Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Seventeen

“All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is.” ~ Buddha


Hazelton two weeks later:

Lara stood in the doorway and watched her mom put one final piece of tape on a packing box. She had helped pack her dad’s books and office supplies, but she’d become weepy when the family photos and her dad’s framed diplomas and certificates of achievement disappeared into boxes.

During the months following her dad’s disappearance, Lara judiciously avoided his office when she was in Hazelton. As much as she loved books, he loved them more, especially history books. Seeing the empty shelves reminded her of their last conversation about history. The memory of the conversation was both comforting and painful. She missed his encouragement and she missed his words of wisdom.

Tears welled in her eyes as she watched her mom attach an “Office” label to the box. It tore at her heartstrings to see items that meant so much to him being packed away. Everything in his office was personal. It was his space, his man-cave, his place to think and refuel. Lara wished that she could take away the look of pain in her mom’s eyes. Lara said quietly, “The guest room is packed.”

Her mom wiped a tear from her cheek and glanced toward Lara. “Don’t panic, honey. I’m okay. In a way, spending time with your dad’s treasured possessions has been cathartic.”

She took a deep breath before adding, “You and Kinsey can tackle your room next, or take a break if you need one.” She glanced at her watch. “Good grief! I had no idea that it was so late. You must be starved.”

Lara nodded. “We are. If you can spare us for half an hour, we are going to run over to Carmine’s to pick up pizza and a couple of sodas. We’ll deal with my room after we’ve eaten. Is there still money in the cookie jar?”

“There should be enough for pizza. If not, use my Visa. My purse is on my dresser. Get a large and a medium. Travis is on his way over.”

“Anything new?”

“Probably not. That man is so eager to right wrongs that he can be overzealous.”

“At least, we know he cares.”

Lara opened the front door to see Travis climbing the porch steps. She stepped back and held the door open for him. “Hi, Travis. Mom’s in Dad’s office.”

“She okay?”

“Pretty much what you would expect.”

“Where are off to, kiddo?”

“I didn’t realize that packing was such an appetite stimulator. I’m ravenous. Kinsey and I are going to Carmine’s to pick up pizza. Care to place your order?”

He took his billfold out of his pocket and handed her two twenties. “Carmine makes the best Italian sausage and black olive pizza in the state.”

“Thanks, we’ll get this.”

“Save your money for another day.”

She nodded. “Thanks. See you in a bit.”

“Is that you, Travis?” Susan’s voice came from the direction of Charles’ office.

A very tired looking and seemingly emotionally exhausted Susan motioned him to the one chair that wasn’t occupied by a box. “Have a seat and tell me why you’re here.”

“Looks like you could use some help.”

“Despite the looks of the house, we’re making progress. With the exception of Charles’ belongings, Lara and I are only packing the things that we’re taking to Maddie’s. The movers will pack everything that is going into storage.

“I’m glad you’re here. I need a break.”

The look on Susan’s face was a familiar one. The day he packed the last of Helen’s belongings was the one of the worse day of his life. “You don’t have to hide your grief from me, Susan. I know what it’s like to pack a spouse’s prized possessions. I don’t mind admitting that I cried unabashedly the day I packed Helen’s. I’m guilty of feigning indifference at times, but I don’t ever want to lose my capacity to care.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to accept Charles’ death, Travis. I’ll need the patience of Job to come through this sane.”

“Time heals is an overused cliché, but it’s true. When’s the big move?”

“The movers are coming Monday. The furniture will be temporarily stored. The painters will be here on Wednesday.”

“Have you decided to sell your house, or are you renting?”

“Renting. The new Vice-President at Albright’s Insurance, needs a rental home until he can find a home for his family. He doesn’t want to invest in a house until he knows the area and knows that the position at Albright’s is right for him.

“The CEO of Albright’s, Martin McClure, had the Vice-President contact me. I think it’s going to work out perfectly for Lara and me. After she graduates, I’ll be in a better position to know where I want to live.”

Travis said, “In the meantime, Maddie is looking forward to having you and Lara move in with her.”

“With three females in one house, the dynamics could get interesting. All of us have a stubborn streak. On the positive side, Lara is looking forward to rebuilding her relationship with Maddie. They used to be good buddies.”

She scrambled up from her position on the floor. “Let’s go into the den, Travis. I need to get out of this room for a bit.”

When they were settled in the den, Travis asked. “What are your plans now that your performance with the symphony is behind you?”

“I’m going back to my teaching job at School of the Arts in January. I’ve missed my students.”

“Teaching doesn’t have to preclude another public performance. I’m more into jazz at this stage of my life, but your performance reminded me why I once dreamed of becoming a classical pianist. When you have a gift, you need to share it.”

“I’m considering a spring performance. It depends on what happens during the next few months. Thanks to you, Lt. Traynor and Wesley, I was able to relax and enjoy the performance last week. It helped knowing that security at the theatre was tight.”

“Don’t get too comfortable. Make sure that you keep your eyes on your surroundings.”

“We will, but I can’t believe that McCorkle would put out a contract now that he’s in the police’s cross-hairs. With the possibility of a trial looming, he’d be a fool to make one misstep. That being said, I’ll be more vigilant in the future than I was in the past. How long will it be before he is taken into custody?”

“No idea. The wheels of justice move slowly. The police don’t want to bring him in until they have concrete evidence that he was behind Charles’ disappearance.”

“But, the police are watching him, aren’t they?”

“They are, but they have their hands full. They are keeping their eyes on McCorkle, Keller and at least six of McCorkle’s flunkies.

“Let’s forget the case for a few minutes and talk about more pleasant things. I was impressed with the show of support at your concert last week. Half of the folks in the audience were there because of you. People from Hazelton and Shafer Lake. Maddie was as happy as I’ve ever seen her. I accused her of grinning like a Cheshire cat. She said that she felt almost normal.”

“If she was happy, then I’m happy. All of my practice was worthwhile. Thanks for taking such good care of Maddie and Leah, Travis.”

“My pleasure.”

“I know it’s none of my business, but is your friendship with Maddie blossoming into something more?”

He laughed. “We are good friends, nothing more. Helen was my soulmate, and Harrison Abernathy was Maddie’s.”

“Harrison Abernathy? Who is he? I’ve never heard the name.”

“I took it for granted that you knew about him. She says he was the love of her life. When I asked about the men in her life, she mentioned Harrison. Her comment was that when you’ve had the best, that second best isn’t worth the effort.”

“Now that sounds like the old Maddie. When I asked about her love life, she rolled her eyes and said that she didn’t kiss and tell. I’m shocked that she confided in you.”

Travis shrugged. “You have to ask the right questions, Susan.”

“Tell me more about this Abernathy person.”

“It’s Maddie’s story to tell. Her memories of the past are even more important now that she has difficulty remembering what happened yesterday.”

“Some days she doesn’t have any trouble remembering.”

“Don’t you think the uncertainty of what the day will bring makes it even more frustrating for her? When she’s relaxed, she doesn’t seem to have any trouble.”

Susan nodded. “Maybe you’re right. You’re a loyal friend, Travis. Of course, for those of us who have a curious nature, you can be infuriating. There are times when you say just enough to get my curiosity up, and then you back off.”

“Betraying a confidence is not something that I take lightly. Besides, Maddie might tell you things that she wouldn’t share with a man.”

“I doubt it, but I’ll find a way to get the information out of her.”

“I’m going to change the subject again. I want to hear about what the publisher said about Lara’s book. I’ve been so tied up with the case that I haven’t asked.”

“Nothing negative. They asked for more illustrations. When those are done and she writes a proposal for a second book, they will consider her book for publication. Heaven only knows when she’ll find the time to get that done. Right now, she’s more excited about her senior year at Hazelton High.”

“Good. She needs something to look forward to. Was that one of Lara’s friends outside in the car?”

“Kinsey came over to help us pack. She and Lara have been friends since they were toddlers.”

“Wasn’t there some kind of misunderstanding with her Hazelton friends?”

She nodded. “Lara was overly sensitive after Charles’ disappearance and presumed death. You know how hormonal teenagers can be.”

“Lara’s a great kid and a talented kid. Why does she feel that she has to compete with anybody?”

“It's a teenager thing. Her friends recognize that she's gifted. What they don’t understand, is why she sometimes prefers to shut herself in her room. She'll spent hours writing and sketching. She wouldn’t be as good as she is if she spent all of her free time with her friends. She is willing to make sacrifices, but sometimes it get lonely. Intellectually, her friends understand, but they can be thoughtless at times.”

“That’s teen mentality for you.”

“After her dad's disappearance, she didn't want to be around anyone, even her friends. I don’t really know what her issues with Kinsey and Sara were, but I suspect that it was more about perception than action.”

Travis asked, “Did she make friends in Shafer Lake while she was there?”

“She did, but she was unhappy about the fractured friendships that she left behind here in Hazelton. She’s still very young, but the trials she’s endured have matured her beyond her years. Some of the silly things that her friends say and do irritate her. I’ve tried to tell her if she expects them to accept her as she is, that she needs to return the favor.”

“Good advice. When my wife Helen died, my fifteen-year-old daughter wasn’t nearly as resilient as Lara, but eventually she weathered the upheaval in our lives. It took time, but she’s done very well for herself.”

“That’s encouraging, Travis. Now that I’ve bent your ear, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. You never told me what happened when you talked to Principal Kitterman. He’s still at Hazelton High, so I assume that he answered all of your questions satisfactorily.”

“He did. Do you remember the name Mel Patterson?”

“The name sounds familiar, but I don’t recall where I heard it.”

“He was mentioned in Maddie’s notes. She apparently found a connection between Patterson and McCorkle, so when she saw Kitterman and Patterson together, she decided to confront Kitterman.”

“What do you mean when you say connection to McCorkle?”

“Patterson was at one time his right-hand man.”

“Not good."

“That was Maddie’s reaction. She had a dual purpose for setting up the meeting with Kitterman. She wanted to question him about his business with Patterson, but she also wanted to find out if his birth name was Dennis Metcalf. She was satisfied with Clarke’s explanation, and so was I.”

“So, is this the same meeting that took place the night of Aunt Maddie’s accident?”

He nodded.

“What was his explanation?”

“He met with Patterson to discuss Justin, Patterson’s son. Justin was a student at Hazelton Hight at the time.” Travis gave her an abbreviated account of the rest of his conversation with Clarke.

“After my conversation with him, I sent Patterson’s name to Wesley for a background check. The man is the proverbial small-time thug. Back in the 90’s he served a two-year prison term for drug possession. The latest charges include theft, disturbing the peace and aggravated assault with a weapon.”

“Was Clarke aware of Mel’s record when he spoke to him?”

“No. He was warned that Mel was involved in drugs, but he didn’t know about Patterson’s arrest record. Clarke’s concern was Justin’s school absences. Apparently, his meeting with Mel was a bust. The man was crude and uncooperative. Clarke did learn that Justin had packed up and left his dad’s home.”

Susan said, “Sounds like Justin’s history is similar to Clarke’s. It makes sense that Clarke took an interest in the teen.”

“And . . . knowing your Aunt Maddie’s propensity for turning real people into characters in best sellers, I’m sure that her ears pricked up when she heard Justin’s story.”

“You know my aunt well. So, is Mel Patterson still here in Hazelton?”

“No.”

“Why has Patterson become a suspect in Charles’ disappearance?”

“The night before Charles disappeared, he told a bartender at Jerry’s Bar that he was headed out of town for a couple of weeks. When the bartender asked him where he was going and why, Patterson said that he had to take care of business for his boss. He didn’t say where he was going.

“Although Patterson’s comment wasn’t evidence enough to put him behind bars, it gave the police just cause for bringing him in for questioning. An all-points bulletin went out, and day before yesterday, Traynor received a call from Officer Grant Otero in Louisiana.

“Officer Otero informed Traynor that Patterson had been involved in an accident outside of Chesterfield, a small town near Baton Rouge. Two people in the other car died at the scene. Patterson’s condition has been listed as critical, but he’s hanging on by a thread. Traynor sent Officer Scott Daly to investigate. Traynor notified me, and I notified Wesley.”

“If the man’s in critical condition, what is to be gained by sending an investigating officer to Baton Rouge?”

Travis said, “If there’s evidence that puts Charles in Patterson’s car, then the police can mark Charles’ case closed.”

“And if nothing is found?”

“The case will remain open.”

“And you’ll keep me informed?”

“I’m already bending the rules, Susan. I’ll share what I can.”

“And, I appreciate your willingness to do so.” Susan changed the drift of the conversation. “What about Wesley? “Is he back in Washington? I wanted to thank him for his help, but he had already left town.”

“He and Anna have been reassigned. Agents don’t expect thanks for doing their job.”

“Is Anna and Wesley’s relationship strictly business?”

Travis shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong person. What’s your interest?”

“Curiosity. Interesting vibes. Close, but no electricity.”

“Anna’s brother Dixon was Wesley’s partner for ten years. He was also Dixon’s friend. Dixon was killed on the job, and Wesley was there for Anna. Then, when Wesley’s wife Shannon died, Anna helped out with Chris. My guess is that he considers Anna family.”

“That’s explains it. Forget I asked.”

“According to Wesley, his family and friends are his priority. Relationships take time, and that’s one thing he doesn’t have.”

“With family being the one exception. His son Chris is living with Wesley’s mother-in-law in Shafer Lake. I met him before I met Wesley. My parents and Lara are good friends of Chris, so he’s become special to me too.

“With little to go on, Lara and I made the mistake of assuming that Wesley was an uninvolved parent. We couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think that a day goes by when Wesley fails to communicate with Chris, and he’s spends time with his mother-in-law and Chris when he can get away from Washington.”

Travis said, “I know enough about an agent’s job to know that the safety of his or her family is a major concern. Wesley has already lost his wife to cancer, I’m sure that his son’s safety is of the utmost importance.”

Susan said, “I don’t think that the average person can really understand what law enforcement officers have to deal with until they find themselves embroiled in a criminal case. It’s easy to let negative emotions rule your actions and your words. Lara and I let ourselves be turned into shrews. We were skittish, short tempered and angry.”

“Sometimes it’s good to let off steam.”

“Lara blamed Lt. Traynor for some of the bad press. She treated him civilly until he questioned her about her relationship with her dad. Then . . . she went at him with both guns blazing. Now that she can think rationally, she’s repentant. She realizes that he was doing his job. I was slightly less antagonistic, but I didn’t trust him. When he recommended that I contact you, I became more of a fan.”

“In defense of all police officers, their job is pressure packed. It’s difficult for officers to stay balanced and objective when they are questioning hardened criminals one day and dealing with emotionally distraught families the next day. Traynor’s a good guy, but he’s overworked. It’s almost impossible to satisfy the demands of the public, but he makes an effort. A simple thank will go a long way toward smoothing ruffled feathers.”

Susan nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. Maybe I should stop watching Law & Order. The officers in the TV dramas make solving cases look easy.”

“Some real-life cases are. Complicated cases like Charles’ require an analytical mindset and a lot of luck.”

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