Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Twelve

“When we rebuild a house, we are rebuilding a home. When we recover from a disaster, we are rebuilding lives and livelihoods.” ~Sri Mulyani Indrawati

Lake Shafer . . .

After a final swish of the brush, Lara sat back and eyed the illustration. She had doubts that her work was good enough to impress a publisher, but she was pleased with the two characters she’d created. Tina Mouse and her cousin Ralphie were darn cute if she did say so herself. On the other hand, they were feisty enough to keep young readers interested.

“If I were your art teacher, I’d give you an A+. Your work has never been better. Your color is richer and your characters more engaging. That’s high praise from a man who wishes that God had omitted mice from his master plan.”

Lara’s head snapped around. “Grandpa! I didn’t hear you sneak in.”

“That’s the objective when one sneaks. I needed to speak to you, but knew that my name would be mud if my interruption caused a misdirected brushstroke on one of your masterpieces.”

Lara sighed. “I’m flattered by your high opinion, but may I remind you that a children’s book illustration doesn’t qualify as a masterpiece in anyone’s opinion except yours.”

“Then the world is inhabited by fools. Your work is spectacular. Biased though I may be, I know enough about art to know that you’re gifted.”

“Truthfully, I feel like a fraud. St. Paul’s charm and mystique inspired the story and illustrations. A Home for Tina practically wrote and illustrated itself.”

“Is the illustration on the drawing board the final one for the book?”

“No. My goal was to complete six illustrations before the Florida trip. I’m one short.”

“You still have a week, so unless something unforeseen occurs, you should reach your goal. When you are working, I know that you hate interruptions, but I knew you’d want to hear Wesley’s news update. He’s going to swing by here on his way back from Hazelton.”

“Thanks Grandpa. I’ll bet his update has something to do with the personal items that Dad kept in his office desk. Mom’s last text said that she needed to stop by the bank to pick up the items that she placed in her safety deposit box. It’d be awesome if the box contained helpful information.”

“Yes, it would. Don’t get your hopes up.”

“How soon will he be here?”

He called from Dillsboro, so he should be here in fifteen minutes.”

“Didn’t I hear Nana go out? She’ll want to be here for the update.”

“She’s grocery shopping. I sent her a text. She should be back by the time Wesley arrives.”

Lara glanced down at her paint spattered shirt. “I’m a mess. I’ve been at it for two straight days. I’m going to take a quick shower and make myself presentable.”

“Take you time. We’ll be on the porch when you’re ready to join us.”

After showering and pulling on a pair of white shorts and navy-blue t-shirt, she slipped on a pair of sandals and joined her grandpa and Wesley on the porch. Her grandpa acknowledged her with a nod, and Wesley raised his hand in greeting. She quietly took a chair across from her grandpa. From what she could gather, Wesley’s visit with her Aunt Maddie had gone well, and his meeting with Travis was productive.

Out of curiosity, Lara asked, “As someone outside the family circle, how would you evaluate Aunt Maddie’s condition? We’ve been getting conflicting reports.”

“I’m not qualified to make an evaluation. Have you done any reading about brain injuries?”

She nodded. “I have, but the articles I’ve read are ambiguous. The more I read the more confused I become.”

“According to her doctors, the lobe of her brain that affects short term memory has been damaged. That’s a fact. That being said, she is an intelligent woman with many extraordinary gifts. Even people functioning at peak performance—emotionally, mentally and physically— have limitations. Some folks are just reluctant to admit their limitations. From my perspective, if Maddie accepts her limitations, she can live a very full and productive life.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Fifteen years. When we met, she was arguably the most tenacious female I’d ever met. Yesterday, there were flashes of grit and passion, but only when we talked about the past. She was subdued and less self-assured when the conversation turned to her life today. It has to be difficult to project confidence when you forget names, dates and basic facts. Somehow, she’s going to have to find a way to remain positive.”

Unconsciously, Lara nodded. “In other words, her life will be what she makes it.”

His seemed surprised by Lara’s insight. “There was a quote on one of my recent memos from the main office that read: If “Plan A” didn’t work. There are 25 more letters in the alphabet. Stay cool. I posted the memo on my desktop. It’s worth remembering.”

“I love it, but I wouldn’t dare say that to Aunt Maddie. She’s way too touchy about the accident. In her defense, she’s having to deal with some nasty migraines. These days, she’s lucky to get through a week without one.”

“Her car was totaled, Lara. I’d say that she’s lucky to be alive. Headaches notwithstanding, her recovery has been remarkable.”

“Did you and Leah have the opportunity to discuss Maddie’s condition?”

“Briefly. Maddie, Travis and I spent time reminiscing while Leah and your mom chatted in the kitchen. Your mom is appreciative of Leah’s willingness to act as Maddie’s caregiver, and she feels that she will never be able to repay Leah for her kindnesses.”

“If you ask me, Leah’s a saint. She’s tough as nails and has the patience of Job. As much as I love Aunt Maddie, she can be demanding, and that’s not new. Dad claimed that Leah had her number.

"For months, Leah and my dad were the only two people Aunt Maddie would see. When everybody else was giving up on her, Leah and Dad remained cheerfully optimistic. Now that she’s healed physically, she seems restless. I think that it’s time for her to get out in public.”

“That will happen. Right now, your mom is concerned about Leah’s move. Leah has a buyer for her home, so her time of caregiving is drawing to an end.”

“Is she going to move into a condo?”

“Her daughter is pressuring her to move to Florida.”

Dora said from the doorway. “Sorry to keep you waiting, folks. Wesley, did I hear correctly? Is Leah moving out?”

“By the end of the month.”

Lara assured her grandma that the news wasn’t unexpected. “Mom and Dad knew from the beginning that the arrangement was temporary. Mom claims that Leah could have sold her house months ago. She didn’t because she didn’t want to leave Mom and Maddie in a bind.”

Dora crossed the porch and took the chair next to Lara. “I hope that you are here to tell us about new developments in Charles’ case, Wesley.”

“Possibly. Two of Maddie Sorenson’s thumb drives were in Charles’ office desk. Lara, do you remember the day your mom picked up his personal items from Albrights?”

Lara nodded. “Yes. But . . . I had forgotten about them until I received Mom’s text. Mom and I had just made a spur of the moment decision to spend time in Lake Shafer when Carolyn called and asked Mom to pick up the boxed items. Carolyn was getting the office ready for the incoming Vice-President. We stopped by Albrights on the way out of town.

“Mom had been cleaning out his home office and wasn’t ready to go through any more of his stuff, so . . . she temporarily stored the boxed items in a safety deposit box at the bank. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Wesley nodded. “I’m not being critical, Lara. Her decision to store the items was not a bad decision. The officers who searched Charles’ files should have been more thorough. Valuable time was lost because the drives were not put in Traynor’s hands earlier.

“Your mom picked up the box this morning, and Travis and I went through the contents. The drives contain information concerning city corruption. Some of the information is specific to the corruption, and some of the other information relates to Maddie’s accident. None of it is usable until verified.”

Sam entered the conversation. “You said that they were Maddie’s drives. Does that mean that she was going to expose the city hall corruption?”

“It would appear so, since the documents and photos were on her computer. The question is, did she take the photos and how did she acquire the incriminating information?”

“Are you saying that it was acquired illegally?”

“Let’s just say that some of the information wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law.” Wesley continued, “The corruption in Hazelton didn’t happen overnight. But it went undetected until Maddie began her own private investigation. She understands the criminal mind, so she had to know that she was treading on thin ice. My guess is that Van McCorkle was as suspicious of Maddie as she was of him. He might not have known what she was up to, but he knew that there was the possibility that she could cripple his business.

“Even with what we know now, the puzzle is far from complete. The clues are like breadcrumbs. Let’s hope that they lead us to McCorkle.”

Sam looked confused. “I knew that Charles’ Aunt Maddie was tenacious, but I never thought she was reckless. Why on earth would she try to outsmart a man like Van McCorkle?”

“Maddie has always been obsessed with justice, Sam. When she was a crime reporter, she rubbed shoulders with criminals daily. She was incensed by the people who had no respect for law and order. She used her columns to expose the criminals the police couldn’t convict.

“When she changed careers, she aired the dirty laundry of criminals in her novels, but she veered far enough away from the truth that she wasn’t a threat. I can understand why she wanted to expose the corruption that was taking place in city hall, but she should have waited to write a novel until McCorkle, and the people who work for him, were behind bars. It appears that McCorkle was her nemesis.”

Sam asked. “So, what’s the police’s next step?”

“Finding hard evidence to back up Maddie’s claims.”

Sam asked, “So, where does Donovan Keller fit into the picture?”

“At this point, that’s not clear. One name cropped up that has not been on the police’s radar. Approximately three and a half years ago, for reasons unknown, Maddie began to suspect that one of Hazelton’s leading citizens was living under an assumed name. Clarke Kitterman, Hazelton High’s principal. According to her notes, she set up a meeting with him on the evening of her accident. It’s possible that her business with him wasn’t related to the city hall corruption, but we can’t be sure until Kitterman has been questioned.”

Lara shook her head in disbelief. “No way! Principal Kitterman is an excellent principal and a fair and good man.”

“That seems to be the general consensus. Nonetheless, we have to check. Maddie’s notes did not accuse him of any wrong doing, but there has to be a reason that his name was cross-referenced with McCorkle. Let’s hope that it was a misunderstanding. If he’s the kind of man you think he is, Lara, he’ll be willing to answer Travis’ questions. Travis is discreet. If Kitterman is innocent, Travis will keep his name out of the investigation.”

Sam said in disgust, “All of this sounds like the work of a mob boss rather than a reputable lawyer. If your information is correct, how did McCorkle managed to operate under the radar all these years?”

“The police and the FBI have been keeping tabs on him for over two years., but he keeps his hands clean. He issues the orders, but the dirty work is carried out by smalltime thugs on his payroll.”

“Sam growled, “Personally, I’d like to see him rot in hell. But I’ll settle for seeing him behind bars. I’ll let the Lord take care of the hell part.”

Lara said, “I still don’t understand how Aunt Maddie got wind of what he was doing.”

“Maddie has a nose for criminal activity. As a cub reporter, she learned how to ingratiate herself to the people in power. As she moved up the ladder, she made dozens of contacts, social and work related. Later, when she published her first novel, she became the darling of Hazelton’s elite. Part of her charm was her ability to converse with the elite and the man on the street. You might say that she became a pro at uncovering secrets that criminals and city officials would prefer to keep hidden.

“It’s obvious from her notes that she’s distrusted McCorkle for years. She spoke to Donovan about her concerns before he hired McCorkle, but Donovan chose to ignore her advice. She kept her mouth shut while waiting for an opportunity to bring him down.

“When she began hearing rumors about gun and human trafficking, she became proactive. With patience and determination, she began to put together the collection of photos that she sent to the police. She hoped that the police would investigate. As you know, they didn’t.”

Lara said, “That’s because there was a snitch in the police department.”

“Yes. Officer Danbury. He’s been suspended without pay. I haven’t seen the list of charges against him, but it’s fair to assume that one of the charges will be for suppressing evidence.”

Lara asked, “What about my dad? How involved was he?”

“Maddie and your dad were close, but her notes are sketchy about what role he played. Your mom verified that Charles occasionally did research for Maddie, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he was aware of all of her research. On the other hand, he had to know about the photos because the drives were in his desk drawer. It’s seems likely that he sent the second set to the police.”

Lara said defensively, “If he sent the photos to the police, don’t his actions prove that he was trying to expose McCorkle’s crime organization?”

“No one is pointing a finger at your dad, Lara. Innocent family members of victims often have trouble dealing with the difficult questions law enforcement officers ask. The investigative process is never easy, but it’s necessary. Your dad was never a suspect, but he became part of the case when he conspired with your Aunt Maddie to take McCorkle down.”

Lara said quietly. “I’m very angry with my dad. He and Aunt Maddie should have let the police handle the investigation.”

“I agree, Lara, but you should also be proud of him.”

Sam said, “So, will you continue to work with the police and Travis?”

“Until we can build a strong case. If the information is credible, we will be able to cross reference it with actual police reports. If we can put pressure on McCorkle’s employees, one of them will crack. It only takes one.”

Sam asked, “How serious are the charges against Donovan?”

“Serious enough to end his career as a politician. It’s unfortunate because I’ve been told that he started out as a competent mayor. He ran a tight ship the first two years he was in office. When he hired Van McCorkle, the erosion began. Within months of McCorkle’s coming onboard Maddie began hearing the rumors about human and gun trafficking. She couldn’t have lived with herself if she had done nothing.”

Lara said, “If what you say about Aunt Maddie’s disdain for McCorkle is true, she probably took pleasure in building a case against him. That wouldn’t have been true of Donovan. There was a time when he and Ariel were like members of our family. The thought of exposing his part in the corruption must have been emotionally distressing for her.”

Wesley said, “No doubt. Exposing a friend’s wrong doing is never easy, but Maddie was first and foremost a justice hound. She is one of those rare individuals who is able to separate her personal feelings from the job at hand.”

Dora, who had been listening quietly, entered the conversation. “I agree with you on one point, Wesley. With Maddie’s experience, she knew what she was doing was dangerous. The decision ended up costly. She was foolish to go up against a man like McCorkle without backup from someone in law enforcement. Mob bosses take action when threatened.”

Sam said, “Is there anything else we need to know, Wesley?”

“We can’t predict what McCorkle will do when he learns that Danbury has been suspended. If he is confident that Danbury will keep his mouth shut, McCorkle might suspend his activities temporarily. On the other hand, when he sees his house of cards crumbling, he might become reckless.

“Traynor wants to take precautionary steps to protect your family. Susan will temporarily move in with Maddie, and an agent friend of mine will provide temporary security for all three women.”

Lara asked, “How temporary?”

“At least until after your mom’s concert.”

Sam asked, “What about Dora, Lara and me? Any reason we need to be concerned?”

“Not if you follow a few basic guidelines. First and foremost, stay alert and don’t go out alone. I’ll program my phone number into your smartphones. Call immediately if you see anyone or anything that is suspicious. You don’t need to worry about Susan’s concert. There will be security there. Other than the concert, avoid crowed venues.”

Dora eyes flew to Lara. “Lara is scheduled to go to Florida the Monday after Susan’s concert.”

Wesley’s eyes cut to Lara. “What’s the purpose of the Florida trip, Lara?”

“I’m supposed to be Mary’s guest at a book fair.”

“Mary, the owner of Backstories?”

Lara battled the feelings of apprehension. She wanted to make the trip to Florida, but at the same time, she didn’t want to go knowing that danger was lurking nearby. She feared that she would burst into tears if she spoke, so she just nodded.

Wesley asked, “So, you’re scheduled to fly out on Monday?”

“Monday after Mom’s concert. Three o’clock, I think.”

Wesley expression darkened. “Is this a pleasure trip or about the book you’ve written?”

“I’m scheduled to meet a publisher friend of hers while I’m there.”

“I’ll speak to Mary and get back to you. It sounds like an exciting opportunity, but right now my priority has to be your safety. Don’t panic. Any threat to you might be alleviated before the concert.”

A lump the size of an orange lodged in Lara’s throat. Tears threatened to spill over. For the first time in weeks, her newfound confidence was shaken. She was going to make an utter fool of herself if she stayed on the porch any longer. She stumbled to her feet, mumbled her excuses and left the porch with as much dignity as possible.

When a gentle knock sounded on her bedroom door, Lara’s wasn’t surprised. Her grandpa might be the family protector, but it was her grandma who picked up the pieces and brushed away the tears. Nana’s answer to life’s disappointments was a warm hug, not a pat on the shoulder or counsel to toughen up.

“It’s open.”

Dora opened the door slowly and stood waiting for permission to enter. “Honey, can we talk?”

Lara motioned Dora into the room. “It’s safe to come in, Nana. The storm has passed.”

Dora crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed facing Lara. “You’ve been amazingly resilient these last few months, honey, but everyone has a breaking point. Don’t feel that you have to apologize for shedding a few tears.”

“I’m embarrassed. Wesley has been taking vacation time to help with the investigation, and I show my thanks by acting like a two-year-old.”

“Not true. Like a person who’s hurting. Hurt is hurt no matter how old or how young a person is. When I was ten, I wasn’t invited to my friend Sally’s birthday party. I cried for hours. Being excluded from a party seems like a minor occurrence at this stage of my life, but it was a crisis when I was ten. Mom put her arms around me and rocked me. ‘Don’t hold back your tears,’ she said. ‘Tears are God’s way of washing away bitterness and disappointment.’ Her words have served me well for over fifty years.”

“You always understand, Nana. Thank you. My tears aren’t because I have to cancel the Florida trip. I’m savvy enough to know that I’m safer not mingling with hundreds of strangers.”

“Want to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“It’s an accumulation of issues. When Mom and I came to Shafer Lake we used the excuse that we wanted to get away from the media circus. Truthfully, it was because we were reaching a breaking point. The people here took us in, gave us a safe haven. I’m grateful.

“It’s not fair that evil followed us here. Our friends don’t deserve to have their lives disrupted. I feel responsible. I’m livid that the streets will no longer be safe. That everyone in the community will need to be on the alert. I’m angry that Mom has to worry about her safety during her upcoming performance. And especially angry that McCorkle is not behind bars.”

“The surveillance is a precaution, Lara. The police believe that McCorkle will be on his best behavior for the next few weeks. Be grateful that the police want to protect us.

“Waiting for answers takes infinite patience. I know that it seems like the investigation has been going on forever, but before you know it, all of this will behind us. Until then, feel free to express your emotions. If you are upset about missing Florida trip express your disappointment.”

“Even before Wesley told me that it was unwise to make the Florida trip, I had reservations. I was excited, but I was aware that I wasn’t at my best. I have a sneaking suspicion that fate did me a favor.”

“I hope that you don’t blame Wesley. He understands more than you think he does. If he could guarantee your safety, he would be happy to see you go.”

“I know. He’s a good guy. I don’t want him to worry about me. I’ll be fine. The timing is wrong. If I’m honest, I’m not ready to put the rest of my life on hold to publish a book. I want to enjoy my senior year of high school. And then, there’s college.

“What would happen if Mary’s friend agreed to publish my book? Publishing is the first, and easiest step. I haven’t forgotten how frantic Aunt Maddie’s schedule was when her books were best sellers, and I’m not ready for that kind of commitment. My time will come.

“My main concern is Mary. She went out of her way to set up meetings for me.”

Dora stood, crossed the short distance between them and pulled Lara into a hug. “Don’t worry about Mary. She’s flexible. You have to be when you are in retail.”

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