A  James Rudolph Novel

A Memorable Pastrami

Welles & Mussos

Shootout on Hightower

A MEMORABLE PASTRAMI

 

Usually leery about picking up hails, but this guy was a Woody Allen type with a brown bag, looking lost down near Vermont. Woody crawled in and I threw the flag. Said he was looking for his wife. Then he reached over the seat like he wanted to shake. I shook and found a fifty in my palm. "I'm not a pimp, pal."

 

“My wife. Really. She's in a bar.” he said. “Alvarado. Maybe seventh street west of the slot.”

 

“That's a lot of bars.”

 

“Naw. Two, maybe three.” He had a whiny kind of rasp. “The fifty's so's you'll wait for me.” When we hit MacArthur Park he yelled me to pull over. “I need a pastrami!” he croaked. “You want one?”

 

“I'll pass.” and he was out of the cab and into Langers's.

 

Langer's Delicatessen has been on the corner of Seventh and Alvarado since the war. The big one. Still make the best hot pastrami sandwich in LA. “Hey!” He was outside my window with two brown bags now. Passed one in to me. Warm. Smelled like heaven. “Save it for later." and he was back in the cab.

 

Ah, well. What the hell. I caught him in the rear-view wolfing his sammy. Then I saw his eyes flash. “It's her!” Spitting mustard. Gulden's. I scoped a hooker and her trick entering a seedy bar with a broken sign across the street, couple doors up, and my guy was out, dodging traffic.

 

Everything suddenly went slo-mo as I watched him pull the biggest, shiniest, mother-of-pearl forty-five I'd ever seen from his brown bag. Then he did kind of a Frankenstein lurch into the bar, and it couldn't have been a couple of seconds before I don't know how many blasts lit up the street. The flashes strobed Langer's and I saw wide-eyed faces like paintings in the windows.

 

Suddenly Woody's at my open passenger window. He leans in, grinning like an idiot. “Thanks pal.” And he tosses the mother of pearl onto the seat. Then he just strolled to the corner at Alvarado and disappeared. That tore it and I laid twenty, thirty feet of righteous rubber. Two blocks later I was hyperventilating in an alley.

 

I eyed my brown bag. Reached in. Pulled out a pastrami. A very hot pastrami. With Gulden's. What the hell, it was from Langer's and it tasted great. I chewed slow and stared down at this Silverado gun with Jesus on the pearl handle. And this big black hole on the end of it was just staring back at me. Fuck it. I did the block up to Wilshire, grabbed a left and stormed past MacArthur Park, still half in the bag, chewing on my pastrami, eyeing my new piece and cruising out Wilshire on my way back to the Wood.

DRUNK OR SOBER, MUSSO'S WAS WELLES' FIRST STOP IN HOLLYWOOD.

 

Drunk or sober, Musso's was Welles' first stop in Hollywood. He was a huge, fat guy. A lot fatter than I'd remembered. I'd seen him in some movies like Citizen Kane and some other one with Ava Gardner, or maybe he directed that one, I don't know. All I know is that he was drunk and wanted to know if I knew who he was, once I packed him into my cab out of the Biltmore downtown. My first fare that night.

 

“Motorman!” he yelled from the dark in his rich baritone.

 

“Driver is okay.” I replied.

 

“I prefer something that evokes grander imagery, like teamster or drover perhaps.”

 

“Drover's fine.” I muttered. “And where may I drove you?”

 

“Haw haw!” He broke up. “Haw haw wa-haw haw!” He sounded like a mule. “Do you know who I am?” he bellowed.

 

I got his beadies in the rear-view. They were like pig's eyes, all munched up inside a red, puffy face. But they were bright, and I saw him in there. “Yeah, you're the guy in that movie with the sled on the fire. The one with Orson Welles in it.”

 

“I AM Orson Welles!” he bellowed...again.

 

“Yeah yeah, where to rosebud?” I droned. And then the eyes warmed up and so did his laugh, more of a chuckle now.

 

“God, it's the people that make this town great.” he said. A nice, mellow voice. “I hate coming back to Hollywood, until I talk to a local cabbie and dine at Musso & Frank, my favorite restaurant. Got my own booth y'know...and  the waiter, my best friend Jesse...” Slurring.

 

“Musso in twenty.” I droned low. Me the man now.

 

“Take me down the Boulevard, end to end.” He said. “I need redemption, and I have a feeling that you're the only one who can possibly find it for me.” Then he flopped unconscious on the seat.

 

Musso & Frank Grill, on the Boulevard at 6667 since the 20s. One of the oldest in Hollywood along with Nickodell's over by Paramount, the Brown Derby down on Vine and Scandia up on the strip. And guess what? Orson Welles does have his own booth, right up front. Me and a waiter named Jesse hauled him in, walked him over and dumped him in it.

 

Turns out Jesse also is famous. Been at Musso since the twenties. Started out as bus-boy, worked his way up to headwaiter. Anyway, Welles shoved a fifty at me, and out on the curb Jesse, his best friend, slipped me another twenty. Then he said thanks. A real class act. It was the beginning of a great shift and a great new friendship, and I've always deferred to Jesse. He's a guy earns your respect on the natch. Also, you fuck with Jesse, you fuck with me.

 

SHOOTOUT ON HIGHTOWER:

 

Almost dark now, and a big moon coming up. I climb the stairs and the switchbacks alongside the Hightower elevator, until I find myself on the walkway leading up to the last unit on the right.

 

Black and white TV strobing. “Get down off that hoss before I pull ya down...” Or something like that. I'm on the porch. I crane to the open window. “Cindy. It's Ray.”

 

“I said, get down offa that hoss...” Silence. Somebody turned down the volume. Now I'm scared fucking shitless and I find pistola. TV still strobing.

 

Fuck it. I kick open the door. “Cindy, god dammit!” A small-frame somebody silhouetted between me and the TV. I step in out of the strobe. “Cindy!” I whisper.

 

“Cindy's in the bedroom Ray.” Mom rasp. Fear in it. “She's beat up pretty bad.” Mom inching backward. Stumbles and trips over the coffee table. It goes over. Bottles, cans, rattle to the floor. I scope razor blades, a mirror flashing in the strobe.

 

“Turn on the lights, Mom.” I reach down for the overturned table lamp. Huh! It goes on, and we look like a scene from the big fucking sleep. Makes me giggle. Feeling the rush now. Old Black-Eyed Ray, back in town and the moment is on us all.

 

 “Where is she, Mom?” Kicking the overturned coffee table hard against the tinny TV stand, and it all goes down. I scope her momentary eye-flick to the left, and there he is. There he fucking is. A silhouette in the kitchen door. I quick squeeze one off but he's back in the shadows.

 

Now a low-light in the bedroom comes on and it's Cindy, full length through the bedroom doorway. The business suit. The unbuttoned, silk blouse, lingerie beneath. The patent spikes, red lips parted, hair wild and perfect, some kind of light burning behind her eyes. Instinct and I'm out the door ahead of three hellacious bangs. I'm down the path and I feel him behind me. Elevator doors open. Fuck it. Vault the gate and fall down the pathway. Again. This time no pain. Rolling over and over and down and out into the street. Sprinting to Bird, scoping the steel arrow over the elevator doors moving down slow. Bird growls to life at my first touch. I release the brake and we are burning big time rubber.

 

Fifty feet out and the elevator doors opening. Twenty feet out, Jerk-Off Man with Dirty Harry Canon frozen in my headlights. Bird's brightest illuminate a face of absolute horror. It's really just a snap-shot, because in the next instant it's ground zero, and two blast-holes web the windshield, and I see Kaleidoscopic Jerk-Off Man flying in slow motion. Face-first into the webbed glass, and we are nose to nose, twelve inches apart. Big, fat, blood-soaked bandage over the hole in the lower half of his face. Eyes red as the blood. Then gone. Gone up and over my head, and down onto the street behind me. I make the pile in my side-view as dead meat just before Bird brodies off Hightower and onto Camrose. She wants to flip but I hold her close till we're finally stopped in the middle of the intersection. Dead quiet. I look up into a huge full moon. A mockingbird bursts into hysterical laughter and I begin to weep.