by Pat Nolan
Chapter Twenty Four
FIVE MILLION DOLLAR BABY
“I have always been bait.”
Chandler moved his head slightly from side to side in disbelief. “That’s crazy.”
“Why are you so surprised? It’s just another name for seductress.” Albért Picón, the French poet and lecher had pointed that out to me over a glass of Pernod in a smoky café on the Left Bank years ago when I was still actively playing that role.
“You had no idea that I would get your phone message telling me to meet you out here because you said you had some new information on the Fashwalla murder. Good thing I was out this way when my secretary paged me. You saw how angry Blackie was when he left. Don’t let the white hair fool you. I don’t think you realize what kind of danger you’re putting yourself in.”
I shrugged and toyed with the ice in my glass. “I’ve been bait since I could walk. Practically every woman is. When you’re made out to be the pinnacles of feminine perfection, in the eyes of men at least, it becomes obvious that you’re a lure. It’s even a quality you can have. Allure. Rich men want you gracing their arms like expensive jewelry. Men are impotent in the face of real beauty. And if they’re not, they’ve still got mother issues to resolve. As for Blackie, I can handle him.”
Chandler smiled wide enough to give himself dimples. “You think you’re tough, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “I think I’m a realist. At least about what I’ve been, what I’ve done.”
“Well, you might be a little out of your league here.” He was serious again, little ridges of worry crinkling his smooth Asian forehead.
“Blackie’s been eavesdropping on the conversations in the Grapevine office. You can sit in his workshop and hear everything that’s said upstairs. I made up that story about new evidence to get him to follow me out to the coast.” I bit the straw and wet my whistle with a little of the diluted soda. “I had to prove to myself that I was right about him. I still don’t know how he managed to beat me out here. Unless he was on his bike before I got to my car. . . .” My reasoning was beginning to sound farfetched, even to me. “But he’s involved in all of this, I’m sure of it. I just haven’t figured out how.”
Chandler worked up another smile but this time it had a smug edge. “Not even close.”
There was something about Chandler Wong that I liked, but I also got the feeling that I baffled him. He was certainly intelligent, but guy enough to always want to be right. I gave him my extraordinary smile and “You’re probably right, but help me out, just to satisfy my curiosity.” A three quarter profile and a little lean forward. “Where am I wrong on this?”
He started to speak but then exhaled a slight chuckle. He shook his head and stared down at the edge of the cracked formica table. “I can’t.” And then up to meet my gaze.
His mistake. I let my eyes do their special pleading.
He folded like a bad poker hand. “Alright, Hollis Ryan, or Blackie as you call him, is involved but probably not in the way you think.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “He was a potential witness in the Fashwalla murder. He happened to be here, at the Chicken Fish, on that day. But then this is one of his hangouts. As he said in his statement to Detective Santos, he was inside and not outside. He only saw the food on his plate and the beer in his glass.”
“That sounds like something he’d say.”
Chandler cleared his throat, annoyed perhaps. “Blackie was known to Detective Santos when Santos was a deputy assigned to the Timberton substation. There had been an incident with Mr. Ryan and in the course of a background check, it turned out that your antique shop owner had once been arrested for murder. He copped a plea and had it reduced to manslaughter. He did time. This was down south, long before he moved up to Corkscrew County.”
My surprise must have shown.
“It turns out that Mr. Ryan was muscle for a small time pimp by the name of Tommy Perro.”
Tommy Perro. I mouthed the name to myself. That was the name of one of the men in the photo at Blackie’s workshop. One of the old motorcycle gang.
“Perro branched out into dirty movies. Ryan doubled as one of his actors as well. He killed another male actor on the set of a shoot.”
This was a little more than I’d bargained for, but I was fascinated. “Don’t stop now.”
That chuckle again, with a slightly embarrassed shy boy sideways glance at me. Quite charming. “When Fashwalla’s brother came forward and confessed we thought we wouldn’t need the testimony of witnesses so that part of the investigation was shut down. His recanting of the confession and the similarity with the killing at Franklin’s Resort put a different spin on things. Again Ryan’s presence at the resort raised a flag but his alibi checked out so now he’s just what you might call a person of interest.”
“I think Blackie has something to do with the murders.” I tried not to sound too self-righteous. “Why aren’t you investigating him?”
A frown greeted my insistence. “Well, for one, I’m not in charge of the investigation. It’s the District Attorney’s call. He’s the one who sets the schedule.” By the way he said it, he obviously wasn’t happy with the progress of the case.
“Anyway, we’re after bigger fish.” Chandler sat back in the booth and considered me with a serious stare. “This cannot be repeated to anyone. Do you understand?” He lowered his voice to a near whisper.
I nodded dumbly and leaned forward. “Of course.”
“After Fashwalla’s brother recanted his confession and retained the high priced attorney. . . .”
“Right, we started taking a closer look at all the players. A common thread emerged. Both Fashwalla and Franklin owned old rundown resorts. The other thing in common was that they had both refused to sell their properties to Ramparts Corp, a real estate developer with international connections. It turns out that there’s been a steady rise in title transfers of ranch land and old resorts in the county, the majority being grabbed up by Ramparts. We’re pretty sure there was coercion in more than a few of the sales. A lot of the property is being converted to vineyards.”
“Let me guess. Montague Winery.”
“Very good. Ramparts, it turns out, is an umbrella corporation fronting a lot of questionable enterprises and headed by a certain Thomas Montague.”
“Senior. His son is the executive in charge of the Winery. But what’s more interesting is the fact that Montague is not the old man’s real name.” Chandler paused. He must have realized I was mesmerized.
“Perro. He used to go by the name of Tommy Perro.”
The bus boy rattled past with a cart full of dirty dishes. A group of couples had entered the dining room and were assessing the best place to be seated. The waitress waved them over to the tables overlooking the crashing surf with a handful of menus.
“Which brings us back to Blackie.” I thought my point had been made.
“This is much bigger. Sex trafficking, child pornography, wire fraud, extortion, money laundering. We’re working with the Department of Justice, State and Federal.”
I wasn’t all that convinced. “I still think there’s more to Blackie than meets the eye.”
Another chuckle, this time a rolling rumble of pleasure. “My contact at Justice is an old college friend. He asked about you last time I spoke to him. He saw an item on TV that said you lived in Corkscrew County and he wondered if I had ever met you.”
“And you have!” I wasn’t surprised. “What a coincidence!”
“He reminded me that you had once been kidnapped and held for ransom. I remember reading something about that when I was in law school!”
“That was quite some time ago.” I didn’t like thinking about it, let alone talk about it.
He frowned as if the math was not adding up. “Not that long ago.”
“Maybe it just seems that way.” Now I was uncomfortable.
“You were held for ransom by some radical feminist group, right? And what was the ransom? Two million dollars?”
“More like five million.”
The waitress appeared suddenly, pad in hand, casting curious glances at each of us. She was an older woman with weary road worn features and dyed blonde hair gathered in a bouquet of split ends on the top of her head. She extracted a long orange pencil from the haystack. She had on a blouse that had once been whiter and a wrinkled faded black skirt. A nametag partially covered the discoloration of an old stain over the left breast. It read Guess. She looked at Chandler and then at me. “Well, now that we’ve decided on a price, are we ready to order?”
Chapter Twenty Five
IN THE SWIM
I had four men staring at me and two of them were pointing, but not with their fingers.
The day started innocently enough. The heat wave of the past several days had subsided to a mere swelter. I’d received a call from Rikki inviting me to a swim party at the home of an acquaintance. The temperatures had been pretty unbearable and with the exception of my lone foray out to the coast, I’d contented myself with iced drinks, an electric fan, and the occasional cold shower. The thought of spending time in water that didn’t come from a pipe was tempting. There was a problem though, and that’s what had dissuaded me from going to the beach before. I didn’t have appropriate swimwear. I had plenty of stylish bikini and mini thong bottoms but no tops. I’d spent most of my time on beaches in Mediterranean countries where tops were optional so they never got packed or were simply abandoned in boutiques. Hard to believe that in all the years I’d lived near the Corkscrew River I’d never dipped in a toe.
Rikki’s friend was someone he’d known in Hollywood, Nathan Thiele, the legendary stage and screen production designer, now retired. So Rikki had informed me over the phone. I wouldn’t have had a clue. Nat’s partner was a young Haitian man named Lalo with the cutest accent and the smallest most revealing swimsuit, which, with the speed removed, left only the oh to the imagination. Rikki and Wallace were both conservatively attired in clashing neon Hawaiian shirts and rather unimaginative baggy swim trunks. Nat himself looked like he might be preparing to go on safari. Nat’s cabin, as he called it, was a dreamy redwood Arts & Crafts gem with a wide sweeping deck sitting at the top of an apron of manicured lawn that ran down to the sandy shore and the water’s edge.
I had shown up a little late, having resolved my dilemma by grabbing an old scarf from my scarf drawer and fashioning it into a halter top. I thought Nat’s eyes were going to pop out of his head. He’d pointed a trembling finger at me. “That’s not a Héléne Mouchoir, is it?” I admitted to that possibility, after all I did own some of her creations. And he’d replied, “Well, in that case, I wouldn’t think of allowing you to go swimming in a priceless designer scarf!” Rikki spoke up and suggested that I just go topless. His words were “After all, we’re gay guys, we’re not gonna get all weird at the sight of your tay-tays.” I considered it and thought why not, it’s perfectly natural in the civilized world. There was an embarrassed silence while they all stared at my breasts. Finally I had to say, “Lalo, Wallace, it’s not polite to point.”
Nate and I compromised. He had a large rubber raft that featured inflated back and arm rests. There was even a place for my cocktail. After spreading lotion all over myself, I climbed on, launched the raft away from shore, and settled back. I donned my Fabregianni sunglasses and trailed a finger in the cool green waters. What there was of a current steered me down away from the dock into the shade of bays and willows on the opposite shore. The little alcove of shade was a perfect place to observe the world even if it was just four guys posing, posturing and frolicking in the shallows. I was like Cleopatra on her barge, the queen of the Nile with sun-dappled ankles.
The tranquility of water, I’ve always appreciated the tranquility of water, especially in the Mediterranean where the sparkling azure sky reflecting off the undulating expanse was magical. Just the thought of it transported me there. And the beach at Sabbia Negru, the black sands where Xuxann bent over me, nipples as dark and plump as rum soaked raisins.
Only at first did it ever seem like captivity. Protective custody, the council of nine had called it. I had been confined to a small cell for possibly a week, disoriented at first, while my captors decided whether I was to be trusted. Eventually I was allowed to roam the grounds but only if accompanied by one of the nine. Most of the time it was a woman named Xuxann. She was my guide as well as my guard. A tall, lithe North African with a mass of dark ophidian locks, Xuxann was what the poets meant when they referred to Abyssinian maids.
Once I’d concluded that I was not in eminent danger, I took stock of my situation. By the angle of the sun crossing the sky, I figured that the rugged landscape faced south. My first guess was that I was on an old Roman estate tucked among pines, cypress, and aromatic cedars on a rocky hillside overlooking a cerulean sheet of sea. The main house, a large villa roofed with red tile, was perched on the edge of a table of land above the seashore. A winding stone stairway cut into the face of the cliff led to the beach below. My cell was among a collection of wood and stone structures on the hillside behind the villa indicating that at one time it might have functioned as a monastery and that my tiny austere room may have once been a monk’s. There were places on the compound where I wasn’t allowed, and on certain occasions I was held incognito in the confines of my room. Otherwise, I was free to roam and explore.
Behind the compound, thick nests of conifers populated the creased gray stone face of an ancient mountain. On the west side, an old Roman arch led out to a treacherous rock and thorn-bush infested ravine. A frothy white stream tumbled over smooth rounded boulders on the east side of the property and dropped over the edge of a precipice onto the beach below. Xuxann called it Alleca Diva, the milk of the goddess.
The two of us often spent the early part of the day running along trails and paths of the wild flower carpeted cliffs, pausing to absorb the enchantment of a particular sea-shaped formation or gaze over a sheer decline at the rocks milling in the surf. It was then that I developed my passion for running and the love of freedom and power it gave me. We ran or jogged everywhere we went, especially on the wide stretch of black sand from the waterfall on one end to the jetty at the other. We were like wild mares galloping through the shimmering surf. When the sun rose to its peak at midday, weary from our exertions, we splashed in the refreshing turquoise waves.
I remembered sitting on that beach and watching as Xuxann rose out of the sea, a blast of setting sun framing her like a golden shell, a dripping wet wide-hipped silhouette creating a presence as well as an absence that pulled me in and yet repulsed me. I sensed her strength, a power representing all of life.
“All of life,” spoke the shaman, stretching out her arms to indicate the world of the hillside garden outside of her ancient stone abode. Xuxann had repeated the words in French as I was not yet accustomed to the old woman’s coarse dialect.
It had been a little over a month after my arrival that Xuxann took me to the top of the property and through a small stone arch that was obviously much older than the Roman period one. We had followed the path along the milky stream up to a terraced garden at the top of which a primitive stone house commanded a wide view of the sea and the shadow of a far off shore under a mantle of cloud. Out in front a tall woman with a halo of wiry silver hair framing a perfectly symmetrical face greeted us. Her eyebrows were still as dark as her eyes and her nose drew a narrow angle down to her welcoming smile. She wore a colorful tiered skirt and a little embroidered sleeveless vest joined by a macramé clasp of gold thread in the middle. That was my introduction to Trayann, the old woman of the mountain.
How I arrived in this dream of peace and beauty was nothing short of a nightmare. I’d just finished an exhausting round of fashion shows and soirees and was on my way to Budapest to meet with the Prince for an opening of East European modernist art at a gallery he sponsored. I had asked the driver of my limousine to take the old road between Prague and Budapest. We had just passed through a small farming village and into a forested region. It was getting on toward evening and I had just begun to nod off. I opened my eyes when I felt the limo come to a stop. A black Mercedes blocked the two-lane road and a green panel truck had pulled in behind the limousine. I was trying to make sense of what was going on when the rear door was yanked open and I was pulled from the back seat. A pungent rag was forced over my nose and mouth. As I faded into unconsciousness, I made out two burly square-headed men in black hoods. It didn’t seem odd that I would think Bulgarians. I awoke next when I felt a pin prick on my thigh. A man with a narrow face and a dark moustache glanced up from the syringe in his hand. The walls were red, the bed was red, the chair was red, the floor was red, the light was red, and then everything went black. I was jolted awake by a violent crash and found myself strapped to a gurney in the back of what appeared to be an ambulance. I heard a commotion, shouting, outside the vehicle, and then gunshots. I told myself, this is it, this is the end. My ears rang with more excited yelling in a language I couldn’t quite make out, this time closer, at the doors to the rear of the vehicle. It seemed curious that they were women’s voices. My heart beat harder, faster, and I lost consciousness again.
A pale white light edged with red insinuated itself through my closed lids. I opened my eyes to see the face of an older woman bent over me with a look of concern and relief. She straightened up and I saw that she wasn’t alone. There were eight other women of varying ages surrounding my bed in a large white room. I had known females of great physical beauty in the fashion business, but it was mostly skin deep. A beauty of wisdom and compassion emanated from the assembled women, generating an aura of calm benevolence. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Next Time: Enter S.A.P.H.O, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques