I made a few calls, found a pilot I knew who ran a converted C47 air taxi out of Burbank. By converted he’d had the cabin outfitted like the Grand Poobah’s flying palace. If I hurried, I could join him on a pre-paid empty haul to pick up a movie star stranded in San Francisco. The bad news was I’d have to find another way home.
On the ground in San Francisco, surrounded by the muck and mud of never-ending construction, I considered traipsing from the private ground services area to the terminal and renting a car, decided against it. I was only going two places. To visit a young jock turned gigolo and dissuade him from any further attempts to get real gangsters to pimp a blackmail scheme, and to John’s Grill. Both places a cab or a cable car would drop me at the door.
I caught a lift from a box truck driver pulling freight straight from Mexican charter to the tarmac to the back of his truck who dropped me at Powell and Fifth. I walked a couple of blocks, hopped a cable car that dropped me at the corner of Hyde and Union where the gigolo lived in a Victorian converted into as many apartments as it once had rooms. I let myself in without knocking, found him in front of the mirror.
“Who…” he turned, startled. “How’d you get in here?”
“I hear that a lot.” I held up grandma’s picture so Brock Holland could see it in the mirror. He snorted. I put a finger behind my ear, raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, I get a buzz on, close my eyes and sling pork on ugly old women for real money.” He avoided the photo, checked his visage in the bathroom mirror. “Is that a crime?”
“On some level. Last I checked there was debate going around about the legality of being a career scumbag.”
“Yeah, well check out ‘consenting adults’ while you’re in jail for breaking into my place.” He straightened his shirt, picked imaginary lint off his sleeves, checked his cuffs. I could see him measure me, see all the things he wanted to say to me arguing with a deep desire to keep his looks in order and not set himself up for chasing his teeth down the street. I guess the ex All American that couldn’t gut it out for the pros and no traction on his blackmail pitch got the best of him and he swung. I leaned back, gave his arm a little help to keep it moving past me. He made it around to forty-five degrees at the waist and I slammed my fist into the base of his sternum. I let him drop to all fours and wretch before I squatted down, lifted his wet chin.
“You were about to tell me about my grandmother.”
He wheezed, I waited. He sat back on his heels, hands on his thighs, head back. I reached up, pulled a towel off his sink, handed it off. He wiped his face, blew his nose like six elephants with head colds before saying, “Thanks.”
“You know what these teeth cost me?”
“I can guess.”
“Well, thanks again.” He hacked into the towel. “For the body shot.”
“My pleasure entirely.” I held out the picture of Lorelei’s grandmother again.
“She’s your grandmother?”
“Temporarily.” I thumbed through his date book.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Off your dresser after I let myself in. You were too busy admiring yourself to answer the door.”
“Like you fucking knocked…” He checked the page I showed him. “Yeah. The same. If I have any with the same initials, I add a number.”
“What a system.” I wanted to ask him what happened when he ran out of fingers before he ran out of Smiths, left it. I checked the book again to be sure. “You met her the first time back in May?”
“April. May. Sometime in there.”
“What is it with you kids, can’t remember shit for when things happen?”
“We lead busy lives?”
“Must be nice.” I let him breathe for a few. “Let me tell you something about grandma. Her husband’s dead. I’m thinking this book of yours had something to do with it. A book like this is a handy business tool, keeps you organized. It can also be bad for your health. You do what do, learn to keep secrets – you’ll become valuable. And you’ll live a lot longer. Get careless with it? Somebody with connections gets pissed off? No telling what could happen.”
“You aren’t here –” he started to choke, I whacked his upper back.
“No one wants you dead. Not yet. I’m here because you tried to sell your little black book scheme to the wrong people. They’d like for you take your act back to the gutter where little league blackmail belongs. A word to the wise – if you need a front to make contact, keep you out of it, find another scumbag to stooge for you. This is your one warning – Your penny ante brand of blackmail is a good way to end up a different kind of stiff than your day job, Brock. You listening?”
Color was trying to return to his face. It reminded me of a little kid scared shitless ready to swear on a stack of bibles he’d never do whatever it was he’d done, ever again, so long as the belt didn’t come out.
“It’s good we understand each other.” I flicked grandma’s pic. “Know where she is?”
“Downtown. The Stanhope.”
“Not since yesterday.”
“Thank God.” He made a wobbly stand-up effort. I stood, pulled him up.
“Why’s that? She must have set you up for a year unless you have some way to blow through serious jack in a big hurry.”
“It’s not that.” He dropped the toilet seat, sat. “She’s… Insatiable. Three, four calls a day. I told her I couldn’t, that I have other clients who expect me to… Perform. At a certain… level.”
“You couldn’t say no?” I looked at the picture. “I could.”
“If I told her no way I could meet up again, she’d say she’d go battery powered, at double my rate. If I’d run the toy store.” He set the towel back on the vanity.
I swapped grandma’s picture for one of Lorelei. “How about her?”
“I’d dick that down for a nickel and give you a dime in change.”
“An altruistic sausage slinger. I’m impressed. Ever seen her?”
He shook his head. “I wish.”
“Word was you shaved points at UCLA. You must know Tommy S?”
“I never…” He looked away, and it took him an instant too long to get it out. I pocketed the pictures, slapped him with the snot and slobber towel, dropped it on his head. “Don’t take up poker when the poker in your pants wears out.”
A waitress who’d obviously heard too much in her short life span sat me in a booth across from the bar at John’s. She communicated with her pen and monosyllables. “Drink?” “Order?” John’s is intimate, but it it’s not quiet. I started with a Scotch on the rocks with a splash. Since I’m not the biggest lamb chop fan I skipped the Spade and ordered a New York Strip, skipped the full load on the baked potato for extra butter and green onions.
I was halfway through my salad, and ready to kill the table full of cackling women from New York in the corner booth behind me when a small, florid, round-faced man dressed in slacks and a ribbed-cuff cotton windbreaker slid in across from me. I pointed to my drink with my fork.
“No, thanks.” He waited for me to finish my mouthful of salad. “Meyers?”
“You knew that.”
“So I did.” He smiled one of those pleased-with-himself smiles jovial, pot-bellied bankers in movies smile. “The Bishop said we’d find you here.”
I looked beyond him, into the street. “We?”
“Figure of speech. The people I represent would like you to have this.” He pulled a 5×7 manila envelope from the jacket, slid it next to my salad bowl. He caught my look. “It’s what Mr. Holland was attempting to peddle. And something for you as well.”
“Thanks.” I wiped my mouth with a napkin. “Negatives?”
“Of course. He informed us this was everything. To prove his good faith in our negotiations.”
“You believed him?”
“Certainly not. I’m here because he must have taken whatever your message was to heart.” He studied me the way an antiques dealer studies a vase. “We went by to pay him a visit a short time ago, he’d cleared out, left nothing of value behind.”
“Any idea where?”
“No, and frankly we don’t care.” He looked up at the glowering waitress. “Here’s your steak. Good evening, Mr. Meyers.” He slid out and around her, made it to the door and disappeared. The waitress set my plate down, twisted her shoulder to show me the menu clamped between her elbow and side, broke her monosyllable style with “I brought him this.”
“He and his friends were just making a delivery.”
She quick scanned the room. “Friends?”
“He kept saying ‘we’.”
She pulled the menu with her other hand, went fists on hips. “Some people will do anything to waste a girl’s time…”
I couldn’t decide whether to open the envelope or eat. I knew one way it could ruin my appetite, the other my digestion. I ate first.