When World War II ended, fighter ace Joe Buonomo didn’t make it back for the parades. After nearly a decade adrift in troubled seas, he washed up in California, determined to re-claim his life. In 1954, he met Helen, one of the fresh-faced girls eager to break into Hollywood. They fell blissfully in love and got engaged—until Joe’s post-war past intervened, and he lost his fiancée.
Years later, Joe’s running an air freight business and doing the occasional odd job for a certain crooner named Frank Sinatra. One afternoon, Joe agrees to give Sinatra’s latest honey a lift to Los Angeles, where she has a screen test the next morning. Not until she arrives at the airport does he realize it’s Helen. After just a few hours together, Joe and Helen confess their old feelings still burn. But the next day, Helen never makes it to the studio. She’s vanished into thin air. To find her, Joe will have to go up against the mob, the FBI, and the forces behind presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. The only catch is, who is he rescuing her for—Sinatra? Or himself?
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One for Our Baby
By John Sandrolini
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 John Sandrolini
All rights reserved.
PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA 1960
Normally, I didn't do Frank's "Angel Flights"—that's what his regular pilots were for. Our understanding was different, and I reminded his valet of that when he phoned.
"No, George, I will not be able to fly Mr. Sinatra's lady friend into Burbank this afternoon. He knows the rules."
Then I hung up.
I stood there a moment watching the sun ooze down toward the top of Mt. San Jacinto as I measured the remaining daylight, faint glimmers of the South Pacific arcing across my mind. I enjoyed the memory for a few seconds and then got back to work unloading my airplane.
The hangar phone rang again thirty seconds later. I eyed it warily for several rings before walking back and picking it up. He began speaking before I could say hello.
"Joseph, it's Francis. I've got something cooking here with a dazzling young lady and I'm gonna need your gossamer wings for a quick trip to the moon."
The song lyric shtick was standard Sinatra, but the "Francis" routine meant he really wanted my help. She had to be someone special.
"She better be Rita Hayworth dazzling, Frank, and it wouldn't hurt if she's shtupping William Randolph Hearst's ghost too, because I've got to fly five thousand of his papers up to Oakland tonight and I can't be late."
"That fascist? Nix the papers, dago, this is much more important than a few yellow rags. My new girl has a screen test at Fox tomorrow morning at seven."
Frank was used to people steaming at flank speed to come kiss his ass, but I couldn't be bothered. "How would that affect me?" I replied, smothering a yawn.
"Come on, they just called me—they had to move it up a day—it's gotta be tomorrow. Do you know how long it takes to drive from Palm Springs to Burbank on a Sunday night? It's wall-to-wall weekenders on the 10."
"You better get a head start then."
"Hey ... paesan ... you're not gonna make my baby run that gauntlet, are you? She's gotta meet with Zanuck tomorrow. You know, Zaa-nuck."
He was almost pleading now. I ginned up a grin, having him over a barrel for once. "Last time I checked, you had a snazzy DC-6 at your beck and call with two aero-cabana boys to jock it. Aren't they up to it?"
"Those mammalukes? They're as likely to jock her as the airplane. Besides, they aren't good enough. I need someone I can trust like my own brother, and that's you, pally."
"You don't have a brother."
I heard him grunt. "For Christ's sake, Joe, help me here!"
I was busting his balls and he knew it, but he liked the game. Besides, he knew his insistence would wear me down, as it always did. And his protectiveness told me that she really had him right in the old bra'zhol'. She must have been top shelf.
Now I was leaning. "Gee, Frank, I haven't seen you this squirrelly over a skirt since the last time Ava was in town."
"Let me tell you something, Giuseppe, this one, she makes Ava look like a Hoboken housewife. Screws better than Ava, too, if you can believe that. Ring a ding, ding!" He held the last note a good five seconds.
That did it. I was hooked. He'd never put anyone above Ava before—in any category—let alone beauty and bedroom.
"Okay, goombah, you win, but I'm leaving as soon as I get this order for Chi Chi's unloaded. I want to get through the pass before sundown. And how the hell did you know I was here, anyway?"
"Thanks a million. We'll be right over—fifteen minutes. Lucky I caught you!" There was a click and the line went dead.
"Lucky ... yes." I said, eyeing the heavens with suspicion.
I'd known Frank Sinatra for eight years, ever since I saved his ass in that casino jam in Havana back in '52. They had been eight wildly entertaining years—how could they not have been—especially with those women? Through Lana and Ava and Marilyn and a dozen others, two things about Frank's lovers were inarguably true: They were all drop-dead gorgeous. And chaos followed them every step of the way.
I'd learned to be ready for trouble whenever he fired up a new torch. At first mention I should have taken wing back to my hangar in Long Beach, or headed up to Lake Arrowhead for some fishing, or down to San Diego to visit old navy buddies. I should have done anything other than staying put. Instead, I let my curiosity lead me down an old path.
With unfortunate results.CHAPTER 2
I had the Electra unloaded and ready to go when the black Eldo pulled up. Frank bounced out, arm fluttering as he strutted over toward me. He was sporting a bright orange golf shirt and a mood to match.
"Hello, pally, how ya doin'?" he chirped, squeezing my hand.
I looked over toward the car, where George was opening the passenger door to let Frank's inamorata out. "Let you know in a second, chum."
"Hold on to your bird, Joe; she's a fucking knockout!"
He was positively giddy with excitement, and it was beginning to rub off on me.
The door opened and two lovely legs floated out. That was nice.
As she took George's hand and climbed from the recess of the car, Frank announced, "Joe, meet Miss Lilah DeHart, Fox's next big star!"
I leered just a little in anticipation and stepped forward, my eyes scanning her entire figure as she rose, taking it in nice and slow like good bourbon.
I started with those legs that went on for a week, then followed to the hips that Monroe could only dream of. Working my way up, I surveyed the full, round breasts, fighting for attention. I could feel the smile breaking out on my face.
Over that supercharged body, she wore an emerald-green crushed velvet dress that hit every curve doing seventy. It must have set Frank back at least a hundred bucks at Neiman Marcus. Her face was hidden beneath a white, wide-brimmed Ingrid Bergman hat with green trim that just nailed the look.
She raised her chin as she approached and the shadows retreated. I looked upon the face that emerged.
It was a beautiful face. Pillow lips, celestial nose, Everest-high cheekbones—all framed by cascading waves of chestnut hair. Men killed for a woman like that.
But as her features sharpened, something stopped me cold, an unsettling feeling welling up in my gut and moving north fast. Then I stared directly into those eyes of a singular green fire and the world just faded out. I could feel the shock setting in as the realization struck home like a bosun's fist. It was Helen.
She carried it off better than I did, quickly adjusting her hat brim over her rapidly expanding eyes and clearing her throat with a little cough.
The enormity of it was staggering. Nothing, not one damn word for five years, and suddenly she was here, now—and with Frank Sinatra. I listed back on my heels, stunned, silently cursing every god in the pantheon as I gaped at her.
Helen. My ex-fiancée Helen.
"Hey, paesan, take it easy," Frank said. "You've seen gorgeous women before. Stop staring—you'll frighten her. Please excuse him, Lilah, he spends too much time up there in all that thin air and not enough down here where the real angels are."
He laughed and slapped me on the back. I barely heard him. Notes of bergamot and sandalwood came dancing on the air then, wafting by like an early summer day. Chypre. Her scent.
Man, the knife was really turning now.
George gave me a long look before getting back into the car. Frank hugged "Lilah" and wished her luck, promising to meet her in Bel Air in a couple of days. He kissed her goodbye and winked at me before bounding back into the Cadillac. Then he rolled away on a wave of cool, a snap-brim hat in the rear window slowly fading from view.
I just stood there, eyes down, hand on my forehead, as the last remnants of my soul tumbled to the tarmac and shattered at my feet.CHAPTER 3
We hardly spoke as I closed up the plane. I don't think either one of us knew what to say. Finally, I offered, "I'll get you into Burbank right away. I know a good taxi driver I can call."
"No thanks, hon," she replied in that smoke-wisp of a voice that always sent me. "Frank's got a limo waiting for me."
I got the picture. But quick.
I stared at her, seconds ticking by, the words not coming. Finally, I managed, "Helen ... you're more beautiful than ever."
She smiled. "Thanks, Joe."
I started to say something else, then turned and walked toward the cockpit.
* * *
Squinting into the dying afternoon sun, I scanned the horizon for air traffic, refracted sunlight bouncing off the mountains and radiating back into the sky in brilliant red rays. Normally, I would have appreciated the beauty, but this was no normal day.
It was a short flight into Burbank, maybe thirty minutes, but I wanted to get it done quickly. I still had to make a bounce into Long Beach and a night hop to the Bay, and now I had two tons of granite on my shoulders.
Helen sat alone in the back of the Electra, just staring out the small window. She'd taken her hat off, her long, dark hair spilling down and blocking my view of her face.
But I'd seen too much already.
By the time I reached San Bernardino, I'd missed two radio calls and forgotten to close the cowl flaps. I couldn't think straight. If he's lucky, one time in his life a guy gets a woman like that. I had—then I'd lost her.
And now she was back.CHAPTER 4
We met back in '54 at a Chet Baker show right after she arrived in L.A. She was a typical fresh-faced kid from Bumfuck planning to make a big splash in Hollywood. I was an ex-fighter pilot trying to close some dark chapters of my life and make a new go of it. She had dreams, I had nightmares. We hit it off.
We'd have dinner on Saturdays at the Starlight Club and then go dancing, or catch Frankie Laine or someone at the Hollywood Bowl. We both loved to bet the horses over at Santa Anita and watch those beautiful beasts run—she always seemed to pick the winners. Sometimes we'd just knock around the beaches in Redondo or go deep-sea fishing off Newport. She was easy to be with, dressed up or down.
Over time, I began to leave my past behind me and look toward a future with her. I was still flying night and day trying to get my freight business up and running, and she always had an audition to attend, but we found time to be together. It was hectic, but we were holding on. One day on Catalina Island I asked her to marry me. We both had a shot at what we wanted.
And then my past came calling.
Having to go to Southeast Asia to settle an old score with Chinese mobsters wasn't exactly the kind of thing you can explain to your fiancée in one hour, which was all I had. Not when all she knew about your time in the Pacific came from an old squadron photo on your desk and a faded Chicago Tribune article recounting how you won the Navy Cross at Midway.
But there was more, much more, about my time over there that very few people knew. I gave everything I had in that war until there was nothing left and still came back in one piece—but I didn't make it all the way home.
Soon enough, I wound up back in China, where it all began. While I was there, I fell in with some of the people your mother warns you about, and I did some things I regret.
The kinds of things that follow a man the rest of his life.
So I went to Macao to make things right, but Helen wasn't around when I got back a month later. She left a note—and the ring. I threw them both off the Seal Beach pier. I gave some thought to going in with them but dove into a bottle of Old Number 7 instead.
* * *
I was still lost in the past when that forgotten aroma came floating into the cockpit. Before I could turn, she slipped into the copilot's seat. As she squeezed past me, breasts brushing my arm, I thought I felt her breath on my neck. I closed my eyes as memories of her lying next to me flooded in.
A honeyed voice cooed, "Whacha know, Joe?"
"Mmmmm ..." I mused. "Guess, why don't ya?"
The dulcet tone climbed an octave. "Honey, is it supposed to be going up like that?"
"Like ... what? ... Oh ..."
As I slipped into my daze, I'd tightened my grip on the yoke, pulling the Electra into a climb. I smiled in embarrassment and brought the plane back to altitude, both of us laughing at the moment.
That broke the ice.
Then I turned to face her, struggling to conceal my amusement. "Lilah?" I intoned, raising an eyebrow.
"Hollywood name," she said, smiling. "You know."
I kept on staring, doing my best deadpan to keep from cracking up.
She looked over at me, then away, then back again.
"What?" she said, throwing her hands up. "Okay, I got it out of some New Orleans romance novel I read when I was a kid. Satisfied?" She slapped my arm, trilling through a laugh.
I let the moment ride, but then I cut to the chase a little too soon.
"Helen ... what the hell happened with us?"
She looked at me for a long, agonizing moment, her smile fading by degrees. "Why did you have to go away, Joe? Why did you do that to us?"
She made a small, pained sound, gazing away toward the window. As she turned, I thought I saw tears welling up in those gorgeous green eyes.
I didn't say anything for several minutes, just sat there hating myself. Helen stared silently out the window, wiping her cheeks a couple of times.
When enough time had passed, I tried a different tack. "Hey, there's the Rose Bowl up ahead. See it?"
She nodded. We both followed with "Remember when we ...?" and slipped into another giggle.
That did it—she owned the world when she smiled. Right then I'd have given ten grand to have never met Frank Sinatra.
"I'll have to start down soon for Burbank," I said. "You'll be home in no time."
"Shall I sit down in back, hon? I know you'll be busy." She started to get up.
"Don't go, baby, stay until landing. Let's have that, just that much time."
She nodded, then settled back in her seat, maxing out a Hollywood smile as she beamed in agreement.
I radioed Burbank tower, reduced power for the descent, and rolled in toward the field. For those seven minutes, Smilin' Jack Martin had nothing on me.CHAPTER 5
I taxied clear of runway 26 and brought the plane over to transient parking. The lineman marshaled me in and signaled a stop, then I cut the throttles and the fuel levers, killing the engines. As the magnetos wound down with a whine, I looked over at Helen, her face radiant in the twilight glow. She had an air of serenity about her, or maybe it just looked that way to me.
I stepped off the aircraft, chocked the left main tire, and then hustled back to the cabin door to help Helen down, feeling the cool clutch of the L.A. evening as it enveloped the field.
Helen was waiting at the door, looking back over her shoulder when I returned. I planted the wooden step beneath the doorway and offered her my hand. She took it, then stepped down to the ramp, taxiway lights glowing blue in the incipient darkness around her as she descended.
The limo hadn't arrived yet, so we sat down in the charter lounge to wait.
After an awkward moment, I blurted out, "Baby, I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
She reached out, rubbed my knee ever so gently. "I didn't think I'd see you, either, but I'm awfully glad I did."
"Me too. Of course I was a bit stunned—dumbstruck really—but I'm starting to get my bearings back. This whole thing with Frank—"
"You never told me you knew him. Why?"
"We had a chance meeting in '52—I don't see him all that often. And when we were dating, I obviously had better things to do."
It wasn't all true, but it was cover enough for the moment.
"Hmm," she said, drawing out the word while measuring me with a stare. "Well, Frank spoke of you like a brother on the way to the airport today. He said you've been a real lifesaver for him on a few occasions."
"Yeah," I said, nodding, "coupla times."
"Of course, how could I suspect you were the guy he was talking about? This is all confusing the bejeezus out of me, Lieutenant Commander Buonomo." She placed her hands on her hips, tilted her head. "Just what goes on with you two?"
I grinned. "Not much—besides you. We're just a couple of guys from different parishes who look out for each other."
"Joe ..." she chided, her voice trailing off as a dark blue Lincoln pulled in, glided to a stop, and dimmed its lights. A uniformed driver stepped out and stood at the passenger's door. He wore an impeccably pressed dark suit that showed a good deal of cuff. Very Frank Sinatra.
Neither of us stood. I just stared into those emerald eyes, wanting them to ensnare me again, newly aware of a feeling long dormant inside me.
Excerpted from One for Our Baby by John Sandrolini. Copyright © 2013 John Sandrolini. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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