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***CHAPTER SEVENTEEN***

Emerson got up and locked his office door and was on the phone to Sharon Colchetti as soon as he was sure the two detectives were out of the building. As usual, the butler, Charles, answered the phone by the second ring. When Emerson asked for her, there was a ten-seconds too long pause before she came on the line.

"Hello?" she said.

She sounded calm and relaxed and in much better spirits than she’d been with him at his place that evening. He liked the sound of it and wanted to hear her that way more often.

"Sharon, this is Bruce. Are you alone?"

She looked around the room and saw no one. "Yes, I’m alone. What is it? If it’s about the estate, it’s going to be a little while before all the paper work’s finalized."

"I know, but this is something else. I wanted to warn you about the two cops who came to see me today. One’s a brunet, the other’s blond. They were asking about Sharon Milner’s employment history. I thought you should know. The good thing is they don’t seem to have a clue who they’re really looking for."

"So you think they’re probably on their way here to talk to me now." It wasn't a question.

"Probably. So this is what I need you to do. Don’t act nervous or jumpy, and for God’s sake don’t take a drink. They'll suspect something. Just tell them you never worked here before. The background trail I created for your alias should hold up if you stay with it. There’s no way for them to prove or disprove where you worked."

"Okay, all right. Did they ask about Angela?"

"Yes."

"Damn it, Bruce. What if they ask me about her? They’re sure to find out something if they dig long enough and deep enough. When they do they’re going to find out she was a minor and that you and she were sleeping together."

"That’s not going to happen, Sharon. I’ve told them my side of the story, that she’s a hysterical young woman in trouble who just lost her mother within the span of a month. She’s just grasping at straws. I think they bought it. Don’t worry. Everything’s going be all right."

Sharon sighed. "You keep saying that, Bruce. But so far things haven’t been. What if they start really believing her story?"

"That just means that instead of having my contact take care of things--like he did her parents--I’ll have to care of it." He licked his lips. "Hell, all she had to do was get lost with the kid and things would have been okay, at least till we were settled in."

"What are you going to do now?"

"You just stay there and be calm and answer their questions and I’ll call you when it’s all over. What’d you say that detective’s name was that came over and talked to you that day?"

"Star…Starksy, I think. I don’t know. I know it was something like that."

"Hold on." Emerson set the receiver down and found the business card that the blond detective had left on his desk. He picked it up and read it. One of the names on it was Detective David M. Starsky, he was the cop who’d done the questioning, and beside his name was the other cop, Hutchinson. Below that in pen was a separate phone number. He smiled and put the receiver back to his ear. "So Angie brought this detective with her the day he came to the house, right?"

"Yes, they seemed to know each other. Why?"

"Nothing. Nothing. I’ll be in touch." He hung up the phone.

Sharon hung up too and headed straight for the bar. She poured herself a drink. A vodka straight up, no ice. She shook as she drunk it down, hoping that the alcohol would steady her nerves before the cops got there. The more, the stronger the better, she thought, and poured herself another, despite Bruce’s warning.

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Emerson dialed the number on the two officer's business card and sat and listened to the phone ring. In a few seconds the ringing stopped and a female voice came on the line. He heard her say hello, and then paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, then spoke. "Hello, this is Bruce Emerson. I’d like to speak to detectives Starsky and Hutchinson if I may."

"I’m sorry, they aren’t here right now. Would you like to leave a message for them?"

"Um, well, ah, they came by to see me today to ask me some questions, and I just got hold of some information that I think might be of interest to them. They said to call, so I did. I really think it might be important. Do you think they’d mind if I came down and waited?"

"Ah, well, I don’t know about that."

"I wouldn’t ask, except that I’m leaving town for two weeks on business and…"

He didn't finish.

"Oh." Frankie checked her watch. "I guess it won’t hurt to give you the address and get your phone number. I’ll have them give you a call when they get back and you can come on down then. Do you have a pen handy?"

"One second." Emerson picked up a pen and flipped the officer’s business card over to write on the blank side, said, ‘ready’, and wrote down the address. After she gave it to him he thanked her and hung up the phone. Armed with the information he needed, he reached into the upper right hand pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a key, using it to open the top drawer of his desk. Ironically, the only one he ever kept locked. From it he pulled a small caliber handgun, hefted it and checked the chamber. Upon finding it full, he wiped the handle clean with a cloth, put the cloth back, relocked the drawer and tucked the gun into the waistband of his trousers. He left his office and informed his secretary that he would be out for awhile, then left the building.

***CHAPTER EIGHTEEN***

When detectives Starsky and Hutchinson arrived at the front gate of the Colchetti estate that same afternoon, they were let onto the premises by the butler, Charles. When he opened the main door to let them in, he was not smiling and did not look pleased to see them.

"You’re here to see Mrs. Colchetti, correct?"

"Yes, we are. Could you tell her we’re here, please?" Hutch said.

"Of course, right away, gentlemen. My name is Charles. Please follow me."

The butler led them through the mansion’s expanse and had them stop when at the entrance of a small room. He opened the door and led them down a short flight of carpeted steps. They ended up in what looked like a game room of sorts. There was a pool table, a big screen television, a full bar and a dartboard game that was secured to a wood paneled wall. It seemed totally out of step with the rest of the place and the bewilderment on the detective's faces showed. Charles noticed their curious looks and addressed them. "You are probably wondering about this room. This was Mr. Colchetti’s favorite place. When he wanted to enjoy the simpler things of life, he came here. It gave him much pleasure." They nodded. "Please make yourselves comfortable. Mrs. Colchetti will be with you shortly."

"Thank you, Charles," they said.

After the butler left, Hutch walked over to the dartboard and pulled off the darts that were stuck in the middle of the bull’s eye portion of board. He stood back a good length from the toe line, aimed and threw a couple of practice throws. Starsky took a seat on one of the barstools, braced his elbows behind him on the bar and tucked his feet in behind the foot rail to watch. He marveled as each dart his partner threw landed in a spot scoring higher than the last.

"Hey, you think you could do that with your eyes closed?" he asked him.

As Hutch poised to throw the last dart, his face the portrait of determined concentration; he answered his partner without looking at him. "Don’t know, Starsk. I’ve never tried." He tossed the dart and watched it land directly in the middle of the bull’s eye. He smiled, moved forward and pulled the thrown darts out of the board to start over.

"I’ll bet I could do it."

"Do what?"

"Play with my eyes closed."

Hutch laughed. "That’s a sucker's bet, Starsky. And I don’t take them. Besides, who knows, if you lost to me, it might screw with your self-esteem, hurt your pride. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for letting something like that happen."

"Yeah, sure, you’re just afraid that I might beat ya."

Hutch turned around and looked at him, poising one of the darts at him as if he were about to throw it. "Don’t tempt me. I might just try some practice tosses on you."

"Yeah, whatever."

Just then Mrs. Colchetti came into the room. She was wearing a short-sleeved white blouse with wide lapels over a pair of khaki slacks. On her feet were sand-colored espadrilles and she wore small diamond earrings. Even in casual wear, she was a knockout. Both men stopped what they were doing when she approached them. Hutch jammed the darts still in his hand back into the board in one motion while his partner extricated himself from his seat. He went over to greet her as she came near.

She offered her hand to him. "Hello. Nice to see you again, detective."

"Nice to see you again, too. Ah, this here is my partner, Ken Hutchinson."

Hutchinson shook her hand and smiled effusively, appearing somewhat taken by her beauty. Then said, "Glad to meet you, Mrs. Colchetti. We were both sorry to hear about your husband."

"Thank you." She released her hand and motioned to a fabric sofa. "Won’t you both sit down?"

"Sure."

When they were sitting down, she smiled at them and they smiled back at her. There was an uncomfortable quiet in the room. Then she folded her arms across her body and grabbed her forearms, rubbing her palms against them, her face nearly pale. She took a deep breath. "Are either of you cold?"

Both men shook their heads. The room felt fine.

"Well, I’m freezing. Do you mind if I make myself a drink?"

"Not at all," Hutch answered. Though it looked to him like she’d already had a couple before they’d gotten there. "Go ahead."

After she made the drink and had taken a couple of sips, she resituated herself between them on the couch. The strength of the liquor seemed to have the desired affect and when she turned towards them, the color seemed to be returning to her face. "Oh my, that’s better," she said breathlessly. "I don’t come in here too often. It’s always a little chilly. Ah, now you said on the phone that you had some questions for me?"

Hutch smiled, his head slightly bowed. "Yes, there are a couple of areas we need clarification on and we think you might be able to help us."

"If I can."

"I take it you’ve already gotten a call from the medical examiner and he told you of his findings?"

"Yes. They told me John had been poisoned." She changed her position on the couch only slightly and looked straight into his eyes.

"Any idea why anyone would want to kill him?"

"My husband had quite a large estate. There are probably a lot of people out there who would like to get at his money." She sipped the drink again, holding the heavy glass loosely in her hands.

Hutch leaned toward her. "I think you should know that we did some checking into your background, just as a matter of routine."

Her forehead wrinkled, she looked like she needed a cigarette, but didn’t smoke. "The spouse is always the first one the cops suspect, isn’t that right?"

"Unfortunately, that’s true."

She nodded knowingly.

"Can you tell us anything about your job at Warwicke’s?"

"Um, I worked there for a couple of years, in the cosmetics department. Did some modeling for them. Then the company went out of business a few years ago I believe."

"Is that how you met your late husband?"

"Um, yes, he would come into the department store on a regular basis, to buy things. We just happened to hit it off."

"Did you know that he was a married at the time?"

"Yes, he told me he was…after a while. But he also hinted to me that the marriage was unstable."

"So he gave you the go ahead to make a move?"

"Yes."

"It might also interest you to know that during the course of this investigation we’ve run into a number of coincidences, one of which led us to a company called Penn State Mutual Insurance. Which in addition to being the company that holds the life insurance policies on the Colchetti family, also happens to be the insurance company that insured the late Mrs. Colchetti’s car, the car she was driving the day of her accident. Were you aware of that?"

She looked a little confused, but then said, "Yes, John told me after we were married that we should get a policy in my name with that particular company. I knew that he used Penn State."

"All right. After that we went to their personnel office and did a records check on the two last names we had, your husband's and your maiden name, Milner. We got back the names of two former employees, an A., Colchetti and a Sharon Milner, both of whom, it turns out, worked for a sales agent named Bruce Emerson. We’ll call this coincidence number two."

She didn’t comment.

"When we went to Emerson’s office and asked him about the two women, he politely obliged us with a physical description of the Sharon Milner he knew and worked with, at the same time dismissing the fact that your maiden name and her last name are the same. Basically he wanted us to believe that there were enough physical and personality differences between you and Ms. Milner that there couldn’t possibly be a connection. Which brings us to coincidence number three. When pressed, Mr. Emerson also revealed that the A. Colchetti who worked for him was actually Angela Colchetti, your deceased husband’s daughter, with whom he says he had a basically platonic relationship and nothing more. Frankly, Mrs. Colchetti, in our line of work, that's too many coincidences."

"I understand."

"All right, so here’s what we know so far: First, that you were employed at Warwicke’s department store as a salesgirl and that that is how you happened to become acquainted with John Colchetti, eventually coming to marry him. Secondly, the information is not verifiable because the store has been closed for two years since you last worked there. Thirdly, we know that Bruce Emerson had a close and possibly intimate relationship with both Sharon Milner and John Colchetti’s daughter Angela, since he told us himself that she was working at his office and was fired because she suspected that he’d fathered her unborn child. And fourth, we know from speaking with current employees that Emerson has a reputation for bedding the ladies he works with, particularly his secretaries, and that he likes to live above his means. What we still don’t know, and would like to find out, is what, if anything you and a secretary named Sharon Milner have in common. Can you enlighten us?"

Jessie didn’t answer immediately, but her slow reaction time alerted the detective to the possibility that his question might have touched on a sensitive area. If he and Starsky were to prod a little deeper, there was no telling what they might find out. She was stalling and it put Starsky on edge; he got up and began to pace the other side of the couch.

Hutchinson watched her fuss nervously with the bangs on her forehead as they strayed into her eyes. "I--I don’t know what you mean."

The other cop’s voice seemed to come from another part of the room, though he was only a few feet away. "How is it that you and Sharon Milner have the same last name, Jessie?"

"We’re sisters," she muttered.

"Un huh. We already thought of that. It might interest you to know that a background check on a person also includes birth records, and the ones we found on Sharon Milner indicate she was an only child."

She lowered her eyes. "Th-that’s not possible."

"Sure it is. And you know what I think happened? I think you found out that Colchetti was a lonely guy with lotsa dough to play around with and you rigged a plan to get rid of his wife and his sooner or later his daughter, so you could get the money for yourself."

She turned quickly. "That’s not true, that’s not what happened!"

The detective moved closer and slammed his hands down hard on the sofa back for effect. "Then what did happen? Was it luck that led you to John Colchetti, or did you plan it that way?"

"I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about! I didn’t even know about John until Bruce introduced me to him."

Both men looked at each other and thought at the same time. Aha. A revelation.

Starsky pressed on. "So it was Emerson’s baby. I knew there was something I didn't like about that guy. Why don’t you tell us about it?"

"If I do, then it’s all over."

"It’s all over anyway," Hutch said bluntly. "The captain of the city police department already has proof that Mr. Colchetti’s death wasn’t an accident, if we look long enough, I’m pretty sure we’ll find out that his wife’s wasn’t one either. That would mean that someone planned their deaths to look like accidents, that they were cold, pre-meditated murders. We think you know who did it."

She shook her head.

Starsky moved in very, very close to her, speaking into her ear. "If you don’t tell us what you know and we find out later on that you knew something, but decided not to tell us, we’ll be forced to take you downtown as an accessory to a double murder. I’d sure hate to see someone with your looks and personality doing hard time if she doesn’t have to."

She took a long hard look at both men and carefully weighed her options. "What will happen to me if I tell you what I know?"

Hutch looked at his partner. "We can put a good word in with the judge. But we can’t promise you anything. If you’re lucky he may be lenient with the sentencing."

She thought about it for another moment, and then let out a deep sigh. "All right, I’ll tell you." She finished what was left of the drink in her hand and set the glass on the coffee table. A sorrowful noise escaped her lips. Starsky was sitting on the back of the sofa behind her, staring at the right side of her face. They waited for her to collect herself. Hutch readied his notepad and when she was ready she glanced over at him.

"Okay. You got a lot of paper on that pad? This is a long story."

"That’s okay, I know shorthand," he said.

"Okay, first of all you two were right about Sharon and me not being sisters. I was born Sharon Jessica Milner, and I’m originally from New Jersey. When I came to Philadelphia in 1975 I was out of work for a good three months, living on unemployment insurance. Then one day out of the blue I got a call to come down to Penn State for an interview. I was a mousy, dowdy brunette with the right skills and the right background, so I was exactly what they were looking for. And they hired me. When my probation was up I got a chance for a promotional position, which I took because I still really needed the money. Right then I was playing catch up, you know, struggling to pay my rent; my car was in the shop…"

They both nodded.

"Eventually they reassigned me to the sales department as a personal secretary in the life insurance policies office, that’s when I started working for Bruce. It was strictly business for a long time. I guess he was feeling me out. After I’d been there for about six months, I started noticing him giving me the eye more and more. It kind of surprised and thrilled me at the same time, knowing that a guy who looks like he does and dresses like he does was actually interested in little old me. I guess I was pretty flattered. So I just about died when he asked me out, but I said yes. We went out secretly at first, but after a while we didn’t bother trying to hide it. But soon enough the word got around and before I knew it, there were other women, other secretaries coming to me and telling me about his past. So of course I had to confront him with what I knew and surprisingly, he admitted it. But it was all right; he promised me that that part of his life was over, in the past. I was naļve enough then to believe it." She shrugged.

"Did he do what he promised?" Hutch asked her.

She nodded. "That and much more. He told me once that he saw more beauty in me than he’d ever seen in any woman in his life. He wanted to bring it out…the beauty, I mean. He said that I was special, that he wanted me to have more."

"Go on," Starsky pressed.

"So anyway, it wasn’t so long after that that John starting coming by the office with his lawyers. It must have been right after he’d gotten the inheritance, because he told Bruce that he wanted to open up the life insurance policies for himself and his wife and daughter. The policies turned out to be very lucrative and Bruce knew then that he had his man."

"Keep going."

"About a year after John requested the policies, he came by to see Bruce to finalize some of the papers and during the course of their conversation he must have mentioned that his daughter was looking for a summer job. That was when Bruce found out that Angela was John’s daughter. That’s when he got the idea to hire her. He started seeing her after that, not before."

"What a prince," Starsky said, and Hutch shushed him.

"It started out as just a good source for finding out if there was some way to get at the money. He figured that it was. So he hired Angela as an intern to help us around the office. She’d just gotten out of school for the summer and she seemed to be a perfect source of information. You know, she’s good looking, book smart, but very impressionable. Bruce used her to serve a purpose. During the whole thing he was promising me that he was still faithful to me, and that he was only doing this for us. And since he was getting the information he needed, I never really questioned his methods." She stopped and looked at them both.

"Just a regular wolf in sheep’s clothing," Starsky grumbled. Hutch gave him a pointed look.

She stared blankly ahead and ventured on. "So I looked the other way while he seduced John’s daughter, because it was the way he learned about their family and what their weaknesses were. Plus he knew all the ins and outs of the insurance business and he had all the connections, and those connections were the key to getting at the money."

"Did you know beforehand what he had planned for Colchetti and his wife?" Hutch asked.

"No. Not until after it happened. He wanted me to have as little knowledge as possible of what was going to happen, in case I was ever suspected."

"So the less you knew, the less you could tell the police." Starsky said.

"Right." She crossed and uncrossed her legs at the ankles, then folded and refolded her hands. "By the time the casual thing with John’s daughter got more serious, she was so comfortable with him that she was confiding all of her deepest most private thoughts to him. Then, about two months into it, she comes to see him, unannounced and out of the blue, she goes into his office and closes the door. She’s in there a half an hour with him. When she comes out, she’s in tears. After she’s gone, I ask him what happened. He says that she told him she’s in the family way. He’s categorically denied the child’s his, and tells her it’s not possible for them to be friends or for her to work there."

Came the reply from Starsky: "What a peach of a guy."

Hutch ignored his partner’s comments from then on.

"So he let her go with the official explanation that letting her stay on in her condition would be bad for the company. With things already shaky at home, I guess him firing her was just the last straw."

Hutch tapped his pencil on the notepad. "So basically, when it got too complicated to pump her for information he dumped her. How’d you get involved?"

"Well, by then Bruce already had enough background on the family, he knew their weaknesses and had a good idea on how to play on them. He realized that John was disinterested in his wife, so he sent me to a hairdresser, brought me the right clothes, and worked on my diction and carriage until we had the woman you see before you, Jessie Milner. When he thought I was comfortable enough with my new persona, he sent me out to the estate to start working on John, which wasn’t difficult, because John was already very open to the idea of having a relationship that existed outside his marriage. After I came into the picture, it made life a little more complicated for his wife and his daughter. Then the car accident happened, and his daughter ran away shortly after we got married."

Hutch put up his hand slowly, still staring at his notepad. "Okay, wait a minute. Something doesn’t add up. When did Angela tell Emerson that she was expecting?"

She thought for a moment. "Um…it must have been about four months ago."

Hutch turned to Starsky, frowning. "You said it was a summer internship. Was that high school or college?"

"High school. It’s her last year. I think John told me that Angie was born August of sixty-one. So that would make her about seventeen or so."

A cloud of apprehension washed over Starsky’s face. "Are you sure about that? I was under the impression she was twenty-one, maybe twenty at the youngest."

"No, she’s just a young girl. Bruce knew how old she was. That’s why the whole thing worked. He knew it eventually had to end, too. Because if her father had ever gotten wind of what he was doing to her, he would have sent him to jail on statutory rape. The way it was done, it just her word against his about the affair and the baby."

Both men shook their heads again.

"I don’t believe this guy." Starsky muttered.

"Okay, you know Emerson," The blond detective said after closing the notepad. "What’s he capable of?"

"I think he’d do just about anything if he felt he had to. It costs a lot of money for him to live the way he does, and I know for a fact that there are some dangerous men out there that he owes a lot of money to. That was part of why he needed to make this happen so badly. The last thing he said before you two got here was that he was going to have to take care of the last detail of the plan himself. I don’t know exactly what he meant."

Both men pointed at each other at the same time, but it was Starsky who got the words out. "Hutch. You left him the card with Frankie’s number on it."

"Damn!" Hutch shot up from the couch. "I need to use your phone."

"Sure, go right ahead, it’s over there." She pointed to a phone set on the wall behind the bar.

Starsky rose from the sofa back and put his hand on her arm. "You’re gonna have to come with us, you know that, right?"

"Yes, I know."

Hutch picked up the receiver and anxiously dialed Frankie’s number, but all he got for his trouble was a steady beeping on the line. "Busy," he announced to Starsky. "I’m gonna call Kraft." His partner nodded and he broke the connection and redialed, waiting for someone at the station to answer, and got the dispatch operator. "Hello, this is Detective Kenneth Hutchinson, Captain Kraft please…okay." There was a brief pause before the captain came on the line. "This is Hutchinson, Captain. Starsky and I have a potential hostage situation going down and I think we’re going to need some major back up at the place where we’re staying. You know how to get there? Okay…yes…we’ll meet you there…all right, thanks." He hung up, stuffed the notepad into his breast pocket and fell in step with his partner and the woman as they headed for the door.

"Am I under arrest?" she asked finally.

"For now, no. If Emerson does what we think he will, you might be able to help us reason with him."

She nodded solemnly. Then as if summoned, Charles appeared at top of the stairs of the playroom. "Madam, would you be needing any assistance?" he asked, looking grave.

They stopped at the door and she faced him, then looked at both detectives. "No, Charles. Someone will…um, no…I don't think so, thank you."

The butler frowned and followed the trio out of the game room and on out to the main entrance. Once outside the two detectives led her outside and placed her in the back of the Dodge. Charles watched them until they drove away, then shrugged and closed the massive oak door.

 

CONTINUEDŽ