THE BACHELOR PARTY
The Santa Monica Freeway was a parking lot full of rush-hour hostility. Shane was cut off, flipped off, and pissed off. He tried to calm himself while averaging a snail-like six miles an hour. He inched along past Hoover, then La Brea. His car was creeping, but his mind was racing.
Despite the fact that many crimes appear to be disorganized and chaotic, inside that chaos is usually some kind of, twisted criminal logic. If an investigator can adopt the right mind-set, he can often spot a pattern.
As Shane smogged along in a sea of potential violence, he let his mind zigzag across Nicky Marcella’s involvement in this case. He could easily understand Nicky hanging out with Champagne Dennis Valentine, running his errands, even getting Shane to find Carol White for him. All of that fit into some kind of logical equation.
What didn’t make sense was Nicky’s relationship with a Hollywood heavy-hitter like Farrell Champion. Why would Farrell hang out and do deals with a small-time bullshit artist like Nicky the Pooh? Yet there he was at the famous producer’s engagement party, in his two-tone suit and Cuban heels, bragging about the projects they had in development together. Savages in the Midst, a film about a girl destroyed by Hollywood… the Carol White Story.
Nicky was a pretender. So why would Farrell Champion, a. K. A. Daniel Zelso, have anything to do with him? With his WITSEC status, the last thing the producer or the U. S. Marshals’ office would want was for him to befriend a criminal loser like Nicky Marcella. It just didn’t track.
Now Nicky was missing. He’d either been snatched or, as his missing suitcase suggested, had packed up and left in a hurry. Somebody had gotten pissed and trashed his place either during the snatch or after Nicky left. Shane didn’t think whoever did it was searching for anything. They were sending a message.
After leaving the vomitorium this afternoon, Nicky had scurried along, looking over his shoulder as if somebody was after him. Now Shane wondered who that might be.
At seven-fifteen he finally arrived at the luxurious, private Jonathan Club. The massive brown building sat on the sand at Santa Monica Beach, with one windowless wall backing up against the four-lane Coast Highway. The sun was hovering just above the ocean, tinging everything with orange light. Shane made a left through the arch and drove toward the entrance. A man in a red jacket was valet-parking cars. As Shane pulled up and got out, he looked at the nearby parking area, trying to spot Nicky’s maroon Bentley-it wasn’t there. He gave up the Acura and headed inside the private club, where he was met by a tall, good-looking man about thirty, wearing a dark suit.
“I’m here for Farrell Champion’s. Bachelor party.” “Yes, sir. Take a right down the stairs. It’s in the Grill’s private dining room.”
Shane turned and walked across the magnificent wood-paneled lobby, down a few steps to ground level, then followed the corridor to the Beach Grill, where he found a set of green louvered doors fronting a small, private room that overlooked the sandy Santa Monica Beach. Several beach volleyball courts were in use. Very athletic games of mixed doubles were being played by tanned twenty-year-olds. Their hard, muscular bodies glistened as they leaped and spiked, giving high-fives after every winning point.
The room was only half full with about twenty well-dressed male guests. Shane stepped up to the small five-seat bar and started looking around for Farrell.
“Hey, bud, way to go, you made it,” the handsome producer said as he made his way over and gave Shane a bear hug. It seemed they were “buds” now. Shane was again struck by the animal magnetism of the man. He was also struck by the fact that Farrell looked nothing like the faxed picture of Daniel Zelso, which was locked inside his briefcase in the Acura’s trunk. Shane tried to spot surgical scars. He checked under Farrell’s chin and behind the ears. Nothing.
Could it be that he’d been wrong? That somebody else’s prints had been on that lighter?
“Nora said the bridal shower was amazing,” Farrell said. “You guys really are the best.”
“Well, you know how close Alexa and Nora are.”
“I’ll tell you, Shane, if it weren’t for Alexa, I think Nora would have gone back to Michigan a long time ago. She told me once that she finds Hollywood people superficial. Where do you suppose she gets that?” He grinned and showed Shane that great set of pearlies. “Hollywood… superficial? We drink bottled water, wear nothing that ever grew fur, except for rabbits, which don’t count. We all have personal trainers and maintain staffs that are gender neutral, with perfect ethnic balance. We support liberal politicians no matter how many hummers they get from their interns; we go to the White House religiously, on Air Force One-our definition of political activism. What’s not to like?”
He’d done it again. Shane found himself liking the guy. He was self-effacing, funny, and smart-all gifts of a natural con man.
“I guess Nicky Marcella couldn’t make it,” Shane said. “Who?”
“Nicholas Marcella? I met him at your engagement party. Real short guy, rail-thin, said he was coming tonight.”
“Nicholas Marcella?” A puzzled frown wrinkled Farrell’s forehead. “Oh, wait a minute, yeah, I guess that was his real name. I’ve blotted that unfortunate episode from my mind. When he worked for me he was calling himself Mark Nickles.”
“He worked for you?”
“Used to be my studio limousine driver. He spent a lot of time waiting for me parked out in front of my house. I felt bad for him so I told him he could wait inside. Shortly after that a lot of stuff started disappearing. I had some friends in law enforcement run a check on him. Turns out Mark Nickles was Nicholas Marcella. Had a rap sheet with twenty priors, all kinds of sleazy bullshit. Last June I sent some people to his apartment to reacquire my possessions-mostly rings and watches, stuff like that. I still have a criminal case pending against the little thief.”
“So what was he doing at your engagement party?”
“He wasn’t at my party.” Farrell was looking at Shane closely. “Are you serious? A little guy, always wore stacked heels, narrow face, eyes too close together?”
“That’s the one. He said he had two pictures in development with you at Paramount.”
“That guy couldn’t develop Polaroids. I found out before he worked for me, he was doing deaf-and-dumb street-corner hustles.”
Shane nodded. It was true. He’d busted Nicky twice for sitting on the sidewalk at Hollywood and Vine with a sign reading: DEAF AND DUMB, PLEASE HELP. “Well, he was at your party. Maybe when you get home, you oughta recheck your jewelry case.”
“No kidding,” Farrell said.
Later that evening Shane finally learned what D people did, because Farrell introduced him to three of them.
“These are my best D guys,” he said, and Shane shook hands with an African-American named Colby, who should have been doing picture layouts in Esquire; a Mexican-American with horn-rims, named Rudy; and a white guy named Lance. Perfect ethnic balance. What’s not to like?
“Exactly what is a D person?” Shane finally asked.
“D stands for development,” Rudy said, clearing up the mystery. “We develop literary properties and then once we think they’re ready, we pass the scripts along to Farrell.”
“These two guys brought me some of my biggest popcorn hits,” Farrell said, slapping Lance and Colby on the back.
“Popcorn hits?” Shane asked.
“Yeah, mindless action movies: pretty girls, guys with abs, gunfire, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not my fault America loves that shit.” Farrell grinned, but Colby and Lance looked hurt.
“I’m trying to do the more emotionally involving, thematic material,” Rudy Garcia brown-nosed. “I want to develop something Farrell can really be proud of for a change.” It seemed Rudy was the sensitive, caring D guy, but judging from Lance and Colby’s scowls, Farrell should probably hire somebody to start his car for a while.
“Emotional involvement is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish,” Colby fired back, his ego still bruised. “Just get a little kitten and have Jack Palance wring its neck. Everybody cries. I think Farrell’s next film should be transcendent.”
Farrell smiled and nodded, happy to be at the center of the disagreement.
Shane didn’t know what a transcendent film was, so he just nodded.
Then they had dinner. It wasn’t creamed chicken, either. Farrell served them oysters Rockefeller as a starter, duck A l’orange as the entree, and peach flambe for dessert.
After dinner, a senior vice president of Paramount Pictures ran an elaborate gag video. It was a salute to the end of Farrell’s bachelorhood, complete with explosions, special effects, and outtakes from Mission: Impossible 2. At least forty name stars of both sexes appeared. They all lamented Farrell’s sexual prowess and Nora’s dire mistake in marrying him. It was funny in some spots, crude in others.
At one point, Michael Fallon was onscreen grinning into the camera, his bad-boy curls hanging loosely on his tan forehead. “Farrell, old buddy,” the actor joked, “you’re getting a great girl. I oughta know, I’ve been flicking her for three and a half years.” It was that kind of funny. But the room roared with laughter. Most of them probably hadn’t dealt recently with Michael’s chronomentrophobia-a comedy-killing ailment.
At ten o’clock the speeches started mostly low blows and crude insults. One by one, Farrell’s friends stood up and talked about the length of his penis, or his inability to maintain erections. It reminded Shane of a smoker in Ha boken.
After dessert was cleared, everybody stood and Shane made his move. He had been carefully watching Farrell’s water glass, and nobody but Farrell had handled it. Shane waited until Farrell left his place at the head of the table, then beat the busboy to it. Grabbing the glass by the bottom, he hurried out of the room, heading toward the parking lot. When he spotted his car, Shane asked the valet to give him his keys so he could get something out of it. He walked over to the Acura, opened the trunk and placed Farrell’s water glass in a plastic evidence bag next to Nicky’s shoe box top, then turned to go back inside.
Just as he was reentering the club, a white Cadillac convertible with Arizona plates pulled up. A tall, dark-haired, dark-skinned man in Western clothes got out holding a white Stetson. The man put on his cowboy hat, handed his keys to the valet, and moved inside, his footsteps making that heel-toe sound peculiar to people walking in Western boots.
Shane followed the man down the hall, right back into Farrell’s party. When the producer saw the tall cowboy, he flung his arms wide. “Carlos, mi amigo, you made it!” he yelled.
Carlos gave Farrell a big hug, and after a lot of back-pounding, apologized for being late. “My damn flight got canceled.” He had a slight Latin accent. “No flights out of Arizona ’cause a huge weather front hit the state. I had to charter a private jet, then pay the damn pilots extra to take off, ’cause of wind shears, which was probably bullshit.”
“Whatta buddy.” Farrell grinned. “Risked your life to get here.”
Maybe it was because Carlos was from Arizona, and that’s where Alexa said the drugs were headed. Maybe it was the bullshit about chartering a private jet when his car was parked right outside with Arizona plates on it. Maybe it was because Carlos had slicked-back hair and looked like a dirtbag. Who knows what made Shane suspicious, but the cowboy with the white Stetson had all of his alarm bells ringing. By asking around, he found out his last name was Martinez. Carlos Martinez was the Latin equivalent of John Smith.
Shane waited until the Cohibas came out, then handed Carlos a box of matches and watched while he held the box and struck a wooden match on its side. Then Shane took the box back and slipped it into his pocket.
“Whatta. you do in Arizona?” Shane asked conversationally.
“This and that. Excuse me,” the cowboy said, and walked away.
Ten minutes later, Shane said his good-byes to Farrell, thanking him for a great time. He retrieved his Acura from the valet, then drove out of the beach club and turned left.
The houses along the beach bordering the club were all expensive, and had private concrete strips adjoining the Coast Highway to handle overflow parking in front of their garages. Thirty or forty yards north of the entrance to the Jonathan Club Shane swung a U-turn and parked on one of the concrete pads just off the highway.
He had to wait for almost an hour, but a little after midnight the white Cadillac pulled out of the club drive and headed south down the Coast Highway to the Santa Monica Freeway. Shane pulled out and followed, carefully keeping two or three cars back.
The cowboy turned onto the 405, then exited on Sunset and headed out toward Pacific Palisades.
Then a strange thing happened.
Carlos Martinez turned onto Mandeville Canyon Road. Suddenly, Shane’s heart began to pound. He decelerated, keeping the convertible’s taillights in view while falling farther back.
The white Cadillac pulled up to some lighted gates Shane turned off his headlights, parked half a block down then watched in amazement as the gates opened and the cowboy disappeared onto the huge estate of Champagnf Dennis Valentine.