"In the School of Life events, situations, and the people you have attracted to be part of your personal experiences are synchronized perfectly in order to teach you the lessons that need to be learned.” ~ Jacqueline Ripstein
Travis’ destination was a café that had once been owned by the Conway Theater Corporation. The theater, built in 1932, closed in early 2000 and stood empty for more than a year. At that time, the Little Theater of Hazelton rented the space. The building was used for practices until the historic structure was purchased by two local builders. After an extensive renovation, the facility reopened as an upscale café. The blinking green and red lights on the marquee read Middleton’s Café.
Travis spotted Anna Singleton’s car, but drove past her dark grey Hondo without glancing her way. He pulled into a parking space two rows over.
The flashing marquee brought memories of his youth. When he was a preteen, drive-in theatres were the rage. Conway’s competed by offering Saturday morning short films, or flicks, for kids. If he completed his homework and chores in a timely manner, his dad added an extra fifty cents to his allowance. A dollar fifty bought a matinee ticket, popcorn and a soda. If recollection served, he and his buddy Kevin saw Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meet the Keystone Cops at least three times. When he closed his eyes, he could almost smell the popcorn and hear children’s laughter.
Curious about the hastily called meeting, he shot off a text to Anna: What’s up?
Anna’s reply was immediate: Susan inside. Ariel Keller du at 7.
“Ariel Keller? Surprises never cease,” he muttered as be released his seatbelt, scanned the parking area to make certain that he hadn’t been tailed, and then casually strolled to the café entrance.
He had less than fifteen minutes for a briefing. As he entered the café, there was a sign that directed customers to seat themselves. He immediately spotted Susan’s signaling arm to his left. He sauntered over to the booth she occupied and slid in across from her.
“I’m getting old. These booths are getting harder and harder to get in and out of.”
“Nonsense. You’re in excellent shape for a retiree.”
Travis rolled his eyes.
“You’re not getting older, Travis. You’re getting better.”
“Don't I wish. What’s going on, Susan?”
“I wish I knew. Ariel’s call came out of the blue. I might have brought you out on a wild goose chase. Anna insisted that someone on the A-team needed to be here.”
“No problem. My little talk with Kitterman was winding down. I think it’s safe to say that one person has been marked off the suspect list. Clarke Kitterman is a standup guy. I’ll fill you in later.”
As unobtrusively as possible, he scanned the room and took note of the décor. “Nice place, but a strange choice for a secret rendezvous, or whatever this meeting is.”
“I invited her to come to Maddie’s, but she flatly refused. I’m not sure why. There was a time when she and Maddie were good friends. She said something about Middleton’s being a nice place, but not yet discovered by the in-crowd. My initial reaction was to brush her off, but she sounded upset and vulnerable.
“She’s usually calm under pressure. One of the things I’ve always admired about Ariel was her ability to handle stress.” She hesitated for a fraction of a second before adding, “Total opposite of me. I usually wear my emotions on my sleeve.”
“Don’t ever apologize for being sensitive, Susan. Did Anna call Traynor for backup? Leah and Maddie shouldn’t be left to their own defenses.”
“She did, He sent Officer Selwyn over. He’s keeping an eye on Maddie’s house.”
Noticing Susan’s nervousness, Travis reached across the table and took her hand. “You’re trembling. After what you’ve been through, talking to Ariel should be a piece of cake.”
“I’m not nervous, I’m angry, Travis. Angry enough to declare war. Don’t worry. I promise to be civil.”
“Good girl.” He patted her hand. “I’m going to move to the seat at the end of the counter. From there, I’ll be able to keep an eye on the door and the parking lot. As soon as Ariel is seated, and I’m sure that she’s alone, I’ll join you.”
“Your presence might keep her from speaking openly.”
“We’ll have to chance it. There’s not enough time to fit you with a recording device.”
Travis picked up a courtesy newspaper from the stand by the door, took a seat at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee.
A woman in black jeans, a black hoody and dark glasses entered the café at precisely seven o’clock. The newspaper photos he’d seen of the First lady of Hazelton bore little resemblance to the woman who scoped out the dining area before joining Susan.
Travis caught the server’s attention by waving a five-dollar bill. He tucked the bill under the empty coffee mug and strolled over to the booth where Susan and Ariel were seated.
“Pardon the intrusion ladies. Mrs. Keller, if you’ll be so kind as to slide over, I’ll join you.”
Startled, Ariel looked first at him, and then at Susan. “Susan?”
“Ariel, meet Travis Silverstein. He’s a friend.”
Ariel’s lips thinned. “What I have to say is for your ears only.”
Susan said calmly, “Travis is the private detective investigating Charles’ disappearance. While the investigation is ongoing, I don’t have the luxury of private conversations with old friends.”
“In that case, I should leave.”
Travis shrugged. “Your call, but I can make a scene if need be. I’d rather not embarrass you.”
Reluctantly, Ariel moved over.
Susan was surprisingly poised, despite the nervousness Travis had witnessed earlier. “The last time we spoke, Ariel, you made it clear that my opposing political views precluded a friendship. I accepted your argument even though I didn’t agree with it.”
“That’s why I’m here. Since Donovan has been mayor, I’ve tried to be a supportive wife and an activist for the people of Hazelton. There have been times when I’ve given in to his demands even when I disagreed with the decisions he made.
“Backing away from our friendship was one of those times. I prayed that I would have the opportunity to apologize. I realize that it’s too little, too late, but I couldn’t leave town without telling you how much I appreciate the efforts you and Charles made in my behalf. I was young and naïve when I arrived in Hazelton, and your family welcomed Donovan and me with open arms.”
She paused long enough to organize her thoughts. “I admired Charles’ honesty and humility and your talent and generosity. And, I’ve especially missed being able to turn to you for advice. When I was overwhelmed by the responsibilities I faced as mayor’s wife, you were the voice of reason.
“I sincerely apologize for my deplorable actions, Susan. Ending our friendship was mistake.”
Susan interrupted, “Probably not, Ariel. Charles and I no longer fit in with your circle of friends. Life situations change, and people move on.”
“True, but it’s unwise to cut ties with the people you care about. I treasure the memories of the informal cookouts at your house. When Donovan demanded that our meetings cease, I was devastated. After rethinking the situation, I decided that severing our friendship was the best thing to do. For you and Charles. Not for me. You two were loyal. You would have attended the political and social functions even though they made you uncomfortable.”
Susan remained silent.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say I’m sorry.” She paused again before continuing in a guarded tone, “My luggage is in the car. I have a reservation at the Hampton Inn in Taylorsville for tonight. My destination is Louisville. I’ll be staying with my parents for the foreseeable future.”
Susan asked in disbelief, “You’re leaving Donovan? Where is your loyalty, Ariel?”
“He demanded that I leave. He said that he didn’t want me in town when the questions began.”
“So, you are aware of the corruption investigation?”
“I was unaware until last evening. I realized that trouble was brewing when Donovan came home early. He’s rarely home before ten.”
She paused, took a deep breath and continued, “Our marriage fell apart years ago, Susan. It was my decision to remain with him. He needed a hostess, and I didn’t have a career to fall back on. My parents didn’t approve of Donovan, and I didn’t want to face their questions or deal with their disapproval. I honestly believed that we were a good team, that our future was bright.
“It turned out that I was a convenience. The truth is that I am as guilty of playing a role as he is.” She paused again. “As payback for my loyalty, he gave me a heads up about what he called the approaching storm.
“I told him that I would stand by him, but he said that he preferred to be on his own.”
Susan asked, “Were you aware that it was dirty money that subsidized his campaign?”
“No, but I’m not surprised. I didn’t like or trust half the people Donovan hired, but it was purely instinct that governed my perceptions. Van McCorkle was the worst of the lot. He might be a hotshot lawyer, but I was convinced that he was a crooked one. I was vehemently opposed to his role in Donovan’s administration.”
Travis entered the conversation for the first time. “You realize that you will be questioned by the police, don’t you?”
“Why? I have never been employed by the city.”
Travis couldn’t keep the impatience out of his voice. “As the mayor’s wife, you are a suspect. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
For the first time, Ariel turned to look directly at Travis. “I’m not knowledgeable about criminal proceedings. If the police need to question me, Donovan has my address.” She glanced at her watch. “I need to go. I have a two-hour drive.”
Susan said, “You’re emotionally strung out. You really shouldn’t be driving.”
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine. Susan, I want you to know that I chose Middleton’s because we would be out of the public eye. But, that does not guarantee that our meeting will go unnoticed. If word gets out, I do hope that you won’t be accused of conspiring with the enemy. You and Lara have had more than your share of trouble in your lives.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve become well acquainted with grief and scandal, Ariel.”
“But bad publicity could affect the turnout for your performance with the symphony.”
“I doubt it. If it does. So be it.”
“I’ve always thought that you were depriving the citizens of Hazelton by not performing in public.”
“It’s kind of you to say so.”
“Would you please tell Lara I said hello. Tell her that the horse sketch she made for me is one of my greatest treasures. I had it framed, and I’ll always keep it close by.” She turned to Travis. “I was raised next door to one of the most successful horse farms in Kentucky. My dad was a horse trainer, so I grew up mucking out stables. Believe it or not, that job can be more rewarding job than being the wife of a mayor. That’s the honest truth.
“As an animal lover like myself, Lara picked up on my love for horses. She made quite a production out of giving the sketch to me, and I was deeply moved. Lara is one in a million, Susan. She is extraordinarily talented. I’ll be standing in line when her first children’s book is published.”
Ariel began to slide over, and Travis stayed firmly in place.
She snapped, “Do you mind?”
“All in good time, Ms. Keller. One last question. Do you have a lawyer?”
She said icily, “I’m furious, but I’m not insensitive. I don’t intend to ask for a divorce until Donovan’s future has been settled.”
Travis took a business card out of his shirt pocket, jotted down a number and handed the card to Ariel. “Matthew Jessup is a defense attorney, not a divorce lawyer. He’s smart, and he’d like nothing more than to see McCorkle behind bars. As a favor to me, he’ll agree to represent you on short notice. If you find he doesn’t suit, fire him. You need a lawyer before Donovan is charged.”
Ariel kept her eyes lowered. “Sorry. I seem to have developed a case of foot in mouth disease. Thank you for your recommendation. Now, I really must leave.”
As the café door closed behind Ariel, Travis asked, “Is her regret genuine, or is she lining up allies? I can’t read the woman.”
Susan shook her head. “Your guess is as good as mine. I trusted her once, but I won’t make that mistake again. If she is looking for an ally, she came to the wrong person.”
“It’ll be interesting to see how the press treats her when the truth about the Keller administration hits the headlines. Up until now, she’s been the darling of the press.”
“Travis, I’m angry with her, but I would never criticize the work she’s done. Her name is synonymous with fund raising. My beef is personal. I’ve learned to value the friends who are loyal, friends who stand by you no matter what. In retrospect, I’m inclined to believe that she did me a favor when she put an end to our friendship.”
Travis said, “I agree with you. Some friendships aren’t meant to last. It’s unfortunate that Ariel closed her eyes to the truth, but I can understand how that might have happened. I voted for the man, and I’m mad as hell with myself for being taken in by his charm and elocution.”
Susan said, “You and thousands of other voters. There are a few of his constituents that will defend him to their dying breath.”
“If you can spare a few more minutes, there are a few loose ends that I’d like to tie up.”
“What kind of loose ends?”
“Details. Was there one specific incident that ended Charles and Donovan’s friendship?”
“Not that I’m aware of. It’s ironic that Ariel mentioned Charles’ loyalty. There were times when I accused him of being disloyal. For years, Charles and Donovan played a round of golf twice a month. Charles is the one who put an end to their golf games.”
“Did he tell you why?”
“Actually, Charles never cared for the game, but he played as a means to an end. Donovan spent most of his free time on the golf course, so Charles took up the game. I didn’t realize that Charles had begun to find excuses not to play until Ariel mentioned it. I asked Charles if there was a problem. He blamed conflicting schedules.
“I could see the writing on the wall when we no longer received Christmas cards or invites to their parties. Ariel and I continued to meet for lunch occasionally, but our friendship was cooling. You know the rest.”
“Fissures in friendships happen. It’s particularly hard when the friendship is longstanding.”
“Not only long, but tight. Donovan had the reputation as a bad boy when he was in college; nothing serious, but his attitude was definitely devil may care. Charles and Maddie prodded him to clean up his act, and he did. By the time, he and Ariel moved to Hazelton, he seemed to be headed in the right direction. So much so that Charles campaigned for him.
“After Donovan was in office, Charles began to see evidence that Donovan was reverting back to some of his pervious attitudes and actions. Charles was understandably upset. He was flexible when it came to disagreements, but he wasn’t one to ignore conflicts that involved honesty.”
Travis said, “When Donovan was campaigning, I remember that his news releases never mentioned his childhood. Where did he grow up?”
“Donovan is from Maryland, and Ariel grew up in Kentucky. They never mentioned family, or reminisced about their childhood, so I can’t help you there.”
“So, you met in college?”
“Charles and Donovan met their freshman year at Ohio State. They clicked, so became roommates. I began dating Charles when I was junior. I’d seen the guys around campus, but our paths rarely crossed. I was a music major and they were working toward business degrees. I don’t recall my first meeting with Donovan, but it would have been the latter part of my junior year.”
“When did you and Charles marry?”
“Charles graduated a year before I did. He was hired by Albright Insurance, the same company he worked for at the time of his disappearance. Our relationship was long distance during my senior year. We married the June after I graduated. Donovan was groomsman at our wedding.
“He and Charles stayed in touch after the wedding, but their correspondence was sporadic. They were both hard workers, so there was no time for visiting. Charles and I were surprised, but delighted, when he called to say that he was coming to Hazelton for a job interview. He was hired, and he and Ariel moved to Hazelton.”
“Did Donovan come to Hazelton because Charles was here?”
“In hindsight, I think that he came because of Maddie. He knew that he could depend on her to introduce him to Hazelton’s elite. She was well known in social and political circles. Ariel was a fan of Maddie’s. In truth, she and Maddie were initially closer than Ariel and I were.”
“Was there some reason that Charles wasn’t in Donovan’s wedding?”
“Donovan told Charles that the marriage took place in the living room of a minister friend two days before the move to Hazelton. We were shocked when Donovan arrived with a wife in tow. We didn’t even know that he was seriously dating.”
“Did they seem happy at the time?”
“In my opinion, they were mismatched. The biggest difference was their faith. She was a devout Catholic. Even though Donovan went to church with her, his beliefs were lukewarm. I believed then, and still do, that he swept her off her feet. Some women can overlook flaws if a man is handsome and likeable. Donovan was and is.”
“Wouldn’t her faith have prohibited her from turning a blind eye if she’d been aware of the corruption?”
“I can’t answer that. She was a pro at compartmentalizing her life. I can see her getting so wrapped up in her own causes that she wouldn’t know or care what was going on with Donovan. Especially if their marriage was a matter of convenience.”
“Donovan doesn’t strike me as a man who would choose a hostess in preference to a wife.”
“His political ambition was his true love. She was apolitical. If he believed that having the perfect hostess at his side would increase his electability, there’s not a doubt in my mind that a lack of love would not have been a factor in his choice of wife.”
Travis muttered, “She’s either dumb or naïve.”
“Don’t underestimate her, and don’t mistake naiveté for lack of intelligence. She’s smart as a whip.”