by Pat Nolan
Chapter Thirty Six
The bullet had gone through my left shoulder. They said it was just a flesh wound and that I was lucky. All the same, there was an ugly dimple where the bullet had gone in and a purple raisin-like scar where it had come out. On the right side of my face where Rhonda had pistol whipped me, a small tear shaped scar hung just below the cheekbone. My surgeon recommended plastic surgery. I said I’d think about it. I was chipped porcelain. I kind of liked the idea. It took about a month for the pain in my shoulder to cool down enough for me to resume my daily jogs. I was living in a rental in Feather but still running in the old Primrose Lane neighborhood while I had the cabin rebuilt. The insurance would pay for it.
After the cops had tracked Timmy down, he implicated the Montague crew in the arson and extortion of the small wineries in Corkscrew County. He was held responsible for the conflagration that ate up an entire block of greater downtown Timberton. The Antique Store & Motorcycle Repair Shop, and the Grapevine office upstairs, the abandoned gift shop next door to the real estate office, all pretty much gone. Rhonda did not survive the blaze, the shotgun blast having done most of the job. Blackie made it out alive but just barely. Rhonda’s shot had pierced his right lung. That was the least of his problems. The stomping Timmy had given him put him in a wheelchair, maybe for good.
In the days following my release from the hospital, I was the center of a media storm. I’d been there before. This time was different in that it involved arson, extortion, murder, an international sex trafficking ring, and money laundering, not my usual outrageous prima donna shenanigans. I was camera candy on a daily basis for a couple of weeks. It was like the old days in Milan. I couldn’t go anywhere without being accosted by the strobe of camera flashes. Then someone else’s high jinks, this time in DC, took over the headlines.
I learned that State and local authorities had been investigating Tommy Perro’s operation for some time before Fashwalla’s murder. The feds had been brought in once the scope of the operation was realized. The murder in Feather had been the wild card that turned things around. Up until then Ramparts Corp had kept their illegal business within the bounds of criminal decorum that could easily be overlooked by bribing local officials. One of them was the District Attorney, Chandler Wong’s boss, the leering racist letch I’d met in the hallway at the Hall of Justice last winter. Some of the information I gleaned from the Daily Republican, some of it Detective Rick Santos let slip when he visited me in the hospital in the course of his investigation. After he was done asking his questions, he’d given me a wry smile and teased, “What’s it with you and shotguns, Malone?” Chandler Wong provided me with most of the details over dinner one evening not long after I got out of the hospital.
With the first killing, the investigators had realized there were more players than they had originally figured. They never caught on that Rhonda was the controlling hand behind the scene. As an aging porn queen, she had never even come up on their radar. As a result of the police raid at the Winery, Tommy Perro, who survived his heart attack and would be recuperating in a federal penitentiary hospital, was arrested along with Junior and charged on a number of racketeering counts. Timmy was facing murder, manslaughter, and attempted murder raps. I had inquired after Preston Carmichael. Chandler said that when they converged on the warehouse that night they found only the old man, young Tommy, and some of their staff. There were no dead bodies, of either Preston Carmichael or a Doberman pinscher.
I wondered what had become of the women I had seen being auctioned off like livestock. Chandler explained that they found nine young women in a makeshift dorm at the warehouse. Most of them were country girls who had been lured by ads placed in freebie advertisers by phony modeling agencies. Once in the clutches of the white slavers, they were drugged and held virtual prisoners. They’d been released in the care of a halfway house for abused women in Santa Quinta. A few were foreign nationals and would eventually be repatriated. Chandler said that if it hadn’t been for me, they’d probably still be prisoners. The medical emergency had provided the ideal pretext to stage the raid on Montague Winery.
I was also trying to make sense of what had happened at The Mint. The killing of Timmy’s bearded partner, Bruno ‘Bear’ Fitzwaller, in Alice Franklin’s bedroom had investigators scratching their heads. I had told Detective Santos in my original interview that the dead man was one of the men in the gray van. I didn’t know then that he was a thug tied to Timmy Montague and Montague Winery. Once I identified Timmy as the other man in the van, they were able to piece together a plausible scenario. It centered on Ramparts Corp’s voracious appetite for acquiring property as a means to launder their ill-gotten gains.
From the statements Timmy made in his confession, it appeared that Rhonda had been negotiating with Alice Franklin to sell the family resort. Although Alice had agreed to a deal at first, she had a change of heart, claiming she had a nephew who might be interested in keeping the business in the family. Fashwalla and his brother had made a similar mistake in accepting an offer from Ramparts Corp and reneging on the deal. In that instance, Ralph Fashwalla wanted to hold out for more money. He got a shotgun blast in the back for his greed, and his brother, in fear of his own life, cut a deal with the murderers. Faheed Fashwalla confessing to his brother’s murder and later recanting was a ruse dreamed up by Preston Carmichael to throw the investigators off the scent.
In Alice Franklin’s case, an enraged Rhonda had instructed Timmy to do whatever it took to get Alice out of the picture. Ramparts Corp would then grab up the last resort on the Corkscrew River for next to nothing. It was well known that Alice was in financial trouble exacerbated by a drinking problem. She needed money to keep the Mint open, and having fallen in with dubious company in the persons of Timmy and his partner, Bear, she was persuaded that the money they made from a risqué movie would pay off her mounting debts. Timmy denied any involvement in his partner’s death in spite of the fact that his fingerprints were all over the murder weapon. Even more damning was evidence that it was the same shotgun used to kill Fashwalla. The investigators also found a video tape in a search of Timmy’s apartment at Montague Winery. The tape confirmed that Alice and Bear engaged in perfunctory sex play. The video also showed Alice shrinking back with a mixture of surprise and fear as Bear advanced with shotgun in hand. Bear then stopped as if something had distracted him and, with an angry frown, glared off camera. The video stopped at that point indicating the camera had been turned off. Confronted with the evidence on the tape, Timmy admitted that once Bear had his way with Alice, he meant to kill her. The investigation concluded that Alice Franklin had turned the tables on them and acted in self-defense. What or who had distracted the killers and why the filming had stopped was an unresolved detail that would not hinder the DA from adding conspiracy to murder to Timmy’s growing list of criminal charges.
I got a slightly different version of what had gone down from Blackie when I visited him at the rehab facility in Santa Quinta. In the account Blackie had given the cops, he placed himself arriving after the gun had gone off.
He told me how he had walked in on the setup that night. Alice had been a friend of his and Arlene’s since their early days in Corkscrew County, and he had gone by to say hello and thank her for letting him use the dumpster. He’d called out her name walking up the steps to her room, not wanting to take her by surprise. To his own surprise, when he came to the doorway of the bedroom, he spied a naked man and a naked Alice struggling for a shotgun. He yelled something, more to distract the man than anything else. He was about to jump into the fray when Timmy, whom he had not seen at first, shouldered past him and knocked him back out into the hallway. He had first thought to go after Timmy but instantly realized that Alice was in more danger so he went back into the bedroom where the naked pair had now fallen across the bed in their struggle for the shotgun. He planted a boot in the big man’s kidney and it was enough to get him to release his hold on the weapon. Then the gun went off hitting Bear square in the chest. He didn’t think that Alice had intentionally pulled the trigger. Alice, once she saw what she had done, was inconsolable. It had tipped her already fragile mental state into the abyss of psychosis. About then was when I arrived with Rikki and Wallace to find Blackie dialing for help.
I was concerned for Blackie. His business had gone up in flames, and he had been critically injured. His future was uncertain. It must have shown on my face.
“Hey, at least I still got wheels,” he had joked halfheartedly from his wheelchair. I figured that it would be a good idea if I looked in on him every once in a while.
There were still pieces of the puzzle of what had occurred over the last year that I needed to fit together for myself. The dog murders were resolved when it was revealed that Timmy Montague was an animal sadist. He had bragged to a cellmate that he liked to cruise residential neighborhoods and shoot dogs that had the nerve to chase his van.
The mystery of the burnt-out van itself and the charred bodies it contained remained unsolved. My intuition notwithstanding, the autopsy determined that both victims were males and yet to be identified. Timmy and Bear undoubtedly had a hand in the grisly ruse. The investigation, according to the Sheriff’s Office, was ongoing.
The Grapevine, Corkscrew County’s last independent newspaper, was put out of business by the fire. JJ wasn’t too broken up by it, though. She’d met an antique dealer at the fashion show, someone who had gone to high school with her, though she had to admit she didn’t exactly remember him. He’d been in the class ahead of her. Or behind her. Not that it mattered. He lived in Arizona and was quite wealthy.
Meanwhile back at the resort, Rikki and Wallace had come up with the idea of buying The Mint from Alice Franklin. They planned to renovate it, with the help of Nathan Thiele, and make it into an exclusive resort for their same preference friends.
And there was my step-father’s involvement with Rhonda and her money laundering schemes. Just the thought of it gnawed at my gut like a festering ulcer, and I knew I would have to get to the bottom of it, if for no other reason than my own sanity.
What caught my attention was the small tattoo on the inside of her bicep, a V bisected by a line, the Aeolian Greek letter psi. I knew that symbol well. It belonged to SAPHO.
Marty Steele, the little mannequin TV news reporter at KSQU, offered me a job as a news anchor. I told him I’d think about it. I was being deluged with similar offers. News shows and talk shows clamored for my presence on their tiny screens. I felt like telling them I was too big to fit in such a small space, but I kept it to myself. My old agency was desperate to get me back even though they had hung me out to dry in the waning days of my career. I wasn’t all that interested in any of it. I liked who I had become in the anonymity of the tiny river community. I took the calls from my friends who expressed their concerns and envy that even out in the middle of nowhere I still had the ability to draw the world’s attention. My answer to them: “some of us have it and some of us don’t.” I gave a tentative yes to Marilyn Nakamura, an old runway mate who was starting a line of yoga togs and wanted me to model them for her catalog. I’d never been a catalog model before. At one time I might have considered it beneath me. These days it was simply something I could do for an old friend and that was enough. And I patiently fielded the calls from my mother who was beside herself with what she called my reckless lifestyle. They usually came in the evening, around dinner time, like calls from pollsters or aluminum siding salesmen. My patience wore thin after about a week of tipsy dialing. Finally I told her that I was in the driver’s seat of my life and if I took the curves a little fast and tight, that was my worry.
I had one more piece of business to attend to. I wanted to personally thank the woman who had pulled me from the burning building that night. I had come to on a stretcher being loaded into the back of an ambulance to see May Ann Young, the County fire investigator, peering at my face, brow furrowed in distress. Her face smudged with soot, she had put her hand on mine and smiled when she saw that I recognized her. I managed a weak stretch of lips myself.
May Ann retired from her position with the County before I had a chance to properly thank her. If she left a forwarding address, I wasn’t privy to it. I did get the opportunity to view the investigative report she filed in which she admitted that she had mistakenly assumed I had deliberately set fire to my cabin for the purpose of collecting on the insurance. When she reviewed the timeline and the witness statements, Rhonda’s appeared inconsistent. Determining that Rhonda’s story would require further inquiry, she had driven out to the Primrose Lane address just in time to see the old woman put something that looked like a rifle or shotgun in the trunk of her car and speed off followed by a man on a motorcycle. Her suspicions aroused, she set off to follow them but was called away by emergency radio traffic of a vehicle into a power pole. Since she was the closest County unit, she responded. The accident was responsible for knocking out the power to Timberton and the surrounding area. Once the scene was secured, she continued her search for Rhonda, ending up in Timberton just about the time the power came back on. She was on the road out of town when she heard the radio traffic reporting shots fired in the vicinity. By the time she reached the motorcycle repair shop, it was fully engulfed. She called the fire in to dispatch and went to investigate. When she approached the rear of the building she saw two motorcycles and Rhonda’s Coupe Deville. And Timmy running off down the alley. Peering into the smoke choked open doorway, she spotted the bodies and took it upon herself to pull them to safety, first me and then Blackie.
Her uniform shirt sleeve had been ripped up past the elbow, a gauze bandage soaking blood from the wound on her forearm. She had been injured going back into the burning building after Blackie. What caught my attention was the small tattoo on the inside of her bicep, a V bisected by a line, the Aeolian Greek letter psi. I knew that symbol well. It belonged to SAPHO.
I put my right running shoe on the front bumper of my Volvo and tightened the laces and then did the same with my left. I would attend to everything I could all in good time. But first I was itching to run. I inhaled deeply, the cool of early morning autumn air filling my lungs. This was my favorite time of the year, the deciduous trees on the verge of turning to a riot of reds and yellows. With a water bottle strapped to one hip and a tiny cassette player on the other, I ran in place, adjusting the earphones on my head. I pressed play and grinned as Aretha’s voice sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. My feet beat the asphalt as I propelled myself down Primrose Lane. Was there ever any doubt? I rock!