So I’ve decided to post the first chapter of my upcoming novel, Hot Sinatra, on the ol’ blerrrgh for your edification. PLEASE, feel free to leave notes, comments and solicitations (O.K., maybe not solicitations). Be kind, this is still a work-in-progress.
I pulled up to the sprawling collection of Spanish villa-style buildings affectionately referred to as the ‘Flo-Ho Arms’, just as a slow-moving posse of old men shambled out onto the front lawn like plaid-suited zombies – all giant-sunglasses and gleaming metal walkers. They waved as I crept up the shallow front steps, hollering their greetings as they’d long been taught was the civilized way to behave. Pops had been like that. Always said hello to people he’d never met before, wish them well, tell them to have a good day. He always meant it too. You never saw that in people under 60 anymore. Nobody just said ‘Hi’ to strangers on the street anymore. General consensus in many parts of L.A. is you’d just as likely get a knife to the face as a smile or a handshake. So I took a second and offered a lazy wave back and shouted a “Looks like a nice warm day shaping up there.” It was cliché, but what the hell else did they have to talk about? Most of them were abandoned here like old furniture. At best they got visits on the weekend from bored grandkids that they’d never met on the outside. They’d get sad, pitying glances from their condescending middle-aged ‘kids’, who’d act like there was something that these poor old bastards could have done to not end up in a place like this. It was more of a prison than most federal pens. Even Pops ended up like this in the end. He said he liked it. I think part of him wanted to plant the seeds of dissent among his fellows, prove that they didn’t have to burn out, or fade away. Even fighting cancer and a couple of strokes, Pops was still walking the walk while most of us still just toddled along behind him.
I continued up the stone walkway and through the ornate glass doors into the place. The first thing you notice, upon entering the main building of the Florence Henderson Continuing Care Center, is the expanse of the modern open foyer. The next thing you notice is the lingering stench of bleach and urine. Pops went out in a place like this. He was riddled with cancer, fighting to breathe, yet still tough as nails. Charming as the devil himself and flirting with very young nurses to the very end. He probably wouldn’t have come out on a call like this. He probably would have politely declined and offered some alternate agency that could be of more help. I wanted to tell the miserable old ass to fall out of a tree when he called and woke me up at six in the morning.
I shook off the stench of death and incontinence and, after a few conflicting sets of directions from a couple of very stoned orderlies, made my way to room 224. The first thing Obadiah Stetch noticed was my hat.
“What are you supposed to be Bogey or something? Ain’t nobody wore them hats in years. You look fucking ridiculous. At least wear a suit with it. What kind of gumshoe are you anyway? You’re supposed to be Moe Rossi’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Right. You don’t really look like him do you? He was a handsome fucker. Pulled all kinds of pussy. He never would have worn a fucking hat like that. Stupid ‘Rat Pack’ fucking thing.”
It was a 1953 Royal Stetson fedora that had, in fact, been my grandfather’s hat. Pop’s hat. People assume I wear the hats as a joke, to be ironic. Some attention-craving hipster playing P.I. dress up. I take a lot of shit about the hats. I certainly didn’t need to hear it again from some ancient mouthy jerk off with something to prove from the confines of what would probably be his death-bed. I took it off and settled myself in a chair near the bed, folding my denim-clad legs and setting the hat on my knee. So far my hunch had been correct. Obadiah Stetch didn’t rate the trouble of putting on a suit.
“Mr. Stetch, did you just call me down here to have someone to spit insults at? Or do we actually have some business to discuss?”
He picked thick-framed glasses from somewhere in the mess of sheets covering his legs and searched my face through even thicker lenses that magnified his rheumy eyes and made him look like an old bulldog.
“No, kid. I got a job for you. If you can handle it, that is.”
I took a second to brush off his stale and obnoxious breath, along with some imaginary dust on my leg.
“Well, that all depends on the job, doesn’t it, Mr. Stetch?”
The old bastard took the glasses back off, apparently satisfied that I had ‘moxie’ enough to be worth his time. Obie Stetch had been a rich, powerful and fairly notorious man-about-town in his day. That day had passed three decades ago. Stetch had been a club owner, musical agent, boxing promoter and self-involved prick as far back as the forties. Now he was another old man facing a lazy death and a rapidly declining amount of respect from the world. I figured throwing him a bone wouldn’t kill me.
“Mr. Stetch, sir. I know you’re an important man and you probably have other business to deal with today, so why don’t we get down to why I’m here.”
He took the bait as most lonely old pricks do and straightened in his bed, a glimmer of life lifting a snarl onto his face.
“Don’t need to kiss my ass, kid. But you’re alright. I think we can do business.”
He hefted a book out of nowhere, one of those pleather-bound photo albums that are supposed to look like an impressive volume of English poetry, and flipped it open on the sheets. He rambled on as he flipped through the book. I was hoping he was at least looking for something pertinent to the conversation.
“This is bullshit. Having to meet like this, in this goddamn hospital room. Once I’m fixed up, you come see me at the house, We’ll have a drink by the pool, out in the sun. This is bullshit. Fucking doctors don’t know a thing.”
He stopped his flipping and stabbed a gnarled old finger at a photo of a younger version of himself standing with a very young Frank Sinatra in front of a stage full of musicians. I guessed it was taken in 1948, on account of the banner hanging over the stage that said ‘Happy New Year 1948’.
“That’s me with Sinatra in 1948.”
I rolled my eyes and held back the mounting urge to take the book away and smack him with it.
“He was playing my place in Van Nuys. The ‘Mozambique’. I had a very important, very rare piece of wax cut from that show. You know what a record is?”
I bit down on the inside of my cheek and redoubled my efforts to not slap him in his bald-spot.
“That record was made for me by my late wife and was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. I had it here with me. It was framed up on the wall there…”
He pointed absently at a spot on the wall where the paint was a shade darker in the rectangular shape of a picture frame. A dozen other pictures and framed memorabilia surrounded the bare spot, but it was clear by its position in the center that it was the piece d’ resistance.
“Somebody stole it?”
“Oh, somebody give that boy a lolli! Yeah somebody stole it! You shit-for-brains! And I fucking want it back! Nobody steals from Obie Stetch! I run this goddamn town!”
I had been regretting taking Stetch’s call since I hung up the phone that morning, but at this point all I wanted was to get up and walk out and straight into the bar across the street. They’d have coffee, right? Just a coffee. Of course if he kept up his deluded, self-serving tantrums, I’d probably be knee-deep in scotch five minutes after I left, and that I would most certainly regret. I took a deep breath of decrepit ass chased with a blast of industrial antiseptic and immediately regretted that as well.
“Any idea who would have taken it?”
His puckered little bulldog face lit up scarlet.
“Do you have any idea who you’re talking to, you little shit? I was making gold fucking records before your mama was a bulge in your grandaddy’s pants. Yeah I got some ideas. Yeah, because nobody would steal an autographed fucking Sinatra record. You fuck!”
A fat nurse with too much blush stuck her face around the corner with a stern look of disapproval. I shrugged innocently for her, trying to convey the situation that she was probably well aware of. If he acted like this now, he probably did it all the time. Ancient lunatics were probably part and parcel. Nothing to see here.
“Everything alright in here, Mr. Stetch? If you don’t calm down we’ll have to sedate you again.”
“Fuck you!” he bellowed back. “Who the fuck do you think you are? I could buy and fucking sell you in a heartbeat!”
She clucked her tongue and disappeared from the doorway shaking her head. I stood up and twisted my head to crack the tension out of my neck. I wanted to head-butt the old cocksucker. Instead, I leaned in close to his bed and gave him the goods in as harsh a whisper as I could manage without drawing attention from the nurses station outside.
“Listen, you belligerent old fart. Nobody gives a fuck about an old record missing from your wall in this cut-rate nursing home. You want me to find it? Cut me some slack. Answer a few questions – without being a delusional prick – and maybe I can help you. Keep acting like a spoiled four year-old, and I walk.”
I stood there, trying to be menacing (probably managing ‘imposing’ at best) and waited while he composed himself, laid back and drew a deep breath of resignation.
“Alright. I’m sorry, kid. Maybe we should finish this some other time? You come up to my office on Monday. I got lunch with Michael Jackson’s agent this afternoon. You know Michael Jackson? That kid is gonna hit it big, mark my words. Weird fucking blackie, but he’s got some fucking pipes. I think he may be a cake-boy, you know what I mean? Likes it in the ass.”
Jesus H. Addle-brained Christ. Obadiah Stetch was a piece of work. I can’t even fathom what kind of unbelievable scumbag he must have been when he was out on the loose with money and power and youth to spare. I thought of trying to knock some sense into him, imagined myself wrapping the cord from one of his machines around his scrawny neck, maybe slapping him with that photo album until his spindly little hate-filled head popped off. Instead, I forced myself to focus on the work, like Pops always told me. Everybody’s an asshole. You have to be able to work around em’. Pops never lost his mind, he never turned into one of these cartoonish old farts with a walker yelling about kids on the lawn. I tried to build up some sympathy for Stetch, but kept coming up short.
“Look, Stetch. You’ve got a lot of impressive trinkets up there. More than any sane person would keep out in a place like this, but I get it. You want everybody to know that you used to be a big shot. They took the one piece. Only that one. That speaks to pre-meditation and motive. That means that whoever took the Sinatra record was only after the Sinatra record. Was there anyone who showed an interest in it? Anyone who would have profited especially from that one piece?”
I hoped to Christ that he was paying attention and understood what I was trying to explain to him. If not, the whole morning was a waste of my time and his money, although I was much less worried about his pockets than my sleep schedule. He sat heavy, slumped forward. I was beginning to think he’d fallen asleep, or died while I was talking, when he suddenly sat bolt upright with a hard glint in his eye.
“Who is Ramone? One of the people here in the hospital?”
“Ramone.” He repeated, flipping the photo book open again and stopping on the picture he’d shown me before. He jabbed his finger at a trumpet player in the background. A real pachuco with a pencil thin moustache and slick hair. He looked like a stereotypical Big Band musician. Like DeNiro in New York New York.
“It couldn’t be Ramone. He’s dead. Been dead thirty-some years. Maybe one of his people…”
I obviously couldn’t take anything he said at face value, because he was constantly either self-aggrandizing, was lost in time, losing his mind or was probably just plain lying his ass off.
“So, this Ramone, he died when, exactly?”
“I just said. 48’, right after these pictures were taken.”
“That would be more than 60 years ago, Stetch. I think we can cross him off the list of suspects.”
“You think I don’t know that? You fucking guido punk? Come in here and try to push me around will you, Tony?” He hollered, waving his glasses around for effect.
I stared a hole through him, hoping it would bear fruit and settle him down a little. Whether it was my eyeballing him, or he just wore himself out, he shrunk back against the pillow and all the energy that was pouring out of him moments before was gone, replaced by clear eyes and a set jaw. It was going to be a miracle if I could manage to keep myself from ending up on the wrong end of a bottle after talking to that batshit codger.
“Are you finished?” I growled at him.
“Look, anybody could have stolen it. Fuckin’ Viet-Cong nurses and spic janitors they have in this fucking place. Every one of em’ is a goddamn thief. Come to think of it, there’s a kid works here, named Enrique. Looks just like old Ramone. I never realized it until just now. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like that fucking beaner kid, sniffing around my room all the time. Probably some grandkid or something.”
I stood up and looked through the windows to see if there were any Hispanic kids working in the area. All I could see was the fat nurse and a couple of shady-looking white dudes in orderly jackets.
“I’ll check out Enrique. Now why do you think this Ramone would have something to do with it?”
“That Mex hump tried to steal it from me back then. He played horns on the gig and was always trying to get his hands on the record to prove it. He was crazy, had it out for me. Tried to attack my wife once. I had his hands broken and called the cops on him. He got out, came back and tried to steal it again, the fuck. Somebody killed the spic a few weeks later.”
“And I’m sure you had nothing to do with that, right?”
“Hey! I’m a business man, not a thug. And he wasn’t worth the time. Just another dirty tortilla-munching Mexican. Like I said, maybe it’s his grandkid or nephew or something?”
Now it was time for the rough stuff. I had a pretty good idea what his answer was going to be, but I had to ask the question. Now I had to wonder who made the initial offer for this job, Old Man Ignorance, or the 1970’s recording magnate still stuck inside his cracked head?
“About the money. What you offered on the phone?”
The old man shifted in his bed and turned his eyes away from me and towards the door. Never a good sign.
“Look, Stetch…” I began.
Then I saw what he was looking at. A tall, lithe looking redhead. I’m a sucker for redheads, just like Pops was. She had startling green eyes, and the greatest set of lips I’d ever seen on a woman. The bottom lip pouty and full, with a top lip just as welcoming and perfectly matched. She smiled as she stepped through the door, showing perfectly formed pearls of white between those red daydreams. Lush. That was the word for those lips. They looked comfortable, like one of those overstuffed chairs that sucked your will to move the second you sat down. The woman looked to be around my age, granddaughter perhaps? God forbid it was his wife, though stranger pairings happen every day in California. I hadn’t seen at first from where I sat, but as I stood to welcome her, gentleman that Pops trained me to be, I noticed the girl. She was maybe 6 or 7. Or she could have been 4 or 12 for all I know about kids. She was cute, obviously the product of the lovely woman with the magic lips. The little girl had the same auburn tresses, the same green eyes. She’d be a heart-breaker someday, and a boatload of trouble, no doubt. My gaze was drawn back to the mother, who was leaning across the bed to hug the miserable, old bigot I’d wasted my morning on, although I had to admit that the morning was looking up. It took me a second or two to realize that I was still standing, and staring, when the woman stood and held a hand out to me across the hospital bed. I was stymied, to be sure.
“Hi. I’m Rose, Obie’s daughter.”
The voice matched the lips. Pure velvet. My knees buckled a little.
“I… uhm… sorry. Cole, Moss Cole.”
I reached out and shook her hand. It was soft and warm. Welcoming, like the rest of her looked. The handshake was firm, not the frail laying-on of hand that a lot of women tended to do, as if they were Scarlett fucking O’Hara and afraid you’d break their delicate dilettante fingers. This girl had confidence and character. I was doomed.
“My pleasure, Miss Stetch. I’m sorry, but you did say ‘daughter’?”
It seemed patently ridiculous looking at her standing next to the withered old creep in the bed who, even in his heyday could not possibly have contributed to the smoldering beauty I was currently trying to wrench my eyes from. I turned to the little girl, bowing with my hat in hand, hoping both to impress Rose Stetch and avoid making her uncomfortable with my schoolboy stare.
“And you are?”
She answered with the same confidence her mother showed. Yep. She’d be trouble at 16.
“Well Holly, it is a pleasure to meet you. My name’s Moss.”
“Like on a tree? What kind of name is that?”
“Holly! Be polite.” Rose warned.
I winked at Holly and stood to face her mother and grandfather.
“It’s alright. Kids will be kids, right?’
Rose smiled, her luscious lips turning up into something that made my pelvis vibrate and my heart echo in my chest. I felt a sweat break out on my forehead.
“Holly, honey. Can you go wait in the hall for a minute? Go ask nurse Terri for a cookie.”
She turned and watched Holly skip out the door and down the hall, then turned back to me, the smile faded from her beautiful face. It was a look I knew well after many years of disappointing various women.
“Mr. Cole, my father is not interested in buying anything or investing in any businesses,”
I was staggered. She thought I was a salesman? Gone was any semblance of cordial flirtation or even mild tolerance. Women tend to go that way around me for some reason.
“Listen, I’m not,”
“Mr. Cole, this kind of thing happens all the time. I know Obie Stetch used to be a ‘big-time operator’, or whatever you people call it, but he’s just an old man now. He needs to be left alone.”
The old man stiffened in his bed and shot her a look of pure vitriol. She visibly recoiled like a hit dog and I had the instant urge to smack Obie Stetch in the bald spot again.
“Shut up, Rose” He said. “I called Cole. He’s an investigator. He’s gonna help me find the record.”
She sank at the word record, and the exasperation made her look tired and worn.
“We’ve been through this. It’s gone. Let it go.”
“This man can find it, and find whoever thinks they can fuck with Obie Stetch!”
Stetch had his fists clenched in rage and was burning a hole through the bare patch where his record used to be.
“I want you to give him a fucking check! It’s still my money, Rose. You may have locked me up in this prison, but I’m still the man in this family, goddamn it. I’m still your father!”
“I said write the fucking check!” he hollered.
Rose looked from her father to me, her green eyes telling me everything I needed to know. Stetch couldn’t really afford my services and she wasn’t about to let him try. But she still wanted me to help the coot. I hoped my eyes were communicating just as clearly. I was broke, needed the money and the work, and wasn’t keen on helping the fucker even at full pay plus incidentals. I don’t think we were simpatico.
“If you don’t write that fucking check right now, I’ll have Goldstein down here and cut you off so fast your pretty little red head will fucking spin!”
Rose flushed and glared down at her father.
“Fine. But don’t think for a second that you’ll be staying with Holly and me if you can’t pay for this place anymore.”
Her father grunted and turned away like a spoiled child.
“How much are we talking about, Mr. Cole?”
The chill coming off of her ran through me like a ghost. This one wasn’t even my fault. I just got caught in the crossfire between a spoiled octogenarian and his fed-up daughter. I didn’t want any part of it, but I needed the money. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t play the good guy, right? I shrugged good-naturedly and shifted on my feet in my best ‘Aw shucks Ma’am’ impression.
“Well, I, we, discussed my normal rates, which would be five hundred for the consultation and fifteen hundred per week… but your father,’
She glared at me. So hard that it hurt my head. I guess she wasn’t in the market for ‘shucks’.
“How much, Mr. Cole?”
The way she said my name hurt even more than the glare. Watching it twist its way from between those beautiful lips throughclenched teeth made me think of a ring-necked spitting cobra I’d met once in Mozambique. That had only been a slightly better morning than this.
“We don’t have to,” I stammered.
“My father is obviously a big boy and can do what he wants with his money, whether he has it or not. How much?”
Stetch broke in before I could undercut the deal.
“It’s my fucking money. I told him I’d pay twenty-five grand to get the record back. Give him half. I gave more than that to that shithead Reagan for his campaign last year.”
Rose Stetch looked like she’d just been slapped by a ghost. She was incredulous.
“Twenty-five thousand? Are you insane? My car isn’t worth that”
“Write the fucking check!’ he screeched back.
She shot holes through my face with her blazing green eyes as she reached into the bag hanging from her shoulder. She looked down, shaking her head in anger just long enough to scribble something out, then tore the check from the book and thrust it across the bed at me. Stetch continued to stare at the wall like a sulking four year-old. I nodded to Rose Stetch and turned to her father on my way to the door. When I spoke, my voice croaked out of me in a hushed whisper.
“I’ll check out Enrique and start contacting dealers and fences. I’ll be in touch, Mr. Stetch.”
They both stayed frozen, staring at 90 degrees from each other. Neither acknowledged my existence as I left. The acorn and the asshole tree. I was feeling a little sheepish myself after that transaction. Now I was just a slimy, money-grubbing Dick-for-hire. How the hell did Pops do it? Endless tides of obnoxious assholes who thought they had a right to anything and everything they didn’t already own. Jerkoffs like Obie Stetch making demands and treating you like an indentured servant. Covering up affairs and ruining business partners. Pops used to somehow avoid these jobs, but I have to pay the bills. I shuffled down the hall to the nurses’ station and asked the fat nurse if Enrique was around. She basically told me to go to hell, or the Human Resources department. Usually that’s the same place. I felt that dry, cottony feeling pull at my throat, begging me to pour some whiskey down it, pleading with me to feed my stomach and my brain with the sweet, mind-numbing nectar of the gods. The one that used to drive all my troubles away. I thrust my hand into my pocket and found the coin, flipping it between my fingers in a desperate effort to shake the monkey off my back. I felt a flop-sweat break out on my forehead and behind my ears.
Holly came out of a common room at the end of the hall and waved as she saw me head toward the elevator. I gave her a little wave and flipped my hat up onto my head with a flourish and a bow. She giggled and bounced off to join the party. Nice kid. Too bad she’ll end up like one of us.
From “Hot Sinatra” by Axel Howerton, 2011