Regardless of their price range hookers talk, and it spreads like wildfire. From tricks that are dangerous to what hotels are hot. Word came up from the bottom about the space case kid piano player at the Sea Wind, a place upscale girls wouldn’t work, but a few came to see him off the clock. The kid was funny, didn’t talk hooker smack or ask for favors when he found out who they were. Instead he asked for their favorite songs and sent them off to dreamland low and slow. It was apparent he wasn’t new to after midnight, or how to hang with the late night off work crowd. After they’d taken him to a few two AM breakfasts just to see who he was off the piano bench and found themselves spending too much time at the Sea Wind they went looking for a way to move him.
The tall platinum blonde wasn’t gaudy, but her presence was commanding. Marilyn Monroe as PTA mom, only five-ten without the heels. Cool, aloof, big blue eyes that missed nothing, gave nothing away under often sarcastically expressive eyebrows. Her left hip, parked on the red leather stool that matched her lipstick put her a head taller than Franklin the “bartender”, a short, stocky man with a square head, wiry salt and pepper hair, perpetual five o’clock shadow. A retired enforcer, tenacious, once upon a time dangerous, Franklin managed not-main-room talent and other aspects of a few square blocks of Vegas “entertainment”. He squinted unenthusiastically between the blonde and the polaroid on the bar, the diamonds in his cufflinks sparkled in the dark room like wrist-worn disco balls.
“Sheesh, Savannah…I dunno.” He rubbed his thick neck with a thick hand. “I got these creeps out the wazoo.”
“Billy Joel wannabes, basket case temperamental classicals can’t find work, drunk ex big band sidemen, unemployed music directors waiting on the next has-been to sell out and move to town. Frankie’s carousel of the boring and unreliable.” He raised his eyes to hers out of habit to see if there was any insult in what she’d said.
“Affable, Savannah. Affable. I hadda look that word up. Know why? ‘Cause Johnny used it all the time to say what he wanted in no-name talent that puts face on the Lost Wages foot traffic. And they’re my unreliable, affable piano players. The shtick is affable. My people know that. Besides,” a big shrug that got a head tilt involved, “somebody misses a shift, nobody misses them, I pay myself.”
“This town is too full of invisible smiles as it is, so why not wise up and do something real for a change. You said yourself what you have in the stable doesn’t work everywhere. Too busy, too flirty, too drunk, too –”
“Loud. Everybody is too goddam loud. In the city? Back there you could a find a place, y’know, a quiet place. Somebody there knew how to play piano or maybe some jazz guitar. Somebody understood intimacy. Nobody in this town understands intimacy. Now…” His big fingers drummed on the bar hard enough to rattle the hostess’ drink garnish tray. “Okay, maybe loud I can do without somewhere and I got nobody.” He looked down the bar at the half dozen top shelf women lined up in silent support of Savannah’s pitch. “Good Golly Miss Molly, I need to meet this kid.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Okay, wiseacre. Where do I put him?”
“The piano in front of the Stiletto has had a cover on it for over a year.”
He checked both ways, leaned into her space like he was letting go of a secret. “People do business in the Stiletto, woman. Johnny’s girlfriend lives in a suite at that hotel and hits all the talent. I can’t put somebody I don’t know in there, somebody that don’t know the rules.”
“Those people leave their women standing around, reading three-month-old magazines in the lobby and looking like a herd of stupid hookers to the cheapskate tourists in that restaurant. Get some plush chairs and cocktail tables out of storage, put them and a cute, affable fag waiter in the anteroom, you have our word the kid will make them happy. Men like their women happy when they’re finished with their other business.” She edged the polaroid closer with a fingernail. “Don’t they?”
“The big dead space full of dusty palms and ratty bamboo and the leaky roof wastebasket stash between the restaurant and the lounge, Lumpo.”
“Ida broke your nose for that ten years ago.”
“Ida cut your intestines out and fed them to you right after. I have other options, I came to you first. Going once…”
“Awright.” He scowled at the picture. “Johnny’s girl’s been putting him on a bitch lately about the Aunty-room lookin’ like that in her lobby anyways.” He blew his nose on a bar napkin, tossed it over his shoulder. “Can you do something about the hair for me? You know how those guys get about hippies and smokes, no matter how good they play.”
“Ponytail is good. Heard Johnny’s girl say she liked that Paul Revere’s Paraders show. Broad can call a bucket of shit a vase of roses and sell it to Johnny, ponytail’s no problem. Kid has any decent bullshit at all, keeps it low key and knows his place, don’t talk politics… It could work.”
“Raiders, Lumpo. Paul Revere and the Raiders.” She twirled the polaroid with her fingernail, a sly smile sneaked out. “I can just see Johnny in a George Washington get up, dancer tights, three-way hat and a powdery ponytail. High heel boots, maybe. You?”
“What Johnny gets up to with that broad ain’t any of my – an stop callin’ me –” He caught her eyebrows, eyes. “Goddammit Savannah, I’m workin’ with you here. Put a lid on fuckin’ with me, will ya? All you damn women these days… What happened to hookers with some respect?”
“Same thing that happened to broken noses.”
“Fuck a duck…” He followed a long pause with a sigh and a deeper, arms flexed lean into the bar. “Tomorrow, four-thirty, in front of the Stiletto. I’ll have the Aunty-room set up, dust the palms, get the piano tuned. You gotta get Johnny’s squeeze in on this, figure the decorating.” He made a few notes on a bar napkin, stuffed it in his vest pocket. “Lotta goddam work. Your little darlin’ better be right, ladies.” He peered down the bar again, eyebrows knitted together. “All I’m gonna say.”
Savannah and a shorter, sun freckled brunette of the same ilk snaked from a red SEL convertible they parked blocking the drive in front of Michael’s cold Coke box. They helped themselves to two cold Cokes, gave him a ten, stated their business and waited.
Michael knocked on the window of Jackson’s car in the service bay. When the window came down he blurted “Coupla put your lights out babes…and dude I mean,” looking over his shoulder, “lights fucking out. Wanna talk to you.”
Jackson stretched, tried to make his hair behave with his fingers, tried harder to imagine what some “lights out babes” wanted with him. Savannah waited until Michael re-emerged from the garage, stepped around him. She planted her right hip behind Jackson’s door, folded her arms.
“S’matter. You too busy for a ‘lights out babe’?”
He checked his rear view mirror. “Holy shit… ” he threw his door open, stumbled out. “I mean hey, Savannah. Sorry. I, Michael… I never know. He’s lookin’ for Cinderella…” he ran his hands through his hair again, looked down, smoothed his t-shirt.
“Cinderella?” She was enjoying his struggle. “She’s a regular?”
“Tits and a heartbeat,” he kept working the t-shirt, “he’s in here all ‘man, you gotta come see’…” he looked up, Savannah’s eyes were laughing. “Sorry. But hey, you’re the first ‘lights out babe’.”
“I’ll bet. Penny’s out front.” Her smile was wicked. “Has him trapped between the car and that antique Coke box.”
“Ohhh…Jesus. I’ll never hear the end of that.”
“I have a proposition that will stop it before it starts.”
“Whatever it is, I’m down.”
She turned, he watched her halfway, she turned back. “In your car, Jackson.”
He backed his car out of Michael’s garage and followed them across town to a two-bedroom apartment on the new, far west side where he was told seven working girls rotated in and out, took showers, changed clothes. Savannah handed him the key at the foot of the iron railed stairs.
“None of them live here, the smaller bedroom is yours.” She tilted her head slighty toward her friend. “Penny you know. The rest are taking you on faith. Keep the place clean, do their laundry or anything else they ask, don’t be any kind of retard with a hard on.” She opened the door of the red SEL, shifted her gum to the side. “Do us right on this, Junior. In this town friends are hard to come by and enemies are hard to lose.” He watched them drive away, sixteen again, Marcus admonishing him to do them right on a lounge piano gig full of big-time politicians as an indirect favor to Amanda Morisé. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. ‘Don’t be that guy. Do us right’.
He took the cash Savannah had given him, followed her instructions for him to buy a blouse-y white shirt, a black vest and slacks, run them through a one-hour dry cleaners and be in front of the Stiletto Lounge in the Grant Hotel a couple of blocks off the strip by four-thirty. And don’t forget the black ribbon for his Paul Revere ponytail.
“He doesn’t play any real music,” the thin, polished, sharky looking man said. “Not that I recognize.”
“You have to listen,” the perfectly turned out sandy haired woman on his arm said. “He doesn’t run over you with it. That’s Moon River, Johnny baby. I asked him to play it just for you.”
He listened, found the melody at last, sipped his drink. “He knows me already?”
“For a friend, I said. He’s a doll. Look around.” The dead yesterday anteroom had become the pre-lounge for the Stiletto. “Businessmen” enveloped in darkness through the Stiletto’s oak door left behind women, some theirs, some rented, a lightweight movie starlet or two all talking, smoking, drinking, laughing over inside jokes, bumping desert sun-kissed bare arms, jangling bracelets, looking over their shoulders to see if they were being seen. Mixed in with a few tourists and mid-range double knit sport coat gamblers exiting the restaurant it was an oasis in the desert between the rattle of slot machines and dishes and the off-limits inner sanctum.
“Frank tells me this was all his idea, like a present to get the Tarzan and Sambo shit out of here for me. For you.” He nodded, smiled, lifted a glass to someone. “Looks like it cost too much. Tell me what you hear.”
“Savannah brought it to him. Frankie called me last night, asked what we’d like to see in here.”
“We? You and Frank and that mouthy whore did this?”
“Careful, she’s a friend and ten minutes in Frankie was ready to adopt him. And we did it on the cheap. Frankie got the chairs I wanted out of the old Montrose, had a crew steaming them all night. Savannah and I found the cut glass vases and ashtrays in a box in the poker room and I ordered the flowers.”
“You shouldn’t be friends with or be seen running around town with that whore thinks her shit doesn’t stink. Keep it up with her and I’ll see she has to move.”
“Do that.” Her turn to smile, lift a hand off his arm in acknowledgement. “They’ll find you with a .25 caliber hole in your heart and your dick in your mouth.”
“How, in some crazy dream world, do you see that happening?”
“A man with a hardon and his pants down is the easiest target there is, Johnny. You know we’re the ones really make it all go,” she tugged on his tie, smoothed it back, stepped in so he could feel her breath, “and we’re the only ones who can get close enough.” She smiled, turned away, chirpy. “If this keeps up I’ll just have to order that new rose colored carpet.”