The Case of the Terrified Tiger
She had all the outward signs of a dame in trouble--the trembling hands, the trembling lips--and something else, a palpable vibe that screamed "Danger--High Voltage." You didn't have to look in her direction to know she was there.
She stood framed in the doorway of my office, blond and leggy in a business suit that made her look like Mariel Hemingway. The other reporters had noticed, too.
My phone rang; it was the boys in the next office, the kind of heartless newspaperin' guys who would eat doughnuts at their mothers' autopsies. She'd managed to raise a pulse in them, and they'd called to ask: "Who's the babe?"
I hung up the phone without answering.
She told me her name was Tiger, no last name, just Tiger, and she had the police reports to prove it.
Things were happening to her that she didn't understand. She'd been run down by a bicycle, had her apartment broken into, her computer hard disk raped; she'd been busted for drugs she didn't have. And it all started after an aborted agreement to sell her erotic fiction through the Arizona State University bookstore.
She'd even received death threats; she produced a cassette from her answering machine, popped it into my tape recorder and waited tensely outside while I hit play.
Message two: "This is ASU, and we're calling about some kind of lawsuit you have against us, and you're going to be woken up late at night and killed," a man's voice purred.
I told her that big universities were not in the habit of killing students they didn't like. In fact, I explained, they seldom even flunked them out. Her face turned red, her eyes filled with tears of anger. She needed someone to write her story.
I told her I'd think about it.
When she came back the next day, she was dressed to kill. I vaguely remember a short business suit, butvividly recall a gold lam blouse without buttons; it wrapped--or rather unwrapped--across her chest, tentatively held in place by the waistband of a tight skirt.
I loosened my tie.
Overnight, I'd read some of that fiction she said had gotten her into so much trouble.
It was published under the pen name Eva Morris, and it went both ways. Some of the stories were slick and sexy and humped along with a well-lubricated rhythm; others were as hurried and awkward as a backseat fling at the drive-in. What the stories lacked in style, they made up for in libido.
I told her flat out that one of them--a bedtime appetizer in which the characters used the grease from fast-food fish and chips to help things slide, if you take my meaning--was vulgar, even by my tastes. She verbally went for my jugular.
"Don't tell me you don't like my writing," she barked. "That's your fucking peccadillo."
With the different name came a different affect. Tiger had been fragile. This was Eva Morris, the author: grandiose, intimidating, striking.
I could tell she was used to getting her way with men. I sensed she was searching for the personality that would make me open up and do her bidding.
"I'm kind of living a dual life," she said, this time softly.
And then, without really telling me who she was, she laid out a story that was too improbable even for a movie-of-the-week script. But I've lived long enough in this Borderline State called Arizona to know that things happen here every day that are too far-fetched to be fiction.
Tiger's tale was as fragmented as Fife Symington's financial records. She had enough police reports and hospital records to prove that bad things were happening to her.
So what? Lots of people have worse luck. She could be governor, for example. Come to think of it, she was just as outrageous in her accusations, and she made them so forcefully that she was either straight-face sincere or stone crazy.
She held on, white-knuckled, to a belief that all her troubles led back to ASU.
And for everything Tiger said, she seemed to leave just as much unsaid. I was supposed to figure it all out, solve the mystery, write the story.
Turned out the babe was a mystery herself.
She wouldn't say what her given name was or where she came from. Her father was an inventor, she said--"CT scans, eight-track tapes"--and her mother was a nurse who lectured on sex education at junior high schools.
She'd grown up partially in Colorado, and when her parents split, she claims she went out on her own--at age 12.
Her story took her to Japan, where she wrote health-and-fitness columns for Japanese magazines.
She fanned a handful of photocopied tear sheets across the desk with the ease of a Vegas blackjack dealer. They all bore her head shot atop vertical columns of Japanese ideographs.
"I had the first exercise video in Japan," she said. She became a big TV star, a millionaire, she claimed, until a jilted lover sued her and took it away. So she changed her name to Tiger and fled to New York.
I had a hunch she'd done a lot of jilting in her day, and I'd made some calls of my own to check it out.
"She could easily walk into a room and piss people off," said her friend Eliot Brown, managing editor of Penthouse Comix.
She'd show up for tony parties undressed to the hilt, turn every head in the joint. Women would whisper, men would leer.
"She was shocking, even in New York," says Alfred Morris, an investment banker and Tiger's former lover.
Morris told her to put her dirty mind to work.
She was writing health-and-fitness columns for a Manhattan alternative weekly. Morris knew she had a healthy sex drive; the question was whether it would be fit to print.
She wrote to Penthouse magazine, then wrote for Penthouse; and, with a cover blurb pronouncing her a "new voice," she became Eva Morris, the author and sex expert. The first name came from Eva Perón; the last name she borrowed from her lover.
She appeared on Montel Williams three times as an expert on chastity belts and other classy topics.
In a ballsy stroke of brilliance, she collected her stories, had type set, bound them in a binder under the title Bad Girls Bedtime Stories, and marketed them through classified ads in Prison Life magazine.
And when she grew bored with New York's lascivious literary life, she decided to become an engineer and enrolled at ASU.
She arrived as a New York luminary.
One of Tiger's ASU friends, a young man named Christian Truelove--they must have met at the Strange Name Club--warned me that she had two sides.
One was Eva Morris, the sex goddess who wanted to be worshiped, the author who claimed to do media interviews in the nude. The other was Tiger, the girl next door who dressed in tee shirts and jeans and was fun to be around. I think I'd already figured that one out.
Tiger was the one who went to college.
The ASU computers had no sense of humor and didn't accept her one-word name. They renamed her Tiger Tiger. The computer had no literary memory either; it didn't know the rest of the poem:
in the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
could frame thy fearful symmetry?
This Tiger got pounced on in the dark, by ASU--or maybe by Eva, the author.
All the time we talked, Tiger/Eva worried that I'd go looking for her real name and print it. She wouldn't say where she lived--only that it was near the beach, two hours from New York. She wouldn't say how she was supporting herself. She wouldn't even tell me where she was staying in Phoenix.
Tiger was as paranoid as a hamster in a cat box, and it was rubbing off on me.
"This was not the way she was before she went to Arizona," says Alfred Morris, the ex-lover.
She was not one of those people who went from scrape to scrape and from emotional disaster to financial ruin. She had a direction, even if it was at a strange angle to the norm.
"She was always happy-go-lucky," says Eliot Brown. "Something got to her. She's expressing more paranoid delusions than she ever did. This story could go either way. It's either exactly as she presents it, or it is a complete delusion.
"And that is harder to accept."
The twisted Tiger's tale began when her writerly ego was stroked by a group of five students who had writerly aspirations. Flattery hath even more charm to soothe the savage breast. She was coaching them along, she says, helping them make connections.
She wouldn't tell any of their names, and no one else knew any of them except for one young man we'll call "Donnie." Tiger was coaching Donnie on more than writing, and making more connections with him than for him. He was 19, she was 27. She must have devoured him.
In turn, Donnie was Tiger/Eva's agent on campus, her publicity machine, her disciple, her roommate.
Someone--she claims it was the students--decided to adapt her Bad Girls book for the Tempe market. I had a hunch it was the three of them: Donnie, Tiger and Eva.
It was Tiger who sold the concept to Christie Churchill at the ASU bookstore.
"She looovvved the idea that: one, students were doing this book; and two, the book was a seller," Tiger said. "She said, 'Draw up a contract, and we'll submit it to the ASU administration, and they take about ten days to okay that.'"
From there, the plot starts to tangle: Tiger claimed she had a verbal agreement with the bookstore for 4,000 books to be delivered ten books at a time. ASU later claimed they were only responsible for the first ten.
"The students" papered the campus with posters announcing the naughty book. Eva Morris, with eyebrows arched like horny caterpillars, peered over typed hype that called her ASU's "famous writer in residence." The students set up an E-mail address at the campus computer center and waited for orders to roll in.
On October 25, 1994, Tiger delivered the first ten books. The next day, the bookstore left a message on Tiger's answering machine, saying that the book was not what they expected, and they would not be ordering any more.
Tiger said she'd been banned, censored. The girl had a temper.
She and Donnie visited ASU's student ombudsmen, talked to ASU lawyers, even stormed the office of ASU president Lattie Coor. Other than a check for the first ten books, they got nothing.
Eva was crushed, and Tiger suffered physically for it. She lost weight.
Sometime in December, while at a movie theatre watching the film Pulp Fiction, at the very moment when Uma Thurman's character gets a needle jabbed into her chest to revive her from a drug overdose, Tiger took the film to heart, went into convulsions and passed out.
In January, she dropped out of school for health reasons. Her life got worse.
On February 7, as she was riding her bike to a Federal Express office, a young man on a bicycle ran her down in the street, took aim, she said, locked in like a Scud missile, and launched her sideways into the gutter.
Donnie took her to the hospital. She was bleeding from the ears, a lump rising on the back of her head. The doctors x-rayed her up and down, gave her Tylenol and sent her home.
Her apartment was broken into. She claimed all her documentation on ASU's chicanery was conveniently wiped clean from her computer's memory.
Her behavior was always eccentric; but "eccentric" became "erratic." She tried to leave Kinko's copy shop without paying for the copies she'd spent the better part of two evenings making. The salesclerk stopped her. She went into a rage, then went on the lam.
The cops went to Donnie when they couldn't find her. She had already left town, but in his reports to her, he explained that he paid her fine "because it is easier to pay $58 now and not have a warrant for my girlfriend than to pay $500 for bail + $58 + dick-around costs after your arrest. I don't want anybody to get their mitts on you."
Then, on March 28, with Eva out of town, her answering machine recorded the message from avoice claiming to be "ASU," and telling her she would be wrenched from sleep and killed.
She ended the story there.
I wondered why she didn't just stay back East if she was so sure that ASU was out to get her. But she was bent on revenge. She listed her demands:
"There are five things," she said, forcefully. "One: thatthey honor our contract for 4,000 books. Now, I know that's a long shot, but you have to have a goal."
She was just warming up. I was getting a heat rash.
"Two: that they start acting like a university and reverse the censorship of my book.
"Three: that they make restitution for the damages I've incurred. A public apology for the breach of contract--that's wrong--for banning my book--that's bullshit for a university. It's probably something that I'll never see in my life, but that's what I'm going for."
She never got to four and five. Items one to three would be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
I thought back to a diatribe she'd written right after the bookstore backfire and distributed as broadsides all over campus.
"Nobody, not Houdini, not David Copperfield, ... knows how to get a surly rodent out of a hat when the little cutester doesn't want to go," she wrote.
This one didn't look like it was coming out of the hat, either.
"I decided at 15 to live by writing and lead with my tits," she declared later in that writerly rant.
They had led her to me.
She suggested we go have a drink and get to know each other better. Her blouse fell away just enough to reveal the depth of her cleavage.
I got that drink by myself.
Three days later, Tiger--not Eva--showed up at my office.
She was the girl-next-door, clearly out of goddess mode, wearing jeans and boots and a man-tailored shirt. She seemed spent and vulnerable, and her eyes had the tired crinkle of someone who had been up all night. And she hadn't been having fun.
She confessed that she had been hiding Donnie's role in her demise. Their relationship had ended in handcuffs in a Colorado motel.
It was March 27, the day before the death threat, and they were road-tripping, holed up in a Denver suburb called Greenwood Village.
Tiger called the police because her money and credit cards had been stolen. Part way into her story, according to the police report, she told the cops that maybe, just maybe, Donnie had taken them, and they rode around looking for him.
The cops accompanied Tiger to her room. The sweet smell of reefer wafted from under the door, so they invited themselves in, made themselves at home, found a roach clip, some roaches, some prescription drugs and a straw full of something that might get you a speeding ticket.
Oops! The boys were not amused when the lady told them that her legal name was Tiger, and they said so in their report.
So they arrested her and took Polaroids to commemorate the event. In them Tiger looked like a tabby cat with eight lives gone. She was wan and weak; her hair hung flat; her glasses completely obscured all sign of Eva the author.
She claims she had visits from cops who knew all about her Arizona adventures. Three days later, they released her without filing charges.
Tiger pushed more papers across the table at me. One was a letter that young Donnie had written to one of her New York friends. It proved to her that Donnie had set her up--or, at least, that she had taken the fall for his left-behind pharmacy.
What the letter really proved is that their relationship had burned like magnesium and left nothing behind but a smoking pile of gray residue.
The kid admitted on the first page that he was trying to write like Hunter Thompson. It's always Hunter Thompson or Jack Kerouac at that age. If he ever kicked the Gonzo habit and found his own voice, he might have enough Tiger material for a coming-of-age novel.
The kid said in the letter that he had already heard the death threat--that it made him laugh--when he got the call that Tiger was in jail.
"... it was just what I needed to top the most ironic and idiotic road trip/love-affair ender/hell-couldn't-be-any-worse trip of my entire 19-year life," he wrote.
"I thought, did they find the meth, the pot, the Valium, the Percocet, the gun and the bong all at the same time, or was it a one-thing-leads-to-another fall? ...
"It must have been hell for her to be arrested only for drugs. She had always told me she was going to go to jail at some point--after all, she was a bad girl--but I never thought I'd still know her when it happened."
He signed it, "Jack McCloud." Maybe he didn't know himself anymore.
I called the kid later, and he admitted he wrote the letter. He promised to call me back and tell me everything, but he never did.
Instead, his mom called. She wanted to make sure I wasn't the next notch in Eva Morris' garter belt after what she had done to her son.
I thanked her for her concern.
Mom tried to convince me that Tiger had led Donnie down the primrose path. I figured the kid never went anywhere he didn't want to go.
I still didn't think I could do anything for Tiger that she couldn't handle herself.
She smiled sadly--a heart-melting smile--before she got back into the red convertible she'd borrowed to get to our interview, then sped forever out of my parking lot.
I told Tiger I had dropped the case, but I guess I hadn't told myself. She was so convinced she'd been wronged by ASU, and even more convinced that the bicycle-tire tracks upside her head, the death threat, maybe even the drug bust were related.
But did all those wrongs make a writing?
Why would the university bother? There wasn't even enough money involved to getthreats from the mob. ASU could shoo her away with a flick of the governmental wrist.
But why would she make it up? And didn't she have enough paper to prove that most of it had really happened?
I called her friends in New York. Even they wondered what had happened to her in Arizona.
Had she fallen into a black hole of bad luck? Had the blow to the head when she was knocked off the bicycle altered her personality? Had she been sharing those drugs she claimed were Donnie's?
And how, after being caught red-handed in possession of illegal drugs, had she managed to walk away from a Colorado jail, case closed?
Had she truly irritated someone in Tempe--someone she knew, someone she didn't know? After all, the man-eating persona she had created might have attracted the kind of attention that even a big cat doesn't want.
Or was it all true?
The ASU attorney said that her contract was honored, the checks were cashed, the story ended.
The bookstore manager, a very busy man, wouldn't come to the phone, but an underling dared to say, "We sold a few of the books, yes, but the sales history did not warrant reordering."
As to whether the book had been banned for its content, he replied, "If it would have sold, it wouldn't have mattered what the contents were."
On November 1, Eva Morris showed up on the Gordon Elliott talk show on NBC.
She was feeling feline--anyone could see that--busting out of a black-lace bustier that she must have bought at a dominatrix supply house. Watching her on TV, I remembered the effect she'd had on me in person. I started to sweat, and I liked it.
The subject was "Fantasy Kisses." Eva was a "sexuality expert," according to the words that flashed across her chest on the TV screen.
"I think a woman should kiss her man at least 25 times before the appetizer arrives," she nearly snarled when Elliott, an obsequious Brit, asked her professional opinion.
It looked as if she had fallen back into character.
A few days later, Tiger, or maybe it was Eva, called me to find out where my story was.
She was at a garage in Jersey, she claimed, waiting for a garage mechanic to adjust the twin carbs on her vintage Alfa Romeo. She knew I had been asking her friends if they knew her given name, a rodentlike thing to do, she said. It was proof that I had no balls, she said.
Maybe she was right.
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