Tag Archives: The Corkscrew County Grapevine

The Last Resort, 30-31

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Thirty


It’s not like I didn’t have any clothes. A model always has clothes. Mine were in the trunk of my Volvo. There was a basket of laundry I never found time to do. And two shopping bags full of clothes I never got around to donating to the local thrift store. Underneath all that was a large garment box my mother had mailed to me in a fit of spite. It contained the cast-offs of a life spent in the promotion of my classic good looks.

I had spread most of the clothing across the bed and on the wicker furniture of the cabin I was now renting at the Mint, just a few doors down from where Rikki and Wallace were staying. The laundry basket contained the usual delicate items gone stale, the tops that stained too easily, and the jeans and skirts that were too confining for the summer months. I was amused and not a little surprised by the items I pulled from the thrift bags. Things that were long past fashionable seemed like treasures now that they were all the clothing I had. Some of the items went back twenty years to the mid-sixties when the styles, by today’s standards, seemed laughable. There were miniskirts and plunging necklines as well as the colorful confusion of paisley gowns. Each piece had its own history that I could have called up wistfully, but I had to decide on something to wear and in a hurry. JJ was getting impatient.

For a brief moment I had the sense that the long narrow garment box was a cardboard coffin in which a life that had once been mine was now entombed.

I had promised to be her moral support when she strolled down the runway at the Montague Winery Charity Fashion Show, something that apparently took precedence over the burden of my recent calamity, and she was going to hold me to it.

“That’s nice,” JJ commented on the beaded bolero jacket I held up. Unfortunately there was nothing else that went with it. The belted miniskirt tunic was a little too twiggy, and I had thrown away my white go-go boots long ago.

“What’s in the box?” She lifted the flap and poked around disinterestedly.

“I can’t remember.” A few years back I had gone to the post office and the box had been waiting for me. The enclosed letter contained the usual irrational accusations of diminished affection my mother liked to imagine and use as a guilt lever. It had worked before, but no longer. The emotional blackmail in that letter still made me angry.  “Some old things.”

“Is this a cheerleader outfit?”  JJ held up the blue and gold sweater, beaming. “I had one just like this, except it was maroon and white!”

“I don’t think I could possibly wear that,” I dead-panned.

“And a tutu?” She had turned her attention to the other items.

“I must have been twelve when I wore that. I’ve grown a bit since then.”  I held up a silky iridescent shift. “I wore this when I was crowned Miss Teen America.”

JJ gaped. “Oh my god, that’s right, you were a Miss Teen America!”

For a brief moment I had the sense that the long narrow garment box was a cardboard coffin in which a life that had once been mine was now entombed.

“You wore this?”  JJ held up an embroidered peasant blouse with an expression of disdain.

Seeing the blouse again startled me. I reached blindly into the box certain of what else I would find. Yes, it was there too, the red, black, and white tiered full length skirt. It and the blouse were some of the only clothes I had worn when I was being held in the villa compound on Sabbia Negru. I remembered Xuxann explaining the significance of the colors to me. They were the colors of the goddess: white for innocence, red for fertility, and black for death. Those items of clothing were tangible proof of the most bizarre chapter in my charmed yet otherwise disheveled life.

I felt a stab of pain at the tip of my finger. Cautiously this time, I extracted the skirt from the box and spread it on the bed. Pinned to the waistband was the small bronze medallion that Treyann had given me not long before we parted ways. It depicted a woman around whose lower torso twin snakes were twined, and whose heads she held parallel to her own. She was the great earth goddess, mistress of the underground, and prototype of the caduceus.

“I think I’ve found what I’m going to wear.”

“What?” JJ wrinkled her nose. “That? That’s so. . . ethnic hippie gypsy earth mother peasant. . . .”  And when I turned to seriously reflect on the blouse with its intricate embroidered history, “Kind of passé, don’t you think?”

I ran my thumb over the embossed medallion smiling to myself, and pictured Treyann swirling in dance, a dance in which the arms were extended over the head and the hands brought together in rhythmic thunderclaps accompanied by flute and tambour.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen stitching quite like this on a peasant blouse before,” JJ observed when she realized I wasn’t going to be swayed by her disapproval. The embroidery was as unusual as it was ancient. Ears of barley were depicted in the distinctive motif as well as small purple flowers similar to forget-me-nots.

She pointed to the multicolored spirals embroidered at intervals along the neck line. “These look like little galaxies.”

I had to smile. “Mushrooms.”

Her eyes widened. “You mean like. . .mushroom mushrooms? Shrooms?”  She gave a tentative knowing grin.

I nodded. “Yes, when I. . . .”  I was going to say, “was held captive” but decided on “lived at Sabbia Negru, I partook of them regularly.”

Again, I puzzled her. This was something else about me she had failed to anticipate. “Sabbia Negru?”

“It’s a long story.”  And it was a long story, one that I thought I had extricated myself from but was once again insisting in capturing my attention. My confinement on the grounds of the villa had been made less of an ordeal because of the daily companionship of Treyann. She was the wise old priestess at whose knee I learned about an ancient selfless world, a world in which inner beauty complimented outer beauty and made one radiant. They were lessons in the power of the female that did not reside solely in the triad of attraction, the face, the breasts, the pudendum. I was made aware of this awesome unity with Treyann’s guidance through the sacramental mushroom. My eyes were opened and what I experienced was a power both benevolent and cruel.

JJ glanced at her watch. “Well, we don’t have time for a long story. If that’s what you’re going to wear, get dressed. I don’t want to be late for the preshow rehearsal.”

glass_slip I happily complied, the feel of natural fabric on my bare skin like a recovered memory. I brushed my hair out and let it fall to my shoulders like I wore it when I was a free spirit running on the black sand beaches far from the daily pressures of high fashion and celebrity.

JJ was looking at me like she wasn’t quite satisfied. “Shoes, you need shoes.”

All my shoes had gone up in smoke. “I’m thinking barefoot.”  That was how I originally worn this outfit.

JJ shook her head, “Mmm, no, not quite.” She flashed me a sly grin as she held the door open. “I’m thinking glass slippers.”

Chapter Thirty One


Tommy Montague was a real charmer. JJ had every right to gush. He was a good looking guy, attired in dark slacks, a gold polo shirt, and a tan dinner jacket with the Montague Winery crest on the breast pocket. His manner was professional, his handshake firm. But there was something about him that bothered me.

For one I had no effect on him. Even with a thousand watt smile that would normally turn most men’s brains to mush, his eyes registered nothing, nada. What also bothered me was that if you took an eyebrow pencil and drew a raggedy goatee around his mouth and then combed half a can of motor oil through his hair, you would have the man in the gray van, the one with the vicious dog.

Tommy personally took us on a tour of the petite castle. Except for the private apartments, which, of course, were off-limits. We were shown the wine cellar, the tasting room where a sumptuous buffet was staged, and the spectacular ballroom with the runway the models would soon be catwalking down. The mezzanine led to an open terrace overlooking sloping stretches of vineyards interspersed with little oak oases. There were champagne fountains in the tasting room as well as on the mezzanine. I availed myself of a flute as soon as the server came by with a tray. I have a weakness for bubbles.

Our guide had a two-way radio that called him away. He made his apologies and left hurriedly. I accompanied JJ to the dressing room and got caught up in the crush and hysteria.

There were two kinds of women elbowing each other for mirror space to make last minute adjustments. The professional sticks, ‘twiggys,’ who are nothing more than skeletal clothes racks, and the amateurs, or as they are known in the trade, ‘heifers,’ who are mostly high school girls, innocent and perfect, or middle aged women who think they still have something. dressing roomAmateurs have a tendency to carry more meat on their bones which made them dangerous to the intent of high fashion. As every designer has told every model he has ever draped, flesh destroys fabric. There were some models who took it to the extreme. I had been one who had trod that fine line. JJ, on the other hand, as an amateur, had bulges that stretched the limits of design. But then some men find that attractive.

Rikki and Wallace had volunteered their services to do hair and make-up for the show. I was greeted by Rikki who eyed my outfit and immediately dubbed me the ‘barefoot Contessa’ and cracked that I was not doing the fashion world any favors by parading around like a hippie princess in front of all these impressionable young women. He was aghast that I was shoeless. I reminded him that my shoes were charred rubble. All I had in the way of footwear were a pair of hiking boots and rubber flip flops. That shut him up though it didn’t change his look of sour disapproval.

I had to laugh. Here I was, a world famous model at a charity fashion show, and I would not be sauntering down the runway. Certainly not in my archaic pagan outfit. I was aware that I had been recognized and that my presence was causing a minor commotion among the participants. As usual I remained unapproachable.

I quit the hubbub of the dressing room and wandered among the arriving patrons with my flute of champagne. I had determined earlier that the terrace off the mezzanine would be the ideal place to await the start of the show. I was feeling especially bright and forgiving. As chintzy as the phony miniature castle appeared from the outside, the interior was expensively and, to a certain pedestrian extent, lavishly accoutered. I was particularly taken by the large medieval tapestry at one end of the mezzanine in what Tommy had indicated as the private suites. I was drawn to it by the intricate weave of story it told. It was a classic, a lithe blonde female with her hand on the snout of the pure white unicorn. I felt as if I were being drawn into the woven landscape and wondered if I may not have had a horn too many.

On the stage, in tiered skirts of ancient fashion, the women of SAPHO performed a whirling foot stomping version of a primitive flamenco.

A door opened at my left to draw me out of my reverie. A large man in a large dark suit approached and glared at me with large disapproval. I got the message and made my way back through the wide gold filigreed doors that took me out to the terrace and the cool of early evening. My bare feet seemed to sense the deep warm character of the marble paving. My eyes were drawn to the misty distance where an orange aura backlit the ridge of conifers. The air was heavy with earthy fragrance and the scent transported me to my time in captivity, or as I had come to consider it, my retreat and rebirth. I had experienced a similar overwhelming sensation, but at the time I had voluntarily imbibed in one of Treyann’s herb, amphibian and mushroom cocktails. I ran my lightly throbbing finger over the image of the brooch that had pricked it and let the realization sink in. A tincture of that potion applied to the brooch pin would have been enough to produce the heightened awareness I was now feeling. A tiny pea shaped mouth in my head was telling me to panic but I held firm. One of the many things I had learned from Treyann was how to fearlessly walk the gossamer tightrope into a state of pure delight. I also learned that there was a dark side to this particular power.

Again it was an instance where my curiosity had got the better of me. It was one full moon night when a large group of women had been ferried over from the resort at the northern tip of Sardinia. I had been prohibited from joining the evenings of music and dancing on the chance that I would be recognized and my presence at the old Roman villa on the St Bartholomew straits would get out. After months of custody I was trusted enough that I no longer needed to be escorted by Xuxann. Besides, I had been biding my time in the company of Treyann. I had spent that particular day hiking on the hillside behind the villa and had come back exhausted and famished. Treyann had fed me homemade stone ground bread, goat cheese and olives. I had fallen asleep on the little cot that she kept out in the open space between the garden and her hut. I was awakened by a chilly breeze off the Mediterranean. It was late evening and I heard the strains of fife and drum coming up from the courtyard of the villa. I called for Treyann but got no answer. She never went anywhere after dark. She did not trust her eyesight to walk the winding trails at night.

I wandered back to my little cell above the villa, but the sounds of gaiety and the throaty ululations called to me. Stealthily, I slipped into the courtyard and was not disappointed. A mass of women, bare breasted or in tiny shrugs covering not much more than their shoulders, exulted in their freedom, arms waving in the silver air of a full moon like fields of grain in a breeze, their feet stamping to the rhythm, hips undulating to the hypnotic music of a primitive orchestra of breath and skin.

The musicians were mostly African women, one of whom was Xuxann. Their instruments included a variety of drums, from the tall African type to smaller single head Celtic tambours. The flutes were of all sizes as well, shrill piccolos and the larger bass breaths of the Australian outback. They had cut a groove and the dancers followed it like water down a chute. On the stage, in tiered skirts of ancient fashion, the women of SAPHO performed a whirling foot stomping version of a primitive flamenco. Among the mass of swaying bodies I was anonymous. Then everything I had ever assumed turned upside down and inside out.

The music stopped with the exception of the low moan of a large bamboo flute. A female figure was paraded around the stage on a palanquin carried by four women dressed in sheer glistening gowns. At first I assumed that it was a statute like the one of the Virgin Mary I had seen carried in processions in Mediterranean villages on certain holy days. On her head, a large elaborate gold headdress perched like an exotic bird. Very much alive, the woman was helped to her feet by her attendants. She was astride shoes with soles that were easily two feet high, adding to her already towering presence. Even though she was draped in layers of multicolored scarves, her face painted to exaggerate her eyes and highlighted with fearsome red streaks, I recognized Treyann

The music started up again, slowly at first then building to a frenzy. Treyann twirled and whirled to the frantic beat of the drums and the piercing shrieks of the fifes as gracefully as if she had been barefoot. All eyes were fixed on her and a great hush descended over the assembled women as we all seemed to breathe in unison with the spinning apparition. As the tempo changed from frenzied to that approximating a steady heartbeat, it became obvious that Treyann was enacting a ritual, a paean to female power. A piebald Old World Nubian buck that had seen better days was brought onto the stage and placed before Treyann. She spun like a dust devil around the trembling animal. The flutes fell silent. The drums continued with rolling solemnity. A towering Treyann swayed, stomping her elevator shoes in time to the beat, hands held above her head clapping a polyrhythm. The drums stopped abruptly. In the rushing silence, every woman breathed as one. Treyann clapped her hands thrice like the crack of thunder. She directed all the gathered energy at the sacrificial animal. The old goat tottered and then crumbled, a mere bundle of skin and bone.

Next Time: Wondering Woman Snared By Her Curiosity

The Last Resort 28-29

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twenty Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed involuntarily at her expression.

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

“And if he’s not your friend?”

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

“So I heard.”

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

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

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

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

“He killed him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you still working for Tommy then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time:  A Sleeping Beauty Awakens