by Pat Nolan
Chapter Twenty Six
The waves washing across the black gravel of Sabbia Negru made a sound in their receding like that of distant applause. I might have been feeling nostalgic for the attention I received as a celebrated beauty. There was no doubt that I was conflicted. To say I had family and friends who were concerned for my well-being would be an understatement. I had been kidnapped after all. On the other hand, my captors were kind, generous women who had rescued me from sex slavery. Though when I reflected back on it, didn’t my life as a fashion model constitute a kind of slavery?
I’d been keeping track of the passage of days by the phases of the moon and my own cycle. In that time I had changed. My once pampered alabaster skin had darkened to a bronze hue under the unrelenting Mediterranean sun. And I was growing hair in places that had not seen a follicle in decades. For as long as I could remember I had been peeled, plucked, waxed and shaved of any growth that would hint at a more aggressive sexuality. As now, my hair fell to below my shoulders, streaked with salt bleached strands. And I had come to look forward to my daily jogs along the beach and my visits to Treyann’s stone cottage. Xuxann was often too busy with her other duties to continually watch me and she had to trust that I wouldn’t do anything foolish, like try to escape. Much of the time I was left on my own. I got a chance to know myself in those hours of solitude.
And I was learning things I had never imagined. For one, the group that was holding me was known as SAPHO, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques, which, loosely translated, stands for Anonymous Society for the Protection of Prostitutes and Concubines. As their name indicated, they were an organization of anonymous female humanitarians engaged in the rescue of sex slaves and women forced into prostitution. They were a modern reimagining of nunneries in the Middle Ages coming to the rescue of wayward girls. Their sign was the ancient Greek letter psi which consisted of three lines converging on a single point at the base to form a bisected V, and the first letter in the Aeolic name for the great woman poet, Sappho. Some of the women had the mark discreetly tattooed on a shoulder blade or an ankle. Their totem was the octopus from which they derived their organizational structure, the nine: eight tentacles and one body. The head of a group of nine, usually the eldest, acted as the body, and directly beneath her were two women who in turn each directed a group of three. But despite their hierarchal structure, the women seemed to act by consensus. There were SAPHO octopi cells in every country around the world who worked to rescue young woman from sex slavery, usually operating as clinics and halfway houses. It was even hinted that Mother Teresa belonged to SAPHO. Only cells like the one that held me were clandestine operators. Known as the Erinnyes, they engaged in sabotage to disrupt the operations of the vast networks of the international sex trade. Each clandestine cell specialized in a particular type of operation. Those holding me specialized in being invisible and providing safe houses while others, like those who had rescued me, were more militant and lethal.
I was informed that it had been white slavers from the Sophia Syndicate, purveyors of female flesh since the days of the Ottoman Empire, who had kidnapped me at the behest of some sandcastle despot. SAPHO intercepted my transport at a private air strip in Moldavia and spirited me to their hideaway in the Mediterranean. Unable to deliver the goods, the Bulgarians claimed to be holding me for ransom and were demanding five million dollars. They were certain the Prince would pay the price.
SAPHO had their motives for keeping me under wraps. Through private channels, they released a picture of me holding a copy of Le Monde with the news of my kidnapping to prove to the Prince that my custody was under their aegis. They proposed a less costly solution, but one that was more politically delicate. And they had to move cautiously. They suspected that some of the Prince’s advisors were complicit in the original plan to kidnap me. When Mohamed el-Ipir’s name was mentioned, I wouldn’t believe it. And when Preston Carmichael’s name had come up, I dismissed him as merely that lawyer who had gotten me out of a drug jam.
Urann, the elder of this particular SAPHO cell, had been candid in explaining why I was being held. They were negotiating with the Prince to intervene in gaining the release of women from harems controlled by less enlightened oil royalty. The Prince’s professed affection for me would be the incentive to free the women from the basement sex dungeons. When I was released I would be at liberty to tell anyone who asked what I knew about the organization.
“Do you think they will believe you?” she had asked, allowing a glimpse of her cold determination. “You are a woman whose sole function is to serve as a display of a man’s idea of beauty, a measure held up to the women of the world. Your words on politics or the rights of others will be dismissed as that of a vacuous female icon.”
As it was, once I was allowed to tell my side of the story and counter the spin that appeared in the tabloids, hinting at wild lesbian adventures or just the antics of a fading star looking to attract attention, I opted to say as little as possible. I did speak out against sex slavery and the plight of women around the world. Not surprisingly, little of what I said was reported. I was much more of a photo op, and innuendo is always so much more interesting than fact. For me it was like buying a beautiful gown and not being able to remove the price tag. Every time I cut off one tag another appeared as a reminder of what it cost to be me.
Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinyes. . .Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.
My greatest lessons, however, were learned in the presence of Trayann. Together we explored the pine woodlands and meadows situated at the base of the monolithic crag I named Mother Mountain. She was intimately familiar with the surroundings and where to look for wild herbs, berries, and mushrooms. She tried to teach me the ancient names of birds and their calls. It was hopeless. The only name I remembered was Pica, the persistent woodpecker with its nest in the pine near Trayann’s hut. Between my quasi-Parisian French and her provincial argot, we managed to establish a rapport that included much gesturing, head nodding, and sympathetic understanding.
There were places that were obviously sacred to Trayann. She would stop and raise her arms to the transparent blue to incant a prayer or sing a song of praise to the great goddess. Then she would show me the herm hidden in the foliage or a stone column representing a wood nymph. Other times I just sat with her in her garden or beat the midsummer heat in the cool of her stone hut with a cup of herb tea. Conversation was nearly impossible unless Xuxann was in attendance. I would ask her to tell me the names of plants she had gathered or objects that adorned her tidy stone hut. And patiently, she did.
Once I noticed what I thought to be a vaccination scar on her left shoulder but when I looked closer I saw that the scar was the result of a hot brand. The image was that of an octopus with eight radiating tentacles. She had run her fingers over it, speaking words heavy with sadness.
Xuxann had been with me that day and as we descended the path back to my cell, I asked her if she understood what Taryann had said about the brand on her shoulder. I assumed that it must have had something to do with SAPHO as the octopus was their totem. Xuxann had given me a long searching look as if she were trying to discern my trustworthiness and then told me the story of Trayann.
What Trayann had said was something like “this is where I began.” As a young girl, she had been kidnapped by white slavers and ended up in the clutches of the Sophia Syndicate, the very same group that had tried to kidnap me. The SS, as they were known in the trade, had long branded their property with the octopus symbol. Even their luxury yachts on the Black Sea, essentially floating bordellos, flew the octopus pennant. After years in a brothel specializing in young girls, Trayann escaped and made her way to a convent in the eastern forests of Czechoslovakia where she was given refuge by nuns of the Order of St Hildegard. The nuns ran a sort of underground railway for refugees from the sex trade. They put Trayann in touch with other escapees similarly branded by the SS. She was introduced to a secret society whose mission it was to put the Bulgarians out of business. With the help of the Hildegardian nuns, Trayann and her associates set about establishing a variety of fronts and charities whose purpose was the rescue of at-risk young women. In an ironic twist, they appropriated the Sophia Syndicate brand as the symbol of their own organization.
Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinnyes or the Furies. That had been years ago, between the wars. During the war, the women of SAPHO had devoted themselves to working in hospitals and relief organization, sheltering young women who had been displaced by the fighting. Organizations like theirs, often headed by nuns, had existed in one form or another for centuries. The brutal lessons of the war had convinced SAPHO that they needed to be more militant and meet their foes head to head on the field of battle. Their lack of physical strength and fire power was more than made up for by their womanly wiles. They had to become invisible. This was accomplished by being what men thought they were, compliant and subservient. They learned to shape shift as the ancient shamans had. Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.
Trayann, because of her age, was no longer a participant in the day to day activities of SAPHO. Nor was she one of the nine. To the women of the organization, she was a model, a symbol of the ongoing struggle for the rights of women to be recognized as human and not chattel to be bought and sold like livestock.
Something else began occurring with regularity in the early months of my safekeeping and that was the arrival, every five to seven days, of motor launches crowded with woman, young and old, of all shapes and sizes. They were excursions from the woman’s resort on the grey shadow of land on the far horizon that I sometimes glimpsed from the vantage of Trayann’s garden.
The women at the villa, as a cover for their presence at Sabbia Negru, hosted overnight retreats that included vegetarian meals, herbal tonics, and accommodations in cabanas set up along the base of the cliff. Late into the night I listened to the joyful shrieks of female voices accompanied by the hypnotic rhythms of drums and flutes. I was not allowed to participate because I would surely be recognized. Only on those occasions had I felt a twinge of isolation. By the time the festivities began I was usually looking forward to a restful sleep after an exhausting and fulfilling day traipsing around in the woods with Trayann. Those who knew me would have been shocked at my indifference. I had a reputation as one of the most intrepid of party girls.
Like clockwork, I watched the boats arrive. First a sparkling wave at the prow would glimmer like a faint blinking white light. Then as the shapes of the large motorboats became more apparent, the rough rumble of their engines would reach my ears. At times three or four boatloads of women would disembark at the jetty and then proceed up to the villa, a procession of colorful beachwear flapping in the shore breeze like festive drapes set against the blackness of the sand. As I sat on the stone bench high above them in Trayann’s garden, the sound of their voices, a musical incomprehensible babble, would reach me, too often drowned out by the rumble of the motor launches returning.
I didn’t think I’d fallen asleep. I was hearing those motors only much louder, as if they were directly overhead. I opened my eyes and looked across the river. Rikki was waving his arms and shouting something to me. I might have been at the edge, where reverie turns to dream. And I’d barely touched my drink. Using my sandals as paddles, I made my way back to the dock where Wallace and Lalo stood shading their eyes and looking in the direction of the sound. Rikki directed my attention. “Look! A fire!”
It took me a while to focus at where he was pointing, but eventually I made out a column of black smoke roiling out from the hillside of firs and redwoods in the distance. Then I saw the source of the noise, a large white helicopter with a huge red bucket suspended beneath it, dipping into the river further down around the bend.
The look on Rikki’s face mirrored what I was thinking. Wallace spoke for both of us. “Lee, isn’t that smoke coming from over near where you live?”
Chapter Twenty Seven
The roof had caved in exposing charred rafters. Trails of smoke snaked up through the already choking air. The rear end of a fire truck, beeping a warning, nudged past me, backing toward the ruins of the fire demolished cabin. My cabin, half of which was now nothing more than brittle charcoal sticks. The fire chief took me by the elbow and led me back to his pick-up truck. I’d made the acquaintance of the fire chief when I first moved to Timberton. He was a moderately good looking guy in his late forties. I went to dinner with him once. Like most firefighters, if it’s not on fire, they’re not interested. And I don’t catch fire for just anybody.
Like giant bumble bees with axes, the firefighters in their yellow protective gear tore away at the scorched, discolored walls of the back bedroom that had served as my clothes closet. The chief spoke close to my ear to make himself heard above the din of the engine pumps and the chainsaws. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. He explained anyway. The closely packed garments in the back bedroom had somehow slowed the spread of the fire to that part of the house. This was supposed to be some sort of consolation? The clothes were so smoke damaged that they wouldn’t even make good rags. The Valantini’s, the Borochios, the Kokolas, my beautiful Yamita silks, a classic fashion wardrobe that held the history of my career. Gone.
What I felt was more like disappointment than anger. I was still trying to puzzle the pieces together. How did my home, my refuge, become a smoking mass of rubble? What he was telling me didn’t help. Besides it was competing with what I was trying to sort out in my own mind. It started when I had seen the smoke from Nathan Thiele’s beachfront. I had a sinking feeling that the black column was somehow a signal to me. I had to rush home to confirm for myself that what I was imagining was just paranoia, that it was just me, crazy me. But not crazy enough to go the way I was dressed, teensy bottoms and an improvised halter top. I’d come with a wraparound skirt but that didn’t seem to be quite appropriate to go meet my insane intuition. I needed something to throw over myself.
Thiele didn’t have anything in the way of women’s clothing, nothing that would fit me, anyway. There was just one item, a collector’s piece that had once been worn by Audrey Hepburn in some horrid movie that had never been released, and when it occurred to him, it was as if he were having an epiphany. Personally, I was a little appalled. It was a sixties-style woman’s trench coat, deep red in color with large black polka dots. The movie it had appeared in might have been shelved solely on the basis of that coat. Rikki couldn’t help but quip, “I knew there was a Madam Butterfly but now I see that there’s a Madam Ladybug as well.” I couldn’t stay to laugh. My house was on fire.
The access to Primrose was blocked by fire trucks. I’d ditched my wheels and made my way up the street through the runnels of ashy water, my gold flip-flops slipping and sinking in the mire of soggy grime. I saw billows of black smoke pouring out of a broken window. Firefighters were working the hillside where the tall weeds and the oaks were burning. I began to understand then that the cabin I had called home was gone. There was nothing anyone could do.
I felt numb. My cabin wasn’t just a home, it was a connection to a part of my life that had always seemed safe. It had belonged to my stepfather, Frank Zola, and he had come by it in a high stakes poker game. This was long before he’d met my mother. He’d been a brash upstart Wall Street lawyer. She claimed to have civilized him, and maybe she had. But the cabin, for me, represented that side of him that had never been tamed. After I had been rescued by the Prince’s elite security force and then turned over to the authorities who were intent on charging me with fabricating my disappearance, I wasn’t feeling all that great with the world. I’d had to stay in Paris until the legal wrangling was over. Frank had been in touch with me much of that time. The transatlantic phone calls alone must have cost him a fortune. He wasn’t living with mother anymore. And I didn’t realize how sick he was. He passed away shortly after I was vindicated.
I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.
I could have cashed in on all the attendant publicity. There was not one tabloid that didn’t carry a story about me somewhere in their pages, barely any of it true, mostly rehashing past indiscretions. I was in demand at social occasions and public spectacles like gallery openings and premieres. On the other hand, I wasn’t hearing much from the agencies. But I was fairly ambivalent about it all. My time in captivity on what turned out to be the southwestern tip of Corsica on the Straits of St Bartholomew had given me a new perspective. I had come to think of myself differently. I tried to keep a low profile in spite of being hounded by paparazzi. I had been evicted from my posh apartment. I stayed with friends, putting all that I owned, which was mostly clothes, in storage. Then I had to fly to Chicago for the funeral.
It wasn’t quite a circus, though it was trying hard to be. Wisely, mother had convinced someone high-up on the police commission of the possibility of an unruly crowd and that he should have a riot squad on hand. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Still flashbulbs sparked like thousands of tiny random white holes in the gray mass of on-lookers that rainy Sunday afternoon. Men with telephoto lenses had climbed into trees just to get close-ups of the grieving bad girl. I would have traded every bit of my notoriety for just five more minutes with Frank Zola, to enjoy his kindliness and humor, and his common sense. Later that day his lawyer advised me that Frank had left me the cabin in Corkscrew County in his will. The mystified expression on his face said he had no idea where that was, certainly no place in the civilized world. But, considering my mental state, I took it as a sign, Frank’s last bit of advice. Lay low for a while, regenerate yourself, rediscover yourself.
From the moment I parked the rental in front of the cabin on Quince, I knew I had come home. Financially, Frank had me covered, setting up a trust fund and investing my earnings while I was a minor. Even as an adult and accustomed to extravagances, he managed to convince me to contribute a percentage to the “strong box” as he called it. I sent for the things I had in storage in Paris and moved in. I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.
Someone had once suggested that I write the story of my life as a top model. It would make a good book, they said. I never thought so. But I did start a journal and wrote down my thoughts on a daily basis. That’s easier said than done. But I kept at it. And I came to realize that I had a knack for observation, for detail. That’s how I ended up writing for the Grapevine. It was in answer to a plea for local news and events. I wrote a scathing review of a gallery show up the coast in Healy, the upscale art colony, and sent it in under a pseudonym. I heard back from JJ not because she accepted my article but because she said I had talent that could be used in a positive way. And I was probably the only one who had answered her plea. When we met for the so-called job interview, she recognized me immediately from one of the old cigarette billboards. She had been elated at first and then uncomfortable. And finally, very business-like in a tremulous sort of way. She couldn’t pay me much, she explained, but I should consider my assignments as part of an apprenticeship into the world of journalism. In reality she just wanted someone else to write the puff pieces, a soul deadening task in any language.
The fire chief directed my attention to the tall gray haired woman in uniform approaching us from the edge of the fire. “May Ann Young. The County fire cop,” he nodded toward her almost respectfully. “She’ll want to talk to you.” When she reached us, a fiftyish, weather scarred, no nonsense square ruddy face, he made the introductions. “May, this here’s the property owner, Lee Marlowe.”
“Malone,” I corrected, and extended my hand in greeting.
She looked at it. “You are the legal owner of this property, is that correct?” She didn’t blink and I had the feeling my every scintilla was under scrutiny.
“Yes, I inherited it from. . . .”
“What time did you leave the house today?” She held a small yellow notepad in her hand.
I didn’t know what time I had left the house this morning and I said so.
“So you left this morning. Early, late?”
It had been closer to noon.
“Are you having financial difficulties, Ms. Malone?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. What had my finances to do with my house burning down?
“Arty, show the lady what we found,” she said to the firefighter with the shovel who had accompanied her. “Recognize that, Ms. Malone?”
The firefighter extended the shovel in my direction. I looked at a vaguely familiar shape of burnt plastic and discolored metal sitting in the shovel but couldn’t say exactly what it was.
“That’s an electric iron. Or what’s left of one.”
I jumped involuntarily as if I had touched the hot iron itself. I had an electric iron. And I had taken it out when I thought to use it on the scarf I chose for my halter top. But when I realized that it was not a material that would take heat, I’d thought better of it. I didn’t think I’d plugged the iron in. But I had been in a hurry so I wasn’t certain. “You mean that my iron started the fire? It was an accident?”
May Ann looked at me without a change of expression though I could tell she was weighing her words. “Normally, I would say yes. You wouldn’t believe how many people lose their homes to fire through carelessness. But in this case there was just too much accelerant splashed around to make it anything but deliberate.”
I was stunned. “Ok, you just said two things I need to understand better. You said accelerant. What’s that?”
“In this case, I’d say gasoline. That’s what you would use so that what you wanted to burn burned hot and fast.”
“And deliberate, I know what that means. Arson. Are you saying someone purposely set fire to my house?”
“And tried to make it look like an accident.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew the answer.
May Ann spoke, wearily, as if she were tired of saying it. “Why, to collect on the insurance money, of course.”
I felt stupid, but I played it smart and stopped talking. Something Frank Zola had taught me.
“Ms. Malone, I have a lot of questions to ask you. I would like to establish your whereabouts from around noon today to approximately half an hour ago, three o’clock. Sheriff’s deputies will be questioning your neighbors to see if they saw or heard anything suspicious. But I think we might accomplish more if you accompanied me to my office for an interview.”
I hesitated. I was under suspicion of setting my own house on fire. “Do you actually think that I burned my own home?” I tried to sound irate but it came out with too little conviction. I was starting to doubt myself.
“The facts haven’t been established. But I’ve been a fire cop for a long time, and a fire like this,” she indicated the pile of smoking debris with the jerk of her head, “it’s usually the property owner who has the most to gain.”
“Am I under arrest?”
A ripple of a smile or smirk flexed her stern jaw. “Not unless you wanna be.”