by Pat Nolan
Joyce James flicked a speck of powdered sugar off the showy burgundy scarf that was meant to complement her dark blue pantsuit. She held a half-eaten doughnut in the other hand. JJ, as she liked to be called, had once been a cute girl. The dimples were still there in spite of her puffy cheeks, and the upturned nose, a little rosier than it had been in her youth. She was late for an appointment with a prospective advertiser which was why she was trying, as delicately as possible, to insert the remainder of the doughnut into her mouth without dusting herself with white powder.
She motioned to the confusion of her desk with her free hand. I was supposed to understand what the charade meant. I waited for her to finish licking the tips of her fingers. She smacked her lips once she swallowed. “Your article on the art show is here somewhere. I had to cut a few paragraphs. We’re really strapped for space this week.” She started to shuffle through the papers on her desk but stopped because pages were sticking to her fingers. “Sticky,” she muttered to no one in particular. She glanced at her wristwatch and made a face. “I’ve got to get going.” She looked at me in that imploring manner I was becoming familiar with. “Be a dear and look for it yourself. I can’t be late for this appointment. It’s here, somewhere,” she repeated. I was about to protest but she had already thrown a beige alpaca shawl over her shoulders and was digging through her oversized handbag for her car keys as she disappeared out the door.
I found myself alone, in the cramped little square that housed the editorial office of Corkscrew County’s weekly newspaper, The Grapevine. Bundled back issues were stacked on the floor and against the walls, and in turn, file folders bulging with clippings and black and white photos were placed precariously on top of the none-too-steady bundles. There were two chairs in the room, one at the desk and one by the door, both of which were piled with more shapeless folders and assorted papers. The one window that looked out onto the street below was being used as a de-facto bulletin board, plastered with sticky note reminders, editorials from other newspapers, announcements, flyers, and various New Yorker style cartoons commenting on the vagaries of fourth estate culture.
The chaos of JJ’s desk reflected the random clutter of the tiny office, but to my surprise, I found my article easily. It was in a stack of papers alongside the rather large electric typewriter. The red ink bloodying the top page caught my eye. At first glance I couldn’t believe it was mine. But it was. My face turned the color of the ink as I read through the butchering of what had been my review of a painting and sculpture show at a local gallery.
JJ had slashed all but a few paragraphs. What remained intact was the name and location of the business, the names of the artists, and a quote from the proprietor to the effect that the gallery featured work by local artists with a new show each month. I had found the painter’s canvases to be clichéd, amateurish landscapes whose only saving grace was the odd use of color. JJ kept the comment favoring the color. I had liked the sculptures better even though they were unimaginative in their execution. She had substituted the word graceful.
I was chewing my cheek and about to become very perturbed when I heard the door open behind me. JJ stood there, legs slightly apart, arms dangling loosely, with a look of consternation on her face. It was such an unusual posture for her that I forgot my anger for a moment.
“I’m having car trouble. Would you be a dear and give me a lift?” she pleaded.
“That’s the newspaper business,” JJ explained once we were headed out Highway 8 toward the coast. “It has nothing to do with journalism or artistic integrity or whatever else you want to call it. The reality is that a review of an art show or a restaurant or any type of business is actually free advertisement, and an inducement to that business to buy ad space if they haven’t already, and to keep them buying if they have. If I print a bad review of any business, I stand a chance of losing them as advertisers. Now with a big city newspaper, like the Santa Quinta Daily Republican, the pressures aren’t so obvious, but believe me, their big money accounts have a say in the editorial content.”
I steered in silence. I thought her outlook was cynical. But I didn’t say so. What about journalistic ethics, the duty of the press to print the truth? But I didn’t ask. I concentrated on driving and allowed myself to marvel at the beauty of the rolling yellow green hills and the fading colors of autumn as the road wound its way to Feather, the tiny hamlet where JJ had her appointment with the proprietor of Kelly’s Seaside Resort. It hardly seemed the time to bring up my idea for a story on the dog murders.
Feather was a cluster of seedy little homes and fishing shacks on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. It had charm, in a rundown sort of way. Now and then the light glancing off the vast expanse of water gave each of the little hovels a jewel-like sparkle. Other times, the wind howled across the plateau so hard and cold that anyone foolish enough to venture out into the blast was rewarded with an instant migraine. Or, while the interior of the county sweltered in triple digit heat, Feather was wrapped in a shroud of fog. This day, however, happened to be a sparkler.
Kelly’s owner was a man by the name of Ralph Fashwalla, or so he introduced himself. Kelly’s hadn’t been owned by anyone named Kelly in quite a while JJ had explained on the way out. In fact, in her opinion, the place was jinxed. The last three owners had gone bankrupt. Business was generally good in the summer and early fall. But revenues from the so-called tourist season were hardly ever enough to sustain the resort during the lean winter months. Part of Kelly’s problem was its rundown appearance. The shredded fishnets, the broken life rings, and rusting nautical knick knacks littering the verandah were just plain tacky. JJ was making vague promises that an ad in her paper would help assuage the coming dearth of business.
Mr. Fashwalla didn’t seem to be paying much attention to her pitch. He only had eyes for me. It always happened. The mouth full of teeth and lidded eyes, the lingering handshake when we were introduced had been the giveaway. I was a knock-out. That was that.
I stepped outside to lessen the distraction and give JJ a fighting chance. The porch boards creaked and I hesitated to lean against the peeling paint of the railing. I glanced down at the patch of coastal weeds that had taken over the flowerbed. In of themselves, they had a natural beauty, but their random encroachment didn’t help the already deteriorating image that came with a first glance at the place.
The ocean breeze was turning into a wind and I walked out to my Volvo to get a jacket. The view from Kelly’s parking lot was certainly terrific, a sweeping vista that included the rugged bluffs jutting up from the mouth of the Corkscrew River. I turned back to see JJ on the front porch shaking hands with Fashwalla. “I hope we can do business,” she said as a final pitch. “And the rates are very reasonable.” Too bad it was such a firetrap. He was looking over her shoulder at me. He waved as JJ trundled down the steps, scowling.
We had driven a ways before she spoke. “He wants your telephone number.” There was a trace of a tremor to her voice. She was ready to explode.
“Come again?” I had to act incredulous, though it happened to me more times than I cared to count. They always want my phone number.
“He wants your phone number! He wanted to know if you were seeing anyone. I don’t think he heard a word I said about buying an ad in the paper!” She started to sob, her padded shoulders shaking. “I really can’t afford to lose this account.” She sighed. “The paper is barely making it. I owe the printer, I owe rent on the office, I owe the phone company, I owe the production staff. . . .” She paused to gulp a breath. “I haven’t paid myself in months, I owe on my utilities. . . .” Her cheeks were wet and her eyeliner smudged.
I shouldn’t have felt guilty, but I did. All my life my beauty had got me what I wanted. But it had its negative side as well. This was a case in point. My looks had cost JJ a customer. When I was in High School, all the other girls on the cheerleading squad resented me because I made them look ugly, or so it was reported to me, and the boys wouldn’t give them a second glance. I‘d been given special consideration all my life, at times to the detriment of others worthier of the attention. As a beauty contestant, I was never in fear of losing. And as a model, I was always in demand. Undeniably, there was carnage along the way. Back then, I accepted it as my due. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.
“Tell you what, we’ll go back and I’ll get him to place an ad.”
She shook her head. “No. . .it’s too late.” Her voice had become plaintive. She sounded at the end of her rope.
“No, I’m serious, I’ll do it.”
JJ fixed me with a puzzled stare. “Why are you even doing this? What are you even doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Are you running away from something, someone? I mean, you can practically have any job you want. I don’t get it. Why do you want to write color pieces for a newspaper with a circulation of less than five thousand?”
I had answers, but I wasn’t in a hurry to disabuse JJ of her notions just yet. I slowed behind a mottled old pick-up truck whose progress down the three blocks of Main Street could only be described as a slow trot. After we passed the old Coast Heritage Bank and Barbara’s Bakery with the Going Out Of Business sign in the window, I steered for the space in front of JJ’s car, an old Dodge Dart that had seen better days. When she said she had car trouble I’d assumed she meant it wouldn’t start or that it had a flat. It was listing to one side, as if an incredibly heavy object had been placed in the passenger’s seat. Then I noticed the web of smashed windshield.
TIMBERTON Pop. 1,985
I wondered if anyone in Timberton, a wide spot in the road on the way to the coast, had noticed that this year in particular, 1985, matched the population displayed on the sign into town. It was an old sign and probably inaccurate, and I didn’t expect that the doddering relics on the Chamber of Commerce really cared. Both sides of Main Street were lined with near empty stores and dilapidated shops on the verge of bankruptcy. Even those with quaint Western-style false fronts failed to attract business once the days got shorter and the nights longer and colder. Lumber trucks, delivery vans, pick-ups, and recreational vehicles roared right through and never looked back. Unless they had to fuel up. Then they pulled into the Last Gasp gas station at the far end of town where they were thoroughly gouged.
Next to the gas station and heading back into town was Elaine’s Pottery and Knick Knacks with a big hand-lettered Closed Till April sign on the front door. Directly across the street was Henderson’s Realty and next door was Carlyle’s Hardware and Equipment Rental. A weed clogged vacant lot provided the space between the hardware store and The Blue Ox, a garish blue cinderblock bunker adorned with an oversized representation of Bunyan’s pet with particular emphasis on the horned mammal’s gender. The red neon knot in the only window advertised a brand of beer known the world over. Across the street and completing the first block of businesses was a cyclone fence enclosure that contained a Quonset hut surrounded by the rusting hulks of autos. The sign on the double drive gate read Mike The Mechanic and underneath, in smaller print, American Cars Only – Beware of Dogs.
I had a clear view of The Blue Ox from my table at Barbara’s Bakery one block down. Barbara had placed a couple of tables in the front window and had started serving cappuccinos in hopes of staying in business. It wasn’t working. Across the table JJ babbled about how they were out to get her. They were not anyone specific, but a parade of imagined tormentors, mostly ex-boyfriends, businessmen she had slighted, or persons she had exposed in the pursuit of her hard hitting, no-holds-barred journalism. I tried not to smirk. As long as I’d read the Grapevine, any story JJ had written was always tempered by her awareness of her advertisers’ concerns. There was never any hard news in the Grapevine, only congratulatory puff pieces. Still, I was puzzled as to why she hadn’t mentioned her car being vandalized anytime on the drive to and from Feather.
“JJ, someone slashed your tires and smashed your windshield! Shouldn’t you be reporting that to the police?” I felt that I had to be outraged for her.
She flapped a chubby hand in dismissal. “First things first. That’s the way it is in this business. I couldn’t take the time to deal with it just then. I had to keep my focus. . .and my appointment at Kelly’s.” She sighed, segmenting the pastry on the plate in front of her into bite sized bits. “Lot of good that did. Of course, if my car hadn’t been trashed and I had gone to Kelly’s on my own. . . .” She stopped to savor a piece of pastry. “I wonder if Fashwalla would have bought an ad. . . .” She feigned coy innocence.
I was way ahead of her. “Are you saying I screwed up the deal for you?”
She spread her fingers in a gesture of mock resistance. “No, no, of course not.” And looked back down at her plate. “But he was distracted by your being there. That was quite evident. You shouldn’t underestimate your. . . .” She blushed saying it. “Beauty.”
I’d heard this song and dance before. “Alright, JJ. I’ll help you out anyway I can. I’ll go back to Kelly’s. I’m sure I can talk him into buying an ad.”
Maybe it was the sight of her damaged Dodge that led JJ to reconsider. She had the rate sheet out of her oversized purse and spread on the table before I finished the sentence. She smiled as she explained the rates, her voice cloying like an old maid aunt reading nursery rhymes.
Ideally, with a new client, you wanted to start with a full page and then discount them to a half page, and finally quarter page ads for the length of the contract. She circled the New Client package. Six months for fifteen hundred dollars. If I sold Fashwalla the package, I‘d get a commission. Seventy-five dollars. I made her sweeten the deal. If I brought in this account, she’d consider publishing my article on the dog murders. She hesitated at first, stuffing the remaining pastry into her mouth, and then agreed.
A fine drizzle had had fallen overnight and the roads were still damp as I drove back to Feather and Kelly’s Seaside Resort the next morning. I had called Kelly’s the previous evening and made an appointment. Fashwalla wasn’t in a very personable mood. He agreed on a time and hung up. Apparently my good looks weren’t as effective over the phone.
I thought it best to dress as a professional so as not to give Fashwalla the impression I was there for anything but business. I chose a pair of light brown slacks, a long sleeve white blouse, and a pair of sensible brown loafers. I pulled my hair into a prim bun at the back of my head held in place with a salmon colored ribbon. I added a small gold chain around my neck and a gold bracelet watch. I didn’t bother with my contact lenses and wore my prescription glasses in their Fabregianni frames. If I was supposed to be such a super woman, it seemed only fitting that I go as my alter ego, Clarissa Kent, reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine.
I met with very little traffic until I got to the intersection of Highway 8 and the Coast Highway. There were two cars ahead of me, a maroon convertible sports car with the top down and a pale green family sedan. The sports car was turning left, waiting for a gravel truck to rumble by. The family sedan and I were both turning right. The driver of the sports car must not have seen the van tailgating the gravel truck. The van hooked a left right into his path. There’s nothing like the screech of brakes to stiffen the spine.
I gaped in disbelief. The van was steel gray and had a little bubble window at the back in the shape of an Iron Cross. A burly bearded man jumped out of the driver’s seat and made for the sports car with a menacing stride. He was screaming something, his arms raised. The driver of the sports car appeared stunned from the near collision. The bearded man made as if to strike the driver of the convertible. His fist hesitated in the air above the driver’s head, now aware of the stopped traffic and multiple witnesses. He gave the sportster the finger instead, got back in the van and roared off.
I got a look at the two men in the front seat as the van sped past. They were the same guys who had harassed me on my jog days earlier. Of that, I was positive.
The sports car had pulled over to the shoulder as the driver collected his wits. He’d lost his color and maybe even his breakfast. I continued right on the Coast Highway and up into Feather.
A dark billowing mass was trundling in from the ocean. The wind had picked up with it, buffeting my Volvo with regular gusts. The radio had said that this storm signaled the beginning of the rainy season. The dead weeds at the entrance to Kelly’s Seaside Resort were being blown parallel to the ground and dust devils stirred in the colorless dirt of the parking area. I stepped out of the car and held on to my hair. The odd pieces of nautical knick-knacks on the front porch were banging together and making a muffled clang. The wind had also pushed open the front door. I knocked on the frame and announced myself with “Hello?” I saw a light through an open doorway just behind the front desk. I rang the bell on the reception desk once. A single clear note emphasized the eerie quiet. The sound was perfect but something wasn’t right. I saw an arm in a shirtsleeve in the office from where I was standing. “Hello,” I announced again, “Lee Malone, with the Grapevine, I have an appointment!” I stepped around the front desk and into the office. Fashwalla wasn’t going to be dazzled by my subtle beauty. Blood dripped off the seat of his chair and his back looked like it had been opened by a boar rooting for truffles.
“You with the Network?”
A perfectly proportioned mannequin with a sunny expression posed the question. Barely five feet tall, he held a microphone in his hand. A Vietnamese man stood behind him, TV camera braced on a shoulder.
“ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC?”
“I don’t understand.”
Every hair on the man’s head was flawlessly in place as if it had been painted on. He wore a navy blazer over a white shirt, and around his neck, a speckled yellow power tie. A pair of Bermuda shorts and sandals completed the outfit. Typical of TV reporters. Since they were only viewed from the midriff up, they went casual below the belly button.
“Don’t tell me now. I never forget a face. Didn’t you anchor. . .no, that’s not it. . .Sundays with Charles Osgood . . . you were the news reader!”
I shook my head. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.” I got a lot of that, though not so much since I’d moved out to the relative obscurity of Corkscrew County. People remembered my face but didn’t immediately place where they’d seen it before. It’s difficult being invisible once you’ve been in the public eye. But I was working on it.
I turned to watch the forensics crew. The perimeter had been cordoned off. They shuttled in and out of Kelly’s carrying large evidence envelopes and paper shopping bags. A few deputies stood watch, their thumbs hooked over their gun belts.
“Wait, wait, you were a guest on Sundays with Charles Osgood!”
He was getting close. Down the highway another news van drove into view. That brought the total to three. The first reporter on the scene had been from the Santa Quinta paper, The Daily Republican. He and his photographer pulled in right after the first deputy arrived. It had taken the deputy 15 minutes from the time I dialed 911.
“He was doing a segment on over-the-hill. . .I mean, former models!”
He had me. I had appeared on that show along with a clutch of models, mostly trophy wives set up in small businesses by their CEO husbands or those marketing organic jams from upstate farms with their domestic partners. I‘d been the only one still at loose ends, knocking about Europe, aimlessly staying with friends or house sitting, trying to escape the aftermath of more bad publicity, waiting for my case to be heard. That seemed so long ago.
“Lee. . .Leeann. . .that’s it!”
He had me. Leeann had been my mononym on the billboards, fashion pages, and runways.
“The glasses threw me. Marty, Marty Steele, KSQU TV News.” He held out his hand for me to shake. “So, what are you doing here? Are you covering this for CBS?”
“No, I’m not with the Network.” I turned to address him. When ignoring attention doesn’t work, surrender and charm.
“Wow, I can’t believe it, Leeann. Who are you working for?”
I was about to deny any affiliation but perversity is a small pleasure I sometimes allow myself. “The Corkscrew County Grapevine.”
At first there was a look of incomprehension on his little wooden face, and then an embarrassed flush colored the grain under the layer of makeup. He choked out, “You’re joking. . .right?”
I’d had my fun. “No, I’m not joking, but I’m not here as a reporter. I found the body and called it in.”
“That’s a relief. For a minute, I thought The Grapevine had beaten us to a story. I mean, no offense, but JJ’s paper isn’t much more than a throw-away advertiser.”
“None taken.” I gave him a one-sun smile. He basked in its glow. “Technically, though, since I am a reporter for The Grapevine, I did beat you to the story, as you put it.”
A shadow crossed his face. “What I don’t get is why a. . .a famous model like yourself is working for a nothing little rag. I mean, what kind of money can you be making?”
“I’m on commission. I sell ads as well as write for the paper.” I was exaggerating a little. My first attempt had been a dismal failure, evidenced by the annoying beep of the coroner’s van backing up to the front of the resort.
He looked surprised. “That can’t be much.”
“I get by.” My finances and my sex life are two things I don’t discuss with total strangers. He didn’t need to know that my parents had wisely insisted, at the height of my career, that I start a retirement fund and now, in my later years, it allowed me to pay utilities, buy food, keep the Volvo running, and occasionally splurge on a really expensive pair of shoes. My career had ended in my late 20’s. Designers were looking for less developed body types. Then there was my ill-advised return as a runway model on the Euro-trash circuit in my mid 30’s. My step-dad had left me his summer cabin just outside of Timberton. That was how I ended up in Corkscrew County where I was trying to live a low stress, low calorie, low tech, low profile existence.
“Well, this is news! International fashion model discovers gruesome murder while reporting for obscure country journal!” His face lit up like a cheap paper lantern.
“Please don’t.” I gave him two suns. It didn’t seem to faze him. The story he‘d report on the evening news had more dazzle, human interest plus crime and punishment. It had Network news potential. His cheeks grew rigid imagining himself on camera nationwide. “Seriously. I hope you’ll be discreet.” Three suns followed by a plaintive yet seductive look.
‘But. . . .”
“Look, let me be honest with you. I don’t need the past dredged up. I mean, it’s not exactly pretty. . . .”
“Something about a fire. At a villa. . . outside of Paris? I seem to remember. . . that was pretty. . . .”
“. . .bad, yes, I know. That was an accident, as I’m sure you know.” I sighed, not solely for effect. “Unfortunately, the focus tends to be on these unpleasant things and they get blown way out of proportion.” I got an understanding nod.
“Wasn’t there that thing with the sheik. . . ?
He was obviously familiar with my dossier and my spate of bad luck, but then they were the things that made the biggest splash on the entertainment news. Party girl fashion model outrages again! I was hoping he wasn’t going to start listing all my public indiscretions.
“And how about that mysterious abduction?!”
“Ms. Malone?” The gruff voice belonged to a handsome slender man in his fifties. He handed me his card. “Detective Richard Santos, County Sheriff.”
I blinked a smile. He wasn’t going to be easy to impress.