Lethal as a Charlie Parker Solo
by Javier Márquez Sánchez
on Tour April 1-31, 2014
Genre: Crime Noir Hardboiled
Published by: 280 Steps
Publication Date: March 2014
Number of Pages: 200
Lethal as a Charlie Parker Solo is a tribute to the noir novels of the 1940’s and 50’s, and fictionalizes the scandal that accompanied the filming of The Conqueror, the 1956 movie starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward.
Las Vegas, 1955: The gambling capital of the world, paradise of the Mafia and its luxury hotels offering endless opportunities to tourists and Hollywood stars alike. In the midst of it all; Eddie Bennett, a problem solver who lives in a suite at the Flamingo, drives a Pontiac Silver Streak and hangs out with the stars and the mafia bosses.
One day he’s asked to handle the paperwork related to the death of a young actress. But after a little snooping around, he discovers that there’s more than a broken heart behind her death.
The investigation takes Bennett from the bars and casinos of Las Vegas to the set of The Conqueror in the middle of the desert, and on the way he runs into John Wayne and other Hollywood stars, pretty girls, mobsters, state secrets and more dead bodies…
Read an excerpt:
Those legs were way too good for a cemetery. Long and well-sculpted, with just enough curves to get lost in without getting dizzy. Sexy, but elegant enough to avoid provocation. Those pins were about as fitting in that place as a hooker at a wedding.
A real waste.
Either way, the girl didn’t seem to bear any relation to the family of the deceased. Her presence was strictly physical. More body than soul. Not so much accompanying the mourners as scrutinizing them, and without making much of an effort to hide it.
It wasn’t hard to make out the friends from the relatives who were pretty thin on the ground, dressed in black, and maintaining a respectful silence. They seemed out of place among the buddies, old-time crocks in Hawaiian shirts who all seemed to arrive in groups and wouldn’t stop whispering – probably about the prospects for the post-funeral canapés. There was no hiding the fact they were Hollywood veterans. Maybe one or two had known the dead guy, perhaps even worked with him, but most of them had probably just turned up after seeing his obituary in Variety.
They sure were a special kind of wildlife these people. They didn’t want to admit the good times were now the old days and spent the best part of their time looking each other up to swap stories in which most of them probably never took part. But that was always the way in Hollywood, the stuff of legend.
No, that girl definitely didn’t look like she belonged to Lingwood G. Dunn’s usual crowd. A special effects director on movies like Citizen Kane, West Side Story and 2001, A Space Odyssey according to his obituary in the newspaper, he was still just an unknown technician for most people. An unknown who had chosen the worst possible day to buy his last one-way ticket.
I don’t know if he had been lucky in life, but death sure dealt him a bum hand. He had died of cancer the previous morning, May 15, 1998, and he had no other choice than to accept the burial today. The very same day the whole twentieth century show business world went into mourning meltdown. That May 16, Frank Sinatra died.
That’s why it was so surprising to see the girl. The way she looked, moved and acted it was clear she was a reporter. I’ve known more than a few. And that day the story was elsewhere.
Another time I would have gone over to find out what she was up to, the lady deserved it. But I was working and I needed to be prepared to act at any moment. When you’re past 70 it’s not good to be caught off guard.
So I went back to watching the other side of the street. The green sedan was still parked in front of the bar. I was beginning to get tired of sitting in my old Volvo and I was thirsty. I made my way through the traffic, leaned on the car I was watching, and pretended to be adjusting the turn-ups on my trousers. Then I went into the bar.
It was early, but more people were drinking beer than coffee. I sat at the bar and ordered a strong coffee and some donuts. In the mirror opposite, behind the bottles, I could keep an eye on pretty much everything in the joint. My man was at a table in the back, sitting in the same state of boxed-in nervousness I had left him in minutes before. His name was Benjamin O’Connors, a twenty-something from a good family. Well educated, but keeping bad company. He was wearing a red bomber jacket, perfect for doing exactly what he was hoping to avoid: drawing attention to himself.
I sipped my coffee and cursed as I burnt my tongue. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. While I got bored waiting I grabbed a handful of pistachios that had been left almost untouched by the suit who had just left. I put the nuts in my jacket pocket. The barman gave me a disapproving look. For my cockatoo, I said. It was true. I had a cockatoo, two fish, and a cat that was too lazy to try eating his flatmates. Then the door opened and there she was. She was silhouetted against the light, but those legs were unmistakable. She breezed over to the center of the bar and sat down. She swung her hair to one side and I thought how unusual it was to see a cut like that these days. She reminded me of Veronica Lake in those films I’ve learned to love over the years; learning to like Veronica Lake didn’t take so long. She asked for a coffee and got out a notebook. I wasn’t wrong about her profession.
I looked for the red bomber jacket in the mirror and saw that Benjamin O’Connors was still in the corner with his eyes glued to the door. So I grabbed my cup and moved a couple of stools down the bar, next to the girl.
“You got an interest in has-beens?”
She looked at me and smiled. She had too much experience to take the bait from a stranger first time of asking.
“I met Lingwood in ’55,” I said, “when he made that film with John Wayne.”
“You an actor?” She said without looking up from her notepad.
She looked up at me.
“A fellow technician?”
I shook my head.
“Just knew the guy,” I said.
“Listen Grandpa, if you really knew him maybe you could help me,” she said, rattled. When you’ve done a heap of shitty jobs in your life the attitude is easy to recognize.
“The guy was a friend of my editor-in-chief and he wants me to do something more than just short filler about his death. But those guys have only told me black and white stories of former glories without much of a spark. I think most of them are a bit…you know.”
“Old is the word,” I answered. “And don’t worry; I’m not bothered you called me Grandpa. I don’t happen to be one, but I guess I could be.”
“Okay. Listen up. Sir, today the greatest artist of the twentieth century died,” she put sugar in her coffee and began to stir, “and they got me covering the funeral of this guy who might’ve been a great guy to hit the town with, but frankly, I don’t give a damn.” She sipped her coffee. “So, if you don’t mind, I just want to get this business over with as fast as possible.”
She emphasized her displeasure with a grimace.
I went back to my coffee and stayed quiet for a while.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” she said after a few minutes, putting her hand on my arm. “Sometimes it drives me nuts covering these news fillers. I can get a bit problematic, you get my drift? And occasionally they give me these crappy jobs as a punishment.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I replied.
She gave me a pretty smile.
“And let me tell you, for a grandpa, like you said, you look pretty good. You gotta be older than my pa, but you look fitter than my last boyfriend.”
“Baby,” I said, “you just made my year.”
I winked and gave her a friendly pinch on the cheek. Call it golden-ager’s license. Afterward we both got back to our business.
Sincerely made up, I got lost in the reflection of my thin and wrinkled face in the mirror, my ash gray hair, which I luckily still had a lot of, and those eyes which seemed to sink further down every day.
I thought about forty years back and another reporter who’d managed steal my heart. And for the hundredth time I got a scare about how the years go by real quick. It was pretty clear I didn’t have long left and I didn”t like thinking that I might be taking what had happened back then as extra baggage.
“I think I got a good story for you,” I said without taking my eyes off the mirror.
She turned round with an air of irritation. I didn’t let her speak.
“It’s a story about Lingwood Dunn by the way, but I’m betting you’re going to be hooked.”
She looked at me with tenderness, her eyes getting ready to apologize.
“Are you serious? I mean I don’t wanna be rude, Sir, but I already told you,” she said, flashing her notepad. “So if it’s just another story about a golden glory…”
“I can guarantee you won’t have heard a story like this one. And stop calling me Sir. The pretty ladies call me Eddie.”
“Okay, Eddie, she replied with a smile that was more friendly than flirty. “In that case, if you…”
To be honest I was dying to know what she was going to say, but my sudden and unexpected movement made her instantly shut up. A ray of light told me the bar door was opening and I reckoned it was the man I was waiting for.
I don’t know if the girl was still looking at me, surprised by my sudden lack of friendliness, or whether she decided to tell me to go to hell and carry on with what she was doing. All my attention was focused on a long-haired guy in a black leather overcoat who was now walking through the bar behind me without taking off his sunglasses. He had an arrogant swagger totally out of key with his mediocrity. God, how I hate those kind of guys.
He walked toward the bathroom without changing his pace or deviating until he got to the last table, Benjamin O’Connors’. Then, in a surprisingly clumsy move, he put out his hand to take the envelope O’Connors had put on the edge of the table and hid it in his pocket. About as subtle as a drunk priest’s sermon. Then he carried on toward the bathroom.
I don’t think anyone in the bar had seen the operation, but not because it had been particularly discreet. They simply couldn’t give a damn.
I waited a few seconds before getting up.
“Back in a minute,” I said to the girl. I don’t know if she was listening.
My friend in the red bomber jacket was a lot more nervous now. He was looking around the whole while and couldn’t stop his legs from twitching. He looked at me, but could only hold the gaze an instant before fixing his eyes back on the beer he had in front of him. I guess he would see me again when I went past.
I went into the men’s room. Cleaner than I expected. Dirtier than I’d have liked. Two sinks, four urinals and three cubicles. Two were open. Under the third door I could see my man’s feet.
I looked at the others and noted that they all had two rolls of paper on the cistern.
I knocked on the door of the third.
I knocked again.
“Busy, Goddamn it! Use a different one!”
“Young man, would you be so kind as to pass me a roll of toilet paper. I have a medical urgency due to an operation of…”
“Shit!” I heard the lock turning, “I don’t wanna know your life story, man.”
The guy opened the door and passed me a roll.
“Take it, and enjoy the show.”
It was time to be quick and effective.
With one hand I pushed the door open and with the other I grabbed the long-haired guy’s wrist and pulled it toward me, trapping it between the door and the frame.
“What the fuck!” he shouted from the other side.
Then with as much strength as I could, I smashed his forearm over and over again with the door.
He yelled and fought, but I’d caught him so unawares he couldn’t coordinate his movements. Then I went into the cubicle.
I pushed him against the end wall and before he fell and hit the toilet bowl, I put my hand between his legs. I squeezed hard. Luckily, he was dressed, so the move wasn’t so gross.
He groaned. I squeezed again.
He started to groan louder, but I shut him up by putting my free hand on his windpipe and forcing his head against the tiles. I let the hand go and caught my breath. Then a right hook to the nose. His head bounced and the tiles crunched. I hit him again and the blood stained my knuckles. Now the tiles were messed up too. Meanwhile, I squeezed the other hand and it seemed like something was crunching down there too. By now the guy didn’t have the strength to moan.
He was ready to talk.
I got him by the neck again.
“The gig’s over, buddy.” I said. From now on, you want money, you get a job.
I let go of the hand I had on his balls and checked his pockets. That made him change his expression and he tried turning to relieve some of the pain. I found the envelope stuffed with cash, and another one with the usual photos. But just the photos.
I got out a notebook and a pencil.
“Now you’re going to write down the address where I can go and get me the negatives.”
I grabbed his balls again. He gave a start.
He wrote it as fast as I forget my new friends’ names. He didn’t even look at the paper. For a minute I thought he was going to throw up.
Maybe I had squeezed too hard.
I know that sometimes I go overboard, but when you get to my age it’s better to take these guys by surprise because if I gave them a chance I could live to regret it. That said, it was clear I could get away with it because this was the nineties, and tough guys weren’t as tough as they used to be. Not even close.
I took him by the chin and shook his head so he would open his eyes and look at me.
“Remember this. If one day you go into a bar, a hotel or a disco and you realize that Benjamin O’Connors is in the same city, you get in your car and drive until you’re a 100 miles away. You hearing me? Otherwise, next time I’ll turn these – I squeezed lightly between his legs – into a cute decoration to hang from your rear-view mirror.”
I think he nodded, or at least tried to with what strength he had left. I didn’t get to see because right then the bathroom door opened and Benjamin O’Connors appeared, first with an expression of confusion and then one of fear.
“Shit!” was the only thing he said before he started running.
I let go of the guy and tried to get out of the cubicle as fast as I could, which wasn’t all that fast. It’s those moments I wonder whether I’m getting too old for the job.
“Take care, son.” I said by way of a goodbye.
I had time before I left to see him slide down awkwardly onto the toilet with both hands between his legs, trying to get some relief.
“Hey, Grandpa. What’s going on in there?” The waiter shouted from the bar.
“Nothing buddy, there’s a guy in here that seems to have eaten some bad scrambled eggs.”
The reporter, still on the stool, turned to look at me. Her smile evaporated when she saw the blood on my hands.
For a moment I thought I was going to say something but then there was a small explosion outside in the street.
“Be with you in a moment,” I said, as I passed her by.
The back wheel of the sedan had burst as it drove over the tacks I’d left to prevent my client driving off. I went up to the car and opened the side door.
Between the shock of the men’s room and the blowout, O’Connors was about to have a coronary.
“You can breathe easy. It’s all over.”
“He’s going to kill me,” he whispered.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to you.”
“Not you, my Pa!”, he shouted, annoyed by my error. “If he sent someone it’s because he already knows everything. And if he knows, he’s going to kill me.”
“Relax, son. Your old man just knows that this friend of yours wasn’t exactly a saint and that he was squeezing you for dimes by taking advantage of the good family name. But from the little he told me, he thinks you were being blackmailed so he wouldn’t tell your beautiful young wife about some lover you might have stashed away somewhere. What Daddy didn’t know is that the lover was the long-haired guy.”
I leaned inside the car so I could settle the matter in the most discreet way possible in the middle of the street.
“I told you to relax. Here,” I gave him the envelope, “get rid of these photos. I’ll find the negatives and you can forget about this business.”
“Can I… Can I trust you?”
“Do you wanna talk about your options?”
He shook his head.
“Forget about it. I swear I don’t give a damn about high society gossip.”
I took out the envelope with the money and took my fee for the job.
“Here, give this to your old man and tell him I already got paid.”
“And be careful about your friends. Or what you do with them.”
“It’s not what you think,” he whispered.
“You can be sure about that,” I replied as I got into the car. “When I saw you on all fours like a carthorse I tried to think about something else.”
As I closed the car door I noticed that all the clients of the bar were crowded round the windows and the door of the bar to get a good view of the scene. The guy in the black overcoat came out. He held a bloody tissue to his nose. He was stumbling with his head high but his legs slightly bent. Some of the people tried to help him, but he rejected their goodwill with violent shoves.
As he turned the corner, he looked back at me. I winked and then lost sight of him.
“Hey, guys!” I shouted as I went back in the bar. This guy has had a blowout; do you think you could lend him a hand changing the wheel?”
“Yeah, sure,” a couple of the customers said helpfully.
“I’d do it,” I said as they walked past, “but I’m too old.”
I climbed back on my stool at the bar. The barman went back to his place on the other side.
It wasn’t so long ago when I didn’t have to think twice before answering that question.
“No thanks, another coffee please.”
I turned towards the girl who was sitting down slowly, with a frown. I guess she was wondering what kind of old crock would put on such a show.
“You wanna tell me what happened?” she said as she sat down.
“Don’t think so.”
“No,” I repeated, but it was the friendliest no I could manage.
“Before, you said you wanted to tell me a story and now you’re not talking.”
“That was a different story.”
“I thought you were a guy who liked to tell stories.”
“Well, actually, I’m the kind of guy who lives them.”
She thought for a moment and inclined her head so all her hair fell to one side. Maybe it was bothering her, though I suspect she was just using her female charm to get an old guy nervous.
She got close enough to whisper.
“Who were those guys?”
“Oh, just some guys with too much free time.”
She realized she was going to get nothing out of me and gave up, though she was still curious.
And then I saw a glimmer in her eyes that woke up an old itch. For the first time, she wasn’t looking at me all patronizing like most young girls look at older guys. So many women had looked at me that way during my life that it was impossible not to pick up on that spark one more time.
“Who are you, Eddie?”
“The one and the same: Eddie. You said it, gorgeous. And I’m real sorry to have interrupted our conversation before.”
Now it was me who was getting up close. “If I remember right, you were about to tell me something fascinating.”
“Me?” She answered, putting on an air of Miss Interested 1990. “Hmm, let me think. If I’m not wrong, I was going to say that if you gave me a good story for my article, I’d invite you to lunch.”
“Baby, when I tell you this story you’re going to want to invite me to bed.”
Javier Márquez Sánchez (born 1978 in Sevilla, Spain) is Editor of the Spanish edition of Esquire. He has worked as a journalist for the Spanish radio and has written several novels, short stories collections and non-fiction books on film and music.
Lethal as a Charlie Parker Solo is his first novel being translated into English.
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