Read Chapter One of A LEAP IN THE DARK--Free!
Even as a seasoned nurse, I was horrified by what I saw at his house.
By the age of thirty, Levon Rockell had amassed a small fortune preying on the innocence of others.
At first, I loathed him.
I’ll tell you why.
He was a Lost Boy, one of those pitiful, heartbreaking teenagers ruthlessly dumped on the side of the road by those Cornucopia wingdings. As a Lost Boy with absolutely no idea of the outside world, he’d fallen on hard times. These Cornucopia parents, at the slightest mention from their whacked Prophet that maybe their boy had been seen wearing a short-sleeved shirt or watching a horror movie, raced to fling these misbegotten boys into their cars. With the assistance of the nearby Avalanche police, these miserable boys, children really, were driven into the desert and literally dumped by the side of the road without so much as a by-your-leave.
Allred Chiles, their demented “Prophet” of the past thirty years, would dismiss them, basically sending them to their deaths, with such heartwarming platitudes as, “I bid thee farewell.” That’s what he said to a sixteen-year-old Levon fifteen years ago when he’d dared to date the daughter of some muckety-muck. “The greatest freedom is obedience. Now you’re an outcast, an apostate, among the damned. An apostate is the darkest person on earth. You are led by your master, Lucifer.”
You’d think they’d fail to believe such nonsense. But these poor Lost Boys are trained since birth to view girls as snakes, as something fearsome and slimy, I suppose. The few boys who dare date daughters of elders are summarily thrown out, because they are surplus trash. Daughters are at a premium and need to be married off to other creepy polygamist elders. They need to be sheltered, savored. Boys are just useless sacks of flesh that need to be taken out with the garbage.
Levon called his house—somewhat tongue in cheek—Liberty Temple, and it was anything but. His luxurious abode in the swanky Stone Ridge section of Bountiful was hidden on a hill by a forest of white-barked quaking aspen. My sister Mahalia led me through an expansive living area to a backyard patio where an infinity pool perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the lush city. Peeking into a side office, I saw bookshelf-lined walls bracketing a very heavy, serious desk. Was this where Levon ran his empire of sleaze? From the beginning, he vexed me with his stubbornness and complexity. There was even a giant fluffy brown dog, an adorable creature with a smiley face who came to welcome us. Who was this man?
He was a surplus boy, consigned to hellfire by hypocrites, corrupt and twisted “elders” who only wanted the young girls to fulfill their own craven desires. And Levon was living high on the hog on the degradation of his fellow apostates.
“There he is!” cried Dingo, as though he were seeing Miley Cyrus in person. Dingo was a “prospect” in my sister’s boyfriend’s motorcycle club. A Lost Boy himself, he’d been found by Gideon Fortunati trying to steal food in a local bar like a scavenging mongrel, and he’d taken Dingo under his wing. Dingo had been doing nothing but rave about Levon Rockwell on the drive from my house in Provo to his mansion. Levon was a rock star, at least among his fellow boys.
Dingo waved furiously. “Levon! It’s me, Dingo! You might remember me as Jonah Garff, but this kind lady’s old man renamed me Dingo. It fits, doesn’t it? Long time no see. I was too young to remember when you were excommunicated. But I have heard the legends of your success from many, many mouths.”
I was floored. The shirtless man who raised himself up from the chaise longue and came toward us was utterly animalistic. It sounds corny to say, but he moved like a leopard, all sinew and intent. It may have been my imagination but it seemed he fixed me with his sharp cornflower blue eyes. I was aware his shoulder and arm were inked with some sort of Asian design, but everything other than his face seemed to blur at the outer edges of my vision. I swear, it even seemed that he moved in slow motion, like a TV detective in the opening credits, full of import and vigor. My lips watered to taste his silken, warm skin.
And then he opened his mouth.
He took Mahalia’s hand in his. “I’ve heard about the great work you’ve been doing down in—what’s the little town? Hurricane?”
“Avalanche,” said Mahalia with shining eyes. I could tell she was completely taken in by him, and I was filled with disgust. “Save Our Baby Brides runs interference between the Cornucopia elders and women who wish to leave, or who are already on the run.”
“You’re a baby bride yourself, aren’t you? I don’t remember you.” Boy, he was smooth. Smooth and slick as a sheet of oil.
Mahalia was practically fanning herself with her free hand. “Oh, I just came five years ago. You left Cornucopia fifteen years ago, right?”
He finally let go of her hand. “Right. And as you can see, I’ve built up a name for myself and my men.”
I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. “Yes! Profiting off their degradation.” I would not fall for his oily charm! He was as beautiful as a California surfer, and just as deep. I’d seen shallow assholes like him in my nurse’s career. They came in with sports injuries, laughed them off, and were back in the ER the next week. Too dumb to learn.
Dingo dared to shoot me a glare. “He has built an empire and saved many Lost Boys from the streets.”
Levon held up his hands. “It’s all right, Dingo. I don’t expect everyone—or even anyone—to understand. I should know a fellow Lost Boy would commiserate, but to expect outsiders to get it is too much to ask.”
Mahalia said, “We’re just here to examine those of your men who wish to come with us and make a new start down in Avalanche.”
Levon chuckled with derision. He was literally looking down his nose at my sister. “It’s a free country, and I’ve given them your message. I doubt you’ll have a single taker, though. My men are loyal to me because they’re well cared for and have a lifestyle they can’t get anywhere else.”
I butted in. “Yes, because you’ve sold their souls to the devil way worse than the elders who booted you out of Cornucopia!”
Levon folded his arms and faced me squarely. “Miss, I was told I was damned. Why not revel in my damnation? Expecting outsiders to understand is like asking a bird what it’s like to fly. ‘What is flying?’ a bird would answer. He just does it because it’s in his nature, not knowing the sky from the ocean or the fields. You can judge me all you like, if it’ll make you feel superior and smug. But only when you leave your deluded beliefs behind will you see me and my men without smoke, without veils. You wouldn’t torch someone for witchcraft, would you?”
“Of course no—”
“People who did labored under erroneous assumptions. Navigators were panic-stricken, thinking they’d sail over the edge of a flat world. Throwing Japanese nationals into prison camps, even prejudice against homosexuality—these are all outmoded belief frameworks that have crumbled and burned.”
I narrowed my eyes and folded my arms, too. “Running a male brothel is hardly the same thing as some poor nationals herded into camps. You’re saying if only I would change the color lens I’m seeing you through, I’d come to embrace your empire.”
He nodded. Now who was smug? “I’m not saying I’m running the Brady Bunch house here. But I’m saying my team of men is strong, and Liberty Temple gives them a potent sense of identity. You get out of love what you put into it.”
Now he was talking about love? How dare he? “These men who come here to prey on your boys are only interested in one sort of perverted ‘love.’”
“I mean the love we have for each other. We love each other because of what we’ve put into this—what it would mean to leave, to go back to the streets. We argue and bitch and sometimes even punch each other’s lights out, but we’re forced to make up because of our connection that rises above any sort of free will or choice. This is how families operate. We love each other because we know we can’t just storm off at any moment.”
“It sounds like my old man’s motorcycle club,” said Mahalia with wonder.
I stamped my foot impatiently. “So you’re saying it’s like a jail? You hold the threat of the streets over their heads to keep them here, to keep skimming a percentage off all their hard work.”
Dingo looked shocked. “Levon works hard, too!” he cried, perhaps not knowing what he was saying.
I snorted. “Yeah. I’ll bet he works hard.”
Levon closed his eyes patiently. “The men can leave any time, miss.”
Dingo said, “Her name is Oaklyn Warrior. She’s Mahalia’s sister and the nurse who’s here to examine the boys.”
It was as though Levon hadn’t heard him. “We are forced to love each other because we’re all we’ve got. Your mistaken assumptions aren’t going to stop us from learning and growing. They’re just going to lead you astray and distort the questions you ask. Warped beliefs led sincere doctors to bleed millions of people to death. I’m sure you remember the four humors in your nurse’s studies.”
I sniffed. “Of course. Hippocrates believed certain illnesses were caused by an imbalance in body fluids—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.”
Dingo chuckled. “Sounds like some superhero world. The Four Humors are coming to get you.”
No one else laughed. Levon tried to hypnotize me into submission with his intensely sharp eyes. “No one thought to look for disease in germs or water because the four fucking humors were in control of everything. Do you get me?”
I sneered. “You’re saying your house of ill repute is holy and sanctified because you men are like brothers. It’s a feeble and misguided argument to make, and you’re not swaying me. I’ll examine your men for venereal diseases and general health free of charge, as a courtesy to my sister. If they’d rather stay and sell their bodies to twisted old men, there’s nothing I can do to convince them.”
“They make good money,” said Levon, digging his hands deep into his jeans pockets. I was surprised there was room for his hands, that’s how tight the pants were. Left nothing to the imagination. “What sort of jobs do you offer down in Avalanche? Minimum wage? My men earn upward of ninety, one-twenty grand a year. Some of the best, myself included, make more than that.”
I sort of cringed a little at that, looking to Mahalia for support. I hadn’t been down to their little burg of Avalanche in southwest Utah yet, but it was highly unlikely they could offer anything as lucrative. Mahalia’s “old man” Gideon worked in a mine. Sure, he owned it, but he still toiled tirelessly.
Mahalia helped me out, lifting her chin with pride. “We do okay. We’re revitalizing the city from the ghost town Allred Chiles left behind. No one wanted to live close to the loonies, but now that Chiles is gone and we’re in charge, people are starting to move back. Real estate is doing a brisk business.”
Dingo added, “Sledgehammer opened up a butcher shop slash grocery store deli, and Yosemite Sam has a coffee shop. Maximus renovated the old barber shop. I’m the club’s IT man, floating from job to job.”
Levon snorted. “A barber shop? Oh, I can just see my men stampeding to get in on that opportunity at the ground level. And to move from their luxurious digs here on the mountain down to Hurricane—”
“Avalanche,” I practically spat.
“I can just see the rush now. Listen, I mean no disrespect—”
“None taken,” gushed Mahalia, back on Levon’s side.
“—but you can’t begin to offer my men a better life. And isn’t that the bottom line? Who’s offering a better life, a better future?”
“We launder money,” Dingo blurted.
Everyone looked at him with bulging eyes. Levon tilted his head thoughtfully. “Really? You launder ill-gotten gains through these businesses?”
“All the time!” bragged Dingo.
Now, I wasn’t up on the nature of my brother-in-law’s motorcycle club. I knew it was a “one percenter” outlaw club, and they had some illegal doings with the polygs inside the Cornucopia walls. The Assassins of Youth, they called themselves, as if joining was some kind of rite of initiation into a permanent macho adulthood. To me, it was plain old childish. I loved Gideon and his efforts to transform the town. I even liked the members Mahalia had shown me photos of, the aforementioned Maximus with his flowing silver hair and James Brolin looks. Dust Bunny had a geology degree from Stanford and was prospecting too in more ways than one, working out at the mine. Yosemite Sam and Sledgehammer looked as rough as their names implied, but I’d seen photos of Sledgehammer cooing and kissing his Leonberger dog, and even Yosemite Sam was intently into the details of making the perfect cappuccino.
In other words, they weren’t all bad to the bone as you’d expect from an outlaw motorcycle club. I could see my sister’s attraction to the macho lifestyle, although she would not wear her leather jacket with a “Property of Gideon Fortunati” patch. Not after what she’d been through, being kidnapped by the fundies, the fundamentalists out at Cornucopia who held her for five years, turning her into a deadened Morbot like the rest of them. She’d been their property, and she only escaped when they threatened to marry off her fifteen-year-old daughter Vonda to some creepazoid. I will be forever grateful to Gideon for helping her out of that mess.
Now Mahalia was paying it forward by running the nonprofit Save Our Baby Brides. We were hoping to save some young men too, but from what Levon said, no one particularly wanted to be saved.
“That’s part of my job,” explained Dingo. “Insert, layer, and extract funds from various businesses in Avalanche and Bullhead City where the mother chapter is. Our lawyer Slushy taught me how to do it.” It was sort of adorable, the way the brown-skinned, seemingly innocent boy was proud of his money laundering expertise. After a young adulthood rooting through garbage cans and sleeping in an abandoned school, he had reason to be proud.
“Hm,” said Levon. “You got any martial arts studios down there? I’ve always wanted to open up a Krav Maga studio. Even better if I can launder Liberty Temple money through there.”
Mahalia balked at that. “Well, I’m not so sure there’d be a need for a martial—”
“That’d be so cool!” raved Dingo, executing a few poses that probably vaguely approximated some martial arts stances. Or at least ones they showed on Star Trek. “I know all kinds of guys from my computer school who’d want to attend that.”
Mahalia shrugged, indulgent of her Prospect. “Well. You men can discuss that in more detail. I don’t get involved with the business side of the club. Meanwhile, you said there are at least four men who’d like an exam, whether or not they want to come to Avalanche?”
Levon was just opening his mouth to answer when an abrasive, loud young man yelled from the sidelines, scaring all of us. “Jonah! Jonah Garff!” The kid with a rich, soft crewcut came bounding out from the living room area like a gymnast. This kid infused the area with a fresh energy, and boy, was he sprightly. He even had a sleeveless sports jersey on like some kind of springy cheerleader, he was that full of enthusiasm.
He took Dingo by the hands, his eyes shining as though he gazed on the Ghost of Christmas. “Jonah Garff! We were ordained deacons together!”
Boys aged twelve to fourteen were ordained deacons into the Aaronic Priesthood. Boys fourteen through sixteen were teachers, and if a boy inside Cornucopia was lucky enough to make it to a priesthood, well, he probably had it made for life. I wasn’t sure about the twisted vagaries of how they warped Mormonism inside those terrifying walls, but some of it seemed to approximate the regulations on the outside. Not that I was the most shining example. I was pretty much a non-practicing Saint.
“Indeed we were!” trilled Dingo, wringing his friend’s hands. “You vanished before I did.”
“And wound up here after a couple of filthy, frightening years on the streets!” cried the crewcut boy.
Dingo turned to us excitedly. “Guys, this is Deloy Pingree. Or do you have a different name?”
Some of the shine went out of Deloy’s eyes. “I’m still Deloy Pingree because I’m not ashamed of my family. They didn’t do this to me. Allred Chiles did.”
“But he’s gone now,” intoned Dingo with round eyes.
There. The cheer was back, and Deloy jumped up and down wringing Dingo’s hands. “Yes, yes! So I heard! What a wonderful day in the neighborhood it was when I heard that!”
Did my ears deceive me? Deloy Pingree equated the murder of a cult sect leader with a walk through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? Besides, since I knew Gideon Fortunati had something to do with that event, I wasn’t eager to talk about it.
“Deloy, I’m the nurse your boss called in for the exams. Would you like to start first?”
Deloy held a hand to his chest as though being informed he’d won a beauty pageant. He seemed so innocent, even more naïve and unsophisticated than Dingo. “Me? Your first? Why, certainly. I aim to please. Is that all right, Levon?”
Levon waved a dismissive hand. “Sure, sure. Go, go. You don’t have an appointment until seven tonight.”
It surprised me when Deloy rolled his eyes. “Oh, that Mr. Rice fellow. He’s the sort that every escort dreads.”
“Why’s that?” I dared to ask as we headed back toward the house.
Deloy wrinkled his nose. “Always wanting to, you know, ride the Hershey Highway. He always wants to make pound cake. Raw dogging it, too, without a rubber.”
Although the reality was horrifying, I had to giggle at Deloy’s terminology. He was old enough to do those things, but not old enough to speak of them without using metaphors. My heart went out to him. “Well, that’s why I’m here. If you’re doing things without rubbers, you need me.”
“Oh, I don’t let him ride bareback. No siree, Bob. That’s one of the house rules. Here, I think Levon set up a table in here.”
“In here” turned out to be the book-lined office I’d seen earlier. Someone had rolled out a massage table and covered it with a sheet and given me a clip-on draftsman’s lamp I could move around on an arm. It was okay. Most of the tests were blood or a swab from inside the penis, but I wanted to check for sores.
“Can you undress completely? I’m sorry I don’t have any gowns.” Out of my medical bag I took my tray, gloves, swabs, syringes.
“That’s okay,” Deloy said good-naturedly, stripping off his sports jersey. “I’m used to being naked. It’s the nature of the beast around here.”
I asked, “Do you like…working for Mr. Rockwell?”
To my surprise, he shrugged. I expected the enthusiastic kid to rave about Levon. “It’s all right. It’s a living, as they say. Before I was led by Lucifer to turn traitor to the priesthood, I actually dreamed of becoming a dentist. Don’t laugh!”
“I’m not laughing.”
“I know that no one inside Cornucopia could become a dentist because they choose your path for you. And most likely I would’ve gone into construction in one of Chiles’ concerns. If I was lucky I’d become a foreman. Or maybe help run the book binding business. But nothing like be a dentist.”
“Does Mr. Rockwell know your wishes?” I looked around at some titles of books on the walls. I frowned. Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Henry Miller, and even Anais Nin were a few of the literary titles I perused. What the…? Levon Rockwell was a man of letters? I also saw volumes by Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre. This man got around, intellectually. I tried not to be impressed because I loathed him so much. I started by taking bloods from the naked boy.
“I suppose he does. But how could I ever get the time off to attend dental school, what with having to work so many hours here?”
“And why not? I worked part-time while attending nursing school. Pretty much everyone does, unless you were born into money. Mr. Rockwell would be an ass and a bastard if he didn’t let you fulfill your goals. You just might have to work a few extra hours a week. I’ll tell you what. Go talk to my sister, Mahalia. She’s interested in saving some Lost Boys and bringing them down into her fold. I’ll bet you she can find some honest, upstanding part-time work for you while you go to dental school. I believe there’s one in St. George, which is just a hop skip and a jump from Avalanche.”
“Really?” Deloy perked up. Then just as quickly, he slumped. “I wouldn’t want to let Levon down. He literally pulled me up by my bootstraps when I was getting high off cough syrup I stole from CVS. Miss Warrior, I was lying in a gutter, just a bag of bones and piss. I wondered why I didn’t die at birth, why I caused problems for everyone, like they all told me. I was a worse mass murderer than Hitler. What in the world was I thinking when I tried to challenge God?”
“What got you kicked out of Cornucopia?”
Deloy fell silent. I’d done all the bloods and now it was time to get the penis swab. It sat in its little nest of hair, small and curled like a snail. I saw no sores. “You’re a medical person. I can tell you. I was found…making out.”
I snorted. “Oh, God forbid. You know, you’re better off without those people, Deloy.”
“I know that. I was kissing another boy.”
I paused, his penis between my gloved fingers, swab in the other hand. “Oh. Well, all the less reason to miss any of those twisted individuals. But you shouldn’t give Levon all the credit. You raised yourself up by your own bootstraps. And you can attend dental school. Down in Avalanche, we work with young people. We help make it possible for them.”
“Oh, you live down there too with your sister and Jonah?”
At first I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Oh. No, I don’t. I live in Provo where I work in a surgeon’s office. But I told my sister I’d go down to give her other—ah, men some physicals. I’m on vacation.” Actually, I’d had a real bang ’em up fight with my boyfriend Giovanni. I loved him passionately, but I couldn’t get him to stop partying late into the midnight hours. We fought and fought over the same thing, when he’d drag his sorry high ass home at six AM just as I was getting ready for work. Then I’d be upset at work all day. Someone recently asked me if Giovanni was cheating. I actually had no idea—I blamed everything on his meth addiction. Meth was making him stay out all night without calling me.
I said, “Maybe you could take a vacation from Liberty Temple too. You make good money. Surely you’ve got enough saved up.”
“Oh, sure, I could,” Deloy said cheerily. “Could I ride down with you?”
“Of course!” The idea of having the happy boy in my car was actually a nice one. He was only ten years younger than me, but I’d always wanted a kid, a boy.
So I examined a few more Lost Boys, none of whom wanted to leave the comfort of Levon Rockwell’s savior’s arms at the moment. I was just packing all the samples up when Levon himself came into his study, arms crossed defensively. He’d managed to put on a shirt, but it was such thin T-shirt material that his nipples stood out sharply. I tried to look at my bag.
“Deloy told me he’s going to Avalanche with you. It’s a free country, but I’m telling you you’re making a giant fucking mistake.”
“Mistake for who? Your bank account?”
“That’s not it at all.” He had a smooth yet gravelly voice that just dripped with either syrup or venom, depending what he was trying to manipulate someone to do. “I sincerely want what’s best for my men. I just want to know what makes you think Deloy is damned here. We bravely venture forth into this life, as I’m sure they’ve taught you in your church.”
“I don’t attend. But yes, I know what you mean.”
“And undergoing sin and mistakes, we learn to stay close to the noble and divine. Sin is an important aspect of the learning curve of life that God will forgive. It’s not an eternal hatred or grudge on our part that pisses God off. Sin and pain is the best teacher.”
“Only if it teaches you to elevate yourself above it.”
He pointed at the ground. “And we have, Miss Warrior. We have. You might see us as a house full of deviant perverts.”
“Not at all. I see a house run by one deviant pervert who is taking advantage of all the others. Their innocence, their desperation, their naivety.”
“They know exactly what they’re doing, Miss. They may look like sorry little boys to your jaded older woman’s eyes. But no one is handcuffing them to a chair here.” He chuckled. “Unless it’s one of the clients.”
Jaded older woman, my butt! I was hardly a year older than Levon himself! Snapping my bag shut with a grand flourish, I walked stiffly to the door. “This is my sister’s charity, Mr. Rockwell. As such, I’ll offer my pro bono services any time she calls me. But I sincerely hope we’ve come to the end of this pointless chat.”
Another citizen of Liberty Temple was heading into the study as I headed out.
“Levon, your timer just went off,” the young man said.
Timer? For what? As much as I hated the proprietor of the establishment, I was curious about him. I would grant him that. He raised my ire and my curiosity and he was certainly easy on the eyes.
Mahalia was out back on the patio chatting with Dingo and another young man, so I meandered around. My nose led me to the kitchen, where I peeked around a corner. Levon had on two of those big kitchen mitts and was taking an enormous roasting pan from the oven while a couple of other men stood around with hungry, shining eyes.
My stomach actually growled as little tendrils of sweet and savory meat wafted into my nostrils. When Levon lifted the lid, I nearly fainted at the heavenly aroma.
“Can we put the potatoes in now?” asked one guy.
“Yeah,” said Levon. “You got ’em peeled?”
I must have swooned or something, but somehow I caught Levon’s eye. His look was smug, superior, having seen me drooling over his roast. “You’re welcome to join us,” he called over to me.
I was mortified. “Oh! No, thank you,” I tried to say graciously. As if I didn’t want to dive face first into his roasting pan. I forced myself away from the kitchen and went to find Mahalia. Maybe I could convince her to stop at a decent place for dinner on our way back to Avalanche.
So that was how I met Levon.
I continued loathing him for a while to come. He represented everything wicked and destructive that the nurse in me despised.