Old Mafia joke: A dying Don calls his grandson to his bedside. Tells the kid, "I want you should have my favorite gun, so you'll always remember me." The kid protests: "But, grandfather, I hate guns! Leave me your Rolex instead." The old Don pats his hand, says, "Listen, to me, boy. Some day you're gonna have a big house, lots of money, some nice bambinos, a pretty wife - the whole thing. Maybe you come home one day, unexpected like, and you find some son of a bitch in bed with your wife. Whaddaya gonna do? Point to your watch and say, 'Times Up?'"
The room was dimly lit, but the guy behind the desk was plain to see. He was big and fat and expensively dressed and he looked like he ate little writers like us for desert after triple helpings of the macaroni and gravy. When he moved, his Nero Wolfe-sized chair moaned in despair.
Why, oh why, I thought, had Chris left his gun in the car?
Then the big man made with a smile - or, maybe he was just passing gas - and he said in a low, raspy voice, "Freddy says you're good boys. Talented boys. Boys I can use." He looked over at Freddy - the producer/director who had brung us to this dance - and said, "Isn't that right, Freddy?"
Freddy, who, like us, was dressed in the customary faded jeans, raggedy sweat shirts and expensive cowboy boots favored by writers and directors and aped by pressed-jean wannabees, nodded, saying, "They did great work for me, Tony. And they got a rep in This Town that's out of this world."
Okay, now you have to bear with me a sec for a little BG. First, I've changed the names to protect not so much the innocent, so much as myself. Tony's name wasn't really Tony. And Freddy's name wasn't really Freddy. With me so far?
When we met with Freddy a few days before the sit-down with Tony, he'd said: "Now, listen boys, Tony's a funny kind of guy. Don't get the wrong impression."
I said, "Funny how?"
Freddy replied, "He looks like a tough guy, you know?" He pressed a finger to his nose, bending it over by way of "tough guy" demonstration.
"Like maybe he's an Italian Mob boss or something." A nervous laugh from Freddy. "But he's not Italian. He's Greek. Changed his name a little in honor of the big shot producer who gave him his start." He told us the name of the producer, and he was indeed a big shot.
"What about the Mob shit?" Chris wanted to know.
Freddy shrugged. "Never been indicted."
That wasn't the answer we were looking for. Chris pressed, "Is this guy legit?"
"More importantly," I said, "is his money legit?"
"Sure, sure, his money's good," Freddy assured us. "And he's as legit as can be. He's made some big fucking movies the past few years."
He named some of the movies, and, yeah, they were big action-adventure films that sold a helluva lot of popcorn and Coke and Ju-Ju-Bees.
The reason we were suspicious is because we'd asked our producer/mentor, Al Godfrey about this Tony guy, and Al had said the man had just suddenly appeared in Town with a big credit line and some Studio Business Affairs types to vouch for him. "He's also supposed to have a certificate for more than a million bucks worth of raw diamonds in a safe deposit box for extra collateral," Al told us.
"What did he do before he made movies?" I asked Freddy.
Freddy looked uncomfortable. Then, said, "He was sort of a labor organizer in San Francisco. Down on the docks."
This was a plus for Chris, whose grandfather had been a labor activist. He said, "Down on the docks? You mean the Longshoreman's Union?"
"Yeah, like that," Freddy said. "Longshoremen. Teamsters. All those guys." Warming to the subject he added, "He was the go to guy for Labor Peace. You wanted to do some big project in San Francisco, like make a movie, you saw Tony first. He made sure everything stayed copasetic with the boys."
"And if you didn't see Tony," I guessed, "things might happen? Slashed tires? Heavy things falling out of the sky?"
"Well, you know, the docks can get pretty dangerous," Freddy said. "Accidents can happen, if, like, some cheap bastard skimps on the overtime, or the number of guys needed. That sort of thing. Guy gets tired from too many hours, not enough help, not enough respect, he can get careless."
Chris and I were okay with all that. Go to any big city - New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, wherever - and you have to grease certain palms to get things done. Labor Peace is a valuable, and usually expensive service for the movie business. And the studios routinely budgeted for it. (Labeled, Misc Expenses on the books)
"What kind of movie does he want us to write?" I asked.
"A sci-fi thing," Freddy said. "You guys have the science fiction books, right? The Sten series?"
We said he was dead on. The fourth Sten was well underway and our publisher - Del Rey Books - reported that first three were selling like hot cakes.
"He wants it to be about motorcycles. But in the future, like. And I told him you guys know all about motorcycles, too." He looked at us anxiously. "I told him right, yeah?"
Spot on. Although I'd done some freelance magazine pieces on motorcycles, Chris was the real expert. He'd edited several major bike magazines, and written for them all - from Big Bike to Chopper Magazines to Easy Rider.
"He's got that big rock and roll kid to play the lead," Freddy put in as an added enticement.
We asked him what big rock and roll kid and he gave us the name. "But don't tell anybody," he cautioned.
"How come?" Chris asked.
Freddy shrugged. "Tony hasn't told the kid, yet."
We chewed on that, then made with our own shrugs. Not our problem.
Chris said, "How much?"
We were in the process of firing our current agency - unbeknownst to them - and interviewing new possibilities. So we were making the deal ourselves.
Freddy said, "Sixty grand. Ten on signing. Ten when you deliver the story. Fifteen for the first draft screenplay. Twenty-five for the final draft."
He showed us a proposed contract. We reviewed it. Writer's Guild Boiler plate. Plus, the producer was a WGA signatory.
I said, "No checks in the mail thing, right? We personally deliver the pages. This Tony guy personally writes us a check."
"That's how Tony likes to do business," Freddy said.
Chris and I exchanged looks. Sounded good to us.
Freddy correctly interpreted the exchange as being positive. "Okay, are we on, then?" he asked. "Should I set the meet?"
We said go right ahead.
But the day of the meet we started having second thoughts when we approached Tony's production company. First off, it was at the ass-end of Culver City in an industrial zone. Secondly, the buildings were mostly metal structures, with towering bays for big trucks to enter and exit. There was a warren of loading docks, and a non-descript cement block Admin building. All in all it looked more like a Bekins Moving And Storage facility than the home of a movie company.
As we neared the guard shack entrance, Chris said, "Fucking thing's surrounded by more razor wire than Fort Ord."
He wasn't exaggerating. Also, the razor wire looked sharp and shiny new. This was backed up by the hard looks we got from the uniformed gate guards. One guy called in to check our names, while the other stood in the doorway, hand resting on the gun at his hip. Guns? Man, were these guys serious, or what?
We were buzzed through a heavy door to a tiny reception office. Whitewashed cement block walls. A couple of paint-by-numbers seascapes for decoration. Two plastic LA-County-Jail-type bucket chairs for our behinds. And a steely-eyed receptionist behind glass so thick it had to be bullet-proof, with a little slot to bend over and talk through, and shove your ID in to be double checked.
She snarled for us to sit and wait so we sat and waited. Minutes later there was a buzzing sound, locks snicked, and two men came through the front door. They wore ill-fitting suits and both had suspicious-looking bulges under their arms.
Chris chuckled, then whispered, "Maybe I shouldn't have left the .45 in the car."
I started to laugh, but was cut off when the guys with the .38 Coconuts in their armpits gave me a cold look. Then they were buzzed through a second door, which, no doubt, led to the inner sanctum.
Then Freddy was buzzed in, said, "Hey, boys," stooped to address the little hole in the glass window and soon ushered us down a darkish hallway.
Freddy knocked at a heavy door and one of the guys with the .38 Coconuts opened it and after studying us, he held the door, and jerked his head to enter.
As we scooted by, we saw his buddy rise from a chair in front of an enormous desk, and heard him say, "Done and done, Tony."
Then he joined the second guy and they exited, while Freddy led us forward to meet the big man sitting behind the desk. He didn't rise, but gave us a good looking over, then nodded and waved us into seats.
"Some coffee?" he said in a low, raspy voice. "Maybe some cake?"
Without asking us, Freddy said, "Sure, that'd be nice, Tony," probably figuring that it would be rude to whack people after they ate his food and drank his coffee.
Coffee and sweet rolls were fetched and we got down to business.
Tony said, "Did Freddy fill you in on the movie?"
We said, only that it was a futuristic motorcycle thing.
Tony nodded. "Sure, in the future. Science fiction. And motorcycles. Had some guys do some, whatcha call... audience testing... they said the kids will love it, long as we put a famous pretty boy in the lead. The girls will come for the pretty boy, the guys for the motorcycle, sci-fi action business."
He gave us a look. "Course, you'll want to put some pretty girls in there, too. One for our hero and one for Pony."
I said, "Who's Pony?"
Tony waved an enormous hand with thick fingers. "In a minute."
No problem. We'd wait as many minutes as he pleased.
Then he said, "Had any ideas so far, boys?"
Chris said, "Maybe set it around motorcycle races. Kick it 50 years in future and build some really trick bikes."
Tony nodded, saying, "I like the racing angle."
Chris larded it on. "A lot of people don't realize," he said, "but motorcycle racing is the biggest spectator sport in America. People think it's basketball, or football, or even car racing. But, motorcycle racing has them all beat. Ten million tickets sold in just one season, according to the AMA." He translated: "That's the American Motorcycle Association."
Tony liked that. He looked at Freddy, who was beaming. "You were right," he said. "They're good boys."
Then he turned back to us. "You boys know your business, so I'm not gonna tell you what to do. That's not my style. If a guy knows what's what, I give him his head and trust he won't disappointment me."
He leaned back, smiling a little now, and cracked his knuckles. It's like gun shots going off. "Very rarely have I been disappointed," he said. He paused, as if for emphasis, and added, "Very rarely."
We could understand why.
"So, I'm giving you guys your head, okay?" he said.
We said okay.
He indicated Freddy, "Just check it with Freddy regular like. The deal is, he's gonna, direct, so the three of you should, like confer, you know?"
Then a deep frown creased his forehead. Like he had a bad case of indigestion. But maybe it was a headache, because he rapped those thick knuckles against his skull.
"But, you know, I got a couple of real strong thoughts in my head," he said. "Thoughts I just can't get out so good. My girl says it's my artistic side. Maybe, yes. Maybe, no. The point is I can see a couple of things real strong, like. Things I want you guys to do."
The frown deepened and he looked at us. "You get my meaning?"
"Sure," I said. Although I hadn't the foggiest. "Tell us what you want and we'll make sure it's in the movie."
Tony's frown vanished. He seemed happier. "Okay, okay. Here's the first thing. The opening. I know it might sound kinda strange but I got real strong feelings about this."
He closed his eyes, and made sweeping motions with his hands. "We open," he intoned, "with a black screen. Not one fucking bit of light. Totally dark. And then... And then... we hear sounds. Heavy breathing. Movement. Almost like people are having sex."
He opened his eyes, and said, "You know, fucking."
We said we understood.
Tony said, "But then we let in some light and we see - big surprise, it's not people fucking, but two guys lifting weights in a gym."
"Ooookayyy," Chris said dubiously. Then the sixty grand price tag kicked in and he said, more firmly, "Gotcha."
"One other thing," Tony said. "I want that our hero should have a best friend. A pal he's known since he was a little shit."
"That would be Pony?" I guessed.
"Yeah, Pony," he confirmed. "And at one point - maybe at the, you know, Second Act Close - I want that Pony should get sick."
We had no idea what the hell he meant - Pony gets sick? What? Cancer sick? Influenza sick? Bubonic Plague sick?
But we said, no problem, boss. Pony gets sick. Second Act Close!
Then, remembering the parting comment from the .38 Coconut boyo, I said, "Done and done, Tony."
Tony gave a grin that split the huge melon that was his face. "Hey, I really like you boys," he said. "You get it right away."
Freddy chimed in with much enthusiasm. Tony shoved over a contract, I checked to make sure it was the same thing Freddy had shown us before and we signed - maybe a little tentatively. What the hell were we letting ourselves in for? But then our attitudes brightened immensely when Tony hefted out a big business-office style checkbook. He gave Freddy a wink, then popped the book open, did some scribbling with a pen, then tore out a check.
He offered it to me. I took it, then looked down. The first promised - On Signing - payment: Ten Thousand Dollars!
Tony said, "I left the payee whatchamacallit blank. Put your names in. Or whatever you want. Cash for all I care."
After a round of hand shaking, we left - two very happy dudes. We even smiled at the .38 Coconut guys who were lurking in the hallway. Gave a cheery "byeeee" to the grim receptionist. Waved Sayonara to the Gateguards as we pulled out.
Chris said, "First, let's drive quick like two bunnies to the bank and see if the fucking check clears."
And we did. And it did. And soon after we got busy with the story.
The story was a helluva lot of fun to write. We kicked the whole thing to 2050 A.D., then came up with futuristic gear to match. Super hi-tech motorcycles with frictionless bearings, holographic displays and engines that could practically break the sound barrier. Motorcycle pit stops equipped with stuff modern crews could only dream about. We created an international racing circuit to test our hero's mettle, and bad guys to end all bad guys. Man, this movie was gonna smoke!
The motorcycle racing hero was easy. The rock star kiddie probably couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, so we'd make him cool - a man of few words. We figured his crewchief and best pal, Pony, would be more of a pro, so we made him somebody who'd crack wise and carry the dialogue scenes. (For Amateur Actors, The Handling Of, See: Let's Hear It For The 'S' Word)
Then we hit the sticking point. And a major damned sticking point at that. "What the hell did Tony mean?" I asked Chris. "Pony gets goddamned sick?"
He didn't know either. We kicked it around Still no good. Got out the Metaxa, had a couple of shots. Then light began to dawn.
Chris said, "It's like all those movies where, at a point late in the flick, the hero's best buddy tells us his dreams. If the big fight is coming up, he tells our hero about the place in the burbs with the wife and kids he's always dreamed about. If it's a caper film, he tells our hero how he plans to spend the money."
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "You got it partner. Then, in the next big scene he's killed, or wounded, and this gives-"
Chris broke in - "Now, our hero is motivated to really fuck with the bad guys. They violated the dignity of the fucking Shaolin fucking Temple, man, and he's so pissed off he can chew nails and spit 'em out like a machine gun."
We used to call this sort of thing our "Lawyers, Guns And Money Moment." From the Warren Zevon song that goes: "I'm stranded in Hondurus/I am a desperate man/Send lawyers guns and money/ 'Cause the shit has hit the fan."
Alright! Now we knew why Pony must get sick. Then we figured out the how part. And who the hell Pony was that we were going to make so sick. More Metaxa and solutions made themselves known.
After checking with Freddy, who loved the story, we drove to Culver City and personally delivered the pages to Tony. He wrote us another check for Ten Grand. Said, he loved how we made Pony get sick, then told us to go thou and write the first draft screenplay, boys. So we did. Everybody liked that draft too, so after getting notes for fixing this and that from Tony, he wrote out a big fat check for Fifteen Grand.
Man, this was looking good. Really, really good. Turned in the Second - and Final - Draft. We were busy, and our guard was down after the first three checks cleared the bank no problem, so we messengered the script to Tony. Freddy called a little later and said Tony was a happy man, and should he mail us the last check - the check for Twenty Five Thousand Dollars - or did we want to come and get it?
Chris said, "Tell him no checks in the fucking mail, Cole."
I put this a little differently to Freddy, but not too differently. It was a Friday, so he set it up for us to take delivery of the last check on Monday.
Come Monday morning. Drinking coffee and reading the LA Times. I always read my horoscope first. I think Astrology is stupid, but the old slot man who broke me in on the copy desk many years ago said to read the horoscope first, so I still did things that way - even though my newspaper days are long over.
Then I check out the Front Section, the Local Section, and the Entertainment Section. I throw away the Sports Section, because I think Corporate Sports are bullshit and a ripoff and they bore the snake snot out of me. However, if we had a lot of meetings, I read the Sports Section so I didn't look UnAmerican if the producer asked, "How about those Dodgers?" Or Rams. Or Lakers. Or Whatever.
That day I threw away the Sports Section and went to the Business Section. Scanned the front page. And although lunch was hours away, I almost lost it in advance.
Because... Stretched across the entire bottom of the front page was a big, brazen, eight-column headline that read:
"FBI Probes Hollywood Producer's Mob Ties."
No, no, no. It can't be. Quickly I look at the lead. Search for the name of said Hollywood Producer. Surely, it can't be... Total coincidence... Never in a million years... Never in ten million years...
And then, fuck, fuck, fuck...
There it is...
I hear a knock at the door. It's Chris. He comes in, pale, with white streaks on his lips from chewing antacids all the way from Manhattan Beach to Venice.
Voice quivering, he says, "Did you see?"
"Yeah, I saw."
"Fucking Tony," I agreed.
"The Fucking FBI!"
"The Fucking FBI," I groaned.
"Shit and fall back in it," Chris said.
I tried to make light. "You first," I said.
Chris was in no mood. "There goes our fucking Twenty Five grand."
"If I were Tony," I agreed, "I'd probably get way the hell out of town until things cooled down."
Chris slumped in his chair. "Same here," he sighed.
"What about our meeting?" I said. "We're supposed to pick up the check this morning."
Chris' face turned to stone. "I say we still go," he said.
"What if there's trouble?" I asked. Stupid question, as it turned out.
Chris leaned over and patted a fat bulge just at boot-top.
"This time you're bringing the gun," I said - another rather pointless remark.
"Let's go, Cole," Chris said, rising.
So we went. Drove to the ass-end of Culver City yet one more time. Got to the razor wire and then the guard shack. It was a tense moment, but the guys waved us through. Cut to the Grim-Receptionist. Grimmer than ever. But, she buzzes us through.
We get to Tony's door. Knock. One of the guys with the .38 Coconut in his armpit opens the door. Chris gives him a hard look. For a moment, I think the guy is sort of surprised at the look, but he backs away and opens the door wider.
Chris and I enter, prepared for the worst.
Three surprises. First, Tony is sitting behind his desk as big as life. Second, Tony is smiling the biggest, brightest smile we had ever seen on his face.
"Boys, Boys!" he enthuses, waving us over to his desk.
Third Surprise: Tony has the heavy check book on his desk. He opens it, picks up a pen and scrawls. Rips out the check. Offers it.
As I take it with rather numb fingers, he says, "Sorry we can't chew the fat today, boys. I'm pretty busy, you know?"
Chris, surprised as I was, croaked, "No problem, Tony."
I looked at the check. It was for by-god Twenty Five Thousand Fucking Dollars! I gave Chris a look that said, Guess what? Everything's cool.
Tony said, "About the movie, boys. Great script. Fantastic script. But some things have come up, you know? I gotta go out of town and set things straight. So, I'm puttin' it off a couple of three months... Capice?"
Shook hands, said bon-voyage and got the hell out of there.
As we headed back to Venice, Chris said, "You know, we've been screwed, blued and tattooed in This Town so many times I lost count. But this time... This time..."
I held up the check. Gave it a good look. Yep, still there - Twenty Five Thousand Dollars. I folded it up, and put it away, saying, "Even with the Justice Department hanging over his head, he was as good as his word."
Chris laughed. "The Mafia has been very, very good to us," he said.
He came to a halt at a stoplight. Looked over at me, then patted the .38 coconut in his boot.
"And Pony didn't even have to get sick," he said.
NEXT: THE FBI ONLY RINGS ONCE