Chapter 20


It was ten-fifteen, and Michael Fallon was already a quarter of an hour late. Shane and Nicky were sitting at one of the power tables in the Polo Lounge. Nicky said it was one of five power tables located in the back of the restaurant, on a slightly raised platform, next to the wall, affording them a great view of the room. The table had cost Nicky an extra hundred bucks.

“Seating is important,” the little grifter was saying to Shane. “Where they seat you in a power restaurant like the Polo Lounge speaks volumes. Like, see that guy over there, at that little postage stamp table by the window? Murray Streeterman. His last picture, Alaskan Ice, tanked. Look where they got him… gonifsville.”

“What bullshit.” Shane glanced at his watch and began to wonder if this movie star was going to stand them up.

“You think so?” Nicky continued. “At Universal, back in the nineties, they had this big executive dining room where the tables were lined up in rows. The head of the studio, the late, great Lew Wasserman, had his permanent booth next to the east wall. So naturally, the closer you were to the king, the more important you were. Guys under contract on that lot would fight to get their permanent tables a row closer to that wall. It was like World War Two in there-the invasion of Italy. Producers were taking tables like fucking hedge rows. If you moved one row closer to the east wall, it was like a huge career victory. Friendships were lost over it.”

Just then, Michael Fallon appeared in the doorway and started talking to the maitre d’.

“There he is,” Shane said as Nicky let out a groan. “What’s wrong?” Shane whispered.

“He brought the fucking writer, Rajindi Singh. Nobody brings the writer to an important meeting. The writer is useless as an appendix.”

“Doesn’t the writer supply the material?” Shane asked. “Isn’t he sort of important?”

“Writers are creative furniture. You don’t like one, you get another… and they got no loyalty to one another either, the pricks. Don’t ever share a foxhole with a fucking writer, ’cause they’ll give you up in a heartbeat. Hand one a these hacks some brother writer’s script, and the first thing they say is, ‘Who wrote this piece a crap?’ Writers are the worst.”

Michael Fallon and Rajindi Singh were now headed to the table. Fallon was turning heads all over the restaurant. He was dark complexioned and implausibly handsome in a very unique way. Nothing on his face looked like it went together. His mouth was too big, his nose too long, his forehead too short. But like Sylvester Stallone, once you added it all up, it spelled movie star.

Trailing Michael like a pale orbiting moon was Rajindi Singh. Shane had been expecting an East Indian, but Singh looked more like an albino. He was so slender and washed out that Shane was surprised a team of paramedics wasn’t trailing him dragging a stretcher and oxygen. He was bald, but had a few wisps of spidery white hair growing out of the top of his head.

Then they were at the table. Nicky didn’t speak, so Shane stood and took the lead again.

“Hi, I’m Shane Scully. This is my partner, Nicky Marcella. We’re the co-owners of Cine-Roma.” He had his hand stretched out but Michael refused to shake.

“I don’t shake hands,” the star said. “I have a germ transfer phobia.”

Is everybody in Hollywood afraid of bacteria? Shane wondered. If they’re all so scared of one-celled amoebas, what’s gonna happen when they run into something that’s got real teeth? Shane turned and shook hands with Rajindi, who had a grip like a glove full of ice water.

“Rajindi Singh,” the man said in an unaccented voice as he released Shane’s hand.

They all sat at the power table, looking for the right way to get started.

“Anybody left-handed?” Michael Fallon suddenly asked.

“Huh?” Nicky said. Shane was beginning to realize that Nicky wasn’t much good at meetings. This surprised him, because on the street, the little con man was so full of shit, he needed constant flushing. Maybe it was the high-profile nature of these power players that froze him.

“We’re not left-handed,” Shane answered.

“Good,” Michael said. “If you’d been left-handed, it would have changed things.”

“Really?” Shane was hoping he’d explain, but the star didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.

“Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I’d like to hear how you loved my script,” Rajindi said, a strand of his huge ego suddenly escaping.

“Nicky, you want to handle that one?” Shane asked, but Nicky was vapor-locked, sputtering like a jalopy with sand in the tank. Reluctantly Shane turned back to Rajindi. “We love it.” He hadn’t read it yet. Nobody, including Wireman, seemed to have a copy, so an in-depth discussion was going to be impossible.

“I’d like some specifics, please. There’s a clause in the contract you signed that gives me approval over the producers. I need to know you grasp the global significance of the work, its Nostradamus-like projections and far-reaching social consequences.”

“Oh,” Shane said. “Well, Jerry Wireman didn’t mention that we had to be approved.”

“You sign documents you don’t read?” Singh asked. One white, plucked eyebrow shot up into the middle of his forehead and arched there precariously.

Shane marveled at how he’d gotten locked up with these assholes, but he brushed the thought away and smiled. “Okay, well, I think starting at the end and ending at the beginning is brilliant.”

“How so? State your rationale,” Rajindi challenged.

“Time is like a man-made convenience and not too important in a conceptual sense,” Shane mumbled, trying to fill dead air, but he must have guessed right because they both nodded.

“And?…” Rajindi said.

“The, uh… the whatta ya call-its?… The neural storms and dragons and things. Really, really inventive.” “And?…” Rajindi prodded.

“And… look, Mr. Singh, we love the script, okay? We both think you’re a writer of indescribable talent. This is major stuff. We’re talking neo-impress… neo…”

“Neo-impressionistic heroism,” Rajindi completed.

“Exactly.” Shane was beginning to sweat, himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dennis Valentine walk into the restaurant accompanied by a heavyset man with extremely long arms and huge shoulders. Standard-issue mob muscle. Valentine had the Hollywood trade papers, Variety and the Reporter, in hand. He was already looking around, trying to spot his favorite actor. Then he saw Shane and Nicky at the table with Michael Fallon. Dennis Valentine and his knuckle-dragger were led to one of the postage stamp tables by the window and were seated. Valentine opened the trades, but never stopped looking over at them.

“Okay, okay, so you love the script, and you think I’m talented. So far, so good,” Rajindi Singh was saying, “and I assume you know about and agree with the no-rewrite clause. I want to make sure we’re not going to argue about script changes after the director is aboard.”

“Absolutely. No changes,” Shane said firmly.

“It’d be like stepping on a fucking Rembrandt.” Nicky had regained his voice and everyone turned to look at him.

“Okay then,” Fallon said, “I’m sure my agent told you that my acting price is the standard twenty mil a picture, but on Neural Surfer, because it’s my passion project, I’ll work for ten up-front and ten on the back, against twenty points from first-dollar gross.”

Shane nodded.

“And of course my agent has told you about my dietary and personal needs…”

“We haven’t talked to him about that in detail yet,” Shane said. “But I’m sure we can deal with them, whatever they are.”

“I am strictly Singh Herbal Kosher. I can’t eat anything that isn’t prepared by the Singh Church of Herbal Healing and blessed by Rajindi personally.”

“I will supply you with my catering costs,” Rajindi said. “They’re a bit pricey, but keeping Michael healthy and spiritually pure ought to be everybody’s main goal.”

“I have to eat every forty-two minutes, exactly,” Fallon chimed in. “Forty-two is my genetic holistic number, perfect in its cubic dimension. Also, my personal trainer and massage therapist have to be hired at their hourly rate and housed in trailers equal to the director’s accommodations. I’d be lost without them. They help me combat my panthophobia..”

“Your what?” Shane interjected.

“Fear of disease. We’ll supply you with a complete list of my phobias,” the movie star said.

“Phobias?” Shane was getting a headache.

“That’s right. Rajindi is helping me with them. We’ve discovered that by confronting them, and dealing with them openly, I’m much less stressed.”

“It’s part of a holistic herbal healing program we’re administering at the Life Realization Center of my Church.” Singh smiled.

“Gimme an example of what’s gonna be on the list,” Shane asked, fearing the worst.

“Well, obviously sinistrophobia, so we can’t have any left-handed people on the cast or crew.”

“Uh. Mr. Fallon, I’m not trying to be argumentative, but won’t we be inviting a class action discrimination suit?” Shane said.

“I don’t give a shit if you wanna hire fifty left-handed people and give them the L. A. Times crossword puzzle to do every day, that’s up to you. I just won’t have any lefties on my shooting set.”

“We believe left-handed people are disciples of darkness,” Rajindi Singh explained calmly. “While not satanic per se, they do attract the dark neural dragons, and quite frankly, it just isn’t worth the risk.”

Shane had to remind himself that none of this mattered, because they weren’t going to make the damned movie anyway. But these people were insufferable. How did movies-scratch that-films ever get made in this town?

“Obviously, I have the germ thing, too, misophobia, and its first cousin, parasitaphobia.” Michael was looking over at Singh as if to gain strength as he spoke of these fears. “I also have enosiophobia, the fear of committing an unpardonable sin. I want my soul to go to heaven.”

“Very reasonable. Who can blame you for that?” Nicky brown-nosed, folding like a deck chair.

But Shane was frowning and Rajindi Singh was quick to spot it. “Dealing with our fears and weaknesses out in the open helps us adjust to them, helps us build our neural fortresses. Then, of course, we have our ‘Three H Program that buttresses and fortifies all of that.”

“You have a farm program?” Nicky asked.

“You’re thinking Four H,” Rajindi said. “Three H stands for Holistic Herbal Healing.” Then, reading their frowns, he rushed on. “We are very set on neural healing through the practice of self-realization and dietary purity.”

“Then you guys probably won’t be ordering the Canadian bacon,” Shane quipped.

Rajindi gave them a thin, condescending little smile. “We are quite impervious to attempts at humor at our expense,” he said tightly. “Have you been thinking of a director? Michael has director approval, but we are prepared to work inside a limited A-list.” Singh was not behaving like creative furniture. He was already taking over.

“I was thinking of Milos DeAngelo,” Nicky blurted, referring to the sallow old director Shane had met in Nicky’s office two days ago.

“Never heard of him,” Fallon said.

“Extensive background… did some extremely creative animal films a few years back.”

Animal films? Shane thought. The Mr. Ed episodes? “We like Paul Lubick,” Mike Fallon offered.

“Uh, Paul Lubick. yes, yes… what an interesting idea. Very, very talented.” Nicky was now in full retreat.

“Wonderful. Then we’d like you to sign him to an immediate holding deal,” Fallon continued. “I happen to know he’s between pictures right now and Paul and I are simpatico. We speak the same language. I have chronomentrophobia, and believe me, having a director who understands that helps me a lot on the set because we don’t have a buncha A. D.’s running around yelling about the damn schedule. We work at our own pace. It’s graceful, and it frees my creative spirit.” Michael Fallon had a look of rapture as he spoke.

“Paul Lubick? You happen to know who his agent is?” Nicky had unholstered his gold LeBlanc and was clicking the lead down. He was poised to write the information on a piece of paper he had just pulled out of his pocket.

“He’s with Talent Associates,” Rajindi Singh contributed.

“Excuse me,” the gray-haired, white-coated waiter said, holding a bottle of champagne. “This is a gift from the gentleman at that table.” He pointed to Dennis Valentine, who gave them a little wave of his hand, flashing a couple hundred thousand worth of diamonds and sapphires on manicured fingers.

“Champagne?” Shane said, taking the bottle of Taittinger and looking at it.

“What kinda asshole sends a bottle of champagne over at ten in the morning?” Fallon asked, looking at Valentine, who was smiling like a jack-o’-lantern and waving like a starstruck tourist. Then, because Mike Fallon was still looking at him, Valentine interpreted that as an invitation, stood, and ambled over to their table.

“Nicholas, perhaps you might introduce me to Mr. Fallon,” the mobster said, smiling his perfect smile. Shane had to admit that, on balance, Valentine wasn’t giving away too many hottie points to the handsome movie star.

“Michael Fallon, this is Dennis Valentine,” Nicky croaked. Then, simultaneously, they both pulled back and held their hands up, palms out.

“I never shake hands,” Valentine said.

“Me neither,” Fallon agreed.

They stood there for a second, with their palms extended, like two guys waving off a dinner check.

“I thought you might like a bottle of Taittinger,” Dennis said.

“It’s ten in the morning, bud.” Fallon was slipping into his film gangster persona.

“It chills nicely, perhaps you could have it later.”

“I don’t drink anything unless Rajindi has blessed it, and frankly, champagne is all sugar.”

“To the contrary,” Dennis said, smiling, eager to give a nutrition lesson. “Taittinger is the champagne of champagnes. It’s fermented in oak casks and kept in perfect, hermetically sealed containers at predetermined temperatures. During fermentation, the champagne is constantly refreshed and at bottling has over one hundred and one vitamins and minerals, as well as an array of life-extending, body-enhancing nutrients. Health food in a bottle, I call it.” His smile widened. “I’m vegetarian, so I read a lot about nutrition.”

“You’re a fuckin’ nut,” Fallon snarled. “We’re having a business meeting here!”

“Sorry to intrude,” Valentine said, bowing at the waist. “Before leaving, Mr. Fallon, let me just say that I have long been an admirer of your tremendous talent and magnetic film presence. I thought your performance as the taxi driver prophet in Yellow Angel was magic. Why you didn’t get nominated an…”

“Get the fuck away from me,” Fallon growled, not knowing he was pissing on a made guy who had killed men for much less.

But Dennis Valentine was acting like a fop prince. All that was missing was the little heel click. He backed away from the table grinning and bowing, until finally resuming his seat near the window.

“Who’s that dipshit?” Fallon scowled.

“A new producer in town, quite an up-and-comer,” Nicky said.

“Then why they got him sitting in fucking Siberia over there, eating with all the losers?”

Nicky shot Shane a look that said “See,” but Fallon was already staring at his watch.

“Okay, look. In ten minutes it’s time for my next meal and neural blessing. We’re on a tight clock, so we better get going.” Shane thought it was a strange remark for a man with chronomentrophobia.

Nicky took out his business cards and passed them out.

“Your offices are at Hollywood General?” Fallon said suspiciously as he read it. “That’s the rental lot for jerks who can’t get studio deals.”

“All of our money goes on the screen.” Nicky was coming alive again. “We don’t waste moolah on fancy overhead.”

Fallon and Singh both slowly rose, then walked away from the table without even saying good-bye. Shane and Nicky were left sitting, watching them go.

“Chronomentrophobia?” Shane snorted.

“Fear of clocks,” Nicky answered.

“He actually gets away with shit like that?” Shane was appalled.

“Yeah. Pretty shrewd in a totally fucked-up way. A guy with chrono-whatever doesn’t ever have to deal with the film’s production schedule.”

Shane could see Valentine starting to get up from behind his loser’s table. “Valentine’s coming. Let’s get outta here.” “That’s what we want, isn’t it?” Nicky asked.

“I wanna troll the bait for a little longer before we hook him up.”

Shane pulled the little grifter out of the booth, and they rushed to the front entrance of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He grabbed the valet ticket out of Nicky’s hand and gave it to the parking attendant. The rented Bentley was parked nearby, helping to decorate the entrance.

The valet ran to get it just as Valentine’s stooge arrived. Up close his shoulders were so developed, he looked like he was wearing football pads under his suit.

“I’m Gino Parelli, Mr. Valentine’s assistant,” the goon said in a heavy New Jersey accent. “He would like da pleasure of youse’s company back in da restaurant.”

“Give Mr. Valentine our regrets, but tell him we’re late to a preproduction meeting,” Shane said. “Have him call Cine-Roma and set up an appointment with one of our secretaries.” He looked at Nicky. “Give him a card.”

“Huh?” Nicky said.

“A card. A business card.”

Nicky had vapor-locked again so Shane reached into the little producer’s inside suit coat pocket, grabbed his billfold, extracted a card, and handed it to Parelli.

“You ain’t gonna come?” the goon said, baffled. This was obviously something that rarely happened.

“Yeah, we’re not coming,” Shane said. “We’re late. We’ve got a Michael Fallon film to make.”

The Bentley pulled up so they walked around and got in. Nicky was moving in a frightened daze as he sat behind the wheel and drove the huge car away. The startled bodyguard was left standing there, casting a giant shadow, muttering to himself.