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Paradise Misplaced - 1st Chapter Forgotten Tales of China - Chapters 1 - 4 The Second Best Time - 1st Chapter
Paradise Misplaced - 1st Chapter Forgotten Tales of China - Chapters 1 - 4 The Second Best Time - 1st Chapter
by Lisa April Smith
The trial had everything an ambitious prosecuting attorney could want: a solid case against a known crime-lord and a seductively beautiful witness with a steamy past — ingredients guaranteed to pack a courtroom. From the minute the first photographer had caught a glimpse of Tina Davis the courtroom had been swarming with reporters. It was a plum assignment awarded for Jake Stern’s fourteen years with the District Attorney’s office and his impressive ratio of convictions. He should be savoring the certain win everyone had been predicting, jubilant with the publicity. Instead, as he watched her testify, he was irritated and agitated — irritated, agitated, and aroused — again.
He had specifically told her to dress conservatively -- nothing low-cut or too short — appearances influenced juries. Today she was wearing a white knit turtleneck dress that flaunted every provocative curve — another outfit destined to make the six o’clock news. They couldn’t get enough of her: the sexy walk, the clothes, the face. Her face. Each feature in itself was memorable: high cheekbones, delicately carved nose, precisely drawn mouth, and enormous, violet, heavy-lashed eyes. A mass of dark brown, writhing curls framed her face. Reporters battled one another describing her. One reporter insisted that she ‘combined the sensual and the serene’. But despite their overblown sketches they all used the same label to identify her: Tina Davis, Former Mob-Mistress.
From the time she was fifteen until she was twenty-nine, Tina Davis, born Bettina Berenson thirty-nine years earlier, was the mistress of several underworld titans. At thirty-one, she had married Laurence Paxton Davis, flower-child turned drug-dealer. Jake had deliberately outlined her history in his opening statement. He had no intention of giving the defense an opportunity to shock the jury with the lurid details after she testified. Jake knew, if he told the jury right up front that Tina Davis had chosen to consort with the scum of the universe, they might not like her, but they would believe her. The maneuver seemed to be working. The eight men and four women of the jury nodded sympathetically as she testified. And she was a good witness; she spoke slowly and distinctly and her story was consistent.
The defendant’s attorney was unable to hide his growing frustration. “You’ve testified that your late husband was a drug dealer. Wasn’t he also an addict?”
Jake stood. “Objection, Your Honor. It’s already been established that Larry Davis used drugs. Mr. Willard is repeating himself in an attempt to badger the witness.”
The judge shot the cynical stare Her Honor was noted for at Tom Willard. “Objection sustained. Please get on with it, Mr. Willard.”
Jake allowed himself a pleased inner smile, confident his stony face would mask his thoughts. It was almost fun watching him sputter like a defective firecracker as he attempted to derail her. Back in law school, Willard was an arrogant, pretentious ass — an ass who enjoyed waving his money in everyone’s face. But he was no fool. The slightest indication of weakness and he would go for the jugular.
“You claim, Mrs. Davis, your husband died owing my client twenty-five thousand dollars, and that my client tried to collect the debt from you. Supposedly, he sent the two men who testified earlier, to threaten you. We’ve heard a lot of fuzzy, distorted tapes that supposedly support your assertion. May I remind you, those two convicted criminals have admitted, under oath, they’re receiving consideration in the form of reduced sentences for their testimony?” “Is there a question here, Mr. Willard?” the judge prodded.
“Just getting to that, Your Honor. As I was saying, twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money to most people. It certainly is to me,” Willard informed the jury. “But as Mr. Stern pointed out, you have some powerful intimate associates.” A number of people, including three members of the jury, tittered. “Intimate associates with considerable financial resources. If what you claim is true, why didn’t one of your very close friends come to your aid?”
Jake didn’t wait for Willard to complete the sentence before standing. “Irrelevant, Your Honor.”
“Sustained,” the judge declared.
Jake would have loved to hear the answer to that one. Why hadn’t she gone to one of her former playmates for help? Jake was aware of two who outranked the defendant. Either one could drop twenty-five thousand dollars on a bet and never flinch. Surely one of them could have given or loaned her the money, or at the very least, pressured the defendant to cut her a deal.
Instead she had waltzed into the nearest precinct and offered to get the cops enough evidence for a conviction — volunteered to wear a wire. Volunteers always made Jake nervous. Nervous and suspicious. What made her so anxious to repeatedly risk her life? Over a period of three months, with a recording device neatly tucked in her handbag, Davis had strolled into parts of the city that seasoned officers were reluctant to patrol. Then she had to pretend not to understand or hear, so the threats would have to be repeated. That sort of hot-dog heroics could have gotten her killed.
Jake shook his head. The cops she worked with idolized her. How could cops admire a woman who had chosen to live with gangsters, the very men they saw as their enemies? But cops have their own set of rules. If they had to list the traits they admired most, ‘courage’ would be at the top. Of course, her looks didn’t hurt. When the detectives had first played a few of the tapes for him, they stood around laughing and punching each other — like kids reliving a Halloween prank. Jake knew they viewed most prosecutors as educated, spineless, chicken-shits who got in their way — and that didn’t exclude him.
Normally women with her sort of background had horrendous childhoods. But Davis’ mother wasn’t a prostitute and her father wasn’t a pimp. She was born into a typical middle-class family — two parents, a brother, a sister — a family like the one Jake had lost. And she had grown up in Queens, less than three miles from his old neighborhood.
“My husband died trying to stop a fight,” Davis said in answer to Willard’s latest question. She crossed her legs and replaced a curl behind her ear. “My husband was a pacifist.”
The gesture made the bulge in Jake’s shorts quiver. She was a beautiful woman, an exceptionally beautiful woman. But he had a girlfriend, who was everything he wanted in a woman: educated, young, from a good family, attractive — not just attractive, pretty, very pretty. Tina Davis was not a person he would choose as a friend, much less a date. Maybe he could be more sympathetic if she was stupid or just ignorant, like most of the city’s sidewalk hostesses. But she was neither stupid nor ignorant. During preparation for the trial, Jake had had a number of conversations with her. She asked intelligent questions and anticipated his strategies while taunting him with those searing eyes or smiling that knowing smile. And she always carried a book with her — good books, not junk — Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust. A Jewish mob-bimbo who read Proust. Nothing about Tina Davis made sense.
The judge consulted her watch. It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, an unseasonably hot Friday afternoon. They were minutes away from halting for the weekend. During their last break, the two detectives who had worked with Davis had unnerving news for Jake. There was a contract out on her.
She was gutsy, but she wasn’t going to laugh that throaty little laugh when Jake informed her that someone planned to silence her permanently.
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Sister Purisima’s Decision
Sister Purisima thrust her swollen, arthritic hands deep within the folds of her habit. It was cool for October; cool enough to give her a taste of what winter would have in store for her. Passing a group of teenage girls skipping rope she took her favorite place in the schoolyard, next to a brick wall warmed by the afternoon sun. Her experienced eyes scanned the large yard for the occasional dispute or other potential problem. Finding none, she concentrated her attention on the solitary thirteen-year-old daydreaming on the other side of the schoolyard. Bettina seemed content enough as she leaned against the iron fence, though she would occasionally gaze at the clusters of girls nearby. After six weeks at St. Bernadette’s the girl still hadn’t made any friends. She was a shy student who did not raise her hand in class to be called on and never had to be reprimanded for talking. Although, the youngest in her class she was more physically developed than the other girls. Perhaps, Sister Purisima thought, it was her premature development that set her apart. The idea of a child trapped in that ripe body worried Sister Purisima. She was pragmatic. It was a far easier task for the Devil to enlist weak, immoral men to corrupt pretty girls than their plainer sisters.
She was also aware that the other teachers treated the girl differently. It wasn’t, she thought, that nuns who dedicated their lives to God would ever knowingly mistreat the child, but she had overheard three of her fellow sisters discussing Bettina.
“After all,” Sister Angelica had said, “wasn’t Our Lord himself born a Jew?”
But Sister Angelica had also suggested that Bettina’s eyes seemed to conceal something sinful, wicked — and the others quickly agreed. Too quickly, it seemed to Sister Purisima.
She liked the child. Bettina was a good student, who turned in her work on time — with lovely penmanship, not like most students who came to them from the public schools. Sister Purisima recalled the day she met Bettina Berenson. It was the third day of school. Formal admissions had been completed months earlier. Her afternoon tea had been interrupted when the lay administrator requested she speak to a woman waiting in Mother Superior’s office. Normally, teachers were not called upon to handle these things, but Mother was meeting with the Monsignor that day, and because of her age and seniority, she was next in line. Mrs. Berenson had insisted it was an emergency. Sister Purisima instantly disliked the strident-voiced woman. She reminded Mrs. Berenson, politely but firmly, that St. Bernadette’s was a Catholic high school — there were no provisions for children of other faiths.
“Has your daughter expressed a desire to convert?” Sister Purisima had asked the woman.
“Absolutely not,” Mrs. Berenson had assured her.
“Then why would a Jewish family choose to send their child to a Catholic school?”
“We own a bar,” Mrs. Berenson had explained. “Customers pay too much attention to her. And they give her money to run errands. Then instead of doing her chores, and helping me like she should, she runs off to the movies.”
Mrs. Berenson had also implied that Catholic schools beat children into submission. As if she, or the other good sisters, would strike a child. Over her many years as a teacher, she had spoken with scores of demanding parents but Mrs. Berenson sorely tested her patience. In the end it was not anything the abrasive woman had said, that convinced Sister Purisima to make an exception. It was Bettina herself — and the book she held in her hand.
“What are you reading, Bettina?” Sister Purisima had asked.
“Vanity Fair, by Thackeray,” she answered softly, in that unlikely throaty voice.
“Do you like to read?”
“Yes Ma’am, I love to read,” Bettina had said.
“Tina’s always got her face in a book, and I’m left with all the work,” her mother had whined.
Sister Purisima had ignored the unpleasant woman. “‘Yes, Sister Purisima’ or ‘Yes, Sister’, not ‘Ma’am’, Bettina. And I’m very happy to hear that you enjoy reading. Nowadays, too few young ladies read. Have you read anything by Pearl Buck — The Good Earth or perhaps one of her other works?”
The quiet girl’s eyes opened wide. “I did, Sister Purisima. I’ve read every book she’s written, that’s in our library,” she said in a manner too startled to be a boast.
Sister Purisima allowed herself a self-congratulatory smile. Her recollections were suddenly interrupted. Across the yard, several girls jumping rope had become too boisterous. She took a few steps towards the offenders. When she saw one of them glance in her direction, she pursed her lips and shook her head. The warning was sufficient. The girls lowered their voices. Let the others criticize her decision to admit the girl, Sister Purisima thought. She had earned her authority, and she was too old, and too arthritic, to be intimidated by their unspoken disapproval. She answered to her conscience, to Mother Superior, and to God, as interpreted by The Holy Church. Sister Purisima automatically crossed herself. Perhaps it would please Him if she could provide a bit of guidance to the soulful girl.
Marciano in the Second Round
After being alternately rejected or ignored by both parents for her first thirteen years, Tina’s life was about to take a dramatic turn. She would remember the topic forever — a brassiere, or rather the lack of one. She had just finished ironing her blouse, and was attempting to button it, but no amount of pulling, rearranging or tucking produced a satisfactory effect. It was simply too tight. On Saturday morning there was no time to fiddle with her clothing. The barroom floors had to be mopped, and the bathrooms needed cleaning before the regulars arrived at ten.
Tina didn’t realize her father had been observing her in the mirror that hung over the couch, until he shouted. “Rose, you got to buy this kid a bra and some clothes that fit her.”
Max readjusted his tie an eighth of an inch and admired the results. “It’s indecent. She’s hanging out of that slip like a whore.”
“Whores are something you know a lot about,” her mother called from the kitchen. From the neck down, hidden under the drab, loose-fitting dress, Rose was an older, slightly plumper version of Tina. Rose always said that Max never noticed anything on a woman above her chest. The accusation was no doubt accurate, because from the neck up, Rose was not a pretty woman. She had a pinched face, with deep-set, lifeless brown eyes, and a muddy complexion. Tina had heard the story of Rose and Max’s first meeting many times, from both their perspectives. They had met at a city pool, an excellent place for Max to be captivated by Rose’s hourglass figure. Rose, on the other hand, missed not one feature of her husband to be. A bit shorter than average, with classic even features, perfect teeth, and a muscular athletic body.
“I’m not kidding, Rose,” Max continued. “Not one goddamn thing Tina owns fits her. Her things look like you bought them from the goddamn rag man. I make more money than any man on this block. I shouldn’t have to be ashamed every time one of my kids leaves the house.”
“I just bought her two uniforms for school. Do you have any idea what those things cost? They cost a fortune — that’s what they cost. Those black-robed biddies don’t care how they spend other people’s money. And you, you don’t know what anything costs. You don’t pay the bills. I pay the bills while you run around with fancy women — work my fingers to the bone running this bar. I had to listen to my mother and become a bookkeeper. Better I should be like your brothers’ wives — too stupid and too lazy to lift a finger. And where do you think you’re going? It’s Saturday, the regulars will be lined up at the door by ten. Nobody washed the barroom floor last night.”
“You want me to stay here and run the bar, then you gripe and groan from the minute you wake up till the minute you go to sleep. You want to know where I’m going? I’m going to try to talk Jim, the best bartender I had in the last ten years, into coming back to work. He walked out last night in a huff, after you accused him of stealing.”
With the exception of discussing her wardrobe, the drama was one performed so regularly that Tina no longer noticed. Her parents would shout at one another, her sister Gloria would sit on the couch and gaze at some ‘Little Lulu’ or ‘Archie” comic book, and she would lie on her bed and read. Soon her father would slam the front door behind him, and all would be quiet again. Today however, before the familiar slam, the production included a surprising new turn. Just as she finished brushing her hair, her father came into the room that she shared with her sister, and threw some money on her bed.
“Here, buy yourself proper underwear and some clothes that fit,” he said. “I’m tired of watching you trying to squeeze yourself into dresses that are too short, and blouses that are too tight.”
Tina was too stunned to respond. Max was not cruel or abusive to his children; mostly he just ignored them. He never asked to see their report cards; never bragged about their grades or looks, never displayed an interest in any of their activities. The only one of his three offspring Max had ever paid any attention to was Douglas, her younger brother. But fourteen months ago polio had taken the playful seven-year-old boy with the appealing over-bite. Losing Dougie, the sole human being Tina could hold and cuddle, had been incredibly painful. Tina knew she and her father were the only ones who continued to grieve. Occasionally she would catch Max glancing at Dougie’s photo that now hung in the hall and see him purse his lips. Her mother and her sister were too absorbed in one another to notice the absence.
Max smiled impishly at her. “From now on, you’re going buy your own things with money from me. Get yourself some dresses, shoes, the works. I want to see you looking sharp — like your old man. Maybe you and me will go out on the town.” He winked solemnly and left.
Tina stared at the door frame until she heard Rose call her by name.
* * *
Tina would always remember the first time she saw Tommy Mallone. In Square Madison Garden, when Rocky Marciano, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, was defending his title against a gifted boxer named Harry Matthews. Someone owed Max a favor and had given him a pair of tenth row seats, eight rows behind Mallone.
When her father turned to talk to the man next to him, Tina had the opportunity to drink in the atmosphere and study the crowd. They had arrived during a preliminary bout. Male voices yelled advice and abuse at the two men who alternated clinching and punching each other. Above the fighters’ heads, and throughout the giant arena, hung a cloud of smoke. The smell was familiar: like the bar, heavy with male sweat, cigarette smoke and beer. As Marciano confidently entered the arena the crowd rose and cheered. Until everyone sat, Tina was unable to see beyond the ring of men surrounding her. The match was initially interesting, but as Marciano showed himself to be clearly in control, the bloodthirsty horde became increasingly loud. Tina turned away.
The last two months had been thrilling. Her father had started taking her with him — not just for a holiday meal at her grandparents’ home with the entire family, just her, on one of his exciting excursions. Max claimed they were related to business, but that did not deceive anyone, least of all, Rose, who made no attempt to conceal her increasing anger at the attention Tina was receiving. When Douglas was alive he accompanied Max and returned with whispered stories about seeing the Yankees take a close one in the ninth, or watching their father entertain a group of men with his stash of salty jokes. Sweet Dougie was always ready to share his spoils: baseballs, souvenirs, candy, and pocketfuls of coins the men had given him — for no reason at all — just for being there with his dad.
After Marciano was declared the winner, Max pushed their way through the exiting throng, toward a group standing ringside. “Do you know who that is?” he asked her. “That’s Tommy Mallone. He’s the man I talk to when I need someone greased. Just smile and be polite when I introduce you to him.”
He was referring to a man with thick black curly hair, ruddy complexion, and marine blue eyes, in the center of the flurry. He was clearly the dominant male. A glamorous woman in a tight, red satin dress, and elaborate hairstyle, clung possessively to his arm. To Tina, the handsome man and his glamorous companion looked as though they had just dropped from a movie screen. Miraculously, he recognized her father.
“Hey, Max, what did you think of the fight?” Mallone called, smiling amiably.
Max shrugged with a frown. “Two crummy rounds? That wasn’t a fight. That was a lover’s quarrel. My grandmother could’ve taken Matthews.”
Mallone threw his head back and laughed his three-dimple laugh, the usual two plus the unexpected one in his chin.
Tina felt her father’s hand on her back urging her closer to Mallone. “Tommy, say ‘hello’ to my daughter Tina.”
“Your daughter, Max? You got to be kidding me. I thought she was your date.” Mallone wrapped his arm around Tina’s shoulder, and for a second stared into her eyes. “So you’re Max’s daughter. You’re going to be some knockout, kid. A knockout. Get it? When you get a little older, you be sure and look me up.” He turned to look at people encircling him, all too pleased to share the joke.
“Tommy honey, don’t we have to be going?” the glamorous woman said.
It wasn’t just that his nails were polished, or that he wore a tuxedo, or even his movie-star looks that set him apart, Tina decided. There was an excitement about him. Tommy Mallone was not like other men. Tommy Mallone was Cinemascope Technicolor and everyone else was nineteen-inch TV black and white. She could feel her face burning. Her shoulder was warm where his arm had perched. Her heart was pounding. Suddenly the new dress, that she had been so pleased with earlier that evening, seemed hopelessly childish.
Another Fire For Jake
Born six months after Tina, Jake had started high school a year later. In a month he would be fifteen. It was mid September and the late afternoon air no longer spoke of summer. Even in Queens, more city than suburb, brightly colored leaves could be spotted on the trees that dotted concrete sidewalks.
As Jake walked home from school, he thought back to basketball practice. Today had been the second day of tryouts. Things had gone well. He was third tallest boy in his class — and the other two couldn’t find their way to the hoop with a seeing-eye dog. Basketball was his favorite sport; and on that particular day, he had found every opening. From any position, it was as though an unseen hand guided his ball to the basket. It was wonderful visualizing himself, hanging in air, floating effortlessly, just out of reach of a dozen grasping hands. With any luck he would make Varsity, the only freshman on the team. He might even be a starter.
As he passed a corner luncheonette, twenty-five paces away a small group of people were clustered on the sidewalk. They were pointing to a grimy six-story building, talking excitedly. Before he could make out sentences, Jake instinctively knew the object of their attention. He turned to the building they were pointing at. He couldn’t see the flames or the smoke but he could smell the sickening combination of fire and terror. His books tumbled to the sidewalk as he backed into a parked car. He tried to catch his breath. His heart was pounding and the muscles in his chest were strangling his heart. Dark waves surged and crashed in his brain. Relying on the fender for support he struggled to maintain his balance.
He was eight years old again — alone in the darkness, choking on the fumes, lost. It was hot and he was frightened. His eyes were burning and filled with tears. He couldn’t find his parents. Why weren’t they there to help him? Frantically, he tried to make his way to their room but unidentifiable objects blocked every turn. He called to them, but could hardly hear his own voice above the rushing crackling noises. Smoke burned his throat and lungs. Dry coughs racked his body. He lunged into what was surely a table and a lamp crashed and shattered. Dropping to his knees he started crawling towards his parents’ room. His head butted a wooden door frame. The smoke was making him dizzy. He was too disoriented to realize that he’d reached the front door. He was about to try calling his mother again when he heard a thud and felt its impact. And another. Someone was knocking.
“I’m in here,” Jake called out. “I can’t see anything, and I can’t find my mother. Don’t leave me.”
“Open the door! It’s locked. I can’t get in.”
Jake ran his hands over the surface until he found the doorknob, and then the bolt above. He frantically undid it and tried to open the door. A chain blocked his way.
“A kid! Oh my God. Undo the chain, kid! Hang in there. You’re almost free.”
Finally, the door was open. A pair of strong arms lifted and carried him to the street. He could remember standing in his pajamas, surrounded by strangers, crying for his parents, and younger sister and brother.
People gazing at the building were busy questioning a woman cradling a wriggling dog. The fire had started on the top floor in her kitchen. As she ran out of the building, she had pounded on her neighbors’ doors. Several people had followed her to safety.
Jake thought he could hear a siren in the distance. Was he dreaming? Reliving that day? Just then, the front door of the building opened. A woman carrying a small child stumbled down the stairs.
“Joshua! My baby! He’s still in there! Somebody help!” she screamed.
A short stocky man in dirty overalls shoved the others aside and raced into the building.
“Second floor, rear apartment,” a neighbor called after the stranger.
The crowd, which had grown to perhaps thirty passers-by, gaped at the front door and waited. Some spoke in hushed voices, trying to comfort the sobbing woman holding the child. Jake knew he should leave — his grandparents would worry about him — but he was unable to tear himself away. Finally, after what seemed forever, but was probably no more than five minutes, the stocky man pushed open the front door. He was carrying a blanket containing an infant. People on the sidewalk let out a spontaneous roar: cheering, shouting approval, clapping their hands. The stranger’s face was grimy with soot and his pants were torn. He grinned self-consciously. Jake envied him. From the depths of his soul Jake envied the stranger — would give anything to be like him — a hero — like the nameless man who had rescued him — a fearless giant.
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