Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Nineteen

“Trying to put the pieces together again . . . Again … And, Again …” ~Unknown


Susan looked up from the crossword puzzle to see Travis coming around the corner of the house. She raised her voice so that he could hear her. “What’s a four-letter word for an African country? The third letter is l.”

“M-a-l-i.”

“Thanks. I should have known that. I think the last few months are catching up with me. Or, maybe it’s this morning’s headline that dulled my mental acuity.”

“You’re not by yourself. Odds are that half the people in Hazelton are walking around in a daze and the other half are celebrating. You have any coffee? I desperately need a jolt of caffeine. As soon as I ended my call to you, I jumped in the car and headed over here.”

She nodded. “There’s a fresh pot in the kitchen. Help yourself.”

He was back in less than five minutes. “You make damn good coffee.”

“It’s better than McDonalds coffee, but not as good as yours. Make yourself comfortable, Travis. Maddie never goes to be bed before two a.m., so prepare yourself for a wait.”

“Has she always been a night owl?”

“God love her soul; she has never had to accommodate another person’s schedule. According to what Charles told me, he was the one who was forced to adjust to her schedule. After she sold her first book, her schedule became even more hectic and erratic. She had to deal with raising money for her favorite charities, book readings and signings, and book fairs. Last, but not least, she spent countless hours negotiating with her editors and publishers. The only time she found time to write was between nine p.m. and two a.m. It’s not easy to make changes when you’ve adhered to the same schedule for twenty-five years.”

“Just as well she’s not up. Gives me a chance to give you an update. Mel Patterson’s accident and Donovan’s death effectively end the investigation into Charles’ disappearance. Even if new information miraculously comes to light, there’s little chance that the outcome of the case will be affected.”

“I suspected as much. It's unlikely that the people who loved Charles will ever find out the truth. We will be left to wonder if Donovan was responsible for Charles’ disappearance.”

“Since he and Charles had a history, it seems unlikely that he was personally responsible, but that doesn’t exonerate him. When the news about Charles' disappearance broke, Donovan must have suspected that McCorkle was involved. If he did, and didn’t come forward, he was complicit.

He knew that the corruption charges were his death knell. What we won’t know is whether he chose death over prison, or death because of his guilt feelings.

“So, what will the charges against McCorkle be?”

“He’ll definitely be charged with drug and human trafficking, but other charges will probably be added.”

“Who do you think carried out McCorkle’s orders to eliminate Charles?

Travis shrugged. “At this point, I don’t want to speculate.”

Susan sighed. “There is some satisfaction in knowing that McCorkle’s crime organization is unraveling. I guess our family will have to be content with that."

"At least you will be able to get a statement that says the preponderance of evidence points to Charles’ death. A death certificate will be help ease some of the legal issues that you are dealing with."

Susan's voice was unsteady when she said, “Because of the circumstances and the uncertainty of the situation, it hasn’t been appropriate to have a memorial service. All of us in the family have said our good-byes, but Charles’ friends and co-workers haven’t had the opportunity to publicly pay their respects.

Travis nodded. “Any plans for a grave site?”

“Charles and I purchased cemetery lots years ago. Some folks need an actual place to grieve and to remember.”

Travis agreed. “Closure is what everyone involved in Charles’ case wants and needs. I know it’s a long shot, but I’m hoping that Donovan’s death will trigger some of Maddie’s buried memories.”

“A year ago, who would have believed that Charles and Donovan would be dead and that Hazelton was a hotbed of crime. I feel as though I went to sleep and woke up in one of Maddie’s crime novels.”

“Who knows, maybe all of this is what she was trying to avoid when she decided to expose the city hall corruption. If she could have foreseen Charles’ death, I doubt she would have taken those photos.”

“I guess there’s no way to protect Maddie, is there?”

“The time for protecting her is over. She can no longer withhold information, if that’s what she’s doing.”

Susan started to speak, but Travis threw up his hand in a stop motion. “Let me finish. Protecting those nearest and dearest to you is an admirable endeavor, but in this instance, you have to accept that Maddie chose her career, or should I say careers, and she didn’t do so knowing that actions always have consequences. Some good. Some bad. People who work in the field of justice, whether it’s police work or crime reporting, are duly warned about the dangers. Taking precautions minimizes the danger, but doesn’t eliminate it.”

“I have accepted that, Travis. What doesn’t make sense is McCorkle’s fear of a woman with memory issues, a music teacher and a teenager.”

“We have no way of knowing who or what McCorkle sees as a threat to his organization. People with the kind of power he has are usually paranoid about their own safety. He’s been successful because he’s nipped threats in the bud. What somehow escaped his attention was the FBI’s interest in his actions. Wesley’s presence in town probably rattled him.

“In truth, I doubt that he ever considered you and Lara a threat, but Maddie’s always been a threat. Maddie’s memory loss was hinted at by the press, but outsiders have no way of knowing if the released information is true. It’s possible McCorkle believes that Maddie's memory loss is a ruse.”

“I suppose that's possible. Since the accident was two years ago, and she hasn't written a novel, it stands to reason that she is no longer a threat to McCorkle or anyone else. I admit that I have wondered if some of her memories have returned.

"Since Charles' disappearance, she rarely mentions him or the past. I’ve shared your reports with her. She reads them, but she doesn’t want to discuss your findings. Why do you think that is?”

“Probably guilt.”

“What does she have to feel guilty about? Her careers as a crime reporter and a novelist?”

“No. Because she and Charles worked as a team. She knew that there were people out there who wanted to permanently silence her. I think that she regrets getting Charles involved. She told me that there is another missing USB drive that contains explosive information. Possibly about the city hall corruption. She can’t remember exactly what’s on the drive or where it is. She won’t be able to assuage her guilt until the flash drive is found and she can assure herself that she is not responsible for Charles’ disappearance.”

Susan gave him a puzzled look. “You didn’t tell me that she was talking to you about the corruption and Charles’ disappearance?”

“I haven’t said anything to you about our conversations because I wasn't sure that her memories were reliable.”

Susan put a finger to her lips. “S-sh. I think I hear her footsteps.”

Travis turned toward the door as Maddie swept out onto the patio. “Mornin’. It’s almost November, folks. What on earth are you doing on the patio.”

“It’s 72˚, Maddie.”

Travis joked, “Five more minutes and I was going to march up the stairs and bang on your door. Don’t you know that too much sleep is bad for your complexion, Maddie?”

“Oh, posh. I’ve been sleeping until ten for twenty-five years.”

Susan chimed in. “That’s because you don’t go to sleep until 2. I still haven’t figured out what you do after midnight. There isn’t anything on TV that’s worth watching.”

Maddie dropped down into one of the chairs. “There was a time when that’s when I did my best writing. Now I piddle. In case you don’t know the definition of piddle, it means to waste time. You two are looking far too serious for ten o’clock in the morning. What’s going on?”

Susan turned the newspaper so that Maddie could read the headline. Maddie’s shuttered look revealed nothing of her thoughts. Susan looked at Travis and shrugged.

Maddie snapped. “I’m surprised that the two of you didn’t hide the newspaper. Susan, I’m tired of being treated like a two-year-old. And, Travis, you’re not a hell of a lot better. If the stress brings on a migraine, I’ll take a damn pill.”

Susan’s guilty look belied her next words. “Aunt Maddie, that’s simply not true. Every time Travis gives me an update, I pass the information along to you.”

“Not until you edit out the details that you deem hurtful.”

Susan frowned. “If you are referring to the charges against city hall, I didn’t say anything about the corruption charge because I didn’t want to be repetitive. You read the newspaper from front to back. If you’d wanted to talk about it, I assumed you would. Donovan’s death is different. Death is final.”

“Your wall of silence was built long before Donovan’s suicide. And, before you try to soften the impact of the tragedy by not using the word suicide, let me remind you that honesty is the best policy.” She paused before adding, “Our family has avoided Donovan’s name for years, and that was a mistake. Sure, talking about Donovan is painful, but there was a time when he was like a member of our family. We can no longer pretend that he’s a stranger, that he and Ariel weren’t friends. His suicide affects us whether we want it to or not.”

Susan said, “I’m as guilty as you are. I believed that Charles paid too high a price for his friendship with Donovan, and I was angry with Ariel because she walked away from our friendship.

Maddie said, “Time has a way of healing wounds. What about the people of Hazelton that believed in him, Travis? What’s their reaction to the news?”

Travis said, “The people I’ve spoken with are confused and understandably angry. They feel betrayed. They want answers.”

Susan mused, “I wonder if there will be a memorial service open to the public. Have you heard, Travis?”

Travis shrugged. “Don’t know, but under the circumstances, I doubt it. Will you go if there is?”

Susan shook her head. “My presence at his service would be hypocritical.”

Travis turned to Maddie. “What about you? I’ll take you if you want to go.”

“Certainly not. I found it expedient to cut my ties with him a long time ago.”

Maddie locked eyes with Susan. “Just because I won’t be attending his memorial service and I haven’t forgiven him, doesn’t mean that I think that he’s an evil man.”

Susan said, “Misguided, is the word I would use to describe him. Evil people don’t feel guilt, and Donovan obviously did have feelings of guilt.”

“I didn’t want Donovan to enter politics. When he told Charles and me about his desire to become mayor of Hazelton, Charles and I pointed out the temptations that he would face as an elected official. Donovan promised us that he wouldn’t lose his moral compass, and then that’s exactly what happened.”

Travis asked, “How long was he in office before you began to see a change, Maddie?”

“Half way through his first term he stopped taking my calls. He and Charles were still playing golf, but Charles was always on edge after one of their afternoons together.”

“Let me put it another way. Why did you decide to investigate the people who worked in Donovan’s administration? Why did you feel it necessary to take photos at the social gatherings he attended?”

“This is where my memories become fuzzy. But, knowing how I thought and operated before the accident, my guess is that I began to investigate when he hired Van McCorkle. That man is a sociopath.”

Maddie bowed her head, closed her eyes and took a moment to coral her emotions. “Shortly after McCorkle was hired; unsavory characters were frequent visitors to city hall and the same men were invited guests to Donovan and Ariel’s social gatherings. Charles and Susan stopped attending the social functions, but I didn’t. Back then, I was considered one of the local celebrities, and my absence would have been questioned.

“I remember taking a few photos, but not my reason for thinking that it was necessary to take them.”

She paused briefly before adding, “I stirred up a hornet’s nest, and I’m as sure as I’m sitting here, that it was my meddling that caused McCorkle to order Charles’ death.”

Travis’ eyes widened. “Listen to me, Maddie. Eliminating hornet’s nests is what those of us who care about justice spend our lives doing. We refuse to stand back and watch criminals destroy our communities. Our task isn’t an easy one, but it’s necessary. Occasionally, we pay a high price. Do we question our actions? Every day. But, if we are faint of heart, our towns and communities suffer.”

Maddie wiped away a tear. “Charles wasn’t cut out for intrigue. When he was a teenager, he thought my job as a crime reporter was cool, but he wanted no part of it. He supported my writing, but he would have preferred that I take fewer chances.

“I was warned that repercussions could be expected if a writer chooses to pattern characters after real life criminals. Charles feared for my safety, but he feared for your safety, Susan, and Lara’s safety, more. In retrospect, I should have quit while I was ahead.”

Travis said, “I didn’t know Charles, but he was obviously an intelligent man, and intelligent people know when they are taking risks. Both of you should receive a medal for your courage.”

Maddie said, “Susan, I want you to know that I didn’t encourage Charles to get involved in my work. He didn’t even read my first crime novel. When my second book was published, he finally understood that I wasn’t going to change my genre of writing.

“He only got involved because of my disorganized office. Despite his own busy schedule, he found time to organize my computer files, office space and book notes. In addition, he managed my finances.

“Originally, I hired two readers; a paralegal who understood criminal law and procedure, and an English major who checked for errors in style and technique.

“One Saturday when he was working in the office, he picked up the manuscript that I was working on and started reading. I was out at the time. When I returned, he pointed to the manuscript and said, ‘I got to page twenty-five. You lost me there. The story’s not believable.’

"I was livid, and told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I followed up my meltdown by telling him that I’d described the scene exactly as it had happened.

"He informed me that, true or not, readers wouldn’t accept the description. He advised me to tweak the facts.

“After fuming for a couple of days, I read the manuscript with an open mind. He was spot on. After that incident, I never sent a manuscript to the publisher until Charles read it. He was a great researcher and he had a knack for choosing titles that my publishers liked.

“I’m positive that I was working on a new book, because Charles mentioned new research, but I can’t tell you who it was about. I’ve never written an expose, but if I was upset by what Charles’ research revealed, I might have been tempted.”

Travis noticed Susan's dismay. She obviously hadn’t known how involved Charles was in Maddie’s work. Her words verified his observation.

“I was aware that he read your manuscripts, but I didn’t realize that you relied on his judgement to that degree.”

Maddie said, “I’m sorry, Susan. Charles knew that you found the subject matter of my books repugnant. If you’d known how involved he was in the research, you would have worried. He wasn’t having that. He wasn’t trying to deceive you. He was trying to protect you.”

Travis asked, “What about the memory flashes, Maddie? How often do you have them?”

“There’ve been a few, but I don’t trust the accuracy of them.”

Travis’s eyebrows shot up. “You don’t give yourself enough credit. You remember your years in New York with amazing accuracy.”

“That’s what I wanted you to think, but that’s an illusion. There’s something you need to understand, Travis. Half of the time, I feel like an actress who has forgotten her lines. I need a prompter to follow me around and fill in the blanks.”

Travis chuckled. “Maddie, I’d gladly act as your prompter, but my vocabulary is half the size of yours and I mispronounce half the words I should know.”

“Not true. You don’t fool anybody with your dumb cop act. As for my memories about New York, I have it all down in black and white. I’ve read the articles in my scrapbook so many times that I can carry on an intelligent conversation without batting an eyelash. I don’t have scrapbooks from my childhood or the early years in Hazelton.”

Travis asked in amazement, “You must have some memories about your early years?”

“Let me ask you a question, Travis. Do you have childhood stories that you and family members repeated so often that you aren’t sure what you remember and what you have been told?”

He nodded. “Actually, some of my memories are like that.”

“That’s how I feel about the years Charles was in college. After the accident, Charles and I spent hours reminiscing. There are still too many blanks during that time. Sometimes I confuse fact with fiction. Some of the techniques I used when writing my novels, have come back to haunt me.”

“Explain your last statement to me.”

Maddie said, “It has to do with the way I developed storylines and characters. To be an affective writer, I had to get into the heads of my main characters, play out each scene in my head. I’ve been known to mimic my character’s personality. Unless I was in touch with my character’s inner life, the person became either boring or unbelievable.

“When I completed a book, it was essential that I cleanse my mind. Otherwise, the hero in my next book became a clone of the previous hero. Ditto the nemesis.

“I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to write series novels. Carryover characters would cut down on time I spent developing the background information on my characters.

“Sorry for the rambling. You aren’t interested in the pros and cons of series writing, and the subject has absolutely nothing to do with the point I’m trying to make. My point is that fictional characters can seem as real to me as the people in my life. Simply put, my fictional world and the real-world merge. That particular affliction is more pronounced since the accident.”

Travis asked, “Is this true with other authors?”

“For some, but it isn’t the kind of thing that authors advertise.”

“Interesting. So, for your own clarification, you read and reread your articles and books?”

Maddie nodded. “That’s about it. There’s a lot I don’t remember, but I know that I was a stickler for accuracy. Since the accident, uncertainty keeps me silent. It’s been easier to keep my thoughts and memories to myself. I was thrilled when Susan hired you, Travis. I believed, and still do, that you would eventually solve the case.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, and thanks for being so open with Susan and me. I had hoped that there was enough goodness left in Donovan that he would reveal what he knew about McCorkle. He didn’t, and Mel Patterson is probably not going to be able to make a statement. If Patterson survives, there’s enough evidence to convict him of serious crimes, but not enough to convict him of Charles’ murder.”

He took two thumb drives out of his pocket and put them on the table in front of her. “Maybe the information and photos on these two drives will revive a few memories. Check out the material, and let me know what you think.”

“What does the information on the flash drives have to with Charles’ case or with me?”

“You don’t recognize the drives?”

“They are the same type I use, but Charles labeled mine.”

Travis said quietly, “These might be copies of the originals, but the files were created by you. There are photographs on one of the drives, and the other one contains research notes. The notes indicate that you were considering writing a true-crime book instead of a book of fiction.

“There were seven names highlighted in one of the documents: Van McCorkle, Mel Patterson, Clarke Kitterman, Dennis Metcalf, Sid Morrison, Adam Fournier and Mitch Somner.”

Maddie said, “Metcalf doesn’t belong on the list. He was a street kid that I mentioned in one of my crime reports. Kitterman is the principle at the Hazelton High. I have no idea why those two were in my notes.

Travis grinned. “You remember enough to be helpful. You eliminated Kitterman as a suspect the night of your accident.” Travis briefed her on his conversation with Clarke, leaving out information that was irrelevant to Charles’ case.

“Do any of the other names in your notes send up a red flag?”

“The name Mitch Somner makes my skin crawl, but I’m not sure why. It might be worth your effort to run a background check on him.”

“Wesley is handling the background checks. Anything you remember about the men in the photos will be helpful, but I don’t want you to feel that you are impeding the investigation if you draw a blank. The investigation is coming together.”

Maddie said, “I’ll look at the photos and identify the men I know, but I’m going to wait until later. My memory is less reliable when I’m stressed. As for the other documents on the flash drive, I’ll need a couple of days. How close to an arrest are the police?”

“Their case is solid, but not airtight.”

Susan, who had remained silent during most of the conversation suddenly spoke up. “If the flash drives in Charles’ desk had information relevant to the case, it’s possible they were copies. Maddie, maybe the two of us should do another search in your office.”

“That’s fine by me, but I’ve checked my flash drives several times.”

Travis nodded in agreement. “It’s worth a try. What about your consultants? Would any of them know what you were working on? If so, do you have a list of their names and phone numbers?”

Maddie shook her head. “I had a list, but my computer crashed last year and I lost several files. If you have a way to detect lost files, you are welcome to take a look at my computer.”

Travis said, “I have a young computer nerd who is a whiz at recovering missing files. I’ll bring him by as soon as he’s free. Your contacts might very well shed some light on the investigation. Did you ever deal with the local police?”

“The only local officer I worked with was Rollo Devries. After he retired, I felt more comfortable using out-of-town contacts.”

“Rollo was one of the good guys. You’ve been more helpful than you know, Maddie. One last question before I go. Do you have even one scrap of information about McCorkle that might be useful?”

“Maybe. Despite the fact that Charles and Susan edited much of the information they passed along.” She cast a glance at Susan. “Quit frowning, Susan. I’m not being critical. I understand that you were trying to protect me.

“Back to your question, Travis. When Anna showed up on my doorstep, I became curious about the information that I was not being given. I did a little digging on McCorkle because he seemed to be the police’s focus. My technology skills are rusty, but I remember how to do basic research. I checked the Chicago Tribune archives for information about the McCorkle family.

“I learned that George McCorkle, Van’s dad, owned a medical supply business on Michigan Avenue in the 70’s and 80’s. He also owned a sleazy bar on the Southside. At about the same time Van finished law school, his dad was killed during a mugging. His brother Milo inherited the bar. Before Van was hired by a law firm in Columbus, Ohio, he spent time bartending in Milo’s bar.

“Milo was a high roller, so the money he inherited was gone in a matter of months. In order to pay for his expensive lifestyle, he turned to crime. Van moved out of state after Milo was tried and convicted of armed robbery. Milo’s sentence was thirty years.

“I planned to do some follow-up research, but working for extended periods of time on the computer is hard on my neck and back. That’s one more reason that my days as an author are over.”

Travis said impatiently, “Your talk about your inability to write is getting to be old hat, Maddie. I’m not buying that. If you want to write, get off your duff and write. If you want to quit, you don’t have to make up excuses.”

Susan waited for an explosion, but all Maddie did was roll her eyes.

Travis continued, “You can use a recording device to dictate your notes, and hire someone to do your typing if you have another book in you. Where’s your spunk, woman!” He glanced at his watch. “Duty calls. I have an appointment with a new client. Maddie, when you’ve gotten over your bout of bellyaching, we’ll talk. If you have anything else to add, I’ll be happy to listen.”

Maddie grumbled, “I’ve said what I have to say.”

Susan attempted to ease the tension by asking, “Travis why don’t you come for dinner this evening? We can continue this discussion when Maddie’s more relaxed.”

“Better still, why don’t we put off any discussion about the investigation until another day. I’ll treat you two ladies to a relaxing dinner at Fratelli’s? All of us are on overload. A night out will be good for us.”

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