The following is an excerpt from Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, which was released by Berkley Prime Crime on Jan. 5, 2010.
nightmare n 1) Any oppressive terrifying dream. 2) Any threatening, haunting thought or experience.
—The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary
Tilda woke to the sound of her roommate pounding on her bedroom door.
She stumbled to the door and opened it. “I’m awake, I’m awake.”
“You woke me up again!” Colleen said accusingly.
“Damn it!” Tilda said, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Sorry.”
Colleen looked nearly as tired as Tilda felt. “Tilda, you’ve got to do something. This is the fourth time in a week!”
Tilda didn’t bother to tell her that it was actually the sixth. Fortunately for Colleen, Tilda had been sleeping over at a friend’s the first time the nightmares hit and she’d suffered quietly one of the other nights.
“It’s not that I’m not sympathetic,” Colleen continued, though she looked anything but. “It’s just that I have to be up in the morning. At least tomorrow is Sunday, but I was late for work twice last week. This can’t keep happening.”
“I know,” Tilda said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it? I’d be happy to listen—I’ll make us some coffee.”
Tilda might have been tempted had she not had a sense that Colleen was more interested in the gory details of what Tilda was dreaming about than she was in helping her work through the issues. “No, that’s all right. I know you need your sleep.”
“You need to talk to someone. If not me, then maybe a professional.”
“I’ll talk to my sister. She’s a psychologist.” June was a researcher, not a clinician, and currently a full-time mother, but Tilda saw no reason to get technical.
“Whatever.” Colleen yawned. “I’m going back to bed.” “You do that. I don’t think I’ll bother you again tonight.” In fact, Tilda thought as she closed the door, she was sure she wasn’t going to have any more nightmares—she wasn’t going to try to sleep. Instead she went to her desk, hoping to get some work done, but when her brain proved to be too fuzzy for that, she watched a DVD of Power Pet cartoons. Anything was better than waking up screaming again.
While Power Pup defeated the Evil Dalmatian of Doom yet again, Tilda kept wondering why it was her subcon- scious wasn’t satisfied with dredging up memories of the real event. Wasn’t finding an old woman who’d been blud- geoned to death gruesome enough? Why did her sleep- ing brain have to add the dead woman rising to chase her through snowy Boston streets, and why did the corpse have that obscene mockery of a come-hither smile on her face? Why did Tilda end up screaming, when in reality she’d barely been able to speak?
More importantly, how much longer were the nightmares going to last?
Episode 1: Welcome to Cowtown
Arabella Newman arrives in Cowtown and opens the Cow- town Saloon and Hotel to fanfare from the cowboys and con- demnation from the more respectable folk in town. When she slaps down a lascivious bully and then invites people whose homes were damaged by a stampede to stay at the hotel for free, she’s welcomed as part of the community.
—Cowtown Companion By Ruben Timmons
SIX DAYS EARLIER
“WHAT differences do you see between these pictures?” Cooper asked.
Tilda glanced at them. “One is on the right side, and the other is on the left.”
“Very droll. There are ten differences. Find them.”
“I hate these things.”
“Did I ask?”
She sighed, and took a closer look. At first, the photos of the Merlotte’s Bar and Grill set from the TV show True Blood looked identical. Then she started spotting variations.
“There’s only three beers on that table in this one, but four in the other,” she said.
“That waitress is missing the Merlotte’s logo on her shirt.”
“The framed photo of the guy in the beard and the pretty redhead is lopsided.”
Tilda looked for a minute, but didn’t spot any more. “Do I have to find all ten?”
“Have you got something better to do?”
She looked down at her Jack Skellington watch. Her meeting with Jillian had been scheduled for ten minutes earlier, but the editor in chief was in a previous meeting that was clearly more important than being on time for Tilda. Of course, she knew Tilda would wait—no freelancer could afford to play diva. “Fine.” She looked again. “That guy’s hat is missing.”
“Good. Don’t stop now.”
But after several minutes, she couldn’t find anything else. “I give up, Cooper. I told you I hate these things.”
“You forgot to mention that you suck at them.”
“Why would I hate a puzzle that I’m good at? So what did I miss?”
“The nail polish on the short-order cook is a different color, the beer sign is turned off, one of the chairs is miss- ing a leg, that menu disappeared, and the Dos Equis beer tap is missing an Equis.”
“That’s only nine.” He grinned. “I made that waitress’s boobs bigger.”
“The inventors of Photoshop must be so proud to have enabled you to reach this pinnacle of achievement. Why are you doing this anyway?”
“For the next issue. We’ve scrapped the personality quizzes in favor of ‘Spot the Difference’ puzzles.”
“Doesn’t People do one of these every issue?”
“Yes, and People sells more copies than we do, so some genius in corporate decided that if we had a puzzle like theirs, we’d sell just as many copies.”
“That’s corporate. It’s just as well—I was running out of inspiration for the psychology quizzes anyway. Doing these is fun.”
“If you say so.” Tilda realized Cooper was still star- ing at the mismatched pictures. “Are you planning to add another difference?”
“No, ten is plenty. Just admiring that short-order cook. Do you think the actor is really—”
“Nope, he just plays gay on the show. I interviewed the guy who plays the werewolf, and he gave me the straight dope. So to speak.”
“What difference does it make? You’re married, remember?”
“Jean-Paul doesn’t mind my looking.”
“Well, you can still look, can’t you?” Tilda had to admit that Cooper and the actor from True Blood would have made an attractive couple. Both men were black and well built, though Cooper’s skin was lighter and his look was more handsome than sultry.
The two of them went on to discuss the charms of the other male characters on the show until the door to the conference room opened, and Nicole stepped out into the hall.
A phony smile was pasted on her face, and it took a moment for Tilda to guess what the painfully thin redhead’s smile foretold. At first, she thought it meant Nicole was about to stick it to somebody, but upon reflection, she decided it was her I’m-so-pissed-I-want-to-scream smile. It was a tough call, since the latter expression often led to the former.
“Tilda,” Nicole said, “I’m so glad you could finally make it. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Tilda didn’t bother to rise to the bait—anything that had Nicole pissed off was likely to be to her advantage. “Later, Cooper,” she said, and followed the other woman into the conference room.
A quartet of people was arranged around the long oval table, but the only one Tilda recognized at first was Jillian, the relentlessly stylish editor in chief of Entertain Me!, the magazine that provided a sizable percentage of the story assignments that kept Tilda in pizza and Dr Pepper. Beside her was a pair of cowboys, an uncommon sight in Boston. The men were in their late sixties and looked enough alike in the face to be brothers, despite very different builds. Both were wearing suits with Western trim, and string ties with chunks of turquoise in the middle. Two hats that Tilda could only assume were Stetsons were on the table in front of them.
“This is Tilda Harper, the writer I was telling you about,” Jillian said. “Tilda, Tucker and Hoyt Ambrose.” Hands were offered and shaken. Tucker was the big, beefy one, with thick gray hair and a wide grin for Nicole when she sat down across from him. Hoyt was shorter and more trim, and was close to losing the battle against baldness.
“And this is—” Jillian started to say as she gestured toward the other person in the room, an older lady in a rose-colored suit that set off her crown of white hair to perfection.
“Arabella Newman!” Tilda said, suddenly recognizing her.
The woman smiled. “Cynthia Barth, actually, but I don’t mind being remembered as Arabella.”
“Didn’t I tell you she was the perfect writer for this?” Jillian said to the room at large. “Tilda, have a seat.”
She sat down next to Jillian, embarrassed to have called the actress by the name of the character she’d played on TV, but since the woman was obviously delighted, it was probably the best thing she could have done.
“As I was saying earlier, Tilda is our specialist in classic television,” Jillian said, “so of course she’s familiar with your show.”
“Cowtown was a favorite of mine,” Tilda said. “And if I remember correctly, that would make you two gentlemen the Cowboy Kings.”
“That’s right, ma’am,” Hoyt said with a shy grin. “Cowtown was one of our favorites, too.”
That was no surprise, since it had been the longest- lasting and most successful of their Westerns, having run eight seasons. The Ambrose brothers had produced half a dozen cowboy shows, and a fair number of B-movie Westerns as well. She wasn’t sure if they’d crowned themselves the Cowboy Kings or if it had come from some creative press agent, but the title had stuck both because of their work and because of what they were. Cowboys—real ones at least—were just as rare in Hollywood as they were in Boston. She mentally raised her age estimates for the brothers. Cowtown had been made in the mid-1950s, when Westerns ruled television, so the brothers had to be in their seventies.
Tucker said, “If you know Cowtown, you’re going to get a real kick out of what we’re cooking up now. My brother and I, and Miss Barth here, have gone into partnership to build a resort based on the show. We’ve got us a piece of land in the western part of the state.”
“In Massachusetts?” Tilda asked. She’d have thought an attraction like that would be more appropriate for a more temperate area, not a state with such uncertain weather. There was still snow on the ground from the last storm, with more predicted for later in the day.
“Most of it will be inside,” Miss Barth explained. “A hotel and spa, restaurants, shows, a nightclub, shops. We’re hoping to add a casino—”
“Now Miss Barth, it’s early days to be talking about that,” Hoyt put in hurriedly.
Tilda knew that the governor was pushing for more gambling in the state, though he hadn’t been particularly successful so far.
Tucker went on. “There’s going to be plenty of things for people to do during the summer, too: horseback trails, trick riding shows, maybe a Western-themed petting zoo—”
“Don’t forget your golf course,” Hoyt put in.
“And a golf course,” Tucker agreed. “My brother doesn’t think a golf course is right for Cowtown, but I keep telling him that the people in Cowtown didn’t have hot tubs and massage tables, either, but we’re putting those in.”
Hoyt just rolled his eyes.
“We’re still working out some of the details,” Miss Barth said diplomatically.
Tilda nodded, wondering if she should suggest a compromise position of a Western-themed miniature golf place instead.
Tucker said, “Now we know people don’t exactly associate Massachusetts with cowboys, but Hoyt’s been doing some market research, and we figure people around here like playing cowboy just as much as anybody.”
“Maybe more, since they don’t know what it’s like to actually have to muck out a stable!” Hoyt put in.
Tucker grinned. “Anyways, if we build something around here, we’re going to have both the Boston area and New York City to draw people from, plus the whole rest of New England. We’re expecting big things.”
“I don’t think you need to sell Tilda,” Jillian pointed out.
Hoyt smiled apologetically. “It’s hard to stop a salesman from selling, but I’ll try to rein myself in. In order to get people excited about the resort, we’ve been talking to Entertain Me! about doing some articles about the show and our fans. Jillian here tells us you’re just the person to write them.”
That explained Nicole’s irritation. She hated anybody other than herself getting a byline, and was particularly unhappy when the byline was Tilda’s.
“Don’t forget the roundup!” Tucker put in. “Hold onto your horses. I was getting to that,” Hoyt said. “You know, most of our regular cast members have passed away—”
“God rest their souls,” Miss Barth said with just the right amount of feeling.
“But when the show was running, we featured a whole lot of guest stars. We want to track down some of these folks for interviews, maybe scout the territory to see if they’d be willing to make personal appearances at the resort. What do you say? Are you interested?”
“I’m very interested,” Tilda said. Then she remembered the first rule of being a freelancer: Never sound too inter- ested. “Of course, we’ll have to talk schedules. I’m working on some other projects.” Since the second rule was to never turn down an assignment, she added, “But I’m I sure I can wrangle them all.”
“Now you’re talking!” Tucker said.
While Jillian looked on approvingly, Tilda and the Ambrose brothers put together a list of actors she was to track down, along with a few ideas about where to start the search. With each name, Tilda got more and more excited. Not only did the length of the list guarantee her a nice paycheck, but each actor was a potential source for future stories. After an hour or so of discussion and the ritual exchange of e-mail addresses and phone numbers for both landlines and mobiles, the Ambrose brothers and Miss Barth moseyed out.
Jillian kept her pleased editor expression on until they were gone, then switched back to her usual look of intense focus and demanded, “What other projects? The last thing we bought from you was that comic book movie piece the month before last.”
Nicole smiled at that, probably reveling in the memory of two entire months without having to send Tilda a check.
“I do have other clients,” Tilda reminded Jillian, though not as many as she wanted. Whether economists called it a downturn, a recession, or just tough times, it boiled down to magazines being less willing to use a stringer when they had staff members who were anxious enough about keep-ing their jobs that they didn’t dare turn down extra work. She suspected that Nicole had increased her efforts to make sure Tilda got as little work as possible from Entertain Me!, despite an agreement they’d made a few months earlier.
“Just make sure that this is your priority from now on,” Jillian said. “I’m going to tell you something that better not be repeated outside this room. The Ambrose brothers and Miss Barth may be the figureheads for the resort, but there are other investors, including major silent partners. I’m not going to name names, but you’d find one of them on a door in our corporate offices.”
“Oh? Oh.” Tilda had been so sold on the project that she hadn’t stopped to think that promoting a future resort was hardly the kind of story Entertain Me! was known for. “Consider it prioritized. What about payment?”
“Usual rates and usual expenses from us, plus the Ambrose brothers will pay a bonus for every candidate you provide for personal appearances.”
“Sounds good.” The word bonus was not one she often encountered in her line of work. “Of course, with this many people to find, I’m going to want to invoice you along the way, not just at the end of the assignment. Say a week at a time?”
Jillian considered it, and Tilda tried to look blasé. Finally the editor said, “Deal. Nicole will handle the paperwork.” She started out of the room.
Nicole must have thought Jillian was already gone because she snarled, “You may as well be on the payroll!” Jillian turned back, looking thoughtful. “That’s a good point.”
“So we go back to end-of-project invoicing?” Nicole said eagerly.
But before Tilda could gather her thoughts for a counterargument, Jillian said, “Or maybe we should bring Tilda on full time. Nostalgia isn’t going away, not while the Baby Boomers are still trying to hang onto their lost youth. Maybe it’s time to make ‘where are they now?’ stories a regular feature.”
“Are you serious?” Tilda asked.
“Are you interested?” Tilda had lost track of which freelancer’s rule she was supposed to apply, which left her with honesty. “I never thought about it.”
“Think about it. We’ll see how this project goes, and afterward we’ll talk.” Jillian strode out, no doubt already planning something else.
With the boss gone, Nicole didn’t even bother to hide her horror. “Oh. My. God.”
Tilda grinned at her. “Wouldn’t it be great? You and me seeing each other every day! Gossiping in the break room, shopping on our lunch hours, exchanging presents at the company Christmas party . . .”
“Fuck that!” Nicole snapped, and stomped out.
Tilda waited, knowing that Cooper would be along in a minute. It was, in fact, only forty-five seconds.
“What in the world did you say to Nicole?”
“It wasn’t me,” Tilda said. “Jillian said it.”
“She just offered me a job.”
First, let me make something clear: throughout the Fifties, naked did not mean nude, not in films, not in the pinup magazines, not even in the adult men’s magazines. It meant bare backs and bottoms, a lot of cleavage, and sometimes a partially exposed breast with an occasional nipple showing. And, as the public reaction to Jane Russell demonstrated, a large bosom was enough to incite imaginary nudity.
—Bettie Page Rules! by Jim Silke
“WOULDN’T it be great, Tilda?” Cooper said. “We’d see each other every day! We could gossip and shop during lunch, and—”
“You’re scaring me, Cooper. That’s almost exactly what I told Nicole.”
“No wonder she looked like she was about to spew. Talk about having your worst nightmare come true!”
“Being somebody else’s nightmare has always been a dream of mine.”
They were walking up the sidewalk on Newbury Street, stepping over the piles of dirty snow left over from the pre- vious week’s nor’easter. Knowing that she had to come to town to see Jillian, Tilda had scheduled an interview for that evening, and when Cooper heard who she was going to see, he volunteered to act as her photographer, just so he could come along. Normally he’d have been working late on a Monday—he had to get the copy for the next week’s issue finished by quitting time Tuesday—but he’d arranged to come in early the next day to make sure he made his deadline.
“Why don’t we grab a cab?” Cooper asked the second time he nearly slipped on frozen slush.
“Because we need the exercise,” Tilda said. “If you don’t want to go—”
“Oh, no you don’t!” Cooper said. “Not after I missed the other interview you did with her—the one you didn’t even tell me about!”
“Why would I take a gay man to see a former pinup queen? Jean-Paul might not mind you looking at other men, but women?”
“Sandra Sechrest is different,” Cooper said reverently. “She’s a classic. It’ll be like meeting Bettie Page!”
“That reminds me. Speaking of Bettie Page, don’t.”
“Don’t mention Bettie Page. It’s a sore spot.”
“Got it.” By then, they’d reached Massachusetts Avenue, and were heading toward the neighborhood where Sechrest lived. The sidewalk was clearer, but the January wind was considerably stronger. “Not that I’m complaining, but why are you interviewing her again? In fact, why did you interview her in the first place? I thought Jillian turned the story idea down.”
“You guys keep forgetting that I do sell to other markets. The full interview was for a magazine for senior citi- zens with attitude, and shorter versions went to a men’s magazine that targets older men, a women’s studies journal, a nostalgia magazine, and a newsletter for amateur photographers.”
“Nothing for the children’s market?”
She ignored him. He knew as well as she did that the only way to stay afloat as a freelance entertainment reporter was to rewrite the same article for as many markets as possible. The number of pieces she’d sold about Sandra wasn’t even close to her record. “When I first interviewed Sandra, I told her how other former celebrities have been using the Internet to take advantage of their former fame, and back in November she and her niece put up a site to sell autographed pictures, T-shirts, and so forth. She’s doing really well with it, and today I’m talking to her about running a Web-based business so I can write a how-to piece.”
“Is there a market for that?”
“Yes, but not a high-paying one, which is why I don’t want to take a cab. The fare would eat up most of my profits.”
“Just wait!” Cooper said with gleeful anticipation. “You won’t have to worry about rewriting every story umpteen times, or scrimping on expenses for very much longer. You’ll just have to write one story per topic. And you’ll have an expense account. Company plastic!”
“Geez, Cooper, can we hold off on counting chickens? Jillian hasn’t exactly made a formal offer, and I don’t know that I’ll take it if she does.”
“Jillian wouldn’t have said anything if she wasn’t serious! And why wouldn’t you take the job? No more scrounging for assignments, no more sending out query letters to every magazine in the known universe, no more pitching a dozen stories to get one lousy assignment.”
“It’s not that bad!”
“Oh yeah? Then why is it we’re not taking a cab?”
There was no real answer to that, so Tilda didn’t bother to devise one as they continued their trudge.
“We’ve got to go shopping,” Cooper said suddenly.
“You know how Jillian is about the clothes we wear in the office. If you can’t be high fashion, you at least need to be stylish.”
“Thanks for the self-esteem.”
“Let me rephrase that. You have amazing style, but it’s not exactly working-in-an-office style.”
Tilda glanced at her reflection in the plate glass window they were passing. She was currently wearing lace-up black Doc Marten boots and a thigh-length black parka, along with a red knit hat with rhinestone skulls to cover her black, curly hair with a matching scarf around her throat. The outfit concealed by her winter gear—a well-worn pair of black jeans and a dark purple tunic-length sweater—wasn’t exactly corporate wear either. And that was what she’d worn to a business meeting.
“You may have a point,” she conceded.
“Now if you put aside a bit of each paycheck to spend on clothes—”
“Cheep, cheep, Cooper.”
“No, don’t buy cheap—buy classic.”
“I meant that you’re counting unhatched chicks again. Can we change the subject?”
“Sorry. I’m just so excited for you.”
Tilda was leaning toward excited, too, but she wasn’t sure if she was as excited as she should be. Sure, a steady paycheck and actual benefits had definite appeal. Then again, setting her own hours and picking her own stories was nothing to sneeze at, either, let alone spending most of her time in a Nicole-free environment. She was just as glad she didn’t have to make a decision right away.
Finally they arrived at their destination, an elderly but well-maintained building in the South End. They stepped into the paneled entryway, and a few seconds after pushing the buzzer, a young woman already bundled up for outside came to the door to let them in.
“Hi, Tilda,” she said.
“How’s it going, Lil? Lil, this is my friend Cooper Christianson. He’s my photographer.” Actually, Cooper was no better with a camera than she was, and it was her camera anyway, but Tilda felt the excuse sounded more professional than, “He’s planning to dine out on the story of having met a real-life pinup queen for the next six months.”
“Pleased to meet you, Cooper. Aunt Sandra’s waiting for you in her place. I hate to rush off, but I want to get back home before the snow starts.”
“You’re in Bedford, right?”
Lil nodded. “I don’t think my street has been decently plowed since the last snow, so I figured I better head home now or I’ll never make it.”
“Good luck,” Tilda said, as the younger woman braced herself to step into the cold air.
As she and Cooper walked down the hallway toward Sandra Sechrest’s apartment, Tilda said, “Lil has been handling the Web design and whatever coding Sandra needs. She does a good job, too.”
The former pinup queen herself was waiting in the doorway. In her heyday, Sandra Sechrest had been known as Sandy Sea Chest and had specialized in nautical themes: skimpy sailor dresses, mermaid costumes, and revealing pirate outfits. These days, she usually wore some variation of her current ensemble: a mauve velour jogging suit that nobody would ever wear to jog in.
“Tilda! Good to see you!” Though the sea chest for which she’d been famous was no longer so generously filled as it had been when she’d been a photographer’s model, her hair was the same color of red that had contrasted so nicely with the copious amount of fair skin she’d displayed in countless magazine spreads. Only her hands, badly twisted with arthritis, betrayed her true age.
“Sandra, this is my friend Cooper Christianson. He’s a longtime admirer of your work.”
“Work, she calls it. For years it was dirty pictures, but now I’ve got a body of work.” Sandra winked at Cooper. “It’s a shame I don’t have the body for the work anymore! Come on in, kids.”
Like many older Boston dwellings, Sandra’s condo included oddities that revealed that it had started out life as part of a larger home but had subsequently been chopped up into bite-sized living spaces. Sometimes the unusual shapes that resulted were awkward, but fortunately for Sandra, her long, narrow stretch of rooms was just eccentric enough to be charming, especially with the clean-lined wooden furniture that kept it from looking cluttered, and a scattering of mirrors which provided the illusion of space.
“Have a seat,” she said, and settled herself on the couch while Tilda and Cooper divested themselves of their coats, scarves, hats, and other cold-weather accessories.
“How’s business?” Tilda asked as she sat next to Sandra, and pulled a pad out of the black leather satchel she used as both purse and briefcase.
“Booming,” Sandra said with a big smile. “And I’m not just saying that for the article. We had to reorder T-shirts three times to meet the Christmas rush, and once more since then. Plus we’re selling eight-by-tens as fast as I can sign them.” She looked at her hands ruefully. “Which isn’t as fast as I’d like it to be. But I can’t complain. We’re doing great, and this is in a bad economy!”
“That’s awesome,” Tilda said, and they got down to the formal part of the interview. Her previous conversations with Sandra had been focused on the modeling itself, with a good dollop of gossip about sex to sweeten the pot. This story was about the nuts and bolts of running a Web business: getting eyeballs to the site and keeping them coming, taking advantage of search engines and eBay shops, and the use of PayPal. Of course, the fact that the product being sold was sex wouldn’t hurt this piece, either.
Meanwhile, Cooper took shots of Sandra, the miniature brass and teak sea chest on her coffee table, and even the computer and scanner that Lil used to keep Sandra’s web-site up and running. Tilda would rather have had Lil there as well, but knew from earlier meetings that the Web designer was camera shy, which was ironic, given her aunt’s claim to fame. As for Sandra, the camera loved her as much as it ever had, and she had a knack for being able to keep the conversation going while still managing to present her best angles to Cooper’s lens.
They were discussing the online community that had developed around her site’s bulletin board when Sandra said, “You wouldn’t believe the people who’ve come out of the woodwork since I started the site. I’ve gotten e-mail from models and photographers I hadn’t heard from in decades.”
“Really?” Tilda said, eager to add more names to her database. Of course, it might not be worth the effort if she was going to take the job with Entertain Me!. Since Jillian had already turned down her pitch about pinup queens, she wouldn’t be able to try another for a while. Then she firmly reminded herself that nothing was definite yet. “Anybody I might have heard of?”
“A few,” Sandra said. “I hoped some of them might want to join in on the business—more people means more attention on the Web, you know. But one found Jesus, and the others went into different lines of work, so they don’t want to make a big deal over their pictures.” She shrugged. “I’ve still got feelers out.”
“Let me know if you find anybody who’d be interested in talking to me.”
“Will do. Now the models may have gotten shy, but not the photographers. I’ve had three invitations to dinner from guys in the camera clubs I used to pose for, plus a marriage proposal. And that’s not the best part. Cooper, would you mind getting that envelope from the desk?”
He got up long enough to grab a plump cardboard photo mailer and handed it to her.
She tapped it. “You know what I’ve got here?”
“More pictures?” Tilda asked.
“Got it in one. There was this one set of pictures I did where I was dressed as a pirate who’d captured some sweet young thing. I tied her up and made her walk the plank and so forth. These days, they’d probably have crotch shots and tongues and all that. We settled for spanking.”
“I remember that pictorial—you and Virginia Pure,” Cooper said. “It was great spanking.”
Sandra smiled indulgently. “Well, this is a batch of pictures from that same shoot.”
“Really? I thought that photographer died,” Tilda said.
“Yes and no. Red Connors put the shoot together, and he did pass away years back, God bless him. But this was a special case. The pirate ship setup was pretty elaborate for those days, and Red had to rent props and equipment on top of paying the two of us girls. He was nervous he wasn’t going to be able to sell the pictures for enough money to make it all back, so he invited some guys from the camera clubs to come in and shoot, too, as long as they didn’t get in his way. They paid me and the other girl extra, and paid him, too, so he could be sure of making a profit.”
Tilda saw that Cooper looked confused, and thought she had better give him a little background. “Back then, there were a lot of camera clubs for amateur photographers. They’d hire models and then all show up to take pictures of them.”
Sandra nodded. “The pros didn’t always let the amateurs in on their sessions—they didn’t want the competition— but like I said, Red was anxious about the dollars. He made the guys in the club promise to keep the pictures for their own use and not sell them, and as far as I know, they all kept their word.” She tapped the envelope again. “This guy did, anyway. It turns out that he lives just up the road in Medford. He got in touch with me through the site, and asked if I wanted the pictures, and of course I said I did. They’ve never been printed anywhere before, and I’m going to debut them on my site.”
“Wow!” Cooper said.
She gave him a coquettish smile. It was honestly coquettish, too, not the parody that was the best most women Tilda’s age could muster. “Would you like to take a look?”
“You mean it?”
“Sure, why not? They’ll be on the Web next week anyway.” She opened the envelope and pulled out a stack of photos, and while Tilda and she looked on, Cooper put the camera aside so he could reverently lift each photo.
Tilda was fascinated by one that showed Sandra and the other model in street clothes. Both were wearing neat suits with high heel pumps, gloves, and cunning hats.
Sandra saw what she was looking at, and shook her head. “He must have taken that one when we first got there. Can you believe how we used to dress, just to take our clothes off? And those were everyday outfits!”
“You looked great,” Tilda said, “but I bet what you’re wearing now is a lot more comfortable.”
Meanwhile, Cooper was going for the skin. “These are amazing,” he said. “I can really see where you and the other model loosened up later in the session.”
Sandra giggled. “Yeah, we did, didn’t we?” She pulled one photo out of the stack. “The guys gave us a little extra for this pose.”
“I’ll bet they did! Whatever they paid, it was worth it.”
“Cooper!” Sandra said in mock shock. “I see that ring on your finger—what would your wife say?”
“Husband, actually,” he said. “And Jean-Paul wouldn’t mind—he knows your pictures helped prove that I’m gay.”
“The fact is, my whole family knew by the time I hit high school, but one uncle had it in his head that he could ‘cure’ me. One day he showed up and said he wanted to take me out for lunch, but on the way home from the res- taurant, he pulled out one of his prized girlie magazines and told me to look at it alone that night. That’s the one that had the pirate spread.”
“It was one of my more popular ones,” Sandra said modestly.
“It opened my eyes, I can tell you that. If anything would have set me straight, those pictures would have. But though I tried to . . . appreciate them, nothing happened. Uncle Mac asked about it the next day, and when I told him, he just patted me on the shoulder and said that if those pictures wouldn’t do it for me, no woman ever would.”
“Cooper, that is the sweetest thing I ever heard,” Sandra said.
Tilda wasn’t sure if sweet was the right word for it, but it did explain why Cooper had been so interested in com- ing along. Before Sandra and Cooper got the urge to share any more Hallmark moments, she asked, “What happened to the other model? I’ve done a fair amount of research on pinup queens, and I don’t remember seeing many pictures of her. I’m guessing Virginia Pure wasn’t her real name.”
“Wasn’t that the dumbest thing?” Sandra said. “Her real name was Esther something. Esther Marie . . . Esther Marie Martin, that’s it. What a name to hang on her! She had the cutest Southern accent you ever heard, and used to guzzle iced tea with so much sugar in it you’d think it was syrup. She was from some little bitty town in Virginia, which is what gave her the idea for the name—I don’t think she even made the connection between Virginia and virgin, even though she probably was one. Esther was one of those sweet young things who came to New York to be a star on Broadway, but she wasn’t tough enough or lucky enough. She kind of fell into modeling, but she never did learn to like it. Some people are comfortable in their skin, and some aren’t—poor Virginia didn’t think she was pretty enough because she wasn’t as big busted as I was.”
“Not many women are,” Tilda said, resisting the impulse to check out her own rack.
“Big breasts aren’t everything, not even in that line of work,” Sandra said. “Red was really pleased with that shoot, and wanted Virginia and me to do more together, but that day was the last time I saw her. She started feeling sick near the end of the session, and I don’t know if it was because she was really coming down with something or if the modeling had finally got to her. Next thing I knew, she’d left New York to go back home, and I never heard from her again. Broke a few hearts, too.”
“I thought it was ‘look, don’t touch’ with the camera club members?”
“It was supposed to be,” Sandra said with a little smile. “Most of the guys were too shy to even speak to us outside of shoots. But not all.”
“And . . . And I could use a tonic. How about you two?”
Tilda admitted defeat, and both she and Cooper accepted the offer.
Sandra went into the tiny kitchen to fetch Cokes and a bowl of pretzels, and once they were all settled again, she said, “So, Cooper, do you know who Bettie Page was?”
He looked at Tilda, but she had no way of giving him a hint of how to respond, so he cautiously said, “I think I’ve heard the name.”
Sandra rolled her eyes. “Everybody has heard of her, but nobody knows that I taught her everything she knew about posing.”
“You bet! It was me who taught her to walk in high heels, too. Do you ever do drag?”
Tilda leaned in, curious about that herself, since she’d never dared ask.
But Cooper said, “Just for Halloween, and I stay away from heels.”
“Well, there’s a real art to wearing them gracefully. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Tilda?”
“Practice, practice, practice,” she said. “And never wear heels in the snow.”
Sandra laughed. “That’s a good place to start.” She took a swallow of Coke and said, “Is there anything else you need for your article?”
As hints went, Sandra’s was remarkably polite, so Tilda took a quick look at her notes. “I think I’ve got it. If I do seem to be missing something, I’ll give you a call.”
“Hate to rush you two off, but I’ve got company coming and I want to make myself beautiful.”
“Don’t waste your time,” Cooper said. “You’re already there.”
Sandra beamed. “Cooper, if you were straight and maybe twenty years older, I’d just keep you and cancel my date.”
There was a flurry as Tilda gathered up notes and pens, she and Cooper suited up for the winter weather, and Sandra walked them to the building’s front door. The predicted snow had arrived, and as Tilda stepped unwillingly into the quarter-inch that had already fallen, she looked back and saw Sandra waving at them cheerfully.