It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. (Raymond Chandler - The Red Wind)
"I'm melting, I'm melting," Chris screeched in his worst Wicked Witch Of The West imitation.
I'm not saying his voice could crack glass, but I did nearly drop the bottle of J&B that I was fetching to freshen our drinks. I was carrying an ice bucket in one sweaty hand and the Scotch in the other and hot as it was, my first instinct was to save the ice. At the last minute reason ruled, and I clutched the booze to my breast and let the ice crash to the floor.
"Last of the ice?" Chris mourned as we both watched the cubes melt on the floor.
"The very last," I said.
A hot gust of wind blew in through the patio door and every speck instantly evaporated. He fished car keys from his pocket and rose from the typewriter.
"I'll get a couple bags from the liquor store," he said.
"Wait up," I said. "I'll come with you."
It was January, and the Santa Ana season was upon us so fiercely that I almost wished we were back at Code Red. It may have been a hell hole - thanks to our ex-boss, Irwin (The Towering Toupee) Allen, but at least it was an air conditioned hell hole. My apartment - and our joint office - wasn't blessed with Mr. Carrier's miraculous invention and we were suffering badly.
The apartment was at 15th and Wilshire in Santa Monica, meaning it was about fifteen blocks from the beach. However, developers being greedy sots, all the buildings from about Lincoln Boulevard east were facing North or south. That way they could crowd more units into long narrow lots and any sea breeze that made its way through the gauntlet of stuccoed cement was immediately declared a fugitive and banished to the nearest alley.
On the other hand, they did nothing to shield us from the full force of the Santa Ana winds, which blew out of Death Valley to bake our very bones.
What was worse, we were stuck about half way through The Wolf Worlds, the much-overdue second novel in the Sten series. We'd managed to get the first half done while working for The Towering Toupee, but he'd so depressed us that we'd written what we considered junk, and so had to do it all over again.
At the liquor store we got the ice, a fresh bottle of Scotch for emergencies, and just as we were about to pay up, Chris said, "Better get some Famous Producer's Eye Shit and Breath Spray."
Our old mentor, Al Godfrey, always carried Visene and breath spray in his glove compartment. "If you get called to a meeting after a boozy lunch," he said, "all you have to do is squeeze some Famous Producer's Eye Shit in your peepers, give your tongue a good spray of Famous Producer's Breath Spray, and no one will be the wiser."
It was a good idea, so I added the items to our stash, paid the man, and headed back to our typewriters and Sten.
"I hate this shit," Chris said. "It isn't that I have Writer's Block, you have to have something in your head to block for that to happen. It's just that my fucking brain is so crispy-crittered that I can barely remember my name."
"Hey, consider yourself lucky," I said. "I forgot mine long ago."
"I just can't think in this heat," Chris said. "Actually, it's not the heat so much - I had no trouble writing in Vietnam - but the damned wind. It bores a hole right through your brain."
As if on cue, a hot gust rocked the BMW as we turned onto my street. We parked, braced ourselves against the wind as we reached the stairs, then ran up them. When I opened the door, it slammed out of my hand and banged against the wall. I got it closed, then headed for the fridge to store the ice and make us another drink.
The phone rang.
"Fuck 'em," Chris said. "I need that drink. Let the answering service get it."
But we'd almost lost a ten grand gig once for failure to answer phones, so I turned the ice and scotch over to Chris and fielded the receiver.
A cool and lovely voice with a British accent spoke into my ear: "Is that you, Allan? Darlene here. Peter would like to have you and Chris join him for a late lunch, if you can make it."
She was speaking of Peter Thompson, head of production for MCA/Universal Studios, one of the Guys With The Big Telephones who inhabited the Black Tower, and our self-appointed mentor.
I made frantic motions for Chris to nix the drinks, meanwhile saying, "We'd be pleased to Darlene. Where would he like to meet?"
Chris' eyebrows rose. Meet? Shook his head. No fucking way. I nodded vigorously. Fucking way.
Darlene told me and I repeated it aloud, to make certain Chris was up to speed. "Two p.m. The Commissary? No problem. Tell Peter we're looking forward to seeing him again."
When I hung up, Chris said, "Peter, as in Peter who robbed us of a third of our story money on Quincy? The guy who greenmailed us onto the lot to work for fucking Glen Larson on that piece of shit, Galactica 1980?"
"The very same," I said.
"I just wanted to make sure," Chris said. Then, "Shit, it'll be good to see the old thief after all this time. And maybe he's got a little money for us."
So, we made quick use of the Famous Producer's Eye Shit and Breath Spray and headed over the hill to the San Fernando Valley where the actual Hollywood lives. The heat was coming off the freeway in visible waves and hot gusts buffeted the car as we reached the top of the hill. Then it was down, down, down into the blazing hot Valley.
One good thing: The wind had driven the smog away so you could see all the way to Mount Baldy, where just a thin, tantalizing coat of white snow graced the rounded, Charley-Brown-like summit.
Two shakes later we were rolling up to the guard shack at MCA Universal, to be greeted by a strange scene. A dozen or more people were swarming around the shack in some confusion. Everybody was waving their hands and talking excitedly.
Just beyond was an even larger crowd, composed mostly of pretty office girls, their summer dresses whipped by wind, making them lean over to press their dresses to their knees to maintain a modicum of modesty. The array of decollete this phenomena produced was stunning.
Pulled over to one side was a new Cadillac convertible. It was empty and the driver's door hung open.
"Curiouser and couriouser," Chris murmured as we slowed almost to a stop, then crept up to the shack.
One of the guards recognized us and waved us on - pointing to an empty parking spot near the gate. The favored parking was granted, no doubt, by our winning personalities. Of course, every holiday we used to stop by the guard shacks at all the lots and hand out boozy presents to the hard-working people who kept the peace.
"Where's Scotty?" Chris wondered as he pulled into the parking spot.
The most famous gate guard in Hollywood, Scotty would normally be at his post this time of day. He was a gentleman of the old school, courteous to a fault, efficient, but firm when the occasion called for it.
As we got out we heard someone call, "Bunch and Cole! Over here!"
We turned to see Dolly Brown, our old secretary from Galactica 1980 days. She hugged us, then stepped back to say, "Can you believe what just happened?"
We replied with a chorus of "What happened? Who? Where? What the hell?"
She pointed at the abandoned caddie and said it belonged to a producer, whose name I won't reveal, but who was a well-known asshole about town.
"I saw the whole thing," she said. "Or, at least the important parts. I was on my way back from lunch when I heard shouting, and looked over to see Mr. (Asshole) sitting in his car, screaming at Scotty because he wouldn't let him in.
"Scotty said, just as nice as always, that he couldn't let him enter because he didn't work here anymore and, besides, he didn't have an appointment with anybody on the lot."
"The guy cursed a blue streak, calling Scotty every kind of name you could think of. Then he got out of his car and I think he was about to hit poor Scotty."
"No, shit," Chris said, bristling.
Scotty was a slender man, in his late 50's and Mr. Asshole Producer was a big son-of-a-bitch in his mid-thirties. He had a reputation for pushing people around.
"Well, just then," Dolly went on, eyes sparkling with excitement, "guess who drove up?"
"We give up," I said. "Who?"
"James Garner, is who," she said, with a nod of great satisfaction. "And he saw what was going on
and heard the guy screaming and threatening Scotty. So he got out of his car, went over to Mr. (Asshole), stepped between him and Scotty and so, then, when Mr. (Asshole) started to swing on Mr. Garner, why he... just...
"... just grabbed him by the collar..." She demonstrated, grasping the air. "...And gave him such a sock..." She gave the air a roundhouse blow that would have made Mohammad Ali hesitate. "I mean, a really good sock! And Mr. (Asshole) started to fall, but Mr. Garner held him up, then helped sit down on a chair in the guardshack."
Dolly laughed. "He hit him in the nose, so it was pretty bloody," she said. "Scotty was nice enough to take him over to the infirmary to put some ice on it."
"My hero," I said. "Let's hear it for Jim Garner."
"He's everybody's hero," Dolly said, hand sweeping to take in the crowd of secretaries. "They were all on the way to lunch and saw the whole thing along with me. Everybody cheered."
"What did Garner do?" Chris asked.
Another one of those delightfully earthy Dolly laughs. "He flashed us a grin right out of The Rockford Files, gave a little bow, then got into his car and drove away."
"Damn, too bad we missed it," Chris said. We'd had dealings with Mr. (Asshole) and so it would have been a special treat to witness his comeuppance.
Dolly got between us, grabbed both our arms and tugged. "Well, here's something you won't want to miss," she said, pulling us along toward the Jaws Pond, which was between us and the commissary. This was where "Bruce The Shark" of Jaw's fame held forth, recreating the terror of Mr. Spielberg's movie for countless tourists.
When we reached the pond's edge we stood there and gaped. The whole damn thing was empty - just some smelly puddles and some kind of complicated-looking mechanical contraption and tracks that once bore Bruce.
"What the hell?" Chris said. "Somebody kidnapped Bruce."
"Oh, he's just being refurbished while they clean the pond," Dolly said. "But that's not why I got you here." She pointed to the far end of the pond. "Look."
And there we saw a big, black stretch limo dangling from the end of a crane. Water was pouring from the windows as the crane groaned and cranked the limo from the pit. It looked like some kind of huge black fish, exhausted from a long, losing fight with a fisherman.
"Somebody must have been really drunk," I said.
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "Zigged when he ought to have zagged."
He turned to Dolly. "Okay, who did it? Anybody we know? We want all the dirty details."
"Nobody knows for sure," Dolly said. "But get this... That's the second limo. There were two at the bottom of the pond. They already got the other one out.
"And guess what? The studio has been leasing them both for over a year, and didn't even know they'd gone missing."
"Somebody's head's gonna roll," Chris predicted.
"Oh, that's for certain," Dolly said with the kind of relish that office workers reserve for members of the boss class getting trapped in the deep end of the shit channel.
"It's all over the office pool," she went on. "And guess who's first in line? None other than your old buddy, Peter Thompson."
"Aw, Jesus Christ," I said. "We were just on our way to have lunch with him."
Dolly shook her head. "Not today, you're not," she said. "On my way to lunch I ran into Darlene, Peter's secretary. She said he'd been called into a big meeting with Lew Wasserman and the guys. When you get to the Commissary, I'll bet you have a message waiting calling off lunch."
I heard the roar of an engine and turned to see the crane haul the limo out the last few feet, swing around, and start to set it on the ground.
"All that for a couple of missing limos?" I wondered. "Seems kind of extreme. The Studio's got a whole fleet of them."
"Oh, it's not just the limos," Dolly said. "Everybody figures a couple of ticked off Teamsters drove them into the pond. Morale is horrible all over the lot and they blame Peter for that. He ordered all kinds of cutbacks during the Writer's strike. Everybody from the studio landscapers to the record company engineers ended up on the unemployment line. And he really cut into the drivers. Ordering all sorts of new rules that they just hate."
"You fuck with the bull," Chris observed, "you get the horns."
We said our goodbyes to Dolly, then made our way to the Commissary, where, as predicted, there was a message waiting from Darlene. I called and she made all sorts of effusive apologies and said she'd reschedule when things calmed down.
After I hung up, Chris said, "Screw this shit, let's hit Bob Burns for a drunken lunch."
So that's what we did. Climbed into the BMW and headed back over the hill to our favorite restaurant.
Sten readers know Bob Burns well. In the series, it's a Mantis Section safe house known as much for its thick steaks and strong drinks as its top-level security. Well, it was a real place in Santa Monica at the foot of Wilshire Boulevard, across from Palisades Park which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
I'd first encountered Bob Burns in my newspaper days. It was a favorite watering hole for city officials, RAND Corp. scientists with the occasional star thrown in. I'd interviewed any number of people there, including our old friend from Galactica 1980 and Code Red, Lorne Greene, who'd hit the Pop Charts with an album of Western songs.
One of the owners of Bob Burns - Bonnie - had attended school at the American University in Beirut and since I hailed from that part of the world as well, we became good friends. Whenever I entered Bob Burns she'd call out, "Baksheesh! Baksheesh!" Which was the universal beggar's cry for alms throughout the Middle East.
The lunch rush was over when Chris and I entered and Bonnie and I traded hugs and "Baksheees," before being led to a large booth at the back of the restaurant. It was a cool, dark place, with pleasant background music and the odors wafting from the kitchen were incredible.
We had a stiff Scotch each, dug into our steak sandwiches, and before long we were back to the subject of Sten. But this time, instead of hitting roadblocks, we were brimming with ideas. And just itching to get back to our typewriters and churn out a blizzard of Wolf World pages.
Then Reason crept in.
"Soon as we get outside," Chris said, "we're gonna get jumped by the the fucking Santa Ana winds. And every fucking thought in my teeny little head will dry up, just like that all that ice you dropped this morning."
I sighed agreement. The prospects did not look good. The end of Book Two of the Sten series seemed to stretch out forever.
Then Chris said, "Shit!" He said it the way he used the word when an idea of incredible brilliance struck him.
"What, shit?" I demanded. "Who, Where and How, shit?"
"We do it right god-damned here," he said, thumping the table. "I mean, when we're sitting here, with all the air conditioning and pretty waitresses bringing us tall, cold glasses of Scotch and water we can think of Sten ideas like nobody's business."
I nodded. "So? We can't live at Bob Burns. Eventually, we have to go home."
"Maybe we can rent the booth," Chris said.
"Holy shit, is right!" I said.
You can imagine just how much I dreaded the thought of once again braving the oven-like heat of my apartment, because the idea made total sense.
I called Bonnie over to the table, and pitched it to her. And instead of giving me a look like, these guys are crazy, she said, "Why the hell not. We've even got electrical outlets under the booth for your typewriters."
And so, that's what we did for the next three weeks. Every day we hauled our IBMs down to Bob Burns when it opened, plugged in our typewriters, and pounded out pages, breaking only for lunch.
The waitresses kept the drinks coming and the patrons, once they got used to the idea, treated us like we were just part of the atmosphere. Bob Burns. A place where you could get thick steaks, strong drink, and watch real live writers at work.
So, here's to The Wolf Worlds, gentle readers.
And here's to Bobbie Burns.
And to hell with the Santa Ana winds.
NEXT: ALEX KILGOUR IN HOLLYWOOD