Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Five

“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching -- they are your family.”
~ Jim Butcher

After private investigator Travis Silverstein and Lt. Traynor discussed the lack of clues in Charles’ missing person case, Travis contacted Susan. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about accepting another case, but was intrigued by the timing of Charles’ disappearance, and the lack of clues. Susan sensed his reluctance and pleaded with him to give her a half hour of his time. Fortunately, he was free on Thursday, the day she had scheduled meetings in Hazelton.

With some trepidation, Susan left Shafer Lake at nine on Thursday morning. Her parents, Dora and Sam, were scheduled to arrive at the lake house at eleven. Susan sensed that Lara dreaded the reunion. As much as Lara loved her grandparents, she didn’t want to deal with their questions.

Lara didn’t know that Susan had advised her parents to avoid any conversation about Charles until she returned from Hazelton. She had explained that Lara still hadn’t learned to control her anger in regard to what she called the police’s incompetence.

Lara’s dread had nothing to do with the police incompetence. She was convinced that her dad was dead, and she knew that if her grandmother questioned her that she wouldn’t be able to hide her belief. She understood that her mom wasn’t ready to accept his death, and she didn’t want to dash the hopes of her grandparents.

Her grandparents loved her dad and wanted to believe that he would be found. What would their reaction be when they learned that the investigation had stalled? How would they respond if they knew that the police and the general public had questions about Charles’ character? Her granddad could be volatile when he felt threatened, or when the people he loved were threatened. Lara didn’t want to be responsible for setting off a firestorm.

Immediately after greeting her grandparents, she pleaded a previous commitment and headed to the sports square to hang out with her friends. She needed to get her emotions in check before she talked to them. Two hours later, guilt reared its ugly head. She apologized to her friends and headed back to the lake house.

As she approached the house, she heard the melodious sound of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Nana, like her mom, retreated into her piano playing during unsettling times. Lara sat down on the porch steps and listened. When the music stopped, she quietly entered the house.

“I forget what an accomplished musician you are.”

“Lara. You’re back.” She turned to face Lara.

“Did you ever consider a career in music?”

“No. As you know, I’m the back-up pianist for our church, and I enjoy that position, but I never wanted to make it a career. There are too many other things that I enjoy doing.”

“I sometime think that Mom regrets giving up her career. Do you think that she will want to tour if she’s invited?”

“From what she told me, I gather that she agreed to do the concert because of your dad’s encouragement. When he went missing, she agreed not to cancel as a way of honoring him. Past that, I don’t know.”

“But would a steady diet of performing make her happy?”

“Only your mom can answer your question. Lara, I don’t think you should worry about her decision at this point. She is able to stay positive by taking it a day at the time. There will be plenty of time to talk about her future later. Even when she makes her decision, I wouldn’t dare think of interfering.

"Personally, I hope she doesn’t give up a job she loves and finds rewarding. Touring can be emotionally and physically challenging, and the days and nights can be lonely.”

Lara changed the subject. “Nana, how much has Mom told you about the investigation?”

“Very little, but your grandpa has been in touch with Lt. Traynor. We know that the officer recommended that an investigator look into your dad’s disappearance.”

Lara’s eyes widened. “Grandpa Sam talks to Lt. Traynor?”

“You know your grandpa, Lara. He’s a hands-on kind of guy. He demands to know what’s going on. Not that Traynor has been all that forthcoming.”

“Where is Grandpa Sam?”

“He’s at the marina tinkering on his boat. The last month and a half has been hellish for him. He won’t be fit company until he’s been out on the water for a couple of hours. That always calms him down.” She paused before continuing, “Unless you object, I’d like to put off talking about your dad’s case until you mom returns from Hazelton.”

“That’s suits me fine.”

“I made a pitcher of lemonade, and I brought cookies from home. Why don’t we go out on the screened porch? We can relax and think positive thoughts.”

Susan faithfully communicated via text messages while she was in Hazelton, so Lara and her grandparents weren’t completely in the dark about what was going on.

In a nutshell, Silverstein agreed to investigate Charles’ disappearance. Her mom liked him and found him to be intelligent and energetic. The meeting with the symphony director went well, and Aunt Maddie’s condition remained virtually unchanged. She was unhappy, but managing. Lara and her grandparents sensed that Susan was uneasy, so they were anxious for a face to face conversation with Susan.

As soon as Susan walked through the lake house door, Dora rushed to her daughter’s side and hugged her. Visibly upset, she turned to Sam and Lara. “She needs space. Give her breathing room.”

Obviously preoccupied, Susan patted Dora’s shoulder absently. “I’m okay Mom. Just hot and tired. After I’ve showered, I’ll give you a full accounting of my two days in Hazelton. Lara, honey, would you get me something cold to drink? I’m parched.”

When Susan hurried off to shower, Dora turned to Lara, took a deep breath and said apologetically. “I promised myself that I wouldn’t rush to console her, and that’s exactly what I did. Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”

Sam said, “Don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe she is just exhausted.”

Lara hugged her grandma. “There’s no need to apologize. We’re all doing the best we can.”

“Thanks sweetie. Right now, we have a job to do. If you’ll get the pitchers of tea and lemonade, I’ll round up some glasses and raid the cookie jar.”

It pained Lara to see her usually calm grandma’s reaction to her daughter’s homecoming. “Mom’s going to fine, Nana. She’s stronger than you think. As soon as she’s showered, she’ll tell us what we need to know. We made a pact. No matter how bad the news is, she won’t keep it from us.”

Her Grandpa Sam was uncharacteristically quiet. Lara wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad.

Lara glanced at her vibrating iPhone. The call was a lifesaver. She needed a moment to collect her thoughts, to prepare for the Hazelton news. “It’s Greta, Nana. I’ll bring the pitchers out to the porch as soon I touch bases with her.”

Dora nodded and gave Lara a moment of privacy.

Greta always seemed to be there when Lara needed her support. The first few weeks Lara was in Shafer Lake she didn’t mix with the locals. When she finally bumped into Greta at Bella’s, she apologized for not contacting her.

Gradually they rebuilt their friendship. Greta was a good listener, and she could be trusted not to repeat confidences. Being a local, Greta was well-known and well-liked. She didn’t hang out with the crowd that partied on weekends, but she neither did she judge them. One of the things Lara liked best about Greta was her ability to carry on a conversation that didn’t include boys or clothes. That suited Lara just fine. “Hey, Greta.”

“Hi. Just wondered if you could meet me at the sports square?”

“I’m going to have to take a raincheck. Mom just returned from Hazelton, and I can’t skip out on her. If you are available, I can meet you tomorrow morning.”

“That works. What time?”

“Ten o’clock.”

Lara slowly crossed the room and stood gazing through the kitchen window. For the last three weeks, she’d stood in the same spot as she welcomed each day. Until this summer it wouldn’t have occurred to her that beauty and the serenity of nature were food for the soul. She had desperately needed strength and courage, and she’d found it at the kitchen window.

Although apprehensive about hearing the Hazelton news, she was determined not to overreact. When she’d steeled her emotions, she marched determinedly to the porch with the pitchers. Clearly frustrated, her grandpa was pacing and her grandma fidgeting.

Whispering so her mom wouldn’t hear, she reminded them, “Remember, she’s had a difficult two days. She’s obviously emotionally exhausted. When she’s ready to tell us what happened in Hazelton, she will.”

Her grandpa muttered something she couldn’t make out, and then slumped into a chair.

Before Lara could ask him to repeat what he said, her mom stepped out onto the porch.

“Tea or lemonade, Mom?”


Susan sat quietly sipping tea for what seemed like an eternity before finally speaking. “I’ve been evasive, and I’m sorry. The problem is that I’m more confused than I was when I went to Hazelton.

“After it became obvious that Charles wasn’t coming home, those of us who knew and loved him prayed for a miracle, but that was not to be. Initially, I was convinced that his disappearance was a fluke, that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, I’m not so sure. My reason for thinking that is because of the theft of two USB drives that belonged to Charles. The drives were in his desk drawer.”

Visibly alarmed, Sam exploded, “Charles’ desk? Are you saying that you had a break-in at your house?”

Susan said. “The security system was not breached, and yet the drives are gone. I put them in the desk drawer the day Lara and I left Hazelton to come to Lake Shafer.”

Sam said, “Is it possible that you were distracted, and thought that you put them in the desk drawer?”

Susan shook her head. “No. Before Lara and I left home, I distinctly remember putting the drives in the desk. I’d found them the previous day and was considering bringing them to Lake Shafer with me. Ironically, I put them in Charles’ desk for safe keeping.”

Sam asked, “What’s on the drives? Why would someone steal them?”

Susan said, “Unfortunately, I don’t know. I found them in Charles’ coat pocket. My first reaction was that they were work related, but Charles was organized. He would never have been careless with anything to do with his work.”

Sam said. “I assume you checked the windows to make sure that they were locked.”

“I did. Nothing was out of place and nothing else was missing.”

Sam said, “There has to be a logical explanation. Do you still have an extra key to the house in the garage?”

Susan nodded.

“Does your security extend into the garage?”


“Did you mention that to Traynor?”

“I didn’t talk to Traynor.”

Her dad was incredulous. “You didn’t report the theft?”

“Dad, I know you are upset, but right now I need your help in determining which evidence is viable. None of what’s happening makes sense to me. To help you understand, maybe I should start from the beginning.”

Her dad said, “I think that’s a good idea.”

“I arrived in Hazelton two hours before my appointment with the investigator, Travis Silverstein. The extra time provided an opportunity to run by the house to adjust the air conditioning. With the current heat wave, I expected the house to be hot and stuffy, and it was.

“After I made the adjustment, I planned to view the USB drives. Imagine my surprise when they weren’t there. I immediately checked the doors and the windows, and then I spent the next hour checking for any evidence of missing items. I found nothing suspicious.

“My first inclination, when I discovered that the drives were missing, was to call Lt. Traynor, but I postponed making the phone call until after I talked to Silverstein. He advised me to wait about contacting Traynor until he could make a few inquiries and check the house.”

Sam mumbled, “There are only two possibilities, Susan. You either forgot where you put the drives, or someone who has a key— or knows where your extra key is—entered the house.”

Susan shuddered. “You haven’t heard the worst of it, Dad. Here’s the thing that makes my blood run cold. The week before Charles disappeared, the police received photographs of the mayor and other top Hazelton political figures in situations that were compromising. Traynor wouldn’t reveal who was involved, but he did say the photos showed the mayor with some very unsavory characters. There was a note with the USB drive, but he wouldn’t reveal the contents. I hope that there is no connection between Charles’ disappearance, the disappearance of the drives and the corruption in city hall, but I don’t like coincidences. Charles was extremely upset by the circulating rumors about Donovan.”

Sam frowned. “Donovan Keller. Damn. I never did trust that man, but I can’t believe that he’s responsible for Charles disappearance. Charles was his best friend for years.”

“Donovan? No. The unsavory characters he was dealing with? Maybe. Drug dealers wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate a threat.”

Sam said. “Charles was a man of conscious. If he delivered the photos to the police, I can understand why he did so anonymously. He would have been thinking about the safety of his family. So, in reality, Charles’ case was not actually put aside because of the city hall investigation.”

“No. They believe that the two cases are related. When the photos appeared on Traynor’s desk, he was inclined to believe that one of Keller’s rivals sent them. Mudslinging among political rivals is a common occurrence. Then, when he learned that Charles and Donovan were college roommates, he reconsidered.”

Sam said, “Does Silverstein know about the police’s theories? If so, does he agree or disagree?”

“He agrees with Traynor. He’s going to go by our house and look for any evidence of entry that I might have missed. He’ll check the garage window for tampering.”

Dora entered the conversation. “Why did he advise you not to say anything to the police.”

“I don’t know what’s on those drives, Mom. There could be family photos for all I know. If Travis can find evidence of tampering, then there will be a reason to contact the police.” Susan turned her attention to Lara. “I’m sorry the news isn’t better, honey.”

“I’ve imagined a half-dozen scenarios that were as bad or worse. We can’t change what’s happened. All we can do is to make sure that the responsible person is put behind bars. It seems to me that our immediate concern is the family’s safety. If there is some kind of conspiracy out there, how is that going to affect us. What’s to keep the thief from breaking in again?”

Susan said, “Nothing else in the house was out of place, Lara. If a thief did take the drives, he got what he was after. As far as our safety is concerned, there is absolutely no reason why we should be targeted.”

“Mom, I might be naïve, but I’m not clueless. Someone we know must have been responsible if he or she knew about the key in the garage. That’s scary.”

Her mom nodded. “And that brings us back to Donovan. The only other people who know about the key are our neighbors the Simmons, and they are completely trustworthy.”

Sam was visibly upset. “This whole mess sounds like something out of a crime drama. There’s one thing for sure, you and Lara should stay away from Hazelton until Silverstein or the police find out what’s going on.”

“It’s not that simple, Dad. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own grief that I haven’t thought about the other people who are grieving. That became patently clear when I spent time with Charles’ Aunt Maddie. She needs to be with family. Her experiences with missing person’s cases gives her more than enough reason to be terrified. In addition, the stress brought on by Charles’ disappearance is making her migraines worse.”

Sam cut in, “I wondered if Maddie knows anything about the thumb drives." He pause before asking, "Is she still under the care of a doctor?”

Susan nodded. “The doctors keep a close eye on her. Leah, her friend and caregiver, has been a blessing, but she can only do so much.”

Dora said, “What’s her quality of her life, now that she’s been through therapy.”

“As you know, the behavior of brain damaged patients is unpredictable. Victim’s challenges vary according to the severity of the injury and the lobe that is affected. After the accident, Maddie had a team of five specialists who collaborated to determine the extent of her injuries and her long-term prognosis. The consensus was that she would physically recover, but would be faced with short term memory loss. Physically, she’s fine. She’s slowly adjusting to her lack of recall, but not the migraines and occasional confusion.”

Dora asked. “Short term memory loss doesn’t bode well for writing again, does it?”

“No, and that plays a role in her depression. A novelist has to be able to develop a story, and Maddie forgets details. As you know, her passion for words was one of things that made her such a brilliant writer. Now she sometimes has difficulty finding the right word. Over and above that, she still suffers some minor physical ailments. If she works on a computer for long periods of time, she suffers neck and back pain.”

Dora asked, “What about her daily activities? Will she ever be able to live independently?”

“Definitely. Currently, she’s trying to deal with the frustration of forgetting where her house keys are. But, it’s dealing with critical issues like medication and the preparation of meals that raises real concerns. Leah has monitored those issues, and Charles was handling her bills and balancing her checkbook. Now that he’s missing, her personal banker has taken over the job.

“To strangers and acquaintances, she appears to be perfectly normal. She’s capable of carrying out uncomplicated tasks and enjoying many of the activities she’s enjoyed in the past. On her good days, she has a marvelous sense of humor and is an excellent conversationalist. Then there are the days when she suffers severe headaches and confusion.”

Lara had been listening intently. “We should be in Hazelton, Mom.”

“I start rehearsals in three weeks, and I’m still far from being prepared. Between my hours spent practicing, the hours spent clearing up your dad’s estate issues and spending time with Maddie, I’m going to be completely tied up. I can’t worry about you and accomplish what I need to accomplish. I think you should remain in Shafer Lake with your grandparents.”

On some level, Lara was relieved, but at the same time, upset that her mom hadn’t given her an option. “I don’t even get a vote?”

“I’m sorry. Not this time. For my own peace of mind, I need to know that you are happy and safe.”

“But . . . what about you, Mom? Is it safe for you to be in the house alone?

“If it puts your mind at ease, I don’t plan to spend time in the house until I can have the locks changed. And, this time I won’t leave a key in the garage. Our neighbors, Betty and Clay Simmons, offered their guest room until the new security system is installed. If I accept their offer, I can keep an eye on the house.”

Dora said, “It sounds like you have things under control. Your dad and I will help any way we can. All you have to do is ask.”

Sam asked, “Can I make a suggestion?”

Susan replied, “All suggestions are appreciated, Dad.”

“I’m sure that there are odd jobs in the house and yard that need to be done. If you give us a greenlight, Dora, Lara and I will drive up to Hazelton for a day or two. Dora and I can take care of your housekeeping and grounds-keeping issues while Lara reconnects with her Hazelton friends.”

Lara felt an overwhelming sense of relief. “Thanks Grandpa Sam.”

Susan said, “That’s fine, Dad, if you come with the understanding that I won’t be available to socialize.”

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