by Pat Nolan
Chapter Thirty Four
I reeled like a sapling in the wake of a tornado. My legs went weak, knees about to buckle. How long had I been standing there? An eternity? The man in the wheelchair grasping at his chest in agony focused all attention on his drama. Bodyguards set up a perimeter and Tommy Junior’s voice shouted out above the confusion for an ambulance. A rough hand grabbed me by the arm to keep me from collapsing.
I couldn’t focus. I had projected my entire being at the old devil and now there was nothing left of me. I was empty. The hand, the shoulder, the arm around my waist, the feet striding quickly, purposefully out of the spotlight and backstage belonged to Blackie. My eyes fought the encroaching dark and my skin turned cold. Then I realized that we were outside and I wasn’t dressed for evening. I was barely able to put one foot in front of the other.
Blackie half carried half dragged me behind a sheltering row of vines. I was limp as a rag doll. He shook me roughly. “Come on, Malone, snap out of it!” His anxious face multiplied in a blur like the spinning dial of a telephone. Finally he heaved me over a shoulder and jogged to behind the pump house where he had hidden his motorcycle. He took a black bandana from the pocket of his jacket and tied one end around my wrist. Numbly I complied with his instructions to climb onto the seat behind him. He pulled my arms around his waist and tied the end of the bandana to my other wrist. He pointed the bike downhill and coasted to a point where the engine came to life with an earsplitting roar. Helpless, my head pressed against the slab of his black leather back, arms bound around his waist. I should have been afraid but my instincts told me to trust the old man, trust him the way I had trusted an old woman not so long ago.
The screaming apparition of an emergency vehicle, flashing red lights blazing, passed in the opposite direction on the darkened road.
I just wanted to curl up somewhere warm, soft, safe and quiet. Instead I was on the back of a noisy chopper with a gale force wind blowing through my skimpy blouse and up my long skirt. And I was on the down slide, the price I had to pay for my extraordinary power. I’d been there before, guided through my initiation by Trayann, and allowed to right my tumbled world before the blazing hearth of her stone hut with a bowl of herb tea, listening to the murmured litany that would help ease me out of the depths of my autism.
“I am chaos, I am order. I am she whose smile induces forgetfulness. I am the vessel of dreams, she who turns the year round its axis. I am the claw of night, the sigh of all time, silence incomprehensible.”
I had gone looking for the old woman after the hubbub of my rescue by the Prince’s commandos had died down. I’d hired a fisherman from Sardinia to ferry me back to the black sand beach. Everything was gone, every trace of the women, of SAPHO, had been eradicated. The villa was in a state of disrepair that would have taken centuries to accomplish. Trayann’s stone hut, a pile of time worn rubble, and the once raging stream, dubbed Milk of the Goddess, an anemic trickle. I stood on the deserted black sand beach and looked up at where the villa had been, remembering the names of the women I had become friends with, the women who had changed my life. Xuxann, Urann, Roxann, Choann, Reiann, Mariann, Elann, Diann, Belann. And above all, Trayann.
“I am the vibrant virgin, the fertile female, the wizened hag. I am the primal force, the mist in the trees, rosy-fingered dawn. I am truth. I am beauty. I am the first and the last, the honored and the scorned, the holy and the whore, the virgin and the wife, the daughter and the mother.”
In the weeks after I had witnessed Trayann’s performance I completed my initiation into an ancient sisterhood whose ubiquity is its camouflage. Every woman has life shaping power, the power over life and death. Once this truth is acknowledged, the ancient technique, known in French as la Folle, or as Xuxann liked to call it, Femme Fu, ‘crazy woman,’ is relatively easy to learn. Of course, it helps if you have a heart stopping body like mine. However, it can only be used as the last resort.
The screaming apparition of an emergency vehicle, flashing red lights blazing, passed in the opposite direction on the darkened road. In the wake of its oscillating wail I could still hear Trayann’s voice.
“I am knowledge and ignorance, shameless and ashamed, strong yet weak, fearful yet fearless. I am foolish. I am wise. I am the child at every birth, the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral. I am the many. I am the one. I am the labyrinth.”
Teeth chattering, I was fully alert by the time Blackie brought his bike to a stop in the alley behind his motorcycle repair shop. He untied the bandana and led me to the back entrance. All of Timberton was in the dark, another power outage apparently. Once inside Blackie found a kerosene lamp and lit it. He took a bottle down from a shelf and poured each of us a stiff drink in coffee mugs. When the whiskey hit my gut, it was like a little sun had exploded, sending its warm rays out to my extremities. I studied Blackie’s craggy lined face in the warm glow of the oil lamp.
“OK, I think you need to tell me what’s going on.”
He shrugged. “You know about as much as I do.”
“No, no, that doesn’t cut it.” The drink had put fire in my veins. “You need to tell me what you were doing there, at the Winery. “
Blackie stared at the wall behind me, his lips pursed like he wanted to tell me but hadn’t figured out how to say it.
“Come on, Blackie, you can tell me. What were you doing there? You certainly weren’t on their team, not the way they manhandled you.”
He bobbed his chin in agreement. “Actually, I was keeping tabs on you.” Blackie registered my surprise with a sly grin.
“I don’t get it. You were stalking me?”
He shook his head and sighed. In the dim light of the lamp he appeared older, tired. “You remind me an awful lot of her.” He pointed to the picture of Arlene on the wall. “She was a feisty one, too.” That brought a hint of a smile to the lines around his mouth. “You wouldn’t listen to me when I said you needed to keep your nose out of this business. I knew you’d eventually bump into trouble. You have no idea how ruthless these guys are. Everything you said to JJ about the murders and your suspicions was relayed to Junior.”
“Joyce James, that bitch!”
“The way I see it, torching your cabin was a warning. You were supposed to back off. But you wouldn’t take the hint. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you flitting through the vine rows. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what you were up to. When you disappeared into the warehouse I knew you were just plain stupid.” He paused to light a cigarette. “Then stupid followed stupid.”
I was about to answer when the power came back on. I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Hey, nothing to be scared of,” Blackie said, laughing at the panic in my eyes, “it’s only a little electricity.”
If I had been a man, my actions would have been viewed as ballsy. As a woman, I was just stupid. My lack of caution made me reckless, not brainless. I shrugged it off. “Did you know what was going on at the Winery, the auctions?”
Blackie drained more of the bottle into his cup. His hand was shaking. “I had a pretty good idea that if it involved Tommy and his kids, it was probably no good. I keep a low profile where Tommy Perro’s concerned. He knows, and I know, that if I ever got him alone I’d wring his scrawny neck. I’m not interested in going back to jail.” He stared down at his cup.
“I know about your time in prison, Blackie, that’s not what concerns me. What’s your connection to Tommy and the boys?”
Blackie drew on his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly. “Ok, if you know about my time in the pen, then you probably know why.” I nodded and he continued. “Imagine my surprise when I got out and found Arlene with a couple of kids. And living with Tommy! Well, I didn’t care nothing about that. It was gonna be a fresh start, her and me. Like nothing had happened.” He frowned remembering. “We’d talked about quitting the business and heading up to the Corkscrew River before. Arlene, she was all for it, but she couldn’t leave the boys with Tommy.” He shook his head. “He was too coked up or smacked out. Unpredictable, irresponsible. He was leaving his shit lying around where the rug rats could get at it. It was a real horror show I found when I got out of the slam.”
“So you moved here with Arlene and the boys. Didn’t Tommy come looking for you, to take the boys back?”
Blackie’s look told me I’d touched a sore spot. “Yeah, he come looking for Arlene,” he said slowly as if it were a strain to talk about it. “Took his damn time. She was set to enroll the boys in elementary school and all of a sudden he shows up and says he’s taking custody cause she’s an unfit mother being a porn actress and all. He had the brass to claim she was immoral yet here he was a big time drug dealer and porno pimp. Good thing I was gone or I would for sure have wacked his sorry ass!”
“Where were you?”
“Ah, I had to go back east, Boston, to help with my mother’s funeral arrangements. And there were other family matters that needed sorting out so I was gone longer than I figured. When I got back, Arlene, she was in pretty bad shape and I was ready to go after Tommy and put a bullet in his knobby little skull. But Arlene wouldn’t have it. It wouldn’t bring the boys back, she said. Tommy had the lawyers and the money so we couldn’t fight it that way.”
“And that was the last time you saw the twins?”
Blackie looked at me from behind the pain in his eyes. “I thought I’d seen the last of them. They’d been a handful anyway, and I don’t have much patience with misbehaving and disrespect. The way they treated Arlene always made me mad. I was ready to give them a thrashing more than once but Arlene wouldn’t have it. But with them gone, we had some kind of peace.” The lines around his eyes relaxed as he recalled the tranquility. “Then, half a dozen or so years later, out of the blue, Timmy showed up. He’d got himself into a jam down south and needed a place to lie low. I didn’t want anything to do with him, but Arlene, she put him up in the spare bedroom. Let me tell you, it was no picnic. He was a wild one, but the way Arlene fussed about him you woulda thought he was the Prince of Siam. I had him help me out in my shop to try to keep him out of trouble. Had a knack for the machines, I’ll say that for him.” Blackie glanced around the shop as if the deep shadows concealed the memories. “But one day, he just left, didn’t say a word. Disappeared like he’d never been there. Arlene took it hard as you might expect. Me, I just couldn’t figure what made him tick. I got an idea about a week after the boy took off. Santos, the local deputy at the time come looking for Timmy. Seemed that the cops suspected him of setting grass fires, one of which burned down a house. Well, Arlene wouldn’t believe it when they told us and of course I took her side seeing as how I never had no love for the police. They took me down to the substation for interfering with an officer of the law.” Blackie scoffed at the memory.
“So Timmy was the evil twin?” Blackie’s story was making me sad. I wanted to comfort him, but his stiff manner wouldn’t allow it.
“If you ask me, they’re both evil. I thought I’d seen the last of them. About then is when Arlene took sick. And that was mostly what was on my mind. Caring for her.” His eyes got glassy and he looked away.
“That must have been when Rhonda moved up here, right? Arlene must have been comforted to have her old friend nearby.”
Blackie frowned. “No, Arlene passed before any of them showed up again. First it was young Tommy, throwing money around and buying up property and planting vineyards. Changed his name to Montague. He come by once, just to check me out. I didn’t see much of him after that. And then Timmy come by. Had himself a chopper. Wanted to use my shop to work on his bike.” Blackie sighed. “Can’t say I was too welcoming. Considering.”
I was puzzled. “So Rhonda. . . ?”
Blackie shook his head. “Me and Rhonda never did get along once the whole dirty movie business started. I always figured she was the one who got Tommy going in that direction. And the way she treated Arlene, like she was her maid. I know she’s got a cabin in your neck of the woods, but her and Tommy Perro, I stay out of their way.”
Something was not adding up. “I have a confession to make, Blackie.”
He smiled, relieved to be pulled from his dark reverie.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“I suspected that you set fire to my cabin. I was told that a motorcycle was heard in the neighborhood before the fire was discovered.”
Blackie fixed me with a stare, brow stepped with concern. “Who told you they heard a motorcycle?”
I was about to answer when the power came back on. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Hey, nothing to be scared of,” Blackie said, laughing at the panic in my eyes, “it’s only a little electricity.”
I had easily recovered from the surprise of the sudden bright light. The apparition in the doorway was the cause of my saucer eyes. Timmy beamed an evil grin at Blackie’s back. And behind Timmy stood Rhonda. The square black thing in her hand was a pistol.
Chapter Thirty Five
A FAMILY AFFAIR
I was speechless, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Not that the situation required me to say anything. Rhonda, gun in hand, was clearly in control. My head was spinning. It felt like I was having post-hallucinatory hallucinations. The way my gut dive-bombed told me that it was all too real.
Blackie blurted, “Rhonda? Timmy? What?” before Rhonda cut him off.
“Shut up Blackie, and keep your hands where I can see them.” There was a remorseless feline cruelty to her eyes.
And I finally got a good look at the surviving occupant of the gray van. As my prime suspect in the murder of Hitler, Goldberg’s Airedale, and presumably Creasy’s pup, he had epitomized the sense of wrongness, of evil, in this whole affair. What I saw was a greasy sadistic pipsqueak in a motorcycle jacket holding a big shotgun.
It must have been the adrenaline contributing to the dryness of my mouth and the sense that my back had arched. I locked eyes with Rhonda. The way she twisted her mouth into a haughty smirk. I recognized it. Timmy was making a similar one and I didn’t think it was because they had both attended the same smirk class. The resemblance between Rhonda and Timmy, and by extension Tommy, was striking. That was only slightly troubling. It was the resemblance between Rhonda and the old man in the wheelchair, Tommy Perro that had me gasp in surprise. My puzzlement resolved in a flash of intuition. She was the brains behind Pa. And she was his sister or a very close relative.
I was looking at a pistol and a shotgun yet I felt like I had the upper hand. “I think you just confirmed that I do know what I’m talking about. Tommy Perro is your brother.”
I blinked. Rhonda sensed that I knew. For that, I would have to pay. “And you, you meddling bitch.” She crossed the short distance between us and hit me in the face with the pistol. It wasn’t a blow that was intended to hurt as much as intimidate. I felt the skin on my cheekbone split and put my hand up to meet the swelling. I looked at the blood on my fingers. The sight of blood, especially my own, always makes me faint. I tottered.
Blackie moved to catch me but Timmy read it differently and clubbed him with the butt end of the shotgun. Blackie dropped to his knees and then fell full face forward to the concrete floor. I caught the edge of the work bench and held myself up until the wave of nausea passed. I focused on the photos Blackie had pinned on the wall, the old photos of Rhonda and Tommy and Blackie and Arlene. The old gang, the original porn crew, the youthful clan of sybarites grouped in sibling camaraderie.
Timmy left off kicking Blackie at Rhonda’s caution. “We don’t want to kill him. Just yet.”
A crimson halo spread from Blackie’s head across the cement floor and I felt a cramp in my gut that told me I was going to heave. I dug my nails into the wood of the workbench. I swallowed hard. “So you’re the mother of the twins,” I said finally, swaying to keep my balance.
Rhonda gave a sardonic cackle. “Of course, the twins are mine. There was never any doubt of that.”
“But Arlene, she was supposed to be the mother,” I managed as the room slowed its spin.
“You’ve got that right. She was supposed to be.” Rhonda scoffed. “If you must know, miss busybody, not that it’s going to do you any good, Arlene was supposed to act like they were her kids while I was doing time in the slammer. She claimed to be their mother so they wouldn’t end up in a foster home. I didn’t want that to happen to my babies. I know what that’s like. I love my babies.” And she gave Timmy a little maternal smile of affection, seductive in its controlling power. Timmy, in turn, frowned the troubled frown of a momma’s boy whose leash had just been tugged.
Rhonda felt a need to explain. “I was doing time when Blackie got out of prison. Once he hooked up with Arlene again, she left Tommy and took the kids with her. Tommy didn’t care, he’d become strung out on his own product. So when I got out on parole I wanted to know where my kids were. In the meantime, Tommy had become quite wealthy and greedy and thought he could write me out of the script. I had news for him.” She said it, lips pursed in ruthless resolve.
“But you told me. . .” I stopped. I wasn’t sure what she’d told me, there were too many loose ends.
“That’s the problem with beautiful women, they’re so gullible. The more beautiful, the more gullible. And fashion models like you think they’re better than the rest. Face it, honey, to men you’re just a piece of meat. Less than that. A picture of a piece of meat. You’re what they want. I’m what they get.” There was a bitter truth to what she was saying. “Sure, I had to play it straight, but all the while I was working behind the scenes, managing the finances, letting Tommy be the front. I diversified. He kept the girlie concession. He always was a horny little bastard.”
“And you’ve known that since you were a little kid.”
It was her turn to blink. I knew I had got to her by the stormy furtive look she threw Timmy’s way. Timmy was clueless as I imagined he’d always been, a puppet tied to his mother’s apron string. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I was looking at a pistol and a shotgun yet I felt like I had the upper hand. “I think you just confirmed that I do know what I’m talking about. Tommy Perro is your brother.” It was a leap but her clouded brow told me I’d hit the mark. Timmy stiffened as if stung, the dim light behind his eyes suddenly bright.
“You think you’re so clever. Here’s something you don’t know. One of the original investors in my little business venture, the guy who showed me how to launder money, set up a dummy corporation, branch out into international markets, do you know who that was?” She was certain I didn’t have a clue and she was right. A shiver of fear rippled up my spine. “The guy who owned the cabin you lived in, your sainted step-father, Frank Zola.”
Timmy might have just as well hit me in the gut with the butt of his shotgun. “Frank was involved in all of this?” Now I was really going to puke.
“Dad is your brother?” Timmy was looking at his mother, head cocked to one side, confusion darkening his features. “You’re my aunt? He’s my. . .uncle?”
“Now Timmy, honey, don’t listen to her.” She made a move toward him as if to comfort him. He leveled the shotgun at her. It wasn’t so much a threat as something that would keep her at arm’s length while he mulled over the ambiguity of the situation. Once he had been so sure of himself and now he felt betrayed.
“Timmy,” Rhonda repeated, pleading.
“No, mom, I gotta figure this out on my own.” It went with an angry pout. It didn’t last long.
Blackie had come to or he’d been playing possum. Either way, he managed to rise to his knees and throw his body against Timmy’s legs, knocking the boy down which in turn triggered the shotgun. The blast hit Rhonda on the left side just as she got off a round striking Blackie in the back. She was thrown backwards, taking the oil lamp with her. It shattered on the concrete floor sending flaming oil in all directions. Timmy’s legs were pinned under the weight of Blackie’s body.
Stunned, my ears ringing, I stumbled over to help Blackie. I glanced at Rhonda and caught the wicked gleam in her crazed eyes just as she raised the pistol and fired. My entire body stiffened, seized with pain, before I collapsed to the floor. Runnels of burning kerosene had reached a pile of greasy rags catching them on fire and filling the workshop with choking smoke. Timmy freed himself and crawled toward the doorway. A huge orange flame roared up from the cans of solvent stacked behind Rhonda. She was engulfed by fire in an instant as surely as if she had been sucked into the gates of Hell. A cacophony of voices filled my head, shrill voices, siren voices, swimming toward me as I closed my eyes. I didn’t care anymore. I was too far gone.