Tag Archives: Corkscrew County Grape Vine

The Last Resort, CHPS 7-10

Chapter Seven
NAKED TREES

Soon enough the rains came.  One storm after another marched in from the Pacific and like stiff wind-driven brooms swept all the leaves off the trees.  Leaves gathered in sodden lumps, blocking culverts. Water spread across roadways from the overflowing ditches.  Unprepared downspouts spit like spavined lunatics. Roiling creeks swirled gray with stirred sediment. Soggy downpour days took the heart out of jogging for me. I didn’t fight the urge to curl up on the divan with a fashion magazine or a mindless novel, the gas hearth exuding comfort like a purring cat. The horrible events of the previous week hadn’t been washed away by the dramatic change in the weather, however.

Detective Santos had taken my statement at the crime scene.  Gray at the temples, an inch or so shorter than me, and handsome in a rugged world weary way, his dark eyes fixed me with a studied gaze as he asked his questions.  He jotted notes. He was primarily interested in the timeline.  What time had I arrived at Kelley’s?  What time had I left home?  Had I stopped anywhere along the way?  What was my business with Fashwalla?   When I told him I wrote for the Grapevine, he asked if Ms. James was still the publisher.  Apparently he knew her from a tour of duty he’d done as a deputy at the substation in Timberton.  Years ago.  I caught a hint of something in that information.  Nothing specific, but a woman knows.

I had also voiced my suspicions about the gray van and its occupants. They might have had something to do with Fashwalla’s murder. He’d given me a skeptical squint. “Ok, I’ll make a note of that.” He closed his notepad and stuck it into the pocket of his windbreaker. “I have your number. And please, give me a call if you can think of anything else.  You have my card,” he said as he walked away.

The phone rang.  It wasn’t Detective Santos.  A voice teased, “Bet you don’t know who this is.”  The voice was familiar.  It came from a distant past.  It wasn’t the first.

The publicity from the murder put my name back in lights.  There had been a flurry of phone calls from relatives, old friends, and long forgotten business associates. The reporters from the entertainment media were the worst.  When I didn’t give them what they wanted, they stopped calling.  It took about a week.   JJ called excitedly one evening to tell me that Star Watch had actually insinuated that I was a suspect in Fashwalla’s murder. That had been followed by a panicked phone call from my mother. She must have seen the same show. Then I got a lecture about how inappropriate it was for a grown woman to seclude herself in a shack in the wilderness. The Santa Quinta Daily Republican was much kinder.  They called me an aging former fashion model. That said it all.

The voice continued.  “Don’t tell me you don’t recognized me, missy!” The edge of exasperation was a clue, and only one person called me “missy” and got away with it.

“Rikki,” I said, “so good to hear from you.” Rikki Tanguy had been one of my hairdressers when I was on the Paris, Berlin, Milan, Budapest circuit.

He snickered.  “What’s this I hear, missy, you’re stabbing people in the back?  I thought you retired from the fashion world!”

Rikki thought he was amusing, and sometimes he was.  “I had to get your attention somehow.  The only time you call me is when I’m in trouble.”

I heard him sigh into the mouthpiece. “Well, truth or dare, missy, I wouldn’t have called at all but I’m languishing in a motel room in Santa Quinta.  I’m here with a production company shooting a commercial.  This ghastly rain is creating a disaster with the talents’ coifs and I saw that atrocious item on Star Watch which, believe me, honey, is not you.  I mean, you get high marks in the girl beauty category and all, but very poor in the girly cat-fight-back-stabbing department so I thought why not, I’ll give her a call.  She probably needs a shoulder to cry on.”

“Rikki, it’s all right, I’m fine.  And thanks for your concern?  I think that’s the word I want to use.”

“Listen, girlfriend, I’m bored to tears playing tic-tac- toe with Wallace in this stuffy motel room.  I need to get out or I’ll go crazy! How do I get to your god-forsaken part of the world?  I’m coming out for a visit.”

I gave him the address and directions. Highway 8 from Santa Quinta to Timberton, left on Oak Lane to Vine, right on Vine, up the hill to Primrose Lane, Primrose to the end and Quince.  My cabin was on the corner of Primrose and Quince.

“Primrose, Quince, how quaint, how tres rustique as we used to say in Paree.  I guess it’d be appropriate for me to say I’ll be out there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  Poor Rikki, he hardly ever said anything that didn’t come from someone else’s mouth.  An old friend, but still a walking cliché.

I stared out the window after he hung up.  The rain had stopped and I saw my neighbors who lived on Primrose, Rhonda and Ward, with rakes and shovels working to unplug the culvert in front of Rhonda’s driveway.  Rhonda was a silver haired sixty-something with a ready smile and a loud cheerful voice who always seemed remarkably uninhibited.  She had known my stepdad, Frank Zola, when he used the cabin as a retreat from the world of “stock breaking” as he used to call it. Ward lived with Anna, Rhonda’s neighbor on the upside of Primrose Lane.  I watched as Anna came out to join them.  Anna was close to Rhonda’s age, her raven tresses streaked with white. She was not as gregarious as Rhonda, but certainly pleasant enough when I had a chance to talk with her. She and Rhonda had been in business together before retiring to Corkscrew County.

I busied myself with tiding up the living room and putting the breakfast dishes away.  I replaced the towels in the bathroom with fresh ones. I fluffed the pillows on my bed and straightened the seams of the bedcovers. I ran a brush through my hair twenty six times. I glossed my lips. I put a kettle on for tea, though knowing Rikki, he didn’t drink only tea. From the top shelf of the cupboard, I pulled down the half full bottle of vodka that had been half full when I moved in and dusted the narrow shoulders.  Soon I heard the sound of a car out front.

A black SAAB had pulled up behind my Volvo in the driveway.  I stepped out onto the porch and waved at Rikki and his friend. Rikki had lost some weight and more hair. His friend was a lithe, younger Asian man. Rhonda, Anna, and Ward, still examining their handiwork, looked up and waved.  I waved back.

“You didn’t waste any time getting here,” I said to Rikki as I hugged him and invited them into the cabin.

“The hellhounds of boredom were on my trail.”  He looked around the cabin and sniffed, “But dearie me, I believe I’ve stumbled into their lair!” He handed me an unopened bottle of vodka with a flourish. “For you!  Happy reunion!” And proudly, as if displaying a prized possession, “This is my friend, Wallace Toms. He’s the make-up artist, or artiste, if you prefer, with the production company. Wallace, this is the once fabulous Lee Malone, queen of runways from New York to Paris, Milan to Madrid.  Let this be a lesson to you, dear boy, the next time you put on airs, how far the great can fall.”

Wallace smiled wanly.  “Enchanté,” he said, seeming a little distracted.  I usually don’t have that effect on gay men.  Rikki gave him the hairy eyeball.  Finally, he indicated outside with a discreet motion of his nicely coiffed head, courtesy of Rikki, no doubt.  “Those people out there, on the street, do you know them?”

I was a little perplexed at first. “You mean Rhonda and. . . .” We had come to stand by the window overlooking the street where my three neighbors were casually chatting.  “Ward and . . . .”

“Oh my god! I thought I recognized her!”

“Who?  What are you talking about?”  Rikki did his impression of an agitated owl.  “Who, who?”

“Rikki,” Wallace hissed, “Rhonda. . . .”

“Oh my god, you’re right, it is her!  The Blonda. . . .”

“La Londa!”

“What?” I still didn’t get what they were talking about.  “What?”

“Remember her in Help Me, Rhonda?  She played a nurse who helped men who were, ahem, sexually dysfunctional?”

“Remember! I was make-up on that set!”

“You’ll remember that particular gooey goody starred Wardell. . .”

“The Wad!”

“Ward?”

“Mitchell!” They exclaimed in unison.  I was starting to get the drift, but unwillingly.

“And the dark haired woman, what’s her name?”

“Anna.”

“The banana queen!” Rikki exclaimed triumphantly.

Wallace rolled his eyes. “Oh, what she did with a banana!”

“Well, she did star as a fag hag in one of my favorite movies, United Fruit,” Rikki said dreamily.

“Oh yes, the one with little Jimmy Handcock. . . .”

“Nothing little about Jimmy.”

“I know. . . .”

I looked from Rikki to Wallace and then to the trio in rain gear on the corner of Primrose and Quince.  Was I to believe my neighbors were porn stars? 

Chapter Eight
RAMBLE IN THE BRAMBLES

“Honey, we both made money with our bodies.  You made yours with your face and I made mine with my. . . .”  Rhonda’s words splashed up like the roadside puddle I hadn’t seen. I was running again. The air was thick with the sweet scent of post-storm decay.

I had to admire Rhonda’s candidness. After Wallace and Rikki had gone over to reacquaint themselves, more out of morbid curiosity than auld lang syne, I invited them all in for a drink. Anna and Ward had demurred, but Rhonda was game, and held us spellbound with her anecdotes of life as a porn actress. She was still very sassy and loved to shock as her racy stories demonstrated.  I’m not one to blush, but there were a few times my cheeks burned accompanying my hearty laughter.  I respected and perhaps even envied her tenacity, her toughness. Eventually Wallace and Rikki, having been drunk under the table by the old gal, passed out on the pullout couch and snored away like babies with apnea.  It was then that she spoke those words.  It was a truth I wasn’t going to deny.

I’d awakened, that late night a few days in the past, to the sounds of sirens but once I looked out the window I just assumed that they were clarions to celebrate the gorgeous sun smacked day.  I hurriedly downed my coffee, brushed my hair back into a ponytail, excited at the prospect of running again, and slipped into my jogging togs.

The first few breaths were crisp and cold and I savored them like fine nectar.  Soon my lungs ached with exertion, but it was a delicious ache.  Sweat trickles bumped down my rib cage, the fine hairs at the back of my neck damp, and tiny rivulets traced a course past my ears over my cheekbones to my jaw line. I was light on my feet and feeling as good and gorgeous as the day. Nothing was going to stop me.

Running always cleared my head, and like the fabled blonde, there was nothing behind my striking blue eyes.  Eventually, in rhythm with my breathing, images, like the shadows of hand puppets, imposed themselves on the blank slate. One reminded me of JJ.

JJ, thanks to my recent notoriety, now saw me as an asset rather that a pest and had taken me under her wing.  Not that I particularly cared to be hovered over.  It reminded me too much of my mother, my agent, my boyfriends, my accountant, my lawyer, my mother.  JJ had made me associate editor and placed my name below hers on the masthead, and above those of the regular contributors, some of whom had not penned a word for the Grapevine in years. And I continued working on the dog murders even though JJ had her reservations. The questions she asked when I let her see rough drafts only made me want to dig deeper. I had already met with Deputy Sheriff Charles Randall.

Deputy Randall was nothing if not beefcake, a steaming hunk of virile masculinity.  In his late twenties, with luminescent green eyes that seemed even more vivid set against his coffee complexion, he had a bright naïve knee-weakening grin.  Had he lived in Los Angeles, he’d have been a top model, a movie star, a gigolo, he was that stunning of a specimen.  I was almost old enough to be his mother.  He took his job very seriously.  Had I been his mother, I would have been very proud.  He was reluctant to share the results of the investigation with me.  I did learn, however, that half a dozen dogs had been killed over a three-day period, Goldstein’s Airedale and Creasy’s German shepherd among them. Maggie March over at Animal Control was much more helpful.

Maggie was a large gruff woman who carried her weight well. I had watched her expertly wrestle a reluctant mongrel into a kennel before she faced me to answer my questions. She was matter of fact with her answers. There were actually more than six dogs shot to death. The Sheriff was looking into reports of dog shootings that dated back a couple of months.  All in Corkscrew County.  She’d heard that they were also looking into animal shootings elsewhere.  There didn’t seem to be a common thread. The dead dogs were an assortment of mutts, mongrels and purebreds, large and small.  Some of dogs had been the sole companions to the elderly.  She didn’t understand why someone would do something like that.  And she wanted to know if I was that fashion model who had been in the news a while back.  When I admitted to it, she cocked her head to one side with a bemused smile and a look that said, “what’s that gotta be like?”

I made the turn onto Elm barely slacking my pace.  The brambles in the ditch glistened, draped with curled brown and yellow leaves from the bare trees above them.  Long blades of resurgent grass drooping with moisture beamed a hopeful green.  I was back in the flow, running with the world, as if my feet turned the planet with each step on the rain-damp ribbon of asphalt.

I sailed past Goldstein’s.  I’d heard that he’d taken a turn for the worse.  His daughter had come to stay with him for a while. She was planning to put him in a home. No smoke came from the chimney of his tiny green cube of a cabin. The windows were dark, blank, blind, vacant.  I felt an ache that had nothing to do with my running.  Then I noticed the wisps of dark smoke hovering over the tree line in the distance.

I smelled it first, the acrid stench of burning plastic.  When I came around the corner where River Way turns into Willow, a blind curve obscured by a thicket of bay and wild wisteria falling off into the steep sides of the creek, I saw the patrol car, the fire engine, the ambulance, and the tow truck.  The tow truck was poised to back up into the blackberries near where lazy strings of sooty smoke gathered among the treetops. As I got closer I saw Deputy Randall standing by the open door of the patrol car talking on the radio. I thought of stopping to say hello.  But he looked busy.  The paramedics, the firemen, the tow truck driver watched as I approached at a clip.  They were smiling as if what they were seeing gave them pleasant thoughts. I smiled back at them as I passed.  Their smiles brightened, brains blank with pure pleasure.  It’s atomic in its effect, my smile.

I glanced in the direction of the smoke.  There appeared to be a charred, boxy hulk of some kind of vehicle.  I kept up my pace, resolved to mind my own business and made to pass by the front of the tow truck partially blocking the road.  Then it occurred to me.  I’m a reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine.  I can, in an official capacity, ask what is going on.  Deputy Randall, filling out his tan and green uniform so uniformly, looked too intense as he spoke urgently into his police radio. I decided to try one of the firemen, an older man.  He eyed me suspiciously.

When I explained who I was and it suddenly dawned on him that I was the one who had been in the news, he took on a tone of fatherly authority. That’s the way it usually works with older guys. They figure if they can’t be my lover they might as well be my daddy.  Apparently there were, as he put it, crispy critters in the vehicle, bodies, so they had to wait for the coroner. I focused in the direction of the hulk of smoldering metal half hidden by the undergrowth. It was a long rectangle, like a van. I stepped a few paces forward to the edge of the bramble bank and strained for a closer look.  There was a round hole in the upper rear panel.  Below it, a tear of melted plastic adhered to the scorched and mottled gray paint.  It was the van.  My van!

“It’s the gray van!” I shouted at the fireman.

He smiled, weakly, unsure of the proper response.

Chapter Nine
COLD SNAP COLD TRAIL

I looked out over the raw silver of neighboring rooftops, my first cup of java warming my hands. A pale sun streaked the frost-gripped vegetation in the vacant lot across the way.  Blue gray shadows sheathed my side of the road.  I turned slowly in front of the gas heater, doing what the natives call “the California rotisserie.” My mind was occupied connecting the dots.

First there were the dog shootings that I tied to the gray van. Then Fashwalla’s murder, again connected to the gray van.  And finally the van itself, torched along with its occupants. To my mind these were more than just coincidences.  I’d left a message on JJ’s answering machine outlining my suspicions.  She’d been after me to finish a puff piece on Barbara’s Bakery to keep it from going out of business.  I knew I’d never be that good of a writer.  To her greater consternation, my dog shooting story was becoming “labyrinthine.”  That was JJ’s adjective.

The phone rang.  It was a little early for a social call so I guessed that it was her.

“I have some bad news, Lee.” She tried sounding appropriately sad.  “They made an arrest in Fashwalla’s murder.  His brother.  Apparently a business deal gone sour.”

I didn’t want to believe it.  “How can that be?”  The fine web of intrigue I had woven was unraveling like an old hairnet.

“Incidentally, have you finished that bakery piece?”

“How can we be sure they’ve got the right guy?”

“Who knows with cops?  Maybe they’ve heard that ninety percent of all murders are committed by relatives.”

“Something’s not right. . . .”

“And besides, if they can make the case, the guy is guilty.”

“I’m not buying it.  What about the medical examiner’s report?”

“They’re not releasing much. I only heard about it because Miss Nobody from the Daily Republican called to ask me for a comment on the story for tomorrow’s edition.” She paused.  “She really wanted to talk to you.”

“I can call her back.  What’s her number?”

“I took care of it.  Besides, do you think that Miss Big Time Reporter really cares what you have to say?  She’ll only use one or two sentences of the interview, just enough to make you sound stupid, and then she’ll misspell your name.”

JJ was starting to whine. I had to get off the phone.  “I’m done with the bakery piece. I’ll bring it down later this morning.” I was lying. I was going to have to throw something together in a hurry.

Frost had etched crystal patterns on the roof and down across the windshield of my Volvo.  I watched it melt, slowly, defroster on full blast.  Once I got going, it didn’t take me long to realize that sections of the road were slick with black ice.  The orange glare of a late rising sun was just topping the rows of dark leafless silhouettes as the road turned east toward Timberton. A compact sat with its rear wheels spinning, nose in the ditch. I slowed.  A face glowered from the driver’s side window.  I felt the back wheels of the Volvo slip and then grab.  I thought to stop but, as luck would have it, the pickup behind me slowed and flashed its hazards.

The anger on the driver’s face seemed directed at me, like it was all my fault, the freezing temperatures, the ice.  My thoughts turned on that odd reflection.  I had been called an ice queen, aloof, unsympathetic, freezing people out.  Personally I thought of my demeanor as radiant, more often too bright for mere mortals.  I believed in the power of my beauty and the access that it allowed.  And I used it.  The downside was that everyone thought I was unapproachable.  And manipulative.  That wasn’t the real me, though at this point I was still a little fuzzy as to who the real me might be.  Still, I could have been cashing in on any number of aging model endorsements, all legit.  Instead I was writing flack for a two bit rag out in the middle of nowhere for a woman with a serious sugar habit.

A square pink box sat open at JJ’s elbow, half a cruller among the blots of icing and grease.  She held her hand out for the puff piece after hastily wiping it with a napkin.

“Good, good.” She nodded and sipped from a styrofoam cup. “Hmm.” She looked over the chaos of her desk and found the red pencil.  Then she looked for a place to set her cup.  There was a narrow patch near the edge of the desk and she set it down like a Piper Cub gliding into a jungle airstrip.  Unfortunately, she misjudged.  The edge of the cup caught the bulge of a fat envelope and the contents spilled across the page I had just handed her.

JJ moved remarkably fast, like this had happened before.  The beige liquid dripped over the edge of the desk.  She found an old scarf to sop up the spill, muttering apologies mixed with curses.  She held up the baptized page, regarding it, head cocked to one side, with distress.  “I’m so sorry,” she intoned.  Then all sweetness and light, “Can you type up another copy?” She fumbled in the pocket of her oversized sweater and extracted a crumpled bill. “And can you go down to Barbara’s and get me another coffee? Cream, three sugars.”

I had stopped paying attention to her.  Among the papers I had saved from the au lait deluge was a press release from the Sheriff’s Office.  It was two paragraphs long.  One named the suspect, Faheed Fashwalla, the deceased’s brother, age 29, resident of Santa Quinta. The second dealt with the fact that the case had been turned over to the DA for indictment.

“This says nothing!” I eyed the dollar bill JJ had placed on the desk in front of me.

“What do you expect?  It’s a press release.” She was looking for a place to deposit the sopping scarf.

“I’d expect it to say what evidence they have against him.”

“That’s not likely.”  She gave me a little self-satisfied smile.  “But not to worry.”  She eyed the remaining section of donut.  “I’m having lunch with Detective Santos today.”

I guess my disappointment was evident.  I’d been trying to get an interview with him for weeks.  Why wasn’t I having lunch with him?  I had discovered the body.  To my mind that made it my story.

“Now, now, in the meantime, I have an important assignment for you.  I need you to find The Countess.”   The name ‘countess’ didn’t register right away. I’d known so many.  “You know, the Countess, the crazy women who distributes the newspapers for me.”

“She’s missing?

“She hasn’t come by crying for an advance on her paycheck and that’s unusual. And she has to distribute this week’s Grapevine. Try The Blue Ox, someone there might know where she is.”  She noticed my hesitance.  “Use the force, or whatever it is you call it.”  She seemed to be taking perverse pleasure in the fact that my conspiracy theory was falling apart.  “By the way, I forgot to tell you.  They determined that the van fire was an accident.  Faulty valve on the propane tank for the portable stove. They still haven’t identified the victims.”

I was beginning to feel like Nancy Drew.  Find the missing Countess?  She had to be kidding.

“Oh, and don’t forget the coffee!”

Chapter Ten
BABE IN THE BLUE OX

The Blue Ox was a cinderblock bunker painted a neon blue that gave it the look of a very large radioactive brick.  The last big wind storm had caused the rusty representation of the ox on the roof to break from its rear mooring, pitching it forward and miming a nosedive to the pavement below.

Contemplating suicide, I thought to myself as I crossed Main Street.  I was accompanied by an irksome suspicion.  JJ was having lunch with Detective Santos. She knew I had been after him for an interview as a follow-up on my theory that there was a connection between Fashwalla’s murder and the dog shootings. And she had brushed off any suggestion that there had ever been anything between her and Santos while he was a deputy assigned to the Timberton substation. I wasn’t convinced. I had called his office on numerous occasions and thought that I had finally secured an appointment. He said that he’d get back to me to confirm it.   And now she was sending me off on a fool’s errand?  If I didn’t know better I might think she was trying to steal my story.  Maybe I didn’t know better.

The Countess would be hard to miss. Pushing six feet tall, a heap of dirt brown hair piled high on her head and eye makeup the envy of local raccoons, she was often seen stalking Timberton attended by a Russian wolfhound and her male companion, a tall wiry shadow who resembled an exploded chimney brush.  I’d run into her a few times in the Grapevine office. She claimed to have come from Russian aristocracy living in exile in Paris.  When I tried to engage her in a bit of conversational French, she claimed that she had stopped speaking Russian years ago because of, as she hissed, “the Communisssts!” I figured then that the Countess was more likely from Poughkeepsie than Paris. Her accent gave her away, a froth of nasal New Englander and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  The dog’s name was Tarzan and her mate was called Puppet.

I pushed open the door to the Ox and brought the light in with me.  A few of the gargoyles supporting the bar blinked. The light hovered around the shoulders of my yak skin jacket like an aura, catching the highlights in my hair and the gold of my earrings. The bar room was a low ceilinged affair or I was just feeling taller in my ostrich skin western style boots.  My motto has always been “dress for any occasion and any occasion calls for a dress.”  Mine was a modest number, a little something I had picked up in Monte Carlo.  It was red and black. I called it my roulette dress because it spun men’s heads

The place stank of cigarettes, stale beer and indigestion. I had dabbed a little Eau d’Or, my fabulously expensive French perfume, behind each ear earlier that morning but it was hardly enough. In the smoky haze off to my right I noticed a hulking shadow circling a green felt table.  Fluorescent lighting lit the grubby mirror behind the bar.  The bartender didn’t even look up from his newspaper at the far end.  A guy with a baseball cap propped on the back of his head was making faces at himself in the mirror, one hand around an empty beer mug.  He looked up at me, squinting, as if seeing me hurt his eyes.

I set my silk Sauzeer designer purse on the bar next to him.  “Buy you a drink?”

His expression said he wasn’t sure he’d heard me right.  I smiled and watched it happen. Suddenly the image he had of himself, not the one he’d been grimacing at in the mirror, but the one that lived between his ears, his self-image, was rapidly being re-assessed in a sudden fit of self-consciousness. Then the realization that he hadn’t shaved, showered, brushed his teeth or changed his underwear in more than a week dawned on him.  He was unprepared to be the stud he thought he was.  His face tightened as if in some desperate resolve but his lip quivered and gave him away.  “You drive that Volvo.”

I wasn’t surprised that he babbled.

“I don’t do Volvo’s.”

“Really?  That’s absolutely fascinating.”

He averted his gaze and stared at his hands.  “Mike,” he grunted at the top of a belch, “Mike, the mechanic.”  He threw a thumb over his shoulder indicating his shop across the street.  “I don’t do foreign cars.”

Our musical repartee had stirred the bartender.  The other denizens were craning their necks and looking down our way, suddenly alert.

“What’s it gonna be?” he asked as he sauntered over.  He was a large balding man with yesterday’s five o’clock shadow on both of his chins and a big belly his dingy t-shirt did nothing to hide. He fixed me with the passive gaze of someone who had seen it all.  He held a toothpick in the corner of his wide leering mouth.

“Beer for my friend.” I retrieved a bill from my purse. “I’ll have a bottle of your finest champagne. This twenty should cover it.”

Mike the mechanic didn’t know the whereabouts of The Countess, whom he referred to as the “gypsy witch,” nor did he much care.  He also informed me a few more times that he didn’t work on foreign cars.  He sucked at the suds of his full glass. A fleeting shadow crossed his brow. He’d just had an idea. It was that idea. The set of my lips told him he didn’t have a snowball’s chance.

I watched the bartender bending the ear of a man whose pointy chin seemed welded to his breastbone. He gave what passed for a nod and stepped over to the cue holding troglodyte at the pool table.  They exchanged words and the pool shooting brute sent a mean glare in my direction.             The champagne was flat. The bottle, however, was genuine heavy glass, a handy weapon and the secret as to why smart women always order champagne by the bottle.

The pool cue preceding the hairless gorilla resembled a large pencil in his mitt.  His shoulders strained the seams of a too small t-shirt whose faded slogan read “Ask Me If I Give A….”  Maybe it was the size of his head that made his eyes seem so tiny. I could only imagine what made them red.  I couldn’t imagine where he’d find the space to put his next tattoo.

“Why you askin’ after the Countess?” He got a little closer than I cared and his body odor told me that I was in the presence of a diehard water conservationist.

I grasped the champagne bottle firmly by the neck.  “Would you care for a glass of champagne?”

He wasn’t amused. “Don’t be stickin’ your nose in somebody’s business.”

I tried to make sense of what “somebody’s business” might be.  After all, I had only come looking for the Grapevine’s gofer. She hadn’t shown up to distribute this week’s edition, the one with my review of the sculpture show at The Mongoose Gallery. His reaction seemed overly dramatic to my way of thinking. My smile had little effect. It annoyed him, like having a mirror flashed in his eyes. I figured it was time to make an exit and take my champagne bottle with me.  It had a good heft as I dropped it down to my side at the ready. He caught the intent and grinned sadistically as if he had snared me in his trap. The use of force was his turf.  He stepped with me as I backed to the door. He was telegraphing his moves and I calculated the arc of my swing. Then he stopped, the sneer on his face replaced by a look of puzzlement. I too stopped, having bumped against a presence behind me.  I turned.  He was a tall man with a full head of silver hair.  He held an aluminum baseball bat against his shoulder as if he were readying to step up to the plate.

“Hello, Lee,” Blackie spoke evenly.  He was the owner of Blackie’s Antiques and Motorcycle Repair Shop downstairs from the Grapevine office. He kept his eyes fixed on the pool player. “I got curious as to why a nice girl like you would want to come into a dive like this so I thought I’d follow you over.”

I nodded at the bat over his shoulder.  “A little early for baseball season, isn’t it?”

“Never too early to bat a few balls around.”

No one objected as Blackie held the door open for me.  I stepped out into a steely gray overcast threatening more winter rain.


Next Time: Motorcycles, Antiques, & a Missing Countess

The Last Resort, CHPS 4-6

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Four
THE GRAPEVINE

Joyce James flicked a speck of powdered sugar off the showy burgundy scarf that was meant to complement her dark blue pantsuit. She held a half-eaten doughnut in the other hand. JJ, as she liked to be called, had once been a cute girl. The dimples were still there in spite of her puffy cheeks, and the upturned nose, a little rosier than it had been in her youth. She was late for an appointment with a prospective advertiser which was why she was trying, as delicately as possible, to insert the remainder of the doughnut into her mouth without dusting herself with white powder.

She motioned to the confusion of her desk with her free hand. I was supposed to understand what the charade meant. I waited for her to finish licking the tips of her fingers. She smacked her lips once she swallowed. “Your article on the art show is here somewhere. I had to cut a few paragraphs. We’re really strapped for space this week.”  She started to shuffle through the papers on her desk but stopped because pages were sticking to her fingers. “Sticky,” she muttered to no one in particular. She glanced at her wristwatch and made a face. “I’ve got to get going.” She looked at me in that imploring manner I was becoming familiar with. “Be a dear and look for it yourself. I can’t be late for this appointment. It’s here, somewhere,” she repeated. I was about to protest but she had already thrown a beige alpaca shawl over her shoulders and was digging through her oversized handbag for her car keys as she disappeared out the door.

I found myself alone, in the cramped little square that housed the editorial office of Corkscrew County’s weekly newspaper, The Grapevine. Bundled back issues were stacked on the floor and against the walls, and in turn, file folders bulging with clippings and black and white photos were placed precariously on top of the none-too-steady bundles. There were two chairs in the room, one at the desk and one by the door, both of which were piled with more shapeless folders and assorted papers. The one window that looked out onto the street below was being used as a de-facto bulletin board, plastered with sticky note reminders, editorials from other newspapers, announcements, flyers, and various New Yorker style cartoons commenting on the vagaries of fourth estate culture.

The chaos of JJ’s desk reflected the random clutter of the tiny office, but to my surprise, I found my article easily. It was in a stack of papers alongside the rather large electric typewriter. The red ink bloodying the top page caught my eye. At first glance I couldn’t believe it was mine. But it was. My face turned the color of the ink as I read through the butchering of what had been my review of a painting and sculpture show at a local gallery.

JJ had slashed all but a few paragraphs. What remained intact was the name and location of the business, the names of the artists, and a quote from the proprietor to the effect that the gallery featured work by local artists with a new show each month. I had found the painter’s canvases to be clichéd, amateurish landscapes whose only saving grace was the odd use of color. JJ kept the comment favoring the color. I had liked the sculptures better even though they were unimaginative in their execution. She had substituted the word graceful.

I was chewing my cheek and about to become very perturbed when I heard the door open behind me. JJ stood there, legs slightly apart, arms dangling loosely, with a look of consternation on her face. It was such an unusual posture for her that I forgot my anger for a moment.

“I’m having car trouble. Would you be a dear and give me a lift?” she pleaded.

 

“That’s the newspaper business,” JJ explained once we were headed out Highway 8 toward the coast. “It has nothing to do with journalism or artistic integrity or whatever else you want to call it. The reality is that a review of an art show or a restaurant or any type of business is actually free advertisement, and an inducement to that business to buy ad space if they haven’t already, and to keep them buying if they have. If I print a bad review of any business, I stand a chance of losing them as advertisers. Now with a big city newspaper, like the Santa Quinta Daily Republican, the pressures aren’t so obvious, but believe me, their big money accounts have a say in the editorial content.”

I steered in silence. I thought her outlook was cynical. But I didn’t say so. What about journalistic ethics, the duty of the press to print the truth? But I didn’t ask. I concentrated on driving and allowed myself to marvel at the beauty of the rolling yellow green hills and the fading colors of autumn as the road wound its way to Feather, the tiny hamlet where JJ had her appointment with the proprietor of Kelly’s Seaside Resort. It hardly seemed the time to bring up my idea for a story on the dog murders.

Feather was a cluster of seedy little homes and fishing shacks on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. It had charm, in a rundown sort of way. Now and then the light glancing off the vast expanse of water gave each of the little hovels a jewel-like sparkle. Other times, the wind howled across the plateau so hard and cold that anyone foolish enough to venture out into the blast was rewarded with an instant migraine. Or, while the interior of the county sweltered in triple digit heat, Feather was wrapped in a shroud of fog. This day, however, happened to be a sparkler.

Kelly’s owner was a man by the name of Ralph Fashwalla, or so he introduced himself. Kelly’s hadn’t been owned by anyone named Kelly in quite a while JJ had explained on the way out. In fact, in her opinion, the place was jinxed. The last three owners had gone bankrupt. Business was generally good in the summer and early fall. But revenues from the so-called tourist season were hardly ever enough to sustain the resort during the lean winter months. Part of Kelly’s problem was its rundown appearance. The shredded fishnets, the broken life rings, and rusting nautical knick knacks littering the verandah were just plain tacky. JJ was making vague promises that an ad in her paper would help assuage the coming dearth of business.

Mr. Fashwalla didn’t seem to be paying much attention to her pitch. He only had eyes for me. It always happened. The mouth full of teeth and lidded eyes, the lingering handshake when we were introduced had been the giveaway. I was a knock-out. That was that.

I stepped outside to lessen the distraction and give JJ a fighting chance. The porch boards creaked and I hesitated to lean against the peeling paint of the railing. I glanced down at the patch of coastal weeds that had taken over the flowerbed. In of themselves, they had a natural beauty, but their random encroachment didn’t help the already deteriorating image that came with a first glance at the place.

The ocean breeze was turning into a wind and I walked out to my Volvo to get a jacket. The view from Kelly’s parking lot was certainly terrific, a sweeping vista that included the rugged bluffs jutting up from the mouth of the Corkscrew River. I turned back to see JJ on the front porch shaking hands with Fashwalla. “I hope we can do business,” she said as a final pitch. “And the rates are very reasonable.”  Too bad it was such a firetrap. He was looking over her shoulder at me. He waved as JJ trundled down the steps, scowling.

We had driven a ways before she spoke. “He wants your telephone number.”  There was a trace of a tremor to her voice. She was ready to explode.

“Come again?” I had to act incredulous, though it happened to me more times than I cared to count. They always want my phone number.

“He wants your phone number! He wanted to know if you were seeing anyone. I don’t think he heard a word I said about buying an ad in the paper!”  She started to sob, her padded shoulders shaking. “I really can’t afford to lose this account.” She sighed. “The paper is barely making it. I owe the printer, I owe rent on the office, I owe the phone company, I owe the production staff. . . .”  She paused to gulp a breath. “I haven’t paid myself in months, I owe on my utilities. . . .”  Her cheeks were wet and her eyeliner smudged.

I shouldn’t have felt guilty, but I did. All my life my beauty had got me what I wanted. But it had its negative side as well. This was a case in point. My looks had cost JJ a customer. When I was in High School, all the other girls on the cheerleading squad resented me because I made them look ugly, or so it was reported to me, and the boys wouldn’t give them a second glance. I‘d been given special consideration all my life, at times to the detriment of others worthier of the attention. As a beauty contestant, I was never in fear of losing. And as a model, I was always in demand. Undeniably, there was carnage along the way. Back then, I accepted it as my due. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.

“Tell you what, we’ll go back and I’ll get him to place an ad.”

She shook her head. “No. . .it’s too late.”  Her voice had become plaintive. She sounded at the end of her rope.

“No, I’m serious, I’ll do it.”

JJ fixed me with a puzzled stare. “Why are you even doing this? What are you even doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Are you running away from something, someone? I mean, you can practically have any job you want. I don’t get it. Why do you want to write color pieces for a newspaper with a circulation of less than five thousand?”

I had answers, but I wasn’t in a hurry to disabuse JJ of her notions just yet. I slowed behind a mottled old pick-up truck whose progress down the three blocks of Main Street could only be described as a slow trot. After we passed the old Coast Heritage Bank and Barbara’s Bakery with the Going Out Of Business sign in the window, I steered for the space in front of JJ’s car, an old Dodge Dart that had seen better days. When she said she had car trouble I’d assumed she meant it wouldn’t start or that it had a flat. It was listing to one side, as if an incredibly heavy object had been placed in the passenger’s seat. Then I noticed the web of smashed windshield.

 

 Chapter Five
TIMBERTON Pop. 1,985

I wondered if anyone in Timberton, a wide spot in the road on the way to the coast, had noticed that this year in particular, 1985, matched the population displayed on the sign into town. It was an old sign and probably inaccurate, and I didn’t expect that the doddering relics on the Chamber of Commerce really cared. Both sides of Main Street were lined with near empty stores and dilapidated shops on the verge of bankruptcy. Even those with quaint Western-style false fronts failed to attract business once the days got shorter and the nights longer and colder. Lumber trucks, delivery vans, pick-ups, and recreational vehicles roared right through and never looked back. Unless they had to fuel up. Then they pulled into the Last Gasp gas station at the far end of town where they were thoroughly gouged.

Next to the gas station and heading back into town was Elaine’s Pottery and Knick Knacks with a big hand-lettered Closed Till April sign on the front door. Directly across the street was Henderson’s Realty and next door was Carlyle’s Hardware and Equipment Rental. A weed clogged vacant lot provided the space between the hardware store and The Blue Ox, a garish blue cinderblock bunker adorned with an oversized representation of Bunyan’s pet with particular emphasis on the horned mammal’s gender. The red neon knot in the only window advertised a brand of beer known the world over. Across the street and completing the first block of businesses was a cyclone fence enclosure that contained a Quonset hut surrounded by the rusting hulks of autos. The sign on the double drive gate read Mike The Mechanic and underneath, in smaller print, American Cars Only – Beware of Dogs.

I had a clear view of The Blue Ox from my table at Barbara’s Bakery one block down. Barbara had placed a couple of tables in the front window and had started serving cappuccinos in hopes of staying in business. It wasn’t working. Across the table JJ babbled about how they were out to get her. They were not anyone specific, but a parade of imagined tormentors, mostly ex-boyfriends, businessmen she had slighted, or persons she had exposed in the pursuit of her hard hitting, no-holds-barred journalism. I tried not to smirk. As long as I’d read the Grapevine, any story JJ had written was always tempered by her awareness of her advertisers’ concerns. There was never any hard news in the Grapevine, only congratulatory puff pieces. Still, I was puzzled as to why she hadn’t mentioned her car being vandalized anytime on the drive to and from Feather.

“JJ, someone slashed your tires and smashed your windshield! Shouldn’t you be reporting that to the police?”  I felt that I had to be outraged for her.

She flapped a chubby hand in dismissal. “First things first. That’s the way it is in this business. I couldn’t take the time to deal with it just then. I had to keep my focus. . .and my appointment at Kelly’s.”  She sighed, segmenting the pastry on the plate in front of her into bite sized bits. “Lot of good that did. Of course, if my car hadn’t been trashed and I had gone to Kelly’s on my own. . . .”  She stopped to savor a piece of pastry. “I wonder if Fashwalla would have bought an ad. . . .”  She feigned coy innocence.

I was way ahead of her. “Are you saying I screwed up the deal for you?”

She spread her fingers in a gesture of mock resistance. “No, no, of course not.”  And looked back down at her plate. “But he was distracted by your being there. That was quite evident. You shouldn’t underestimate your. . . .”  She blushed saying it. “Beauty.”

I’d heard this song and dance before. “Alright, JJ. I’ll help you out anyway I can. I’ll go back to Kelly’s. I’m sure I can talk him into buying an ad.”

Maybe it was the sight of her damaged Dodge that led JJ to reconsider. She had the rate sheet out of her oversized purse and spread on the table before I finished the sentence. She smiled as she explained the rates, her voice cloying like an old maid aunt reading nursery rhymes.

Ideally, with a new client, you wanted to start with a full page and then discount them to a half page, and finally quarter page ads for the length of the contract. She circled the New Client package. Six months for fifteen hundred dollars. If I sold Fashwalla the package, I‘d get a commission. Seventy-five dollars. I made her sweeten the deal. If I brought in this account, she’d consider publishing my article on the dog murders. She hesitated at first, stuffing the remaining pastry into her mouth, and then agreed.

 

A fine drizzle had had fallen overnight and the roads were still damp as I drove back to Feather and Kelly’s Seaside Resort the next morning. I had called Kelly’s the previous evening and made an appointment. Fashwalla wasn’t in a very personable mood. He agreed on a time and hung up. Apparently my good looks weren’t as effective over the phone.

I thought it best to dress as a professional so as not to give Fashwalla the impression I was there for anything but business. I chose a pair of light brown slacks, a long sleeve white blouse, and a pair of sensible brown loafers. I pulled my hair into a prim bun at the back of my head held in place with a salmon colored ribbon. I added a small gold chain around my neck and a gold bracelet watch. I didn’t bother with my contact lenses and wore my prescription glasses in their Fabregianni frames. If I was supposed to be such a super woman, it seemed only fitting that I go as my alter ego, Clarissa Kent, reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine.

I met with very little traffic until I got to the intersection of Highway 8 and the Coast Highway. There were two cars ahead of me, a maroon convertible sports car with the top down and a pale green family sedan. The sports car was turning left, waiting for a gravel truck to rumble by. The family sedan and I were both turning right. The driver of the sports car must not have seen the van tailgating the gravel truck. The van hooked a left right into his path. There’s nothing like the screech of brakes to stiffen the spine.

I gaped in disbelief. The van was steel gray and had a little bubble window at the back in the shape of an Iron Cross. A burly bearded man jumped out of the driver’s seat and made for the sports car with a menacing stride. He was screaming something, his arms raised. The driver of the sports car appeared stunned from the near collision. The bearded man made as if to strike the driver of the convertible. His fist hesitated in the air above the driver’s head, now aware of the stopped traffic and multiple witnesses. He gave the sportster the finger instead, got back in the van and roared off.

I got a look at the two men in the front seat as the van sped past. They were the same guys who had harassed me on my jog days earlier. Of that, I was positive.

The sports car had pulled over to the shoulder as the driver collected his wits. He’d lost his color and maybe even his breakfast. I continued right on the Coast Highway and up into Feather.

A dark billowing mass was trundling in from the ocean. The wind had picked up with it, buffeting my Volvo with regular gusts. The radio had said that this storm signaled the beginning of the rainy season. The dead weeds at the entrance to Kelly’s Seaside Resort were being blown parallel to the ground and dust devils stirred in the colorless dirt of the parking area. I stepped out of the car and held on to my hair. The odd pieces of nautical knick-knacks on the front porch were banging together and making a muffled clang. The wind had also pushed open the front door. I knocked on the frame and announced myself with “Hello?”  I saw a light through an open doorway just behind the front desk. I rang the bell on the reception desk once. A single clear note emphasized the eerie quiet. The sound was perfect but something wasn’t right. I saw an arm in a shirtsleeve in the office from where I was standing. “Hello,” I announced again, “Lee Malone, with the Grapevine, I have an appointment!”  I stepped around the front desk and into the office. Fashwalla wasn’t going to be dazzled by my subtle beauty. Blood dripped off the seat of his chair and his back looked like it had been opened by a boar rooting for truffles.

 

Chapter Six
RUNWAY PAST

“You with the Network?”

“Excuse me?”

A perfectly proportioned mannequin with a sunny expression posed the question. Barely five feet tall, he held a microphone in his hand. A Vietnamese man stood behind him, TV camera braced on a shoulder.

“ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC?”

“I don’t understand.”

Every hair on the man’s head was flawlessly in place as if it had been painted on. He wore a navy blazer over a white shirt, and around his neck, a speckled yellow power tie. A pair of Bermuda shorts and sandals completed the outfit. Typical of TV reporters. Since they were only viewed from the midriff up, they went casual below the belly button.

“Don’t tell me now. I never forget a face. Didn’t you anchor. . .no, that’s not it. . .Sundays with Charles Osgood . . . you were the news reader!”

I shook my head. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”  I got a lot of that, though not so much since I’d moved out to the relative obscurity of Corkscrew County. People remembered my face but didn’t immediately place where they’d seen it before. It’s difficult being invisible once you’ve been in the public eye. But I was working on it.

I turned to watch the forensics crew. The perimeter had been cordoned off. They shuttled in and out of Kelly’s carrying large evidence envelopes and paper shopping bags. A few deputies stood watch, their thumbs hooked over their gun belts.

“Wait, wait, you were a guest on Sundays with Charles Osgood!”

He was getting close. Down the highway another news van drove into view. That brought the total to three. The first reporter on the scene had been from the Santa Quinta paper, The Daily Republican. He and his photographer pulled in right after the first deputy arrived. It had taken the deputy 15 minutes from the time I dialed 911.

“He was doing a segment on over-the-hill. . .I mean, former models!”

He had me. I had appeared on that show along with a clutch of models, mostly trophy wives set up in small businesses by their CEO husbands or those marketing organic jams from upstate farms with their domestic partners. I‘d been the only one still at loose ends, knocking about Europe, aimlessly staying with friends or house sitting, trying to escape the aftermath of more bad publicity, waiting for my case to be heard. That seemed so long ago.

“Lee. . .Leeann. . .that’s it!”

He had me. Leeann had been my mononym on the billboards, fashion pages, and runways.

“The glasses threw me. Marty, Marty Steele, KSQU TV News.” He held out his hand for me to shake. “So, what are you doing here? Are you covering this for CBS?”

“No, I’m not with the Network.”  I turned to address him. When ignoring attention doesn’t work, surrender and charm.

“Wow, I can’t believe it, Leeann. Who are you working for?”

I was about to deny any affiliation but perversity is a small pleasure I sometimes allow myself. “The Corkscrew County Grapevine.”

At first there was a look of incomprehension on his little wooden face, and then an embarrassed flush colored the grain under the layer of makeup. He choked out, “You’re joking. . .right?”

I’d had my fun. “No, I’m not joking, but I’m not here as a reporter. I found the body and called it in.”

“That’s a relief. For a minute, I thought The Grapevine had beaten us to a story. I mean, no offense, but JJ’s paper isn’t much more than a throw-away advertiser.”

“None taken.” I gave him a one-sun smile. He basked in its glow. “Technically, though, since I am a reporter for The Grapevine, I did beat you to the story, as you put it.”

A shadow crossed his face. “What I don’t get is why a. . .a famous model like yourself is working for a nothing little rag. I mean, what kind of money can you be making?”

“I’m on commission. I sell ads as well as write for the paper.”  I was exaggerating a little. My first attempt had been a dismal failure, evidenced by the annoying beep of the coroner’s van backing up to the front of the resort.

He looked surprised. “That can’t be much.”

“I get by.”  My finances and my sex life are two things I don’t discuss with total strangers. He didn’t need to know that my parents had wisely insisted, at the height of my career, that I start a retirement fund and now, in my later years, it allowed me to pay utilities, buy food, keep the Volvo running, and occasionally splurge on a really expensive pair of shoes. My career had ended in my late 20’s. Designers were looking for less developed body types. Then there was my ill-advised return as a runway model on the Euro-trash circuit in my mid 30’s. My step-dad had left me his summer cabin just outside of Timberton. That was how I ended up in Corkscrew County where I was trying to live a low stress, low calorie, low tech, low profile existence.

“Well, this is news! International fashion model discovers gruesome murder while reporting for obscure country journal!”  His face lit up like a cheap paper lantern.

“Please don’t.”  I gave him two suns. It didn’t seem to faze him. The story he‘d report on the evening news had more dazzle, human interest plus crime and punishment. It had Network news potential. His cheeks grew rigid imagining himself on camera nationwide. “Seriously. I hope you’ll be discreet.”  Three suns followed by a plaintive yet seductive look.

‘But. . . .”

“Look, let me be honest with you. I don’t need the past dredged up. I mean, it’s not exactly pretty. . . .”

“Something about a fire. At a villa. . . outside of Paris? I seem to remember. . . that was pretty. . . .”

“. . .bad, yes, I know. That was an accident, as I’m sure you know.” I sighed, not solely for effect. “Unfortunately, the focus tends to be on these unpleasant things and they get blown way out of proportion.” I got an understanding nod.

“Wasn’t there that thing with the sheik. . . ?

He was obviously familiar with my dossier and my spate of bad luck, but then they were the things that made the biggest splash on the entertainment news. Party girl fashion model outrages again! I was hoping he wasn’t going to start listing all my public indiscretions.

“And how about that mysterious abduction?!”

“Ms. Malone?”  The gruff voice belonged to a handsome slender man in his fifties. He handed me his card. “Detective Richard Santos, County Sheriff.”

I blinked a smile. He wasn’t going to be easy to impress.


Next Time: Enter The Porn Queen

The Last Resort, Ch. 1-3

by Pat Nolan

Chapter One

ON THE RUN

I ran. Not awkwardly puffing out big breaths like I used to, striding across the black sand beach of Sabbia Negru in ‘protective custody’ under the watchful eye of SAPHO. I breathed easily, free, my feet barely touching the asphalt. It was exhilarating. My peripheral vision expanded to take in the panorama of a tranquil dew drenched morning.

I passed my first mile mark, a rank of sentinel-like poplars turned from green to gold in just the last week. There were a half dozen of them guarding an abandoned property, and tall enough that I had to tilt my head back to see their tips pressed into the swirl of thick morning fog. Their leaves littered the late greening grasses at the shoulder of the road like a scattering of large yellow coins.

The road followed a dry creek bed lined with brambles and took me past a cluster of summer homes boarded up for the season, the back half of one of them in charred ruins from a suspicious fire.

In the distance a milky white mass undulated and shifted with the air currents. The top of a fir or redwood on the ridge across the river poked through like the silhouette of a man chest deep in snow. The whole of the landscape, in fact, was enveloped in fog and mist nearly every morning at this time of year. It crept up the Corkscrew River from the coast in late evening and by early morning blanketed everything for at least ten miles inland.

Wispy pale blue geysers spiraled up to join the low dripping ceiling, signaling the presence of wood stoves and fireplaces in the damp dark woods. The acrid spicy smoke added a pleasant bite to the moist chill air. Under a streetlamp giving off an eerie greenish glow, a covey of quail scattered for the underbrush and low branches of prolific maples. I heard barks and sounds of dogs quarreling in the distance. Elsewhere, the echo-like barks of other dogs took up the call.

It was not unusual for dogs to launch themselves off of porches or out from behind fences after me. It’s more annoying than dangerous. Still, it’s disturbing enough to put me on my guard. Most of the dogs on my run were used to me by now, satisfied with a few perfunctory barks to acknowledge my passing through their turf. Creasy’s German shepherd pup was my only real worry of late. He still thought of me as sport. I carried a length of leash in the pocket of my sweat jacket to whack him a good one across the snout and teach him a lesson if need be.

An explosion careened off the slopes of the surrounding hills, shattering as it died. I imagined the gun of some leftover vacationer flexing his citified fantasies, but likely only an engine backfiring.

After Grove Street joined Oak Lane, there was a straightaway where I liked to put on speed. And, as usual, there was old Manny’s banana yellow pick-up truck crawling along, right wheels off the pavement, churning the soft shoulder. I knew he was watching me in his sideview mirror as I overtook the truck. He did it practically every morning, the old letch. Understandable in summer because then I only wore shorts and a light tank top. But at this time of year, what was there to see? A match-my-eyes blue hooded sweat jacket covered practically my entire torso! I was being naïve. I knew only too well the answer to that question. Legs and no panty line.

Manny honked and waved. An older man with graying hair and brown leathery skin, his black button eyes peered at me over the steering wheel and a wide grin of uneven teeth set in purple gums hardly masked what he was thinking.

As my run brought me closer to Timberton, I was often forced to the shoulder by a car or truck roaring past. This was the stretch I liked least. The increased traffic crowded the air with exhaust fumes and I sucked them in by the lungful. It couldn’t be healthy.

The halfway point was a huge burnt-out stump, the grandmother of all redwoods. Even in its truncated and diminished state, it was monstrous, easily seventeen feet across, a network of brilliant red poison oak reaching up the side of the charred hulk like spreading fire. Beyond it, at the crest of a gentle rise, Oak ended at Highway 8, the two lane thoroughfare that ran through Timberton on its way to the coast.

I made a wide turn and headed for home. I’d been lucky so far, no dogs had tried to nip the wings at my heels. My medium length blonde hair was limp and matted with sweat, yet the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck bristled. A chill coursed through my overheated body.


Chapter Two

ENTER EVIL

The rumble of a blown muffler gave substance to my foreboding. I steered to the side of the road and threw a glance over my shoulder. A steel gray van with a raised rear-end and oversized chrome wheels had down-shifted to match my speed. A tinted bubble window in the shape of an Iron Cross adorned the right rear side. The van cruised by and the passenger gave me the long onceover. I watched his mouth drop open.

The front end bit the pavement as the van skidded to a stop. Gears complained, forced into reverse, rear tires smoking, propelling the gray box wildly backwards.

I maintained my pace, determined to remain calm. They weren’t really trying to run me over. It was just their way of getting acquainted. I’d been recognized. Nothing new, I assured myself.

The passenger rolled his window down. “Honey, you look good enough to eat!”  It was a thin, reedy voice.

I kept running, wishing them away. Fat chance of that.

The van caught up with a burst of acceleration, sailed past, and braked to a stop, lifting the rear off the pavement and spinning it at an angle across the road. The passenger door swung open. A skinny creep, forelock of black oily hair limp across a sallow forehead, ragged goatee surrounding a thin-lipped mouth, grinned maliciously. “Hey, baby, come on, get in.”  Chipped yellow teeth, pointed cheekbones, large protruding ears.

I smiled the smile I reserve for fools, skirting the door blocking my path, and kept on.

What he shouted after me showed what little respect he had for women. I can’t say that I hadn’t heard it before. What woman hasn’t? Any number of times. It used to shock me but now it only makes me angry.

The van sped past again and then stopped, blocking my path. Oil Can Willie stuck his head and shoulders out of the window.  “Come on, sweet cheeks, there’s plenty of room in here! You can sit on my face!”

He made a grab for me and I lashed out with the length of leash I saved for pesky dogs. It missed but my intention was clear. I heard a repulsive laugh and guessed that it came from the driver.

I put on a burst in the hope of outrunning them. The Miller place was about a hundred yards further up. The van came up behind me and forced me off the road. As they pulled alongside, my hair was standing on end. A cockroach brown Doberman lunged at me from the open window, choke chain creasing its neck as it gargled menacing barks, fangs dripping with yellow saliva.

They got a big kick out of that. The skinny one had a high-pitched hysterical laugh. I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of the driver, but I heard a deep voice say something that sounded an awful lot like “tits”. They peeled out, leaving the stink of burned rubber behind.

The first thing I noticed was swastikas made of red reflector tape on each side of the rear bumper. I focused on the blue and gold license plate but it was a blur. I rarely wear my contacts when I run.

My heart pounded. What assholes! The surge of adrenaline made my knees wobbly. I felt lightheaded, gut in turmoil. I nearly puked, but steeled myself and continued, walking briskly at first and then building into my stride.

A whistle or a cat-call from a passing car, the wet, kissing sound of some street corner zero was not out of the ordinary. But this was extreme. Men’s eyes, and occasionally women’s, had undressed me since I’d reached puberty. I can’t say that I ever got used to it, but as a young beauty contestant and then as a fashion model, I accepted that it came with the territory. In my presence, most men become tongue-tied, their mouths gape open, eyes bulging, dumb and mesmerized as the blood rushes to their anterior parts instead of their pea brains.

Sure, if I wasn’t Lee Malone, former Teen America princess, internationally famous cover girl and runway celebrity, if my provocative good looks hadn’t advertised cigarettes − “I like them. Don’t you?” − or adorned automobile ads − “Why don’t you come along for the ride?” I could not have so easily pressed my advantage. But I’m drop-dead gorgeous. It’s my superpower.


Chapter Three

HITLER

A succession of sharp explosions collapsed into nothing. I was positive they were gunshots this time. I was taking the back road home. I had to pass through a redwood grove situated at the base of a ridge where a number of cabins were built in among the trees on the incline. There were lights in a few of the cabins in what I took to be the kitchens. A stovepipe jutting like an arm crooked at the elbow spewed billows of yellow smoke. As I passed under a tear shaped streetlight, I sensed a hand pulling aside a curtain and eyes peering out.

The road brought me out into an open alluvial plain where the gray low ceiling seemed bright by comparison. Banks of brambles lined both sides of the road, and scattered throughout the thicket, the reds and yellows of poison oak pennants. A row of birches partially divided a weed-choked field alongside a driveway at the head of which stood a tiny cabin, roofed and sided with the same green tar-paper brick. An anemic thread of smoke rose from the rusted stovepipe on the roof. I saw old man Goldstein cutting across the field to the road ahead of me, elbows pumping like a tiny old-fashioned locomotive. He hailed me as I was about to run by. It sounded like Chinese at first.

“Hoy! Lee! Lee Malone!”

I circled back. He came up to the edge of the field, hesitated, and then jumped across the narrow ditch to the road. I never saw him without his tweed sports cap. Under it was a bulbous nose and a face like a washed out prune.

“You haven’t seen Hitler, have you, Lee?”  A bright yellow, green and red Aloha shirt draped his wiry frame. Wrinkled, oil-stained tan permanent press slacks, red and blue argyle socks, and scuffed red leather slippers soaked by the heavy dew completed his outfit.

I shook my head, still not totally slowed down. I turned in a wide circle in front of him, decelerating and drawing my breaths carefully. His eyes, large brown yolks behind thick lenses, followed me, concerned. Hitler was his Airedale, a big brown and black dog, as old as Goldstein it seemed. He always chased me when I took this route, though all I had to do was put on a burst of speed to easily outrun him.

“I heard him barking earlier, he sounded upset,” he continued, “and then those shots. . . you’re going to be alright, aren’t you? Lee? Yes?”

I smiled and nodded. “Sure. I’m fine.” Inhaled deeply, and then, “I haven’t seen Hitler this morning, Mr. Goldstein.”  Deep breath. Then I remembered. “Funny, Creasy’s pup wasn’t on the road this morning either. . . .”

Goldstein rubbed his skinny arms with bony mottled hands. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the large stump that marked where River Way let out onto Holly Court.

“You’re gonna catch cold in that outfit, Mr. Goldstein,” I said.

“Cold? Youcallthis cold? Letmetellyousomething, younglady, I’ve been where it’s cold! This? Thisisn’t cold! This is California!”

I can always count on an argument from Goldstein.

“But yes, I did feel a little chill.”  He passed a hand across the back of his neck. “Odd what your imagination will do. . . .”  He walked towards the corner. “That numbness at the back of my head, I haven’t felt such a totally unreasonable fear since ‘39 when the Nazis came for my aunt and uncle. We, my cousins and I were hidden. . .ah, already, you’ve heard that story too many times, haven’t you?”  He sighed and shook his head. “Sometimes I think that’s all that’s left of my life, those memories of fear and horror.” He still spoke with a trace of an accent. “Did I ever tell you, Lee, how I got Hitler?”

I shook my head in a little white lie.

“After we escaped, and finally made our way to America! Thelandofthe free!”  He struck a pose, arm upraised as if holding a torch. “We landed in upstate New York, of all places. The Goldglass Estate. Distant relations.”  He dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

“They had an Irish woman caretaking the place. Count on the Jews to have the Irish do their dirty work for them.”  He flashed me a little wrinkled smile. “She had a mutt who had just produced a litter of part Airedale puppies. One of them became mine because we were both recent arrivals to a new world. And the joy! Beyond words! In German. Or in American, of which I knew very little back then. I didn’t want to call him Hot Dog, which my cousin, whose idea it was to name him that thought was very clever. One day we were playing as we usually did. I’d push him away and he’d jump back on me, trying to nip me. Playfully, of course. But suddenly he wrapped his mouth around my wrist and wouldn’t let go. Even though he was just a little guy, it began to hurt and I got scared. So I yelled ‘Let go of me!’ and then, strangely, as if inadream, I said ‘Hitler! Letgoofme, Hitler!’  And he did, he let go of me because he knew that was his name, it fit him.”

In the differing versions of that story I’d heard before Goldstein never admitted that the original dog named Hitler would have died years ago and that the present Hitler was either a grandson or some descendant of the original dog. And he never admitted what I’d come to suspect, that he had named his Airedale Hitler because it was shocking for a Jew to have a dog with that name.

A retching sound came from his throat rising in pitch to a whimper of grief. “Mr. Goldstein. . . .”  I was at the edge of the road with him. There, where the ground sloped down, in among the thorny tentacles of blackberry and the tangle of bright red yellow poison oak, was Hitler, scarlet foam flecking his jaw, quite dead.

Goldstein dragged the dog up to the road muttering and crying something in a language I didn’t know. It sounded pitiful though, and I was touched. He rolled the dog over, its limp limbs flopping against the pavement. There was a round red blot behind Hitler’s ear and I recognized it from seeing its facsimile on TV, a bullet hole. Goldstein saw it too.

“Some bastard shot my dog!”  He sounded angry and scared. “Some putz shot my dog!”  He looked at me, bewildered. “Who? Did you see. . . ?  Lee? Who. . . ?”

The steel gray van immediately rolled into mind. “Some creeps in a van tried to harass me a while ago. . .I mean, I can’t say for sure that they had anything to do with this, but just from my impression of them, I’d say they’d be the type.”

“Who. . .who. . . ?” he hooted.

I shrugged, helpless. “I’ve never seen them before. I only got a good look at one of them. And their dog.”  The thought of them made me shudder again.

“Some putzes in a van are going around shooting dogs? I didn’t think I’d live that long.” His face lengthened with heavy sadness.

I too was feeling knots in my throat. “It was one of those kind of vans, you know, with the raised rear end and big shiny chrome wheels. . .steel gray with green trim. . .one of those tinted bubble windows at the back shaped like a cross, an Iron Cross, you know. . . .”

Goldstein gaped at me like he was hearing the words but not understanding what I was saying.

“. . .and they had these red swastikas on the rear bumper. . . .”  I felt stupid as soon as I said it.

Goldstein dropped to his knees and hugged his dog’s lifeless body. “Nazis!” he spit, breaking into sobs, “Nazis killed you, Hitler!”


Next Time: Shades of Brenda Starr!