“I guess you’re wondering what all of these photos mean. Let me explain a bit,” Margaret begins. “Maybe you didn’t notice these before, hidden in amongst the others. Evelyn was ambitious in covering her tracks.”
“Evelyn came to me after the third photo. I didn’t know Evelyn well. Although I’ve been City Manager for five years, I’m still figuring things out here. My last job in Bozeman seems like a dream compared to this one sometimes. Anyway, after the business with the Romanians, Evelyn was certainly on my radar. I never quite understood how she kept her job after that – I was told that the FBI was running a sting operation to catch the terrorists, but I never saw any evidence appear. Apparently Evelyn was suspicious, too.”
“But she told me she was so grateful to still have her job that she wasn’t willing to risk losing it. But again, that was before the photos started. She came into my office one day and showed me these three photos. She said they had arrived in three separate envelopes; all addressed to her, all well disguised in envelopes that made them appear to be junk mail or advertisements. You can see; these three are of recent city construction projects, fixing streets.”
“None of them had a note inside, just the photographs. And each photograph has this sticker on the back that says ‘Topeka is Awesome.’ At the time, I agreed with her that it was strange, but she should have been concentrating on the actual Topeka is Awesome project and I tried to redirect her there.”
“Then a week later she came back with these two photos. It didn’t take much digging for me to discover that these companies had bids on the construction projects in the first photos, it was public information. But these are both companies who get lots of repair contracts for the city, so even that didn’t raise alarm at the time. I assumed these were from a prankster that had read about the grant project in the newspaper and were trying to poke fun at the project. I sent Evelyn back to work, counseling her to figure out why Topeka is Awesome. I knew she had an intern coming for the project. Around this time, I tried to follow up on Evelyn’s involvement with the Romanians, worried that this might be related. When I called Human Resources, I was told it wasn’t something they could discuss, so I let it drop.”
“When Evelyn received these two in the same envelope, she started to worry. I don’t know if you recognize her, because this photo is about ten years old, but that’s Marilou Grabinski at a staff holiday party. I think this same photo might actually be posted on the staff intranet somewhere. But Evelyn got it as a photograph in the mail, and Marilou Grabinski was the office manager at the Public Works Office. Or she used to be. She worked there for about forty years and only recently retired.”
“The other photo is another one printed from the staff intranet, I assume. It’s one of those cheesy posed photos that is sent out in a Human Resources announcement email, welcoming someone to a new position on their first day. This guy, Jacobson, I think his first name is Doug, was hired as Marilou’s replacement when she retired. I’ve met him a few times; he’s a friendly enough guy, though not entirely sincere.”
“I’m not one to jump to conclusions; Evelyn was getting paranoid though, and started to be convinced that the photos were supposed to send her a message. Evelyn kept hounding me to check into these photographs, but I wasn’t sure what I could really do. These are basically random photographs without captions, besides the “Topeka is Awesome.” An anonymous source didn’t give me much to go on. I’m a straightforward person, and was frustrated that whoever was sending these was being mysterious. If they had some information to share, wouldn’t a telephone call or an email be quicker? Later we learned that Jacobson had married Paul Reston’s youngest daughter the week before his promotion. And Paul Reston is a silent partner in Cap City Excavating, and the manager there has two sons who run construction crews. But we didn’t know that then.”
“These were the next three photos. They didn’t give us much to go on, but they seemed to be messages about money, at the very least. Evelyn was getting so paranoid that she couldn’t get her work done. She thought she was being followed, and she was suspicious of everyone. She was convinced that this was an informant trying to whistle-blow a corruption scandal. I tried to point out, repeatedly, that the whistle blower hotlines exist for that, not this grant project. But I couldn’t dissuade her.”
“Evelyn got a photo every few days and kept them in the Topeka is Awesome notebook, filling in the other pages with more photos of the city that she drove around and took herself, so that they could blend in and not look suspicious. Some of these photos seem random to me, but Evelyn was convinced they were all meaningful and related. She kept telling me that there was a message here. We aren’t private investigators, or officers of the law, we’re business women and civic leaders. No matter how many clues someone sent us, I didn’t understand what action this anonymous informant wanted us to take. Coded messages and clues are not my thing. I’ve never had the patience for games and such; I prefer to use straightforward problem-solving techniques and move on to the next project. In that, Evelyn probably chose a poor confidant.”
“Then one day, Evelyn discovered that ridiculous manuscript on her computer. She didn’t write it, obviously. It just appeared on the hard drive overnight. She felt like it was a message to her, in code, that explained the photographs. She was convinced she could decipher it. I….well…I didn’t entirely agree with her. But I didn’t have a better explanation for why that document would suddenly be on her computer. Then she found the meeting plans on her calendar, appointments in California that she hadn’t set, with people and companies she had never heard of. The appointments were all the week of the conference for the Topeka is Awesome project.”
“It all seemed to be related, but we still didn’t know what to do. It’s not like photos that point to suspicious activity is something we could take the police. That’s what the informant should have done, after all, instead of sending them to us. And if this was an internal informant, which it seemed to be from the kinds of photos and information shared, then we didn’t want to talk to the wrong people, whoever they might be.”
“Evelyn was a wreck. The safest thing I could do was fire her. Although she never knew it was me who got her fired. I had to try to protect her, and I thought that removing her from the situation would help. I realize now that she was too obsessed with the mystery, that it didn’t matter…I was trying to save her. Even though I failed.” Margaret sighed deeply and rearranged the photos again, to reveal one image that Kevin hadn’t noticed before.
“This last photo arrived after she was gone. All of her mail was rerouted to my office until I could hire a replacement for her position. The mailroom didn’t question my request. I had to open all of her junk mail myself, looking for more photos, rather than have my assistant handle it for me. I don’t know who that woman is, although her lipstick is too dark and those thin rimmed glasses on such a long sharp nose are unflattering. That ponytail makes her look younger than she probably is and a bit creepy, like she’s trying too hard. I never even had a chance to show this picture to Evelyn. And I don’t recognize the location, it’s not even a public place like the rest of the photos have been. –Out of all of these photos, this is the last one we received and the one that I have the hardest time fitting into the puzzle. I don’t know the people in this photo either, or if they are important.”
“I’ve been thinking of these last few weeks as Evelyn’s rogue activities. I guess from the police radio calls I heard, she might not have survived that explosion this morning. She texted me just before, and hasn’t texted again. Evelyn was convinced she was supposed to take the photos and the manuscript to these appointments. She was desperately looking for the clues to give her direction. She was safer at work, as it turned out.”
“The physical violence began after she left the office. She was furious that she wasn’t in charge of this project anymore, that she didn’t have access to this notebook and these photos. She was determined to solve the mystery, and claimed she would bring down the bad guys, whatever that means.”
“I know she was impressed when you and Kate found the clue in the manuscript and led her to the key at the Topeka High spar. I don’t know what she got involved with out there at the end, and I don’t know who was trying to kill her, or who might have been successful this morning. I had to stop trusting her. I’m sure she would look at those last two clues and assume they meant something important. She’d probably think “To the stars through difficulties” was just encouragement to overcome everything she faced and head to Hollywood, to those appointments in Los Angeles. That’s up to you and Kate to decide though.”
Kevin shook his head, coming out of the intense concentration as he had listened to Margaret’s narrative and studied the photographs.
“What?” he asked, sounding confused, “Los Angeles?”
“Yes, of course.” Margaret replied. “The conference to present “Topeka is Awesome” is in three weeks. It’s your job to represent the city there.
Kevin was still staring at the last photo, the creepy woman with the ponytail and the couple at the patio table.
“Do you recognize those people?” Margaret asked, suddenly noticing with interest that his gaze hadn’t moved from that last picture.
Kevin shook his head and said, “No.”
He looked away from the photo of Bianca Devore sitting casually across from his mother and his father on the back patio of his childhood home, and turned his face up to meet Margaret’s eyes.
About the Author
Lissa Staley has written nine different first drafts as part of National Novel Writing Month, every November since 2003. Revision is not her strong point though, and this is her first published work of fiction. In addition to serving as the NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for Topeka, she also works as a Book Evangelist and Librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Contact her at email@example.com.