Thank you to all the authors who contributed to this project. This has been a lot of fun and a very interesting writing experiment! A copy of the story will be posted on the library's website here: http://bit.do/CoStory. You can also expect to see an excerpt in an upcoming "Speaking Volumes" column in the Bradenton Herald. We'll leave the story up if you wish to continue writing. It should be set to allow you to accept your own changes now (though if there are any problems, please feel free to email email@example.com). Thank you again for sharing your creative energy and happy writing!
"I should have twenty cents," she said. She checked her bag and both pockets one more time before giving up. All the while, the bus driver, a stocky, balding man, glared at her with narrow eyes. Without saying a word, the passenger in the front seat stood up, leaned across her, and dropped coins into the fare box. The coins rattled into place as the driver closed the door and accelerated.
Kayla tried to avoid eye contact with any of the riders she was sure were staring as she moved furtively into a nearby seat. She held one of her hands strategically over the bright red name tag attached to her uniform that seemed to be screaming her name to everyone.
Three afternoons each week I ride this route with Kayla. She doesn't know me, but it's always the same scene. She scribbles furiously once she relaxes in her seat. I think about sitting next to her and striking up a conversation. "Nice weather," I could say. Or "The driver's such a jerk," I might say. Or even, "What are you writing?" But as I'm getting lost in the fantasy conversation, the bus screeches to a halt and I'm thrown onto the teenager sitting next to me.
Four hefty men, dressed in warm sweaters and ski masks, rushed onto the bus. They held guns, of what type I don't know except that they were all pistols or handguns of some sort. Three of the men held us at bay while the fourth grabbed Kayla and hauled her out of the bus. Her notebook dropped and slid under my seat. I couldn't move to grab it while the bad guys were on the bus. It was the longest minute and a half of my life. From the talk on the other side of the aisle, they pushed Kayla into a black SUV and took off westward. I was finally able to retrieve her notebook.
There was no name or address or e-mail or phone number, no way to try and trace her by phone. From what I read in the first few pages, I hoped it was only a novel she was writing, but I feared it was actually a novelized version of a true part of her life.
From the notebook I learned, but here, let her tell it herself:
" I haven't stopped being afraid since the shootout. I can't believe it has been three years. Actually, I can't believe a simple double date could go so wrong. But -- who knew?
Seeing the others in the little gang fall, shot, or hauled off to jail, was dreadful. I keep seeing it in my dreams. Oh, sure, they kicked the money bag over to me and I ran with it. I was too afraid not to.But now the police are surely looking for me and the still-living gang members will surely be after me as soon as they are out of jail, won't they?
Oh, the money is there, and plenty of it. But how do I tell if any of the bills are marked, if they can trace me? So I need to lie low, get a job for about three years and stay unnoticed. Then if I need to make a fast getaway, all the money is still there to use. Big bills are easy to carry, but without a job and checking account, there's no real way to use them or get smaller bills in change. That sort of thing gets noticed, whether it is a bank or an AMSCOT office or something."
I slam the notebook shut and tuck it in the backpack at my feet. The bus driver is standing up at the front of the bus, talking to some cops who must have arrived at the scene while I was engrossed in my reading. The driver points towards the seat across the aisle from me, where Kayla sat. I feel my face get hot with anxiety as the cops wobble down the aisle. "Please stay calm and remain in your seats," they tell the passengers. When they reach Kayla's seat, where I had watched her every day for so long, I wait a few long seconds as one cop peers under the seat and the other in between the cushions.
When the cops straighten back up, the one clearly in charge - a tall, bald, buff man - booms at us, "Did the victim or the kidnappers leave anything behind?" I take a sharp breath in as all of the passengers murmur in the negative. Everyone on the opposite side of the aisle was too busy staring out the window to see me grab the book, and the teenaged girl next to me narrows her eyes but stays silent. She has obviously dyed black hair and way too much dark makeup on, which is honestly intimidating. I make sure to keep an eye on her and my backpack close as the cops usher the passengers out of the bus "for further questioning."
I grew more nervous when the girl lined up right behind me. I sweat. I stuttered through a couple of answers. The officers seemed to assume I was overwhelmed by the day's events. My mind reels as this is the first time I've ever behaved dishonestly.
We held our breath until the cops were gone, then The Goth Girl and I got off at the main bus depot. "I think you owe me a good cup of coffee and a chance to see that notebook," said the dark haired girl.
I took a deep breath and realized I needed a look at it myself. "Sounds about right. I could really use some caffine myself. That was way too much excitement for one morning." I pointed farther down Main Street to where there a couple of good cafe's. "Lets skip comparing the fussy family history and details for now. You can call me Jack. What do I call you?"
"Well, its Charlotte, but I really prefer Karla, if it's all the same to you. All that 'Hush, hush, SWEET Charlotte' stuff isn't really my style."
Sheesh! A kidnapping followed by a dose Teenage Attitude, all in one early morning! Still, I couldn't blame the kid for finding her own style. She hadn't told the police anything about the notebook or any details of the kidnappers beyond the basic jeans, shirts and hoodies that all the other passengers had mentioned.
Four muffins, coffee, refills and a couple of brownies later, we had taken turns deciphering the pages of the notebook, reading softly out loud. Kayla had left no personal information in the notebook, not even an "IF Lost: Return To -- " message.
Karla and I had mutually agreed to call in sick to my job and her school, figuring that this just wasn't going to masquerade as an average work/school day. "So" she said finally, sitting back and mopping brownie crumbs, "are we going after the girl herself or the stolen money?"
"I naturally want to rescue her, but since you mention the money, that makes me think having it would give us some leverage with the baddies. But we don't know where she lived, stayed, rented or squatted. At least, I don't. Did you ever notice her before, maybe where she worked or walked home?"
"Sure I noticed her. I notice everybody. I just don't let them know that I notice them. It's what I do! I noticed YOU noticing her TOO! I don't know where she works and I didn't follow her home either! I'm not a stalker, you know! How about you? You ever stalk, I mean follow her? Even if you didn't find out where she lived or anything else useful?"
Truth is, I had considered it once or twice. I said, "No way! That's too creepy even for me."
What really bothered me is that Karla and I were in this together now. I still don't know if I can trust her, but I know I can't afford to ditch her.
Long minutes later, Karla looked at me looked at me with her intense dark eyes. I tried to put together the limited fragments I knew so far about her and made an assessment of sorts. Most likely, street smart. She rode the bus often. She dressed and spoke with confidence. Not a street kid though. Looks too healthy. That tattoo on her forearm would add a clue but I didn't want to look too long. Some words. Freedom? Yeah, maybe Freedom. Also, she admits to being observant and comes across as perceptive. She had watched me and picked up on my interest in Kayla. And she went with me. She's perceptive enough to know I am sincere in wanting to find Kayla. And right now, I could feel - actually feel - the energy of her analyzing the situation.
Almost reading my thoughts, she leaned back. The slight change of distance between us lessened the intensity. She nodded.
"Alright. We're in this together. We agree not to change our story with the cops. And we agree to try to find either the girl or the money. The more we know about Kayla the better, right? So, what about where she works? Do you recognize the name tag she wore?
All red, with her name in black. Did it look familiar?”
I shook my head no.
“Ok,”Karla said, “So . . . let's go back to what we know. We know where she gets on the bus. We know she wears a red name tag and a type of uniform. We will go back to that starting bus stop and look for some place that requires red name tags. Maybe with some luck, she was geting off nightshift. Or we start asking people if they know a girl who goes to work wearing a red name tag. If we have no luck, we can We could Google it, but I don't have a computer or a smart phone. We can use the computers at the library. Either way is worth a shot. Oh - bad choice of words? Too soon?"
I think she smiled - kind of. Why did I get the feeling she had done something like this before?
It meant getting back on the bus, but the driver had changed after the "incident" we experienced earlier that morning. We got off at Kayla’s stop and agreed to meet back at the bus bench in the shopping plaza and then go together to tackle the help when we had identified the correct store. We split up and look at each store or fast-food joint. The traditional "divide and conquer" method. We didn't have to actually buy anything at each place, just glance a the workers nametags.
When we met up again, Karla was beaming. “I know where she works!”
It was the Dollar store, a place where employees changed on a regular basis, but which did interview prospective workers and did get personal information. So, one of us needed to buy balloons or something that would keep the workers busy, the other needed to get into the office and find Kayla's file. By now it was lunchtime and the store would likely be busy. But there was the problem of security. At least the office door would surely be locked.
Karla, there is only one clerk beside the cashier. You have to get her attention and keep it on you. Make sure she stays facing away from the office. I'll find a way to get in and get the file.
"NO, NO, NO" ... "The napkins, table setting name cards and paper craft flowers
ALL have to MATCH"! "They MUST be Celadon and I DON'T mean Celadon Green".
"Maam, this is a DOLLAR STORE, not a paper specialty store!"
"OH, how I wish Kayla were here.
She is the one that buys all the paper goods and crafts for the store."
"She knows just about everything about paper!"
"Well, Miss ... uh, Gina your name card says ...I'll come back."
"When will this "Kayla" be in?"
"I wish I knew!" She hasn't been in the last few days and she hasn't called, either."
"That is just not like her." I'm sorry, I don't think I can help you."
"Well, I'll try back in a few days, thanks for trying."
"O.K., how did you do in the office?"
"Well, I started out with a bit of luck ... the office door was unlocked!"
"I'm glad of that since I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to get in if it was locked,
but I would have found a way."
"Her employment file did have her home address and contact info, here's a copy."
"I was able to copy some other stuff too."
"Seems like she was more than just a floor clerk, although she did do that too".
"Yeah, I know, she was their paper stuff buyer!"
"RIGHT, how did you know?."
"Tell you the whole scoop, later", go on, what else did you find out?."
"WELL, there was a memo in another file marked "Franchising",
that showed that she recently became very interested in buying
her own franchise locaction of Dollar Store!"
"She put in a bid offer of $60,000!".
"Here is a copy of her Notarized Letter of Intent with the offer!"
"And, she asked if the purchase could be made in one cash payment!"
"WOW!" "This is getting interesting!"
"Let's look at the other copies you made and I'll tell you what I found out."
[The following was contributed by several passersby that we talked to on the River Walk on Tuesday evening].
With the stolen paperwork strewn across both of our laps on the bus ride home, we were more confused than we were at the start of our investigation. It seemed whoever Kayla was, she had way more pull at the Dollar Store than you’d expect from a regular clerk. Who was this girl?
“We should go to her house,” Karla said. “It’s on the way,” she added before I could protest. “We’ll just stop by and look.” It’ll be past dark by the time we get there. We don’t know who else could be looking for her. I didn’t voice any of these concerns. It was on the way. Perhaps prompted by this convenience or the burning curiosity that seemed to grow by the minute, I agreed.
We got off at the next stop and walked two blocks to a public housing complex. It was a high rise with multiple apartments. Her apartment was on the second floor. The hallway was filled with the muffled sounds of her neighbor’s TV blaring and two women arguing loudly in the stairwell.
As we got closer to Kayla’s apartment we could see that it looked as though the door had been forced opened and then closed again. Without thinking I knocked. The door creaked open as splinters of wood fell from the door frame. Roaches scurried away as the light from the hallway filled her dirty living room. We were immediately assaulted by the smell of a neglected litter box belonging to some hidden cat.
In the corner of the living room there was what looked to me to be a trick bookshelf that swung open like a door to a secret tunnel, like something from a movie. Karla and I exchanged glances as we slowly looked down the secret tunnel to some kind of inner sanctum. Inside there was an old man who appeared to be a disheveled recluse. He was lit by the green glow of multiple computer monitors, flashing strings of some type of code. And he was talking to a woman that looked familiar to me. I moved closer to try to hear them when she looked up and saw me. I froze and Karla gasped. I recognized the woman then. It was the teller from the Dollar Store.
She yelled at Karla "It's YOU, Miss "CELADON and I DON'T MEAN CELADON GREEN"!
"What are YOU doing here?"
Karla responded "I was about to ask YOU the same THING, "GINA"".
"Well, Uh, you see ... I was REALLY getting worried about Kayla". I decided that somebody should check on her. I got here just a moment before YOU did. This is, UH, my DAD!
He was worried that I might not be safe coming here alone and insisted on coming with me!" "SO!, I ask you again ... WHAT are YOU doing here and who are you, anyway?"
At that moment all heads turned to the entrance of the tunnel as the newcomer flashed her badge and said "Special Agent, Sarah Fradkin, FBI, these two are with me"!
The moment the old man stood and Gina made the slightest movement toward the entrance, Special Agent Fradkin said "FREEZE", already having them in the sights of her 40 calibre Glock. They "FROZE" as if they were instantly transformed into ice sculptures.
"You two", talking to Karla and I, "Get behind me now"!
She called for her partner on her cell phone who appeared so fast he must have already been in the hallway. She said "Frisk them". They were unarmed.
She asked them "Are you the ones that broke in here"?
Gina told the Special Agent the same thing she told us.
"What's that on those monitors?".
The old man responded "Agent" ...
"That's SPECIAL AGENT" ...
"Uh, yes mam". "I'm Gary Kidall. I'm a friend of Gina's".
"She asked me to look at this for her. I have only looked at it briefly, but so far it just looks like gibberish to me".
I said to Gina, "I thought he was your DAD"?
I know that name ... you are a rather famous computer genius!".
Gary said "I'm afraid that was a long time ago."
Special Agent Fradkin said "Gina, is it, Have you been to this apartment before?"
"Yes, a few times, Karla and I were sort of friends".
"Were you here SINCE her disappearance"?
"Uh, do I have to answer that"? Would I break a law if I don't answer that?
Special Agent Fradkin said "NO, not at this time, but we might come back to that later".
How could you have seen what was on those monitors BEFORE this visit,
to make it possible to ask Mr. Kidall to come with you to look at them.
And why did you want him to look at what is on those monitors"
"What do you think he was going to be able to tell you?
"Whew, I am really tired, It has been a long day at the Dollar Store".
I'm afraid I am just not up to so many questions right now
.... unless you are going to arrest me or something"?
"My partner will take down contact information for the both of you".
"Stay available, we may be talking more with you".
"Go On, you can go now, but DON'T LEAVE TOWN".
After Gina and Mr. Kidall had left ... Special Agent Fradkin turned to ME and said
"DAD! What have you gotten yourself into THIS TIME!"
"MOM called me and told me that you were "AT IT AGAIN". "
"Yes! you were in the FBI for about 100 years,
but that was long ago and you were a CHEMIST, not a FIELD AGENT."
"And BESIDES ... you are REE TIE ERRD, GET IT".
"Go home to Mom and take her on a cruise or something".
She said to her partner "Seal off this place and get an expert in here
to look at what is on those monitors".
"Maybe it ties into Karla's disappearance".
"If we are REALLY LUCKY, maybe it ties into
the Counterfeiting and Bank Fraud case we are working"!
He said "ON IT", and immediately started calling on his cell phone.
Karla was stunned. Jack was FBI? His daughter was FBI? So now it was time for her to tell Jack the truth. She took a deep breath and reached out for his arm.
"Jack, I have not told you everything. Being on the bus was no accident. I have been following Kayla from city to city. She boards the bus at different stops. She "works" different places. I could never get her exact route."
Now, it was Jack's turn to be stunned. This teenager was involved???
Karla gave him a few seconds to process what she was saying. Then she continued.
"Kayla is my older sister. She disappeared two months ago. Karla and Kayla. I thought you would be suspicious. Karla - Kayla. Our Dad has spent a ton of money on private investigators because we had leads that she was in California. But I know my sister - Florida- the west coast - is where she always wanted to be. So I headed here on my own.."
"So what is actually going on . . ." as Jack, with Special Agent Fradkin by his side.
"My sister is being blackmailed by an organized group of counterfeiters and she's ordering green paper through various Dollar Trees to, well, print money. She actually did one small crazy deal that was marginally illegal and they found out and blackmailed her into something that got much bigger than she ever imagined. I have approached her but she refuses to talk to me. I have become an expert at disguses even from my own sister. She won't come home because she thinks that will put all of us in danger. But now - these people . . I'm afraid. Jack, please, we need to find my sister."
"Dad, I don't know how you talked me into letting you come along with me to the Crypto Lab", Sarah said.
"It's my natural charm, you know you can't resist it, besides I still have maintained all my clearances".
The sign on the door read:
DR. ANTONINO TOMASINO, DIRECTOR
SECURITY LEVEL - SECRET"
The security panel LED lights went green as Sarah approached the door.
"RFID level one recognition ... it KNOWS ME from my ID,
but I still have to place my palm on the reader for the secondary clearance".
"A lot has changed since you retired".
"I can see that, but I see that Tony is still in charge here, though". "Let's go in.
"JACK!, so good to see you, what brings you back to THIS place?"
"Me, Dr Tomasino." "Remember ME,
the Special Agent in charge of this case that you are helping me solve".
"Of Course, Special Agent, Fradkin." Well it has only been 24 hours ago
that we recieved the equipment and data that you wanted us to analyze."
"I can tell you already that the information is encrypted on multiple levels
within the same dataset". "That is very unusual". "
Some of it was embarrassingly easy to decipher ... anyone who knows ANYTHING about computer coding or just about ANY kind of coding whould see at once that
there are a number of GPS coordinates throughout the set of files.
I have already given the locations to a Tech to check further".
"The structure of the data tells me that these GPS points are all interelated."
"It appears that there is very active communication". "Some of it is from various points to other various points ... but MOSTLY, it appears that the communication is to and from THIS ONE CENTRAL POINT and back to the originators. In other words" ....
"Yeah, I got it". "THIS was HOME BASE". "THIS was Head Quarters"!
"RIGHT!" It also seems that many of these communications take the form of
"Orders", "Shipping" and "Confirmations" ... we'll know more in a few days".
"I performed the analyses for the GPS points that you gave me".
"There ar 79 of them!"
"Jenny, I hope you found out more than that?"
"Yes, Of Course, ... They are all "DOLLAR" store locations".
"Not "DOLLAR PLUS" nor "DOLLAR TREE" nor "DOLLAR" anything else ..... just "DOLLAR"".
"AND they are ALL located in the South Eastern states, Mostly in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida but a few are in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia"!
"Very good work, Jenny"! "Jenny Spoto is my very best Cryptologic Technician".
"Normally I would be having her do much more advanced work but she was available
and, as always, was eager to help with any work that needs to be done".
"Well, Doctor, I must confess that I called my friend Rose Taylor at the public library"!
"SHE is a GENIOUS at researching all kinds of stuff and she had this info in no time FLAT!"
"They would be CRAZY to ever let HER leave ...
they might as well just close the doors and turn the lights out"!
"I owe her lunch, now!"
They all looked around at each other. Everyone had the same idea at the same time.
"Call Rose! Now! Tell her we are moving this entire FBI operation to the public library - to HER desk!!! We can't solve this case without her!!" shouted Director Tomasino.
"O.K., Dad I understand what you told me about what Karla told you".
"Maybe there is something to the story, let's keep an open mind on that blackmail angle, but I know that YOU know that if Karla is Kayla's sister ....
we might not be getting the whole story."
"AGREED, Sarah". "I also think we should look at Gary Kildall a little more closely".
"Yeah, I remember that he said what he saw on the monitors was "gibberish" to him and Dr. Tomasino led us to believe that a guy with Kildall's expert experience should have at least understood the GPS codes, right?" "Maybe he knows a heck-of-a-lot more!"
"Maybe HE is the key figure on the technical side of this equation"?
"UH HUH, what do you think about you having your team do some digging on Kildall"?
"I have a hunch about the Dollar store clerk, Gina". "She lied to us a couple of times,
I think she figures into this case ... she is obviously more than a friend to Kayla".
"No doubt about it, Dad". "I'll lead an investigation on Kildall ... and YOU?"
"I know better than to believe that I can get you to stay out of it completely,
let's just remember that you are NOT a trained field agent and I want you SAFE"!
"O.K., honey, I'll watch my step". "I think the best approach to Gina is
if I my next meeting with her is with Karla present as well".
"It was Karla that first intereacted with Gina at the Dollar store".
"Gina talked about Kayla being an expert on anything regarding "Paper"".
Karla said something about counterfeiting and that Kayla tried it, I believe".
"Of course, the "Paper" used in currency is more of a cloth than a paper,
almost like a denim, and very hard to get and even harder to make."
"The paper would be white, not green as Karla said".
"It is the inks that provide the shades of green and black used in currency".
"But the biggest problem with the inks is that they are "shade shifting"
making counterdeiting quite difficult these days".
"Then, of course, there are the other anti-counterfeiting security elements and methods .... I am boring you, aren't I, Sarah"?
"Uh, DAD .... Counterfeiting 101"!
"YOU were teaching me about the chemistry of the inks
and the chemical treatments of the rag-type paper
when I was still playing with paper dolls!"
"I'll chase Kildall, you and Karla can have a chat with Gina!