Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Seven

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
~ Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

Hazelton . . .

Susan was surprised when Travis Silverstein’s name appeared on the caller ID. “Mornin Travis. I hope your news is going to brighten my day. I’ve been sitting here thinking about going back to bed and skipping today.”

“Rest assured that I’m not calling to add to your anxiety. I need to clarify a few details, that’s all. What’s up with you? Something happen that I should know about?”

“No. My conscious and I are in the middle of a fierce battle, but I’m also suffering from sleep deprivation. The main reason for my anxiety is that I haven’t found a way to balance my obligations in Lake Shafer and here in Hazelton. My family needs my support, and I’m here preparing for a piano concert that is little more than a personal whim. Then there’s the guilt I’m feeling because I’m not spending time with Aunt Maddie. If I’m honest, my reasons for going to Lake Shafer were selfish. I didn’t want to deal with the news media. I could keep going, but you get the picture. I won’t bore you with the other fifty items on the list.”

“Remember the day we talked about survivor guilt?”

“I do.”

“You can’t help yourself or your family unless you deal with your feelings of guilt. Recognize that guilt feelings are part of the healing process, and then let those feelings go. You need to take care of your emotional, mental and physical health. When you find the courage to move on with your life, others will follow your lead.”

“I know. I know. I need to be in Hazelton, but my support team is in Shafer Lake. I’ll be fine when my family arrives tomorrow.”

“Enjoy your time together, but don’t expect their visit to miraculously put an end to the issues that you are dealing with. It doesn’t work that way.”

“I’m aware of that. If anything, their presence will probably further complicate my already complicated life. They hate being out of the information loop as much as I hate being without them.

"I appreciate your concern, Travis, but you didn’t call to listen to my tale of woe. Did you say something about clarifying details? What do you need to know?”

“When you answer my questions, keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. Crimes remain unsolved because the investigator misses or misinterprets clues or misses the nuances that make up the case. When one of my investigations stalls, I go back to the beginning of the case. That’s where I am with Charles’ case. I reread his file hoping to gain fresh insights.

“I hit pay dirt, or think I did. Instead of chasing my tail, I need to know more about Charles’ background. Maybe, just maybe, I can get this case back on track. I’m sitting in front of the Starbucks on the corner of Miller and Kinard. Any chance you can meet me? I’ll treat you to a coffee.”

“The security company I hired to install a new system is due here any minute. I’ll put on a pot of coffee if you can swing by here. I’m less than a mile away from Miller and Kinard.”

“Tell me your preference, and I’ll deliver.”

“Sounds like a winner. Tall latte.”

“See you shortly.”

Fifteen minutes later Susan met him at the door. “Come on back to the den. The workers arrived shortly after your call. They are already hard at work. We’ll have privacy back there.”

“I’m guessing that you changed the locks.”

“I am upgrading my security system."

Silverstein waited until they were settled in the den before getting down to business. “Forgive me for intruding on your morning. As I mentioned, I have a nagging feeling that I’ve overlooked crucial information.” He paused to take a sip of coffee.

Susan said, “Traynor assures me that there’s no new evidence, so I don’t get it. I’ve read and reread Charles’ file and so has the Lieutenant. I can’t believe that we overlooked anything of importance.”

“Maddie Sorenson’s name was jotted in one of the margins. According to Traynor, the notation was a recent addition. I wasn’t aware of the family connection until I asked Traynor why it was there. You’ve mentioned your Aunt Maddie, but for some reason, I didn’t make a connection between Charles and an acclaimed author. Sorry, I missed that.”

“What, possible connection could Aunt Maddie have to Charles’ disappearance?”

“There were rumors that there was a second car involved in Maddie’s accident.”

“The officer who investigated her accident, assured us that the rumors were bogus. He believed that the rumor began with a crime fiction fan of hers who was into conspiracy theories.

“For the sake of argument, let’s say that the rumors were true. What possible difference can it make now? Any evidence of tampering with her car, or another car’s involvement, is long gone. And, she doesn’t remember the accident, the days preceding or the days following the accident. Her first memory is when she woke up in the hospital.”

“I reviewed Maddie’s accident report, Susan. There was no follow-up.”

“If there was no evidence that another car was involved, why would there be a need for follow-up?”

“Maddie’s upcoming book was being marketed as a tale of corruption in a small southern town. There was speculation that the town was Hazelton, and that someone didn’t want the book published. To dispel those rumors, it would have been wise to have the car checked for tampering before it was demolished.”

Susan frowned and shrugged. “Maddie claimed that rumors were part of the business she was in. She had learned to live with rumors. Charles joked that her publisher encouraged them. True or not, Maddie’s editor was convinced that rumors increased sales.

“It’s true that Charles had serious concerns about the accident, but the officer calmed his fears. I appreciate your efforts, but I think that you’re grasping at straws, Travis.”

“For now, humor me. Tell me about Charles’ relationship with his aunt. What’s their history? I know it’s a long shot, but if his relationship with her led to his disappearance, I need to know.”

“I don’t see the point, but you’re the investigator. Maddie became his legal guardian after he lost his parents in a plane crash. He was a junior in high school at the time. Marian, Charles’ mom, and Maddie were sisters. Keith, Charles’ dad, was an executive with Sanderson Insurance Company. During a flight to Ohio for a convention, Sanderson’s corporate jet crashed. Eight people lost their lives. The crash was a devastating tragedy for the company and for the families of the victims.”

Travis was nodding. “I remember reading about the tragedy. As I recall, it took years for the company to rebuild. Am I correct in assuming that Maddie lived in New York when Keith and Marian died?”

“She did. She had climbed up the ladder of success with incredible speed. Despite her youth, she was a high-profile crime reporter for the Times. She was also a sought-after speaker and consultant.”

“So, in reality, she sacrificed her career to raise Charles.”

“Her readers would disagree. And so, by the way, would Maddie. Charles was sixteen, so it’s a stretch to say that she raised him. She was his guardian, yes, but he was financially independent. The truth is, they were friends who lived in the same house and supported each other. There’s only a fourteen-year difference in their ages, and their interests were similar.

“As sad as the circumstances were, Marian and Keith’s deaths opened a door for Maddie. She had aspirations of becoming an author, but wasn’t confident in her ability to write a publishable novel. Her friends urged her not to give up a career that was fulfilling and lucrative for a dream that might not come true.

“When Marian and Keith deeded their home to her with the understanding that she would provide a home for Charles, she didn’t hesitate to abide by their wishes. The gift provided the financial security Maddie needed to give up her job with the Times.”

“Was her first book a success?”

“Highly successful. Deep Pockets is the book that established her as a top-selling author. Have you read any of her books?”

“All six. Her storylines are fast paced and believable. Now that you’ve filled me in on Maddie’s early career, let’s move on to the accident. There might not have been evidence that another car was involved, but since there wasn’t an investigation, there’s no way to be certain of that. There’s only the investigating officer’s word that another car wasn’t involve.

“The accident happened shortly before two am, and in a questionable section of town. Her meeting with Kitterman ended at midnight. Where was she during those two hours? The time discrepancy should have been a red flag to the officer. If the officer tried to find out where she was, he didn’t report his actions.”

“You were already retired when Maddie’s accident happened, weren’t you?”

“I had been retired for several months, so I didn’t know about her accident until I read a news release put out by her publisher. I rarely read the newspapers while my wife Helen was sick. Even if I had, I would not have had the time or the energy to investigate, or even question the circumstances.”

“Have you ever investigated a police case when you felt it was being mishandled?”

“Not often, and not without Traynor’s permission.”

“As I said before, I think you are grasping at straws. Even if the accident was caused by another car, it doesn’t mean that the driver was trying to kill her. He or she could have panicked.”

“I know that you don’t want to believe that Maddie was any way involved in the city corruption case, or that she involved Charles in her plan to expose the corruption, but it’s looking more and more like that’s what happened. You’d be wise to prepare yourself.”

“If what you say is true, I still don’t think it’s wise to involve Maddie in your investigation. Her testimony would be unreliable. She’s become reclusive. She refuses to talk to her publisher, and she’s cut off all of her old contacts. I have to protect her, Travis.”

“Is she still writing?”

“Infrequently, and only in her journal. Her attention span is very short, and her word recall is not dependable.”

“What about the book she was writing before the accident? Do you have an outline, notes or a drive with notes?”

“There was a book in progress, but I don’t have a clue what the book was about. I’ve seen the flash drives that contain her notes for her published books, but not the manuscript that was in progress. I searched her office because her publisher was interested in the notes. Her publisher wanted to hire a ghost writer to finish the novel.”

“Would Maddie agree to a ghost writer?”

“There was no reason to ask, because I couldn’t find a manuscript or notes. I can’t rule out that the thumb drives in Charles’ desk drawer belonged to her, but I don’t know why her manuscript notes would have been in his possession.”

“As you keep keep insisting, I could be wrong, but my hunches have paid off in the past. Would you at least introduce me to Maddie?”

“If you promise not to upset her.”

“I promise. The last thing I want to do is to say or do anything that will impede her recovery. Maddie and I are about as different as two people can be, but we do have a few things in common. Both of us were in the business of analyzing evidence and dealing with criminals. We speak the same language, so I believe that we could have a very interesting conversation. Unless she brings up Charles, I won’t mention him.”

Susan’s eyes widened, but she remained silent.

“Look, if I’m going to work this case, you are going to have to trust me. I understand your desire to protect Maddie, but I’ll be more patient than Traynor will be if he finds out that Maddie is withholding information.”

“I don’t like it, but do what you have to do.”

“It’s true that I have a reputation for being a SOB when I know that a perp is lying, but I’m capable of handling fragile people with kid gloves when necessary.

Susan frowned, but conceded. “Talking to you might be a bright spot in her otherwise dull days. Her fascination with police work has not changed. When she has an attentive audience, she talks nonstop about her New York years. I’ll bet she’d love to swap stories with you.”

“Name the time.”

“As soon as the men putting in the security system are finished, I’ll head over to Maddie’s house. I will be there until around four. Her address is 1462 Hillsdale Dr. If you are in the area, stop by and I’ll introduce you.”

“I’ll be there at three.”

It was three on the dot when Susan greeted Travis at Maddie’s front door. “I wondered if you would make it.”

“Miss meeting Maddie Sorenson? Not on your life.”

Susan motioned him in. “It took a bit of arm twisting, but she’s agreed to let you read some of her articles.” Susan grimaced. “I’m glad you’re here. She’s been showing me some of the photos that she took when she was a crime reporter, and I’ve seen enough. I don’t have the stomach for bloodshed and violence. I don’t how those of you involved in law enforcement can deal with murder and mayhem and still believe in the goodness of man.”

Maddie glanced up when Susan and Travis entered the room. Susan made the introductions. “Aunt Maddie, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the former police detective I told you about. Travis Silverstein. Travis. My aunt, Maddie Sorenson.”

“Ms. Sorenson, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Please call me Maddie.”

“You’re more beautiful than the photographs on you book jackets.”

“I might be addled brained, Travis, but I haven’t lost my eyesight.”

“Do you by any chance remember Gil and Sadie Hammonds?”

Maddie’s eyes sparkled. “Yes, I do. We became good friends when they came to one of my book signings. They were excellent dinner companions. I miss them now that they have moved to Florida.” She patted the space on the sofa next to her. “Come sit, and tell me how you know the Hammonds.”

“I met Gil in the courtroom when I was testifying in a hit and run case. When I mentioned that I played golf, he invited me to join him for a day on the golf course. We clicked.

“I’ve forgotten why your name came up, but it did. After that, we frequently discussed your books, the pros and cons. Our nickname for you was the Red Fox. Sly and sexy.”

Maddie rolled her eyes. “Flattery doesn’t work with me, Travis.”

“Maybe you and I disagree on the definition of sexy. I find faces that have been sculpted by time and experience more to my liking than the unlined faces of innocence.”

Maddie laughed. “I agree that lines add character, but sexy is not a word that describes any woman over sixty.”

“I disagree. To me you are as beautiful as ever, except that you are now a silver fox.”

“You’re good for my ego, Travis. Do you also make allowances for people who can’t remember what day it is? Or a person who will in all likelihood forget your name before the conversation has ended?”

“You bet. People who consider themselves flawless, can generally be described in one sentence. Books are written about people with flaws.”

“You sound like my kind of guy.”

“Good, because I’m going to take you up on your offer to let me read the articles you wrote when you were a crime reporter.”

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