The Ephemeral File

An Adam Fraley Mystery

by Henry Hoffman

What begins as a simple lost love case for private investigator Adam Fraley quickly escalates into something of far greater magnitude during the course of his investigation. Not only is it a potential felony he stumbles across, but one of the rarest in the catalog of crimes, all due to a critical piece of information having been withheld by his client, a terminally ill World War II vet. The job eventually takes Fraley to remote stretches of Florida’s Withlacoochee River and events that occurred over a half century ago.


Excerpt

Chapter One

May, 1995

 

As a matter of policy made clear from the start, the do-me-a-favor case was one Adam Fraley went to great lengths to avoid, except in this instance. The request came from Tamra Fugit, his office manager.

“He’s a longtime member of my aunt’s church, Adam,” she explained from across his desk. She had moved from her side of the office to his, side-saddling into a chair, to underscore the personal nature of the request. “I know it’s something we studiously avoid, but she’s my only living relative and has done so much for me over the years.”

Adam looked at her with pain in his eyes.

She crossed a leg over a well-turned knee, smoothed her reddish-brown dress-the color of her hair-and clasped her hands in her lap. “After five years on the job, I’m entitled to ask for one favor, am I not,” she asked coyly.

Adam leaned back in his black leather chair and exhaled a deep breath. “What’s the fellow’s name?” he asked, displaying the first crack in his resolve.

“Roland Westwood. He’s an elderly man who, according to my aunt, is nearing his final approach.”

“How old?”

“Plus-side of seventy.” 

“Retired?”

“Yes. From what I understand, he spent a career in golf course management.”

“What’s his problem?”

“It has to do with a woman in his past,” she said, as if reluctant to reveal more.

“Don’t all of our problems have to do with women in our past?” Adam cracked, drawing a disgruntled look. “Can you be more specific?”

The cast of his office manager’s comely face took on a more serious tone “It has to do with an old girlfriend of his. I believe she was his first date.”  

“First love or first date?”

“Both, from the way she explained it.”

“He would like me to find her…is that it?”

“Apparently so,” she said, reaching behind her head with both hands to tighten a high ponytail.

“For what reason?”

Her hair back in place, Tamra released her hands from behind her head and gave a slight shrug.

“This is sounding very much like a guy looking to find a long-lost love.” 

Again, she shrugged her shoulders in response. “It might be best if he gave you the details. I’m really not privy to them.”

Adam cast a sour look his office manager’s way. His instinct was to stick to company policy and turn thumbs down on the request. He had far better things to do than take a trip down memory lane with a septuagenarian obsessed with a first love. Still, he could plainly see those big green eyes of hers from across his desk asking the legitimate question, “Do I need to mention how many favors I have performed for you?” No, he was not about to win this exchange nor was it worth going to the mat over.

“Okay, for your aunt and for the preservation of office harmony, set up an appointment with Mr. Westwood.”

“I already have,” she said through a sly smile.

* * *

Roland Westwood was a frail man who walked with a cane. That was Adam’s first impression of the man sitting across from him. His second was that he was a well-mannered individual who projected a seasoned dignity. Nonetheless, his starched blue shirt, creased tan slacks, and brown suede loafers masked a body at war with the ravages of old age. From beneath the Tampa Bay Bucs cap he was wearing flowed strands of yellowing gray hair to the nape of his neck, perhaps from all his traipsing around golf courses, Adam surmised. Nor was the Florida sun any kinder to his deeply lined, tanned face, drawn tight by sunken cheeks. Nonetheless, amid the general ebb gleamed clear blue eyes, at once alert and engaging.

“Call me Roland,” he said in a raspy voice.

“Okay, Roland, what can I do for you?”

Roland nodded his head, acknowledging the invitation to carry on. “Do you remember your first date, Mr. Fraley?” he asked.

“As I recall, it was not that all memorable,” he replied. “Is that what this is all about? And, please, call me Adam.”

“Perhaps, if I told you a quick story, it would help explain things,” he said, removing his cap and placing it on the edge of Adam’s desk, revealing more yellowed hair. 

“I am seventy-three years old,” he began. “My story goes back almost fifty-two of those years to 1943. I was a junior student at Chapel College, a small Catholic all-male school over in eastern Pasco County near San Antonio, Florida. Are you familiar with the school and the area?”

“Somewhat…yes.” 

“It was a very unsettled time for me as I suppose it is for most college kids straining to make it to adulthood,” he said. “The problem for me was that I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had no vocation to spur me on and as a result my grades suffered. And hanging over everything was the war and the likelihood I would be drafted. Selective Service was in full operation and I was classified 1-A.”

“No student deferment?” Adam asked.

“Student deferments were ended, which added to my angst,” he said. “To top it all off, my social life was non-existent. I was twenty-one years old and had never had a date. I attributed that to my Catholic upbringing. Attending an all-male high school and all-male college can put a damper on social life, especially in those days when kids did not have cars of their own to hop around in. My situation was not all that unique among students. Sure, the parents could shuffle you around, but the chaperon option was never an appealing one.”

Roland paused, as if expecting a reaction from Adam to his social predicament.

“Sometimes studies and the opposite sex can both be a distraction, not to mention a war going on,” Adam lamely noted.  

“Anyway, to escape reality, on Sunday afternoons I would sometimes trek into town to this local movie theater to catch a film. Little did I know it would lead to my first love.”

We’ve gone from first date to first love in record time, Adam mused. I should have assigned this case to Tamra. That’s what I should have done.

“There was this girl who worked in the theater’s ticket booth who I immediately developed a big crush on. She attended a local Catholic high school and was a cheerleader. This I knew because she would wear her cheerleader’s uniform to work on game days. Believe me, she was beyond beautiful and undoubtedly out of my league. The truth was the mere exchange of pleasantries with her while I was getting a ticket provided a much greater escape from my problems than the film itself.”

What a sweet story, he could hear his office manager thinking from across the room as she pretended to toil away on her computer.

“Like I said, she was out of my league. I’d often see her out on the town, usually accompanied by the same fellow, a handsome guy who I later learned was the captain of the football team. Nevertheless, I was a guy at the time who had nothing to lose, so why not give it a shot and ask her out?”

“What had been her attitude toward you?” Adam asked. “Any signs of affection?”

“Small ones...enough to signal she didn’t dislike me. For instance, when there was a line at the ticket window, she’d often glance back to check how long the line was. If I happened to be one of those waiting and her eye caught mine she’d react with a friendly smile, a sign she viewed me favorably, I’d concluded. Women don’t smile at guys they don’t like. Right?”

“Not as a rule,” Adam said, acknowledging the obvious.

“So, there came a day when I was the only one in line, at which time I summoned up the courage to ask for her phone number, fully expecting her to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m seeing someone.’ There was also that college versus high school guy thing at play. There was only three years difference in our ages, but the small town social mores of the time made it appear much greater.

“Anyway, what followed was the longest three seconds of my life,” he continued. “I felt like stooping down to hide from her view but held my position. At first, a nearly invisible smile formed on her face. Whether it was one of surprise or expectation, I did not know. Whichever, she said nothing. Instead, she reached across from her and snatched a slip of paper, scribbled down her number, and slipped it through the ticket window to me. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.”

Sitting and listening, Adam again pondered why he hadn’t assigned this case to Tamra, given her vested interest in it. On second thought, it might not have been such a good idea for the very same reason.

“To make a long story short,” Westwood went on, “We dated for a while, though the relationship was short lived. I was nearing the end of my junior year, which meant I would be returning to Tampa for the summer.”

“You were boarding there?” Adam interjected.

“Yes, and she was one of the so-called ‘town girls’ who resided there with her parents. I know it’s only thirty-five miles or so from here to there, but you have to realize this was back in the early forties when kids did not have cars. It might as well have been five-hundred miles. The dates I had with her were the walking type—treks to the local park or trail hikes through the woods.”

“That was the end of it?” Adam asked.

“Yes. As I said, my grades were sub-par and I was still at a loss regarding my direction in life. If I was to have a future with her, I would first have to carve out a future for me...something to offer her other than youthful passion. So, I made the decision to join the Army. The war was raging with no end in sight and it was only a matter of time before I was called up anyway.”

“How did she take it?”

“I had discussed it over the phone with her after I had returned home to Tampa, so it came as no big surprise. She understood my situation.”

“No breaking of her heart?”

“Oh, maybe a chip but not a break. It wasn’t as though she had given up everything dear to her for me. She was forthright in telling me she would be dating others.”

“So, you joined the Army. Then what?”

“Then I caught a bad break. The first day at boot camp...”

“Camp Blanding?” Adam asked.

“Yes, right outside Jacksonville. As I started to say, the first day our drill instructor informs us we can make one call to our parents to let them know we made it there in one piece and that’s it. To put an explanatory point on it, there were no phones in our barracks. The calls to our parents were made from a battery of phone booths outside a post recreational facility. For the remainder of our time there we would be in effect cut off from the outside world, meaning I would be out of touch with them and Staci.”

“Staci was her name?”

“Yes—Staci Carew.”

“No letters between you two?”

Westwood shook his head. “That’s where I really screwed up. Believe it or not, I didn’t have her street address. I had always met her in the morning at the theater when she had the day off. From there we would walk to wherever we were headed. Everything in that small community, the park, the nature trails, the river, was nearby. I had her phone number but that was it.”

“You never met her parents?”

“Yes, one time. We walked to her house on our first date, so she could introduce me. I paid no attention to the street address. It was the last thing on my mind.”

“Not a good way to keep up with the competition,” Adam remarked. “No mutual friend you could contact by mail?”

“No. I could have attempted extraordinary measures, like sending a letter in care of the school but figured it would be better to bide my time and wait till boot camp was over, at which time I would be allowed a week’s leave. I had told her the first thing I would do when I arrived home was to come see her. My plan was to borrow my folk’s car to make the trip.”

“You weren’t going to call her first?”

“No, I was planning on surprising her with an in-person visit.”

Westwood paused in his account to take a deep breath. “Well, the surprise ended up being on me. I arrived home on a Saturday evening and decided to drive to San Antonio immediately following Sunday morning Mass. That was my plan but, lo and behold, who do I see at the service, none other than Staci and the football captain sitting together in the front of the church. My heart sunk like a stone. The two of them attending church together in Tampa meant only one thing in my mind. They had taken the next step. They had married and settled in the city. After church I sat in my car and contemplated the coincidence of my attending the same service at the same church they had chosen to attend. I came to the conclusion it was a message sent to me by God, minus the thunder and lightning,” he added with a chuckle.

“And what was the message?”

“To get on with my life. So, I did.”

“So, now you want to locate her?”

“Yes, if she’s still with us.”

“Why?” Adam asked directly.

“I don’t say this to elicit sympathy but I’m in a losing battle with cancer. According to my doctor, I have at best six months to live. As I look back over my life, I consider that brief time I spent with Staci as a turning point in my life, not to mention a missed opportunity. Yes, she is a lost love, the one I let get away.”

“You never married?”

“Correct. I never married.”

“You still haven’t given a reason you want to get back in touch with her. I know memories are said to be the lifeblood of the elderly, but a good memory can be an argument against it. These sorts of lost-love pursuits often do not end well. There’s always the risk the good memories will be shattered in the attempt to relive them, no matter how noble the intention.”

“Absolutely true,” he said. “Nonetheless, by not trying to reconnect with her following my enlistment, I sent a message that I didn’t care about our relationship when in fact I cared deeply. If there is one matter I wish to correct before I leave this earth, it is that.”

Adam studied his face for a moment before reaching for a pen and paper. “Okay, I’ll need some basic info. What was her name again?”

“Staci Carew.”

“You have no idea where she lives now, or if in fact, she is still living?”

“No. She could be living anywhere in the world for all I know.”

“Do you have pictures of her or members of her family?”

“No.”

“Any friends of hers still around?”

“I don’t know. I never really got to know any of her friends.”

“The name of the school she attended?”

“St. Scholastica. It was a local Catholic girls’ school. It was a companion school to Highland Hills Academy, the Catholic boys’ school. I believe the two merged some years back and is now called Highland Hills Prep Academy.”

“Anything else?” Adam asked.

“Sorry, that’s it.”

“There is one question I need to ask you up front, Roland. There are no nefarious reasons for you wanting to find her. Correct?”

“Do I look like someone who could carry out nefarious acts?” Westwood answered with another chuckle, his shoulders bobbing up and down.

“As a matter of fact, looks or age have nothing to do with nefarious acts,” Adam pointedly said, draining the mirth from Westwood’s response.

“One more question,” Adam continued. “There are outfits that specialize in these sorts of searches. Have you checked with any of them? It is becoming quite a cottage industry what with the advances in automated information retrieval and the general availability of public records. We, on the other hand, have been divorcing ourselves from this sort of case.”

“You came personally recommended” he replied directly, reminding Adam of his office manager’s connection to the case.

“You have not made any efforts to locate her? I do not want to be wasting my time covering ground already tracked.”

“I have made no significant effort other than a couple of phone calls that led nowhere.”

“Calls to whom?”

“Directory assistance. The operators said there were no listings for the name in Pasco County.” Westwood shifted to a more comfortable position in his chair. “It’s not that I didn’t wish to conduct a search on my own. It’s that I’m not physically capable. I wanted someone who could do the necessary leg work, a professional, so I came to you based on what I mentioned before, a personal recommendation.”

“Okay, Roland. I’ll see what I can do,” Adam said, setting aside his pen. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I turn up something significant.”

The elderly man rose carefully from his chair, snatched his cane, and left, leaving Adam to ponder his next move. It was a small amount of info to work with…a name and a school...but plenty enough to get him started. He was confident he could track down the whereabouts of Staci Carew in short order and pass on his findings. He then could move on to his next case, satisfied he had fulfilled the favor to reconnect a World War II vet with his first love. Yep, he would quickly finish the case and be done with it, or so he thought.

"The Ephemeral File"

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Genres

Mystery

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