Madeline arrived home from work, kicked off her shoes in the foyer and hurried up the stairs, unhooking her bra, relieved to remove her restrictive clothing
After spending her lunch hour and her pay check at a chic beauty salon for a cut, curl and color to highlight her brown hair with blonde streaks, Jane was eager for Jeremy to see her new look. Everyone at the office had complimented her. For the first time in her life, she actually felt pretty. Basically shy, she had kept a low profile wrapping her fine figure in comfortable rather than trendy clothes. Painting her face with cosmetics and buying the services of overpaid hairstylists in noisy salons made her uncomfortable. Her mother, a former model, and a hard act to follow, had often referred to her, as ”Plain Jane.” Since her parents had moved to Florida and had a busy life filled with parties and travel, she rarely had contact with them. An only child, Jane was used to solitude until she’d met Jeremy.
She had planned a romantic evening to go over last minute wedding details, and had picked up his favorite take-out dinner from the sushi bar on Madison Avenue.
Arriving home from work, she kicked off her shoes in the foyer and plopped the take out dinner on the table. Hurrying down the hall towards the bedroom, she unhooked her bra eager to change into sweats. “That’s better,” she mumbled, relieved to remove her restrictive clothing.
“Jeremy, I’m home and I’ve got dinner.” she sang. No answer. She glanced at her watch. It was after six and he should be home by now. “Hey, Jer, where are you?” Silence.
She burst into the bedroom. The closet door was ajar. She gasped, spying all the empty hangers that had contained Jeremy’s clothes this morning. She looked on the dresser for a note, but there wasn’t any.
A distinct odor of cleanser pervaded the apartment. The bathroom appeared freshly scrubbed and every surface had been treated to an expert cleansing.
The kitchen sparkled too. As though Jeremy, her mate for five years wanted to rid the house of his fingerprints and his essence. There was no note on the refrigerator door, no message on the note pad next to the phone. In fact, the note pad was gone, too.
What the heck was going on? They had rarely argued, and certainly not recently. He had been attentive and loving. What could have happened?
She flew into his den. His laptop was gone and his bookshelves emptied. There was no sign that Jeremy Steel had ever been there. Within the day, he had cleared out. Puff! Gone!
Jane looked everywhere for something he may have left behind, but she found nothing.
Where and why did he go? Why didn’t he leave a note? Was he forced? He hadn’t left in a hurry. This was a highly calculated, thorough move.
For the past five years, she had lived harmoniously with a man who had suddenly, deliberately dropped out of her life without leaving an explanation.
It would be futile to call the police. There was no proof that he hadn’t left of his own accord. The police would think he had probably gotten cold feet after having made wedding plans, but Jane refused to accept that as a fact.
She tried eating the sushi dinner, but having lost her appetite, she tossed the food into the trash.
Jane turned on the TV in the bedroom and crawled into bed. The sheets were new and freshly laundered. Another sign that Jeremy wanted nothing of himself to remain in the apartment. She surfed the channels for local news. There were no reports of Jeremy Steele.
Sleep eluded her. She cried until her head hurt and her eyes burned. She turned on the light and stared at the telephone. Who should she call? Would she ever hear from him? No one just leaves without a reason. She was bewildered.
The next day, her eyelids were red and swollen and she felt too miserable to leave the house. She called her office and said she needed a few days for personal leave. Jane had to mourn, sort out her situation and cancel the wedding arrangements. Her phone message to her parents was not returned and she assumed they were on a trip.
Several times, she was tempted to call the law office where Jeremy worked as an accountant, but she was too ashamed.
She tried to put together what she learned about Jeremy during their time together.
They had met at a Juliard recital and found they shared a love of music and books. Neither had any friends and they spent all their free time together.
Jeremy had told her he was orphaned at an early age, had no family and was used to being alone and had never considered getting married until he had fallen in love with her. He suggested they live together for awhile before getting married.
According to him, his parents left him a significant sum of money. He used it on lavish gifts for Jane, for their expensive vacations and had bought their co-op apartment outright in her name (allegedly for tax purposes) She was surprised and pleased that because he trusted her, he wouldn’t ask her to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.
He would appear to listen intently when she discussed her work, but he’d never discuss his. “What’s to tell?” he’d say when she’d inquire. “Guess what? I’m really stoked. I balanced ten accounts today. I’d rather hear about your exciting projects.”
When they had first gotten together, Jane was twenty-five years old, a plain, petite brunette with decent facial features. She rarely dated and was inexperienced in the sex department. Jeremy was a few years older, medium height, lean and had an acceptable appearance. Best of all, he was tender, considerate and patient and she learned to enjoy their coupling.
After living together for five years, they decided they were ready to marry. He hadn’t given her a clue that he had gotten cold feet.
A few days after he vanished, Jane’s feelings turned from shock to anger. She had to let it go. She returned to work on a challenging project at her job in a public relations firm.
Soon, her anger turned into sadness. Now, alone, she realized she had been dependent upon Jeremy for companionship. Wouldn’t he miss her, too?
Perhaps he had left because he was in trouble with the law and was trying to protect her. Ruminating over him made her feel worse and she forced herself to concentrate on the work project to help her cope with her grief.
One week later, her parents called, and not at all surprising blamed her for Jeremy’s change of heart.
Jane’s anger gave her the courage to call Jeremy’s office. The human resource department revealed that Jeremy Steel had terminated his position a month ago. By law, they could not provide additional information.
She was determined to move on and put Jeremy and her parents out of her mind. She accepted dinner dates with her friends from work, and felt less lonely.
Habitually, she tuned in to local news before going to sleep. After a stupid commercial—that’s an oxymoron, she thought, the TV reporter announced the disappearance of Jeremy Steel; an accountant wanted for embezzlement. If anyone had knowledge of his whereabouts, they were asked to contact Detective Riley at the flashing phone number on the screen. Jane jotted the information in her notebook.
Now, at least she understood.
Hurt and disappointed, she decided to visit her old psychologist.
She came away from her session feeling better. She learned that she could play the role of good parent to herself—the role that her parents rejected. She also learned that she had no reason to suspect her tender lover was a crook. At least Jeremy had given her the chance to experience romance and intimacy. Dr. Glades helped her to believe those feelings could resurface with someone new, but next time she’d have to know much more about a person before allowing the relationship to flourish. She vowed to learn from that experience.
Several months later, she met Kevin Trent while handling a public relations campaign for his client. Kevin and Jane were instantly attracted to each other, but they agreed to allow their courtship to proceed at a slow pace. After two years, they married and were content.
Jane rarely thought of Jeremy until a vacation in Mendocino, a remote, picturesque, northern California coastal town.
Kevin and Jane had driven up from San Francisco through a long, winding road lined with giant redwoods. They stopped at Big River State Park and hiked a gorgeous trail uphill along a river. It was very serene. Jane thought they were alone until she spied a man with a large brown dog hiking the trail. Although he was walking ahead, she sensed a familiarity and she gasped.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Kevin asked.
Before she could answer, the man turned around and walked towards them.
“Oh, my God, Kev, that’s Jeremy, the guy I told you had disappeared.” She squeezed Kevin’s hand.
The man hesitated when he saw the couple, then zigzagged into a run passing them, the brown dog following.
Jane caught a glimpse at the man’s face. He had a trim dark beard and mustache. Sunglasses hid his eyes. A black wool cap covered his head. Long strands of dark hair, speckled with gray fell to his shoulders. From his appearance, she was almost positive it was Jeremy. There was something about him that jarred her.
Jane’s knees began to buckle and she leaned against a giant redwood tree for support.
“Are you okay, honey?” Kevin asked.
“I’m shocked. I never expected to see him again.”
“But how can you be certain it was him? That guy’s face was covered by hair and you only had a quick look.”
“I know, but I feel it was him. Let’s get out of here.”
Kevin drove the rented Buick into the charming old town of Mendocino. The guidebook helped them locate some scenes from the TV series “Murder She Wrote.”
They enjoyed an organic vegetarian lunch in the garden of Mendo Bistro, a quaint little café overlooking the Pacific. Afterwards, they poked around at the gift shops and galleries housed in historic buildings dating from the days the town began. Browsing was usually pleasant, but Jane’s thoughts of Jeremy intruded. She had figured he’d escaped to a foreign land from which he could not be extradited. Seeing him here—and she more and more certain it was Jeremy—unnerved her.
“Kevin, maybe I should call the FBI or the local authorities.”
“Ah, come on, honey, how can you be sure it was Jeremy?”
“I lived with him for five years. Even with all that hair, I sense it was him.”
“If you’re wrong, it will be embarrassing.”
“Jeremy is a fugitive from justice.”
Kevin shook his head. “We’re here on a much needed vacation, Jane. Tell you what. If you see him again, call 911 from your cell phone.”
They headed to the car for the short drive to Hill Haven, a Victorian Bed and Breakfast furnished with European antiques and lots of lace. In their room overlooking the surf, they conversed and comforted one another. Listening to the ocean roar, they finally fell asleep between silk sheets in a brass four-posted bed.
The next morning, after an elegantly presented breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, cherry cheese crepes and dark roasted coffee, Jane and Kevin drove to Jughead State Beach. Kevin’s love of nature inspired Jane, a big city person, and she was eager to take a self-guided tour. They planned to trek a natural geological staircase and examine the distinct plant life.
From the first terrace of the Headlands, dominated by wildflowers, grasses and blackberries, they looked out at the breath-taking coastal prairie and watched waves slam against the rocky shore. The cool fresh air invigorated the couple.
“This is absolutely gorgeous, Kevin. Makes me want to live here.”
“Me, too, but I think you’d miss the city.”
Before she could answer, they spied the man Jane thought was Jeremy, again accompanied by the brown Labrador.
“Jeremy?” Jane called as he came closer. The man stared at her, turned on his heel and ran away, the dog trailing.
Jane pulled out her cell phone and hit the buttons, but there was no service in the area. “Come on, Kevin. Let’s hurry back to a landline phone. I’m going to call the authorities.”
Kevin sighed. “Okay, we agreed you would do it if we saw him again, and this time he ran away when you called his name. I’m sorry I doubted you, hon.”
They jogged to the car. Kevin drove towards town while Jane repeatedly tried in vain to call from her cell. “Damn!” she shouted.
The couple entered a bar and Jane placed the call from a phone booth. She gave the sheriff a description of fugitive Jeremy Steel, former New York accountant and his dog.
“Ma’am, I know Jeremy Steel very well. There’s no way he’s a fugitive. He’s been here all his life. Never been gone long enough to work in New York as an accountant. This guy is the best baker in town. We’d all be very disappointed if he’d left for any length of time.”
“I apologize for bothering you, Sheriff. Can you tell me where I can find him?”
“Ask anyone to point you to the bakery on Main Street. He’s probably there now.”
Kevin and Jane were a few steps from the bakery. They entered the small shop and asked the clerk for Jeremy.
“He’s in his office, I’ll get him.”
The man they had seen in the park came to the front of the shop to meet them. His hair was tied in a ponytail.
“What can I do for you?”
Jane stared into his face. He looked exactly like Jeremy.
“We’re Jane and Kevin Trent from New York and would like to ask you a question.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Do you have a twin?”
“Why, yes, my twin Justin, but we’ve been separated since our parents divorced when we were little tykes. Do you know my brother?”
“Would you mind if we sat down somewhere? I have something to tell you,” Jane said.
He crooked his finger and led them into his office. He pulled out three folding chairs and they sat in a semi-circle.
“Have you kept touch with your brother?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, but I’ve tried. My parents divorced and split everything in half including us kids. Dad took me, and Mom took Justin and ta-ta off they went to merry ole England.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, but I was involved with your twin for five years. He claimed his name was Jeremy Steel and that he was an accountant. Just before we were going to be married, he disappeared. Later I found out he was wanted for embezzlement.”
“Oh, my!” said the baker, his face paling. He stared blankly as though in a trance.
“He’s stolen much more than money. He had stolen my heart, and apparently, your identity.”
The baker rolled his eyes.
“Why did you run away from me?” Jane asked.
“You stared at me kinda crazy-like and I thought you might hurt me.” He pulled out a tissue from a box on his desk and wiped his tearing eyes. “This news is hard to take.”
“You were right. I did hurt you, and I’m very sorry.”
“I’m just a small town guy. I don’t know anyone who’d behave like that…and my own brother, no less.”
“It’s no reflection on you. After I saw you, I reported it to the sheriff. He assured me that there is no way you’d be a fugitive.”
“Do you have a birth certificate?” Kevin asked.
“Never needed one. Everyone knows me like forever, man.”
“Have you traveled out of the country?” Kevin asked.
“Furthest I’ve gone is Vancouver for a few days. Didn’t need a passport.”
“I’d like to help you get your I.D. straightened out. No charge,” Kevin offered.
“Thanks, but it isn’t necessary.”
The baker’s assistant knocked on the door and came in with a tray of freshly baked cookies, cups and a carafe of coffee. “Please,” he said, carefully placing the tray on Jeremy’s desk.
“Thank you. This smells wonderful,” Jane said. “Your brother wasn’t interested in cooking or baking. He loved classical music.”
“I don’t remember much about him. We were so young.”
They chatted a little longer and Jane felt this man was truthful, and had an endearing, naïve, small town quality.
“I’m sorry to have given you this news, but I’m glad to have met you.”
“If you change your mind, I’d be glad to help. No charge.” Kevin gave him his card. They shook his hand and left.
“Forget about living in this beautiful small town, Kevin. I wouldn’t want to run into the baker again.”
They drove back to San Francisco the next day and returned to New York.
Jane notified Detective Riley. The tip about England led him to Jeremy’s mother and ultimately to a remote Caribbean island. Surrounded by books, c.d.’s and stereo, Justin lived in luxury. Although he held a passport in his own name, he was extradited and ultimately imprisoned. Kevin sent the newspaper column to the baker along with information on how to reclaim his identity.