No one breathed or blinked as Gus and Lindy clasped hands and hugged in warm recognition, one frail and vulnerable, the other weary, worn but determined. Soon words would flow in a torrent but for now none were needed.
Even Pete’s eyes were misty as he got his first glimpse of the main character in this bizarre and mysterious chain of events.
After a few moments of emotional silence, Pete cleared his throat and announced with a smile, “Let’s get this show on the road! There’s food, hot showers and a restful night waiting!”
“OH! Lead me to it!” Jessie sighed as she motioned Gus to get behind the wheel of her car. Lindy, who had come to rely on Theresa’s care, would ride with her and Pete.
As Jessie slid into the passenger seat, Gus longed to just remain in the car with her forever but needing to follow Pete, he started the engine, afraid to even look in Jessie’s direction.
Clearing his throat, he began to speak, his voice sounding strangely removed from all he was feeling. “I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am to have you all safe…” Gus glanced over and saw that Jessie had put her head back and closed her eyes. “There’s so much to tell -and much to plan- but I know now’s not the time….”
Jessie smiled weakly and nodded. They rode on in quiet; one fighting to stay awake, the other fighting to remain silent.
Once at Pete’s sister’s house, the women raced for the showers while Pete warmed the lasagna and baguettes, poured the wine and rummaged for candles his sister kept for power outages. In what seemed like hours to Gus and Pete, Jessie, Theresa and Lindy emerged in borrowed chenille and fleece bathrobes, their hair in towels twisted into turbans. The room filled with the fragrance of apple and honey shampoo.
“It will probably take days for the hot water to get back to normal” Theresa laughed. “I hope neither of you were planning on a bath anytime soon!”
“We helped ourselves to your sister’s shampoo…” Jessie grinned. “I’ll replace it. Now, where’s that food you promised!? I’m starved!”
They each ate and drank with their own deep feelings of gratitude. The long journey that had gotten them to that thankful table seemed far away- at least for the moment.
Pete rubbed his stomach and stretched as he reminded them “This is not where I sleep so I’m outta here for now. Rest well guys. I’ll be back tomorrow!” Jessie followed Pete to the door and they spent a short time in whispered conversation.
Theresa and Lindy were tidying the kitchen when Gus joined them to say goodnight. He gently clasped Lindy’s hand and with emotion in his voice, proclaimed, “Brave Lady, we’re all committed to getting to the bottom of this nightmarish thing that’s happened to you. It appears you’re going to be the key figure in bringing down some very bad guys. We’ll begin that final chapter tomorrow when you’re rested and ready.” With that he hugged both Lindy and Theresa and returned to the living room where he removed cushions from the couch, placed them in front of the fireplace and poured the remaining wine into two glasses.
Jessie closed the door as Pete left and smiled as she entered the room. “Didn’t I see this once in an old movie?” Gus blushed and nodded sheepishly but was relieved when she sat down beside him and touched his glass with hers in a symbolic toast.
Gus began again the conversation he had started in the car. “Jess, I’m so relieved to be here with you, safe and sound. I can’t thank you enough for the bravery and commitment you showed through all of this. Thank God that we’re closer to finding answers– but before we do, I… I need to tell you….”
Jessie took a swallow of wine and interrupted him. “Gus, before you go any further I need to tell you something too. I checked my messages while I was waiting for the shower and Pete’s filled in the details of what he already knew was coming.” Jessie’s words were coming fast now.
“Reliable sources tell us that a high- ranking drug lord is coming across the border into Texas for a big shake-up in the ranks and if we can catch him and his lieutenants it will be a huge blow to the Cartel.”
Gus felt like he’d been punched in the gut but held his emotions in check. “Jess, why now? Why you? And when will this take place?”
Jessie drank the rest of her wine in one big gulp and then responded, “Believe me, Gus, I’m so very sorry. It’s GOT to be me… the Cartel’s recruited my younger brother. He’s always been the wild one and if I can get this bastard, I can save Rick. Pete will drive me to the airport in the morning. I’ll leave my car here for you. Arlo is sending a new license plate and papers. It’s all set. I’ll be back to hear the rest of what you were about to say. I promise!” Jessie finally paused as if finishing a confessional.
Gus let out a long sigh and pulled Jessie close in a long embrace.
At first light, Jessie rose and packed her bag. Pete arrived all too soon and then she was gone.
Gus stood for a long time in a cool shower trying to make sense of his emotions. He dried off, dressed and went into the kitchen. As if in a dream, he sat down at the table staring into his coffee cup – the same table where only last night they had all been so happily grateful to be together – a word that was now incomplete in his heart and mind.
Theresa and Lindy poured themselves some coffee and joined him with questioning looks. Gus explained, with veiled emotion, the need to go forward with as much haste as they could muster-but without Jessie.
He turned to Lindy first and with as little questioning as possible he asked her to tell her story the best she could remember. Surprisingly, what came was full of important detail.
Lindy began by relating her decision to enter the Billie Holiday contest and her subsequent arrival in New York. She even described the 1920’s brownstone that housed the ‘Institute’ and music school where she enrolled and was to be groomed for the contest.
Faltering on only a few words, Lindy shared her feelings of eagerness and also concern as she settled into the two-week schedule that preceded the contest. Voice placement, choosing material and arrangements, and practice were all part of the prepaid cost– but housing was not.
Lindy told of meeting most of the other contestants and making arrangements to rent a place together in a rundown apartment hotel near the ‘Institute’.
“I realized I was older than the others,” Lindy continued. “If not a mother figure, I was at least considered a big sister. I was surprised at how young and vulnerable they all seemed – how star struck… becoming the next Billie Holiday. A dream we all shared I guess -but we knew only a few would come close. The school seemed legit – the instructors genuinely caring and helpful but it was obvious there was a big difference in the quality of the contestant’s talent and with some of the musicians.”
It was here that Lindy seemed to get more excited in the telling of her saga and she became almost trance-like as she went deeper into the routine of the first week’s events.
“One day I realized two of the youngest girls hadn’t come back to the hotel and weren’t anywhere to be seen the following day. I asked why and was told they’d each left a note saying they were dropping out. I was a bit surprised because they both had seemed so eager when we’d talked at night in our rooms. We had all formed quite a bond…”
Lindy’s eyes stared with a faraway gaze. Gus leaned forward in his seat a bit, waiting for her to continue. After a moment, she took a breath and began again.
“The next night, one of the girls I was particularly close to…Valerie… confided to me that a fill-in accompanist had invited her to go with him to a club in Jersey where Billie had actually performed in her youth. He made it seem like quite an honor to be asked and said the owner would be happy to let her sit in with the house band.
I did my best to discourage her from going and thought I’d won the argument, only to find an hour or so later she’d gone. One of the other girls remembered the name of the club so I drove to Jersey to check it out myself. It was in a rough part of town and I couldn’t find a place to park nearby. I parked the car and walked down the block and as I passed the back entrance to the club I could see some men carrying a rolled- up rug out the back door….”
Lindy’s breath came faster and her eyes misted with tears. A look of fear shadowed her face. Swallowing hard, she took another deep breath and then spoke again, her voice cracking as she remembered.
“I went inside the club and looked for Val… ordered a drink… and asked the bartender if he had seen her. He shrugged but motioned to someone at the end of the bar who said he would take me to where she was in a back booth. Just a few sips of the drink told me I was in deep trouble…. It made my mouth dry and after a moment my lips started to burn… I staggered toward the back of the bar and tried to call out Val’s name but my voice wouldn’t come… I felt dizzy…”
Lindy’s eyes grew wide and her hand clutched at her throat as the memory overcame her. Gus reached out and squeezed her hand. A tear rolled down her face and she squeezed Gus’s hand as if to garner strength to continue.
With her blue eyes wide, she stared at Gus and gasped out, “Someone grabbed me from behind! I struggled but I remember they took me outside. I felt a needle jab in my arm and the awful pain of someone hitting and kicking me… barely conscious, I felt myself dragged out into the alley where they dumped me. I heard a voice say they were ‘going to get the car and finish the job.’
I managed to drag myself behind the dumpster but before I passed out I saw a drunk watching the whole thing- and then he hurriedly staggered away….”
Gus winced as he remembered Sam, the urine soaked alley, the gardenia and the butchering job that had been done on the poor man. His eyes blinked as he tried to get the gruesome image out of his mind.
Without noticing, Lindy continued, “That was the last I remember for a long time until someone came to where I was lying…a hospital I guess… a voice spoke, rather harshly at first and I didn’t know what I’d done to make them so angry…then the voice returned several more times and each time it was more caring….”
Theresa lowered her head.
“I remember a long ride and warm hands helping me.” Lindy continued. “Each day my mind became a bit clearer but it wasn’t until I heard about Kay that I really relived what had happened.”
Gus’s brow furrowed. He looked over at Lindy quizzically and whispered to her. “Ummm… who is KAY?”
Theresa chimed in, wanting to be of use, “I can answer that Dad. While we were parked trying to ride out the storm, a news bulletin came on the radio reporting that a Kay Blankenship had been reported missing. That’s when all hell broke loose and Lindy became hysterical. It took us quite a while to calm her down.”
Gus pulled on his bottom lip as he sat in thought for a moment. “What happened to her?” he asked. Theresa shrugged her shoulders. “No one knows.”
Gus and Theresa locked eyes and he raised an eyebrow. Gus made a mental note: ‘Follow lead on Kay. Missing contestant too?’
Lindy continued on, “Of course, you all have lived every minute since the hospital with me. I know that now- and I’m so grateful for all it has taken to save my life. Gus, do you really believe we can find what happened to Val and maybe those other two?” Lindy’s beautiful blue eyes were filled with hopeful tears and childlike trust as she put her hand in Gus’s.
His steely eyes met hers and with more resolve than he’d felt in years, he vowed to get to the bottom of this nasty venture- no matter what – for Lindy, for Valerie, for Kay and the many others he’d secretly feared may have fallen victim to an unspeakable fate.
It was becoming very clear exactly what they were up against and the past weeks’ trials would seem like just a dress rehearsal compared to the final curtain.
Gus took a sip of his now-cold coffee and he missed Jessie in a million ways and for a million reasons.
© copyright 2018 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.