The Devil and Cowboy Will
“Why, blood, my dear,” said the ugly little man up on the screen. “There’s always blood, you see.” The music swelled, he snaked a hand into his suit coat pocket, and I heard the girdle of the middle-aged lady sitting next to me creak as she got ready to scream. I moved my candy out of her way. It was 1932, and I didn’t have enough money left that I wanted to pay to replace it. On film, light glinted off of a straight-razor’s edge. The heroine cut loose on the soundtrack and, sure enough, so did the lady in the next seat. She knocked my Stetson off my knee, and, when I grabbed at it, Milk Duds went flying every which way. Her escort called me a big jerk and there might have been trouble if the other patrons hadn’t been more interested in hearing what the Intrepid Girl Reporter was gasping out over the phone line after she escaped the Devil Socialite and locked herself into his study than about my Milk Duds. At least the fuss was making me forget my troubles, the main reason why I was at the moving pictures when I would be leaving New Mexico for the last time that very same afternoon.
On the way out of the El Paseo picture theater in Santa Fe, I stopped to look at the lobby cards. The best photo was of the ugly little man flourishing his straight-razor, face intent, eyes all spooky. Mr. Nigel Cole, an actor fellow I’d seen before in pictures, had played the villain. He was a runt, but he sure could act. I wondered if he was spooky in real life. I wondered if I’d ever meet him out in Hollywood and find out. Then I wondered if I had an extra nickel to tip the man at the train station luggage check. After examining my wallet, I decided I would if I skipped lunch, so I hightailed it. For two hours I’d forgotten my Pa had just died, leaving me with little money and no home. That was something I owed to Mr. Cole, and I’m downright glad I would soon have a chance to return his favor.
My Pa had picked one hell of a year to die. 1932 was the end of the line for most high-plains ranching towns and Wagon Wheel, New Mexico was out past that last station and into the wilderness. When I sold our cattle and spread, the money I got didn’t even cover the mortgage on the ranch. I had to sell up our summer grazing allotment, too, all the green acres in the mountains above Taos. That really hurt, but I came out of the deal holding enough money to head for Hollywood with a small stake left over. Since even a fool could see what was happening to the small-town banks by then, I tied up the extra money in a sock, stuffed it down my combinations, and bought a train ticket. My mother’s brother Bill had written that he could get me a job at the studio where he worked, but I wasn’t taking his claims on faith. Jobs were few and far between in those years, and I was smart enough to know that I was only one of thousands of kids looking for work, any work at all. Heck, even the train I rode west on was held up half a day in Arizona by a forest fire the locals had started, just so a few of them could get paid for fighting the blaze. It was a lean and hungry time.
Bill met me in the shadow of the big Moorish dome topping the station in Los Angeles. This was back before they ripped up old Chinatown to build Union Station, so he had been standing outside by the tracks while he waited. His red face had a sour expression pasted on it, but it lightened when he laid eyes on my luggage. I was lugging mother’s big old kidskin suitcases, the ones she had carried with her when she fled Boston to rendezvous with Santa Fe, Life, and Art.
“You look like your mother,” he said, the first words out of his mouth.
Like heck I did. I was fifteen when she died, so I remembered her well. She was tall, thin, graceful as an aspen, and had brown hair of a shade that reminded me of the mesa behind Wagon Wheel at sunset. Sure I was tall, real tall, but my frame had spread out so much in the last three years that I was about as graceful as a bull, and my hair, thanks to a Pueblo grandmother not to be spoken of, was close to black. To make matters worse, one side of the family had gifted me with a truly original nose, although I have no idea which one since no one wants to take the blame for a job that big when it goes bad. All that had come to me from my mother was her hazel eyes. But I wasn’t going to open my mouth only to rile the last relative of mine with whom I was on speaking terms.
“Yes, sir,” I said, instead.
Bill smiled like it hurt his face, and then whistled for a redcap. “I found you an apartment out at a place where the studio has contacts, the La Casa de las Palomas.” We’d made it to the curb. He stuck up his hand and waved without looking around. I wondered if we were taking a taxi. “I also found you a job at the studio.”
I didn’t have to be a movie actor to pick up that cue. “Thank you, Uncle Bill.”
He frowned. “You’re eighteen, right? You seem older.”
“Yes sir, I graduated high school.” It was pretty clear he didn’t want to do the math. “I turned eighteen last April.” I wondered why he was asking. I guess I should have hitched it up with the job offer, but I was still tired from the train.
He nodded, and his driver pulled up his automobile. It was a fancy affair with hide seats stripped off of cows that had never brushed up against barbed wire. It turned out Bill had been doing well in Hollywood. He’d learned all about money working for my maternal kin’s bank, then broken out of the family corral and galloped west to Hollywood. The sunshine hadn't made him forget everything he’d learned back east, though. I had to tip the redcap myself.
Bill didn’t ask me about Pa, or the ranch, or anything, not that I expected him to. After all, to him, Pa was just a cowboy. Instead, Bill leaned back and smoked cigarettes as we headed up towards Hollywood, pointing out the movie palaces we passed and telling me how much money the pictures they were showing had made or lost. He didn’t suggest I come and see his spread. I guess he didn’t want to disrupt his domestic furnishings - hot and cold running starlets - so we drove straight over to the Casa de las Palomas. When we got there, I took a good look. Stucco was already peeling off the two-story building. Bill had said the rent was cheap, though, and that was all I cared about just then.
“Do you know about the Red Line?”
“Yes sir.” I didn’t really, but I figured it was some sort of a trolley car and someone in the apartment house would explain it to me.
“You’ll find that car,” he pointed his cigarette at a signpost, “goes right past the south gate of the studio. Report to this office,” he passed me a slip of paper, “at eight on Monday and they’ll see you’re taken care of.”
His automobile pulled away, leaving me and my kidskin suitcases standing on the sidewalk staring at a lot of untrimmed trees and bushes. The swimming pool I could see through the shrubbery looked kind of green. I made myself shift my gaze up to the pretty blue sky - way better than a dust bowl - then took a real deep breath. Hoisting up my suitcases, I went to find the landlord.
Pa would have been furious at how I was being treated by kin, but I thought it was kind of funny. At least, I thought it was funny until I found out on Monday what kind of job Bill had snagged for me at the studio. I was hoping for something in the mail room, having had just about my fill of the great outdoors, what with riding fence during snowstorms, dust storms, and under blistering sunlight. Heck, no: his sister had married a cattleman, so his sister’s son must be a cowboy. He’d found me work on Everest’s back lot stunting.
Well, it worked out okay for a while. Since Everest was the last of the major players to have a back lot in Hollywood - most of the soundstages had headed down to Culver City because of the taxes - I got a real good chance to sample the town. There was fun to be had, if you knew where to look, and I figured that out fast enough. Hollywood had a couple of good bookstores. I found a gym where the other boxers tolerated the fact that I was there to brush up on defending myself, not to train to be some fool who got hit when he didn’t need to be, all in the name of entertainment. My typewriter took care of most of the rest of my free time. Whenever the walls started closing in, I could catch the Red Line and go hike in the mountains or fish off the piers. Given a couple of buddies, I figured I’d be all set.
After two weeks of falling off of horses, a wild-eyed, skinny fellow I’d learned to call an assistant director stopped short on the set one day and yelled to no one in particular, “Where the hell is that louse?” When no one in particular answered, he looked over to where I was standing by a fake cacti fanning myself with a fake Stetson, said, “Jeez, you’re a monster,” grabbed me, and shoved me between the camera lines next to a bunch of other fellows dressed in dude ranch cowboy togs.
“What do I do now?” I asked him, rattled. You need some time to get ready to be blown up or set on fire.
“When I call action, say ‘Howdy, M’am,’ and leer at Miss Blake over there,” he said, and trotted off. The leer would be easy. Miss Blake was a real perky little blond lady, checking her makeup in a compact mirror. She caught me looking and smiled. I blushed and turned back around to find the other cowboys all giving me a tenderfoot-in-town stare, which I didn’t know back then was because I’d just become a speaking extra without even trying hard. It was only because I was big.
I squared my shoulders and gave them back a look. I figured I could mess this up all by myself, thank you. Only, I didn’t, and the assistant director told me to show up the next week on the set of Wings over the Congo.
In the next several months, I got to say “Howdy” a lot, which did unfortunate things to my vocabulary that have lasted until this present day and made me feel like a consarned fool to boot. I also learned how to say “Ahoy,” “Ugh,” and “Shaddup, yoose.” Still, there were some advantages to my rising to the level of a snake’s belly in the studio system. To start with, there were girls. And next, there were girls. Oh, and when you were done, there were even more girls. Not, you understand, that I made huge amounts of time. Most of the beauties, which were about all of them, were saving themselves either for marriage or a really influential studio executive, whichever came first. However, some of them did want a change of pace now and then and at least I was large, which kept off the wolves. I spent a few downright friendly evenings dining and learning to dance like a dude at the local night clubs. It was a change from back home, where too long parking in the horse and carriage pretty much always ended in marriage. I managed to add some advanced training to what our widow milliner had taught me.
I also got to meet the stars like I’d wondered if I ever would. Some of them behaved like the daughter of the fellow who owned the feed store back home, as if seeing a cow pat would lay them out flat in the dust from the vulgarity of it all. A lot more of them behaved like the folks my mother spent time with after she and Pa parted ways and she went back to Life, Art, and Santa Fe. A few of them were purely business, which was appreciated by all the rest of us. Based on trail talk and what I had observed, I had cut Mr. Nigel Cole into the last herd in my head by the time I got to know him up close and personal.
Mr. Cole was Everest’s creep, their resident spooky villain. In those days he had the red ribbon as the second best-known creep in Hollywood. He’d reprised his role as Jack the Ripper when sound came in, and all over America that summer the fat ladies spent their spare time having hysterics and passing out. Then he’d whiled away the next few years playing every sort of spine-shiverer Everest wanted to get on celluloid. He was the rabbit-like husband who ran loco with an ax, the brainy mob accountant who gravely shot the rat-faced informer six times, and the wastrel in a silk dressing gown who giggled while he shoved the governess off the cliff by the manor house. Even I’d seen his first big role as a kid, during one of the winters I spent living with my mother and going to school in Santa Fe. I’d sprayed popcorn all over the movie house when he apologized in a floral-bordered title card and then started up that meat grinder.
The first time we met, I thought he was another extra and offered him a sneak drag off my Nehi when I ran into him looking wilted and taking shelter behind a flat. He thanked me kindly and it was only when I went to assume the mark of the sailor he was supposed to be tossing to the sharks that I realized he was Nigel Cole. I don’t know what I’d expected that made me not recognize him. You’d think, by that time in Hollywood, I’d have learned better. In person, if you looked at him twice, it would only be because he was kind of homely. He was a few fingers under forty and something less than a handful of inches under five and a half feet, his features and nose were sharp, and he moved a bit too smooth, like a coyote headed for the hen house. If he hadn't have been blond, you’d have called him a weasel. His eyes were big for his face and were blue, which was sort of rare in early Hollywood. Later he explained to me that blue eyes didn’t show up well on the old black and white film stock, but his were dark blue and he had some trick of changing their color by tilting his face just so. It’s part of the reason he lit up in front of a camera, and he could time it to look as scary as it was fascinating. Otherwise he faded into the background.
As large as I was, I worked with him several times through those months. Directors loved to have him stampede the biggest extras because it made him look smaller and meaner when he had gorillas for his victims. Sometimes, when there weren’t a lot of lines involved, I was his sidekick since that made for a nice contrast, too. The first time we really talked, it was because he noticed what I was reading while we waited for the director to coax a better scream out of an actress we were menacing. It was Men and Women, by Hemingway. The guy at The Old Owl Bookstore had recommended it.
“Any good?” he asked me. He had an actor’s tenor, rich, with a lot of control; the famous whine was only for the microphones.
“Writing’s fine, but I don’t know where he got his ideas about Westerners. That terse talk’s only typical of some of the natives. A lot of ranch hands never shut up.”
“Hmm. I’ve found that to be the case everywhere I’ve been. It seems to be part of the usual range of human behaviors.”
“Makes sense. Still, his men are okay. It’s his womenfolk who are—” I couldn’t find polite language for it, so I settled for grimacing, instead.
“I believe I take your meaning. However, to give Hemingway his due, very few great authors write women well. Can you think of more than a handful?”
“Surely. Austen, Brontë, Brontë, Eliot, Meredith, and that French guy, what’s his name, M. Stendhal. That makes six, more than a handful.”
He looked me over and laughed. It was a friendly laugh, directed at himself, so I didn’t take offense. He was far from the first to look at me and see a clod-hopper. My mother had left her signature on my inside, not my outside. Pa’s belt buckle had taught me to keep the outside humble.
Cole finished up laughing and stuck out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr.—”
“Nigel Cole.” I liked the fact he hadn't skipped the introduction just because I knew who he was. We shook. “So, who, in your opinion, does write well about westerners?”
“Miss Willa Cather, she’s real good.” He was about to ask me for details when we got called back to the set, and that, I figured, was the end of that. I was wrong, though.
After our next encounter, when he was done shooting me, he invited me to lunch at the studio commissary. I’ve never been one to turn down free grub, so I accepted. Over the roast beef sandwiches he pumped me for information about Western authors. Being English, he claimed he didn’t have much of an idea as to which were writing the truth and which were only spinning tall tales.
I grinned at him. “There’s this fellow named Mark Twain—”
“I said I was uninformed, not ignorant.”
As usual, the commissary was full to the roof with actors in costume trying to get a bite to eat before their way-too-short lunch breaks were over. Cole’s status had kept us from having to share a table with a gorilla or a crusader, but it was as noisy as a herd of cattle being branded in there. “Well, shucks. I must have misheard you in all this racket.”
He put his fork down. “I cannot bring myself to believe you really said that. Shucks. You actually used the word ‘shucks’.”
Now, I knew I talked funny but so did he, what with his Hollywood British accent and all. “Hey, now. I heard you say ‘my dear man’ on the set last week, to Mr. Andrew North and that’s as bad as ‘shucks’ any old day.”
“However, mine was a deliberate affectation, Mr. Herndon—”
“Call me Will.”
“—Will.” He looked around, surveying the commissary. I took the chance to eat some fries. He went on, “Besides, I was attempting to annoy Mr. North, who hates all British actors and their accents with a passion. It’s an almost irresistible temptation.”
I thought it over. I’d worked on a film that North starred in before, and I could understand the desire to yank his nose. “Okay, I admit you have a point, although it’s all foreigners that Mr. North hates, not just English ones. But—” Now it was my turn to scout the room. Professor Einstein, who claimed that nothing traveled faster than the speed of light, never listened to the gossip in a studio lunchroom. I really didn’t want my words carried back to North by some hand-kisser. “You should be careful, Mr. Cole. I’d bet I’m telling you what you already know, but North’s a snowbird who’s as mean as a rattlesnake on rotgut if he thinks you’re making fun of him or getting in his way.”
Cole propped his chin on his hand. “Mmm. I had heard that, but a reminder is never to be disdained. I’ll be careful.” He leaned forward a little. “Now, Will. I was wondering—”
“Hiya, Willy.” Cripes. I turned around and it was Susie. She must have been working on a musical because she was dressed up in flesh colored stockings, a short, tight silver lame dress, and not much else. “You coming to Bert’s party on Friday?” She turned, spotted Cole, and was Surprised. “Oh, I’m sorry, Willy. I didn’t know you were busy.” That’s how come she acted Surprised, of course.
Cole smiled at her charmingly and didn’t ask her to sit down with us. After a moment she took the hint and said, “See you Friday, then.” I have to admit, as she went off to another table I turned to see if her costume was as short in back as it was in front. Yup.
When I turned back Cole was smiling wryly, but all he asked was, “Willy?”
“It’s her idea of a nickname. Kind of slow to take a hint, Susie, but she’s a nice filly otherwise. I can give you her telephone number if you want it.”
Cole waved a hand in negation. “For the moment at least, my social life is complicated enough as it stands.”
“I just bet. Hey, do you want to borrow my copy of The Collected Stories of Ambrose Bierce? I couldn’t call all his characters realistic, but he’s half way to Western and writes like a dream, if you don’t mind a downright cynical attitude.”
“No, cynicism is not something I mind. Thank you, Will, I’d appreciate that.” He checked his watch. “Uh-oh.”
“I’ll get the trays.”
He flashed me a smile. “Thanks,” he said again and galloped off to the sound stage.
In the week that followed he took my advice about North, but it didn’t do him a lick of good in the end. Miss Violet Tremain, the leading lady of The Red Mummy’s Return, got tired of being chased by Mr. North and decided that Cole looked about the right size to be put between her and a hungry coyote. Cole, I could tell, would just as soon hide behind Miss Tremain, but he didn’t get the chance. Along about quitting time on Wednesday, North tipped a fake sarcophagus lid onto Cole and broke his leg.
I saw the whole thing. It was supposed to be me getting hurt when North swung at me with the Pharaoh’s magic jade mace, so I was watching him. But, before I figured what he was up to, he pushed the lid off the ledge we were on. Cole had been too busy listening to the script girl to see it coming and then he was too busy lying on the ground and cussing to watch for more trouble. Meanwhile, North had swarmed down the ladder from the ledge to the floor, probably to accidentally step on the broken leg. So, I jumped and got there first. I picked North up.
“Put me down, you son of a bitch,” he said and wriggled. He couldn’t do much else because I had my arms wrapped around him.
“You better be careful, Mr. North. That ledge must be shaky and something else might fall on you.”
Mr. Rolly Winston, our director, who had been watching with his face as blank as a Navaho’s, suddenly came to and said, “The boy’s right, Andrew. You’d better go back to your bungalow while we get this sorted out.” The tone was soothing, but the eyes were tough as a Texas lawman’s. You don’t get to be a lead director in the studios by being soft, and North had just put a major blot on the shooting schedule.
North went still, and I put him down, but warily. He straightened his shirt and tie and ignored me. “Of course. Will Nigel be all right?”
Cole, no dummy, had curled himself into as much of a ball as he could manage with a busted limb. But now the grips had gotten the lid off his leg, and North was under control, so he unwrapped himself and tried to sit up. I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, which he grabbed and squeezed hard before he said through gritted teeth, “Yes, Andrew, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
The studio suits that appear out of nowhere at times like that took North away, him still expressing his Horror and Shock and them agreeing with him in oily tones.
During the fuss I’d taken a gander, and I told Cole, “Well, if you were a horse we might have to shoot you, but at least the bone’s not through the flesh.”
“Oh, thank you, William.” His face did unwrinkle some, though, and when I made to move off he kept a tight hold on my hand. He had a hell of a grip. “Sorry. I’m trying to save the bad language for some more appropriate location like North’s bungalow,” he said, his voice low and tight.
I leaned in close. “He dropped that lid on you deliberately. I saw it.”
Mr. Winston, who had squatted down to check if Cole was hurt bad enough for a serious delay, frowned and said, “No you didn’t.”
I glanced back at Cole, and he shook his head a little. So, “No I didn’t,” I said, my tone agreeable.
Mr. Winston got up as both Miss Tremain and the studio nurse arrived. All their fussing demanded a fair parcel of the acreage we’d been occupying. The last I saw of our director that day, before I was delegated to be one of the hands carrying Cole’s stretcher to the infirmary, was him downing three or four soda mints from the roll he always carried in his pocket.
That evening, though, I got a telephone call at my apartment. I cussed - it was Mr. “Duke” Ellington’s "Black and Tan" on the turntable, and I had a half-full page on the typewriter roll - and turned the gramophone down. My Uncle Bill was on the other end.
“Will. What the hell happened on the set today?”
I figured he wanted the real story, probably to corroborate what Cole and Mr. Winston had said, so I gave it to him. When I was done, I heard nothing but the crackle of the line for a minute. Finally Uncle Bill said, “Okay, Will. Like Rolly said, nothing happened.”
Well, that was what Cole wanted too, and he was the one with the broken leg. “Sure,” I said.
There was more silence. Then Uncle Bill said, abruptly, “I understand you’re not too fond of being a stunt man and not all that interested in acting.”
“Nope, not really,” I said, still trying for agreeable. It was downright typical of him that he’d not bothered to mention his understanding until now.
“Cole’s leg is broken, but we’re adding some scenes so that he can finish the picture in a wheel chair. The writers are having kittens.” He chuckled. It was no skin off his nose. “But, that means he’ll need someone strong to carry him around and push his chair. I want you to take the job.”
“How much does it pay?” I was learning the questions the studio expected.
He named a figure that made me swallow a whistle. “For that kind of a salary, though, you’re expected to keep him out of trouble. You’ll need to stay at his house, carrying him up and down stairs and that sort of thing, and play chauffeur, but, primarily, you’ll keep him out of trouble.” He paused significantly.
Well, either they expected North to go after Cole again, or Cole to react badly to being pinned down, or both. I thought it over. Cole probably had a large enough house for me to saunter off into another room if his temper got too foul. Some flack from Publicity would be assigned to take care of providing him with anything chancy like liquor or girls. And that much money would let me look for another job, one far away from anything with a mane and four legs. “Okay.”
“Good boy.” Should I bark? He coughed painfully, which meant he was going to give me something. “I’ll send someone over with a studio car for you and keys. Get packed.” Of course he’d assumed I could drive, which I could, although I was more used to an old truck than a fancy car. He coughed again. “If you do a good enough job, you can have any position behind the camera you want.” Hurriedly he added, “Within reason, of course. Is there something you have in mind?”
“Yep.” I didn’t elaborate. Time enough to show my saddle when I was offered the horse.
“Good. Keep your eyes open, then, and let me know about any trouble. Any trouble.” Uncle Bill hung up.
I was thoughtful as I moved around the apartment packing up. There was enough of a smell of horse apples in the air that there had to be a stallion stabled somewhere. I figured time would tell.
In the meantime, I telephoned a grip I knew who did odd jobs on the side and arranged for him to come over the next day and move the rest of my kit. Knowing Uncle Bill, the apartment would be rented out from under me before I’d spent a week at Cole’s house. By the time I’d hung up, the publicity flack had arrived with the car. He wanted to gossip about Cole’s accident, but I just scratched the hayseed in my hair, played ignorant, and handed him a suitcase to tote down the stairs.
Cole’s house was up on the edge of the Hollywood Hills, high enough up for a star but too low down for a bright and shining star. It was built in Spanish-Moorish style, which was not much of a surprise, but was something smaller than I’d expected. When we parked in the circle drive in front of the house, no one was there to greet us, which did surprise me.
The flack said, “Mr. Cole doesn’t like having his servants live in. That’s why the studio is providing him with assistance while he’s ailing.” He smirked at that and jumped out of the roadster without bothering to open its door. It was just flossy if you asked me. I got out like a gentleman, eyed him, and decided it wouldn’t be much trouble to rearrange his expression. He was steer masquerading as bull in an off-the-rack suit.
“Thanks,” I said and held out my hand for the keys.
He frowned. “What? I’m going inside. I need to call a taxi.”
“I’m sorry,” I said gently, “but I’m not sure if Mr. Cole wants you on his spread. You can either rest yourself on the other side of his gate while I ask him, or you can hand me those keys and hightail it down the hill two blocks to that drugstore on the Boulevard and call yourself a taxicab. No skin off my nose either way, but I will say it’s a nice night.” He needed a little more persuading, but he wasn’t a serious problem. He’d been in Hollywood long enough to want his own back, but he knew he wouldn’t get it unless he found me weak and bleeding. I didn’t intend to be around long enough for that.
When I’d locked the gate behind him, I toted my luggage into the entry hall and went to look for Cole. I found him, out like a light, stretched across a big bed in the master bedroom. At least whoever had abandoned him there had stripped him to his shorts, which were practical cotton instead of striped silk. They’d also filled the water pitcher on his bedside table and left some pain pills within reach. I picked up the bottles and read the labels, then shook my head over one of them and took it into the bathroom to put into the medicine cabinet. There’s some painkillers I do believe shouldn’t be swallowed when you’re half asleep, and I’d seen enough of Cole to guess he would agree with me. If I was wrong, when he woke up, he could overrule me.
Dang, the studio medical staff were quacks although that’s just about what I’d expect in Hollywood. You see enough broken limbs in ranching territory, though, to know roughly what to do. I got him rearranged without waking him up - the consarned fools had probably drugged him - and got the bedclothes set up so they’d keep him warm without putting pressure on the leg. Then I moved my bags from the hall to the bedroom next door, took the blankets off that bed, and sacked down on the couch in his room.
He spent the next several hours out like a light. At one point when I checked him, he opened his eyes and seemed to recognize me, but he was too groggy to make much out of it. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
I was up a little after dawn the next day and took a quick shower and shave in Cole’s marble hall of a bathroom since I figured I might have my hands full when he finally came to. After an hour or two, when he didn’t seem to be stirring, I took a chance, went downstairs, and found the kitchen. I nearly gave the substantial, dark-skinned lady in it a heart attack.
“Oh, sorry, ma’am,” I said, and then, when she shook her head, her eyes still opened wide, repeated it in Spanish. Her expression turned wary but relieved. It seemed she was Señora Martinez, Cole’s cook and housekeeper, and nobody had bothered to let her know about him breaking his leg. She had a few warm things to say about that, all right.
She’d set me down and fixed me some Huevos Rancheros by then, ruthlessly over-ruling my protests by telling me that Señor Martinez could sit with Cole until I was done. It seemed her husband supervised the gardener and workmen the same way she supervised Cole’s cleaners and cooked his food. After she got back from rearranging her husband’s schedule, I ate my breakfast and meekly answered her questions, and by the time I was done she’d decided that I was about her seventh cousin-in-law by way of a sister who married a man in Albuquerque. I kept my opinion of this to myself since I had to eat at her table and since, knowing New Mexico, it just might be true.
When I was finished she marched me back upstairs to relieve her husband, a small man with a grave expression, a big mustache, and a smile in his eyes, from guard duty. After she got a good look-see at Cole she let fly again, and I understood one source of the Señor’s ongoing amusement with life. She was an artist, not mean but descriptive. However, she kept the volume low and then, when she’d elaborated on her first impression of the situation for a few minutes, went charging back downstairs, her husband in tow, to fix chicken soup.
After she was gone, I went to check on Cole and his eyes were squinched shut. The corners of his lips were tucked in tight but were also up a little.
“Has she left?” he whispered without opening his eyes.
“She’ll be back, and you’d better be ready to eat your breakfast when that happens.”
“Oh, certainly.” He opened his eyes and raised his eyebrows at me.
There was no reason he should have to ask. “The studio’s made me your keeper while you’re sick.”
“Mmm. So I had deduced, but thank you for confirming my suspicions. I hope you’re being amply paid for your labors.”
I told him how much and added, “Either North’s expected to climb up through your window, or they think you take morphine.”
“No, not that. Not drugs, I mean. However, if North is still upset he might try to hire someone to work me over.”
“Well, I’m no bodyguard, but I can probably deal with anyone that rabid coyote can find.”
“Even so, let’s hope you have an easy job earning your money.”
“I’d be downright happy if that were the case.”
Cole nodded, and then coughed lightly before glancing significantly towards the bathroom.
“Sorry, sir, it’s early days for that.” I reached under the bed and pulled out the container I’d hunted up before hand. He closed his eyes and shuddered. I grinned.
In the days that followed, I camped in the bedroom next to his. It was a comfortable room with furnishings a lot like the dark wood and leather I’d grown up with. Most of the rooms were done up either in that way, or in Arts and Crafts, which I knew from some of the places decorated by my mother’s friends in Santa Fe. The whole house was kind of pretty, a two-story adobe structure built around a courtyard on a nice acre spread. There was a swimming pool out back that wasn’t green, and the library was full of well-read books. The Martinez family reminded me of the folks back home, and Cole was an easy man to ride herd on, more like a host than an employer. It was a simple matter, almost too simple, to settle in.
Whatever the studio was worried about, I couldn’t believe it was Cole. It turned out he really had that English trait that they’re all supposed to have and don’t. When it counted, making a fuss wasn’t his way. Even though he agreed with me about the pain pills, he called in his own doctor only because he was grimly determined to get back up onto his feet as soon as he could. It was purely admirable, but, as anyone who’s ever watched a rodeo knows, there’s only so much that determination can do for you. Although he was back in front of the camera within a week, it takes a lot more than a week to heal a broken leg.
His attitude made me sympathetic when he finally got restless, though. About a month after I’d arrived, he said over dinner one night, “Will. Could you find it in your heart to do me a favor this evening?”
I finished chewing and said, “You want me to make myself scarce?”
Cole raised his eyebrows. “You anticipate me. Yes.”
“Okay. What time can I come home?”
“Perhaps—one o’clock? Would that be too late?”
“Heck, no. It’s your house, after all, sir.”
“Yes. Of course the studio has its own notions about that, but, in principal, I agree with you.” He grimaced. I’d told Cole about the telephone calls and visits to Uncle Bill’s office to report on his progress. “That’s no reflection upon you, though.”
“I appreciate that.” I looked at my wristwatch. “Well, if you’ll give me half an hour to neaten up and brush my teeth, I’ll hit the trail. Do you want to go upstairs before I leave?”
“If you don’t mind.”
We’d found out the fastest way for him to make it up the tiled main staircase was for me to support him on the side with the broken leg. To tell truth, I half carried him. He didn’t weigh much although more than I’d expected. He’d been in training, and muscles can fool you.
I left him in his bedroom to freshen up and got cleaned up myself before I dressed in a go-to-town suit and went out to the garage for the roadster. I didn’t go to a picture palace or a night club when I left by the main gate, though. I drove down to the drugstore at the bottom of the hill, parked the auto in their lot, hiked back up the street, and climbed over the wall at the one place I’d made it easy and inviting. Then I situated myself in the branches of a big old canyon oak in one corner of the garden where I had a good view of the street, the driveway, and Cole’s room.
When the taxicab pulled up to the front gate, I played fair and didn’t look to see who got out. I reckoned most likely it would be Miss Tremain, but, in any case, that was Cole’s problem. From what I’d observed over the last couple of weeks I feared I might have a different problem, and I was right. Not long after the taxi left another auto pulled up across the street. I’d brought a pair of binoculars up the tree with me, and I used them. It was dark and the driver hadn’t been dumb enough to park under a streetlamp, but I was patient. Although I’d never loved it, I’d hunted since I was six, and you do learn to take your time. When about two hours had passed, one of the men inside the car smoked a cigarette, and I got a glimpse of what he was cradling in his lap: a flash camera.
Hell. Hell and damnation. I checked their lines of sight to the gates and the easy stretch of wall, and they were just about perfect in all directions. Settling deeper into the shadow of the leaves, I thought about my choices, none of them real good. I could call the house, but that would mean either going down the hill where they could see me or using a back route that could only handle one trip an evening to get to a telephone. I could try having a talk with our visitors, but there were three men in the car and who knows how many bad feelings in there with them. It wouldn’t do Cole any good for me to have my leg broken, too. I could call the police, but they would probably want to know just what was going on and with whom. Besides, you could never depend on your cash being first or fattest in a lawman’s wallet. I could interrupt Cole myself, to warn him. No. Best to catch our visitor as she left and see whether she would prefer to have her picture taken with me or to climb the back wall and cut through the neighbor’s yard before his Dalmatian heard us and got the neighbor up out of his armchair to let the dog out.
After taking one last look at the automobile, I eased myself down out of the tree and dropped to the ground. I figured it would be the most tactful to wait on the front steps in the shadow of the porch where I couldn’t be seen through either the main or service gates but could watch both gates myself. There was no way off the property that didn’t either go through those gates or climb a wall, and I didn’t see Miss Tremain as the wall-scaling sort. I hoped she wasn’t going to be difficult about that.
It was another couple of hours before the front door opened, and I coughed softly. I was prepared to leap up and push Cole’s visitor back into the house if she started kicking up a fuss, but it turned out I didn’t have to. He froze like a deer, silhouetted against the faint light from the front hall.
I’m purely amazed I found my voice. “It’s Will, Cole’s man. There’s an automobile full of hombres with cameras parked outside.” He didn’t move, but I heard an exhale of breath like I’d punched him in the stomach. I said, “I have another way out, but we better go back through the house.” After a pause, he got out of the way, and I followed him back inside.
When I’d closed and locked the front door behind us, I got a better look at him. He’d taken out a case and had put a cigarette between his lips but was fumbling for a light with fingers that trembled a little. I was feeling pretty strange myself, but my mother’s standards of hospitality had been high. I reached into my pocket, got out a box of matches, and lit the smoke for him. He took a couple of puffs before he was ready to speak.
“You’re Will.” He looked me up and down. “You’re even bigger than reported.” Something about the way he said it removed all remaining doubt from my mind. He was a pansy.
Well, no matter what else he was, making that crack meant he sure wasn’t yellow. I looked him up and down in my turn. Now that my nerves had settled, I realized that I recognized him. He had been on the set of a nightclub where I’d had to Tommy gun the room. Sleek, dark, and graceful, he was pretty much the same as I remembered. Only his suit was different, a lot livelier than what he’d worn when cast as a nightclub dancer. I just couldn’t believe Cole would—I got a grip on myself. That wasn’t what mattered now. I had a decision to make.
Either this fellow Rob - that was his name, Rob - had helped set up the man-trap outside, or he hadn’t. If he hadn’t, there was no reason for him to have his picture taken. If he had, I still didn’t want him having his picture taken. Come to find out, there wasn’t much of a choice to be made after all.
“Come on,” I said, jerking my thumb towards the kitchen. “We have to go over the back wall and avoid Mr. Berger’s Dalmatian dog.”
He balked a bit, but not at what I expected. “My suit,” he said. It is purely amazing what people can find to worry about. That suit would get him hung in Wagon Wheel, I swear.
“Mr. Cole can pay to have it laundered. Mr. Cole can buy you a new one, come to that, which is probably a real good idea.”
He stared at me, shook his head slowly, took another couple of puffs on his cigarette, and then, to my surprise, laughed. It sounded sort of hollow, though. “Usually I charge extra for a scene this exotic, Big Guy,” he said.
It was my turn to shake my head. “Now, why do you think I need to know that?”
Rob laughed again and stubbed his cigarette out in an abalone shell ashtray. “O, lucky Mr. Cole.”
“Shut your mouth,” I said, with no edge behind it. “We don’t have all night, you know. Mr. Berger will lure the dog outside with a cookie soon, so he can get some sleep.”
He faked a cower. “Oh, no! Not the Dreadful Hound of the Biscuit Vails!”
I just stood and stared at him for a while, it was that awful. He fluttered his eyelashes, smiling kind of a weak smile. Finally I asked, my voice hushed, “Are you sure it’s Mr. Cole that pays you and not the other way around?”
I snorted. “Dang, if I’d known what a consarned fool he was, I would’ve asked for more money from the studio.” One more time I pointed a thumb at the kitchen. “Come on, you.”
One thing to be said for dancers: they go over other people’s fences and through their bougainvillea like greased lightning. We were half way down the next road over before the Dalmatian dog started barking.
When we got to the Boulevard at the bottom of the hill, I asked him, “Do you need a taxi or a ride to the Red Line? I’ve got the roadster.”
I couldn’t quite make out his expression in the dark, but his tone was wary. “No, I can call a taxi from the drug store. In fact, I think I’ll have one of their Very Special Egg Creams if the fountain is still open. It’s been a hell of an evening.”
“I’d stick to the peppermint shake, if I was you. They use what they call rum in the egg creams, but it isn’t anything I’d put in my belly. What they call schnapps is a touch better.”
He just fished out another cigarette. I let him get his own light this time.
In a way it was a pity that Rob had my good idea first. I wasn’t going to drink a ‘milkshake’ with him sitting there, and I didn’t keep any alcohol in the house. It didn’t seem right to me, somehow, since I was supposed to be keeping Cole away from the law, not inviting more attention from it. Instead, I got the roadster from where I’d left it in the drugstore parking lot and drove the two blocks back up the hill. The automobile with the three men in it, I noticed as I passed, was still waiting. I had a strong desire to get out of the roadster and go sparring with them, but I scratched off that idea, too. My bad feelings didn’t make it a better notion now than it had been a few hours back.
I put the roadster away in the garage and went into the house. When I got inside my nerve failed me, and I roamed around the living room in the dark like a drunken steer for about five minutes until I whacked my shins on a mahogany coffee table and came to my senses. The climb up the main staircase had never seemed so steep.
Cole’s bedroom door was open and a light was on. I Indian-footed it down the hall to my own door, but, when I put my hand on the doorknob, I heard Cole’s voice say, low but clear, “Will.”
Actor’s ears, actor’s voice. I’m proud to report I didn’t make him call me twice. I took a deep breath and went into his room.
He was wearing his blue silk dressing gown and was all tucked up in the bed, his arms folded on top of the coverlet pulled up to his chest. I made myself walk to the chair beside the bed, sit down, and look him in the eye. He didn’t appear to be any different than he’d been at dinner. Somehow it seemed like he should.
“You’re back two hours early.”
“Sorry about that, sir.” I moved my hands from my knees to my lap and back again. Then, all of a sudden, I realized he was making himself look me in the eye, too, so I added, “There’s an automobile outside on the street and men with cameras inside of it.”
Cole considered it and shook his head. “I thought I heard voices downstairs.”
“Yes, sir. That was us before I took him out over the back wall.”
He didn’t ask who ‘us’ was. “Past Mr. Berger’s Dalmatian?”
“Yes, sir. That Rob—” I stopped.
After a moment, Cole said, “Yes, Will? ‘That Rob’ what?” Somehow, all of a sudden, he looked old.
“That Rob—heck, he makes about the worst puns I have ever heard in all my days. And his suit should be outlawed.” Since I like to think of myself a fair man, I had to add, “He runs quick, though.”
Cole’s mouth had fallen open slightly. When he closed it, his teeth clicked and he blinked. “Ah, yes. The suit. It is a bit excessive, I agree, but I believe he feels it expresses his free and bohemian soul.”
Now, I’d heard that one before. I snorted. “If he’s so free and bohemian, how come he gets paid?”
“It makes it clear he’s not expecting favors as a dancer for - he’s not – err - selling his artistic talent rather than his—? Well, he seems to feel it makes, ah, sense.”
I’d migrated clear out from Santa Fe to the Pacific coast, and here it was again. Art, Life, and Hollywood. A fellow just couldn’t get away from other people’s artistic souls. I brooded for a good minute before I noticed Cole was eyeing me like I was going to run loco. I wanted to snap, “What are you looking at?” but I knew perfectly well what it was when I thought it over. I straightened my shoulders and said, “You’re a pans—I mean, you like boys.”
“Men, yes.” His tone was steady. I could feel myself blushing, and it made me mad.
“That’s why the studio is paying me high, so I won’t beat you up if I find out or if you make a pass at me.”
“I would assume so, yes.”
“Crap.” I shook my head. “Hollywood’s a mangy dog of a town.”
“I believe many people find it to be so, yes.”
“Crap. If I’m going to have a fight, money doesn’t come into it. Speaking of which, what do you want me to do about the automobile outside?”
Cole examined me for a bit, then suddenly smiled. “What you’ve done this evening is all the situation demands, Will.”
I thought it over: them sitting there for hours in the dark, waiting for someone who was never showing. It was warm enough that the mosquitoes would find them, by and by. Maybe a police car would drive past, too. “I reckon you’re right.” I gave him another look. He still didn’t seem any different. Funny, that. “You need anything before I hit the hay?”
He flipped a hand at me. “No, Will. Go to bed, Will.” He shook his head, and then suddenly started to chuckle. “Go away, Will.”
I grinned back at him. What with one thing and another, I guess he’d had a harder evening than I had. But, still—“The Dreadful Hound of the Biscuit Vails.”
He stopped chuckling and asked, “What?”
“I told Rob about Mr. Berger’s dog cookies and he said the Dalmatian dog was—”
“No!” He pointed one finger at the door and said, in his best creep voice, “Get!”
By then I’d spent a lot of hours with Cole. We’d talked, we’d borrowed each other’s books, we’d eaten and slept under the same roof; heck, I’d even given him a scrub bath or three. When he went back to work, I was the one who pushed his chair from place to place and watched while he acted, sweated, and hurt under the hot lights. I felt I had a pretty good handle on the man, so it was something of a relief to finally find out what the rat-sized brains of the business varmints down at the studio knew that I didn’t. The more I thought it over, the better I felt. Chorus boys I could work around, especially since Cole was neat and kept a halter on himself. Like my mother always said about some of the characters in Santa Fe, it wasn’t really his fault, it was his folks, or hormones, or Freud, or something like that, to blame. I frowned. Wasn’t it supposed to be a Hopi Indian spirit curse—or was that only for Hopi Indians? I was still trying to remember when I fell asleep.
The next couple of weeks went by easy, for the most part. I thought North might try again, but he didn’t. Maybe it was because, according to studio gossip, he was too busy quarreling with the Line Producer of The Red Mummy’s Return about the delay to cause Cole more trouble. Fine by me; that fight would earn North nothing but bruises.
Cole, for his part, was being careful. In fact, for a while he was too dang careful. He got all tense and started snapping. I let him run for a time, but eventually, when it seemed like he wasn’t figuring it out for himself, I got out the lasso.
He was corralled on the living room couch, glowering at a game of solitaire he’d laid out like it was a film script of Hamlet with a happy ending. He’d even used bad language on the ace of spades. Experience told me that he was just about ready to sulk.
I put my book down, cleared my throat, and asked, “When the heck are you going to get laid again?”
“What!” It wasn’t a question, so I’ll give it an exclamation point.
“You’re snarling and snapping worse than when your leg was hurting bad. I figure it’s partly that you’re sick of being lame, but it’s partly that you’re tensed up, too. You won’t even look at me straight on, let alone that gardening fellow who never wears a shirt, what’s his name, Santiago?”
He stared at me, and then put the heels of his hands to both eyes and sat like that for a while. “Will, have you ever considered renting yourself out for paint removal? Or perhaps as an industrial solvent?”
Maybe I’d put it a little strong. It was true, though.
Cole took his hands down and folded them in his lap before he said, his voice gentle, “All right, I do take your point. I will make a few phone calls, take some precautions, and you can loiter at your poker game tomorrow evening.” He kept going, still gentle but somehow purely wicked. “However. In the mean time. Why don’t you help me upstairs and then go spend the afternoon at the pictures?”
When he saw it, his smile was seraphic. He was as good as his word, though, and he did simmer down, afterwards.
With him able to get around some on crutches, I had more time to myself, so I got back to my own business. I was able to break my typewriter out of storage and use it. As a result, one Saturday lunch Cole was sorting through the mail and came up with a thick legal-sized envelope with my name on it. “Will? I believe this is yours.”
I took the envelope from him and said, “Dang it.”
Cole pursed his lips. “Hudson Publications?”
“Yup. They’re new, and my usual outfit just cut their per-word rate, what with the Depression and all.” I’d opened the self-addressed self-stamped envelope and checked my manuscript: intact, but with no note. “I guess Hudson doesn’t like my style.”
“Mmm.” He made a good try at roping in his curiosity, but it got away from him. “You’ve been published before, then?”
“Yup, if you call the pulps published. I do, but a man has a right to his own opinion.”
Suddenly, the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Oh, Will. Surely not westerns.”
I stared at him in indignation. “Heck, no! I know too much to write westerns. I write mysteries and adventures, and, now and again, some ghost stories.” I shrugged. “I have to say, some of my ghost stories are based on the old New Mexican tales. The first one I sold, back when I was just a pup, was about La Llarona, the weeping lady.”
About half way through my confession, he’d stopped looking amused and started looking thoughtful. “Mmm,” he said again, poking with a fork at a poached egg that had never done him any harm. “You want to be a scriptwriter, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure if ‘want’ is the word I’d cut out of the herd for it. But, I am sure that I’m never going to make a living turning out stuff for the pulps, not at the rate I write. And I do want to keep on writing.”
“Hence your willingness to be my caretaker.” He nodded to himself. “I didn’t think it was because you were all that infatuated with money.”
I snorted. “You don’t have a mane and whinny, either. Or blow me up. And don’t be so sure about the money. I like money just fine, especially when it’s for a soft job like this.”
The eyebrows went up. “You find this job soft?”
I let him see me looking around. We were having lunch outside, seated at a wrought-iron table in the courtyard by the fountain. A nice fall breeze was rustling through the leaves of the orange trees in their Mexican glazed pots. Through an open door, I could hear Señora Martinez singing in the pantry.
“Not the working conditions, Will.” His voice was gentle. “Rather, your charge and your reputation.”
“What, is there something nasty clawing up out of the ground that I haven’t heard about yet? Your leg’s broken. It can’t be golf.” I frowned at him. “Don’t even consider it.”
“I do not play golf.”
“Sorry. I know that’s a slimy thing to accuse a fellow of without any evidence.”
Silence fell. It was a downright ominous silence. At last Cole said, “You are pulling my leg.”
“No, I am not. Where I come from, we see anyone wearing plus-fours and we start heating up the tar.”
“Yes, you are certainly pulling it. And I, a crippled man.”
“If every state did the same, this great nation of ours would be a better, purer place.” I was having fun, now, so I added, piously, “As our Founding Fathers intended.”
“I must have missed the clause about King George imposing putting greens on the colonies in the Declaration of Independence,” Cole said, thoughtfully.
“It’s after the bit about overseas trade,” I told him, helpfully.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He took a few bites of his egg, which was impressive what with his eyes being shut and all. I finished my Nehi and considered going for a swim before I mailed the story back out to my usual publisher. It depended on whether or not Cole wanted to go anywhere that afternoon.
Cole abruptly said, “Will, after my leg has healed, would you consider—” He stopped and started again. “I would have hired a secretary before now, since it would give me more time for memorization and running lines, but the chances for blackmail—or, at best, it would have been assumed—” He stopped again and frowned. “That’s not a very persuasive argument, is it?”
“Well,” I said, judiciously, “there’s a compliment in there somewhere, I think.”
“I can pay you the same salary as the studio.”
“Not if I get room and board, you shouldn’t.”
“Room and—?” He caught up with me. “Ah! The apartment over the garage.”
“Yup.” It was where Señor Martinez would have been living if he didn’t have a neat little house in the flats with Señora Martinez and the four junior Martinezes. “I figure I can cuss at my typewriter out there without disturbing you. Also,” I let myself grin, “girls.”
“Protecting against the clash of divergent social lives by using the shield of distance,” Cole mused.
“It often times works on a ranch.”
Cole smiled. “Well, then. By all means, let us give it a try.”
So we did. The studio, in the person of Uncle Bill, wasn’t real pleased but Cole’s agent, out of sheer force of habit, had made sure that the standard clause about studio access for a personal secretary was built into Cole’s contract. At that news, Uncle Bill said a few words I might have asked him to swallow if he hadn’t been kin and if I hadn’t dug out the dusty manuscript of my novel the night before and added five pages to it. By themselves, those pages were enough to make me tolerate a few wise cracks. So I let it ride, the same way I let the whispers in the commissary ride. Most of the talk died down when I continued my social life, and I learned to respond to the handful of head-on queries by saying, “Mr. Cole likes the looks of his gardens, too, but that doesn’t mean he’s outside digging around with a spade.” The retort, and one good session with my fists, turned the volume down to the point where I didn’t have to hear.
I worried some about Señora Martinez, I admit, but when I tried to tiptoe around the far side of the problem, she gave me a look and said, “You are certainly better than Mr. Freddy. His temper!” She rolled her eyes up to make sure the saints were bearing witness. “And that Kit. I am sure it was during his residence that the jade box carved with the ship disappeared.” She pinned me with a stare. “It is a good thing that there will be no more guests who ‘stay for a while’. Also, I have a cousin who is a Carmelite, just in case. She already prays for the soul of Señor Cole.” She nodded her head, briskly, once. I knew from back home that the Virgin Mary, having endured a husband and son herself, was widely assumed by the ladies to have rearranged heavenly judgment so that a woman could deal with a man’s weaknesses promptly by proxy and get on with her work. Señora Martinez, I was given to understand, had taken out insurance to cover her employer against unknown hazards
When I told Cole, he just smiled and said, “Yes, I had assumed something of the sort was the case. They are not a stupid family, and, while my visitors tend to be discreet, Freddy was not a visitor and certainly was not discreet. But, I pay well.”
“You’re also easy to work for, like I’ve said. Too bad about your friend, though.”
Now it was Cole’s turn to roll his eyes up. “If you had met Freddy, believe me, you would not be saying that.”
Cole got back to work and so did I. He made The Gore Crow and I wrote "Beneath the Volcanoes of Africa". They cast him as Robespierre in Claudette, a tender tale of the French revolution, and I sold three stories about a psychic detective who owned a Dalmatian to Strange Tales. My novel, which didn’t have a title yet, was almost back to the barn. Cole was dating Miss Tremain. One day, when we were taking a break during a hike up in Griffith Park, I asked him about it.
He moved the hand that had been shading him against the little bits of summer sunlight making their way through the shifting leaves of the eucalyptus trees above us. “It’s a publicity match, of course, and she knows that now. But, she still feels guilty about my leg, and North was beginning to sniff around her again.”
“No, it’s all right. Even North isn’t foolish enough to dispute Publicity’s decisions.”
“Are you sure? I haven’t seen any more automobiles, but they might just be getting clever.”
“No, it’s fine, Will. Don’t worry about it.”
But, the more I thought it through, the less I liked it. Getting back to my writing seemed to have distracted me from what I was getting paid for. “I should have spent a few more nights in the bushes. For all we know, there may already be some glossies—”
“Will, it’s all right. Really.” I could feel my expression turning mulish. He shook his head. “It wasn’t North who organized that informal press conference, it was Robert.”
“Huh?” I was purely flabbergasted, I admit it.
“It was a favor for a friend of his who badly needed money. I’ve invested my salary well, you see, so the loss would not actually have hurt me. Robert himself wouldn’t have touched a penny which made it, by his standards, an acceptable gambit.” Cole’s tone had gotten real dry as he talked. I, on the other hand, was getting real hot.
“Why, that chicken dropping! I’m going to—”
He cut me off like a piece of cheese with the voice he used in front of the camera when he was proposing something horrid. “No, you will not. You don’t need to. It took seven years off his vulpine life when he saw you sitting on that porch. He though you were playing with him the entire time you were seeing him out.” Suddenly, he looked tired. “When I asked why he simply didn’t borrow the money from me, he said I wouldn’t have given it to him. He was right.”
I wanted to be stubborn, but I thought I saw what Cole was getting at, and I couldn’t. Besides, he didn’t need a sparring match right that minute. So I said, instead, “Hollywood, the mangy-dog town, bites man. Telephone the newspapers.”
He smiled. It was a tiny smile, but it was a smile. “That is altogether too frequent an event in Southern California to make headlines, and Publicity, in any case, would quash the story. This reminds me. Are you doing anything the coming weekend?”
“Nothing special. Why?”
“Miss Tremain wishes to motor to Catalina, and she has a friend who owns a yacht. A female friend. I promised her I would try to bring a pleasant companion for the cruise.”
“Sure, I guess.” I should have thought it over, but I was still hot about that flea-bearing varmint Rob.
“Good. You should find the trip interesting.”
Interesting. It surely was interesting, even before I fell overboard into the cool, green waters of Avalon harbor. I hadn’t stopped to reckon that, with Cole out of the saddle as it were, I might be called upon for twice as much riding as usual. We left on Friday. By Sunday morning I was feeling pretty wan, and it was being openly debated which party would get my best effort the next weekend. I made the mistake of assuming I had a vote in the matter, which is how I found myself doing the Australian crawl amidst the Catalina kelp. Cole was furious.
“Why the hell did you say ‘none of the above, even if you pay me’?” he asked.
I was toweling my hair dry in a hotel room in the Grand Avalon. We’d be taking the ferry home Monday morning after the coast was clear. “It was my honest opinion.”
“What, in God’s name, made you think that they wanted your honest opinion? No one can deal with honest opinions. I don’t even try it with chorus boys.” He paused on that one. “Especially not with chorus boys.”
“You deal with my honest opinion.”
“William,” he drew my name out some, “we are not sleeping together.”
I snorted. “You can’t tell me that it’d be any different if we were sleeping together.” I slung the towel over the back of a lacquered black, art-deco chair.
He picked it up and eyed me direfully. “I have grown used to you. God knows how,” he added as he went into the bathroom to put the towel back where it belonged. “And,” he continued, reemerging to throw himself into an armchair, “as a result we are booked into the last available hotel room in Avalon together, merely because there is a dancing competition at the Casino Ballroom. I am not supposed to book into hotel rooms with other men. Publicity will not be pleased.”
I could have pointed out that it wasn’t my idea. Instead, I chose injured silence.
Events like this morning’s, though, made me wonder about all the wolves I’d met in Hollywood. Now that I was finally getting more company than I’d ever thought I wanted, I couldn’t figure out why they were so eager to rope single fillies, let alone engage in fancy combinations, considering all the problems it caused. It wasn’t even as if the pay-off was all that great, when you came right down to it. It was a heck of a lot of work for that smidgen of release. Most times, to be honest, I’d just as soon have stayed home with my own company and a good book. Speaking of which—
“Do we have anything to read in this room?”
“We have a book. One single, solitary book. My emergency copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. You didn’t add anything to this sparse library.”
It was too much. “That’s not my fault. Miss Anderson threw my new suitcase into the harbor and The Innocents Abroad went with it.”
Cole winced. “They certainly did, didn’t they? All right.” He relented. “I could read aloud for a while, if you wish.”
“At least until my hair dries enough to go to dinner, if you don’t mind, sir. Afterwards, maybe we could go see a—”
“Don’t even say it.”
I called down to the front desk to see if any of my clothes were ready yet – no - and then wrapped the hotel bathrobe tighter around my waist and tried sitting down. Again, no. Hotel bathrobes were not designed for someone my size and neither were any of Cole’s clothes. I stretched out on one of the beds, where at least I could pull fabric over the more interesting territory.
Cole had shaken his head somewhere in the middle of all of this and gone to dig in his suitcase for Dorian Gray. It was a lucky choice since I’d never read any Oscar Wilde. The Santa Fe town librarian thought he was a disgrace, and somehow I’d never stolen him off the shelves of any of my mother’s friends when I was young enough to have the chance. Of course, the fact that my father would have whipped the skin off my backbone if he’d caught me reading Wilde when I’d grown old enough to be interested might have had something to do with it, too.
Cole read well, which was only to be expected. I listened for a time. I’d never heard a prologue quite like that. I wanted to make some comments, but Cole gave me the cold and fishy eye when I went to open my mouth. Once he got into the story, Wilde’s style was entertaining what with all the flashy, overdone descriptions, kind of like a musical set in exotic Araby. The plot was good. The characters—
“That Dorian Gray is a weak-kneed little skunk,” I said between chapters.
“If he wasn’t, the story wouldn’t work, would it?” Cole replied, reasonably enough.
“True, and I understand that Lord Henry Wotton couldn’t care less because he wants to put the bridle and bit on Gray, but what’s with Basil Hallward?”
“For one thing, Dorian’s very beautiful, and Basil’s an artist.” He closed the book on a finger. “Will, do you or do you not—”
“Okay, sorry. Keep going.” He opened the book again. “It’s just hard on Basil is all.”
“I agree with you. Do you want to know what Mr. Wilde thinks?”
I shut up.
He read for maybe another half an hour, doing a real nice job with the language. I’d closed my eyes to let it all roll over me when suddenly his voice stopped in the middle of a paragraph, right when that skunk Dorian was busy jawing on about Romeo and Juliet.
I sat up too fast and had to yank at the robe some. Cole was sitting with the book clenched tight between his hands, staring at the mirror on the chest of drawers without seeing what he was looking at.
“Hey, now,” I said, not liking the expression on his face. I got up and went over to him. “You all right?”
“No, I’m not all right.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Will. Woolgathering while I read, I’m afraid.”
I took the book away before he could do it any damage and put it on the table next to his armchair. It was a neat little embossed leather edition that he’d be sad to hurt. Then I plopped myself down in the chair on his other side. “You going to talk, or should I just shut up and let you bleed?”
Already he seemed better. His face had smoothed out some. “I was only feeling, as you like to term it, sulky.” He stopped. I rode it out, and he started up again. “And over such silly thoughts, too. Really.” One more time. He was getting there in sideways leaps like a tired Bronco. “If I had to be a crazed homosexual, why in the world couldn’t I be beautiful like Dorian Gray, rather than ugly? Then, at least, I could have whomever I wished—” He stopped suddenly and snorted. “It’s even more absurd said than thought.”
“Well, now. You may have something there.”
“Like I said, you can tell me to shut up.” I gave him a moment, but he didn’t use it. When I opened my mouth again he started to open his, so I pointed a forefinger at him and said, “Too slow. Seems to me you believe your own publicity. Don’t forget, once the cameras stop, you’re not crazed and you’re not ugly.” He tried to talk again, and I said, “Nope. Not ugly. You got a lot of, what do they call it, stage presence. Maybe you’re plain, but you’re good company. And I don’t think anyone ever gets everyone. At least, I don’t. This weekend’s company excepted.” I rubbed my chin. It rasped a little. “I can’t say much about the pansy part, except I know to be telling you that sleeping with women don’t guarantee happiness.”
“Will,” his voice was plaintive, “ ‘There, there, now’ would have been sufficient. Your version of an Agony Aunt is more agony than aunt.”
I nodded sagely. “I bet your nerves are all shot again. The walls in that boat were paper thin.” I grimaced. “That yapping from the ladies.”
Now he was outright laughing. “Those other noises, rather. Perhaps you should go to the pictures by yourself this evening.”
“Har-de-har-har. You just like watching me blush, you coyote,” I said, and threw him a punch in the shoulder.
He shook his head. “Sometimes it’s like employing Ruby Keeler with a western accent.”
I gave him an outraged glare. “I don’t look like no Ruby Keeler!”
“How would you know?” He asked it a bit heatedly.
“She’s short and auburn. I’m not.”
“I am trying to draw a comparison, Will, in order to enlighten you. Besides, as a man, large and dark is equivalent to short and—” An arrested expression appeared on his face. “What am I saying?”
“Heck if I know.”
He clutched at his head. “There must be a way to get through—friendly. You’re very friendly.”
“Friendly as a pup. That’s what the ranch hands used to say.”
He got the arrested expression again, then shook his head. “No.”
“Just—no.” He got up out of the chair. “I am going to lock myself in the bathroom now, Will.”
“What the consarned hell—”
Someone knocked on the outside door. Turned out, it was the bellboy with my clothes all dried out. He told me the rest of my suitcase would be done before we checked out the next morning. I thanked him, tipped him good, and shut the door on him. Sure enough, Cole was in the next room with the water running, so I had to holler through the door.
“It’s my clothes.”
“I’m changing. That robe’s back in the closet and is staying there.”
“Also good. You were showing a ridiculous amount of thigh. Even the waist overalls are better than that.”
“I don’t know how the hell you’d know. You’re locked in the bathroom. Cripes. Howie McLain tried that one back in Elementary School when Maria Baca kissed him behind the well house. I’d think you could do better than him.”
That fetched him. He opened the bathroom door and said, pretty warmly, “Well, I certainly can’t hide being ‘tensed up’ by ‘getting my ashes hauled’ in the Grand Av—” He stopped, stared at me standing there with my Levis unbuttoned and my shirt still in my hand, and said, “I am going out.”
Now that it was clear where he’d be going, I was alarmed. “No you’re not.”
He tried to duck past me to the door. I moved to intercept. It was a pretty busy few minutes - actors keep in shape and Cole’s a quick little devil - but I got him in the end. I held him off the floor and kept repeating “Publicity” until he stopped wiggling.
“This isn’t helping!”
“You aren’t going out that door, are you?” I rubbed his throat with my fingertips some like you do a hound when you’re calming it down.
“You’re fired. Stop that.”
“Tell me again tomorrow morning. Stop what?”
He growled. The man’s a first-rate Creep, and the growl would have been pretty darn scary if I hadn’t known him so well. I asked, “If I put you down, are you gonna take another vacation in the bathroom?”
“If I feel it’s necessary, yes.”
That was honest, at least. I gave him one last pat and put him down. He dropped both hands below his belt and eyed me with a kind of wary fury.
I blushed and said, “Okay, the horse is finally back in the barn. If anyone’s spending the night in the bathtub, it’s me. That’s my fault.” I buttoned my fly up.
He stared at me. Then he shook his head and dropped his hands. He hunted around the room for a while, saying “No scotch, no scotch,” in a preoccupied tone of voice and then gave up and plopped down onto one of the beds. After a few seconds, he rolled over onto his stomach. A few seconds more, and he rolled over onto his back.
It made me feel real bad like I should somehow be helping him. Since I’d climbed back into my Levis and shirt, I figured it was safe to sit down next to him.
He gave me a stare of what I can only call horror and asked, his voice hushed, “What are you doing now?”
I looked down, anxious-like, at what my hand was up to all by itself, and said, “Uh, patting your thigh?”
He closed his eyes.
“I can, uh, well, it only seems fair—” My hand had moved upstream.
“Will!” He swatted at me. I could feel him hot and hard through his trousers, something I’d felt through my own Levis about a thousand times before. How difficult could it be? I gave him a nice firm stroke, the way I like to start off on myself, and he grabbed at my arm.
I left my hand where it was and said, “Now, look here. Simmer down. I got you into this, and it’s only fair that I get you out of it. Just let me take care of this, and we can have some dinner.”
“It’s not that simple,” he gritted out. “It’s never that simple.”
He had given up tugging at me and was lying with his arms folded across his chest, staring at the ceiling. I guess he was thinking of England, but it wasn’t doing him any good since he had a Texas-size show going on. I took a deep breath, unbuttoned him, and then, to distract myself, said, “I don’t see why not. Isn’t this what you do with your chorus boys?”
While I talked, I’d worked him free from his boxer shorts and taken a good look. He was uncut and thinner than me, which figured I guess, but he was also longer than I’d expected. Erect, his color was pretty dramatic against the gold curls around his groin. It was sure different, but—Hesitantly, I wrapped my hand around him, and he shuddered. Yup, I could handle this.
“I hardly think this is what you’d do with a chorus girl,” he said, his tone husky. He shuddered again as I pumped him, easy and slow, as if I was gentling a wary animal.
“Well, maybe not, but I know how to jack off, and I know it does the job.” As I spoke, I could feel him throb in my grip, so I figured it really was working for him, no matter what he said. I tried circling my thumb around the tip of him.
He uncrossed his arms and got a grip on the bars in the headboard. The muscles of his forearms stood out. A little concerned, I rubbed his chest with my free hand.
I quit pumping him. “You sure?” That did worry me. I could feel him pearling a touch underneath my thumb. If I stopped now, he’d be hurting pretty bad.
He lifted his head off the pillow and looked at me. Those blue eyes of his had gotten real dark like he was in front of a camera. “At this point? Of course I’m not sure.” I pumped him, once, and his hips worked. “Oh, God, Will. I can’t think when you do that.”
I rubbed his chest some more. “That’s all right, that’s all right. Take it easy.” I pumped him a little harder as I talked to him. “Just taking care of a little business, is all. Just getting your ashes hauled. Nothing to worry about.”
He was breathing hard by now and had closed his eyes. He spread his legs wide, so I could have good access, and I worked my fingers around and underneath him to check his tackle with my fingertips. I started to move my hand from his chest so I could go exploring and he let go of the headboard with one hand and grabbed my arm. Without opening his eyes, he slid my hand over his chest. I could feel his nipple, hard through his shirt and undershirt.
It surprised me a little although I don’t know why since I get that way myself. I rubbed the tip with my fingers through the fabric and timed it to match my stroking below. He moaned a little, and I grinned. I was starting to enjoy myself. “Okay. That’s more like it.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, his expression slightly amazed. “You really have no idea, do you?” His voice was dark and thick.
“You’re getting close, right?” My tone was teasing. I knew he was. He was really twitching now.
He slid his hand up and down my forearm. He hadn’t let go when he moved my hand. “All right, Will,” he said, and smiled. “Very slow. A little rougher.” He released the headboard with his other hand and gripped the waistband of my Levi’s, instead. Smart move: it let him turn into my grip a touch more.
“Like this?” I asked him.
“Like that,” he said. He was working into my hand now as I pumped him, his whole body moving with feline grace. It was something to see. He was right there with me.
Abruptly, he shuddered all over and said, his tone urgent, “Will!”
Quickly, I moved my hand from his chest to cup the top of him. “Come on,” I told him. I don’t know why. He was sure as hell coming, and it wasn’t like he needed any coaching on that from me.
He cried out and spent, clutching my arm, clutching my Levi’s. I couldn’t believe how much he had to give me. “Yeah,” I told him, my voice a little awed and husky in my own ears, “Yeah, that’s it. Come on.” He must really have been worked up.
When he was done, he breathed for a minute or two and then stretched slowly out on the bedclothes like a barn cat. He looked at me, his eyes still dark but kind of sleepy. I licked my lips, nervous-like. My pulse seemed to be galloping so hard I could hear it. His gaze sharpened.
“Uh,” I said, intelligently. Pulling my knees together, I glanced around for something to wipe my hand on before I made a mess.
He sat up abruptly and stared down at where I was hoping he wouldn’t look. Then, without a word, he reached over and unbuttoned the top of my fly. I would have stopped him, really, but I was still worried about making a mess. Shaking his head, he briskly unbuttoned my Levis while I tried to look anywhere but at him. I could feel myself being sheepish.
“It’s never—” he said.
“—that simple, yup, okay, you told me so.”
“If you’ll lie back, I can work this cloth prison down your hips a little.”
I have to admit, I was so relieved to be set loose, I moaned some when I sprang free. He slipped his palm beneath me, sort of hefted me, and said, “Good God, Will.” I’m kind of a big boy.
“What?” I asked vaguely and opened my eyes. I was trying not to grab at him since I didn’t want to clean my hand on his nice shirt.
Somehow he figured out my problem, though, and smiled. I glowered at him. He took my hand and did what I should have thought of, guiding me to taking a grip on my other problem. We stroked hard, his hand overlapping mine. The feel of it was really something.
“Fuck!” I said, then tried to stuff my hands into my mouth.
“Not really, no,” he said, replacing my grip with his own hands. I thought he’d be all subtle and sneaky, but he wasn’t. Turned out, he didn’t need to be, and I didn’t want it that way, anyhow. I guess experience teaches you these things. He worked me hard, and I rode against his grip. Neither of us had to say a word. We just locked gazes for the minute or two it took me to peak.
I wanted to tell him something then, something important, but I didn’t know what and my brain wasn’t working right, anyhow. I had to settle for groaning as the first surge hit. He didn’t let go as I came. In fact, he leaned across my chest before I’d entirely finished spending, which made me wrap my arms around him and spend some more. When I was altogether done, he took his handkerchief out, gently wiped me down, and tucked me away in my boxers.
“There,” he said, and gave me a brisk pat before moving on tucking himself away and cleaning up.
I found a handkerchief myself, got my Levis back in place, and then ran my hands through my hair. I couldn’t make out his expression and didn’t know what else to say, so I asked, “Do you want to have dinner in the hotel restaurant?”
He gave me another one of those opaque looks and said, “Only if you promise to comb your hair first.”
Looking back, I don’t think either one of us got much sleep in our separate beds that night. Maybe that’s why, the next morning on the ferry, I didn’t take much notice when the other passengers kind of drew away from Cole and started talking about him behind their hands. I knew a lot of people recognized him from his movies. Since he was standing at the rail thinking, his face all bleak, his blond hair blowing back in the wind, I figured they were just working up the nerve to approach him. Sometimes folks mix Cole up with his roles and kind of shy away a bit before they decide to draw close. Although I kept a wary eye on the situation, I let it be. I had some brooding of my own to do. At last a young girl in a powder-blue coat broke away from the other passengers, came up to him, and asked him for his autograph. That kicked the hive over. They swarmed him. Like usual, he was nice about it, asked for names and inquired how they wanted his signature. They got real friendly then, but there weren’t enough fans on the boat for friendliness to cause any kind of a problem.
The sailors had noticed the fuss, though, so they let us go down the gangplank first, by ourselves. Cole said over his shoulder, “Will, we have to talk.” I shifted the suitcases and heaved a sigh. I’d thought that was what he was going to say, first chance he got.
Well, that gangplank may have been his first chance for a private word, but it was also his last chance for a good, long while. When we came out from under the awning at the bottom of the plank there was a herd of reporters being held back by a pair of annoyed looking policemen and three representatives from Studio Publicity, headed by Mr. D. J. Stone himself, waiting for him. If I could have, I’d have backed right up that gangplank and hijacked the ferry to Acapulco.
Instead, the flacks and I got between Cole and the cameras, and Mr. Stone grabbed his elbow and hustled him towards a sedan car with the motor running. One of the flacks took the bags away from me and the other used his shoulder to shove me into the back with Mr. Stone and Cole, while I was still protesting, before he slammed the door on us. The car pulled away, almost running over one of the photographers who didn’t move fast enough.
“Not him, not him, for Christ’s sake, Sam! If you’re gonna hit someone, get that bastard from the Examiner!” Mr. Stone hollered at our driver. Then he spread out luxuriantly across half the back seat and lit a cigar. I, on the other hand, was trying to get out of Cole’s lap without breaking his other leg.
“Y’know, usually I’d be kind of upset with you, Nigel, but I got to admit, given the circumstances, it was pretty clever.” Mr. Stone said, his tone placid.
“What? I mean to say, to what are you referring, D. J.?” Cole sounded kind of flurried. We’d managed it so he was half atop my left leg, which was a success from a weight point of view but kind of trying, otherwise. Like me, he was still figuring out what was going on.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen the morning paper. What a photo!” Mr. Stone pulled a folded copy of the second section of the Herald out of the inside breast pocket of his jacket. “My own people could not have done better.”
Cole unfolded the paper, and I craned to look over his shoulder. Right smack in the middle of the page, just above the fold, there it was: a beautiful photograph of Miss Tremain and Miss Anderson, seemingly fighting over a harried but determined-looking Cole.
“I was only trying to keep them from throwing Will’s luggage after him into Avalon Harbor,” Cole said, sounding slightly dazed. “I failed.”
“Some schlemiel working on the next yacht over got a real valuable piece of film when he figured out from all the noise your boy made going over the rail that something was happening. I bet he causes quite a splash, this one.” Mr. Stone looked at me across Cole, who was trying to read the caption. “So, you must be William. Your Uncle Bill has mentioned your name to me. You don’t resemble him much.”
“I take after my father’s side of the family.”
“So he’s said, a lot. Too much, maybe. A man should take better care of his relatives.”
“I can take care—”
“D. J.,” Cole interrupted me, “exactly how much trouble is this going to be?”
“Trouble? What trouble? Did I say anything about trouble?” Mr. Stone asked me. I opened my mouth to reply, but he kept going. “Usually, okay, you’d be in trouble. But, in your case— well, both ladies are single, and that’s a real nice shot of Miss Anderson in her bathing suit. A five-minute wonder but a useful one. Which girl do you really prefer?”
“That’s not a bathing costume, that’s her underw—” I started. Both men turned to glare at me, Cole from point-blank. I shut up.
“Do I have to—oh, never mind. I’m better acquainted with Miss Tremain, but Mr. North has ambitions in that direction.”
“Oh, him.” Mr. Stone took the cigar out of his mouth and made a dismissive gesture with it. “Ignore him.” He beamed. “Mazeltof. You’re engaged.”
I goggled. Cole just looked resigned. Mr. Stone surveyed my expression benignly and, getting it all wrong, said, “Don’t worry about it, kid. You just keep doing your job. It’s good for a star to have some muscle around when the public’s paying more attention than usual, and that cowboy routine of yours has made you quite a few friends on the lot. Especially,” he added thoughtfully, “among the starlets.”
“Will’s not my bodyguard, he’s my secretary. And an author,” Cole said, his voice harried. The moment the words were out of his mouth, he could tell he’d made a mistake.
“Writer? What kind of a writer?” Mr. Stone asked. “Tell me, please, not poetry.”
“I write adventure stories for the pulps.” I left it at that. No need to say anything about my novel.
“Adventure stories.” Mr. Stone switched the beam back on. “Adventure stories are fine, nice and—adventurous. This kid’s a gem, Nigel. Where’d you find him?”
“He found me.” Now it was my turn to glare at Cole.
“Okay, all to the good.” Mr. Stone rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. Both Cole and I quit glaring at each other to watch. You almost never see anyone pull off that gesture in real life. “Tonight, I think, the Brown Derby and a nice reconciliation dinner. On Friday, a press conference. I got to tell you, Nigel, you’re making a lot of dull, ugly little bookkeepers all across America very happy. They’ve got their dreams, too, and you’re living out a lively one for them.”
The funny thing is, the deadliest mountain lions in Hollywood think of themselves as sentimental. I never have figured that one out.
They dropped me off at the house, and Mr. Stone carried off Cole, who was looking as glum as a milk cow in a cloudburst, to a meeting with Miss Tremain to plan tactics. He didn’t get back to the house until way after I had turned my light off even if, for the second night in a row, I wasn’t doing much in the way of sleeping. The next morning he overslept, and we had to rush to get him onto the set of The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, so again there wasn’t time for our private word. The day after that, he got engaged.
As for me, I kept quiet and lay low. At first, it was because I didn’t want to lose such a nice job over something that was my fault, anyhow. Then, I only wanted to forget the whole thing. It was way too embarrassing and confusing whenever I started thinking it over. I’d look at some fellow costumed as a native on a soundstage, try to figure out what women would see in him, and wonder if he liked—or I’d find myself gazing at Cole when he wasn’t paying attention and ask myself how come he could please me so well, doing so little. But that would get me musing about his furred skin under my hands and suchlike, and I’d feel myself starting to blush, so I’d set my mind back to business like answering his fan mail or working on my writing. Of course, I found the female fans a bit easier to put up with now, and, for some reason, the heroine of my latest story had lost weight and become a blonde. You’d think all that would have told me something, but I didn’t want to hear.
On top of everything else, I was kind of worried about Cole. He didn’t take to being engaged real well, I have to say. It wasn’t Miss Tremain. She turned out to be nice enough when you truly got to know her, and she felt even guiltier than before over hauling Cole back into trouble. It was all the attention from the press that made him kick his stall. He’d read the interviews he was supposed to have given to the movie magazines and snarl until the day I finally got sick of it, stood up, plucked the latest batch of them out of his hands, and threw them into the pool. When he squawked, I just folded my arms and shook my head, the way our ramrod on the ranch, a real big Mescallero Apache, used to when my father lost his temper. It worked, too.
It was towards the end of Indian summer, so I’d invited a couple of friends I trusted over for a swim. One of them, a hoofer I’d dated named Peggy, eyed the situation and decided to be helpful. She climbed out of the pool and peeled Movie Talk off of herself a page at a time - even Cole stopped fuming to watch - laughed, and asked, “Did Will tell you his novel was done, Mr. Cole?”
Cole shut his mouth for a moment and then opened it again to say, mildly, “Please call me Nigel, Peggy. No, he didn’t, I’m afraid.”
“I just told Peggy on the way over here because I had to stop off to mail off a letter. You were driving Miss Tremain,” I said, quickly. No sense giving him the wrong impression even if he was busy playing bucking bronco these days.
“Kevin was going to drive me, but he got another ride.” She cast an annoyed glance across the pool to where Kevin was sitting at the foot of Miss Tremain’s lounge, helping her deal with the dangers of cocoa butter. It was an inspired attempt at distraction, and I could have kissed her for it even though her not having the whole story and all made it fairly useless.
“Letter?” Cole asked. Dang it, I knew he’d pick up on that. I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard him, being busy instead with a ladybug that was trying to attack me.
“Have you read Will’s novel, Nigel? I didn’t know he’d written anything other than his magazine stories.”
“Yes, he requested that I look it over. It was really rather good, and I told him so. I was unaware, however, that he’d finished his revisions and sent it to a publisher. It was during his vacation, I assume.”
I mumbled something and looked over at Kevin. Miss Tremain was moving on to toenail polish and he was tucking the little bits of cotton between her toes.
“What was that? I’m afraid I couldn’t hear you. Somehow some pool water seems to have splashed into my ears.”
“I said I got a letter of acceptance back from Haskell and Sons.”
Peggy squealed with delight and jumped up and down, but I didn’t bother to assess the effects of gravity. I was too busy watching Cole.
“That book agent you asked to look at it turned the trick, I reckon,” I told Cole softly. “Thank you.”
Funny. For just a second everything else - the softly lapping water, the breeze rattling the palm fronds, Peggy hollering the news across the pool to Kevin and Miss Tremain - seemed to fade out, and it was only Cole and I. Then Peggy grabbed me and kissed me, and everyone else crowded around for congratulations. We were a rowdy party amidst the fake palm trees at the Coconut Grove that evening, let me tell you. I had to slip one of the parking attendants thirty bucks and cab fare to drive everyone home, and Mr. Stone liked the photographs in the papers the next day. I liked the overpriced silver lighter Cole bought me from the cigarette girl, to wish me luck in my literary endeavors.
My birthday came and went. Cole got me some new suitcases. He had started to relax since, with the New Year, his “durance vile”, as he liked to call it, would be coming to an end. The studio had wanted to draw it out and there had even been hints about wedding bells, but Miss Tremain put her foot down. The engagement had given her a chance to ride through some unfamiliar pastures, but now she was scheduled to star in a Jungle movie across from an old flame, and she wanted to be free, just in case. Cole spent Christmas morning at the Episcopal Church and Christmas afternoon opening presents in front of the cameras with her, then came home, took off his shoes, put his feet up, and moaned.
“Why the hell did I ever decide to become a film star?” he asked the ceiling. “I could have done something respectable, been a, a banker in a market town, as my father and grandfather were before me.”
I looked up with mild interest from my brand new copy of Mr. Fitzgerald’s short stories. Bernice was bobbing her hair again and I wanted to see if it looked any different from the perspective of the nineteen thirties. “Sounds to me like you just answered your own question.”
“Christ. Let’s run away somewhere—I mean, let’s spend a few days away from the studio treadmill during the holiday production break. If Publicity complains, I’ll say you are playing the role of brakeman as I confide to you my fears about the runaway train of my engagement.”
“Okay,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”
He gazed at me for a long moment and then asked, “Arcadia?”
“Atque ego in Arcadia—” I bet I said it wrong.
“I know, I know. All right. How about Palm Springs, then? I have friends in Palm Springs.”
“Well, to go anyplace interesting in Palm Springs, you kind of have to ride—” I saw the wistful look in his eyes and managed to veer. “—but aren’t there some folks who play cricket out there, at that restaurant you told me about? You said you were going to explain to me how cricket worked.”
“That’s right, I did, didn’t I?” Now his voice was eager. “It’s absurd, really, but Major Graham needed a warm, dry climate when he retired for medical reasons, so—”
But it was a long story. In any case, that’s how we ended up out in Palm Springs with me running hell for leather while waving a funny club over my head at the blue desert skies of the last day of 1934. It seems Major Graham was a big believer in learning by doing.
“Stop flourishing the bat, Will!” Cole was yelling as he went by in the other direction. No hope of that. One of the Springs Indians who was fielding had finally gotten the red leather ball and was winding up to throw in a downright frightening manner. You could get killed by that thing, and I wanted to be ready to defend myself, if need be.
No need. Cricket turned out to be kind of fun although it went on so long you could conduct an entire rodeo in the time it took to finish up a game. Part of the fun was watching Cole, who was dressed all in white, rub that little leather cannonball up and down the inside of his clean trouser leg with a positively demonic glare before he chucked it around. Even if he hadn’t have been so fast, he probably would have scared the batters into missing.
When the sun set, we packed it in and went back to the Major’s house for some grub. We had the Christmas supper Cole didn’t get at Christmas, cooked by the Major himself. His late wife had taught him how to bake a fine mince pie, he said, even if he’d had nothing left to learn from her about loafs, buns, and angel-food cake. Then he let fly with a haw-haw noise that I guess you’d have to call a laugh. I didn’t get the joke, but Cole just rolled his eyes without explaining, so it must have been pretty blue.
After I’d packed away about five pounds of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding - I have no notion of why they call that stuff pudding - I sat in front of a fireplace full of burning mesquite logs, drinking a date shake for dessert. Cole gave me one horrified glance and then pretended to ignore me while he chewed over old times with his friend. They’d been to school together and, if you ask me, other people’s school stories beat warm milk solidly for sedative effects, so it was no great surprise that I dozed off in one of the Major’s wing chairs.
I woke up slow. I was half-thinking about stretching but that was too much effort, so I listened to Cole’s voice, instead. He and the Major had quieted down some, probably in deference to me snoring, drooling or something else just about as charming.
“—it will only get harder the longer you wait, man.” The Major’s voice.
“I know that, Graham, but the solution is not that simple.”
A chuckle. “It never is, for you.”
I swallowed a grin. He knew Cole, all right.
The Major went on, “Your incurable romanticism, have you taken that into account? What if it all goes wrong? Will you do something drastic, again? Your first failure sent you onto the stage, and your second failure sent you to Hollywood, of all the cesspits. There aren’t a lot of redoubts left for you to retreat towards, Cole.”
“Then I’d better be careful, hadn’t I?” It was said in Cole’s I-am-being-mild tone. I didn’t blame him. The engagement was only for show; nobody, including Cole, thought marriage would cure him of anything. The Major, having known Cole as a kid, probably still had hopes, but he’d do better to leave Cole be.
“Third time the charm, what? A lot of charm there, certainly, and some bottom, too.” The Major laughed, haw-haw. I decided it was time to wake up before he mentioned storming Miss Tremain’s breastworks, haw-haw. I swear, the closer someone was to Cole, the worse his sense of humor.
“Go find your own ironic amusements, Graham minor, this one’s mine.”
“Just a moment.” Cole suddenly kicked the leg of the chair I was in. “Are you awake, Will?”
I cracked a lid to give him a one-eyed glare. “Well, I sure as heck am now.” I stretched. “Any chance of a drink around here?”
“Brandy, or, rather, warm sasparilla, as we called it this past decade,” the Major said, haw-haw. “A pleasant state, California, but one does have to use the wrong names rather a lot.”
I was standing on my balcony in my robe that night, gazing at the kind of clear and starry sky I’d grown up with, when the Major came out the back door of his restaurant. He crossed the dusty yard over to the house and noticed me. When he looked up considering me, for just a moment the way he stood made him seem different, somehow smarter, a touch dangerous maybe, more real. Then he shrugged, and it was only the Major again. For some reason that glimpse sort of chilled me, though, and I went back inside.
My first book, Dead Pine Mountain, came out that spring, and I got darn good reviews for a tenderfoot if I do say so myself. The critics told the public I was a young author of serious literary promise in the school of new rural realism, so my book must have sold something like two or three hundred copies, mostly in the city of New York. The publisher didn’t seem to be surprised by my sales, and I was given to understand what I’d already figured out, that I didn’t have to worry about making millions from my writing any time real soon. It wasn’t a problem. I’d gotten an idea for my second book and also worked up a story I liked, about British soldiers forced to live in a secret Himalayan kingdom, to ship off to Army Adventure Tales. As for Cole, he was about to be Heliogabalus in The Fisher of Men, a rip-roaring bible epic about the early Christians in decadent Rome. Following Hollywood tradition, there were several pages more in the script about decadent Rome than about the Christians.
I frowned over the script. “I don’t think these dates are right,” I told Cole.
“Be glad I’m playing a historic Roman emperor at all. When they saw Laughton’s Nero they re-wrote the script, and I almost ended up as Lucias Verus Caesar, emperor, ax murderer, and repentant convert to Christianity, who died in the Coliseum in place of a charming pair of blond, young Roman Christians.”
Well, now. I couldn’t argue with that. “So, who’s scheduled to play St. Peter?”
“Andrew North.” Cole’s tone was as flat as the Panhandle.
I put the script down. “Now, wait just a consarned minute.”
“You are supposed to be nursing a broken heart over Miss Tremain, which, translated out of Hollywood lingo, is going to sound to North as if you took her away from him twice for no better reason than short-term publicity. Also, if you’re real lucky, he’ll decide you were laughing at him the whole time you did it. Dang it, Cole, you may play hombres locos but he is a hombre loco. You shouldn’t be cast anywhere near him until something else makes him forget about you.”
“This is an above-the-line A project, Will.”
I knew what that meant. “Not a chance, huh?”
“Dang. I guess I’m joining the what-you-call-it, the Praetorian Legion, then.”
All might have been well if we had been assigned a different director. Ygor Zorofsky was a genius - he’d tell you so himself - who’d been specially imported from Europe to work with Helga Songaard, the female star who was being showcased in the project. I’m prepared to admit he might have been a great filmmaker, but his knowledge of how our studio, not to mention the nation around it, worked could have been tattooed on a gnat’s butt with room left over for the words to “My Darling Clementine.”
To begin with, that wasn’t much of a problem. Just to be safe, I’d telephoned both Uncle Bill and Mr. Stone, and they had seen the sense in what I had to say. I was cast, in one of the longer outside-of-the-camera-lines roles in studio history, as the emperor’s personal guardsman. Both of the assistant directors knew what I was really there for, and I’m sure they told Zorofsky, but I’m also willing to bet money that he either didn’t listen or didn’t care.
That didn’t matter at first. I stood around while we did all the close-up work, watching Cole act like nothing could make him happier than ordering Christians thrown to the lions. Cole only had one long, multiple-shot confrontation scene with North and, while the expression in North’s eyes made me tense, nothing went wrong with the takes that day. I felt relieved, but I shouldn’t have.
Later, too much later, I found out what had made North forget all about Cole. The expression in North’s eyes that day had been for Zorofsky. On the first day of shooting, our genius director, with great literary skill and precision of phrase, had let North know what he thought of North’s acting and why he thought it, in front of an entire crew and Miss Songaard, who was North’s current goal in life. Then Zorofsky had cleared set for the day and, while the wound was still raw, poured salt on it by sweeping Miss Songaard off to a discreet Hungarian bistro where only the ‘cultured’ crowd in Hollywood was welcome. For North, it was war. It was a war that would cause more problems for Cole as a civilian than if he’d been the enemy general.
I have to say, when it really mattered to him, North could plan. Instead of charging Zorofsky head-on like he had Cole, he came over all repentant and went to sit at the feet of the master to learn how to mend his ways. It didn’t take North long to breech Zorofsky’s defenses right in his weak spot, an ego the size of Pike’s Peak. Pretty soon after that, whenever Zorofsky needed translations of the annoying mosquito whines coming out of the studio offices, he went to the nearest native who showed signs of comprehending genius, Andrew North. It’s a short step from being the local translator to being the local expert.
Those were the uncertain years after the film industry’s Code of Decency had been passed but before it was fully enforced. Each and every studio had its Code Waterloo, though, and, thanks to Zorofsky, Everest’s would be The Fisher of Men. The real trouble came during the crowd scenes, which were shot in a block at the end of filming because of the expense of reassembling the extras if anything went wrong. There wasn’t much that could go wrong in the Coliseum - it was hard to make a mistake with pious blood in those days - but there was also a big Roman banquet to be filmed for extended inter-cutting with St. Peter’s crucifixion. What we didn’t know then was that Zorofsky had started the film already bored and irritated by what he had learned about working in Hollywood, and North had advised him all about how to fix that.
Zorofsky was doubling scenes. It’s not supposed to be possible any more, but with enough personal overtime, genius at getting what you want on film during the first take, and outright bribery, you could, in those days, just manage it. I’ll give Zorofsky this: he was willing to suffer for his art. He did extra takes of scenes, then rough-cut the film footage so that the dailies showed the executives what they wanted but a second cut preserved what Zorofsky really intended for the final film. It must have meant a lot of hard labor during late nights. Of course, in order for it to work, you also needed a line producer on the film who was a moron. Ours wasn’t, but he was a man with a starlet wife who was sleeping with Andrew North. Had North decided to heck with Hollywood and that he would as soon go out with a bang as a whimper? It was about what happened.
As far as we who were working on the film knew, Zorofsky was only wasting our time. We would start off with a really loco take, with hysterical extras doused in blood, rending their clothes to show plenty of flesh, and the principles just about foaming at the mouth. Sensible takes would then follow. Sure enough, the sedate shots would always be the ones to show up in the dailies.
Cole was barely paying attention to what anyone else was doing anyhow because Zorofsky kept pushing him out towards the emotional edge of what he did in front of a camera. Cole’s one of those actors who looks like he’s underplaying until you see the daily rushes. Zorofsky had him emoting to the point that Heliogabalus on film was a twenty-four-hour-a-day, fourteen-carat maniac.
“I have no idea where he will expect me to take the role when I’m doing something truly degenerate,” Cole told me wearily after a real tough session. We’d soon have the chance to find out.
Our first inkling of real trouble came when the establishing shot of the banquet scene was being blocked on the last day of shooting. It was more of an orgy, really, but we’d all expected that. Music would be played, extras would roll around, hoofers in silly costumes would dance, a lot of food would be wasted, and anything truly interesting would end up on the cutting room floor or in the crew’s private reels.
Most times there would have been doubles for the principles, to keep them from being barbequed by the lights during all the shuffling around, but Zorofsky thought swapping bodies ruined the mood on the set. So, Cole was sitting on his emperor’s couch looking resigned and shoving his gilded laurel wreath back up for the fifteenth time that day, and I was standing behind his couch leaning on my stupid leaf-headed spear. It was already late, we both wanted to go home, and there was the longest shot in the whole dang film still to get into the can. Zorofsky himself passed by trailing assistants and then returned solo.
He pointed at me. “You. Cowboy.” His accent was real charming, especially since I’d heard him use normal English on the telephone one day, when no one else was supposed to be listening.
“Come here. I have blocking for you.”
That was okay. I hadn’t been able to escape being in every shot. I’d been shoved up next to Cole in a lot of footage that I knew would end up being edited out, but I’d be on the screen at some point.
Zorofsky said, “Yes, you are the one with eyes. I have seen you watching. We will make use of that.”
Like I said, I’d been guarding Cole, so my gaze had been on him a lot. I nodded.
“You sit on Emperor’s couch like great pillow.”
“Surely you mean like great pillock,” Cole murmured. Well, it was late and he was tired.
Zorofsky frowned and turned to him. “You, now.” His tone to Cole was exactly the same as his tone to me. “Recline against Big Cowboy.” Cole looked at me. I looked at him. For weeks, he had started each new scene with an insane take. Cole leaned on me.
“No, no, no,” said Zorofsky and rearranged us the way he wanted us. “Good,” he said, and bustled off leaving me with Cole practically reclining in my lap.
I looked at Cole. Cole looked at me. The Negro extra holding the ostrich feather fan behind Cole’s couch tried hard not to snicker. We looked at him. I asked, “So, Dave, how’d that fishing trip to the pier go, over the weekend?” and attempted not to notice just how tired and exasperated Cole was.
You could trace Zorofsky’s path across the set by the ripple of irritation in his wake. He got to the cameras, commanded silence, and we rolled the cameras. It was over, and now we would shoot something sensible.
When the take was done, he came back to us again. “You. Cowboy.”
This time I just nodded.
Before I could remind my head it had no idea what the heck he meant, it nodded.
He looked at Cole. “You react.” He went off before Cole’s dropped jaw closed.
I looked at Cole. He looked at me.
“Does he have any idea of what country he’s in?” Cole asked.
I shrugged and so did Dave.
This time the ripple in Zorofsky’s wake was more of anger than irritation. I must say, though, that the tired set pepped right up. In fact, you’d have to call the take that followed downright zippy. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do, so I, well, petted Cole. I tried to keep it nice and friendly, sort of social-like, but I don’t think it worked.
After the second take, Zorofsky huddled with his assistants for a good, long, time, with the air of a British General planning the sacking and burning of Washington D.C. When Zorofsky had called cut this second time, Cole hadn’t sat right back up. He stayed where he was, leaning against me. By his standards, he had spent the entire day throwing himself on the floor and chewing the carpet. I had the feeling that having to sit there and duplicate on film a little something of what had passed between us in Avalon had just about drained his last reserves.
When Zorofsky came over to us the third time, I had to fight not to scowl, even though I knew that this would be the sensible blocking. There was only time for one more take, after all, before the crew would be on overtime.
Zorofsky considered me for a long moment, frowning. Cole told me later that my hand never left his shoulder. “You. Cowboy. Bigger. Emperor is god, is Zeus, you are Ganymede.”
Dang it, I blushed.
He turned to Cole, who was now sitting bolt upright, looking exactly like the Creep that, on camera, he was.
“You. You read books, I have seen you. You are Heliogabalus, act like it.” He paused, and his eyes narrowed. “At end of take, kiss Cowboy.”
Cole’s voice was very soft. “We are discussing something illegal in the state of California.”
“So is alcohol until this year.” Zorofsky’s voice was like the cold on the Colorado plains in January. “Kiss, or off set.” He looked at Cole. Cole looked at him. The irresistible force met the immovable object. “Kiss like you mean it.”
There was a moment when it hung in the balance and then Dave gagged, slightly but audibly. Zorofsky turned to him. Dave, who, like most Negros in those rough days, was a brave man, flinched. “You. Belt much too high.” He reached over and—yanked down. Then he went off, the sole horseman of his own, personal apocalypse.
It took him a lot longer to get back across the set that time, what with the cries of outrage and the arguments and all. I still remember hearing Sid Beck, one of Cole’s actor friends, use the word ‘fuck’, the first time I had ever heard it said in the presence of ladies by a gentleman.
Zorofsky got back to the director’s platform and stood there until all the fuss died down. Then he lifted up the megaphone and said, with a contemptuous challenge that I have never heard equaled before or since, “You are actors? So act!”
He rolled the cameras. We were tired. It had been a long, long day. Now we were angry and drunk on the fumes of it. So, I guess I can honestly say I’ve been to a Roman orgy.
Cole was so mad he was trembling against me, with an insane grin on his lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Dave staring bolt ahead, demonstrating for all the world to see where the curls traveling from his belly button ended up. Anger rolled off him like he’d just been sold down the river, which would have been a great effect if it had been acting. I petted Cole, trying to calm him down. The take seemed to go on for about a million years, although I have been assured by one of the cameramen who were there, that it only lasted a minute or three. The extras groped. The dancers writhed. Bits of costumes went flying. Whips cracked. A lot of food was wasted. I looked down at Cole, feeling a touch, more than a touch, frantic. Our eyes met and he sat up, about to stand up and do I don’t know what. Trying to sooth him, I stroked his throat with my fingertips and then pushed the gilded laurel wreath back up into place.
Cole leaned forward. Cole kissed me.
There’s a poem about ‘Jenny kissed me’ where the poet goes on and on about Jenny’s kiss. I never could make out what was so special about that one stupid touch of lips, except for the fact that he sure must have been fond of Jenny. But, when Cole kissed me, two feelings hit me hard, one after the other like the off-set hind feet of a mule.
I wanted to push him back down onto that couch and rut against him and with him until we both spent as hard as we did that day in Avalon.
I loved him.
Zorofsky called cut. The silence spread across the set like ink across your grandmother’s best lace tablecloth.
Cole finished standing up, turned to leave, turned back and hauled me up onto my feet without showing the strain, he was that angry. He didn’t even say where he’d be, he just towed me off the set.
We got out onto the street between the sound stages. It was twilight. Cole looked around, made a noise, and towed me towards the studio commissary with a hand still on my upper arm. It should have been closed that late, but there was a rare night shoot scheduled for the Ocean Tank, and it’s cheaper to keep the commissary open than to send over sandwiches. Cole marched us inside, went up to the man who ladled out soup, and said to him, “Drinks.”
The man started to point towards the cooler full of soda pop, and Cole snarled, suppressed it, and said in an insanely reasonable tone of voice, “No, drinks.”
That attendant went into the back like a jackrabbit into his hole. He came out no more than a minute later with a tray, two glasses with ice in them, and a bottle of what looked like purest rotgut left over after the repeal of prohibition. Cole hauled me over to a table - he still hadn’t let go of my arm - sat me down, and poured for us both.
He took his glass, took a deep swig, swirled it around his mouth, and spat it out on the floor. I had begun to drink, but, when he did that, I inhaled wrong and started coughing. I was stricken: there is no other word for it. When, still coughing, I looked at him through the tears it raised in my eyes, I saw the urgent warning in his own gaze. I leaned over and let the coughing take me until I almost, but not quite, heaved and then took another sip of the rotgut and shuddered.
Cole took the laurel wreath off of his head, and, for a moment, I thought he was going to throw it on that tile floor and stomp on it. But, he didn’t. He set it down gently, gently on the table. Then he began to curse Zorofsky.
He cursed him up, down, and sideways. He surveyed the man’s habits, personality, ancestry, and place in the zoological kingdom. Then, when he was running down, he added flourishes in French, Spanish, and what I took to be Latin. Finally, he had another drink.
I’d figured out what my line was supposed to be. “I’m gonna break his leg, Mr. Cole, twist it right around until the marrow’s running bloody from his cracked-open bones.” I must have delivered it right because the extras dressed as pirates at the next table flinched some.
“I’m going to break them both. He made me out to be a fa—”
I can’t tell you how glad I was that he, with a good actor’s timing, interrupted me. “No, Will. What you are going to do, and I am going to do, is call your Uncle Bill and some of my executive acquaintances to tell them that we are attending the daily rushes tomorrow.” Cole took another drink. “Then, once they have seen it, we will tell them exactly what Zorofsky can do with his shot.”
It was yet another long and sleepless night. Cole and I spent it in his living room playing cards together, badly. I don’t know about him, but if I had had to make decisions involving bedrooms right then I would have keeled over onto his Moroccan carpet. It was much easier to spend the burnt-out remnant of the night fumbling cards, eating potato chips, drinking coffee, and waiting.
We knew those after-hours telephone calls had succeeded, in a manner of speaking. When the dailies were run the next afternoon, we would be there. What we didn’t know was that Andrew North also called a list of names early that next morning to let them all know where they could find the director’s rough cut of The Fisher of Men.
The dailies that afternoon must have been the most over-attended in the studio’s history. Publicity tried to keep the list down and failed miserably. Everyone connected with the project, and a lot of people who weren’t, pulled strings and called in all their favors to get a seat. The big projection room was full, and folks were standing in back and sitting on the stairs. Zorofsky’s cut ran ridiculously longer than daily rushes should have but not one person left. They’d never have been able to get back in.
Within ten minutes, it was clear that the studio had a classic on their hands although not the one they had planned for. The suits should have burned it sight unseen, but that would have been like burning money. So, I am given to understand you can still get a print of what we saw that afternoon if you’re willing to lay down ten grand in the right place. Like I said, it’s a classic.
Too bad Zorofsky wasn’t there to savor the reactions of the only large audience he ever got for his masterpiece, but he was already on his way out of the country. It seems North hadn’t been able to resist telephoning him to gloat, some time around ten, when Zorofsky had wended his weary way home from one last night of editing. Zorofsky, unlike North, was sane, and he blew town to return to Europe, pausing only long enough to wire the studio where all the footage for the fake dailies was stored. I guess he thought that, if the studio realized it could assemble a respectable version of his work, the information might save his skin. He was right. It did. Not wanting anything to come out in the courts, the studio left him alone overseas although I don’t think they ever paid him a cent. It didn’t matter. On the strength of the rumors about the unreleased version of The Fisher of Men he found work in Europe for the rest of his career.
It wasn’t so much the content - the Spanish, for example, had already filmed much worse - it was what he could do with it and to whom. Take Cole and I. I’d spent a lot of time watching Cole. I hadn’t known he was also watching me. By the time Zorofsky was done with all his reaction shots, Zeus and Ganymede ran a poor second in the pansy romance barrel-race. Cole’s reaction to it all was brilliant. “Wonderful. Oh, I’ll be taken very seriously as a screen villain after this. Just call me Little Willie’s doting Auntie Nigel.” He pitched it just right. Even Mr. Stone, who had every reason to know better, reached down without thinking from the row of seats behind us and gave Cole’s shoulder a whack of manly sympathy. After all the build-up, yesterday’s kiss was almost anticlimactic to me, but boy did it sting everyone else. You could hear the executives making sick noises all over the theater.
That’s how it went for each and every one of Everest’s cavalcade of stars that appeared in the film. What Zorofsky did was look close and then transplant what those eyes of his saw back into the Roman Empire, where a lot of it belonged anyhow. I guess we thought because he talked himself up he was no real genius. He was. But, the results sure did distress people and I don’t blame some of them. Especially I don’t blame our producer, who actually suffered a minor heart attack when the private footage of his actress wife as the Christian matron carried away by the love of Christ and St. Peter - Andrew North, that is - was spliced in right after Cole’s and my big scene. I think the fuss that caused may be, along with Cole’s perfect control, what saved our sorry behinds when he went to talk with the studio honchos.
Peggy came over, sat down next to me, and took my hand. I let her, even though I somehow didn’t think I should. But, she’d had a rough time, too. Even though it was only one reaction shot to her dancing and a close-up, somehow Zorofsky had captured what a lot of real nice women honestly feel when men watch them with tongues hanging out. I don’t think a lady gets to choose if she’s repelled, bored, or warmed up by men staring at her, and none of those alternatives is a wrong choice, but most women don’t want to see their involuntary reaction caught for the public on film.
The party broke up slowly. My Uncle Bill came over to where I was sitting with Peggy and tsked over me, which was doing pretty good, for him. Cole came back at last to reclaim me. We both made sure Peggy was feeling okay to travel, then left. The late afternoon sunshine was so unexpectedly bright that I had to blink back the dazzle it brought to my eyes.
We walked across the lot to the featured player’s parking spaces, all neatly labeled, towards the roadster Cole had bought me to replace the one the studio had repossessed. Even the sight of the automobile made me feel like I’d been keeping my brains locked up in my underwear drawer the past few months. I got behind the wheel, Cole got in next to me, and I asked him, “Where do you want to go talk? The house?”
He replied, his voice hesitant, “Are you still working for me then, Will?”
That was the moment when I figured out what I should have understood before. Cole couldn’t read my mind. He had no way of knowing what I’d learned - even if I didn’t understand any of the details - when he’d kissed me. My secrets were still my own, and Cole never had to know.
The temptation was terrible. I hope you never feel it.
I said, “Yup, I’m your man. Even though I don’t get what the heck is going on with me.”
“What?” Cole asked, blankly.
I looked at my hands on the steering wheel. All of the sudden, my mouth just did not want to work. “I sleep with girls,” I got out, finally. “How come I—” I ran out of steam.
Somehow, Cole understood what I meant. He went very still. Then he said, delicately, like he had an egg balanced on the tip of one finger, “Will, do you know anything about being—a pansy?”
I was still talking to my hands. “Nope. Not really.” I managed to look at Cole. “I grew up for the most part in Wagon Wheel, New Mexico, if you recollect. And, my mother died before she could explain any of the fancy variations to me. But, I think she said it was hormones.”
“Or maybe your folks,” I added desperately, “or Freud, or a Hopi Indian curse.”
The rest of Cole’s expression hadn’t changed a whit, but his eyes—oh, his eyes were laughing.
“You son of a bitch,” I said. “Buy me a hamburger and take me to the beach.”
You see, this was back in the days when a few of the beaches might still be close to empty on a pretty evening in the early spring. We had to drive north of Santa Monica, but we found a quiet scrap of sand Cole knew about with a hamburger shack perched on the cliffs above it. After we got our greasy food, we climbed down the salt-stained wooden stairs and sat on the beach, a couple of feet apart, of course, so onlookers wouldn’t get the wrong idea. We both found we were pretty hungry, and I made it to my date shake before either of us was ready to talk.
The waves rushed up the sand and hissed back down again. Seagulls overhead sounded like they were using language that would have done a studio bigwig watching The Fisher of Men proud. Over the hills behind us, the first stars showed against the ink blue sky. Cole cleared his throat.
“A rather more pleasant setting than I had envisioned for this confrontation.”
“You could take me to a sleazy bar somewhere, so the police could join us at a tender and sensitive moment.”
“It seems, Will, that you have learned something about being a pansy,” Cole said, teasing. I gave him a grin and took another draw on my shake. His eyes narrowed. “A further advantage of being on the beach is that almost any – entanglement - one can imagine ends up with sand in some dreadfully uncomfortable and intimate place.” His tone was prim, but his eyes were laughing again.
“That’s helpful, right now.” I tried to sound like I believed what I was saying. “I guess we got to talk.”
“Mmm.” Cole was scooping up handfuls of the sand and letting them trickle out through his fingers. “Perhaps before you try to tell me about what you don’t know, I should tell you about what I do know.”
For the next several hours Cole talked to me, trying to distil everything he’d read, done, heard, and guessed in maybe twenty years of experience into a few hour’s speech. He’d talk, wait for someone to walk by, and talk some more. As it grew dark, even after he was only a silhouette with a velvet voice, he talked on. He talked himself hoarse enough that we had to go up the stairs to the now neon-lit shack and buy more drinks, and then, when we got back to the beach, he talked again. When he finally was done and his voice had died down, around eleven I guess it was, I had some idea of what kind of bull I was proposing to straddle. It may be the best gift he ever gave me.
“It’s your turn,” he said after some silence.
Part of what he told me that evening I didn’t mind, part of it was strange, and part of it, I admit, sickened me and made me fear. But, then, cruelty sickens me and pain makes me fear, and the newspapers remind me every morning that we live in a world full of both of them. It seems as if life’s a tough business that gets us all in the long run. So, in the short run—
I picked up a shell and threw it towards the sea. I don’t know if it hit the water or not. “I love you.” I didn’t hardly choke at all, getting it out.
“Will,” Cole said, and shut back up. I could feel every inch of the space between us, just then.
“Yeah. Well, I wanted you to know it wasn’t only,” I looked around and, with a new caution, changed a few words, “you know, although some of that sounds pretty good. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought you might like to hear it.”
“You are quite correct. Thank you.” Cole paused. “I’m trying like hell not to echo you because I don’t want to chain you to all of this when you might still walk free.”
I was mad, glad, and wild to jump him, all at the same time. “You dang arrogant little squirt. From what you just told me, once a fellow’s reached this point in his thinking, he’s not getting off scott free.”
“True.” Cole’s voice was sort of breathless. “Another alternative, though, is that what you call love is actually the excitement of discovering your—natural preference, mixed with grateful affection.”
“Kind of like imagining you’re falling for the first nice gal you meet with big breasts that’ll let you kiss her?”
“Why, thank you, Will. I’ve noticed that, as we grow closer, your compliments grow more and more exotic.”
“Hold on to your saddle, Cole. We haven’t grown as close as we’re going to, yet.”
“Oh, really?” Cole asked, his voice husky. He kind of groaned a laugh and then got up to go and stand by the surf for a few minutes. I let him be and concentrated on smoothing out my own breathing. It was dang difficult, let me tell you. All my mind wanted to do was show me rushes of the times I’d seen Cole without his clothes on, of that smooth, pale skin with the golden hair and the lean, hard muscles slipping back and forth beneath it. Now, that just wasn’t helping at all.
Sometimes it’s a hard row to hoe, being a gentleman. I was dead tired, half hard, and getting cold. To tell truth, all I really wanted was to take Cole some place warm and quiet, pet him a lot, and watch him squirm, which was a much more graceful sight than you’d think. Then I wanted - wanted bad - to find out what would happen if I let his hands get back onto me. Especially now that he’d given me some tips, I was curious. Instead, I knew it was a good idea to try and have this conversation. At least, I knew it above the waist.
Cole returned and stood a little ways away from me. “All right, let me at least say it once. I do love you, Will, and have for an appallingly long span of our acquaintanceship, well before I had any reason to think you could reciprocate.”
“That’s okay, Cole. Happens all the time, even without it being two stallions in the same paddock. Besides, we’re not acquainted, we’re friends.”
“So we are; I stand corrected.” Now he seemed to be half-talking to himself. “There’s always that, then, to be salvaged from any rubble.”
He simmered down again, both in order to think and so that a man walking along the water line with a dog and a flashlight could pass us by. The fellow looked suspiciously at us when he got close, but I had kept the chat going by telling Cole about my ideas for some real good pulp mysteries set around Hollywood. Anyhow, the stranger’s Labrador ran up to me and decided I was her pal. She and I discussed that a little and then she went and caught up with her boss, leaving me some of the sand Cole had warned me about and a little sea water, too.
“Beachcombing.” Cole said. “It’s late and the tide is at full ebb. Speaking of which, we should leave soon. After midnight, the police begin patrolling here, searching for over-enthusiastic lovers.”
My brow wrinkled in the dark. “What about all that sand you kept going on about?”
His voice was grave. “How do you think people find that out, Will? I certainly learned the hard way.”
So he didn’t make it off the beach sand free, even if it was only in his hair. We were laughing when we got into the roadster, and I started to drive before I realized just how tired I was.
“Shucks. I hope I don’t pile us into an oncoming truck. I’m tuckered, dang it.”
“So am I.” His voice had that dreamy tone it got when he pushed himself too hard but was pleased with the results.
“What’s worse, I’m afraid I’m going to fall asleep when we get home, rather than do what I really want, which is to pet you a bunch.”
I could hear his reaction even over the noise of the engine. But, he knew that an automobile with an exhausted driver was about the second - no, make that the third - worst place in the world to start anything, so instead he asked me, “Will, why is it that you call it ‘petting’ me? It’s an odd piece of slang for a Westerner to use.”
I thought about it as we made the turn and started the climb up Sunset Boulevard. “Maybe I’m remembering the closest critter I had to a friend back on the ranch. Pa had let most of the hands go, and we were out there running the spread pretty much by ourselves at the end. When I got sick of it all, I’d go and moan to the barn cat, a big old Marmalade Tom. He’d give me all the attention I wanted and take his pay in petting. I think it was him getting run over by the doctor that made me skip trying to keep our place going after Pa died. I told Pa that doctor was a fool.” I shook my head in the dark. “It’s a half-sappy, downright Hollywood kind of story.”
“And you can draw no comparisons from this?” Cole said, gentle-like.
“Not any that have to worry you if you think about it, as long as you don’t stand behind automobiles”
“You may have a point.” Cole paused. “What was your friend’s name?”
“Ah. Of course.” Cole fell silent again. I almost hoped he’d dozed off. It would make it a whole lot easier to do the sensible thing back at the house.
He wasn’t asleep but he was drifting. I got us into the garage and was ready to help him out of the roadster, but he made it by himself. “I should go up to the main house before I fall over. Good night, Sweet Will.”
“‘Night, Cole.” I didn’t want him to go, and he didn’t want to leave. He shook his head ruefully under the light of the single, bare bulb and I heard a soft scrunch of sand hitting the concrete floor of the garage. “Hold on a second.” I went over and started brushing dry sand off of him. “I shouldn’t have done that but you purely provoked me.” I got some more of it out by running my hands through his hair.
“Mmm,” he said, with his eyelids half closed. He was going under again, and I wondered if I was going to have to carry him back to the house. I gave his throat a pet or two, just to get a head start in case he decided to fall over.
“Cat, hmm?” he said. He leaned forwards and licked me then, right where my open collar converged at the second shirt button. Jesus.
I should have stopped him, but I’d like to see you try it. He unbuttoned my shirt and kept going. The little devil had been holding back before, probably not wanting to stampede me. This time he kissed me and lapped at me, caressed me with those hands of his and used his nails and teeth. I had no idea of how sensitive I was in some of the places he tried: the inside of my elbows, for instance, or between my ribs on the side. I moaned and trembled.
He wanted to get down on his knees in front of me, but now I had some idea of how that would end and knew I’d probably finish by falling over and squashing him. So I yanked down the blankets I had hanging on the clothes line and pulled him down on top of them with me. As it turned out, I got my hard rut after all although I kept Cole on top throughout. I figured when we were done we could sleep in my bed.
The late morning sun shone on me through the windows of the garage when I woke up the next day. I was still on those three blankets, half out of my stained and sandy clothes, with Cole sprawled across my chest and smiling in his sleep. Every muscle I had hated me. Out past the house, I could hear the sound of a lawnmower, which is probably what woke me. Thank God Cole had bought Señor Martinez a garden shed. All things considered, I don’t think I’ve ever woken up that happy in my life.
“Cole?” I shook him, easy-like.
“Hawaz?” he said, and came awake. I saw the expressions gallop across his face: recognition, shock, joy. He kissed me, and I enjoyed it even with day-old hamburger breath on both ends. Then he made the mistake of trying to move.
“Oh, my God.”
“Concrete’s not real good for sleeping on.”
“I’m too old for this. Shoot me, Will.”
“Nope.” I got up, leaned over – ow - and scooped him up.
We staggered up the stairs to my apartment, and I made him take the shower first. “And run it hot!” I yelled at him. His trousers hit me in the face.
While I was in the shower myself he made us some coffee. His clothes were okay to cross the driveway in, once I shook the sand out on the stairs. By the time we were ready to go over to the main house, you could have been forgiven for mistaking us for human beings. Cole looked kind of seedy, but Señora Martinez was used to seeing him come in at all sorts of odd hours in a lot of different states.
I let him go upstairs all by himself. It wasn’t too hard to behave, aside from the occasional passing urge to pet Cole, but there was no sense putting an undue strain on myself. Instead, I made myself useful by going into the kitchen and giving Señora Martinez an edited version of what happened in the dailies. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I knew the rumors would be all across town already, and I thought it might distract her.
It did. When Cole came down, she was giving me a hushed account of what her second daughter’s boyfriend’s mother’s cousin had said about the footage. It was a heck of a lot more ingenious than what Zorofsky had come up with, and I was making mental notes for future reference in my writing.
“—peacock feathers.” she concluded, and continued smoothly, “Good Morning, Mr. Cole.” Well, it was literally true.
“Good morning, Mrs. Martinez. Were there any calls for me this morning?”
“Mr. Stone, twice. And your agent, Mr. Gerello, twice.” Her voice was prim. “I told Mr. Stone I did not know where you were, and he said at least, since you were British, it was probably not jumping off the Hollywoodland sign.” We both looked at her. “He was joking—I think,” she added, darkly. “And also, Mr. Zimmerman called.”
“O the joy, o the rapture.” Cole grimaced. “Could you make us some truly formidable sandwiches for lunch, Mrs. M.? I had better return my calls.”
When I brought Cole’s share of the sandwiches into the office, he was finishing off his last call. “Yes, I shall be there. Yes, we’ll both be there. Yes, sir. I agree, sir. Goodbye.” He hung up the receiver and shook his head. “God. What a dire way to spend the first day of my week’s break between films. A week’s break between films, thank God.” He looked at me and sort of leered. “Will, I have a week’s break between films. Any requests?” He poked around the plate and fished out a roast beef and onion.
“Well, there’s Kevin’s cabin I still have the key to, up that San Gabriel side canyon, the one where I went on vacation last year to finish my book? He owes me one and the hiking’s real good, but we’d kind of have to rough it, all by ourselves.”
He was watching me.
“And we’d need to bring supplies because the nearest town’s miles off and there aren’t much in the way of neighbors.”
His chewing was slowing down, too.
“It’s pretty, though, even if you feel you’re sort of on your own, what with being in that grove of pine trees hanging over the river?”
He said thickly, maybe not all because of the food, “Privacy. My God.” I could feel him intending to move before he twitched a muscle, and, for a moment I feared for the fate of the plate of sandwiches. But, then he yanked the reins on himself, hard. “Umm. No plumbing, I assume, a woodstove that will need to be constantly tended, and a cold stream to wash in. In this season, it will most likely rain for days. Will, it sounds a veritable paradise.”
When he smiled at me like that, I was the one hauling back on the reins.
Cole said, a bit wistful-like, “Usually, I’m careful about the countryside. In the wilderness, the entire small band of natives observes your least footprint, while in the city you disappear, one among anonymous thousands. But, that safety presumes that you are not he against whom every man’s hand is turned. Then the city becomes a jungle. Speaking of which, we have a meeting.”
“With Mr. Stone?”
“No, with Mr. Zimmerman, a Senior Vice-President in charge of Production whom I doubt you have encountered as yet. My agent tells me that all the principles of Fisher will be getting a lecture today, and Zimmerman has been given the task of speaking with me as the most appropriate executive available.” Cole was silent for a moment and then added, almost at random, “Zimmerman’s quite talented, really. He has a good eye.”
I tilted my head in inquiry and sort of flopped my hand over.
He winced. “Will, don’t do that, it’s rude. On the other hand,” he looked a bit harried, “it’s good cover, too. Oh, decide for yourself.”
I guessed I’d have about a thousand of these choices to make over the next few months, so I did him the courtesy of letting him see me think the matter over so he’d know I was taking it seriously. “I’ll skip it, then. No sense annoying anyone when you don’t have to.”
“I agree. And, yes, you are right. It will be a chance for you to see the Hollywood pool-side society I mentioned to you last night before you’ve gone too far. It should be interesting for that, if no other, reason.”
There wasn’t any point in arguing with him just then. “I’ll bring my trunks.”
Mr. Zimmerman’s house was what I’d imagined that Cole’s would be like before I saw it, a big, expensive, fake Tudor pile way up in the hills, sprawling all over a property where the lawns and trees looked like they got daily manicures. We didn’t make it inside. The English butler showed us around the house past the pool, which was large enough to sail a battleship on, to some cabanas. We had to change into our trunks there before we were even escorted into the royal presence. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of who was top dog and would lift his leg as needed, but Cole took it with a kind of dark amusement that kept the whole thing in perspective.
Mr. Zimmerman himself was nothing special to see. He was late middle-aged, medium height, medium build, half-balding, and wore glasses. Maybe, for his age, he was on the trim and natty side. Dressed in white, he looked like he’d just come from tennis. He sat at a table with a big umbrella shading it, by the end of the pool away from the diving board. There was only one chair across from him.
“Roger.” Cole said.
“Nigel. Good of you to come over this afternoon, on such short notice.”
“Thank you for inviting me. This is my secretary and sometimes bodyguard, Will Herndon.”
“How do you do, Will?” Mr. Zimmerman gave me one good blast of what I’d come to think of as the studio stare, like I was a steer from a dubious spread and he was trying to decide how much meat and leather could ever come out of me. “I need to have a talk with your employer. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the other guests?” I glanced at Cole and he gave me a small nod, so I did.
Reclining on lounges and sitting along the edge of the pool, chowing down on what looked to be a pretty nice spread of grub from a couple of long tables set out on the lawn, were six or seven fellows about my age or younger. I guessed they were the party decorations; later, I realized they were also there to remind Cole of what he would be missing if he settled down to try and ride a single cow pony. All of them were good looking, and one or two - I could admit it now - would make you swallow, then breathe hard and fast. It was time to eat before my body, which Cole had left feeling pretty lively, made me do something socially I didn’t know how to handle yet.
I was right about the grub, at least. If I kept to the simple fare and ignored the fish eggs and bloated goose innards, it was as tasty as anything I’d ever eaten. Before I talked to my fellow guests I filled a plate and, ignoring the beer on ice and liquor in bottles, snagged a coca-cola. A guy needs help in a nerve-racking situation like that, but I wanted to be alert.
Turned out the natives were nice enough for the most part. I think they’d been briefed. After greetings and some chit-chat, I decided that a couple of them were there for the grub and gossip, a couple should have been out chasing girls but would rather be here chasing money, and a couple would have gone home with me in a minute if I could have pushed them in front of a camera. One character, though, held himself kind of aloof like he was the son of the town banker. He hadn’t greeted me the way the others did, but instead had given me a quick horrified glance like I’d broken wind and then ignored me.
I’d settled on a lawn chair next to the gossip boys, one of whom was oiling up the other, and I asked them what the appalled reaction was all about.
“Raoul’s a personal friend of Mr. Zimmerman’s. He’s feeling rather peevish, Will, because he doesn’t like to be used as a lawn ornament.” That was from the one lying down, Joey. I sort-of knew him from studio costuming and had found he could be pretty funny on the subject of pinto-hide chaps and jingle-jangle spurs.
The other guy, Tom, added, “When he’s feeling peevish, he bites. Stay away from him if you can.” Given the circumstances, that was downright friendly of him. I hung around and talked with the two of them while I cleaned up my plate. It turned out there was nothing wrong with those boys a good chat wouldn’t fix. Joey told me later, when we’d taken to playing poker together now and again, that he and Tom had come to the same conclusion about me. I guess I’d started out by looking like I had a pickle up my butt.
After a while it was time to swim, so I went into the pool. The boys came on along to be sociable, and we ended up getting a scratch game of water polo going against the tough guys, who’d been taking turns pushing each other into the water and otherwise behaving rowdy to demonstrate what kind of men they were. Joey, Tom and I made up a side, and I am pleased to report we purely thrashed those drugstore cowboys.
When we were done I got out, toweled my hair, and went over to check if Cole needed anything. He and Mr. Zimmerman were eating a meal that had been brought to them by a houseboy and were talking studio politics. By Cole’s slight air of tension, in all that time, not one thing important had gotten resolved. It figured.
Cole caught sight of me, and his lips quirked just a tad before he gave me a little shake of the head. Mr. Zimmerman caught the motion, turned in his chair, and said, “Just a minute, Will. Have a seat.”
Naturally I had to fetch my own chair from over by the others. Joey grinned at me with a kind of malicious sympathy, and Tom gave me a little rueful head-shake of his own. No one else seemed to notice me go or care, except for Raoul, who turned to watch me travel.
When I sat down, the conversation had shifted to movie previews and patterns of theater distribution, something about which I knew little and cared less. So I sat next to Cole and kept my thoughts to myself for a few minutes, waiting for the clippers to come out of the fire.
After Mr. Zimmerman rang for another drink, there it came. “We’re going to preview a proper cut of Fisher of Men using the more sensible footage that Zorofsky showed in the dailies. D.J. thinks we should cut some of the pirated footage into the final version to quell the rumors floating around town.”
“D.J. knows the public,” Cole said, mildly.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Nigel, because I’ve been counted off to tell you we’re keeping the first take from the banquet in the film, the one where Will, here, plays a sofa cushion.”
“Mmm.” When Cole sounded like that in a film, you never knew if he was going to pull out a ledger or a razor.
“We’ll dump all the goo-goo gaze shots, of course. It was obvious those were mostly camera angles.” Mr. Zimmerman slipped in the ‘mostly’ as smooth as a bowie knife going into a bar of butter. “As for the other—” He shrugged. “I understand that Zorofsky told you to fall into line, or you’d be off the set.”
“He was most definite about the matter, and, according to my contract, I am obliged to follow the director’s instructions in all issues pertaining to blocking and cinematography.”
“Yes, I know. That colored extra, Dave, confirmed your story. But, that’s neither here nor there.” He stopped. Raoul was approaching, carrying a chair. He’d changed from his swim suit into some silky-looking trousers and a nice mint-green shirt with an open collar. I have to admit, he looked fine enough that I understood why Mr. Zimmerman, after one frown of warning, let him be. But, when Raoul smirked a little as he sat himself down at Mr. Zimmerman’s elbow, it broke any spell his handsome person might have cast. The boy was too much of a rooster for my taste, all fine feathers and crow.
“Will,” Mr. Zimmerman continued, now ignoring the interruption, “Everest Studios owes you an apology.”
I knew better than to do anything but look inquiring.
“You were forced into something much against your nature, which I understand is both creative and hard-working. You are an author? I believe you have several stories and a book published?”
“So, then. As just amends, Everest is prepared to offer you a full-time job, under a three-year contract, as a scriptwriter.”
The hook was obvious, of course. If I worked as a scriptwriter full-time I couldn’t be Cole’s secretary, not and keep up my serious writing. The job wouldn’t get me off Cole’s property, though. I wondered how he’d manage that.
“We’d like you to start by helping James Rankin with a script he’s preparing set on a Dude Ranch in Nevada.” For a scriptwriter, Jimmy Rankin was a big name, but—“He only works out of his bungalow at the Garden of Allah, of course, so you’d have to move in there yourself. The studio will pay for the move and six month’s rent.”
I didn’t even have to look at Cole. “Thank you, sir, but I don’t think so. I’m comfortable where I am right now, working for Mr. Cole.” That Raoul curled his lip just the tiniest bit.
There was no need to wonder why because Mr. Zimmerman kept going. “Mr. Cole said that you were quite capable of making your own decisions, Will, so I’ll be frank.” I bet Cole didn’t say it like that. “There is some room for negotiation but not a great deal.” In other words, the studio would up the ante but had no intention of folding to a gold-digger.
I tried being a tad more blunt. “I like Mr. Cole.” Raoul’s lip curled some more.
Mr. Zimmerman frowned. “I’m sure you do, Will. Mr. Cole likes you, as well. He’s helped give you your start, and now the studio wants to help you go farther.”
He really didn’t get it, not at all. Cole’s humor, his love of books, the lack of side, and the affection he would lavish on anyone who deserved it, none of that meant a damn thing to Mr. Zimmerman. I could tell him all about how Cole fought in the Great War, or how hard Cole worked to be spooky for his fans, or even how that blond hair got all squadged-up and funny-looking first thing in the morning, and he’d stare at me blankly and wonder what I was after. All we might agree to admire about Cole was the size of his checking account and of his pecker, and, even then, we’d have different reasons. Power: to a character like Mr. Zimmerman, it was all about power. There was no point in looking for anything in a boyfriend that someone else couldn’t see and envy you for.
“No, sir.” He’d just have to cope; that was all.
“Nigel?” He turned to Cole.
“Will’s a rather large man, Roger, and quite stubborn when he wants to be. As a result, he’s hard to move when his mind is made up. I think we’ll have to let matters proceed as they may and trust in Will’s discretion.”
Mr. Zimmerman shook his head, more in sorrow than in anger. “Will needs to understand that whatever the monetary advantages of his current situation are, or whatever the brief fame he can garner by talking to the papers is, Everest will prove to be, in the long run, a more reliable patron.”
By the time I’d deciphered that, I’d had just about enough of having both my words and my honor doubted. “Thank you, Mr. Zimmerman, but if I need fame I’ll earn myself some with my typewriter. And, as to money,” I gave him a seraphic smile I’d seen Cole use, “my mother’s trust fund comes to me when I turn twenty-five.” Too bad I just had to rub it in. “Her people are Boston bankers, so it’s mostly held in gilt-edged bonds.”
Mr. Zimmerman stared at me, his expression confused. By then, I’d almost forgotten there was someone else present to spit out what he was thinking.
“Bonds?” Raoul blurted. “You’ve got money, and you’re screwing that ugly little Creep?”
What happened next just goes to show that you can take the boy off the ranch, but you can’t take the ranch out of the boy. I looked at his sneering face, and all I saw was yet another stuck-up Hollywood dude with a two-bit attitude. I was up onto my feet and my hands shot out before my brain finished deciding what to do. I got a hold on the collar of the pretty shirt, the seat of the shiny pants, and I heaved him out of his chair and into the pool. He made one hell of a splash going in, and I had to step lively to keep from getting soaked down as he thrashed about and bawled like a bull-calf headed for the clippers.
For a moment, Cole’s face went slack with surprise. Then he leaned back in his own chair, fished around in his robe, and pulled out a silver cigarette case engraved with his initials. It was only actor’s business to give him time to think since he almost never smokes unless he’s in front of a camera, but it gave me a chance to ride my point home. I strolled over to him, pulled out the lighter he gave me that night at the Coconut Grove from my own robe, and matched him. He took a long draw, breathed out smoke, and flashed me the smile he usually saved for starlets in front of the press at the Derby. I turned my chair around and straddled it.
To give Mr. Zimmerman his due, he hoisted his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. He watched with an expression of mild interest as Raoul climbed out of the pool and came stomping towards us. I still don’t know what that boy intended to do, but, whatever it was, he changed his mind mid-trip. Maybe it was our attitudes. I don’t know what showed on my face, but I was fed up, and the glimpse I caught of Cole’s pan out of the corner of my eye would have made a starving coyote think twice. He was wearing that look, that famous Jack-the-Ripper expression, that had made him so much cash down through the years. It was the first time I’d seen it used in earnest, and I can assure you it was worse off-screen than on. Raoul pulled up short, worked his fists, stood there, and dripped.
“Why don’t you go into the house and change, Raoul,” Zimmerman said, his voice mild.
Raoul was on a short leash. He did what he was told with only a straight back and a sneer to let the world know he’d been done wrong. The other fellows scattered around the pool were either cat-calling or buzzing behind the hands that weren’t holding drinks. Zimmerman slowly shook his head.
“As if we didn’t already have enough of a problem with Fisher. The columnists will know all about this tomorrow, and it costs to plug that sort of leak.”
Cole shrugged elaborately, the cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. I reached over and snagged it, took a drag, and put it back where it came from. The smoke made me want to gag but I tamped it down, since it would have ruined the effect I was trying for. I’d learned something over the past two years, watching Cole’s starlets and fancy boys.
Cole smiled at me, slowly, and said, “As I’ve mentioned, Will is stubborn. He’s decided he doesn’t like to see me denigrated, and he is protective by nature.”
“I seem to have misunderstood what you meant by that, Nigel.”
“Ah, well, discretion. Publicity always tells me it’s the better part of valor.”
“A lesson Raoul could stand to learn.” Zimmerman shook his head again, and I relaxed since I could tell the crisis was over. He was a studio man, first, last and always. He would muzzle his pet sidewinder before I took a notion to do something more loco - and harder to explain to the press - than dumping the little snake into a swimming pool.
Cole exhaled one last puff of smoke, then stubbed his cigarette out in a cut-crystal ashtray on the table. “If there isn’t anything else, we’ll be going. I only have a week between films, and it seems a shame to waste any of it.” He got up and so did I. “Thank you for lunch, Roger, and I promise Will and I will do our best to keep out of the public eye for a while. Please ask D.J. to call me and let me know which starlet is supposed to be condoling with me over my broken heart.” He strolled off over the lawn. I grinned at Mr. Zimmerman, waved good-bye, and followed.
We didn’t bother to change back into our clothes in the cabanas, we just pulled our shirts and trousers on over our trunks, got in the car, and drove. Cole stirred when I turned right instead of left and headed up into the hills, but he didn’t say anything. I worked onto Ridgeway Drive, a road along the crest of the hills that went along for miles, switching back and forth between pavement and dirt, and let my eyes and hands do the work while I tried to find the words for what I wanted to tell him.
Cole found his words first. “You know, I am an ugly little creep, Will.” His tone was so mild it was almost indifferent.
“Shut up on that. I’m a big, ugly mug, myself. You won’t see this face winning prizes in a beauty contest.”
“Mmm. Not to my eyes, but—yes, I do comprehend what you’re saying.”
Now it was my turn. “I’m sorry I threw that Raoul in the pool.” I hate apologizing, I surely do.
“I have to admit, I’m not. Even from the standpoint of studio politics, it’s not as much of a problem as you may think. In this town, irrational actions are sometimes used to demonstrate that you have the resources to afford them. I’m fairly sure Zimmerman will interpret your impetuosity in that way.” He paused. “By the way, if you want to stop working as my secretary full time and devote yourself to writing, please feel free.”
“Heck, no. I need the job.”
“You have money.”
My jaw was probably out a bit. This was a sore spot for me. “Yup, I will have money, but that’s different from having it right now. You can starve pretty good while you’re waiting.” I slowed to let a Rolls back out between the gate posts of some rich man’s toy ranch. “It’s a lot easier, knowing that there’s an end to your poverty coming, but you’re still poor.”
“All right, then, you are condemned to answer fan mail and type up script notes. I have to admit I’m glad. Although I had certain ulterior motives in hiring you, you’ve always done a good job.” He was quiet for a long couple of minutes and then suddenly continued, “It’s been so long since I tried offering only myself, I’ve rather forgotten how. Creeps, unlike Stars, do not get to practice even Hollywood’s version of romance. I’m afraid I’m somewhat rusty.”
We were driving on dirt now, going around a curve cut into the hillside between two building sites. I pulled the roadster over into a wide spot meant to let trucks pass each other and turned the engine off. It was Sunday and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. We both got out and took a look around. The dust cloud of our passing drifted away from the road, thinned by the same warm wind that had cleared out the smog so that you could see the Pacific, wrinkled and shining in the distance, as the sun set. Far below the brush-covered slopes that fell away from us, the lights were going on in the houses and buildings of Hollywood. Somewhere back in the hills, dusky green from the spring rains, a coyote yipped. That and the faint rustle of the chaparral in the dry wind, the metallic ticks of our cooling engine, and the far-off rumble of a big city that is never silent, were the only noises you could hear.
Cole looked at me, then leaned against the side of the roadster and folded his arms. “A very boy-gives-ring-to-girl setting, a very Hollywood kind of place for an ending that’s supposed to be a beginning. Why are we here, Will?”
I said, slowly, trying to work it out for myself, “I grew up out in the open where I could do or say anything I wanted, as long as I hid what I really wanted from myself. Now I’m going to do what I truly want, and I’ll have to hide for the rest of my life.” Cole stirred. “Don’t waste your breath, Cole. You already tried warning me off once. Since you made the same choice yourself, Mr. Son-of-a-banker, you can’t tell me not to. Besides, more talk would be nothing but a waste of time. My mother, the books, my leaving made me a renegade. This only makes me an outlaw.” I spread my arms out wide. “Here in the open, it seems like the right place to ask. Come on Cole, let’s get this over with. Give me the screen kiss and then I’ll drive you home and you can prove to us both that I’m right by giving me the rest of it.”
“We are going to get arrested if we keep on like this,” Cole said darkly, but he opened his arms.
I kissed him, he kissed me, sort of like you do in a movie but not really. Anyhow, as Cole told me later, the word had come down from the gods of Everest on high: no more open-mouthed kisses, no more hands caressing anyplace sensitive, no more same-sex touches. From now on, everything would be done by Code. Everest would have had our lips meet chastely and then me cradle the golden head against my manly chest as we both gazed out into the sunset together and a title announced ‘The End’. That’s what would have happened with a hero and a heroine, at least. But never, not ever, would the Creep have gotten even a half-assed screen kiss, especially not from his sidekick.
Cole, well, his thin lips were soft and clever, and his tongue was warm and aggressive against mine. If we didn’t linger long, watching the sun sinking into the Pacific, it wasn’t for chastity’s sake, it was so we could find someplace better for our hard-ons to ride fence together than the dusty, green Hollywood Hills.
We drove back to the house and went up to Cole’s bedroom, where my life had first veered off from the studio script. There, where I had fussed over Cole and wondered why I wanted to linger, he slowly stripped off my trousers, my shirt, and my swim trunks. In the room where Cole had used the pain of a busted leg to keep control as my big hands sponged him clean, I removed his own clothes with those same hands and watched his eyes darken and his cock swell with his pleasure.
The way his skin felt to me, the hardness of him, the good, male scent, had shown me where I wanted to spread my bedroll months ago, even if I hadn’t known the name of the outfit. Now it was time for me to learn the brand of my new ranch.
Cole understood, too. Stubborn he’d called me and stubborn I am, so he knew what I’d insist on, and he wanted me ready. He caressed me, using all the tricks he’d shown me last night and a few more. That lean little body of his wrapped around me like Cat stropping my leg, firing me with his heat. Then he pleasured me with his tongue and lips, nibbling and tasting down my chest and around my hips, up my backbone to the nape of my neck. He even suckled my earlobes and kissed the hollows behind them as I growled deep and twisted against the sheets. All that time, his hands were being as blunt as his lips were being subtle. It didn’t take long. When he let me feel his weight on top of me for a moment, his ragged voice murmured low in my ear, “Last chance, Will.”
I just laughed at him.
He rutted over me to let me know he was serious. He was laughing, too, even as his cock slid between my buttocks. The laughter was wild, the kind of sound he’d use on film to show the villain behind the bland man’s face. But, it was also sweet, as if when the mask was stripped away an angel and not a devil lived behind it. It made my gut twist and my heart pound, and I bucked hard beneath him.
“All right, Will, all right.” He shoved a pillow beneath my hips, and I twisted to watch over my shoulder as he opened the bottle he kept in the nightstand. Leisurely, he oiled up his fingers and his cock. Then, still smiling, he explored where no one had ever caressed me before.
For once I didn’t have a word to say. He could read what I thought in my eyes, though, because he leaned forward for a moment, stropped his slightly whiskery cheek against my back again, and then kissed my shoulders as he positioned himself.
“Mmm,” I said, replying with his favorite word. He snorted, slapped my hip with his free hand, and I snickered. Then, when I felt him gain purchase, I swore.
He didn’t give me a chance to tense up, to think it over and get scared. He worked all the way inside with slow care before he stretched out atop me, breathing raggedly, waiting.
“Okay,” I said. What a whopper I was telling: it hurt some, but it was downright wonderful, too. I had Cole with me, and it was as if I had been waiting for that all of my life.
He screwed me then, he sodomized me; you can call it what you want but it felt a hell of a lot like making love to me. It also felt raw and good like I was yielding up something I’d never wanted in the first place. Maybe it was the reins. I was moaning and cussing and begging him to ride me harder. He did, his breath coming in deep huffs. His hand snaked under me to grasp my cock, and he pumped it. But it wasn’t long before he stiffened and let go. As he bowed back, he called out my name and pleaded with me for what was his already.
“Hell, yes,” I said. His coming in me was everything and not enough. Being Cole, he knew that. He slid out of me carefully, still breathing heavy, and rolled me over with one great heave. I got my elbows under me and levered myself up barely in time to watch Cole take my cock into his mouth. He’d only worked his hot, wet tongue up and down me twice before it was too much to be stood. My hand had just tangled into his hair when I felt it tear out of me, from my gut and thighs, from my buttocks, my cock, and my heart. He took it all with an expression in his eyes I’d never seen directed towards me before, as if I were sacred, the most precious thing in the world.
We lay there afterwards, together. When I caught my breath, I said, “Told you so. It’s that simple.”
He smiled up at me from my thigh, where he was pillowed. “You were right, Cowboy Will.”
“Nigel.” I tried the sound of it in my mouth. “Nigel Cole. My sweetheart Nigel Cole? My buddy Nigel Cole? Nigel Cole, my lover.”
“Any and all of the above,” he said, and kissed me down there. “However, now—” He groaned and rolled over off the bed and onto his feet. “—Nigel Cole, needing the loo.” Staggering a little, he headed for the bathroom. He’d made about four steps when the phone rang.
We both stared at it as if it were a rattlesnake. Then Cole shrugged, sat back down on the bed next to me, and picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” He rolled his eyes at me and put one hand on my shoulder. I kissed it, and he smacked me. “Ah. Hello D.J. Yes, everything went well at Mr. Zimmerman’s.” He listened to the telephone squawk for a while. “I’m not sure why anyone from the studio is complaining, to be frank. It seems to me to be a great deal more discreet to keep company with a single trustworthy individual than to chase every piece of candy in Hollywood.” This time the squawking went on for a while longer. “Yes, I know who his relatives are. No, I do not think that Miss Anderson would be a safer and more respectable companion.”
I’d had enough. This was wasting Cole’s free time, a precious resource in Hollywood. I reached over and, catching Cole by surprise, got the phone away from him. Then I fended him off as I said, “Mr. Stone? Will Herndon. You just tell Uncle Bill to let the family know that if they don’t want me kicking up a fuss about the voting of all that bank stock in the trust fund, they’d better not kick up a fuss about this. I can repeat myself if you need me to. Also, how about Miss Blake? She doesn’t like men that way, anyhow.” The phone was silent, then gave out with one last bout of squawking. “Yes, sir. Thank you. Goodbye.” I hung up.
Cole, who had stopped struggling, asked, his voice mild, “And, what did he say?”
I shrugged. “Mazeltof?”
He leapt then, the little devil, bore me back onto that bed, and did terrible things to me until I begged and screamed. But, heck, I’d expect no less from Hollywood’s second-favorite black-hearted fiend, even if he wears the white hat in this cowboy’s dreams.
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