Monday, December 15, 2008

An Interview With Ravin

I fidgeted in my chair and glanced down at my watch. 5:27am. I was about to interview someone famous for the first time. Not only was she famous, but a known killer. The conference room was small, with white walls and no windows, as she'd requested. No place to put a camera without her seeing it. I thought about the movies I'd seen and what I'd read about hidden technology. There was always a place to hide a camera if you had enough money, but we didn't have the budget. (and this was Canada) I leaned on the oak table and tried to catch my breath. What did you ask an assassin? What did you ask the most notorious at-large criminal in your country's history, one that was more popular than Jim Carrey or Wayne Gretzky or any of its other celebrities?

I checked my watch again. 5:31am. She'd only agreed to the interview because of the piece I'd written for the Post, which outlined her crimes in a sympathetic manner. I hadn't expected to ever meet her, but when a woman had called and identified herself as the Blonde Nightmare's agent, I couldn't say no. In the literary world, I was nobody. My piece was one of the few I'd published in the past few years, and the only reason the paper had bought it from me was because of an incidental run in I'd had with one of her friends. With that lead in, and with the media feasting over any scrap of news about her, they'd snapped up the article.


I was getting nervous. Maybe she wasn't going to show up. Despite her popularity, the authorities were still avidly looking for her and had even offered a reward for tips leading to her arrest. She embarrassed them, I think. Her agent had said that she would meet me -- but that if things changed she'd be in contact with me. I sighed and doodled on my notebook. I didn't have to study my notes, I'd memorized them last week. What did I know about the Blonde Nightmare? About as much as everyone else, which is to say not a whole lot. Her story had become something of a legend in the past year. That she was a stripper, or a former stripper, only added grist to the story. When she'd started pulling men aside at gun point and making them strip, most of us thought it was little more than a wacky stripper pulling a well, very serious, college prank.

And then she'd shot her first victim. Roberto Gomez. He'd made the mistake of trying to attack her after she'd pulled a gun on him. She didn't kill him, but she didn't stop going after the men either. About a month after Roberto Gomez was shot, three young guys set a trap, but she figured out what was going on and one the three guys, Shawn White, was killed. The other two were hospitalized with gun shot wounds and bruises to the face, presumably from her kicking them repeatedly after she'd shot them.

There were two more incidents, and then she'd disappeared, amidst a swirling of rumors that she'd been captured by some Venezuelan cult. She'd come back from her experience changed, or so the rumors went. Her victims had changed too. She still patrolled the strip clubs, but the victims were chosen carefully, or so it seemed. Jeffrey Irons was a former group home worker suspected -- although never convicted -- of molesting two of the boys in his care. Marjorie Allenby was a convicted felon, a former foster parent who'd "accidentally" shaken a baby to death. There was a third victim, Jesse Stillco, a thirty two year old white male without any prior crimes or suspicious activity. None that I or anyone else could dig up, at least. All three had been killed -- two shots to the head -- execution style.


Apparently something had come up. I stood and tucked in my chair. Maybe it was for the best. Did I really want to interview a murderer? A killer? It reminded me of Dan Rather groveling before Saddam Hussein. A journalistic coup perhaps, but a cloying display that was nauseating to watch.

It was still dark and raining as I headed outside. I scrunched over and hustled down the stairs to my car in the underground lot. What had I been thinking anyway? I fumbled with my keys. Maybe it had been just some prank call, some kid-

"Robert Stephens?"

The voice was husky and strong. I turned slowly. She stood about five feet from me, and I glanced around the dimly lit parking space, suddenly realizing what I'd done.

"Relax, Robert, I'm not going to kill you." She said.

Her reassurance was strangely unnerving. I nodded, but couldn't find the words. Maybe I'd built her up too much in my imagination, but I felt myself nearly trembling in her presence. She was tall, nearly six feet, wearing a tight purple skirt and loose blouse. Her long blonde hair was pulled back and hung nearly to her waist. She wore no makeup that I could tell, but her lips gleamed a ruby red in the pale light. She carried a purse under her left arm, and I glanced at it, wondering if she was carrying a gun.

"I always carry a weapon." She said nonchalantly, reading my thoughts. "A necessity, I'm afraid."

I nodded dumbly.

"Well, when you're done staring, let's go for a ride." She paused. "You don't look much like a writer to me." She said, taking in my wide shoulders and shaved head.

"Well," I said, finding my voice, "You don't look much like a killer to me."

She laughed and touched my arm.

"Touché. Can we go?"

"Sure, but your agent said-"

"I don't have an agent."

"Then who- got it. Well, where to then?"

"Do you know where Vaughn is?" She paused and motioned to the receipts and empty Starbucks cups on the floor of my 1997 Geo. "I like your car."

I found her sarcasm annoying.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't expecting the Queen to visit."

She smoothed her face and then laughed.

"Good." She paused. "Good. Maybe you're the one."

"The one to what?"

She didn't respond, and I didn't press. We drove for a while, and the only sound in the car was the swish of the wipers. I wondered why we were going to Vaughn. It was a small town, north of Toronto, but I hadn't heard of any previous connection for her there.

"Make a left at the next street."

The town was ragged looking, but maybe it was the rain.

"Slow down." She said. "In here."

She pointed to set of buildings, and I turned in the parking lot. Andrew Munson Elementary School. Rain slid down the windows and when I looked over at her I thought I saw tears in her eyes.

"Why here?"

"My mom went to school here."

"I wasn't aware- I thought your mom-"

"She died when I was young. After she died, everything went to hell. Including me." She rolled down the window an inch and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Do you mind?"

I shook my head.

She lit one and took a long drag. It was hard not to stare. She reminded me of those classic actresses I'd seen in old film footage from the 1940's. Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner and the like. The way she held her head, the way she fingered the cigarette as if it were a prop. Regal, I thought. There was no other way to describe it.

I gave myself a mental shake. She was a killer. She was a stripper. My old priest had once said that what a person did defined them, and killing was what she did.

"So how did you grow up?" I asked.

She turned and looked at me for what seemed like a long time.

"Why do you want to interview me, Robert? Why do you want to know my story?"

"Well, it will make me famous. I might even make a bit of money with this writing gig."

"Wow. Well, at least you're honest." She paused and flicked her cigarette through the open window. "But I don't believe you."

"I just told you-"

"I heard you, and I know some of that is true. But why do you want to interview me?"

I leaned back in my seat and glanced out at the sagging school. I thought about all the kids I'd worked with through the years, the ones that had no chance, the ones that could barely make it into the school because of the family mayhem, the ones left alone and lonely, the ones who would step into adulthood four years and a lifetime behind the others. I thought about the young girls I'd worked with, the ones without protection, the ones who learned to take the abuse of life without ever learning to live.

"Well?" She said.

"I want to tell your story because I think it matters." I said, my voice quiet. "I think it matters that you survived. But I don't respect what you do and I want to know why you did it. You're a horrible example. You make killing glamorous and sexy. I understand where the anger comes from, don't get me wrong, but who appointed you judge and jury? What do I say to the teenager who reads about your actions and tells me your victims deserved it?" My voice started to raise, as I thought about the "fan" effect of the Blonde Nightmare. "Did they really deserve it? If you're going to go that way, don't you deserve it? Maybe I should be the one with the gun right now."

She looked at me, her face impassive. I fidgeted in my seat and clenched my jaw.

"Thank you for your honesty, Robert." She pointed to the school. "I don't remember much of my mom. I was ten when she died-"

"I said I understood-"

"Wait, Robert, please. Let me finish."

I nodded and swallowed back a sharp retort.

"But I remember how beautiful she was, how the men would always be at our home. My mom never made it to high school, so she took care of us the only way she knew how. Men loved to give her gifts, and it wasn't just the sex. She wasn't a prostitute, the way we think of it now, she just dated a lot."

I imagined the little girl growing up in an environment like that. It felt so... inevitable. It didn't change things however, about who she was or what she did.

"What I do remember is asking my mom why so many men loved her. Her answer is as true now as it was then. 'They don't love me, kiddo. They love what they think they see.'"

"It doesn't change what you did." I said. "It doesn't change what you do!"

"What makes you think I killed those men?"

"The reports, the rumours, everybody knows..." My voice trailed.

Without warning, she slowly pulled up her blonde hair and tugged it off her head. Her black hair was cut short, she ran a quick hand through it before setting the wig on her lap. She looked at me, and I suddenly saw her for the first time. Her nose was bent at the tip, and there were lines beneath her eyes. She was hunched over, her arms folded across her stomach as if she was in pain.

"My name is Felicia Kovolchuk." Her voice was no longer husky, but soft and quiet with a bit of a squeak to it.

I was in a sort of daze at her questions and at the change.

"How did you- Who are you?"

She looked down in her lap, and then back at the school. Her eyes filled with tears as she fidgeted with the wig.

"I don't know, Robert. All I can tell you is that I didn't kill those men."

I found myself wanting to believe her, to comfort her, but I'd seen a lot of acting in my days working with teens.

"Have you ever killed someone?"

"Once. It was an accident..." She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I still think about it. He had a knife and..."

She took a deep breath. I could literally see her gather up her emotions and bundle them into a tight package, and when she looked at me again I knew that I wouldn't see that side of her again.

"Well, if what you say is true, why don't you go to the police?"

"Do you think they'd believe me?"

"Well, sure, I mean, why wouldn't they?"

She didn't answer, just looked at me as if waiting for me to get it. And I did. We were all just people, all guilty of stereotypes and projection. Felicia fit the bill perfectly for a classic femme fatale, and even as someone trained in helping young people find their way out of their projected familial roles, I'd done the same thing. There wouldn't be a jury anywhere that would believe her innocence, and certainly no police department. They'd assume she was acting, that she had purposely embarrassed them. And with her looks...

"What can I do for you?" I asked.

"You've heard my story."

"The cult, the kidnapping, the sacrifice... are you saying it isn't true."

She shook her head and reattached her wig.

"No. It's true. But I want to tell you what really happened. Maybe someday I'll be able to live free again, if enough people believe your story."

"Okay." I said, just to say something.

She opened the car door.

"Where are you going?"

"They found me. I have to go."

"Who found you? What are you talking about?"

I checked my rear view mirror, where a grey sedan had suddenly appeared, and it whipped past me in the parking lot. Four men in suits jumped out yelling directions at one another. One of them pointed at me, and I stared back, too terrified to move. Fortunately, they seemed more preoccupied with finding Felicia, at which point I immediately felt guilty. You're such a coward! When I looked for Felicia however, she was gone. One of the men pulled a cell phone and chatted on it briefly, before motioning to the others. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as the car whipped past my own, and I waited a full ten minutes before finding the strength to start the car.

I pulled my car out of the parking lot. I didn't know what to think, because she'd been so much more, and less, than what I thought she'd be. Only one thing mattered however. I believed her. I believed that the Felicia I'd seen was the real Felicia, perhaps buried under years of allowing others to project their own fantasies on her. For a few minutes, she'd let down her guard and shown me the scared young woman inside that regal costume.

I hoped she would contact me again. And I wished I could do more to help her. I also wished I wasn't so scared at the thought of getting involved. I pulled out my cell and called my wife, who picked up on the first ring.

"I was worried." She said, without saying hello. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Sort of. I'm good."

"You're rambling."

I took a deep breath and told her what had happened with the other car.

"What about her? What's she like?"

"She's a scared young woman. I... I... want to help her."

My wife paused, and I could hear what she was thinking. Why us? What she said however, was the reason I'd married her in the first place.

"We'll do what we can, Robbie. Are you coming home now?"

"Yeah, I'll see you in a few minutes."

The rain continued to bleed down my windshield as I zipped back onto the highway and thought again about our meeting. I wasn't sure I'd ever see Felicia again, but I'd learned a lesson I wouldn't soon forget.

Over the next three months, Felicia contacted me several times. We never met in the same place, and her outfits changed as often as her wigs. She never again revealed herself as she had in that first interview, but she did tell me her story. She also met my wife, Joy, and had dinner with us once.

She's gone again now, said she wanted to do some traveling. There's more to it, of course, but for her safety and the safety of my family, I can't tell you any more than that. If I've learned anything this past year, it is the realization of how dangerous fantasy can be. Not only does it prevent us from seeing and accepting people in all their weakness, but it also prevents us from seeing how truly remarkable they are. It's a difficult lesson, but when we project on others who we think they should be, we cover what they can be.

I know there are mistakes in the story you are about to read, and I did take some license in my own 'projections' when I wrote it. Felicia read some of my early drafts however, and gave her approval, although she was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of her being portrayed as any sort of 'hero'. "I did what anyone would do" she would often grouse at me, especially after I would comment on her courage. Her only demand was that I record this book as a novel. "It isn't a biography." She would tell me, "and people wouldn't believe it anyway." Much better, she would say, that they find what truth they could in the story itself.

It's raining today, just as it was the first day we met. Joy and I still talk about her quite a bit, about how much she changed our life, and about how much her story has grown. When it comes to people, I'm not sure you can create a mythical figure. As history has shown us, the person is important, but oddly, they often finish a distant second to time and place, to the culture in which the story occurs, and to the way people respond. Felicia was not what I had expected. Nor would, I suspect, Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I be exactly as I imagine them. I'm not comparing her to these two remarkable women of history, of course, except in the understanding that beneath the story is a person like you and me. The truly surprising part of this whole ordeal was that in discovering the person, I found her to be more remarkable than the tale itself.

There's something else I have to tell you. Although I wrote the story, I can't explain everything that happened. There are some things that happened -- many of which I was able to verify -- that made me question the very core of my beliefs. About what's real and what isn't. About God and the supernatural. About why certain things happen and why we live the way we do. I can't explain it and I won't try, because in the end, it's up to you anyway, isn't it?

This then, is her story. The story of how one abused soul managed to survive her nightmares and in doing so, create a story of mythic proportions. The story of how one woman escaped not only those set against her, but also the expectations of those who would have her be more than who she was, and how, in the process, she created a legend.

This... is the story of Ravin.

-Robert Stephens, December 2008