Tag Archives: International Beauty

The Last Resort 28-29

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Eight
THE LADYBUG RUSE

Anything I said could and would be used against me. I had a right to remain silent. Yet in many situations such as mine, people have a tendency to babble, volunteer more than anyone needs to know, and in the process, unwittingly incriminate themselves in crimes that they never committed or intended to commit. People can be so obliging in the face of authority.

As a young up-and-coming model with a mind of my own and outspokenly opinionated, I had learned the hard way that anything I said would be twisted and bent to mean exactly the opposite of its intent. After being burned at the stake in numerous tabloids, I chose my words carefully and dispensed my opinions even more penuriously than I did my favors. I had taken as my motto the words of the other Hepburn. I didn’t care what they said about me just as long as it wasn’t true. I kept my mouth shut.

First there was the long silent ride to the Hall of Justice where May Ann Young had her office, a tiny cramped closet in the basement. Her manner was apologetic as she had me sit in the only other chair. Battered black file cabinets took up most of the wall and floor space. Cardboard boxes overflowing with case files occupied any area that didn’t block entry and exit. A few posters exhorting fire safety served as decoration on the otherwise drab green walls. She had removed a sheaf of forms from her desk drawer, a dinged and dented metal affair that looked like it had come in last at a destruction derby. She referred to the small yellow pad I had seen her with at the fire scene and copied her notes into the spaces provided.

I felt cold. In the heat of this late July day my flimsy attire would have been appropriate, but my chill had more to do with an uncomfortable self-consciousness at having only bikini bottoms and a makeshift halter top underneath the ridiculous polka dot trench coat. My gold sandals had turned to mush and so for all intents and purposes I was barefoot. The scent of my charred cabin hung about me like a noxious perfume. I was trying to put together a scenario that would explain who would be capable of such an act. Blackie came to mind immediately. Even after what Chandler had told me, I had difficulty believing that he would set fire to my home. Yet his words “play with fire and you get burned” resonated with ominous significance.

May Ann returned my driver’s license after copying from it onto the form in front of her. She extracted a cassette recorder from a drawer and set it on the desk, plugging it in the outlet behind her chair. When she faced me again, her mouth set in determined seriousness, she reminded me of my rights. “Why don’t we talk about why anyone would want to torch your cabin?” she said as she depressed the record button on the machine.

I could have declined to speak until I had a lawyer present. But there were more viable suspects than me. And, I was never good at taking my own advice. I told her about the Fashwalla murder and the one at the Franklin Resort. About the dog killings and the men in the gray van. And about Blackie. I also mentioned Assistant DA Chandler Wong. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about the ongoing investigation into Tommy Montague and Ramparts Corp.

Her eyes narrowed with a steely glint. She punched numbers into the keypad of her phone after she stopped the recorder. She shuffled the forms on the desk in front of her while she waited for someone to pick up.

“Mr. Wong, May Ann Young, County Fire Investigator.”  She paused. “I’m fine, thank you. The reason I’m calling is that I have a women in my office on a suspicion of arson.”  She paused again. “Her name is Lee Malone. She says she knows you.” A longer pause. “Her own home.” May Ann blinked in surprise and for a moment lost some of her professional composure. She listened to the voice at the other end of the line, nodded in assent a few time, interjecting an “I see” now and then. All the while her eyes took me in as if the words she heard were prompting a reappraisal. When she put the phone down, her cheeks appeared flush. She folded her hands on the desk and looked down at them for a moment, gathering her words. She fixed me with her relentless gray eyes and spoke. “Ms. Malone, your story checks out with the DA’s office. You’re free to leave. And I apologize for any inconvenience.” She sounded sincere.

I didn’t have to be told twice. I picked up my purse and opened the door. I hesitated.

“Turn right and up the stairs. I’ll call up to have them buzz you out to the lobby.”  Her tone had lost its hard professional edge.

When I reached the locked security door that led to the lobby, there were two younger women waiting to be allowed out as well. If I had not been barefoot and wearing my fashion faux pas, we would have been in similar states of undress. One of the women was a short skinny blonde with way too much make-up that did not look all that freshly applied. Her denim shorts were cut so that much of the curve of her buttocks was exposed. An off-white sweater top allowed a view of her bare midriff encircled by a gold chain. The open-toed high heeled plastic shoes she wore could have doubled as step ladders. Her friend was taller, closer to my height. There was something familiar about her, as if I had seen her somewhere before. She wore a green blouse with short puffy sleeves over a bright orange tube top that accentuated her perky breasts quite accurately. A leather mini-skirt and black thigh thigh-high boots completed the outfit. From the way they both joked with the deputy at the door, it was obvious they were familiar with the routine.

media doorOnce out in the lobby, they stopped to chat with another deputy at the reception kiosk. I made a bee line for the double glass doors that led outside. I stopped in my tracks. A throng of reporters and TV cameras were waiting at the bottom of the steps. The last thing I wanted to do was face them, especially in my ladybug coat. One of the reporters spotted me and alerted the others. A deputy kept them from bursting into the lobby. I turned to look for another way out. That’s when I caught sight of Rhonda.

I was surprised to see her there. She had just recently returned from an extended stay in Switzerland. There was a hospital in Zurich that promised a cure for what was afflicting Ward. I had not seen her in months. But thinking back on the years I had lived in that neighborhood, she and Anna were often gone for long periods of time. They were retired, she told me more than once, and they loved to travel. They even had a little place in Malaga. On the other hand, she liked to say, there was no place like Corkscrew County to get away from it all.

“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.

At my puzzlement, she explained that she had come to bail me out. She knew I hadn’t set fire to my cabin. She had already told that to the deputy who questioned her. She’d been taking her midday nap when she was awakened by the sound of a motorcycle roaring away. Soon after that she had smelled smoke and had seen flames coming from my cabin. She had been the one who had called it in. Now she was here to take me home, what was left of it. It was just the neighborly thing to do.

The mention of the motorcycle made me think of Blackie again. The reporters were clamoring at the glass doors and I moved further out of sight.

“Help me, Rhonda,” I pleaded, “I can’t go out there and face them.”

The hookers had wandered over, drawn by curiosity. I saw inspiration light up Rhonda’s face. She motioned to the two women. “Do you ladies know who this is?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “This is Lee Malone, world famous fashion model.”

The one who had looked familiar to me nodded and said, “Yeah, I thought you looked familiar.” It was then I understood why I thought I’d seen her before. She was me. She had imitated my hair style, the way I used to make up my eyes, along with a slight physical and facial resemblance.

Rhonda explained my predicament as she led us all into the woman’s bathroom. She was about to outline her plan when the short blonde, whose name was Sandy, pointed a finger at Rhonda and said “I know you! I’ve seen you in porn movies. You’re famous!” The prostitute who looked like me and whose name was Liza chimed in. “Right, right! I’ve seen your movies before. My boyfriend made me watch them. You’re amazing!”  We all looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.

“Now, calm down, girls,” Rhonda said, “After all, we’ve all sold our bodies in one way or another. Nothing to get excited about. Here’s my plan.”

Liza and I were to exchange garb. She was thrilled by the makeshift halter top after I explained I had gotten it in one of trendiest boutiques in Monte Carlo. She wrinkled her nose and passed on donning the bikini bottoms. And she wasn’t so sure about the trench coat but that was a big part of the ruse. I had no problem fitting into the tube top, the boots and the leather miniskirt. I don’t know why I was surprised that she wasn’t wearing underpants.

Rhonda’s plan was that Liza, dressed as me, would create a diversion to draw the reporters away from the front doors, and then Sandy and I, as hookers, would slip away unnoticed. She sweetened the deal with a few bills from the bankroll she pulled from her purse.

The plan worked like a charm. The reporters swarmed Liza who put on fashion model airs quite naturally. I caught a glimpse of her wide smile as she basked in the momentary crush of notoriety. By the time the reporters realized that it wasn’t me, I was being whisked away in Rhonda’s Coupe Deville.

Chapter Twenty Nine
ODD WOMAN OUT

I had no clothes. I had no home. And I didn’t have a clue why anyone would want to torch my cabin. I stood on the littered asphalt and stared at the smoking debris. Rhonda dragged me back to her house and handed me a large glass of scotch. “You need to relax” was her admonition. I took a tentative sip, the alcohol burning as it went down. My nerves released their grip and by the time the molten drop made it to my gut, I wanted another taste.

We talked. Rather, I babbled and she listened. I had to get over the hurdle of my disbelief. When I voiced my suspicion that Blackie might have done it, she considered me warily and then shook her head.

“I go way back with Blackie and unless he’s changed since then, I don’t think he would do something like that. If Blackie has a bone to pick with you, you’ll know it because he’ll be right there in your face,” she said touching up the glasses with a drab more scotch.

“That’s right, you guys were in business together.”  Rhonda’s fingers tighten around her glass, lips pulled into a mirthless smile. “More like co-workers, considering that we were both employees.”

“So you knew Arlene.” I was curious about the woman who had been Blackie’s mate and whose photo I had seen on the wall of his shop.

Rhonda drained her glass and then stared at the empty bottom. “Arlene was my best friend. We both come from foster homes in the Midwest. Me Indiana, her Missouri which she liked to pronounce misery. We were runaways. And we met out here, on the West Coast. A way to make a quick buck back then was posing for nude photos. We were just kids, but that’s what the pervs want to see. We were hoping to be discovered in Hollywood like a lot of young gals. This was after the war. We hooked up with a gang of motorcycle guys who also had the idea of making it into pictures, as stunt men. One of them was Blackie, another one of them was Tommy Perro.”  She paused as if making an effort before she spoke the other name. “And Chip Pierce.”

I’d seen the picture on the repair shop wall, a young Rhonda with someone Blackie had identified as Chip. I vaguely recalled something about an accident, too. “Blackie told me a little about those days. You were all models, is that right?”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Rhonda chuckled. “And if that’s the way Blackie wants to remember it, that’s fine with me.” She shrugged. “The way I remember it is that Tommy had a friend who worked as a cameraman for a low budget studio. They came up with the idea of making dirty movies, what you’d call soft core these days. The plan was to use me and Arlene, and Chip and Blackie as actors. The first one they made went nowhere. It was mostly ham-handed situations, innuendo, cleavage and crotch shots, and a lot of tongue twining, grunting and panting.” She exhaled a staid chuckle and splashed more scotch against the sides of her glass. “Tommy found a backer, a two-bit gangster and wannabe movie producer, to put up the money. But the guy wanted something a little more realistic. At first everyone was cool to the idea. We all knew that once you were in stags, your chances of going legit were dead. But the money was easily more than either of us made in months of waitressing. And the guys, well, they were always broke. The way Tommy talked it up, we wouldn’t be doing anything we weren’t already been doing with each other. It’d just be on film is all. So Chip and me went at it first. Then Arlene and Blackie. Then Arlene and me. Then Blackie and me. And Arlene. And Chip.

“Once we got over our initial bashfulness, we went through the motions like actors playing their parts. All except for Blackie. ” Rhonda smiled grimly. “He was a hunk, then as now. But he just happens to be an apple with a short stem.”

I laughed involuntarily at her expression.

“Tommy used to rag him mercilessly about that. But Blackie took it from Tommy because they were friends. And among Blackie’s faults is his blind loyalty. If he’s your friend you can count on him to give you the shirt off his back.”

“And if he’s not your friend?”

She shrugged. “What do you want me to say? He’s got a temper.”

“So I heard.”

“Really?” Rhonda sat back in her chair, guarded. “What have you heard?”

I realized that I might know more than I should let on. What Chandler had told me was confidential. “Oh, just something JJ said in passing.”  I’m not a very good liar. “You were saying, about Tommy and Blackie?”

Rhonda nodded and looked at her glass as if the thread of the story would be found in the half inch of amber liquid. “Yeah, Tommy was a ball buster. But Blackie took it good naturedly. Of course we all knew not to tease Blackie, especially about something like that. The actor Tommy used as a body double with Arlene didn’t know that. I don’t think he even got to finish the taunt. Blackie came unglued and beat the man to a bloody pulp.”

I inhaled sharply. Even though I’d heard the story, it still shocked me. “He hurt him pretty bad?”

“He killed him.”

The way Rhonda spoke it so matter-of-factly it shocked me nearly as much as Blackie’s brutality.  “Oh.”

“Blackie served his stretch, and when he got out he looked up his old friends. Arlene was first on his list. You can’t blame him.”  Rhonda sighed, a troubled frown drawing a V between her penciled eyebrows. “But Blackie had spent his time in the pen thinking about a lot of things besides Arlene. One of them was his old buddy, Tommy. He came to realize that Tommy was a manipulator, a behind the scenes backstabber and that he only cared about numero uno.” She said it with a sly sarcastic smile. “Blackie’s plan was to get back together with Arlene and get as far away from Tommy as he could. He didn’t expect to find her living with Tommy and two babies, twin boys.” She didn’t take notice of my gasp. “Arlene didn’t hesitate. She packed her bags, loaded the kids into her car and took off with Blackie.”

I was dumbfounded. These were details that Blackie had conveniently left out when he told me the story of how he and Arlene ended up in Timberton. “What about you? I mean, did you know they were going to leave it all behind?”

Rhonda shook her head, maybe more at the memory of what she was dredging up than my prying.  She swirled the scotch in the bottom of her glass before knocking it back in one practiced motion. “No, I was out of the picture about then.”  She gave me a baleful stare. “The problem with working for Tommy is that he wasn’t just making dirty movies. He was dealing drugs, too. Hard drugs. Most of his actors were using. Chip got hooked after his accident. Morphine and then heroin. And it gets to be a habit. You realize you’re not going to survive the day without a fix.”  She shook her head sadly. “It’s kind of ironic, you know? Blackie getting out of the slam and me going in.”

“You went to prison?”  I didn’t hide my disbelief.

“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.”

Rhonda nodded. “About a month before Blackie got out, I was sent up on a drug charge. I owed Tommy for drugs, and after Chip overdosed I really hit rock bottom, so I was moving weight for him.”  She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows as if to say what do you expect. “And I got popped.”

“I don’t get it. Tommy and Arlene and two kids. Blackie just spirited them away? Tommy didn’t do anything about it. I mean, they were his kids, right?”

Rhonda cocked her head to one side and considered me with a narrowed look, like I was being a little too nosy. “Yeah, no telling what was going through his head. Besides dollar signs, I mean. I didn’t know what Arlene and Blackie had done. I didn’t find out till much later when I was let out on parole.”

“That Blackie and Arlene and the kids were living up in Corkscrew County?”

“Right. I heard that Blackie was working as a mechanic, and living at the Mint, in fact. Arlene wasn’t idle either, making the rounds of garage and estate sales, buying things to resell. She always had good sense in that way.”

“What became of the kids, the twins?”  I hold my liquor better than I can contain my curiosity. “Isn’t one of them named Tommy?”  And get enough liquor in me and I’m liable to blurt out anything.

She gave me a pained smile. “Did Blackie tell you that? Yes, Tommy. And Timmy.”

I tried not to be coy. “I know that Tommy Perro is now Tommy Montague and the money behind Montague Winery. And that he has a son, also named Tommy, running the business. I didn’t know about Timmy.”

Rhonda offered a bemused smirk before answering. “Tommy was making too much money so he got the idea of buying up property and planting vines as one way to launder the dirty cash. The boy, Tommy, he’s smart, crafty like his old man. Timmy, his twin? Let’s just say he’s. . . .” She paused, searching for the word. “Odd.”

Odd how that word struck me. Odd. I searched my memory of anyone I thought of as odd, and I’d known many who fit that description. But none of them came immediately to mind. The image the word triggered was of a greasy dark haired man with a scraggly goatee. A man I had seen not more than a few times and then only briefly and in passing. Someone who filled me with apprehension. The booze was prompting my odd fuzzy logic. Odd that I felt a sudden chill. “So what happened to them?”

Rhonda stretched her arms across the table, empty glass in her hand, weariness weighing the corners her eyes. “It took a while but Tommy tracked Blackie and Arlene down. I was out of prison by then. He had the money, lawyers and the connections to have Arlene declared unfit. She could have fought it, but she knew that if she did Blackie would get involved. And he would kill Tommy.”

“Were you still working for Tommy then?”

Rhonda shrugged, the strain of this stroll down memory lane taking its toll. “I got straight. Took my cue from Arlene and cut loose of Tommy. I worked restaurant jobs, went back to school, looked for something better paying. I’d find one, and then some guy would recognize me from a stag film, and once word got around the office, they usually found a reason to let me go. I was too much of a distraction.”  She snorted a laugh into her empty glass. “I kept at it, though, spent a good fifteen years walking the line, keeping my head down. I even resorted to wigs, dying my hair and wearing glasses to change my appearance, and eventually it worked. The problem was that I was making peanuts while all my old friends who were still in the business were sitting in the lap of luxury.”

Rhonda considered the bottle before she continued. “I knew that I didn’t want to work for another crook like Tommy. So I got together with an actress I’d worked with before. You know her. Anna.”

I nodded dumbly, partly in shock. I was desperately trying to keep all the new revelations from tangling into an incomprehensible snarl. The fact that my head was swimming from the effects of alcohol didn’t help.

“And we started our own production company. We had a pretty good idea what guys wanted to see, but we also knew what women were interested in. The money was good and it was better than walking the street. After that I never worked more than a couple of months a year. I can’t complain. I’ve lived well.” She said it with great satisfaction. “I’ve got a house in the Frisco, a place in Spain, and when I want to get away from it all, I’ve got my little shack in the woods, which up until yesterday was nice and quiet.” She held up the bottle at an angle and stared at the corner remaining before dumping it into her glass. “When Arlene took sick I semi-retired and moved up here, to be near her.”

“Semi-retired? You mean you’re still. . . ?” I didn’t exactly know how to say it.

“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.”  She hefted her large breasts with both hands. “I still got it.”

That was obvious, and I wondered if I would still have it when I was her age. I sighed. “Well, it’s a man’s world, after all.”

Rhonda rolled her eyes. “Listen, honey,” she said, pointing a well-manicured finger at me, “man may have invented the wheel, but if it weren’t for women, it would still have corners.”


Next Time:  A Sleeping Beauty Awakens

The Last Resort 24-25

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.”

smoky cafe“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. . . .”

“Preston Carmichael.”

“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.”

“Tommy 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.”

waitress-main“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.

laloRikki’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.

minoan“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

 

 

The Last Resort, 14-20

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Fourteen
HIGH WATER HIGH ANXIETY

I suspect that some security guards liked to make me go through the metal detector twice just to watch me walk. I save that special smile for them and usually that’s all they really want. Some people always find a way to have fun at work. I also avoid the VIP lounge. There are too many people there who think they know you and touch you like they think they can. I stand in line like everyone else. Often there are looks of recognition, but mostly it’s just a troubled frown trying to match the face with a name. Some frantically dig into their purses or wallets looking for a scrap of paper upon which they request I scribble something. I’m gracious. I scribble something. Mostly though, people are respectful, as I am, of personal space. But boarding my flight back to the coast, it was the anger with my mother still burnishing my cheeks that warned I was in no mood.

I’d walked off the elevator onto my mother’s floor at the hospital late New Year’s day. I hadn’t slept much, maybe four or five hours. I’d been trying to reach JJ at the Grapevine. I had to alert her to the video of the flood and the men from the gray van. All I got was her answering machine. I tried Blackie’s shop. The phone rang and rang. He didn’t have an answering machine. I got tired of flipping through the news channels back at the townhouse looking for but not finding the footage of the men with the rowboat. I finally went to bed exhausted yet haunted by that image.

I was a little puzzled when the shift nurse at the nurse’s station greeted me with a dark lowered brow. Then the floor supervisor brushed past me as I approached my mother’s room, her face flushed with distress. Something was wrong. When I turned into the room I understood why. There was mother, propped up in her bed, perky as a new perm. It was a miracle. It was a miracle that I didn’t strangle her right then and there.

I was caught up with the replay in my head. It must have shown in my glare when the flight attendant stopped me from getting to my seat.

“Oh no,” he said, arching his eyebrows. He indicated the empty seat near the front of the plane. “We can’t let you ride cattle class.”  He took my carry-on bag and stowed it in the compartment rainy tarmacabove. He winked. “We’ll just call it an ‘in-flight’ upgrade. Let me know if you need anything.”

I didn’t argue. And I’m not going to claim that it hadn’t happened before. I gazed out the small port, a steady sleet obscuring all but the blur of colored flashing lights on the tarmac. I was preoccupied by my run-in with mother less than twelve hours earlier. She had said “Happy New Year!” and I replied “Mother, my, what a quick recovery you’ve made” and she said, “That’s because you spent the holidays with me, it had such a curative effect” and I said, trying to restrain a scream, “You vastly overestimate my powers, mother, dear” and she said “now, now, no need to make a fuss. We spent some quality time together and that’s all that should matter. I knew you didn’t want to come out for the holidays with all the dinner parties and hoopla of benefit galas. So I thought, what better way for a daughter to spend time with her mother and reacquaint herself with everything she’s left behind for an extended campout on the West Coast? It’s been the most relaxing holiday I’ve had in my life, and yours too, admit it” and I said “Mother, an Oscar worthy performance, but that’s not how I see it” as I stormed out of the room. I remembered that she called out “Think of it as a dress rehearsal!” The complimentary glass of champagne helped but I’ve always slept well on airplanes and first class seating is very comfortable.

I was still a little bleary eyed as I steered my Volvo out of the airport parking lot and onto the freeway, dawn breaking in my rearview mirror. I had two hours of driving toward the dark brooding horizon before I got to Timberton. The rolling hills were a pale yellow green dotted with darker blurs of oak. Soon enough I was traveling through more familiar territory. I took a back road to avoid Santa Quinta. The road threaded through a canyon densely wooded with redwood and fir. I was home. The darker clouds had started to pelt the already wet asphalt with large drops. At one point a stream of beige water gushed down from the clearing of a wide raw vineyard scar. It crossed my mind that I knew who had bought that property but couldn’t be bothered to recall, intent on getting to Timberton and the Grapevine office.

There was a roadblock on the highway into town and I slowed behind the car in front of me. A deputy in rain gear leaned in and spoke to the driver and then waved the car through. I rolled forward, my window down. It was young Deputy Randall. A raindrop dripped off the bill of his cap, his green eyes even more luminescent in the rainy grayness. He was a luscious specimen but I couldn’t decide if my feelings for him were maternal, sexual or if I just wanted to serve him up in an exotic sauce. When he smiled in recognition, I decided. He was yummy.

“Oh, hi, Ms. Malone. We’re only letting residents through to the flood area. The river’s gone down but there’s still a lot of debris and slides across the roads and the power’s out in a lot of places. Drive carefully.” And he waved me on. Just like that.

I crossed the bridge, a very lively silt brown river still surging underneath, carrying snags and back porches down to its ocean outfall. Once in town I saw the loaders, the rubber booted workers, and the piles of soggy debris spilling over the sides of the huge metal dumpsters. There were clots of people gathered under umbrellas along a stretch of muddy Main Street that looked like it belonged in a cow town. Some were there officially, hard hats in evidence, and some casually, locals, their grim looks testifying. The lower end of town on the river side had suffered the most from the flooding. The light was on upstairs in the Grapevine office.

JJ was seated behind her desk, a fork and a small plate at her elbow with what looked like chocolate cake crumbs. She beamed, “Lee, I have the most wonderful news! I just landed a new advertiser! But not just any advertiser! A full page advertiser! For a six month contract! I’m so excited! Do you know what this means?!  I can actually pay some bills!” 

I felt like popping each of her excited little exclamations like bubbles. “That’s great, JJ, but did you ever get my phone mess. . .?”

“Don’t you even want to know who it is?”

“Who is what?”  I was still in a travel fog.

“Montague Winery! For six months! And they might even extend to a whole year!”

CCGVThe name of the winery reminded me who was responsible for the man-made erosion on the way into town.

JJ brushed some crumbs from the front of her too tight ski sweater and leaned forward confidentially. “I think I may be able to get some financial backing from them,” she whispered. “If I play my cards right.”

I couldn’t imagine what cards those might be and I could have said so, but my attention was drawn to the front page of the Daily Republican on her desk. The banner headline read Evacuations Ordered with a panoramic shot of the flooded river. What caught my eye was the story in the lower left hand corner. “He’s getting a new lawyer?”  I said half to myself.

JJ was collecting the remaining crumbs on her plate with a finger. “Who?”

“Fashwalla’s brother. He’s getting a new lawyer.”

“Oh, yeah, he fired the public defender, and recanted his confession. Claims he didn’t do it. Some kind of misunderstanding with the detective who arrested him.”  My involuntary gasp turned her head. “What?”

“The lawyer. . .”                              

“Some high powered international attorney is all I know. How this guy could rate. . . “

“Preston Carmichael.”

“Right. You know of him?”

Preston Carmichael had been my lawyer in Paris. A sudden feeling of dread took my breath away. “He’s bad news” was all I could manage.

Chapter Fifteen
SEDUCTION

My insides were straining like the rigging on the Flying Dutchman in heavy seas. I checked the calendar even though I knew I didn’t have to. Right on time. I took a long hot shower. It helped but not completely. I felt thick even though my mirror image didn’t show any difference. It would get worse before it got better. I found that brushing my hair worked as a sedative. I brushed the right side one hundred and one times. I brushed the left side one hundred and one times. And from the chignon forward, the same. I poked at my face. I examined the lines, the wrinkles, the craters, the tiny brittle hairs. I daubed and plucked. Nothing in the one bedroom that served as my closet appealed to me. I chose a black tunic with gold trim around the neck and at the wrists from the hanger and found a pair of matching Capris. They fit my mood.

I stood at the window closest to the heater. It faced the end of the block visible in the gray light through a screen of leafless branches. Rhonda’s white head bobbed into view. The way one arm was outstretched I knew her little poodle dog, Pussy, was pulling her along, its silky white coat curled and tight as Rhonda’s hairdo. Slowly behind them Ward and Anna followed, Ward with the aid of a walker. He had taken a turn for the worse.

Returning from a run one day during a break in the foul weather, Rhonda had nodded approvingly, “Smart, you’re keeping healthy.”  Then she confided, indicating the house next to hers with the up tilt of her chin, “He used to be a body builder, now look at him. It’s his immune system, it’s eating him alive.”  She cocked a confidential eyebrow. “They say all the gays are dying from it.”  She had shuddered saying it. I shuddered remembering. Spumes of mist lifted off the tops of conifers in the distance and gathered above as a gray opaque froth.

I had work to do. On an end table under a small reading lamp nearly two weeks’ worth of mail was waiting for me to sort through. I set my cup of tea on the coffee table and removed the rubber band from the bundle. I flicked through the advertisers and come-ons. Two long legal size envelopes stood out with an officious urgency. I set them aside. There were half a dozen square envelopes with familiar return addresses, the Christmas cards I should have been home to receive. I made another pile with them. I debated what to do with the three postcards. The way I was feeling, it was a big deal. I pulled a small metal wastebasket decorated with irises out from under the end table and tossed the advertisers from Save-on, then a reminder from the Volvo dealership that I was due for an oil change. Vogue wanted me to renew. I should have been getting a lifetime subscription considering all the magazines I had sold for them. Into the wastebasket. Real Estate agents smiled in unflattering mug-shots on oversize postcards claiming to have sold the most houses in Corkscrew County and were ready to make me an offer. Why bother. The small wastebasket filled in a hurry.

I turned my attention to the long envelopes in front of me. One return address was from the law office of Hogan, Carpenter and Eldridge. The other was from the Corkscrew County DA’s office. I had an idea what they were about. I pulled open the small drawer on the end table and found the letter opener. It was gold plated and shaped like a scimitar. The tiny red gems set in the curved onyx handle were real, a gift from an admirer.

Even though my address had been neatly typed, the letter on law office stationary was handwritten. I was familiar with the tight, precise hand. It was Preston Carmichael’s. I allowed myself to think, yes, that’s what the devil’s handwriting looks like.

“Dear Lee,” it began, “I look forward to seeing you again after so many years, even if it is under such impersonal circumstances. As you no doubt know, I am representing Mr. Faheed Fashwalla and since you were involved in the discovery of his brother’s body, it is necessary that I take your deposition. Please contact me within the next week at the number on the letterhead and make an appointment that is convenient for you. I await your reply.”  There was a postscript. “I am appealing to you personally for your cooperation because of our past friendship. A summons is so pedestrian. And I can’t ask you to dinner with a summons.” Smooth as ever. The carrot and the stick. But that’s what it would take, a summons to even get me near him. I glanced at the wastebasket at my feet. That was certainly the proper place for it.

A business card fell out of the envelope from the DA’s office. It identified Chandler Wong, Corkscrew County Assistant District Attorney and gave his phone number. The form letter told me that I had to appear at the County Courthouse, Room 506 and gave the date and time. It was signed with a thick unreadable scrawl. I set it next to the letter from Preston. I would have to deal with them eventually.

I wandered into the kitchen and heated some more water. I glanced at the clock above the refrigerator. JJ was due to come by in a couple of hours. I had asked her over to discuss my story on the dog murders. She had been reluctant at first, citing lunch with a new account. I mentioned that a friend had sent me a tin of Swedish butter cookies and I had yet to open them. She caved, saying that it might not be till late afternoon.

Late afternoon and the spongy mist slowly lifted to reveal what was left of a blue sky among the long gray shadows of distant conifers. I didn’t recognize the car when it pulled up in front of the cabin. JJ stepped out, a little unsteady I thought, and waved at the front door before starting up the steps. It must have been an important meeting judging by the too tight black dress with spaghetti straps and ample show of cleavage. She hefted her familiar blue carryall purse onto one shoulder and grasped an open bottle of white wine with the other hand. She seemed a little out of breath when she stepped into the front room. Her eyes were wide, excited. “I need to use your bathroom!”  I pointed down the hall.

I had a platter of cookies set out on the coffee table when she returned, the sound of rushing water following her. JJ flopped down on the couch and expertly examined the plate. “Hmm, these look good.”  She smiled at me with one already in her fingers. “I thought my bladder was going to burst!”

“That must have been some lunch.” I sat next to her and poured the wine.

Her eyes gleamed again, “Yes, yes it was. I was meeting with Tommy from Montague Winery and his friend, Roger, who owns a string of video stores. Armchair Theaters. That’s what they’re called. I’ve got them on a six month contract with a half page! And Tommy’s going to direct a few more business friends of his my way!”

I had to be happy for her. Her joy was infectious. “That’s great. And you have a new car, too.”

She nodded, flicking a crumb from a corner of her mouth. “Well, it’s not new new, it’s last year’s model. And it’s Japanese. I’ve landed half a dozen accounts in the last couple of months. The publicity from the murder has really helped.”  She giggled, maybe because she realized how callous she sounded. Crumbs had landed on her ample bosom and she brushed them off, tucking her chin in to look down on the mounds of flesh. “Well, if you’ve got them, use them,” lee vogueshe laughed. “And oh, I wanted to show you!”  She retrieved a magazine from her purse and handed to me. “It’s an old copy of Vogue I found.”

I saw that. I even vaguely remembered posing for the cover.

JJ opened the magazine to the photo spread. I was wearing designs from Lorenzo Leonardo Benaldo’s Florenzi collection. That year sheer and diaphanous was in. She leaned forward so that we were both looking at the pictures of distant palm trees, white sand and me. “Where was that? It’s gorgeous.”  She gawked at me dreamily.

“Aruba, I think.”

“Oh, you’re so lucky. It must have been wonderful!”

I get a little prickly when someone insinuates how wonderful my life has been, especially if they can’t keep the envy from showing. “I think I had food poisoning or the flu and had been puking my guts all over the pristine white sand. The shoot started before dawn because the photographer wanted to get the first light. I’m dressed in what is essentially tissue paper. And it was so cold I thought my nipples were going to explode!”  I didn’t add that despite it all I still looked devastating.

JJ gave a little laugh. She got the drift. There was an awkward silence while she took a long sip of wine. Then she sighed, “I guess we should look over your article.”  From her purse she pulled a sheaf of papers, creased and crumpled like they had been sat on by a variety of large bottoms. The clean typescript was covered with a red scrawl.

“Ok.” She donned her reading glasses. “First of all, this is very well written. It’s almost too literary to be journalism. The way you describe things is wonderful, but it’s too much. It gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. It’s a distraction. And that brings up the question, what are you trying to say? Is it about a few dogs being killed by some psychos or something else? You’ve done some good legwork, but it’s still vague. There’s no point to it. It’s a fear piece. If I published what you have now, I would just be feeding into the general paranoia of the public to no purpose. What you need to do is frame this in a larger context, like cruelty to animals. Get statistics. And not just cruelty to dogs, but cats, horses, goats, even cows. Work in something about experiments on animals by cosmetic manufacturers. Make it a larger issue. Then I can use it as a feature article.”

I was beginning to wonder if she’d even read my article, if she even realized the implication of what I was getting at. “The men in the gray van,” I began, “the Countess. . . .”

She waved a cookie at me. “I don’t know where you’re going with that. You have no proof that they’re even connected to what you call the dog murders, if that’s even what they are. All of this gray van stuff is pure conjecture. I couldn’t print any of it.”

“What about the autopsy report? Was I right? Is one of them a woman?”

She shook her head and helped herself to another big glass of white wine. “Lee, Lee, you’re seeing a conspiracy where there is none.”  She knocked back half the contents in one gulp. “Besides, the medical examiner is in Hawaii on vacation and they can’t release the report without his ok.”

I was getting steamed. I didn’t like being taken lightly. I was certain that my suspicions were correct. And all she could do was sit there like a big cream puff in a black dress that bulged in all the wrong places. She was, I also realized, very drunk. The dreamy crooked smile on the painted oval of her face told me that.

She sighed. “Lee, do you even know how gorgeous you really are?” 

I gave my standard answer to that question. “You think it’s easy being beautiful? I’m lusted after by every man alive and hated and resented by most women.”

“Not by me,” she said as she leaned toward me, shifting her right leg over her left knee. Her dreamy look had become earnest in a puppy dog sort of way. She brought her face close to mine. Her lipstick needed refreshing and her mascara clung in little globs at the base of her eyelashes. Her nose was pink as a rabbit’s and fine veins decorated the tip like stray red threads.

“JJ,” I whispered, squaring myself to her. I had seen that afflicted look more times than I cared to remember, but mostly on men.

Her breathing deepened, wine sour yet cookie sweet, lips inches away from mine. She moved a hand close to my thigh.

I placed my hand against her shoulder. “JJ,”I spoke as gently as possible, “I have a really bad headache.”

Chapter Sixteen
DON’T GET ME WONG

The engraved plaque on the desk read This Wong makes it right. Assistant District Attorney Chandler Wong’s hair was parted precisely from left to right, a dark curve of bang shadowing a broad brow and spectacled intelligent eyes. His smile was genuine, shaking my hand, holding a wild marbled tie against his beige shirt with his left as he rose. “A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Malone. Please have a seat.”

I set my purse down, leaning the handle of my umbrella against the front of the desk in his tiny cubicle and shedding my raincoat over the straight-backed office chair. He seemed nice enough.

Charlie-chanADA Wong looked up at me expectantly. “Still raining out there?”  Behind him, taped to the side of a file cabinet, was a Charlie Chan movie poster someone had scrawled across Charlie Chan(dler), congrats on winning your first conviction! It was signed Number One Son. There were also numerous little gold Buddhas of various sizes weighing down stacks of paper and lining the edge of a small bookshelf.

“The rain let up just as I drove into Santa Quinta.”  I must have looked perplexed.

 “I’m actually Catholic,” he assured me and shrugged. “But because I’m Chinese, people just assume I’m Buddhist so the office staff drop them off and say things like ‘I saw this in a shop at the mall and just had to get it for you’.” He tapped his pen on the dossier in front of him. “If you ask me, I think they’re really getting them for themselves and my office is the only safe place to keep them. And they can come and visit them whenever they want.”

I was intrigued. “You must be very popular.”

He cleared his throat nervously. “I like people.” He opened the case file in front of him.

A framed photo on the wall to the left above his desk pictured an older Chinese couple and a young man in a cap and gown, obviously ADA Wong at graduation. They all wore big smiles. Beneath the photo a neatly printed placard read The Two Wongs That Made Me Right. Unfortunately, the sentiment was marred by someone who had crossed out some of the words and substituted Didn’t Make You White.

Wong had followed my gaze. “But a few people don’t like me.” He shrugged. “I could take it down. File a complaint. It wouldn’t do any good. So I don’t say anything. People come in, see it, and realize there’s a jerk in their midst. Everyone knows who it is.” The smile hinted at resignation belonging to an ancient face. “We have business to conduct.”

I had to show him my driver’s license. He wrote the number in a box on the form, holding it a moment to compare the photo with my present physiognomy. “And this is your correct age?”  I wasn’t talking. He handed it back with a smile. “You’re the only one I’ve ever met whose DMV photo actually looks like them.”

“I have a way with cameras.”

 Wong showed a row of even teeth. “Of course, you would.” 

I glanced at my watch. I had parked in a one-hour parking enforcement zone in order to be close to the County Courthouse.

“We’ll make this as painless as possible, Ms. Malone. I will be asking you about the events of November 15th, 1985 and to verify the statements you made to Detective Santos regarding your discovery of Mr. Fashwalla’s body. I will be recording this interview and the transcription will require your signature.”

 ADA Wong continued his well-rehearsed speech. I watched his lips move. He was actually kind of cute. He turned a page over to me and pointed to the two places I had to sign and date. He pulled a portable tape recorder from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. “We’ll be conducting the interview in the conference room.” He indicated the way with an outstretched arm. “You might as well bring your coat and umbrella. You are free to leave afterwards.”

In the hallway, a tall gray haired man in a dark blue suit stopped to talk. From the first leer, I knew he was swine. A large Adam’s apple sat atop the knot of a screaming red tie. It occurred to me that perhaps today was ‘wild tie day’ at the office. In an exaggerated whisper he confided “Wong, you must be doing something right.” He forced a tight smile at me, greening at the gills. I suddenly knew who had defaced the placard in Wong’s cubicle. He raked me from my knees to my collarbone with a suggestive gaze. I returned his look, my eyes boring into his, the intensity melting something insignificant in his briefs.

Wong closed the door to the conference room and set the tape recorder on the table. “That was very unprofessional, and I apologize.”

I sat across the table from him and shrugged. “Welcome to my world.”

Wong spoke into the microphone and then rewound the tape. His voice repeated the test, calm, authoritative, in a timbre I hadn’t noticed in conversation. He placed the mike between us. “Well, let’s begin.”

Wong went over the facts with me. They included the kind of car I drove. A ‘69 Volvo. What was I doing at Kelly’s Resort? I was selling advertising for the Corkscrew County Grapevine. I had an appointment with Mr. Fashwalla. When had I last spoken to him? The previous evening, I couldn’t remember the exact time, sometime after six.

“It’s all there in my statement to the detective.”  I was beginning to realize that this process might take longer than the time I had on the meter.

“I have to verify the details.”

“Do any of the details say anything about two men in a gray van?”

Wong scanned the page and turned to the next. “Hmm, there’s a note here from Detective Santos. Uh. . .you made the statement that you believe two men and a dog in a gray van are responsible or at least involved in Fashwalla’s murder. ‘Cannot be substantiated.’  Does that sound right?” 

“Two weeks after the murder, a gray van was torched in my neighborhood. It was the van that I saw on the highway before I got to Kelly’s Seaside Resort.”

“You’re sure of this?”

“Two bodies burned beyond recognition and the remains of a dog were found in the van.”

“And they are the bodies of the two men you suspect of Fashwalla’s murder?”

“That’s what I thought at first, and this may sound odd, but I had a dream that the bodies incinerated in the van were not the two men, but two homeless people, the Countess and her boyfriend, Puppet, who lived in Timberton and have gone missing.”

“You dreamed that two homeless people had disappeared.”

“No, I didn’t dream that, I dreamed that they had been incinerated. In the van.”

 “Was it their van?”

 “No, they were homeless. They lived under the bridge.”

 “But they burned up in a van that didn’t belong to them.”

“Don’t you see? Whoever committed the murder found out that the cops were looking for two guys in a gray van so they conveniently provided what they thought would be a dead end. Two bodies in a torched van.”

“With a dog. They killed their own dog?”

“No, that was Tarzan.”

Wong sat back in his chair, folded his hands and fixed me with a classic inscrutable stare.

“Their Russian wolfhound, Tarzan.”

“I have to say that all this sounds intriguing, but I don’t have any of it in my file. Faheed Fashwalla confessed to the homicide. The fact that he recanted the confession doesn’t change the fact that we will prosecute him for murder. The medical examiner should have determined the gender of the bodies by now. Would it surprise you if they were both males?”

“That’s just it! They can’t be!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I saw them on TV?”

 Wong sighed and glanced at his watch. Maybe he was parked in a parking enforcement zone, too. “On TV?”

“I was in Chicago. New Year’s Eve. I saw footage of the flood in Timberton. They were floating down Main Street in a rowboat!”

Wong glanced around the room warily. He turned off the recorder and, leaning toward me, growled, “Did someone put you up to this?”

 “No, that’s what I’m trying to tell you! I think there’s been a cover-up. Aren’t you suspicious that Fashwalla’s brother confessed to the murder and then recanted and now has retained Preston Carmichael, a very expensive criminal lawyer, as his attorney? How can he afford him? You can bet that it’s not pro bono. That’s not Carmichael’s style. The real murderers are still on the loose and somebody, a very wealthy somebody, doesn’t want you to find them. They don’t even want you to know about them.”

“Ms. Malone, I wish I had the time to continue on this speculative track but I have the facts of the case against Mr. Fashwalla to consider, this interview being a very small part of the overall investigation.”  He restarted the tape.

I got out of there with minutes to spare. I gazed over the tops of the parked cars from my vantage on the Courthouse steps. The parking enforcement scooter was cruising the opposite side of the street from where I was parked. A couple of large drops slapped my cheek and I reached for my umbrella. Then I saw the camera and microphone. The TV news crew from the local station was aiming to catch up with me at the bottom of the steps. My car was a hundred yards away. I stepped briskly. I have long legs.

“Lee, remember me? Marty Steele, KSQU News.” The news reporter, the short man with short hair and short stride I had met at Kelly’s puffed with a mike at my elbow. “Lee, uh, Ms. Malone can you tell us. . . .” 

county courthouseI wasn’t having any of it. I sprung my umbrella open in the reporter’s face. I had stepped to the curb. A limo rolled up. The door swung open. I got in. It was a reflex action. I had performed that curbside dance on so many occasions that it seemed perfectly natural. That was my mistake.

Preston Carmichael greeted me with mock self-assured surprise. “Lee, so nice of you to drop in.”  A scrub of red hair topped a face that through plastic surgery and expertly applied makeup appeared ageless the way a wax dummy appears ageless. A navy blazer and charcoal slacks fit his wiry frame like a glove although the trim manicured hand he extended toward me vaguely resembled latex. “Does it remind you of the old days when you were tabloid fodder?”  His fastidious superiority was irritating as was the garish ascot setting off a well-sculpted jaw line. It dawned on me. It was ‘crazy tie day’ in the world and no one had told me about it! “You ignored my invitation, Lee. I could have just as easily had you subpoenaed. I was hoping that our past association would have at least granted me that small favor.”

The TV news crew. It was beginning to make sense. Who would have tipped them off that I was being interviewed by the District Attorney? I was sitting next to him in the limo. It was the last place I wanted to be. The limo sped toward the exit of the County complex. The white linen handkerchief held to his off-the-shelf nose reminded me of something I had learned about Preston Carmichael when he represented me in Paris, and that was his legendary phobias and multiple, likely psychosomatic, allergies.

“Oh shit! Preston.”  I looked for the door handle that should have been there.

“Lee, my dear, there’s no need to take that attitude. I can have you declared a hostile witness. Make it easy on yourself. Have dinner with me.” 

“No, that’s not what I mean, Preston. I think I stepped in dog poop getting into the limo.”

Preston’s eyes bulged as he gasped, choking into the handkerchief. “Driver, stop the car!” he commanded as he visibly shrank into the crevice between the seat and the door panel.

It started to pour as I walked back to my Volvo. Good thing I had my umbrella. And I hadn’t stepped in dog poop after all. I didn’t mind the rain. I did mind the parking ticket wrapped in plastic stuck under the windshield wiper on the driver’s side.

Chapter Seventeen
HEARTBREAKER

I’m a heartbreaker. Old men suck in their guts, young men straighten their spines when I stroll across the Save-on parking lot. Disappointment marks their faces once I pass by. Their lives will never be the same.

heart breakerI grabbed a shopping cart and dropped my purse into the basket, pushing through the automatic doors. I’m the queen of hearts, my smile as clean and sharp as a guillotine. But irony of ironies, row upon row of red heart-shaped boxes and balloons blocked my path to the produce department. I can never look at the symbols for Valentine’s Day without remembering what Mohamed said about them.

Mohamed el-Ipir, head of the Prince’s security detail, and I were having a quiet repast one rainy February evening at a tiny restaurant in the Montmartre district of Paris, directly across from a bohemian hangout known as Le Lapin Agile, The Frisky Rabbit. I too had felt like a frisky rabbit, as my dangerously illicit affair with Mohamed was purely physical, acrobatic even. Not that Mohamed wasn’t appealingly handsome. He could have passed for Omar Sharif’s better-looking cousin.

Foggy eyed and giddy from a hot romp and expensive champagne, I had noticed a man in a large overcoat hurry to a nearby table where a demur young woman waited with a glass of white wine. The man reached into his coat and produced a small heart-shaped box as if he had pulled it out of his own chest.

I thought the scene precious and had called it to Mohamed’s attention. He turned back with that slow enigmatic smile that usually meant he thought he knew something I didn’t. Finally he said, “European culture never ceases to amaze me. Even though I was educated at Cambridge, certain things that are opaque to most Europeans appear transparent to me.”  Mohamed was always full of interesting if not esoteric observations.

“The heart symbol is about sex,” he continued, “not about sentiment. Take the shape, two arcs joined to form a valley, the other two segments joined in a point below.”  This much I knew, but he’d drawn it in the air with his finger anyway. “Quite an ancient shape, actually, examples of which abound in the early clay pottery of prehistoric Mesopotamia.” He had read in Archeology at Cambridge. “Now transcribe a line from the point where the two arcs join down to the point below.”  He’d paused, as he was naturally dramatic. “Place a dot at both points of termination and what do you have?”  I wasn’t quite following. “It’s believed that this so-called heart shape originated in the impressions made by women sitting along muddy river banks after bathing.” He had lost me. It must have shown. “Then imagine a naked woman seated on a glass table as seen from below.” 

I walked straight through the produce department lost in remembrance. At the time, I’d laughed at the outrageousness of the image while thinking to myself, you’ve actually seen something like this, and when, where?

The meat department appeared almost hostile in the harsh white of fluorescent lighting, the sausages glowing a pasty pink, skinned chicken breasts stark naked, and the throbbing red trays of beef. My ears burned as if from embarrassment. Waves of intense heat swept through me like I had an atomic flare at my core. Little beads of moisture formed on my upper lip. I felt the urge to strip off my clothes. Sweat gathered at my hairline and around my eyes as I swung my cart into the brightly lit freezer aisle. I open the door to the cold case and stared at the stacks of frozen pizzas, the cooling air rushing out to envelope the torch of my body. I was having what a friend had called a ‘power surge.’  I had experienced it only once before and at the time I thought I was going crazy. Women start getting them around my age. I’m told I’m going to have to get used to them.

“Well if it isn’t the queen of everything. And she does her own shopping.” I turned. Rikki and his friend, Wallace, beamed like gargoyles in a cold vaporous light.

“What are you guys doing in Timberton? I thought you had gone back down south after your commercial. . . “

Rikki didn’t wait for me to finish. “Missy, it’s a long story, but the short version is remember when I was saying all those nasty thing about living out here in BFE among the country louts and bad food and no entertainment and just a hell of a long way away from everything?” 

Wallace, his hair spiked with frosted tips, smiled over Rikki’s shoulder. “It turns out that’s exactly what we were looking for!”

“We don’t have to live in LA to do our work.”  Rikki waved his hand dismissively as if the lower half of the State could just go away. “There’s plenty of location work that all the home fries with husbands and wives and little kiddies don’t want to take.” He looked mystified that I continued to hold the freezer door open so I closed it. The surge had subsided leaving only a vague tingling on the surface of my skin.    

“We’re renting a cabin at The Franklin Family Resort for now.”

“Oh, The Mint,” I interjected. “That’s what the locals call it. It used to be the most popular place on the river in the forties and fifties and they made money hand over fist so it became known as the Franklin Mint. Or just The Mint. It’s the last operating resort along the Corkscrew.”

“Aren’t we something, Miss Local Color. And you do your own make-up, too.”  Rikki’s eyebrows decamped to the top of his forehead. His make-up was perfect.

“And the locals are so friendly,” Wallace added. “We’re looking for a place to buy. We’ve even met people who know friends of ours back in LA. We ran into them shopping here a couple of days ago.”

“Oh, yeah, Save-on,” I agreed, “It’s kind of like the de-facto community center. I see my neighbors here more often than I do in my own neighborhood.”

“That is so quaint, don’t you think, Wallace?” Rikki jabbed a well-manicured finger in my direction. “You must come over for a drink. We can take up where we left off last time. I read in the paper that Preston Carmichael has raised his ugly head nearby.”

I was no longer looking at Rikki. At the far end of the freezer aisle closest to the registers a very familiar mass of frizzy dark hair bobbed past followed by a sauntering loose-limbed figure. It occurred to me that their wolfhound, Tarzan, must be tied to the bike rack outside. The Countess and Puppet, they were alive!

Rikki mistook my reaction. “Of course you should be alarmed. The man is evil incarnate.”

I grabbed my purse from the empty shopping cart. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to run.”  I hurried to the end of the aisle and scanned the people waiting in line. I hadn’t been imagining them, I was certain. With the Countess and Puppet alive, my conspiracy scenario was in shambles. But where had they been all this time? I made my way through the throng at the express check-out and past the sighs of the automatic doors. Outside, the sun had just dropped behind the forested ridge to the west of the parking lot, a ribbon of high ice clouds fluttering across the darkening blue

The Countess lit a smoke as I strode up to them, Puppet untying Tarzan from the bike rack.

“Where have you guys been? I thought. . .” I stopped. “I mean, JJ had me looking for you. . .”  I must have sounded stupid. “That was a couple of months ago. . .”

The Countess looked at Puppet and then back at me. “Ve go Mexico in vinter. Here is too cold. The rains, the floods.”  Her crooked teeth reminded me that the Countess had never taken advantage of the Royal orthodontist. “JJ know this.”

JJ knew? Walking away, the Countess called out an “adios” as I stood there putting two and two together. She had got me again. JJ had known all along. I was not pleased and the large man blocking my return to the supermarket did not make me any happier.

“You Lee Malone?” he demanded.

I backed up a step, reaching into my purse. I felt around for the pepper spray that I knew was in there somewhere. But I couldn’t tell it from my eyelash brush. I didn’t even know if it worked. I’d never used it before.

He was a professional. “Take it easy, lady.”  He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. “No need to get jumpy.” He wasn’t smiling. “I ain’t gonna hurts ya.”  He handed me a long white envelope. “This is a summons to appear at the law offices of Hogan, Carpenter and Eldridge on behalf of Preston Carmichael in the criminal action against Faheed Fashwalla. You’ve been served.”

I about had a heart attack. 

Chapter Eighteen
CHAMPAGNE & RASPBERRY JAM

“Go ahead, ask her why she never made movies,” Rikki demanded.

I was seated in the only chair, a faded green wicker armchair, in their tiny cabin at The Franklin Family Resort. Antique sconces lit the knotty pine walls with a faint amber glow. A shaft of white light from the partially closed bathroom door crossed the corner of the bed where Wallace was perched.

“But she was in a movie. I remember seeing it,” Wallace insisted. “It was some spy thriller. . . .”

I Spy Everywhere,” Rikki insisted. He was wearing a black and lavender Hawaiian shirt over a flamingo hued t-shirt, dark slacks, and very large shoes. Such big feet and a mouth to match, I thought to say, but he had the floor. “Probably one of the worst action thrillers ever made.” He raised an eyebrow in my direction daring me to object.

I had accepted Rikki and Wallace’s invitation to join them for champagne in their temporary cabin home at The Mint. I’m a sucker for champagne, even in a plastic cup. Besides, I was still a little shaky with JJ’s betrayal. To make matters worse, I had been served with a summons. Champagne and Rikki’s antics were just the diversion I needed. 

franklin rdwds2I’d followed Rikki’s Saab to the resort about a mile east of Timberton and then down the narrow paved roadway lined with pillar-straight redwoods where tiny dilapidated cabins leaked light like torn paper lanterns. Their cabin, a dirty white affair with peeling green trim, was adjacent to the large two-story house that served as the owner’s residence and resort office. A long narrow building like a shoebox with windows across from their cabin was brightly lit by fluorescents from within. A sign above the gaping bright doorway read Laundromat Video Games. Another smaller sign near where a gaggle of teenagers had gathered read No Loitering. Alongside the building a few large dumpsters piled with flood debris served as reminders that when the Corkscrew breached its banks, The Mint got wet.

“Oh, I agree. Acting is not something I do well.”

“I’ll say,” Rikki snorted, “by the end of the shoot they were calling you Natalie Wooden.” 

I laughed. Rikki always got me to laugh.

Wallace joined in. “That’s awful, Rikki! It can’t be true.” He glanced at me, expecting a defense. I simply sipped at the bubbles in the flimsy plastic cup.

“They don’t call the truth awful for nothing,” Rikki continued. “Now, think of it, was there ever any scene in that, pardon the expression, movie that she spoke her lines on camera? No, not a one. Were there ever any scenes in which she did anything but pose and look pretty? No. Not a single frame. This is not to say that she was not filmed moving, but all those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor!”

Wallace fixed me with astonishment, assuming I’d counter Rikki’s dish.

“When you’re right, you’re right, Rikki.” I winked at Wallace. “Posing for a still camera and for a movie camera are two entirely different things. With a still shot, all the angles are figured, the lighting, the makeup, all of that is meticulously prepared beforehand. As a fashion model you are essentially an object to the photographer, an inanimate object, a mannequin, a still life.”

“You were a still life alright, honey, a pear and two grapefruit.” Wallace shrieked at Rikki’s outrageousness. He had me laughing again. It was just like old times on the Euro-trash fashion circuit. He tipped more bubbly into my glass. “You were saying?”

“On the other hand when you’re in front of a movie camera, acting, moving, no matter how much preparation goes into doing your hair and makeup, you are in motion and angles change. The light that one moment caressed you betrays you in the next. I remember that they constantly had to stop the action if I made the slightest move of my head or spoke my dialogue. Not that I had many lines of dialogue, mind you.”

“Exactly,” Rikki chimed in, “if you saw that movie again, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, you would see that all her lines are spoken off camera. All of her scenes are essentially still shots, gazing dreamily at the leading man, perching on a promontory looking out over the Aegean as the hero sails off in his luxury yacht. . . .”

“Apparently when I moved I was fracturing the way light reached the camera lens so that the image looked something like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase.”

Wallace looked at me blankly. Rikki groaned. “That is so typical of a model. Blame the camera!”

We all laughed heartily at that. A loud hollow explosion punctuated our laughter, rattling the panes.

Rikki parted the threadbare green curtain at the front window and stared out into the darkness. “Those damn kids!”  He poured the last dribble of bubbly into his cup with a world-weary expression. “They like to bang on the side of the dumpster like it’s a gong. They’ve done it a couple of times before. They think it’s cute. I had to go out and yell at them. They are so needy.” He raised his plastic cup in a toast. “Here’s to finding a house of our own! And soon!”        

The champagne must have gone to Wallace’s head. He held me with a glazed rapt expression. Finally he sighed, “You’ve lived such a fascinating life.”

“Ha!” Rikki jeered. “And you haven’t even heard about the kidnapping!”

 I thought Wallace was going to tumble off the bed. “Kidnapping?”

Rikki never knew when to shut up. That was the problem. I gave him one of my daggers to the heart looks. His big foot had lodged squarely in his big mouth. I waited to hear what else he would say. All I heard was a wail.

It came from outside, low and mournful. Rikki was at the door. “That tears it. I’ll give those pimply faced little snots something to howl about!”

I followed him down the steps from the cabin, Wallace behind me. “Wait, Rikki!”  It came again, this time an anguished shriek, but it wasn’t coming from the teens. They were clustered around the door of the Video Arcade Laundromat looking up at the large white house where a red neon sign spelled out Office. It was coming from in there. A familiar old black pick-up was parked at the bottom of the steps that led up to the verandah and the front door.

Rikki looked at me quizzically. “Do you think we should ask them to turn down their TV?”

I started up the steps. “I don’t think that’s a TV, Rikki.”  The mournful bawl was a cry of distress.

Once inside the office I encountered an eerie silence. If this wasn’t a déjà vu I didn’t know what was. “Hello?” I called out. I glanced at Rikki frowning and Wallace wide-eyed with panic. Here I was, Nancy Drew with the Hardly Boys. A scuffling called my attention to the ceiling. Upstairs! The moaning started up again though at a lower pitch. It was a sorrowful sound.

I led the way up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. At the top, the semi-dark hall led to a bright open doorway. I turned to see if my backup was still following, and then, like toy ducks on a string, I led them into the bedroom.

Stretched out across the bed was a large bearded man, completely naked. It looked as if someone had smeared an entire jar of raspberry jam all over his chest. On the floor next to the bed was a pale blonde woman, also completely naked. She appeared to be spooning a double-barrel shotgun. Some of the raspberry jam had splashed on her face, arms, and thighs. Her half open mouth was the source of the disembodied moaning. Standing by the bedside table, phone to his ear, Blackie spoke in a low solemn voice.

Chapter Nineteen
THE GOOD ONES ARE ALWAYS TAKEN

Morning shone like a jewel, wild plums in full bloom. Large baubles of dew clung to the new grass drooping over the edge of the pewter pavement. The slant of early morning sun picked out gems strung on labyrinthine webs in the tangle of old blackberry cane. Tall furry limbed trees glistened crystal green.

I don’t want to sound jaded, but I couldn’t be bothered. The core of my focus was to put one foot in front of the other as fast as I could. I ran at a speed that made my eyes water. I knew what I was running from, the hot breath of memory on my neck.

The naked man spread eagle across the bed at the Franklin Family Resort was not only dead, I realized, but he was also the bearded driver of the gray van. The inconsolable woman was the Resort owner, Alice Franklin, sole survivor of the Franklin clan. Despite the blood splattered on her face and torso, she was unharmed. Both barrels of the shotgun had been fired. Cause and effect were obvious. On the other hand, Blackie being there just did not add up.

Once he hung up the phone and informed me that he had just called the Sheriff and that they were on their way, he asked me and my friends to step out of the room while he attended to the hysterical woman. I didn’t think it unusual. He seemed like a man experienced in this kind of tragedy, calm, in command. Why he was there in the first place just didn’t make sense.

I heard the explanation Blackie gave the first deputy to arrive. He had a pick-up load of trash and garbage from cleaning up after the flood, and rather than drive ten miles to the county dump, it was easier for him to unload it in the dumpsters at the Resort. Alice didn’t mind, he claimed, the cost of the dumpsters being covered by the insurance company. All it proved was Blackie knew an opportunity that would save him time and money when he saw one. He’d heard the shotgun blast just as he was getting ready to drive away. Without a thought for his own safety, he had run up the stairs and into the bedroom to discover Alice standing over the man with the shotgun in her hands. That sounded like something Blackie might do. Still, I was pestered by the incongruity of two naked people, one dead, one hysterical, and Blackie, not surprisingly I suppose, dressed all in black. Maybe it was the black gloves.

A white sedan was parked in front of the steps leading to my cabin when I returned from my run. It stood out like an absence against the green haze of azaleas, ferns and Japanese maples that landscaped the hillside against which my rustic hideaway was perched. I walked up to the driver’s side and waited while Detective Santos rolled the window down.

“Beautiful morning for a run,” he informed me.

I didn’t know if I was more annoyed with him for being there or for stating the obvious. I allowed myself a nod of agreement. Besides, in touch with my animal self after a run, I often find myself mute, as if I had a million years of evolution to catch up on.

I stepped back as he opened the door and got out of the sedan. A beige windbreaker fit snugly over a green polo shirt and a pair of sharply creased dark blue trousers. He pursed his lips in apology. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Ms. Malone, but I want to go over the statement you made to the deputy at the Franklin Resort.” He retrieved a notebook from his inside pocket.

I motioned with my hand toward the front door in invitation.

His faint smile was a question.

I made the supreme effort, sucking in a gulp of air and moistening my lips. My throat was dry even though I was dripping with sweat. “Please.” I started up the steps. “Come inside. We can talk.”

vintage-formica-table1The full-length mirror on the wall opposite the front door offered an unflattering glimpse of my flush complexion and soggy ringlets. My ponytail hung abjectly, confused and knotty from trailing in my wake. I had to take a shower. I led him into the kitchen and invited him to sit at the fifties vintage green formica and chrome table. “I have to be in Santa Quinta in an hour and a half to be deposed by Preston Carmichael. Why don’t you have a cup of coffee while I jump in the shower?” I set a white coffee mug in front of him. My man, Mr. Coffee, had kept the pot I’d made earlier at precisely the right temperature. “Help yourself. I won’t be more than five.”

“Ms. Malone. . .” he began, but I’d already undone my hair heading down the hall to the bathroom. “Milk’s in the fridge.” I said over my shoulder.

Fifteen minutes later I joined him for coffee in my white extra fluffy terry cloth robe, wet hair turbaned in a towel. I was refreshed, my skin tingled, my eyes were clear, and my mind focused, ready to talk.

Detective Santos glared at me with hard narrowed eyes and a set chin. He was not pleased that I had kept him waiting. I smiled my patented Lee Malone smile, the one that had conquered the world. It never failed me.

He indicated the sun brightened yellow kitchen. “You have a very cozy place here.”  He had a human side after all. He dropped the official mask and looked at me quizzically, perhaps seeing me for who I am for the first time. It was a dangerous thing to do.

He hinted at a smile, self-assured, and leaned forward confidentially. “Before we review your statement, I hope you don’t mind if I offer a few observations.” Well spoken, too. “Corkscrew County has had two homicides in the space of six months that have been committed using the same kind of weapon.”  His eyes shone with a curious, subtle humor. “And you were involved in the discovery of the body both times.”  Attractive, engaging, someone I’d enjoy getting to know. “I’d say that was quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you?” His left hand grasped the coffee mug and he brought it to his lips. A plain gold band encircled the ring finger.

I didn’t have an answer. I had a question. Why is it that the good ones are always taken?

 

Chapter Twenty
CASTLE MONTAGUE

I took the scenic route. I was going to be late anyway. The back road out of Timberton was a climb up Calico Ridge, a narrow paved switchback that crisscrossed Calico Creek’s watershed down to the Corkscrew River. Calico Ridge’s mix of deciduous species, a patchwork of hues among the dark veins of conifers and live oak, was the source of its name. The payoff, on the last stretch of road before it crested the ridge, was a magnificent unobstructed view of the Corkscrew, its wending vice flowing toward the mouth at Feather in a white haze of sea air and angling rays of a midmorning sun.

My session with Detective Santos took longer than I had anticipated. He was a stickler for detail. And very married, I might add. When men are in the habit of prostrating themselves before you, it’s refreshing to find a man confident enough to be himself without the pretense of gender superiority. I had watched men suffer in my presence since kindergarten. In Junior High, I collected male egos like a sprinter collects medals at a track meet. By the time I was in High School, I was a professional and that was no longer allowed. So I turned my attention to wealthy and powerful men who, for the most part, hadn’t really left kindergarten. The power I had to tie a man’s tongue in knots was something I wielded indiscriminately in my late teens and early twenties. At Columbia, I was paired with Congressmen’s sons and seen with Senator’s daughters. Their consequence was never as all-encompassing or as thrilling as that of my charisma. Most were smart enough to understand that and defer to me. Those who didn’t suffered the agony of knowing their own inadequacy. But by then I had become unapproachable. I had to leave the country.

In Europe, I encountered real power, ancient power. First there was Ronnie Thrubury, Lord Ronald Thrubury, notorious playboy and scion of a family that traced its ancestry to Eleanor of Aquitaine. He had estates in England as well as in the foothills of the Pyrenees where his family had once ruled their own independent kingdom. I met him at a party in London thrown by The Stones, tragically a week before Brian Jones was found floating face down in his swimming pool. Ronnie was a sweetheart, harmless to all except himself. When we were married, the tabloid press went ballistic. At the time, Lord Ronnie was sixty-four to my twenty-three. And I was allowed access to an aristocratic society that had existed since before the troubadours. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by a claque of handsome perfumed young men who were generally more interested in each other than in me. Ronnie played the fool in that company though I soon came to realize that he was much wiser and accomplished than anyone imagined.

Even though he could have me any time he wanted and gladly would I fly to him, self-doubt harried him. His death acknowledged, in the most telling of gestures, his helplessness before the all-devouring goddess. He had believed that having a brazen young beauty by his side would somehow ward off the final reckoning. He knew better but had succumbed to hope. The tabloids reported that he’d drenched himself in hundred year old cognac and set fire to himself like a big flambé. I prefer to think that he just got too close to the flame. He had been drinking. The cognac laced crepes he loved to make had been his downfall.

Then there was Prince Za’ud el-Haz’r, a man so outrageously rich that his fortune and certainly much of his power dwarfed that of some nations. I met first with his emissaries, obsequious men who were obviously clerics in their own culture. Their concerns were legalistic, their questions couched in the kind of language that would normally show up in a pre-nuptial agreement. I had to ask them to leave. But then the advances of one of the wealthiest men in the world are hard to fend off. From that moment on, my money was no good, anywhere. The lease on my posh apartment in Montmartre had been extended indefinitely requiring not a sou from me. My travel arrangements were paid for in advance or I had the use of a private jet if I wished. A limousine was always at my disposal. My meals in the most exclusive and expensive of restaurants on the continent were compliments of the house, my most indiscreet extravagances covered by an invisible purse. I finally had to come to terms. They were deceptively simple.

The Prince was even older than Ronnie. He had a harem, a stable of women he used strictly for sexual purposes. On the other hand, he had, over the years, supported, by gift and friendship, some of the most beautiful, intelligent and sophisticated women in the world. Their only obligation, if it could be called that, was to appear on the Prince’s arm in public whenever he asked. Nothing more was expected. I was flattered that such a tribute would be paid to me. Curious as always, I had accepted.

In the rear mirror, I caught a last glimpse of the sun-dappled dazzle of the Corkscrew shimmering in the distance as the road crested at the final bend of the Calico switchback and then wound down into the tiny community of Ox Tooth. The post office, a narrow wooden structure planted on a berm above the main drag, was fronted by an extra-large version of the Stars and Stripes that partially blocked the view of a megalithic granite nub that someone, years ago, had thought resembled an ox’s tooth. Adjacent to the pile of rocks, an old oxtoothramshackle livery stable, now an Italian restaurant, testified to the incursion of gentrification. A shiny black Mercedes and an old pickup truck were parked out front. The brick box across the street dispensed beer, cigarettes, and bait. At the far edge of Tooth, as it was called by the natives, the original gas station, now an antique store, displayed a crudely painted sign advertising Arty Fakes for sale. The ancient gasoline pump, its manikin shape topped with a frosted glass globe that still bore the faded imprint of a red horse with wings, was just another nostalgia signpost.

 The white minivan tailing me since Timberton had dropped back during the climb. Now it loomed in the rearview mirror. I let the weight of the Volvo take me downhill, my foot barely tapping the brake pedal to control the speed of my descent. The road had a more gradual decline on the south side of the ridge. In the gaps between the trees, I caught glimpses of the rectangular street grids that patterned the valley floor. Hillsides were marked with regular rows of vineyards to the left and right of me. Below the fringe of trees at the base of the ridge, rolling hills of vines stretched out to the very limits of the Santa Quinta. Half way down the hillside, a fairy tale castle surrounded by vineyards stood out like the proverbial sore thumb in the grand tradition of American pretentiousness. It was Montague Winery’s architectural monstrosity looking like something that had escaped from the magic kingdom.

I made out two men in the cab of the minivan nipping at my tailpipe. I knew of a narrow pullout around the next bend. I angled sharply to the right and stood on the brakes. The van swerved to avoid my rear bumper and then careened past and around the next bend, its brake lights flashing frantically.

I took a deep breath and noticed that I had a death grip on the steering wheel. I had been shadowed by paparazzi before, usually trailing my limos on Vespa scooters. It came with the territory. I got used to it. Except for that one time, that one time on the road between Prague and Budapest. I had asked the driver to take the scenic route. A black Mercedes had cut off my limo, and a green panel truck had boxed it in. There had been guns and black hoods. I took a few more deep breaths and let myself calm down.

I eased my Volvo cautiously back onto the roadway, drifting slowly, warily downhill. Near the bottom, at a hairpin curve right after the alabaster columns that were Montague Winery’s elaborately tasteless front gate, the white minivan lay on its side like a discarded Chinese food take-out carton. Seated dissolutely by the roadside and holding his head with both hands I recognized the reporter from the local TV station. His partner, the Vietnamese cameraman, had the back doors wide open, pulling out equipment. Maybe he was going to film the accident. At eleven, your news team in action. Or, out of action.

I slowed and carefully steered into the oncoming lane. Once again, my foot jammed on the brake. A greasy twig of a man, oily forelock curled across a pasty forehead, was directing traffic, a cockroach colored Doberman choke-chained by his side. He signaled me to stop. There was no mistaking him, the bearded man’s partner, and the other occupant of the ghostly gray van.

A large gravel truck shouldered by in the opposite direction, and once it passed, I was waved through. I hoped he hadn’t recognized me. In the side-view mirror I caught beady weasel eyes tracking me, the twist of a sneer creasing taut sallow cheeks.


Next Time: Naked Blade

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!