Kevin didn’t even try to call Kate back. He pulled on some jeans and a tee and raced to his pick-up. He covered the distance between his apartment and Kate’s in record time. He pounded on her door until Grandpa George opened it.
“Well, Kevin,” said George amicably. “Hello!”
“Where’s Kate?” asked Kevin, bewildered.
Grandma Amy walked up behind George and greeted Kevin then softly instructed her husband, “Invite the boy in, dear.” George glanced back at her then pulled the door open and gestured for Kevin to enter Kate’s apartment.
“No!” exclaimed Kevin. “I mean, thank you, but I’m not here socially. Just tell me where Kate is. Is she okay?”
“What do you mean, dear?” asked Amy, puzzled.
“She . . .” began Kevin. His phone rang again. It was Kate. He turned his back to George and Amy and answered it. “Kate!” he whispered. “What’s going on?”
An inhuman voice replied, “Kate is unavailable to speak at the moment, Mr. Emile.”
“Wha…? Who is this?”
“That’s not your concern at present,” said the voice. “Go home, Emile, and wait for us to call you. I’m sure Kate will appreciate your cooperation, as will her grandparents. They look so concerned.”
Kevin’s heart beat faster. It scared him to know someone was watching them at that very moment. He kept the phone pressed to his ear and turned around to look at George and Amy who were in the doorway, looking at him expectantly. Kevin offered them a weak wave and turned away again.
“What do you want? I’ll give you anything. Just don’t hurt Kate or the Shaws!”
“I think you know what we want.”
“No, I …”
“The key, Mr. Emile. The real key, this time.”
“Oh.” Kevin felt like someone had just drilled a soccer ball into his stomach.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have it.”
“But I don’t!”
“Then retrieve it.”
“I can’t. I don’t … ”
“Then I’m sorry it’s come to this …”
“No, wait! I can tell you what was in the box it opened.”
For the first time, the voice on the other end didn’t answer immediately. The silence continued for long enough that Kevin began to wonder if the call had dropped. He looked at his phone. It still showed the call being connected. “Hello?” he asked tentatively. “Hello?”
“It seems Kate here is confirming your claim. Very well, Mr. Emile. What was the message?”
“Not here,” said Kevin.
“Are you sure that’s the message?”
“No. I mean I’d rather discuss this someplace else.”
“Agreed. Go home and wait for our call.”
Kevin listened for further instructions for a few seconds then looked at the phone and saw that the call had ended.
George asked, “What’s going on Kevin? Is Kate in some kind of trouble?”
Kevin faced him and Amy again, not sure what to say. “Uh … I have to go now,” he offered and bounded back to his pick-up and sped toward home.
At 6:30 Sunday morning, Kevin’s phone rang again. “Hello?” he answered groggily.
“Kevin, I have to meet you right away!”
Kevin sat upright immediately. “Evelyn? I thought …”
“I don’t care what you thought, Kevin. Just meet me at Burnett’s Mound.”
“But it’s closed!” protested Kevin.
“Only to vehicles. You can still hike up.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know that.”
“You never did get out much, did you?”
“Well, I …”
“Never mind, just hurry up, Kevin. It’s critical that you don’t delay.”
“Fine!” mumbled Kevin and pulled on his hiking boots. He hadn’t bothered to undress from the night before. It crossed his mind that he ought not to go anywhere until he heard from the people who had Kate. But it also made perfect sense to meet Evelyn while he waited. If he did hear from Kate’s captors, then he could always ditch Evelyn if he needed to.
Kevin would have enjoyed the Sunday morning hike if he’d been on Burnett’s Mound under better circumstances because it was a beautiful sunny morning, not yet full of the oppressive humidity of recent days.
He found Evelyn sitting on a rock looking out over the city to the north and east, toward downtown. She held a metal box in her lap. It looked almost identical to the one found they found at the Wren statue the other night.
“What’s that? Or do I dare ask?”
She looked up at him and then unlocked the box with a silver key. Inside was a piece of cardboard, which she pulled out. In black letters were the words “Per Aspera.”
Kevin looked from the cardboard to Evelyn’s face to the cardboard and back to Evelyn’s face, his mouth open slightly. He wanted to say something but his brain could formulate nothing.
Evelyn didn’t speak at first either. She, too, eyed the cardboard for a while before closing the box and standing up.
She shrugged. “I guess now we know,” she said.
Kevin exploded with a cross between a groan and a scream which he directed toward the sky: “Arghhhhhhhhh!” He clenched and unclenched his fists a few times. Then turning to Evelyn, he continued, “What?! What do we know now? I know nothing! What does this …” he yanked the cardboard of Evelyn’s hand … “this piece of cardboard tell us, dear Evelyn? If you know, won’t you puh-lease fill me in because right now none of this makes any sense!” By the time he finished, he was spitting as he spoke.
“I can see you’re upset, Kevin,” began Evelyn, trying to grab the cardboard back from him. Kevin growled at her and she backed off. “But, I think it’s time you know the whole story as I know it.”
Kevin mouthed the words, “Thank you.” He poked the cardboard into his jeans pocket. He noticed Evelyn eyeing him carefully when he did so.
“What?” he asked.
“What?” he repeated.
“Never mind. We should leave the Mound, though. It’s probably not safe to be here.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Not safe? Not safe?! I should have known you’d say that! Because whenever you turn up, weird things happen. I get shot at, threatened, driven on wild goose chases all over town to find meaningless pieces of cardboard in stupid little metal boxes that open with keys found from clues left in a supposedly useless manuscript that may or may not have been planted on your computer in order to get you fired or not … Who really knows why you were canned, Evelyn? Besides you, I mean? I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you — which I suppose would be a bit further than normal at this point because a good push down this big hill and you’d roll pretty far … But still!”
Evelyn started to laugh. At first she just chuckled but then it grew into a hearty deep laugh that didn’t stop for at least a minute.
Kevin didn’t know what to think. So he hiked toward his vehicle.
“Kevin, wait!” Evelyn called after him.
He paused and looked over his shoulder at her. She caught up to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You were just so funny back there. I’ve never heard you say so many words at one time like that. You, Kevin Emile, who’ve been so quiet and controlled for four years I hardly knew when you were in your office, are suddenly throwing a lengthy tirade at the top of a famous Topeka landmark without a care who heard you or how undignified you looked.”
“Mmmm,” Kevin responded, loosening up. “Yeah, I can see how that would strike your funny bone a little.” He allowed a small smile to creep onto his face.
“Okay, so I get that you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t trust me either right now, to be honest.”
Kevin started walking again. “I’m listening,” he told her.
“I’m sure you’re wondering where I got this key and how I knew about the box up there as well as the box at the Wren statue.”
“What do you mean by ‘this key’? Isn’t that the key from the other night?” Kevin stopped and looked at her, surprised.
“No. This is the key I found at the Lardner monument.”
Kevin raised his eyebrows.
“I went back there after we met at the Sheriff’s office the other day and continued the search I wasn’t able to complete the other night when we ran into each other.”
Kevin opened his mouth and then closed it without saying anything. He had nothing to say yet. Evelyn’s surprises were sure to keep coming so it was probably best to brace for more and then respond to them all at once when she’d finished and he had answers. Oh, how he hoped he would have some answers soon!
“Let’s keep moving,” prompted Evelyn. They started hiking again. She didn’t continue her story right away because they were on the steep grassy slope now, and it was rather difficult to concentrate on maneuvering down the path ahead and talking at the same time.
They reached their vehicles. Kevin asked, “Where to now?”
“Won’t they see us there?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Whomever ‘they’ is, Evelyn?”
“You have a point. But we need to go there. That’s where the binder is, isn’t it?”
“City Works Project 3A799-2, of course!”
“The ‘Topeka Is Awesome’ project binder?”
“Yep. That’s the one!”
“I seriously don’t get it!” Kevin exclaimed.
“I know. So let’s get over there so I can explain it to you.”
Suddenly Kevin wasn’t sure at all of this whole scenario. “Hunh-unh,” he said.
“Nope. No way. Not doin’ that. We aren’t going to my office, Evelyn. That’s my final answer.”
“You don’t understand, Kevin. I need that binder!”
“I don’t care. We’re not going anywhere near my office until I get some answers.”
“Fine!” snapped Evelyn, sighing. “Then where do you suggest we go?” she said a calmer tone.
“Okay,” agreed Evelyn. “I despise their food but let’s go.”
“Well, actually, I don’t really want to go there either. I said that because I knew you wouldn’t like it, and I’m mad at you!”
Evelyn chuckled again, breaking the tension. “Kevin, you’re an odd character, you know? Okay, so for real this time. Where would you suggest we go if we aren’t going to your office?”
“Panera Bread is open.”
“Excellent. Sounds great. Meet you there!”
“Shouldn’t we go together?” asked Kevin.
“No, it’s safer if we’re separate. You never know who’s watching.”
Kevin remembered the eerie feeling of being watched at Kate’s apartment and shuddered. “I see your point. Okay, meet you there,” Kevin said as he opened his pick-up door. He pulled away and rounded the corner when a huge explosion rocked his vehicle. He slammed on the brakes and threw his pick-up into reverse, fearing the worst. He backed up until he could look down the street from where he’d just come. His heart dropped into his boots.
A ball of flames rose around the blackened shell of Evelyn’s car.
Neighborhood residents emerged from their homes to satisfy their curiosity. Kevin heard sirens in the background.
He decided the best place to be was somewhere else and sped away.
When he got to I-470, he turned east onto the interstate, then decided on a whim to hop on Highway 75 and head south for a while and meander through Montara and Forbes Field before making his way back toward home. He drove around for at least an hour.
He thought about Evelyn and Kate and wondered why he hadn’t gotten a phone call yet about Kate. He thought he’d been on the verge of more answers from Evelyn at last but now he only had more questions. And a stupid piece of cardboard in his jeans pocket.
He couldn’t stand being alone any longer. He decided that after a hot shower, he would drop in at his parents’ place until he heard from Kate’s captors.
Kevin unlocked his door and stepped on a manila envelope that had been shoved through the mail slot. It slid on the floor and his foot slipped out from under him. He took an awkward tumble.
“Ow!” he yelped as he jammed his elbow.
He didn’t bother to get up but plucked the envelope off the floor as he sat there. It was blank on the outside, no identifying marks of any kind. He ripped it open and then thought, only after it was too late, he shouldn’t have been so eager to do that. It could’ve been a trap of some kind.
But it wasn’t. At least he didn’t think so as he pulled out a piece of cardboard with black lettering on it along with a folded note. He caught a faint whiff of perfume that lingered on the note. It reminded him of Evelyn.
He opened the note and read:
I hope it’s you reading this. If not, then I suppose it’s too late to ask whoever is reading this to stop.
Anyway, I don’t know if this is the right move or not. This whole mess has me so “confuzzled.” Enclosed is the cardboard we found the other night.
Please follow my instructions carefully:
1. Go to Lardner’s Monument at Mount Calvary Cemetery and find the key hidden there. You found the one at the spar. I believe you can find this one, too.
2. Go to Burnett’s Mound near the base of the pole at the top. You’ll find a metal box like the one we found at the Wren statue. Open it and retrieve the message inside.
3. Take that message along with this cardboard to Margaret at the office along with the “Topeka Is Awesome” binder as soon as you can. Don’t wait for business hours. Call her immediately and have her meet you there.
She’ll know what to do.
Sorry I can’t tell you in this note why I’m asking you to do this. I also know you probably don’t trust me, and I have no way to prove myself to you, so I am just going to have faith that somehow you’ll know this is the right thing to do.
“Well if that don’t beat all!” exclaimed Kevin. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or groan. He was pretty sure Evelyn was really dead this time, and yet she was still able to show up and make weird things happen in his life.
Obviously she’d written this note before this morning. Who had dropped it off? It’d arrived while he was out with her at the Mound so someone else had delivered it. Very odd!
He didn’t understand why, but for some reason he trusted Evelyn — finally. A tinge of regret flashed through his mind. What if he’d trusted her at Burnett’s Mound this morning? Would things have turned out differently?
“No point second guessing myself.” He stood up. His leg felt a little sore. He might have tweaked a muscle during his tumble.
He decided to skip the shower. He didn’t even wait to reach Margaret before he left his apartment. He did think to grab something work-related, though, so that just in case anybody were watching — and he was fairly certain somebody was — it would seem as if he were heading into the office for a routine task. He’d been known to do that here and there during the previous four years. Still, he couldn’t control his nervous swallowing and the strong thump-thumping of his heart in his chest as he hopped in his pick-up. His hands trembled slightly as he gripped the wheel. The note from Evelyn and the two pieces of cardboard were safely tucked in the back of his jeans under his shirt and remained firmly wedged between his body and the seat as he drove to the office.
He stopped in the parking lot to call Margaret.
“Hi Margaret, it’s Kevin.”
“Good morning, Kevin. What can I do for you?”
“It’s important. I need you to meet me at the office. It’s regarding the ‘Topeka Is Awesome’ project.”
“Ah. Okay. Well, I can meet you there in about twenty-five minutes. That soon enough?”
“Sure. That’ll work.”
“See you soon.”
Kevin decided it might be safer not to park in his usual spot near the office so he left his pick-up a couple blocks away and hoofed it to the office. He knew he couldn’t totally hide himself in broad daylight from anybody who could be tailing him so he concentrated on walking briskly and being hyper-aware of any vehicles or pedestrians he encountered on the way. Fortunately, nothing unusual came up.
He unlocked his office door then shut it behind him and plopped in his ancient office chair, behind his two flat screen monitors, glad for once that he could actually do so. It meant he was alive and that was a great thing to be glad about, considering what had happened to Evelyn this morning. He breathed deeply and relaxed for a moment.
Bang! Bang! Kevin jumped out of his chair, grabbed the binder, and dropped to the floor.
“Hello?” Margaret called from the hallway. “Kevin? Are you in there?”
He must have dozed off for a couple minutes. The sudden knocking on the door startled him awake and had thus sounded louder to him than it really was.
“Here,” announced Kevin, from the floor behind his desk. He watched the door crack open and a petite pair of feet walk in.
“Oh, there you are. What are you doing on the floor, Kevin?”
“Honestly, Margaret,” replied Kevin, “It’s because I’m just a bit scared — you really startled me — and it seems safer down here!” He saw no reason to put on a brave front with this woman.
“I see,” she said, plopping down on the floor next to him. “Well, I don’t blame you! It’s been one nightmare after another around here. I’m glad Evelyn finally got through to you. I was beginning to wonder.”
“She’s dead, Margaret.”
Margaret nodded. “I know,” she whispered. Her lip quivered. A tear rolled down her cheek. She pulled a tissue out of her slacks, lifted her thick, round glasses and wiped her eyes. She sniffled. He wondered how Margaret already knew about Evelyn but felt it would be inappropriate to say anything right then, so they sat for a few moments in silence.
Margaret drew in a deep breath and looked at him. “Spill.”
“So, you know what’s going on?” he responded.
Margaret nodded. “Show me what you’ve got, Kev.”
He paused. Nothing he could pinpoint logically indicated why he should give her his full confidence but divulging everything to Margaret seemed like the right thing to do.
He pulled the two pieces of cardboard out of the back of his jeans and spread them next to each other on the floor along with the binder.
“Excellent!” She clapped her hands together once in excitement.
“What does all this mean?” asked Kevin.
“Well, let me show you.”
Margaret pulled a series of photos out of the binder and arranged them in a specific order on the floor.
Suddenly Kevin understood why everyone had been so desperate to possess the two seemingly worthless pieces of cardboard that in combination read “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” He placed them in their proper spot within the collage of photos. There it was in front of him in black and white — the answers to so many of his questions.
About the Author
Crystal K. Green fell in love with words at a young age and has pursued writing and language learning ever since. Writing inspires her to enjoy life and appreciate each day. Crystal’s current project is a series of supernatural thrillers based in Kansas and Missouri about an unseen race known as the Wisendren. The first two books, which are being edited and revised for publication, she crafted during NaNoWriMo. She has completed first drafts of five other novels and two movie scripts along with dozens of poems, short stories, and essays. Two of her poems, So the Story Goes and Being Alive Is, have been published through the National Library of Poetry. In addition to writing, Crystal does freelance graphic design and database work. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.