tagMatureUnderstated Beauty

Understated Beauty

bykomrad1156©

"Holt? Hey, how are you?" his younger sister, Amanda, asked.

"Good, but you never call, so why do I have this feeling that's about to change? Is Mom okay?"

"Yeah. Never better. Look, I was just reading through one of the entertainment blogs I follow and I noticed Jake Price passed away. Did you know that?"

"What? Are you kidding? He was young. Way too young. What happened?"

Jake Price was a singer with a kind of cult following. He'd only made one album and it had only sold a few thousand copies, but Holt Asbury owned one of them. He loved the man's tortured voice. There was just something about his music that spoke to him, and he'd played the CD so many times it was scratched and nearly unplayable.

"It didn't say. Just that he died."

"Was this recently?"

"No, it was about a year ago. Maybe just over. I know how much you liked him so I wanted to let you know. I checked out his Facebook page and there were a ton of tributes. Some of the comments almost made me cry. You should take a look."

"Yeah. I'll do that. Wow. I still can't believe it. Was he married? Did they have kids?"

"Married, yes. Kids? Not that I can tell, but I didn't really check to see. But yeah, it's very sad. He was only 40 years old. Must have been cancer or a drug overdose, don't you think?"

"Maybe. Could have been a car accident." Holt ran his hand over the three-days worth of growth on his face and said, "I'll check his FB page for sure. Damn. This really kills me."

"You?" she said. "He's the one who's dead."

Holt sighed and let his sister's comment pass. She always had something to say. She always had an opinion. He loved her, but she could be a royal ass pain much of the time.

"His wife is really pretty, by the way," she added. "Not gorgeous or anything. Just...pretty. In that understated kind of way."

That was also Amanda. Always noticing and commenting on the way people looked, what they wore, and all the superficial stuff that drove him crazy. Again, he didn't say anything. He let her ramble on while he opened Jake's home page. Amanda was right. The comments were very moving, and his wife was an attractive woman. Not stunningly beautiful by any means, but...pretty.

He felt like his sister as he looked at some of the pics Jake had posted of her. One of her teeth was ever-so slightly turned in a way that reminded him of Holly Marie Combs. Like her, she also had long, dark hair and a very nice smile in spite of the very minor flaw. She didn't have those classic high cheekbones of beautiful women, but she had the kind of sad, brooding eyes and pouty lips he thought were sexy as hell. Overall, he had to agree with Amanda. She was...pretty.

"You still there?" Amanda asked.

"Yeah. I'm here. Sorry, I was just checking out his home page. You were right, by the way. She is a nice-looking woman."

"Yeah, I mean for someone who's like...ancient, she's not so bad. She could use a little more makeup and it wouldn't hurt to style her hair, but other than that..."

"Hey, I gotta run, sis, okay?" he said not wanting to get into another fight with her.

"Oh, sure. You working on a big case or something?"

Holt Asbury had just turned 28 and had worked for his father as a private investigator for almost six years since graduating from The University of Florida in Gainesville. He could have done pretty much anything, but he'd always been drawn to mysteries. He loved solving puzzles, and people and their motivations were the ultimate puzzles. Was it murder or self defense? Homicide or suicide? Did he cheat or did she set him up? If he killed the guy, where was the weapon? What was the motivation?

He wasn't a cop or a lawyer or a judge. He didn't get to arrest people or defend them in court or determine guilt or innocence. He searched for clues and from clues he looked for answers. Answers to questions people paid good money to get.

"No, not right now. Just local stuff. Background checks. We're also following a wife to see if she's cheating. Typical stuff."

"Okay. Well, I guess I'll see you later then."

"Yeah. Um...give my love to Mom, okay?"

"You could call her yourself, you know."

He could, but since he'd personally caught her cheating on his father his first year as a PI, he did his best to ignore and avoid her. "No, thanks. But you take care, okay?"

He hung up with Amanda then started going through Jake's home page with a fine-toothed comb. When he finished, he went to his wife's. Her name was Morgan and her security settings let him see everything she'd ever posted. "Shame on you, but thank you," he said out loud to himself as he scrolled through each entry.

When he finished, he did a thorough search of the internet looking for anything that might shed some light on Jake's passing. All he found was an article in their local hometown newspaper up in Maine. Evidently, he'd fallen some 75 feet during a hike or nature walk of some kind. Sure, it was possible for a healthy adult male to fall depending on the trail, the weather, and other circumstances, but Holt knew that was unlikely. Very unlikely, in fact.

The more he thought about it, the more the private investigator inside him wouldn't let it go. After another cup of coffee, he clicked on 'messages' and typed one to Jake's widow, Morgan Price.


"Dear Mrs. Price,

My name is Holt Asbury. I'm a private investigator from Orlando, Florida. I was a huge fan of your husband and only just learned of his passing. I wanted to offer my sincerest condolences. Among his relatively few-but-extremely-devoted fans like me, he was a legend. We loved that soulful voice of his and the feeling he put into every song. He will be sorely missed.

I also read about the circumstance of his passing. I am very hesitant to say this for fear of dredging up old wounds, but I can't help but feel there's something not quite right. I have no proof. I don't even have a shred of evidence. Perhaps you can and would clarify this in seconds, but it just won't leave me alone. Then again it's really none of my business and you're free to tell me so. It just seems to me this wasn't an accident and that thought won't go away.

I would be happy to look into this for you, pro bono, if you share my concerns. Either way, I am very sorry for your loss and wish you all the best.

Holt Asbury,

Asbury Investigations, LLC.

Orlando, FL"

It was two days before he received a reply, but Mrs. Price had read his message and responded. She wrote:

"Dear Mr. Asbury,

I can't thank you enough for your kind words. Yes, Jake had a unique voice and a real talent for pouring his heart and soul into his music. Like you and his other fans, I miss him every day. Then again, I was not only his wife but his biggest fan. Music is how we met.

As to your concerns, I share them to a large degree. The local police did an investigation, but this is a small town and while they're good folks, many of them people I've known for a lot of years, I'm not sure how good a job they did. In my mind too, things just don't add up, either. I would be very grateful for your help and if you do make it up north, I look forward to meeting you. I know you said you'd work for free, but in order to reduce your expenses, I have a guest room in the house. Unless you're uncomfortable staying here, I can offer you free room and board which should help. Please let me know.

Any information, any at all, would be such a blessing. I've never been able to shake the feeling something very wrong happened out there as Jake had hiked that trail dozens of times before. I'll show you where this happened and give you my take on it when you arrive. Do you have any idea when that might be? I know you're busy so this may be weeks or months away, but just the hope of getting answers has lifted the gloominess I've lived in since Jake's death.

Sincerely,

Morgan Price"

He read her reply twice then replied back to her.

"Dear Mrs. Price,

Normally, I wouldn't even consider such an arrangement, but due to the unusual circumstances, I'm willing to make an exception and I'll accept your generous offer to stay with you. Thank you very much.

As it turns out, I don't have a lot going on right now. My father and I own the business and I know him—and it—well enough to know he'll have no problem with me leaving for a few days. Like you, I want answers. Perhaps there's a very simple explanation and the local police got it right. Then again, that's why people like me do what we do. We have a way of seeing and finding things the so-called professionals missed.

I'll send you my itinerary later today and we can get to work as soon as I arrive. I look forward to meeting you and to finding the answers you seek.

Holt Asbury,

Asbury Investigations, LLC.

Orlando, FL"

*****

"Maine? How long?" his dad asked.

"Just a few days. A week tops."

"I know better than to try and talk you out of this, so go ahead. But all of the expenses on are you, Holt. You know that, right?"

"Of course. I'll treat this like a vacation."

His dad laughed. "I love what we do, but only you could call working on a case full-time a vacation. That's probably why you're so damned good at this. If anyone can help this poor woman out, my money's on you. If there's foul play, find the sonuvabitch and put him away, Holt."

They shook hands and Holt headed home to pack and get ready to leave the next morning. He was looking forward to a break from the constant heat and humidity. It was mid-September and the weather in Orlando was still what it always was from May until mid-October—hot—with an average high of just under 90. Up in Maine, the average high was just 70. That's what people in Orlando called winter. He'd lived in Orlando or Gainesville his entire life so he was used to the weather, but it was always such a treat to go somewhere that had seasons, and he was looking forward to this trip as much for the weather as anything else, and he'd be there the day after tomorrow.

The flight was uneventful and landed at Portland International Jetport just after 1pm. Within seconds of entering the terminal he saw her and waved before he realized she'd never seen him. He walked up to her and said, "Mrs. Price? I'm Holt Asbury."

He saw the look of surprise on her face before she smiled and extended her hand. "You were expecting someone a little older I take it," he said as he shook her hand.

Morgan laughed politely and told him, "Even though you told me you and your father run your business, I guess I still had it in my mind you'd be closer to my age." He'd learned she was 37 from her Facebook page and as with his sister, he let the comment pass.

They were already heading for baggage claim when he said, "Just to get it out of the way, I'm 28 and have been doing this for about six years—just in case you're wondering. I'm actually pretty good at it, Mrs. Price."

She laughed politely and said, "I'm not one of those who equates age with experience, Mr. Holt. I've met people in their 60s and 70s without a lot of real intelligence and also know some incredibly smart people in their 20s. I'm just so grateful to you for agreeing to help me." As they walked she turned her head toward him and said, "Thank you for doing this."

Luck was on their side and both of his suitcases were on the carousel. Within twenty minutes, they were on the way to Morgan's home. "Our house is in Windham which only about ten miles away," she told him as they left the jetport. "Have you ever been to Maine before, Mr. Asbury?"

"No, this is my first time, and would you please call me Holt?"

"Okay. And I'm Morgan. I still look around for Jake's mother whenever someone calls me Mrs. Price. And for what it's worth, I've never been to Florida, but eventually I'm going to get to Disney World one way or the other. Something tells me you probably take it for granted." Holt laughed and told her that was indeed the case.

The scenery was nothing like flat, sunny, urban Orlando. The sun was out, but it wasn't hot and it wasn't humid, either. It was absolutely perfect and everything seemed so green and just a few miles outside of Portland, so quiet. She saw him taking in the countryside and said, "It's not exactly Orlando, is it?"

"I'll say," he replied. He'd been to rural settings before, but this was quite possibly the most beautiful, relaxing, inviting place he'd ever seen and he told Morgan that.

"We like it here," she said before realizing it was just her now. "Jake loved living here. We both grew up in Portland which is considered the big city, but I've gotten used to living in Windham. Well, we're actually just outside the city which has about 17,000 people in it. Small by your standards I'm sure, but it's perfect for us. Jake always wanted a kind of log cabin home and that's what we had built a few miles north of town. A kind of log cabin home," she said again. "You'll understand when you see it. It might be better to put that on hold for now, though. I can take you to the place he was hiking when he died first, if you'd like."

"Where is it in relation to Windham?" Holt asked.

"Near Highland Lake." She saw him tapping that into his cell phone's map application.

"Got it. Um, yeah, that sounds perfect. I need to actually see this trail and the exact spot where he was found and the place from which he allegedly fell at some point anyway and now is as good a time as any." He looked over at her then said, "Will you be okay going back there, Mrs Pr...Morgan?"

"I used to love going there. I went with Jake many times. But now, for obvious reasons, it's lost its charm. But considering the reason we're going, I'll be fine. After all, it's just a place and Jake certainly isn't there so...no problem."

Amanda really had been right. Morgan was an attractive woman. She wasn't the kind who'd immediately turn heads when she walked in a room, but most men would at some point take a second look and agree she was a well above-average looking woman. Gorgeous and beautiful didn't seem to fit, but as Amanda had said, she really was pretty. She'd also been right that it was in an understated kind of way. Holt could easily see that were she to shed her simple, baggy blouse and wear something a bit more feminine, it wouldn't be hard to use 'beautiful' as the more appropriate term.

"We're almost there already," she told him as she continued traveling along Route 302.

Holt could see the very large lake on their right side coming into view and he also saw the high ground he was almost certain had been the location of Jake Price's final moments on earth.

She pulled off the paved road and headed down one made of hard-gravel toward the lake then took a final turn off onto a hard, dirt trail and went as far as they could go by vehicle. There was a kind of well-worn area that served as parking lot for hikers and other visitors, and Morgan pulled in there and shut off the car.

"It's about a 20-minute walk from here, Holt. I hope you're wearing comfortable shoes," she said with a smile.

He lifted up on of his feet and showed her the Nike running shoes he was wearing and she laughed. "Oh, okay. City-slicker comfortable. Works for me."

He hadn't noticed, but Morgan was wearing a pair of soft hiking boots that looked well-worn and comfortable. She handed him a bottle of water, took one for herself then asked, "Ready?"

The terrain was flat for the first mile or so before they came to a fork in the trail. "The path to the left goes around this high, rocky area while the other leads us up into it. That's obviously the one we want."

For the next ten minutes they climbed the steep path that ran in a kind of switchback fashion so that at each S-turn, one could look down to the path below. At the final turn, Morgan said, "The place where he fell...well, allegedly as you say...is just up here."

From that very spot, Holt could look down on what was an almost sheer rock face to the trail some 75 or so feet below them. "Yeah, that's a pretty wicked drop," he said looking over the edge. "Okay, so the times you came here with him, explain how you walked through this area."

"Okay, well, he'd always take my hand...like this..." Morgan took Holt's then said, "Then he'd walk ahead of me as close to the rock face as possible." Morgan stopped them and Holt could turn his back to the rock face and look straight up at another 30 feet or so of sheer rock while in front of him was a perfect view of the lake.

"I see the draw of this place now," he said as they looked out at it. "It's beautiful." As he said it, he looked at Morgan who realized they were still holding hands.

She let go and said, "Yeah, this is the best view of the lake from anywhere and the reason so many people come up here."

"So do you know if anyone was up here the day your husband..."

"No. I'm not sure. It would have been unusual to see anyone that early but not impossible. I just can't say for sure. Why?"

"Just collecting pieces of the puzzle. That's all," he told her. "Okay, so when you held hands, he stayed along the rock face? Did he ever walk near the edge?"

"Jake? Not a chance. He was afraid of heights. Not to the point of a phobia or anything, but he'd never get close to the edge. There's more than enough room to walk side-by-side, but he always took my hand so that we'd both be as far from the edge as possible."

Holt surveyed the path and saw it was made out of solid rock. There was no loose gravel and no chipped rock near the edge; nothing that would lead anyone to see how someone could fall were they to walk too closely to it.

"I hate to ask, Morgan, but I have to. Did your husband drink or possibly get high or do drugs?"

"Jake? Heavens, no. He was a vegan. A true tree hugger. No booze, no weed, and definitely no drugs. This was his 'zen' place. He loved to come up here and commune with nature. Sometimes he wrote music sitting right where you're standing. His favorite time was just as the sun was coming up." She looked over at Holt and said, "It's stunningly beautiful watching the sunrise from right where you're standing. I've done it several times with Jake and it's truly amazing."

"Was he up here early that day?" he asked her.

"Yes. He left about 5am and probably got up here just before six. He'd almost certainly have set right where you're standing give or take a foot to either side."

She was staring at the spot as though if she were to look hard enough, she'd see him there sipping a cup of coffee or eating a granola bar.

"How was the weather that day?"

"Perfect. Just like today. Clear, sunny, warm. Well, warm for Maine, that is." She smiled and he found himself captivated by the way she looked with the lake almost directly behind her.

"So...good weather, no drugs or alcohol, the path is the same as it's always been, right?"

"Yep. It's looked exactly like this since the first time my dad brought me up when I was five. Nothing's changed."

He took some photos then said, "Okay, can you show me where they found his body now?"

After they descended, Morgan took him to the place directly under the spot they'd just been standing. "Right here," she said pointing to a spot that made logical sense based on the trail above.

"Again, I'm sorry for asking, but how was his body positioned?"

"I don't know. I never saw it," she told him. "Why?"

"I'm gonna need to see the police report then," he told her without going into detail about the difference in where a body would be expected had the victim fallen compared with having been pushed or thrown off. He took some more pics then said, "Thank you for doing this, Morgan. I'm sure this wasn't easy, but it was very helpful."

On the way to her house she asked, "Any first impressions you care to share?"

"Only that I can see no logical reason for your husband to have fallen. Based on what you told me about his fear of heights and the way he hugged the rock face as well as where he sat, falling makes no sense. Had you told me he occasionally dangled his feet over the edge or routinely walked as close to it as he could for whatever reason, then sure. Maybe he could have fallen. But it would be impossible to fall if he was walking or sitting 4-5 feet from the edge with his body up against the rock face."

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bykomrad1156© 12 comments/ 30707 views/ 35 favorites

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