Monday, July 27, 2020

The Trophy Wife by Rhema Sayers

When Jessica's overbearing husband has a heart attack after a skiing accident, she and her sister-in law suspect foul play; by Rhema Sayers. 

Hank Tavison, age forty-six, tanned, buff, ruggedly handsome, with his young, gorgeous, fifth wife at his side, leaned back in the ski lift chair, letting the cold wind blow through his thick dark hair.

"What a great day!" he enthused as Jessica shifted uncomfortably in the seat next to him. She kept her gaze locked on the back of the seat ahead and her gloved hands clenched on the safety bar.

"You're going to love this." Hank continued. "There's nothing like a brilliant, sunny day on the slopes with the wind in your face. You'll feel like you're flying!"

"Are you sure I ought to start on this slope? I've never skied before. It looks awfully steep."

"Don't worry. You'll catch on quick."

"I'm a little scared, Hank."

He glanced at her irritably. "Don't get whiny. You'll spoil the whole day." And he turned his attention back to the slopes.

Jessica turned her face away to hide the anger and the tears.

Her muscles relaxed slightly as she spotted the terminus coming up. Hank pulled up the safety bar as the seat slid into the station. Jessica stood, propelled forward by the motion of the lift and a small push from Hank's hand. She barely managed to keep her skis under her. The seat veered off to the left, starting its run back down.

That's when she noticed that the back of Hank's parka was caught on the foot rest and Hank himself was hanging limply underneath the seat. He and the parka and the seat were moving together inexorably toward the drop off.

Jessica began to scream, losing her precarious balance and falling sideways into a group of people, causing a domino effect. By the time they'd sorted themselves out and gotten Jessica back on her feet, the lift attendants had stopped the motion of the seats. Hank dangled twenty feet above the snow, swaying gently.

A sound of fabric ripping prefaced the graceful descent of his body, which bounced twice and then rolled several yards until a tree intervened in its downward progress.

Jessica started to scream again.



The medical examiner ruled it death by natural causes, declining to do an autopsy, when he learned that Hank had been on both simvastatin and an ACE inhibitor for cholesterol and hypertension. The death certificate listed myocardial infarction as the cause of death and the ME returned to the seven autopsies he was unable to avoid from the three-car accident on the interstate.



Jessica flew home with Hank in cargo. It should have been cheaper that way, she thought, but no. The charges for transporting a dead body were outrageous. The airline officials had carefully explained it all to her, but she was too exhausted to listen.

She stared out the window at the clouds below. After Hank died, Jessica had been surprised at how well she'd borne up under the stress. In fact, she'd been quite proud of herself. She was stronger than Hank had realized.

Recently she had become aware of Hank's developing interest in the new agent at work, a young and particularly attractive woman named Mandi. Hank had often shown personal interest in new agents, at least if they were female and good looking. Jessica had been a new agent once herself - before she married Hank. She had a good idea where this 'interest' would have led.

Now she was a widow. She sighed. She'd miss Hank. Frown lines appeared on her forehead as she remembered his overbearing, demanding, pompous personality. Well - maybe she wouldn't miss him that much. Widow actually had a nice sound to it. She leaned back into the first-class seat, sipping a glass of Merlot, and smiled.



When she arrived in Tucson, the airline official was very gracious, hovering over her. He took over arrangements for the coffin. Jessica found a porter and led the way to Hank's - no, her - BMW. Climbing in behind the steering wheel, she adjusted the seat, then noticed the smell of Hank's shaving lotion. She rolled the windows down.

Her sister-in-law, Deborah, was sitting on her front porch when she pulled into the driveway. Jessica's fingers tightened on the steering wheel and her foot slipped off the brake. She nearly plowed into Deborah's Mercedes.

Deborah always made her nervous. The woman found fault with everything Jessica said or did. As Jessica skidded to a stop two inches from the Mercedes' bumper, Deborah rose from her seat and walked down the flagstone path.

"Thank you for not hitting my car, Jessica," she said in greeting.

Flustered, Jessica could only mutter, "Hello," as she climbed out of the car. Not looking at Deborah, she opened the trunk and pulled out her suitcases. Picking up the bags, Jessica turned to find Deborah, hands on hips, blocking her way.

"Excuse me, Deb. I need to get in the house."

Deborah didn't move. "I want an autopsy." she said, her face stony.

Jessica felt her jaw drop. "What? Why? The coroner in Nevada didn't see any reason for one."

Deborah's eyes narrowed. "Because I don't believe he had a cardiac arrest. I think someone murdered him." Her gaze speared Jessica.

Jessica dropped her suitcases and stepped back. "Me? You think I killed Hank? For God's sake, Deborah! He just dropped dead! He was fine and then he was dead."

She stared at Deborah and then the stress and tension and exhaustion of the past two days caught up with her. She swayed on her feet and burst into tears.

Deborah's reaction was astounding, as the dreaded sister-in-law put an arm around her, grabbed one of the bags and helped her up to the porch. Unlocking the front door with Jessica's key, she parked Jessica on the couch and went to get the other bag.

As she gazed around her living room, at the stark white walls that Hank had liked, one part of Jessica's mind made a mental note to call an interior decorator next week.

Sitting down next to her, Deborah said, "Look, Jessica. I'm not accusing you of anything. But I just cannot believe that Hank died that way. Something happened. Something caused his death. Something - someone - killed him."

"I was sitting right next to him, Deborah. He wasn't shot or anything. He just died. And there wasn't anything anyone could do. They tried CPR when they got to him, but it didn't work."

She regarded the rustic coffee table and ranch-style couches with distaste. The furniture would have to go, too. The thought cheered her up. She controlled her sobs.

Sniffling, she looked at Deborah. "Okay. I kind of wanted an autopsy anyway. I asked about it in Colorado, but they said it wasn't necessary and I'd have to pay for it."

Deborah cocked her head. "Why did you want an autopsy?" she asked.

"Because it was so weird. I mean, like, he just dropped dead. Yeah, he was on meds for cholesterol and high blood pressure, but... It just doesn't make sense." She paused. "So when they wanted to embalm him before they sent him home, I said no."

"Good girl!" Deborah looked at her with a glimmer of respect. "I have a friend in the county coroner's office. They can do the autopsy tomorrow. You just have to okay it."

Jessica nodded. "Let's do it."



The autopsy showed significant coronary artery disease, but no evidence of a myocardial infarction. The pathologist noted that Hank appeared to otherwise be in good health. Toxicology samples were taken and blood tests sent, but those would take a few days. Meanwhile Jessica had to deal with the details of the funeral and the reception afterward.



The day of the funeral was overcast, drizzling off and on. Appropriate weather for a funeral, thought Jessica as she entered the crowded church. Hank had been rich, powerful, a mover in this town. She looked at faces - some she knew, many were unfamiliar - and wondered if anyone here had actually liked Hank. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she hadn't really liked him, although she had loved him - at least at first.

Sitting next to Deborah in the front row in her little black dress and pearls, Jessica found herself nodding off as she tried to listen to the droning of the minister at the pulpit. Deborah poked her with an elbow a couple of times as her head drooped. Would the man never stop talking? She hadn't slept well since Hank's death and wondered whether she really was missing him. Somewhere behind her a loud snore overrode the minister's words, resulting in chuckles and titters. The preacher apparently took that as a sign because he finally drew to a close. After a couple of hymns the congregation rose and filed out.

Jessica and Deborah stood in line, speaking with Hank's friends and business associates. Jessica looked at the ranks of people still waiting to talk to her and shuddered. The rain had stopped for the moment. An elderly gentleman was holding her hand and expressing his condolences, when Jessica noticed a tall, good looking man in his thirties, standing at the bottom of the church steps, looking at her. He wore an Armani suit and had loosened his tie. His dark hair was a bit too long and unruly and his grey eyes were sharp as they met her gaze. He nodded once and then turned and walked away.

The reception was torture. She forgot the names of several people, including Hank's partner's wife. She knew she should remember most of these people, but her mind refused to cooperate. Deborah stayed with her, greeting important clients and close friends by name each time, so that Jessica could keep up. She wondered why she had disliked Deborah. The woman was a life saver. But this was the first time she had ever spent time with Deborah without Hank around. They were getting to know one another.

Jessica kept a smile frozen in place and shook dozens of hands, although all she could think about was getting home and curling up with a book and a glass of Chardonnay and some aspirin. Her head hurt. And so did her feet.

Eventually the crowd had eaten its way through the mountains of hors d'oeuvres and drunk the gallons of wine and alcohol she had provided, and began to dissipate. Trying to avoid any guests still grazing on the buffet, she had taken a glass of wine out to the patio, where she was slumped in a chair, watching the skies weep, when someone sat next to her. She looked up to meet those same grey eyes she had seen earlier. He had taken off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. She had no idea who he was.

"Hi." She pasted the smile back on her face. His face was craggy, carved from stone, but handsome in an odd sort of way. He had a scar extending up from the middle of his right eyebrow, which raised the brow and gave him a perpetually questioning look.

He didn't smile back. "Your husband owed me $100,000." he said without preamble and then just stared at her.

Jessica sat up straighter. "What? What for?"

"For services rendered." was the reply.

"Are you joking? What services? Do you have a bill?" Jessica managed to keep her voice even.

"This is not a joke. In my line of work, we don't use any paperwork, or computers either. And you don't want to know what services." His voice was low and pleasant.

For a long moment Jessica sat with her mouth open, staring at this... this man. If she was reading him right, he was implying that Hank had been involved in something illegal.

"I don't understand what you're talking about."

He stared back at her. "Maybe you don't. But that doesn't make any difference. You still owe me 100K."

"Fine. You can present my lawyer with an itemized bill and the estate will pay you in due time."

He glowered. "Look, lady..."

"My name is Mrs. Tavison, Mr... What is your name anyway?"

"You can call me Max. Look, Jessica," he continued in a softer voice. "It doesn't work that way. Hank told me to take care of a couple of problems. I took care of them. Then he has a heart attack and I haven't been paid yet."

"And I am supposed to fork over the money just because you say so? I don't know you. And I don't know what kind of problems you take care of. So, either come up with an itemized bill, or get lost."

The rain was coming down harder now and gusts of wind blew under the eaves, drenching them both. Jessica hurriedly rose and turned to go inside, but her heel caught between the flagstones and she fell sideways, crying out. Strong arms grabbed her and lifted her up. For the first time he smiled and she couldn't help noticing that it was a very nice smile, especially the way his eyes were twinkling, too. He scooped her and the errant shoe up and carried her into the building.

Grinning down at her, he said, "I don't know if you did it on purpose or not, but that was fun."

"Did it on purpose?" she snarled. "Put me down!" and then nearly fell again as she tried to stand, forgetting that she had on only one shoe. He steadied her. She tried to push him away, but he was just too damn big and she wobbled in the attempt. He held on to her arm as she angrily kicked off the other shoe.

He was continuing to smile down at her. "Have you had lunch yet?" he asked.

She gaped up at him for a moment. Then, grabbing her shoes, she stormed out of the room. A chuckle floated after her.



There was a lot to do following the funeral, legal matters to attend to, debts to be paid, the business to run. The will had left everything to her. She was surprised but pleased. Knowing she was an equal made it easier, when she went into her first meeting with Hank's partner, David Colson.

He stood from behind his desk as she entered, leaning forward to shake her hand. Waving her to a chair, he asked, "How are you holding up, Jessica?"

She smiled, crossing her legs, trying to appear poised. "I'm doing fine, Thank you, David. I wanted to discuss the business with you."

"Well, yes..." David remained standing for a moment, looking at her, then resumed his seat. The door opened and James Halliday came in. He was the company accountant. He took a seat next to David's desk so that both men were behind the desk, facing her.

David leaned back in his chair and smiled. "I asked Jim to join us because I have a proposal for you, Jessica." He lifted a file off his desk and handed it across to her.

She opened the file and glanced at it. They wanted to buy her out. She looked at the total amount and gently tossed the file back on his desk.

"That's very nice of you, but the answer is no. I'm not interested in being bought out. Don't forget that I worked here for a couple of years before I married Hank. I know this business well and I have some ideas I'd like to propose to you."

The two men sat quite still for a moment. David's face darkened and he leaned forward abruptly. "Look. If it's not enough money, we can negotiate that."

"I don't want the money. I want the business."

The two men laughed.



Two weeks after the funeral, the Medical Examiner's report came out and the police appeared at her doorstep. The toxicology reports had shown that Hank had died of cyanide poisoning. The theory was that he had ingested a capsule containing the poison at breakfast and that a sufficient amount of cyanide had been released as he was about to get off the ski lift to kill him instantly.

Jessica was stunned. She was the prime suspect.

The older of the two detectives leaned forward. "Can you go over exactly what happened that morning from the time you got out of bed, Mrs. Tavison?" He was overweight and balding, dressed in an off-the-rack suit that looked like it had been slept in. There were grease stains on his tie, and a weariness in his eyes that unnerved her.

She had no trouble remembering that breakfast, despite the later events of that morning. Hank had forbidden her request for scrambled eggs and toast, saying that it was too fattening. Instead he ordered unbuttered toast and black coffee for her, while he ate bacon and eggs, English muffins, and fruit. She had nibbled at the toast. Several people had stopped by their table, friends of Hank's they had traveled with. She had visited the ladies' room. The waiter, she remembered, had been young and good looking and had given her a sympathetic look.

She answered all their questions and wondered if she needed a lawyer.

Later that day she found a note stuck in the front door. "You still owe me 100K. But I really would like to buy you lunch."



She began going over the books with Hank's accountant, James Halliday. Halliday assumed that she was incapable of understanding what he was showing her. He was wrong. She took the accounts to a reputable firm and found out that Colson and Halliday had been cooking the books for years, skimming off hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. When she called Halliday into her office, she enjoyed the look on his face when she fired him. As for David, she carefully explained his alternatives: prison or selling out to her at a reasonable (to her) amount. He took the money and ran.



Jessica usually worked late, leaving the office at 8 or 9pm. As she locked up on a Tuesday evening, a voice behind her said, "It's a lovely evening." She screamed and bounced off the door.

A tall man stood, outlined against the streetlamp, his features in shadow. "Sorry, Jessica," he said, "I didn't mean to scare you."

She recognized the voice of the hard-faced man with the twinkling gray eyes from the funeral. "Jesus, Max. You scared the shit out of me." She glared at him. "I don't have your 100K. So go away."

She saw his teeth flash in a smile. "Well, can I have a consolation prize then?" He reached out, took her hand, and kissed the back of it. "May I take you to dinner?"

Jessica snatched her hand back, although the kiss had been very nice. "You are way too pushy."

He frowned. "What did I do wrong?"

Her eyebrows rose. "Well. You scared me."

He nodded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I thought you heard me coming up the walk." Then he grinned. "So how about that dinner?"

The light shown in his face now and his eyes were twinkling again. Jessica sighed. "Look, Max. I'm really tired. It's been a long day and I..."

"I'll bet you're hungry, too." he interrupted. "I know a quiet place where the food is good and the service is fast. I won't pester you with talk. Come on." And he turned toward a dark convertible parked illegally in front of the building.

She found herself following him. She really was hungry.

The restaurant was indeed quiet and they had salads in front of them in fifteen minutes. Jessica waited for him to say something, but Max concentrated on his food, occasionally looking at her with that dazzling smile.

Finally she had to ask. "Are you a hit man?"

He had just drunk some water and much of it sprayed across the table as he choked. Laughing and wiping up the water from the table, he regarded her. "I guess it could look that way, couldn't it?"

"Yes."

"I'm a private investigator, Jess. But the investigations I undertake can be... umm..."

"Shady?"

"Yeah. I guess you could say that. I tend to walk on the edge."

"So what did Hank hire you to investigate?"

"Not what. Who."

"Okay. Who?

The big man grinned at her and there was a bit of wolf in that grin. "Well, you - for one."

"Me?" Jessica squeaked. People turned to look.

"What he said was, 'Every other one of my wives cheated on me. Jessica doesn't seem to be doing that. So I must be missing something.' He was paranoid about cheating wives. I had done the investigations on his last two wives. They were definitely cheating on him."

"You were spying on me?"

Now he found a sudden interest in his steak. "Well, you know. It's just a job."

"It's a disgusting job!"

Now he looked up with narrowed eyes. "No. It's not. Surveillance doesn't turn me into a Peeping Tom. Yes. I followed you - for three weeks. Most boring surveillance I can remember. You went shopping. You met friends for lunch. You met a friend at her work. You went to the movies. You even went to church. You never set one foot out of line and that's what I reported." He stared at her for a moment longer, then took a sip of wine. "But that's not what Hank owes me for."

Jessica looked at him expectantly.

Max leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Hank knew about the embezzlement at the office." He grinned at her. "You figured it out pretty quick. I was impressed."

He took a sip of wine. "The reason Halliday was embezzling was because of his gambling debts." His eyes met hers. "You probably don't know, but Jim Halliday has disappeared."

She jerked upright. "What? Did they kill him?"

Max shook his head. "I don't know. He may have gone into hiding."

Jessica looked down at the fish on her plate. "So what were you doing for Hank?"

Max leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. "A few years ago, before you met him, Hank got himself involved in buying and selling used cars. He mentioned once that the profits were great. Then he found out that the cars were stolen. He tried backing out, but the guys who ran the operation didn't want to let him. They started blackmailing him about four years ago. He finally got tired of it and hired me to get them off his back."

Jessica stared at him. "So what happened?"

Max raised his eyebrows. "I got rid of them."

"What? Just like that? You got rid of the bad guys? What are you? Some kind of superhero?"

Max frowned. "No. But I'm very good at my work. Which includes getting rid of bad guys." He finished his wine and glanced at her half-eaten fish. "You want some dessert?"

She shook her head. "No. Thank you. I just want to go home."

She was quiet in the car, except for saying, "I guess I don't have to give you directions."

He smiled slightly. "No."

He walked her up onto the porch and waited until she had the door open, then stepped through and moved quickly through the house with a gun in his hand, checking every room.

Jessica stood with her mouth open for a full minute before she stomped after him.

She yelled, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" as she ran up the steps to the second floor. He was clearing her bedroom. At least, that's what she thought he was doing.

He ignored her until he had examined every room and closet. "Nice house," he said, grinning as he put his gun away in a shoulder holster. They were in her second-floor office.

"Are you going to tell me why you just looked into every corner of my home, acting like a secret agent on TV?"

The grin ran away from his face. Eyes dark, he looked at her. "I'm worried that you may be vulnerable to the same people who were blackmailing Hank."

"I thought you said you took care of them."

"I... ummm... encouraged the bosses to go elsewhere." He planted his hip on the edge of her desk. "But I can't be sure that they didn't arrange to have Hank murdered. Or that they might come after you. You have the money now, after all."

Jessica stood very still, considering him. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

He looked down at the rug for a moment, then raised his eyes to hers. "I don't know that you can. What I did for Hank," he waved his hand vaguely. "I can't exactly document that."

He stood and walked to her. "Look, Jess. Just make sure all your windows and doors are locked. Keep them that way during the day, too. And take my card." He handed her a business card. "Put the number in your phone. Call me... any time, day, or night... if you're at all worried. If you hear something strange. Or see something odd. Call me. Before you dial 911. I'll be here in minutes."

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Stay safe," he said as he walked out.

Jessica remained standing, looking at his card for several minutes. Then she put her finger on the spot he had kissed before she went downstairs and locked the doors.



When word arrived at the office that Jim Halliday's body was found in a shallow grave in the desert, Jessica left without explanation. She went home, closed all the curtains, and lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling for a long time before she fell asleep.

A light was turned on in the dark bedroom and she sat up abruptly. Max stood next to the bed. He sat down at the foot. She noticed he had put a blanket over her while she slept. "How long have you been here? And how did you get in?"

"About five hours. And Hank gave me a key."

Her emotions warred between exasperation and gratitude. "Why did you come?"

"I figured you'd be upset. I thought you might want someone to talk to."

"You are the most impertinent man I've ever met."

He smiled, and the twinkle returned to his eyes. "Did Hank ever really see you? The smart, independent, tough spirit?"

She shook her head, although she wasn't sure if it was in answer to his question or in exasperation. "All Hank wanted was another in a series of dumb blondes. He would have replaced me in a couple of years."

"No one could replace you, Jess."

She looked up, eyes wide, when she heard the warmth in his voice.

He quickly looked down at the floor. "Hank was an idiot."

He reached over and took her hand. "Are you okay? I mean, after hearing about Halliday."

Her gaze fell to his hand, gently holding hers. The fingers were long and strong, and sun bleached hairs glowed red in the lamp light. "I feel like... I don't know. Like I'm responsible for his death. I went after him and when I found out what he was doing, I threw him out. And he couldn't pay those monsters any longer, so they killed him."

She gripped his hand tightly. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. Max reached out and pulled her into his arms and held her while she cried.

"It wasn't your fault at all. You're not responsible. He made his own decisions, and he knew what the consequences could be."

Getting her tears under control, she disentangled herself from him. "Well. Thank you, Max. I appreciate your being here. But now I'd like you to go," she lied.

He was out the door before she remembered that he still had a key.



Weeks passed. Jessica had to fire one of her employees. He had no clue that he was a sexual predator. He just didn't get it. He thought his behavior was normal and no amount of counseling was going to change that. Her female employees did not think his behavior was normal and were delighted when he went out the door for the last time. It occurred to Jessica that she was accumulating enemies.

Max had disappeared. She thought she caught a glimpse of him in a crowd downtown once but couldn't be sure. She realized that she missed him, which irritated her. Flying to Los Angeles on business, she spotted a man who looked like him going into an airport bathroom, but she couldn't wait around to see if he came out.

Then one night, as she was locking up to go home, he was there beside her. This time, she didn't flinch. At least, not as much.

"Get back inside," he whispered.

She didn't argue, just unlocked the door, and re-entered the building. He crowded through behind her, closing the door, and locking it.

The lights were off, but the streetlamps outside made it possible to see.

"What?" she asked.

"Two men in a dark sedan half a block down. They got out of the car when you turned the lights out." He peeked through a window. "I don't know where they are now."

"Were you downtown when I had to go file papers at City Hall? And were you in LA when I flew out there?"

He turned to look at her, then shook his head as he turned back to the window. "I must be losing my touch."

"You're following me again? Why?"

"Somebody has to keep an eye on you."

She opened her mouth to speak but screamed as a flaming object broke one of the front windows. Fire exploded across the waiting area.

She cut off the scream and yanked her arm away from Max as he pulled her toward the door. Opening a closet door, she pulled out two fire extinguishers and handed one to Max. The flames succumbed to the foam rapidly. Stepping over to the receptionist's desk, she reached down and pressed a button on the underside of the desk. Sirens began to wail and floodlights went on outside, sweeping the parking lot and lawn.

"The fire department has been notified. They're only four blocks away." She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the street. "I doubt those thugs will stick around."

As if to tell her they were still there, full automatic gunfire tore out the rest of the front windows. Max knocked Jessica to the floor.

"Are you okay?" they asked almost simultaneously. The shooting stopped, as did the sirens. Everything was quiet, although they could hear more sirens in the distance. Max lay half on top of her. He didn't move. Finally, she squirmed out from under him.

He chuckled. "Damn. I was enjoying that."



Max disappeared before the police arrived. The firemen looked around and told her she had done a good job, putting out the flames. The police looked at the bullet holes in the walls and the Molotov cocktail and asked a lot of questions. Then the same two detectives who had interviewed her about Hank's murder appeared and the questioning turned into an interrogation.



The next day, she stayed home, sitting at her computer. It took a while, but she was able to trace Max through the files of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. His name was Gerald Maxwell Avery and he was a PI, registered with the state. He had an address on Broadway in Tucson.

His office was in a small two-story building, among other unusual businesses, such as a tailor, an import business, and a massage parlor. A pizza restaurant capped the end of the line and wafted delicious smells into the air.

His name was on the door, but the door was locked. Frustrated, she stood, glaring at the offending door. Max reached around from behind her and inserted a key in the lock. She jumped, emitting a little squeal.

"Stop doing that!" she snarled.

"Doing what?" he asked, as he opened the door.

"Sneaking up on me."

He just smiled as he ushered her inside. "Okay. You found me. Now what?"

She walked behind his desk and sat down, leaving him standing. "Now you tell me what you've found out about the people who bombed my office."

"It's the same mob I dealt with for Hank."

She nodded. "Well, that takes care of one problem." She responded to his raised eyebrow. "I do not owe you any money. Obviously you did not 'take care' of these people as you claimed." She smiled sweetly up at him. "Therefore, you did not earn any money."

He considered her for a moment. "Okay. I can see that point of view. I'll forget about the bill." Continuing to stare at her, he asked, "How much did you tell the police last night?"

She was looking around the sparsely furnished room. "Everything. Except about you." She threw him a smile. "I couldn't figure out how to explain you."

He was leaning against the closed door as she wandered around the receptionist's office. "That's good," he said.

She turned to look at him. His head was down and he was staring at the floor. "What's the matter?" she asked.

He raised his gaze to meet hers. "The matter is that you're so much smarter and nosier than Hank ever was. I can't even scare you off." He shook his head. "Why couldn't you just leave well enough alone, Jessica?" The last came out as a shout.

She scuttled back behind the desk. "I don't understand."

"You were going to keep on probing and digging until you found the answers. You just can't give up." He turned and slammed his fist against the wall. "Damn you!"

She stood very still. "Are you saying that the answers would have implicated you, Max?"

He turned back to look at her, his eyes dark.

"Did you kill Hank? Did you kill Jim Halliday?"

He sighed. "Hank wanted to go public with the scheme, go to the police, tell everything. I was at the ski resort that morning. I waited until you went to the restroom before I leaned over the table beside Hank. Slipping the time delayed cyanide capsule in his eggs was easy. He swallowed it on the next bite."

"After you fired him, Halliday didn't have any reason to keep quiet. He was on his way to the cops when I got to him." He dropped his gaze as he pulled a gun from his pocket. "I'm so sorry, Jess. I think I was starting to fall for you."

He raised the gun, but Jessica ducked behind the desk. He sighed again but didn't say anything. She heard his footsteps. "Now!" she yelled.

The door burst open and a SWAT team exploded into the room. Max hesitated only a second before laying the gun on the desk and getting down on the floor, his hands behind him.

A commotion at the door resolved when Deborah pushed her way through the cops. The SWAT team was trying to stop the unstoppable. She grabbed Jessica and they hung on to each other tightly. Jessica looked down at Max as cops swarmed over him. He twisted his neck so that he could see her. He smiled and his eyes twinkled. "You know," he said. "I'm sort of glad it ended this way."

She knelt beside him. "Damn you. Why couldn't you have been real?" Then she stood and walked out, ripping off the wire she had been wearing under her jacket and wiping the tears from her eyes.

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful story, if a bit long, with many, many twists. Description of settings and of characters, particularly of Max, breathtaking.
    Occasionally a bit devoid of emotion. A man forces his way into your house with a gun and checks every room, but mc shows only curiousity, not fear.
    Also, I expected Deborah to play a more prominent role. I get the feeling that the author originally had great plans for her which were overtaken.
    Bloody wonderful ending!

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  2. Quite the romantic melodrama, with an ending twist, the alpha male subdued. Hank didn't seem to have any redeeming qualities ...I wonder how Jessica fell in love with him. I guess he was rich. Deborah turned out to be a nice lady though.

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  3. Very exciting, lots of action. I suspected Jessica for most of the tale, kept waiting for a reveal...but the eventual reveal was not at what I expected. Seems like men have a bad habit of underestimating Jessica and her resourcefulness. I doubt Max will ever make that mistake again.

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