For Better or WorseA Move to L.A.
It is 1961 in the fourth book of the Black Stiletto series. Judy, the Stiletto, meets Leo, a charismatic man who convinces her to move to Los Angeles when she is run out of New York by increasingly hazardous police heat. But soon Judy suspects that Leo is not the white knight she first thought. Leo, who has connections with the West Coast mobs, has plenty of skeletons in his closet. His mysterious sister, Christina, who once served time for armed robbery, could also be a threat to the Stiletto's new life in California. Meanwhile, in the present, Alzheimer's-stricken Judy takes a turn for the worse as Martin comes to grips with the imminent end of his mother's life. And when elements from the Stiletto's past once again appear to threaten Martin's family, it is up to his daughter Gina to step up and take matters into her own hands. In a novel bristling with mysteries, secrets, and lies, the Black Stiletto saga takes a dark left turn into even more treacherous territory.
About the Author
Raymond Benson is the author of 31 published books. He is most well-known for being the official James Bond 007 continuation author between 1996 and 2002 and for his Black Stiletto novels. Benson lives in the Chicago area.
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The Black Stiletto Secrets & Lies
The Fourth Diary â" 1961 A Novel
By Raymond Benson
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2014 Raymond Benson
All rights reserved.
It was bad news, and to be honest, I expected it all along. Maggie and I both knew that Mom had grown worse over the past couple of months, so I was a little anxious when March rolled around. That meant it was time for Mom's biannual evaluation.
Maggie was now the sole physician who monitored her at the nursing home. A neurologist had come in to give Mom tests, and two days later Maggie called me in to discuss them. Sandy, the head nurse, and Melissa, the director of the dementia unit, were also in the room.
"Your mother is experiencing a rapid decline. I'm afraid you're going to find the Alzheimer's symptoms getting worse. We'll have to resign ourselves to, well, just making her comfortable from here on out."
The room was silent for a moment as my mind refused to register her words. Was Maggie saying Mom was going to die soon? My mother? Judy Talbot?
The woman the world once knew as the Black Stiletto?
Sometimes I forgot Maggie and I were the only ones who knew that.
"I'm sorry, Martin," Maggie added.
"I'm afraid I agree, Doctor," Sandy said. "I've been observing Judy a lot." She looked at me and also said, "I'm sorry, Martin."
I'm not sure exactly what I felt. Shock, sure. Anger, absolutely. The disease was cruel, brutal, and unfair. Was I sad? Of course. But there was also a little guilt for being relieved. "Happy" wasn't the right word, but I was glad she wouldn't have to suffer through the indignity of it all much longer.
"What kind of time frame are we talking about?" I asked, but my throat was dry and my voice cracked.
"It's difficult to say," Maggie said. "We've talked about it before, Martin. At this stage, although it's entirely possible she could live another year, it's probably more realistic that she has only a handful of months, maybe just a few weeks. If you're using a three-stage model for the disease's progression, she's definitely in stage three. With the Reisberg Scale, she's at six and will soon be at seven."
I looked at Maggie and almost said something I would have regretted. It always amazed me that she became so businesslike and matter-of-fact when she was playing her role as a doctor. I was no longer the boyfriend, but rather the patient's son. It was easy to think of her as "Margaret" rather than "Maggie."
"You've seen her yourself. Her ability to speak is extremely limited. Since I've been treating her, she was never much of a talker, but three months ago she could have had something of a conversation. Now she's very quiet; it appears that it's a great effort for her to say anything."
"She called me Little Man Martin the other day," I interjected.
"Mom called me Little Man Martin. It was something she used to call me when I was little. Uh, real little."
"You never told me that," Maggie said, laughing a little. "That's cute."
"So doesn't that mean there are still memories in her head?"
"Sure there are. They're all in there, but she can't get to them. You know all this. Alzheimer's is like a computer virus, only in this case the computer is the human brain. Even in this late stage, your mother will continue to remember things, but they will usually be out of context. She may pull something out of nowhere and surprise you, but it's almost always spontaneous and not a result of conscious thinking on her part."
"The more serious developments are the physical impairments," Sandy said. "More and more the staff has to hand feed her. She can't bathe or dress herself. She lost control over toilet habits months ago."
I knew that. Things were diminishing at a rapid rate.
"I'm sorry, Martin." Maggie squeezed my hand. "I know it's hard."
"So what do we do?"
"Like I said, we try to make her comfortable. Just do what you've been doing, Martin — take it one day at a time. It's all we can do."
When I arrived at the office for another round of scintillating tax returns, I mumbled a hello to Shirley, the receptionist and legal aide, and went straight to my desk. I guess you could say the morning meeting with Dr. Margaret McDaniel really bummed me out. It wasn't like it was a surprise. I've always known Mom would die eventually. It was just a question of when. Lord knew she deserved to be spared such an ugly death; I supposed she was fortunate in that the disease worked uncommonly fast on her. She went through in three years what most Alzheimer's patients suffered in ten.
Damn it, whenever I seriously considered Mom's mortality, I was invariably reminded of her old alter ego. Since Christmas I hadn't thought much about the Black Stiletto. That was by choice, too. My anxiety disorder flared up if I thought about her too much. It's why I stopped reading the diaries. I read through the third one and stopped. It upset me too much, I just couldn't do it. There were two more books, one covering 1961, the other, '62 — the year I was born. Was my birth the reason for the Black Stiletto's disappearance? I knew I'd learn something about my father if I continued reading. He was supposed to be Richard Talbot, killed during the first year of the Vietnam War, which was a little odd because nothing too serious was really happening over there that early on. I don't know how he died or what he looked like. Mom erased every sign of his existence. She never talked about him.
I had the feeling she hated him, whoever he was.
"Why so glum, Martin?" The voice startled me and I jerked. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you."
Sam Wegel was my boss and owner of Wegel, Stern and Associates, Inc., the little accounting firm where I worked. He was standing right in front of me and I hadn't noticed. Sam was in his seventies and he said he was going to retire soon, every single day.
"That's okay, Sam. Just lost in my thoughts. Sorry."
"You talked to your mother's doctor."
I shook my head.
"I'm sorry, Martin. What can I tell you? It's a horrible thing."
"Yeah, I know, Sam. I've been getting used to it for a few years now, but you know what? I'm still not used to it."
After a respectful beat, Sam sat in the client chair in front of my desk. "I want to ask your opinion on something, Martin."
"What do you think of this place being called Wegel, Stern, Talbot and Associates?"
At first I thought I was supposed to answer, "I don't know," and then get a punch line. But then I saw by his expression that he was serious.
"Really, Sam? You're making me a partner?"
"I think it's time. I'm going to retire soon."
I was pleased, but in all truthfulness, being a partner in the tiny two-man firm wasn't much to talk about.
"Thank you, Sam. I appreciate it. You mean I get my name on the stationery?"
"Wegel, Stern, Talbot and Associates."
"That's great, Sam. I'm honored." I said the name aloud, too, to try out how it felt on the tongue. "Can we drop the word 'Associates'? I mean, it's just us, Sam."
"All right. But we can't drop 'Stern,' it would be disrespectful to Mort."
"Of course not. Wegel, Stern, and Talbot it is."
We shook hands. When he didn't get up, I knew Sam had more to say.
"I really am retiring, Martin. Probably at the end of this month. Doctor says I have pancreatic cancer."
Crap. Another medical blow to someone I admired. "No, Sam. Really?"
"Yeah. First Mort, now me. I got to take the chemo. Rose says I should be at home. We're okay financially. Anyway, I want you to have the business, Martin. It's yours. My kids don't want it. They're not accountants." He shrugged. "So what do I do?"
"You could sell it, Sam. I'd buy it from you if I could, but you can't give it to me. I can't accept it."
"Yes, you will. I'll leave it to you in my will so you might as well take it now. We can work out something, I'll continue to get a piece of the profits while I'm alive, but after that, it's yours, fair and square, as long as Rose benefits in some way. You can even change the name if you want."
"I doubt I'll do that. What about Shirley?"
"Don't you want to keep her here?"
"Sure. Gee, Sam. I don't know what to say. Thank you. Wow. I'm really floored. But what about you? You feeling all right now? Are you in pain?"
"I'm fine. Just tired, you know." He slapped the arms on the chair, stood, and walked a few steps before turning back to me. "Now let's do some work. It's tax season!"
I was planning to stop by Woodlands to check on Mom, but before I left work I called Gina in New York. After digesting Dr. Schneider's news that morning, I wanted to hear my nineteen-year-old daughter's voice. She was a student at Juilliard, studying dance and acting. She was also involved in some kind of martial arts thing that scared the hell out of me. Carol — her mother — and I don't hear much from her. Usually, one of us had to call her in order to find out how she was or what she was doing. We hadn't seen her since she was here for Christmas. She seemed happy and fine then. I'm glad about that, but it was a little surprising. Carol and I both thought Gina would have a hard time after the assault she suffered last year at the beginning of the school term.
Gina picked up after two rings. "Hello? Dad?"
"Hi, honey. What's up?"
"Oh, I'm at Krav Maga class. I meant to call and tell you I already got my yellow belt and pretty soon I'll get the orange one. For most people it takes about nine months to get the yellow, and I got it in four!"
I had no idea what she was talking about. "That's great, honey. How's school?"
"School? Oh, uh, eh. It's just school."
"Are you doing any acting or dancing?"
"Nah, I didn't get cast this semester. Look, Dad, I gotta go. I was kind of in the middle of a drill. Josh doesn't like us to have our cell phones on."
"Well, call me more often. I miss you. Have you talked to your mother?"
"Not any more than I've talked to you. I don't think she notices, her being newly married again and everything."
That was kind of a sore subject with me, although I've accepted it and moved on. I have my own leading lady now by the name of Margaret McDaniel.
And as if she'd read my mind, Gina asked, "How's Maggie?"
"Just fine. I'm going over to her house for dinner right after I stop in and see your grandmother."
"Why don't you and Maggie just live together?"
"I don't know, Gina, it's just the way we like it for now. I have my house and she has hers."
"Whatever. How is Grandma Judy?"
"Not too good, sweetheart. The doctor says she's entering the last stage of the disease. I'm afraid it's going to get rough. That's one reason why I called."
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
"Shoot, that's terrible. Oh, Dad."
"What can we do?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. Just love her. You think you can come visit again sometime soon?"
"I don't know."
"You'll come home when the semester lets out, won't you?"
"Uh, Dad, I gotta go. Tell Grandma I love her. I'll call soon!"
And she hung up. Short and sweet.
Well, at least I knew she was breathing.
It was snowing when I left Deerfield and drove to Riverwoods. March in Chicagoland. Third worst month of the year, after February and January.
As I pulled my BMW E90 into the Woodlands parking lot, I suddenly realized that nearly twelve months had gone by since I first learned my mother was the Black Stiletto. I'd never forget Uncle Thomas handing me that letter and strongbox. Thomas Avery was the lawyer who handled Mom's estate ever since I was little, and as long as I've known him he was probably Mom's best friend. Come to think of it, she didn't have many friends when I was growing up. I imagined she and Thomas were romantically involved a bit in the sixties, but I didn't know for certain. He was a few years older than my mom, but he was still working. Even though he wasn't related to us, really, he was the closest thing to an uncle I ever had.
I don't know why, but I never quizzed Uncle Thomas about Mom's finances. She never worked, but she always had money. Uncle Thomas had to have known something, wouldn't he? How she had managed? I believed Thomas when he said he didn't know the contents of the strongbox that my mom kept in trust for me until she became incapacitated. Now I wasn't so sure. I supposed I was afraid to find out too much of the truth. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
What a bombshell that was. After reading Mom's confession, I started exploring our old house in Arlington Heights — which was still up for sale — and found her costume and the diaries in a secret closet in the basement. I learned how fourteen-year-old Judy Cooper ran away from her mother, brothers, and an abusive stepfather in Odessa, Texas, and ended up in New York alone and penniless. There, she was befriended by Freddie Barnes, the owner of a gym in East Greenwich Village, and moved into a room above the facility. She worked as the gym's cleaning woman, but after hours Freddie taught her how to box. A Japanese trainer named Soichiro instructed her in martial arts before stuff like judo and karate were in the public consciousness. It was her first serious boyfriend, a Mafia soldier named Fiorello, who taught her how to use a knife. After Fiorello's murder, she became the Black Stiletto and took it upon herself to fight crime and social injustice in the city. Law enforcement didn't like it. Soon she was wanted by the police and the FBI. Nevertheless, the Stiletto fought social injustice, petty criminals, the Mafia, and Communist spies. She was even responsible for a handful of deaths, but they were truly bad guys and probably deserved what they got. That wasn't for me to judge.
I tried to push those thoughts out of my head when I stepped into the dementia unit's dining room and saw Mom at the table, sitting in a wheelchair. One of the staff was helping her eat. Mom held a fork and lifted bites to her mouth, but it was obvious she forgot what she was doing at times. Some days were better than others. I'd witnessed meals when she couldn't feed herself at all. It was true; her health had declined since Christmas. She was much thinner, the muscle tone in her arms and legs had disappeared, and her skin color was paler.
"Hi, Mom!" I said with as much cheer as I could muster. "Dinnertime?"
Her eyes brightened a little when she saw me. She still knew I was someone she loved, although aside from the "Little Man Martin" incident, she rarely called me by name anymore.
I sat across from her and said, "Guess what, Mom? I've been made a partner in the accounting firm. It's going to be all mine when the boss retires. Isn't that cool?"
Mom attempted to say something while chewing and she swallowed badly. She coughed and the nurse had to pat her back until she recovered.
"Sorry, I didn't mean for you to answer with a mouthful of food," I said.
"Oh, that's all right," the nurse spoke for her. "We're okay, aren't we, Judy?"
Mom nodded as the nurse gave her a drink of water.
Unbelievable. This was the Black Stiletto. The world wouldn't know what to make of it. It was why I had to keep her secret safe. It made me want to cry.
And, as if she had switched on that empathy thing she possessed, tears formed in my mom's eyes. In fact, she inexplicably cried more than usual on a daily basis. It was a normal symptom of the stage she was in.
"I talked to Gina a little while ago. She said to send you her love."
At the mention of my daughter's name, Mom managed to smile. "I ... me, too," she said. Wow! That was an appropriate response! She always seemed to know who Gina was. Ever since my daughter was born, the two of them had a weird psychic connection I couldn't explain. And Gina was so much like my mother, it was scary.
"Maybe she'll be able to come home from college again soon to see you."
"That's ... nice."
Another score! It was a good day for Mom.
I reached over and took her free hand. She squeezed mine and smiled at me again.
As the doc said — one day at a time.
Maggie handed me a glass of red wine that I nearly chugged. It tasted like heaven. After such an emotional day, I felt a little drained.
"Here, have another, Little Man Martin," she said as she poured.
"Thanks. I needed that."
"I know. How are you, darling?"
"Aw, am I your darling?"
"Of course you are. Aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm your darling. Just don't call me Little Man Martin." I sat at the table, where she had placed plates of steaming spaghetti and marinara sauce, with broccoli and salad on the side.
"I asked how you're doing."
Excerpted from The Black Stiletto Secrets & Lies by Raymond Benson. Copyright © 2014 Raymond Benson. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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