“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex.” ~ M. Scott Peck
By two o’clock that afternoon, it was clear that Maddie wouldn’t be dining out. Susan called Travis to explain the change in plans.
“Sorry, Travis. Maddie has a migraine.”
There was a moment of silence before Travis responded. “Damn. You warned me about pushing her too far, and I didn’t listen.”
Susan laughed. “Maddie knew you’d be upset. She asked that I tell you that the migraine had nothing to do with your rude behavior.”
“She had to get in the last word, didn’t she?”
“Of course! Seriously, we caught this migraine early. She should be fine by tomorrow morning. She apologies for canceling her dinner date with you.”
“The two of us can still dine out.”
“Thanks, but I’d like to have a rain check.”
At four, Susan’s plans changed once again. Albrights’ CEO, Martin McClure, called and asked her to meet him for drinks.
During the long tumultuous months following Charles’ disappearance, Martin and his wife Trish never wavered in their support of Susan and Lara, or in their belief in Charles' integrity. Martin, as the CEO at Albrights, had made Susan’s life easier by steering renters her way. Because of his kindnesses, Susan felt obligated to accept his invitation.
Charles had told her that Martin was a workaholic, that he rarely joined other employees for drinks. So, what possible reason could he have for extending her an invitation? She desperately hoped that their meeting wasn’t in regard to issues with her house. With Charles’ will still not probated, losing the renters would create a financial burden for her.
In addition to her nervousness about why they were meeting, she wasn’t thrilled that he had chosen Kelso’s Bar. Her preference would have been coffee at Starbucks or a café. She was a teetotaler, so she avoided cocktail hours and bars when possible. She wasn’t opposed to alcoholic drinks for others, but the smell of alcohol brought back memories of her great-uncle Hank’s early death. He died at sixty from Cirrhosis of the liver. Despite the passage of time, ugly memories of his drunken episodes still haunted her.
Martin was already seated when she arrived. He was not only a stunningly handsome man, he had the manners of a southern gentleman.
“Thank you for meeting me, Susan. I hope that I didn’t disrupt your plans for the evening.”
“You didn’t. I realize that you wouldn’t have asked that I meet you without reason.”
“I would have waited for a more convenient time if my schedule was less hectic. The information I’ve come across is sensitive and needs immediate attention.”
A feeling of dread washed over her, but she managed not to panic. “No problem, Martin. How’s Trish?”
“Busy. We both are. We keep telling ourselves that it’s time to slow down, but then another month goes by and we’re busier than ever.”
A server, wearing a badge that identified her as Melia, immediately appeared to welcome them and take their order. Melia’s solicitous manner suggested that she knew and respected Martin.
Without consulting Susan, he ordered two club sodas. He looked over and grinned when the server moved away. “Charles confided that you don’t like the smell of alcohol. I chose Kelso’s because of time constraints and its convenient location. I hope that you’re not uncomfortable here.”
“Of course not. I’m crushed that I was so obvious about my stance on alcohol. I thought I had mastered the art of being inconspicuous at parties.”
“Only another non-drinker would notice. A CEO who turns down alcohol is an anomaly, but for someone with alcoholic parents and an alcoholic brother, abstaining is not a burden to me. My addiction is work.”
“You and Donald Trump. I’ve read that he’s a non- drinker because of his brother’s early death. It was my beloved great-uncle Hank’s death from cirrhosis of the liver that influenced me. Backyard picnics and family gatherings are more my style, but I like to think that I can hold a drink and make small talk with the best of them.”
Martin waited until their drinks were served before asking, “How is your arrangement with Maddie working out?”
“For now, it works. Thanks for asking Martin, but you didn’t ask me here to talk about Maddie. When you called, you sounded upset. I hope that you’re not here to tell me that Paul and Melissa have issues with the house.”
“No. No. Nothing like that. On the contrary. They intend to make an offer if you decide to put your house on the market. Melissa is a gourmet cook. She says that your kitchen is a dream come true. The house’s other attraction for her family is the closet and storage space. In their previous homes, storage was limited. Their three boys are thrilled to finally have enough space for their sporting equipment.”
“I’m delighted that they feel at home. It’s a wonderful house for a family. When Charles and I bought the house, our life plan included having two more children. When we realized that wasn’t in the cards, we talked about moving, but by that time, the house was home.
“With Charles gone and Lara headed off to college next fall, the house has become a burden instead of a pleasure. It’s comforting to know that Paul and Melissa’s family enjoys living in the home that is a storehouse for my memories.”
“And, I’m delighted that it’s working out for you. If you definitely decide to sell, let me know. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m a bit distracted. It’s been a long day. As necessary as the annual planning meeting is, it’s emotionally and physically exhausting.”
Susan’s eyes widened. “The end of November. How could I forget? Charles stewed for days before the meeting.” She paused before adding, “I hope that it was a good year for Albrights.”
“Despite the upheavals, it was a respectable year.”
“Marvelous. Who won the competition?”
He grinned. “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Do you, by any chance, remember the story behind the competition?”
“If my recall serves, it was Connelly Albright’s idea.”
He nodded. “The late 90’s were difficult years at Albrights, so the tension was out the roof at the annual planning meeting for 2000. Unc, that was Connelly’s nickname, spent his life building the company and he came into the meeting hell bent on exploring new ways to generate growth. He was frustrated by what he called employees lackadaisical approach to bringing in new clients. He ranted and raved for over an hour about the demise of his family’s dream.
“I can see his grizzled old face now. He picked up a legal pad and stack of envelopes and handed the items to Brandon Williams. ‘Brandon, my boy’ he said, ‘see that every person at the table gets a sheet of paper and an envelope.’ While Brandon was distributing the items, Unc continued to fume.
“When he finally calmed down, he said, ’You have fifteen minutes to think like a CEO. What do you see happening during the next decade? If you can’t project that far, what about next year? How much business can our team generate for 2000?
“Give me a figure, folks. Set a goal and set it high. When you’ve jotted down your estimate for next year’s bottom-line at Albrights, add your name and seal your answer in an envelope. We’ll open the envelopes at our next planning session.” He paused, then shook his fist in the air. ‘Let’s make 2000 a banner year.’
“As it turned out, 2000 was a very good year. In fact, one of the best years Albrights has ever had. I don’t recall the exact figure, but Charles’ estimate was very close to Albright’s net gain for the year. Old Connelly was pleased as punch. ‘What do you think about this, team? Our youngest member was the most ambitious, and he did his part in assuring that Albrights reached the projected goal.’ Unc gave Charles a raise on the spot. The rest of us on the team learned a valuable lesson. Hard work was rewarded at Albrights.
“Unc retired in December of that year. At our next meeting, we voted to honor him by continuing the competition. It’s one of the meeting’s highlights.”
Susan said, “After one of the annual meetings, Charles came home dejected. When I tried to get him to talk about the meeting, all he would say was that the meeting was emotionally draining.”
“Especially when our figures are down. Management has learned the hard way that the financial success of Albrights depends on the skills and dedication of all of its employees. There are always a few employees, who can’t be depended on.
“The company’s big on diplomacy, but it only goes so far. When there are repeated violations of the company’s rules by an employee, the problem has to be addressed by the board members. That’s never pleasant. The board is also the cheerleading squad. Without a motivated sales team, the company will lose revenue.
“Sorry for rattling on. All this to say that the competition helps lighten the mood. I didn’t plan to open Charles’ envelope today, but the team members insisted. His estimate was only $3,000 short of Albright’s net profit. The members agreed that the gift certificate should go to you and Lara. Charles earned it and would want you have it.”
Tears welled in Susan’s eyes. “I’m touched. Thank you, Martin. And thank the team. You were Charles friend, so I’m sure you know how much he enjoyed his work, and how loyal he was to the company. He admired and respected his co-workers, and he admired the company’s long history of service.
“Lara and I are grateful to you and everyone else who stepped up to support us during an emotionally devastating time. None of you lost faith in him, even after the media brutalized him.”
“Charles’ contribution to Albrights was invaluable. Paul seems to like the company, and his attitude is positive. He has big shoes to fill. Charles was not the kind of man or employee who can be easily replaced.
“Now, to the second reason for my invitation. There was a flash drive, a key and a note in Charles’ envelope. Unless I’m mistaken, the key is a safety deposit box key, but the note doesn’t specify which bank.”
Susan took the key out of the envelope and examined it. “I agree that it looks like a key to a safety deposit box, but it’s not one from Bank of America. That’s where I bank, and I have a box there. I’ll need to check with Maddie to find out if the key belongs to her.”
“Maybe there will be information on the drive that will explain why Charles left the items in the competition envelope. If not, turn the key over to Travis. I’m sure that he will find answers for you.”
Susan’s eyes widened. “You know that I hired Travis?”
“After Charles’ disappearance, I stayed in touch with Lt. Traynor. When the investigation stalled, Traynor mentioned that you were going to hire an investigator. He said that he recommended Travis Silverstein. Albrights has used Travis in the past. I know and respect him. He has integrity, and he’s thorough.”
“Travis has been great, but he's run up against one dead end after another. Since you’ve talked to him, I guess you know about the city hall corruption case.”
“Yes. Lt. Traynor mentioned the case.”
“It’ll be a Godsend if the drive contains information that will shed light on the case. As soon as I review the documents on the drive, I’ll let you know if the information is relevant to the police’s investigations.”
“What is your Aunt Maddie’s connection to the city corruption case?”
“That’s part of the mystery, Martin. Travis believes that during her research for a book, she uncovered damaging information about McCorkle. Most of his leads about the city hall corruption have come from flash drives that Charles had in his possession. At least two of the drives contained documents that Maddie created. Before Maddie’s accident, she kept all of her book notes, outlines and schedules on thumb drives. One drive is missing.”
“Have you turned the drives over to the police?”
“Travis and Lt. Traynor stay in touch.”
“Are you at liberty to share any specifics about the investigation into Charles’ disappearance?”
“No. I’ve been advised by Travis, Lt. Traynor and an FBI agent not to share information with anyone but my immediate family. But, I will make you a promise. As soon as the investigation has been completed, I’ll let you read Travis’ reports.”
“FBI agent? Are they involved in the investigation?”
“Wesley Tillman, an agent friend of my grandparents has been working with Travis as a favor.
“When it became apparent that Charles’ disappearance and the city corruption case were connected, the agency became involved. Turns out that the FBI has had their eyes on Van McCorkle for years.
“I don’t think that the FBI has actively investigated Maddie, but Wesley has admitted that a few hard-core agents have taken a dim view of Maddie’s crime novels. I’m not sure why, because she has been diligent about consulting an FBI agent when she included agents in one of her novels.
Martin said, “None of this makes any sense to me. Charles is the last person I would have suspected of getting involved in this kind of intrigue.”
“He wouldn’t have if Donovan Keller wasn’t involved?”
“I was aware that Charles and Keller were college roommates, but I remember when Charles soured on him. Charles wasn’t one to give up on his friends, so I assumed that Keller had let his position go to his head. It didn’t occur to me that there was corruption involved.
“Even if he’s guilty of a crime or crimes, suicide is a tragedy. And sadly, his unlawful activities and his death will adversely affect all of Hazelton’s citizens.”
Susan said, “I agree. I honestly believe that Donovan was sincere about wanting to help the people of Hazelton, but he needed money for his campaign. His downfall was assured when he hired Van McCorkle against the advice of his friends and co-workers. He hurt and disappointed a lot of people, Martin.”
“Surely Keller wasn’t responsible for Charles’ disappearance.”
“It’s more likely that McCorkle is the person responsible. There are still lots of loose ends that need to be tied up.”
“One more thing, unless it becomes absolutely necessary, I won’t mention Albrights in connection with the flash drive.”
“Spoken like a true friend. But, you and I both know that you’ll do what you have to do. The only thing I ask is that you notify me if you feel compelled to reveal where the thumb drive was found.”
“I will. I wish, for the company’s sake, that Charles hadn’t involved you.”
After several moments of silence, Martin said, “Good people don’t go looking for trouble, but when injustice or criminal behavior encroaches, they don’t cower in a corner. That’s not the kind of man Charles was. His priority had to be the protection of his family. I understand that. I hope that you understand that mine has to be the protection of the name Albrights. I’m hoping that justice can be served without my name or the company’s being mentioned.”
When Susan arrived back home, she followed the murmur of voices down the hall to the kitchen. The conversation stopped abruptly. “Oops. I’ve intruded.” She turned to leave.
Lara shook her head. “Come on in, Mom. We were discussing college applications, and didn’t say anything that you haven’t heard a dozen times.” She motioned to the stove. “There’s leftover beef stew if you’re hungry. The bread is fresh from the bakery and there’s salad.”
“Sounds heavenly. I’m starved. The two of you look far too serious. Deciding on a college should be exciting.”
Kinsey grimaced. “It’s not my idea of exciting, Mrs. T. College is a big step, and a scary one.”
Susan crossed the room and ladled a big helping of stew into a bowl, then broke off a chunk of French bread. “That’s true, but you are overlooking the part about being a giant step toward independence. That is exciting, or should be.
“Has your Aunt Maddie had dinner, Lara.”
“I offered to fix her a tray, but she said she wasn’t hungry. I took her a mug of hot tea anyway.”
“Was she feeling any better?”
“She said she was.”
Susan revisited the college conversation. “Which colleges are you applying to, Kinsey?”
“Winthrop is my first choice, but I sent applications to State and Belmont.”
“Didn’t Greta apply to Winthrop, Lara.”
She nodded. If Greta and Kinsey are both accepted, they are talking about becoming roommates.”
Lara seesawed between choosing a liberal arts college and an arts school, and the December deadline for applications was right around the corner. She’d made lists of the pros and cons, and even that hadn’t helped. Susan kept reminding herself that the decision wasn’t hers to make, but she had lost patience with the situation.
An argument could be made for Lara living at home and attending the local community college. Mary’s publisher friend Bob had been putting pressure on Lara to complete the illustrations for A Home for Tina and to write a proposal for a second book. If Lara’s book was published, the community college would offer the flexibility that she would need.
Since she’d returned to Hazelton, Lara's schedule had been hectic. Would she feel less pressured if she took a break?
Susan made a spur of the moment decision. “According to the weatherman, it’s supposed to be a cloud free weekend. How would you girls like to make a drive down to Lake Shafer for one last fall fling before winter sets in? I’ll bet I could talk Dad into taking the boat out.”
Kinsey’s eyes met Lara’s, “That sounds like so much fun. I’d love to check out Bella’s and the sports square.” Her eyes left Lara’s and locked with Susan’s. “From Lara’s description, Shafer Lake sounds like the perfect place for a getaway week-end. Let me check with my Mom, and get back to you.”
Kinsey glanced at her watch. “Geez, look at the time. I’ve got to pick up my brother from basketball practice. Lara, want to ride along? If your Mom doesn’t object, we can stop by The Creamery, get an ice cream cone and talk about the weekend.”
Lara looked at her mom for permission.
“No problem, sweetie. I’ll be happy to do clean-up. Drive carefully, Kinsey.”
Kinsey nodded. “Always, Ms. T.
Lara hugged her mom. “Thanks, Mom. I won’t be late.”
There was concern in Susan’s eyes as she stood by the door and watched Sidney drive away. Some days she was amazed by Lara’s resilience. But, on too many days the grief behind her mask, couldn’t be hidden. It broke Susan’s heart, that Lara would never be the naïve, care-free girl that she had been a year ago.
While Susan stacked the dishwasher, she mulled over her conversation with Martin. As always, he’d been solicitous, but she could read the concern in his eyes. He wanted to be supportive, but his main concern had to be Albright’s. She didn’t know whether to pray that there was evidence that would incriminate McCorkle on the drive, or pray that the tape was irrelevant. Probably the latter. As anxious as she was to get the investigation behind her, she wasn’t emotionally ready to deal with any more shocking revelations.
“If new information indicated that Maddie knew about and ignored threats, telling Lara would not be an option. Lara wanted to hold someone personally responsible for her dad’s death, and Susan didn’t want that someone to be Maddie. The last several weeks their household had been relatively peaceful, and Susan wanted to keep it that way.
When the kitchen was back in order, Susan retrieved her laptop from her bedroom. After settling into a comfortable chair in the den, she plugged in the drive. The documents on the drive included background reports on Van McCorkle, his brother Milo, Officer Danbury, Mel Patterson and Mason Argos, a name Susan didn’t recognize. Background checks were easily and legally attainable and could be used as viable evidence. The financial records and personal memos of Van McCorkle were another matter. Presumably, someone had hacked McCorkle’s computer system. That information could not be used in a court of law.
To Susan’s dismay, the documents made it painfully clear that Charles had not only known that McCorkle’s computer was hacked, but probably hired the person who did the job. Maddie couldn’t have hired the hacker because the calendar entries continued until the week before Charles’ disappearance.
A notation at the bottom of one of the documents stated that the key in the envelope opened a safety deposit box in First National Bank. Charles had included her name on the access list, so she should have no trouble gaining access to the box.
The last document on the file was a letter to Lt. Traynor from Charles. By the time she finished reading, she felt as though she had aged five years. The sound of her cell phone brought her back to reality.
“I wondered where you were. I just sent you a text.”
“Sorry, Travis. I didn’t read it. What’s up?”
“I’m outside. I came by to get the thumb drive. I didn’t ring the doorbell because I didn’t want to wake Maddie.”
“I’ll be right there.”
She ejected the drive, and hurried down the hall to open the door for him.
She nodded and motioned for him to come in. “I’ll explain how the thumb drive happened to be in Martin McClure's hands after you’ve had a chance to look over the documents.”
Her hand trembled as she handed him the file. “Read the last file. Everything else will be anticlimactic.”
“Are you okay?”
“No. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be okay again. Charles and Maddie knew they were in danger, but they felt duty-bound to expose the city corruption. After Maddie’s accident, Charles took a break, but he was more determined than ever to take down Van McCorkle. He was worried sick about Lara and me, but he believed that our lack of knowledge about what was going on would protect us.” Susan was trembling by the time she finished speaking.
Travis reached out and pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry. I wish that he and Maddie would have gone to the police when they became suspicious.”
“So, do I.” She broke away from him. “Charles explained why Maddie was suspicious, what steps she took, what research he did, and the names of the people involved. The letter is very detailed.”
He put the drive in his pocket. “I’ll call you tomorrow after I’ve gone through the documents. I don’t want to talk to Lt. Traynor until we’ve found the safety deposit box that the key fits.”
“Charles left a note about the key. I’ll pick up the box tomorrow.”
“Call me overprotective, but I don’t want you going to the bank by yourself.”