A Novel

Chapter 34: Flash Flood (Confusion)

Half an hour later » Back at the grain elevator office » Ellen West in a chair, blindfolded and bound, lip split and bleeding. The blood, so close in shade to her lipstick, was like a shimmering intensification of the color of her lipstick, like the color overflowing itself.

Ora Thomas stood beside her, pointing a gun at her head. The night auditor was working at his desk in the corner. He stood up and walked toward the door. He said, "I left something in the scale house."

The girl was very beautiful. It was easy to see how she had entrapped Camden. Durney wondered how a girl so lovely could be so foul, so treacherous? How could someone so young be so knowledgeable, manipulative, corrupted? But maybe she wasn't so young, or so pretty, as she appeared. It was difficult to know with women. They had all kinds of techniques for making themselves appear younger, prettier.

Durney asked her, not that he really cared, "Did they hurt you?"

She was beautiful, but when she spoke, the blood on her teeth made her look repulsive, like a whore with lipstick smeared on her teeth: "Yes, yes they did. Where am I? What's going on? I'm afraid. Can you take this blindfold off of me?"

Her vulnerability sickened him. He approached her, the trailer floor creaking with each step. "These are the words," he said, and he hallucinated the words floating in the diminishing space between himself and the girl, until he passed right through them: "'It's not very nice to get hurt,' is it? Especially such a pretty girl like you. 'What's your name?' Those were the words," and he looked back at them, floating there behind him.

A towboat on the river blew its air horn. The machinery of the grain elevator was so loud. Durney felt more and more enraged, but he knew that outside the shack the sound of corn pouring into the barges would be like a peaceful waterfall, and he tried to subdue his growing anger by conjuring in his mind the peaceful sound of that waterfall.

Again she asked, "Where am I? Is this some kind of factory? Who are you?"

Ignoring her questions, Durney asked his own, "Are you the Blonde Bombshell?" It bothered him that her name was so close to Blondie's.

She nodded. "My name is Ellen West. They sometimes called me the Blonde Bombshell."

He clenched his fist: "What do you mean, they 'called' you the Blonde Bombshell?"

With trembling lips she said, "They call me the Blonde Bombshell."

The famous Blonde Bombshell. Durney knew about her—long before Camden ever met her. She was notorious: an adventuress and a whore. The Blonde Bombshell, so unlike Blondie, so filled with guilt and sin. What excuses did she have to tell herself, or what drugs did she have to take, before she could fall asleep at night? Durney asked her, "What were you doing tonight, when you were picked up?"

"I wasn't doing anything. I was just coming home from work."

"Where's that?"

"The Marina, the Rainbow Cove Marina, on the river, between De Pue and Marquette."

"What's your job at the Marina?"

"I wait tables."

"That's not all you do. What's your job at the Marina?"

For a while, she sat in silence, and Durney wondered what she was thinking. She had ruined his grandson, the star of the football team, the hero of Tiskilwa: she ought to be thinking plenty. Was she still dangerous, even now, bound, blindfolded, and brutalized? A woman like this, her strength and her danger are not diminished by violence. He wished he could see her eyes. The eyes were where the cunning would reveal itself. She said, "I'm a hostess and a bartender on the Obvion, a motor yacht that runs river cruises."

"Are you a roper for Todd Menocken?"

"No. Yes, maybe I did once or twice."

Durney said, "A few weeks ago you roped somebody. Tell me what happened."

"I don't know what you mean—." Ora pressed the muzzle of his gun into her head.

Durney shouted: "Don't lie to me! I know that ship is a floating fag parlor. A few weeks ago, somebody new was on that ship. What did he do?"

"It isn't—, he didn't do anything, nothing I know about. Did Delaney send you? Please let me talk to him; I can explain everything."

Durney gently grasped her chin with his right hand. Blood from her lip trickled down his wrist.

Delaney, Delaney, Delaney. That name.

Durney stared at Ellen's lips; he became fascinated by the color of her lipstick. He asked her, "Is that Mary Kay brand lipstick you're wearing?"

Her jaw was almost immobilized by the tightening grip of his hand, and she was barely able to speak as she said, "I don't understand."

He shook his head, as if shaking himself out of a trance: "Nevermind. You're a gutter slut, a sewer slut. Everybody knows that. You're lying. The new guy: you said you roped him. So what did he do?"

"I never roped him. Not really. I don't know anything about it. I just found the body."

I just found the body. The body? Floyd Hotchkiss's body? Could she and Camden have discovered Floyd Hotchkiss's body before the nurse did, before Alabama and Ora had removed it? If so, then why hadn't Camden told him so? Careful not to reveal his surprise, but wanting to learn more, Durney asked, "Whose body did you find?"

"Arlie Boswell, but I don't know who killed him. If you say it was the new guy, then you know more than me."

Durney did not know more than she, but he was content for her to think so. "Why don't you just start from the beginning, and that way we won't have to beat it out of you."

Very quickly, she said, "I work at the Rainbow Cove Marina—"

"Who do you work for?"

"Todd Menocken."

"And what kind of work do you do for him?"

"I wait tables and I sometimes tend bar on Todd's river cruises."

"What are Todd's river cruises?"

"Just river cruises. There's nothing special about them."

Durney said to Ora, "Get the Pentothal—I don't have all night, and I'm not in the mood to beat up a girl."

Ellen screamed, "Somebody help me, please, somebody!" But nobody outside the shed would be able to hear her cries, despite the shed's thin walls, because the din of the grain elevator muted all other sounds. A person could fire a gun inside the shed and nobody outside would notice.

Just then, the night auditor returned, carrying a cash bag.

Ora said to him, "Pentothal."

From his desk in the corner, the night auditor prepared a syringe and then brought it to Ora.

Ora unbound Ellen's left arm, and said to her, "Hold steady, or this will get ugly." She struggled as he attempted to extend her left arm, so he gripped her by the wrist, twisted it hard, and said "You stupid slut. I told you to stop," but she wouldn't stop resisting or shreiking. Still holding her wrist, he turned to the night auditor and said, "Pliers."

As if assisting with surgery, the night auditor placed a pair of pliers into the palm of Ora's hand. Ora clamped the pliers onto Ellen's ring fingernail, and said, "Don't move." She became very still. He then ripped the nail off the finger and she screamed. He dropped the pliers onto the trailer floor. As she moaned and wept, Ora extended her arm, found a vein, and injected her with the Pentothal.

She began to relax. They waited.

Durney repeated his question, "What are Todd Menocken's river cruises?"

Placid now, she answered, "Todd brings in wealthy men, queers. Mostly older men. Old queers. They can gamble, drink, and they can pick up young guys, sex boys, renters."

"Male prostitutes?"

"Yes, male clients and male prostitutes. He brings them in from opposite ends of the river: if the queers came from the Peoria end, then the sex boys came from the La Salle end. They never know each other or see each other except on the boat. That's how the queers want it; they're terrified of being blackmailed."

"Who is Arlie Boswell?"

"He was one of the sex boys. Male prostitute. One of Todd's male prostitutes. He lived in Ottawa."

"What happened to him?"

"I don't know. At the end of the night, I was checking the cabins, just like I always do, and I found him in one of them, dead. Naked at the foot of the bed. I told the captain. He had the pilot take the boat back out onto the river. Then he made me—. We brought Arlie's body up to the main deck. We tied Arlie to—I can't remember what it was. Something heavy. We pushed Arlie's body overboard, along with the heavy thing. I guess Arlie sunk to the bottom of the river. I guess that's where he is now."

"And this was the same night the new guy first came on the boat?"


"And you think he was the one who killed Arlie Boswell?"

"He could have."

"What's his name?"

"He was this man, my father worked for. My father always called him Delaney; I don't know if that was his first name or his last name or his real name or his fake name. My father had been working for him since before I was born. His job—"

"Who's job?"

"My father's job. It took him all over the country. My mom and me never knew anything about it, except that he was gone most of the time. I always guessed he must be some sort of traveling salesman.

"Once, when my father came home from a trip, he told me that this man, his boss, Delaney, was going to do him a very special favor, but that he wanted to make sure of it, so he was taking me with him to visit the man. My father told me to just do whatever the man said. I was probably seventeen, almost eighteen. I knew what my father meant. When he told me to do this, it didn't surprise me. I was surprised that I wasn't surprised. And I was scared, but not surprised. I don't know why it didn't surprise me. I guess you have to know somebody before you can be surprised by something they do. I guess I didn't know my father very well after all. I knew that a father shouldn't be asking his daughter to do that, but I didn't know him well enough to know if he was the kind of person who would ask such a thing. He supported my mom and me and my grandmother, his mother. I never thought to refuse. Besides, I had been with so many men, it didn't even bother me, not really at least.

"We drove all the way into the city, into Chicago. I had only been there a couple times before, on school field trips. But I don't know the city; I don't know where in the city he took me, but it was a hotel. A very nice hotel. The lobby looked like a palace. We went up to a big hotel room. It wasn't like a regular hotel room, but more like an apartment. The bed was in a separate room, a bedroom, and there was a kitchen and a sofa and everything. I was real nervous, not knowing how I was supposed to act, only what I was supposed to do, but not knowing when or how I was supposed to do what I was supposed to do.

"My father was trying to convince the man, Delaney, to buy a factory. I just remember my father telling Delaney that it was a sure win for him, for Delaney. My father had a big stack of folders which he gave to Delaney. He was trying to get Delaney to buy a factory in Elmville. Harper-Wyman.

"My dad kept saying that he'd worked for Delaney over twenty years, and when had he ever asked for anything special? Delaney would only say that he'd think about it and that he'd have to ask the other partners first.

"So then my dad turned to me, and said that Delaney would like to get to know me a little better, that he'd told him all about me, and that he'd done so much for us. That he was like a second father to me, even though I never knew it, but that all these years he'd been helping us out. That Delaney would like to get to know me better. Why didn't I go with Delaney into the other room and just tell him about what I do, about school and my hobbies, and he gave me a look which meant to remember that I should do whatever Delaney wanted.

"I knew what to do. Like I said, I was old enough to know what he meant, and I had already done a lot worse for a lot less. So I went with Delaney into the bedroom.

"Delaney seemed awkward and unwilling. I had the impression he felt forced into having sex with me. I had already been working on Todd's boats, and I recognized the disgust in his eyes as he looked at my naked body. He was just like all the other queers. A woman's body practically makes them sick. But he somehow managed to do it—I knew why too. He was afraid my father would find out he was a faggot. They're all afraid, the faggots are. They're all the same.

"Still, I felt kind of sorry for him, having to go through with it, and he was nice to me. That was when I told him about Todd's cruises. I said, if he was ever down near Elmville, that he would enjoy one of these cruises. I told him he could meet younger guys who would like to do what he likes to do, and nobody would ever know. But I could tell he was bothered that I knew, and he denied that he was a faggot. I realized he was afraid I would tell my father, he was so ashamed of it, of himself.

"When we came out of the bedroom, Delaney played up his part, saying he felt pretty sure he and the partners would be interested in buying Harper-Wyman.

"My father obviously thought his plan had worked—that Delaney had been bought off with me, with sex. I felt kind of proud too, to be able to do something for my father and for the family. But I knew the real reason was because he was worried I would tell my father that he was a faggot, and that my father would use it against him if he didn't do what my father wanted him to do. Same difference I guess.

"I never saw him again, until a few weeks ago, when he turned up on one of the cruises. We pretended not to know each other—that's the drill anyway, and he seemed relieved when he realized I wouldn't act like I knew him. I guess I hadn't mentioned that I also worked on the boats, so he probably wasn't expecting to see me.

"I don't know if he was the one who went with Arlie that night. There's always so much going on during these cruises, until all the men get below deck with their sex boys. We run the boat up and down the river while the men are down below deck having sex or whatever they do. Sometimes someone will come back up to the salon for another cocktail.

"After an hour, we return to the Marina. I go down and knock on all the cabin doors to let them know the cruise is over. Once all the passengers have left the boat, I go back down to check the cabins to make sure everyone's off the boat, and that everything's in order for the maid who comes on board to clean in the morning. So there was really no way to know who had done that to Arlie. His poor handsome head: I like the spot on the top where the part ends and the hair swirls around it in every direction. That was the only part of Arlie's head that I could see, but I recognized him right away, even naked."

She stopped talking, and her story seemed to end there. She had revealed nothing about Camden, as far as Durney could tell.

Durney said, "So one of Todd's sex boys is dead and lying at the bottom of the river. That's too bad: I only wish Todd were still alive, and I could blackmail him with it."

Ellen asked, "What do you mean?"

"Your pal Todd Menocken—"

"No, he's not my pal, I just—"

"Is dead. The Marina is a firepile. It's falling down all around you. It's all over for the Blonde Bombshell. It's over."

She sounded almost relieved as she said, "Oh, you must be from Peoria. Harry said this would happen, that Todd even knew it, that he was secretly afraid they were going to rub him out, that they were losing patience with him. Is that what happened? Todd's not my pal; ask Harry. Where's Harry? He'll tell you. I'm on your side."

Peoria? Listening to her talk was like looking through a kaleidoscope, and every time she spoke it was as if somebody had turned the kaleidoscope again. Durney began to wonder if he could trust anything she said. If she could create such shape-shifting stories even while under the influence of Pentothal, then her reputation for cunning was not at all exaggerated.

He said, "You're on our side, are you? Well then, why don't you tell me what Harry told you, and we'll see whose side you're on?"

"Harry said that Todd might have been running the rackets up here, but that he wasn't the real boss. The real bosses are in Peoria. Todd got sucked in by a Peoria syndicate. They started by buying coal and zinc mines along the river. Then Todd helped them smuggle illegal immigrants into De Pue, to work in the mines. In return, the syndicate fenced stolen property for Todd and other favors. It was all small-time stuff at first, but Todd ended up in over his head. Before long he was working for them, not just with them. That's how come Harry came to the Marina, and how he could be so rude to Todd and get away with it. Todd knew Harry was Peoria's boy, an open spy. Harry said they kept pressuring Todd to expand his operations, but that Todd resisted because he didn't want to start a turf war. Harry said the Peoria syndicate didn't really care what Todd wanted anymore, and then they found out that Todd was getting involved in labor racketeering on the side, which really angered the bosses in Peoria."

Stymied by her information, Durney struggled to make sense of it all.

She asked, with disappointment in her voice, "You don't work for Peoria, do you? You must work for Delaney. Maybe he did kill Arlie, and he sent you to silence me? Who do you work for? Or you are from Peoria, and they think I know too much, and they want me dead?"

He couldn't answer her.

She asked, "Or are you somebody else? How many bad guys are there?"

Ora looked at Delaney, as if he too would like an answer to that question. Delaney turned away from her and stared up at the drop ceiling. He said, "You've been there enough: didn't you ever wonder why there aren't any elm trees in Elmville?"


Durney began to repeat himself, "Didn't you ever wonder why there aren't any elm trees—?"

"No, I mean, it's just that my father used to say that sometimes."

"Well did he say this too: have you ever seen a grain elevator explosion? It's not really an explosion at all. It's just fire spreading through the air on the back of grain dust particles, in every direction, so quickly that it has the force and the appearance of an explosion. But it's just fire traveling through the air on the back of grain dust. What do you think we should do with you?"

"Kill me," she said. "Please don't torture me, I'm begging you. I don't know who you are, but I'm afraid of you. I've done terrible things. I don't know if that makes me one of the bad guys. God only knows what I got for any of it. Please just kill me; I'm so tired of being afraid."

"No, I think we'll give you a little more Pentothal, dump your body into a drainage ditch, and let all your filthy truth leach out of you. Then you can wake up and try to find your way back home."