Tag Archives: the gray van

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 7-10

Chapter Seven
NAKED TREES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“La Londa!”

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

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

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

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

“The Wad!”

“Ward?”

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

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

“Anna.”

“The banana queen!” Rikki exclaimed triumphantly.

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

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

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

“Nothing little about Jimmy.”

“I know. . . .”

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

Chapter Eight
RAMBLE IN THE BRAMBLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled, weakly, unsure of the proper response.

Chapter Nine
COLD SNAP COLD TRAIL

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

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

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

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

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

“Incidentally, have you finished that bakery piece?”

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

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

“Something’s not right. . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s missing?

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

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

“Oh, and don’t forget the coffee!”

Chapter Ten
BABE IN THE BLUE OX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t surprised that he babbled.

“I don’t do Volvo’s.”

“Really?  That’s absolutely fascinating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Motorcycles, Antiques, & a Missing Countess

The Last Resort, CHPS 4-6

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Four
THE GRAPEVINE

Joyce James flicked a speck of powdered sugar off the showy burgundy scarf that was meant to complement her dark blue pantsuit. She held a half-eaten doughnut in the other hand. JJ, as she liked to be called, had once been a cute girl. The dimples were still there in spite of her puffy cheeks, and the upturned nose, a little rosier than it had been in her youth. She was late for an appointment with a prospective advertiser which was why she was trying, as delicately as possible, to insert the remainder of the doughnut into her mouth without dusting herself with white powder.

She motioned to the confusion of her desk with her free hand. I was supposed to understand what the charade meant. I waited for her to finish licking the tips of her fingers. She smacked her lips once she swallowed. “Your article on the art show is here somewhere. I had to cut a few paragraphs. We’re really strapped for space this week.”  She started to shuffle through the papers on her desk but stopped because pages were sticking to her fingers. “Sticky,” she muttered to no one in particular. She glanced at her wristwatch and made a face. “I’ve got to get going.” She looked at me in that imploring manner I was becoming familiar with. “Be a dear and look for it yourself. I can’t be late for this appointment. It’s here, somewhere,” she repeated. I was about to protest but she had already thrown a beige alpaca shawl over her shoulders and was digging through her oversized handbag for her car keys as she disappeared out the door.

I found myself alone, in the cramped little square that housed the editorial office of Corkscrew County’s weekly newspaper, The Grapevine. Bundled back issues were stacked on the floor and against the walls, and in turn, file folders bulging with clippings and black and white photos were placed precariously on top of the none-too-steady bundles. There were two chairs in the room, one at the desk and one by the door, both of which were piled with more shapeless folders and assorted papers. The one window that looked out onto the street below was being used as a de-facto bulletin board, plastered with sticky note reminders, editorials from other newspapers, announcements, flyers, and various New Yorker style cartoons commenting on the vagaries of fourth estate culture.

The chaos of JJ’s desk reflected the random clutter of the tiny office, but to my surprise, I found my article easily. It was in a stack of papers alongside the rather large electric typewriter. The red ink bloodying the top page caught my eye. At first glance I couldn’t believe it was mine. But it was. My face turned the color of the ink as I read through the butchering of what had been my review of a painting and sculpture show at a local gallery.

JJ had slashed all but a few paragraphs. What remained intact was the name and location of the business, the names of the artists, and a quote from the proprietor to the effect that the gallery featured work by local artists with a new show each month. I had found the painter’s canvases to be clichéd, amateurish landscapes whose only saving grace was the odd use of color. JJ kept the comment favoring the color. I had liked the sculptures better even though they were unimaginative in their execution. She had substituted the word graceful.

I was chewing my cheek and about to become very perturbed when I heard the door open behind me. JJ stood there, legs slightly apart, arms dangling loosely, with a look of consternation on her face. It was such an unusual posture for her that I forgot my anger for a moment.

“I’m having car trouble. Would you be a dear and give me a lift?” she pleaded.

 

“That’s the newspaper business,” JJ explained once we were headed out Highway 8 toward the coast. “It has nothing to do with journalism or artistic integrity or whatever else you want to call it. The reality is that a review of an art show or a restaurant or any type of business is actually free advertisement, and an inducement to that business to buy ad space if they haven’t already, and to keep them buying if they have. If I print a bad review of any business, I stand a chance of losing them as advertisers. Now with a big city newspaper, like the Santa Quinta Daily Republican, the pressures aren’t so obvious, but believe me, their big money accounts have a say in the editorial content.”

I steered in silence. I thought her outlook was cynical. But I didn’t say so. What about journalistic ethics, the duty of the press to print the truth? But I didn’t ask. I concentrated on driving and allowed myself to marvel at the beauty of the rolling yellow green hills and the fading colors of autumn as the road wound its way to Feather, the tiny hamlet where JJ had her appointment with the proprietor of Kelly’s Seaside Resort. It hardly seemed the time to bring up my idea for a story on the dog murders.

Feather was a cluster of seedy little homes and fishing shacks on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. It had charm, in a rundown sort of way. Now and then the light glancing off the vast expanse of water gave each of the little hovels a jewel-like sparkle. Other times, the wind howled across the plateau so hard and cold that anyone foolish enough to venture out into the blast was rewarded with an instant migraine. Or, while the interior of the county sweltered in triple digit heat, Feather was wrapped in a shroud of fog. This day, however, happened to be a sparkler.

Kelly’s owner was a man by the name of Ralph Fashwalla, or so he introduced himself. Kelly’s hadn’t been owned by anyone named Kelly in quite a while JJ had explained on the way out. In fact, in her opinion, the place was jinxed. The last three owners had gone bankrupt. Business was generally good in the summer and early fall. But revenues from the so-called tourist season were hardly ever enough to sustain the resort during the lean winter months. Part of Kelly’s problem was its rundown appearance. The shredded fishnets, the broken life rings, and rusting nautical knick knacks littering the verandah were just plain tacky. JJ was making vague promises that an ad in her paper would help assuage the coming dearth of business.

Mr. Fashwalla didn’t seem to be paying much attention to her pitch. He only had eyes for me. It always happened. The mouth full of teeth and lidded eyes, the lingering handshake when we were introduced had been the giveaway. I was a knock-out. That was that.

I stepped outside to lessen the distraction and give JJ a fighting chance. The porch boards creaked and I hesitated to lean against the peeling paint of the railing. I glanced down at the patch of coastal weeds that had taken over the flowerbed. In of themselves, they had a natural beauty, but their random encroachment didn’t help the already deteriorating image that came with a first glance at the place.

The ocean breeze was turning into a wind and I walked out to my Volvo to get a jacket. The view from Kelly’s parking lot was certainly terrific, a sweeping vista that included the rugged bluffs jutting up from the mouth of the Corkscrew River. I turned back to see JJ on the front porch shaking hands with Fashwalla. “I hope we can do business,” she said as a final pitch. “And the rates are very reasonable.”  Too bad it was such a firetrap. He was looking over her shoulder at me. He waved as JJ trundled down the steps, scowling.

We had driven a ways before she spoke. “He wants your telephone number.”  There was a trace of a tremor to her voice. She was ready to explode.

“Come again?” I had to act incredulous, though it happened to me more times than I cared to count. They always want my phone number.

“He wants your phone number! He wanted to know if you were seeing anyone. I don’t think he heard a word I said about buying an ad in the paper!”  She started to sob, her padded shoulders shaking. “I really can’t afford to lose this account.” She sighed. “The paper is barely making it. I owe the printer, I owe rent on the office, I owe the phone company, I owe the production staff. . . .”  She paused to gulp a breath. “I haven’t paid myself in months, I owe on my utilities. . . .”  Her cheeks were wet and her eyeliner smudged.

I shouldn’t have felt guilty, but I did. All my life my beauty had got me what I wanted. But it had its negative side as well. This was a case in point. My looks had cost JJ a customer. When I was in High School, all the other girls on the cheerleading squad resented me because I made them look ugly, or so it was reported to me, and the boys wouldn’t give them a second glance. I‘d been given special consideration all my life, at times to the detriment of others worthier of the attention. As a beauty contestant, I was never in fear of losing. And as a model, I was always in demand. Undeniably, there was carnage along the way. Back then, I accepted it as my due. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.

“Tell you what, we’ll go back and I’ll get him to place an ad.”

She shook her head. “No. . .it’s too late.”  Her voice had become plaintive. She sounded at the end of her rope.

“No, I’m serious, I’ll do it.”

JJ fixed me with a puzzled stare. “Why are you even doing this? What are you even doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Are you running away from something, someone? I mean, you can practically have any job you want. I don’t get it. Why do you want to write color pieces for a newspaper with a circulation of less than five thousand?”

I had answers, but I wasn’t in a hurry to disabuse JJ of her notions just yet. I slowed behind a mottled old pick-up truck whose progress down the three blocks of Main Street could only be described as a slow trot. After we passed the old Coast Heritage Bank and Barbara’s Bakery with the Going Out Of Business sign in the window, I steered for the space in front of JJ’s car, an old Dodge Dart that had seen better days. When she said she had car trouble I’d assumed she meant it wouldn’t start or that it had a flat. It was listing to one side, as if an incredibly heavy object had been placed in the passenger’s seat. Then I noticed the web of smashed windshield.

 

 Chapter Five
TIMBERTON Pop. 1,985

I wondered if anyone in Timberton, a wide spot in the road on the way to the coast, had noticed that this year in particular, 1985, matched the population displayed on the sign into town. It was an old sign and probably inaccurate, and I didn’t expect that the doddering relics on the Chamber of Commerce really cared. Both sides of Main Street were lined with near empty stores and dilapidated shops on the verge of bankruptcy. Even those with quaint Western-style false fronts failed to attract business once the days got shorter and the nights longer and colder. Lumber trucks, delivery vans, pick-ups, and recreational vehicles roared right through and never looked back. Unless they had to fuel up. Then they pulled into the Last Gasp gas station at the far end of town where they were thoroughly gouged.

Next to the gas station and heading back into town was Elaine’s Pottery and Knick Knacks with a big hand-lettered Closed Till April sign on the front door. Directly across the street was Henderson’s Realty and next door was Carlyle’s Hardware and Equipment Rental. A weed clogged vacant lot provided the space between the hardware store and The Blue Ox, a garish blue cinderblock bunker adorned with an oversized representation of Bunyan’s pet with particular emphasis on the horned mammal’s gender. The red neon knot in the only window advertised a brand of beer known the world over. Across the street and completing the first block of businesses was a cyclone fence enclosure that contained a Quonset hut surrounded by the rusting hulks of autos. The sign on the double drive gate read Mike The Mechanic and underneath, in smaller print, American Cars Only – Beware of Dogs.

I had a clear view of The Blue Ox from my table at Barbara’s Bakery one block down. Barbara had placed a couple of tables in the front window and had started serving cappuccinos in hopes of staying in business. It wasn’t working. Across the table JJ babbled about how they were out to get her. They were not anyone specific, but a parade of imagined tormentors, mostly ex-boyfriends, businessmen she had slighted, or persons she had exposed in the pursuit of her hard hitting, no-holds-barred journalism. I tried not to smirk. As long as I’d read the Grapevine, any story JJ had written was always tempered by her awareness of her advertisers’ concerns. There was never any hard news in the Grapevine, only congratulatory puff pieces. Still, I was puzzled as to why she hadn’t mentioned her car being vandalized anytime on the drive to and from Feather.

“JJ, someone slashed your tires and smashed your windshield! Shouldn’t you be reporting that to the police?”  I felt that I had to be outraged for her.

She flapped a chubby hand in dismissal. “First things first. That’s the way it is in this business. I couldn’t take the time to deal with it just then. I had to keep my focus. . .and my appointment at Kelly’s.”  She sighed, segmenting the pastry on the plate in front of her into bite sized bits. “Lot of good that did. Of course, if my car hadn’t been trashed and I had gone to Kelly’s on my own. . . .”  She stopped to savor a piece of pastry. “I wonder if Fashwalla would have bought an ad. . . .”  She feigned coy innocence.

I was way ahead of her. “Are you saying I screwed up the deal for you?”

She spread her fingers in a gesture of mock resistance. “No, no, of course not.”  And looked back down at her plate. “But he was distracted by your being there. That was quite evident. You shouldn’t underestimate your. . . .”  She blushed saying it. “Beauty.”

I’d heard this song and dance before. “Alright, JJ. I’ll help you out anyway I can. I’ll go back to Kelly’s. I’m sure I can talk him into buying an ad.”

Maybe it was the sight of her damaged Dodge that led JJ to reconsider. She had the rate sheet out of her oversized purse and spread on the table before I finished the sentence. She smiled as she explained the rates, her voice cloying like an old maid aunt reading nursery rhymes.

Ideally, with a new client, you wanted to start with a full page and then discount them to a half page, and finally quarter page ads for the length of the contract. She circled the New Client package. Six months for fifteen hundred dollars. If I sold Fashwalla the package, I‘d get a commission. Seventy-five dollars. I made her sweeten the deal. If I brought in this account, she’d consider publishing my article on the dog murders. She hesitated at first, stuffing the remaining pastry into her mouth, and then agreed.

 

A fine drizzle had had fallen overnight and the roads were still damp as I drove back to Feather and Kelly’s Seaside Resort the next morning. I had called Kelly’s the previous evening and made an appointment. Fashwalla wasn’t in a very personable mood. He agreed on a time and hung up. Apparently my good looks weren’t as effective over the phone.

I thought it best to dress as a professional so as not to give Fashwalla the impression I was there for anything but business. I chose a pair of light brown slacks, a long sleeve white blouse, and a pair of sensible brown loafers. I pulled my hair into a prim bun at the back of my head held in place with a salmon colored ribbon. I added a small gold chain around my neck and a gold bracelet watch. I didn’t bother with my contact lenses and wore my prescription glasses in their Fabregianni frames. If I was supposed to be such a super woman, it seemed only fitting that I go as my alter ego, Clarissa Kent, reporter for the Corkscrew County Grapevine.

I met with very little traffic until I got to the intersection of Highway 8 and the Coast Highway. There were two cars ahead of me, a maroon convertible sports car with the top down and a pale green family sedan. The sports car was turning left, waiting for a gravel truck to rumble by. The family sedan and I were both turning right. The driver of the sports car must not have seen the van tailgating the gravel truck. The van hooked a left right into his path. There’s nothing like the screech of brakes to stiffen the spine.

I gaped in disbelief. The van was steel gray and had a little bubble window at the back in the shape of an Iron Cross. A burly bearded man jumped out of the driver’s seat and made for the sports car with a menacing stride. He was screaming something, his arms raised. The driver of the sports car appeared stunned from the near collision. The bearded man made as if to strike the driver of the convertible. His fist hesitated in the air above the driver’s head, now aware of the stopped traffic and multiple witnesses. He gave the sportster the finger instead, got back in the van and roared off.

I got a look at the two men in the front seat as the van sped past. They were the same guys who had harassed me on my jog days earlier. Of that, I was positive.

The sports car had pulled over to the shoulder as the driver collected his wits. He’d lost his color and maybe even his breakfast. I continued right on the Coast Highway and up into Feather.

A dark billowing mass was trundling in from the ocean. The wind had picked up with it, buffeting my Volvo with regular gusts. The radio had said that this storm signaled the beginning of the rainy season. The dead weeds at the entrance to Kelly’s Seaside Resort were being blown parallel to the ground and dust devils stirred in the colorless dirt of the parking area. I stepped out of the car and held on to my hair. The odd pieces of nautical knick-knacks on the front porch were banging together and making a muffled clang. The wind had also pushed open the front door. I knocked on the frame and announced myself with “Hello?”  I saw a light through an open doorway just behind the front desk. I rang the bell on the reception desk once. A single clear note emphasized the eerie quiet. The sound was perfect but something wasn’t right. I saw an arm in a shirtsleeve in the office from where I was standing. “Hello,” I announced again, “Lee Malone, with the Grapevine, I have an appointment!”  I stepped around the front desk and into the office. Fashwalla wasn’t going to be dazzled by my subtle beauty. Blood dripped off the seat of his chair and his back looked like it had been opened by a boar rooting for truffles.

 

Chapter Six
RUNWAY PAST

“You with the Network?”

“Excuse me?”

A perfectly proportioned mannequin with a sunny expression posed the question. Barely five feet tall, he held a microphone in his hand. A Vietnamese man stood behind him, TV camera braced on a shoulder.

“ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC?”

“I don’t understand.”

Every hair on the man’s head was flawlessly in place as if it had been painted on. He wore a navy blazer over a white shirt, and around his neck, a speckled yellow power tie. A pair of Bermuda shorts and sandals completed the outfit. Typical of TV reporters. Since they were only viewed from the midriff up, they went casual below the belly button.

“Don’t tell me now. I never forget a face. Didn’t you anchor. . .no, that’s not it. . .Sundays with Charles Osgood . . . you were the news reader!”

I shook my head. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”  I got a lot of that, though not so much since I’d moved out to the relative obscurity of Corkscrew County. People remembered my face but didn’t immediately place where they’d seen it before. It’s difficult being invisible once you’ve been in the public eye. But I was working on it.

I turned to watch the forensics crew. The perimeter had been cordoned off. They shuttled in and out of Kelly’s carrying large evidence envelopes and paper shopping bags. A few deputies stood watch, their thumbs hooked over their gun belts.

“Wait, wait, you were a guest on Sundays with Charles Osgood!”

He was getting close. Down the highway another news van drove into view. That brought the total to three. The first reporter on the scene had been from the Santa Quinta paper, The Daily Republican. He and his photographer pulled in right after the first deputy arrived. It had taken the deputy 15 minutes from the time I dialed 911.

“He was doing a segment on over-the-hill. . .I mean, former models!”

He had me. I had appeared on that show along with a clutch of models, mostly trophy wives set up in small businesses by their CEO husbands or those marketing organic jams from upstate farms with their domestic partners. I‘d been the only one still at loose ends, knocking about Europe, aimlessly staying with friends or house sitting, trying to escape the aftermath of more bad publicity, waiting for my case to be heard. That seemed so long ago.

“Lee. . .Leeann. . .that’s it!”

He had me. Leeann had been my mononym on the billboards, fashion pages, and runways.

“The glasses threw me. Marty, Marty Steele, KSQU TV News.” He held out his hand for me to shake. “So, what are you doing here? Are you covering this for CBS?”

“No, I’m not with the Network.”  I turned to address him. When ignoring attention doesn’t work, surrender and charm.

“Wow, I can’t believe it, Leeann. Who are you working for?”

I was about to deny any affiliation but perversity is a small pleasure I sometimes allow myself. “The Corkscrew County Grapevine.”

At first there was a look of incomprehension on his little wooden face, and then an embarrassed flush colored the grain under the layer of makeup. He choked out, “You’re joking. . .right?”

I’d had my fun. “No, I’m not joking, but I’m not here as a reporter. I found the body and called it in.”

“That’s a relief. For a minute, I thought The Grapevine had beaten us to a story. I mean, no offense, but JJ’s paper isn’t much more than a throw-away advertiser.”

“None taken.” I gave him a one-sun smile. He basked in its glow. “Technically, though, since I am a reporter for The Grapevine, I did beat you to the story, as you put it.”

A shadow crossed his face. “What I don’t get is why a. . .a famous model like yourself is working for a nothing little rag. I mean, what kind of money can you be making?”

“I’m on commission. I sell ads as well as write for the paper.”  I was exaggerating a little. My first attempt had been a dismal failure, evidenced by the annoying beep of the coroner’s van backing up to the front of the resort.

He looked surprised. “That can’t be much.”

“I get by.”  My finances and my sex life are two things I don’t discuss with total strangers. He didn’t need to know that my parents had wisely insisted, at the height of my career, that I start a retirement fund and now, in my later years, it allowed me to pay utilities, buy food, keep the Volvo running, and occasionally splurge on a really expensive pair of shoes. My career had ended in my late 20’s. Designers were looking for less developed body types. Then there was my ill-advised return as a runway model on the Euro-trash circuit in my mid 30’s. My step-dad had left me his summer cabin just outside of Timberton. That was how I ended up in Corkscrew County where I was trying to live a low stress, low calorie, low tech, low profile existence.

“Well, this is news! International fashion model discovers gruesome murder while reporting for obscure country journal!”  His face lit up like a cheap paper lantern.

“Please don’t.”  I gave him two suns. It didn’t seem to faze him. The story he‘d report on the evening news had more dazzle, human interest plus crime and punishment. It had Network news potential. His cheeks grew rigid imagining himself on camera nationwide. “Seriously. I hope you’ll be discreet.”  Three suns followed by a plaintive yet seductive look.

‘But. . . .”

“Look, let me be honest with you. I don’t need the past dredged up. I mean, it’s not exactly pretty. . . .”

“Something about a fire. At a villa. . . outside of Paris? I seem to remember. . . that was pretty. . . .”

“. . .bad, yes, I know. That was an accident, as I’m sure you know.” I sighed, not solely for effect. “Unfortunately, the focus tends to be on these unpleasant things and they get blown way out of proportion.” I got an understanding nod.

“Wasn’t there that thing with the sheik. . . ?

He was obviously familiar with my dossier and my spate of bad luck, but then they were the things that made the biggest splash on the entertainment news. Party girl fashion model outrages again! I was hoping he wasn’t going to start listing all my public indiscretions.

“And how about that mysterious abduction?!”

“Ms. Malone?”  The gruff voice belonged to a handsome slender man in his fifties. He handed me his card. “Detective Richard Santos, County Sheriff.”

I blinked a smile. He wasn’t going to be easy to impress.


Next Time: Enter The Porn Queen

The Last Resort, Ch. 1-3

by Pat Nolan

Chapter One

ON THE RUN

I ran. Not awkwardly puffing out big breaths like I used to, striding across the black sand beach of Sabbia Negru in ‘protective custody’ under the watchful eye of SAPHO. I breathed easily, free, my feet barely touching the asphalt. It was exhilarating. My peripheral vision expanded to take in the panorama of a tranquil dew drenched morning.

I passed my first mile mark, a rank of sentinel-like poplars turned from green to gold in just the last week. There were a half dozen of them guarding an abandoned property, and tall enough that I had to tilt my head back to see their tips pressed into the swirl of thick morning fog. Their leaves littered the late greening grasses at the shoulder of the road like a scattering of large yellow coins.

The road followed a dry creek bed lined with brambles and took me past a cluster of summer homes boarded up for the season, the back half of one of them in charred ruins from a suspicious fire.

In the distance a milky white mass undulated and shifted with the air currents. The top of a fir or redwood on the ridge across the river poked through like the silhouette of a man chest deep in snow. The whole of the landscape, in fact, was enveloped in fog and mist nearly every morning at this time of year. It crept up the Corkscrew River from the coast in late evening and by early morning blanketed everything for at least ten miles inland.

Wispy pale blue geysers spiraled up to join the low dripping ceiling, signaling the presence of wood stoves and fireplaces in the damp dark woods. The acrid spicy smoke added a pleasant bite to the moist chill air. Under a streetlamp giving off an eerie greenish glow, a covey of quail scattered for the underbrush and low branches of prolific maples. I heard barks and sounds of dogs quarreling in the distance. Elsewhere, the echo-like barks of other dogs took up the call.

It was not unusual for dogs to launch themselves off of porches or out from behind fences after me. It’s more annoying than dangerous. Still, it’s disturbing enough to put me on my guard. Most of the dogs on my run were used to me by now, satisfied with a few perfunctory barks to acknowledge my passing through their turf. Creasy’s German shepherd pup was my only real worry of late. He still thought of me as sport. I carried a length of leash in the pocket of my sweat jacket to whack him a good one across the snout and teach him a lesson if need be.

An explosion careened off the slopes of the surrounding hills, shattering as it died. I imagined the gun of some leftover vacationer flexing his citified fantasies, but likely only an engine backfiring.

After Grove Street joined Oak Lane, there was a straightaway where I liked to put on speed. And, as usual, there was old Manny’s banana yellow pick-up truck crawling along, right wheels off the pavement, churning the soft shoulder. I knew he was watching me in his sideview mirror as I overtook the truck. He did it practically every morning, the old letch. Understandable in summer because then I only wore shorts and a light tank top. But at this time of year, what was there to see? A match-my-eyes blue hooded sweat jacket covered practically my entire torso! I was being naïve. I knew only too well the answer to that question. Legs and no panty line.

Manny honked and waved. An older man with graying hair and brown leathery skin, his black button eyes peered at me over the steering wheel and a wide grin of uneven teeth set in purple gums hardly masked what he was thinking.

As my run brought me closer to Timberton, I was often forced to the shoulder by a car or truck roaring past. This was the stretch I liked least. The increased traffic crowded the air with exhaust fumes and I sucked them in by the lungful. It couldn’t be healthy.

The halfway point was a huge burnt-out stump, the grandmother of all redwoods. Even in its truncated and diminished state, it was monstrous, easily seventeen feet across, a network of brilliant red poison oak reaching up the side of the charred hulk like spreading fire. Beyond it, at the crest of a gentle rise, Oak ended at Highway 8, the two lane thoroughfare that ran through Timberton on its way to the coast.

I made a wide turn and headed for home. I’d been lucky so far, no dogs had tried to nip the wings at my heels. My medium length blonde hair was limp and matted with sweat, yet the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck bristled. A chill coursed through my overheated body.


Chapter Two

ENTER EVIL

The rumble of a blown muffler gave substance to my foreboding. I steered to the side of the road and threw a glance over my shoulder. A steel gray van with a raised rear-end and oversized chrome wheels had down-shifted to match my speed. A tinted bubble window in the shape of an Iron Cross adorned the right rear side. The van cruised by and the passenger gave me the long onceover. I watched his mouth drop open.

The front end bit the pavement as the van skidded to a stop. Gears complained, forced into reverse, rear tires smoking, propelling the gray box wildly backwards.

I maintained my pace, determined to remain calm. They weren’t really trying to run me over. It was just their way of getting acquainted. I’d been recognized. Nothing new, I assured myself.

The passenger rolled his window down. “Honey, you look good enough to eat!”  It was a thin, reedy voice.

I kept running, wishing them away. Fat chance of that.

The van caught up with a burst of acceleration, sailed past, and braked to a stop, lifting the rear off the pavement and spinning it at an angle across the road. The passenger door swung open. A skinny creep, forelock of black oily hair limp across a sallow forehead, ragged goatee surrounding a thin-lipped mouth, grinned maliciously. “Hey, baby, come on, get in.”  Chipped yellow teeth, pointed cheekbones, large protruding ears.

I smiled the smile I reserve for fools, skirting the door blocking my path, and kept on.

What he shouted after me showed what little respect he had for women. I can’t say that I hadn’t heard it before. What woman hasn’t? Any number of times. It used to shock me but now it only makes me angry.

The van sped past again and then stopped, blocking my path. Oil Can Willie stuck his head and shoulders out of the window.  “Come on, sweet cheeks, there’s plenty of room in here! You can sit on my face!”

He made a grab for me and I lashed out with the length of leash I saved for pesky dogs. It missed but my intention was clear. I heard a repulsive laugh and guessed that it came from the driver.

I put on a burst in the hope of outrunning them. The Miller place was about a hundred yards further up. The van came up behind me and forced me off the road. As they pulled alongside, my hair was standing on end. A cockroach brown Doberman lunged at me from the open window, choke chain creasing its neck as it gargled menacing barks, fangs dripping with yellow saliva.

They got a big kick out of that. The skinny one had a high-pitched hysterical laugh. I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of the driver, but I heard a deep voice say something that sounded an awful lot like “tits”. They peeled out, leaving the stink of burned rubber behind.

The first thing I noticed was swastikas made of red reflector tape on each side of the rear bumper. I focused on the blue and gold license plate but it was a blur. I rarely wear my contacts when I run.

My heart pounded. What assholes! The surge of adrenaline made my knees wobbly. I felt lightheaded, gut in turmoil. I nearly puked, but steeled myself and continued, walking briskly at first and then building into my stride.

A whistle or a cat-call from a passing car, the wet, kissing sound of some street corner zero was not out of the ordinary. But this was extreme. Men’s eyes, and occasionally women’s, had undressed me since I’d reached puberty. I can’t say that I ever got used to it, but as a young beauty contestant and then as a fashion model, I accepted that it came with the territory. In my presence, most men become tongue-tied, their mouths gape open, eyes bulging, dumb and mesmerized as the blood rushes to their anterior parts instead of their pea brains.

Sure, if I wasn’t Lee Malone, former Teen America princess, internationally famous cover girl and runway celebrity, if my provocative good looks hadn’t advertised cigarettes − “I like them. Don’t you?” − or adorned automobile ads − “Why don’t you come along for the ride?” I could not have so easily pressed my advantage. But I’m drop-dead gorgeous. It’s my superpower.


Chapter Three

HITLER

A succession of sharp explosions collapsed into nothing. I was positive they were gunshots this time. I was taking the back road home. I had to pass through a redwood grove situated at the base of a ridge where a number of cabins were built in among the trees on the incline. There were lights in a few of the cabins in what I took to be the kitchens. A stovepipe jutting like an arm crooked at the elbow spewed billows of yellow smoke. As I passed under a tear shaped streetlight, I sensed a hand pulling aside a curtain and eyes peering out.

The road brought me out into an open alluvial plain where the gray low ceiling seemed bright by comparison. Banks of brambles lined both sides of the road, and scattered throughout the thicket, the reds and yellows of poison oak pennants. A row of birches partially divided a weed-choked field alongside a driveway at the head of which stood a tiny cabin, roofed and sided with the same green tar-paper brick. An anemic thread of smoke rose from the rusted stovepipe on the roof. I saw old man Goldstein cutting across the field to the road ahead of me, elbows pumping like a tiny old-fashioned locomotive. He hailed me as I was about to run by. It sounded like Chinese at first.

“Hoy! Lee! Lee Malone!”

I circled back. He came up to the edge of the field, hesitated, and then jumped across the narrow ditch to the road. I never saw him without his tweed sports cap. Under it was a bulbous nose and a face like a washed out prune.

“You haven’t seen Hitler, have you, Lee?”  A bright yellow, green and red Aloha shirt draped his wiry frame. Wrinkled, oil-stained tan permanent press slacks, red and blue argyle socks, and scuffed red leather slippers soaked by the heavy dew completed his outfit.

I shook my head, still not totally slowed down. I turned in a wide circle in front of him, decelerating and drawing my breaths carefully. His eyes, large brown yolks behind thick lenses, followed me, concerned. Hitler was his Airedale, a big brown and black dog, as old as Goldstein it seemed. He always chased me when I took this route, though all I had to do was put on a burst of speed to easily outrun him.

“I heard him barking earlier, he sounded upset,” he continued, “and then those shots. . . you’re going to be alright, aren’t you? Lee? Yes?”

I smiled and nodded. “Sure. I’m fine.” Inhaled deeply, and then, “I haven’t seen Hitler this morning, Mr. Goldstein.”  Deep breath. Then I remembered. “Funny, Creasy’s pup wasn’t on the road this morning either. . . .”

Goldstein rubbed his skinny arms with bony mottled hands. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the large stump that marked where River Way let out onto Holly Court.

“You’re gonna catch cold in that outfit, Mr. Goldstein,” I said.

“Cold? Youcallthis cold? Letmetellyousomething, younglady, I’ve been where it’s cold! This? Thisisn’t cold! This is California!”

I can always count on an argument from Goldstein.

“But yes, I did feel a little chill.”  He passed a hand across the back of his neck. “Odd what your imagination will do. . . .”  He walked towards the corner. “That numbness at the back of my head, I haven’t felt such a totally unreasonable fear since ‘39 when the Nazis came for my aunt and uncle. We, my cousins and I were hidden. . .ah, already, you’ve heard that story too many times, haven’t you?”  He sighed and shook his head. “Sometimes I think that’s all that’s left of my life, those memories of fear and horror.” He still spoke with a trace of an accent. “Did I ever tell you, Lee, how I got Hitler?”

I shook my head in a little white lie.

“After we escaped, and finally made our way to America! Thelandofthe free!”  He struck a pose, arm upraised as if holding a torch. “We landed in upstate New York, of all places. The Goldglass Estate. Distant relations.”  He dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

“They had an Irish woman caretaking the place. Count on the Jews to have the Irish do their dirty work for them.”  He flashed me a little wrinkled smile. “She had a mutt who had just produced a litter of part Airedale puppies. One of them became mine because we were both recent arrivals to a new world. And the joy! Beyond words! In German. Or in American, of which I knew very little back then. I didn’t want to call him Hot Dog, which my cousin, whose idea it was to name him that thought was very clever. One day we were playing as we usually did. I’d push him away and he’d jump back on me, trying to nip me. Playfully, of course. But suddenly he wrapped his mouth around my wrist and wouldn’t let go. Even though he was just a little guy, it began to hurt and I got scared. So I yelled ‘Let go of me!’ and then, strangely, as if inadream, I said ‘Hitler! Letgoofme, Hitler!’  And he did, he let go of me because he knew that was his name, it fit him.”

In the differing versions of that story I’d heard before Goldstein never admitted that the original dog named Hitler would have died years ago and that the present Hitler was either a grandson or some descendant of the original dog. And he never admitted what I’d come to suspect, that he had named his Airedale Hitler because it was shocking for a Jew to have a dog with that name.

A retching sound came from his throat rising in pitch to a whimper of grief. “Mr. Goldstein. . . .”  I was at the edge of the road with him. There, where the ground sloped down, in among the thorny tentacles of blackberry and the tangle of bright red yellow poison oak, was Hitler, scarlet foam flecking his jaw, quite dead.

Goldstein dragged the dog up to the road muttering and crying something in a language I didn’t know. It sounded pitiful though, and I was touched. He rolled the dog over, its limp limbs flopping against the pavement. There was a round red blot behind Hitler’s ear and I recognized it from seeing its facsimile on TV, a bullet hole. Goldstein saw it too.

“Some bastard shot my dog!”  He sounded angry and scared. “Some putz shot my dog!”  He looked at me, bewildered. “Who? Did you see. . . ?  Lee? Who. . . ?”

The steel gray van immediately rolled into mind. “Some creeps in a van tried to harass me a while ago. . .I mean, I can’t say for sure that they had anything to do with this, but just from my impression of them, I’d say they’d be the type.”

“Who. . .who. . . ?” he hooted.

I shrugged, helpless. “I’ve never seen them before. I only got a good look at one of them. And their dog.”  The thought of them made me shudder again.

“Some putzes in a van are going around shooting dogs? I didn’t think I’d live that long.” His face lengthened with heavy sadness.

I too was feeling knots in my throat. “It was one of those kind of vans, you know, with the raised rear end and big shiny chrome wheels. . .steel gray with green trim. . .one of those tinted bubble windows at the back shaped like a cross, an Iron Cross, you know. . . .”

Goldstein gaped at me like he was hearing the words but not understanding what I was saying.

“. . .and they had these red swastikas on the rear bumper. . . .”  I felt stupid as soon as I said it.

Goldstein dropped to his knees and hugged his dog’s lifeless body. “Nazis!” he spit, breaking into sobs, “Nazis killed you, Hitler!”


Next Time: Shades of Brenda Starr!