I suffer from
Scintillating Scotoma. Sounds
deadly, doesn’t it, like some mysterious tropical
disease or a tumor or a birth defect. But,
in all honesty, to say I suffer with this
condition is incorrect. I
actually sometimes revel in it. Let
Imagine you are standing outside at night looking up at a sky full of stars and suddenly they begin to swirl and spin and blink and then the Arora Borealis comes sailing across your field of vision in shifting colors of blue and gold and green. Now imagine seeing all of this not at night but as you are walking down a busy city street in the middle of a sunny day or as you lie in bed staring at your ceiling. That’s Scintillating Scotoma and it can be very beautiful and very scary. How scary, you ask?
It’s thirty years ago, I’m 18 and packing my suitcase for my trip off to college when I notice there is a tiny hole in the center of my blue Samsonite bag. How did that happen? I raise my eyes and glance at the wall of my bedroom. The tiny hole is now resting on my poster of Heather Locklear and the opening is getting larger. The center of the opening is empty. I mean it’s not black or foggy, it’s---nothing. There’s nothing there! As the hole expands I realize, to my horror, that I’m going blind!It’s hard to describe what happened next. Unless you have personally experienced an episode, you can’t visualize the technicolor spectacle that begins to surround the expanding blind spot. (There are some video attempts to recreate what it looks like, that you can check out on YouTube, but they don’t come close to the real thing.) By now my blind spot had become more angular and it was surrounded by a shimmering silver zig zag edge of neon that vibrated and rotated through a rainbow of colors. I was in a total panic, sure that I would never see the real world again, sure that I would need a white cane and a German Shepard. I stumbled out of my room and went downstairs into the living room, searching like a maniac for my mother. Wisely, mom listened to my mad ravings and, grabbing my arm, she guided me out our front door and into her Caddy and drove me a mile away to my uncle Ted’s Short Hills, New Jersey office. Luckily, we had a doctor in the family who lived and worked nearby. We also had a lawyer but that’s another story.
“It’s okay. Calm down,” Doctor Ted said as he examined my eyes, “It’ll pass in about 20 minutes. You’re not going blind. You are experiencing a thing called Scintillating Scotoma.”
“What’s that? What’s Scartomia?
“Scotoma. Your brain is sending these electrical impulses to your optical nerves. It’s not your eyes doing this, it’s coming from the occipital cortex in the back of your brain. It’s actually a form of migraine.”
“Oh, great. Not only am I going blind but I get a headache as a bonus.”
“Not necessarily. Some people don’t ever experience a migraine after an episode. And don’t get hysterical. You are not going blind.”
“Will he have this happen again?” my mother asked, writing in her little notebook.
“Great!” I grunted.
“What causes it?” she asked, continuing to take notes. This was a habit she had developed over the years, the taking down of any information that would help her cope with medical emergencies.
“We don’t really know. Since it’s not a life threatening condition there hasn’t been much research done on determining the cause and effect. Some experts think it might be stress, others, a fluctuation of the blood flow to the brain. We just don’t know.”
The psychedelic light show was beginning to slide down to the left corner of my visual plain and I began see mom and Doctor Ted and his office. I took a deep breath of relief.
“It seems to be clearing, thank god,” I said, feeling a little less scared.
“Good. When you get home, if a headache starts, take an aspirin or a Tylenol.”
“Okay. Thanks, Uncle Ted. One more thing. If, or when, this blindness happens again, what should I do?”
“Well, certainly don’t drive a car. And, as you won’t be able to read or watch TV for 20 some minutes, my recommendation is for you to lie down in a darkened room and enjoy the show.”
And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last thirty years. I mean, I enjoy the show when I can, when I’m somewhere where I’m able lie down. The rest of the time I cope. A couple of times it has happened when I am driving so I pull over and wait it out. If it occurs during a business meeting I just sit and listen carefully and then later check out any of the visuals that I might have missed. On a date, the person sitting opposite me at dinner never knows that I am seeing an empty space surrounded by fireworks and not their pretty face.
For the most part I have treated the phenomenon as an opportunity for meditation. It is a great lesson in patience and a chance to bask in some of the most beautiful art works ever. Fortunately I’ve never suffered a headache after an episode. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have an occurrence of Scotoma knowing that a migraine was always going to follow.
As I reread this I realize it sounds like I’ve been having these episodes daily, if not hourly, but that was never so. Often months would go by, even years and then it would suddenly be every other day. One day I even experienced three such light shows in a row. And, yes, I’ve had them in times of stress but most often they come to me when I am relaxed, reading, listening to music or watching TV. It’s always a surprise and not necessarily an unpleasant one. I’ve ended up calling the Scotoma My Friend.
Now that I’ve introduced My Friend to you let me explain why I’m writing this essay or short story or whatever the hell it is. Something strange happened a while ago which has led me down a very weird path and I feel the need to share what has been going on with someone---anyone. So here goes.
A few weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night, having to pee, which, in itself, is not unusual, but on my way to the bathroom I noticed that My Friend was starting to make an appearance. I couldn’t recall every having a Scotoma episode this late at night. Another anomaly was, as the blind spot increased in size, instead of having the usual gray nothingness in the center there were flashes of images. The images were of black letters printed on what looked like white paper but they flipped by so fast I could only make out a single letter now and then; E---T---B or was that a P? I got back in bed and watched the letters whizz past as My Friend filled my ceiling with its vibrating rainbow-framed blind spot. Only the spot wasn’t blind. It was like a computer screen full of flash cards. Eventually the image began to drift to the left and started fading and was gone. After an hour of my tossing and turning and trying to figure out what was going on, I went back to sleep.
The next morning I went on line to Wikipedia to see if there was any mention of images showing up in the center of a blind spot during an episode of Scotoma. I could find nothing. Next, I called good old Uncle Ted, who was in his seventies by this time but still practicing medicine.
“I thought you might have heard of such a phenomenon, being an expert and---”
“I’m no expert, dear boy. I’m just a humble GP but I can give you a reference if you’d like.” He gave me the phone number of a Dr. Frederick Ullman, who he said was an excellent Neurologist. “If anyone can answer your question, Dr. Ullman can.”
But he couldn’t. He said that in all his years of practice and research he had never come across such an incident. However, he was willing to order some tests, MRI or CAT scan, if I wished.
I thought about it and how much it would cost and decided to put it off until I felt I truly needed it. I also figured Dr. Ullman didn’t really believe me, that he thought I had made it all up or that I was delusional. However, I know what I saw was real; black letters on white paper. But why?
Like most of us these days, I sit in front of a computer, at the import company where I work, for many long hours,. I’ve even invested in a pair of those yellow glasses that cut down on the blue light from the screen. I guess they help. Anyway, I thought that maybe the images from my PC had been so burnt into my brain that what I saw in my blind spot were letters of the alphabet taken from words typed on the documents I dealt with every day. That’s the only theory I could come up with other than I had simply dreamed it.
One of the unpleasant realities of Scintillating Scotoma is you can’t predict it’s arrival. It visits you when it wants to. You can’t induce it to come or prevent it from appearing. So it was almost a month before My Friend showed up again. Now, please understand that I don’t look forward to being blind for twenty minutes no matter how spectacular the surrounding light show may be. But this time I was curious to find out if the strange black letters on newsprint would reappear. No such luck. They didn’t and I was caught between feelings of relief and disappointment. Maybe the lettering I saw was just a bad dream or an overactive imagination.
Chapter TwoAnother month passed and I had begun to forget about the whole event. I had had one of those days at work and I was home alone trying to forget the office unpleasantness by downing a Heineken Near Beer and watching a movie on Netflix. It was getting late but I wasn’t sleepy and, as Hugh Jackman started growling at some poor guy in a white lab coat, I noticed a pin point of nothing spinning in the middle of Hugh’s washboard abs. Shit, I thought, not now. I want to see the rest of the movie. But it was not to be.
As the circle on Hugh’s stomach began to slowly increase in size, I turned off the TV and headed to the bedroom. By the time I got to the door I noticed that I was seeing something in the center of my field of vision where the blind spot usually resided. The letters on white paper were back! I was stunned. I threw myself on the bed and stared up at the dark ceiling. In what was usually a totally gray emptiness I saw those white flash cards with the black lettering that had zipped in front of my eyes two months before. But now they were moving a bit slower and I could just make out some of what was printed on them before they changed. They seemed to be like headlines from newspapers. “WOMAN MISS---” read one, followed by “CAR ABANDONED” on another. They kept rushing by and I caught part of a name, “ANNETTE SI---” but the image flashed by too soon. I saw the number “32” and the name “PORTLAND” and then My Friend began to descend and diminish and I knew that my 20 minutes were almost up. I had never wanted My Friend’s vibrating light show to hang around before but, at that moment, I wished it would linger just a little bit longer.
The next morning, over my bagel and coffee, I phoned my old college buddy Sammy.
“Well, if it isn’t my faithful old friend who only calls me when he hasn’t anything else to do. What’s it been, three months?” Sam asked, knowing the answer.
“Okay, alright, sorry. I’ve been swamped with work.”
“Yeah, as usual. So what’s up?”
I started to tell him about my newsprint-like visions and then I realized how crazy it all sounded, but I plodded on anyway.
“So I remembered how you fooled around with ESP and paranormal stuff when we were in school, the Ouija Board, the I Ching---"
“Jesus, man, that was years ago. I outgrew all that stuff, didn’t you?
“Five years ago you predicted that Audrey and I would be divorced by the next Spring, right? And it happened.”
“Shit, man,” Sam exclaimed, “A total stranger could see your marriage was falling apart. I didn’t need a crystal ball to show me what was ahead for you, in your dismal future.”
“Okay, but this is different. Don’t you find what I’ve been telling you weird?”
“Yeah, but so what? Life, for the most part, is already pretty weird. Look, maybe it’s not anything but your subconscious working overtime. Perhaps it’s trying to tell you to get some help---a little therapy wouldn’t hurt.”
“Thanks a lot, doctor. How much do I owe you?,”
“Don’t get upset, my friend.
“Samuel, what I just told you has happened twice. I saw what I saw. I mean why would I choose to see what looked like newspaper headlines? It seems so mundane. Surely my subconscious could come up with something more imaginative, more fantastic.”
“Like what? Little green men? The Tai Mahal? Britney Spears? Come on, just let it go for now. If it shows up again then maybe it’ll be time for you to go see someone.”
“Well, the Scotoma will be back. I’m afraid it’s my lifetime companion, but what shows up within it is another story.”
I didn’t have to wait long. Two days after I had talked to Sammy I was in Home Depot shopping for a snow shovel, having heard, on the news, that a late winter snow storm was heading our way. Snow in April was unusual but not unheard of. As I handed the cashier my credit card I noticed that her face was disappearing. I knew I had about five minutes before I would be needing someone to guide me out to my car so I took my receipt and my shovel and quickly headed to the exit leading to the parking lot. Of course, standing there was a friendly security guard who asked me to show my receipt, which I had stupidly tucked in my jacket pocket. After searching all five wrong pockets, in a comic routine worthy of Mr. Bean, I finally found the right one and in it the bill. As I handed the receipt to the guard I looked in his face and saw that he didn’t have one, a face that is. So Mr. Faceless marked my ticket and wished me ‘a nice day’ and I stumbled out the door and, by looking at the edge of my vision plain, not at the center, I found my car, unlocked it, threw the shovel in the back seat and my body in the front one. I was sweating heavily and not happy about having an episode in the Home Depot parking lot. But my spirits improved when a looked up at my windshield and saw, shimmering in my blind spot, what looked like a newspaper headline; “SODDY SOUGHT.” I was so excited to have confirmation that what I had been seeing wasn’t my imagination, that it took me a moment to realize that what was rippling across my windshield made no sense at all; Soddy Sought? What the hell did that mean? I blinked a couple of times in an attempt to make the image clearer but it just got more blurry and then---it changed! “FODDY FOUGHT” appeared and, as I tried to make sense of this, it changed again---"BODDY BOUGHT.” It seemed to be changing very rapidly, almost like it was desperately trying to correct itself.
By the time the Scotoma was fading away, the headline had changed several more times; “TODDY TAUGHT” (I’ll drink to that), “RUDDY ROT” and what I think read “HONEY HOT.” Now, those of you who are into word games have probably figured out what was trying to be spelled out. Me, it took a while.
When it was finally safe for me to drive, I headed home to await the snow storm and to try and make sense of the words I had been seeing. I sat down at my desk and wrote out the headlines in the order they had appeared:
WOMAN MISS(ing?)or at least I thought that was what was trying to be communicated during this last Scotoma episode.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “He’s just setting us up for an old-fashioned mystery story, a tired old who-done-it. Giving it a little twist with messages from the beyond. Sorry, Mr. Author Man, been there, done that already.” Well, dear reader, whether you believe it or not, what I’ve written so far is what really happened and the only mystery I was concerned about was why me? Why was I seeing these, whatever they were, these headlines from newspapers about a missing person? Why was I chosen? I am just a divorced 48 year old Executive Assistant (which is nothing more than a glorified secretary) to the president of the Moorhouse Import and Export Company here in Hardyston, New Jersey. I’m not particularly a fan of mysteries, don’t often read them or watch them. Biographies and historical nonfiction are more my speed.
Growing up I never wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman and I certainly never had a desire to be a cop or a detective. I dimly remember my gravitating towards a career as a veterinarian or a lion tamer, a job that dealt with animals. But now here I was in the middle of a mystery and it was like I was being asked to solve it. Why? I supposed that the only way to get an answer to why me was to find out what this was all about. And to do that I was going to have to---wait for it---investigate.
I figured if I treated this unwelcome journey the way I would handle any business venture, like searching for a new product to import, I’d feel less like a Sam Spade. The headline PORTLAND seemed like a good place to start.
Do you know how many Portlands there are in the United States? Take a guess. Nope. Not even close. Over thirty! I knew there were two, Portland, Maine and that city out west. But, Portland, Tennessee? Portland, North Dakota? Portland, Texas? Georgia? Arkansas? Pennsylvania? Ohio? Where do I start? Fortunately, we have a branch office in Portland, Maine, so I decided to begin there.
“Moorhouse Import Export. This is Natalie speaking. How may I help you?”
“Hi, Natalie. This is Rick, down in New Jersey.”
“Oh, hey Rick. Everything okay? Did you get this month’s inventory?”
“Ah, yes---no. I mean I’m not in the office, right now. The snow has pretty much shut things down. How about you guys?”
“We’ve got about a foot and a half but we’re still open. Us New Englanders, you know, we’re used to it. So, what’s up?”
“Well, it’s---it’s kinda silly,” I realized that what I was about to ask Natalie was going to sound crazy so I fumbled around for a few seconds. “In the last few months has there been anything in your news about a kidnapping or a missing person?”
“You mean here in Portland?” Natalie asks, sounding a little confused.
“Yeah,” I reply, trying to think of a rational explanation for why I’m talking to her about a possible disappearance, “One of my cousins has been dating this young woman, her name is Annette, and she’s sort of vanished and he remembered that she said she was from Portland (liar, liar, pants on fire) so I said I’d check it out.”
“Well, there hasn’t been anything about a kidnapping on the local news. What’s her last name?”
“Ah---well---it’s something starting with S. He wasn’t quite sure---”
“Sounds like a really intimate relationship,” quipped Natalie.
“Yeah---well---that’s my cousin. An amateur Don Juan. Listen, Natalie, I’m sorry to have bothered you. I think I’ll just tell my cuz I tried and let it go at that.”
“It’s no bother. It was nice of you to want to help out your cousin. But remind me to never go on a date with him.” We both chuckled and, after thanking her, I hung up.
Checking with Natalie’s local newspaper seemed a bit redundant but, after all, it was newspaper headlines that I had been seeing, so maybe. I got on the Portland Press Herald website and called up any articles about missing persons, murder or kidnapping. The paper proudly announced that during the last year there had only been three murders, two were men and the third was a woman named Betty. As for kidnapping, a father picked up his son at school and whisked him away to Augusta but the authorities returned the boy safely to his mother, the man’s ex-wife. The closest thing to what I was searching for was an article about a Portland man who had abducted a woman in Fort Lauderdale and drove 1,570 miles to Maine, stopping only to get gas and beat and rape her. What’s wrong with some people! Anyway, her name wasn’t Annette. It was Crystal.
Back to square one. I looked up some of the other 29 Portlands and began to eliminate any of them with a population of less than 500. It was pretty obvious to me that, in our modern world of radio, TV and internet news, these little towns couldn’t support a full blown daily newspaper. So the next stop would be Portland, Oregon.
Chapter ThreeKnown as The Rose City, Portland sits along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and, from the photos I saw on Google, it looked like a very beautiful place. The Oregonian is the only daily newspaper and then there are several other free weekly papers. Unlike her sister city on the East Coast, Portland, Oregon is no stranger to homicide with a record 52 cases last year. I read this statistic in an article the Oregonian published about the police trying to reduce the murder rate. Next to this document was an invitation to check out their new interactive murder map, an amazing site that pin points, with red dots, where killings took place in the Portland metropolitan area since 2013. Each dot listed the murder, the name of the victim, the date, the weapon used and, in the cases solved, the killer. I started to tap each red dot but soon realized that there were too many of them and it would take me days to work through each and every one. I decided to enter the name Annette instead and see what happened.
I found an Antoinette Carson (strangled by her boyfriend in 2014) and Nettie McGovern (shot in a robbery at the Hot Shot Liquor Store) but no Annette. The results of this first foray into the archives of the Oregonian could mean only two things to me; one, that whatever happened to Annette Si(?) had happened before 2013 and two, that this, once again, may not be the right city of Portland. It was close to one in the morning by this time so I decided to get some sleep and resume the search in the morning.
Since the weather was going to keep me from getting to the office for a least another day I thought I would use the time to delve a little deeper into the mystery of the ‘Scintillating Headlines.’ I told myself at breakfast, over coffee and a strawberry Pop Tart, that if I didn’t make any progress by the end of week I’d drop the whole ridiculous goose chase.
I fired up my computer and typed in ‘Missing Persons’ and a very efficient site came up run by the Oregon State Police. However, it listed the victims alphabetically, by their last names, and Si was all I had. Moving on, I then began the process of getting into the archives of the Oregonian. While access to the title of any article was free, to be able to read or print the whole article came with a fee. I signed up for a week, paid with my AmEx, and started searching by entering “Missing---Annette.” Nothing. I next tried “Kidnapping” and several hits came up, some dating back many decades. I even read about the Lindbergh kidnapping which was national news in 1932. But without a date and a full name and with really nothing else to go on I was at a loss as how to proceed. The archive dates were from 1867 to 1987. After that you had to contact someone at the paper who would look through the more recent data banks and email you what you were searching for. I believe there’s an old British saying, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” I noted a phone number listed and decided since I’d gone this far, I might as well go all the way. I punched in the number and waited as the phone did it’s buzzing , one---two---three---four---
“Welcome to the Oregonian. Please listen carefully as our options have changed. For subscriptions and billing, press One. For placing an ad, press Two. For placing an obituary notice, press Three. To report a crime or an accident, press Four. For all other calls, press Five. If you know your party’s extension you may---”
I pressed Five. The phone beeped three times and then a cheery female voice came on the line.
“Good morning. This is the Oregonian and I’m Ginger. How may I help you?”
I was taken aback by the positive energy flowing into my ear. It took me a second to recover.
“Ah, hi, yeah, I hope you can. I’m calling from New Jersey---”
“Oh, okay. To what do we owe the honor of this visit?”
“Yeah, well, my name is Rick Tremaine and I’m trying to locate a missing person by the name of Annette.”
“Alright. Pleased to meet you Mr. Tremaine and this person’s full name?”
“Unfortunately I only have the first two letters of her last name, S—I, Si.”
“Well, that’s a start.” I could hear the clicking of computer keys. “ I don’t mean to pry but what’s your connection to this Annette? Are you a detective?”
“No, oh god no. Just a friend of friend who asked me to help him out. He mentioned she was last heard of in Portland so I thought I’d check the newspaper for any reports of her maybe missing or in an accident or---”
“Well, I’ve got a few Annettes here on my screen but none with the last name starting with Si.”
“Wow! That was fast---and disappointing.”
“I’ve got the death notice for an Annette Vicari, age 96. There’s an Annette Peterson, something about winning a tennis match, an Annette Rylander arrested for shoplifting---”
“But no missing Annette?”
“Not that I can see---or an Annette with a last name starting in S. Sorry. Did you check out our archive sight on line because what I’ve got here are the more recent names from the more up- to-date editions.”
“Yeah, I spent some time there before I called you. Well, thanks a lot for your help, Ginger.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” I could hear other phones beginning to ring. “Listen, Rick, I’ve got to answer these other calls coming in. My day has officially started.”
“Oh, right. What time is it there? Four hour difference, right ?”
“Three. It’s a little after eight AM here. You were my first call. Listen, here’s an idea that might help but you didn’t hear it from me. There’s this old codger that used to work for the Oregon Journal, a rival daily that published in the afternoon, been out of business for decades. Anyway, he’s always been the go-to-man for fact checking and research. He’s got one of those photographic memories. Our guys use him all the time. Give me your email address and I’ll send you his.”
I did as she asked and we ended the call.
Morris Arensky, AKA email@example.com, responded within an hour of me writing to his email address.
“Greetings, New Jersey. I hear you’re up to your gonads in snow. With regard to pumping this old fart for information, feel free to ask away. Anyone Ginger recommends is Jake by me. However, a few conditions: I’ll talk on the phone but no texts. No calls before ten a.m. PST. I need my beauty sleep. I prefer to communicate by email, it reminds me of my typing days as a reporter. So, whenever you are ready. Yours, Mo”
I had heard that folk on the West Coast were friendly and this seemed to be the case with Morris Arensky. Over the next few days I learned that Mo, as he preferred to be addressed, was 83 years old, had been a reporter on various newspapers for over sixty years, was a widower, father of four, two boys and two girls, was a grandfather and great-grandfather and a walking encyclopedia.
I emailed him back immediately with a brief bio of myself and then filled him in on my mission.
“Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I’m trying to gather any information on a woman named Annette who may have gone missing or was kidnapped back there in your city. Unfortunately, I have very little information other than she may have been 32 years old when she disappeared, her last name started with Si and her car was found abandoned.”
“Okay, Jersey, that’s a start. So when did this happen? Who reported her missing? Family?
I realized this was going to be an exercise in futility. I had no answers, of course, and if I told Mo about the Scotoma headlines he would write me off as just another looney tunes. But I needed to be honest with him. I needed to let him know that I appreciated his offer to help and to apologize for taking up his time.
“I’m sorry if I misled you, Mo. This whole deal is based on so little information and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you where I got the little bit of data that I sent you. To start with I don’t even know if the event happened in your Portland. I apologize for bothering you and thank you for your patience and consideration.”
I was totally blown away. He didn’t seemed to be at all upset about my crazy story. In fact it sounded like he was interested. Maybe the two of us could work together and get somewhere, dig up some answers. I was hopeful for the first time since I started this cockamamie journey.
I had just begun to compile a list of questions for Mo when my cell phone began to vibrate and, glancing at the screen, I saw it was my boss.
“Hello, George,” I answered, knowing why he was calling.
“Hey, Rick. How’s the snow out your way ?”
“Well, it’s still pretty deep but it looks like the weather is warming up.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m calling. We’re opening the office tomorrow. The snow plow has been working on the parking lot so I’ll see you in the morning. Okay?”
“Ah, yes. I’m still sort of snowed in---but I’ll do my best.”
“Righto. Back to the old grindstone. Bye.”
This was the perfect opportunity to cancel this bizarre journey. Explaining to Morris that I had to get back to work would release the two of us from having to continue the search. But I didn’t really want to stop until I had found the mysterious Annette and had discovered why I was chosen to track her down.
The decision to go to work or stay home bounced around in my head for hours as I paced from the kitchen through the living room to the bedroom and back again. Finally, too exhausted to reach a sensible conclusion, I headed to bed. I decided I’d figure it all out in the morning. The answer would come with the dawn.
The answer came, alright, but it was not by the dawn’s early light. Around midnight I was awakened by the hum of a soft whispering, a gentle wave of sibilant sounds. I couldn’t make out any words but it seemed like several human voices were quietly chanting somewhere far off. Even though the sound didn’t appear to be in the apartment I found myself afraid to open my eyes. But it didn’t matter whether I opened my eyes or not because there, in the dark, on the ceiling of my bedroom or the underside of my eyelids, came the vibrating neon rainbows of My Friend.
I stared at the flashing and rippling lights that formed a frame around the ever expanding gray rectangle in the center. It was almost like I was looking at a movie screen in a virtual multiplex theatre somewhere in outer space, and it even came with its own sound track. At first there was nothing on the screen, just the usual blind spot, but then a fuzzy black and white image began to ripple into view. It pulsated and quivered as it came into focus. It appeared to be a photo, probably from a newspaper, as I could see the dots of ink. Although it was somewhat blurry, I was able to make out that it was the portrait of a woman with dark hair and dark eyes and a slight smile. There was a tiny black dot next to her left eye which could have been a beauty mark but was more likely just an ink stain. Was this Annette? Was it her voice? What was it with the whispering voices? My Friend had never appeared before with sound effects. Was I dreaming?
This midnight visit shook me up more than any of the others. It was as if this Annette person was trying to actually appear physically in my presence, to travel into my room. I know how crazy that seems. Was I going insane? Was all this just a symptom of mental illness?
I remembered hearing somewhere that a mentally ill person doesn’t know he or she is sick. Well, while I was pretty sure I wasn’t suffering from some awful psychological ailment, what was happening to me was more than mystifying---it was terrifying. I didn’t think I could endure many more of these visits. I had to get some sort of answer, anything that would put an end to these visions. If I didn’t I just might go mad.
The next morning I called in sick, even though it wasn’t true---I used the standard excuse; the fever, the cough, didn’t want to spread it around,. It wasn’t a complete lie. I felt exhausted after a sleepless night. Of course George wasn’t happy. It meant he’d have to do some work for a change. But I had to talk to Morris. I felt, somehow, that he was part of my journey, that I was led to him by the strange forces that were turning my life upside down. I placed a call to the West Coast around one pm my time, ten in the morning his time. He picked up on the second ring.
“Hey, Jersey. How’s it going?” His voice sounded much younger than I expected.
“Hi, Morris. It’s still cold and there’s quite a bit of snow here.”
“Well it’s chilly here and rainy---liquid sunshine as we Oregonians call it. So what’s up? Any new information?”
I told him about my midnight visitor and my determination to solve this mystery.
“Sounds like it’s someone who is not going to give up until you hear them out.”
“So you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“Oh, I think you’re crazy but then I think we’re all crazy. We live in a world that would make anyone crazy. Now, I did a little research on the elusive Annette and I’m afraid I’ve found no one missing by that name, at least here in Portland. Can you describe what she looked like in your---vision or dream or whatever the hell appeared to you last night?”
“Yes---it was blurry and looked like it was clipped from a magazine or a newspaper. She had dark hair and eyes, had an oval shaped face and seemed pretty, from what I could see. It was hard to tell with the image being so fuzzy.”
“And this was accompanied with voices? Could you make out what they were saying?”
“Not really. It was like it was a chorus---a roomful of whispering sounds but nothing I could make sense of. Too many voices overlapping, hundreds of voices. Mo, please be honest we me. I’m sure you must think I’m some kind of a raving mad man.
“There was a time I would have called all this carrying-on a bunch of malarkey, visions and voices indeed, but after eighty odd years of roaming this earth I’ve seen too many phenomena that could never be explained in rational terms. So, what do you say you stop worrying about whether I think you’ve lost your marbles and we concentrate on the mission. Now, I’m going to keep digging into my files and see if any memory of a missing woman comes up. I have this niggling feeling there’s something hiding in the dark corners of my brain that I can’t access. I guess the cob webs have gotten a lot thicker these past few years.”
“I apologize for getting you involved in this nonsense. I’m sure it must be exhausting and you have better things to do.”
“Ha! Like what? Bingo at the parish hall? Reading the obituaries? Watching reruns of the Golden Girls? Please, Jersey, you came along at just the right time. I mean, I was about to agree with my kids and move into one of those assisted living places where they assist you into the grave. But now I’ve got an assignment, like back in the old days at the Journal. I can feel the juices flowing. A story! I love stories! And yours sounds like it’s going to be a doozy!”
We continued the conversation and Mo outlined the next steps he felt we should take. I was to check for cases of women who had disappeared in a Portland other than the Oregon Portland while Morris dipped into his mental files for any memories of a missing woman named Annette. I felt that my assignment was really just busy work and rather futile but I began Googling any of the Portlands with a population over 500. And then my cell phone rang. I hoped it was Morris with good news but it was the office.
“Hey Rick, it’s Janice. George wants to know if you feel up to working from home.”
“Oh, hi, Jan. I’m still not feeling great so I---but---if it’s not too much, you know, I guess I could spend an hour or two---”
“Listen, I’d pick up the slack if it were any other time but we’re deep into this year’s inventory so---”
“No, no, I understand. I’m sorry about not being there---”
“Hey, you’re ill. It’s not your fault. It’s not like you’re playing hooky, right? So, I’ll email you the list of the dealers George wants you to follow up on. Okay?”
I responded with a weak “yes”, trying to sound believably ill, and ended the call. The email list arrived a few minutes later and I printed it out. I slipped it under the pile of notes I had been making about what I’d come to call the “Annette Si Investigation.” I promised myself I would get back to George’s request as soon as I’d finished my examination of Portland, Indiana, population 6,200 and famous for the world’s largest Antique Tractor and Engine Show. So far the only females there, that were reported missing recently, were an 82 year old woman and a 16 year girl, Barbara and Cheyanne. No Annette.
What I discovered, as I looked up online, the lists of missing persons in the states that have these towns and cities labeled Portland, is how many people have gone missing. I mean, the state of Indiana alone has 1,251 open cases going back twenty years. Oregon has 1,366 missing persons making it the third place winner in the United States. Anyone for a bronze medal? I dreaded to see what the statistics were like for the more densely populated states.
I found myself wondering why the numbers were so high. What caused a person to disappear? Murder? Kidnapping? Suicide? Choosing to run away? Escaping from the law? Escaping from an abusive parent, husband, lover? Starting a new life? Why did Annette go missing?
Chapter FourTwo days after my last phone conference with Mo, at about five in the early evening, my phone rang. I was afraid it was George, having discovered that I hadn’t placed one call on the list he had sent me, but mercifully it was Morris.
“Hey, Jersey, are you sitting down?”
“Do you have any history of heart problems?’
“No---what’s going on?”
“I just don’t want to be responsible for putting you in the ER!”
“You found something!”
“I found Annette. I mean I found a missing person with the name Annette.”
“Is it her, Annette Si?
“Yes, I’m pretty sure it is. The reason you were having trouble tracking her down was that the name Annette is or was, her middle name. Her full legal moniker is Sara Annette Simpson.”
“Oh my god! How did you find this out?”
“I dusted off the old gray cells and I began to remember a missing persons case from, at least, 30 years ago. But this was a young woman known as Sara. All the news coverage called it the Sara Simpson Case. I don’t think I ever heard the name Annette. In fact I’m sure of it, or I would have remembered it the moment you said her name.”
“That’s so weird. Why would the name Annette show up in my---my vision or whatever?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what it does for me. It’s proves that something is really going on. That you could have come up with a name that was not publicized, that I wasn’t even aware of, is evidence to me, that something or someone is reaching out to you.”
Morris explained about working on the Oregon Journal Newspaper and about its eventual demise in 1982. He was in his fifties, when the rival to the Oregonian folded, and he knew he was too young to stop working and too old to change careers so he started free-lancing. He might have landed a position on the Oregonian but he knew they were so bombarded with all the other out-of-work newspaper men that he didn’t even bother to apply.
“I started to farm myself out to various publications, even submitted some in-depth articles to the Oregonian which they published---why wouldn’t they, I was the best writer and reporter in town. But, regrettably, I never wrote about Sara Simpson so I don’t have any background material to share with you. I believe I was working on a corruption scandal at city hall around that time, up to my armpits in naughty doings, so I didn’t have much time for watching TV or reading about this young woman who had disappeared. But I remembered it was a big deal.”
“So, what should I do now? Where do I go from here?” I asked, knowing that Mo had done his best and was probably ready to call it quits.
“I don’t know about you but I’m calling Ginger at the Oregonian archives and asking her to send me everything they ever published on the Sara Simpson disappearance. Maybe you should rest, get some dinner, it’s dinner time there, right? We’ll talk again later when I have more information.”
I was just clearing up the remains of my supper of reheated pizza when my cell phone began pumping out its rendition of Sweet Home Alabama. For a moment I thought it was Morris calling back with something he had forgotten to tell me but a quick glance at my screen said otherwise. I answered it.
“Hi, Richard, sweetheart.”
“Are you okay, mom? Is something wrong?”
“Of course not. It’s just that I heard that you aren’t feeling well. I thought I’d check-in and see if there’s anything I can do.”
“No, no, I’m doing okay. It’s nothing serious. How’d you find out I was ill?”
“Oh, I called your office when I didn’t hear from you last week. That nice young lady Janice, who works there, told me you were home in bed sick.”
My mother, Rosalie Francis Tremaine, nee Jackson, is a deceptively fragile-looking woman who is really one of the strongest females God ever created. She grew up in poverty in Cumberland, Maryland and, after leaving high school at age 17, determining that she would free herself from small town destitution, she took a bus to New York City. She found work as a salesgirl in a high-end lingerie boutique, lied about her age, proved herself to be a smart and savvy employee and moved up to a managerial position by the time she was twenty. She learned how to dress like a real New Yorker (lots of basic black) and budgeted what she called her nightlife money so that she could visit the better hot spots in the city. By the time she was twenty five she told me she had been in and out of several relationships with some pretty important men. Luckily, she didn’t ever tell me the intimate details.
On her 26th birthday she met my dad, Roland Augustus Tremaine, better known as R. A., President and CEO of Cando Imports, and the rest is history, as she loves to say---often. They fell in love, married and mom quit working or, as she puts it, she changed careers. She put all her energy into becoming a wealthy executive’s wife, moving in all the right circles, attending all the important social events, running the appropriate charities and becoming what she felt was a certified member of the upper classes.
All of that was in place when I arrived. She never tires of telling anyone and everyone that I was conceived during a world cruise on which her dear R. A. had taken her. Yep, it was silver spoon time and it has taken me many years of visits to the shrink and a bout with alcoholism to get me to this level of sanity. Since the death of my father, mom has been living in Tampa, Florida and Friday evenings, without fail, I am expected to call her.
“I was getting worried, darling, when Friday night came and went and I hadn’t heard from you and then when I saw you were having a blizzard I thought---”
“It wasn’t a blizzard, mom, just a lot of snow. A blizzard is when the snow is accompanied by high winds---”
“Whatever. A mother worries. It’s built into our DNA.”
“I’m okay. I’m sorry about missing last Friday. I had to work late here at home. Very busy.”
“Well, the next time that happens just give me a little text so I know you’re still alive.”
“You know, Ricky, you should really think about moving down here to Tampa.”
“Mom, we’ve talked about this a hundred times before. My work, my job, is up here in New Jersey.”
“I know, but why don’t you look into getting your company to relocate here.”
“Well, the least they could do is open a branch office here. Your father had branches all over, even here in Florida. Don’t you have a branch in New Hampshire?
“Maine---Mom, I gotta go take another Tylenol and lie down.”
“Of course, my darling boy, and drink lots of water. Rehydrate.”
“I’ll call you next Friday.”
“Good. By then you should be all better.”
I was about to end the call when she continued; “You’re not drinking again are you, sweetheart?”
After a moment of silence, during which I counted to ten, I answered;
“Mother, you ask that question at least once a month. You know I haven’t had a drink in five years, although at this moment I am very tempted.”
“Good night, Mother!” and I hung up.
Chapter FiveA day went by without a call or email from Morris. I worked half-heartedly on the list Jan had sent me and told George, when he called to encourage me to return to the office, that I was still running a fever. I was getting good at lying. Little did I know how many lies were still ahead for me.
At around eleven the next morning, after a lousy night’s sleep, Mo sent me an email. It lifted the gray cloud of depression, that had been hanging over me, immediately.
“Hey Jersey. How’s it going? I had a nice long session with the materials Ginger sent me and here’s some of what I’ve discovered.
Sara (Annette) Simpson, age 32, was reported missing on October 4th, 1988. Her car was found abandoned on October 5th in the parking lot up at the International Rose Test Gardens in Washington Park.
Her sister told police that Sara left the apartment, that they shared on Montgomery Street, on the evening of October 3rd, saying she was meeting someone for dinner. Unfortunately, Sara didn’t name the individual or where they were meeting.
She worked as a waitress at Waddle’s restaurant (it closed in 2006. I sure miss their blue berry cobbler.) She didn’t show up for her afternoon shift on the 5th.
Her sister described her as ‘smart, funny, kind, and generous to a fault.’
She dropped out of High School at 15 but eventually got her GED.
At the time of her disappearance she was not involved in a serious relationship. She had broken up with her last boyfriend two years previously.
I’m attaching the only photograph I could find. It’s the one that was printed with the first article in the newspaper. Check it out.
Talk soon, Mo.”
I scrolled down to the photo and sat back suddenly. You know how people say their heart stopped when they saw something that shocked them. Well, for the first time in my life I experienced that feeling. Here, in front of me, was the photo I had seen midst the whirling lights radiating off of My Friend. Same hair, same eyes, same slight smile. And, I was right, it was a beauty mark next to her left eye, not a dot of printer’s ink.
After staring at the image of Sara Annette Simpson, for what seemed like an hour, I emailed back to Mo that the photo he sent was the one I saw floating in the middle of my Scotoma in the dark of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I told him I was elated and confused at the same time. Where was I supposed to go from here? Should I forward this to the Portland police? And if so what would I say?
“Hey, guys. I’ve been getting messages from beyond, from someone who disappeared thirty-two years ago. Sorry, she hasn’t told me what happened to her or where she ended up. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been having these visions. Medications? Who needs medicating?”
Within five minutes, from the time I emailed back to Morris, my land line rang and when I saw that it was Mo and not my mother or George I picked up the receiver. His rumbling baritone sounded like a shovel in gravel.
“Good morning, Jersey. You are so right. We can’t go to the cops. We have nothing to share with them.”
“Yeah, I know. All we have is what you’ve uncovered and that’s already public knowledge. The detectives know all that.”
“Yep, and they aren’t big on ghost stories. Lack of imagination, I’m afraid.”
“So what’s next?”
“Well, it seems to me we’re going to have put on our deerstalker hats and grab our magnifying glasses. I was thinking that there are two ways to approach this case, one: you hire a private eye, and I don’t know if you can afford or want to do that, or, two: you fly out here and we work on this together. This long-distance business slows everything down. Can you afford to come out here, spend a couple of weeks? The weather’s better. It’s kinda wet but not so cold, no white stuff.”
“Mo, I would be on the next flight out if it were left up to me. But I’ve got this hard ass for a boss who doesn’t like me to be out of his sight for more than five minutes. That’s because he’s too scared to make a decision on his own and too lazy to do what it takes to run the business.”
“Wow! Do I hear a little bitterness in your tone? What is your business, if I may ask?”
“We’re into Import/Export, mostly furniture but lots of other stuff, high-end decorative junk, stuff I wouldn’t allow in my apartment but seems to be the current rage.”
“What’s the name of your company?”
“Moorhouse Imports. So what’s the next step, Morris? What can I do working from here?”
“I guess just go over what we have so far. See if something pops up, something we missed. Perhaps your scintillating friend will visit with another set of clues. Meantime, I’m going to try a new angle.”
“A new angle? What angle?”
“I’ll tell you all about it when we talk next. Maybe, you should go back to work before your boss has a coronary,” Morris chuckled, “Mr. Georgie, that’s his name, right? George?”
“Yes, George Desmond Kellar the second” I responded half-heartedly, not pleased to have Mo encouraging me to return to work. The only work I wanted to continue was trying to solve the mystery of my connection to Sara Annette Simpson.
Chapter SixBut Morris was right. I had to go back to work. So, the next day, a crisp and sunny Tuesday, I dug my Subaru out of the snow and drove carefully onto the newly plowed road. I headed off to the office, dreading what awaited me. George would have a hundred inane questions to ask and a sky-high stack of loose ends for me to track down and resolve. Damn, I really needed to rethink my current employment situation. I hated my job.
True to form, George heard me being greeted by Jan and came shooting out of his office, like a cuckoo out of a clock.
“Richard, glad to see you’re feeling better. I have a few things to run by you, when you’ve gotten yourself squared away, so settle in and then come into my office as soon as you can.”----(Ah, yes, some things never change.)
Janice filled me in on how behind we were on back orders and how George had been spending a lot of time on the computer and she suspected it wasn’t always about business. “More like monkey business, if you ask me.” George inherited Moorhouse Imports from his father but he didn’t inherit his dad’s good business sense or his belief in ethical behavior.
“Come in, come in,” George urged from behind his desk, as I stood in the doorway. “We missed you, guy. A lot has happened in the week you’ve been away recuperating. Take a seat and let’s get down to it.”
I sat myself down in a chair in front of his desk and noticed how bare the mahogany surface was; no correspondence, no invoices, no memos, no research files, nothing but a small note pad and a Precise V5 rolling ballpoint pen. I tried to quickly read the upside down writing on the pad but with no success.
“We’ve had a few complaints about delayed deliveries but I blamed it on the weather so that’s taken care of. A shipment of our Teak tables is being held hostage by the CBP and the rumor is that the container ship our order is on might be smuggling some drugs. We should only be so lucky that maybe some cocaine spilled over onto our shipment,” George joked. “Anyway, we’ll just have to wait for that to clear up on its own. You know how long that can take.”
“I’ll give Daniel over in Customs a call and see what’s going on.”
“Great. And now for some very interesting news.”
“Oh, and what’s that?” I asked, getting ready to hear about his new car or his new condo or his new girlfriend.
“I got a call yesterday afternoon from a company in Seattle.”
“This guy has some kind of product, I don’t remember all the details, but it’s won all kinds of design awards and he would like us to introduce it to the East Coast, maybe be his exclusive distributer.”
“That sounds very intriguing. How did he hear about us?”
“That article about our company that was in Furniture World Magazine last year.”
“You mean the blog site?”
“Yep. So he wanted to know if we could send a representative out to Seattle to look things over and maybe work out some sort of deal.”
“Interesting. What’s the name of this company?”
“Oh, yeah,” George responded, picking up his note pad. “It’s called Arensky Designs, Inc.”
When I got back to my desk I called up Morris on my cell and hoped no one in the outer office was eavesdropping. It rang several times and I was about ready to give up when I heard a click and then Mo’s gruff voice.
“What the fuck, Jersey! You woke me up. You know I need my beauty sleep!”
“I’m sorry Mo. I forgot about the time difference.”
“I told you I’m a night owl. I don’t usually get to bed ‘till after midnight.”
“I’m really sorry but my boss just told me about this phone call he got from Seattle from a company called Arensky. That wouldn’t have anything to do with you, right?”
“Let me get my coffee. Can’t get my engine started without my caffeine.” I heard the rattling of a mug and the sloshing of liquid that I surmised must have come from his automatic coffee maker. “I keep this baby brewing around the clock. Now, to answer your question. Yes, that company is owned by my eldest son Paul, very talented, very artistic.”
“What the hell is going on, Morris? I mean, George has asked me, just now, to contact this---this Arensky company. I guess that would be your son, your Paul, right? He wants me to set up a conference call to talk about---what? What, in the name of Christ, am I supposed to talk about?”
“Well, you’ll talk about a business arrangement. You’ll ask to see pictures of Paul’s new line of handmade furniture, proudly manufactured in the USA.”
“And then what happens?”
“And then Paul will say he doesn’t allow photos or videos to be released for fear of illegal copying of his designs and that he only shows his product to interested parties by having them visit his showroom in person.”
“That’s ridiculous. If that’s the way he runs his business I imagine he’s not making much of a profit.”
“Oh, he’s doing okay. And you’re right, that’s no way to run a business and Paul doesn’t really do that. He does a lot of mailing of pamphlets and photos of his stuff. He’s simply helping me set up a plan to get you out here.”
“What the fuck is going on, Morris?
“Language, my young friend. A little respect, if you please,” he admonished while taking a gulp of his coffee. “Here’s the way it’s going to play out. You’ll convince Georgie boy that it would be worth it for you to fly to Seattle to check out the Arensky Company. Then, once you arrive at the SeaTac airport, you’ll rent a car and drive the two and a half hours down to Portland.”
“This is crazy.”
“You can stay with me and then we can really get to digging into the Sara Simpson disappearance.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you are going to such extremes to help me, creating such an elaborate plan, even one involving you son. Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”
“I smell a great story, that’s what. Maybe a book, a paranormal mystery, ‘The Search for Sara.’ And don’t worry about Paul, he loves an adventure. He’s used to conspiring with his old man. So, my lad, right now I need my breakfast and you need to start working on the Simpson caper at your end. Talk later,” and he hung up.
That afternoon I made a Zoom call, with George present, to Paul Arensky and, following the unwritten script Morris had laid out earlier, I talked about arrangements to fly out, for a meeting, to see the Arensky line of amazing avantgarde furniture. At first George was a little hesitant about the cost of such a trip. But I began to see the glimmer of greed in his eyes and eventually the only hold up was that my absence would cause an extra heavy work load for my co-workers (especially George). I suggested that we call the Maine office and ask if they could spare someone to come down to Hardyston and cover for me. This, paired with the promise of increased revenue and the prestige of being the exclusive East Coast distributor of Arensky Designs, convinced George that I should go. That it was all a ruse and that a business deal would never really happen should have given me a large dose of guilt but, in all honesty, I felt nothing but relief. Maybe now I could concentrate on finding out my connection to all of this. Maybe I could eventually get a good-nights-sleep. I was so wired and tired.
Two days later I was on an Alaska Airlines jet to Seattle, but as there were no direct flights to Seattle my plane was to make a short stopover in San Francisco. It seemed weird to be leaving from there and flying right over Portland when that’s where I was really headed, but I had to keep up the pretense.
The flight from Newark was uneventful until, somewhere over the mid-west, I noticed that Tom Cruise was developing a hole in his head. He was barreling along in one of his action movies, that was playing on the small screen attached to the back of the seat in front of me. He was driving on a winding road at 90 miles an hour but never looking at the highway, just talking to the beautiful blond in the passenger’s seat. One sees a lot of that in film these days, actors driving without ever looking straight ahead. If I drove like that in real life I’d end up dead in a ditch. Anyway, the aforementioned hole was expanding and I knew My Friend would be arriving soon. The blind spot was beginning to be surrounded by a checkerboard pattern of flashing red and purple metallic squares and I closed my eyes so that I could block out any external distractions. I wanted to see if there was an incoming message. The checkerboard evolved into a crazy quilt of rainbow forms that flapped and waved like sails in the wind. I was beginning to think that this visit would be just another regular light show when I saw the faint outline of lettering begin to appear in the gray void, like the shadow of a tree in fog. The first letter became clearer and I could see that it was a capital G. It was not the newsprint I was used to seeing. It seemed to be printed on a label or a strip of some kind and it was followed by the letters e-r-t-r-u-d-e. Gertrude! Jesus Christ! Another name! Just what I needed, another frigging name! Who was this? Hamlet’s mother?
After landing in Seattle and picking up my rental car, a Nissan Altima, I headed south towards Portland on I-5. Using the car’s GPS I tapped in Mo’s address and listened to the robotic lady as she gave me my driving instructions. The landscape was hilly at first as I left Tacoma and then smoothed out into fields dotted with tall pine trees and farm houses. I could understand why the Northwest has been referred to as “God’s Country.” It was very beautiful, very green, and with mountain ranges in shades of blue and purple in the distance. Mount St. Helens, that mountain that blew her top in 1980, killing 57 people, was off to my far left and covered in a white shroud of snow. The afternoon sun lit it up like a giant meringue.
After a couple of hours, my virtual guide woke up and she implored me to get ready to exit as soon as I crossed the Interstate Bridge, over the mighty Columbia River, into Oregon. I took the first exit, as instructed, to West Hayden Island where Morris said he had, as his residence, a house boat. Now, I don’t know about you, but my image of a house boat is kind of like a barge with a tin roof. The two-story Tudor mansion that, when my artificial travel guide announced I had ‘arrived at destination on left,’ appeared before me, was not even close to what I had imagined. This looked like more like something from a gated community in Connecticut.
“From the time I was a kid and reading Mark Twain I wanted to live on a boat, so when I quit the newspaper business I went looking for a house boat,” Morris explained, as he greeted me at the door. “Well, actually, at first I looked at any boat, you know, but I got that out of my system really quick. I’m no sailor. So I started shopping for a house boat.”
“Wow, this is some house boat,” I replied, taking in the fire flickering in the fireplace and the staircase winding its way to the second floor.
“Technically, this is not a house boat. It’s what’s called a ‘Floating Home.’ A house boat can leave the slip at any time, often under its own power. A floating home is hooked up to the dock semi-permanently, to the electrics, water, and sewage, and all those things have to be disconnected before it can be moved somewhere else by a tug,” Mo explained, standing in a kitchen which would have done Martha Stuart proud. He was taller than I imagined and looked younger than his eighty odd years. If I were to cast him in a movie it would be as a University Professor not a weary, shop worn, newspaper reporter. He was slightly stooped with a head of white hair that touched the edges of the collar on the bright blue Hawaiian shirt he was wearing.
“You must be pretty dry after your trip, Jersey,” he asked, moving slowly towards the refrigerator. “How about beer?”
“That sounds great but I’ve sorta given up drinking these days.”
“Gotcha. Good for you. How about a coke?”
“Actually, a glass of water would do just fine.”
Morris took me and my glass of, what my grandmother used to call, “God’s wine” on a shuffling tour of the first floor. It was an open plan layout with everything in the one large space but with a door leading to a separate bedroom and bath facing the river.
“This is what’s called the Master Suite and I’m the master. I like to be close to the kitchen in case I get the midnight munchies,” Mo explained, as he ambled back to the stair case, “and also because going up and down these stairs has become somewhat of a hassle.” He indicated the stairlift chair that apparently followed a curved track up the side of the stairwell to the second floor. “I paid a fortune for this invention and it’s as slow as a stoned two-toed sloth. Now, you just go on up and I’ll meet ya in an hour or so,” he jokingly complained, as he seated himself on the fold down chair and pressed a button. “Your room is the last door on the left.”
My room faced the river and was painted in a pleasant blue so that you felt like you were a part of the sky and water that was just outside the window. There was a connecting door to a turquoise-tiled bathroom worthy of Architectural Digest. After throwing my suit case on the double bed and hanging my coat in the closet, I joined Morris in the upstairs hall.
“And this, my young friend,” he announced, indicating the room closest to the staircase, “is Operation Central, also known as my office.” I peered through the open door at the organized chaos that is the evidence of very busy mind. There were floor to ceiling book shelves on two walls that were crammed not only with hardcovers and paperbacks but with photo albums and what looked like evidence boxes. Here and there were bizarre objects stuck in between the books. I spied a stuffed owl, “That’s Balanchine. He keeps me on my toes,” and a framed photo of some poor carnival freak, a man with two extra arms, “To remind me that I don’t have to always do it alone. Sometimes it’s nice to have an extra pair of hands.”
There was computer on what I took to be a worktable, although, with the surface completely covered in files, loose papers, books, magazines and bulging envelopes, it could have been a piano for all I knew. Two swivel office chairs, one whose seat was being used as a repository for more research materials, were lined up in front of the table. A wide filing cabinet about five foot high was pushed up against one wall with a TV monitor hanging above it. The window wall had a white erase board on the left and a corkboard on the right. The window its self was curtained with a fabric that let in some of the light but blurred the landscape, “Don’t want to be distracted by the beauty of the out-of-doors,” explained Mo. Underneath the window was a cabinet that contained a printer, with a shelf for paper and inks, and his ever-brewing caffeine machine, a match to the one in his kitchen. The man liked his coffee.
Sprawled across the top of the white erase board, in large red letters was the name Sara Annette Marie Simpson. Underneath were dates, places, other names, including my own, and a giant question mark. The cork board on the right was entirely covered in photos, newspaper clippings and maps. On the lower right hand corner was a sign, ‘Joke of The Day‘ and beneath that was what I presumed was a clipping of a joke but the print was too small to read from where I was standing. Mo crossed to the board and adjusted his eye glasses.
“Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip,” Morris began, reading the clipping pinned to the board. “After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they laid down for the night, and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. ‘Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.’ Watson replied, ‘I see millions and millions of stars.’ ‘What does that tell you?’ Watson pondered for a minute. ‘Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?’ Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. ‘It tells me that someone has stolen our tent.’”
Chapter EightIf I hadn’t had to lie so much, this journey would have been perfect. Morris was amazing. He was a great host, had a true sense of the ridiculous, was sharp as the proverbial tack and was willing to believe my weird story. Then there was George, anxious to get the deal (which didn’t really exist) signed, sealed and delivered. I put him off for a while by telling him that Paul Arensky was taking me on a tour of the various locations where his award-winning, made-in-America furniture was being created. Hopefully, this would give me time to dive into the Sara Simpson case.
“So, Jersey, the name Gertrude appeared to you while you were 30,000 feet in the air. What do you make of that?” We were sitting in Mo’s office. He was typing the name Gertrude into Google on his computer. I had set up my PC next to his.
“I have no idea. I don’t know any Gertrude. I don’t have a relative or friend by that name.”
“Let’s see what we have here,” he said, adjusting a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses, as a list of Gertrudes lined up along the left side of his screen. “Hum, according to Great God Google the name Gertrude means ‘strength’ and ‘spear’ and originated in Germany. Let’s see, we’ve got Hamlet’s mommy and then there’s Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Ederle, Gertrude Astor, Gertrude Laurence, Gertrude Whitney. Any of these ladies ring a bell?”
“No. Maybe the name that came up wasn’t of a famous person. Maybe it’s the name of a relative of Annette’s---I mean Sara. What was her sister’s name?”
“Well, I don’t believe it was Gertrude,” Mo answered. “I’ve got it here somewhere,” he continued, flipping through a pile of notes. I looked over at the white board.
“Is it Terry Simpson?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Where did you find that name?”
“On your white board just above my own name.”
“Oh, yes. Well, I knew I put it down somewhere. Good save, Jersey.”
“So is this Terry still alive? Have you been able to track her down?” Morris shook his head and took a swig of coffee from the ‘Bring it On!’ mug that never seemed to leave his hand. “I’ve got a few leads but she’s still MIA. There’s no record of her death, so that’s a positive. Most of the Terry Simpsons I’ve come across are of the male persuasion, so I changed the search to Teresa Simpson or Theresa with an H. Still no luck. No one, so far, is the right age or grew up here in Portland.”
“What if she got married and changed her name?”
“Funny you should ask that. Yesterday, while you were flying across the nation, I spent a few hours searching for a marriage certificate with the maiden name of Teresa Simpson.”
“So far I’ve only checked here in Portland with no success and I went as far back as 1970. I think our next step is to spread the search further out to other towns. So, heat up your computer, and away we go. I’ll give you the web address of the bureau of vital statistics and a list of the towns you should check.” I frowned. “Welcome to Investigating Journalism!”
Chapter NineBy the third full day of staring at miles of marriage certificates, I had had it. “Mo, what the hell am I doing here sitting at my computer. I could be back in New Jersey doing this.”
“Patience, my young friend. Not much longer. I can feel that what we seek is just around the corner,” Mo announced, sounding and looking like some mystical guru. “Once we find Sara’s sister we can talk to what seems to be the only living relative of the missing woman. I’m sure she will be able to help us in our search.”
“I hope so. George is breathing down my neck. He wants me to finalize a deal. I’m going to have to go back soon, empty handed.”
“From what you’ve told me, Georgie boy is a wimp. I’m sure you can wrap him around your little finger. Tell him you’re still touring his workshops. I have some photos of Paul ’s furniture that you can send him. That’ll keep him happy.”
I turned back to my computer with a sigh and stared, blurry-eyed, at the screen.
“What town are you looking at now?” Mo asked.
“Albany,” I replied. “You Oregonians sure were big in naming your towns after cities in the East; Albany, Portland, Salem---”
“The early settlers almost named Portland Boston, but lost out. It’s said it was decided on a coin toss.”
It was at that moment that a name came up on my screen. It was in tiny script so I zoomed in to make sure. “Morris, I think I’ve got it!”
“Teresa Clara Simpson and Robert Lionel Mitchell applied for a marriage license on February 14, 1989 in Albany Oregon! Oh my god! Valentine’s Day!”
“Great. Ya see, Jersey. Patience always pays off. Now let’s see if we can get an address and phone number for the Mitchells.”
Chapter Ten“Hello. I’m trying to reach a Teresa Mitchell,” Morris explained, over his phone, as I listened nervously. “This is? Wonderful----My name is Morris Arensky and I’m a free-lance journalist up here in Portland----Well, I’m writing a book about unsolved cases and----right----no, I understand. If I could just meet with you for----yes, of course---absolutely. I tell you what, I’d like you to think it over and give me a call if you change your mind. Here’s my num---oh, of course---modern technology. Thanks again for your time.”
“So she said no. I guess that’s that.” I felt discouraged and afraid it might be time to book the flight home.
“Don’t worry. She’ll be calling back. Let’s send out for some dinner while we wait.”
And, of course, she did call back. I don’t know what kind of magic spell Morris cast over Teresa Mitchell but not only did she telephone later that evening but she agreed to meet us the next day.
Around ten in the morning we set off on I-5, for Albany, which is a little over an hour south of Portland. Mo had alerted Teresa that I would be accompanying him as his photographer. More lies. She had given us directions to the Mitchell farm, “GPS messes up sometimes so when you get off 20 onto North West Independence Highway, drive pass the Deep Roots Farm until you see a bright red mail box. That’s us. ‘Big M Farms.’”
Mo was riding shotgun and saw the mail box first. I turned slowly around it onto a dirt road that was not at all kind to my poor rental car and after a long bumpy trip we came up to a house and several large buildings.
“The Mitchells must have a lot of cows,” I said, looking at what I presumed were barns.
“This is not a dairy farm,” Mo replied, correcting me. “Didn’t you notice all the acres of grass we drove by?”
“Well, yes. It just looked like hay to me.”
“This is a grass seed farm, my boy.”
“Grass seed? You mean grass like that that grows on golf courses?”
“And lawns across America. Oregon is the number one producer of grass seed in the United states. Most of the farmers around here grow some type of the seed. They sell it to seed companies around the world.”
“Who knew?” I uttered as I helped Morris out of the car and we started walking towards what I presumed was the Mitchell farm house. Once again here was an example of something not living up to my fantasy. It did not look like my image of a ‘farm house.’ Instead of ‘American Gothic’ it was more Bauhaus with its boxy flat-roofed shape. A lot of glass and metal.
Before we got up to the crimson-red front door, it opened to reveal a middle-aged woman dressed in skinny jeans and a black cable knit turtleneck sweater. Her resemblance to Sara Annette, with dark eyes and black hair, although now streaked with white, was enough to convince me she was Sara’s sister Teresa. She graced us with a polite but wary smile.
“Any problem getting here?” she asked, gesturing for us to enter.
“You go ahead, Jersey,” Mo grunted, “I gotta go slow on the steps.”
“No, ma’am,” I replied, keeping an eye on Morris as he maneuvered slowly up the four steps leading to the porch and the door. “It was a clear shot once we got through downtown Albany.”
“We noticed the crop of grass seed growing along your road,” Mo remarked, as he reached the top of the stairs and worked on catching his breath.
“Mostly rye grass,” Teresa explained, “We have some fescue as well. Please, come in.”
We stepped into an entry hall that was brightly lit by a skylight that was two stories above us. There was a steel staircase in the center and to the left was a wide arch leading to what I surmised was the living room and, opposite it, on the right, another arch leading to a den. Teresa escorted us through the left doorway into a large white room with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was like stepping onto the pages of Town and Country, with cowhide sofas, a marble floor and a floating fireplace, Barcelona chairs, Noguchi Lamps and flokati rugs. The abstract artwork on the walls was the only source of real color in the room. I remember thinking at the time that grass seed farming must pay very well.
Teresa indicated one of the sofas and Mo and I sat down. She sat opposite us and I could see that she was nervous. She was probably in her mid-fifties but looked younger. In fact there was a childlike quality about her, kind of like a scared little kid.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I should have offered you something.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay,” Mo replied.
“Coffee? Soda pop----?
“No. We’re fine. We had some coffee on the road.”
Silence---finally Morris spoke up.
“I’m Morris Arensky and this young man is Richard Tremaine.”
“Right, your photographer,” Teresa replied, “although I don’t see any photographic equipment.”
“Yeah, well, I could say it’s out in the car, but I don’t want to start this interview with a lie. Jersey, I call him Jersey because that’s where he’s from, is not a photographer. He is a young man in a lot of distress. He came to me because he has quite a story that involves your missing sister. But I’m going to let him tell it to you in his own words.”
I felt like Mo had just thrown me to the wolves. This approach was not discussed in the planning stages. In fact there were no planning stages. I just presumed that Morris would start interviewing and I would take notes. But, as the silence in the room indicated, I was now stage center with an audience of two. Swallowing, sweating and smiling, I began.
Chapter 11For twenty long minutes I spoke about my visions, about the floating headlines and Sara’s photograph, how I had come to meet Morris, my flying out to Portland and our research efforts. As was to be predicted, Teresa was not very impressed.
“That’s quite a story. I don’t quite know what to say. My first reaction was ‘what kind of scam is going on here?’ If my husband hadn’t looked you up last night, Mr. Arensky, and read your impressive resume---a Pulitzer---”
“A long time ago,” Mo replied.
“Never the less, you were, are, a journalist of some repute. I’m hoping that what you told me over the phone is true, that you are really gathering material for a book on unsolved cases of missing persons.”
“Well, full disclosure---I’m concentrating exclusively on your sister’s disappearance.”
“Oh? Why only on Sara?”
“Because of Jersey’s experiences. They indicate to me that there is something other-worldly going on demanding that we get to the bottom of her disappearance.”
“I see. Do you believe that Mr. Tremaine’s visual experiences really happened?”
“It’s not important whether I believe or not. Your sister has been missing for 32 years. I would like to know what happened to her. I’m sure you would too. If Richie has been given clues shouldn’t we follow them? I mean he was given your sister’s middle name, Annette, and that wasn’t mentioned in any of the newspaper articles.”
“Is this where you ask me for funding?”
“No, ma’am. This is all pro bono. It’s called research.”
Teresa turned back to me. “You’ve gotten awfully quiet, Mr. Tremaine. What is it you really want from me?”
“Nothing, truly, except that you allow Mr. Arensky to interview you.”
Teresa sat silently for a moment and then looked at both of us. “You have to understand, it took me years to get over losing Sara. For a long time there was the hope of her showing up one day and then, finally, the acceptance that that wasn’t ever going to happen. The wound would finally be closed and then someone would report seeing her---shopping at Safeway or sitting on a bus or in a bar and---anyway, I’d go through the cycle of hope and grief all over again. A few years ago I had a call from some con artist who promised me he had a lead on Sara and said he would find her and bring her back---for $50,000.” Teresa shook her head and I saw that her eyes were welling up. “So cruel. Anyway, you can see why I’m a little skeptical about your visions or whatever they are.”
“I do and I’m so sorry about that but you don’t have to believe in any of this. If you would just help me get some information so maybe I can stop having these episodes and both of us can find some peace.”
Morris put his hand on my shoulder, creating a corny image worthy of a Hallmark movie.
“Teresa---Mrs. Mitchell, if you would just tell us more about your sister and what you remember of the event. Nothing more.”
“Please, call me Terry. Sara always called me Terry.”
“She was my rock. She was ten years older than me and she was my protector. Our parents had a small farm near Corvallis. They were very religious and very strict. They believed in ‘as the twig is bent so grows the tree’ and they bent us, alright, in what they thought was the right direction; home-schooling with an emphasis on Christian studies, little contact with the wicked outside world and corporal punishment for any infraction of the rules. And there were lots of rules. By the time I came along Sara had lived through what I can only imagine was a living hell. She wasn’t about to have me go through the same thing so she sort of took over the job of mothering. I think my mother was relieved not to have to be the only person dealing with another child, and a difficult child at that. I was an ‘accident’ and I cried a lot. Our father had the farm to work, so during the growing season we were pretty safe. Winter, however, was another story.
Anyway, where I’m going with all of this, is to let you know how strong and smart and loving my sister was. By the time she became a teenager she was fed up with what she called the ‘hypocrisy and cruelty’ of our parents. She stood up to them, especially my father. She talked back, refused to attend bible studies and endured the punishment for her many misdeeds without making a sound. By the time she was fifteen she left home. I was devastated. However, she would put notes for me in our secret hidey-hole in the oak tree in the back yard. She wrote that she would come for me when she had a job and a place to stay but that didn’t happen until I was little older. She just kept telling me to be strong and to hold on. I can’t imagine what her life was like during the five years she was on her own. She hardly ever talked about it. She did say once that ‘father thinks I’m a slut so I might as well be one.’ I just know that one night, when I was ten, she rapped on my window and said it was time to go. She climbed into my room and helped me pack and we left and that was that.
I don’t know why my parents didn’t call the police or try to search for us. I know my father despised any kind of outside authority. I know he was happy when Sara ran away. Maybe he was glad to get rid of me too. As you can imagine, I’ve had to do a lot of introspection, over the years. Anyway, Sara took good care of me, got me into public school, which, unlike most kids, I enjoyed.
I was a good student, curious and hardworking. After high school, I got a small scholarship to Portland State University and Sara, god bless her, paid the rest of my tuition. I don’t know how she afforded it on her waitressing salary but I remember that she had a lot of friends, so maybe---I mean she was what some people might call a ‘party girl.’ People adored her.
Anyway, after I graduated from college I got a job at the Multnomah County Farm Bureau and continued to live with Sara in her apartment. It was at the bureau that I met Bobby, my husband. Being the daughter of a farmer I guess I was attracted to---but you’re not here about me---”
“We’d like you to tell us about the day she disappeared,” Morris interrupted, “Anything you can remember.”
“Yes, of course. In a way it feels kind of like it happened just a few days ago not thirty some years---since---anyway, it was a Monday night. That she had a date that evening was unusual. She didn’t usually go out until Thursday. Like I said, she liked to party but she saved it for the weekend.”
“Did you party with her?”
“Rarely. I---I was more of a stay-at-homer, you know, with school and then work.”
“Did she use any recreational drugs?”
“Oh, no, god no. She liked to drink---but she didn’t overdo it. Maybe a joint now and then, although it wasn’t legal in those days so she had to be careful.”
“When you say your sister was a ‘party girl’ do you mean---pardon me if I sound judgmental, I’m truly not---but do you mean she was---”
“Promiscuous?” Terry replied with a sad smile, “Let’s just say that she liked the company of men. Please, Mr. Arensky, you have to understand that everybody adored Sara; men, women, children---dogs. She was so beautiful, like a movie star but, more importantly, she was kind and funny and generous. I remember someone saying that when Sara spent time with them they felt like the rest of the world had faded away and it was just the two of them riding on the same wave length. Anyway, I know she had relationships but she never discussed them with me. She never brought boyfriends to the apartment. It was strictly a safe-haven for her, and me, no men allowed.”
“So, on this Monday night, she went on a date?”
“Well, she didn’t say it was a date. It was more like she was meeting with someone, over dinner, about some situation---I didn’t really understand. I mean, I noticed she had been kind of jumpy for the last few days, kind of distracted.”
“Did she say who she was meeting and where she was going?”
“No, and I have regretted not pressing her for those details every day of my life since.”
“And she didn’t return that evening. Was it unusual for her to stay out all night?”
“She would call me and let me know if she was staying over somewhere. She didn’t do that very often, stay out, I mean, especially on a night when she had to work the next day. That’s why I got worried. And then, of course, she never returned.” Terry looked away as tears began to well up in her eyes.
“And she took her car?”
“Yes. The police found it abandoned up at the rose gardens. It was locked and there was nothing of hers left inside, no purse, no overcoat---she had worn her kelly-green corduroy jacket over a Piko tee shirt and faded jeans. That’s why I knew it wasn’t a date because she wasn’t all dressed up. I think she was wearing boots but it may have been sneakers. I don’t remember. I can’t remember. Oh god!” Terry exclaimed, as the tears began to slide down her cheeks. Mo moved over to other sofa and sat down next to her, putting his arm gently across her shoulder.
“I’m sorry we had to bring all this up again. But you’ve been very brave and very helpful.”
“I know she’s dead but I keep hoping that maybe she’s safe somewhere. Foolish.”
“Not foolish. Jersey and are going to keep searching and we will find out what happened to Sara. I promise you that. And now that we’ve successfully upset you, which wasn’t our intent,” Morris announced, pulling himself up slowly from the cow-hide couch, “we’re going to leave you and get back on the road. We will stay in contact and keep you apprised of our progress. May we call you if and when more questions come up?”
“Yes, please do, and I’m sorry about---”
“What? Don’t apologize for mourning your sister. Come on, already! Never apologize for being human,” Morris said as he moved toward the arch to the entry hall. I started to follow him but stopped.
“Miss---Mrs. Mitchell---Terry, thank you for allowing us to meet with you. I do have one more question, however, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, okay I only hope I can answer it.”
“Does the name Gertrude mean anything to you?” Terry’s blank stare remained blank.
“No, should it? I don’t think we ever knew a Gertrude. Maybe in school but I don’t remember knowing a Gertrude. I mean, the only one that comes to mind is Hamlet’s mother. Oh, and then there is that poet, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’”
“Right. It’s just that during one of my recent Scotoma episodes that name came up.”
“Maybe Sara worked with someone named Gertrude at the restaurant. But that’s not around anymore---long gone. Sorry. It’s a Hooters now.”
Chapter 13On our way back to Portland we stopped off in Salem for a late lunch. Mo had been unusually quiet for most of the half-hour drive. “I’ve been absorbing what we just heard. Lots to think about,” he confessed, as we parked in front of a charming 19th century store-front. The sign, high above the leaded glass windows, spelled out “Wild Pear Restaurant.” Morris had guided me here with the promise of an excellent meal.
“Great soups and sandwiches. Try the pumpkin soup with a French dip sandwich, my favorite.”
We were seated near the windows facing State street and I took Mo’s advice and ordered his favorite. I wasn’t disappointed.
Over coffee and a shared slice of cheese cake we discussed our visit with Terry Mitchell.
“She’s hiding something,” Morris opined.
“Yeah, I agree.”
“I think Sara’s life was a lot more complicated than Terry’s letting on. It sounds to me like she was a pretty wild creature.”
“When Terry protested about Sara using drugs---”
“A little too adamant? Yep,” Mo replied, lifting himself up from his chair with some effort but refusing my aid. “Thanks, but I gotta keep doing things for myself until I can’t anymore. Not ready for the glue factory quite yet.”
The return to Portland was uneventful, with me at the steering wheel and Morris, beside me, dozing off and on. When we arrived at the house boat (‘floating home,’ pardon me) Mo immediately headed to his electric stair-climber and rode up to his office. After a much-needed pee break I joined him.
“So where do we go now?” I asked, as I sat down in front of my computer.
“Good question, my fine friend. I think it’s time to check in with the police.”
“Wait a minute! You agreed they wouldn’t be interested in two crackpots asking about a thirty-year-old cold case! I---I don’t---”
“One cracked pot, to be precise, and we won’t mention anything about this crackpot’s visions and voices and whatever, will we?”
“I don’t understand.”
“It just happens that I tracked down the lead detective on the Sara Simpson case. Well, actually, an old police buddy of mine, from my days on the Journal, found his name for me. And then, of course, when I reread one of the old Oregonian articles last night, about the investigation, up popped this guy’s name. Sloppy work on my part but I’ll blame it on my brain being on vacation for so long. His moniker is Ted O’Brien, good old Irish name, appropriate for a cop, and it looks like he’s been retired for quite a while. Lives out in Beaverton.”
Beaverton, I learned, was a city seven miles west of Portland. It is often described as a suburb of the City of Roses but it is really the eighth largest city in Oregon. It’s famous for being the headquarters of the Nike shoe empire.
Mo phoned the aforementioned Detective O’Brien and was lucky enough to set up an appointment for the next day, in Beaverton. I was wiped out from our Albany adventure and headed to my room. Morris stayed in the office and I knew he would be web-surfing, reading and writing until after midnight.
I hadn’t checked my phone all day, trying to avoid the texts and emails from George that I knew were piling up.
How’s it going? Call me.
Only a few days had passed since I had left New Jersey and yet I could tell, from George’s messages, that my time was running out. What lie could I come up with that would satisfy him and keep him at bay? I kept scrolling down the list of texts and saw that my mother had left a message, as well. I vowed to call her back but not until tomorrow. I just couldn’t deal with either of them and, fortunately, it was one a.m. on the East Coast.
Early the next morning I took my cup of coffee and stepped out onto the deck that wrapped around Mo’s floating home. The air was chilly with a blue-gray sky above and the river water below, almost black. The rising sun was just beginning to fight its way through the clouds. Morris was still asleep and would be for another couple of hours or so.
I took a seat on the weathered redwood bench that faced the river and tried to appreciate the beauty that rippled before me. The water moved swiftly on its western journey to the Pacific Ocean and the ripples looked like silver canoes racing each other to the finish line. It was then that I realized that the ripples were not skimming the Columbia river but were appearing on the shoreline and then in the tops of the trees and then in the sky and---my friend was back. Was I about to get another message? I got up and hurried back into the house and went upstairs to my room. I closed the window shade in order to darken the room, so that I would be able to see clearly what was, hopefully, going to be revealed.
As I have explained, ad nauseum, the scotoma starts out as a tiny blind spot which expands into the center of a moving frame-work of vibrating bright lights. This time, however, it became one big seething mass of white-hot bubbles that winked off and on in an iridescent chaos. There was no blind spot in the center, no blank screen for images or lettering to appear, just a solid wall of wriggling colors. I waited for the middle of this wall to open up but it never did. Instead, just as I was resigning myself to a failed mission, a faint whiff of perfume came to my attention. At first it was hardly detectible but, within a minute or so, it grew stronger until the whole room smelled like someone had spilled a bottle of cologne. “What now?” I thought, “Smell-a-vision?” It was scary enough when I saw things and when I heard things but now I was smelling things! Was this a message, a clue, or just a hallucination? Once again, I started doubting my sanity. But the odor was so strong, it filled the whole room. I wanted to wake Morris and have him witness this latest phenomenon but, intuitively, I knew I’d be the only one experiencing the sensation. Plus, he’d be very angry having been awakened to---what? A phantom smell that wasn’t really there? Anyway, it would be gone in twenty minutes.
I determined that the mystery aroma was floral and that it smelled kind of like roses. Yes, I was certain that was it. It was a fragrance I remembered; the scent of old-fashioned roses. We had roses, like that, climbing up a gazebo in the back yard of the house I grew up in. So, was this just a trip down memory lane or another missive from the great beyond?
When I told Mo about what had occurred and how it eventually faded away, as did the shimmering wall of multi-colored vibrating pearls, he treated the information very casually.
“Well, I guess the next go-round will involve something or someone physically reaching out and touching you.”
“Jesus, I hope not!”
“You never know, my paranormal pal.”
“Are you making fun of me, Morris?”
“Au contraire, my friend, I’m very serious. Logical thinking leads me to the premise that corporal contact will be next. Now, let’s get down to today’s agenda; ex-detective O’Brien and a trip to Beaverton.”
“Yes, okay, but first I have to make a couple of phone calls.”
George was not happy. “What the hell is taking so long, Rick?”
“Ah, I’m getting close, really,” I found myself floundering and praying desperately for the gift of any believable falsehood. “I just have to work out a few things---”
“Well, his stuff is pretty pricey, ah, it being hand-made here and not in China---”
“Send me all the details and I’ll talk to him.”
“Please, George, please let me handle this. I am so close to finalizing the deal. You’re going to be very happy with---”
“I’m going to be very unhappy if you don’t wind this up soon!”
I realized at that moment that this was the end of my career at Moorhouse imports. The next phone call from George, I would confess everything.
Mother was not happy, but then she’s rarely happy. “I didn’t know you had gone to the West Coast. Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve been texting you and phoning and emailing you for days. I was so worried. It’s a good thing I called your office.”
“I’m sorry, mom. It all happened so fast. I’m working on this---big deal---and---I haven’t had a moment to myself.”
“Jane said you were---”
“Her name is Jan.”
“Whatever. She said you were in Seattle. That’s where we caught the ship that your dad and I---"
“Yeah, mom, I know the story. But I’m traveling other places---all over the state.”
“Well, just be careful when you’re driving.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I felt like I was back in grade school. “Anyway, I’ve got a meeting to go to right now but I just wanted to call and see how you were doing.”
“I’m doing okay, darling, but I’d do better if you’d call me more often. You know how I worry.”
“No need, mom. I’ve been taking good care of myself for quite a while.”
“Yes, with the exception of those years when---”
“Good bye, mom. I’ve really got to go.”
Chapter 14Beaverton was very green and very beautiful. Spring had arrived and there where flowers popping up on every street; azaleas and rhododendrons, daffodils and tulips. Detective O’Brien lived among all this floral grandeur in a tidy little bungalow in an upscale neighborhood called Greenvale. There was a tall pine tree in his front yard that cast a wide shadow across the river-stone façade of his 1920’s craftsman-style residence. It reminded me of the annual Christmas tree at Rockefeller plaza.
“It seems she didn’t live a sheltered life,” the balding and rather rotund ex-officer explained as we sat, drinking coffee, in his living room. Surrounded by all the original built-in cabinets and bookcases, it was almost like being swept back to the age of briar pipes and velvet smoking jackets. “We interviewed many of her associates, of both genders, and we came to the conclusion that she was---very friendly.”
“She was promiscuous?” Morris asked, not one to mince words.
“It was the late 80s, a lot of testing of boundaries. I mean, if a man had a string of affairs he was ‘sowing his wild oats.’ But if a woman wanted to do the same she was a ‘slut’. Double standard. Let’s just say she was very friendly.”
“Was there a boyfriend, someone she was seeing regularly!”
“Yeah, we tracked him down, a Timothy something, I don’t remember---let me check my notes,” O’Brien said, flipping through a small black notebook, “I’ve kept most of my notebooks. Makes for interesting reading, late at night. Everything is on computers now, I-pads and---ah, here it is; Timothy J. Littlegood. They were an item for about two years.”
“What happened? She break it off?”
“No. He said that he did. She had wanted an open relationship, he wanted marriage. Anyway, he had an alibi, which we checked out. He was visiting his grandparents in Iowa when she disappeared.”
“Did Sara use drugs? We know she drank. Her sister mentioned that.”
“Well, no one came out and said she did, but there were some heavy users among her crowd and a couple of the guys had been arrested for possession.”
“Of what? Cannabis?’
“Yeah. Seems silly now that it’s legal. But one of the arrests, a more serious one, was for the possession of speed.”
“So, I imagine that you established that the druggies all had alibis for the night of Sara’s disappearance. Did you ever have a viable suspect, someone that made the hairs on the back of your neck perk up?”
“Well, you have to treat everyone as a suspect or you’ll end up developing tunnel vision. You’ll focus on what is maybe the easiest answer and neglect the other avenues you need to travel down. God knows, we journeyed down many blind alleys and ran into lots of dead ends. And then you have the crank calls and the crackpots showing to up either tell you where Sara went or to confess that they killed her. Unfortunately, you have to follow through and check out each claim. That went on for a couple of years and then it tapered off. You don’t ever want to give up but there are other cases happening and then they begin to pile up and---but I never forgot her.”
There was a long period of silence as I jotted down some of what O’Brien had said and he continued turning the pages of his notebook slowly as if looking for something he missed. Mo sipped his coffee and a Howard Miller grandfather clock, in the front hall, began to strike the noon hour.
“Wow. Lunch time already,” Morris announced, putting down his coffee mug, “We are probably keeping you from your repast.”
“No, no. I eat later in the day,” Ted replied, “Since I lost my wife my appetite has sort of---I’m not much of cook---frozen dinners---”
“Well, we need to get going anyway. Just a couple of more questions before we leave.”
“Sara’s car was found up in Washington Park, right?”
“Yes. It was parked just above the Rose Gardens.”
“Who found it? I mean you recovered it very quickly, the next day, I believe.”
“Yeah, we were lucky. One of our patrol cars spotted the license plate. We had sent out a radio alert that morning. The officer was just doing his usual patrol and there it was.”
“Locked and empty?”
“Yep. We fingerprinted the whole vehicle. Just found Sara’s and her sister’s prints. Her poor sister---so young---early twenties. I felt sorry for her, she really cared about Sara. Her parents sure didn’t.”
“Did you interview them, personally, yourself?”
“Yeah. That father---he was a piece of work. ‘I have no daughters’ he said. I wanted to punch his lights out. The mother, on the other hand, was a mouse. You could tell she was terrified of him.”
“Well, thanks again, Ted. You helped a lot.”
“Listen, this was great. I got to talk about a part of my life that was important to me. Don’t get many visitors, and friends and family are not very interested in old cop stories.”
“That’s too bad. They might learn a thing or two.”
On the trip back to Hayden Island, and the houseboat, we took a slight detour.
“Might as well visit the scene of the crime,” Mo explained, as he gave me instructions on how to get to Washington Park. We exited the Sunset Highway and wound our way up the side of an evergreen-tree-covered mountain until we reached the beginning of the park. Washington Park, as Morris explained to me, is almost 500 acres of woodland that is full of treasures like a Japanese Garden, a zoo, a science museum, both a Vietnam Veterans and a Holocaust memorial, lots of hiking trails, an amphitheater and, the jewel of the mountain, the International Rose Test Gardens.
When we pulled into a parking place, next to tennis courts, and I helped Mo out of the car, I turned and was suddenly thrown into a living, breathing work of art. There we stood, high up on the side of this tree-covered mountain, looking down on the city of Portland. In the far distance, under a sky of azure blue, sat Mt. Hood. Picture-postcard time.
“She’s an inactive volcano, you know,” Morris said, quietly, “If she ever wakes up and lets loose, that’ll be the end of the City of Roses.”
“Thanks for ruining the moment.”
“And speaking of roses, walk over to that wall,” Mo continued, indicating the waist-high stone wall running along the sidewalk, “and have a look.”
I did as he advised.
Imagine a football field. Now remove the goal posts, all the markings and, of course, the players. Replace all that with row after row of rose bushes. I had never seen anything like it. A field of roses was terraced below me about twenty-five feet beneath the sidewalk I was standing on. There were openings in the stone wall leading to broad stone stairways that descended to lanes laid out between the rows of bushes. A small parcel of people were wandering among the foliage, taking selfies next to the blossoms, that were just beginning to open, and bending down to try and catch a hint of the scent.
“What you are seeing are close to 750 different varieties of Roses,” Morris explained, as we started down the stairs, “There are about 10,000 rose bushes spread out here.” He was sounding like a tour-guide. “New hybrids being tested each year, plus the old timers. There are Tea roses, Grandiflora roses, miniature roses, ground cover and climbing roses, the list goes on and on.”
“You seem to know a lot about roses.”
“I wrote quite a few articles about this place over the years and, don’t forget, this is the City of Roses, after all, and as an upstanding citizen it is my duty to know all that horticultural shit,” Mo admonished, as he headed toward one of the benches dotted along the main pathway. “I’m going to sit me down for a bit. Why don’t you take a stroll and check out the pretty posies? Quite a few have bloomed early. Usually doesn’t really get going until mid-May. Must be the famous ‘climate change’ that the politicians say doesn’t exist. Go on, Jersey, enjoy.”
I looked at the dozens of rows that surrounded me on all sides. It was overwhelming. After a minute or so I just started ambling down the lane nearest me. The first thing I noticed was that most of the flowers had little or no scent. Evidently, the hybridizing of the roses sacrificed smell for color and size. Some of the blossoms were as big as dinner plates and some were as bright as a neon sign. The next thing I noticed was the variety of poetic and descriptive names: like Apricot Candy, Super Trouper, Atomic Blond, Night Owl, Penny Lane and Life Begins At 40. Many of the roses were also named for famous people like Queen Elizabeth and Princess Di. It got to the point where I was becoming more interested in the title of a rose than in its color or size.
After almost an hour of wandering back and forth through this Rosaceae jungle I felt I needed to get back to Morris. I had left him alone for far too long. I started back, in the direction I had come, but nothing looked the same. “Jesus,” I thought, “lost in a frigging rose garden!” and was about to call Mo on my cell when a faint but familiar aroma wafted my way and stopped me in my tracks. I saw that I was standing near an arbor of climbing roses. One of them was white and the other was a hot pink. I moved closer to the trellis in order to read the name tags and was suddenly bombarded with the familiar spicy perfume of one of these two climbing beauties.
The white species was labeled Sally Holmes and had a slight scent that, while pleasant, was unfamiliar to me. The pink rose, however, gave off an odor that I clearly remembered from my Scotoma visit; sweet and spicy and unforgettable. I found my hand shaking as I wiped off the soil that was obscuring the name on the little metal sign: G-E-R-T-R-U-D-E------Gertrude Jekyll.
Chapter 15“You son-of-a bitch! You knew, you and your rose nonsense!” I was standing in front of Mo and shouting at him like some crazy person.
“Whoa, whoa! Slow down there, Jersey. What are you talking about?”
“This!” I exclaimed, holding the screen of my phone close to his face.
“Wait a minute,” he said, fumbling in the pockets of his jacket, “I must have left my readers at home. What does it say?”
“You know full well what is on my cell phone. A picture of a large hot pink rose and, below that, its name.”
“What the hell?”
“Gertrude Jekyll, to be exact.”
“I’ll be damned!”
“So, this morning, when I told you about my Scotoma episode you started planning this little side trip because you knew---”
“Hold on, my young friend. I may be knowledgeable about quite a few things but to know and remember every species and every name of every rose in this garden is not one of my talents. I mean, for god’s sake, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today. So give this old man some slack.”
“But---but the smell. It’s the same scent I smelled this morning.”
“Well, then it’s either a coincidence or you are getting confirmation of another clue.”
“It really scared me. I thought you set me up. I mean, if you didn’t plan this all out, why did you bring me here?”
“Well, it’s like I said, this is the scene of the crime. This is where Sara left her car and disappeared. Whatever happened, it happened here. Now, what I think is really going on is that you were supposed to come here, not to check out where the car was found but, to discover the rose called Gertrude. And I’d like to say that I’m a genius and claim that I thought up this brilliant plan, all on my own, but I didn’t.”
“This whole rose thing has me really freaked, Mo. The visions I’ve had and even the ones that had noises and sounds can be explained as dreams or hallucinations. But to smell some perfume this morning, as I sat on your deck, and then to come across it here and---and it’s a rose named Gertrude---”
“Yeah, it’s pretty creepy.”
“You know, if all this bizarre shit was happening to someone else I’d be laughing in their face and writing it all off as an attempt to get some attention. But it’s happening to me! And what the hell am I supposed to do with a rose called Gertrude? Where do we go next, a florist, a mortuary, a garden center?”
“Calm down, my young friend. It’s too soon for a nervous breakdown. Save it for later. For now, why don’t you show me this fragrant message from another world and then we’ll do lunch. There’s a refreshment stand up by the tennis courts with great hot dogs. It’s time for me to increase my salt and nitrite intake.”
After Morris had had his whiff of the rose he called ‘Gertie,’ we made our way back to the stairs and slowly climbed up to the top. On the way Mo pointed to his left.
“That’s the amphitheater,” he announced, indicating grass-covered tiers that served as seating and which faced an open-air stage with a background of tall fir trees. “I saw my one and only opera there when I was in college. Aida, you know, the one about the Egyptian slave girl. They had this grand march, the entrance of the hero guy, so they borrowed animals from the zoo, a camel, donkeys, a zebra, a baby elephant, to parade with the dancers. That was the evening’s high point for me, watching the dancers trying to avoid the piles of poop. I laughed so hard I almost pooped myself.”
We stood near the wall overlooking the test gardens and enjoyed our foot-longs and diet cokes. I wish I could have just admired the beauty of the gardens but my experience with ‘Gertie’ was just too distracting---and upsetting.
“Didn’t you tell me you had talked to an old college buddy who was into all of this mumbo jumbo? Why don’t you give him another call.”
Chapter 16Sammy Newton, known to his friends, and enemies, as ‘Fig’ is a tax lawyer working out of Trenton, New Jersey. We had been roomies at Fordham University where I was a business major (what a waste of time and money that was) who really wanted to be a rock star. But since I didn’t play an instrument and couldn’t carry a tune that dream was not to be. However, I dressed like a rock star, much to my parents' horror, and I partied like one.
Sammy was the perfect roommate. Serious, sober, tidy, organized, dependable---all the things I wasn’t. I was rebelling, ‘Fig’ was adapting. His only quirk was his fascination with the occult. He had dozens of books on spiritualism, voodoo, parapsychology, which he explained was the study of the use of the mind to complete physical tasks, like moving objects (and bending spoons.) He did Tarot readings, attended a seance, fooled around with the Ouija board and did some magical mushroom trips. It was like all this occult stuff was a way to balance out his rather ordinary life. I swallowed my pride and, that evening, I called him.
“Hey, Rick. How’s it going? Still seeing things?” Off to a good start.
“Hi, Sam. I’m sorry to call you so late.”
“No problem. I’m doing some catch-up. I find night time is a great time for work. No distractions. So what’s up? I gather this isn’t a call to invite me out to dinner.”
“Maybe, when I get back home. That would be nice. Right now, I’m on the West Coast.”
“Oh, business or pleasure? Someone I know?”
“Fig, I really need your help.”
“You’re sounding unusually serious. What’s going on?”
“I’ve had several more of my Scotoma episodes.”
“Yeah, okay. You’ve been having them for years.”
“No, I mean, the kind I told you about the last time we talked---”
“Oh, you mean the visions. Rick, I said then that you---”
“Please, Fig, shut up and listen.”
“Wow! How to win friends and influence people!”
“Sorry, but a lot has happened that has led me to believe that something very other-worldly is going on and I’m hoping that you might have some answers,” I explained, as I went on to fill him in on all that occurred in the last few days. “So, my first question is: can a smell accompany a vision?”
“Rick, your story is very intriguing but keep in mind that the brain can sometimes be quite the trickster---”
“However, yes, there are plenty of examples of people hearing and smelling things as well as seeing stuff but most of the miracles are only visual: Joan of Arc, St. Bernadette, the peasant kids in Fatima, that priest in Peru---”
“But those are religious examples. What I’m experiencing are hints or clues about the disappearance of an ordinary woman. In all your reading you must have come across a similar circumstance.”
“You give me much too much credit, guy. I’m a lawyer, Rick, and almost all my reading time is taken up reading the latest tax laws which, by the way, keep changing like the weather. It’s been years since I cracked open a volume devoted wholly to the occult. I believe the last one I read was ‘Man, Myth and Magic,’ yeah, that was it. It’s like an encyclopedia of the occult. And the only other one I remember was ‘The Other Side’ which was the true story about a father trying to reach his dead son. Boy, that almost made me believe in the hereafter. Anyway, I don’t know if any of this is helpful. Personally, I feel, after hearing about your latest adventures, that something is going on out there in the wild west and that, to quote the Bard; ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Ricardo, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
Mo was not impressed with what he had heard on my speaker phone. “No help what-so-ever. I’d get more information out of my neighbor’s dog and at least he’d let me sniff his ass.”
“Morris! Come on. You suggested I call him.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“You seem kind of angry. What’s the matter?”
“No, well, I guess I’m little frustrated. I thought your pal would come up with some brilliant observation that would push our investigation further along.”
“Listen, I’m pleased that he’s at least beginning to believe me. We may have one more ally.”
“Whatever. I think it’s important that tomorrow we continue our sleuthing. Detective O’Brien gave me the address of Sara’s ex-boyfriend, a Mr. Littlegood. I wonder if he is a reflection of his last name.”
“Morris, I---I, I’ve got to be thinking about getting back home. I can’t put George off any longer. I figure I’ll just tell him the deal fell through and that---"
“Jersey, Jersey! You can’t back out now. We are getting closer with each day! You know full well you will go crazy if you don’t finally find what you’re looking for. There you’ll be, back in Hopelessville, New Jersey, hearing and seeing and smelling things that aren’t there and crawling up the walls crying out ‘Morris!’”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Listen,” Mo continued, “let me add a little guilt to the mix. If you leave now I will never finish writing my prize-winning non-fiction book, ‘The Saga of Sara.’”
“Whew, what a terrible title!”
“Well, okay, how about ‘Visions of Sara?’ or ‘In Search of Sara?’ or ‘Sara, Where Did She Go?’”
“Stop while you’re ahead. Anyway, what the hell am I going to say to George?”
“You give Georgie Porridgie far too much credit. I have some photos of Pete’s beautiful furniture, a dining-room table and, I think, one of his bureaus. You’ll send them off to George to whet his appetite and to shut him up and that will give us more time.”
“Once again, thank you, Mo. But, let me ask you something.”
“Are you really going to write a book about---about all this?”
“You bet your ass! It’ll be my final masterpiece to leave to my descendants along with my house boat.”
Chapter 17Timothy Jasper Littlegood lived in the Rose City apartments which were located in northeast part of Portland. When we pulled into the parking lot in front of his building we noticed the edifice had some signs of aging; faded siding, peeling paint and brick work that needed repointing. It was understandable, considering the complex was built in the 1950s. We made our way slowly up the cracked cement walkway and I pressed the button next to the name ‘Littlegood.’ There was no response from the small speaker built into the call board.
“He’s probably not home,” I ventured. “We should have phoned.”
“Nah. Sometimes, it’s better to just show up, surprise them, doesn’t give them time to think about preparing a story.”
I pressed the button again. “Maybe it’s not working.” After a couple of very long minutes we turned to go.
“Wait,” Morris whispered, looking back through the glass front door, “someone is coming down the hall.” I peered at the figure coming our way and saw an older black gentleman of medium height who reached for the latch, pushed it down and opened the door.
“Sorry, folks,” he began, “the intercom doesn’t work and neither does the door-release buzzer, but you probably figured that out.”
“Mr. Littlegood?” Mo asked.
“That’s me, the one and only. What can I do for you nice people? You Jehovah’s witnesses or Mormons?” he asked, not unkindly.
“No sir, we are not affiliated with any religious organization, nor are we selling vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias or magazine subscriptions, although I am a journalist. Morris Arensky, and this is my associate, Richard---- ah----ah---"
“Tremaine,” I interjected, thinking that we must look and sound like two of the most obvious con men in the whole world.
“Yes, Tremaine, of course,” Mo said, and he didn’t seem to be as fully in control as usual. “Sorry, a senior moment, I’m afraid. Been having a few of those lately.”
“And you want to talk to me? Why? About what?”
“We are writing about the many unsolved disappearances of women in this country---”
“Sara. You’re here to ask me about Sara,” Littlegood muttered, looking none too happy.
“Exactly,” Mo confirmed.
“Well, let’s take this inside then, ”Littlegood said, pushing the door wide open and leading Mo and I down the dark, musty hall.
“Fortunately, I live on the ground floor,” he declared, “Been here for over thirty years. Moved my mother in with me when she got sick.”
The apartment seemed far too small for more than one person, a tiny bedroom off the main open-plan living room with the kitchenette and dining alcove jumbled together and the entrance to the bathroom through a door next to the one-and-only closet. It reminded me of a motel room. But it was clean and it was obviously kept very neat and organized. There were several posters on the wall of various jazz greats; Coltrane, Parker, Mingus, Hawkins and even Ella. In a stand, by a leather recliner, sat a shiny gold tenor-saxophone, looking like a piece of modern sculpture. The apartment could’ve passed as a set for a movie about a musician.
Littlegood had us sit on a leather loveseat, that matched his chair, and asked us if he could get us anything.
“Thank you, Mr. Littlegood, but we’re fine,” Morris replied.
“Tim, please call me Tim. Do you have some I.D., Mr. Arensky?”
“Of course,” Mo answered, pulling out one of his business cards and handing it to Tim, “Call me Morris or Mo, whichever you like.”
I couldn’t hand Littlegood my business card as Moorhouse Imports didn’t sound very journalistic but, once again, Mo came to the rescue.
“Mr. Tremaine is apprenticing with me. I will vouch for him.” (A 48-year-old apprentice, yeah, right.)
“So, Tim, we understand from our research, that you and Sara Simpson were, at one time, in a relationship. Can you talk about that?” (My god, he sounded like a rent-a-reporter or a talk-show host.)
“What’s to talk about? We were together for a couple of years. Jesus Christ, that was over 30 years ago!”
“I understand, Tim, but we’re trying to build a profile of Sara and we know you knew her. Let’s start with how you met.”
“She came into the club where I worked.”
“And where was that?”
“Papa D’s down on Sandy Boulevard. I played in a jazz quartet there. The place is gone now but I worked there for at least ten years.”
“Do you remember when you first saw Sara?”
“Never forget. This tall brunet walks in and I can see her standing there in the lights that are spilling into the room from the lobby. So pale, her skin like---like, I don’t know, like a ghost and she was wearing this red dress and her lips matched the dress. She had some sort of lacy thing, a shawl, I guess, black, hangin' over her shoulders.”
“I’d say she made quite an impression.”
“You could say that. So, there she was looking like a million bucks and then there was this honky besides her. All I remember about him was that he was short, fat and wore glasses. My first thought was that he was a sugar daddy but then, when they sat down at a table near me, I could see that he was young, like a college boy. Probably hit up his old man for some dough and the use of his pop’s car.” Tim smiled at the memory.
“So, how did you and Sara finally get together?” I asked, speaking up for the first time.
“Yeah, well, that just sorta happened. I mean, she started showing up on the weekends, almost every weekend, but with a different guy each time. I noticed that she was paying more attention to me than to the poor jerk she was with. During my break I’d jive with the couple and she’d flirt and she’d buy me a drink and, all the while, the date never had a clue.
Later on she started to show up at the club without a date and I finally got it. She wasn’t only there for the music, she was there for me.”
“So she was the one who initiated the relationship.”
Sara“She was one gutsy broad, much braver than me. You have to understand, this was back in the 80’s, I think it was ’85, and it was still not such a good idea for a white woman to be seen with a black man. I know, this ain’t the south, but that kinda trouble can be found just about everywhere.”
“So, what happened? How did you and Sara finally---link up---you know---get together?”
Tim got up from his chair and went to the TV table. He took a small framed photo, that was sitting next to an old-fashioned turntable (no CDs for this musician, thank you) and handed it to Morris.
“That’s Sara and me ridin' on the Carousel, at the Janzen Beach Mall, on our first date.”
“Wow! That takes me back,” Mo exclaimed, “I used to go as a kid to the old amusement park that was there originally and even went later when I grew up. Sad day when they closed it down but at least they saved that big, beautiful merry-go-round.”
“Yeah, for a while. It’s in storage now. They say they’re goin' to build a pavilion and bring it back. Don’t hold your breath. Anyway, that picture has been with me for over thirty years. Reminds me of her and me and how good it was,” Tim said, with a sad shake of his head.
Morris handed me the photo and I saw Sara once again but this time in color, a little faded, but color none-the-less. She was breathtakingly beautiful, like one of those Edwardian ladies painted by John Singer Sargent. She and Tim were laughing and holding on to the mane of their respective steeds as if they were off to the races. Both so young and happy.
“She was like that, like a little kid, always taking me to places I never would have gone on my own; Film Festivals, Art Museum, the Zoo, the Rose Garden---”
My ears, along with Mo’s, pricked up. “The Rose Test Gardens, up in Washington Park?” Mo asked, looking at me.
“Yeah, she loved that place. Said the roses were---how did she put it? She said that, for her, they symbolized the human life span. The bud being like the new born baby and the newly-opened blossom was the grown-up and then the petals start dropping and---corny shit like that.”
“Did she have a favorite rose?” I asked, hoping he would mention the infamous Gertrude.
“She had a lot of favorites. Every time we went there it was a different flower. I’m afraid I don’t remember any of the names. It was so long ago.
“You know the police found her car parked up there.”
“Yeah, I remember that very well ‘cause the cops tried to pin her disappearin' on me. But I had---”
“You had an alibi.”
“Yeah, I did. I was in Iowa with my grandparents. Pawpaw wasn’t doin so good so I took the Greyhound out there about a week before---before Sara went missing. In fact I talked to her, long distance, the day before it happened.”
“Really? But you guys had broken up by that time, hadn’t you?”
“Yeah, but we were still friends. We talked on the telephone now and then.”
“How was she? How did she sound?” Mo inquired.
“She sounded okay, I guess, a little tired. Maybe she was kinda upset, you know, entering one of her down times.”
“Yeah, but don’t get me wrong. Most of the time she was high on life, happy and fun to be with. But there were those days when she could go to a very dark place, ‘specially if she had been hitting the bottle.”
“She drank a lot?”
“Enough. Not so she was passing out or falling down or anything. I think it was to ease the pain of whatever was eatin' at her.”
“And what was that?”
“I don’t know. She never told me. She would just cry and say it was the worst thing she had ever done.”
I was about to ask another question when my phone lit up and buzzed. I quickly silenced it but not before I saw who it was---mom. “Sorry about that.”
“You need to call someone?” Tim asked, “cause, if you do, it’s okay. I’m about all talked out anyway. I’m done.”
“No, no. It’s not important,” I explained, as Morris cleared his voice and began to speak.
“Just one more question, Tim, if you don’t mind.”
“Why did you two break up? What happened? The police said you told them you ended it.”
“I guess I did, although Sara was beginning to drift away. I wanted her to move in with me. My mom had passed and I was alone and I loved Sara, a lot. I wanted to get married, have kids. Sara didn’t. And then there was her sister.”
“You mean Teresa?”
“Yeah, she was somethin' else. She hated me from day one. She still around?”
“Yes. She’s married, lives on a farm with her husband.”
“Wow. Who would of thunk it? Man, that girl was one cold fish. Sorry, I guess I should give her some slack. After all, she was just a kid when Sara and I got together. I mean, she was only like twenty when Sara disappeared.”
“Twenty-two,” corrected Morris.
“Yeah, right, just a youngster. But she did her best to separate us. She wrote me these nasty letters, phoned me with all these threats---”
“What kind of threats?”
“She found some coke in her sister’s purse and she said she knew I had given it to her so she was goin to go to the cops and tell them I was a drug pusher.”
“So Sara did coke?”
“Once in a while. She wasn’t an addict, she just used it like when she had to do a double shift at the restaurant, needed a boost.”
“And you didn’t provide it for her?”
“Listen, let’s get this straight. I know I fit the profile; black, musician, works in clubs, but the only drug I ever used---use---is Ganja.”
“Then where did she get the coke?”
“From one of the snobby white dudes that tried to get into her pants. You don’t know what it was like. Even after we got together, these rich business types were hittin' on her. Wannaby-wizards of finance,” he uttered, shaking his head, “Long ago and far away.”
As we were leaving, Mo turned back and, standing in that damp and airless hall, shook Tim’s hand.
“What do you think happened to Sara, Tim?
“I got no idea. I jus' know it can’t have been anythin' good. If she set out to look for a better life she sure didn’t take anythin' with her, no money, no clothes, no car, nothin to help her get started. No, it was somethin' bad.”
“Well, thanks Tim. Stay well.”
“You too, old man,” he replied, shutting the door, leaving us to exit out into the rain.
Chapter 18Rain in the Pacific Northwest is different than the rain I grew up with in New Jersey. It is more like a gentle mist that you can hardly feel. I noticed that no one carried an umbrella and that, while I got damp, I dried off pretty quickly in the short drive back to the house boat. Yes, it rains a lot in Oregon, eight months out of the year, but, as I had just experienced, it was light and temperate.
After we settled down to our lunch of take-out, Morris and I reviewed what we had learned from our visit to Timothy J. Littlegood.
“Seems our Saintly Sara did do drugs, contrary to what sister Terry said,” Mo announced, as he picked at his Moo Shu pork, “My taste buds seem to be off duty today. No flavor.”
“Sorry about that,” I replied, “You want some of my Kung Pao?
“Nah. Thanks anyway. So, do you believe any of what Littlegood said?”
“Actually, I believe most of it. I don’t know why, but he came across as pretty honest to me. I mean he painted a very human picture of Sara, with her weaknesses and all, the drinking, the drugs. She comes off as a fully rounded person, complex, wild and in pain, like most of us.”
“I wonder what the terrible thing was that she said she did?”
“Ah---kill someone in an accident? Commit Murder? I mean, anything less than that wouldn’t produce such feelings of guilt, would it?”
“You never know. Maybe she stole something valuable or she told a lie that got someone into serious trouble.”
“Could be,” I sighed, “but we’re still no nearer to finding out what really happened to her.”
“Nonsense!” Mo barked, “Every step we take is getting us closer.”
“Okay, so, if that’s true, we need to keep moving. What is our next step?”
“Well, before we jump ahead let’s look back at what we have collected so far.”
Morris took my little notebook and began skimming through the pages. Every so often he would stop and write something down in large block letters on one of the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant napkins. When he had finished he handed me the list and then cracked open one of the fortune cookies.
“’A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is for,’” Mo read, from the little slip of paper that had resided in his cookie. “I agree--- So, go ahead,” he urged, “open yours.”
I wanted to look at the list he had compiled and not waste time on a silly message from a stupid cookie but he was insistent. I did as he asked and read the result.
“’If you try, you risk failure. If you don’t, you ensure it.’” Mo’s laughter echoed through the whole house.
“I guess we have been told what for,” Mo elucidated, “Doesn’t seem we have any choice now but to move forward. Check the list and add anything you think is important.”
WHERE ARE WE AT?
Sara Simpson--age 32—missing since 10/4/88
Teresa (Simpson) Mitchell--sister
Timothy J. Littlegood--boyfriend
History of depression
Scent of roses
“So, this morning, I Googled our friend Gertie Jekyll,” Mo revealed, “ and discovered she was a famous British gardener, writer and photographer who designed gardens all over the world, even here in the U.S. Sounded like she was quite a character, a formidable woman.”
“When was this?”
“Well, she lived until 1932. She was 89 when she died. But the curious thing is that the rose you smelled, both in that trance thing you do---”
“It’s not a trance---”
“Whatever. The rose you smelled in the Test Garden was created in Great Britain in 1986 to honor the memory of Jekyll. It’s one of the most popular blooms in the U.K. and is said to have a very strong scent. I don’t know when it arrived in Portland but there’s a chance Sara might have seen and sniffed it.”
“So, what does that mean? That it’s Sara who’s trying to reach out to me?”
“Who else? Sarah Bernhardt? Sarah Jessica Parker? Come on, Jersey, wake up and smell the roses (excuse the pun.) Haven’t you thought, at least once, that it might be Sara sending you these---these ‘visions’?”
“Come on, Mo. You know that neither of us believe in ghosts.”
“What if she’s not dead?”
“Think about it. Maybe she’s holed up somewhere sending out these psychic messages!”
“That’s weirder than---than---If that’s true, why did she pick me, Mo? Out of all the billions of people on this planet why me?”
“I’ve been thinking about that and I have a few thoughts. Try this one on for size. What if you aren’t the only one having these dreams?”
“They’re not dreams.”
“Okay, whatever they are. What if Jane Doe in Nebraska or Joe Blow in Texas are also receiving these---whatevers?”
“I don’t know. I guess anything is possible. But even if that were true it doesn’t change my situation. Why am I being given these visions? Why am I taking this stupid obsessive journey to nowhere which is jeopardizing by job and setting me up for a huge dose of public humiliation?”
“Because you have no choice.”
That evening, after an afternoon of discussing other possible scenarios for the reason I was in contact with Sara, Morris decided on our next move. I was to visit Terry Mitchell, on my own, and charm her into revealing more about the mysterious life of her sister. I was feeling about as charming as a garden slug but Mo phoned anyway, and, after being informed that Terry would rather meet in Portland, as she had some business she had to attend to, a luncheon meeting was arranged.
I then made a much belated call to my mother. During our conversation it dawned on me that I might as well just record the phone call and play it back each time my mother calls; same questions, same answers, same worries, same complaints. I promised, I soothed, I was jolly, I was dutiful.
“When are you coming home, darling?”
“Very soon”, I lied.
“Good” she exclaimed, “You sound like you’re losing weight.”
“You can tell that by, what, the tone of my voice?”
“A mother knows.”
Chapter 19My luncheon with Terry Mitchell took place at the Palm Court in the historic Benson Hotel. Morris said that every United States President since Taft has stayed at this edifice, the pride of Portland. Built 1912, it has been the place to stay for actors, writers, dancers, the famous and the infamous. Even Elvis slept at the Benson.
The Palm Court was a beautiful combination of dark wood and bright crystal chandeliers. The food was exceptional. I had Pacific Coast Salmon while Mrs. Mitchell enjoyed a Cobb Salad, which came to the table displayed on a large platter, like a vegetable rainbow. The waiter served a portion of the rainbow to each of us.
“Do you know the history of the Cobb Salad? I asked Terry, trying to keep the conversation light and harmless. I remembered that a friend in college, who was a whiz at trivial topics, had told me the story of the famous two salads, Caesar and Cobb, and how they had come to be. I’d forgotten most of the Caesar story but, fortunately at this moment, the Cobb creation reappeared in my memory bank.
“There are a few differing stories of how it happened. One claims the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, down in L.A., Robert Cobb, one evening worked late into the night and at midnight remembered he hadn’t had time for dinner so he had his head chef throw a lot of the leftovers together with salad, you know, chicken and bacon and add some vinaigrette dressing and, voila, the Cobb Salad.”
“Very clever,” Terry replied. “However, I hope this salad is not composed of yesterday’s leftovers.”
“I’m pretty sure it is freshly made. In fact, the other story that circulated about the origin of the salad says that Cobb specifically designed it for the famous actresses, that dined at his establishment. He was sure they would appreciate a salad that was chopped into small mouth-sized bites. Too many of them had been photographed with a large lettuce leaf hanging out of their mouth. Not the kind of glamour photo of them they wanted to see in the latest issue of Photoplay magazine.” I took a breath and a bite of my salmon. ‘Too much stupid chatting, Richard! Shut up.’
“No, that’s very interesting,” Terry said, after a painfully long pause, “but I don’t think the history of salads is what you and I are here for.”
“Mr. Arensky said you had some more questions for me.”
“Correct. We wondered if you had remembered anything else, you know, about either the disappearance or the days leading up to---”
“Mr. Tremaine, it was so long ago and, by now, what memories I have left I am sure have been distorted by time. I’ve told my sister’s story so often that it’s become a rote recitation. I’ve been repeating the same so-called facts again and again, until they’ve just become words. But, even then, I’m sure my sister’s story has changed from the first time I related it.”
“That could be possible. Morris and I discovered some differences in what you shared with us when we talked to other witnesses.”
“Wrong word---other people in Sara’s life. Like Tim Littlegood. You never mentioned him and it seems he was an important part of Sara’s life.”
“I didn’t mention him because he was nothing to Sara, a brief fling.”
“Two years doesn’t seem so brief to me.”
“Rick, you have to understand, Littlegood was a liar, a sponger, a drug dealer and I was trying to protect my sister. Thankfully she listened to me and ended it with him before it was too late.”
“He told us he ended it.”
“What? No, that’s not true. See, that’s an example of his lying. He is nothing---”
“He said he wanted to marry Sara.”
“Never! That was never discussed.”
“Could it have been possible that there were things that maybe your sister never shared with you?”
“Well, she would have certainly told me about a marriage proposal,” Terry declared angrily and I could feel that the meeting was about to end. I needed to calm things down.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. We just want to understand your sister better in order to track down what happened to her.”
“No one understood her better than I”
“Right,” I assured her and felt it was time to change the subject. “Shall we look at the desert menu?”
“Nothing for me, thank you, but you go ahead.”
“Maybe a pot of tea.”
It was going on two-thirty when we moved into the lobby of the hotel. Terry had relaxed and spent the last hour regaling me with some funny stories about her sister.
“She had a great sense of humor. We laughed a lot. That’s why I know she would never just up and leave. She would have told me her plans or, at least, she would have left me a note.”
“You loved her a lot.”
“I idolized her. I was twenty-two when she disappeared. I was totally lost. I had to pull myself together overnight. It was hell.”
“I can’t even imagine,” I commiserated, “I’m an only child so I didn’t have an older sibling to look up to.”
“Or one to vanish without a trace.”
“We’re going to keep working on that, I promise. Now, before you go, can you give me the name of someone, you trust, who knew your sister?”
“Someone other than that lying S.O.B?”
“Ah---yes, although he seemed to me to be just a lonely old man.”
“That could be,” she replied, taking a pen and a piece of paper out of her bag, “but let me send you to you someone more reliable. His name is Philip Ragusa. He’s a local artist and he owns a gallery in the Pearl District. Some of the art, you might have noticed, on the walls of our house is his.” She handed me the slip of paper with his name and phone number. “His gallery is called ‘Y-knot Inc.’ as in Why Not. He was really into my sister. I wish she had been more into him. Maybe, she’d still be here if she had.”
Chapter 20The Y-Knot Inc. gallery was squeezed in between a Sushi bar and a Peruvian café on Lovejoy street in the Pearl District. What had once been warehouses and railway tracks had, over the years, been transformed into art galleries and breweries and restaurants. Later, condos popped up among the trendy shops and bars to cast their tall shadows over what had become the priciest real estate in Portland.
“I remember when they couldn’t give these properties away and now it’s the Pearl District,” complained Morris, as we walked up the street toward the gallery, “It wasn’t safe to be here after dark and now look at it.”
When I reported back to Mo about my meeting with Terry Mitchell he said he had written an article years ago about Philip Ragusa and his gallery.
“He had just opened it and he was the new kid on the block. He was very upfront with me, confessed that it was impossible for him to make a living as an artist so, with financial support from his family he gutted what had been a garage and turned it into a gallery for up-and-coming young artists. Ironically, many years later, his own art caught on and he began to sell his paintings. There’s even one of his works in the Portland Art Museum.”
We stopped in front of the brick façade of the gallery and Morris pointed to the painting hanging in the window. “I’m pretty sure that’s one of his.” It was a canvas about five foot square that was covered in coral-colored circles and acid-green squares. It did seem to resemble some of the works we saw at the Mitchell farm house. The entrance door was painted a bright yellow and was a work of art in itself.
When we entered the gallery the first thing I noticed was that the walls, which in most art venues are a neutral white, were painted a vivid fire-engine red. My first reaction was to think that it would distract from the art but, instead, the paintings seemed to almost jump off the wall. They were mostly abstractions, with a few landscapes and photo-realistic examples thrown in. Toward the rear of the space stood a tall black sculpture.
“Looks like a cross between a telephone pole,” Mo whispered, “and a killer whale.”
“It’s actually a Nevelson,” came a soft female voice from behind us. Turning, in embarrassment, I found Morris and myself facing a petite blonde clothed in a black tunic and in slacks the shade of a ripe aborigine. “It’s titled ‘Night Tower.’ Mr. Ragusa acquired it recently from the estate of a former client who sadly has passed away. Now, what can I do for you two gentleman?”
Mo flashed his ’knock ‘em dead’ smile and spoke.
“Is Peter in? We’d like to speak with him, if possible.”
“He’s at lunch right now but I expect him to return at any moment.”
“Great! Pete and I go way back. I’m Morris Arensky and this is my associate Rick Tremaine.”
At that moment a couple entered the gallery and began moving slowly along the walls checking out the art.
“Pardon me, but I have to attend to business. By the way, my name is Cindy. There’s lemon water on the table so please feel free to refresh yourself,” and she walked over to join the couple.
“I think I’ll sit down for a moment,” Mo said, moving to one of the chairs by the large glass table which held flyers, catalogs and a dispenser of ice water swimming with slices of lemon. I poured some water for him from the spigot on the side of the glass urn. When he accepted the cup of water I could see he was breathing rather rapidly. I realized that I kept forgetting that Morris was in his eighties. It seemed Mo kept forgetting that fact himself.
I seated myself in a chair next to him and we waited for the arrival of Peter Ragusa.
He didn’t look like my image of an artist. In fact, when he walked through the door, I thought he was just another client. He was dressed in a navy blue suit and wore a gray tie with yellow polka dots. He appeared to be 70 or so years old, was partially bald and the only thing that kept him from looking like he worked for Goldman Sachs was the large lemon-yellow eyeglass frames that circled his blue eyes. He headed toward a door at the rear of the gallery, which I assumed was his office.
“Hey there, Phil!” boomed Morris, “How’s it goin?” Ragusa turned to see who was calling out his name in such stentorian tones. He looked puzzled and a little annoyed.
“Pardon me” he replied, as he came over to the table, “but I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“It’s been awhile, Phil. Morris Arensky from---”
“The Oregon Journal! Of course!” Ragusa exclaimed, smiling broadly, “You old reprobate! I thought you’d moved to Florida.”
“Never. My sons tried to ship me off to that graveyard but I couldn’t take the humidity and the Republicans.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you’re still here---and who is this gentleman?” he asked, reaching out to shake my hand.
“This is Rick Tremaine, AKA Jersey, who’s on an investigative adventure with me.”
“You’ll never retire, will you, you rascal?” responded Ragusa, “You know, this man,” he continued, with a nod towards Mo, “is responsible for jump-starting my career.”
“You can’t jump-start an engine if it has no fuel.”
“Well, thanks, but that article those many years ago really helped a skinny, starving artist get a boost.”
“Which you’ve been paying forward for as long as I remember.”
“Yeah, I try and help out whenever possible. A lot of good young artists in the world, struggling like I did, that just need a chance. That collage over there,” he said pointing to a medium sized slab of different colored fabrics, “is by a young woman named Chloe. I see a great future for her, praise be. Shit, I sound like a preacher.”
“Well, reverend,” Mo replied, “you’re still painting I see.”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. That’s the thing about being an artist, any kind of artist, you have no choice. You are compelled to create whether it’s music or sculpture or painting or---or cooking. These are some of my latest endeavors.”
“All abstractions,” Morris pointed out, “Nicely done.”
“Yep, I find they appeal to buyers more than any other style because they are all about color and shape and line and, most of all, they’re safe. No hidden agendas. That’s why I often get commissions from corporations. Big canvasses for big walls in big offices and big lobbies. They don’t want any controversial political messages. Wow, I sure am talking a lot. Too many cups of coffee at lunch.”
“No, no, it’s interesting,” I argued, “I guess we’ve moved on from the days when abstract art was considered just random colors that anybody’s kid could splash on a surface.”
Ragusa gave me a look that told me I had put my foot in my mouth---both feet actually. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“I remember you painting a lot of portraits in the early days, even some nudes,” Mo said, changing the subject and taking the heat off of me.
“Yeah, but I learned pretty quickly that people didn’t like having someone on their walls staring at them and, as for nudes, naked figures made them nervous.”
“You used live models?” I asked.
“Yeah, when I could afford to. Mostly I worked from photographs.”
“Did you ever paint a young woman named Sara Simpson?”
The effect was instantaneous.
“Let’s go back to my office,” Ragusa replied, turning quickly and heading toward one of three doors on the back wall. I helped Mo out of his chair and we followed the artist to the middle door, which he had opened.
His office was obviously just for business. Comfortable chairs, a desk suitable for signing contracts and writing sizable checks, photos hanging, on the cream-colored walls, of Ragusa and other artists and of what, I imagined, were important clients. He saw me staring at the rogues gallery.
“I hate it that only the rich can afford art. The poor can’t. The middle-class doesn’t have the wall space or the money. So I cater to the wealthy, whether they really appreciate what they’re looking at or if they are just making an investment. A few years ago an Andy Warhol painting sold for $105 million dollars. Some silk-screen representation of a car crash. Obscene.”
“Well, you could start giving your stuff away,” Mo opined, “Set an example for the rest of the art world.”
“Yeah, right. So what about Sara Simpson? I haven’t heard that name for at least twenty years.”
“Jersey and I are collecting as much information as we can on Sara and her disappearance.”
“You writing a book?”
“Maybe. Right now we’re just digging into her background. You know how I love a mystery and her sister told us you two were an item at one time.”
“Ah, that sister of hers. Anyway, nothing too mysterious about it. I met Sara when she was like 18. She worked for a catering company that I hired to do one of our opening night receptions. She was extremely pretty and stood out from the other waiters and bartenders. One thing led to another and I eventually asked her to pose for me.”
“In the nude?” Mo asked.
“Not at first, as I remember, but eventually. I see you smirking, Saint Morrie, but you need to understand, there was no hanky-panky going on. I have come across a lot of beautiful women in my career but with Sara it was different. Most of the women I’ve known who were extraordinarily beautiful were rather vapid. The expression ‘skin deep’ comes to mind. That wasn’t true of Sara.
She reminded me of a rose. Not in the traditional ‘like an English Rose’ nonsense but
like a wild rose, a climber that protected herself with hidden thorns. She knew how to take care of herself. And boy was she smart. Our conversations, while she posed for me, were full of her unique takes on life. She was curious about so many things; music, art, the weather, history, hiking, cooking, anatomy---”
“I bet,” interrupted Mo, with a smile moving close to a leer.
“Don’t be a dirty old man, Morris, it doesn’t become you. Anyway, it was the 70’s, big changes were happening; women’s lib, civil rights, anti-war marches, gay rights, the sexual revolution and Sara was active in just about all of them.”
“So, when did you two finally---get together?”
“It was kind of gradual. One thing led to another and finally she moved in with me. I had been sleeping here in the back of the gallery but sales improved and I could afford a real apartment,” he said in a rather wistful voice, “so Sara became my live-in muse in my new digs.”
There was a soft tap on the door and Cindy, the petite blond gate keeper, entered. “Pardon me for interrupting, Philip, but I have a client who would like to talk to you about purchasing the ‘Copper Sunset.’
“Great. I’ll be right there,” Ragusa answered, “Sorry, guys, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve been trying to unload that item for quite a while.”
“Of course, but before you go---how long were you two together?”
“Not long enough. I was really smitten, I mean, ready-to-tie-the-knot smitten. But Sara was not. And when I asked her about it she said she had done something in her past that she had to correct, something terrible she couldn’t talk about.”
“Do you have any idea what it was she had done?”
“I couldn’t imagine Sara being involved in anything worse than a traffic violation.”
Chapter 21As we got back into my rental car I uttered the word ’smitten.’ “Whoever uses the word smitten?”
“Haven’t you ever been smitten, Jersey boy?” Mo asked, as he put on his seat belt.
“I’ve had a crush or two, I’ve fallen for someone and I’ve even been blown away by a woman but ‘smitten?’ Never.”
“Too bad. You ought to try it some time,” Mo suggested, as I moved out into traffic. “So what’s your take on Mr. Philip Ragusa, Esquire?”
“Well, he seems to care about helping other artists. But that remark about beautiful women being ‘vapid’ was a bit harsh and how about his reaction to your mentioning Terry---‘that sister.’
“Yeah, it appears that Sara’s baby sister annoyed a couple of her suitors; Littlegood and Philip. I wonder how many more people she irritated? You know, I think Terry hasn’t been exactly forthcoming. Maybe, it’s my turn to pay her a visit.”
I had just gotten onto I-5, heading toward Hayden Island and the house boat, when I noticed that I had the beginning of a blind spot in front of me.
“Speaking of a visit, I’m going to have to pull over because my friend has just joined us.”
“What? Oh, you mean you’re having one of your visions?”
“Maybe or I’m just having a regular Scotoma episode,” I answered as I changed lanes on my way to the safety of the shoulder, “Either way we’ve got to stop.” When I reached the gravel-covered side of the highway, I stopped, shut down the engine and turned on my flashers.
“So, I’m going to be a witness to you receiving a message from beyond. I feel honored.”
“Come on, Mo, Stop already! I don’t know where it comes from. And it might not be anything,” I explained, feeling very uncomfortable with Morris staring at me. I had never shared a scintillating event with anyone, while it was still going on. I guess I was embarrassed, like being caught masturbating or picking my nose.
“Will it be a problem for you to take me on your journey?” Mo asked, as I closed my eyes, “Can you describe what you see as you go along or will I mess things up?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before. In the past, if it happened when I was with someone, I’ve just kept quiet or excused myself and left the room.”
“What do you see now?”
“Ah---the blind area has expanded. It is turning into this churning tangle of purple and gold flashing triangles. They ripple like sequins---no---like scales on a snake and the center of the entire image is beginning to open.” It was as if what had been a grey nothingness had developed an iris and was opening up like the aperture of a camera, wider and wider.
“Can you see anything besides the flashing colors?”
“I can see---something. It’s just a shadow but---it looks like a tall building---no, it’s a slab of something---stone or marble.”
“What is it?” Mo asked excitedly.
“I’m not sure. I---I---I think maybe it’s a grave marker, a tomb stone.”
“A head stone? Really? Is something written on it? A name? What does it say?”
“There is some lettering but it’s covered with weeds. There is ivy crawling all over it. I can make out some numbers, ah---1---9 and the characters N and S, but that’s about all.”
The image began to fade and was taken over by the fluctuating gold and violet-colored snake scales. The whole moving light show was drifting down to my left and would soon disappear. Morris kept asking me for updates and finally, after about 15 minutes, the episode was over. I could drive again, safely.
“So, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” inquired Mo, “The numbers 1---9 like in 19 something, maybe the birthdate of Sara, 1956. And the N---”
“The S---and the N, Simpson,” I added.
After a long pause, Mo laughed and shook his head. “You know, Jersey, you almost had me there. Up until now I’ve really considered that what you’ve been seeing was really there for you, be it hallucinations or visions from beyond or whatever, but this----this is so cliché. A tomb stone? Indicating Sara is dead and buried? Surely you could have come up with something more inventive than a stale rewrite of something from---a Sue Grafton mystery.”
I was taken aback by his response. “Mo, I told you what I saw. I didn’t make it up.”
“You have to admit, kid, that it’s pretty corny, a little too neat.”
I suddenly felt angry. “I saw what I saw! I’m sorry if it doesn’t meet your journalistic standards!”
“Whoa, don’t get your knickers in a knot!”
“I should have kept my mouth shut. Kept what I saw to myself!”
“Hold on there. Can’t I have my doubts? It’s obvious you believe you saw what you saw. I just wish it didn’t sound so contrived.”
“Why would I come up with something so contrived that it would jeopardize our search?”
“Because we’re both getting a little desperate?”
We drove in silence for a while until I cooled down. As I took the exit to Hayden Island I finally spoke up.
“Yeah, you’re right. I am getting a little desperate.”
“Are you getting ready to quit?” Morris asked, pulling his house keys out of his jacket.
“Mo, I can’t quit until I have stopped these, what you like to call, visions. They’re driving me crazy. And now, on top of it all, you think I’m making them up. Shit!”
“I’m sorry, kid. I know they upset you and now I’ve upset you as well.”
“I’m not going to quit but I am going to fly back to New Jersey and I’ll continue the search from there, in my free time. I’ll go on line tonight and book my flight home.”
“Hold your horses, Jersey. Let’s discuss this over dinner. I’ve got some ideas, some other avenues we can explore.”
After we finished our evening meal, Morris and I took our mugs of coffee and situated ourselves in front of the fireplace. I was feeling a little better and the fire was very comforting.
“Those quacks over at Kaiser have taken away my salt and sugar and my booze but I’ll be damned if they can have my coffee,” Mo complained, “It’s supposed to tax my heart. Bull pucky! The caffeine puts me to sleep.”
I took a couple of sips of my coffee knowing that, unlike Mo, it would keep me awake. I wanted to use the next few hours to review where I was at in this stupid quixotic journey. I had called my mother before dinner and got a hold of her as she was heading to bed.
“Are you still in Seattle, darling? When are you coming home?”
“Soon, mom,” I half-lied, as I did intend to book a flight in the next few days.
“You know you were conceived on a cruise your dad and I took out of Seattle.”
“Yes,” I replied rather impatiently, “I’ve heard that story many times.”
“Such a happy time. We toured the whole world, the three of us.”
“I couldn’t see much from my cabin inside you.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. It was a wonderful adventure. A year on the high seas.”
“I have to sign off, mom, I’ve got a call coming through.”
“Okay, sweetheart. I wish we could talk longer. Now, be sure and let me know your flight information and call me from the airport.”
“Right, will do.”
Morris was writing in his notepad as I finished my coffee. “What are you up to over there, scribbling away so furiously?” I asked.
“A couple of ideas I want to run by you, Jersey, if you are still planning to return to the East coast. Somethings I’ve kinda put on the back burner, been avoiding.”
“Well, for one, I thought about placing an article in the Oregonian about the thirtieth anniversary of the disappearance of Sara Simpson. We can use some of the facts we’ve dug up, make it a real human interest story.”
“And your other idea?”
“Start bombarding the social media with pleas for any information about Sara. There’s got to be somebody out there who remembers her. You know, Facebook, Twister---”
“It’s called Twitter.”
“Whatever---there’s got to be sites we can use, like missing-person blockers---
“Blockers? Do you mean Bloggers?”
“You know what I’m talking about, smart ass, those geeks that have too much time on their hands and nothing better to do than write a lot of nonsense.”
“I guess you mean bloggers,” I reasoned, “but you’re sounding like a bitter old fart.”
“I am an old fart but not a bitter one,” he replied, “so what do you think?”
“You mean about going public with the search? We could have been doing that a week ago. I think it’s a very good idea but why didn’t you bring up sooner?”
Morris took another swig from his coffee cup and wiped his mouth. “Because there is a big downside to opening this up to the public.”
“If we go forward with this, and I’m sure Officer O’Brien would confirm what I’m about to say; every looney tunes in Portland will start coming out of the woodwork to help us with the search; ‘I know where she is,’ ‘She’s married to the President,’ ‘She lives in Iceland’, My neighbor’s dog ate her’ and on and on. The volume of phone calls and responses on the internet will be unmanageable.”
“So what can we do?”
“Well, if my old friend Robbie, at the Oregonian, accepts my brilliantly written article, and why wouldn’t he, then Ginger and the other phone operators can handle the crank calls to the paper. She may never speak to me again but that’ll be her loss. You and I will field the responses online and sift---”
“It sounds like you’ve worked this all out.”
“Moss doesn’t grow on a rolling stone,” Mo announced, as he handed me the note page he had been writing on, “My god, I just remembered that Mick and the Stones are still touring aren’t they! They must be jammin out of their wheel chairs these days.”
I resisted responding to his ageist remarks, remembering that he was eighty-three, and scanned the note he had given me. It seemed to be a questionnaire.
Did you know Sara Simpson personally:
What was her full name:
What was your relationship to Sara?
When did you know this person?
“Everyone, who either works the phones or answers the emails, will follow that script,” Morris explained, “This way we can weed out some of the nut cases.”
“Who’s the ‘everyone?” I asked.
“You, me---Ginger and her associates---a couple of my friends over at Peterson’s.”
“The Peterson Retirement Home. I got a couple of old flames hanging out there.”
Chapter 22And so “Operation Scotoma-Tacoma,” as Mo liked to call it, was set into place. It only took a day for the internet responses to start clogging our computers and, after the article in the Oregonian was published, the newspaper’s phones rang constantly with useless tips and false leads. Morris was so right. What possesses someone to make up stories about someone they never knew, a total stranger? Loneliness, need for attention, fame? I admit that a few of the responders may have believed they saw or heard what they did but some of the calls and emails came from teenagers who weren’t even born when Sara disappeared.
The responses ranged from the plausible to the ridiculous. “She waited on me at the Waddles restaurant---nice lady.” “She belonged to a coven of witches and practiced voodoo. No, it’s true, she put a curse on my grandmother.” “I remember her in eighth grade. She was a knockout. And then one day she wasn’t there. They said she dropped out.” “She was abducted by aliens. I saw it myself. This light came out of the sky and--- “
After two days we narrowed the possibilities down to five; three that Mo, the Peterson hotties and I had collected and two that Ginger and her team had deemed worthy of a follow up.
I was about to call the first person Morris had assigned to me when my cell phone vibrated in my hand. I knew before I looked at the screen who it was.
“Hello, Rick. Enjoying your vacation?”
“George, I’m sorry this is taking so long. Arensky is asking for more than we can afford (I’ve really become a champion prevaricator) so I’m trying to wear him down.”
“Well, you’re wearing me down with this delay business.”
“Did you get the photographs of his stuff that I sent?”
“Yeah, they’re okay. Some of work is pretty awesome but not worth the time you’re putting in. I want you to understand that I consider these days, that you’ve been gone, to be part of your annual two-week vacation.”
“Listen, I’ll give you until next Monday to wrap this deal up. If you don’t, I’ll be on the first plane out of here to take care of it myself. Should have done that to start with.”
“I’ll do the best I can.”
“Well, so far, your best hasn’t been very good. And, for god’s sake, keep in touch.”
After I hung up, I put my head down on the table in Morris’s office. Mo was sitting next to me and trying to disengage from a very talkative responder.
“Well, thank---yes, I’m sure---you’ve been very helpful---we will follow up---yes--- you too.” He disconnected and shook his head. “Sweet lady and she was best friends with Sara, only it wasn’t our Sara. It was someone else named Sara, Sara Stimson and she is alive and well and living in Coos Bay.” He crossed off the responder’s name and turned to me. “I gather that was Georgie Porridgee at it again.”
“I have dug myself into such a deep hole there is no way I’m going to climb out.”
“Check the joke board. I posted something just for you.”
I peeled myself up and off the table and lumbered over to the cork board where, among the clippings and photos, I found this example of adolescent doggerel.
Boss of the BodyThe different parts of the body were arguing about who should be the boss of the body.
The Brain said “I do all the thinking and make the strategies. I should be the boss.”
The Eyes said “I provide vision and that allows all of us to see what’s going on.”
The Legs said “I provide mobility and transportation for all of us. I am the get-up- and-go.”
Then the Asshole spoke up, “I should be the boss---” He didn’t even get to finish as the Brain, Eyes and Legs started laughing. So the Asshole clamped shut hard and, after a few days, the Brain got foggy, the Eyes went fuzzy and the Legs went weak. They decided the Asshole was the boss.
So it only goes to show you that to be a boss you don’t have to provide vision, or possess get-up-and-go or be a wiz at strategy.
You just need to be an Asshole.
“If that was meant to cheer me up it didn’t work,” I informed Morris, “I’ve lied and I’ve kept lying. George is well within his rights as my boss to not only fire my ass but to sue me for--- for---I don’t know---impersonating a sales representative! I should have been up front with him from the start and asked for a leave of absence---or just quit--so I could---what?---chase after an hallucination?”
“What’s the saying about keeping your eye on the prize? Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole? Something like that. So get your skinny butt back over here and start making a dent in our call list. We’ll take care of Georgie later.”
“But Mo I---”
“Stop whining. You’ve got work to do.”
My first call was to a man who had been the manager of the apartment house Sara and her sister lived in when she disappeared. He talked about how she always paid her rent on time, how pleasant she was and then he said something that made my ears perk up.
“You know she dated quite a lot of guys, being she was so attractive. But the week before she vanished I saw her with this older gent and they were arguing very loudly out on the sidewalk. I was putting the trash cans out for collection so I couldn’t help but witness what was happening.”
“What were they arguing about?”
“Jeez, it was so long ago. I really don’t remember. I just know they were both very angry. I think she said something about her rights, ‘I have the right,’ something like that.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, I went back to my apartment and when I looked out later they were gone.”
“And did you see this man again?”
“No, that was the only time.”
“Can you describe what he looked like?”
“Not really. It’s kind of like a faded photograph, you know, after all these years. I mean I think he was average height, nicely dressed, suit and tie. Oh, yes, and he had white hair, a full head of snow white hair.”
He continued to talk about Sara but there was nothing more that he related that was really helpful. I thanked him and concluded the call. I then quickly wrote down what he had said he’d seen: older well-dressed white-haired male---argument---'I have the right.’
My next call was useless. A woman, who, thirty years ago, went to the same beauty salon as Sara, claimed she watched her getting her hair dyed. “That rich dark chestnut color was not natural,” she informed me, sounding holier-than-thou, “I remember seeing her getting regular touch ups. She was very good looking, you know, in a peasanty sort of way.” Enough of that.
The third call was a bit more helpful. The responder was very upfront right from the start. “I never met the woman myself but I have cousin who worked with her at the restaurant. They became close friends. Lucy, that’s my cousin, said Miss Simpson confided in her a lot and some of it was not very nice.”
“Like what?” I asked, hoping that finally I would be given the reason for all of this madness.
“Lucy wouldn’t tell me. She said she was sworn to secrecy. But I was thinking, after all these years, maybe she would be willing to help you folks out.”
“So, she’s still alive.”
“Hale and hearty. She runs a bar over in Cannon Beach, Lovely’s Pub. She says she’s retired but she the busiest retiree I ever met.”
“Could you give me a contact number for her?”
“Sure, but the best thing is to just call the pub. She practically lives there.”
Chapter 23The phone rang twice and then my ear was bombarded with loud music and the hum of many voices all speaking at once. I put on my speaker phone so Morris could hear.
“Lovely’s!” A deep male voice shouted, over the din.
“ah—eh—may I speak with Lucy Bailey?”
“Who’s calling?” Even though Lucy’s cousin said she would call ahead and pave the way I found myself slipping into panic mode. Mo kicked my chair and I blurted out my name.
“Hold on!” and we were left listening to Garth Brooks singing Friends in Low Places underneath a cacophony of happy imbiber’s voices.
“Sounds like my kind of place,” opined Morris, “well, at one time, that is. Long ago.”
After a minute or so, a woman came on the line.
“This is Lucy Bailey.”
“Hi. I’m Richard Tremaine. Your cousin gave me---”
“Yeah, the big mouth called me and filled me in. You’re trying to get information about poor Sara.”
“Yes, anything that will help us find out what happened to her.”
“Honey, that was so long ago. Probably before you were born.”
“Not really. I was a teenager.”
“Okay, I stand corrected. So what do you want to know?”
“Your cousin said that you and Sara were close friends and that she confided in you.”
“Yeah, big mouth got that right. What else did she say?”
“That Sara told you some things that weren’t very nice, that’s the way your cousin put it, and that Sara swore you to secrecy.”
“Would you be willing to share that information with us? It’s been over thirty years---”
“No, I’m afraid not. I don’t know you from Adam or what your motives are. I loved Sara like a sister and I’m not about to betray her memory by blabbing about things that happened so long ago.”
“Ms. Bailey,” Morris interrupted, “this is Morris Arensky. I’ve been listening here with my partner Mr. Tremaine and---”
“You S.O.B.s! What the hell is going on here! Were you ever going to tell me that I was on a loudspeaker for all the world to hear?! Is there anyone else there with you that I should know about? Anderson Cooper? Lesly Stahl?”
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Bailey,” I said, hurriedly, “I should have mentioned that Mo---Mr. Arensky was joining me on speaker phone.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, stop calling me Ms. Bailey. Technically, it’s Mrs. Bailey. He’s dead and gone, good riddance. But everyone calls me Lucy and, you are right, you should have told me.”
“Lucy,” Morris declared, in his best elderly gentleman’s voice, “once again, please forgive our stupidity. Our motive is simple even if our methods are rather clumsy: We are only trying to piece together what led up to Sara’s disappearance and what happened to her. We have been reaching out to the public for any information that might help. That’s how we were led to you.”
“By my big mouth cousin.”
“Correct. Let me ask you, would you be willing to meet with us for a short interview?”
“Just so you could share with us your memories of Sara. It would help us get a better picture of who she was.”
“And where would this interview take place?”
“Oh, we’d be glad to come to you.’ I winced, when Mo said that, knowing it meant another trip to somewhere far away that would eat up another day.
“That’s very gentlemanly of you. However, If I agree,” Lucy replied, “you need to know that I will not talk about what I foolishly said was a secret, to big mouth, so long ago.”
“Understood. Will tomorrow afternoon around one o’clock be agreeable for you?”
“Man, you work fast! I suppose I could arrange a few minutes, if our lunch crowd isn’t too busy. Besides, I’m curious to meet you guys, this dynamic duo from---where are you two from?
“Portland and New Jersey.”
“All will be revealed when next we meet.”
The trip to Cannon Beach took an hour and a half. On the way Mo filled me in on some of the history of the Oregon shoreline. I was beginning to think that the book he really should write should be entitled The Insider’s Guide to Oregon’s Wonders.
“The beaches here have been listed among the 25 most beautiful in the world. You’re going to be amazed.”
“We’ve got some pretty nice beaches in New Jersey.”
“No doubt. But are they all open to the public?”
“Every inch of the 362 miles of shoreline is accessible to anyone. No one can build so close to the beach that you can’t pull off to the side of the highway and take a quick dip in the ocean. In fact, way back in the beginning of the 20th century, they made it a law that declared the beach was a highway.”
I thought about how the New Jersey shore was crammed with thousands of houses resting right on the edge of the beaches, how you often had to pay to cross someone’s property to get to the beach. I decided not to share that information with Morris.
We had just descended from the mountains and were entering Cannon Beach when Mo explained that the town got its name from a cannon that washed up on shore sometime in the 1840s. “Came off a ship that had sunk. However, the gun was eventually swallowed up by the sand. A lot of people come here with metal detectors trying to find it.”
By now I had stopped listening to Morris, Mr. Travelogue, because spread out before me was the most spectacular beach I had ever seen. The tide was out and the expanse of clean off-white sand seemed to extend all the way to the horizon. There were a couple of dune buggies driving back and forth and, in the distance, there rose a huge tall monolith of a rock. It thrust itself up through the sand of the beach like a hunchbacked ogre.
“That’s Haystack Rock. One of the most photographed natural phenomenon in the world. 235 feet high---”
“Good lord, Mo! Do you memorize all these facts? You’re like a contestant on Jeopardy.”
Lovely’s Bar and Grill was located on South Hemlock Street. It was a two story edifice of river roc and, what looked like, redwood planks. There was a wrap-around deck dotted with tables shaded by bright yellow beach umbrellas and, although it was only eleven o’clock, several of the tables were occupied by a cheery group of early diners.
“Or drinkers,” opined Morris, as we pulled open one of the heavy wooden double doors and stepped into the dark environs of Lucy Bailey’s tavern.
A horseshoe-shaped bar dominated the center of the space with cozy booths nestled against the walls. A few bistro tables were spotted here and there and the walls themselves were decorated with framed paintings and photographs of fishing boats and cannons.
“We’re not open for lunch until eleven thirty,” announced a tall middle-aged man, standing behind the bar, “but I can seat you out on the deck if you like.” He was built like a linebacker and I imagined he doubled as a bouncer.
“Are you the person I talked to on the phone last night?”
“Could be. Who’s asking?”
“I’m Richard Tremaine and this is Morris Arensky. We’re here to see Lucy Bailey.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re the dudes from Portland. You’re a little early aren’t you?”
“Our apologies. I overestimated the travel time,” Mo replied, “Would it be possible to let her know we’re here, even if it’s a bit early?” Morris didn’t sound like his usual self. There was a cold edge to his usual ‘hail fellow, well met’ personality. The man, who I presumed was the manager, picked up a cell phone off the bar and punched in some numbers. After a few moments he spoke.
“Hey, Lucy, there’s an old guy here, along with his sidekick, who say they’re the ones you was expecting,-----Yeah, I told them they was early-----You sure?-----Okay.” He pocketed the phone and pointed to a staircase near the entrance. “She’s in her office at the top of the stairs. You can go on up.” He took a cloth he had hanging from his belt, snapped it once, and started wiping down the bar. “You’re lucky she’s in a good mood today.”
As Mo and I turned and headed for the stairs, Mo muttered quietly, “He’s lucky I’m in a good mood today.” I realized then that Mo must have been quite a scrapper in his youth.
Lucy Bailey looked like she came straight from central casting; ‘Sexy Bar Owner,’ hair, the color of a new-born chick, piled high enough to support the mantilla comb that kept the yellow waves from spilling down her back, leopard-print blouse and tight black-leather skirt, wide rhinestone-studded belt, inky black hose and stiletto pumps that added a good five inches to her diminutive height. Several gold chains hung from her neck and gold hoops dangled from her ears. Her makeup was applied with great skill but could not hide the fact that she was way past fifty. I was pretty sure she had had quite a bit of ‘work ‘done and that seventy might be a closer guess to her actual age. A cigarette hung from her bright red lips.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
“Morning, Mrs. Bailey. Sorry about our early arrival.”
“Lucy,” correcting me for the second time, “That’s alright. This is better anyway. It’ll leave me free for the lunch rush. So what do you want to know?”
Morris took the next fifteen minutes to explain our mission, leaving out the paranormal stuff, and putting the emphasis on solving Sara’s disappearance.
“So what do you want from me?”
“Anything you can tell us about your relationship with Sara. How close the two of you were. What she was like. What she did---”
“She was a beautiful person, not just on the outside. When she came to work at Waddles she was in her mid-twenties and she just glowed. Everyone took to her. I was five years older than she was and I had gotten kind of jaded and then here comes this breath of fresh air. We hit it off immediately. We became bosom buddies. What else do you want to know?”
“We were told she liked the boys. Did she confide in you about any of her relationships?”
“Yeah---not at first, however. I think she found it hard to trust anyone, especially after the stuff that went on when she was growing up on the farm.”
“What kind of stuff?” Mo asked, more solemn than I had ever seen him before.
“Oh, no, Mr. Cleverness. I told you I wasn’t going betray her trust. Anyway, about the men in her life. There was that artsy-fartsy guy and that black dude and---”
“We’ve already talked to Mr. Ragusa and Mr. Littlegood---
“Boy, if Littlegood was my last name I would have changed it as soon as possible, maybe just drop the Little, you know? Anyway, if you’ve chatted them up already why do you need my input?”
“Okay, Lucy. No more beating around the bush. We think you have information that would really help us get closer to finding out what the hell happened to Sara. It seems you were the only woman she confided in, that she shared things with you that she didn’t even share with her sister.”
“Oh, that little bitch! She wouldn’t give Sara the time of day.”
“I’m not so sure of that. They were living together when Sara disappeared.”
“Yeah, that’s because Trixie was---”
“Terry,” I interjected.
“I know! I prefer Trixie because that’s what she is, a two-faced trickster. She was sponging off of Sara, letting Sara wear herself out waiting tables so that that leach could go to school, have nice clothes, three-squares a day. And what did she do in exchange? Diddlysquat! No, that’s not true. She did one thing. She did her damnedest to keep every one of us away from Sara. Miss high-and-mighty didn’t want anyone to corrupt her sister.”
“Corrupt?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know, tell Sara the truth about how Trixie was taking her for a ride, the fucking hypocrite---little Miss Saintly!”
“Wow! You are still pretty angry after all these years,” remarked Morris.
“As I said before, I really loved Sara. She was my best friend and when she disappeared I was devastated. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about her---miss her.”
“All the more reason for you to help us by telling us what Sara shared with you. We know that she told Philip Ragusa that she had done a terrible thing. She told the same thing to Tim Littlegood but she didn’t tell either of them what it actually was. I believe you know what that thing was, that she felt so guilty about, right?”
Lucy’s face crumbled and black tears began to make their way down her rosy cheeks. “Look what you fuckers have done! I’m going to have to redo my makeup and that’s no mean feat,” she admonished, wiping her eyes with a tissue. “Listen, I’ve carried this promise around with me for over thirty years. Why should I break it now, especially with two complete effing strangers?”
“Because it’s time,” Mo answered, “and you know that. Whatever Sara did happened so long ago that whatever damage she thought she had done is long over. Even if she killed someone there is nothing that can be done about it now.”
“She didn’t murder anyone, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Okay, that’s good, but whatever it was, it’s possible that it can help us find out what happened to her in 1988. Please---Lucy---”
I watched her struggle, the tears continued and several minutes passed before she finally spoke.
“It’s so silly---and so sad. The first thing she told me that when she was fifteen she got pregnant. Actually, she had the baby just after she turned sixteen.”
“What happened? Was it a boyfriend?” An obscene and frightening thought ran through my mind that maybe it could have been someone closer to home.
“The pregnancy wasn’t what she felt guilty about, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The event that precipitated her getting into trouble was her running away from home. She ended up in Portland and she hooked up with some old hippies, I think that’s what she said. Anyway, being young and innocent and, I would imagine, very pretty, the sharks began to circle,” Lucy said, pausing, “I’m thirsty. I going to call down to Mitch to bring me up my usual. You guys want anything?”
“No thanks,” Morris answered, “You were going to tell us how Sara ended up pregnant.”
“Yeah, right. So somehow she got this gig at a convention out at the Portland Expo Center. I don’t remember what kind of convention it was but she convinced the management she was eighteen and they dressed her up and she was hired as a hostess.” Lucy stopped to collect the drink that Mitch had just brought up from downstairs. He glanced dismissively at Mo and me and then spoke to Lucy.
“The lunch crowd is warming up.”
“I’ll be down in a moment. I want to finish up here.”
Mitch shrugged, “Whatever,” and clomped his way back down the stairs.
“He’s actually a good guy,” Lucy explained, sipping what looked to me like an extra-large vodka tonic, “a little rough around the edges but he shows up and does his job which is pretty rare these days.”
“Right. Now back to Sara. She was hostessing at this convention---”
“Yeah, and to make a long story even longer she met this businessman, much older than her, and he was very nice and her job description was to be nice so one thing led to another and he invited her to dinner. Now, you have to understand that this was a naïve fifteen-year old who had left an abusive home-life and here was the kind of father she had always dreamed about. He was loving and gentle, he listened to her and he said all the right things. Of course all he wanted to do was get into her pants but she saw it as his affection for her. You men! All you S.O.Bs want to do is screw around with anyone---anything! So, he took her virginity and, since the convention was a week long, he invited Sara to stay with him every night until he had to leave.”
I was horrified. “Jesus! She was just a child.”
“Yes, a child---a child who thought he loved her like she was his daughter,” Lucy continued but was interrupted by her cell phone buzzing. “Sorry, that’s Mitch. He just texted that they need me downstairs. Why don’t you two stay for lunch and we’ll continue this after the crowd thins out? On the house? I recommend the fish and chips.
Chapter 24We did as Lucy suggested and found the food quite tasty. I watched Lucy do her thing with the customers and she was very good at it, attentive and funny as she handed out menus and worked the cash register. She had done a quick repair on her makeup and the smile on her face took several years off her age.
After things slowed down she invited us out onto the back portion of the deck that faced the ocean. We sat under one of the yellow umbrellas and sipped our drinks, a rum and coke for Mo and a straight coke for me. Lucy had a refill of her mystery drink and continued to smoke one cigarette after another as she recounted what Sara had confessed to her.
“So, she spent a week with this man, feeling she had found the loving daddy she needed. On the last day she even thought she’d go off with him to-----what? He sat her down
and explained that he had to go home but that he would give her his business card and that she could contact him anytime she needed to. She didn’t understand. She needed him now.”
Once again I was completely appalled. “What a bastard!”
“He left her with a kiss and a promise he would be back to see her again. He flew away and that was that.”
“Where was he from?” Morris inquired.
“Somewhere back East. Can you imagine? There she is back on the street with the hippies begging for change and the daddy she just thought she had found is some rich fucking exec. Well, she did eventually call his office because she needed him badly.”
“You mean because she found out she was pregnant?” I asked.
“Yeah. At first she didn’t understand what was going on with her body but one of the hippy mamas filled her in.”
“So this pregnancy was the terrible thing she said she had done?”
“No. That came later.”
“She got an abortion?”
“No. When she finally got ahold of the son-of-a-bitch he said he would be happy to send her money for an abortion. But, first, he asked if she was sure it was his. She freaked out, started screaming and crying until he agreed to help her by sending her money to have the baby. And to keep her quiet, if you ask me. Anyway, here is where the terrible thing happened that she felt so guilty about.”
“And that was?” Mo asked.
“She struggles through the nine months, has the baby and then this---this child molester shows up like he’s the proud papa.”
“You mean he flew back here to Portland?”
“You got it. He had the hospital call him when she delivered. He was paying for the doctor and all the medical bills so he made damn sure that they would call him.”
“How was she about his showing up?”
“She said she hardly remembered any of it but she thought she recollected being happy to see him. And then it all changed. When she became more lucid he began to present her with some options for her to consider about the future of the baby. The one he was pushing for the most was adoption, you know, giving up the baby. She assured him that she wanted to keep her baby and that was that, but he kept chipping away at her; ‘you’re so young, too young, no parental skills, the stigma, the shame, the cost.’ He was relentless. She held on for two days and then, exhausted and weak, she did the terrible thing she was so ashamed of, god bless her, she gave her baby away, and, before she even had time to say good bye, the infant was gone.”
Mo sighed and asked, “a boy or a girl?”
“I think she said it was a boy, or maybe it was a girl. I don’t remember.”
“And who adopted it?”
“Who knows? The bastard kindly took care of the all the arrangements. She said she thought she had signed some papers but didn’t know what they were. When she asked the nurse to please bring her her baby she was told the infant had been ‘assigned’ to a very nice couple. When she requested their names the social worker said that state laws didn’t permit the release of that information. So, with that, and that she was deemed healthy enough to be booted out of the hospital, it was all over. She said that, while packing up what little she had brought, she found, tucked in her backpack, a check for $25,000. And she didn’t even have a bank account.” Lucy stopped to light another cigarette. “Personally, I thought it was better that it worked out the way it did. How was an unmarried sixteen-year old going to raise a baby alone? And with the funds from the check she was able to start building a better life for herself---which she did.” Lucy’s phone buzzed. “That’s Mitch. Trouble in paradise. I guess I better get back inside and see what’s going on. Anyway, I tried to make Sara see that she was a victim and that she had nothing to feel guilty about, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept that.” Lucy put out her cigarette and got up to leave.
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Bailey,” Morris declared, “You gave us a new avenue to search.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Arensky,” Lucy countered, “I should be thanking you. I feel a hundred pounds lighter. Carrying that shitty secret around for all those years was taking its toll.”
“I’m sure Sara would have approved since it just may help us find her.”
When we got ready to leave, Lucy escorted us to our car. She thanked us once more and told us that Sara never again brought up the ‘terrible thing’ subject. “We had some good times, the two of us, mostly at work. I’ll never forget the last time I saw her. We had the morning shift and she seemed so happy. She said something about big changes happening. ‘I’ll tell you all about it, tomorrow,’ she said. But, of course, tomorrow never happened.” Lucy smiled the saddest smile I ever remember seeing, turned, and walked back to her saloon.
Chapter 25Later that night, back at the house boat, I was trying to go to sleep but with absolutely no success. My brain would not shut up or shut down. I couldn’t silence the voice that kept questioning me about what the hell we had learned today. ‘How can Sara’s pregnancy be of any importance? Are you just spinning your wheels? What are you going to do now? What about George? What about your mother?’
Ah, my mother. It didn’t help that she had called me as we were driving back to Portland. I had her on Bluetooth so Morris got to hear her in all her glory.
“Sweetheart, I’m really worried about you.”
“Mom, I’m okay.”
“Something is going on with you. It’s not like you to forget to call me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m so busy.”
“Well, when you get back from whatever it is you’re doing, I insist you fly down here to Tampa for a much-needed rest. I won’t take no for an answer.”
“We’ll drive out to Indian Rocks Beach for a picnic---”
“And there is a weekly get-together here at the condo, a pot luck dinner, no wine of course---”
“Mom, I’m driving. I’m in the car.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Why didn’t you say something?! Hang up and call me back later when you’re not driving.”
“Okay. Love you. Bye.”
Morris didn’t say anything for a couple of miles. Then, when he did begin to speak, I expected to hear his take on our informative afternoon with Lucy. But I heard instead:
“How old are you, Jersey?”
“Ah, forty-eight. Why?”
“Isn’t it about time you left the nest?”
“What do you mean? I don’t live with my mother. I’m in New Jersey and she’s in Florida.”
“My, that is one long umbilical cord.”
“I beg your pardon!” I replied, feeling the heat of my anger boiling up in my stomach.
“It seems to these old ears, and I may be wrong, that you are over-acting in your role as the dutiful son.”
“Excuse me but when is being kind and attentive to one’s mother ‘over acting?’”
“When it’s insincere. When, underneath it all, there is a layer of anger and resentment.”
“Mr. Arensky, I’ve spent many years, and many dollars, with many head-doctors, working through my issues with my mother. And now it seems like I should have come to you first.”
“Now, don’t get all testy. It’s just that I see a lot of unhappiness in your eyes.”
“Any unhappiness you see I owe to the situation I am in at the moment and---and to my dearly departed father, not to my mother. He put her through hell---put both of us through hell.”
“And you’re trying to---what? Make it all better? Repair the damage?”
“I do not want to have this conversation. Suffice it to say that my father was not the great person he pretended to be. He cheated on my mother. He verbally abused her. He physically abused me. And I’m only trying really hard not to be like him. So forgive me if I treat my mother with some respect and love. Subject closed.”
“Whew! I guess I opened up an old wound. My apologies,” Morris replied and we rode on in silence until I made the turn onto Hayden Island. He spoke again. “You know, I find that when I get angry, almost every time, it’s really cuz I’m angry at myself.” I slammed on the brakes.
“Jesus! Spare me the wisdom of the ages! I’m furious at the way my father treated my mom, that’s the bottom line.”
But, of course, Mo was right. I was angry with my myself for not being able to stand up to my mother, for being such a wimp in general. I caught Morris smiling an all-knowing grin as we pulled up to the house boat and I fantasized about punching him in the kisser.
We had learned a lot in our visit with Lucy Bailey. Sara had had a baby at sixteen that was given up for adoption and that had haunted her into her thirties. Who was the man that had literally raped her, since, she having been underaged, it was actually a crime? And was any of this connected to her disappearance?
“I hope we didn’t waste a whole day looking into an incident that has nothing to do with Sara’s vanishing act,” I opined, taking a spoonful of the tomato soup Morris had heated up for dinner.
“I wouldn’t discount it. Any and everything we can learn about Sara helps us get more of an idea of who she really was. You never know where the road is leading but it is going somewhere.”
“But the clock is ticking, Mo, and I’m running out of time.”
“Yeah, I know kid, but I have a feeling---" His feeling was interrupted by the ringing of his landline. Picking it up, and noticing who it was, he answered, “Hey Ginger---yes---my deepest apologies---we were over at Cannon Beach---okay---he said what?---Yeah, I remember---that was a while ago---wait a second, let me grab a piece of paper---okay, give it to me.” He wrote something down and gave me a thumbs-up. “Thanks, sweetheart, we owe you big time.”
After hanging up, Morris turned to me and handed me the slip of paper. “Ginger said they’re closing down the hot line---”
“But she said this guy, whose name and cell phone number you are looking at, sounded sane and believable to her and that he told her we should be looking into a mob connection.”
“Oh shit! Now the Mafia! What’s next, the CIA?! “
“ I know it sounds ridiculous and I’d discount it except for one thing.”
“What’s that? I mean look at this name” I said reading from the notepaper, “Sleepy Joe!”
“Yeah, I never learned his real moniker.”
“You know this guy? What the hell---”
“He was a police informant, got paid for snitching. Helped put some bad guys behind bars. I thought for sure he had to be dead by now.”
“And how come you know this---this ‘Sleepy Joe’?’’
“He helped me a few times when I was still working on the paper. He had his ear to the ground, seemed to know things that nobody else did. A sneaky little creep but always honest, never gave me a false lead, great value for the dollar.”
“You paid him?”
“A man’s got to make a living,” Mo replied with a chuckle. “Let’s give him a ring, see if he can expand a bit on his statement about the mob.”
“Oh, come on, the mob? What would the Mafia be doing up here in the Pacific Northwest?” I argued, “New Jersey, maybe, Atlantic City but the West Coast? Come on!”
“Ah, my naïve little friend,” Morris countered, “The Goodfellas are everywhere---anywhere there is money, you know that; horse racing, drugs, trucking, trash removal, construction. I wrote a couple of stories about them infiltrating the unions here in Oregon. Almost got my head served up on a platter.” He took the slip of paper out of my hand. “Let’s give Joe a call.”
“Hey there Sleepy, it’s Morris---yeah---coming up in the world aren’t you---cell phone---oh, an iPhone---wow!---not like the old days, leaving a note pinned to a telephone pole---yeah---good ole days. Listen, my friend, could you give us a little more information about what you told Ginger---about this so-called mob connection?--- of course---what’s your going rate these days?---Ouch---no, I understand---inflation---fine---agreed---well, now, that’s a problem---I’m kinda house-bound these days---you know, the fucking ‘Golden Years’---right---so could we just talk about it now---of course---you know I’m good for it---give me an address.” He wrote some numbers down on the note paper. “Got it---now, what did you discover?”
Sleepy Joe (he got that nickname due to sounding like he just got out of bed and also because he often pretended to be a homeless bum dozing in a doorway when he was really lying there in order to spy on somebody) talked with Morris for several minutes and when Mo got off the phone he was shaking his head.
“He said he heard the Ragusa family had something to do with Sara’s disappearance.”
Chapter 26Cindy, the petite blonde assistant, was helping Philip Ragusa hang, what appeared to be, one of his paintings, a swirling circle of butterscotch brown against a background of olive green.
“Very tasty, Peter,” Morris quipped, as we entered the Y-Knot gallery.
“Why, thank you, Morrie,” Ragusa replied, “What brings you gentlemen back to my humble gallery? Thinking of investing in some art?” He was wearing a pair of white coveralls artistically spotted with various colors of paint and had a red bandana tied around his head which he removed in order to wipe his brow.
“Can we go into your office for a moment?” Mo asked, “We won’t take up much of your time.”
Ragusa smiled, as he stuffed the bandana into his pocket. “Sure. But you’re sounding a little more serious than usual, old friend.” He turned and headed to the back of the gallery.
“We just have something we need to clear up,” Morris explained, as we followed Philip through his office door. Once in, Ragusa closed the door, circled around his desk and sat down.
“Take a seat, please,” he said, indicating the two chairs opposite his paper and catalog strewn desk. “Unless you prefer to stand. So what’s going on? You both look---I don’t know---disturbed. What is it? Something about Sara?”
“Yes, possibly. I’ll try and get straight to the point.”
“That’s always a good idea.”
“Pete, do you know if any of your family---“ Mo hesitated.
“What?” Ragusa responded.
“Do you know if any of your family are connected to the mob?”
The silence was long and deadly.
After what seemed forever, Philip looked at both of us, and spoke. “I’m disappointed in you, Morrie. I never imagined you were racist, especially since you are a member of the Hebrew tribe.”
“Just because my last name and my family’s last name ends in a vowel you presume that we are Mafioso.”
“My grandfather came to America when he was 16. He apprenticed with a tailor and became a very successful tailor himself. He didn’t become a gangster. You met my dad when he was still alive. You drank the wine he made from the grapes he grew on his 130 acres of vineyard. He also didn’t become a gangster.” Ragusa’s voice was increasing in volume and I began to worry about Mo’s safety.
“Do you?! From the age of---I don’t remember---five or six and on into my adulthood I was the greaseball, the wop. I was Guido, the dago, the guinea.” He turned toward me and smiled, “Hey, Mr. Jersey, you have a lot of greasers back East, right? Do you know why Italians don’t have freckles?” I shook my head. “Because they slide off.” I smiled in spite of myself and then blushed with shame. “That’s what I dealt with every day.”
“Listen, Phil,” Morris began, “we’ve all lived through inappropriate jokes and insulting behavior. We’ve also all participated in the same name calling and bad jokes that we find offensive in others, right? I apologize for anything politically incorrect I may have said but, please understand we are here not because of your heritage. We were given a tip that someone, with your last name, was involved in Sara’s disappearance.”
“And immediately you thought ‘mob,’ Ragusa snapped.
“Guilty,” Mo replied, “but, admit it, Phil, there have been some shady characters in your family, as there are in all families.”
“Do you think I’m one of those ‘shady characters?’” Philip asked, and then seemed to be hit with a revelation, “You think it might be me! That I did something to Sara!”
“No, Phil, we do not. All we want is for you to think about any one with the last name of Ragusa who might have some sort of business with the Syndicate.”
“Oh, now we’ve upgraded it to the ‘syndicate.’”
“Please, Phil, we are so close to finding the answer.”
Coming around his desk and stopping in front of Morris, Ragusa whispered, “And I am so close to knocking out your lights. But you are old and I owe you a lot, so just turn around and get you and Jersey Junior the fuck out of here before I change my mind!”
I took a hold of Mo’s arm and gently guided him out of the office, past all the canvases on the red walls and out the yellow door. As we headed down the street to the car, I noticed that Mo was smiling. “You seem awfully happy for someone who almost got decked,” I exclaimed, “Not to mention that we failed to get any information.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see,” he replied, as I helped him into the car.
We were heading back down to Albany to pay another visit to Sara’s sister Terry’s farm when Mo’s cell phone buzzed. He answered it and smiled. Since he wasn’t hooked up to my Bluetooth, I couldn’t hear who was speaking and what was being said. Morris just nodded a few times in response and then, taking out his notebook, jotted down something and then ended the call with, “Thanks. You’re a mensch.”
“Who was that? I asked.
“Philip Ragusa,” Mo replied, “and he said he had a cousin we should check out. A crazy goombah, and that’s a quote, who always thought of himself as a direct descendant of Alphonse Capone. Never got into any trouble except for a lot of speeding tickets. Owned a landscaping company for many years, out in Canby, that finally went belly up. Phil said he hadn’t seen or talked to him in over twenty years. Luca Ragusa---no address---no phone number. His mother was Phil’s Aunt Rosa but she’s deceased.”
“How do you do that?” I asked, totally amazed.
“Get someone, who was ready to beat you senseless, to give you the information you were looking for? I mean, you knew he was going to call you, didn’t you?”
“Aw, he just needed to cool off, catch his breath. I knew he would to do the right thing.”
“And ‘can be’, what’s that?”
“The City of Canby, famous for the Annual Wooden Shoes Tulip Festival!”
“Oh, Jesus Christ!”
“We’re going to take a little detour. In fact we’re almost there.”
Canby was located off I-5 on 99E. It turned out it was just a little over 30 minutes from Portland. In what seemed to be a tradition with Mo, we lunched at a vintage mid-century diner with the unappetizing name of ‘Pappy’s Greasy Spoon.’ The cuisine was classic American comfort food and the décor was composed of black and red tubular-legged tables and chairs, with lots of pictures of 50’s icons on the wall. I recognized the faces of Elvis and Marilyn peeking out among the enameled-metal Coke signs. I ordered the chicken fried steak and it came with the best milk gravy I have ever tasted. Morris had the Ruben sandwich, “which I will regret later but for now, yum!” I began to think that Mo should not only write a tour book about the sites to be seen in Oregon but one that included the great eateries to be found there as well.
We rehashed our recent collision with Phil Ragusa and the fortunate aftermath. I had just started to talk about what I thought should be our next step when Mo pulled himself up from the table and slowly walked over to the table behind me. I turned to see what he was doing and saw four ladies of advanced years sitting there, chatting with each other. As Morris approached, the table grew silent.
“Good afternoon,” Mo said, with a smile that would have melted the iciest heart, “Please forgive my intrusion but my friend and I are looking for someone---oh, dear, that sounds very improper.” The ladies loved that. “Let me start again. Do any of you know anyone with the last name of Ragusa?”
“You mean here in town?” asked a librarian-looking woman in a blue cable knit sweater. Mo nodded. The ladies looked at each other for a moment and then began shaking their heads.
“I don’t think I’ve come across that name,” answered a henna-rinsed redhead sitting next to the librarian.
“Me either, sorry,” replied a small woman, across from them, dressed entirely in gray. “There’s the Regosta family that run that Ace Hardware store---”
“Oh, right!” agreed the librarian, “Regosta---maybe that’s the name?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s Ragusa, R-A-G-U-S-A,” Morris explained, “Well, thank you, anyway. I’ll let all of you get back to your lunches. Thanks again.” The ladies gushed with ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘no problem’ and mirrored his smile with their own. He gave a little bow and shuffled back to his seat.
“You are something else, Mr. Arensky,” I whispered, “Mr. Matinee Idol!”
“You do what you have to do. Now, it’s time for dessert.”
“I don’t see any desserts on the menu,” I said, glancing at the long list of entrees and side dishes. At that moment the waitress appeared, ready to clear our table.
“Two coffees and one of your famous Cinnamon buns---Dallas,” Mo announced, noticing her name tag. He made the request sound like a bad example of sexual harassment.
“You got it, hon, “she replied as she headed off to the kitchen.
“You are incorrigible!” I exclaimed.
Dallas returned in a few minutes with the mugs of coffee and a plate holding a Cinnamon roll the size of a frisbee. It was carefully cut in half. As she put it down on our table, the ladies at the other table began to gather their things in preparation to leave. Dallas moved over to them and tore off four checks from her pad.
“Here you go, girls. Thanks for coming by. See ya soon,” and she turned back to us. “I overheard you talking to the girls about someone you are looking for. Didn’t mean to eavesdrop but it kinda rang a bell.”
“That’s okay,” Morris replied, “Anything you can tell us would be much appreciated.”
“What was that name again?”
“Ragusa,” I piped up.
“This is my assistant Richard Tremaine and I’m Morris Arensky.”
“Pleased to meet ya. You already know my name,” she replied, flashing a smile. “So, Ragusa, right? I remember a farm, actually I think it was sort of a gardening outfit, way out just beyond the city limits, called Ragusa’s. My dad took me there once when I was little. I remember the big sign. I was so proud that I could read it. Anyway, my dad wanted to buy some plants, flowers, for my mom. The place grew all kinds of flowers, don’t remember their names. We got some yellow ones. Maybe Dahlias, now that I think of it. You know we have this big Dahlia festival here in Canby, every year.”
“Yes, we read about that,” Mo replied, “You know, I think this might be the family we’ve been looking for. Thank you, Miss Dallas.”
“You’re very welcome. However, I don’t know if they’re still in business. It was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, well for me everything was a long time ago,” Mo said with a chuckle. “Just one more thing; do you have a location or an address for the Ragusa place?”
“Geez, I’m sorry, but no. I believe it was out on Knights Bridge Road, way far out, and it was on the right side of the road as you headed north, just beyond the city line.”
Chapter 27We found North Knights Bridge Road only after stopping and asking a lot of friendly Canby citizens for directions. My GPS was useless as it needed an address which, of course, it didn’t have. Once we were on our way again, the road flew by and Mo slipped into an after-lunch-nap. I passed many houses, and quite a few side streets, but they began to thin out the further I drove. Eventually, only trees, telephone poles and empty fields flashed by the side windows. I began to believe we were on the stupidest wild goose chase in history. To begin with, how would we even know when we had arrived? Would there be mailbox with Ragusa conveniently painted on the side? Did the big sign, the waitress mentioned, still exist? I doubted it. And, of course, this all began to lead me back to my own disastrous situation. I found I had started to imagine a multitude of ridiculous ways to escape that which was waiting for me back home; a tramp steamer to the South Seas? or a visit to a plastic surgeon in order to change my face? or a suicide by drowning myself in the Columbia River?---and then I saw it---the sign.
I almost missed it. The vines, that covered a large portion of the weathered wood, were probably all that held the sign together. Peeking through the ivy leaves was the name ‘Ragusa,’ spelled out in faded white letters. The word underneath the name was harder to read but seemed to say ‘Landscaping.’ About thirty feet beyond what was left of the sign, was a rusty mailbox teetering on a worn-out 4 x 4 post. I stopped the car to see if I could find a driveway. The cessation of movement caused Morris to open his eyes.
“Where are we?” he asked, wiping his mouth.
“I think this is the place,” I replied, “but I can’t see any road. Everything is so overgrown.”
“Get out and look around.”
Opening the door, I stepped onto the sandy shoulder of the highway and started walking toward the mailbox. I noticed there was no name or address printed on the side. I had gone about ten feet beyond the box when I spied some ruts cutting through the weeds. The grasses were squat and bent over which meant vehicles had been driving over them and creating a trail.
“I found a road!” I shouted, as I hurried back to the car, “if you can call it that.”
“Well, let’s see where it leads us, my boy. Avanti!”
We drove for at least a mile, with limbs of fir trees stroking the sides of my poor Altima, (how much damage was I going to be paying for?) before we saw a group of buildings in the distance. We eventually broke through the woods and arrived at the Ragusa compound.
If you have ever been fortunate enough to see the classic 1940’s film The Grapes of Wrath, then you remember the Joad family farm. Take away the Oklahoma dust storm and Henry Fonda and you have the Ragusa farm, faded gray wood, broken windows, lean-tos that lean too far and missing barn doors. The only color to be seen was in the patches of green paint on a rusting tractor, peeking out from one of the barns, and from the plants climbing up three long rows of trellises, in a field, near the farmhouse.
The house itself looked as though it had been sandblasted down to raw wood which had then been seasoned, by countless winters, to a putty-gray color. The dusty windows had their shades pulled all the way down, which gave the residence an abandoned look.
“I don’t think there is anyone here,” I said to Mo, “Shall we start back?”
“Hold on. Someone lives here.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s a well-tended garden in that field and, look over there,” Morris replied, pointing to clothesline behind the farmhouse. A pair of bib overalls and some granny-panties were dancing a country jig, in the wind, on one of those merry-go-round clothesline dryers. “It’s time to pay our respects to the resident of the manor. Please give me a hand getting out of the car.”
We took our time approaching the house and when we got close to the front porch we heard, coming from inside, the sound of a dog barking. Not the high yipping of an excited Chihuahua but the deep baying of either a Bloodhound or a German Shepherd. Mo was not happy.
“Two things you don’t want to face, when a door opens, is a gun or a dog.”
“So what do we do?”
“We stand still and wait.” Which we did for a few, very long, minutes. Eventually, the barking stopped. Viewing the quiet as a positive sign, Morris raised his hand, waved, and shouted, “Hello?” The quiet continued for a moment but then it was broken by a voice.
“What do you want?” As it was muffled by the walls of the house, it was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. The small window high up on the door didn’t let us see who was talking.
“We were hoping to speak with Mr. Ragusa.”
“Who are you?” was the reply.
“I’m a journalist and this is my associate.”
“Well, it took you long enough.”
This statement caused the two of us to stop and look at each other in confusion. Mo shook his head and shrugged. Finally, I spoke up.
“I’m sorry but who were you expecting? And to whom do I have the honor of speaking? We are looking for a Mr. Luca Ragusa.”
“You’re a little late for that.”
Morris interrupted, “Would it be possible to come inside for a few minutes? I’m afraid my legs aren’t going to hold me up much longer.” Mo was good at playing the ‘age card’ when he felt it was necessary.
“I don’t let strangers into my house.”
“Well then, would you consider coming out here to chat? Just for a few minutes.”
“I don’t go outside unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I see. Okay. Well, could you just step out onto the porch? Is that possible? I see a couple of comfortable rocking chairs and my old bones could sure use a sit-down.”
After a moment of silence the voice responded. “I---I have this condition, this medical problem, ‘gory phobia’. I can’t leave the house.”
“Well, your porch is part of your house, right? So, you wouldn’t really be leaving it, would you?
By this time Mo and I had moved to the edge of the first step leading up to the porch. We watched the door and waited for a response. With a tiny squeak a crack appeared in the doorway and the black muzzle of a large dog poked through. He began snarling and barking until his head was yanked back into the house. Morris and I retreated a few feet.
“Quiet, Caesar!” the voice inside shouted and then a woman stepped quickly out onto the porch and slammed the door shut. The dog kept barking and then the sound began to fade into a whine. “His bite is worse than his bark, in case you’re interested,” the woman warned, crossing her arms in a stance of defiance. She seemed to be in her late sixties but it was hard to tell. Her hair was grey and hung limp around her pale face. She was wearing a shapeless black-cotton-dress that almost reached her ankles and a brown cardigan with holes in the elbows. White anklets and maroon felt slippers covered her feet.
“You said you were expecting us?” Mo asked, as he inched closer to the porch.
“Yes, I was. I was waiting for a response to my letter. What kept you?”
“Letter?” I queried, joining Morris at the steps.
“Yeah, the one I sent to your paper over two years ago.”
“What paper?” I asked, wondering what was going on.
“The Oregonian, what else?!”
“Oh, well, we aren’t---”
“---aware of any letter,” Mo cut in, “It must have gone to the wrong department. Sorry about that. What was in the letter?”
“It’s a long story.”
“May we join you on the porch?”
“I guess I can’t stop you. Just remember that Caesar is behind that door.”
Morris and I climbed the steps slowly with Mo using me for balance. Once we were on the porch, Mo lowered himself into a rocking chair and I sat on the porch with my legs resting on the next-to-top step.
“We should introduce ourselves,” Mo declared, “I’m Morris,” he said, flashing his old press card, “and this is Richard. And you are?”
“Pleased to meet you, Maria. May I call you Maria?”
“Good. You mentioned that you are Agoraphobic. Must be tough for you.”
“I get by. I’ve learned to live with it. I have my groceries delivered and I force myself to work outside in my garden. Carlos, the mailman, leaves my mail on the porch, in that basket,” Maria explained, pointing to a wicker laundry hamper, “so I don’t’ have to go down to road. Same for the nice lady that delivers my newspaper, she drives all the way up here.”
“How long have you been dealing with being afraid to go outside?” I inquired.
“Ever since Luca died.”
Mo and I glanced at each other. Luca dead. Were we stuck driving up another blind alley?
Morris recovered before me and asked, “When did your husband pass, Mrs. Ragusa?”
“You mean Luca? He wasn’t my husband!”
“He was my brother. He died about three years ago.”
“I’m so sorry. May I ask what happened?”
“Lung cancer. He smoked four packs a day. Cretino! He’d have one in his mouth and another between his fingers. He spent every single cent of his welfare check on cigarettes.”
Morris looked out over the abandoned fields and derelict buildings. “So this was---is your brother’s farm?”
“Our farm! We owned it together, inherited it from our father. Over the years, Luca drove it into the ground with his schemes to get rich quick. Assurdo! A camp site for hippies, a petting zoo, miniature golf course, a landscape design company, when he couldn’t design his way out of a paper bag. He even wanted to turn the main barn into a gambling casino! Totally illegal! but he thought he could get away with it.”
“That’s what we wanted to talk about with him,” Mo explained, feeling, as I did, that we were on to something.
“The casino? But I thought you were here about the girl.”
“The girl? Well, yes we are---”
“I saw, on the TV, about the thirtieth anniversary of her disappearance and that reminded me of the letter I wrote so I called the hot line but I was on hold for so long I gave up. They played that song ‘Can’t find My Way Home’ until I was ready to scream.”
“Ms. Ragusa---Maria, I’m sorry about all the mix up and how you were ignored, inexcusable, but we’re here now. How about you go ahead and tell us what it was you wrote in that letter three years ago.”
“Two years ago,” Maria corrected. “It took me a year after Luca’s death to get up the courage to write what happened.” She seemed to fold into herself and her voice took on a quality of bleak sadness, “It was about his confession.”
“Luca’s?” I asked.
“My brother, my baby brother Luca, yes,” Maria answered, with a look of annoyance. “He was dying and he didn’t want to die in the hospital so I brought him home. I rented one of those hospital beds and---and an oxygen tank and---I don’t know---all that other crap you need. He was so thin, like a skeleton covered in skin. And all he wanted was a cigarette. I hired a night-nurse but, during the day, I nursed him myself, monitoring the morphine drip, the catheter, the diapers, the whole nine yards. Mio Dio!
Anyways, he had only been here for about a week and it was the middle of the night and Margaret, the night-nurse, comes and wakes me up and says Luca isn’t doing so well and that he keeps asking for me.
When I get to his bed, he’s coughing worse than ever and he reaches for my hand and it’s like being grabbed by a crab. In between coughs he whispers ‘confession’ again and again and I tell him I’ll go call Father Manzino but he says ‘too late’ and he looks at me, with such terror in his eyes. I’ll never forget it. ‘You,’ he mouths, like he was blowing a smoke ring, ‘you,’ he puffs, ‘you hear my confession, please!’ And so I did.”
Maria took a long breath, as if to prepare herself, but then she became silent. Mo and I waited with her on the gray porch of her gray house under an ominously gray sky. Wisely, we didn’t push her to continue and, after several minutes, she spoke again.
“I struggled for months, after Luca died, with what to do with his death-bed confession. Just keep silent or tell the rest of the family? Family? Hah! There are only some cousins left and most of the old timers have passed on or are off in la-la land. I told Father Manzino nothing. Sin of omission, I guess, for which I will pay eventually. I know I should have called the police but I don’t do well with cops. So, after almost a year, a year of nightmares and second thoughts and becoming more and more terrified of going outside, I wrote the letter that I sent to the newspaper, the one you never saw.”
“I know it’s been hard,” Morris commiserated, “but Richard and I are here now and we’ll help you through this. You’ll be putting a lot of people’s minds to rest, including your own---What did Luca tell you?”
Silence. And then---
“He kidnapped that girl---”
“Yes. He---he killed her but it was an accident. He was hired to only scare her, rough her up a bit but she fought back and he hit her too hard and she died.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Here. He brought her here. I was thinking back to where I was thirty years ago, when this was happening, and I remembered I was away at my best friend Gina’s mother’s funeral in Portland and I stayed over for a few days. Can you imagine it? I’m at a funeral and he’s killing someone right here.”
“Who hired him?”
“I don’t know. He said he didn’t know. He was just doing a ‘favor’ for some goombah who was hired by some old man back East to intimidate her.
“So this was a ‘favor’ for the mob?” Mo asked.
“Jeez, you make it sound so criminal. I don’t know from any mob. He just said he was supposed to warn her to stay away from someone. She talked back, I guess, and he started beating up on her and it just got out of hand.”
“Maria, did he work for the Mafia?”
“What’s with you and the Mafia? I just know Luca wanted be noticed, he wanted to be important. He used to hang out with these tough guys and he would have done anything to belong. I don’t know if they were Mafia.
He would get a phone call and he’d tell me he had to go on a business trip and he’d leave me running whatever pazzo scheme he had going at the time. After a couple of days he’d be back with half a grand in his pocket. I asked him once where he got five hundred dollars and he said it was none of my business and he gave me a healthy slap in the face. I never asked him again. But, the night he confessed, he said he had never killed anybody else except for her and it was an accident. He may have roughed up a few guys but he never killed no one and I believed him.”
“So he wasn’t a ‘hit man’? Maybe an ‘enforcer?’”
“Whatever. I don’t know.”
I had been sitting, quietly listening to this conversation, and marveling at how we were suddenly getting the answer to so many of our questions. All at once. It was like we had gone from zero to sixty just sitting on this gray porch. However, there were a lot of other things that had happened that needed answers. I spoke up.
“My apologies for having to ask this, Maria, but it’s important. What did Luca do with---with the body.” She turned her head toward me and said softly, “He buried her.”
“Where? Do you know where?”
“Yes. He told me where she was. He said to me, ‘I planted her.’”
“Here, on the farm, or somewhere else?” Mo asked.
“No, she’s close by. Let me get my umbrella and then I can show you,” she replied as she got up and went to the weathered front door. “Stay, Caesar,” she said firmly, “I’m coming inside. You sit and stay.” She pushed the door open just enough to slip inside, grabbed what I surmised was her umbrella and returned to the porch. Caesar was not happy and barked his displeasure.
“He’ll quiet down in a minute,” Maria assured us, “Now if you guys will hold on to me I’ll show you were Luca told me he put the body.”
Morris and I took our places on either side of Maria and, having carefully negotiated the porch steps, we three started walking in the direction of the trellised garden, which was about 200 feet from the house. Maria kept the opened umbrella over her head even though there was no rain or hot sun to warrant its protection. She must have read my mind because she explained that it helped her feel safer. “You never know what might fall from the sky. Intellectually I know that is crazy but that’s the nature of my---disease.”
As we got closer to the garden I could see leafy green plants, like lettuce and kale, dotting the ground and vines scaling the tall lattice that bordered the vegetable plot. The climbing vines were covered with squash and cucumber blossoms and, even in the gloom of the afternoon, they brandished their petals of bright yellow and orange.
Maria stepped away from us and walked, single file, down the narrow gravel path that ran through the center of the garden patch. I followed her with Morris trailing behind me. She stopped about twenty feet ahead of me and turned her attention to the left. She lowered her head and pointed to the ground. It was at that moment that a floral scent drifted in my direction and I recognized the perfume. I arrived at Maria’s side with my heart trying to beat its way out of my chest. I moved my eyes slowly up the prickly arms of what was a climbing rose bush, to see, peeking out from among the shiny green leaves, a pink rose. It was Gertrude Jekyll.
Chapter 28The field and the road was blocked with a tangle of vehicles. There were police cars and a red emergency truck and white vans with CSI and MORGUE printed on the side. There was the sheriff’s station wagon and a couple of blue vans marked FBI. There was an SUV labeled K-9 UNIT. There was a back hoe that had been used to dig up the grave and that big yellow machine was being loaded onto a flatbed truck. A blue tent had been erected in the garden and we knew that it covered what remained of Sara Simpson.
Terry Mitchell, Sara’s sister, had been contacted and was on her way.
We had been sitting for hours on the porch, watching the controlled chaos of the disinterment. Earlier, Morris had called the authorities and once they arrived we were asked to remove ourselves from the scene. A young officer was assigned to stay with us. Probably to keep us from escaping. He filled us in, now and then, with what was going on.
“That’s the sonar device they used,” he explained, pointing to what looked like an extra-large metal detector, “to check and see if there was anything there.”
“Of course there was something there,” Maria responded, angerly, “Lucas was very specific.”
I was in a fog, caught between relief and horror. In all honesty, I hardly remember much of what happened in the hours following the event. I remember Terry telling us that the few rags that were wrapped around Sara’s skeleton looked like scraps of what she had been wearing on that night so long ago but that it was the sneakers, and not boots, that she had chosen to wear that cinched it for her. The most horrifying aspect to me was that Luca had planted that rose bush on top of her grave and over the years its roots had burrowed into her body. Maybe, I was wrong, and it was a wonderful thing, a symbol of her beautiful soul. I don’t know.
Morris told me that some detectives interviewed us and that he wisely skipped over the supernatural aspects of our involvement. We were simply researching a book. I don’t know what I said, it was just a blur, but I guess it was okay because they let us leave.
Maria wasn’t so lucky. She was seen as a possible accessory to the crime and after an hysterical fit and necessary sedation she and her umbrella were taken in for questioning. Mo assured her, as she was being put into an ambulance, that he would get help for her. He would find a doctor and a lawyer.
Terry thanked us for what we had accomplished and offered to pay for our expenses. At first, I was sure Morris was going to humbly say ‘no, we did it for Sara’ but wisely he accepted the offer. I was going to need some of the money, as I was sure I was going to be out on the street once George got wind of my little escapade. It was going to be on the internet, the TV national news and, our good old standby, the newspaper; BODY DISCOVERED 30 YEARS LATER BY DYNAMIC DUO.
“So, I guess I wasn’t crazy, after all,” I declared as I reclined on Mo’s couch back at the houseboat.
“Oh, you’re crazy alright, but in a good way. Your journey with Sara, however, was anything but crazy. What you accomplished was amazing,” Mo replied as he sat opposite me in his leather recliner, coffee mug in hand.
“What we accomplished---”
“Okay---okay, for the moment I’ll go along with that. However, those visions of yours, I don’t understand how all that works but, they were the bread crumbs we were meant to follow.
“And we found her,” I responded, wistfully.
“And who killed her.”
“Yeah, but not who was really behind the hit. And I still don’t know why I was chosen to risk my sanity tracking down someone I never knew. Fuck! I’ve got to get back to New Jersey A.S.P.” I sat up quickly. “What day is today?”
“Shit! George threatened to fly out here on Monday! That’s day after tomorrow! What the hell am I---”
“Calm down, Jersey! You’re exhausted and it’s late. Go get some sleep. Tomorrow morning will be better for making decisions and plans, trust me.”
“Are you going to bed?” I asked as I started to drag myself over to the staircase, “You must be as tired as me.”
“I want to transfer my notes about this momentous event and finish up some other business. Go on---scoot. Maybe you’ll get a visit from your friend with a thank you.
I didn’t. Instead, when I lay down on the bed, the next thing I knew the sky, through my window, was bright blue and the smell of coffee brewing was invading my room. I pulled myself up and, swinging my legs over the edge the bed, I sat with my head in my hands. I felt like I had been beaten from head to toe with a bag of bricks.
I thought about Sara lying under a ton of dirt for over three decades. I understood that it was just a body and that Sara wasn’t inhabiting it after Luca killed her, but how was she able to reach out to me, if that is truly what happened? Now that she had been found I was even more confused. A miracle? A ghost? ESP? A voice from the grave? Dumb luck?
I would have probably sat there, reliving the whole journey, for another hour or two, if Morris hadn’t called my name.
“Hey, Jersey. It’s breakfast. Get your skinny butt down here.”
I checked my phone to see what time it was. It read ten-twenty and I saw I had so many texts from both George and my mother---too many! I had put the phone in silent mode yesterday.
Pulling on my pants, I hurried down the hall and stumbled my way down the stairs.
“Ah, the sound of happy little feet,” Morris chirped as he placed a plate of fried eggs next to a stack of toast, “Get over here and fuel up. You have a lot of work to do.”
“Yes, I know, I’ve got to book my flight back home, but---”
“No, no, you have to close your business deal first and then---"
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Does Georgie boy go to church?”
“What? I don’t know.”
“So he’s more the Saturday-night Lothario, hungover-Sunday morning type?”
“I don’t know. I suppose.”
Morris was transferring bacon with a pair of tongs to a plate. The smell, which was usually tantalizing, made me nauseous.
“First thing, on your to-do-list is to call Georgie---”
“Oh god, yes I know---”
“---and tell him you’ve closed the deal.”
“No, no, Morris, no more lies. I’m going to tell him the truth---”
“---which is that Arensky Originals is very happy with the terms you two hammered out and that the CEO is very excited about having your company be his representative on the East Coast!” Mo sat down across from me at the table and helped himself to an egg. “You know, for a while there, doctors thought eggs were bad for us. Now it seems they’re actually healthy, in moderation of course.”
“Mo, what the hell is going on?”
“Well,” Morris said, with a wicked smile, as he buttered a piece of toast, “I did a little moonlighting last night. I called Paul and convinced him that you were a good guy and that I trusted you and that, after all, it was about time he expanded his business. So, you need to call little Georgie boy and head him off at the pass. Tell him it isn’t necessary for him to fly out here tomorrow and that the first shipment of Arensky’s one-of-a-kind tables and chairs will be arriving next month.”
“Mo,” I stammered. ”It doesn’t work that way. There are so many details to work out, method of payment, storage and inspection---and lawyers!”
“Oh shut up and eat your breakfast! You’ve got to pack and then we’ve got that two hour drive up to Seattle. You can work out all those silly details later. Paul will meet us at his showroom with all the necessary paperwork.”
I found myself stunned speechless. This was either a very cruel joke or one of the kindest actions anyone ever took on my behalf.
“I’m not joking, Jersey,” Mo growled, as if reading my mind,. “Eat, phone, pack! Time is fleeting!”
The call to George was easy. He was elated. I told him I would be emailing him the details (I had no idea what they actually were but he didn’t need to know that for now.)
My call to my mother was not so easy.
“I’ve been worried sick!”
“I called you and texted and emailed and not one response.”
“I was getting ready to call the FBI!”
“Mom, I’m really so sorry.”
“You see on television all these terrible things that can happen to people; car crashes and muggings and kidnappings---”
“I’m sorry mom, I have no excuse, mea culpa, but I’m okay, everything’s okay. I’ll be coming home tomorrow or the next day.”
“Oh, thank god! And then you’re flying down here for some rest and relaxation, right?”
“We’ll talk about that when I get back to New Jersey.”
“I won’t take no for an answer.”
“Mom, I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you with my flight information.”
“You understand, don’t you, Richie, that, in my eyes, you’re still my baby boy? I love you as only a mother can. You mean more to me than--- than---life itself.”
“Yes, mom, I hear ya---loud and clear.”
The discovery of the remains of Sara Simpson was big news on KGW, one of the local TV stations and it made the front page of the Oregonian. I held my breath as I waited for my name to come up as one of the persons responsible for the recovery of the missing woman. Fortunately, Morris was mentioned briefly as a ‘former newspaper journalist’ and I got no acknowledgement at all. To my relief, it was Maria Ragusa who was given most of the credit. Leave it to the media to go for the Mafia angle. A gangland style killing made for far better press. I was hoping my luck would last. The next few days would tell.
The Arensky Showroom was very handsome, with sand-colored walls and a terra cotta tile floor. It was full of beautiful tables, chairs, side boards and bureaus in many different and wonderful organic shapes.
Paul Arensky was as handsome as his designs and I could see hints of what Morris looked like in his youth. He must have been quite the dashing young reporter. Jimmy Olsen, look out!
We signed papers and clicked glasses of sparking Chardonnay. (I didn’t drink, thanks to AA, damnit!) “It’s a Washington State wine, Treveri Cellars” Mo announced, in his best tour guide manner, as he and Paul emptied their glasses. We shook hands to symbolically seal the deal and, suddenly, I felt the entire weight of the journey I had taken with Morris, from the first long distance phone call to the unearthing of Sara’s body, climbing up on my shoulders. I sat down at one of the tables and asked Mo to join me. Paul went into his office to answer the phone.
“Thank you, Mo, for helping me work through all this madness.”
“Thank you, Jersey, for letting me ride shotgun. We made quite a team---and we found her didn’t we?”
“Yeah, we did. A sad ending for her---and her sister and her friends. For them it’s finally over.”
“But I can see it’s not over for you, right?” Mo asked, as he put his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m afraid so. There are two unanswered questions that keep tumbling around in my head. I’m sure they’ve been bothering you as well. Who wanted Sara silenced and why?---Actually there is a third question and it eats at me the most; why me?”
“You mean why did you get all those messages, your ‘scintillating visions.’ Maybe Sara will visit you again with some new hints. Listen, my friend, I’ll keep digging around and, who knows, maybe something helpful will turn up.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from Sara again and that’s okay. We accomplished what was asked for.”
As my flight was early in the morning, I begged off having dinner with Mo and Paul and asked if it would be alright if we said our goodbyes then and there.
“No goodbyes, Jersey” Mo corrected me. ”You’ll be back. We have a book to write, remember?”
When he said I’d be back I was hit with such a wave of sadness that I had to turn away for a moment. I realized I was going to miss our daily explorations and, most of all, I was going to miss Mr. Morris Arensky. These last few weeks had been amazing. I hadn’t felt so alive in years and how ironic that it took a search, for a dead woman, with an eighty-three-year old newshound to achieve such joy.
Chapter 29I stayed overnight at a Hampton Inn not far from the airport and got up in the early dawn to return my rental car. George was not going to be a happy camper when I presented him with the bill for my trusty Altima.
I called mom from the departure gate with my flight information thus avoiding a long conversation and confrontation. The plane took off on time and I was asleep by the time we were thousands of feet over the mountains of Montana.
I awoke to the voice of the flight attendant announcing our arrival in Denver, where I would be changing planes for Newark International. On my long walk over to the gate for my next flight I picked up a copy of the New York Times and was happy to see that they didn’t bother to report the disinterment of a body in the sleepy town of Camby Oregon. But, in time, the news would hit the tabloids and it was probably all over the internet by now. Poor Sara and poor me. Once George heard about my escapade---I determined at that moment, that it would be best if I just told him what really happened. Man up and face the music.
It was late afternoon when our plane landed and the relentlessly chipper voice of the flight attendant welcomed us to ‘Newark International where the temperature is 57 degrees.” I got my coat and my computer case out of the overhead bin and joined the slowly moving line of passengers disembarking. My plan was to retrieve my suitcase from the luggage carousel and head over to Avis to rent a car for the trip home to Hardyston.
As I approached the exit at the end of the walkway I saw, in the distance, a male figure waving his arms back and forth like a rabid fan at a soccer game. And then I heard the voice.
“Rickie! Welcome home, you old rascal!” It was George.
I wanted to turn around and run back to the plane. This was not the way I had planned my face to face with George. I needed more time. Shit shit shit!
The next thing I knew he had me in a big bear hug. What the hell? “I’m so proud of you. All of us are so proud of you!” What? I was beyond confused. This was crazy.
“What is going on? What are you doing here?”
“What do you think I’m doing here? I’m here to take the conquering hero back to his home town.”
“What hero? You mean because I got the company, a good deal on a line of furniture?”
“Oh, Mr. Modesty, cut it out! I know all about everything.”
“What everything?” I asked, but beginning to get a glimmer of what this was about.
“I got the whole story from Paul Arensky’s father.” Oh fuck. My knees nearly gave way as we stopped at the carousel.
“Paul’s father?” I croaked.
“Yep. Nice old guy and he told me about your trip down to Oregon to check out one of the artisans who make those great one-of-a-kind furniture pieces for his son’s company. Said you were going to do some sort of artsy photographic essay on how they put this crap together. Anyway, he said you’d be too modest to tell me about the real thing that happened when he and you stopped at one of the farms to ask for directions.”
I saw my suitcase coming around the bend of the carousel and I pushed my way between a rather chubby man and a skinny teenager and pulled it off the conveyer belt.
“Here, let me take care of that,” George insisted, grabbing the extended handle and starting to roll the case toward the exit. “My car is close by. I parked it in a handicap spot. Saves walking a mile.” How typical.
“So when did Paul Arensky’s father contact you?”
“Late last night. My phone rings and I was so out of it I thought, when he said Arensky. it was your furniture guy. But he explained who he was and how he tagged along when you came down to Portland. Did you know he lives on a house boat? Anyway, he said he drove with you to where this carpenter was living in Wannaby, or something like that---"
“Canby,” I corrected, as we put my suitcase into the back seat of George’s BMW.
“Whatever---and he said you guys kinda got lost and you stopped at this derelict farm house and this lady was screaming about finding something in her cabbage patch and you calmed her down. But then she led you to what turned out to be the grave of a woman who had been missing for over thirty years. Arensky said there was the top of a skull peeking out of the earth! Ugh.”
I wanted to scream ‘Lies! There was no skull! Goddamn you, Morris!’ I silently cursed, ‘you have dug a grave for me as deep as Sara’s with your lies!’
“---and then you two guys took over and you call the cops and the rest is history. Arensky said he was calling me in the hopes I hadn’t heard anything yet, which I hadn’t. He said he wanted me to get the real story and to not pay attention to the media nonsense, as they always get it wrong. He was so right. Jan told me she read about it this morning on the internet, something about a connection to the mob. They made it out to be like a gangland killing, that the woman was somebody’s gun moll. Was any of that true?”
I wanted to set him straight, the pompous ass, tell him that, according to all the people who knew her, Sara was a sweet, smart, generous young woman who worked as a waitress to take care of her younger sister. That she was murdered by an amateur gangster did not make her a ‘moll!’ However, I realized that if all this salacious nonsense kept the spotlight off of me for a while, I’d best keep my mouth shut. I needed time to figure out my next move; how I was going to tell George the truth.
“I don’t know anything about what the police have uncovered “(which was the truth.)
“Well none of that matters. We are so proud of you,” George declared as we got onto I-280, heading up to Hardyston, which was about an hour away. “In fact I called the Star Ledger this morning to tell them that one of the two guys who found the body was an employee at Moorhouse Imports.”
“Oh, Jesus, George, you didn’t?!”
“I sure did. Great publicity for the company. I bet they’ll be calling you for an interview. Isn’t that great? You’re getting your fifteen minutes of fame!”
George chattered on and on about how excited everyone was and after a while I just tried to tune him out. I was not very successful. An hour, locked in a car with George was like 24 hours inside a tin can factory.
We were about twenty-five minutes away from my apartment when my friend began to make an appearance. I guess my stress levels had reached the crisis point. For a brief moment I thought that maybe Sara was going to show me another one of her cryptic messages, but it was just the usual rotating rainbow of blinking lights---no Sara, no letter ‘from beyond’, as Morris like to describe it. But it was a welcome distraction from George’s annoying and meaningless jabbering.
Chapter 30I got to bed that night around ten pm but, of course, I was firmly entrenched in West Coast time, where it was only seven in the early evening, so sleep didn’t come until about three in the morning. I was too wound up. Images of roses and a grave kept interrupting any attempt to my nodding off. I tried phoning Morris but got his voice mail. Eventually I emailed him that I had arrived safely and that I was treated like a hero due to his thoughtful but unwelcome interference. I insisted there be no more lying. Yes, George was over the moon about the deal we orchestrated but the truth about what I was really doing would come out eventually. After all, Mo was going to be writing it all up for publication in a book, right? What was he calling it? ‘Sara, Letters From The Grave?’ Something corny like that. I was going to add that I was surprised he hadn’t spilled the beans to his contact at the Oregonian. But that seemed a little petty.
Around midnight I texted my mother, fulling expecting a phone call back admonishing me for not letting her know earlier that I had landed safely. But it never came. Obviously, she was asleep and the confrontation would wait until the morning, which it did---
“Good god, mom, it’s 5:30 in the morning!”
“I know, darling. The sun is up and so am I. I’m a morning lark, what can I say? Always was. Anyway, I got your text. Welcome back. I’m so glad you’re safe and sound.”
“Thanks, but I don’t know how sound I am. I’m in the throes of jet lag---”
“A big mug of black coffee will help with that. Now, about your trip down here. I have the guest room freshly outfitted and the weather is beautiful---”
“Mom, my body is still on West Coast time---I mean, it thinks it’s like two in the morning. I’m so tired---”
“I can hear that, honey. How about we talk later when you’ve rested up? I can’t wait to see you and hear all about Seattle and your trip.”
My trip. The real trip that I can never tell her about. As we ended the call, I noticed the there was an alert of an email waiting for me. I cued up the internet and there was a brief message from Morris.
‘Sorry I missed your calls. Busy helping Maria Ragusa. An interesting development. Call me at 10:00 am my time. Regards, Mo’
At one pm I was caffeinated enough to feel more human and, after a cold shower and a hot breakfast, I punched in Mo’s phone number. He picked up on the third ring.
“Hey, Jersey. How they hanging? You miss me yet?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but, of course, I did miss the old reprobate and our adventures in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.
“What do you think? I mean, I haven’t been home long enough to miss you or anything.” I heard a chuckle coming from Mo. “So you emailed something about an interesting development.”
“Yeah, I got a lawyer friend, Clayton Prentiss, to represent Maria. He’s a good guy, a bit of a stiff, but a great lawyer. So I sat in on his interview with Maria. A little unorthodox, I know, but she needs a lot of support and she’s really got no one. Anyway, I know you feel the story is incomplete and it would make a better ending for our book---” (Once again he called it ‘our book.’ I was touched.) ”---if we tracked down who ordered the roughing up of Sara that eventually ended her life, so, I plan to continue on with our research.”
“Okay. Right now I can’t even see straight but as soon as my brain is back in business I’ll start looking around online.”
“Great! Dr. Watson, the game is still afoot. Now, let me tell you what I wanted to share with you about Maria, before I forget it. Geez, my short term memory is getting worse every day. Anyway, Clay walked Maria through the night of her brother Luca’s deathbed confession and, while she was retelling what happened, she remembered something that she hadn’t told us.”
“What was that?”
“Well, keep in mind that this all happened three years ago so Maria can be excused for being a little fuzzy around the edges but she remembered that, when she asked her brother about who hired him, he said it was his gangster pal whose name he had forgotten. Understandable considering it happened over thirty years ago. But here’s the interesting part, he said he remembered seeing his pal, this gangster goomba, talking to an older gent. This was a few days before Luca was hired to do the deed. He described him as a tall, posh type with a full head of very white hair and he often wondered over the years if he was the client.”
I thought about all the men in the world with white hair, Morris included, and how impossible it would be to narrow down the search. I mean my uncle Ted had white hair and even my dad had some, later in life.
“You’ve got white hair, Mo. Does that make you a suspect?”
“My hair wasn’t white thirty years ago, Mr. Smarty Pants. But, all joking aside, I think this is important.”
“Do you remember that phone call we got from the former manager of the apartment house where Sara and her sister lived?”
“Dimly,” I admitted.
“He said he saw a man with white hair arguing with Sara in front of the building.”
I paused to take in what seemed like a random coincidence. “Okay. So does that mean that you think we have a possible suspect, ‘The Tall Posh Man With White Hair?’ By the way, what does posh mean anyway?”
“Elegant, stylish, fancy---upper-class.”
“Sounds very ‘Downton Abbey.’ What’s a gentleman like that doing hanging out with a wise guy?’
“Talking business I would imagine. Let us suppose that this fugitive from the social register confronted Sara about something---something she heard or saw---we don’t know what at the moment---and he tried to get her to shut up and when she defied him he turned it over to a pro, hence his appearance in gangland.”
“I guess that’s as good a scenario as anything else. But it doesn’t get us any closer to who this posh guy is or where he is or if he’s still alive. He could have been from anywhere, local or nationwide---worldwide, if you think about it. Where the hell would we start.?”
“Well, I just thought you should know,” Mo, replied, sounding a little disappointed at my response,” I gotta go, kid. I’m trying to get Maria some help with her Agoraphobia, maybe get her into a facility. She’s really struggling with all this; the media, the TV crews hounding her, the crowds. The police are ready to arrest her as an accomplice, only they don’t have any hard evidence. They’re very unhappy with her for waiting so long, after her brother’s death, to report what she knew. Anyway, you and I can talk later.”
“Thanks, Mo, for updating me. I sorry if I sounded a little pessimistic. I wish I could be more positive.”
“Hey, maybe Sara will come through with another vision that’ll clear things up. You know, send us in a new direction.”
Chapter 31It’s amazing how fast one can get back into old routines, and it’s also very depressing. Drive to work, peck away at a computer, eat lunch, peck away some more, drive home, eat dinner, check emails, go to bed---and start it all over again.
George was on cloud nine. The first truck had arrived, at the warehouse, and he was thrilled to see Paul Arensky’s amazing furniture in all its glory. After my first week back, Jan and the rest of the office staff, to their credit, resisted asking me anything more about the Mysterious Case of The Buried Woman. The story was finally fading away, as all old news eventually does, being replaced by newer and more juicy tales of kidnapping and murder.
Mom kept calling about my travelling south to visit her and I kept her at bay with feeble excuses like ‘tying up loose ends’ and ‘having to deal with a lot of backed up orders,’ which was sort of true. I could feel myself melting like snow into a puddle of deep depression. This was leading me to contemplating the comfort of some Southern Comfort. I hadn’t been to an AA meeting in months, so I figured it was time to work one into my very busy schedule (not busy enough, obviously) or to, at least, phone my sponsor. I hadn’t been returning his calls. He probably thought I had died. It was strange how, when I was back in the Northwest, working with Morris, I never really wanted a drink or felt the need of an AA meeting.
About a month and a half, after I had returned to New Jersey, it finally happened. I got a visit from my friend and this time there was a vision attached. I was sitting alone at the kitchen table picking at a leftover chicken thigh that I had reheated in the microwave. For some reason I suddenly remembered my father sitting in our breakfast room in the big house in Short Hills and telling us some boring story about the history of the microwave. He was the king of trivia.
“We were the first family on our block to have a Radar Range,” he announced, “That’s what the microwave oven was originally called. It had been adapted from the radar that had been used during the Second World War and mother was afraid it was going to kill us all,” he shared, laughing. I don’t recall my father ever laughing except when he was telling one of his jokes or one of his personal stories. He was never amused by any other person’s attempt at humor.
Anyway, that memory was interrupted by the familiar tiny blind spot that had begun to expand into zebra stripes of silver, gold and maroon. Would it be bringing me a message from Sara? I had just about given up all hope that Sara would ever contact me again. I half believed, as corny as it might seem, that maybe she had moved on, that she had gone to her ‘eternal reward.’ But, as the kitchen began to disappear, in the wake of the swirling starlike colors that raced around the edges of the empty center, an image began to take shape. I immediately got up and stumbled, like a blind man, down the hall to my bedroom. I wanted to be somewhere where it was dark enough that I could see, more clearly, what this image was.
I lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling that had always been my favorite go-
to-viewing screen. I watched as the image undulated into focus. It seemed to be a pair of white shoes. At first I thought they might have been sneakers but they were ordinary work shoes, like a waitress might wear. Were they Sara’s? I really couldn’t tell the gender as they were ordinary lace up white shoes that could be found on anyone working a job that demanded long hours standing on one’s feet. There was nothing else in the image, just the shoes standing on some sort of tile floor, a gray tile floor. There was something imprinted on each tile, a faint image I couldn’t really make out. My friend was beginning to exit down to the left of my field of vision and I knew it would fade soon. What the hell was that in the middle of those tiles? It looked like fluffy ivory-white circles with some initials in the center in faded gold? I tried to make out the letters but it was really only a guess---SY or 3U? And then it was gone.
All the rest of the night and half of the next day I kept trying to make sense of the image of the white shoes. What did it mean? What did the shoes symbolize? At work, I googled ‘white shoes’ and saw words like ‘purity, love, enlightenment,’ and ‘calmness.’ But, what really grabbed my eye was a phrase about the symbolism of shoe laces: “Laces mean certain things need to be done in order to gather information. Loose ends need to be tied up.”
I hadn’t heard from Morris for several days so I emailed him with the details of the visit of my friend and the white shoes. An hour later he emailed back.
“White shoes. Maybe that’s what she wore at the restaurant. I’m going to call Lucy Bailey over at Cannon Beach to see if she remembers what Sara wore at work. I’ll call you tonight. Regards, Mo.”
It was already close to quitting time so I packed up my stuff and headed out to the parking lot. Jan was just putting a tall tote bag of papers into the trunk of her car as I approached my Subaru.
“What’s all that?” I asked, as I opened my car door.
“Homework,” Jan replied, “George needs these sorted.”
“What are they?”
“Copies of his tax receipts.”
“His personal tax receipts or the company’s receipts?”
“His. He’s being audited next week.”
“What! That’s wrong---asking you to work on his taxes. If anyone in the office should be doing it it should be Harlen in accounting.”
“George doesn’t want anyone knowing he’s being audited by the IRS.”
“I’ll bet. Actually, no one should be working on his taxes but George himself. You could get into a lot of legal trouble.” I reached in and grabbed the tote bag and started walking back to the office.
“Wait, Rick!” Jan called out, “Don’t! He’ll be so angry I told you and if you bring back the receipts--- he’ll fire me!”
I could see she was terrified of George’s temper and what he might do. “Don’t worry. He would never fire you. He’d be lost without you. You run this company, Jan. You are the unofficial CEO.”
When I got to George’s office, it was empty. He had never come back from lunch. Not unusual. I was tempted to dump all the contents of the bag on his desk but I felt that that was a bit too aggressive so I just placed the carryall in the center with a note stapled to the strap.
Someone had to rein in George Junior.
Around eleven pm my cell phone rang and, putting down my mug of chamomile tea, I answered, knowing it was Morris.
“Hey Mo, any luck?”
“And good evening to you too.”
“I’m sorry. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. Relax. Just pulling your chain. So I talked to Miss Lucy and she said all the ladies at Waddles had to wear a uniform; it was a blouse and pinafore combo with a pair of black flats---she called them ‘Mary Janes,’ what ever those are. And I followed that up with a call to Sara’s sister Terry and she said she never remembered Sara wearing or owning a pair of white shoes.”
“Well, thanks for making those calls. I guess we just have to keep digging.”
“You know, it would help if Sara would cut out all the symbolic shit and just tell it like it is, tell us what it really means. Something simple like the ‘White Shoes’ were what Luca was wearing when he kidnapped her. Or the shoes represent the man with the white hair because he was a dentist or a hair dresser.”
“Maybe I’m just making this all up in my head, Mo,” I confessed, “I mean it must be pretty hard for a person, dead for thirty years, to communicate with some living stranger.”
“Hold on, partner. Did we or did we not, by following your visions, find the body of Sara Annette Simpson?
“No buts! Whether or not Sara sent them to you, or you generated them yourself, or they’re messages from God himself, the visions did the job. So I suggest we keep trying to decipher this one.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll keep working on it.”
“Good. I’m going to go back to the list of callers who responded to our request for information. See what I can come up with. See if we missed anything. You never know.”
The next day started calmly since George was away from the office but that peace and quiet was not to last. Around ten thirty I heard what sounded like the mating call of a Moose coming from his office and it continued to bellow down the hall. As I stood up from my desk, to go and see what was happening, my door slammed open to reveal George’s red sweaty face. His tie was pulled down from his unbuttoned collar and he was flapping my note around like a flag at a political rally. He smelled of an early morning shot of bourbon.
“You son-of-bitch!” he hissed, “How dare you interfere in my private business! This was between Janet and me. I planned on reimbursing her for her time, although now I have half a mind to fire her---to fire both of you!”
“Well, I think the other half of your mind knows better. You would have a hard time keeping this business running without Jan. In fact I’m pretty sure Moorhouse Imports would not survive very long without the two of us, Jan and me, and I say that with all humility.”
“Listen to you, Mr. Holier-than thou! Just because your father was the great Roland Tremaine, of the our-shit-smells-like-roses Tremaines, those snobs whose ancestors proudly made their fortunes in the slave trade, you think you are better than anyone else. Well, I got news for you, buddy. My dad worked for your father before he started this company, my company, and he knew what a fake your dad was, pretending to be such an upstanding citizen while he was screwing any female that crossed his path.”
“Don’t hold back, George, let it all out.”
“Oh, that’s so like you! Treating everything like it’s a joke. Well, your dad’s drinking was no joke and the way he treated you and your mother---”
“Please keep my mother out of this.”
“It’s no wonder you’re the way you are, having been raised like a fucking prince by that paragon of virtue that your father pretended to be. And that social climber of a---"
“Okay, George, that’s enough,” I admonished, “I think it’s time you got back to your office and your taxes. I took the liberty of writing down the phone numbers of a few tax accountants that would be glad to help you with your situation.” I handed him the list which he promptly tore into small confetti-like pieces. Giving me the finger, he staggered back down the hall to his office. Always a class act.
The week went by with George giving me the silent treatment but with his still depending on Jan to keep things running while he spent his days locked in his office with a tax lawyer. I used the first half of each day to follow up on back orders and to making calls to dealers. After lunch I would devote a couple of hours to wandering the internet looking for---what? Tall posh men? Other missing women? Brand names of white shoes? It was pointless and depressing and, after a week or so I gave up. But then, Morris sent me an email that changed everything.
“Hey there Rick,
I didn’t wait for Morris to call. I was too excited and too curious and I had some questions I wanted to ask. He picked up on the second ring.
“I thought that might give you boost.”
“It did, you are the man! Listen, a couple of thoughts. Is there a way to check at the hospital about that insignia on the floor tiles?”
“I would if I could but that was the old Saint Vincent Hospital, built way back in the 1890’s. It was torn down in the late 70’s and replaced by a brand-new hospital. In fact they were moving patients into the new facility while Sara was having her baby.”
“I see. Wow. So where does that leave us? I mean we know now where Sara had her baby and approximately when that happened, but how does that relate to her death so many years later?”
“I don’t know but I can’t shake the feeling that it does, somehow,” Mo replied, “I’m going to keep working the Saint Vincent angle. Anything happening on your end?”
“Not really. I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels.”
“Well, hold on, my boy. We’ll get there eventually.”
Months passed rapidly, as they do, whether you’re having fun or not, and business was doing quite well. The Arensky line of furniture was very popular with the independent boutique dealers but not so the bigger stores. Perhaps it was perceived as a little too avantgarde but I knew that would change eventually.
Mom kept at me about visiting her in Tampa and I kept finding excuses not to.
George got through his tax crisis and seemed to calm down. He never told us the outcome but I suspect the IRS handed him a steep penalty. He was more subdued and he appeared to be cutting back on some of the luxuries.
As for me, I found myself staring into space and wondering how much longer I could stay in this job repeating the same boring actions day after day. I got into the import business because of my father. His acting like he was one of the most successful business leaders of the 20th century obviously influenced me as his young son, but I could never be the son he wanted. I tried everything to make him proud of me but it was never enough. The word ‘disappointment’ became a mantra for him when it came to his discussing my future. So, to show him I could be good at something, I applied to the Wharton School of Business but was not accepted, after which I attended the Fordham Business School instead. I then joined my father’s company, as was expected of me. I worked there for nine years until my father’s death, at which time it was presumed I would take over as CEO, but he left that position to Brian Broadwick, a faithful employee who had been with dad from the start. Even in death, my father showed his lack of faith in me. Brian ran the company alright, but unfortunately he ran it into the ground. Cando Imports applied for bankruptcy a year later. Meanwhile, I started working at Moorhouse Imports under the brilliant tutelage of Georgie boy. I was older and I felt I was a bit wiser than George but, after all was said and done, it was his company. Therefor I dedicated myself to becoming a faithful employee and, until recently, I kept my head down and my mouth shut. However, I knew that that had to change or I would go insane. Men have mid-life crises for a reason and, between my feeling trapped in a job I hated and my receiving messages from a dead woman, I was experiencing a whopper of a crisis.
By September I had reached the lowest level of my life, sure I could not fall any lower, and then Morris called and proved that I could and would go a lot further down. What he had to say, eventually, cut through me like a red-hot knife. I answered his call, still dressed in my underwear and bathrobe, even though it was five in the afternoon.
“Hey, Jersey. You doing okay?”
“Not really. Things are kind of getting to me, you know.”
“Jeez, I’m sorry to hear that. However, I have some important news I need to share with you.”
“I hope it’s good news.”
“Ah---yeah---well, not exactly. I mean it’s one of the things we’ve been looking for---"
“About Sara? About who was responsible for---”
“That’s great! Who was it?” The tall posh man with the white hair? What’s his name?
“Can we slow down here, for a moment? I spent all summer on this and I need to fill you in on exactly how it went down.”
“You know I’ve always thought there might be a connection between the birth of Sara’s baby and what happened to her later. So I spent two months or more trying to track down any records of her stay in the hospital. When I first inquired at Saint Vincent I hit a brick wall. I was told all patient’s records were private and could not be accessed. So, I started calling in some favors. One, an ex-nurse, Roy Stevenson, whom I had helped get out of a jam years ago, checked into the history of the patient files for me. It seems that during the move to the new hospital the files were put into storage. Records didn’t start being computerized at Saint Vincent until the 80’s so there were these truckloads of files being driven to some facility. The trouble was no one knew where this place was. Okay, so that took me almost a month to track down. I found out that the old records were stored in a warehouse out in Beaverton---remember Beaverton? Anyway, the next hurdle was getting into that warehouse.”
“Mo, just tell me what you found out.”
“I will, in a minute. Please, let me finish. I called on my get-you-into-anywhere guy, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, and he made me a key so I could come and go as necessary. I know, I know, very illegal but, in my defense I wasn’t going to look at anybody’s records except Sara’s.
The warehouse was in the middle of an old, almost deserted, industrial park so I wasn’t too worried about being discovered. The powers that be at Saint Vincent didn’t seem to be very concerned about the security of the building because there was no alarm system and I couldn’t see any CCTV cameras. I guess files that started in the 1890’s and ended in 1970’s weren’t deemed very important.
Anyway, the place was dusty and airless and crammed to the ceiling with rusty shelves holding hundreds of cartons of files. There were some pieces of old medical equipment piled in a corner, looking like a sculpture created by some deranged artist, but, other than that, there were only the boxes. Thankfully they were labeled both alphabetically and by year. It only took me a day, a very long day, to find Sara’s records.”
“And what did you discover?” I asked, impatiently.
“Well, that’s where it gets confusing. The file contained the time and date of Sara’s admittance, her vitals, the time of the arrival of the baby, a boy by the way, a lot of medical terminology, which I didn’t understand, a copy of the birth certificate and her release date.”
“That was all? What did the certificate say?”
“It listed the location, you know, the city, the county, the date, the mother’s name, the baby’s name, his weight and length---”
“What was his name?”
“Jon Paul Simpson, seven pounds-five ounces.”
“And the father’s name?”
“That’s just it. There was no name of the father on the certificate or anywhere else. I guess it’s not always required, especially if the mother is unmarried.”
“Okay, Mo, so if you couldn’t find a name what did you find?”
“Yeah, well, there I am sitting on a dusty crate in this mausoleum of dead files, and getting more depressed by the minute, when it hits me. I’m looking in the wrong place!”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember what Lucy Bailey out in Cannon Beach said about the guy responsible for getting Sara pregnant?”
“Something about him paying for her medical expenses?”
“Right. And, I said to myself, somewhere there has to be a record of who paid for Sara’s stay in the hospital. I mean she had very little money, she didn’t have health insurance. She was living with hippies, for Christ’s sake!”
“Lucy said the guy gave Sara some money during her pregnancy.”
“Yeah, and he paid not only for her hospitalization but for the hospital to notify him when the baby was arriving.”
“So, a third of this warehouse space is taken up by cartons of financial records, which I had, up until now, completely ignored. I stood up, shook the dust off and got to work. It only took half a day and I ended up with a record of payment for Sara’s stay at Saint Vincent.”
“And I had the name of the payee.”
Chapter 33To say I was blindsided is an understatement. I will remember everything about that day in September forever; the temperature of room, the cloudy sky outside, the color of my blue bathrobe, the smell of my Hazelnut coffee, a Brahms violin sonata playing softly on the radio and then the absolute silence after Morris read me the name.
“Rick, you still there? Are you okay?” Mo asked quietly. After another short stretch of silence I replied.
“Would you say that name again, please?”
“Yeah, sure. R. A. Tremaine,” Mo repeated. “I’m sorry, Jersey, I didn’t want to just dump it on you like this. I guess that’s why I stretched it out, I wanted to make it easier for you. I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll call you back,” I responded, as I disconnected.
It took me quite a while to absorb what Morris had revealed to me. I found myself moving through the five stages that individuals are said to go through when they’re told they’re dying of an incurable disease---the first being denial. ‘It’s not my father. It’s some other R. A. Tremaine. It’s just a coincidence. It can’t be true.’ Then I got angry. Not only with my father, and what he had done, but my mother as well and Morris for finding the whole ugly story to start with and being so insensitive as to share it with me. And I was furious with myself for being so stupid that I didn’t see that this adventure could only end in disaster. I was angry with everyone and everything. I was angry with the entire world.
Maybe if I became a better person, believed in God, worked with the less fortunate, wore a hair shirt and flayed myself until I bled, the anger and the pain and the shame would go away. But I knew that would never happen. My depression was deepening with each minute that passed and I felt totally hopeless. I had to get over it. I had to become logical and rational.
The fact was my father had sired a son, me, with sixteen-year-old Sara Simpson, who was my birth mother. My father and Rosalie Francis Tremaine had adopted me and had kept it a secret for almost fifty years. Unbelievable and unforgivable.
When I finally called Mo back I had calmed down a bit and I tried to not be too emotional.
“You feeling okay, kid”
“Yeah, the shock has passed. And I’m a little long in the tooth to be called a kid.”
“Sorry about that and for laying my discovery on you like I did”
“It’s okay. I don’t think there is or was an easy way for you to tell me.”
“Thanks for understanding. Now, there is a little more I have to share with you.”
“Oh, great. Should I faint now or later?”
“Hold on. It’s just that I wanted to get another confirmation that your old man, pardon my indelicacy, was responsible for Sara’s pregnancy. I mean, just because he paid the bills doesn’t mean---”
“Oh, jeez! When I was finally getting my head around what my father did---”
“It’s okay. I think I’ve found what I was looking for, or rather Ginger from the Oregonian has. I asked her to look into the Portland Expo Center’s archives for a list of events that happened there in late 1970. One event stands out; The Import Extravaganza. Import companies from all over the U.S. were gathered there. The convention lasted a week.”
“You think my father’s---”
“I need to know the name of your father’s company.”
I hesitated and then said softly. “Cando Imports and Exports.”
“Bingo! It’s listed along with all the other companies.”
So, there it was. I’d have to do a lot dancing to get around the truth Mo and ginger had uncovered. My father did make a couple of business trips every year to conventions and industrial shows. And he always traveled alone, as I remember it. Of course, this all happened before I was born so maybe one of his salesmen came along with him this one time and that guy was the one who---I knew I was clutching a straws. Come on, Richard! Why would it be any better if you were fathered by some sleezy salesman instead of---and then there was my mother. Where did she fit in in all of this?
After thanking Morris for his help and assuring him, for the hundredth time, that I would be okay, I hung up and went online to book a flight to Tampa. I was finally going to spend some quality time with mom per her request.
Chapter 34The Alexandria Condominiums were located about fifty feet from the ocean. The three-story-tall buildings overlooked the heated pools, BBQ grills, pet washing station and community pizza oven as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Mother’s two-bedroom condo was on the top floor of one of the four blindingly white stucco apartment buildings. Her windows and large balcony faced West so I’m sure she enjoyed some fantastic sunsets.
I hadn’t been down to see her for about a year and a half and I noticed that the place looked very different. Mother liked to redecorate about every five years; out with the old, in with the new, and I give her credit for having excellent taste. No bamboo settees, coral colored walls and hibiscus prints for Rosalie Tremaine. The entire apartment was a cool ice-blue oasis filled with very expensive furniture upholstered in cobalt blue. Being in the import business I knew how pricey some of the furnishings were. The velvet living-room-sectional was worth at least forty thousand dollars, if not more. A small indigo geometric Persian Mamluk rug in the dining room would be a bargain at five thousand bucks. Dotted, here and there, where large Chinese blue and white vases filled with white orchids. I couldn’t imagine how much all that antique pottery cost, let alone the orchids.
“There you are, my darling boy!” announced my mother, as I stepped through the doorway and into her arms. “Here at last!” I stepped back, perhaps a little too fast, but I wasn’t feeling very huggable at the moment. “How was your flight?”
“Fine,” I replied. “A little late taking off but we made up the time.” I had spent the whole flight running through various scenarios of how this conversation would play out.
“Let me get you something to drink. You must be thirsty. That airplane air is so dry”
“No, mom, I’m fine.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Come into the living room and have a seat.” She led me, by the hand over, to the blue sectional. The gold kaftan she was wearing caught the last rays of the afternoon sun and she glowed like she was on fire. “After you called yesterday I started looking into things we can do while you’re here.” She took a pose as she sat down on the sofa. I remained standing. “I made a reservation at Ulele for dinner tonight and then tomorrow I thought-”
“Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted?”
“What?” She looked totally confused.
“Why did you and dad never tell me I was adopted?
“I don’t understand---you weren’t adopted.”
“And that myth about me being conceived and born at sea on some world tour!”
“You were. You’ve seen your birth certificate---”
“Yeah, I have a copy in my safe-deposit box at the bank and I looked at it recently. It certainly doesn’t match up with the copy I got from the hospital.”
“What hospital?” The tone of her voice was angry but her Florida tan had faded and she seemed to be more frightened than irate.
“Saint Vincent in Portland Oregon.”
“That’s ridiculous. You were born abroad the SS---
“Oriana,” I finished, “a name that has been bounced around more times than I care to estimate. I contacted the former owners and I got the history of that ship and, yes, one of its ports was Seattle---”
“See, I told you you weren’t---”
“---and I’ve asked them to send me a roster of the passengers on the Oriana 1971 cruise around the world. What am I going find, mother?
“That your father and I were on board---”
“And what else? That a baby was born on the high seas? Really?
The change came slowly and it was like all her bones dissolved, leaving behind a pile of misery wrapped in a gold kaftan. She wept softly for several minutes and then wiped her eyes.
“To me,” she whispered, “you were not adopted---never adopted. You were my little boy from the moment you were put in my arms. YOU ARE MY SON!” she shouted, as if that would make it so. I waited a few beats before I spoke again.
“And you are the only mother I have ever known. But, if you and I are going to get through this, and have any kind of a relationship left, now is the time to tell me everything.”
We sat for hours in the dark while the woman who was not really my mother told me the improbable but true story of how I became a member of the Tremaine family.
It seems that my parents had tried for years to make a baby. They saw the right specialists, had every test available, attempted intercourse every other day during ovulation, took vitamins, exercised, even tried in vitro fertilization. Nothing seemed to work and, as Rosalie inched her way toward her mid-thirties, she began to fear that she would never conceive.
“It was hard on your father as well,” Rosalie explained. “He was a very proud man and he was afraid that his male friends would think he wasn’t virile enough or even that he was impotent.”
“Well, he sure proved that diagnosis incorrect, and with an underaged---”
“He never told me all the circumstances and I don’t want to hear them now.”
“You’re going to have to learn how it all happened, eventually.”
“Please, Richard! Anyway, he had suggested we adopt, but I was totally against that because I knew that down deep in his soul, he didn’t want someone else’s child. He wanted a son, his own flesh and blood.”
“And here I am, but not of your flesh and blood.”
“Don’t say that! You have always been my son.”
“And you have always been my mother, but it’s an unwritten rule that you tell a child they’re adopted as soon as they are old enough to understand the concept of adoption so that they can work through it.”
“I wanted to.”
“But you never did. Why not?”
“Your father didn’t want to. He wanted the world to believe that he had sired a baby boy---”
“Well, ironically, he did---”
“But not with me,” Rosalie replied, with a flash of anger, “He wanted everyone, his business associates, his drinking buddies, the whole community to believe I was carrying his child.”
“Jesus Christ, what an egotistical sociopath!”
“He was a Tremaine and he wanted to keep the name going.”
“So how did you learn about dad’s little indiscretion? Did he man up and confess?’
“Oh, I didn’t find out about it until much later, years later.”
“Please, Rickie, don’t get so angry. Let me explain.”
Chapter 35The story she told me was about as convoluted and complex as a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. It started when, out of the blue, my father announced to my mom that he was taking her on a world cruise. It was to celebrate their tenth anniversary and it would take close to a year to complete. My mother was astounded and a little upset because it meant she would have to abandon the various club activities and charities she sponsored. But R. A . never took no for an answer so, after a hurried week of preparation and packing, the couple boarded a flight to Seattle. Father had put George Keller (that’s right, Georgie Porridgie’s dad) in charge of the company while he was away.
What mother didn’t know, until later, was that R. A., just before they left, had casually mentioned to his sister, my aunt Lily, that Rosalie, my mom, was pregnant and that, as it was a secret, she was to tell no one. As Lily was a notorious gossip, he knew that the entire town would know about it before the sun went down.
The other thing mother didn’t know was that, two and a half hours south of the ship, on which they were just boarding, there was a sixteen-year-old girl carrying R.A.s baby and that he was keeping tabs on her.
Mother went on to tell me about the journal she kept in which she recorded all the shipboard social events as well as the ports they visited in the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Greece. She confessed it was the happiest time of her life. She said that father had become uncharacteristically loving as the trip progressed and as they sailed closer to Europe he began to talk again about the possibility of adoption. She could see he was serious. He was mellow and relaxed as he talked about how they were getting older, himself especially, as he was now fifty-two, and ‘time waits for no man’---or woman, for that matter, he jokingly added.
They had just docked in Marseille, France when Father was notified there was a call for him waiting in the ship’s communications lounge. When he got back to their stateroom he was smiling.
“He said he had some great news, that a while ago he had put our name on a waiting list of couples looking to adopt and they had found a baby for us.”
“Some religious adoption agency, Catholic or Lutheran, I can’t remember.”
“How did you feel about all of this? This sudden announcement that you were adopting?”
“I was stunned. I was upset that R. A. had gone ahead and done this without consulting me. But as usual, he explained how it would work out just fine, that he knew it was best for both of us, so that was that. You know your father, his way was the only way.”
My father had booked a flight to Seattle for the next day, so my mother’s only taste of France was the Marseille Airport. At the SeaTac airport they took a short flight to Portland and then a taxi ride to a motel near the airport. After they were booked into their room, R.A left for downtown Portland to, as he put it, ‘make all the arrangements.’ These ‘arrangements’ took two days which confused and upset mom but on the morning of the third day they taxied to what, as mother remembered it, a church-run adoption center. It was a large brick two-story building. She couldn’t remember the name, something that started with P. They both signed some paperwork and R. A. wrote a check .
“They took us into this waiting room and I was still not sure I wanted to go through with this---this crazy, rushed and, for me, blind adoption. But then, in came a nurse carrying you and, after taking one look, all doubt melted away. She put you, wrapped in a pale yellow blanket, in my arms and everything became right with the world.”
“But you didn’t know that the baby you were holding was a result of dad’s---”
“No, of course not. That all came out much later.”
My mom and R.A. stayed in Portland, for a couple of days, while he made train reservations and, calling a nurse staffing agency, hired an RN to accompany them on the journey home. Amtrack had just begun to take over the faltering railroad industry so service was a little spotty but he got a suite on the limited to Chicago where they would switch to another train for the journey to New York.
“Why the hell would dad use the train to get you guys home? You’d been jetting all over the place and now he puts you on a train? How long did the trip take, for god’s sake?”
“Well, as I remember it, it was a couple of days to Chicago and another day and a half to New York. He said the trip was to allow us to decompress, to relax and to get to know the baby, but that wasn’t the real reason.”
As the train climbed over the Rocky Mountains and descended onto the Plains, my dad began to lay out for my mom his master plan. He told her he wanted to keep the adoption under wraps for the time being. He preferred that everyone back home think mom had delivered him a son and that the train trip was just a way for her to recover her strength. At first my mother was very angry, and rightly so, but as they departed Chicago’s Union Station he convinced her to a least think about it and not make a decision until they got to New York. What she didn’t know was that he had already written to aunt Lily and uncle Ted to share the good news that I had been born on board the SS Oriana and that we would be home soon.
“What about that bogus birth certificate? Where did that come from?”
“Oh, Rickie, the whole thing was so messed up! He told me it was coming by mail and I asked how could that be? You weren’t born on the ship. However, he told me not to worry, that it was all taken care of. He had his sources. I was so stupid not to realize that he had all kinds of ‘contacts.’ But by the end of the train trip I was so madly in love with you that I agreed to go along with the ruse.”
At Penn Station, in New York, R.A. offered a full-time position to the nurse that been travelling with them and that’s how Mildred Lindstrom became my nanny, Milly. That was probably the only good thing to come out of this whole debacle.
When my parents and I arrived back in Short Hills, mom said we were treated like visiting royalty. Family and close friends gathered around congratulating my dad, cooing over me the baby, the long-awaited son and heir, hugging and kissing my mom and treating R.A. like he was Henry the Eight. Mother was so overwhelmed, by the loving chaos, that she found herself unable to spoil the happy event by telling the truth.
“So you went along with father’s dirty little scheme.”
“Yes, temporarily, but I always planned to tell you about your being adopted. I told your father that we needed to tell you and that we could swear you to secrecy, but he was having none of it.”
“And all of this ‘born on a ship’ nonsense was just to cover up Dad’s little indiscretion, his statutory rape of a sixteen-year old---”
“But I didn’t know that at the time, I just thought he wanted to be seen as a potent, virile he-man capable of fathering a child. In his eyes, if it was known we had adopted, he was sure he would be seen as a failure.”
“So you kept the myth going—”
“Well, after a few years, we had told the story and I had heard the story so many times that I kind of began to believe it. It was romantic, a lot more romantic than our marriage. And I had you, the miracle baby, and I watched you growing up, with such joy in my heart.”
“I remember spending more time with Milly my nanny than with you, mother. You were always so busy with all the activities you were involved in, the meetings and the parties—”
“I know you must have thought I didn’t care enough about you, but, in my heart you always came first---you still do.”
“Okay, okay. So when did you discover the truth about my birth mother?”
“Oh, my! It must have been when you were off away in Prep School.”
“And up until then you’d been pretending that you had given birth to me? All that time? And to think I believed it until just a few days ago,” I paused to compose myself. “How did you find out the truth? Did dad confess?”
“I got a letter in the mail from a young woman who claimed she was your birth mother. She wrote that all she wanted was to meet you. She said that my husband was the father and that she had been contact with him over the years and that she had figured out that we were the adoptive parents. She wrote that she had tried to convince R.A. to let her fly out here for a quick visit but he insisted that she stay away from him and his family.”
“What was her name?”
“She signed the letter, Simpson, Sara Simpson.”
“I just spent the last few months searching for that same Sara. Bit by bit I uncovered what you knew, all along, way back when I was a teenager. Incredible!” I was finding it hard to control my anger.
“I’m so sorry, Richard. Please forgive me.”
“I don’t know if I can do that, right now. Did you confront dad with the letter?”
“I told him I had been contacted by your birth mother and I showed him the letter. Of course he denied having anything to do with this ‘gold-digger,’ that none of what she wrote was true, that we had gotten you through a reparable agency and to ignore her request.”
“Did you believe him?”
“Ah---well---not really. I wanted to. I mean who wants to face the fact that your husband fathered a child with another woman.”
“A woman who was a child herself,” I corrected.
“I didn’t know that at the time. Anyway, I tried to push the whole thing out of my mind and to get on with my life. I was sad and angry but I hid it. It seemed so important to keep up the façade of the perfect family for your dad---”
“And for yourself.”
“---I---I suppose. I had worked so hard to become an important person known for her good works---
“And good taste,” I added, looking around at her ice-blue living room.
“That too,” she smiled wearily. I think it had finally hit her that her life had been one of empty acquisition. Keeping busy and buying beautiful things to barricade against the pain.
“So what happened next?”
“Well, I tried not think about it but, a few weeks later, I got a phone call from the young woman---”
“Sara,” I responded.
“Yes, right, Sara, and she sounded very sweet and she apologized for calling but she wanted to know if I got her letter. I said I had and that I understood how she felt but that it would not be possible for her to visit. I didn’t want you to be upset by meeting her---”
“You mean you didn’t want me to find out I was adopted---”
“No, I really planned on telling you, when the time---”
“---was right? When would that have been, mom, when you were on your deathbed? And also you didn’t want Sara showing up because it could have caused a scandal. Everyone would be whispering ‘The Tremaines have been living a lie.’” I was ready to just get up and leave but instead I continued. “Did you tell dad about the phone call?”
“No, not a first. I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it at all but she kept saying things like she had the right to see you and that she was going to come to New Jersey, no matter what, and I got frightened.”
“So you told father.” Mom nodded. “And what did he say?”
“Not to worry about it. That she was just a con artist looking for an easy buck.”
“But she wasn’t, was she? She was just asking to see the boy she had given away, as a baby, all those years ago,” I was working hard not to break down in front of my mother. “Did she keep contacting you?”
“Only once more,” my mother answered, shielding her eyes with her shaking hands. I noticed she had rings riding on every finger; pearls, opals, garnets and amethyst blinking in the shadows of the dark room. It reminded me of one of my friend’s glittering visits. It also reminded me that mother was a rich and vain woman. “And that was the call that nearly killed me. She told me she was only sixteen, a naïve virgin, when R.A.---seduced---”
“Raped!” I interjected.
“---when your father impregnated her and that, although she didn’t want it to sound like a threat, if she wasn’t allowed to make contact with her son, you, she was not above letting the world know what R.A. had done.”
“Okay, so now that you knew what a terrible thing your husband had done and how I came into the world, what did you do.?”
“Oh, Richard, I wanted to kill him, rip him to shreds, break every---” She stopped and remained silent for a moment. Composing herself, she continued. “He was in the den watching some game on TV, soccer or football or---I don’t know, and I walked over to him and slapped him across the face as hard as I could.”
She said he was so shocked he just stared at her with his eyes wide as dinner plates and his hand covering the red mark on his cheek. She told him she knew everything and that she was leaving him (which of course she never did) but his reaction was not what she expected. Instead of bluffing it all away with his usual macho act of superiority he began to weep. He begged her to forgive him for being so human and for making such a stupid mistake. He explained that he had gotten drunk, didn’t even remember the incident or the girl. He was lonely and missed his Rosalie and actually the girl threw herself at him---
I stopped mother at this point in the story as I couldn’t listen to another lie coming from the dead lips of my long-deceased father.
“No more, mom, please! What a cowardly son-of-a-bitch and, after all that happened, you stayed with him!”
“For you, Rickie, for you!”
“Oh, no! You’re not laying this one on me! No way!”
“But it was the only thing I could think to do. I couldn’t handle the thought of putting you and me through the trauma of a legal separation and maybe losing custody of you. And it worked out. It was a nondisruptive compromise. I mean, R.A. and I began living separate lives, but, just under the same roof. It was like we were divorced. I moved your father into the guest room, I did not allow him into my bed ever and I said he was never to lay a hand on you again or I would expose him and myself, to the community, for what we really were.”
“I remember things getting colder between you two and he did stop beating on me, a little late, however, because I was already in prep school and the damage was done.”
“I know, I should have stood up to him sooner. I’m sorry. But, from then on, I had something to hold over his head. I told him if he ever stepped out of line I’d let the girl---”
“---let Sara come here to see you and ruin his life.”
“Did you talk to her again?”
“She never phoned after that last call, the one that changed everything. After about a year, I tried calling her but her phone had been disconnected. I never heard from her again.”
Chapter 36I knew why my mother never heard back from Sara. By the time she called her, my birth mother was dead and buried. She was deep underground in a vegetable garden on a farm near Canby, Oregon. And, what was most horrifying of all, is that I had an inkling of who was probably responsible for her demise. Not who actually killed her but who ordered the roughing up that was supposed to scare her into silence.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of a vacuum cleaner humming in the living room. I pulled myself up out of the guestroom bed and, after a quick visit to the loo, carried my weary body down the hall into the blazing blue-white light of the front room. I stopped and stood on the soft silk wall-to wall carpeting that was being hoovered by a tiny Hispanic woman of an indeterminate age. It wasn’t until she jumped back with a little gasp and switched off the machine that I realized I was standing there in only my boxers and undershirt. I clumsily snatched an aqua-colored afghan of the sectional and wrapped it around me like a toga.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Ah---I’m looking for Ms. Tremaine?”
“El bacon” she replied, pointing to a sliding door that was open to reveal a cloudless blue sky. Thanking her, I strode out onto the balcony with as much dignity as one can wearing a knitted blanket.
Mother was sitting at a glass-topped table, reading a newspaper and holding a mug of coffee.
“Oh, good morning, darling. Did Sofia wake you up with her sweeping? I’m sorry, but today is her day to clean the apartment and I couldn’t put her off. You want some coffee?”
I sat down at the table and poured myself coffee from a carafe. I noticed that the mug was a cobalt blue Villeroy and Boch. Nothing but the best for my mom. I chuckled to myself as I thought of the chipped Star Wars coffee mug, with a picture of R2D2 on the side, that was waiting for me back home in Hardyston.
“I like your outfit,” mom said, turning a page of her newspaper, “very chic---clever use of an afghan.”
“What are you reading in that archaic pile of paper?” I asked, as I sipped my coffee.
“Oh, it’s the Tampa Bay Times. I still subscribe to it. I like it because it’s silent news instead of that loud, screaming stuff you get on TV. TV news is all about mindless entertainment and endless commercials. Sounding my age aren’t I.”
We sat in silence for a while. I had gone to bed thinking about how I was going to approach telling mom what had happened to Sara. Maybe the Tampa Bay Times would be a good segue.
“Was there ever an article about Sara Simpson in your paper?”
“Not to my knowledge,’ my mother answered, clearly perplexed, “Why would you ask that?”
“No recent article?”
“Rickie, is this because of last night? Are you still angry with me? I mean, why would there be a news item about a woman from the Pacific Northwest, in a Southern Florida newspaper? That makes no sense.”
“No mention of her on the radio or the TV?”
“I told you I don’t get my news from the TV and I only listen to classical music on the radio, WSMR.”
“What about the internet, your computer?”
“Oh, I hardly ever use it. It’s just so I can email you. Sophia uses it more than I do. I know, I’m a Luddite. I’m sorry. What’s going on sweetheart? Are you okay? Do you have a fever? Let me feel your forehead.”
It was now or never.
“Sara’s body was found recently. She had been kidnapped and murdered.”
“Oh my god, how awful!” mom exclaimed, and then it hit her, “Oh---oh, Richie, she was your---mother. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
And so I finally began to tell my adoptive mother the entire story of my search for my birth mother, even though I didn’t know, in the beginning, that that was what it was. I even hit her with the scintillating scatoma ‘visions’, which, to her credit, she didn’t question, and all about Morris Arensky and Sara’s sister and all the other characters. It was past one in the afternoon when I finished. I stopped the narrative with the image of Mo and I being shown Sara’s grave by poor Maria Ragusa. I truly wished it had ended there.
“So, after all that, I don’t know why I persisted in trying to track down who was responsible for arranging the intimidation of Sara, but I did.” Mom was uncharacteristically silent. “Do you know where this is going, mother.”
“No---not really,” she replied, her eyes avoiding mine.
“Okay, then a couple of questions, mom.”
“Around the time you got those calls from Sara did dad take any trips? You know, for business or a conference? I remember he travelled quite often.”
“He never went back to Seattle or Portland, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, never. The only one time he flew west, that I remember, was to go to a convention in Hawaii. I was scheduled to accompany him, but by that time the Sara incident had happened and we were, for all intense purposes, living our separate lives.”
“I believe that the flights to Hawaii consist of one from here at Newark International to SeaTac in Washington State and then you make a connection to another flight to Hawaii.”
“ I wouldn’t know. It was so long ago. Maybe it was different then.”
“I don’t think so, but, anyway. One last question.”
“I don’t want to listen to any more questions. Let’s have some lunch.”
“When did dad’s hair start turning white?”
“What has that got to do with anything? Really, Richard, it’s time to stop”
“Please, it’s very important.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! His hair was always white, from the first time I met him.”
“But I remember it being brown clear up to when I went away to prep school.”
“Well, that’s because he used that Grecian Formula stuff when you were growing up. The same hair lotion President Reagan used on his hair. You kind of combed it in and it hid the white. He wanted to look more youthful in order to keep up with the younger guys. I think he stopped using it around the time we sent you off to prep school---that’s right. He read somewhere that they used lead to create the brown color in the formula and that it was poisonous so he stopped using the stuff. I was glad to see it go. He looked so much better with white hair.”
“Kind of like ‘The Tall Posh Man With White Hair’ I told you about?” I don’t know when mom actually put it all together but I knew she knew who I was talking about. She got up from the table and walked into the living room and down the hall to her bedroom. I could hear her closing the door quietly.
Sophia had finished her cleaning chores and had departed earlier. The apartment smelled of Lysol and lavender. ‘Sounds like the title of a song,’ I thought, in stupid moment of inappropriate frivolity. I thought of knocking gently on mom’s door and offering to console her but I knew it would be hypocritical. Instead, I went to the guest room, got dressed and packed my overnighter. Back in the living room I found some stationary on my mother’s desk, with her name embossed across the top, and, sitting down, I began writing.
EpilogueEveryone wants a happy ending. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way life works in the real world. Endings are rarely happy. End means it’s over. In fact, end often means d.e.a.d. dead. But, as this is only a story, we can have a sort of happy ending.
I left Moorhouse Imports. George still thinks he’s the chief honcho but, of course, it’s Jan who is running things. At least he had the decency to promote her to Vice President in charge of purchasing, with a more livable wage.
I am composing this as I sit next to Mo in his Center of Operations office aboard the SS Houseboat. We are working together, proofreading the galleys of the non-fiction book Searching for Sara by Morris Arensky and Jon Paul Simpson. It’s due to be published sometime next month. I thought I’d use my real name. It seemed appropriate.
At the moment I’m renting a humble little bungalow in Northeast Portland until I find a decent paying job that will allow me better digs. Paul Arensky has dropped some hints about my maybe working with him but I think I’ve had enough dealing with furniture for a while.
Maria Ragusa is doing quite well in rehab and her cousin Philip is looking out for her. Phil is also, with Maria’s blessing, turning her farm into an arts compound with a place for an artist’s retreat. Housing for writers, painters, composers, sculptors and so on.
Haven’t had any contact with mother for quite some time. Still working on that.
I’ve been on a couple of dates with Ginger. She’s funny and very smart and she really lifts my spirits. No---no serious plans in the near future, so get over it.
My Friend visits me now and then but with no ‘visions’ attached. I guess Sara has moved on.
And speaking of Sara, I got together with her sister Terry and, although her remains are resting in River View Cemetery in Portland, we agreed that a separate memorial would be something that would help all of us begin to heal. So, if you’re ever over in Canby drop by the Ragusa Art Compound. Resting in front of some white lattice, covered with bright pink roses that smell delicious, is a slab of white marble. It reads:
In loving memory
Sara Annette Simpson
“Unable are the loved to die,
for love is immortality.”
by Emily Dickinson
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