Lisa Thomas is a street-smart good time girl with stunning looks, a weakness for alcohol, and a genius for attracting (and being attracted to) Mr. Wrong. Her latest mistake is a country rock singer named Ronnie Stark whose side business is dealing narcotics. He becomes physically abusive when she refuses to be his mule. She wants him gone from her life. As leverage, she steals a flash drive, thinking it contains compromising files concerning his narcotics business. Soon after, she is arrested on a false charge of dealing cocaine. The mastermind behind the frame is actually one Carl Clanton, the older half-brother of Ronnie and boss of a criminal organization based in Tucson, but with tentacles throughout Arizona. Her less than brilliant ex-lover Ronnie had himself secretly copied these incriminating files from Carl’s computer onto the flash drive thinking they might be useful to him at some point.
Carl will go to any lengths to force Lisa to return the flash drive. In his corner is a bent cop and a malicious prison guard, both on his payroll, a public defender who owes him bigtime, a powerful figure in the background who Carl refers to as his Protector, and other assorted thugs and low-life. In her corner Lisa has some powerful allies of her own, the close knit team of the four PI’s of Gus Engstrom and Associates, Gus’ FBI brother who specializes in RICO investigations, Rocky Maestras, founder and CEO of the foremost private investigative agency in Arizona, Llewellyn Theodore (“Teddy”) Miller, a retired legal superstar, and Rose Thomas, her much older half-sister who is also the significant other of Gus. However, Lisa is reluctant to involve them fearing that they could become collateral damage.
Origin of Hellhole:
The Clanton brothers and old Ike Clanton, the patriarch, are typically associated with Tombstone in the popular mind. However, another branch of the Clanton’s settled in Hellhole. Long before there was a Hellhole Casino, Hellhole was an outlaw haven. In fact, Hellhole was born and earned its name back in the 1870’s. It was given the name by a member of one of the outlaw gangs of the old Arizona Territory. He might have belonged to a gang of bank or stagecoach robbers, or a gang of cattle rustlers, a favorite pastime of the Clanton’s. His identity is lost to posterity, but the name Hellhole stuck. Tombstone, the wide open silver mining town that defined the west in the popular mind, became notorious and celebrated, whereas Hellhole largely remained a secret, and because of its location, pretty much left alone.
The way into Hellhole passes through a narrow canyon. This accident of geography made Hellhole a natural and easily defended place of refuge for the outlaw cattle rustlers, stage coach robbers, and those who liked to make unauthorized withdrawals from territorial banks. One enterprising member of the Clanton clan saw an opportunity. Somehow he raised some capital and built the Lucky Lady Saloon as well as a general store. Must have decided that life as a merchant-innkeeper was a darn sight less dangerous and over the long haul more lucrative than the outlaw life. The store is long gone but the Lucky Lady survives, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hellhole became a reasonably safe and secure haven for outlaws in search of rest and recuperation, and for planning the next job. A wanted man could be assured of a fresh horse, a restful night in a real bed, a lady’s attention if he had the urge and the money, a good supper and a hearty breakfast. The story goes that if he happened to have in his possession a wanted poster with his mug on it, that was good for a free glass of whiskey at the Lucky Lady.
In the 1890’s the mines that had fueled Tombstone were played out. Tombstone survived by remaking itself into a kind of theme park that celebrates its colorful history. However, Hellhole went into a decline. Prohibition probably saved the Lucky Lady from extinction, providing employment to a circle of small timers who hung around, maybe out of nostalgia for the former glory days.
A sample of the narrative:
The big guard with the neck tats and shaved head was making the rounds, checking cell doors, making sure they were closed. He opened Lisa’s and then closed it with a sharp clang. It jarred her eardrums. He threw her a mean look followed by a snort and walked away.
Lisa stood watching him recede down the corridor and then sat down on the bottom bunk of her six by eight cell. She sat motionless for several minutes, her hands clutching the sides of the bunk and her eyes staring down at the cement floor. Time had dragged but it had to be late evening by now, after nine anyway. She’d been in this miserable cell since early afternoon. The odor from an open steel toilet that hadn’t seen a cleaning brush in some time made her stomach queasy.
Where was Rose, her big sister? Probably still fifteen hundred miles away, up on the Olympic Peninsula with the new man in her life. Her one phone call to Rose had gone to voice mail. Lisa had left an urgent message, saying she was in jail on a phony charge of dealing coke and pleading for Rose’s help.
She began to sob and feel very sorry for herself, very small and vulnerable, like one of those little Arizona rabbits she’d see in the morning from a window of her apartment, happy with life until a sly coyote carried it off.
Give them what they want and the charges would maybe go away, the cop had whispered to her. But if you continue your little game, he had said, things could go very bad for you. She had kept that exchange to herself and not disclosed that part of her ordeal to the shit-for-brains public defender they’d dug up for her.
Lisa had also thought over what she would reveal and what she would keep to herself when she finally made contact with her big sister. She resolved not to tell Rose about the memory stick, not yet, anyway. She didn’t want to burden her sister with information that would add to her worries.
She was afraid if she told her sister too much, she or that big dude of hers, Gus, might go charging in and do something to make it worse. It could put them all in danger. She also suspected that the walls had ears. She would keep to that resolve.
Her life was spinning out of control, ever since she had met Ronnie. She tried lying down on the lower bunk. Maybe she could sleep. Pretend this wasn’t happening. Lying down gave some relief to her tired body, but it didn’t still her busy mind.
She recalled the early January evening at an upscale north end club, the Excelsior. She had gone alone to check out a new band that was receiving a lot of attention. They played an eclectic mix of country and blues. Like her older sister Rose, country was in her blood.
Rose would tune in a favorite country station and sing along with the female artists, practicing their styles. That was almost thirty years ago, the memories still sharp. Little five-year old Lisa thought that her grown-up sister had a voice as good as her idols.
Lisa remembered being in the second grade when Rose had taken the Greyhound to Nashville. Would have made it big, Lisa was sure, but Rose met the wrong man, full of promises but short on delivery. Rose returned two months later, her dreams in shambles, her career derailed. Years later Rose told Lisa the full story, maybe as a cautionary tale about the kind of men to avoid. If only she had listened, really listened.
When Lisa saw Ronnie, it was the closest she had ever come to love at first sight. He was singing and playing to her as if she were the only person in the audience. He had come over to her table after the set. He’d simply sat down in the chair closest to her and said, “Hi, I’m Ronnie.” Told her how great she looked.
He admitted he had been playing to her. She inspired him, he said. Couldn’t she feel it, he asked. It was too much. She dropped her initial indifference act, took his left hand in hers and rested it between her thighs. She emitted a throaty yes, barely able to speak.
“We’ll take my car,” he said next.
“What about mine?”
“Leave it here. It will be safe. I’ll drive you back in the morning.”
Lisa was mesmerized by his confidence. He took her hand and gently drew her from her chair. The thought that she might have a choice never entered her mind.
“Frankie, I’m leaving for the evening,” he said to the manager on the way out.
So he could just walk out on the other musicians, and no big deal, she thought. He obviously wasn’t one of the paid help. “See you,” said Frankie the manager. “Say hi to your bro for me.”
“Sure thing,” he replied.
In time she learned that everyone always said much the same, Say hi to your bro. They were eager to keep on this big brother’s good side, not because they liked him, but because he was a person to be feared.
He led her to his car, a late model red Corvette, followed by the drive to his impressive two thousand square foot condo on the top floor of an exclusive high-rise. She remembered being in a kind of haze and wouldn’t have cared if it had been a cramped studio in South Tucson.
For the first two days, they didn’t leave the condo. In the first weeks of their liaison the sex was achingly good. Ronnie would take the time to love her whole body, leisurely and expertly, bringing her to a state of utter depletion and contentment. He was expert at holding his climax until she was sated. Though as soon as he had his climax, he would turn indifferent, ignore her. In turn, she ignored the hurt. She loved him. It was just his way.
During those first weeks, Ronnie became her drug, replacing booze as her drug of choice. While that knowledge no doubt stroked his ego, Ronnie had a different agenda. He was grooming her for a role in his narcotics operation. He wanted her to be his mule and make deliveries for him. She wanted no part of it.
So the battles started, the shouting, the cajoling. He brought it up continually. “You’d earn some real money. You could move from that dump you live in.” That hurt. Lisa didn’t think her one bedroom in a well-maintained apartment complex was a dump. The complex even had a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi.
The sex became less frequent and the urge to drink returned. On too many nights she became a sloppy drunk. Ronnie didn’t like women drunks. He told her she was disgusting. He walked out on her, saying he’d find a real woman who knew the score. She moped in her apartment and drank, not showing up at the salon for her shift, and was let go.
Eventually, Ronnie came around wanting her back. Like a moth to the flame she returned to him. It happened twice during those spring months.
Her sister Rose became her support. Rose had never liked Ronnie. Lisa knew that she was secretly relieved with each break-up. Before Rose left mid-June with her new man for a summer in the Pacific Northwest, she had persuaded Lisa to enter an inpatient rehab program. Inspired by her sister’s confidence in her, Lisa had pledged to start a new life that wouldn’t include Ronnie.
Lisa had emerged six weeks later healthy and with the mental tools to beat down the craving. Then she had thrown away her freedom in one evening. The pull had been Ronnie, his voice, not alcohol. Throughout these last bad weeks, she had not returned to the bottle. That at least was something to hold onto.
She heard a guard bringing another prisoner down the hall. They stopped at her door.
“Hello Lisa, looks like you’re getting some company,” the guard said. “Maybe one of your customers.”
Lisa glared at the guard. He was a new one, even bigger and uglier than the one that had clanged her cell door. Pig, she thought, but didn’t say it, not even under her breath. The guard opened the cell and this new girl waltzed in. She was not wearing jailhouse orange. She sported a skin tight skirt, bright pink, and a loose blouse that showed plenty of cleavage. This bitch was still dressed for the streets.
“Thank you, Ralph,” she said to the guard. She was obviously a regular. Lisa figured her for a working girl paying her dues. But she had the air of a lady in control.
“Well, have a nice evening, you two,” Ralph said.
Was this guy for real? Being alone was bad enough, but the prospect of sharing a cell was even worse. She remembered back to her previous time in jail. They had put her in with a scary cell mate who was intent on making Lisa her bitch.
After the guard left, the girl said, “Hi, I’m Robin, like the bird.” She leaned into Lisa’s face. “Tweet, tweet.” Some spittle landed on Lisa’s cheek. Don’t flinch. You’ll just make it worse. Lisa was starting to be afraid all over again.
Robin stepped back and looked Lisa over. “Hmm, they said you were tasty goods. Before we get down to cases, you should know that I’m not here by accident. Shithead, that’s your Ronnie incidentally, shouldn’t have been so careless with his stuff.”
In spite of being scared, Lisa shot back, “Then tell Ronnie to leave me the hell alone. He doesn’t own me. When I’m convinced he’s out of my life, then I’ll get this precious piece of plastic he calls his memory stick back to him.”
“You’ve got it wrong, lady. This isn’t about Ronnie. This is a whole lot bigger. The sooner you realize that, pretty lady, maybe you get to walk. Maybe we make this nightmare go away. We’ll take care of Ronnie at this end.”
It suddenly became clear to Lisa. The stick had to contain more than Ronnie’s private files. So should she tell them where it was hidden? But then what? All she had wanted to do was get an insurance policy to protect her from Ronnie’s abuse. Get him to leave her alone and realize that their affair was over, that he should move on. She thought that what she had nicked had value only for Ronnie. But it now appeared that she had inserted herself between Ronnie and a higher up, someone far more dangerous.
“What do you mean, this is a whole lot bigger?”
“You really are clueless. Huh, Carl was wondering about that.”
Carl. That was the name of the brother, Lisa remembered. What she had taken must have originally belonged to this shadowy figure Carl, Ronnie’s older brother.
“I get it now,” Lisa said, “Ronnie must have stolen it from Carl in the first place.”
“Not quite. No way Carl would leave a stick lying around with all his important files on it. But Shithead’s stupid enough to think he can sneak in and copy the boss’s files and get away with it. And then you go steal it from Ronnie. That’s piling stupid on stupid.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because you are going to give the stick, as you call it, back to us, and forget we ever had this conversation. Go on living your dull life. You can stop worrying that Ronnie will be a part of it. We don’t want you to be involved with Shithead either.”
But some instinct told Lisa that giving it back might be even more dangerous. She couldn’t trust them. They would let her rot in jail, or maybe worse.
“What if I want to keep it as insurance?”
“You sure are dumb, girl.” With her left hand, Robin did a lightning grab of Lisa’s wrist, spun her ninety degrees and pinned Lisa’s arm behind her back. Using her right hand, Robin squeezed Lisa’s clavicle, expertly finding the pressure point. The maneuver instantly triggered a piercing pain.
“Ow, you’re hurting me. Stop or I’ll scream. The guards will come.”
Robin released her. “You call that pain? You don’t know from pain. Besides it won’t do you any good to scream. Ralph’s my friend. He won’t do anything even if he believes you. He wants his freebie.”
Robin grabbed her again. Robin knew a lot about pressure points and how to inflict pain. She had learned them from her first pimp as a means of protection. He’d been good to her. Maybe she should have been more appreciative, but then Carl spotted her, assessed her talents, and brought her into the organization. Robin squeezed a little harder on the same spot. But this time Lisa gritted her teeth and didn’t cry out.
“I could hurt you real bad. We want to know where it is. You will tell us. Maybe not tonight. I was told to be nice. Maybe you’re not totally dumb. You will tell us without making a big fuss.”
Lisa didn’t reply, just rubbed her shoulder area where Robin had inflicted the pain.
“Hey Ralph. Ralph,” Robin shouted. When he appeared, she said, “Ralphie darling, get me out of this cell. This bitch has a big problem. She tried to feel me up.”
The fear that Robin might return kept Lisa from sleep. She kept expecting another visit from Ralph or Robin Tweet-Tweet or one of her cronies, although at times she almost looked forward to another visit from Robin. It might give her a break from the turmoil of her mind as she lay on her bunk hoping for sleep.
About three she had finally fallen into a deep coma-like sleep. A respite that lasted only a brief three hours before the lights came on. She was jarred awake by Ralph banging on the bars. “Rise and shine, pretty lady. I got some breakfast for you.”
He told her to stand at the back of her cell. He opened the cell door, stooped down, and gave the tray a shove inside. Half the coffee slopped onto the tray. Lisa saw him look up at her and break into a mean-looking grin.
“My bad,” he said. “Can’t help it. You’re such a hot number, I get all wobbly inside.”
Lisa said nothing. Just stared back at him.
“It’s not right. I’ve got to do something about it. You’ve got to help me out here, if you get my meaning.” He stood back up, grabbed his crotch and walked back down the corridor. She stood in place for a good minute, shaking inside, before getting hold of herself. She managed a shrug and sat down on her bunk.
She wasn’t hungry, too whacked out from lack of sleep to be hungry. She poked at the watery cereal and the rubbery egg, ate a few bites of the cold toast, and drank what was left of the coffee. It gave her something to do.
The sight of the tray suddenly made her nauseous. She pushed it back against the cell door and lay back down on her bunk. She cried to herself, barely audible soft sobs, her mind a merry-go-round of disjointed thoughts and anchorless images.