ADVENTURE THE 5TH: PARTY CRASHER
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Adventure the 5th: Party Crasher
Saturday night’s aren’t big on my list of things to do. They’re like those trumped up holidays designed to make everyone get all bent out’a shape just in case the world comes to an end the next day. But it’s only the sobering up that makes you feel like it has. No, my night is Monday; stiff drink, maybe a movie, and try to remind myself again why the human race is in charge of the world.
I suppose if I were a cynic I could say that it was a rotten Monday – but actually it was no better or worse than the previous one…or for that matter, all the rest to come. I take my usual shortcut down the alley but decide to pull into Pete’s Corner Emporium to cool my heels for a quick bite. Pete catches my eye.
“Looks like rain again,” I say without believing it, having a seat on the stool that should have my name engraved.
“You know buddy, you should get yourself a life,” Pete tells me as he drops a pastrami on rye under my nose.
I’ve been coming here so long Pete’s psychic.
“Thanks,” I tell him, “I got one.”
Pete’s okay. He just takes a personal interest, that’s all.
“Whatever happened to that doll you brought in here?” Pete asks.
“You know which one.”
But I don’t, so Pete enlightens me.
“All cotton candy and whip cream,” he says, “You could spread her on chocolate…sweet kid.”
“I’m a diabetic,” I quip, “Anyway, sounds like she made quite an impression on you. Want a phone number?”
“I’d be happy with a couple of eight by tens,” Pete says.
At his age, that’s about all he could probably handle anyway.
“I’ve got those too,” I tease, even though I still don’t know who the hell he’s talking about.
“When are you gonna get wise to yourself?” Pete asks.
“Never,” I say, “There’s some things I just don’t want to know.”
“Okay, wise guy,” Pete mutters.
“No. Not even to myself.”
And that much is true.
I returned to the apartment with a couple of mags to improve my mind: True Crime, Real Detective. Unfortunately, reading’s not in the cards.
I find the door to my place open and Mike Trent’s chauffeur, Morris impatiently waiting for me inside.
“Good evening, Mr. Mars.”
“It was,” I admit, rubbing my forehead with the back of my hand.
“Mr. Trent would like to see you.”
“Well who say’s I’d like to see Mr. Trent?”
Morris is unmoved. He’s like a monument to dead end logic.
“It’s a party, sir,” he explains.
“I don’t care if it’s a convention.”
I paused for a minute. The man has absolutely no sense of humor. Granite is more expressive. He’s like a phonograph with only one speed - slow.
“Carolyn?” I inquired.
The fatty deposit sagging off Morris’ left cheek twitches. He’s uncomfortable; nothing definite…sort of like the guy in the hemorrhoid commercial who shifts from one cheek to the other.
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“I’ll bet. Look, tell Mr. Trent that the comings and goings of his oversexed brat share the same interest I have in National Geographic, modern art and oysters by candlelight – none.”
I open a window. The place is suddenly too small and stuffy for the two of us.
“I suggest you get dressed,” advises Morris.
I don’t like being told what to do. I’m about to tell Morris as much when I suddenly realized that he’s pointing a small revolver in my direction.
“Oh, so it’s that kind of a party.”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“What do you suggest I wear?”
“Black tie is preferred.”
“I’ll say this for Mr. Trent. He likes his cadavers well dressed.”
I put on the dog and get ready to bark.
. . .
Arriving at the pile of rock Trent considers his beach house, I brace up for a firing squad that never make it. Actually, I didn’t expect to get to Trent’s in the first place; a shame too, because I was looking forward to rearranging Morris’ disposition.
The place is lit like a fire cracker on the 4th, the front lawn full of deb’s and polo players – the who’s who of the high set. Pulling up to the house, I’m instructed by Morris to wait in the library. But who can read a book with all this noise. Still, it’s a better end than I planned.
Opening the sliding doors to the library I come upon a couple of well-wishers getting a little too up close and personal on the leather couch. The first thing that catches my attention is the girl’s cat-like scowl at being found. I’ve bothered her to the extreme. Brother, if she had fangs she’d suck me dry.
Her guy’s atypical of the Richie Rich with something to hide – he’s petrified.
“The wife’s on to you,” I tease.
You never saw a zipper go up so quick in your life. Before I can remember to forget where he’s been, he’s gone through the patio doors and with all the apprehensive awkwardness of a pre-teen.
The girl straightens up just enough to give me a good look. No bra – not bad. Without so much as turning to acknowledge that I’m still in the room, she takes out her compact and starts applying another round of war paint.
“You didn’t have to scare him off, you know,” she smiles, but only to check her lipstick, “You’re turn would have come.”
“Who taught you to be stingy?”
“Who said you were next?” she asks as she slowly buttons for maximum effect.
She’s expecting me to help and she’s disappointed. I can tell. She finishes with the last hole just as Mike enters.
“Suzie,” he coos, “where’s Marcus?”
She seems bored by the insinuation that a beau’s required to make her complete.
“Oh, around I’m sure.”
“Have you met my niece, Mr. Mars?”
“Only the top half.”
Suzie stands up and gives me her once over and believe me, once over is enough from that girl who expects so much. After she’s gone, Mike asks me to close the doors and take a seat.
“Well?” I say, waiting for the inevitable reply.
The one I get I don’t expect.
“Well, are you enjoying the party, Mr. Mars?”
“Not the gun-totting chauffeur so much, but your niece on all fours improved the night somewhat. What happens at midnight?”
“Well now,” Trent suggests in a curious tone, “I think that will entirely depend on you.”
He’s soured, moving closer to his desk. I’m not naïve. There’s probably a revolver in the top drawer. But I’m fairly certain brain-matter gray doesn’t go with his home décor. Besides, what would his guests think?
“You were asked to keep things quiet, Mr. Mars.”
“Have you? I’ll put my cards on the table.”
Trent tosses me an envelope and while I’m busy opening it he continues to yammer.
“At four this afternoon that arrived by messenger, instructing me to make payment in the amount of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“To keep my daughter’s name out of the papers in connection with that unfortunate Menendez thing.”
“Is that how we’re referring to it now?”
“I’ve already paid you, Mr. Mars.”
It hits me like a pound of goose liver that Mike’s having second thoughts about my loyalty.
“I do a lot of leg work for you idol rich,” I explain, “fast and friendly because I like the price. But money’s worthless if the guy cutting the check is making his next reservation from Danbury or some tropical paradise with no extradition or the great beyond. And let’s not kid ourselves – I’ve worked for all three. But once I get paid, I get out and stay out.”
Reaching for a pen on his desk set, I smooth out the letter and sign my signature directly below the one already on tap, then hand it back to Mike. He puts on his glasses. Even if I tried, I couldn’t forge something anywhere near the mess on that page.
Mike’s frustrated now; edgy and chomping on that illegal Cuban between his lips as though it were Castro himself. He has another hard look at my penmanship.
“See any resemblance?” I ask.
After a few long moments of deliberation I can tell that he can’t.
“Good,” I tell him, “otherwise I’d say you need a stronger prescription.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
It’s true – he doesn’t. In fact he’s like a page ripped out’a some cheesy romance novel; the guy-on-the-side, insides kicked out by the girl skippin’ through his dreams into somebody else’s nightmare.
“You’ve been had,” I explain, “Amateur theatrics aside, you’re damn lucky I didn’t feed your carburetor to Morris as an entrée.”
But Trent’s not listening. I don’t think he’s heard a word. I can almost see the gears in that mixed up head of his doing quick recalibration.
“I’ve got to pay,” he finally assesses.
“Not necessarily. Know a guy named Hemmingway?
“Jock Hemmingway? Don’t be absurd. The man’s a legitimate trader.”
“He’s also Marysol Menendez’s new play thing.”
I’m giving Trent too much credit. For a guy who knows about the exchange - like subway tokens, he’s certainly having his share of derailments. I decide not to tell Trent about the airborne gorilla I tossed out the factory window the other day. It’s none of his business. Anyway, the two things may not even be related, but it’s worth a shot.
“Blackmail. If it is, he doesn’t want a payoff,” Trent finally deduces, “He won’t be satisfied with a lump sum.”
“What’s he got on you, and don’t tell me nothing because you and I both know better.”
I’ve insulted Mike’s self-professed piety; it’s the same kind every blowhard of his stature gets once he’s cleared six figures – fueled by the false assumption that money’ll wash away any sin or at least drown those who might expose them to a grand jury. But Hemmingway’s too high profile to kill and that’s problem number one.
“Mars, you may not believe this…”
He’s right…I don’t.
“…but I’ve been legitimate for the last ten years.”
“You’ve been on the planet for the last fifty.”
Mike mulls over the scenario in his head. On the one hand, he’s saddled with a loose kid who gets her kicks in the raw with guys old enough to recall just how ‘legit’ daddy used to be. On the other, Mike’s got an empire he’s managed to purge of all organized ties that helped build him into a man of means. Weighing the two isn’t easy.
I can tell he’s got feelings. So would I if she were stitched together like Carolyn. Still, Mike’s actually managed to become a patriarch – a godfather without muscle, a relic from the old days when necktie parties changed the vote and a bat across the back of the head was as common as a handshake.
“They’ve got nothing that’ll stick to a tabloid without a fight.”
“You sure about that?” I ask, “Anyway, I didn’t see Carolyn when I came in.”
“I’ve sent her away.”
“That’s just geography,” I reason, putting in my two cents for personal interest, “that kid could create seismic activity on the moon.”
“I think that will be all, Mr. Mars.”
I’ve opened a vein.
“What about the letter?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
I agree. It isn’t.
“My mistake. Mind if I help myself to the bar on the way out?”
. . .
Morris isn’t asked to drive me home, so I walk. A mile up the road I decide to thumb it. The first three cars drive by without so much as a honk. The fourth almost runs me off the side of the road, but it isn’t deliberate. I am, after all, wearing black at night. By now it’s a minor obsession to get back into clothes I feel comfortable in. I’m walking with my back to traffic when I hear a beep from behind.
A minute later a sporty little coupe pulls up with a sporty little chicken inside. In her glittering party dress and paper thin scarf, dancing about those teased blonde tresses, she’s like a surprise all wrapped up for Christmas.
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to pick up a hitcher at night?” I ask.
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to hitch at night?”
“Well, maybe I like the sea air,” I suggest.
“Not in those clothes. Some car takes the curve too fast, you’ll get bounced back into the surf, penguin.”
The kid’s got guts and sass. I like her instantly. I’m like that with broad-minded broads and this one’s expanding my vocabulary by the second.
“How’s that?” I ask.
“I said you look like a penguin – penguin,” she teases, “look, in or out, I’ve got places to be.”
“…and people to do?”
She gives me the once over - like a pig on the spit that needs basting.
“That’s a shorter list,” she explains.
“That’s good,” I say, opening her passenger door “because I’m sort’a particular about who I ride with.”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Must have sturdy feet,” says she.
“Size twelve and half.”
I get the nod of approval.
“Well…the night’s definitely improving.”
I pretend not to care as I feel her eyes trace every contour. After a few seconds the view gets dull so I turn and face her.
“Does this thing go forwards?” I ask.
“Only when I use the stick,” she replies, before shifting into first and pulling out, “I’m a master of the stick.”
As we ride up the coast, I’m acutely aware that more attention’s being paid to me than the road. Normally, I wouldn’t mind. But on the curves defensive and alert is what counts.
“Where were you going just now, penguin?” she says.
I’m determined to keep things as simple as possible.
She mulls my reply over – giving special attention to how inconsequential it actually is.
“How’d you like to go to a party?” she asks.
“No thanks. Just came from one.”
She’s planning her next move carefully, like the lamb gearing up to take a bite out’a the wolf.
“Must not have been too exciting.”
“The party you just came from.”
“How about a real party?”
I’ve had about all the fun with Dick and Jane I can muster for one evening so I decide on ‘direct’ as the best approach.
“Look. I didn’t ask for the ride. I like it even less when I’m the one being ridden. If you’re having second thoughts pull off and I’ll catch the next truck full of unfertilized eggs.”
That remark gets me a squeak of a laugh.
“I don’t mean to be.”
“But you are.”
Without warning, the girl suddenly swerves to the edge of the road, narrowly missing the first brick and mortar pillar of a large iron-gated clubhouse on the beach. The lights of an oncoming vehicle dart across the tarnished brass plate facing us: Nile’s Country Club.
“We’re here,” she says, getting out of the car and slamming the door behind her as the valet approaches, “this is as far as I go.”
I’m in the right mood to level her for leading me on these few miles when I catch sight of the banner hanging over the front door. It’s a benefit/charity event organized by Hemmingway Enterprises.
“Uh, wait a minute,” I tell her under the valet’s watchful eye, “You didn’t tell me you were going here.”
“Does that make a difference?” she asks, knowing damn well that it does.
“I haven’t exactly given you a fair break.”
She smiles condescendingly.
“I’d love you to,” says she with a wink, her left hand patting me across my lapels, “Some other time.”
I can’t let her get away.
“No room for a second chance?” I press, doing my best to remember how the school boy-set pulls it off with reluctant debutantes.
She sizes me up for legitimacy, not buying my act but eager and curious nonetheless.
“How’s your tango?” she asks.
“A bit rusty,” I confess.
“It’ll do,” she replies, taking me under the arm, getting us past the front gate.
. . .
Inside, the cultured orgy’s in full swing. Some scantily clad models are parading back and forth on a make shift runway for attendees who couldn’t fit into their sizes with a tub of Vaseline and a wedge. On the far side of the room old money are cutting checks to their favorite cause – themselves. It’s a seen and be seen event, destined for the social register and gossip columns with full color spreads and some deceptively meaningless captions about how they’re all doing so much for the outcast, downtrodden and destitute. I doubt this is what the club planners had in mind when they built the place back in 1890. Still, I can’t say for sure. The rumor goes that Washington liked his ale with a bar wench on each knee while he was stewing over the constitution.
I scan the room for Hemmingway but can’t see the smoke for the cigars. Gal pal must sense that my interest in her is beginning to wane, because the grip on my sleeve gets tighter as she steers us both through this crowd of suffocating boars.
“Let’s get something to ease the pain,” she suggests, sashaying me to the bar and patio overlooking the ocean.
It’s infinitely less crowded out here, with the sound of rough tides slamming into the bulkheads almost blocking out that pulsating beat from inside. We take our pick of leather cushioned stools overlooking the moonlit surf.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asks.
“It’s a painting,” I coolly reply.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the moon, the water or the girl. They’re a means to an end.
“Don’t you like beautiful things?” she asks.
After I’ve put down a few martinis I almost do. I start to figure that with the proper escort I could enjoy this sort of mindless existence. It’s probably the booze talking.
“That’s quite a brawl,” I offer.
“You know, I’d very much like to know whose company I’m enjoying. What’s your name?”
“Cynthia. Cynthia McGlaghin.”
We’ve reached a stalemate.
“What’s yours?” she finally says.
“It’s penguin, remember?”
“Cute,” she says, only this time she doesn’t seem to mean it.
She looks preoccupied, but I’m having trouble following the trajectory of her gaze.
I’ve mellowed and subconsciously I can’t figure out why. I’m almost treating her as human, but for the first time I don’t see anything human staring back at me. She shakes her head cynically.
“Only a mother could love.”
“Yours or mine?” I tease, catching myself acting stupid.
“Mine’s been dead for twenty-five years,” she firmly explains.
“You’re lucky,” I suggest.
“And how’s that?”
“Mine’s been missing for thirty.”
I break into a ridiculous laugh, and suddenly it hits me. I’m not drunk. I’ve been drugged.
“What is this?” I mumble, but now I’m not even sure I’ve said those words clear enough for even me to understand.
I try to stand up, but the moon disappears and so do my legs. A dark hole opens up and I do a beautiful jackknife right to the bottom of it. The last thing I think I see is gal pal gloating overhead with a cool relaxed smirk.
...the end? Not for long!
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure: The Very Brief Return of Rigor M. on Monday, March 3, 2006.
@ 2006 Nick Zegarac (all rights reserved).