by Helene Baron-Murdock
The victim’s name was Oscar Reynaldo Phineas the Third and he had a paper trail for breach of promise and intent to defraud as an unregistered nonprofit from as far away as Alexandria, Virginia, Memphis, Tennessee, Athens, Georgia, Sparta, Indiana back east to out west Antioch, and Eureka, California. They were all lower tier felonies if that, but they were shadowed by the fact that he’d been a suspect in the death of his wife, Yuri Dicey, the famed performance artist, which was later ruled accidental during a rehearsal for a routine gone horribly wrong titled “Don’t Look Back.”
Donovan drove out to Sharon’s Crossing, the sun sparking at the horizon and glancing amber rays off the rolling pasture land and encroaching suburban sprawl before the Santa Lena Hwy headed further west and entered the deep shadows of dark green coniferous stands crowding the roadway fringed by barbed skylines and winding parallel to the Acre River.
Sharon’s Crossing during the heyday of the timber industry had served as the ferry point for the lumber mills on the north side of the Acre, where all the logging had taken place, shipping board feet to all points east. At the south end of the WPA era bridge and near the entrance to R.K. Turas State Park, was Sharon’s Corner, a collection of century old buildings converted to a coffee souvenir antique art shop museum and assortment of outdoor picnic tables.
Once the victim’s name was released on the local news program, the tip came in. Someone remembered seeing him at the coffee shop near the State Park where his bits and pieces had been found. It was Donovan’s to follow up.
He identified himself to the young girl behind the coffee bar which made her wince, and then to the older man that she’d called over, the proprietor. They both wore glasses, hers more stylish. Donovan guessed that she was his daughter. His name was Dane Carson and he explained that he’d been watching the news on the widescreen on the back patio and saw the sketch that he identified as Phineas.
“The Third! And this is the crazy part! The reason I knew it was the same guy is that he gave a reading here no more than a week ago!”
Donovan looked at the handbill Carson handed him. “You mean like a séance?”
“No, it was a poetry reading. He’s that poet” pointing at the photo on the flyer. “But now that you mention it, he was strange, like he really didn’t belong to this time. Old fashioned and kinda snooty like he thought he was royalty. I heard he was pretty famous. He had an argument with somebody. Just a raised voice that made me look up. But he was loud anyway. And then the way he performed the poems was really creepy. Made your hair stand on end.” Carson self-consciously patted his near bald pate. “Anne, here, usually helps me with the kitchen when there’s an event or meeting or art show reception, but I told her she could go home. Some of the stuff he was saying sounded pretty sick. She didn’t need to hear that.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Well, don’t go by me. I don’t know anything about poetry. But the audience seemed to like it.” He motioned to the wide semi enclosed area with a scattering of tables and chairs and big screen in the corner. “I just provide the space and the service.. It makes a little extra money, and I do it as a favor to Fay Angeli. She’s the one who puts on these events.” He smiled like his generosity made him a nice guy.
Donovan looked out over the tables. More witnesses, more leads, less time sitting around the office with Voss breathing down his neck. “How big was the audience.” There was potential for extra hours. Mike would approve them.
Carson considered the count intently. “Not more than twenty I’d guess. But Fay would know for sure.” Then as if something had occurred to him. “It’s usually always the same crowd, and I know a lot by sight or their names. Friends of Fay’s mostly. But a few seemed a little bit edgier.” He paused to look over his shoulder as if someone might be eavesdropping, “They came with May Naddy.”
Donovan nodded, May Naddy again. She had been big star eye-candy on the continent years ago. Then she married someone richer than God. When he died she inherited a pile as laid out in the prenup. It couldn’t be said that the old sheik wasn’t generous but his estate was parceled out like a class action suit. Donvan knew more about May Naddy than he really wanted to. His ex had gleefully kept him abreast of the scandals surrounding the buxom star. And all because he’d once remarked that she had a body that could stop a freight train. It was a quip he’d heard an older friend make when they were in high school after viewing a sword and toga epic. It was likely one of the poorly dubbed Hercules muscle and loincloth action extravaganzas where she played a scantily clad Queen of the Amazons. Her celebrity was fueled by her scandalous behavior diligently reported in the tabloids as well as by the many clothing optional heroic dramas she was featured in, including a chilling cameo as Medusa in the popular Heroes of Olympus in which she appeared without a stitch and with a coif of writhing snakes. After she married the oil rich oligarch, May Naddy dropped out of public view. Coincidentally that was right around the time Donovan’s wife had decided to bid adios as well.
May Naddy reappeared in public a dozen or so years later, soon after the death of her husband, and in Weston County, as a severe, no frills beauty, still looking like she’d just stepped off the screen of her classic films, Seven Rivers To Hades or Mistress of Beasts, but now espousing a radical male averse feminism. She’d purchased an old ranch in the hills overlooking the Acre and adjacent to the State Park. At one time the property had been a resort with cabins and a pool. It was, to hear the old timers tell it, a nude dude ranch with young studs prancing around in nothing but leather chaps, riding bareback, and, in general, titillating the guests, mostly old goats. It had been called the Bear Ranch back then but everyone referred to it as the “Bare” Ranch. The local papers took an interest in Naddy when she applied for an exotic animal permit and stated, through her lawyers, that she planned to open a refuge for abused mammals of all species. That left the door open for the two legged mammals as well as the four legged variety.
Donovan surveyed the patio and indicated the table in the corner away from the few customers. “Do you have time to answer some questions? I could use a cup of coffee.”
Carson nodded like a puppy eager to please. “Yeah, sure, coffee’s on the house. Want a dough. . . .” Carson caught himself, “Uh, Danish or something?”
Donovan chuckled . “No, I’ve had to give up the power rings. And I’ll pay for the coffee. I can’t accept a gratuity.”
Fay Angeli’s pixie cut accented a perfectly shaped head, large gold hoops dangling from her shell-like ears. She was as nervous as a lap dog when she met him at the door, a nymph in the classic sense, teasing and unattainable,.
Following Carson’s directions, Donovan had driven out to her place after calling ahead at the phone number the café owner had provided and establishing her availability for an interview. Her home was up a long gravel driveway about a quarter mile off the main road set on a grassy hillock of oaks and tangles of coyote brush. A large rusting satellite dish antenna with the feedhorn pointing down at the concrete base next from the doublewide mobile home was silhouetted against the darkening sky like a relic from a post-apocalyptic B movie. He parked next to a dusty blue older model Outback, the headlights of his sedan picking out the succulent garden bordering the path to the front porch and a pergola festooned with hanging baskets of bright flowers and arrays of wind chimes clattering randomly in the faint evening breeze.
A quick look around the living room said Fay Angeli had a taste for decorating that did not skimp on exaggeration with an emphasis on the lush and layered, photos and paintings set in ornate frames or draped with sheer fabric and arranged for maximum arty effect. It was a busy feast for the eyes but Donovan wasn’t distracted. “Can you tell me how you know Mister Phineas?”
In her mid-forties, he guessed, Fay seated herself on a long orange chaise in a cheerful patterned top and form fitting sherbet green yoga pants and, cocking her platinum blonde head to one side, considered the question. “What can I tell you about Oscar Reynaldo Phineas the Third? For one thing, he never told me exactly what he was the third of. “
Donovan blinked and took a breath. She was going to be cute and the intense red of her painted lips looked voracious as if when smiling she might reveal a pair of fangs. “Can you tell me how long you’ve known Mister Phineas?” He gave her his practiced no nonsense cop stare.
She raised a bleached eyebrow and crossed her eyes thoughtfully. “I’ve known of his work for years. He’s quite a well-known poet, internationally. A genius, and a hypnotic personality. And he was cleared in the horrible accident that caused his wife’s death even if there were rumors that he was somehow involved or negligent. But one must forgive the great their failings,” she proclaimed with an assured finality.
“I started a correspondence with him some years ago after attending one of his readings in Chicago when I was back there visiting relatives. He seemed very kind and interested in my own writing and some of my art.” She motioned with her hand to indicate the paintings on the walls. “I invited him to visit if he were ever passing through Weston County merely as a courtesy, never imagining that he would take me up on the offer. He is a celebrity after all.”
She got to her feet and ambled over to a small bookshelf near a writing desk. “I have most of all his books of poetry, and he was kind enough to sign them while he was here.” She held them up as if they were precious icons. “The Cult of Eight, one of his early books, a very powerful epic that takes place in ancient Egypt. The depictions are so real it is almost as if he had lived during the time of the Pharaohs.” She held up another. “Higher Glyphs, the sequel to The Cult of Eight, and much more detailed about the secret rituals of the ancient goddess religions. He was much younger then.” She showed Donovan the jacket photo and there wasn’t much resemblance between the pictured poet and the head that had been found floating down the Acre.
“This one is called When Sunny Gets Glue,” she continued, proffering another volume, “and the least of my favorites. He was trying for the modern touch and I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for him. Too flippant and self-referential.” She gave Donovan a conspiratorial smile as he if would catch the critical dig. “But he got back on track with these last three. Although they are a little, what would you say, anti-woman? In One With The Sun, he pledges allegiance to the Greek god of poetry, Apollo, as he does in this next book, Apollo Guised, an epic about a poet travelling around the world proselytizing the glory of the sun god. And his most recent, Death Sidestepped, is a paean to immortality.”
All of that had gone over Donovan’s head as totally irrelevant. “When was the last time you spoke with Mister Phineas?”
“Well, I have to say I was flabbergasted when out of the blue he accepted my invitation to come and read in our tiny cultural outpost. And thrilled. He was staying in Santa Lena, I think in a motel north of town. He came to dinner and we had a wonderful conversation about his poetry. Then we went to Sharon’s Corner for the reading.” Staring up at him, sincere, wide eyed, she asked, “Tell me, was it really as horrible as the news said?”
“I really can’t comment on that. When did you last see him?”
She sighed and grasped a knee with both hands and leaned back searching her memory with her eyes. “That night, after the reading at The Corner café and gallery. I curate the art there and host cultural events. I was quite disappointed at the turnout. O. R. Phineas is a literary celebrity even if he is a little controversial. Still, his reading was superb, quite magical.”
A breeze passed through the porch and tickled the wind chimes as if on cue.
“You were expecting a larger audience. How many people were in attendance at the,” Donovan checked his notes, “. . .reading? I’d like a list of the all people in the audience. Those that you can identify.”
There was panic in her eyes as she sat bolt upright. “What? No!” Then “I don’t know,” she moaned sorrowfully, pleading.
“Did anything strike you as unusual that evening? Arguments, disagreements? Do these poetry meets get heated?”
She had a laugh like one of her wind chimes. “No, no, not at all, it’s a very docile crowd. I know most of them. Local artists, writers, people who don’t want to sit around and watch TV. Besides, he had everyone spell bound. He can charm the cosmos.” She got dreamy eyed remembering and then snapped out of it. “Well, except for Axel,” she explained with a grimace, “Axel Cronen, but he likes to argue just to hear himself talk.”
“And May Naddy, I understand that she was there as well.”`
Fay Angeli gasped and turned away to give her left shoulder a very hard stare. “I couldn’t say.”
“You couldn’t say if she was there?” What Donovan saw in her hesitance was fear, terror.
“Don’t you know? She’s a witch. I don’t want to even speak her name.”