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Authors: Mary Higgins Clark,Alafair Burke

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BOOK: The Cinderella Murder
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And just as Madison had always known Keith would never quit his high school girlfriend, she was confident she would find him at his usual haunt, a lounge celebrities liked called Teddy’s, in the far
front corner of the Roosevelt Hotel. He was even sitting in the same banquette where she’d last seen him here, about six months earlier. She should have called him Rain Man, that’s how much Keith Ratner liked a routine. She was even fairly certain she could identify the clear liquid in his glass.

“Let me guess,” she said by way of greeting. “Patrón Silver on the rocks?”

His face broke out into a broad smile. Twenty years later, and that smile still sent a chill up her spine. “Nope,” he said, jiggling his glass. “I still love this place, but I’ve been a club soda guy for years. From here I’ll hit Twenty-Four Hour Fitness for some cross-training.”

Several years ago, at the height of Keith’s television career, Madison had seen an interview highlighting his commitment to physical health, volunteer work, and his do-gooder church. It all seemed like a PR stunt to her, but here he was, in his favorite bar, sipping soda water.

“Still trying to convince everyone you’re a reformed soul?” she asked.

“Clean body, clean mind.”

She waved over a waitress and ordered herself a cucumber martini. “Vodka’s clean enough by my standards.”

“Speaking of standards,” Keith teased, “how did the likes of you get past the red velvet rope?”

Madison’s celebrity had taken off before his, thanks to her role in
Beauty Land
, Frank Parker’s first major film. But Keith’s career hadn’t died like hers. If only he knew how close his comment cut to the bone. She had, in fact, slipped the bouncer a twenty to get in.

“I knew I’d find you here,” she said.

“So this isn’t a chance encounter?”

Keith obviously still knew the power he had over her. Madison recalled the first time she met him, as a freshman at UCLA. She’d shown up to an open casting call for some horrible musical based on the life of Jackson Pollock. Keith was there to audition for Pollock,
she for the artist’s wife, Lee Krasner. Madison could tell as they read their lines that they were both having a hard time suppressing laughter at the terrible dialogue. They finally burst into giggles when the casting agent declared that they were both “far too good-looking for this project.” They headed straight from the audition to a nearby bar, where Keith knew a bartender willing to serve them despite their age. When he kissed her, it was her first taste of whiskey.

She didn’t even know that he attended UCLA until she spotted him in Wilson Plaza, holding hands with a girl she recognized from her History of Theater class. Blond, pretty, a less primped version of Madison herself. Madison made a point of befriending Susan Dempsey the very next day, quickly learning that she’d come to UCLA with her high school boyfriend. Keith wasn’t happy about his girlfriend’s newest friendship, but there wasn’t much he could say about it, was there?

Keith had Susan, so Madison moved on to other relationships, too. But they continued their dalliances. When Madison upped the ante by moving in with Susan sophomore year, it only seemed to make their secret rendezvous more exciting.

All that changed after Susan’s murder. Keith stopped calling and brushed Madison off when she called him. Not long after she finished shooting
Beauty Land
, he dropped out of college. He told everyone he had landed a major agent who had big plans for him. But whispers in the theater department speculated that he was so broken up about Susan’s murder than he could hardly function, let alone attend school or launch an acting career. Supposedly he had found Jesus. Other, less kind whispers suggested that his departure was proof that he’d had something to do with Susan’s death after all.

Now, twenty years later, time had been easier on him than on Madison, as always seemed to be the case with men. Somehow the lines on his thin, angular face made him even more handsome. The dark, tousled hair that had pegged him as a rocker type when he was a college freshman now came off as comfortable and confident. He
occasionally showed up as a featured guest on a one-hour network drama and had even had a small part in an indie film the previous year. But even so, Madison hadn’t seen him in a regular gig since his cable sitcom was canceled four years earlier. Keith needed
Under Suspicion
almost as much as she did.

“Not a chance encounter,” she confirmed, just as the waitress returned with her drink. She took a seat next to him and smiled.

“Uh-oh. It’s been a while, but I know that look. You want something.”

“Did you get contacted by a TV producer named Laurie Moran?”

“Oh, I get contacted by so
many
projects, I can’t keep them all straight.” Now he was the one smiling. He was still a ham, a completely charming ham.

“It’s for
Under Suspicion
,” she said. “They want to do a show about Susan’s murder. They must have contacted you.”

He looked away and took a sip of his drink. When he spoke, the lighthearted tone was absent. “I don’t want anything to do with it. What’s the point in rehashing everything that happened back then? They’re really doing it?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Do you know who else is in?”

“Susan’s mother, Rosemary. Nicole, wherever she disappeared to. Apparently her last name’s Melling now. And the person I think you’ll really be interested in: Frank Parker.”

When Keith heard that Madison had landed the role in
Beauty Land,
he had shown up outside her dorm. He was drunk and yelled, “How could you? That man killed my Susan, and everyone knows it. All you ever will be is a cheaper, lesser version of her!” It was the only time he had made her cry.

“I’m surprised they got anyone to go along with the show, other than Rosemary,” he said.

“Well, I for one am doing it. If we play our cards right, it could
help us both. Millions of people watch that show. It’s exposure.” She didn’t add that she also hoped to persuade Frank Parker to find a role for her in his next project.

“I’ll think about it. Is that it?”

“What I really need, Keith, is your word.”

“And what word might that be? A secret, magical word?” The playful smile had returned.

“I mean it,” she said. “No one can ever know about us.”

“It was twenty years ago, Madison. We were all kids. You really think anyone will care that you and I played footsie on occasion?”

Was that all I was to him? she thought. “Of course they’ll care. Susan was—perfect Susan: smart, talented, the whole package. I was—how did you word it? The other beauty, but
a cheaper, lesser version
. You know that the producers will portray Nicole as the good, loyal friend. I’ll be the rival drama queen.” Madison knew that the friendship between Susan and Nicole hadn’t been nearly as perfect as the media had made it seem in the aftermath of Susan’s death. “There are still people on the Internet saying I must have killed Susan or at least faked an alibi for Frank Parker, so I could get the role in
Beauty Land.
If the world finds out I was sneaking around with Saint Susan’s boyfriend, they’ll really think I did it.”

“Well, maybe you did.” She couldn’t tell whether he was teasing or serious.

“Or maybe you did,” she sniped, “just like Susan’s parents always thought. It won’t look good that you had something going with your girlfriend’s own roommate.”

“Mutual destruction,” he said, staring at the empty glass he was now spinning in his hand.

“So I have your word?”

“Word,” he said, pointing at her. “We never happened. Forget all our cozy little get-togethers. Our secret dies with us.”

12

O
nce Madison was out of view, Keith pulled his cell phone from his jeans pocket, scrolled through his favorite contacts, and tapped on the entry listed as “AG.” Very few people had this particular phone number. Keith had gotten it five years earlier, and that was after fifteen years of dedicated service. At the time, his career was on a roll. He chose to believe that it was the decade and a half of loyalty, not the fleeting appearance of fame or the financial rewards that came with it, that had led to this privilege.

“Yes?” the voice on the other line said. All these years later, and Keith still thought this voice was one of the strangest he’d ever heard. High-pitched like a child’s, but completely confident and controlled.

“I have more information about the television show I told you about.”

“Yes?”

“Apparently they are going forward with production. My understanding is that everyone else is getting pulled in: Frank Parker, Susan’s mother, Madison Meyer, Nicole.”

“Nicole. You’re certain?”

With a source like Madison, how could Keith possibly be sure? That woman would lie, steal, cheat—maybe even kill—to get what she wanted. Wasn’t that why he’d been drawn to her back then? She
was dark and dangerous—everything Susan was not. But, as much as she’d been trying to manipulate him, seeking him out here at Teddy’s, he didn’t think she was lying about other people’s signing on to appear on the show. “Yes, I’m almost positive.” He knew to include the word “almost.” You didn’t get access to this phone number by withholding any tiny kernel of truth.

“Did they say anything else about Nicole?” the voice asked.

“Her last name is apparently Melling now. That’s all I know.”

There was a pause before the voice continued. “It will be better if you participate.”

Keith had been afraid Martin would say that. Money in Keith’s pocket meant more tithing, not to mention the help Keith could give to the church’s reputation if he were back in the spotlight. Keith reminded himself that the church focused on fund-raising to advance its mission of helping the poor, but he really didn’t want to do this show.

“Susan’s mother has always suspected me of killing her daughter. I can only imagine what she’ll say about me. And I’ve been public about my religion. It could make the church look bad.”

“You’re an actor. Charm the producers. And be sure to report back with any new information on Nicole.”

“She’s been off the radar for twenty years. Why the curiosity?”

“You let me worry about my own enemies.”

When the line went dead, Keith Ratner was glad that he hadn’t made an adversary of the man on the other end of the line. He intended to keep it that way at all costs.

13

T
hree hundred fifty miles away, in downtown San Francisco, Steve Roman’s cell phone rang. The screen identified the caller as “AG.”

He felt himself smile. The directive that Steve move to the Bay Area was a sure sign that he was trusted, but he missed seeing Martin Collins in person. Maybe the church would ask him to return to Los Angeles. Or perhaps Martin would be coming north for another big revival.

“Steve Roman,” he answered. Steve, like Steve McQueen. Roman, like a gladiator.

“You’re well?” Martin never identified himself during phone calls. It wasn’t necessary. Anyone who had witnessed one of Martin’s sermons knew the distinctive sound of his voice. Steve had first heard Martin’s voice when a friend brought him to a revival in the basement of a Westwood tattoo parlor fifteen years earlier. Since then, he’d listened to Martin’s preaching for hours—in person, on cassette tapes and then CDs, and now via streaming audio from the Internet.

Over the years, Steve had worked his way closer and closer to the inner circle. Advocates for God used a circle metaphor for a member’s relationship to the church. It wasn’t a hierarchy. Martin wasn’t the top; he was the
center
. And through the center, the word of God could be heard.

“Yes,” Steve responded. “Thank you, as ever, for the opportunity.”

When Martin decided to expand AG’s reach beyond his Southern California megachurch, he had dispatched Steve here. Even though Steve preferred the sunny glow and glitz of Southern California to the gloomy, windy Bay Area, he always expressed gratitude to AG for the opportunity. The church had found a studio apartment for him above Market Street and secured a job for him with a home-alarm company, Keepsafe.

BOOK: The Cinderella Murder
8.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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