Tag Archives: Runway Queen

The Last Resort 24-25

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Four

FIVE MILLION DOLLAR BABY

“I have always been bait.”

Chandler moved his head slightly from side to side in disbelief. “That’s crazy.”

smoky cafe“Why are you so surprised? It’s just another name for seductress.” Albért Picón, the French poet and lecher had pointed that out to me over a glass of Pernod in a smoky café on the Left Bank years ago when I was still actively playing that role.

“You had no idea that I would get your phone message telling me to meet you out here because you said you had some new information on the Fashwalla murder. Good thing I was out this way when my secretary paged me. You saw how angry Blackie was when he left.  Don’t let the white hair fool you.  I don’t think you realize what kind of danger you’re putting yourself in.”

I shrugged and toyed with the ice in my glass.  “I’ve been bait since I could walk.  Practically every woman is.  When you’re made out to be the pinnacles of feminine perfection, in the eyes of men at least, it becomes obvious that you’re a lure. It’s even a quality you can have. Allure. Rich men want you gracing their arms like expensive jewelry. Men are impotent in the face of real beauty. And if they’re not, they’ve still got mother issues to resolve.  As for Blackie, I can handle him.”

Chandler smiled wide enough to give himself dimples.  “You think you’re tough, don’t you?”

I shrugged.  “I think I’m a realist.  At least about what I’ve been, what I’ve done.”

“Well, you might be a little out of your league here.”  He was serious again, little ridges of worry crinkling his smooth Asian forehead.

“Blackie’s been eavesdropping on the conversations in the Grapevine office. You can sit in his workshop and hear everything that’s said upstairs. I made up that story about new evidence to get him to follow me out to the coast.”  I bit the straw and wet my whistle with a little of the diluted soda. “I had to prove to myself that I was right about him. I still don’t know how he managed to beat me out here. Unless he was on his bike before I got to my car. . . .” My reasoning was beginning to sound farfetched, even to me. “But he’s involved in all of this, I’m sure of it.  I just haven’t figured out how.”

Chandler worked up another smile but this time it had a smug edge.  “Not even close.”

There was something about Chandler Wong that I liked, but I also got the feeling that I baffled him. He was certainly intelligent, but guy enough to always want to be right.  I gave him my extraordinary smile and “You’re probably right, but help me out, just to satisfy my curiosity.”  A three quarter profile and a little lean forward.  “Where am I wrong on this?”

He started to speak but then exhaled a slight chuckle.  He shook his head and stared down at the edge of the cracked formica table. “I can’t.” And then up to meet my gaze.

His mistake.  I let my eyes do their special pleading.

He folded like a bad poker hand. “Alright, Hollis Ryan, or Blackie as you call him, is involved but probably not in the way you think.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “He was a potential witness in the Fashwalla murder.  He happened to be here, at the Chicken Fish, on that day.  But then this is one of his hangouts.  As he said in his statement to Detective Santos, he was inside and not outside.  He only saw the food on his plate and the beer in his glass.”

“That sounds like something he’d say.”

Chandler cleared his throat, annoyed perhaps.  “Blackie was known to Detective Santos when Santos was a deputy assigned to the Timberton substation. There had been an incident with Mr. Ryan and in the course of a background check, it turned out that your antique shop owner had once been arrested for murder. He copped a plea and had it reduced to manslaughter.  He did time. This was down south, long before he moved up to Corkscrew County.”

My surprise must have shown.

“It turns out that Mr. Ryan was muscle for a small time pimp by the name of Tommy Perro.”

Tommy Perro.  I mouthed the name to myself.  That was the name of one of the men in the photo at Blackie’s workshop.  One of the old motorcycle gang.

“Perro branched out into dirty movies.  Ryan doubled as one of his actors as well.  He killed another male actor on the set of a shoot.”

This was a little more than I’d bargained for, but I was fascinated.  “Don’t stop now.”

That chuckle again, with a slightly embarrassed shy boy sideways glance at me. Quite charming. “When Fashwalla’s brother came forward and confessed we thought we wouldn’t need the testimony of witnesses so that part of the investigation was shut down.  His recanting of the confession and the similarity with the killing at Franklin’s Resort put a different spin on things.  Again Ryan’s presence at the resort raised a flag but his alibi checked out so now he’s just what you might call a person of interest.”

“I think Blackie has something to do with the murders.” I tried not to sound too self-righteous. “Why aren’t you investigating him?”

A frown greeted my insistence. “Well, for one, I’m not in charge of the investigation.  It’s the District Attorney’s call.  He’s the one who sets the schedule.”  By the way he said it, he obviously wasn’t happy with the progress of the case.

“Anyway, we’re after bigger fish.”  Chandler sat back in the booth and considered me with a serious stare. “This cannot be repeated to anyone. Do you understand?”  He lowered his voice to a near whisper.

I nodded dumbly and leaned forward.  “Of course.”

“After Fashwalla’s brother recanted his confession and retained the high priced attorney. . . .”

“Preston Carmichael.”

“Right, we started taking a closer look at all the players.  A common thread emerged.  Both Fashwalla and Franklin owned old rundown resorts.  The other thing in common was that they had both refused to sell their properties to Ramparts Corp, a real estate developer with international connections.  It turns out that there’s been a steady rise in title transfers of ranch land and old resorts in the county, the majority being grabbed up by Ramparts. We’re pretty sure there was coercion in more than a few of the sales.  A lot of the property is being converted to vineyards.”

“Let me guess.  Montague Winery.”

“Very good. Ramparts, it turns out, is an umbrella corporation fronting a lot of questionable enterprises and headed by a certain Thomas Montague.”

“Tommy Montague?”

“Senior.  His son is the executive in charge of the Winery.  But what’s more interesting is the fact that Montague is not the old man’s real name.”  Chandler paused.  He must have realized I was mesmerized.

“Perro. He used to go by the name of Tommy Perro.”

The bus boy rattled past with a cart full of dirty dishes.  A group of couples had entered the dining room and were assessing the best place to be seated. The waitress waved them over to the tables overlooking the crashing surf with a handful of menus.

“Which brings us back to Blackie.” I thought my point had been made.

“This is much bigger.  Sex trafficking, child pornography, wire fraud, extortion, money laundering.  We’re working with the Department of Justice, State and Federal.”

I wasn’t all that convinced.  “I still think there’s more to Blackie than meets the eye.”

Another chuckle, this time a rolling rumble of pleasure.  “My contact at Justice is an old college friend.  He asked about you last time I spoke to him.  He saw an item on TV that said you lived in Corkscrew County and he wondered if I had ever met you.”

“And you have!”  I wasn’t surprised.  “What a coincidence!”

“He reminded me that you had once been kidnapped and held for ransom.  I remember reading something about that when I was in law school!”

“That was quite some time ago.”  I didn’t like thinking about it, let alone talk about it.

He frowned as if the math was not adding up.  “Not that long ago.”

waitress-main“Maybe it just seems that way.”  Now I was uncomfortable.

“You were held for ransom by some radical feminist group, right?  And what was the ransom?  Two million dollars?”

“More like five million.”

The waitress appeared suddenly, pad in hand, casting curious glances at each of us.  She was an older woman with weary road worn features and dyed blonde hair gathered in a bouquet of split ends on the top of her head.  She extracted a long orange pencil from the haystack.  She had on a blouse that had once been whiter and a wrinkled faded black skirt.  A nametag partially covered the discoloration of an old stain over the left breast.  It read Guess.  She looked at Chandler and then at me.  “Well, now that we’ve decided on a price, are we ready to order?”


Chapter Twenty Five

IN THE SWIM

I had four men staring at me and two of them were pointing, but not with their fingers.

The day started innocently enough. The heat wave of the past several days had subsided to a mere swelter. I’d received a call from Rikki inviting me to a swim party at the home of an acquaintance. The temperatures had been pretty unbearable and with the exception of my lone foray out to the coast, I’d contented myself with iced drinks, an electric fan, and the occasional cold shower. The thought of spending time in water that didn’t come from a pipe was tempting. There was a problem though, and that’s what had dissuaded me from going to the beach before. I didn’t have appropriate swimwear. I had plenty of stylish bikini and mini thong bottoms but no tops. I’d spent most of my time on beaches in Mediterranean countries where tops were optional so they never got packed or were simply abandoned in boutiques. Hard to believe that in all the years I’d lived near the Corkscrew River I’d never dipped in a toe.

laloRikki’s friend was someone he’d known in Hollywood, Nathan Thiele, the legendary stage and screen production designer, now retired. So Rikki had informed me over the phone. I wouldn’t have had a clue. Nat’s partner was a young Haitian man named Lalo with the cutest accent and the smallest most revealing swimsuit, which, with the speed removed, left only the oh to the imagination. Rikki and Wallace were both conservatively attired in clashing neon Hawaiian shirts and rather unimaginative baggy swim trunks. Nat himself looked like he might be preparing to go on safari. Nat’s cabin, as he called it, was a dreamy redwood Arts & Crafts gem with a wide sweeping deck sitting at the top of an apron of manicured lawn that ran down to the sandy shore and the water’s edge.

I had shown up a little late, having resolved my dilemma by grabbing an old scarf from my scarf drawer and fashioning it into a halter top. I thought Nat’s eyes were going to pop out of his head. He’d pointed a trembling finger at me. “That’s not a Héléne Mouchoir, is it?”  I admitted to that possibility, after all I did own some of her creations. And he’d replied, “Well, in that case, I wouldn’t think of allowing you to go swimming in a priceless designer scarf!” Rikki spoke up and suggested that I just go topless. His words were “After all, we’re gay guys, we’re not gonna get all weird at the sight of your tay-tays.”  I considered it and thought why not, it’s perfectly natural in the civilized world. There was an embarrassed silence while they all stared at my breasts. Finally I had to say, “Lalo, Wallace, it’s not polite to point.”

Nate and I compromised. He had a large rubber raft that featured inflated back and arm rests. There was even a place for my cocktail. After spreading lotion all over myself, I climbed on, launched the raft away from shore, and settled back. I donned my Fabregianni sunglasses and trailed a finger in the cool green waters. What there was of a current steered me down away from the dock into the shade of bays and willows on the opposite shore. The little alcove of shade was a perfect place to observe the world even if it was just four guys posing, posturing and frolicking in the shallows. I was like Cleopatra on her barge, the queen of the Nile with sun-dappled ankles.

The tranquility of water, I’ve always appreciated the tranquility of water, especially in the Mediterranean where the sparkling azure sky reflecting off the undulating expanse was magical. Just the thought of it transported me there. And the beach at Sabbia Negru, the black sands where Xuxann bent over me, nipples as dark and plump as rum soaked raisins.

Only at first did it ever seem like captivity. Protective custody, the council of nine had called it. I had been confined to a small cell for possibly a week, disoriented at first, while my captors decided whether I was to be trusted. Eventually I was allowed to roam the grounds but only if accompanied by one of the nine. Most of the time it was a woman named Xuxann. She was my guide as well as my guard. A tall, lithe North African with a mass of dark ophidian locks, Xuxann was what the poets meant when they referred to Abyssinian maids.

Once I’d concluded that I was not in eminent danger, I took stock of my situation. By the angle of the sun crossing the sky, I figured that the rugged landscape faced south. My first guess was that I was on an old Roman estate tucked among pines, cypress, and aromatic cedars on a rocky hillside overlooking a cerulean sheet of sea. The main house, a large villa roofed with red tile, was perched on the edge of a table of land above the seashore. A winding stone stairway cut into the face of the cliff led to the beach below. My cell was among a collection of wood and stone structures on the hillside behind the villa indicating that at one time it might have functioned as a monastery and that my tiny austere room may have once been a monk’s. There were places on the compound where I wasn’t allowed, and on certain occasions I was held incognito in the confines of my room. Otherwise, I was free to roam and explore.

Behind the compound, thick nests of conifers populated the creased gray stone face of an ancient mountain. On the west side, an old Roman arch led out to a treacherous rock and thorn-bush infested ravine. A frothy white stream tumbled over smooth rounded boulders on the east side of the property and dropped over the edge of a precipice onto the beach below. Xuxann called it Alleca Diva, the milk of the goddess.

The two of us often spent the early part of the day running along trails and paths of the wild flower carpeted cliffs, pausing to absorb the enchantment of a particular sea-shaped formation or gaze over a sheer decline at the rocks milling in the surf. It was then that I developed my passion for running and the love of freedom and power it gave me. We ran or jogged everywhere we went, especially on the wide stretch of black sand from the waterfall on one end to the jetty at the other. We were like wild mares galloping through the shimmering surf. When the sun rose to its peak at midday, weary from our exertions, we splashed in the refreshing turquoise waves.

I remembered sitting on that beach and watching as Xuxann rose out of the sea, a blast of setting sun framing her like a golden shell, a dripping wet wide-hipped silhouette creating a presence as well as an absence that pulled me in and yet repulsed me. I sensed her strength, a power representing all of life.

minoan“All of life,” spoke the shaman, stretching out her arms to indicate the world of the hillside garden outside of her ancient stone abode. Xuxann had repeated the words in French as I was not yet accustomed to the old woman’s coarse dialect.

It had been a little over a month after my arrival that Xuxann took me to the top of the property and through a small stone arch that was obviously much older than the Roman period one. We had followed the path along the milky stream up to a terraced garden at the top of which a primitive stone house commanded a wide view of the sea and the shadow of a far off shore under a mantle of cloud. Out in front a tall woman with a halo of wiry silver hair framing a perfectly symmetrical face greeted us. Her eyebrows were still as dark as her eyes and her nose drew a narrow angle down to her welcoming smile. She wore a colorful tiered skirt and a little embroidered sleeveless vest joined by a macramé clasp of gold thread in the middle. That was my introduction to Trayann, the old woman of the mountain.

How I arrived in this dream of peace and beauty was nothing short of a nightmare. I’d just finished an exhausting round of fashion shows and soirees and was on my way to Budapest to meet with the Prince for an opening of East European modernist art at a gallery he sponsored. I had asked the driver of my limousine to take the old road between Prague and Budapest. We had just passed through a small farming village and into a forested region. It was getting on toward evening and I had just begun to nod off. I opened my eyes when I felt the limo come to a stop. A black Mercedes blocked the two-lane road and a green panel truck had pulled in behind the limousine. I was trying to make sense of what was going on when the rear door was yanked open and I was pulled from the back seat. A pungent rag was forced over my nose and mouth. As I faded into unconsciousness, I made out two burly square-headed men in black hoods. It didn’t seem odd that I would think Bulgarians. I awoke next when I felt a pin prick on my thigh. A man with a narrow face and a dark moustache glanced up from the syringe in his hand. The walls were red, the bed was red, the chair was red, the floor was red, the light was red, and then everything went black. I was jolted awake by a violent crash and found myself strapped to a gurney in the back of what appeared to be an ambulance. I heard a commotion, shouting, outside the vehicle, and then gunshots. I told myself, this is it, this is the end. My ears rang with more excited yelling in a language I couldn’t quite make out, this time closer, at the doors to the rear of the vehicle. It seemed curious that they were women’s voices. My heart beat harder, faster, and I lost consciousness again.

A pale white light edged with red insinuated itself through my closed lids. I opened my eyes to see the face of an older woman bent over me with a look of concern and relief. She straightened up and I saw that she wasn’t alone. There were eight other women of varying ages surrounding my bed in a large white room. I had known females of great physical beauty in the fashion business, but it was mostly skin deep. A beauty of wisdom and compassion emanated from the assembled women, generating an aura of calm benevolence. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.


Next Time:  Enter S.A.P.H.O, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques

 

 

The Last Resort, 14-20

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Fourteen
HIGH WATER HIGH ANXIETY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The lawyer. . .”                              

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

“Preston Carmichael.”

“Right. You know of him?”

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

Chapter Fifteen
SEDUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aruba, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Sixteen
DON’T GET ME WONG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a way with cameras.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to verify the details.”

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

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

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

“You’re sure of this?”

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

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

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

“You dreamed that two homeless people had disappeared.”

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

 “Was it their van?”

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

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

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

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

“No, that was Tarzan.”

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

“Their Russian wolfhound, Tarzan.”

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

“That’s just it! They can’t be!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I saw them on TV?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seventeen
HEARTBREAKER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You Lee Malone?” he demanded.

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

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

I about had a heart attack. 

Chapter Eighteen
CHAMPAGNE & RASPBERRY JAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed. Rikki always got me to laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nineteen
THE GOOD ONES ARE ALWAYS TAKEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His faint smile was a question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Twenty
CASTLE MONTAGUE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Naked Blade

The Last Resort, CHPS 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.


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