyone.”

“That’s what she wanted you to think. Until the accident, she was a risk taker. I have another question for you. Have you read any of her research notes from past novels?”

“As I’ve told you before, I’m not into violence. I did read her notes for two of her books, Two Steps Back and Deceived, and that was enough to convince me that I didn’t want to read her books.”

He nodded. “Were her notes strictly factual or did she take creative license?”

“She was extremely cautious when writing about actual cases. The exact nature of the crimes and the perpetrators were changed to protect the innocent and to avoid lawsuits. For example, if Frank Wainwright IV, a forty-six-year-old lawyer from Philly, committed a crime, then the novel’s villain became Elton Kruger, a sixty-year-old factory worker from West Virginia.”

“I get the picture.”

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