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The Black Stiletto Endings & Beginnings
The Fifth Diary â" 1962 A Novel
By Raymond Benson
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2014 Raymond Benson
All rights reserved.
Ever since I revealed my mother's secret to my daughter, much of the anxiety I experienced in the last year had settled down. The same thing happened when I first told Maggie that my mother, her patient, was the Black Stiletto. I felt somewhat relieved that I didn't have to deal with the burden of that explosive information alone. Now that Gina also knew, it was even better. I just hoped my nineteen-year-old could keep quiet about it. So far, so good, even though she completely immersed herself in the history of the Black Stiletto to a disturbing degree.
Gina was still reading the diaries — she finished number three already and started the fourth — and she was studying all the ephemera my mother left behind in that secret closet in the basement of our old house in Arlington Heights. I gave her a copy of the key to the safety deposit box at the bank where I keep that old stuff. Gina also looked up vintage New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles from the fifties and sixties on the Stiletto. The more she found out, the more fascinated she became about Judy Cooper, the girl from West Texas who ran away from home to New York City and became a masked vigilante.
My daughter couldn't believe I hadn't tried to contact my uncles in Odessa, Texas — my mom's brothers, John and Frankie. My response to that was I wouldn't know what to say to them, and I wasn't sure they knew the truth about their sister Judy. Gina proclaimed her determination to find out if they were still alive. I warned her not to attract attention to ourselves, and she agreed.
Never a fast reader, I was just beginning to read the fifth and last diary. Besides, I had to admit it still bugged me to find out stuff about my mother that I never knew. The truth about the identity of my father, for example. For my entire life, and I'm forty-nine, I thought my dad was one of the first casualties of the Vietnam War. I never knew him. I never knew what he looked like, because Mom possessed no photographs of him. None.
Richard Talbot. Right.
Then I learned in my mother's fourth diary that my father, I was pretty sure, was an Irish-Italian gangster in Los Angeles named Leo Kelly, and that he screwed over my mother pretty badly. Cruelly. I didn't know if he was still alive. It was no wonder she completely shut any memories of him out of her life, and mine as well. Still, she had lied to me. I was sure she did it to "protect" me, as Uncle Thomas insisted. She didn't want the bad guys in California to come after her or me. So Judy Cooper changed her name to Judy Talbot and moved to the Midwest to live in obscurity. She got hold of an obscene amount of money somehow, and that's what we lived off of. I was an idiot not to have been even remotely curious about where Mom's money came from.
I supposed I'd find out in the fifth diary.
Complicating matters was the fact that someone in Texas, probably Odessa, was looking for my mother and damned near found her. I was in New York checking out Gina's new life as a Krav Maga student and teacher — after she dropped out of Juilliard — and thanks to something stupid I did, a couple of hired killers put a bullet through my neck. I was lucky. The vagus nerve was severed, but otherwise the round missed my spinal cord and carotid. Now, a month after surgery, the wound was healing nicely and my voice was better. I still sounded like I was talking through sandpaper, though.
Gina — my amazing warrior — put both men in the hospital. One would never walk again. We still don't know how all the legal repercussions of that incident would be resolved.
That worried me. It was only a matter of time.
As if on cue, the phone rang. It was Uncle Thomas, who was first my mother's lawyer and now mine and Gina's. He asked if I could come by his office to discuss the case after I got off work.
I looked at the clock on my office wall and saw that it wouldn't be unreasonable to slip out. Tax season was over — at least the crunch was — so I could leave Wegel, Stern, and Talbot, Inc., where I worked as a CPA. I owned the place now too, for Sam Wegel handed me the business when he found out he had cancer. Sam still worked three days a week, but I usually had the place to myself, except for the presence of Shirley and another assistant named Pat whom we'd recently hired.
It was time for another heart-to-heart with the man who wasn't any true relation but whom I've known since I was a child.
"Well, if it isn't Martin Talbot," Janie greeted me warmly. She was Thomas Avery's secretary, and she'd been working for the guy as long as I could remember. I gave her the obligatory hug, and asked if he was available.
"He's with someone, but they should be finished in a jiffy. Would you like some coffee while you're waiting?"
I heartily accepted. Just as I put the cup to my lips, Uncle Thomas's door opened and there he was with his client, an elderly man I didn't know. Thomas was perhaps a couple of years older than my mother, I thought. He'd always been a close friend to our little family of two, which was why I called him an uncle. He greeted me with a smile, although he'd lately worn a sheepish, guilty look on his face when he saw me. After I confronted him a couple of months ago and forced him to tell me the truth about my mom, he finally relented and admitted that he had known all along that she was the Stiletto.
"Hello, Martin," he said after seeing his client to the door. I stood and we shook hands. "Let's go inside."
He closed the door as I sat across from his desk. It had been just a little over a year since I received the lovely news, right here in this office, that my now-dying mother was once the ultra-famous Black Stiletto. I was slow on the uptake; it had taken me this long to suspect some complicity on the part of Uncle Thomas in her fantastic tale. It was time for him to come clean.
"How's our Judy doing?" Thomas asked.
"No change, Uncle Thomas. She stays at a perpetual level of pure hell. It's so hard to watch."
"God, I know." He pondered that silently for a few seconds, and then asked, "How's Gina doing?"
"She's fine. She's really interested in the Black Stiletto now. Wants to know everything about her." I shook my head. "I'm not sure what I think about that."
"Does she know that I know?"
"I don't think so. She hasn't said anything. But I think she should know, don't you?"
Thomas shrugged. "I suppose that's up to you if you want to tell her. I don't mind. I have to tell you, though, there's something we need to discuss."
"That's why I'm here."
"First of all, the case as it stands in New York. We'll know in a week whether or not Gina will face any charges for what happened to your two attackers, but the DA has admitted that his inclination is to chalk it up to self-defense, and both Gina — and you — will walk away. No one's complained on the bad guys' side, so it's practically a done deal. I think you can rest easy about that."
"That's great news. I didn't see how they could accuse Gina of anything, considering what those guys did."
"And they've also been charged for the murder of that woman who said she was the Black Stiletto."
"So, they're not going anywhere." I was referring to Bernard "Bernie" Childers, the man with the broken neck, and William "Stark" Simon, who was still in jail without bail. "Have you found out anything more about them?"
Uncle Thomas sighed heavily. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I didn't say anything when we first heard the men were from Odessa, Texas, but in light of what I've discovered, it's my duty to tell you that I think your mother is in grave danger. You and Gina, too, I suspect."
That sent a lightning bolt of renewed anxiety through my chest. "What did you find out?"
"Officially, they're employees of Bartlett Supply Company, a large outfit that services the oil industry. There're a lot of oil wells around Odessa."
"Well, the fact that this Bartlett Supply Company comes into the picture has me worried."
"I used to know some people there."
"What?" I was getting angry. "Uncle Thomas, I know you know a lot more about my mom — and everything — than you've told me. So why don't you just tell me everything and we'll go from there."
He looked at me with a pained expression. "Martin, back when I first met your mother, in 1962, she came here from Odessa, Texas. Not Los Angeles. I had a cousin in Odessa then, and he hooked up your mother and me."
"What was she doing in Odessa?"
Uncle Thomas wrinkled his brow. "You haven't read the last diary?"
"I'm just starting it. I'm a slow reader. So, what was she doing in Odessa?"
"Arranging to disappear so she could hide for the next fifty years. Christ, Martin, you make it difficult for me. I promised your mother I wouldn't talk about it until after you'd read the diaries. All of them. I have to honor her wishes. So read the goddamned diary, Martin! Then I can talk to you."
He slapped the top of his desk. I could see he was very upset, his face turned bright red. A guy his age — I didn't want him to have a heart attack or anything.
"Hey, Uncle Thomas, take it easy, it's okay. I'll read it. But why is my mother in grave danger? You can't very well tell me that and not say why."
"I can say this much. My cousin's name was Skipper Gorman."
The name rang a bell. Then Thomas provided the other clue.
"Skipper had a brother — also my cousin — in Los Angeles. His name was Barry Gorman."
Holy shit! That was the guy my mother befriended and worked for when she moved to the West Coast. An unofficial private detective who worked for the DA. They weren't lovers; at least they weren't in the fourth diary. I also remembered Skipper being mentioned.
"Oh boy," was all I could manage to say.
"You know who they are?"
"From the last diary."
"Have you come across the mention of someone named Ricky Bartlett?"
That set off a mental alarm too. He was the cowboy dude that my mother once saw at a mobster meeting. The whole damned story was knee deep in mobster shit.
"Yeah. There wasn't much about him though."
"Ricky Bartlett was a big man in organized crime in Odessa back then."
"My mom called it the Dixie Mafia."
"Right. That's what they called it in the sixties and seventies."
"Bartlett Supply Company. Am I to assume —?"
Thomas nodded. "Ricky Bartlett owned it. It was the family business, and a successful one. Bartlett lived like a king on a ranch outside of Odessa. He had cops and judges in his pocket. Oddly, he was very charitable. He put on a rodeo weekend event every year to raise money for various causes. So he was actually well liked in town, except by the people who were afraid of him."
"Was he after my mom?"
"He was. He wanted her head. He thought she'd stolen money from him. A lot of money. Over a million dollars."
"That's something I don't know, Martin. Skipper down in Odessa handled her money arrangements before she came up here. He was an accountant; he worked as an investment guy. She did have that amount with her when she arrived, though, and I helped her place it in accounts so she could live off of it for decades. It was my job to see that she wasn't found by Bartlett's people, or, for that matter, Vincent DeAngelo's people. You know who he is, right?"
"Yeah. He's the Big Daddy of 'em all, according to my mother's historical treatise. So the fact that Bernie and Stark worked for Bartlett Supply Company, that means Bartlett is still looking for Mom?"
"Bartlett died sometime in the early eighties. DeAngelo died in prison in the late sixties."
"So who would care now? Why would anyone still be after her?"
"I think the answer has to do with that million dollars," Thomas said.
"Geez." It didn't sound good. "All of Mom's money is gone. So are you telling me the Bartlett family is still involved in West Texas crime?"
"You realize that if you hadn't called attention to yourself in New York, Mr. Childers and Mr. Simon wouldn't have found you? They'd been sent by whoever currently hires them for dirty work. They were there to check on Mrs. Dinkins's story that she was the Black Stiletto. They quickly figured out she wasn't the real Stiletto. I imagine they tortured Ms. Dinkins for the truth before killing her, and then found that letter you wrote to her. Either they or their boss thought you must know something about the Black Stiletto, since you interfered with their plans."
"I know, I know. I'm an idiot. I shouldn't have done it."
"What's done is done. The thing is, I believe those two men were on a mission to murder the Black Stiletto if they found her. That means, since they failed, whoever's behind it will send more troops — and you and Gina are the next viable leads."
"Damn you, Uncle Thomas!" I probably yelled it a bit too loud. The man flinched. "You've lied to me. All this time."
"I haven't lied to you, Martin." He looked crushed that I'd accuse him that way.
"Well, you haven't completely told me the truth."
"I'm sorry. I played it the way I thought your mother wanted me to."
"I know, but still —" There were actually tears in his eyes. "All right, I'm sorry I yelled. So what are you saying we should do?"
He got hold of himself. "For the first seven years or so that your mother was here with you, I made her move around, not stay in one place too long. Ricky Bartlett's dogs were sniffing around, but eventually the heat disappeared. After two years of no activity, I allowed your mother to permanently move into that house here in town where you grew up. I thought it was safe then. And it was. We never heard a peep out of Bartlett or DeAngelo or anyone."
"So you're still — connected? Is your cousin still alive?"
"No, Skipper died back then, helping your mother. And I'm not 'connected,' as you call it. Not anymore. That was a long time ago. I did some shady things back then, one of which was to help your mother and you disappear."
The concept of possessing a million dollars blew my mind. "Didn't my mom work sometimes? I thought I remembered her working as a waitress."
"Yes, she tried a few jobs, but mostly she lived off the money. The first few years while you both moved around, she didn't work. It was only after you moved into your house on Chestnut that she started trying a few jobs. Yeah, she was a waitress for a while, but I think that was just so she could do something. She called herself a 'consultant' on her income tax forms, but she didn't consult on anything. Your mother worked at odd jobs that paid only cash, and not for very long. Mostly, she wanted to stay out of the public eye." He chuckled a little. "I'm pretty sure people that knew her thought she was odd. A recluse."
"She read a lot, I know that, and she pounded on that punching bag in the basement quite a bit," I said.
"She was very protective of you, Martin. Probably overprotective."
That made me smile. "It's probably why I'm so nebbish."
We were quiet for a moment. I wasn't as ticked off anymore, but I was a little scared. "So what do we do?"
Uncle Thomas didn't hesitate with an answer. He said, "I think you should consider moving your mother out of the nursing home and hiding her somewhere safe."
When I walked into Woodlands, the nursing home where my mom lived — although "lived" was probably too generous a description of her existence there — I actually thought I didn't need to take Uncle Thomas's suggestion seriously because it was doubtful my mother would survive much longer.
Alzheimer's had really done a number on her. It hit her hard and the symptoms came quickly and mercilessly. Her decline in the past year was what most patients experienced in three. Maggie thought the rapid onset of the final stages were due to my mother's heightened senses that drew her to become the Black Stiletto in the first place. When my mother entered puberty, she could suddenly see and hear better, and she had an uncanny knack for sensing danger and penetrating lies. Her brain definitely had something to do with it, and that was the organ that Alzheimer's targeted.
Excerpted from The Black Stiletto Endings & Beginnings by Raymond Benson. Copyright © 2014 Raymond Benson. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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