Excerpt for A Memory of Love by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



A Memory of Love

Copyright 2017, Frank Hajek

ISBN: 9781370385706

This is a work of fiction. Characters, companies, organizations, and agencies in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct.

Published by Frank Hajek at Smashwords

Distributed by Smashwords

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.



Other books by Frank Hajek

The Shepherds of Asia

(No longer available)

Starlight Serenade

Available at Smashwords.com, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Amazon

The Operative's Portrait

Available at Smashwords.com, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Amazon

Lightning and Other Thrills

Available at Smashwords.com, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Amazon

A Day Waits for No One

Available at Smashwords.com, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Amazon



CHAPTER ONE

A Call from Whom?



Gretchen Schneider prepped herself in front of the ladies room mirror. Straightening her silk collars and squaring the shoulder pads under her dark blue jacket she adjusted the brooch flower pin on her left lapel with a nervous tug. Leaning close Gretchen adjusted her lipstick and finished with a touch of blush makeup to each cheek. 'Perfect' she thought, beautiful but very business-like. This was going to be an important day in her young life and she would leave nothing to chance.

Two floors above her Paul Drago, Editor and Chief of the New York Examiner was unaware of the scoop she had just arranged over the phone. His day would be a buzz of deadlines and crises happening around the city and the world. He would never get to see the woman of the age, but later, if Gretchen handled herself properly, he would be able to read her most intimate story. At least that was what Barbara Collins had promised Gretchen when she called.

Barbara Collins had reached the pinnacle of her profession in the late sixties. Just a few years after the old Hollywood Star System had crumbled and studio chiefs lost control of their properties. Her star would rise above all else. She had been the most bankable, most sought after female lead of that era. Beautiful, brilliant and sexy, her talents included an ability to emote real passion, real sorrow and real tears. She even had a good ear for song and a passable voice to perform it. Nothing seemed beyond her skills and every leading man in the industry wanted to pair with her for, well frankly, anything they could get. Comedy, drama, adventure, every venue was open and desired. They made no bones about it. Babs, as she was called, could pick and choose any script, and any co-star she wanted. Then she up and quit.

That was forty years ago, Gretchen realized, as the enormity of her next appointment began to sink in. Babs had gone underground, becoming a recluse who lived in her Upper East Side stronghold, and shunning every social contact the city had to offer. In fact, she had not been seen in months nor photographed in years even though the paparazzi parked on her block 24/7. Her eremitic ways had spawned rumors of a kidnapping; her loss in the jungles of Brazil, even her death was prophesied by some forty-ninth street swami. This was going to be one hell of a day.

The newsroom was bustling as Gretchen pushed her way through the rear door and headed for the assignment desk. Coleen McTigeen was operating a multi line phone system as she approached. A mid-sized, middle-aged maven, Colleen had been through enough hard times and bad experiences to smother a Clydesdale, yet she kept on keepin' on. Most of the staff loved her 'take no prisoners' stories of hotshots gone by, but more than anything they loved her Irish humor. Always with a joke or some Gaelic wisdom, Colleen was a bright spot in the grayness of everything news.

"Got an appointment uptown Coh, and I won't be back for a few hours at least."

Coleen looked up from the switchboard, and over her glasses.

"Anything you want to share, or another 'Fu Man Chu' mystery sweety?"

"Got an interview that might become dynamite." Gretchen smiled, and with a wink placed her logout card on the counter. "That's all I'm going to say."

Coleen scooped up the card as another line lit up on her board.

"Wish me luck Coh, this could be big."

McTigeen punched a button on the board and, covering the microphone that swung out from her earpiece called to Gretchen.

"Go get em' kid."



CHAPTER TWO

A Ride Uptown



Before leaving her desk Gretchen had logged on to the archives and downloaded everything available on Barbara Collins. She had dumped the files to the iPad now hanging from her right shoulder as she tried to flag a cab. It was two in the afternoon and traffic had already begun to jam up along Madison Avenue. Remembering it was the beginning of a three-day weekend, Gretchen knew it would be far worse than the usual calamity. This being Friday meant everything would really grind to a standstill in a few hours when the 'Thank God it's Friday' minions headed for home. Finally, after what seemed an entire parade of yellow taxis buzzed past she was able to hail a shiny new Checker Marathon.

Once inside she gave instructions to the driver, and they were off into the slow crawl toward uptown. Gretchen pulled out her iPad and lit it up. She had about forty blocks to cover and that was going to take a good half hour or more. Best to get cracking on the background data.

Barbara Collins had broken into Hollywood at the tender age of seventeen. At that time she looked more like twenty and had the education and poise to carry the deception off. A natural actor with stunning features the camera loved, it wasn't three months before she was under contract to one of the largest production companies in L.A. Success looked inevitable but her star languished for three years until a director famous for his escapades with the youngest of talent, cast her in his pirate movie. Her role in 'The Black Pirate' made every box office tracker want to sign the 'Newest Sensation' as Hedda Hopper wrote. Tough times were over and Babs never looked back.

The rumors would fly. She had slept her way to the top, she was insatiable, and men threw themselves at her, speculation and tittle-tattle that only served to heighten her star. The truth, of course was somewhat more subdued. There had been on-set romances to be sure, and she had bedded a number of her leading men, but nothing like the gossip column scuttlebutt that sold so many scandal sheets. Still, no one could deny or wanted to, Barbara Collins was a libertine.

Her life had become as under a microscope and no amount of security, bribery or studio pressure muted the din. After twenty-one years of apex roles and top deck pay scales Babs had a bank account the equal of only a very few, and a belly full of the whole rotten enterprise. On that day she just quit. She walked off the lot and let her lawyers work out any contractual details that might arise. She was gone and no one could find her for many years.

Reports followed whispers, hearsay trumped canards and the grapevine raged on, but no one really knew where Babs had gone. Like Howard Hughes she was an enigma. Then in the mid nineties she popped up in New York, captured on film by some enterprising paparazzi. Of course that was only a photograph, and nothing more was available.

Speculation avidity constructed stories of all form and fashion. Amidst all the hoopla her domicile was hunted like a terrorist lair until finally The Times tracked down the Norbest Residence in Upper East Side Manhattan. Still no one could get access, let alone an interview.

Until today. And Gretchen Schneider was to be the heroine.

The contact had been short and sweet.

"Is this Gretchen Schneider?" asked the fragile but somehow gruff voice on the phone.

"Yes..." had been her reply, not knowing what to expect.

"I've read your stories dear and would like to meet with you."

"Who is this?" Gretchen was beginning to think some crackpot had gotten past Coleen at the switchboard.

"This is Barbara Collins dear. I particularly enjoyed your writing of the Gail Mortenson story. Really well done."

"THE Barbara Collins...?"

"Exactly dear. Do you know where I live?"

Gretchen tried to compose herself but her palms began to perspire.

"REALLY, ...THE Barbara Collins..."

"Yes." There was a hint of impatience in her voice.

"Forgive me Miss Collins, but this is very unusual."

"Of course it is. Now, do you know where I live?"

"I know of the building you are said to live in... is that accurate?"

"The Norbest Residence, on Ninety-sixth Street just east of Third Avenue."

"Yes Miss Collins."

"Come over and I guarantee you a story that will make every edition of that rag you guys think is a newspaper for the next three days."

"Such as...?"

"The details of my love life, and more... the greatest love no one ever knew about until now." she paused for effect. "Sound good enough for a cab ride dear?"

"I'm on my way."

If the iconic recluse were really about to come out with details of her private life it would be a sindication bonanza. Gretchen was salivating as she put down the phone, and began a list for her interview kit. Don't want to wind up at the scoop of all time without a pencil.

Forty minutes later the cab pulled up in front of the Norbest Residence; a stately brownstone of twelve stories set back from the street by a space unheard of in modern New York architecture. Its Roman arch window caps reflected the style prominent at its birth in the nineteen twenties, and the aged facade was a stonemason's masterpiece no one could afford after the great industrialists of the twentieth century passed on. The entry lay beneath a Royal Blue canopy fringed at its borders that ran the full distance to the curbside Gretchen now stood on. Impressive is too small a word...

The doorman, an older fellow with a pleasant smile and rigid stance, nodded to her as she approached the brass doors.

"Ms. Schneider, I presume?" he questioned.

"Why, yes... yes I am."

"Miss Collins called down to grant you access."

Bending at the waist he opened the door in a most formal way. Then, pointing to the elevators on the far side of a sizable lobby and the operator waiting there, he said;

"Have an enjoyable visit, my lady."

Taken by the romantic but odd language Gretchen gestured with a smile and entered.



CHAPTER THREE

Is That Really You?



The elevator was one of those ornate, rattling contraptions you remember from 'The Maltese Falcon' or some similar nineteen forties film noir. The operator closed the steel grate after Gretchen entered and swung his control lever over activating the lift with a slight jolt. Gretchen steadied her nerves and waited through the slow climb to what she imagined must be a palace. 'Would there be dogs?' she wondered.

When they reached the eleventh floor, the elevator stopped and the grate was drawn open. The operator, pointing to the smaller elevator on the far side of a well-appointed hall, followed after Gretchen stepped out and they crossed to the smaller rig for the final ascent. He explained that this was the only way to get to the Penthouse Apartment, and that it added security and privacy as a special key was required to operate the small lift.

It was becoming obvious how Ms. Collins maintained such a low profile.

The lift doors opened on a small foyer and as her attendant drew back the grate Gretchen stepped into the space, and found herself facing a grand double door in dark mahogany.

"Miss Collins will ring when you are leaving madam."

Momentarily surprised, Gretchen looked back to him, nodding.

"Thank you."

"You are very welcome. Just press the bell and Carmen will answer the door."

Turning back, she noticed the white button on the left side of the formidable doors. Looking side to side, she could see a heavy steel door marked 'Stairwell' on her right and another on the left marked 'Service Entrance'. A small skylight above illuminated the foyer and two wall lamps located on either side of the entrance. She realized in such an old building the 'Stairwell' must be for a fire exit. A deep breath and the button was pressed. A wait of perhaps twenty seconds. Enough time to get Gretchen's nerves tingling before Carmen, a Latino of mid girth, middle age and chipmunk cheeks answered with a smile and nod.

"I'm..."

"Yes, I know Ms Schneider. Ms. Collins is expecting you."

Standing to one side, Carmen pulled open one of the large doors and beckoned Gretchen into the apartment. She then directed her to a small couch and nodding again spoke as she closed the front entrance.

"Ms. Collins will entertain you in the library but first, would you care for some tea or coffee?"

"No thank you. I'm good."

This small waiting area was appointed with a comfortable bench seat in dark brown, fitted with button pointed leather. The wall opposite was covered in what looked to be patterned wallpaper probably designed for Louis XIV, and adorned with what could well be a real Monet. A door stood partially open at the point furthest from the front entrance that was the entrance to a small powder room. At the back of this hall stood another heavy door Gretchen assumed was the access to the main apartment.

"Let me get Ms. Collins for you."

"Thank you."

As Carmen closed the inner door Gretchen looked into her handbag for the tape recorder she'd thrown in at the office. This was one interview she did not want to leave to memory. Glancing about she noticed the hanging fixture that lit the space; Tiffiny stained glass. Definitely Tiffany. A moment later the inner door opened to reveal Ms. Barbara Collins in a red silk dressing gown, cigarette in her left hand at the end of what had to be a ten inch cigarette holder fashioned from translucent emerald-green jade.



"Good afternoon, Ms. Schneider."

"It is an honor to meet you, Ms. Collins."

She looked younger than her reported age - no one was sure of her exact birthdates - but time had done some work on Barbara Collins. Cloistered as she was her skin was very white and showed a pallor that caught Gretchen off guard. The folds below her chin evidenced a life of many adventures, and some hardships too, while the once thick and flowing hair was now thin, gray and a bit unkempt. The classic bone structure that once filled theaters was still there and her eyes held fire enough to have Gretchen spellbound.

"Well, are you going to come in dear?"

Blushing, Gretchen nodded and stepped forward through the opening and into another hall. Ahead was a doorway leading to a formal dining area, and as the hall ran to the left, another door stood open showing a large library done in dark wood and leather.

"We can conduct our business in the library down to your left."

"Yes. Thank you."

They moved down the short hall and entered an area larger than Gretchen had thought. Dark wood bookcases stood on two walls and another Monet graced the third above an oak mantle crowning a genuine fireplace. The fourth wall held a single width bookcase on either side of two arched top windows at its center, and their deep sill sat above cast iron radiators still heating the room after ninety years of service. A coffee table of heavy oak rested between two overstuffed reading chairs cloaked in Italian leather. They were placed at right angles to the hearth on either side of the fireplace and a two-seat couch in the same leather closed out the circle. Ms. Collins library evidenced wealth, taste and comfort most people will never know. Babs motioned to her guest,

"Ms. Schneider, please take a seat."

Smiling warmly she sat in the opposing chair and pressed a button on the coffee table corner. Gretchen assumed it was to call for Carmen and refreshments of some kind.

"You must be wondering why I chose to contact you. No?"

"You mentioned the piece on Gail Sorenson when you called."

"Yes. That was very good writing, and I particularly noticed how well you handled her sordid affair with Jamie Nesbaum. It was accurate but not judgemental, not condescending. You're quite good at your job, but more important to me you're fair minded and not a slander hawk."

Gretchen sat back in her chair a bit flustered by Ms. Collins straightforward assessment of her work. This woman did not mince words.

"Thank you. I try to be an honest conduit for any story."

Collins nodded. "A noble endeavor."

"Do you mind if I record our interview? I'd like to be sure I never misquote you or forget any important detail."

"First we must set some ground rules..."

At that moment a large, older man entered dressed in a white double-breasted jacket, neckerchief, apron and toque.

"You rang, Ms. Collins?"

"Andre', this is Ms. Schneider and she will be joining us for dinner."

"Very good Madame. Is there anything special we might prepare?"

Collins stroked her chin, thinking about that.

"What had you intended?"

"Roast goose with red cabbage and dumplings. I'm making an apple strudel for dessert."

Collins nodded to Gretchen.

"Sound good?"

"Sounds wonderful."

"Thank you Andre'. That should be fine."

Andre', smiling, acknowledged her approval as he turned to leave.

"Dinner will be ready at seven, madame."

Gretchen checked her watch. It was now almost three PM and that would give her at least four hours to conduct the interview. She already realized there would be no making the evening edition deadline, but the more time she spent with Barbara Collins the more she felt this was going to be a hell of a story, and that meant patience would be an important virtue.



CHAPTER FOUR

The Ground Rules



Carmen entered the room quietly and bent to Ms. Collins.

"Would you like a tea service, or something else ma'am?"

"Tea sounds lovely Carmen. Earl grey, if we have it."

"Very good ma'am, and anything else for your guest?"

"Tea will be fine for me also Carmen. Thank you."

She quietly left, closing the doors to the room behind her.

Gretchen leaned forward and spoke quietly to Ms. Collins.

"Your house staff is quiet attentive Ms. Collins."

"Yes they are and it's why they have been with me for years. I pay them well and they in turn treat me as one would hope. I think it's a fair bargain."

"Still, Ms. Collins, it's..."

"Call me Babs."

"Certainly, if that's what you would like."

"It's what my friends call me, few as there are, and I expect we will become friends."

"Thank you. I'm... I hope we do become friends."

Collins shuffled in her chair and grunting, settled to her left as she leaned on the armrest.

"Now, lets get to the rules."



"Yes."

"I need you to write this story and have it published, franchised or what-have-you within the next two weeks at the latest. To as many of your linked up papers as possible, however that's done. It's a hot topic about an old broad, got lots of mystery and a love story to boot. I expect you can get that done. Yes?"

"Of course, but I cannot promise anything, you understand. The editorial decisions are made above me and sometimes they are not what you might expect."

"Don't worry honey, this one they're going to love. By the way, what's your first name?"

"Gretchen, but my friends call me Colie. It's from my middle name, Nicole."

"Colie it is. OK, lets get the recorder out and start the story."

Gretchen opened her bag, pulled out the digital recorder and, flicking the on switch set the machine between them on the coffee table.

"Will that be able to pick up our conversation from there?"

'Yes. Quite well. I've used it many times before and never had a problem."

"OK. How long is it good for?"

"Eight hours of recording."

"That should be enough."

Babs shuffled again in her chair until a comfortable position was reacquired and began her narrative.

"I'll start at the beginning to keep things in order. Most of this you will know, or could find with some research so I'll outline my career briefly and then get to the real story."

"That's fine Babs. Any way you want to tell it."

"I was seventeen when I got to Hollywood but smarter than most and blessed with looks that show well on camera. Acting is pretty simple if you keep your head on straight and don't bump into the furniture. I had some lessons and a few small roles before the studio picked up my contract and by then I had reached eighteen - legal age - and could enter into the devil's bargin that those charlatans sold me. Fortunately the dummies didn't realize I would be as successful as it turned out, so they only signed me to a three-year contract. That was Big Break Number One.

Break Number Two came when Harvey put me in 'The Black Pirate' as Esmeralda. That was the role that uncorked the genie. After he filmed his steamy scene with Jason Howard and me, I was a shoe-in for every lusty role out there in Sin City. I had left Kansas with nothing three years earlier and now stood on the edge of fame and fortune. The trick would be not to squander it."

Carmen, having knocked first at the door, entered with the tea service on a silver tray and set it down on the table as Gretchen quickly moved the recorder out of the way. The tray was a masterpiece of the silversmith's art. Intricate details in a floral pattern bracketed the edge as engraving swirled throughout the center panel still visible beneath the linen napkins folded to sheath silver spoon and fork sets. The porcelain settings offered a famous Swan Service motif first made by Johann Friedrich Bottger at his Meissen factory in Saxony. The teapot was cloaked in a cozy of knitted cotton that repeated the swan theme. Gretchen was impressed with such a fine presentation, but equally impressed with the stack of tiny sandwiches 'High Tea' style that rested on her end of the tray. Her stomach grumbled remembering she hadn't had anything to eat since her breakfast croissant and coffee. Babs caught Gretchen eyeing the sandwiches.

"Help yourself dear, but don't over do it. Dinner will be a pretty heavy meal and I don't want to be accused of fattening you up."

She finished with a chuckle Gretchen couldn't resist and laughed along with her. It was becoming clear just what the personal magic Babs brought to any project could be like. Her manner was disarming and inclusive. Gretchen was beginning to like her.

Picking up a dainty smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich Gretchen looked up, smiled a guilty smile and asked Babs to continue.

"Did you get pressured toward the casting couch before the big break?"

"No, Colie, I didn't. I'm not sure why or even if I should be grateful or jealous. The hacks I first came in contact with didn't seem to see anything sexy in me. After all, at that time I was still an 'A' cup and a bit freckled. Anyway, none of them came on to me. I guess when you're looking for small bit parts and walk on roles you really go unnoticed by most people. Amazing how it all worked out."

"There were rumors of affairs with leading men. Any truth in that?"

"You don't waste your shots, do you?"

"I don't mean to be rude, but the background I've been reading about you seems to be peppered with tales of lust. I guess it's the reporter in me. Or was that mostly Hollywood hype to gin up the following of their latest star?"

"A bit of both. There were some stage romances to be sure and believe me, if that's what you want you can find plenty of copy on that, but the truth is none of those men seemed to be whole. You know the personality type that goes into a racket like acting is usually pretty damaged."

"Damaged...?"

"Yeah. I think if you were to do a thorough study of Hollywood talent you would find a very high percentage that were abused, attacked or neglected in childhood. Foster homes, alcoholic parents, abusive aunts and uncles... a lot of that. Anyway they get to be incomplete adults wanting to please. Directors love it because it makes them easy to manipulate and the boardroom guys love that they can sign them to servitude without too much argument. In truth it's really pretty sad."

"How did you get through all that?"

"Mostly luck. I had lost my parents in a car crash just a year before going west, but I never felt any guilt, or questioned why. It was something that just happened and now I needed to try something different from farm life. The farm, after all, was gone. I had no other relatives nearby to take me in and when I heard them talk about putting me in an orphanage I just decided to pack up and head out to the coast. I had been well educated by a mother that graduated from Yale, and learning at home is far better than your average public school. Besides, I possessed a pretty good mind so it never occured to me that it would be dangerous."

"How so, dangerous?"

"Pimps, panderers, players... you know, what hunts every city in America. The kind of people that prey on the lambs. Most of that I was aware of but never really feared. I knew myself and I knew my limits, staying out of the target range seemed a simple task."

"Was it?"

"Looking back I guess I'd have to say it was more luck than smarts that kept my ass out of the slave trade."

Gretchen understood her meaning as she had done an expose' on underage prostitution a year earlier. She was taken with the young girls stories of abusive and violent pimps first befriending them and later luring them, or forcing them into a trade they never wanted any part of. Sad, lost young lives traded like cattle and little was done to help or protect them.

Carmen had returned to uncover and pour their tea. Babs shifted in her chair again and Gretchen took note of a wince as she moved. Ms. Collins caught that and considered her a bit before questioning,

"How's the sandwiches?"

"The salmon is excellent. Thank you."

"Andre' gets all our food from some French importer downtown. He's a real asset but alas has made me fat in my autumn years."

"If it all tastes this good, fatty Gretchen, here I come."

Barbara Collins laughed with a sparkle in her eyes and that was something she hadn't done in many years. Babs was beginning to realize she liked this young gal and had chosen wisely, the one who would tell her story. Colie asked good questions and didn't interrupt.



CHAPTER FIVE

The Story Before Dinner



"So, you were totally on your own in California?"

"Didn't know a soul."

"And not afraid?"

"I'd say cautious."

Gretchen lost focus for a moment as she recalled her first days in the big city. It had been exciting and she felt prepared, but everything moved so fast and seemed so alien. She had to admit to herself she had been scared.

"I know what you're thinking Colie. There are many young girls that arrive in a city like New York or Los Angeles and get swallowed by the dirt; brutalized by the race and broken by the need to eat. I realize I could have been one of them."

"It seems you were very lucky."

"No doubt about that. I had stepped into the jaws of the beast without much in the way of armor and never suffered a cut or a bite. The best I can say about that now is this; I was tougher than my years, smarter than most and educated. After that, I'd have to say I was a lucky SOB having never even observed the bullets flying around my head every day. Young girls, such as I was at that time, fall like fruit from an old tree in tinsel town."

"How did you manage so much success?"

"That became my hardest job. The gaudiness and glamour never really got into me like it does with so many. I just saw it as wardrobe for the part I was playing. I tried to stay out of the beds and bars and avoided all the so-called "must" parties. As for the promotional photo shoots and interviews I had my script and stuck to it... as best I could."

"You make it sound so easy."

"That, it was not."

Babs sniffed again in her chair. She looked uncomfortable.

"There were a few times when flamboyance trumped sense and I dropped my shorts. Those adventures became the grist for every cheap rag Hollywood gave birth to and I hated it. Then I found out it actually increased my screen aura and that led to my next contract being open. Those negotiations set a precedent for the entire industry and got me the title of highest paid actress in the history of Hollywood. It made everything that followed possible."

"Everything...?"

"Therein lies the rest of the story my dear. A tale of which I dare say no one has known before now. You will be the first to tell the tale of Babs Collins lost years. I think you're going to like it."

Babs lifted her tea and began to sip, eyeing Gretchen over the rim of her cup. Gretchen knew she was being played, but the performance was remarkable and the story was getting better. Why not play out the hand?

"What did happen when you quit? You were at the top and just walked away. Why?"

"Hollywood is a shithole of lies and corruption. Every project, every player, every talent bought and sold like cakes of soap. I had been propositioned many times and offered all kinds of perks; sleep with me, take the location picture, show your tits... it was all pretty sickening after twenty-one years. I was beginning to feel dirty and I did not like that... but the truth is there was a very different reason I left. THAT is why I brought you here. I need your help in telling the world the real reason I abandoned my career and went underground."

"Where did you go?"

"South America, first. There was a wonderful little town north of San Paulo called Maranduba where no one knew or cared who I was. They looked at me as another white woman from America who spoke a bit of Portuguese. Most people don't know just how much of a cosmopolitan city San Paulo can be, or that it houses the largest Arab, Italian and Japanese neighborhoods outside their native countries. Hell, it's home to the largest Jewish population in the world."

"I didn't know that."

"Hell! Almost no one knows that. That's not what attracted me though. I needed peace and quiet and relief from prying eyes, and Maranduba had that in spades."

"But why Babs? Why?"

"That is the story Colie. Let me tell it from the real beginning of my second life."

Collins became intent now, leaning forward with her riveting eyes on Gretchen like something from a scene in 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?' She was gripped now by something primal; a need to tell secrets, a need to clear some weighty account left unpaid all these forty years. Gretchen was captivated, even a bit fearful.

Carmen entered again and checked the teapot. Its contents still warm she topped off their cups and holding the pot asked,

"Madame, would you like me to bring a fresh pot?"

Babs sat back still focused on Gretchen and raised her eyebrows as if to ask 'more?' Gretchen shook her head 'no'.

"That will be all, thank you Carmen."

The moment had been broken but Gretchen realized this was to be an intense afternoon. She had to remind herself to master her emotions and remain professional. She glanced down at the recorder; its pilot light still green indicating many hours of recording remained. As they talked the light would become yellow at two hours to go and red for the last thirty minutes.

"Please Babs, tell your story."

Collins brought her hands to her temples and rubbed gently. She was looking a bit tired and under some stress Gretchen was still unsure of. Then, dropping her arms to the armrests she looked at her guest and let out a sigh.

"It all started when I was visiting New York in late December, nineteen seventy-five. Some friends, Paul and Margie Cohn, had gone to Europe for a two-month vacation and allowed me to stay at their empty Park Avenue residence. It was a beautiful place, maybe four thousand square feet and on the forty second floor looking east to the river. I snuck out of California by driving to Henderson in Nevada, then taking a small plane to Salt Lake City and finally a commercial flight to New York. It seems crazy, but those were the times and that was what I had to do to avoid the flashbulbs."

"I don't think that's changed much Babs."

"It's gotten worse. But fuck me' - its why I live here, don't go out and keep the blinds closed. Hell, I have a beautiful deck on the south side of the condo but I dare not use it or I'll have my ancient hide plastered all over the tabloids."

"That's a shame."

"Don't fret Colie. It's been years since I wanted a tan, and more since I needed one. That stuff is all over for me now. Past history."

She lifted her teacup and took another sip, and then setting the cup back on the table shifted back into the chair and continued.

"There were only a few people I knew here that could be trusted but when James Bragmen called and asked if I wanted to join him and a few friends for a night out I decided to go. I had been in the city four days and hadn't seen anything but the inside of the condo. We set up a way I could leave the building through a small side entrance used for deliveries, avoiding any complications. He would have the cab pull into the alley and pick me up there. He also suggested I wear a wig, change my makeup and use one of Margie's older coats to keep anyone from recognizing me. It seemed a good idea, and I did just that. I mean, makeup and character were my stock and trade, right?"

"Did you always do your own makeup?"

"In the beginning that was the only way I had to get some paint on my face. I got pretty good at it; especially when I wanted to set a character, age myself, add scars, you know, details like that. Later the studio had specialists to attend to my cosmetics but I had learned well and it was a talent that stayed with me."

"A woman of many talents."

"There's one other thing you should know about that night."

"Yes?"

"It was New Year's Eve."

Babs brought her hands together and rested her chin on them. She paused and looked to Gretchen with a smile filled with memories. A smile warm and comforting as her mind moved back in time to that night so many years ago.

"They were taking me to Times Square for the ball drop at midnight. Now, that might seem like a dangerous place for someone like me to be dancing through, but I assure you it made perfect sense. Imagine, there are thousands, no, tens of thousands of partiers all done up in everything from Chanel to Salvation Army. Add to that they're all half in the bag and moving about each other in semi darkness and flashing lights. With my character and acting abilities I could be any one of them. It seemed it would be great fun. Then it got complicated."

"Something happened...?"

"A number of things happened and none of them were within my control."



CHAPTER SIX

What Could Go Wrong?



Carmen again opened the library door and announced,

"Dinner will be served in two hours Ms. Collins."

"Thank you Carmen. We will dine at the formal table."

"The formal table...?"

"There is a smaller dining area in the kitchen alcove where Carmen and I often take our meals; sometimes joined by Andre or Fritz."

"Who is Fritz?"

"My driver. I seldom need him but when I want, or need to get out, he makes that possible by piloting the black panzer."

"I'm sorry... black panzer?"

"It's our name for the limo Fritz acquired after I first hired him. Blackened windows, black paint, and black leather... it's one step above a hearse but provides some privacy. I doubt we use it more than ten times a year but I have to say it's comforting to know I have it when needed. Fritz is a great driver, and an ex-Mossad agent to boot. How's that for personal protection?"

"I'd have to say 'comforting'."

"Anyway, I had joined Jim Bragmen and his group, none of whom I knew, and we were drifting through the Forty-seventh Street crowds toward Seventh Avenue. It was all noise and banter and jostling bodies until Jim grabbed my hand and we turned into one of those New York bars that dot Seventh Avenue in that neighborhood. You know the kind that have a mahogany bar that runs from the entrance to some back room that seems fifty yards away; sawdust on the floor and maybe two hundred years of history? That kind of bar. His companions had entered and we followed. I don't think I had ever been in such a place before and it felt hot, crowded and loud."

"I have Babs, and I know what you mean."

"It was just new, and a bit intimidating. Anyway, we pushed our way toward the back where the throng seemed a bit thinner and someone ordered a pitcher of margaritas while another commandeered a stand up table next to a doorway to who knows where?"

"Was it getting near midnight?"

"It must have been about eleven or so, as I remember. We just laughed and talked. I had not been recognized as far as I could tell, and everyone seemed in the spirit of the holiday so we were pretty cool. There were a few strangers about us that joined our little troop when the margaritas arrived and I must admit, I tried one."

"You didn't drink?"

"Normally I never touched the stuff. I'd seen too many drunks and dumb broads that used drink as an excuse for bad behavior. You know what I mean?"

"Yes. The girls who are never guilty because 'he got me drunk' as though they never knew the word 'no'."

"Exactly. I never wanted to be at the mercy of anyone, so I never let opportunities like that enter my life."

"What made this night so different?"

"I'm not sure... maybe the fact that I felt anonymous, faceless in that crowd. Whatever the reason it only allowed me one drink. I was still in control, but that was the beginning of the calamity that gripped everyone in the bar that night. It would change my life forever."

"What happened?"

"Nothing, at first. I felt the drink a bit but only to the extent that I laughed a bit more easily, talked a bit more openly, smiled at one of the guys that joined us..."

"I've been there too, Babs. Was he cute?"

Collins looked away and Gretchen knew they were getting into something important in her storied life. This night must have been one momentous occurrence to have 'changed my life forever'.

Babs lifted her teacup, now cold, and took a sip. She looked up and locked eyes with Gretchen as she returned the cup to its saucer. There was the trace of a tear and her face reflected pain, physical or mental Gretchen could not discern.

"Yes Colie, he was cute. Maybe better than cute, he was genuine. Having come from the hotbed of false smiles and fabrications, a real, simple, straightforward man was majestic. I took to him at once and we began to have our own little conversation exclusive of the gathering."

"What was he like?"

"In truth, at first I thought he was ordinary. I'd guess he was maybe five foot eight or nine; fine dusky blond hair, nice eyes... he had nice eyes. I think they were hazel, you know? A kind of brownish green, with a twinkle. As I said, I liked him."

"He sounds cute."

Babs shifted in her chair again, the discomfort Gretchen had noticed earlier seemed to be back. There was no way to tell whether it was a difficult memory or a physical pain.

"Are you alright, Babs?"

"Not to worry Colie. I'll be fine."

She shifted again with a slight grunt and that seemed to find a position that was tolerable. Gretchen realized the pain she was enduring must be of medical origin but considering Ms. Collins age and history of adventure, anything might be possible. Babs leaned back and, letting out a raspy exhale, continued.

"His name was Al. He worked in some hotel, I can't remember if he mentioned which one but it didn't matter. We talked about the Holidays and about family, or really the loss of it. It turned out that Al was on his own too.

After a bit he went to the bar and brought back two snifters of something called Frangelico. Ever had that Colie?"

"Yes. I quite liked it."

"It's that wonderful, nutty aperitif some Italian monks devised. Anyway we drank that, a sip at a time and got to know one another.

His parents were both gone. The mother had died giving birth to his brother when he was six. His father and brother were both killed in an apartment fire when he was sixteen and from then on he was a solo sailer. He'd done a stint in the army and hated it. Tried to get into college but the GI Bill would not cover it and he realized he could not afford it on his own. So he bounced from one elementary job to another but never lost the spirit I so liked in him. He was bright and well spoken, quiet and tender. I could tell that. I think the thing about him I found most charming was his calling me 'my lady' as though I were some princess, or Cinderella. It never seemed affected, like so many in Hollywood might try. Like I said, he was genuine."

"He sounds special, Babs."

"He was the best man I have ever known."

"What happened that night to change your life?"

"Every movie star's nightmare."

"Really?"

"If not for Al, my career would have been over the next day, and you would have read this story years ago. It was one of those random incidents that take place every night in every major city of this country, but that night it could have consumed me."

Collins looked away to the window. It was beginning to darken outside. Not evening as you might think, but that late afternoon shadow manufactured by tall buildings in limited spaces. The dusk of a city too tall for sunshine after three PM.

"So many ways to meet God in a lifetime... that was what I was left thinking after the incident happened. It really made no sense, but then when you think about it, what does? My life had been storybook and though it took hard work and careful decisions, who is to say it could not have turned out just the opposite? I could have been another lost stray in an indifferent city having never gotten a break. It made me realize that."

She leaned forward with some effort and pressed the button again. Then, sitting back, she looked across the room to the bookcase wall. As Gretchen followed her eyes she noticed a small bar service nestled into the shelf, just as Carmen entered the room.

"Carmen, please pour two snifters of that Frangelico on the shelf, would you?"

"Of course, Ms. Collins."

Babs nodded to Gretchen saying,

"I think it's time we warm up our appetites."

As they waited for Carmen to bring their drinks Gretchen bent forward to check the recorder. Clicking a button stopped the recording and pressing another gave her a readout of the usage. A bit more than three hours had been consumed, another five hours of recording remained. Things would be fine.

As Carmen arrived with their snifters, Gretchen restarted the recorder and, being presented the small bulbous glass, sat back in her chair. Carmen then gave Ms. Collins her snifter and bowed slightly as she withdrew with the silver tray used to convey their prize.



"As I said, I had traveled down to that section of the city with Jim Bragmen and three other people I did not know. The others had drifted off within the bar and were engaged in conversations beyond the small corner Al and I occupied at the back. Jim had gone even further toward the front entrance for some reason when the shots rang out. In that enclosed space, large as it was, the sudden noise seemed very loud and everyone froze for an instant. That was when the screaming began."

"There was gunfire?"

"Four shots. I'm not sure I heard them all but that's what the news reports said later, four shots."

"That had to be scary."

"That's the least of it. The crowd around the incident began to move away from the guy with the gun as he backed toward the door. Women were screaming and confusion reigned. I stood up to look when Al grabbed my arm and spoke."

"You have to get out of here."

"What? I..."

"Someone will recognize you my lady, and there will be cameras and reporters here sooner than cops. You have to get out of here... Please, follow me."

"Al grabbed my arm and led me through the door behind us. It led to a gray, dirty alley that ran behind the bar, and looking about to make sure it was clear, he then ushered me across the space. We traversed the alley in dim light and moved behind two large garbage dumpsters where he paused and again listened for any movement. Having satisfied himself we were the only people in the alley he led me to another door further down and pressed a button positioned waist level in its frame. A grubby, middle-aged guy in a filthy t-shirt and chef's hat opened the door and Al spoke to him. I'm pretty sure they knew each other. A moment later and I was shuttled through the kitchen, I can guarantee you I'd never eat in that place, and out through a side door at the back of the restaurant we had entered. We moved into another alley."

"He knew who you were..."

"Yes Colie, he knew who I was."



CHAPTER SEVEN

Sir Allen



Barbara Collins smiled and raised her glass.

"To the truth, Colie. It will always be the path to a peaceful life."

They drank, as a quiet hovered over the interview. Gretchen bent to shut off the recorder sensing no further story was to be told for a while. Babs noted her move and looked away to the windows. The gray of early evening had now taken hold of the city and a coolness could be felt creeping into the air.

"Just let me take a break for a moment, Colie."

"Of course, Ms Collins. I understand."

"There's so much to remember and so many years have intervened, clouding the picture of it. And still parts of the story feel as though they just happened today..."

Gretchen wanted to say something, wanted to comfort the legend before her, showing a weak moment, but there was nothing that might help. She remained quiet and not wanting to stare at Babs began to look about the room logging its contents.

"Such a wonderful room..."

Collins stired,

"Do you like it Colie?"

"It's so warm and comforting and yet offers the feeling of a place holding great knowledge, great ideas. It makes me want to read."

"There is a shelf over in that corner that holds every script I ever worked with. The originals, notes and all."

"I'd bet they're worth a pretty penny."

"Maybe so, but in truth they're just hard copies of the fairytale I projected through most of my career. Make believe at best, downright fraud in most cases. Entertainments designed to keep the general population mesmerized while the politicians and corporate heads made off with their wealth and freedom. I can't say I'm proud of any of it. It made me rich, but it never made me happy."

"Did Al make you happy?"

Collins head whipped around to face Gretchen with a stare she wasn't expecting. It was not anger, not even discomfort, but more like surprise that Gretchen would plow in with such a heavy hand.

"I'm sorry Babs. I didn't mean to press you..."

Her face softened as her head relaxed against the crowned back of the chair. She was tired and Gretchen could see it. Without thinking she asked,

"If you would like Babs, I could come back tomorrow and we could continue then?"

Collins smiled her famous smile. Even at her advanced years it was still disarming, still spellbinding, still magnetic.

"You are too gentle a soul to be in your business, Colie. Best you get some callus before the world at large eats you alive."

"I can be tough."

"I guess you can at that."

She waved her hand as if to dismiss any misunderstanding.

"No, it's best we continue tonight and get this done. I would really like the story to go national as quickly as possible."

"May I ask why?"

"I'll explain later, but for now lets continue on with the story of Al. Allen, that was his name actually, Allen with two 'L's'.

She paused again, taking the last sip from her snifter and indicated to Gretchen to restart the recorder.

"Yes, his name was Allen with two 'L's'. We had passed through to another alley and even though there were revelers all over the city that night, this particular space seemed to be empty. Al looked at me and adjusting my wig a bit, winked and grasped my hand. Ducking into another door, this one unlocked, we made our way into what had to be a dive of a hotel. Al seemed to be familiar with this building and quickly led me up a flight of stairs that lay to our left. There we stopped and he turned to me."

"We have to get you to someplace safe," he said, "Someplace where the photographers can't get you in any compromising pictures. Someplace other than here."

"Where is here?" I asked.

"This is the Old Dorien Hotel," he pointed to a sign next to the stairway, "a nasty part of the city that you can never be seen leaving. I have to get you out of this part of town."

"I'm staying in a place up on Park Avenue and I know a back door that will get us in without being seen." I offered.

"Great, now let's work on your makeup and coat. I need to make sure you're not recognized when we hit the bus."

"Bus?"

"Safest way to travel in disguise, my lady."

"He chuckled and I admit I did too. It was crazy but here I was trekking about the city, a city I really did not know well, with a blue-collar worker I had just met in a bar of all places... and loving it. To this day I could not explain to you why I instantly trusted this man, but I did."

Babs shuffled about again, still smiling with her memories and scratched.

"So, he opened a door from this hallway we were in, and there was this steel grate walkway that connected the building with another next door. It was a short crossway, but it scared me. I'd never walked on anything like that... you know? I mean they have them in the sound stages in LA but this one looked old and rusted and I did not trust it."

"I've seen them here in the city. They were part of the old tenement buildings. I think they may have been for fire escape... or something like that."

"Well, Al picked up on my hesitancy and smiled at me. 'Are you afraid?' he asked me, and I nodded yes. 'Why' he asked. 'I've got on heels' I said, pointing to my shoes.

With a laugh he stepped forward, whisked me up in his arms and carried me over to the door on the opposite side where he set me down on a platform there. He then walked back, closed the other door and returned, hand digging in his pocket for the key to this new building. We entered, walked down a flight of stairs and exited on forty Eighth Street. It was crowded and noisy, but we pushed through the crowd to the curb and he hailed a cab going west."

"I thought you were going to take the bus?"

"So did I but he surprised me. Seems he knew this particular driver because Al worked as the doorman at that building. A minute later and we were crawling to Sixth Avenue again and there turned uptown. Once we got past Fifty First Street the crowds thinned out and travel was a bit easier. On Fifty Second we turned east and motored over to Park Avenue for the trip uptown."

"So you were going to take Al home...?

"Think what you will Colie, but as I look back on it now, there was never any doubt of it."



CHAPTER EIGHT

Sneakin' In The Back Way



"Margie Cohn had left me her key ring when they departed for Europe. The damn thing must have had twenty keys on it, and it was heavy so I always carried it in an inside pocket in my handbag. It was a European bag as I remember; Hermès, I think. Anyway it had a shoulder strap, was a pretty good size and was well made. Strong, soft leather with stitched piping all around the borders."

"Sounds nice..."

"The point was it held those damnable keys without any worry of losing them. And maybe it might be a good defense in a hijacking."

She chuckled again and Gretchen found herself doing the same.

"Jim had explained to me that one of the keys on that ring, the one with the dab of red nail polish on the bow, was for the back door that entered the alley. He would sometimes pick up Margie there when they were going shopping and wanted to be discreet."

"Were they having an affair?"

"Oh, no. Nothing like that Colie. Paul hated going shopping for anything and Jim was gay... need I go any further?"

"Message understood."

"Jim wasn't loud about it but his proclivities were known within the circle he and the Cohns traveled in. Sometimes your best girlfriend is a f... well, you know what I mean."

"Not when I was younger, but after four years in New York, you bet I do."

"So we had Allen's cabbie friend find the small alley between the building I was staying in and the office tower next door, then quietly and slowly entered as we both looked about for anyone that might notice me. When we reached the back door we scanned again and then made a dash for the back door. I already had the key in hand and we were able to enter the condo without anyone seeing us. After that we climbed to the third floor using the back stairs and then used the elevator to reach the apartment."

"As I remember you said it was on the forty-second floor."

"Exactly, and there was no way I was going to hike up forty two floors."

Babs smiled her famous smile as her eyes drifted toward the ceiling, and her mind filled with pictures of a long ago escapade. Gretchen could see even now that this night had been a true devotion. Something more than a simple romance. The look in Babs' eyes told of a passion, a fondness that had lasted forty years or more. It was obvious.

Collins' attention returned to the present, and Gretchen sitting quietly across from her.

"I'm sorry. I sometimes drift off..."

"Not to worry. I'm here as long as you want me to be."

"Yes, Colie. You possess more patience than most at your age. I can see why you're good at your job."

"Thank you."

"OK. We got to the forty-second floor, the apartment, the kitchen, and I broke out a bottle of Paul's best champagne. I think it was a Charles Lafitte 68'. I'm not much of a drinker, but I can tell you it went down easy, and to use the cliché, it tickled my nose."

"Was that a good year?"

"Excuse me?"

"Nineteen sixty-eight, was that a good year for that vineyard?"

"Hell girl, I'd never be the one to know the answer to that question. I would assume Paul had good stuff in his wine cooler, but I'm not anyone who could tell. We just drank it like soda pop and watched the fireworks from the balcony at midnight. It was a beautiful, clear night that year and the display was really spectacular."

"Sounds nice."

"It was romantic beyond my best daydream. I found Allen to be such a tender, loving soul that I had thoughts of running off with him. Can you imagine the headlines that would have created in Hollywood? 'Box Office Star Runs Off with New York Doorman'. Even as I fell into his arms on that balcony I knew it could never be in the life I was living. It was a bitter sweet night."


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