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The Road Not Taken

by

T. J. Robertson




Smashwords Edition




Copyright 2017 T. J. Robertson




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If the braided, peaked cap of the doorman, a splinter of a lad with freckles and a bad case of acne, was too big for him, his uniform was even more so. In a single motion I flashed my badge and said, "I'm Detective Jack Bradford of the New York City police. Unless I'm mistaken your name's Richard Cooper, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," he replied with a quizzical look.

"I'd like to have a word with you, if I may?"

"Of course."

"You knew Miss Parker, didn't you?"

"She lived on the top floor here." In a single motion he paused, whirled around, and opened the door for one of the residents of the posh apartment building." Then, turning back to me, he said wistfully, "Oh, what wonderful person she was. So rich and famous, yet so humble and modest. She never passed by me without saying, 'Hello, Richard, how are you?'" Then, he hesitated and, with a grimace, gestured upwards. "Not like so many of the others up there who think their you-know-what's ice cream." Suddenly, tears welled up in his eyes. "It's horrible what happened; I can't believe somebody would do that to her."

I broke the awkward silence that followed. "Did she have many visitors?"

"Look, Detective," he replied, wiping his eyes with a cuff of his uniform, "I think you should talk with Frank Woods."

"He's in charge of building security, isn't he?" I offered.

He nodded. "Because he keeps tabs on who comes and goes here, I take orders from him." he replied, abruptly turning around. "I'm sure he'll be of more help to you than I could ever be."

Before I could respond, he, visibly shaken, disappeared inside the lobby of the building.

* * *

Frank Woods was tall, lean, and mean. With his crew cut, piercing eyes, and taut jaw he might have been mistaken for a drill sergeant.

Once again I identified myself and fired away. "I'd like to talk with you about Stephanie Parker."

"Terrible wasn't it?" he said in a raw, harsh voice. "Have you any leads on who did her in?"

"Unfortunately, no," I replied with a wag of my head, "I was hoping you might help me out."

"I'll do whatever I can," he replied through gritted teeth. "If the bastard thinks he's going to get away with murder on my turf, he's got another thought coming."

The venom in his tone did not go unnoticed. "Because she was a film star, I assume she had lots of visitors."

"If you're referring to her fans," he said, shaking his head, "I didn't allow any of them inside the building."

"Oh?"

"Although she devoted a lot of time to them outside theatres and at film festivals, she liked her privacy here."

"And it was your duty to be sure she got it?" I observed. "So you kept her fans away?"

He nodded. "And the paparazzi, too; particularly Thad Tillerson."

Because the name drew a grimace, I asked, "What was the problem with him?"

"You won't believe the disguises that pain in the ass used to try to get up to see her. Do you know he once dressed up as a woman and said he was her sister?"

"Really?"

"Nobody as beautiful as Stephanie Parker could have a sister that ugly," he replied with a derisive grin. "So, I nailed him."

"What about her friends?"

He shrugged. "She only had a few close ones."

"Who were they?"

For a moment he hesitated, lost in thought. "Jessica Martin, Zachary Withers, and Jason Hurley often came to see her."

"Can you tell me more about each of them?"

He nodded perfunctorily. "If you ask me Jessica Martin, her agent, was the best of the lot--always pleasant and friendly. As for Zachary Withers, alias Santa Clause, all I can say is that he was living in the Hollywood world of make believe. Oh, and whatever you do, don't call him Zack."

"He's the director who discovered her, isn't he?"

He wagged his head. ""Of that, he never lets anyone forget." I laughed and he said, "And as for Jason Hurley, he's an actor--and not a good one--who thinks he's God's gift to women. And talk, he never stops, and, of course, the subject is always himself."

I found myself asking, "Was he dating her?"

"She was too smart to get hooked up with the likes of him," he replied with a disdainful laugh. "But he refused to take no for an answer and she was too nice to give him the boot."

* * *

I stopped abruptly before the open door bearing the words: Jessica Martin, Theatrical Agent. Dwarfing the desk behind which she sat in the Spartanly furnished small office was a short, portly woman in her fifties with bright eyes and a perpetual smile. "Are you Jessica Martin?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied, looking up from her desk and quirking a bushy eyebrow. "And you?"

"I'm inspector Jack Bradford," I replied, flashing my badge, "and would like to have a few words with you about Stephanie Parker?"

"Oh, of course," she replied, her smile dimming. "Have you found her killer?"

"Not yet but we're working on it." I broke the silence that followed. "I understand you were her agent."

"Oh, how lucky I was!" she exclaimed, the smile once again lighting up her moon face. "Most movie stars, as I'm sure you know, are driven from birth. In grammar school they have a leading part in Jack and the Bean Stalk; in middle school, A Christmas Carol; and in high school, A Midsummer Night's Dream. If they don't get into Juilliard or Carnegie Mellon they settle for a college with a decent theatre arts program. Then, after graduation, they wait on tables and, meanwhile, at the urging of people like me, send an endless stream of audition tapes to film directors until they're discovered."

"Frankly, I didn't know that was the way it worked," I confessed.

Her smile turned into a grin. "Stephanie, a Maine country girl at heart, had none of those experiences," she went on. "The truth is becoming an actress wasn't even a blip on her radar screen. Her true love was baking." She paused and shook her head. "Can you believe it?"

"Anything's possible," I offered with a shrug.

"And bake she could--cookies, pies, and cakes being her specialties. Upon graduation she got a job at a local bakery where her pastries soon were in great demand. Tired of fighting off her boss's amorous advances, she left and went into business for herself. Then, as fate would have it, one morning she baked a wedding cake for an actor and actress who were both filming and tying the knot in Rangely. When she showed up to deliver it, the director couldn't take his eyes off her. Overwhelmed by her beauty and poise, he became hell-bent on signing her to a contract on the spot. At first she refused but he persisted and, at last, she relented." She hesitated and shook her head in disbelief. "The rest is history."

"As I understand it, her first film, The Portrait of a Lover, was a success," I offered.

"A box-office smash," she replied with a nod, "and after that the truth is she didn't need me or any other agent; for, offers came pouring in." She paused and heaved a heavy sigh. "So, all I did was to take care of what she considered minor details."

"Minor details?" I probed.

"Money matters," she said with a chuckle. "Fortunately, before I became an agent, I worked as an accountant." Again she hesitated and, then, beaming across at me, went on. "Because, to her, money was a means of helping others, she began building health clinics and schools in America's poorest rural areas. A lot of her largesse went to the indigent in New England--her home state of Maine, of course, garnering a good part of it. Appalachia and states like Louisiana and Georgia, however, were also beneficiaries."

"Frankly, I didn't know she was a philanthropist," I offered. "Thank the Good Lord for people like her."

"Oh, she was that and a lot more," she replied, setting her chubby interlocked fingers onto the desk. "Had she wished, she could have lived a life of high society and, like Grace Kelly, become the princess or queen of some beautiful and magical far-off land. For, an endless line of suitors from all over sought her hand in marriage. But because humility not royalty was her trademark, she would shoo them away as one does pesky flies on a hot, humid summer day."

I broke the silence that followed, asking, "Did she have any enemies?"

"Enemies?" Laughter rippled across her ample midriff. "Are you kidding? Everybody loved her."

"Apparently there was someone who didn't."

She thought for a moment and, shaking her head, replied, "I still find that hard to believe."

* * *

After much huffing and puffing, Zachary Withers finally agreed to meet with me at his apartment, which, I might add, was just a stone's throw away from the victim's. Frank Woods was right about him; he was, indeed, a roly-poly, white-bearded Santa Clause look-alike who lived in that fantasy land conjured up in movie scripts. The pastel walls of his spacious abode were adorned with photos of him on the red carpets of Hollywood and its tables, laden with the many tangible awards and honors he had received for past films. Frankly, the place bore more of a likeness to a mausoleum than a residence.

As soon as we were both seated--I on a leather sofa and he on a matching armchair--he asked, "Now, Detective Bradford, how may I help you?"

"I want to talk with you about Stephanie Parker."

"Oh, what a loss," he lamented. "Only once in a lifetime does an actress like her come along; they are born not made."

"I understand you discovered her?"

He nodded. "With her beckoning blue eyes and prominent cheek bones Steffie was strikingly good-looking. Never before had I beheld such beauty."

It struck me as odd that he took offense at being called Zack instead of Zachary but did not hesitate to refer to Stephanie as Steffie.

"I was filming up in Rangely, Maine and two members of the cast decided to tie the knot there." He was reminiscing in a voice filled with awe. "At the time she was running a bakery and showed up with the wedding cake. I couldn't take my eyes off her; for I had never seen such beauty. And believe me, as a director, I've been around a lot of attractive women."

"I'm sure you have."

"I wanted to sign her to a contract on the spot but, smiling in that bewitching way which was to become her trademark, she refused," he said, tugging on his beard. "I, however, persisted; for I knew only too well that natural beauty of hers would light up the screen."

"And that it did," I observed dryly.

"Yes, I finally succeeded in getting her to sign a contract," he said, heaving a heavy sigh. "Believe me, it was no easy task."

"But well worth the effort," I offered.

"That's for sure," he retorted with a wistful smile. "If Helen of Troy was the classical Greek beauty who launched a thousand ships, then Steffie of Rangely was the modern American one who captured the hearts of millions of movie goers. In her film debut, The Portrait of a Lover, she became an overnight success.

"And several others followed."

He nodded. "Just before her death I sent her a script I thought was made to order for her but she turned it down."

"I'm surprised you couldn't get her to change her mind," I quipped, "for, in the past, as I understand it, your powers of persuasion would always wear her down."

Leaning back on his chair, he set his hands on his potbelly. "This time she was adamant and, to my surprise, said she was having second thoughts about the film business."

My ears perked up. "Did you ask her why?"

"I had planned to discuss it with her over dinner but it was not to be," he replied, his face clouding over, "for, Fate intervened."

* * *

With his swarthy complexion, unruly eyebrows, and dark, darting eyes, I now realized why Jason Hurley had so much success playing the part of the villain or lothario in films and on stage. From the moment I entered the theater where he was rehearsing and introduced myself, I took a dislike to him. "You knew Stephanie Parker?" I asked, getting right to the point.

"Of course," he retorted, annoyed at the question. "I knew her better than anybody else. After all, we starred together in several films. The chemistry between the two of us drew people to the movie houses in droves. Of course, unlike me, she had no background or training in the theatre arts."

"Of course she didn't."

My sarcasm did not go unnoticed and he snapped, "Hey, I'll have you know I took her under my wing and taught her the ropes." He paused and, in a gesture of self-importance, straightened up and threw his shoulders back. "And she couldn't have had a better teacher; for I'm a graduate of Juilliard and know my craft."

I could not resist needling him. "I'm sure you do but, judging by the success of her films, apparently she was a fast learner."

"Yes, I'll grant you that but under my tutelage," he insisted smugly, "she became the highest paid actress in the country." He paused and, unable to hide his envy, said, "Do you know she was earning ten million dollars a picture?"

"That's obviously more than you were making," I replied, sticking the needle in deeper. Taken aback, he had no retort and for a selfishly personal reason I found myself asking, "Were the two of you by any chance dating?"

"Frankly, Mr. Bradford, when it comes to women, I can assure you that I'm the hunted, not the hunter." His words were spoken with that arrogance I had come to loath. Then, to my surprise, he confessed, "In her case, however, I admit to having become the hunter."

"So, she rejected your advances?" I blurted out.

"Reject me? No way," he protested with a hollow laugh. "Had I been able to spend more time with her I have no doubt I would've won her hand in marriage."

My brow wrinkled into a frown. "You wanted to marry her?"

"From the moment I first set eyes on her, I knew she was the one for me," he replied with a wag of his head.

* * *

Smartly dressed in a three-piece suit and bedecked with gold--a tie clip, a watch, and several rings, Thad Tillerson might have been mistaken for a banker rather than a photographer. In marked contrast, however, his cramped studio, strewn with discarded film and photo equipment might have been taken for the town dump. Poking my head through the open door, I asked, "Mr. Tillerson, may I have a word with you?"

"Who the hell are you?" he demanded, stepping back from the full-length mirror before which he was admiring himself.

"I'm Detective Jack Bradford of the NYC police," I replied, once again flashing old faithful.

Throwing up his hands, he asked, "Now what did I do?"

"Nothing as far as I know but frankly your guilt complex is making me suspicious."

"Oh, yeah," he replied, adjusting his tie clip, "suspicious of what?"

"You knew Stephanie Parker, didn't you?"

He nodded. "Along with millions of others. So what's the big deal?"

"You were stalking her," I snapped, "they weren't."

"Whoa, there," he protested, glaring at me. "I'm no stalker; I'm a photographer."

"On several occasions, using disguises, you tried to get into her apartment building."

"Oh, you've obviously been talking to that mall cop reject who prowls the halls there and thinks he's Dick Tracy," he accused, gesturing wildly. "He's lucky I didn't sue him for assault and battery."

"He caught you trespassing with felonious intent," I persisted.

"Felonious intent, my eye!" he declared. "I was just trying to take some pictures."

"In disguise, no less." I shook my head for emphasis.

"Hey, she was at the top of her game and I wanted to get some photos of her," he pleaded. "Do you know what the media's willing to pay for such shots?"

"Big bucks, I imagine."

He nodded. "Taking photos of the rich and famous for big bucks is what I do for a living."

* * *

All I knew as I began questioning her friends and acquaintances was that Stephanie Parker was a popular, highly paid actress, who, upon opening the door of her swanky apartment, overlooking New York's Central Park, got her head blown off. As a member of the bureau of detectives, I was given the task of finding out who killed her and why.

Although I do upon occasion rent a film, I must confess that I am not a Hollywood zealot. Were one to ask me if I liked Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone, he or she would draw a blank stare. As I began delving into the victim's background via the internet, however, I became intrigued with her. All the more so as I, in search of clues, rummaged through her belongings.

Her apartment, though expensive and well-furnished, had an elegant simplicity about it. Mementos of Maine were everywhere--lobster traps, buoys, and marble statues of sea-faring people. The pictures adorning the walls were all seascapes. Although she was physically in the Big Apple, it was obvious her heart was back in Maine.

Because vanity was not a weakness of hers, I found just one likeness of her in the apartment--a portrait that hung over the fireplace. I learned that Zachary Withers, the director, who discovered her, had an artist friend paint it and insisted that she hang it there.

Although I gleaned nothing of consequence from my conversations with her friends and acquaintances, in the days that followed back in my office I used every available resource to delve into their backgrounds. Much to my chagrin, however, I came up empty again. A brief appraisal of each of them follows.

Richard Cooper, the splinter of a doorman, had grown up in an orphanage. The greatest pleasure in his sad and lonely life was the cheerful greeting and radiant smile he received daily from the deceased. When some of the occupants of the building complained that he was not regal enough to serve as a doorman in such a luxurious edifice, she rallied to his defense and saved his job.

Because the murder took place in an apartment building that Frank Woods was hired to protect, he took it as a personal affront. His high regard for the victim made it all the more so. At one time he was a promising welter-weight boxer with a record of eighteen wins and no losses. In his next fight he kept his winning streak alive with a third-round knockout. His opponent, however, failed to regain consciousness and Frank, remorseful, took off his gloves and never again entered the ring. Now, being a devoted husband and father of two children occupied most of his time.

If Jessica Martin was the mother the deceased never had, then the latter was the daughter for whom the spinsterish agent always longed. The truth is she had but one client--Stephanie Parker on whom she doted. Nothing else in her life mattered.

As for Zachary Withers, he discovered her and directed the films that brought her fame and fortune. His life, too, revolved around her and, despite her being his bread and butter, he would have directed her films for nothing. His reaction upon learning that she might be leaving the business, however, was worth noting.

Let me say up front that I did not like Jason Hurley. His arrogance and egotism were more than my flesh and blood could endure. Angry over her rejection of him, could he have murdered her? Possibly. Because he was married thrice before, I am more inclined to believe he wanted to add her to his list of romantic conquests. Lest I lose my objectivity, in his case I must tread carefully.

I admired Thad Tillerson's frankness. He did not pretend to be anyone other than a photographer who hustles a buck chasing and filming the rich and famous. In doing so, he often oversteps the bounds of both propriety and the law. Being gay, he had no motive to harm Stephanie Parker.

Like Zachary Withers before me, I, too, became a frequent visitor to Stephanie Parker's apartment and every time I opened the door and entered, the warmth of her smile both greeted me and lit up the room. I lost track of the number of hours I spent on my favorite armchair, staring up at her portrait. As I studied her more intently, I detected a trace of an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-like sadness within her smile. That, however only added to her allure.

Late one afternoon as so often I was wont to do, I was sitting on the armchair and staring up at her all the while listening to the piano arrangement of Mia and Sebastian's Song. I must confess that one of the unintended results of my search into her background was the kindling of an interest in the theatre. Of course, by now I had seen all of her movies and admit that, being overwhelmed by her beauty, I could not take my eyes off her. But, for some strange reason La La Land--along with its hauntingly beautiful musical score--became my favorite.

As I was listening to Mia and Sebastian's Song for the umpteenth time, little did I know I was about to get the shock of my life; for suddenly a key could be heard sliding into the lock on the entry door to the apartment. Jumping to my feet, I drew my .38 caliber Beretta and hurried over to the side of the door.

No sooner had the intruder opened it and entered than I exclaimed, "Don't move or I'll shoot."

"Who--who are you?" the voice in the darkness stammered.

Then, flicking on the light switch, I recoiled, dropped my gun, and, in disbelief, found myself staring across at Stephanie Parker. Regaining a tad of my composure, I stammered in turn, "I'm--I'm Detective Jack Bradford of the New York City police department." Somehow I managed to pull out and wave my badge.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I was just about to ask you the same question."

I could not take my eyes off her. For, with tresses of tawny blond hair cascading down upon her shoulders, the hue of her blue eyes mirroring that of Wedgwood China, and satiny skin sloping gently downward from high cheek bones, she was even more beautiful in person than in her portrait or films.

"I just happen to live here." Her sarcasm did not go unnoticed.

"We--we thought you were dead."

"Well, as you can see, I'm alive and well." With indignation she set her pocketbook down on an end table and took off her gloves.

"Yes, that you are and I thank the Good Lord," I murmured, my gaze firmly fixed upon her every move. "Unfortunately, however, a woman, whom we thought was you, was murdered here."

She turned abruptly and faced me, the fragrance of her perfume wafting over me. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.

"A murder that, as I said, took place here."

"Who was the victim?" she asked, her brow crinkling with concern.

"Now that you're alive and well," I replied with a shrug, "that we don't know."

"Didn't you do an autopsy?"

"We didn't think it was necessary?"

"You didn't think it was necessary?" Her voice was heavy with sarcasm.

"Look, Miss Parker," I replied, choosing my words with care, "I was hoping to spare you the gory details but suffice to say the victim was shot point blank in the face with a .44 Magnum as she was opening the door."

She cringed. "What you're saying is that her face was beyond recognition?"

I nodded. "So it was assumed she was you. Height, weight, hair color, and everything else matched your description."

"I can't believe it," she said, shaking her head.

I broke the awkward silence that followed, asking, "Nobody else lives here with you, do they?"

"No," she replied, sitting down on the sofa.

I resumed my position on my favorite armchair. "Does anyone else have a key?"

She hesitated and thought a moment. "Oh no!" she gasped.

"What's wrong?"

"Laurie Cutler." Nervously, she clasped and unclasped her hands.

"Who's she?"

"She was my best friend in high school," she murmured. "As a matter of fact, she worked for me and took over the bakery when I left to try my hand at acting. She has a key; I told her to drop in whenever she was in the city." She choked back a cry and looked across at me. "Oh, I hope it wasn't her."

Suddenly feeling a need to comfort her, I got up and sat down next to her on the sofa. "Look, we don't know who the victim was," I said, putting an arm around her. "So, until a positive identification can be made, try to think positively."

"I'll call her right now," she exclaimed.

As she tried to rise, I prevented her. "For safety's sake, I'd rather you not do that," I said in a low, composed voice." "I'll find out about her status and get back to you."

"How long will it take?" she asked, the lines of concern between her eyes deepening.

"Not long." I pulled her more closely to me. "And as soon as I get an answer, I'll let you know."

Lightly, she toyed with a loose tendril of hair on her cheek. "Promise?"

"I promise." My eyes moved downwards and met hers. "Now I want you to stop worrying." Breaking the silence that followed, I asked, "If you don't mind me asking, where have you been for the past week?"

Heaving a heavy sigh, she replied, "Down on Cape Cod."

"Was anybody with you?"

"No, I was alone," she said, a momentary look of discomfort crossing her face, "I had to get away."

Suddenly I was in my detective mode, hurling questions at her. "Why Cape Cod?"

"Because I--I--" She hesitated and suddenly I found myself under the spell of those beautiful eyes of hers. "I had some serious thinking to do and there's something about the coastal waters that I find soothing and refreshing."

"That must be the Maine influence." After that quip I turned more serious. "What was bothering you?" I asked.

She got up and began pacing back and forth. "I'm unhappy with what I'm doing."

"But you've been so successful," I replied, again feeling a need to comfort her.

"It depends on your definition of success." She stopped her pacing and gestured around the room. "If it's hard cash, fancy living quarters, or gaudy furnishings, then I'm successful." As an afterthought, she added, "And, oh, don't forget my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame." Again those beautiful blue eyes of hers held my brown ones captive. "But that's not my definition."

"Oh?" I offered weakly.

"What's yours, Detective Bradford?"

"Unlike you," I confessed, "I've never given it much thought."

"Well, take a stab at it," she persisted, peering down at me.

I shrugged. "I've already achieved a part of what I consider success."

"What's that?"

"Becoming a detective." I hesitated and thought a moment. "Too, I equate retiring with a pension that keeps a roof over my head and puts food on the table with being successful." Upon further reflection I added, "Oh, and as my mother, God bless her, so often said, "If you have your health, you have everything."

"That's wonderful." Rewarding me with a smile, she said in a hushed whisper, "If riches increase, set not your heart thereon."

How long I sat there with her hovering angelically above me, I cannot say. All I recall is glancing at my watch and jumping to my feet, declaring, "Oops, I've got to be going but before I do, I want you to lock your door and stay inside."

"I can't do that," she protested, "I have things to do."

"Hey, whoever killed that woman most likely mistook her for you," I pleaded. "So, when he finds out you're alive, he'll come after you again."

Momentarily lost in thought, she said, "I have some friends who can stay with me?"

"If they're who I think they are I wouldn't recommend that," I protested.

"Who are they, then?" she retorted, quirking an eyebrow.

"Jessica Martin, Zackary Withers, and Jason Hurley."

Now it was her smile that tantalized me. "You know a lot about me, don't you?"

I was tempted to answer, "Not as much as I'd like." but replied instead, "That's what I get paid to do. Besides, they, among others, are suspects in the murder."

"Don't be ridiculous," she protested, throwing up her hands.

* * *

Keeping Stephanie's resurrection hushed up proved to be impossible. She, to her credit, strong-willed as she was and chomping at the bit, held her tongue. The police department, however, was unwilling to keep my revelation under wraps and soon all hell broke loose. The straw that broke the camel's back, as the saying goes, was the newspaper headline--Stephanie Parker Rises From The Dead. The rest of the article was a rant about sloppy police procedures and long waits for forensic evidence. The mayor was on the phone demanding answers from the chief. Of course, Stephanie Parker, being a movie star, did not help matters any; for it put the department in the glare of publicity.

One positive result, however, did come of all the tumult; I got a quick response on the DNA of the murder victim. And, true to my word, I hurried over to Stephanie's to share the information with her. No sooner had I entered the apartment than she was on her feet, demanding, "What did you find out?"

Leading her back to her favorite seat, I replied, "Please sit down and I'll tell you."

Collapsing onto the sofa, she cried, "It was her, wasn't it?"

I took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and sat down next to her. "Yes."

All I remember after that is holding her in my arms, wiping away her tears, and caressing her tawny hair which tumbled in long graceful curves over her delicate shoulders.

"All because of me she's dead," she lamented, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

"We don't know that for a fact," I protested.

"Why are you treating me like a two-year old and sugar coating it," she snapped. "She was mistaken for me; that's it plain and simple."

I shattered the stillness that followed. "What if somebody wanted to kill her?"

Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Are you serious?"

"Yes."

"But why do so in my apartment?"

I shrugged. "That I don't know."

"With all due respect, Detective Bradford, it's all conjecture on your part," she accused.

"Conjecture is a good part of a detective's work," I replied, nodding. "In that regard, I want you to know I'm going to be out of town for a few days."

"Oh?" There was disappointment in the look on her face as well as in the sound of her voice. "May I ask where you're going?"

"To your old haunt."

"Rangely, Maine?" she said with a quizzical squint.

I gave a firm wag of my head. "I want to consult in person with the police there."

Those beautiful blue eyes of hers took my measure. "One thing for sure, Jack," she said, "you're persistent and thorough."

That was the first time she called me by my first name and words cannot describe how good it made me feel. "While I'm gone, the police will be checking in on you. I've also asked Frank Woods, the security officer here, to keep an eye out.

Her smile widened in approval. "In addition to being persistent and thorough, Jack, you're also kind and caring."

"Thanks but flattery will get you nowhere," I lied, going to the door and opening it.

As I fell once again victim to that bewitching smile of hers, she said, "Well, you can't blame a girl for trying, can you?"

I turned and matched her smile, as best I could, with one of my own, "Hey, I'll send you a post card," I quipped, closing the door.

* * *

My trip to Rangely was both enlightening and productive. I came away with great respect for the grit and dedication of their police force. Although they have fewer officers and less hi-tech equipment, they have an asset that those of us in law enforcement in the cities can only dream of possessing--a knowledge of, if not an acquaintance with, each and every citizen of the community. And, in that regard, I learned that Sam Cutler, the victim's husband, was no stranger to them.

* * *

Upon my return to the Big Apple I made a beeline for Stephanie's. No sooner had I entered her apartment than she was standing before me with bated breath. "Well, what did you find out?"

"All that glitters is not gold."

"Enough of adages and proverbs," she chided, "please cut to the chase."

When we were seated on our favorite perches--she on the sofa and I on the armchair--I said, "She and her husband were having problems."

"Well, I know he liked to gamble once and a while," she replied, toying with the miniature hearts on her bracelet, "but he was a hard worker and she loved him."

"He gambled more than once in a while, Stephanie, and he was also a heavy drinker," I replied, leaning forward and looking at her intently. "As for his gambling habit, she was continually bailing him out."

Nervously she moistened her dry lips. "I didn't realize that."

"When she noticed money missing from the till, he put the blame on a high-school student, who worked at the bakery part-time. He, himself, was the guilty one, of course."

"How low could he stoop?" she asked, clutching a cushion.

"Oh, much lower; he had the poor kid fired." While she was shaking that beautiful head of hers in disbelief, I said, "Finally, with unsavory characters threatening his life, in desperation he went to her and, in tears, begged her to place a mortgage on the business so he could pay them off.

Stirring uneasily, she asked, "How big a debt did he owe?"

"Fifty-thousand dollars."

With remorse, she shook her head. "Had I known the circumstances, to spare her life I'd have given him ten times that amount," she murmured.

"I know you would've." I paused and, then, heaving a heavy sigh, continued to share with her what I had learned from the Rangely Police. "He swore on a stack of Bibles that forever after he would tread the straight and narrow path."

The tensing of her jaw betrayed her frustration. "But she loved that business."

"Her love for him, however, was even greater," I replied, my voice calm, my gaze steady. "So, there's no doubt that she would've done so had not things between them gone from bad to worse."

"How much worse could things get?" she murmured, shaking her head in disbelief.

"A lot." I paused and let out a long, audible breath. "She found out he was seeing other women."

Intruding upon the stillness that followed, she said in a fragile, shaking voice, "So, she came to New York to discuss her situation with me."

"That's what I suspect."

She nodded. "We had a lot in common--no siblings and our parents died when we were young. As a result, we had to fend for ourselves early on," she said, lost in reverie. "Too, by nature, we were loners and so, in times of stress, leaned on one another for support."

"You gave her the business, free and clear," I offered, quirking an eyebrow questioningly.

She shrugged. "Why wouldn't I? She was my best friend and I had more than enough money."

"That was damn nice of you," I retorted, my admiration for her on open display.

Again she shattered the stillness. "You think Sam killed her?"

I nodded. "When she told him she was going to divorce him," I replied, choosing my words with care, "he flew into a drunken rage, followed her here, and took her life."

Looking at me in disbelief, she said, "You're sure he's the one?"

"Positive," I answered with quiet emphasis. "For what it's worth, he also owns a .44 Magnum."

She heaved a heavy sigh. "Is he in police custody?"

"Not yet," I replied, stroking my chin.

Her eyebrows rose inquiringly. "How come?"

"Somebody tipped him off that the police were going to arrest him and, so, he flew the coop. They're hot on his trail and it's only a matter of time before they catch him." Feeling a need to reassure her, I said, "Because his quarrel was with his wife not you, I see no need for you to worry."

"I could care less about myself." In anger, she pressed her lips together. "I just want to be sure he's caught and punished for what he did to her."

I nodded and, anxious to change the subject, found myself asking, "What have you decided about future films?"

Her response was quick and to the point. "There won't be any."

Drawing my lips in thoughtfully, I observed, "Your good friend, Zachary Withers, isn't going to like that."

She shrugged. "Why would I want to make any more films? Frankly, the only reason I did so in the past was to fund health clinics and schools for the poor and needy in this great country of ours." I could not resist a smile and she said, "You find that amusing?"

"No, on the contrary, I find what you've done noble and inspiring," I retorted, "but, unless I'm mistaken I thought I detected a bit of sarcasm in your words--this great country of ours."

"You're right," she said with a wag of her head, "it's a shame that at this time in this land of plenty everybody doesn't have health coverage." She paused and shook her head in a mix of anger and disbelief. "I can only do so much; unfortunately, I can't save the world."

"You've done more than your fair share." Intruding upon another one of those moments of silence, I asked, "But what about your current lifestyle?"

"What about it?" Her eyes were sharp and assessing.

"Can you live without all of this?" I made a sweeping gesture to the furnishings around the room.

"Are you asking how much money is enough for me?"

"I--I guess I am," I stammered. "For some people, the more they earn, the more they want."

"As I thought I made plain before, I'm not one of those people," she replied with a tad of impatience. "Because I've spent the greater part of my life just trying to survive, I've learned how to get by on a pittance."

"I assume you have a pittance?" I quipped.

Yet again bewitching me with the radiance of her smile, she said, "Yes, I do."

This time I was the one who broke the silence. "About you and Jason?" I said, being careful with my choice of words.

"What about us?" she asked, turning her smile up a notch.

"Are--are the two of you seeing one another?"

"The truth is we are," she replied with an adventurous toss of her head."

With those words the wind suddenly went out of my sails. "Oh?" I offered weakly.

"In films only," she said with a wry smile. While I was breathing a sigh of relief, she added, "In case you haven't noticed, I'm fiercely independent."

"Oh, I've noticed all right."

We shared a laugh and, then, turning more serious, she said, "Most of my life, as I think you know, I've been busy just trying to survive. So I haven't had time for romance."

"What about now what with your being a Hollywood star?" I could not stop my probing.

Again she flashed that devastating smile against which I had no defense. "As I'm sure you know, people in the movie business aren't exactly known for taking their marriage vows seriously--particularly the one about till death do us part." Again we shared a laugh and when it subsided, she asked, "What about you?"

"What about me?" I replied, begging the question.

"I know you don't like talking about yourself, Jack," she chided. "So, don't play dumb; for, you know what I mean."

"I'm not sure I do," I lied.

"I'm not going to let you off the hook." Then, taking me by surprise, she asked, "Who was she, Jack?"

For the first time ever, I felt cornered and compelled to talk about my past life. After what seemed forever--all the while those beautiful eyes of hers beseeching me--I found myself murmuring, "Her name was Claire and she was wonderful. Kind, caring, and loving. Everything a man could want in a woman." My eyes darkened with emotion. "If the truth be known, she was too good for the likes of me."

"Oh, Jack, don't say that," she chided.

I shrugged. "It's the truth."

Now she was the one doing the probing. "You loved her deeply, didn't you?"

I nodded. "So much so I asked her to marry me."

"Did she accept?" Suddenly she was leaning forward on the sofa.

Again I wagged my head. "On one condition."

"Oh?" she offered with a puzzled look.

"That I quit the police force," I said pensively. "She was afraid that I might get killed in the line of duty, leaving her a widow and, worse, our kids fatherless."

"If you don't mind me saying, it sounds as if she was being selfish," she observed.

"No, she could've cared less about herself," I replied, rallying to her defense. "It was all about her concern for the children were we to have any."

Loose tendrils of hair softened her face. "How did she expect you to earn a living?"

I shrugged. "Her father--a good and decent man--offered me a position in his real estate business."

"Did you take him up on it?"

I nodded. "I got my license and began working part-time in one of his offices." I hesitated, momentarily lost in thought. "Frankly, I hated every moment of it and realized that, despite its dangers, I loved being a policeman." Again I paused and, then, with a gesture said, "So, we went our separate ways."

"And you never looked back?" she asked, studying me with a curious intensity.

"Oh, I looked back," I confessed. "Don't we all at some point wonder about the road not taken?"

Now she was the one lost in thought. "Sometimes we have no choice upon which road in life to travel."

"You could've stayed in your bakery in Rangely, had you wanted to," I offered.

"I wasn't talking about myself," she replied in an odd but gentle tone, "I was thinking about those who are making use of the clinics and schools I've set up." Her blue eyes were misty and contemplative. "Many of them are trapped and will never have the luxury of choosing upon what road in life to travel."

Frankly, if her beauty was appealing to me, at times her intelligence, insight, and intuition were even more so. That latter skill was on display as she said, "Tell me about your parents."

I shrugged. "I was raised by my father."

"Your parents were divorced?" she asked, cupping her delicate chin.

I hesitated and swallowed hard. "No, my mother ran off with another man."

For a long time she was lost in thought. "Could it be," she said with staid calmness, "that the real reason you never married Claire was a fear that, like your mother, she, too, might run off and leave you?"

Frankly I was flabbergasted; for she was getting too close to my inner feelings for comfort. So, ever a creature of habit, I did what I always do when I feel such a threat: I resorted to humor. "Your talents never cease to amaze me. I know you're an excellent baker and a talented actress but, frankly, what I didn't realize was what a great psychoanalyst you are."

* * *

To thank her friends for their concern about her safety and to reassure them that all was well, Stephanie decided to hold a small get-together in her apartment. The buffet was a simple fare with the hors d'oeuvres and pastries of her own making.

Clad in a cobalt blue dress with shimmering sequins that flowed effortlessly along the contours of her slender, willowy body, she was beauty incarnate. "Thanks for coming tonight," she said, warmth and concern radiating both from the look on her face and the sound of her voice. "Because I appreciate your concern about my well being, I want you to know I'm alive and well." Then, as if to emphasize the point, she made a graceful and classy pirouette, adding, "And I plan to continue enjoying good health in the future."

"I'll drink to that," Zachary Withers declared, raising his glass.

"And I'll second that," Jason Hurley chimed in.

After the glasses were raised and drained, the director asked, "Steffie, how soon do we start filming In the Presence of Greatness?"

"Hey, I hope you have a part for me in it," Jason interjected.

Scowling, he retorted, "If you're interested, the part of the taxi driver is still up for grabs."

The actor matched the director's scowl with one of his own. "Very funny."

For a moment Zachary glared at him and, then, turned to Stephanie. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, Steffie, when do we start filming?"

Her answer was swift and to the point. "Never."

"What?" The disbelief in his look matched that in his voice.

"I'm not going to make any more films." For emphasis she wagged her head.

"But what about me and all those who depend upon you?" he protested, gesturing wildly.

"Yes, what about us?" Jason chimed in.

"Give the girl a break, will you?" Jessica exclaimed, losing her patience. "For once in your lives will you two start thinking about somebody other than yourselves? She says she's not going to make any more films--period end of story."

"I--I still don't believe it," Zachary stammered.

"What in heaven's name will you do with yourself?" the actor demanded.

Smiling wryly, she replied, "You see that cupcake you're munching on; I'm going to enjoy making oodles more of them."

For me the dynamics of the coterie became apparent. Zachary and Jason disliked one another. Jessica Martin, in turn, had a distaste for both of them. I was glad that Stephanie invited Richard Cooper and Frank Woods to join the get-together. For, I felt more comfortable and akin to them than any of the others with the exception of Jessica Martin.

* * *

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me say again that from the beginning my relationship with Stephanie Parker was a professional one. Because a murder took place in her apartment, my job was to find the culprit. And I was hell-bent on doing just that. Now that I had proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Sam Cutler was the killer, my work was done.

That she is a beautiful woman goes without saying. In more ways than one, I might add--on the inside as well as the outside. Life abounds with people who want what they know they cannot have. I, however, am not one of them; for, she is out of my class and I know it.

So, on my last visit with her in an attempt to wrap things up, I found myself, hat in hand, standing awkwardly by her door. "Unfortunately your best friend, Laurie, was the victim here;" I said, gesturing, "her husband, Sam, the perpetrator.

Her gaze lowered as did her voice. "Yes, unfortunately."

"So my work here is done." Tugging on my chin, I said, "I'd be remiss if I didn't confess that meeting you was the best part of the job."

She looked up, her eyes sweeping over my face approvingly. "That goes for me, too." I offered my hand which she accepted and, to my surprise, was reluctant let go of. When, at last, she did release her grip, I turned and opened the door. "Oh, Jack," she exclaimed with a start, "will you keep in touch?"

I shrugged. "If you'd like."

"Promise?"

Finding her beckoning blue eyes irresistible, I replied, "Yes, I promise."

When her crimson flush subsided, she said, "I apologize for doubting your resolve but I'm ever mindful of your comments about the road not taken."

"That was idle chatter," I retorted with a dismissive wave of my hand, "you need not worry."

An easy smile played at the corners of her mouth. "Whether you're a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, or even a detective, rest assured I won't be frightened off."

Oh, how I gloried in those last words of hers before crossing the threshold and closing the door behind me!

* * *

Recently several women had been accosted while jogging in Central Park and, having been assigned to the case, I was in my office working late on some leads. "Hey, Jack, you should know a call for help just came in from your old bailiwick on Park Avenue." That observation came from Jake Slayton, a jovial, paunchy detective who was working on the case with me.

"What are you talking about?"

"Number 300," he said with a rasp of excitement. "Does that ring a bell?"

No sooner had he rattled off the digits than I, coat in hand, was out the door; for, the address was Stephanie's apartment building. Arriving there in record time, I found the place swarming with police cars.

In the lobby Frank Woods was seated on a chair and applying ice to a bruise on his forehead. Ignoring the gaggle of police officers, I hurried over to him and demanded, "What the hell's going on, Frank?"

"It's--it's Stephanie," he stammered, "she's dead."

"What?" I made a dash for the elevator, tears streaming down my face. "That can't be."

As I was pushing the button frantically, he got up and rushed over to me. "Jack, don't go up there; it's not a pretty sight." Pausing, he tapped the bruise on his head. "He pistol-whipped me and raced up to her place." With a grimace and through gritted teeth he said, "I caught up with the bastard and gave him a taste of his own medicine."

"He's dead?"

"You better believe it," he replied tersely.

In a voice rough with anxiety, I asked, "Do you know who he was?"

"Some nutcase from Maine who over and over again yelled, 'She's the one who turned my wife against me,'" he said in a harsh, raw voice. "His name was Sam something."

"Sam Cutler," I murmured.

He snapped his fingers. "Yes, that was it."

The next thing I knew he had me by the arm and was leading me to a bench. Frankly, I don't know how long I sat there, trying to make sense of the senseless. All I remember after that is getting up and, with a sigh of resignation, giving him a pat on the back. "You're right, Frank," I said, my voice trailing off to a hushed whisper, "I want to remember her as she was--beautiful both on the inside and the outside."

Outdoors, in the cool evening air I climbed behind the wheel of my car and turned on the ignition. As I drove off into the darkness, my thoughts were on my past life and the road not taken.

# # #


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