Tag Archives: Pat Nolan

Contents Vol. I No. 10

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Ten

In Issue Ten of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, the big news is that Colin Deerwood, who had always considered A Detective Story as a working titled, has finally settled on Better Than Dead for the title of his 1940 serial detective fiction prompted by the illustration of a vintage Black Mask cover and featuring the hapless Lackland Ask now on the run from the cops and the mob after the massacre in the Heights.

The Last Resort, aka Tales Of A Long Legged Snoop, picks up the pace toward its concluding chapters as Lee Malone, former international beauty and reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, accompanies her boss to a Charity Fund Raiser fashion show at Montague Winery’s flashy mini Bavarian castle.

In the final installment of The White Room, Helene Baron-Murdock’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Weston County Sheriff’s Office Violent Crimes Unit narrowly escapes being shot on sight as he tries to solve the mystery of the death of Ike Carey in this latest Hard Boiled Myth.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and Better Than Dead, A Detective Story, as well as another serial short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Ten

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 30-31

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

The White Room I
The White Room II
The White Room III
The White Room IV
The White Room V

BTD head

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. 

A Detective Story—10

 

Contents Vol. I No. 9

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Nine

In Issue Nine of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, the big news is that Colin Deerwood, who had always considered A Detective Story as a working titled, has finally settled on Better Than Dead as the title of his 1940 serial detective fiction prompted by the illustration of a vintage Black Mask cover and featuring the hapless Lackland Ash in a quest for diamonds and the legendary Empress’ Cucumber.

The Last Resort, aka Tales Of A Long Legged Snoop, picks up the pace toward its concluding chapters as Lee Malone, former international beauty and reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is under suspicion of torching her own country cabin. To the rescue comes her neighbor, Rhonda LaLonda, one time porn star, to take her under her wing for commiseration and whiskey.

In the fourth installment of The White Room, Helen Baron-Murdock’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Weston County Sheriff’s Office Violent Crimes Unit ties together more pieces of the mystifying puzzle into the death of Ike Carey with the help of Ionna Gunn, director of the environmental group, EAF, that points to a sinister government agency operating behind the scenes as he tries to solve the mystery of this latest Hard Boiled Myth.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and Better Than Dead, A Detective Story, as well as another serial short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Nine

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 28-29

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

The White Room I
The White Room II
The White Room III
The White Room IV

BTD head

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. 

A Detective Story—9

 

Contents Vol. I No. 8

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Eight

In Issue Eight of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, things are heating up in Corkscrew County as former supermodel and now reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine, Lee Malone is shocked from a riverside reverie of her time in Sabbia Negru under the protection of the women of SAPHO, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques, to learn that she is suspected in the arson of her own cabin as The Last Resort, aka Tales Of A Long Legged Snoop, picks up the pace toward its concluding chapters.

In the third installment of The White Room, Helen Baron-Murdock’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Weston County Sheriff’s Office Violent Crimes Unit ties together more pieces of the mystifying puzzle into the death of Ike Carey that points to a sinister forces operating behind the scenes as he tries to uncover the true identity of “Dad” Ailess and solve the mystery of this latest Hard Boiled Myth.

Lackland Ask of A Detective Story finds himself in a pawn shop at the edge of Chinatown with the young linguaphile minx where the proprietor, Max Feathers, not only appraises the uncut diamond but launches into a hair-raising tale of his escape from St. Petersburg and his harrowing journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad with jewels sewn in the seams of his clothes, and where they are also introduced to the Empress’s Cucumber.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and A Detective Story, as well as another short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Eight

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 26-27

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

The White Room I
The White Room II
The White Room III

ds1020

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. 

A Detective Story—8

 

The Last Resort 26-27

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Six

SAPHO

The waves washing across the black gravel of Sabbia Negru made a sound in their receding like that of distant applause. I might have been feeling nostalgic for the attention I received as a celebrated beauty. There was no doubt that I was conflicted. To say I had family and friends who were concerned for my well-being would be an understatement. I had been kidnapped after all. On the other hand, my captors were kind, generous women who had rescued me from sex slavery. Though when I reflected back on it, didn’t my life as a fashion model constitute a kind of slavery?

I’d been keeping track of the passage of days by the phases of the moon and my own cycle. In that time I had changed. My once pampered alabaster skin had darkened to a bronze hue under the unrelenting Mediterranean sun. And I was growing hair in places that had not seen a follicle in decades. For as long as I could remember I had been peeled, plucked, waxed and shaved of any growth that would hint at a more aggressive sexuality. As now, my hair fell to below my shoulders, streaked with salt bleached strands. And I had come to look forward to my daily jogs along the beach and my visits to Treyann’s stone cottage. Xuxann was often too busy with her other duties to continually watch me and she had to trust that I wouldn’t do anything foolish, like try to escape. Much of the time I was left on my own. I got a chance to know myself in those hours of solitude.

And I was learning things I had never imagined. For one, the group that was holding me was known as SAPHO, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques, which, loosely translated, stands for Anonymous Society for the Protection of Prostitutes and Concubines. As their name indicated, they were an organization of anonymous female humanitarians engaged in the rescue of sex slaves and women forced into prostitution. They were a modern reimagining of nunneries in the Middle Ages coming to the rescue of wayward girls. Their sign was the ancient Greek letter psi which consisted of three lines converging on a single point at the base to form a bisected V, and the first letter in the Aeolic name for the great woman poet, saphoSappho. Some of the women had the mark discreetly tattooed on a shoulder blade or an ankle. Their totem was the octopus from which they derived their organizational structure, the nine: eight tentacles and one body. The head of a group of nine, usually the eldest, acted as the body, and directly beneath her were two women who in turn each directed a group of three. But despite their hierarchal structure, the women seemed to act by consensus. There were SAPHO octopi cells in every country around the world who worked to rescue young woman from sex slavery, usually operating as clinics and halfway houses. It was even hinted that Mother Teresa belonged to SAPHO. Only cells like the one that held me were clandestine operators. Known as the Erinnyes, they engaged in sabotage to disrupt the operations of the vast networks of the international sex trade. Each clandestine cell specialized in a particular type of operation. Those holding me specialized in being invisible and providing safe houses while others, like those who had rescued me, were more militant and lethal.

I was informed that it had been white slavers from the Sophia Syndicate, purveyors of female flesh since the days of the Ottoman Empire, who had kidnapped me at the behest of some sandcastle despot. SAPHO intercepted my transport at a private air strip in Moldavia and spirited me to their hideaway in the Mediterranean. Unable to deliver the goods, the Bulgarians claimed to be holding me for ransom and were demanding five million dollars. They were certain the Prince would pay the price.

SAPHO had their motives for keeping me under wraps. Through private channels, they released a picture of me holding a copy of Le Monde with the news of my kidnapping to prove to the Prince that my custody was under their aegis. They proposed a less costly solution, but one that was more politically delicate. And they had to move cautiously. They suspected that some of the Prince’s advisors were complicit in the original plan to kidnap me. When Mohamed el-Ipir’s name was mentioned, I wouldn’t believe it. And when Preston Carmichael’s name had come up, I dismissed him as merely that lawyer who had gotten me out of a drug jam.

Urann, the elder of this particular SAPHO cell, had been candid in explaining why I was being held. They were negotiating with the Prince to intervene in gaining the release of women from harems controlled by less enlightened oil royalty. The Prince’s professed affection for me would be the incentive to free the women from the basement sex dungeons. When I was released I would be at liberty to tell anyone who asked what I knew about the organization.

“Do you think they will believe you?” she had asked, allowing a glimpse of her cold determination. “You are a woman whose sole function is to serve as a display of a man’s idea of beauty, a measure held up to the women of the world. Your words on politics or the rights of others will be dismissed as that of a vacuous female icon.”

As it was, once I was allowed to tell my side of the story and counter the spin that appeared in the tabloids, hinting at wild lesbian adventures or just the antics of a fading star looking to attract attention, I opted to say as little as possible. I did speak out against sex slavery and the plight of women around the world. Not surprisingly, little of what I said was reported. I was much more of a photo op, and innuendo is always so much more interesting than fact. For me it was like buying a beautiful gown and not being able to remove the price tag. Every time I cut off one tag another appeared as a reminder of what it cost to be me.

Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinyes. . .Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.

My greatest lessons, however, were learned in the presence of Trayann. Together we explored the pine woodlands and meadows situated at the base of the monolithic crag I named Mother Mountain. She was intimately familiar with the surroundings and where to look for wild herbs, berries, and mushrooms. She tried to teach me the ancient names of birds and their calls. It was hopeless. The only name I remembered was Pica, the persistent woodpecker with its nest in the pine near Trayann’s hut. Between my quasi-Parisian French and her provincial argot, we managed to establish a rapport that included much gesturing, head nodding, and sympathetic understanding.

There were places that were obviously sacred to Trayann. She would stop and raise her arms to the transparent blue to incant a prayer or sing a song of praise to the great goddess. Then she would show me the herm hidden in the foliage or a stone column representing a wood nymph. Other times I just sat with her in her garden or beat the midsummer heat in the cool of her stone hut with a cup of herb tea. Conversation was nearly impossible unless Xuxann was in attendance. I would ask her to tell me the names of plants she had gathered or objects that adorned her tidy stone hut. And patiently, she did.

Once I noticed what I thought to be a vaccination scar on her left shoulder but when I looked closer I saw that the scar was the result of a hot brand. The image was that of an octopus with eight radiating tentacles. She had run her fingers over it, speaking words heavy with sadness.

Xuxann had been with me that day and as we descended the path back to my cell, I asked her if she understood what Taryann had said about the brand on her shoulder. I assumed that it must have had something to do with SAPHO as the octopus was their totem. Xuxann had given me a long searching look as if she were trying to discern my trustworthiness and then told me the story of Trayann.

What Trayann had said was something like “this is where I began.” As a young girl, she had been kidnapped by white slavers and ended up in the clutches of the Sophia Syndicate, the very same group that had tried to kidnap me. The SS, as they were known in the trade, had long branded their property with the octopus symbol. Even their luxury yachts on the Black Sea, essentially floating bordellos, flew the octopus pennant. After years in a brothel specializing in young girls, Trayann escaped and made her way to a convent in the eastern forests of Czechoslovakia where she was given refuge by nuns of the Order of St Hildegard. The nuns ran a sort of underground railway for refugees from the sex trade. They put Trayann in touch with other escapees similarly branded by the SS. She was introduced to a secret society whose mission it was to put the Bulgarians out of business. With the help of the Hildegardian nuns, Trayann and her associates set about establishing a variety of fronts and charities whose purpose was the rescue of at-risk young women. In an ironic twist, they appropriated the Sophia Syndicate brand as the symbol of their own organization.

Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinnyes or the Furies. That had been years ago, between the wars. During the war, the women of SAPHO had devoted themselves to working in hospitals and relief organization, sheltering young women who had been displaced by the fighting. Organizations like theirs, often headed by nuns, had existed in one form or another for centuries. The brutal lessons of the war had convinced SAPHO that they needed to be more militant and meet their foes head to head on the field of battle. Their lack of physical strength and fire power was more than made up for by their womanly wiles. They had to become invisible. This was accomplished by being what men thought they were, compliant and subservient. They learned to shape shift as the ancient shamans had. Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.

Trayann, because of her age, was no longer a participant in the day to day activities of SAPHO. Nor was she one of the nine. To the women of the organization, she was a model, a symbol of the ongoing struggle for the rights of women to be recognized as human and not chattel to be bought and sold like livestock.

Something else began occurring with regularity in the early months of my safekeeping and that was the arrival, every five to seven days, of motor launches crowded with woman, young and old, of all shapes and sizes. They were excursions from the woman’s resort on the grey shadow of land on the far horizon that I sometimes glimpsed from the vantage of Trayann’s garden.

The women at the villa, as a cover for their presence at Sabbia Negru, hosted overnight retreats that included vegetarian meals, herbal tonics, and accommodations in cabanas set up along the base of the cliff. Late into the night I listened to the joyful shrieks of female voices accompanied by the hypnotic rhythms of drums and flutes. I was not allowed to participate because I would surely be recognized. Only on those occasions had I felt a twinge of isolation. By the time the festivities began I was usually looking forward to a restful sleep after an exhausting and fulfilling day traipsing around in the woods with Trayann. Those who knew me would have been shocked at my indifference. I had a reputation as one of the most intrepid of party girls.

Like clockwork, I watched the boats arrive. First a sparkling wave at the prow would glimmer like a faint blinking white light. Then as the shapes of the large motorboats became more apparent, the rough rumble of their engines would reach my ears. At times three or four boatloads of women would disembark at the jetty and then proceed up to the villa, a procession of colorful beachwear flapping in the shore breeze like festive drapes set against the blackness of the sand. As I sat on the stone bench high above them in Trayann’s garden, the sound of their voices, a musical incomprehensible babble, would reach me, too often drowned out by the rumble of the motor launches returning.

I didn’t think I’d fallen asleep. I was hearing those motors only much louder, as if they were directly overhead. I opened my eyes and looked across the river. Rikki was waving his arms and shouting something to me. I might have been at the edge, where reverie turns to dream. And I’d barely touched my drink. Using my sandals as paddles, I made my way back to the dock where Wallace and Lalo stood shading their eyes and looking in the direction of the sound. Rikki directed my attention. “Look! A fire!”

It took me a while to focus at where he was pointing, but eventually I made out a column of black smoke roiling out from the hillside of firs and redwoods in the distance. Then I saw the source of the noise, a large white helicopter with a huge red bucket suspended beneath it, dipping into the river further down around the bend.

The look on Rikki’s face mirrored what I was thinking. Wallace spoke for both of us. “Lee, isn’t that smoke coming from over near where you live?”

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

BURNT OUT

The roof had caved in exposing charred rafters. Trails of smoke snaked up through the already choking air. The rear end of a fire truck, beeping a warning, nudged past me, backing toward the ruins of the fire demolished cabin. My cabin, half of which was now nothing more than brittle charcoal sticks. The fire chief took me by the elbow and led me back to his pick-up truck. I’d made the acquaintance of the fire chief when I first moved to Timberton. He was a moderately good looking guy in his late forties. I went to dinner with him once. Like most firefighters, if it’s not on fire, they’re not interested. And I don’t catch fire for just anybody.

burntcabinLike giant bumble bees with axes, the firefighters in their yellow protective gear tore away at the scorched, discolored walls of the back bedroom that had served as my clothes closet. The chief spoke close to my ear to make himself heard above the din of the engine pumps and the chainsaws. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. He explained anyway. The closely packed garments in the back bedroom had somehow slowed the spread of the fire to that part of the house. This was supposed to be some sort of consolation? The clothes were so smoke damaged that they wouldn’t even make good rags. The Valantini’s, the Borochios, the Kokolas, my beautiful Yamita silks, a classic fashion wardrobe that held the history of my career. Gone.

What I felt was more like disappointment than anger. I was still trying to puzzle the pieces together. How did my home, my refuge, become a smoking mass of rubble? What he was telling me didn’t help. Besides it was competing with what I was trying to sort out in my own mind. It started when I had seen the smoke from Nathan Thiele’s beachfront. I had a sinking feeling that the black column was somehow a signal to me. I had to rush home to confirm for myself that what I was imagining was just paranoia, that it was just me, crazy me. But not crazy enough to go the way I was dressed, teensy bottoms and an improvised halter top. I’d come with a wraparound skirt but that didn’t seem to be quite appropriate to go meet my insane intuition. I needed something to throw over myself.

Thiele didn’t have anything in the way of women’s clothing, nothing that would fit me, anyway. There was just one item, a collector’s piece that had once been worn by Audrey Hepburn in some horrid movie that had never been released, and when it occurred to him, it was as if he were having an epiphany. Personally, I was a little appalled. It was a sixties-style woman’s trench coat, deep red in color with large black polka dots. The movie it had appeared in might have been shelved solely on the basis of that coat. Rikki couldn’t help but quip, “I knew there was a Madam Butterfly but now I see that there’s a Madam Ladybug as well.” I couldn’t stay to laugh. My house was on fire.

The access to Primrose was blocked by fire trucks. I’d ditched my wheels and made my way up the street through the runnels of ashy water, my gold flip-flops slipping and sinking in the mire of soggy grime. I saw billows of black smoke pouring out of a broken window. Firefighters were working the hillside where the tall weeds and the oaks were burning. I began to understand then that the cabin I had called home was gone. There was nothing anyone could do.

I felt numb. My cabin wasn’t just a home, it was a connection to a part of my life that had always seemed safe. It had belonged to my stepfather, Frank Zola, and he had come by it in a high stakes poker game. This was long before he’d met my mother. He’d been a brash upstart Wall Street lawyer. She claimed to have civilized him, and maybe she had. But the cabin, for me, represented that side of him that had never been tamed. After I had been rescued by the Prince’s elite security force and then turned over to the authorities who were intent on charging me with fabricating my disappearance, I wasn’t feeling all that great with the world. I’d had to stay in Paris until the legal wrangling was over. Frank had been in touch with me much of that time. The transatlantic phone calls alone must have cost him a fortune. He wasn’t living with mother anymore. And I didn’t realize how sick he was. He passed away shortly after I was vindicated.

    I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.

I could have cashed in on all the attendant publicity. There was not one tabloid that didn’t carry a story about me somewhere in their pages, barely any of it true, mostly rehashing past indiscretions. I was in demand at social occasions and public spectacles like gallery openings and premieres. On the other hand, I wasn’t hearing much from the agencies. But I was fairly ambivalent about it all. My time in captivity on what turned out to be the southwestern tip of Corsica on the Straits of St Bartholomew had given me a new perspective. I had come to think of myself differently. I tried to keep a low profile in spite of being hounded by paparazzi. I had been evicted from my posh apartment. I stayed with friends, putting all that I owned, which was mostly clothes, in storage. Then I had to fly to Chicago for the funeral.

It wasn’t quite a circus, though it was trying hard to be. Wisely, mother had convinced someone high-up on the police commission of the possibility of an unruly crowd and that he should have a riot squad on hand. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Still flashbulbs sparked like thousands of tiny random white holes in the gray mass of on-lookers that rainy Sunday afternoon. Men with telephoto lenses had climbed into trees just to get close-ups of the grieving bad girl. I would have traded every bit of my notoriety for just five more minutes with Frank Zola, to enjoy his kindliness and humor, and his common sense. Later that day his lawyer advised me that Frank had left me the cabin in Corkscrew County in his will. The mystified expression on his face said he had no idea where that was, certainly no place in the civilized world. But, considering my mental state, I took it as a sign, Frank’s last bit of advice. Lay low for a while, regenerate yourself, rediscover yourself.

From the moment I parked the rental in front of the cabin on Quince, I knew I had come home. Financially, Frank had me covered, setting up a trust fund and investing my earnings while I was a minor. Even as an adult and accustomed to extravagances, he managed to convince me to contribute a percentage to the “strong box” as he called it. I sent for the things I had in storage in Paris and moved in. I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.

Someone had once suggested that I write the story of my life as a top model. It would make a good book, they said. I never thought so. But I did start a journal and wrote down my thoughts on a daily basis. That’s easier said than done. But I kept at it. And I came to realize that I had a knack for observation, for detail. That’s how I ended up writing for the Grapevine. It was in answer to a plea for local news and events. I wrote a scathing review of a gallery show up the coast in Healy, the upscale art colony, and sent it in under a pseudonym. I heard back from JJ not because she accepted my article but because she said I had talent that could be used in a positive way. And I was probably the only one who had answered her plea. When we met for the so-called job interview, she recognized me immediately from one of the old cigarette billboards. She had been elated at first and then uncomfortable. And finally, very business-like in a tremulous sort of way. She couldn’t pay me much, she explained, but I should consider my assignments as part of an apprenticeship into the world of journalism. In reality she just wanted someone else to write the puff pieces, a soul deadening task in any language.

The fire chief directed my attention to the tall gray haired woman in uniform approaching us from the edge of the fire. “May Ann Young. The County fire cop,” he nodded toward her almost respectfully. “She’ll want to talk to you.” When she reached us, a fiftyish, weather scarred, no nonsense square ruddy face, he made the introductions. “May, this here’s the property owner, Lee Marlowe.”

“Malone,” I corrected, and extended my hand in greeting.

She looked at it. “You are the legal owner of this property, is that correct?”  She didn’t blink and I had the feeling my every scintilla was under scrutiny.

“Yes, I inherited it from. . . .”

“What time did you leave the house today?”  She held a small yellow notepad in her hand.

I didn’t know what time I had left the house this morning and I said so.

“So you left this morning. Early, late?”

It had been closer to noon.

“Are you having financial difficulties, Ms. Malone?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. What had my finances to do with my house burning down?

“Arty, show the lady what we found,” she said to the firefighter with the shovel who had accompanied her. “Recognize that, Ms. Malone?”

The firefighter extended the shovel in my direction. I looked at a vaguely familiar shape of burnt plastic and discolored metal sitting in the shovel but couldn’t say exactly what it was.

“That’s an electric iron. Or what’s left of one.”

I jumped involuntarily as if I had touched the hot iron itself. I had an electric iron. And I had taken it out when I thought to use it on the scarf I chose for my halter top. But when I realized that it was not a material that would take heat, I’d thought better of it. I didn’t think I’d plugged the iron in. But I had been in a hurry so I wasn’t certain. “You mean that my iron started the fire? It was an accident?”

May Ann looked at me without a change of expression though I could tell she was weighing her words. “Normally, I would say yes. You wouldn’t believe how many people lose their homes to fire through carelessness. But in this case there was just too much accelerant splashed around to make it anything but deliberate.”

I was stunned. “Ok, you just said two things I need to understand better. You said accelerant. What’s that?”

“In this case, I’d say gasoline. That’s what you would use so that what you wanted to burn burned hot and fast.”

“And deliberate, I know what that means. Arson. Are you saying someone purposely set fire to my house?”

“And tried to make it look like an accident.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew the answer.

May Ann spoke, wearily, as if she were tired of saying it. “Why, to collect on the insurance money, of course.”

I felt stupid, but I played it smart and stopped talking. Something Frank Zola had taught me.

“Ms. Malone, I have a lot of questions to ask you. I would like to establish your whereabouts from around noon today to approximately half an hour ago, three o’clock. Sheriff’s deputies will be questioning your neighbors to see if they saw or heard anything suspicious. But I think we might accomplish more if you accompanied me to my office for an interview.”

I hesitated. I was under suspicion of setting my own house on fire. “Do you actually think that I burned my own home?”  I tried to sound irate but it came out with too little conviction. I was starting to doubt myself.

“The facts haven’t been established. But I’ve been a fire cop for a long time, and a fire like this,” she indicated the pile of smoking debris with the jerk of her head, “it’s usually the property owner who has the most to gain.”

“Am I under arrest?”

A ripple of a smile or smirk flexed her stern jaw. “Not unless you wanna be.”


Next Time: Audrey Hepburn’s Raincoat

Contents Vol. I No. 7

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Seven

In Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, Issue Seven, Helena Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth featuring Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan, drops more clues than an Agatha Christie mystery to the Greek myth she’s adapted. Part two of The White Room finds Donovan looking into the mysterious restricted zone at the top of Mount Oly and almost being run off the road by ominous tinted window dreadnaughts as well as concluding that answers to the identity of the murder victim might be closer to sea level at the Sparta Creek Trailer Park.

The Last Resort continues the adventures of Lee Malone, former super model and now small town reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine, with a close call from a presumed friend now antagonist, and a deep dive into her kidnapping by the radical underground feminist group known as S.A.P.H.O.

The latest installment of A Detective Story finds our semi-hero with a chance to get a handful of uncut diamonds in exchange for an address book possibly belonging to a member of The Black Hand, get next to a good looking dolly all the while while teaching her the subtleties of American slang.

Dropping A Dime, News, Views, and Reviews in which yours truly, Perry O’Dickle, aka The Professor, offers up his considered and considerable opinion on the fine art of pulp fiction, reviews of crime fiction, old and new, as well as news of upcoming publications features another look at Max Allen Collins’ Nolan saga from Hard Case Crime with reviews of Two For The Money and Skim Deep.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and A Detective Story, as well as another short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Seven

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 1-3
The Last Resort, Chapters 4-6
The Last Resort, Chapters 7-10
The Last Resort, Chapters 11-13
The Last Resort, Chapters 14-20
The Last Resort, Chapters 21-23
The Last Resort, Chapters 24-25

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

Long Shot I
Long Shot II
Notification Of Kin
Valentine’s Day I
Valentine’s Day II
The White Room I
The White Room II

ds1020

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime friction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. The brownstone was on the Westside and easy enough to find. So was the mug’s yellow roadster. It stuck out like a new shoe in a cobbler’s shop. I was being a sap again. I woke sitting straight up, sweat pouring out and over me, my undershirt drenched. I was going to have to change my shorts. Some dream. They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters. They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs. He handed me a hat. “The pièce de résistance.” He said it like he was serving me dessert. The gat fell from his hand and clattered across the marble floor. It looked like something that might have survived the battle at Ypres. I looked at him and back at the hand and then at the rabbi and his granddaughter who all seemed very pleased by what was being offered. “You’re offering me pebbles? Little gray rocks?”

This kind of story always starts with a blonde
“I was being a sap again.”
“Some dream”
“demons in dingy cable knit sweaters”
“He handed me a hat.”
“The gat fell from his hand” 
“You’re offering me pebbles? Little gray rocks?”

dime-reviews-hdrOnce again from Hard Case Crime, the imprint that is doing it’s darndest  to resuscitate pulp nostalgia with it’s tantalizing cover art and reprints of  of crime fiction classics as well as original contemporary genre fiction comes Max Allen’s Collins’ continuing saga of master thief  Nolan and his young, comic book-loving partner, Jon, matching wits with mobsters while trying to hang on to their lives as well as their stash of bank heist loot. This installment of Dropping A Dime takes a look at the origins of the Nolan and Jon team in Bait Money as well as the contemporaneously penned wrap-up curtain call (but not “curtains”) for the duo in Skim Deep.  

Dime One
Dime Two: Come Back, Nolan, Come Back
Dime Three: He’s Back! (Nolan, that is)

Contents Vol. I No. 6

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Six

Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, Issue Six features a large chunk of Colin Deerwood’s A Detective Story, getting into the meat of the first act as Lackland Ask, Confidential Investigations, finds his lawyer gunned down in his office and narrowly escapes the same treatment as he seeks out someone to decipher the Cyrillic writing in the dead hood’s address book only to encounter a breathtaking young frail who just might be the key to untold riches, at the very least enough scratch to let him live comfortably in a style he is not normally accustomed to.

Helena Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth featuring Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan, is called out for an unidentified body found in the surf which turns out to be a possible homicide. In the course of his investigation he learns of a top secret installation in the coastal hills that draws his suspicions in a multipart short story titled The White Room that involves hang gliders, environmental activists, and a clandestine government agency.

Further in the adventures of Lee Malone, former super model and now small town reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine, who has just missed witnessing a murder and now has been called in to be deposed in the original murder she almost witnessed in the continuing chapters of The Last Resort in which she is suddenly reminded of her party girl past while meeting hostility from someone she thought she could trust.

Also in this issue, a sneak preview of a new serial novel slated for future publication in these hallowed (hollowed?) pages as we lift the veil on a Steampunk adventure by nouvelle roman author, Phyllis Huldarsdottir featuring the indomitable Captain Lydia Cheése (pronounced Chase), Airship Commander, whose quest for her father. the legendary Commodore Jack Cheése, might just take her around the world titled Cheése Stands Alone .

Dropping A Dime, News, Views, and Reviews in which yours truly, Perry O’Dickle, aka The Professor, offers up his considered and considerable opinion on the fine art of pulp fiction, reviews of crime fiction, old and new, as well as news of upcoming publications features a book review of Max Allen Collins’ Double Down from Hard Case Crime.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and A Detective Story, as well as another short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Six

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 1-3
The Last Resort, Chapters 4-6
The Last Resort, Chapters 7-10
The Last Resort, Chapters 11-13
The Last Resort, Chapters 14-20
The Last Resort, Chapters 21-23

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

Long Shot I
Long Shot II
Notification Of Kin
Valentine’s Day I
Valentine’s Day II
The White Room I

ADSbanner421

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime friction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. The brownstone was on the Westside and easy enough to find. So was the mug’s yellow roadster. It stuck out like a new shoe in a cobbler’s shop. I was being a sap again. I woke sitting straight up, sweat pouring out and over me, my undershirt drenched. I was going to have to change my shorts. Some dream. They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters. They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs. He handed me a hat. “The pièce de résistance.” He said it like he was serving me dessert. The gat fell from his hand and clattered across the marble floor. It looked like something that might have survived the battle at Ypres. 

This kind of story always starts with a blonde
“I was being a sap again.”
“Some dream”
“demons in dingy cable knit sweaters”
“He handed me a hat.”
“The gat fell from his hand”

Sneak Preview

cheesealonevinex8

In March of 1892, a Scotsman by the name of Arthur C. “Artie” Doyle was hanged by the neck until dead after being found guilty of a string of grizzly murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel. At that moment, history veered off its presumed course and headed in a direction all its own in which the Great War never happened because the Kaiser was afraid of offending his grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose life was prolonged by the wonders of biology. The peace of her reign, known as the Pax Victoriana, despite some major environmental disasters, has lasted 180 plus years keeping as many Victorian airs as possible while making accommodations to bio technology. Follow Capitan Lydia Cheése (pronounced Chase), Airship Commander, into a world in which the biological sciences overshadow the physical sciences. Steam engines dominate most modes of propulsion. The skies are filled with lighter-than-air craft and railroads cover most of the globe. Internal combustion engines are banned except in the non-aligned nations of the African continent.  Can Lydia Cheése find her father, the antigovernment turncoat and radical, Commodore Jack Cheése. Will her quest take her around the world in less than 80 days or is it a lifelong journey?  Catch your interest? Below is a sample of how any of that might occur in an alternate world never before explored.

Cheése Stands Alone

dime-reviews-hdrFrom Hard Case Crime  nominated for  numerous honors since its inception including the Edgar, the Shamus, the Anthony, the Barry, the Ellery Queen, and the Spinetingler Award with titles that include Stephen King’s #1 New York Times bestsellers, Joyland and Later; James M. Cain’s lost final novel, The Cocktail Waitress; lost early novels by Michael Crichton (writing under the name “John Lange”) and Gore Vidal (writing as “Cameron Kay”), comes Max Allen’s Collins’ second outing  in the Nolan series , continuing the saga as Nolan and his young, comic book-loving partner, Jon, match wits with a skyjacker and a vigilante slaughtering the members of a Midwest crime family.

Dime One
Dime Two: Come Back, Nolan, Come Back

Contents Vol. I No. 5

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Five

Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, Issue Five features a seven chapter chunk of Lee Malone’s adventures in The Last Resort as the former super model now small town newspaper reporter finds another body, this time while visiting with friends at the Franklin Family Resort, aka The Mint, and the knight on a motorcycle, Blackie, falls under a shadow of suspicion as the plot thickens. And what of this mysterious kidnapping in her past?

Helena Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth featuring Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan, wraps up with the concluding part two of Valentine’s Day in which a mass shooting out on the Sage Valley Rancheria is taken over by the FBI and a DHS bounty hunter.

Lackland Ask, a little richer, thanks to a purloined wallet/address book, and drier, thanks to Tugboat Annie and her crew, is being followed, but by whom? A Detective Story picks up with Lack Ask on the run, pausing for a change of clothes, and having his hard heart go pitter-pat at the sight of a comely tomato, the tailor’s daughter. And all of a sudden that address book with the strange indecipherable writing might be worth something.

Also in this issue, the start of a new feature, Dropping A Dime, News, Views, and Reviews in which yours truly, Perry O’Dickle, aka The Professor, will offer up his considered and considerable opinion on the fine art of pulp fiction, reviews of crime fiction, old and new, as well as news of upcoming publications and links to like-minded pulp sites

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and A Detective Story, as well as another short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Five

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


 

TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 1-3
The Last Resort, Chapters 4-6
The Last Resort, Chapters 7-10
The Last Resort, Chapters 11-13
The Last Resort, Chapters 14-20

HBMbanner421

Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops. Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

Long Shot I
Long Shot II
Notification Of Kin
Valentine’s Day I
Valentine’s Day II

ADSbanner421

Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime friction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. The brownstone was on the Westside and easy enough to find. So was the mug’s yellow roadster. It stuck out like a new shoe in a cobbler’s shop. I was being a sap again. I woke sitting straight up, sweat pouring out and over me, my undershirt drenched. I was going to have to change my shorts. Some dream. They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters. They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs. He handed me a hat. “The pièce de résistance.” He said it like he was serving me dessert.

This kind of story always starts with a blonde
“I was being a sap again.”
“Some dream”
“demons in dingy cable knit sweaters”
“He handed me a hat.”

dime-reviews-hdrThe focus is on the novella as a medium for crime fiction as exampled by Daniel Pyne’s Catalina Eddy and Stephen Hunter’s Basil’s War. Primarily utilized in YA fiction, the novella is perhaps underrated as a form ideally suited for the terse, largely cinematic, action focused prose that characterizes much of crime fiction.  The novella doesn’t have time to waste with aimless ruminations, flabby Freudian conjecture, or Clancy Bloat, aka geek bait (really just footnotes inserted into the narrative), that invariably activates the “cut-to-the-chase” mode to scan the page looking for something germane to jump out.

Dime One

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 11-13

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Eleven
BLACKIE’S HOLE

Blackie had his repair shop at the rear of the antique store. Delicate cut glass and enameled trays, porcelain knick-knacks and art deco jewelry, chipped Chippendale settees and Tiffany lamps filled the gloomy antique space of mirrored shelves and mahogany hat racks.  A heavy beaded curtain disguised the entrance to the brightly lit confusion of motorcycle frames and engine parts. An assortment of wrenches and sockets along with glass jars filled with odd nuts, bolts, springs, and pins were neatly arranged along the back of a workbench.  I examined the collection of mementos above it while Blackie fussed with Mr. Coffee.  Besides the motorcycle jacket framed trophy-like with Blackie emblazoned below the larger patch that read Road Devils, the rogue’s gallery of black and white photos told an intriguing story.

Arlene 2There was a smiling Blackie leaning on a big motorcycle with his arm around a beautiful blonde betty.  Why he was known as Blackie was evident from the commanding jet-black pompadour. Among the assortment of snapshots were a few professional photos of a beautiful woman in a postwar coif smiling confidently at the camera.  There were group pictures: Blackie and his pals with their motorcycles sporting tight sleeveless white t-shirts, sunglasses, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. In one, a young man in an Army uniform looked out of place. Another large group photo depicted a line of young men posing with their machines and attendant women in front of a flat roofed industrial building with a sign that read Blackie’s Hole over the doorway. Blackie’s arm was around the woman in the studio photo. There was something radiant about her smile, one that instantly beguiled.  I knew that smile.  Intimately.  Most of the women were attired in short denim jackets or peasant blouses, pedal pushers and sandals, with their big hair wrapped in decorative scarves.  From her broad smile, one of the girls appeared quite proud of the way she filled out a knit tube top.  She looked very familiar.  Perplexed, I realized I was looking at a young Rhonda.  Blackie had come to look over my shoulder.

“That’s Arlene.”  He said pointing at the photo.

“That’s not Rhonda?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s Rhonda there, next to Chip.  No, this is Arlene here in the picture with me.”  He was smiling at the old memories.  “This is her here, too.  She was a model.  Kinda like you.”

Blackie was right. She had the poise of a fashion model.  And she had the right kind of cheekbones.

“Hell, we were all models back then.  The women you see here were some of the hottest models in Los Angeles.  Most of these guys were surfers or bikers who also did a little modeling, part time.” He looked at me and his smile widened, mischievously. “Hey, there was a demand for photos of tan muscular men.”

“And big breasted women will never go out of style, certainly not in men’s imaginations,” I had to add.

Blackie had an easy laugh that undoubtedly had enchanted more than one young woman. “Oh yeah, well, Rhonda, she graduated.”  The tips of his ears turned pink.  He pointed to the man in the uniform. “That’s my older brother, Al.  He was killed in Korea.  And this guy here, with Rhonda, is Charlie Pierce. Everyone called him Chip.  He was Rhonda’s first husband. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident.” Blackie shook his head.  “He got hooked on drugs because of it. Rhonda got into her line of work to support his habit. But he overdosed. She really loved the guy.” Blackie cleared his throat of the burr of emotion that had crept in.  “This place in the picture was a garage where we hung out and worked on our bikes. Tommy Perro, this guy here.” He pointed to a short muscular man, cigarette jutting jauntily from the corner of his mouth.  “He’s the one who painted the sign over the door.  We never called it that.  It was always ‘the place’ or ‘the box’.”

Blackies club12JJ had told me a little about Blackie when I had once asked about the good-looking old guy hosing down the sidewalk in front of the office.  She had made some lame joke like ‘Blackie Widower’ but I also learned that his wife, Arlene, had run the antique store while Blackie puttered around in the workshop.  After his wife died, he had kept the business open in her memory.  It had always been called Blackie’s Antiques and Motorcycle Repair Shop.  That had been Arlene’s idea. She thought that the unusual name would bring in the curious. It did, but, according to JJ, the curious just like to look, they rarely buy anything.

“How old are you in this picture?” I pointed to the one with him astride a big motorcycle.  He didn’t look older than seventeen.

Blackie gave a laugh that started as a groan, as if reaching that far back stretched some memory muscles he hadn’t used in a while.  “There?  I’d say about twenty.  Or close to it. I always looked young for my age.  I was being carded well into my thirties.  How old do you think I am?  Now.”

I passed an appraising glance over his trim figure.  He looked solid enough though his leathery weathered face was creased with the erosion of age.  I imagined that it was the full head of hair, even shockingly white, that knocked the years off.   “Oh, sixty something.”

He nodded, smiling appreciatively at the graciousness of my guesstimate just as Mr. Coffee came to life, ejecting a stream of dark aromatic liquid into the carafe amidst a grumble of boiling water.

“How do you like yours?  Cream? Sugar?”

I told him sugar, no cream.  And I had guessed right, he took his black. The rain, as if cued by the coffee maker, started in earnest. It was a heavy rain and it banged on the metal storage shed out behind the shop and fell elsewhere with an earth-denting thud, etching itself onto the tiny dirt-smeared window that let in a skimping gray light. I brought the cup to my lips. I didn’t want to miss a word of what Blackie had to tell me.

Arlene and Rhonda had been inseparable friends when Blackie met them hanging out on Venice beach.  They were young, they were wild, they were supremely confident in their prospects.  His description of the modeling scene in the early fifties confirmed that nothing had really changed or would change in the dog-eat-dog backstabbing world of commercial modeling.  The sheer boredom of photo shoots, the humiliating treatment by the photographers, the indignities suffered, the mammoth egos of dueling star models were all very familiar to me.  He could write a book, he said, name names, about who did what to whom and who wanted it done, all the dirty behind-the-scenes manipulations of the agents and fashion magazine editors.  It was a sad comment on human nature, the blind, lustful, grasping sickness for fame and fortune that only led to certain emptiness. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

redwoodbkcvr1By sheer accident, Blackie and his gang of Road Devils, on a road trip up the coast, had turned inland onto Highway 8 at Feather and stopped in Timberton. Arlene had taken one look around and claimed to have found paradise. The pines, the firs, the redwoods, the river all spoke to her spiritual inner self.  Blackie couldn’t argue with that.  When they got back to LA, they packed a few suitcases, sold everything they couldn’t carry and moved up to the Corkscrew River.

A chair scraping across the floor above broke the spell and reminded me that I was directly below the Grapevine’s office and that the furniture moving was probably being done by my erstwhile editor, JJ.  Blackie’s story had been diverting but I still had to find the Countess.

“She and her boyfriend live a cardboard box under the bridge,” Blackie volunteered. “But don’t go down there now, you’ll get drenched. I’ll go with you once the rain lets up.”

I wasn’t in a hurry to get wet.  Besides, the strong coffee was beginning to have an effect on me. Blackie read my look and pointed to the door near the entrance to his shop and a small, reasonably clean bathroom. With the door closed, the noises from the office above resonated in the confined space.  I heard JJ talking.  She was on the phone.  I tried not to believe my ears.

“No, Miss Malone will be unable to make the appointment with Detective Santos.  I will be taking her place.”


Chapter Twelve
THE CARDBOARD CASTLE

My satin high heels were sucked into the oily mire of the narrow path snaking its way through the tangle of undergrowth. Tall, brown and dead, the weeds on either side blocked any peripheral view. Up ahead, a bridge loomed in tatters of mist. Colorful scraps of food wrappers festooned the occasional shaggy shrub.  Lucky Charms cereal boxes and a scattering of beer cans adorned an open space of matted grass at the edge of the trail.  Dogs barked in the distance.  A rusty bike missing its seat leaned against a fence post.

The trail led down toward the Corkscrew River, a roiling rushing gray mass carrying anything in its path out to the sullen winter sea. Plastic containers, barrels, and old tires bobbed by on the suds-specked waters accompanied by various pieces of lawn furniture. The sign from a local resort jammed against the branches of a large uprooted tree drifted by, its claim to be Close To The River still readable above the water line. Smoke from cooking fires rose in the distance, blue threads against the dark of the mist-bound bridge.

It was taking me forever to get to the homeless encampment.  I thought I heard birds and then spied two rather ratty specimens.  They were in fact attached to sticks held in the hand of an adolescent guttersnipe.  He made bird noises but they were more like the kissing sounds made to call a four-legged pet.  He had been paralleling my path in the tall weeds all along and I hadn’t even noticed.

I was experiencing a kind of tunnel vision that only allowed a view of the world within the narrow frame of a full-length mirror in a dressing room.  In that mirror I was wearing an orange and gold Felliniccio evening gown. I should have never worn the matching high heels.  They were ruined.

I came to a clearing.  A blue tarp was draped over a length of rope between two trees. Sections from a large cardboard box made a kind of floor beneath the blue tent.  Motorcycle parts were lined up on a gray blanket next to a smoldering campfire.  Sheets of discarded newspaper clung to the dingy bushes nearby. The path continued past a cluster of campsites, widening out into a trampled muddy bog.

cardboard castleA dog lunged from behind a shopping cart piled high with empty cans and bottles.  It looked just like Hitler, Goldstein’s old Airedale. Maybe he hadn’t been shot after all.  Maybe he’d just been kidnapped.  The mud-spattered urchin, now a young girl with a wreath of dead flowers braided into her hair, followed me with the artificial birds. They were supposed to be finches but the sounds she gave them were like cats in heat.

Under a large oak dripping with lichen, a man in Bermuda shorts, seedy sports coat and straw hat stood as if waiting for a bus.  The hair showing beneath the man’s hat was made of twists of orange yarn.  The red ball of a clown nose covered his own.  Folded in one pocket of his coat was a pornographic magazine, the pictures of nude flesh neon in the gray light.  He lifted his hat in mute greeting and the curls of wool rose with it.

I was about to ask for directions when I saw it, tucked against the concrete embankment of the bridge like a wasp’s nest. An assemblage of large appliance boxes and packing crates had been fitted together to make a curious dwelling atop the riprap where the Timberton bridge began its span across the river. A turret had been fashioned out of cardboard and spires made of discarded lumber were strung with shabby pennants. The rocky slope to the cardboard condo was covered with green slime.  I lost my footing and tottered over the foul swirling eddies.

When I regained my balance I was sitting inside a rather spacious cardboard room with a low ceiling that read this side up and a tattered Persian rug covering the dirt floor.  A shaggy gray dog snuffled in his sleep behind the back of a woman whose shoulders were draped in an intricately embroidered gypsy shawl.  She was cooking something over a low fire. It struck me as odd that the smoke wasn’t filling the cardboard enclosure. Occasionally, the flames from the cooking fire would rise and encompass her figure like an aura.  A large badly dressed marionette was perched next to her.  Bothered by the absence of smoke, I pushed open a flap that had been cut into the cardboard wall.

What I saw chilled me. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out, as if I were posing for Munch’s famous painting.  The two men from the gray van with their Doberman in the lead were running up the path.  I had to hide but there was nowhere to go. Terrified, I clutched my knees and hid my face in my arms.  Maybe they wouldn’t find me. I waited.  When I raised my head, they were standing in front of me, the oily skinny creep and the large bearded brute, grinning menacingly.  The Doberman was inches away from my face, barking, barking like the ringing of a telephone.

I awoke and fumbled with the phone, glancing at the clock on the bedside table.  It was 3:30 in the morning.

“Leeann?  Leeann Malone?”  The man’s voice was gruff, grave.  He didn’t wait for me to answer.  “Leeann, this is Harrison Tucker.”  Harrison Tucker was my mother’s lawyer. And he had been my stepfather’s partner in the investment firm.  My stepfather had another name for him, one not used in polite company. “Leeann,” he repeated, “Your mother’s in the hospital with pneumonia.”

I sighed. A week earlier I had told my mother that I didn’t think I’d be flying back to Chicago for the holidays.  Now, a few days before Christmas, she had found a way of changing my mind.  “How bad is she?” I asked.

“She’s in the intensive care.  They’re doing tests.”

If I knew my mother, the hospital staff being was being tested.  To the limit.

“I’ve taken the liberty of booking you a flight out of Capitol City Airport. It leaves in three hours. I knew that you’d want to be at her bedside in her time of need.” Harrison Tucker assumed too much. My mother had taken up with him after Frank died. And unlike Frank, she had him wrapped around her little finger.  But I wasn’t going to take the chance that this was the one time she wasn’t crying wolf.  Shaking the sleep out of my hair, I wrote down the flight information and hung up.  I dragged myself into the bathroom and startled myself with the bright light above the mirror.  I looked bedraggled, like a bad dream. A wind driven rainstorm pounded the landscape with an urgent howl outside the tiny window. The image of the cardboard palace was still fresh in my mind.

I hate the way these things come to me.  Call it what you want, a hunch, woman’s intuition. The bodies in the burned out gray van had included a dog.  The police report had not indicated whether one of the bodies was that of a woman.  I had a gut feeling that one of them was.


Chapter Thirteen
MY HOME TOWN

Lk MichI hate Chicago.  I hate Chicago in the winter.  I hate that the snow is not white but a sooty gray. I hate that the chill winds swirl through the high-rise canyons, around your legs and up your skirt, so cold and impersonal.  I love the view of Lake Michigan from my mother’s townhouse, sheeted over with ice and snow. I hate my mother’s townhouse.  It’s a museum.  Not a museum of Louis the XIV furniture or art deco lamps or Japanese prints.  It’s a museum of me.

As soon as I landed at O’Hare, I took a cab to the hospital.   Even in her heavily medicated condition my mother had cocked an eye at me and said, “You’re letting your hair grow.” I’d been spending my time between her bedside and the townhouse since I arrived. I couldn’t decide which was worse, being tortured by images of myself on every wall in every nook and cranny of the townhouse or sitting at my mother’s bedside watching her struggle to breathe.

The hospital was putting on its festive face for the holidays. There were decorated trees in all the alcoves.  Strings of tiny lights festooned the frames of the corporate art on the walls. The nurses wore little red and green ribbon corsages by their nametags or sported Christmas ornament earrings. Good cheer was in the air despite the sickness and pain, the daily expirations, and the low ominous hum of the life support machines. I got to know a few of the nurses, some of whom recognized me from the fashion media.  “Say, weren’t you in that perfume ad?” was an often asked question.  “You’re still gorgeous” was the chorus.

lee nude1On the walls of my mother’s townhouse were the constant reminders of how gorgeous I was.  There were poster sized photo portraits of me by the cream of world famous photographers in the foyer.  Discreetly off to one side before entering the glass walled living room was an Oglethorpe nude of me, all white flesh and black background.  I was naked but none of my private parts showed. Not that any of my parts were ever private once I became a professional beauty.  Still it was pronounced the most seductive image of the century.  The oil baron who had privately commissioned the portrait had made that pronouncement.  In the formal dining room, taking up a good part of the wall above the chrome and glass table was the most scandalous portrait of all.  It was the canvas that the controversial painter, René de Ricane, had done of me, a thicket of violent brushstrokes whose suggestiveness left little to the imagination.  My face, as they say, may have launched a thousand ships, but according to the painting, my body was responsible for as many shipwrecks.  It was titled la Siréne, The Siren.

I had spent two weeks alone with de Ricane in an old convent that he had converted into a studio near Pau at the base of the Pyrenees.  When he wasn’t painting, he was drinking red wine made from grapes he grew himself and smoking vile Turkish cigarettes. And he talked constantly, about art, about history, about politics, about the cinema. But most of all about his sex life, wheezing wistfully about his conquests and the one that got away, a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other on the terrace overlooking his sunset tinged vines.  He had been born before the turn of the century and had known most of the significant artists of his time and judged them all to be charlatans.  At first I tuned out his babble.  He was as bad as cocaine high fashion photographers with their inane chatter. He was certainly more demanding, wrenching me into poses that no fashion magazine would dare show.

Maybe it was turpentine intoxication, but after a couple of days the words started leaking through.  What he was saying actually made sense unlike the double-speak of agents, fashion magazine editors, and sycophants. I started having thoughts of my own. I’d never had this kind of time to myself before. I had to hold poses for interminable hours.  At first there was pain and discomfort, then numbness.  There were times that I felt that I had left my body and was watching myself from a corner of the studio.  What I saw was sad as well as beautiful in the way that birth and death are sad and beautiful.  At the end of the two weeks de Ricane had grudgingly put aside the painting. “It will never be finished,” he proclaimed, “until you come to terms with your beauty.”  He gave up the commission from the wealthy patron and handed the canvas over to me instead. “This will be your Dorian Gray,” he pronounced.  A week later he gave up the ghost.  I was left with a painting worth six figures that ostensibly had supernatural qualities and the conviction that I had to live my life differently.  It’s more complicated than it sounds. In forging a new life, some destruction must take place.  And it did.  With it came the reputation that trails me like a tantalizing scent to this day.

Harrison Tucker insisted that I accompany him to a holiday society gala. I wore an original Jean Claude Penne that mother had saved, preserved in plastic like an artifact in the closet of the bedroom that she insisted would always be mine.  I wasn’t surprised that it still fit. Once I stepped out of the limousine though, I knew it was a mistake.  Bursts of camera flashes greeted me and I was swarmed by emotionally starved men in expensive suits and women who had made the wrong fashion decision, all wanting to have their picture taken with me. I was powerful yet I felt powerless. I signaled the valet and stayed only long enough for the driver to bring the limo back around.

I spent Christmas day at my mother’s bedside.  One of the nurses brought me a plate of dry turkey, chewy mashed potatoes, gooey gravy, and runny cranberry sauce from the cafeteria and wished me a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah. I was grateful for the lack of attention.  The society columnist with the Tribune that day noted my brief attendance at the gala, intimating that I was either rude, on drugs, or both.  I had to face it.  I was still a bad girl in my hometown.

hospital-fundraisingI held mother’s soft mottled hands and couldn’t help noticing how much mine were beginning to resemble hers.  Sometimes she was there, sometimes she wasn’t.  I would get that glowing look of recognition when she woke to see me or a vague troubled frown when she didn’t recognize her surroundings.  She had been a strong woman once, a gorgeous, vivacious woman, born in the Ukraine. I was a lucky combination of my father’s cocky Irish manner and her classic good looks. The way I looked was money in the bank to her, the epitome of the American dream. I had been packaged and sold.  I’d come to terms with that long ago.

Harrison Tucker made an attempt to get me out for a New Year’s Eve soiree with some society stiffs.  I begged off.  I wanted to start the New Year off with mother.  I’d picked up a doorstop of a paperback at the airport and caught up on my reading while mother slept.

The night nurse peeked in.  “How’s everything going in here?” she asked. I indicated my dozing mother and smiled a “just fine.” She tiptoed over to my chair and whispered, “All the nurses and interns are going to watch the ball drop and have champagne in the waiting room.  You should join us.”

I set the book aside and looked at mother. She wouldn’t miss me.  A small group of nurses and doctors wearing funny hats clustered around the TV in the waiting room.   I was offered a plastic cup of champagne and wished a Happy New Year. The ball dropped and still Dick Clark did not look a year older.  Maybe he was father time.  There was a tiny outburst of cheering suitable for a hospital zone and a lot of kissing.  A young intern in his early twenties wanted to kiss me.  I let him.  One of the nurses had flipped the channel to a news station. A reporter was holding a microphone in a man’s face. It was Blackie! I grabbed the remote from the startled nurse and turned up the volume. Blackie was saying, “. . .well, the river rises like this once every ten years or so, but this is the highest I’ve ever seen it.”  The caption below the report read Corkscrew River overflows banks. . . Evacuations ordered.  It was good to see Blackie in his yellow slicker, rain dripping off his face, apparently unperturbed by it all.  Then it was as if I’d stepped on a live wire.  The TV showed a view of Timberton under water and the camera zoomed in on a man towing a rowboat with a rope down Main Street. Another man was hunched over, shivering, in the boat with a large brown dog.  It was the unholy trio: the large bearded bully from the gray van, his greasy, rat faced partner, and their cockroach colored Doberman.  Very much alive.


Next Time: High Waters & High Priced Lawyers

The Last Resort, CHPS 7-10

Chapter Seven
NAKED TREES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“La Londa!”

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

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

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

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

“The Wad!”

“Ward?”

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

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

“Anna.”

“The banana queen!” Rikki exclaimed triumphantly.

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

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

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

“Nothing little about Jimmy.”

“I know. . . .”

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

Chapter Eight
RAMBLE IN THE BRAMBLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled, weakly, unsure of the proper response.

Chapter Nine
COLD SNAP COLD TRAIL

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

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

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

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

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

“Incidentally, have you finished that bakery piece?”

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

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

“Something’s not right. . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s missing?

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

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

“Oh, and don’t forget the coffee!”

Chapter Ten
BABE IN THE BLUE OX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t surprised that he babbled.

“I don’t do Volvo’s.”

“Really?  That’s absolutely fascinating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Motorcycles, Antiques, & a Missing Countess