by Pat Nolan
I SEE THE LIGHT
The killing at The Mint had made the front page of the Daily Republican but below the fold. It didn’t say much more than what I had already gleaned from my conversation with Detective Santos. Alice Franklin was being held at the County Jail under a suicide watch. Hollis Ryan was Blackie’s given name. That I didn’t know. The murdered man was Bruno Fitzwaller, aka Bear, and had a criminal history that included extortion and assault. I could have guessed that. He had also been arrested on charges of animal cruelty in the past. That made sense. My name was not mentioned. That was a relief.
The cops were being tight lipped as this latest murder had put a wrinkle in their case against Fashwalla’s brother. The gray van had been incinerated. The driver had been killed. And I had just spotted his partner and dog, live and evil. My story was beginning to sound plausible again.
I set the newspaper down on the long mahogany table in the conference room of the law offices of Hogan, Carpenter and Eldridge. At the far end, the stenographer, an Asian woman with severe bangs above perfectly round pink framed glasses, sat impassively, hands on either side of her machine. I had made them wait. Now they were going to make me wait. I glanced at my watch. I figured that I probably had another half an hour to go. The stenographer didn’t seem to mind, but then she was being paid by the minute. I didn’t doubt that Preston Carmichael was enjoying making me wait. How the powerful liked to play god.
In the fashion business it’s all about presentation and representation. You have a publicist and you have a lawyer. One gets you into trouble, and the other gets you out.
I was at a transitional stage in my life when I became aware of Preston, a gregarious middle-aged man with a certain amount of charisma, and the poise and cocksureness of someone who was used to getting his way. Being who I was, I wasn’t all that impressed.
“Wrong, beefcake breath. Preston’s name, spoken by his lackey, was the password that unlocked a secret door in my head.
In those days I had a publicist, Helen Weil, who provided me with an entourage of sycophants who in turn, to emulate me, had their own hangers-on and groupies. And then there were what I called the minor aristocrats, the younger more impoverished European nobility whose mode of survival was to mooch at all the soirees and events thrown by the very very rich, and who cultivated a decadent faux vampirism. They liked to be seen, and in those days I was very visible. And being young, I suppose I was thought of as frivolous and an attraction to others of that nature. Which is to say, my corner of anywhere was always the noisiest, and I was invariably surrounded by mordant wit, silk handkerchiefs, plunging necklines, expensive perfume, hip nonchalance and arched eyebrows. You had to do more than just be there to get my attention no matter how rich and powerful you were.
Preston left messages for me with Helen but I never returned them. I already had a lawyer, Helen’s brother, Curt, whom everyone called “Mack, The Knife” for no other reason than to do so. Helen’s assessment of Preston was that he was very well connected but she didn’t like some of the people he was connected with. Then she said, “This is Europe, we originated making pacts with the devil.”
All the extravagant parties and expensive restaurants were hard on the waistline. And at twenty-six I was well aware of the footsteps of younger, slimmer models on the runway behind me. I needed to drop some weight. There were two choices, bulimia or heroin, and I hated the bitter taste of vomit.
It might have been a year or so after I began noticing Preston Carmichael on the periphery of my society. I was driving back from Ronnie’s country estate with some friends. We had just reached the outskirts of Paris when we encountered a police roadblock. There had been a bombing in Neuilly and they were stopping all cars going in and out of the city. In the trunk of the Mercedes they said they found a quarter kilo of heroin. The driver, my friend Michel, was arrested. So was I. They said they found a bindle in my luggage. It was a lie. I never carried. That’s what friends are for.
I called my lawyer. He wasn’t answering. Later I learned why. He’d overdosed on the very same drug I had been arrested for. I knew Curt to be an occasional user, but never intravenously. A syringe had been found on the floor next to his body. Then Preston showed up. I was released on my own recognizance. Michel was also let go on Preston’s say-so. I couldn’t go anywhere afterwards without the blinding strobe of camera flashes. Preston was very helpful. He hired guards to keep the preying paparazzi at bay. When I appeared before the magistrate, it was he who did the talking. All I had to do was sit there and be as beautiful and as innocent as I had always considered myself to be.
The press coverage of the incident had seemed particularly brutal. I thought that perhaps it was because world politics was experiencing one of its unpredictable lulls that I had become the focus of their feeding frenzy. I just wanted it to stop. Preston introduced me to the Prince. The media attacks stopped.
The door to the conference room opened and a hunk with panda eyes walked in. He flashed his expensive dentistry at me. I took him to be an ex-college jock, probably football. A tailored dark gray cashmere sports coat hung elegantly from his broad shoulders.
“Brendon Ross, I am an associate of Mr. Carmichael’s.” He shook my hand, the gold Navigator watch dangling loosely around his wrist, and he allowed a superior smile to offset his handsome chiseled features. He had everything the perfect man should have except for the eyes. They were cold predatory pools. As he sat at the table next to me I caught a whiff of his cologne. It smelled like new money.
“Preston had to fly to Paris so I’ll be taking your deposition.” He seemed pleased by my reaction as if he had stunned me with his rugged good looks and now I was speechless.
Wrong, beefcake breath. Preston’s name, spoken by his lackey, was the password that unlocked a secret door in my head. It was as if I had opened my closet and all my shoes had come tumbling out. I’d had vague suspicions but had dismissed them as petty paranoia. After all I should have been grateful. That bastard! Preston had the dope planted in the trunk of my Mercedes, and in my luggage. Curt’s overdose. Preston stepping in and getting the charges dismissed as if nothing had ever happened. My introduction to the Prince. The timing was too perfect to be mere coincidence.
“JJ, let’s get something straight. If you had married this guy, he’d be trading you in for a trophy wife by now. That’s what rich men do. They upgrade to a woman whose youth and beauty is equal to the power of their money.”
JJ was crying her eyes out. A copy of the Daily Republican was spread open on her desk. I’m normally a sympathetic person, but this was JJ, with whom I was becoming increasingly annoyed. Maybe Barbara’s Bakery had finally closed. Or her love life, nebulous as it was, had taken another turn for the worse. She pointed to the black and white photo of a slightly balding man. “He had a crush on me in high school.”
I looked a little closer. It didn’t appear to be an obituary. “He passed away?”
She shook her head. “No, no, no. . . .” They were almost sobs. “He was this geeky guy who was fixated on me in my senior year. I was head cheerleader.” And as if it were all coming back to her, “And Homecoming Queen. I think he even stalked me.”
I fanned myself with the manila folder in my hand. “So. He’s dead?” It was going to be another July full moon scorcher.
“No!” Now it was an angry sob. “Read!” She thrust the paper at me.
I glanced at the caption under the picture. The name meant nothing to me. Something about a science prize, nominated for the Nobel. The lighting was bad and the office was stuffy and I had to hold the paper at arm’s length.
“Oh, I know what you need!” It was a kind of chirp. JJ reached into a desk drawer and came up with a handful of eyeglasses. She held out a blue pair. “Here, try these, they match your eyes.”
“I don’t need glasses.” I adjust the distance of the text to where I could just about read it without squinting. Fortunately JJ told me what I was reading. “He was this science geek in high school. Kinda goofy looking. So I just ignored him. He asked me to the prom and I laughed in his face.” She sighed. “The article says he’ll make billions just from the royalties on his patent for doing something with NDA.”
“Whatever. Billions. He was in love with me. I could have married a billionaire. If I had only known.”
“You can’t be serious.”
She wrinkled her forehead and stared at me with her red-rimmed eyes. “You have no idea what it feels like to lose an opportunity like this. You were an international party girl. You went through men like a chain smoker goes through a pack of cigarettes. You can have any man in the world!”
I’d heard this rant before. I could have answered her, told her that the power of beauty is a double-edged sword as she herself should have realized. Beauty entitles you to nothing but itself. And along with beauty come expectations. Cruelty is one of them. JJ had been acting in a manner consistent with the status her teenage beauty had bestowed upon her.
“JJ, let’s get something straight. If you had married this guy, he’d be trading you in for a trophy wife by now. That’s what rich men do. They upgrade to a woman whose youth and beauty is equal to the power of their money.”
Like a bullfighter waving a red cape, I had distracted her from her self-pity and she focused her frustration on me. “What’s that in the file folder, the latest episode on the dog murders by Lee Malone, Girl Detective?”
I looked down my nose at her. “JJ, it’s been nearly nine months since I started writing that piece. Its moment has passed, wouldn’t you say?” I could have added “thanks to you.” Her averted eyes and the set of her chin told me she was secretly gloating. “As for that other matter, you know as well as I do that the Kelly’s Resort murder and The Franklin Family Resort killing are linked somehow, but I’m going to let the Sheriff’s Office puzzle that out. If you ask me, they’re taking their sweet time about it. I guess the wheels of justice turn slowly. Fashwalla’s out on bail, and the way the defense and the prosecution are lobbing motions back and forth, they might as well be playing ping pong.”
I handed her the folder, “This is the publicity article for the Montague Winery Charity Fashion Show you asked me to write. And you wanted me to help you with something else?”
JJ sat up erect in her swivel chair. “Oh yes! The Fashion Show!”
“I told you, JJ, the puff piece is the extent of my involvement. I don’t do fashion shows any more. I hardly do fashions.” That was a lie.
“No, that’s not it. Tommy asked me to model a few outfits for the show and I was wondering if you would give me some pointers. I modeled a little when I was in college.”
I had seen those pictures. She had appeared in a men’s magazine co-ed dorm feature of mostly well-developed young women in skimpy underwear. “Ever model on a runway?” I was hoping I wouldn’t have to start from scratch.
“No,” she shook her head mournfully and held up a shopping bag, “but I have my shoes.” She pulled out a pair of black Italian stilettos whose high heels were well over the legal limit.
“Wow.” I was impressed. “Where did you get those?”
She fit her feet into them, tying the ankle straps with some effort. “In New York City, about five years ago, on a total whim. I saw them in the display window of some chichi shoe store on Fifth Avenue and I just had to have them. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to wear them.”
I certainly understood the impulse. I had a closet of footwear that testified to that urge. I watched JJ stand and almost tip over. She steadied herself with her hand on the edge of the desk. “Well, this might take some practice.” And took a few wobbly steps. Gaining her balance, she strode to the other side of the room before her right ankle crumpled and she caught herself on the bookshelf. She turned and smiled bravely.
I leaned against the desk and wondered how long this was going to take. The office was already hot enough to incubate eggs and I was intent on finding some place cool real soon. A drive to the coast was beginning to sound like the solution. “You need to relax. Shoulders back, chin up. Now put your right foot in front of your left foot.” She moved her left foot and then corrected herself. “And left in front of right. And repeat, right, left. That’s good. Now step with determination. You walk the earth like the great and awesome beauty that you are.”
JJ giggled. “This is fun.” She was standing in front of me.
“Pivot on left heel slowly, keeping your head turned toward me, looking over your shoulder as you do.” I steadied her with the flat of my hand. “Now show me your sassy I’m-leaving-now strut.”
She looked at me, questioning. “What kind of strut?”
“The catwalk sway, the runway sashay. You’re showing off your butt, a woman’s most seductive asset after her breasts. Why do you think women wear high heels? Not because we like to torture our feet! Because it elevates and accentuates! So do the fanny flaunt!”
She regarded me again, puzzled.
“Think of it this way,” I said. “You have a cat, right?”
“Yes, my blonde Persian, Waltzing Matilda, I call her Matty because. . . .”
I cut her off before she launched into another one of her cat stories. “Visualize how your cat struts away from you, tail up, poised like a question mark, putting one paw in front of the other. Walk like that.”
A light went on behind her eyes. “Oh,” she cocked her head to the right, “I know exactly what you mean.” She advanced across the room, confident.
“Hand on hip, break the other wrist, turn,” I instructed.
“I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this.” She smiled broadly. “Shouldn’t I have a book on my head or something?”
I laughed. “No one uses a book anymore.”
“Really? What do they use?”
“They use a pencil.”
“A pencil?” She stepped behind her desk to retrieve a pencil from the drawer. One of the floorboards creaked.
I glanced at the phone and thought back to a rainy day months ago. I had been in Blackie’s repair shop below and heard everything that was said in the Grapevine office. “Remind me to call the DA,” I said in a louder than normal voice.
The pencil rolled off the top of JJ’s head and under the chair. “Why?” She was distracted, considering whether to stoop and pick it up.
“Something just occurred to me that might be an important detail in the Kelly’s Resort murder.” I spoke as if I were trying to be heard over a loud background noise.
Now I had her attention. “What, what is it? Tell me!” She was puzzled by my raised voice.
“I don’t have time to get into it right now. I’m going to head for the coast before I melt,” I annunciated clearly.
She shrugged. “You might consider bringing a jacket or something to cover up. It’s bound to be at least ten degrees cooler out there and the way you’re dressed would probably get you arrested in any number of countries.”
The light in the stairwell still hadn’t been replaced and I felt for the handrail. In the dark descending to the street below, JJ’s comment about covering up brought back the memory of an equally sweltering summer day in Paris many years before when for some reason I had decided not to spend the summer on the Riviera with friends. The odor rising from the famous sewers of the City Of Light was that of a litter box long overdue for a cleaning. I was in bed, a satin sheet covering only part of my naked body. Mohamed had just stepped out of the bathroom babbling about the superiority of his culture again. I’d about had it. The heat was making me cranky. “Listen, Mo,” I said. He hated it when I called him Mo. “That’s just a lot of goat crap. In your culture you make women wear bags to hide their bodies,” I said, and he stood over the bed looking down at me fitting a cufflink in to the starched sleeve of his tuxedo shirt, and said, “Burqa,” and I said “Burqa, bag, what’s the difference, you oppress women by making them cover every inch of their bodies when they’re in public. That’s pretty medieval, don’t you think?” and he gave me one of those condescending looks like I was some half naked bimbo laid out on satin sheets who didn’t know anything and said, “I’m surprised, Lee, that you, of all people, underestimate the power of the unadorned female form. Uncovered, the female body is like a brandished sword, a naked symbol of the raw power over life and death. Imagine a society where these razor sharp instruments were always on display, the anxiety and tyranny they would foster. The streets would run with blood. We have learned to respect our women as we respect our scimitars. We keep them sheathed.” And I had said, “Goat crap, Mo, pure, unadulterated goat crap.”
I stepped out into the swelter of Main Street. I peered into the window of Blackie’s shop. No light was visible from the workshop in back. I caught a glimpse of myself in a large antique mirror, a lacy see-through bolero jacket over an orange tube top that emphasized my ample bust. A pair of tan hiking short shorts I had picked up in Santorini years ago and handmade leather sandals from the Amalfi coast completed my ensemble. I fit my Fabregianni sunglasses over my eyes and fluffed my sun streaked blonde hair. I had to admit I looked sharp, lethal, like a naked blade.
“No, you’re a tough cookie,” he said with a hearty laugh, “but you know what happens to cookies, don’t you? Eventually they crumble.”
I parked in the lot alongside the Chicken Fish Bar & Grill in Feather. The ocean wind whipped my hair into a tangle. I looked down at where the mouth of the Corkscrew pressed against the wide flank of the Pacific. Seagulls, wings outstretched, hovered as if suspended by invisible wires. JJ was right. It was easily a good ten degrees cooler at the coast.
The Chicken Fish, perched on the bluff overlooking an expanse of driftwood strewn beach, had been a way-station for booze smugglers during Prohibition. I had a view all the way back to where Highway 8 joined the Coast Highway, now just a gray shimmer in the distance. Wind-shaped oaks and cypress dotted the far yellow hills. Up from the intersection, the shabby white of Kelly’s Seaside Resort and its semi-circle of cabins looked like a wagon train that had lost a battle with the natives. A relic of the past when rumrunners occupied the clapboard boxes awaiting their shipments, it was holding its ground even if it was just powder fine dirt and stunted snarls of vegetation. Cleared acreage hemmed the dingy swath of sand and weathered wood on three sides. Heavy machinery stood idle, waiting for the go-ahead to bulldoze the last remaining obstacle. Somebody big wanted to build something on that spot and some tiny tumbledown shacks were in the way.
The wooden door to the Chicken Fish made a loud slap when it snapped back on its spring hinge. It caused the bartender’s head to jerk up from his newspaper. The air was heavy with the smell of cooking oil. There were only two entrees on the Chicken Fish menu, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fish and chips, hence its name. Their soup of the day was always clam chowder and the safest bet.
The bar fronted the dining room, a long narrow affair furnished with a row of knotty pine booths along one short wall and a scattering of round tables and captain’s chairs. A young couple and their toddler had a table near the wide window and were pointing to the beach below with exaggerated expressions and noises for the child’s benefit. Hopefully, he wouldn’t get the idea his parents were idiots.
The bartender was smiling like he knew me. He didn’t. “What’ll it be?” He was talking to my breasts.
“Something with bubbles, non-alcoholic, a twist of lime and some ice,” I answered, not that it changed his focus. I pointed at the knotty pine alcove to the left of the front door. “Ladies?” I had to do something about my hair.
When I came back, my bangs somewhat tamed, the drink was waiting squarely in the center of the red edged cocktail napkin. The lime looked more like a lemon and I hadn’t ordered a cherry.
“Want some grenadine with that?” Now he was just being cute. It didn’t suit him. He was an old surf rat, cheeks creased like sofa leather and a spiky salt bleached haystack topping a pointy head.
“Do I look like Shirley Temple to you?”
He swallowed like he’d been caught saying something he shouldn’t. I could have complained to management but I doubted that they’d care. I had two questions for him. “Where’s the public phone?” and, reaching into my purse, “what do I owe you?”
To the first, he pointed at the front door, “out front and to the right” and then offered, “but you can use the bar phone if it’s local.” The large hand lettered sign next to the cash register clearly stated No Personal Phone Calls. To the second he indicated the first booth in the dining room where Blackie, his back to me, had turned and waved. “Drink’s on the gentleman in the booth.”
I waved back. Blackie motioned me over, grinning like a canary eating cat.
“Escaping the heat?” he asked as I slid into the booth.
I raised an eyebrow. “How did you guess?” The bottle of beer and drained glass in front of him said he’d been there a while.
“You’re not exactly dressed for a ride on the back of a chopper.” He chuckled and tugged the zipper of his leather motorcycle jacket.
I had made an assumption and I was wrong. I’d stopped at The Last Gasp gas station to put a couple of bucks in the tank and make a phone call before heading for the coast. I stirred the ice in my drink with the red straw. “Is that an invitation?”
“You wouldn’t last a mile in those clothes.” I detected a hint of sarcasm, like he didn’t approve of my outfit.
“You think I’m some kind of cream puff who can’t put up with a little wind in her hair?” I had not seen him pass by while I gassed up nor did any motorcycles overtake me on the way out.
“No, you’re a tough cookie,” he said with a hearty laugh, “but you know what happens to cookies, don’t you? Eventually they crumble.” He poured the last of his beer in the glass.
His attitude seemed hostile. I’d had to rethink my relationship with Blackie. After what happened at The Mint, I had an uneasy feeling about him. Also, I had the impression that he’d been avoiding me. Not that we didn’t bump into each other in my comings and goings from the Grapevine office, but our exchanges were always brief and curt like we were embarrassed to have found ourselves in that disquieting situation. Underlying it all was my suspicion that there was more than happenstance to Blackie’s being in Alice Franklin’s bedroom that night.
“Taking a break from being an investigative reporter?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Not much to investigate these days,” I said wanly. I couldn’t remember if I’d voiced my suspicions about the gray van to him, but from his repair shop I was certain he would have overheard me arguing with JJ over its relevance in the Fashwalla murder. In that case he also knew that I was being less than candid. “JJ has me doing the usual color pieces that she’s apparently too busy to tackle. I’m currently writing something on the Corkscrew County Palette Club art show at the new coffee house and bakery up in Healy. Oh, and I just finished a piece on Montague Winery for the. . . .”
“Montague Winery, really?” Suddenly he was interested though I would never have pegged Blackie as a wine drinker, more of the beer and shot type.
“Yes, they’re holding a charity fashion show. . . .”
“And you’re gonna be in it. Figures. You’d be a big draw.” He took a sip of beer. “And they’d be into something like that.” The way he said it sounded more than just an offhanded comment.
“Well, no, actually, I’m done with strutting down runways. The article is the extent of my involvement.” The puff piece I had written was based largely on information JJ had supplied me. After all, how much did I need besides date, time, place, participants, and hyperbolic praise for the Grapevine’s biggest advertiser and do-gooder? “But, I’m curious, what do you know about them?”
Blackie stared at the last of the beer in his glass. “There are certain things better left alone. If you get my drift.”
That was probably the worst thing to say. Now my interest was piqued. I laughed. “Come on, Blackie, I’m sensing a story here. What do you know about Montague Winery?”
He shook his head and growled, “Just because you write for that imaginary newspaper doesn’t make you an investigative reporter. You’re kidding yourself if you think that your looks, your feminine wiles, will get you whatever you please or allow you to do whatever you want. That idea you have of yourself is an illusion.”
This was not the congenial Blackie I knew. What I expected to be playful banter was turning sinister.
“You had the bad luck to stumble on two murder scenes,” he continued. “Don’t make it any more than it is. You’re just an innocent bystander, but sometimes innocent bystanders get hurt.”
“Blackie, why are you telling me this? It sounds like a threat.”
“Hey,” he spread his hands out in front of him, “I’m just pointing out the realities of the situation. Play with fire and you get burned.”
I didn’t want him to think he was intimidating me though my heart rate shot up and the tang of adrenaline filled my mouth. “Well, let me ease your mind. I have nothing to go on except speculation, and JJ won’t print that. The Sheriff’s Office isn’t volunteering any information. It’s old news. I’ve had to let it go.”
Blackie nodded but the malevolent hardness of his eyes didn’t change.
“But, for the sake of argument, let’s say I did get a lead on who’s behind Fashwalla’s murder and . . . .”
He didn’t let me finish. “You’d find a dead end.”
There was no mistaking the intent of his words. But then why was I smiling?
“Lee, good, you’re still here.” Chandler Wong strode over to the booth, gray suit coat over one shoulder, shiny green tie loosened at the neck, radiating a big goofy grin. “I got caught up with something last minute at the office or I would have been here sooner.” He turned and extended his hand to Blackie. “Hi, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Chandler Wong, Assistant District Attorney.”