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. . . .”
“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. . .”
“Mitchell!” They exclaimed in unison. I was starting to get the drift, but unwillingly.
“And the dark haired woman, what’s her name?”
“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?
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.
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 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!”
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.