They sat at one of the sidewalk tables at Swingers, on the side of the coffee shop along Beverly Boulevard: Chili Palmer with the Cobb salad and iced tea, Tommy Athens the grilled pesto chicken and a bottle of Evian.
Every now and then people from the neighborhood would stroll past the tableor they might come out of the Beverly Laurel, the motel next doorand if it was a girl who came by, Tommy Athens would look up and take time to check her out. It reminded Chili of when they were young guys in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and Tommy never passed a girl on the street, ever, without asking how she was doing. Chili mentioned it to him. "You still look, but you don't say anything."
"Back then," Tommy said, "I went by the principle, you never know if it's there you don't break the fuckin ice. It didn't matter what they looked like, the idea was to get laid, man. Our young bodies required it. Now we're mature we're more selective. Also there's more quiff in this town per capita, you take into account all the broads hoping to get discovered. They act or they sing, mostly bad, either one. Turn around and take a lookwalking her dog, the skirt barely covers her ass. Look. Now she's posing. The dog stops to take a leak on the palm tree it gives her a chance to stand there, cock her neat little tail. She ain't bad, either."
"Yeah, she's nice."
Chili turned to his salad. Then looked up again as Tommy said, "You doing okay?"
"You want to know if I'm making out?"
"I mean in your business. How's it going? I know you did okay with Get Leo, a terrific picture, terrific. And youknow what else? It was good. But the sequelwhat was it called?"
"Yeah, well that's what happened before I got a chance to see it, it disappeared."
"It didn't open big so the studio walked away. I was against doing a sequel to begin with. But the guy running production at Tower says they're making the picture, with me or without me. I thought, well, if I come up with a good story, and if I can get somebody else to play the shylock . . . If you saw Get Leo you must've noticed Michael Weir wasn't right for the part. He's too fuckin short."
"Yeah, but it worked," Tommy said, "because the picture was funny. I know what you're saying, though, a little guy like that into street action isn't believable. Still, it was a very funny picture."
"Also," Chili said, "I didn't want to have to deal with Michael Weir again. He's a pain in the ass. He's always coming up with ideas for a shot where you have to re-light the set. So I said okay to doing a sequel, but let's get somebody else. The studio asshole says, in this tone of voice, 'If you don't use the same actor in the part, Ernest, it's not really a sequel, is it?' He's the only person in L.A. calls me Ernest. I said, 'Oh, all those different guys playing James Bond aren't in sequels?' It didn't matter. They'd already signed Michael and had a script written without telling me."
"This is Get Lost you're talking about?"
"Get Lost. The guy's in a car wreck and wakes up in the hospital with a head injury. He doesn't remember anything about his past life, his name, anything. Has no idea he's a shylock with mob connections or the car wreck wasn't an accident. I said to the studio guy after I read the script, 'You serious? You want to make an amnesia movie? It's what you do when you don't have an idea, you give the main character amnesia and watch him fuck up.' The studio guy says, 'Ernest,' like he's the most patient fuckin guy in the world, 'if you don't want to produce the picture tell me, we'll get somebody else.'"
"So you made it and it stiffed," Tommy said. "So? Make another one."
"I suggested that. I said to the studio guy, 'While we have our momentum up why don't we try it again? Call it Get Stupid.'"
"It sounds like," Tommy said, "you aren't as tight over there as you were."
"What, at the studio? I've got a three-picture deal at Tower, one to go, and I got a good friend. They fired the nitwit was running production and hired Elaine Levin back. She's the one okayed Get Leo, then quit for different reasons, like doing sequels; they ironed out the problems and she's back. The other day I ran into her having lunch. She asked if I had anything worth putting into development. I said, 'How about a girl works for a dating service fixing up lonely guys?' Elaine goes, 'And this lonely shylock who happens to be short comes in?' I told her no shylocks of any size, and that's all I told her."
"Why? That's all you had?"
"You don't want to tell something you're thinking about, hear it out loud yourself for the first time, unless you know what it's gonna sound like. It has to have an edge, an attitude. So you have to know your characters, I mean intimately, what they have for breakfast, what kind of shoes they wear. . . . Once you know who they are they let you know what the story is."
He could tell Tommy didn't know what he was talking about.
"What I'm saying, I don't think of a plot and then put characters in it. I start with different characters and see where they take me." He watched Tommy nod his head a few times. "Anyway, getting back to the dating service . . . I got a flyer in the mail, the kind of letter it's addressed to the occupant?"
"You look at all that shit?"
"I like to open mail. This one invites you to come in, tell 'em who you are, what you're looking for in the opposite sex, or give 'em a call. That's what I did."
"An escort service. Yeah, I ran one for Momo."
"Tommy, this isn't hookers, it's legit. They bring couples together, match 'em up."
"I thought you were seeing that broad from the studio, Sharon something?"
"Karen Flores. She married a writer."
"You're kidding me."
"Fuckin screenwriter. Those guys, most of 'em don't even know where the commas go. You have to rewrite half their stuff."
"Karen dumped you so you try a dating service?"
"Tommy, I'm looking for a character, for a movie. I want to hear what a girl from a dating service sounds like. This one I talked to, soon as I heard her voice and the beginning of the pitch? I thought, This could give me an idea. So I put her on tape."
Tommy was nodding again. "Okay, but what if you work up this idea, you go to Tower with it and your friend Elaine doesn't like it?"
"I go to another studio. Tower has first look, that's all. They turn it down I can take it anywhere I want."
"Okay, say you do and you keep getting turned down."
"What's your point?"
"You always wear a tie?"
It stopped Chili for a moment. He said, "When I feel like it," and pressed his chin down to look at the tie he was wearing with his navy-blue summer suit: tiny red polkadots on a deep-blue field, his shirt a pale blue. "What's wrong with it?"
Tommy Athens was wearing a T-shirt with words on it under a chambray workshirt that hadn't been ironed, wornout prewashed Levis and pumpup Nikes, Chili noticing the shoes when Tommy arrived, twenty minutes late for their lunch date. He held his arms out now to display himself, presenting his midlife girth.
"This is how you dress in this town you're in arts and entertainment."
"Or you do yard work," Chili said.
"Same difference, on the surface. You don't dress to impress. You don't give a shit how you look, your talent speaks for itself. But in case there's any doubt"Tommy nodded toward his car, parked on the street behind a Ford pickup"you pull up in your fuckin Rolls and it says who you are, nails it. What're you driving these days?"
"Mercedes. I'm around the corner."
"Seventy-eight, a convertible."
"You can get away with that. Where you live?"
"Never heard of it."
"Kind of a Spanish-looking house. Only you can't see it, there's a giant hedge in front."
"What's the zip?"
"Nine oh oh four eight. Couple of blocks from Chasen's."
"That's Los Angeles County where you are, but you're all right, you're practically in Beverly Hills. What I'm talking about is image. I wore a suit and tie. . . ." Tommy paused. "We're both in the same business, right? Basically? Entertainment?"
Chili wasn't sure about Tommy but nodded anyway.
"So this is true of both of us. I know that if I wore a suit and tie, unless I'm going to a funeral or it's a black-tie function . . . I take that back. Even when it's black tie you don't wear a tie anymore."
Chili said, "You wear one of those shirts you look like a priest."
Tommy seemed to agree, shrugging his big shoulders. "You might. Or, the kind of people I associate with in business, you wear black, yeah, but it might only be a tux coat or tails with a pair of jeans and cowboy boots. Though your shitkickers are big, too, with steel toes. You go, my man, with the prevailing style. If I was to wear a suit and tie let's say to a recording session? They'd look at me like I was from Fort Wayne, Indiana, or some fuckin place. Say I got an idea for the recording, I want to lay in some more tracks, beef it up. If they don't feel good about me, bro, where I'm coming from, they're not gonna listen. The producer, the engineer, the band, shit, the band, the friends of the band, they're all into casual to farout attire, whatever they feel like wearing. I'm standing there in a suit and tie? At best I look like a fuckin agent, and who listens to agents."
He was serious.
Chili nodded to show Tommy he was giving it some thought. He said, "So where should I get my clothes, the Salvation Army?"
"See?" Tommy said. "You got an attitude problem. You know betterall you have to do is look around at the people here, the way they're dressed, but you have to be different."
"I've never been here before."
"Swingers, people in music and people that wanna be come here to hang out. Listen to what they're talking about. Recording sessions, who had to go back to rerecord, who's doing heroin, who kicked it, who left what band and went somewhere else. You hear how the record companies are fuckin 'em over. How they can't get this or that label to listen to their demos . . . You look around, though, you can't tell the ones that've made it from the wannabes."
Chili said, "That's why we're here, for the fashion show?"
Tommy pushed his plate away and laid his arms on the table, getting closer to Chili.
"I called you 'cause I got an idea for a movie."
Chili had to go to the men's but paused. Maybe this wouldn't take long. "What's it about? Can you pitch it in twenty-five words or less?"
"I can tell it in one word," Tommy said. "Me."
"Your life story?"
"Not all of it, no. You have to be careful where the statute of limitations might not've run out. See, I think you're the guy to do it, Chil, 'cause you and I have shared some of the same experiences, you might say. I tell you something, you know what I'm talking about. But I want to be sure you're connected at a major studio and not pissing everybody off with your attitude."
"You mean the way I dress?"
"The way you antagonize people, the ones putting up the dough, for Christ sake. If they're signing the check I think they got every right to get what they want."
"A studio exec reads a script," Chili said, bringing a Cohiba panatela from his inside coat pocket. "He puts the script down, calls the agent who sent it to him and says, 'Man, it's a terrific read, but not what we're looking for at this point in time.'"
Tommy waited. "Yeah? . . ."
Waited as Chili snipped off the end of the Cohiba with a cigar cutter and lit it with a kitchen match he struck with his thumbnail, Chili saying, "The studio exec has no fuckin idea in the world what they're looking for. If he did he'd have somebody write it."
Tommy was pointing a finger at him now. "The one thing you've always had going for you, Chil, you're the most confident guy I know. You have a cool way of making it sound like you know what you're talking about."
"You saying I'm a bullshit artist?"
"One of the best. It's the main reason I think, in spite of your attitude, you can get this movie made."
"Based on your life as what, a record promoter? Get into all that payola business?"
"Based on how I worked my ass off to become one of the highest paid indie promoters in the industry, and to where I am now, with my own label, NTL Records, Inc. That payola, they work it different now. You remember a guy named Carcaterra?"
"Nicky Car, Nicky Cadillac," Chili said, "a punk, yeah."
"He's a big indie promoter now, Car-O-Sell Entertainment. Gets the juice from the label and dazzles the program directors with it, guys at the radio stations who make up the playlist. Takes 'em to Vegas for the fights, to the Super Bowl. . . . He's Mr. Nick Car now. You call him Nicky he'll have one of his goons bust all the windows in your car. This's some fuckin business, I'm telling you."
"What's NTL stand for?"
"Nothing to Lose. My wife Edie's a partner. You met her at some Lakers games and a couple of functions. The redhead."
Edie Athens, you bet. Several times, sitting next to her at the Forum, Chili had felt her hand on his thigh, turned his head to see her staring at him, letting him know here it was if he wanted it.
"I told her," Tommy said, "I was gonna see you today. Edie goes, 'Absolutely, Chili's the guy to do it.' Anyway, I got offices and a recording studio out'n Silver Lake. I got some up and comers in the world of punk rock, and I got an artist I just signed and I'm ready to break, Derek Stones, with Roadkill. It use to be a hair band, now they do post-metal funk with a ska kick. You have any idea what I'm talking about?"
"Tommy, I was right there we're doing the music tracks for both my pictures. I got a pretty good idea what's being played."
"Then you must've heard of my hip-hop group, Ropa-Dope. They do that gangsta shit and, man, does it sell. Only no matter what you do for 'em it isn't ever enough. Try and please rappers. I'm in my office I look up, here's five big African-American niggers standing right up against my desk with their arms folded. The dinge in the middle is Ropa-Dope's manager, Sinclair 'Sin' Russell. Not Russell, man, Russell. I greet him in the customary manner, 'Yo, Sin, my man. What's happening, my brother?' Sin looks at me like he's about to come over the fuckin desk. 'I called you two hours ago, motherfucker, and you never return my call.'" Tommy raised the palm of his hand straight up. "Swear to God, you don't pick up when they call you could get fuckin killed.
"I got Ropa-Dope on my backthey want to look at my books, see if I'm up to date on royalty payments. I got this ethnic asshole wants to sell me fire insurance. You believe it? I could've written the fuckin book on what this guy's doing. I threw him out."
Chili was getting up from the table.
"Where you going?"
"The men's. I had two iced teas waiting for you and two more since."
"But how's it sound, the idea?"
"You don't have an idea yet," Chili said. "You have a setting, where the idea develops, becomes your plot." He turned to leave and looked back. "You need a girl in it."
"I got all kinds. What do you want?"
"A singer, trying to get discovered."
"On the boulevard of broken dreamsit's been done. How about a broad with a Mohawk? My secretary, Tiffany. Outside of the haircut and tattoos all the girl parts are there."
Chili walked away from the table, Tommy calling after him, "Think about who's gonna play me."
He made his way through the coffee shop to the men's room aware of glances but thinking of a girl named Linda Moon. Different ideas now beginning to come together in his mind. A movie about a guy in the record business. A movie about a girl who worked for a dating service.
That was her name, Linda Moon.
He could hear her voice again on the phone telling himonce she'd given up trying to sell him on coming inthat her real life was music and up until last year she had her own band. Now all she didonce in a while a recording studio would call when they needed a backup vocal for one of the current pop stars and the dating-service girl's voice would be on a hit record, somewhere in the mix. And, she was with a group that played clubs and private parties in the L.A. area, saying if he ever got out and wanted a few laughs . . . She had an easy drawl, an accent he thought of as from somewhere Out West rather than Down South. She told him the group she appeared with was called Chicks International, a white chick, a black chick and an Asian chick; and it was embarrassing every time they got up to perform, because they did covers, none of their own stuff; they didn't have anything. He remembered saying it was a way to get started, see how you work together. And she came back at him saying if you wanted to get on the charts you had to do your own songs, "with an attitude." He liked that. And then she said it wasn't bad enough doing covers, "we're doing the Spice Girls, and those chicks can't even fucking sing."
There was a silence after that.
Chili stood at the urinal, cigar clamped in his jaw, hearing Linda's voice on the phone telling him, "I'm sorry, it just slipped out." He asked her name and she said Linda, Linda Moon.
There was more, several minutes of conversation with the tape recorder running. He had listened to some of it again to hear her voice, this girl with the easy drawl, nothing put-on about her. The next time he'd listen to her with story in mind: a girl who could sing but didn't like what they were doing . . . Why didn't she quit?
Chili walked back through the coffee shop thinking of what he'd say to Tommy. Surprise him and sound interested. Give him a scenario off the top of the head: The guy who plays Tommy Athens is the main character. His name . . . Tommy Amore, like the song, the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. The girl . . . she's with a group but wants to do her own stuff, so she comes to Amore Records. Walks in, Tommy takes one look at her and love is instantly in the fuckin air. But is she any good? Let's say she has the potential, she'll make it if she listens to Amore, does what he tells her. But Linda has ideas of her own. She fights Amore every step of the way. While this is going on the subplot develops. Some deal Amore thought was behind him's now giving him fits. The real Tommy will start nodding his head because it could be true. Like in Get Leo you have the plot, talk a star into making your movie, and you have the subplot, try to keep from getting killed while you're doing it. Make it up as you're telling him. Which is what movie pitches sound like anyway.
Chili Palmer came out of Swingers looking at his watch. It was 1:50 in the afternoon of a nice sunny day in mid September, the temperature 80 degrees, the traffic on Beverly Boulevard steady, the way it always was during the day.
A four-door sedan, black, needing a wash, was turning onto Beverly from the side street, Laurel Avenue, and had to stop before making the turn. For a few moments the car was directly in front of Chili pausing to relight his Havana. He noticed the front-seat passenger and stared at the guy, no more than fifteen feet away, because the guy's hair didn't go with his face. The face had seen a lot more years than that thick, dark hairpiece, a full rug that appeared too big for his head. The guy turned now, he was wearing sunglasses, and seemed to be looking right at Chili. But he wasn't, he was looking past him, and now the car was moving again, making the turn on Beverly but still creeping as it moved past the cars parked along the curb, past Tommy's carthe white Rolls sitting there like a wedding cakecame even with the Ford pickup and stopped. Chili waited. It was like watching a scene develop:
The front door of the sedan opened and the guy with the rug got out. A wiry little guy fifty or so wearing some Korean girl's hair so he'd look younger. Chili felt sorry for him, the guy not knowing the rug made him look stupid. Somebody ought to tell him, and then duck. He looked like the kind of little guy who was always on the muscle, would take anything you said the wrong way. Chili saw him looking toward Swingers now, staring. Then saw him raise both hands, Christ, holding a revolver, a nickelplate flashing in the sunlight, the guy extending the gun in one hand now, straight out at arm's length as Chili yelled, "Tommy!" Loud, but too late. The guy with the rug was firing at Tommy, squeezing them off like he was on a target range, the sound of gunfire hitting the air hard, and all at once there were screams, chairs scraping, people throwing themselves to the ground as the plate glass shattered behind Tommy still in his chair, head down, broken glass all over him, in his hair. . . . Chili saw the guy with the rug standing there taking in what he had done. Saw him turn to the car, the door still open, and put his hand inside, on the windowsill. But now he took time to look this way, to stare at Chili. Took a good look before he got in and the car drove off.
A woman said, "Oh, my God," and turned to make her way out of the crowd gathering to look at Tommy Athens hanging slumped in his chair, Chili right there now feeling people all around him, closing him in. Voices asking if the man was dead. Asking if anyone had called for a doctor, an ambulance. Asking if the guy who got shot was somebody. A voice saying, "They called nine-eleven." A voice near Chili saying, "You were with him, weren't you?" Another saying, "They were together."
It looked like Tommy had been shot in the head, only one shot hitting him of the five Chili could still hear and count, but the one was enough. Chili stood there not saying a word. He had watched it happen without seeing it coming, and that scared him. Jesus, feeling sorry for the guy in the rug, wasting time like that, instead of yelling at Tommy as soon as the guy was out of the car.
He knew he ought to get out of here right now, or spend the rest of the day telling homicide detectives what he was doing with Tommy Athens, why they were having lunch. Why he wasn't at the table when Tommy got popped. They'd look Tommy up on their computer, they'd look them both up, shit, and go round and round about their other life for a few hours.
But he couldn't just walk away, not with all these witnesses, all these helpful citizens waiting to turn him in, dying to cooperate with the police. He looked around and saw faces staring at him. They looked away when he stared back, and moved aside as he worked his way through the crowd, some good-looking girls, not one of the guys wearing a suit and tie. By the time he got to the corner both EMS and a black and white had arrived and two uniforms were telling everyone to stay where they were for the time being, don't anybody leave. The first thing the uniforms did was collect the driver's license of each witness: the ones who said they'd gotten a look at the guy before the plate glass shattered.
Detectives arrived in a Crown Vic and followed pointed fingers to Chili Palmer, spoke to him for a few minutes and asked would he mind coming to the Wilshire station with them, La Brea and Venice Boulevard; they'd bring him back to get his car.
Chili didn't say yes he would mind or no he wouldn't. He kept his mouth shut looking at the scene again, starting to rewrite it in his mind, the guy playing Tommy no longer the lead. You couldn't have the star get popped ten minutes into the picture.
No, but it could be the way to open it. A movie about the music business.