A Ton of Trouble
The letter from Wolf Lambert looked like the answer to a maiden's prayer, if the maiden happened to be sexually frustrated and trying hard to be a good sport in a situation where she felt like the spare tire on a tricycle. Okay, I admit there was a glimmer of Hollywood glamour around the guy. Wolf had directed some spectacularly successful horror films, and he was charismatic, even now—after he had retired to devote himself to his passions of making wine and adult films about large women. At well over 200 pounds, I qualify as a large woman, and Wolf had not been shy about expressing his admiration, which I found flattering but amusing rather than arousing. I had last seen him cavorting in a hot tub with his assistant Thelma, who qualified as a supersized woman. I had not been tempted to accept their invitation to join the two of them in hot water, but I couldn't help having a certain sneaking admiration for their uninhibited ways.
Written on the rich cream-colored stationery of Wolf's Lambert's Lair Winery, topped by the drawing on his wine labels—a lamb and wolf curled up cozily—the note was penned in lovely blue ink with calligraphic script. The contents took a sharp left turn from the presentation—
Dear Former friend, business associate, ex-wife or lover,
I am writing to make amends. Sobriety is a very new state for me and I want to do this 12-step thing correctly. Some of the details of how badly I treated you are lost from my memory, but I am sure you recall them. You may not be able to find it in your heart to forgive me, but I do apologize.
P.S. The winery will be open for tastings from 10:00 to 4:00 every day during October. Please do come visit us.
The postscript appeared to demonstrate that the man who had become famous making horror films was a little unclear on the whole sobriety part of the recovery program. I had met him on two occasions now, and he hadn't been remotely sober either time. Still, it was an invitation to the wine country and the least I could do was assure Wolf that as far as I was concerned there was no hurt to mend.
The October weather was sunny, Indian Summer in San Francisco, but I had brought my own fog of yearning. I started a new assignment in that city on Monday, but I arrived two days early because of a man named Mulligan, who happened to be attending a security convention at the Moscone Center over the weekend.
He lived in the apartment below me back in Seattle, but somehow it was very hard to negotiate that stairway.
This weekend, he had told me he would be staying at a hotel near the Moscone Center South of Market Street. I had called him to see if he had time for lunch since we were in the same town. He said he would meet me in front of the Moscone Center at 1:00 p.m. Was I making a fool out of myself over a man? Probably. Hey, everyone needs a hobby.
I went straight from the airport to my employer's Jackson Heights mansion overlooking San Francisco Bay. Mrs. Madrone's personal assistant, Ambrose Terrell, answered the door. Tall enough to look down his nose at most of the world, lean and red-haired.
"I don't think I've ever seen you so informally dressed," I tilted my head up to make eye contact. His shirt front was immaculate, pale blue with stripes darker blue than his eyes. His trousers were tailored but khaki.
"I'll be off duty for the weekend as soon as Mrs. Madrone goes out."
"You know, if I ever saw you in blue jeans I think I'd faint," I said as he ushered me up the impressive staircase.
He nodded serenely. "That's been known to happen in certain neighborhoods of this very city."
"I didn't mean it that way. Although I'm sure you get wolf whistles."
He opened the door and waited while Mrs. Madrone turned her wheelchair away from watching the morning sunlight and sailboats on the bright blue waters sliding under the Golden Gate Bridge. For once Ambrose seemed uncertain whether she wanted him to go or stay.
"You're two days early Jo, and I haven't much time this morning. Ambrose, make arrangements for the car, I'm going to that luncheon after all."
When Ambrose had departed, Mrs. Madrone gestured me in. Prince, her lilac point Siamese, blinked at me from his cozy perch in a spot of sunlight on Mrs. Madrone's huge Mission style desk—no doubt procured with a special dispensation from an actual Mission.
"Ambrose has a list of places I'd like to you to look in on here in the Bay Area."
"Don't let them know we're even considering giving them a grant. But tell me what you can find out about them and if you think they're doing something worth supporting. I'll be in Paris next week, but Ambrose will be here. And do try not to get in trouble this time, Josephine. I have a lot of friends in this town and I'd hate to have them amused by gossip at my expense."
I looked for a smile on her narrow pale face and failed to find one. "I haven't been arrested so far, Mrs. Madrone."
She unbent enough to smile, "Well, thank heaven for small favors." She wheeled her chair around and headed for a door into an adjoining room. The interview was over.
On my way out I nearly ran into Ambrose, who had a smile on his face. "Are you off now?" I asked.
"Just about to go, but here's the folder for the group Mrs. Madrone wants you to look into, and a letter that just came in for you." He handed me the folder and a letter with the Lambert's Lair return address. But before I could turn to go, he said, "Wait." He waved an additional envelope under my nose. "I wanted a word with you. I have you booked into the Pine Street corporate condo, or should I try to reach you with Mulligan at his hotel this weekend?"
"You know everything."
"Not quite, or I wouldn't be asking."
"The short answer is, I don't know."
"Well, then here are the keys to the Pine Street place. But I have something else that might interest you."
"Does this explain the cat-licking-its-whiskers expression on your face?"
"Be quiet, Jo, I'm about to do something nice for you, so don't screw it up." He handed me a key and a brochure. "This is a reservation for tonight and tomorrow night at Valley of the Moon Cottage. Their advance reservation rate is twice a regular hotel's rate, but even getting the reservation is impossible this time of year."
"What is the Valley of the Moon Cottage?"
"It's a guest house not far from the old Jack London estate. It's just one cottage on a couple of acres of land. There's a creek, a few hiking trails, and a hot tub with a view of a little private garden. It feels more isolated than it actually is. They stock breakfast food and you can drive to Glen Ellen if you feel like fine dining."
I just stared at him.
"It's not a gift because you'd have to pay the room rate, but if you want a romantic getaway, it's ideal. It's more reasonable because we made the reservations so far in advance. There's a waiting list."
"You can't use it?"
"I had to make the reservation months ago, but a certain gentleman was urgently called out of town on business. If you don't want it, there's a several other people I could give it to."
"No, thanks, I'll take it. How much is it?"
He told me and I nodded. It wasn't bad considering the view and the hot tub. "That's so kind of you, Ambrose. I'm sorry your own plans didn't work out."
"Don't worry, I've got several old acquaintances to catch up with here in the City." He patted me on the shoulder, "At least it won't go to waste—call them if you have to check in late."
"Okay." Sharing a romantic cottage with Mulligan would be nice, but even if I ended up alone there—the hot tub appealed to me.
I met Mulligan outside the massive Moscone Center. He was easy to spot—standing still, taller than most of the throngs of badge-wearing convention goers, he had longish blond hair and the face of a discontented bulldog. I had seen him just two days earlier when we were both arranging with the building manager, Maxine, to feed our respective cats. Somehow the brisk sunshine of an October day in San Francisco inspired us to hug hello. I restrained my impulse to unpin my hair and take off my businesslike blazer.
We walked over to the Cadillac Bar and Grill, a cavernous Mexican restaurant on an alley off Fourth Street. It had tile-topped tables and a couple of television sets over the bar. Even with the convention in town, we found a table. The food was good and a couple of Dos Equis lowered the tension level.
"Do you think the cats will be okay together in Nina's, I mean, my place." I was still coming to terms with my late friend's apartment being mine. Along with the cat and the apartment building, Thor Mulligan had been Nina's too, and she had been gone five months now.
"When I last saw them, they were cuddled up together on the sofa." Mulligan smiled.
The eye contact lasted long enough to make me feel shy all at once. "They've been doing that." We both finished our beers and ordered seconds. I took off the blazer.
Raoul, the cat who could say his own name, was a huge gray Persian I had inherited from Nina. Then a few months ago, Mulligan had brought home a little black bundle of fur and curiosity he named La Niña. Dismayed by the tiny kitten, Raoul had hissed and retreated throughout the first day every time she bounced up to say hello. It had taken two days before he consented to stretch out his head and touch noses with her.
Then he had licked the top of her head, around her ears and finally all over. By the end of the day they wound up curled around each other like a yin-yang symbol.
Mulligan and I had come close to that degree of intimacy for one passionate encounter a few months earlier. After that he had backed away. Over the next few months we had been getting to know each other tentatively. We lingered over another beer, the feeling of being together in a strange city seemed to bring us closer.
We walked back to his hotel with crowds of lunching office workers shouldering past us. "Want to come up for a moment?" He took my hand.
"Okay." I hadn't got round to telling him about the reservation in Sonoma.
Mulligan's room seemed nice. I had a vague impression of dusty rose and maroon walls, curtains and bedspread before he closed the door by pressing me up against it in an urgent kiss that I returned with interest. The last few months of cautious distance seemed to dissolve. I did unpin my hair. We wound up in very short order sprawled on the hotel bed and seriously approaching the yin-yang stage, when a hammering at the door was followed by a yelling, "Open up, it's the police."
"Oh, come on!" was my reaction.
But Mulligan got up and we both adjusted our clothing, and I pulled the rumpled covers back over the bed while he went to look out the peephole and open the door. Two men burst into the room. For some reason I thought of Yogi Bear and his smaller buddy Boo Boo. It must have been the porkpie hat and short tie on the larger one and the smaller one's air of looking around the room as if jelly donuts were stashed somewhere.
The larger man was about six feet tall and Mulligan's age, maybe a little older, with gray stubble on his cheeks, receding salt-and-pepper hair and a strong odor of stale coffee, as if he had spritzed some on as an after shave. He wore a shirt and tie and a baggy gray sport coat with a tweed pattern that alternated between pavement gray and pond scum green. His companion, a head shorter, light-skinned African American, with gray-streaked hair cut very short, glanced around the hotel room as if he were memorizing it. He wore a sport coat in a brown/beige herringbone pattern over an open-necked polo shirt—no hat. Both men had the air of having just been released from a rehab facility and handed clothing from a charitable thrift store bin on the way out.
Mulligan was ecstatic to see them. Sure enough, old army buddies. The one I thought of as Yogi was actually named Harvey, and Boo Boo was Wally. They had gone from the army into the security business. I stifled a sigh. Meeting these guys was the main purpose of the trip. Mulligan would be preoccupied.
[Josephine visits Lambert's Lair Winery later that day and discovers a dead body in a wine barrel. Thelma, Wolf's supersized porn film star, is one of the leading suspects and Josephine finds herself in the midst of a feud between some of the most powerful wine families in the valley. Her day job heats up when the charity Mrs. Madrone asked her to investigate appears to be a front for an anti-abortion movement headed by a gun-toting, self-righteous woman who takes an instant dislike to Jo. Will Mulligan understand Jo's involvement with the plus-sized porn industry? Will Jo be able to dig herself out of this TON OF TROUBLE?]
© Lynne Murray