Stucky was not a screenwriter by trade, but the market for historical fiction was poor and it seemed incredible that no one had ever made a biopic about Trotsky. Trotsky was the perfect Hollywood subject. History had conspired to preserve his innocence. Not uniformly, of course—he had commanded the Red Army in the Civil War, and declined to flinch from the harsh realities of command. Whole villages loyal to the Whites were slaughtered. Pregnant mothers hacked to bits, children set afire. As a Utopian theoretician, it must have been terrible for him. One imagines Trotsky on a visit to the front, alone in the small hours in a field tent on the steppe east of Saratov: October, snow on the ground, a bitter wind bringing news of winter from Siberia. Trotsky sips a vodka and allows himself a rare moment to reflect. For the most part one must press relentlessly ahead, but now the camp is quiet and his generals are all asleep. Sleep comes easily for them; the burden rests with Trotsky. Yesterday he rode past two soldiers raping a corpse in a ditch by the road. The world cannot be remade in a tidy fashion. None of this was in Stucky’s script. In Stucky’s script it was Trotsky alone who had not been fooled by Stalin, who had stood up to the tyrant when everyone else was forsaking the Revolution to save his own skin. It was Trotsky alone who rose to give truth a voice as his comrades wilted on all sides. He did so caring nothing for his own life, which would first be made wretched and then end at last in violence. He must have known in advance how the whole thing would play out. This was the stuff of Hollywood: Hollywood loves a martyr.
Stucky hadn’t been to Los Angeles for years when his agent called to announce that he’d arranged a couple pitch meetings for the script. “I had to call in some markers,” he said. “This idea’s a dud.”
“Mmm,” said Stucky.
“Don’t get me wrong, bud, I love it, but nobody wants to make a Commie flick. Proletarian revolt is like a punch line. Yesterday’s papers. Individuals are all the rage, know what I mean?”
“Trotsky is an individual.”
“He’s a shill for the masses. Strictly passé.”
“Don’t pout, Tiger. You’re a genius to hear me tell it. All I’m saying is get your game face on—this baby isn’t gonna sell herself.”
“I will don my game face.”
“Don—that’s a great verb. Look, get a little sun while you’re down there, Ace. Play some beach volleyball. Try to relax.”
Yes, he would try to relax. February in Seattle was even worse than usual, endless days of drizzle and bone-damp fog, raccoon shit clogging the gutters on Stucky’s roof and causing leaks to appear in the kitchen and dining room, but he found that he was not looking forward to his trip. Los Angeles seemed to represent something dystopic in Stucky’s brain, a harrowing vision of the future, the victory of fragmentation and style. This was a common idea, an article of the conventional wisdom culled from Nathanael West and a thousand films. Also, Stucky’s last visit to L.A., nearly a decade ago, had been occasioned by a brief, volatile love affair—a fling, to use the awful term—that ended in confusion and tears in the parking lot of an art deco carwash on Sunset Boulevard. Shouting after his lover as her Hyundai peeled out onto Sunset, watching her upraised middle finger stare back at him as it receded toward Los Feliz, standing in the sun in a blue suit he’d been wearing for three days, Stucky realized that he had unwittingly entered the dream logic of the great and sprawling city: he was enacting a scene from a movie. No, he did not want to go back to Los Angeles, but the screenplay represented his lone financial and professional hope. His last novel, The Love Song of Charles de Gaulle, had sold so poorly that he would have to work under an alias if he ever wished to publish in the United States again. He would fly down on Tuesday and make his first pitch the next morning, with a second meeting to follow the day after. On Friday morning he would fly home. The schedule left him with plenty of downtime, and it was for this reason, perhaps against his better judgment, that he decided to call his old friend Bobby Raskin.
“Stucky, you old so-and-so!” Raskin said on the phone. “How the hell are you? Still suffering for art?”
“Terribly. My pain is heroic. How’s the ruthless world of high finance?”
“Ruthless? Who told you ruthless? These pussycats just want to purr, my friend. Give ’em the milk and they lick it right up, if you catch my drift.”
“Sure. They love the milk.”
“I got some fossil Jews at my club who used to spar with Meyer Lansky for the top-shelf trim down in old Havana. I watch them light cigars on the terrace—beautiful Cohibas, they never run out. That’s as close as Raskin gets to ruthless these days.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Stucky said. He hadn’t spoken to Raskin in a long time, but Raskin had not changed. Raskin never changed. This, in fact, was the purpose of Raskin. Whenever you stepped in gum or were shat on by a bird, you could take comfort in the knowledge that somewhere in the world, at that very moment, Raskin was probably getting blown in a limo. Life was chaos, Stucky felt, but even chaos had its limits. Its limits were Raskin. He explained that his game was venture capital now—running a “boutique” firm that “dabbled in a little of everything.” Hustling, in other words, turning profit wherever he found it, above board and below, making money as other men breathed. Venture capital was new vocabulary; for Raskin, the game itself was timeless. He and Stucky agreed to meet for lunch, and then perhaps head out to Santa Anita for the races.
“I got a colt going off in the fourth. Magnificent animal. You have to see him—a twenty-to-one shot. Jesus, it’s like free money.”
It was all free to Raskin. “I’ll bring my piggy bank,” Stucky said, watching the water drip from his ceiling into a Crock-Pot he’d set on the kitchen floor. He had no doubt that Raskin’s horse would win—unless he, Stucky, should venture to place a bet on it, in which case the “magnificent animal” would probably spontaneously combust.
His flight left Sea-Tac in the early gloom of a winter afternoon, two hours late. They were barely off the ground when it became clear that someone aboard had terrible gas. The rank smell bloomed in untraceable waves; everyone sought to exonerate themselves with looks of suitable disgust. Stucky had no choice but to join them. The failure to glance suspiciously around was like an admission of guilt. A complex dance of smell and mien: no one said a word aloud. At LAX the smoking pens were full of Asian men. Stucky drifted past, down the gleaming concourse, as the gentle lilt of a woman’s voice called strangers to the courtesy phone. He arrived late at the hotel and watched a movie on cable. The movie was about a golden retriever who learns to play piano. The dog’s owner works at a ramshackle beach club, but developers want to buy the club and turn it into a high-end resort. The landlord is prepared to sell—the club will close unless its employees can somehow raise enough money to match the developers’ offer. The situation seems hopeless until Jenny discovers the dog’s fantastic talent. At first no one believes her. Later, a concert is organized. Stucky fell asleep and dreamed of Trotsky playing “Great Balls of Fire” in Moscow at the Party Congress of 1926.
In the morning he pitched his script. The meeting was held in a windowless conference room in Century City. A middle-aged studio apparatchik by the name of Bunsen—“like the burner”—greeted Stucky warmly. He made small talk for a few minutes and then asked for the pitch. Latte foam clung to his upper lip. The walls of the room were bare. Stucky nodded, drew a breath.
“The great question of modernity,” he began, “is whether the forces of which history is comprised have grown so large that their outcomes may be considered, insofar as the individual is concerned, inevitable, or whether these great forces instead remain vulnerable to the influence of a single man’s life. In other words: Are we necessarily the victims of history, or may history, in effect, become our victim? Trotsky stands at the very center of this question by seeming to evince both notions at once . . .”
He walked Bunsen through Trotsky’s political origins, his crucial years with Lenin in London, their period of estrangement, the Revolution, the shock of a victory that shook the world, the Civil War, and then Stalin’s slow consolidation of power—the force of Stalin’s narrow genius, his mind burned clean of every goal but one. First he joins Kamenev and Zinoviev in the troika; the other two criticize Trotsky, but Stalin hangs back. He greets Trotsky fondly at Politburo meetings while Kamenev and Zinoviev look away. He plays the middle, quietly stacking the bureaucracy with henchmen. Trotsky sees his allies ousted one by one, he alone sees Stalin’s game—but direct confrontation will split the Party and threaten the young nation for which Trotsky has given so much. His faith is with the Party; the Party is the people’s will; truth will out if the Party endures. But Stalin gradually compounds Trotsky’s isolation, moving with the force of a glacier, wiping the landscape clean. Kamenev and Zinoviev see their true foe too late. They bow to Stalin but Trotsky will not; Trotsky chooses exile in Siberia and continues his opposition, corresponding tirelessly with whoever will listen, distributing eloquent critiques of the Comintern. “Socialism needs democracy,” he writes, “like the human body needs oxygen.” Stalin orders his final deportation in 1929.
February, the streets of Alma-Ata drifted deep with snow: Trotsky packs his family into a truck for their arduous journey to the railhead at Frunze, 250 kilometers across the soaring Tian Shan range on snowbound Kazakh roads. A train will carry them west from there, toward Constantinople and the mercies of a nameless fate. But Trotsky hardly feels he is beaten. He watches the majestic, forbidding terrain unfold, this Soviet Union born largely of his single will. He’s been forced out before—twice by the czar, and twice on the wings of rebellion he’s returned. The story of his life is the story of history, and struggle is its one true name. Trotsky burns with purpose, with fidelity to his view of time and the destiny of men. Already they have killed his daughter; he will live to see his other children murdered, too; he will live to see the Moscow show trials: Zinoviev admitting everything, admitting whatever they want—then Kamenev, then others. The scope of the tragedy will be difficult to grasp. Trotsky dreamed of remaking the world and then remade it, only to discover he had created a monster. Poignant historical irony. Now he is passing a lake. Trotsky sips vodka from a pewter flask and through the window of the bouncing truck observes the lake. Framed by jutting peaks, its surface is a sheet of ice blown clean in places by the wind. Dusk. Night is coming but has yet to arrive. Trotsky thinks: They will stop at nothing; they will murder my children; they will murder everyone; the sunset is brilliant where it strikes the ice; the fish are sleeping yonder in a brilliant cage of light. He repeats this last phrase silently over and over. The camera zooms in as his lips mouth the words. It became clear about halfway through that Bunsen had ceased to listen.
He nodded when Stucky was done. “I love the Russians,” Bunsen said. “The Russians are a magnificent people.”
“Yes,” said Stucky. “Magnificent.”
“Billionaires growing like weeds over there in Moscow.”
“Oligarchs and gangsters. Many success stories.”
“There you go.” Bunsen chuckled. “I laid this Russian girl in New York last year, the daughter of some gas tycoon. You wouldn’t believe the kind of money she had. We met at a premiere someplace downtown, both of us totally blotto. I’d have to be drunk to lay a girl that fat—she must have been pushing three bills. But she had a driver waiting and a suite at the W on Union Square, so I said what the hell, let’s go whaling. We screwed like no tomorrow, man, it was gross. I almost barfed in the morning just thinking about it. Then I laid her again. Worst thing ever. Then I’m getting dressed and she’s like, Oh, my little babushka, let my driver take you home. Sure, I say, why not. Treat me right, you horny orca. I go downstairs and there’s her driver with the car. Man, I must’ve smelled like open ass, and I didn’t feel too good, either. Screw a girl that big and you feel it your joints, am I right? So I get in the back seat and tell the guy where to go, and then I look down and what do you think I see? It’s her cell phone. She left her phone in the car the night before, like the damn thing must have fallen out of her clutch bag while we were dry humping or something. So you know what I did?”
Stucky shook his head. He had no idea.
“I threw it out the window.” Bunsen stood and offered his hand. “The script sounds great. We’ll call your guy.”
Stucky boarded his rental car and floated up Santa Monica Boulevard, thinking Santa Monica Boulevard thoughts—the desolation of modernity, history’s inexorable thrust toward aesthetic ruin, the magnetism of anonymous bars at the lunch hour. A neon cocktail glass, with its neon olive and neon stir, is a symbol that speaks the Esperanto of despair, to mix a metaphor as some friendly barkeep might mix a cold Old Fashioned on the rocks. The traffic was heavy. Beautiful women, alone in their vehicles, alone behind designer shades, prattled into cell phones as they drove. Elsewhere in the city, alone in other vehicles, accessorized with other designer gear, square-jawed men were prattling back, landscaped body hair lurking beneath their clothes. Los Angeles like a tawdry fantasy of late capitalism, etc. Stucky had come here to hawk the tale of a Marxist prophet. Maybe his agent was right. He turned off Santa Monica and drifted through the sun-dappled streets of Brentwood toward the address he’d scrawled on a Post‑it note in his kitchen two days before. Lunch with Raskin was unlikely to make him feel better. One did not seek Raskin out in order to feel better. Sometimes it was unclear to Stucky why they had remained friends for so long. He arrived at the house ten minutes early, to discover that it was on fire.
Fire engines and police cars blocked the street. Stucky pulled his rental to the curb and stepped out. A beautiful day. The marine layer had burned off, giving way to a crystalline blue sky. The air was thin and weightless, stirred by a light breeze from the water. Dense black smoke poured from what was left of Raskin’s home. The smoke rose in thick plumes pulled slowly apart on the breeze. One half of the house was charred down to the frame, orange flames still licking the crossbeams as firemen stood in the yard, patiently wielding their hoses. Their bearing had a post-urgent flavor, like baseball players in the ninth inning of a blowout. Stucky made his way through a small crowd of spectators to the Caution tape, where two cops were standing guard.
“This is my brother’s house,” Stucky told them. “I was supposed to meet him here for lunch.”
The cops looked at each other. Then they looked at Stucky. One of them lifted the tape.
They crossed to the driveway, where a woman stared at the smoking house and wept. She was blond, small, elegantly sobbing. Uniformed men milled around her, but no one wanted to get too close. A plainclothes cop faced her at a safe remove, pen and pad in hand, but he wasn’t asking any questions. Into this mix Stucky was introduced, ominously, as “the brother.”
“You imbeciles,” the woman growled, “Bobby doesn’t even have a brother.” She paused to gather a sob. “I mean didn’t even.”
The men all turned to Stucky.
“Didn’t?” Stucky said. “What do you mean, didn’t?”
A foolish question. Nobody answered.
“My name is Stucky,” Stucky said. “I’m an old friend of Raskin’s.” He looked down at his feet.
When he looked back up the woman had taken a half step toward him, as if to get a better view. She scrutinized Stucky with eyes the color of a swimming pool. Her mouth turned slightly upward at the corners, like the Joker. Hair tangled, face flushed, she bore all the marks of passion; she was stunning, Stucky realized. Raskin, he thought, you son of a bitch. Such a woman would never weep for Stucky.
“Ben Stucky?” she said. “From Seattle?”
They sat that evening on adjacent stools in one of the nameless taprooms Stucky had admired along Santa Monica. Nathalie—her name was Nathalie—seemed dazed. The police had kept her all afternoon; they were treating Raskin’s death as a homicide. She sipped a glossy Cosmo from a martini glass. “Whatever you do feels wrong,” she said. “Christ, look at me—my boyfriend was blown up today and now I’m getting blitzed in a dive bar to Mötley Crüe.”
Indeed, “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)” spilled from the jukebox at moderate volume. The sun’s parting rays slanted through two dingy portholes over the bar, falling to the floor in slabs of moted dust. Was she getting blitzed? Stucky nursed his second whiskey. Already his head had begun to rise pleasantly away from his shoulders. He turned to enjoy Nathalie’s profile as she stared absently at the many-colored bottles in their tripartite hierarchy along the wall. Booze like Gaul thrice divided. Various expressions played across her clever mouth: a complex discourse of confusion, anger, grief—it was hard to tell. She sighed and looked down.
“This bar has a carpet. There should never be carpet in a bar. You should never go to a carpeted bar after your boyfriend gets blown up.”
But where then? Raskin was dead; this shabby cantina was the keening of their souls. Stucky leaned back to drain his glass. The ice slid down and struck his teeth with a satisfying click.
“In India,” he offered, motioning to the bartender for a refill, “Hindu wives were once expected to hurl themselves onto their husbands’ burning funereal biers.”
“Cute—but I got there too late. The cops and firemen were already on the scene. I don’t think they would have let me do it.”
Stucky nodded. “In Nazi Germany, on the other hand, Goebbels banned mourning of the war dead entirely. It was officially regarded as an honor to give one’s life in defense of the Reich. Sadness thus became unpatriotic.”
“Interesting. Keep going.”
The barman delivered Stucky’s new drink and drifted away—a gorgeous barman, with sculpted features and the biceps of stevedore. The jukebox moved on to “Kickstart My Heart.”
“Okay. In certain Inuit cultures the dead are unable to pass into the next world until a loved one slays a narwhal and grinds its horn into fine powder, which is then added to a poultice of seal fat with which the naked corpse is rubbed to release the soul.”
“I like that one.”
“Good.” He sampled the whiskey. Delicious. “I made it up.”
She laughed and flashed a sly smile, sidelong, without showing any teeth. “I see why Bobby liked you,” she said, lifting her glass. “This shit tastes like Robitussin. Why don’t you buy me a nip of whatever you’re having, Ben Stucky from Seattle.”
He bought her a nip of what he was having.
“Here’s to never getting old. I don’t think it would’ve suited Bobby anyway.”
“No,” Stucky agreed. “We should all have Raskin’s luck.”
Their glasses touched.
“Boom,” Nathalie whispered.
The bomb had gone off in Raskin’s study around eleven o’clock. He was apparently alone in the house—Nathalie was on her way over from the airport, to which she had just returned after spending four days with her parents in St. Louis. Raskin called from his landline no more than five minutes before the blast. He asked her to pick up some olives and a fifth of Tanqueray.
Now she said, “Tell me a story, Ben. Just anything—anything about Bobby.”
“Do you want it to be true?”
“That’s up to you.”
She turned to face him and canted her weight slightly forward, nibbling her lower lip. The turquoise of her eyes was borderline unnatural, like the pastel shades of a colorized film. Her top, though decorously black, featured a plunging neckline uncommon to mourning garb. The neckline’s effect became more generous as she leaned in.
“Okay,” Stucky said. “One time me and Raskin went after the same girl. This was in college, and both of us liked this one girl.”
“Sure, she hit the jackpot. An embarrassment of riches for Deborah Anne Pagel. Debbie. She was mine first, of course, but what could that matter to Raskin? A detail. To Raskin it mattered not at all. I met her at a jazz club on Shattuck and we went on a couple dates, two or three dates, and it was going pretty well. What I mean is that I liked her, we had fun together, she was smart—tall, thin, wore her hair in braids. Came from Santa Barbara, a classy girl, writing her thesis on Flaubert. Maybe you’re wondering if I’d sealed the deal. Well, the answer is no—we hadn’t, I hadn’t—yet—but things were going well. Then she disappears. Breaks a date one weekend, won’t return my calls the next week—abracadabra. Am I hurt? Yes, I’m somewhat hurt. But these things happen, right? You never see it coming. Of course I’d made the mistake of introducing her to Raskin, but I didn’t see the connection at first.”
He paused and swirled the ice in his glass. Round and round went the ice, booze-wet, melting slow. Nathalie said nothing.
“Then one night I’m walking past Raskin’s building. This is maybe ten days after Debbie goes poof. Raskin’s got this Jimmy Smith record of mine that he borrowed and I kind of want it back, or maybe I just want to talk, maybe I’m just lonely or something. But anyway, I go on up to Raskin’s place unannounced. You can probably see where I’m heading with this.”
Nathalie pursed her lips, philosophically. “What were they doing?”
“Nothing. They were drinking, they were drunk. All their clothes on, listening to Handel or some bullshit.”
“Maybe it was innocent.”
“Raskin had a pubic hair in his teeth.”
She choked on a laugh, turning away to hide her face. The jukebox fell quiet. The bartender looked up from his magazine. Outside, on Santa Monica, cars were moving east and west, whispering gently of the great metal tide. All these years later and Stucky could still see with perfect clarity the kinky black hair glistening from its perch in Raskin’s grin.
“I’m sorry,” Nathalie said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh—but I guess you forgave him eventually.”
“Sure I did. Why not? Everyone forgives Raskin.”
“No,” she said, gathering herself. Stucky watched the water pool suddenly in her eyes. “Apparently not everyone.”
The sky over Westwood was synthetically bright, clouds of noxious smog lit yellow like the center of a fresh bruise. Stucky returned late to his hotel, feeling strangely ecstatic, a lightness in his bones. In the lobby a pretty Latin girl stood near the elevators with a leashed ferret. She smiled at Stucky; the ferret did not. How mystifying and full of possibility the world seemed. True, Raskin was dead, his old pal Raskin, but to feel bad for Raskin was to misunderstand and perhaps dishonor him. This was a man who had smuggled contraband Aztec relics up from Oaxaca in the hold of an old racing sloop and once had sex on an airplane with Feiticeira, the Vanna White of Brazil. To die before his time in a mysterious explosion at a fashionable Brentwood address was a stroke of Raskin’s peculiar genius, really. Stucky would die alone in the Lysol’d quiet of some flowerless hospital room, plastic tubing up his urethra and nose. The day nurse comes in whistling a show tune, empties the bedpan before she even realizes—this was how Stucky would die.
But in the meantime: life. Back in his room he felt vital, too wound up for sleep. He drew back the curtain and stood gazing out on the city’s long carpet of lights stretching away to the east, toward the mountains and the endless scrub-brush desert and the great brutal sweep of America churning away in the dark. Nathalie was so hot. It wasn’t even that Stucky wanted to lay her, exactly, but more that beauty of her kind bespoke a fabulous potential swirling gently in the ether. Certainly they had made a connection. In her hour of need, in her moment of desolation and loss, he had bought her strong drink and made her laugh. He was sympathetic but not mawkish—a difficult balance to strike. It was a hazard of his solitary existence that Stucky sometimes forgot how socially adroit he could be. At certain times, in short bursts, he could be very adroit, socially. He could make incisive remarks, he had an interesting mind—interestingly dark. Should call her tomorrow and check in, just to see how she’s doing. Though he didn’t have her number; she had his. There was noise in the closet. Stucky turned from the window. The closet door opened and Raskin stepped out.
They stood there looking at each other for a few long seconds. Raskin smiled. He spread his hands, palms displayed, and cocked one foot up on its heel in a vaudevillian gesture of ta-da.
“Raskin,” Stucky hissed. “I should have known.”
“Of course you should have, buddy, but don’t beat yourself up.” He opened a gold Zippo and sparked the flame, brushing it across the tip of a cigarette that appeared between his lips. “Pleasant evening?”
“She’s marvelous,” Stucky blurted out. “She’s astonishing.”
“Sure she is. A real gem.”
Raskin pulled a deep drag off his cigarette, drawing the flesh down tight across his cheekbones—giving him, however briefly, the skeletal cast of dead man. The truth was that he looked terrible. His weight was down and he seemed not to have shaved for days, or maybe to have shaved poorly. His whole face appeared boiled. His beige linen suit was dirty, the coat too short in the sleeves. He cradled a fat manila envelope under his left arm.
“What’s going on, Raskin?”
“You don’t seem very happy to see me.”
“Naturally I’m thrilled. You look like shit.”
“I feel worse than that,” he said, tapping ash on the carpet. His rakish grin dropped away. He moved a little too quickly to scratch an itch behind his ear. “You have to help me, Stucky.”
Stucky crossed his arms and considered his old chum. Raskin, who had it all and rarely with much effort, who had seen Nathalie naked and no doubt enticed her into acts of uncommon lewdness—somehow it was always Raskin who needed your help. Stucky nodded very slowly but did not speak.
“Please,” Raskin said, “don’t be that way, Stuck. It was dangerous for me to come here, even, but I didn’t know where else to turn.”
“Raskin never runs out of friends.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “You’d be surprised. Pals dry up when you get in a real spot. I need someone I can trust all the way. It’s down to you, buddy—don’t make me beg. I’m really up against it.”
“I suppose you crossed the wrong hombre this time?”
“You might say that—but it’s not what you think.”
Raskin moved to the bed and sat, dropping the envelope and a pile of ash on the comforter. His eyes did a circuit of the room, flitting from wall to wall, taking careful stock of the generic decor as if he’d never been in a hotel before. He stared for a moment at the foxhunt lithograph over the bed: men in red coats leaping a hedgerow on horseback. Their doomed quarry fled with wild eyes toward the corner of the frame. Raskin’s right foot began tapping out a brisk rhythm on the floor. The tapping did not seem conscious. The foot was off on its own. “You don’t want to know,” he said.
“Try me,” Stucky repeated.
“It’s for your own good,” said Raskin, standing abruptly. He crossed to the window and stood behind the curtain, peeking one eye around it to survey the street below. “See that car down there?”
Stucky looked. A white sedan stood parked at the curb nine stories down—a late-model import, he believed, a Nissan or Toyota. There were probably a billion such cars in the Los Angeles Basin, circling the highways and byways like so many ants in a farm, indistinguishable from one another. A dark figure sat alone in the driver’s seat.
“I suppose it followed you here.”
“Wrong. If they knew I was here we’d have a certified shit show on our hands. With any luck, they think I’m dead. But they’re tailing you just in case, get it?”
“Not even slightly. Whose body did the cops pull out of that fire?”
“The body was a black-market special—mortician with a sideline, that kind of thing. Kids in school and he needs the extra cash. Cadavers are a cinch to come by in this town, believe me. But really, bud, it’s better if your knowledge stops there. Old Raskin’s in a little over his head this time.”
“I didn’t know there was any over Raskin’s head.”
“One of the unpleasant things you learn too late in the game. Get back from the window.”
Stucky got back from the window. Raskin pulled the curtain and struck a flamingo pose to stub his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe, nearly toppling over in the process. He flicked the butt in the general direction of the trash. “What I need from you is simple, Stuck.”
“It is.” He lit another smoke and sucked it like the nozzle of nitrous tank. “See that envelope?” He pointed at the bed. “All you have to do is hold it for me—just for a couple days.”
“That’s it, bud, I swear. I’ll contact you in a few days and tell you where to send it. Then you just drop ’er in the mail and forget the whole thing.”
“And what if they find out I’m holding it? I don’t suppose they’ll be too gentle in their approach.”
“They won’t find out. How would they find out?”
“Well,” Stucky said, “that’s hard for me to figure, since I don’t even know who the hell they are.”
“Okay, so you’re a little scared. I understand. A man of letters, you don’t like the rough stuff.”
“I’m not scared. The point is not that I’m scared.”
“No harm will come to you, Stuck. I personally guarantee it.”
“Ha! A great relief. I’ll call my insurance guy, he might drop my premiums.”
“Please, buddy. Just do this one thing for me and I’ll never ask for your help again.”
Stucky didn’t answer. He didn’t have to; they both knew the answer already. His protests were perfunctory, ceremonial, like the plot elements of a porno. He was a lonely, buxom housewife, Raskin the TV repairman.
“Oh Christ. Does Nathalie know you’re still alive?”
Raskin shook his head. “She can’t know—whatever else happens, she can’t know.”
Stucky narrowed his eyes. “She deserves better than you.”
“Right, well, don’t they all. Three days, Stuck. No more. You just drop it in the mail.” He tried the rakish grin again but couldn’t hold it. He looked down and laughed, or made a sound that might have been laughter. It was, in spite of everything, unnerving to see Raskin in such a state.
“Oh Christ. All right, fine. Three days, man. I’ll wait to hear from you.”
Raskin sighed. “Thanks, buddy. I knew I could count on you.” He stepped forward and offered his hand. It was damp and cold to the touch. “You know,” he said, lowering his voice, “I don’t think I ever told you how much I admired de Gaulle. That scene where he kisses Pétain on the mouth in Bordeaux—it’s truly affecting, Stuck. I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. You’ve got the gift, buddy. These Hollywood leeches don’t deserve you.”
“Thanks, Raskin. Thank you. I didn’t know you read books.”
He looked Stucky dead in the eye. The cigarette smoldered in the corner of his mouth. “I read your book.”
Perhaps Raskin wasn’t so changeless after all. He winked and dropped Stucky’s hand, but their eyes remained locked for a moment—Raskin’s gray eyes shot with blood, tiny veins like winter branches snaking out from raw red rims. A smile seemed to pass behind them, or the shadow of a smile. An inward expression, distant and resigned. Raskin in his humble season? Raskin awash in the abasement of life? Raskin waltzes slowly with that bitter mistress, his mortality, to the threnodial sob of bagpipes? Stucky said, “How’d your horse do this afternoon?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t get to see. Vichy Dog in the fourth at Santa Anita—check tomorrow’s paper.”
“A little nod to you, pal—and to la Résistance.” The sad smile leaked out across his lips. “Take it easy.” He moved to the door and paused with his hand on the knob. “One more thing,” he said, turning halfway back around. “Don’t open that envelope. Whatever you do, Stuck, don’t read what’s in there. For your own sake.”
Stucky nodded. He raised a hand and waved goodbye to his friend. Raskin opened the door, craned his neck outside, glanced quickly in either direction, and slipped into the hall.
Stucky tore the envelope open as soon the door swung shut. He was greatly surprised to find what appeared to be the manuscript of a novel inside: Fauntleroy’s Ghost, by Robert D. Raskin. So the title page announced, above the clip-art image of an old-time movie camera silhouetted in profile. This was followed by two hundred and seventeen pages of densely packed prose: single-spaced, Times New Roman. Stucky hefted the stack of paper in his hands, feeling its solid, novelistic weight—the weight, in his own life, of ruined dreams. A lump rose in his throat. Watching a dead man emerge from his closet had brought no fear, but now he was afraid. Existential panic, the worst and most familiar kind—where had Raskin found the time to write a novel? Stucky sat down at the desk, turned with trepidation to the first page, and began to read:
Ernesto Fauntleroy. His name is like a joyride for the tongue, the syllables a legend unto themselves, rising and falling like the impetuous fortunes of men. I heard them first in Antwerp, on the lips of an Aussie who’d lost both his eyes smuggling stones from Côte d’Ivoire—lovely blue eyes, piercing, eyes that made women spend money. Or so he claimed. But then again, truth is just the name we hang on what dreams we need believe. Fauntleroy taught me that. This story is the truest one I know. “Ernesto Fauntleroy,” the Aussie whispered, “are you familiar with his work? No? But tell me, mate, just tell me this: Do you like the movies?”
Fauntleroy, the manuscript explained, had been the greatest producer in Hollywood in the late sixties and seventies—a legend in the business, a reclusive genius, the driving force behind countless films, including such “classics” as False Witness, Clay Pigeon, and Death’s Little Sister. He worked behind the scenes, tirelessly, ducking the limelight. No one knew where he’d come from, though he was a man to whom rumors attached, whispers of a sinister past. Then in 1985 he abruptly vanished back into the ether from which he’d emerged two decades before. Some said he was dead, some that he had fallen gravely ill, others that he’d simply retired, slipped away in secret to live out his healthy years in peace. Strange tropical diseases were mentioned, gradual disfigurement; also a ranch near Bolinas. Some predicted his eventual return, but it never happened. But of such more recent matters the blind Aussie knew little; his was a tale of the sinister past. He claimed to have met Fauntleroy before his Hollywood turn, when both were running guns through Mombassa in the late fifties. These were the salad days for resourceful men in Africa, the end of colonialism and the height of the Cold War. The continent was a vast patchwork of blood money and shifting allegiances; for those who learned to read the angles, opportunity was everywhere. Fauntleroy learned. He took chances no other man could stomach, said the Aussie, and never got caught on the wrong side—until Lumumba fell in the Congo. This was late 1960; Fauntleroy was down in Katanga Province, in a hut among the copper mines, exploiting the chaos with his usual flair, arming both factions in the local separatist war. Then a squad of Belgian mercenaries captured him in March of ’61 and should have killed him straightaway—that would’ve been the normal thing. But they didn’t. Fauntleroy talked his way out somehow, and back in Mombassa he wouldn’t say how. But the Aussie had gradually developed a theory: he’d come to believe that Fauntleroy was in possession of the secret film of Patrice Lumumba’s execution.
Lumumba, of course, had been a dreamer, a patriot, a rhetorical firebrand—a man born to political martyrdom like a fish to water, whether he knew it or not. He led the struggle for Congolese independence, became the nation’s first prime minister, refused to play ball with the CIA, cozied up to Moscow for leverage, and got himself deposed in the Mobutu coup after just ten weeks in power. Then Mobutu sent him down to Katanga, where he was driven into the jungle and shot. Details of the event were murky. Rumors of a film circulated for years, and the footage was said to be explosive—but what did it show? Direct American involvement? Belgian troops pulling the trigger? A secret double-cross by the Soviets? A rogue faction from the UN? The Aussie wasn’t sure, but he’d heard enough gossip to believe the film was real. If so, he reasoned, it would have been just like Fauntleroy to get his hands on such a thing, and the footage—or rather, the threat of its release—would have made the perfect bargaining chip with which to secure his freedom from the Belgians. But he would’ve been obliged to keep it, of course, as a guarantee on his life, and keeping it would’ve presented new dangers. What he would’ve needed was a place to hide the film in plain sight, a mode of concealment that wasn’t concealed at all. It had taken the Aussie years of idle consideration before he realized how perfectly these facts dovetailed with Fauntleroy’s disappearance from Africa later in ’61 and his subsequent arrival on the Los Angeles scene. But once he saw it, the truth seemed blindingly obvious: Fauntleroy had gone to Hollywood to bury the Lumumba film; he’d become a producer to hide the film in his movies. Ten frames here, five more there, patiently scattered across the long breadth of his catalogue in flashes so quick the viewer missed them at regular speed. The project took years, and when it was finished he disappeared again. But he’d left the footage behind, and whoever reassembled it would be able to name his price. The theory was so crazy it had to be true; the Aussie believed it with religious conviction. But he was blind, old, broken and broke—he needed a partner to do the legwork. He needed someone like Raskin’s narrator, an investment man with money and the right connections, a man not unfamiliar with delicate jobs, who just happened to live in Los Angeles—a man, in other words, who sounded an awful lot like Robert D. Raskin himself.
That was just the setup.
A deal was struck at the close of chapter 2; the plot galloped onward from there in Raskin’s breathless prose. The whole thing was pure drivel, really, overwrought and with all the historical integrity of Stalin’s falsified memoirs, though a certain cheap brio spurred the story along. Nonetheless, Stucky felt his eyelids going heavy somewhere early in chapter 3. Crowded words swarmed across each page, but he pressed on. The narrator—Dean Steel—returns to California to begin collecting prints of Fauntleroy’s movies, and the Aussie’s hunch seems to prove out: a small snatch of mysterious footage lurks somewhere in each film, cryptic images, difficult to parse. As Steel labors to assemble the puzzle, strange happenings commence. He finds himself pursued by shadowy figures, tailed by unmarked cars, warned by roughnecks to drop his quest. His house is ransacked; the Aussie disappears. Paranoia descends, gripping the prose itself—but was this literary artifice, consciously deployed to convey Steel’s mounting anxiety, or a dark window into the author’s own psychosis? Stucky fell asleep before the end. He woke up sweating in his chair, buzzed by the sense of vivid dreams he could not quite recall. The phone was ringing. Sunlight leaked around the edges of his curtain; the hotel operator was chewing gum. Stucky could hear her snapping the wad. “This is your wake-up call,” she said. Snap snap.
He placed the receiver back on the cradle. Raskin’s novel lay before him on the desk. He stuffed it back into its envelope and dropped the envelope into the top desk drawer. There was a handwritten note on the backside, beside the clasp, a single line scrawled in red ballpoint ink: 39 Calle Sinaloa, 2/23, 10 pm–? February 23 was today. Stucky copied the address onto a slip of hotel notepaper and closed the drawer. He slipped the notepaper into his pocket and stood. A light tingle as the blood returned to his haunches. He stepped to the window and pulled the curtain back. The sky outside burned blue like Nathalie’s eyes, almost. Stucky was expected in Burbank.
“I was attacked by a dog,” Jack Zweller said.
He stared down gravely at his left hand sheathed in a black glove with the fingertips cut away. The rest of his wide body was encased in a gray cotton tracksuit; sunlight capered across his sweating pate, bald on top beneath a comb-over. Jack Zweller, independent producer of films—Stucky considered him considering the hand. They sat on folding chairs at a card table on the concrete patio behind Zweller’s Burbank office building. The swish of passing traffic out on Victory Boulevard flanked the building to reach their ears.
“A golden retriever?” Stucky guessed.
“Fuck a golden retriever—I should be so lucky. We’re talking German shepherd. Nazi cop dog, bred to chew the flesh of innocents. I’m out walking in my neighborhood one morning when I see it watching me from across the street. There’s no one else around, just the two of us, and I mean this thing stares dead at me—straight into my goddamn eyes. I mean there was communication in this look. Feelings and ideas. Some people think an animal like that is dumb. Not so. It’s dumb for higher math but what the hell, so am I—probably you, too. Writing scripts ain’t splitting the atom. A dog like that is a genius for the primal stuff. It wants a piece of my ass—that’s what the look says. A whole history of warfare in the look. Primitive struggle, dingoes on the veld. I don’t wait for the high sign, I take off at a sprint.”
“But I guess the dog was faster.”
“Well, I don’t know. Ran ten feet and got hit by a car. Shattered my elbow into sixty-seven pieces, two of which the docs never even found.” He flexed his left forearm and moved it slowly up and down, rotating the damaged joint. The elbow clicked and clacked like an old wooden roller coaster beneath the gray fabric. “This is a pressure glove. Not sure what the hell it’s supposed to do but the docs say wear it, so I wear it. Someday they’ll say stop but if they ever nix my Demerol I’ll murder their children.”
Stucky grinned. He was in fine spirits despite his strange evening and short, upright sleep. Mild euphoria like a feather tickling his brain. “So what happened to the dog?”
“I don’t know, fuck the dog—maybe the dog never existed, maybe I made the son of a bitch up. Wouldn’t be the first time. The point is the look he gave me. Communication of the primal. That look was a film in itself. Eat, fuck, kill—these are the basics, what anyone can relate to. That’s the stuff to make movies about. Anyway, let’s hear about yours.”
Zweller sat back, ceding the floor. Above the glove and tracksuit he wore a beard that grew in silver patches on his doughy cheeks and neck. His face was pale except for its Rudolphy nose, a bulbous structure trimmed with burst capillaries.
Stucky grinned wider and cleared his throat. Perhaps he would emphasize the dramatic virtues of his screenplay’s closing act. Running through his plot points as quickly as possible, he arrived at the penultimate scene and paused to underscore the simmering tension.
“Mexico City, summer 1940 . . .”
Trotsky sips tea in the house at Coyoacán. Bitter quarrel with Rivera the year before; Trotsky rents his own rooms now. Why must everything end in discord? Because, Trotsky thinks: history. The world is at war again. Ostensibly the issues are many, but in truth a single issue pertains. The workers cannot fail (again) to see the folly of slaughtering each other on end for the ends of their oppressors. Truth will out, the moment will come—Trotsky will be called. His trust is with the people but so few people remain for him to trust. Are the bodyguards loyal? The secretaries? He stands from the table and strolls outside. Geraniums and roses adorn the patio in generous shades of purple and red. A flower garden is a bourgeois pleasure, but is the beauty of a flower subject to the foibles of class? Chickens discourse in their coops of wood and wire; rabbits in their classless warrens mate with rabbit zeal. A thing cannot be else but what it is. Trotsky is a revolutionary, but also a man of sixty. He is tired. Stalin’s thugs riddled the house with bullets in May; August lies now like a mellow song across the Valley of the Damned. Jacson arrives to discuss the future of Trotsky’s ideas in Canada, bearing a manuscript for Trotsky’s critique. In the study, Trotsky bends at the desk to read. Jacson draws an ice ax from beneath his raincoat and drives it into the old man’s skull. Trotsky turns, spits on his attacker, bites his hand. Jacson carries a pistol and dagger besides the alpine tool, but Trotsky—though thirty years his senior—wrestles him to the ground. The bodyguards rush in, set upon Jacson and mean to kill him—but Trotsky stays their blows. “Stop!” he orders. “This man has a story to tell!”
But what is Trotsky’s story in the end? He reclines on the kitchen floor, covered like history in blood. Dying in a Green Cross hospital the next day, as Jacson recuperates in a room across the hall, he will dictate his final message, urging his followers to go forward, avowing his certainty of the Fourth International’s success. These are the parting words of the world-historical figure, but what does the man himself believe? He has lived and now died in the cause of rigid, high-flown ideals, but his path has been blocked at every turn by human weakness and chicanery—the very forces his theoretical framework seeks to disregard. What is the society of man, after all, but a vast conspiracy against the pure of heart? Is Trotsky a casualty of his own naïve refusal to grasp this fact—or has he, like Jesus, in fact grasped it perfectly from the start? The camera zooms in on his face framed by the hospital pillow: the quack doctor’s beard and wild shock of hair above, the great burning fire in Trotsky’s eyes. Mexico’s fierce summer light falls through the window and Trotsky turns to it, turns to it, opening his mouth as if to speak again. As a child in Yanovka, he once rode a dun-colored pony so far across the freshly plowed fields . . .
Stucky stopped talking. A motorist on Victory Boulevard depressed his horn. Zweller nodded, once; he made an uncertain noise in his throat. He waited a moment and then leaned forward. He placed his right elbow on the card table’s vinyl surface and wiped a sheet of sweat from his brow, squinting off to the right, where the traffic sounds wandered around the building’s edge. His voice, when he spoke, was not unkind.
He said, “You don’t get out to the movies very often, do you, Ben?”
No, Stucky did not go very often to the movies. He sometimes rented older films from Captain Video on Fifteenth Avenue—the last place on Capitol Hill still carrying VHS—but to the Cineplex he did not routinely go. He tended not to like new movies. But he’d been hoping no such inconvenient detail would keep him from successfully writing one—an impractical notion, maybe, but Stucky had a certain weakness for impractical notions. Unfortunately, fate maintained a bias against impractical men, as Trotsky had discovered or at least proved at the business end of an ice ax. Twenty years later, Patrice Lumumba proved it again; Stucky had written a paper in college about his ouster. Lashed to a rubber tree, facing down the muzzles of a firing squad, Lumumba might well have considered the value of practicality. He must have understood by then that righteousness is an ephemeral mandate without the support of the army. You can stump for truth and justice all the livelong postcolonial day, but misread the proxy politics and they’ll never find your body. This was 1960, after all. Ike was sprinkling nukes around Turkey like baby powder on a newborn’s crotch, while Khrushchev stewed, casting his pickled gaze towards Havana. The CIA was painting morality in the broadest possible strokes; they weren’t about to take a flier on some populist wunderkind commanding the wealth of central Africa. Lumumba tried to play the middle but there was no middle. He wanted to maintain his independence, but that wasn’t one of the options. He was a great thinker but missed the central fact. Stucky could almost see the footage: grainy, the camera wobbles up and down, figures in a jungle clearing washed in the pale headlights of a jeep. The gunshots are like firecrackers, like dry sticks snapping underfoot.
He would never sell his script. He stood in sunlight on the sidewalk outside Zweller’s office, watching the cars glide past. Down the street, a white Nissan sedan was parked in one of the metered spots at the curb. The car was empty; a man stood smoking by a lamppost twenty or thirty feet away. He did not look in Stucky’s direction. Where would Raskin be right now? Chasing down the prerogatives of his private baroque fantasy? Locked in some villain’s basement, tied to a chair? He might be in Mazatlán already, he might be tanning in Cancún. Stucky removed from his pocket and once again examined the scrap of paper on which he’d scrawled the mysterious address from the back of Raskin’s envelope. Whatever would happen there didn’t begin till ten o’clock. That gave Stucky the whole day to kill.
He closed his eyes. The sun felt good on his skin. Thirty-six years old and his career was over and he’d be broke in two months flat, but these facts seemed for the moment not to bind him. Everything depends on perspective, and perspective depends largely on the weather. In Seattle, under low clouds and the inevitable winter rain, he might have been forced to string a noose up over the shower rod. But in Burbank the sunlight fell grandly onto the broad window of a bar across Victory Boulevard, and Stucky gamely forded the traffic. It was, as they say, five o’clock somewhere. The time to flog his liver had arrived.
Calle Sinaloa turned out to be a narrow, winding lane in the Hollywood Hills, not far below the reservoir. Stucky negotiated the twists and turns with great care, the rental less than steady in his charge, following the street numbers as they counted down to a dead end packed with cars. Someone was having a party. Stucky double-parked and stepped out into the fine night air. Clean smell of eucalyptus and night-flowering jasmine up here above the city. Lights from the basin peered up between the houses; the breeze came up and set a bird of paradise to nodding, oral erotically. Stucky followed a pair of sharp-dressed couples toward the last house on the downhill side of the street. The women trailed sandalwood perfume across a flower garden and through the open front door—beside which two mosaic tiles displayed the numbers 3 and 9.
The foyer into which they entered gave onto a wide living room stretched along a picture widow, beyond which a deck overlooked the city. Guests had scattered themselves across couches and chairs, chatting at the amiable frequency of midparty banter above the speaker-borne strains of Monk’s piano: comely and successful people gathering in tasteful costume for ritual improvisations of wit and charm. A monkey-jacketed waiter approached to offer Stucky a glass of rosé. He might have been the twin of their barkeep from the Santa Monica Boulevard dive. Imagine a city of millions where every garçon has the jawline of Burt Lancaster. Stucky took the wine and turned to find Nathalie smiling at him from a doorway to his left.
Stucky smiled back; her presence seemed almost like a thing he’d been expecting. Moving nimbly on three-inch heels, she crossed the carpet as the sound of church bells crosses a valley of freshly hayed fields. She wore a blue satin dress printed with samurai warriors; matching strings of topaz dangled from her delicate ears. One of them brushed Stucky’s lips as she leaned in to kiss his cheek. Her blond hair smelled lightly of the sun.
“In Japan,” Stucky said, “a woman’s traditional period of mourning goes for two full years.”
Nathalie laughed. “Patriarchal bullshit, don’t you think? In Japan you can buy the panties of an underage girl from public vending machines.” Her face took on a pensive cast. “I thought about it today. I thought, What would Bobby be doing tonight if I’d been the one who died in that fire?”
“Sailing for Cabo, no doubt, with his cock in the mouth of some sorority harlot from USC.”
“Exactly. And that’s what I loved about him.”
“Well then,” Stucky said, lifting his glass, “let us not dishonor the dead.”
Nathalie arched a single eyebrow. “My thoughts exactly.” She reached back, plucked a full glass of red from the tray of a passing waiter, and raised it to meet Stucky’s in the air.
“Boom,” Stucky said.
Nathalie looked away. “I almost called you today, Ben. All bluster aside, I’ve had better mornings. I’m not as strong as Bobby, really. I’ve been drinking since lunch.”
“Me too. You hold it well for a girl your size.”
“Practice makes perfect—but I almost drove into a palm tree on the way up here.”
“So did I. The palm trees come out of nowhere in this town. We’ll carpool on the way home and you can be my spotter.”
“A chivalrous offer, but I’m planning to be incoherent by then. Anyway, what’s your excuse? Something tells me it’s more than crushing grief for Bobby.”
“I’m a sensitive writer and Raskin was a very dear friend,” Stucky said. “Don’t lowball my empathy.”
She narrowed her fabulous eyes. “If you don’t highball my credulity, Shakespeare.”
Stucky drained his glass and ditched it in a potted fern. “Did somebody say highball?”
Nathalie led him to a wet bar, unmanned, on the far side of the living room. A glittering array of pricey handles graced the bar top. Stucky poured the scotch with a limber arm. Fabulous indulgence to drink the good stuff when he could barely taste it. He’d played darts in Burbank for half the afternoon with a jug-eared man who claimed to train primates for television and film. Orangutans, the man alleged, could be taught to masturbate a human male, but with monkeys and chimps such games should never be played. Those were his exact words: “such games should never be played.” A preposterous contention—but who even cared if it were true? In some crucial way, though perhaps not the traditional one, Stucky knew that it was. He topped off his glass and turned to survey the crowd.
“So who do you know here?”
Nathalie shrugged. “Who don’t I know here? This town’s the size of a snow globe. What about you?”
“Well,” Stucky said. Just then Bunsen came in from the deck. He caught sight of Stucky, gave him a friendly wave, and stumbled off down the hall. Stucky waved back. “I know Bunsen. He’s considering my script for New Line.”
“You never did get around to telling me about your script yesterday.”
“Oh, I’d hate to bore you.”
“Don’t be coy, Ben. I’m sure it’s not boring.”
Stucky chuckled and worked the scotch. “How sure?”
The liquor was mellow in his throat; his brain seemed to float in its warmth. He looked down at her looking up at him over the rim of her glass. Even aboard the big heels she was short. A compact package—bite-size, one might say. The blue satin of her dress went nicely with the neon sapphire of her eyes. Her little Joker’s mouth was indeed beguiling. Try me, she said.
“Okay. What do you know about Patrice Lumumba?”
“That’s right, Patrice Lumumba—the martyred father of Congolese independence.”
“The name rings a bell, I guess. That’s about it.”
Just as Stucky had suspected. He smiled. “Come outside,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything.”
He tucked the bottle of scotch under his arm and took her by the hand—a small hand, warm in his, thrilling heat of the flesh—weaving through the partygoers to the sliding door, and out into the cool winter air. The coolness was refreshing; the sky was clear and a bright winter moon shone down on the city. A moonlit blimp hovered over the clustered skyscrapers of downtown. He told her everything: the blind Aussie diamond pirate, the legendary lost Lumumba film, its potential implications, the mysterious Hollywood producer into whose hands it may or may not have fallen, his alleged scheme to conceal the footage in plain sight, and the courageous hero who will risk everything to find the truth—though in Stucky’s version Steel is a man of letters, a novelist-cum-screenwriter bearing precious little resemblance to Raskin. He described the web of intrigue that deepens as Steel compiles the Lumumba frames, the powerful forces arrayed against him, in the face of which he tenaciously perseveres. A car chase, a ransacked home, thugs who issue cryptic threats. Stucky pulled on the scotch and watched the blimp ply its bovine arc out to sea.
“So how does it end?” Nathalie asked.
She was standing very close to him now. Stucky had read only half of Raskin’s novel and could summon no idea for its denouement. He reached out, touched her arm.
“You’ll just have to see the movie.”
“You tease,” she scolded. “Are you always such a tease, Ben Stucky?”
She nodded, solemnly. “I would love to see that movie. It’s going to be wonderful.”
“I hope so.”
“It is, it’s an amazing premise—really, Ben.” She rubbed his arm and turned to lean back against the railing; Stucky turned too. He was close enough to breathe the clean smell of her hair again. “Ben Stucky from Seattle. Bobby always told me you were the smart one. How did you ever come up with the idea for that script?”
“It took me years,” Stucky said.
The party seemed a little more crowded now. The sliding door was closed but a thumping bass beat floated out from the living room. Jack Zweller was mixing himself a drink at the bar. He glanced up and grinned at Stucky through the window, tipping an imaginary cap with his gloved left hand.
“You know Zweller, too?”
“Sure. He loves my script. He’s dying to produce it.”
“I bet he is. There’s so much crap out there. He was telling us before you got here about some poor schmo he met this morning who’s trying to shop a biopic about Leon Trotsky, for god’s sake.”
“Ha,” Stucky said.
“So what’s your movie called?”
Nathalie stiffened, lifting her eyes. “Fauntleroy? Why Fauntleroy?”
“That’s the producer’s name—the one who hides the Lumumba film. Ernesto Fauntleroy.”
A brief silence fell between them. On the living-room carpet, languid women moved to the beat.
“But Ernesto Fauntleroy owns this house,” Nathalie said. “Ernesto Fauntleroy is our host tonight.”
Stucky blinked. He considered this fact, or tried to consider it. The information seemed to have no place in his files. Through the glass, women dancing, languid, wired like puppets to the bass. Stucky pasted on a smile. The bass hopped around inside his ears. “Exactly,” he managed to say.
“But do you know him?”
“No one really knows him,” Stucky whispered.
“That’s true,” she whispered back. “No one had even seen him for twenty years until a few weeks ago. I heard he was living on an ashram somewhere, or that he joined a monastery in Tibet.”
“Tibet he did,” Stucky breathed. “I heard that one myself.”
She put her mouth against his ear—warm breath, moist inside the canal. “Some say he’s crazy.”
“People say all kinds of things about Fauntleroy. That’s why I made him the focus of my script.”
“But you even used his real name.”
“The name is part of his mystique.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
Silence again; Stucky tried again to think. Difficult business. His sozzled thoughts drifted like a flock of crewless blimps. Ernesto Fauntleroy owned this house. Light fell from the living room of Ernesto Fauntleroy in a pale sheet onto his deck. The breeze resumed, tickling brittle eucalyptus leaves as it came up the hill. Stucky felt its cool breath play across the back of his neck.
“I guess you came here to meet him tonight.”
“I—” He looked away. “I don’t know why I came here.”
“There’s no reason to be shy, Ben. Would you like me to introduce you?”
Stucky didn’t answer. He didn’t know the answer. Nathalie took hold of his wrist and towed him back through the sliding door, back into the living room. She parked him beside a metal floor lamp and said, “Wait here. I’ll go find Ernesto Fauntleroy.”
Stucky nodded. Doglike obedience: he would wait. She walked away, shifting tastily under her dress. Stucky conferred with the scotch. The living-room air seemed warm and dense, the music not so loud as he’d thought from outside. Ernesto Fauntleroy was their host tonight. All around, people were talking. Their voices swirled, yielding shards of broken thought, scraps of butchered pitch and tone. On a nearby couch, Bunsen thumb-wrestled an elegant redhead with big hands. There seemed to be no flirtation in the contest; their faces were tense, fixed on the battle: thrust and retreat, thrust and retreat. Behind them, in the foyer, a young Latina stood talking on her phone. Stucky knew her at once. Her smile bespoke a pleasant conversation, perhaps with a lover or some longtime friend, but her ferret struggled wildly against its taut leash on the floor—straining, it seemed, to come forth and give Stucky a warning. The general volume of chatter rose as Nathalie emerged from the hallway with what appeared to be a very old man on her arm.
“Is that him?” someone asked.
“There he is!”
“Is that Fauntleroy?”
“It must be, but . . .”
“My god, he looks so . . .”
“ . . . some terrible disease . . .”
“ . . . but Redford always said he was the best.”
“Jesus, get a load of his face.”
He had no face. His head was swaddled like a mummy, wrapped from crown to collar in layered strips of hospital gauze, the face entirely obscured. He sported a pair of gold-rimmed aviator shades atop the bandages, and below this, a button-up khaki jacket with matching pants, accented by an ascot the color of fresh blood. His shoes were burnished alligator, his posture badly stooped; his clawlike left hand clutched Nathalie’s forearm with geriatric intensity, the ancient fear of broken hips. They advanced at a slow shuffle, beset by a line of guests stepping forward to offer their hands. The masked man shook each one politely, adding perhaps a nod or passing phrase. In his mouth—a dark hole in the gauze—he held the largest cigar Stucky had ever seen.
“Christ, that’s creepy.”
“What kind of . . .”
“Brando always worshipped him, of course.”
Stucky eyed his approach with a slack jaw, neck craned forward, squinting as if to read fine print. He tried to scrutinize the crumpled figure: his gauze-wrapped head, his frail bearing . . . Raskin? The faceless man was roughly Raskin’s height, within range, perhaps, of Raskin’s diminished build—and yet he tottered like a genuine geezer; he seemed to move toward Stucky like a figure in a dream. Even at a distance, his hands were plainly flecked with liver spots and streaked with purple veins—which might, in theory, be nothing more than stage makeup. The fingers sank like talons into Nathalie’s skin. Stucky searched her face for a clue. Her grin was broad, inscrutable, both inviting and carnivorous at once. Her eyes glowed no less blue from half a room away. They fell on Stucky and executed a deft, cinematic wink—meaning what, exactly? He tried to wink back but it came out more like a Tourettic facial tic. He downed another jolt of scotch, stood swaying lightly on his feet, and waited.
“Ben,” she said when they reached him. “Ben? I have someone very special here for you to meet.”
She turned to her companion but he did not speak straightaway. He seemed, behind his mask, to size Stucky up like a cattleman at auction. He removed the prodigious cigar from his mouth and tapped a ring of ash onto the floor.
“Hello. Our friend Nathalie informs me that you are the finest young writer in all of Hollywood. Welcome to my home. I am Ernesto Fauntleroy.”
His voice was rasping but faintly melodic, touched by a nameless accent. Stucky shook his hand and it returned no pressure: slack skin, dry as snake molt. The bandages looked fresh—expertly applied, fastened by steel clips, tented at the nose. But no part of the nose was visible; the eyes lay hidden behind their mirrored shades. Even his lips were covered—though when he smiled, as he seemed to be smiling now, two rows of crooked, yellow, possibly false teeth came into view.
“Ben Stucky,” Stucky said.
“So you are. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’ve always enjoyed the acquaintance of writers. Actors I find insufferable, for the most part, and directors are even worse—but writers, Mr. Stucky, I have always enjoyed.”
A chorus of chuckles from the nearest bystanders. Stucky was aware of their bodies pressing closer as they strained to hear. Fauntleroy’s presence seemed to focus the room’s scattered gravity.
“Yes,” Stucky said, “writers are terrific.” His eyes combed the bandages, the shades, the entire blank mug. “Writers are the tits.”
“Indeed. Is everything all right, Mr. Stucky?”
“I do hope you’ll excuse my dreadful appearance this evening. It is my misfortune to suffer from a rare condition of the skin. Extremely painful. But less so tonight, I’m pleased to say, for the sight of so many good friends, old and new alike.” He spread his lipless, yellow-tooth grin.
Stucky studied the teeth. “What kind of skin condition?”
“Ben,” said Nathalie, “I hope you won’t mind, but I told Mr. Fauntleroy about your script. I just told him a little, but he thinks it sounds fascinating. Isn’t that right, Mr. Fauntleroy?”
“Yes, quite so. Entirely fascinating—a fascinating choice of subject, to say the least. I see you have a drink already, Mr. Stucky. May I offer you a cigar?”
Stucky looked down at the bottle still in his hand. Not much left. The sight of its emptiness seemed instantly to make him drunker; the challenge to his powers of discernment was manifest. He took the fresh cigar without a word and examined it carefully: eight inches long, already cut, its wrapper smelling damply of the good earth—smelling almost like a woman. He pressed the dark leaf against his nose and drew a long breath.
“Here,” said Nathalie.
She produced a lighter and struck the flame. Stucky leaned down to accept it—a bluntly sexual transaction; he seemed to feel the heat of Fauntleroy’s stare, and beyond him the eyes of the crowd. The room had quieted considerably. Stucky took a few slow puffs, turning the cigar end in a circle in the flame. Rich smoke filled his mouth. He held it for a moment, then exhaled.
“Wonderful,” he announced.
Fauntleroy nodded. “A Cohiba Lancero, Laguito No. 1. I first discovered them in 1977, when we were shooting ¡Viva la Tropicana! in Havana—not an easy thing to arrange in those days, believe me. But Castro had drained his coffers in Angola and Ethiopia, and Brezhnev couldn’t pick the slack up anymore, he had problems of his own. I was blessed with certain connections, channels of communication that were open to me. Castro needed money and we had to have the location, it was indispensable to the film. I saw the opportunity and brokered a deal—a good deal for everyone, I daresay, but that didn’t mean Fidel had to like it . . .”
He paused. Long, indulgent puffs. His mouth hole sent up clouds of gauzy smoke. Someone had killed the music.
“He summoned me to a meeting our first night in town, Mr. Stucky. Soldiers shook me out of bed and took me by jeep to a compound west of the city, where he was having dinner—alone at a cement table with a boliche roast the size of your arm and a gallon of buffalo milk, both of which he offered to share. Of course I accepted. The meat was delicious. He described for me his theories about the effects of buffalo milk on male potency—a robust man, charismatic and imposing, six foot five at least. The kind of man who makes a revolution with his hands. After dinner he presented me with a case of these very cigars. They weren’t even publicly available in Havana at the time: Cohiba was Castro’s personal brand. Of course I was obliged to thank him, but he waved me off. I want you to enjoy your stay, he said, and I would like you to think of me for as long as you remain in my country. These are the finest cigars in the world. Each time you light one, I want you to remember Fidel. Then he stood up and unzipped his pants. He took out his member and dropped it on the table beside one of the cigars. They were exactly the same length. He was limp, and his girth was far greater, but their length was the same. He stood with his arms crossed and allowed me to have a good look. Then he sat back down and wished me the best of luck with my film, and that was the end of our meeting.”
Stucky took the cigar from his mouth and considered its tremendous size again. Somewhere behind him, a woman groaned. “Well.” He burped, softly but not on purpose. “So much for Freud, I guess.”
Fauntleroy chuckled. A ripple of laughter ran through the room, as if on his cue. Stucky glanced at Nathalie and tried again to read her enigmatic smile.
“Of course, it was a warning, Mr. Stucky, and not even a hostile one, but rather a dispassionate expression of the realities at hand, a reminder to construe my business narrowly and stick to it—less for his good, really, than for my own. I was, after all, playing on his turf. I may regard myself as a clever man, and perhaps I am. I may have achieved a certain degree of success in my life. But I am not Castro—not in Havana, at least. Ultimately, had I intended any manner of foolishness, I would have been no more than a gnat buzzing round his head; he could have crushed me with a slap whenever he chose. He simply wished to ensure that I understood this. He was, in other words, doing me a favor. His method was gentle but the terms were clear as day.” Fauntleroy leaned closer, dropping his voice. “Do you understand why I’m sharing this with you, Mr. Stucky?”
Stucky blanched. “Yes, I think so. I do.”
“I deplore violence, Mr. Stucky. At my age, one learns to deplore violence.”
Stucky wagged his head up and down in agreement. Their faces were just inches apart. Dense smells of tobacco and cologne—but nothing medicinal, no odors of the nursing home, no reek of rotting flesh. Stucky recalled Raskin’s breezy voice on the phone a week before, unmarred by the lilt of any strange accent: fossil Jews, old Havana, I watch them light cigars on the terrace—beautiful Cohibas, they never run out.
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”
“Yes,” Stucky said.
Fauntleroy stepped back, returning his voice to a normal volume. “Then let us relax and enjoy ourselves this evening. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve taken the liberty of inviting for your entertainment a very special guest with whom I believe many of you will already be familiar. Mr. Johansen?” he called. “Mr. Johansen? Bring out Walter!”
Everyone whooped and applauded; the promise of Walter seemed to excite them. Stucky applauded, too, beating his hands together in a daze. His friend the primate trainer entered through the kitchen door with an orange-haired orangutan in tow. The orangutan waddled—or perhaps moseyed—with his belly thrust forward, knuckles dragging on the carpet. He was dressed like Howdy Doody, in a fringed cowboy shirt and straw Stetson; a plastic gun belt encircled his waist. The jug-eared trainer did not look Stucky’s way as he explained that Walter had been working up some new material for his impending role in Rosie O’Shea’s Wild West Revue at Universal Studios. The ape then produced a harmonica from his shirt pocket and began a faltering, discordant instrumental rendition of “Home on the Range.”
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam . . .
Stucky felt his mouth go slack again. Air moved in and out. He watched in stunned silence as Walter’s meaty lips slobbered the harp. Though really it made perfect sense: the tuneless notes, or perhaps the fact of who was playing them, merely echoed the dark promise fate had been whispering in his ear for the past two days. The trainer—Johansen—stood aside, regarding his charge’s performance with a possessive, possibly carnal intensity. Several members of the audience raised their voices to softly intone the chorus: Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day . . .
As Stucky listened, his scrim of confusion seemed to lift. It seemed to burn away like the previous morning’s sea fog. The proper perspective included, for example, Walter—who pressed on, mangling the second verse, to which no one sounded very sure of the words. Stucky polished off the scotch; the empty bottle slipped from his fingers and dropped harmlessly to the carpet. The room teetered lengthwise along its axis—port to starboard, starboard to port—and he turned back to Fauntleroy, who stood puffing grandly on his Cohiba. His wrinkly hand still rested on Nathalie’s forearm, but he was petting it now like the head of a cat—Stucky watched the fingers stroking spryly back and forth. They didn’t move like the digits of any doddering oldster.
“Raskin,” Stucky hissed under his breath.
How could he have doubted it? For reasons that might remain forever nameless—that might not even exist—Raskin was playing him again. As the swallows return to Capistrano, as a river returns to the sea, thus did Raskin take advantage of his friends. The goal of the scheme hardly mattered; for Raskin, as for any great con man, the scheme was a goal unto itself. If the scheme demanded the issuance of veiled threats to Stucky via Castro’s leviathan dong, so be it. Stucky’s pride, his years of loyal friendship, the general fragility of his psyche at a trying moment in his life—none of these would be considerations. Raskin’s elegance was all surface. In his chest beat the heart of a barbarian. He’d been making a monkey of Stucky for nearly two decades now—but with a desperate man such games should never be played. Walter reached his closing note and the crowd burst into a rousing ovation. In the moment of silence that followed, Stucky found himself stepping forward, somewhat unsteadily, to reclaim the attention of the room.
“Thank you, Walter, that was beautiful. A lovely song. But you know, it’s funny—your little story just reminded me of something, Mr. Fauntleroy. Reminded me of another story. Also involves Communists. Would you like to hear it?”
There was an awkward pause. Everyone looked at Stucky, then turned to look at their host, who shook his mummified head. “No, Mr. Stucky, I would not.”
“Fascinating bunch, those Communists. You know much about the October Revolution, Mr. Fauntleroy? 1918? No? Then maybe you don’t know that Lenin kept himself holed up for most of it at Bolshevik headquarters in the Smolny Institute—the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, that is. Old finishing school for rich girls. Aristocratic trim, as you might say. He rarely went down to the street. Risky down there, Karensky’s men out looking for him and whatnot. But when he did have to go, he always made sure to disguise himself. Had a big gray wig, top of the line, from the costume guy at the Mariinsky Theatre, and funny glasses—and sometimes he wore surgical bandages. Yes: surgical bandages. Trotsky writes about it in his memoirs.” Stucky wrote about it in his script. Smolny, 25 October: Trotsky and Lenin at rest in a vacant room, waiting for the Second Congress of the Soviets to open. The pace of events has been giddy; Trotsky himself is a trifle giddy. Who stood last night in the cold atop the routed czar’s Packard, exhorting a crowd of thousands in the street? Trotsky did. Now he lies beside Lenin in the dark on a blanket brought by Ilyich’s sister, but neither man can sleep. Petrograd is all but theirs. Twenty years of struggle—with and often against each other—and now their time has suddenly come. Trotsky turns to make a wistful remark about the naval garrison at Kronstadt, but instead begins laughing, he is laughing—Lenin’s silhouette still wears enormous glasses, a cheap workman’s cap, and bandages around the jaw as if to dress a toothache; he’s neglected in the rush of things to remove his afternoon’s disguise! “Lev Davidovich,” he asks, “why are you laughing?” But Ilyich now is laughing, too; they are laughing together. History lies prone at their feet—and Trotsky, whose uncompromising nature has so often left him lonely, has finally made for himself a wonderful friend. Stucky said, “Do you understand why I’m sharing this with you, Mr. Fauntleroy?”
“Because you’re drunk, Mr. Stucky?”
“I think you’d better leave.”
“This man is an imposter,” Stucky announced.
The crowd absorbed this news in silence.
“This man is an imposter. He is perpetrating a fraud.”
Someone in the back coughed. Comely faces, many still tan despite the season, either stared at Stucky quizzically or pointedly did not.
“He’s not who he says—not who he says he is!”
“You tell ’em, Comrade!” Zweller shouted from the bar.
Nathalie came forward, put a hand on Stucky’s shoulder. “Ben?”
He cut his eyes at her. Seductive features, sympathetically arranged—perfidy failed to spoil her looks. Beauty: not a moral force. She spoke to him as one speaks to calm a dog.
“We’ve had a lot to drink, Ben. I think you’re confused.”
“Fraud!” he called over her head.
People looked away now. Even Walter looked away, scratching the top of his hairy head with the edge of his harmonica. Here and there, a stifled laugh. Stucky felt the blood hammering behind his face. The alleged Fauntleroy had taken a few shuffle-steps backward at his shambling faux-elderly pace; he raised one of his liver-splotched faux-elderly hands and a pair of large men in dark suits stepped forward.
“Look under the bandages, you fools! He’s just a man!”
One of the suits said, “There’s two ways we can do this, Mr. Stucky.”
Stucky regarded them coolly: broad shoulders, square, neckless heads. His breath was coming heavily now. Nathalie, too, had moved away.
The other one said, “The choice is up to you.”
Drunks the world over are feared for their astounding strength. Stucky could feel the power. His anger was cumulative, aged like the scotch, also buttressed by it. He felt his body spring before it sprang: felt the room blur as he flew forward, tearing the stupid bandages from Raskin’s face, exposing him for all to see—the collective gasp of the crowd, outraged cries, Stucky, triumphant, holding the gauze aloft . . . but he took no more than a step before the suits corralled him. Hands like ancient limestone made light of his struggles. They lifted him off the ground. His body was weightless, he was floating. They carried him doorward through a roomful of his crazed and shouting voice.
“Raskin! You bastard! You’re a shitty writer! Your prose is garbage! Let go of me! Let go of me!”
He woke in the morning at the helm of his rental car on a side street in the Hollywood flats. His cheek lay flat against the cold leatherette of the steering wheel and he was drooling, or at least he had been, though his mouth seemed now to be out of saliva. He lifted his head. It bobbled precariously but did not fall off. The steering wheel’s pebbled grain lay printed on his cheek; a scratch of unknown provenance marked his brow. The street before him was empty and the harsh early light made it look emptier. Traffic flowed past at the intersection up ahead, vehicles moving at incredible speeds. Stucky was pleased to find his key in the ignition. He turned it and the radio sprang an ambush, volume cranked to high—some morning talk-show host yelling about whales: “Whales!” Stucky turned the car off. He adjusted the radio dial and tried again. At the intersection he turned left onto Hollywood Boulevard, away from the sun, and drove until he hit Fairfax, until he hit Sunset, until he hit the 405. Heading south on the freeway, he passed the Wilshire exit and kept going. He would call the hotel later. He would have them ship his bag.
At the airport he sat before the window at an empty gate and forced himself to finish a thirty-two-ounce bottle of water. The water was cold and clear, with a line of snowcapped peaks along the label, but it tasted exactly like scotch. Out across the runwayed concrete, planes diagonally rose and fell. The light mellowed slightly as the sun climbed higher in the hazy inland sky; earmuffed baggage handlers gathered their shortening shadows in. Stucky stood to throw his empty bottle away. A rifled newspaper lay on the floor beside the trash can: yesterday’s L.A. Times. He picked it up and extracted the sports page. The Lakers had won; the Clippers had lost; the Dodgers had re-signed their shortstop to a lucrative long-term deal. Stucky hesitated for a moment before flipping to the track results, which revealed that no horse by the name of Vichy Dog had gone to the post for Wednesday’s fourth at Santa Anita. A gelding named Fireside Surprise had won the race, paying six dollars even. Stucky looked out the window again.
His flight didn’t leave for three more hours. Soon, in the timeless tradition of Los Angeles, it would be a lovely day. A slow parade of commuter jets taxied by, nose to tail like a train of circus bears, before lighting one by one out toward the Pacific. Fifteen hundred miles to the south, in Coyoacán, in the courtyard where he had once tended rabbits, Trotsky’s bones lay moldering beneath a concrete obelisk that bore no epitaph, just a hammer and sickle and Trotsky’s famous name. Which wasn’t even really his—it had belonged originally to a handsome warder at the Odessa prison; Trotsky selected it at random to use on a false passport while escaping from his first Siberian exile in 1902. Five years later, having been banished for life to Obdorskoe for his role in the failed revolution of ’05, Trotsky escaped again—fleeing, in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, six hundred miles across snow-covered tundra to reach the Urals, where he posed as a polar explorer to fool the local police.
Stucky’s own getaway from Los Angeles would be less dramatic. By sundown, if all went well, he would be back on his sofa in Seattle with a cup of mint tea and a good book to read, listening to the gentle patter of rain along his roof. He seemed to feel, in the depths of his hangover and the terminal’s cavernous silence, that something had been taken from him. But nothing had been taken. He was free to resume his life as it had been before; he could begin trying to write something new. Later—in a few days, when he was settled again—he might call Raskin to demand some answers—though Raskin could indeed be anywhere in the world by now, and answers were, in any case, not among his many specialties. One did not seek out Raskin in order to get answers.
Planes fell, planes rose. The woman on the PA sang her lonely siren song, calling Mr. García, Mr. Wilfredo García, to the nearest white courtesy phone. Her voice sounded exactly like a recording, though of course it could not be. Stucky’s head ached—a dull, oceanic pain, throbbing in sluggish time with his pulse. His throat tickled unpleasantly. It was already dry again. The parched cabin air would do him no favors on the trip north. In the foreground of his view, just beneath the window, two idle baggage handlers were miming a heated game of one-on-one. Stucky watched the man in possession of the phantom ball dribble between his legs, fake left, spin right, and toss up a fadeaway jumper. His eyes traced the ball’s imaginary arc as it soared toward the hoop. He waited; his opponent waited. Stucky waited, too. The shooter threw his arms in the air.
Apparently the shot had gone in.