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“You look really nervous,” Kate said, looking judgmentally at Kevin. Kevin looked up from where he had been picking at his cuticle. He felt more than nervous. He felt as if he was about to vomit.
“Not everyone can hide behind hairspray and accessories,” Kevin said. He assessed Kate’s carefully coiffed hairdo that had been dyed a striking shade of purple, and her perfectly applied makeup. Even her outfit was clearly chosen with care—a sharp black business suit with a shockingly bright green shell peeking out at her neckline.
“Settle down, kids.” Kevin’s dad was sitting stiffly on the other side of Kate, holding hands with Kevin’s mom. Neither Hunter or Madeline looked particularly relaxed. More like resigned to whatever they were about to face. “Whatever this meeting brings, we can handle it.”
“Or we’ll all die together.” Madeline added cheerfully, and smiled in a reassuring way at her son.
“I still can’t believe we’re here,” Kate said softly. “I mean, I’ve known all along that we would go to California as part of the grant for ‘Topeka is Awesome’. But I never really imagined we would show up for the mysterious appointment on Evelyn’s calendar.”
“Or that the appointment would be at a second-rate true crime publisher who might know more about this story than we do.” Kevin sighed. “Thanks mainly to my mom’s care packages of photos and letters, they’ve been kept in the loop better than we have these last few months.”
“I was just trying to help,” Madeline interjected. “I didn’t know when your father or I might get killed, and I wanted someone somewhere to know what was going on.”
“So call the freaking police like a normal person,” Kate said angrily. “Because this is ridiculous. And I’m more than a little frightened that whoever greets us at this appointment is still going to kill us.”
“No one has ever been murdered by this publisher before,” Madeline said. “I checked Wikipedia.”
“Mom, I think Kate’s just trying to point out that trusting a second-rate true crime book publisher instead of the police with the clues to uncover a historically evil cabal with a huge stash of gold might be…a little short-sighted.” Kevin said. Even in the midst of this tense waiting room,
he was trying to play peacemaker between his mom and Kate. If they survived this, he wanted them to get along.
“At least we’re prepared. I’ve read most of the true crime books at the library, especially in the white-collar crime section,” Madeline explained proudly.
“They have a section for that?” Kate asked incredulously.
“It’s really well-organized,” Madeline said. “I’ve tried to imagine where our book will sit on those very shelves.”
Kate stifled a laugh and muttered something about mental health that only Kevin could hear. She pulled out her phone to check for messages. She glanced at the screen, sighed, and put the phone back in her handbag.
“Nothing?” Kevin asked, watching her movement closely.
“No. Grandma said she would text me with updates, but I haven’t had any messages since our plane left Kansas City.”
“I’m sure she’s just busy. We left quite a mess back there last night,” Kevin soothed. “Explain to me again why you had a handful of smoke bombs in your handbag?”
“Cleo asked me to pick them up for his kidnapping scene. I forgot they were still in my bag, and when I was digging for hand sanitizer on the way out of that murder scene, I found them. I’m sure Cleo is grateful we didn’t drag his crew into that mess downtown.” Kate shrugged. “Whatever, at least leaving a room full of smoke behind made for a good exit strategy from that golden chamber.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Kevin agreed. “Or at the very least, fire alarms and firefighters. I’m sure they were shocked when they found the source of the smoke.”
“I’m just glad we were long gone,” Kate said. “I didn’t know your mom could drive that fast. Her driving to the airport might have been the most dangerous part of our night.”
Before Kevin could defend his mother’s lead foot, the door they had all been staring at opened. A short man with a wrinkled grey suit and a loosened necktie in a blue paisley pattern waved them all inside.
Kate and Kevin stood nervously against a wall lined with overflowing bookshelves in the dingy office, giving Hunter and Madeline the only two available seats. The placard on the desk said the man behind it was Ira B. Dresser.
The man had dumped a large manila envelope across his already crowded desk and began without introduction.
“You seem like nice people. I’m glad you aren’t dead yet. Unfortunately, we can’t publish this story without a big splash in the media. We don’t have a marketing budget. We rely on sensationalized news to raise the customer’s interest via sound bytes, and then we quench their bloodthirsty desire for the dirt behind the scenes that the courts and papers can’t or won’t report. If you want to see this expanded story in print, bring me a viral YouTube video, a successful Facebook petition, or get a key witness to commit suicide in the holding cell. Give me something I can work with, and I can get you a book deal. Plus you’ll have a media frenzy for your story. But this—it’s just a bunch of pictures, a man with a cough, and your word that there’s something bad going down in a secret room of the Capitol. This doesn’t sell books. This doesn’t tell a story. I’m sorry.”
Madeline looked crushed. Kevin’s dad patted her arm and thanked the agent for his time. Kate looked around nervously like she still suspected a bad guy to appear. Kevin dragged them all out of the office and back to the rental car they had parked outside.
“So what do we do now?” Madeline asked as Kevin started the ignition.
“I’ve got another appointment tomorrow. I can’t miss it, and I can’t take any of you with me. I’ll take a taxi and leave Madeline at the hotel,” Hunter announced with gravity. Madeline looked terrified, but nodded her agreement. Hunter couldn’t—or wouldn’t—share more. Whatever had brought Hunter to California with them, he would have to face it alone.
“Presuming I haven’t lost my job already,” Kevin said, “Kate and I have to present at the ‘Capital City Works’ conference tomorrow. In fact, we need to check in to our official hotel and register this afternoon.”
“You’re still going through with that?” Hunter asked, then started coughing again, reminding all of them that the chemical poisoning in his system was still a threat to his life.
“This is our job,” Kate said. “Presuming I survive this internship, I can’t update my resume if I don’t fulfill my only assignment just because I was worried someone was going to kill me. Who would hire me?”
“Please put your safety first,” Madeline pleaded with them. “Don’t try to kill anyone just to make a media splash. And don’t get shot again, Kevin. Your life is more important than a book deal.”
“Umm… Thanks, Mom. We’ll be careful. Kate and I can skip some of the educational workshops, but we should go mingle, and we definitely have to present the project,” Kevin admitted. “We’ll drop you and mom off at your hotel. You can lay low for a few days while we figure out what to do after the conference.”
Perhaps the pressure had finally made her crack, but the following afternoon, serious and professional Kate Sanchez sat at a banquet table at the back of the ballroom, messing with her iPhone and making fun of the other capital city projects as they were presented onstage.
Her phone made a musical beep, and Kevin elbowed her, frowning. He wasn’t behaving much better; he was exhausted and bored, trying to stay awake in the darkened room after a hearty catered lunch. They were scheduled 33rd out of the fifty presenters, based on ranking the states by population. Kevin could do without the governmental statistics, particularly when they were used so arbitrarily. They had been sitting through these brief presentations all morning and they still had to endure state capital project summaries from Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, and Arkansas before they could present their project and then sneak out the back.
Kevin daydreamed about his life a few short months ago, how he thought this conference was going to be his big chance to escape Topeka and find a great job on a coast. Now he wanted more than anything to get safely back home with his family and with Kate.
Kate’s phone beeped again, and Kevin’s phone buzzed. He looked down at it, annoyed, and then his eyes widened. He looked at Kate, saw her flash her phone screen at him, and read the same message that he had just seen on his own phone.
It’s headline time. Check the news. Be careful. We are safe. Love, Grandma.
It was the first message they had received from back home since leaving three days earlier. Before Kevin could react, both phones beeped and buzzed again.
CNN scrolling “Five dead in capitol shootout, suspected domestic terrorists held in Topeka, Kansas” with live helicopter coverage.
This message was from Kevin’s mom. At least it meant she was still safe in the hotel.
“I’ll take CNN. You take Google news,” Kate whispered. She was typing quickly and silently, bent over her phone.
“These headlines are crazy,” Kevin whispered back a minute later. “I’m not clicking through to the articles, but I see Topeka linked up with the words corruption, bribery, terrorist, explosion, conspiracy, cabal, organized crime, and helicopter pursuit.”
“I guess it’s going to be hard for them to hush this up,” Kate whispered back. “CNN’s headline is ‘Scandal in the Heartland: five bodies found in Topeka deadly golden mausoleum.’”
“And in ten minutes, we’re supposed to get up there and claim Topeka is awesome?’ Kevin laid his head down on the table. “Let’s just walk out now. We’re going to look ridiculous.”
“Maybe no one else has their phones on,” Kate said hopefully. But everyone else in the ballroom was just as bored, and soon people began to whisper and pass phones around tables. While the general population may not react to a capital city scandal, this room was filled with people who had spent the last year creating innovative marketing campaigns for their own capital cities leading up to today’s conference. The timing was impeccable—and terrible. The auditorium filled with the sounds of a raucous band tribute to the city of Little Rock as the Arkansas project presented their results. Time was running out.
That morning, Kate and Kevin had handed over their Powerpoint on a flash drive to a computer tech. As they marched up to the stage, they saw their main graphic, complete with cheerful sunflowers and the statue on the top of the Capitol dome looming on the screen behind them. They had their scripts in hand for their carefully timed seven-minute presentation. Kevin didn’t start speaking as planned; he just stared at the colorful Topeka map projected above him, looking sad. Kate purposefully dropped her script to the floor.
“A couple people can’t speak for an entire community,” Kate leaned into the microphone. “Before I arrived in Topeka, Kansas, for my internship, the only thing I really knew about it was that those funeral picketers lived there. I wondered what kind of pathetic people wouldn’t just leave town rather than have to see that ugliness every day. I’m sure many of you have seen Topeka in the news today, for something else very ugly.” Kate took a breath and looked over at Kevin, who was staring at her. She winked at him before she continued.
“And as someone who escaped from that so-called deadly golden mausoleum a few nights ago, I’m glad to be alive, and I can say with some certainty that today’s headlines don’t reflect Topeka any more than the picketers.” The audience, who had been watching with interest to see Kate and Kevin fall apart onstage, were now tittering with excitement at hearing a first-hand account about the developing scandal.
“And now you’re all dying to know the bloody details. And you will soon, I’m sure. While you’re busy reading the terrible news headlines from your smart phones, it will seem incongruous to hear me telling you that Topeka is awesome. And truthfully, anytime that a city is in the news for a crime or a disaster, it’s hard to think about anything else, especially tourism. But as we have all heard today, this project wasn’t about vacations—it was about raising the satisfaction of the everyday citizen and increasing morale about the capital city to her residents.
“And maybe the things I’ve seen in Topeka aren’t newsworthy—certainly not on the level of the headlines coming out of the capitol today. Headlines aren’t everything. The regular citizens affect daily life much more than any celebrity. Volunteers make a difference in a community, more than big business or winning a national contest.
“Since I’ve been in Topeka, I saw an outpouring of donations when shelves of the food pantries went bare. I’ve seen people getting to know each other at community gardens and the bark park for dogs and the library’s checkout lines. Topeka is a city of action-taking people. From the electric vehicle recharging stations that are popping up everywhere, to the farmer’s markets and bike trails that support healthy living, this is a city that focuses on their citizens.
“I come from a tourist destination in Florida where everyone wants to turn a profit from the visitors and doesn’t care so much about the quality of life of those living around them. The power of friendly, caring people should not be overlooked. Topekans make their city awesome with annual events. The people I met seemed to set their personal calendars by neighborhood Fourth of July parades, hot air balloon rallies, and First Friday art walks. Each fall, when Topekans dress up as characters from the Wizard of Oz and screen the movie on the Capitol lawn, they award prizes for the best Dorothy the way other towns choose a beauty queen. They spend all summer experimenting with recipes for the Ice Cream Armageddeon at the county fair. Their art and history museums are excellent.
“But most don’t consider their town a tourist destination—that’s reserved for Kansas City, Wichita, or Omaha. People drive to Lawrence for their trendy shopping and art-house movies. But they drive home to Topeka, because it’s awesome to live there.
“Topeka is awesome because it’s hyper-local. They have parenting play groups, back-to-school supply drives, active PTOs in the schools, skateboard parks, and a zoo where kids know the names of the elephants and hippos and gorilla and giraffes. While I was out walking last week, I even spotted a little free library sculpture in someone’s yard, a small house of free books, inviting neighbors to take a book and return a book.
“For a pretty big city, Topeka often seems like a small town. Firefighters wave to kids from their fire trucks, and those same kids save stale bread to feed the geese at the cemetery pond. When you walk at the gardens at Lake Shawnee, the volunteers who maintain the landscaping are there to greet you. And at sunset on the trail at the history museum, you’re surrounded by the beauty of Kansas even though you’re a mile from the mall.
“The creativity and determination of Topekans is amazing, from developing the NOTO Arts District to filming 1500 Topekans lipsyncing to ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ by the band Kansas. Huge murals decorate the sides of buildings, and the farmer’s markets showcase food producers and start-up businesses. This community is already proud of who they are and committed to helping each person improve.
“The Topekans I met were passionate about what made their city awesome. From brown bread frozen custard at G’s and Pedro López taco sauce, to Uncle Sunny’s Barbeque Sauce and cartons of take-out delivered from Great Wall, these are a people who know how to enjoy life and to celebrate all the little things that add up to a fulfilling life. We’ve all got to live somewhere, and we can’t all live in the happiest place on earth—Disney has claimed that particular tagline and marketed it to death. In fact, many of the wonderful things in Topeka aren’t unique to this city.”
“As one cynical older citizen told me, ‘it could be a lot worse.’ But there is an underlying truth to his words. In Topeka, it’s not worse—it’s getting better every day. The news headlines only tell us the bad news, so sometimes all we learn from those headlines is that some things are worse in other places. We miss the beauty, the fun, the excitement, the opportunities and possibilities that are just outside our doors.” Kate looked at Kevin with some significance as she
spoke those last words. She appeared to be about to say more, then shook her head and turned back the audience.
“After today, everyone in the country is going to be thinking about Topeka. No publicity is bad publicity, but CNN crime headlines don’t do anything encouraging either. It’s probably the wrong time and place to admit this, but I’m not sure that Kevin and I succeeded in our project. We couldn’t find ways to make Topeka better, and we probably didn’t change anyone’s mind about it, except our own.”
Kate clutched both of her hands over her heart as she continued speaking. “Topeka has taught me about finding community, enjoying the scenery, taking chances, working to improve opportunities, helping neighbors, seeking out the local options, and appreciating friends. Topeka is teaching me to be awesome.”
Gesturing to the Powerpoint behind her, which had been on the same cheerful sunflower graphic during her entire impromptu off-script speech, Kate continued, “In hindsight, instead of trying to launch a marketing campaign, we should have just looked around at how awesome Topeka already was. If I could do it over again, I would just take my video camera around and show the people of Topeka how awesome their city already is. I’d show them the people who are working hard, being creative, giving their time, sharing their talents, mentoring children, and making their community more beautiful.
“I’d capture the random acts of kindness, the openhearted charity, the community spirit. Everybody loves a crime story, especially when the bad guys get caught. Selling the story of goodness is much more of a challenge.
“If I could, I’d tell each person I saw, each person I filmed, thank you. To each of them, I would say ‘You are the reason Topeka is Awesome.’ Kate swiped at her eyes, and Kevin couldn’t hide the shock on his face at seeing Kate become choked up about Topeka. He wondered briefly if the allergens were different in California since his own eyes were a bit watery.
“So, now you know the truth. Our assigned project from ‘Capital City Works’ was a failure. But Topeka is a success.”
No one reacted, everyone in the ballroom was still listening and watching the stage. Kate was out of words, exhausted and emotional. She looked over at Kevin for help, and he winked at her. He stepped up to the microphone and cleared his throat before speaking.
“As citizens of Topeka, Kate and I encourage you not to judge us by the news headlines you read. Visit us if you want—we’ll both be there to welcome you—but more importantly, I hope that you take the time to find Topeka’s community spirit reflected in your own city. Topeka doesn’t want a monopoly on awesome. We hope that as you travel home, each of you can find and share the awesome in your own communities.”
The national news picked up a soundbyte of Kate’s passionate speech about how much Topekans care about their city. Within 24 hours, YouTube featured eleven videos tagged Topekaisawesome. Within 48 hours, there were eighty-seven videos. And by the end of that week, there were over three-hundred. Most were confessional style— a single person telling the camera why they believe Topeka is awesome. Some promoted local businesses. Some gave shout-outs to lovers or friends. Videos about Topeka popped up from other cities— made by former students, old college roommates and far-flung relations caught up in the excitement. Many echoed the sentiments in Kate’s own observations.
For a few days, the #topekaisawesome hashtag even trended on Twitter, until the teenage stars of a new dystopian film got caught on hidden camera doing something scandalous and the cultural conversation shifted.
Madeline got her book deal and is currently working with a ghostwriter to pen what she hopes will be the true crime bestseller of the truth behind the Topeka Turpitude, as her agent is encouraging her to refer to the incidents in question.
Hunter received a lifetime supply of Omalizumab to counteract his poisoning in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in the FBI investigation.
The couple signed up for family counseling after they returned to Topeka and are planning to keep busy volunteering after Hunter’s retirement is official.
George and Amy went undercover on another assignment before Kate returned from Los Angeles. Their granddaughter saw them twice more in the next year— heavily disguised and with conflicting covers stories— before they disappeared while on assignment in Mexico. Kate suspects that this is also a lie, and wishes her grandparents the best, wherever they have finally retired.
Evelyn Blackmon’s gravestone was engraved with the words Ad Astra Per Aspera and most visitors assume she loved Kansas astronomy.
The money recovered from the golden mausoleum within the Capitol will likely be exhausted in lawyer fees and court costs, but anything remaining has been pledged for capital improvement projects. Proposals ranging from installing light rail to operating a gondola over the Kansas River are gathering steam.
Kate and Kevin came back to Topeka by way of Las Vegas. They didn’t elope, but they did lose $300 playing slot machines while they tried to figure out what to do next. Their plans include being interviewed extensively by the FBI and the media, updating their resumes and looking for new jobs in Topeka, and planning their first date. They are reserving tickets for dinner and a musical at the Topeka Civic Theatre.
Thank you for reading the 2012 Community Novel, Capital City Capers. The book will soon be available to download to your ereader, purchase a print copy, or check out from the library. Find out how to be a part of next year’s project, and watch for a new novel in 2013 at http://www.tscpl.org/community-novel.
About the Authors
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. If you’ve ever thought you might want to someday write a novel, she can talk you into doing it—she has plot ninjas, snack rewards, and lots of stickers. Contact her at email@example.com.
Anne Pepper is a mother, teacher, poet, librarian, and ice cream connoisseur. Trying new things is scary, so she does it often. She loves silence and understanding.