“It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Hazelton . . .
It had been years since Travis had been in the Riverbrook neighborhood. The tree lined streets, immaculately kept lawns and architecture styles brought back memories of a different era, an era when life was less complicated and less harem scarem. Family dinners were anticipated not skipped, Sunday church services were a requirement, and families gathered at the dining room table for dinner to share ideas and talk about their accomplishments and failures.
Clarke Kitterman’s charming cottage-style house looked very much like Travis’ childhood home, a home that had been filled with love. His parents, brother and sister were all gone, but memories of their good and bad times lingered on.
Travis sat in his car watching two young boys playing catch in the side yard of the house directly across the street from the Kitterman home. As he watched, he reflected back to the days when he and his brother were inseparable. Some of his happiest memories were spent playing catch with his brother Tom. Tom dreamed about playing baseball in the majors, and Travis never doubted that his big brother’s dream would be realized.
Next door, two girls were playing hopscotch. He was amazed that a favorite sidewalk game from the past was still being played. In some heavily populated areas, afterschool activities were restricted to indoor gyms and recreation centers. Pick up football and baseball games in the neighbor’s front yard were rare and “hide and seek” and “kick the can” were long forgotten activities. The majority of the young people today were more interested in electronics than physical activity.
Norman Rockwell would have loved Kitterman’s neighborhood. He might have even chosen one of Riverbrook’s quiet streets for a painting that depicted the best of American life.
The homeowners in the neighborhood were either terrific gardeners or they employed lawn services. Even though Labor Day was right around the corner, the majority of the lawns were a rich shade of green and the flower beds were bursting with color.
Travis brushed aside his memories, and reread a bio of Kitterman that had appeared in the Hazelton Times. As he strolled up to the Kitterman’s front door, he said a silent prayer that Kitterman was an innocent man. Moments after he knocked, a young girl of about ten flung the door open.
Her gaze was direct and questioning. “Who are you?”
Travis grinned. “Hi. My name is Travis Silverstein. I would appreciate it if you would tell your dad that a retired police officer would like a moment of his time.”
She frowned. “I’m Andrea. Do you want to talk to my Dad about one of his students?”
“No, I have questions about an old friend of his. I don’t want to interfere with your family time, so I promise that I won’t keep him long. It’s important that I speak to him.”
“Well . . . he’s mulching the flower beds in the back yard.” She pointed to a gate to her left. “I can tell him, but you can go through that gate out to the back if you want. I have a music lesson in an hour. It’s his turn to take me. Will you remind him for me?”
“Thank you, Andrea. And, I will remind your dad.”
When Travis rounded the corner of the house, a tall slim, slightly balding man in jeans glanced his way and frowned, “Can I help you?”
“Principal Kitterman, my name is Travis Silverstein.” He held out his credentials for Kitterman to see. “In the course of a recent investigation, your name came up. I can see that you’re busy, but I would appreciate a few minutes of your time.”
Kitterman lowered the load of mulch to the ground and wiped his hands on his well-worn jeans. “I think that we should talk in my office.” He led Travis to a door at the side of the garage. “It’s not unusual for a student with problems to show up at my front door. Our home is small with little or no privacy. I solved the dilemma by putting my office in the garage.”
He opened the door and motioned Travis to one of the strait back chairs in the small office. He washed his hands in a small sink before taking two bottles of water out of the apartment sized refrigerator. “I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.”
Travis accepted the water bottle, but remained silent. Without knowing Kitterman’s temperament, he had no way of knowing what kind of firestorm his questions would ignite. One thing seemed clear. His appearance wasn’t totally unexpected.
Kitterman took a long swallow and then put the bottle on the desk. “To my recollection, none of my students are currently involved in an investigation. So . . . why are you here?
“I’m not here to talk about one of your students, Clarke. I’m here to ask about your relationship with Maddie Sorenson.”
Kitterman’s eyebrows shot up. “I see. Why now? I’m curious about why it’s taken three years to investigate her accident or question our relationship. I gave a statement to Officer Danbury the day after the accident. He didn’t seem particularly interested in hearing what I had to say.”
Puzzled, Travis asked, “You spoke to Officer Danbury?”
“I did. He said that he would make a note that I had come forward. He assured me that her accident was due to the rain-slick road. His explanation seemed plausible since it was raining cats and dogs that evening. Even so, I felt guilty for days. Ms. Sorenson and I had met earlier that evening.”
“At an out-of-the-way diner?”
“The location was her choice. When I agreed to meet her, I wasn’t aware that a storm was moving in. If I’d known that torrential rains were expected, I would have suggested that we meet another evening.”
“There were no notations on the accident report to indicate that you spoke to Danbury. Why did you contact him?”
“Ms. Sorenson and I were waiting out the storm, when Officer Danbury popped into the diner to pick up a takeout coffee. He spotted Ms. Sorenson and me and came over to our table to say hello. Immediately after reading about the accident the following morning, I called the police station and asked for him. Since he had seen us together, it seemed like a good idea to talk to him instead of another officer.”
“I’m beginning to get the picture. Is Officer Danbury an acquaintance?”
“He’s directed traffic at the high school, but I’ve had no personal interaction with him. Ms. Sorenson said that she had dealt with him on several occasions.”
“What was your business with Ms. Sorenson?”
“It was of a personal nature.”
“She said that she was researching a new book, and that it was in her best interest to keep our meeting secret. That’s why she chose the place and the time.”
“Were you collaborating with her?”
“I was not. A month or so before our meeting, she was invited by one of Hazelton High’s English teachers to present a writing seminar. After the seminar was over, she stopped my office to introduce herself. I had a scheduled meeting, so our chat was brief. She requested a future meeting to discuss a private matter. She didn’t elaborate, but I sensed that it was important.
“Ironically, if it hadn’t been raining the night we met, we would have been gone long before Officer Danbury entered the diner.
“By the time he came in, the diner had cleared and both Ms. Sorenson and I were eager to get back home. Earlier, I had encouraged her to wait out the storm, but the storm raged on. At midnight, she didn’t want to wait any longer.
“Officer Danbury heard her remark, waved and came over to our booth. He offered to follow her home. For some reason, his offer seemed to upset her, so I wasn’t surprised when she declined his offer.
“After he left the diner, I asked if she’d had a run-in with him. She brushed off my question.”
“Was he in uniform?”
“Yes. Maddie asked about Officer McNamara, his partner. He said that their shift had ended and he was on his way home.”
“Did she mention the name Dennis Metcalf?”
Clarke’s eyes widened. “I didn’t see that coming.” He paused before continuing, “I’ve spent years trying to make up for the actions of Dennis Metcalf. My wife has heard the name. My children haven’t.”
“Were you angry with Maddie? Were you afraid that she would expose your past?”
“If you’re suggesting that I ran her off the road to keep her from writing about my past, you couldn’t be more wrong.”
“Clarke, I deal in facts, not assumptions. You have two things in your favor. Your record at Hazelton High has been exemplary and Dennis Metcalf was never formally charged. Although from Maddie’s notes, I gather that he committed numerous crimes. Unless you are currently involved in criminal activity, I am willing to let bygones be bygones. I will forget that I ever heard the name Dennis Metcalf.”
Clarke nervously drummed the desk. “If you know about my past, there are probably others who do.”
“I seriously doubt it. I was familiar with the name because I recently read several articles written by Maddie Sorenson thirty years ago. Maddie’s niece, Susan Townsend, hired me to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Charles. She introduced me to her Aunt Maddie because of my interest in Maddie’s crime novels.
“Maddie and I clicked. During my first visit to her home, she allowed me to browse through the articles she wrote when she was a crime reporter. I was particularly drawn to an article about Dennis Metcalf, so I asked Maddie about the particulars of the case. She was sympathetic to the child’s plight. She referred to him as a victim of circumstances, and she was in a position to know.
“She told me that after she changed careers, she periodically thought about Dennis, wondered what happened to the boy. She knew that he was street smart kid and a capable and determined one. She hoped that he was one of the lucky ones who broke the cycles of alcohol addiction and petty crime.
“Later in my investigation, a thumb drive containing Maddie’s schedule and her book notes turned up. The time and place of her meeting with you was the last entry she made before the accident. By your name she wrote aka Dennis Metcalf.”
A myriad of expressions flitted across Clarke’s face as he absorbed Travis’ words. “Ms. Sorenson was a fireball in her New York days. The street people feared, but respected, the illustrious Maddie Sorenson. I knew about the article, but we never officially met.
“I was a dirty longhaired kid with an attitude and a vile vocabulary. I like to think that both my appearance and attitude have changed for the better. Was I curious about why she’d waited so long to confront me? You bet I was. But . . . I’ve always known that a day of reckoning would come.
“As soon as we were seated at Nellie’s she began rattling off all of my accomplishments at Hazelton High. Obviously, she’d been following my career. In hindsight, I’m convinced that she chose Nellie’s to protect me, not herself. I’m also convinced that the name Dennis Metcalf wouldn’t have been mentioned if she hadn’t seen me with Mel Patterson.”
“Mel Patterson was mentioned in Maddie’s notes, but she didn’t say who he was or why she was investigating him.”
“Patterson is one of Van McCorkle’s flunkies. If you keep up with city politics, you know that McCorkle is the mayor’s lawyer. When I went looking for Patterson, I was warned that he was bad news, but I had not heard the rumors about the corruption in city hall. Even if I had known, I’m not sure that I would have made the connection between the corruption and McCorkle’s part in it. It was Ms. Sorenson who shared that information.”
“What was your business with Patterson?”
“My interest was his son Justin. Justin was a junior at Hazelton High at the time. I had encouraged him to apply for an academic scholarship. In April of that year, he stopped attending classes. I tracked down his dad and questioned him about Justin’s absences.
“Mel was uncooperative. I continued to leave voice messages and to stop by the Patterson home. Mel avoided me for weeks, and then I caught up with him at a bar on Humbolt Street. I spent about an hour and a half with the man trying to find out what was going on with Justin.”
“Do you take such a keen interest in all of your students?”
“Not all of them. But there are a few students I’m drawn to because I understand the daily difficulties they face. In many ways, Justin’s life mirrored mine. As you might expect, I strongly identify with smart kids with limited resources. I’m willing to go an extra mile when there’s potential.”
“Don’t be. It’s part of the job. But . . . back to my meeting with Justin’s dad. After I threatened to report him to the authorities, Mel admitted that he didn’t know where his son was. After a fight, Justin packed his bag and moved out of his dad’s home.”
“So, what happened to Justin?”
“I lost touch with him until last spring. He sent a note saying that he was living with his mom in Oregon. His life was far from ideal, but he was attending the local community college and hoped to transfer to Oregon State.”
“What about Patterson. Did you have further contact with him?”
“Word on the street was that he left town.”
“Was Maddie satisfied that you weren’t a threat to the community? Did she agree to remain silent about your past?”
“Yes, to both questions.”
“Did she ask specifically ask about the crimes you committed?”
“No. She was familiar with my bio. She never wrote about a subject until she’d done her homework. She and Officer Seth Connors, one of the officers who picked me up, were good friends. Officer Connors’s partner would have gladly sent me away for twenty years, but Connors believed that I was a good kid trying to survive. Ms. Sorenson was curious about how I managed to leave town without being charged.”
“How did you?”
“It’s a long story. Are you sure you want to get into this?”
“I have time, but I don’t think you do. Andrea asked me to remind you that it’s your turn to take her to her music lesson.”
He grinned. “Give me a minute.” Clarke took his phone out of his pocket. “Honey, I’m going to be a while. Will you be able to run Andrea to her music lesson?
“Thanks . . .we’ll talk later.” He slipped the phone back into his pocket. “Voila. My wife Connie will drive Andrea to her music lesson. My time is your time. I’d like to put the past behind me.”
Travis chuckled. “I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not Andrea’s favorite person right now. She warned me not to take up too much of your time.”
“She’ll get over it. Especially if I agree to take her turn putting the dishes in the dishwasher.”