by Pat Nolan
Chapter Twenty Eight
THE LADYBUG RUSE
Anything I said could and would be used against me. I had a right to remain silent. Yet in many situations such as mine, people have a tendency to babble, volunteer more than anyone needs to know, and in the process, unwittingly incriminate themselves in crimes that they never committed or intended to commit. People can be so obliging in the face of authority.
As a young up-and-coming model with a mind of my own and outspokenly opinionated, I had learned the hard way that anything I said would be twisted and bent to mean exactly the opposite of its intent. After being burned at the stake in numerous tabloids, I chose my words carefully and dispensed my opinions even more penuriously than I did my favors. I had taken as my motto the words of the other Hepburn. I didn’t care what they said about me just as long as it wasn’t true. I kept my mouth shut.
First there was the long silent ride to the Hall of Justice where May Ann Young had her office, a tiny cramped closet in the basement. Her manner was apologetic as she had me sit in the only other chair. Battered black file cabinets took up most of the wall and floor space. Cardboard boxes overflowing with case files occupied any area that didn’t block entry and exit. A few posters exhorting fire safety served as decoration on the otherwise drab green walls. She had removed a sheaf of forms from her desk drawer, a dinged and dented metal affair that looked like it had come in last at a destruction derby. She referred to the small yellow pad I had seen her with at the fire scene and copied her notes into the spaces provided.
I felt cold. In the heat of this late July day my flimsy attire would have been appropriate, but my chill had more to do with an uncomfortable self-consciousness at having only bikini bottoms and a makeshift halter top underneath the ridiculous polka dot trench coat. My gold sandals had turned to mush and so for all intents and purposes I was barefoot. The scent of my charred cabin hung about me like a noxious perfume. I was trying to put together a scenario that would explain who would be capable of such an act. Blackie came to mind immediately. Even after what Chandler had told me, I had difficulty believing that he would set fire to my home. Yet his words “play with fire and you get burned” resonated with ominous significance.
May Ann returned my driver’s license after copying from it onto the form in front of her. She extracted a cassette recorder from a drawer and set it on the desk, plugging it in the outlet behind her chair. When she faced me again, her mouth set in determined seriousness, she reminded me of my rights. “Why don’t we talk about why anyone would want to torch your cabin?” she said as she depressed the record button on the machine.
I could have declined to speak until I had a lawyer present. But there were more viable suspects than me. And, I was never good at taking my own advice. I told her about the Fashwalla murder and the one at the Franklin Resort. About the dog killings and the men in the gray van. And about Blackie. I also mentioned Assistant DA Chandler Wong. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about the ongoing investigation into Tommy Montague and Ramparts Corp.
Her eyes narrowed with a steely glint. She punched numbers into the keypad of her phone after she stopped the recorder. She shuffled the forms on the desk in front of her while she waited for someone to pick up.
“Mr. Wong, May Ann Young, County Fire Investigator.” She paused. “I’m fine, thank you. The reason I’m calling is that I have a women in my office on a suspicion of arson.” She paused again. “Her name is Lee Malone. She says she knows you.” A longer pause. “Her own home.” May Ann blinked in surprise and for a moment lost some of her professional composure. She listened to the voice at the other end of the line, nodded in assent a few time, interjecting an “I see” now and then. All the while her eyes took me in as if the words she heard were prompting a reappraisal. When she put the phone down, her cheeks appeared flush. She folded her hands on the desk and looked down at them for a moment, gathering her words. She fixed me with her relentless gray eyes and spoke. “Ms. Malone, your story checks out with the DA’s office. You’re free to leave. And I apologize for any inconvenience.” She sounded sincere.
I didn’t have to be told twice. I picked up my purse and opened the door. I hesitated.
“Turn right and up the stairs. I’ll call up to have them buzz you out to the lobby.” Her tone had lost its hard professional edge.
When I reached the locked security door that led to the lobby, there were two younger women waiting to be allowed out as well. If I had not been barefoot and wearing my fashion faux pas, we would have been in similar states of undress. One of the women was a short skinny blonde with way too much make-up that did not look all that freshly applied. Her denim shorts were cut so that much of the curve of her buttocks was exposed. An off-white sweater top allowed a view of her bare midriff encircled by a gold chain. The open-toed high heeled plastic shoes she wore could have doubled as step ladders. Her friend was taller, closer to my height. There was something familiar about her, as if I had seen her somewhere before. She wore a green blouse with short puffy sleeves over a bright orange tube top that accentuated her perky breasts quite accurately. A leather mini-skirt and black thigh thigh-high boots completed the outfit. From the way they both joked with the deputy at the door, it was obvious they were familiar with the routine.
Once out in the lobby, they stopped to chat with another deputy at the reception kiosk. I made a bee line for the double glass doors that led outside. I stopped in my tracks. A throng of reporters and TV cameras were waiting at the bottom of the steps. The last thing I wanted to do was face them, especially in my ladybug coat. One of the reporters spotted me and alerted the others. A deputy kept them from bursting into the lobby. I turned to look for another way out. That’s when I caught sight of Rhonda.
I was surprised to see her there. She had just recently returned from an extended stay in Switzerland. There was a hospital in Zurich that promised a cure for what was afflicting Ward. I had not seen her in months. But thinking back on the years I had lived in that neighborhood, she and Anna were often gone for long periods of time. They were retired, she told me more than once, and they loved to travel. They even had a little place in Malaga. On the other hand, she liked to say, there was no place like Corkscrew County to get away from it all.
“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.
At my puzzlement, she explained that she had come to bail me out. She knew I hadn’t set fire to my cabin. She had already told that to the deputy who questioned her. She’d been taking her midday nap when she was awakened by the sound of a motorcycle roaring away. Soon after that she had smelled smoke and had seen flames coming from my cabin. She had been the one who had called it in. Now she was here to take me home, what was left of it. It was just the neighborly thing to do.
The mention of the motorcycle made me think of Blackie again. The reporters were clamoring at the glass doors and I moved further out of sight.
“Help me, Rhonda,” I pleaded, “I can’t go out there and face them.”
The hookers had wandered over, drawn by curiosity. I saw inspiration light up Rhonda’s face. She motioned to the two women. “Do you ladies know who this is?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “This is Lee Malone, world famous fashion model.”
The one who had looked familiar to me nodded and said, “Yeah, I thought you looked familiar.” It was then I understood why I thought I’d seen her before. She was me. She had imitated my hair style, the way I used to make up my eyes, along with a slight physical and facial resemblance.
Rhonda explained my predicament as she led us all into the woman’s bathroom. She was about to outline her plan when the short blonde, whose name was Sandy, pointed a finger at Rhonda and said “I know you! I’ve seen you in porn movies. You’re famous!” The prostitute who looked like me and whose name was Liza chimed in. “Right, right! I’ve seen your movies before. My boyfriend made me watch them. You’re amazing!” We all looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.
“Now, calm down, girls,” Rhonda said, “After all, we’ve all sold our bodies in one way or another. Nothing to get excited about. Here’s my plan.”
Liza and I were to exchange garb. She was thrilled by the makeshift halter top after I explained I had gotten it in one of trendiest boutiques in Monte Carlo. She wrinkled her nose and passed on donning the bikini bottoms. And she wasn’t so sure about the trench coat but that was a big part of the ruse. I had no problem fitting into the tube top, the boots and the leather miniskirt. I don’t know why I was surprised that she wasn’t wearing underpants.
Rhonda’s plan was that Liza, dressed as me, would create a diversion to draw the reporters away from the front doors, and then Sandy and I, as hookers, would slip away unnoticed. She sweetened the deal with a few bills from the bankroll she pulled from her purse.
The plan worked like a charm. The reporters swarmed Liza who put on fashion model airs quite naturally. I caught a glimpse of her wide smile as she basked in the momentary crush of notoriety. By the time the reporters realized that it wasn’t me, I was being whisked away in Rhonda’s Coupe Deville.
Chapter Twenty Nine
ODD WOMAN OUT
I had no clothes. I had no home. And I didn’t have a clue why anyone would want to torch my cabin. I stood on the littered asphalt and stared at the smoking debris. Rhonda dragged me back to her house and handed me a large glass of scotch. “You need to relax” was her admonition. I took a tentative sip, the alcohol burning as it went down. My nerves released their grip and by the time the molten drop made it to my gut, I wanted another taste.
We talked. Rather, I babbled and she listened. I had to get over the hurdle of my disbelief. When I voiced my suspicion that Blackie might have done it, she considered me warily and then shook her head.
“I go way back with Blackie and unless he’s changed since then, I don’t think he would do something like that. If Blackie has a bone to pick with you, you’ll know it because he’ll be right there in your face,” she said touching up the glasses with a drab more scotch.
“That’s right, you guys were in business together.” Rhonda’s fingers tighten around her glass, lips pulled into a mirthless smile. “More like co-workers, considering that we were both employees.”
“So you knew Arlene.” I was curious about the woman who had been Blackie’s mate and whose photo I had seen on the wall of his shop.
Rhonda drained her glass and then stared at the empty bottom. “Arlene was my best friend. We both come from foster homes in the Midwest. Me Indiana, her Missouri which she liked to pronounce misery. We were runaways. And we met out here, on the West Coast. A way to make a quick buck back then was posing for nude photos. We were just kids, but that’s what the pervs want to see. We were hoping to be discovered in Hollywood like a lot of young gals. This was after the war. We hooked up with a gang of motorcycle guys who also had the idea of making it into pictures, as stunt men. One of them was Blackie, another one of them was Tommy Perro.” She paused as if making an effort before she spoke the other name. “And Chip Pierce.”
I’d seen the picture on the repair shop wall, a young Rhonda with someone Blackie had identified as Chip. I vaguely recalled something about an accident, too. “Blackie told me a little about those days. You were all models, is that right?”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Rhonda chuckled. “And if that’s the way Blackie wants to remember it, that’s fine with me.” She shrugged. “The way I remember it is that Tommy had a friend who worked as a cameraman for a low budget studio. They came up with the idea of making dirty movies, what you’d call soft core these days. The plan was to use me and Arlene, and Chip and Blackie as actors. The first one they made went nowhere. It was mostly ham-handed situations, innuendo, cleavage and crotch shots, and a lot of tongue twining, grunting and panting.” She exhaled a staid chuckle and splashed more scotch against the sides of her glass. “Tommy found a backer, a two-bit gangster and wannabe movie producer, to put up the money. But the guy wanted something a little more realistic. At first everyone was cool to the idea. We all knew that once you were in stags, your chances of going legit were dead. But the money was easily more than either of us made in months of waitressing. And the guys, well, they were always broke. The way Tommy talked it up, we wouldn’t be doing anything we weren’t already been doing with each other. It’d just be on film is all. So Chip and me went at it first. Then Arlene and Blackie. Then Arlene and me. Then Blackie and me. And Arlene. And Chip.
“Once we got over our initial bashfulness, we went through the motions like actors playing their parts. All except for Blackie. ” Rhonda smiled grimly. “He was a hunk, then as now. But he just happens to be an apple with a short stem.”
I laughed involuntarily at her expression.
“Tommy used to rag him mercilessly about that. But Blackie took it from Tommy because they were friends. And among Blackie’s faults is his blind loyalty. If he’s your friend you can count on him to give you the shirt off his back.”
“And if he’s not your friend?”
She shrugged. “What do you want me to say? He’s got a temper.”
“So I heard.”
“Really?” Rhonda sat back in her chair, guarded. “What have you heard?”
I realized that I might know more than I should let on. What Chandler had told me was confidential. “Oh, just something JJ said in passing.” I’m not a very good liar. “You were saying, about Tommy and Blackie?”
Rhonda nodded and looked at her glass as if the thread of the story would be found in the half inch of amber liquid. “Yeah, Tommy was a ball buster. But Blackie took it good naturedly. Of course we all knew not to tease Blackie, especially about something like that. The actor Tommy used as a body double with Arlene didn’t know that. I don’t think he even got to finish the taunt. Blackie came unglued and beat the man to a bloody pulp.”
I inhaled sharply. Even though I’d heard the story, it still shocked me. “He hurt him pretty bad?”
“He killed him.”
The way Rhonda spoke it so matter-of-factly it shocked me nearly as much as Blackie’s brutality. “Oh.”
“Blackie served his stretch, and when he got out he looked up his old friends. Arlene was first on his list. You can’t blame him.” Rhonda sighed, a troubled frown drawing a V between her penciled eyebrows. “But Blackie had spent his time in the pen thinking about a lot of things besides Arlene. One of them was his old buddy, Tommy. He came to realize that Tommy was a manipulator, a behind the scenes backstabber and that he only cared about numero uno.” She said it with a sly sarcastic smile. “Blackie’s plan was to get back together with Arlene and get as far away from Tommy as he could. He didn’t expect to find her living with Tommy and two babies, twin boys.” She didn’t take notice of my gasp. “Arlene didn’t hesitate. She packed her bags, loaded the kids into her car and took off with Blackie.”
I was dumbfounded. These were details that Blackie had conveniently left out when he told me the story of how he and Arlene ended up in Timberton. “What about you? I mean, did you know they were going to leave it all behind?”
Rhonda shook her head, maybe more at the memory of what she was dredging up than my prying. She swirled the scotch in the bottom of her glass before knocking it back in one practiced motion. “No, I was out of the picture about then.” She gave me a baleful stare. “The problem with working for Tommy is that he wasn’t just making dirty movies. He was dealing drugs, too. Hard drugs. Most of his actors were using. Chip got hooked after his accident. Morphine and then heroin. And it gets to be a habit. You realize you’re not going to survive the day without a fix.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s kind of ironic, you know? Blackie getting out of the slam and me going in.”
“You went to prison?” I didn’t hide my disbelief.
“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.”
Rhonda nodded. “About a month before Blackie got out, I was sent up on a drug charge. I owed Tommy for drugs, and after Chip overdosed I really hit rock bottom, so I was moving weight for him.” She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows as if to say what do you expect. “And I got popped.”
“I don’t get it. Tommy and Arlene and two kids. Blackie just spirited them away? Tommy didn’t do anything about it. I mean, they were his kids, right?”
Rhonda cocked her head to one side and considered me with a narrowed look, like I was being a little too nosy. “Yeah, no telling what was going through his head. Besides dollar signs, I mean. I didn’t know what Arlene and Blackie had done. I didn’t find out till much later when I was let out on parole.”
“That Blackie and Arlene and the kids were living up in Corkscrew County?”
“Right. I heard that Blackie was working as a mechanic, and living at the Mint, in fact. Arlene wasn’t idle either, making the rounds of garage and estate sales, buying things to resell. She always had good sense in that way.”
“What became of the kids, the twins?” I hold my liquor better than I can contain my curiosity. “Isn’t one of them named Tommy?” And get enough liquor in me and I’m liable to blurt out anything.
She gave me a pained smile. “Did Blackie tell you that? Yes, Tommy. And Timmy.”
I tried not to be coy. “I know that Tommy Perro is now Tommy Montague and the money behind Montague Winery. And that he has a son, also named Tommy, running the business. I didn’t know about Timmy.”
Rhonda offered a bemused smirk before answering. “Tommy was making too much money so he got the idea of buying up property and planting vines as one way to launder the dirty cash. The boy, Tommy, he’s smart, crafty like his old man. Timmy, his twin? Let’s just say he’s. . . .” She paused, searching for the word. “Odd.”
Odd how that word struck me. Odd. I searched my memory of anyone I thought of as odd, and I’d known many who fit that description. But none of them came immediately to mind. The image the word triggered was of a greasy dark haired man with a scraggly goatee. A man I had seen not more than a few times and then only briefly and in passing. Someone who filled me with apprehension. The booze was prompting my odd fuzzy logic. Odd that I felt a sudden chill. “So what happened to them?”
Rhonda stretched her arms across the table, empty glass in her hand, weariness weighing the corners her eyes. “It took a while but Tommy tracked Blackie and Arlene down. I was out of prison by then. He had the money, lawyers and the connections to have Arlene declared unfit. She could have fought it, but she knew that if she did Blackie would get involved. And he would kill Tommy.”
“Were you still working for Tommy then?”
Rhonda shrugged, the strain of this stroll down memory lane taking its toll. “I got straight. Took my cue from Arlene and cut loose of Tommy. I worked restaurant jobs, went back to school, looked for something better paying. I’d find one, and then some guy would recognize me from a stag film, and once word got around the office, they usually found a reason to let me go. I was too much of a distraction.” She snorted a laugh into her empty glass. “I kept at it, though, spent a good fifteen years walking the line, keeping my head down. I even resorted to wigs, dying my hair and wearing glasses to change my appearance, and eventually it worked. The problem was that I was making peanuts while all my old friends who were still in the business were sitting in the lap of luxury.”
Rhonda considered the bottle before she continued. “I knew that I didn’t want to work for another crook like Tommy. So I got together with an actress I’d worked with before. You know her. Anna.”
I nodded dumbly, partly in shock. I was desperately trying to keep all the new revelations from tangling into an incomprehensible snarl. The fact that my head was swimming from the effects of alcohol didn’t help.
“And we started our own production company. We had a pretty good idea what guys wanted to see, but we also knew what women were interested in. The money was good and it was better than walking the street. After that I never worked more than a couple of months a year. I can’t complain. I’ve lived well.” She said it with great satisfaction. “I’ve got a house in the Frisco, a place in Spain, and when I want to get away from it all, I’ve got my little shack in the woods, which up until yesterday was nice and quiet.” She held up the bottle at an angle and stared at the corner remaining before dumping it into her glass. “When Arlene took sick I semi-retired and moved up here, to be near her.”
“Semi-retired? You mean you’re still. . . ?” I didn’t exactly know how to say it.
“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.” She hefted her large breasts with both hands. “I still got it.”
That was obvious, and I wondered if I would still have it when I was her age. I sighed. “Well, it’s a man’s world, after all.”
Rhonda rolled her eyes. “Listen, honey,” she said, pointing a well-manicured finger at me, “man may have invented the wheel, but if it weren’t for women, it would still have corners.”