LITTLE ELVISES, Chapters 4&5

October 21st, 2008

Thanks so much to those who have commented or e-mailed me to say you like Junior and the way this book kicks off. It’s helped me to move the story forward, knowing that what’s already on the page has given pleasure to some folks.

When I started to post these, I was thinking that they might serve as a discussion-starter for how writing by the seat of the pants works — how to trust in the fact that, as E.L. Doctorow says, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but it is possible to get all the way home that way.”  Maybe I should have framed it that way from the beginning. Anyway, I’m open to questions about the process.

For those of you who didn’t read the earlier chapters, the protagonist, Junior Bender, is a burglar who’s been pressed by a cop with a crooked uncle to find a way to exonerate the uncle from a charge of murder that’s probably forthcoming, since the uncle had expressed the intent to kill a man, and that man had promptly shown up dead.  As this chapter ends, Junior is on his way home from the house of the crooked uncle, a guy named DiGaudio, who had discovered and managed lots of Philadelphia Italian teenagers whose talent pretty much extended to looking something like Elvis.  They had short careers but made DiGaudio lots of money.  The streets Junior is driving lead downhill to Ventura Boulevard, in the San Fernando Valley.

4

Christmas for Suicides

“Louie,” I said into the phone. “I need to talk to you.”

“Everybody wants to talk to me,” Louie the Lost said. “Whole world’s got questions, and I’m like Mr. Answer Man. Fuckin phone’s ringing off the hook.”

“Well, let it ring. Meet me at the North Pole in fifteen minutes.”

“Awwww,” Louie said. “Not the North Pole. Place is like Christmas for suicides. Hey, good name for one of them bands, huh? Christmas for –”

“It’s great,” I said. “I just met the guy who could manage them.” There were bright headlights in my rear-view mirror, coming up fast, faster than the twisting streets above the Boulevard encourage. “Fifteen minutes. I’m in Blitzen.”

“That’s so cute,” Louie said. “Marge try to give you Dydie?”

The headlights were blinding. I angled the mirror down and said, “See you there,” and then dropped the phone onto the passenger seat.

And the car rammed me.

I was on a sharp curve to the right, and the impact caught the left rear fender, swinging my car halfway around. I spun the wheel in the direction I’d been shoved and gunned the accelerator, and the car jumped the curb on the right and plowed eight or ten feet up an ivy-covered slope with a Norman castle on top of it. For a moment, I was afraid I was going to roll, but I kept accelerating and cranking the wheel to the right, and then I was heading back down through the ivy to the street, and the car that had hit me was already a hundred yards past me.

But it was turning around, making an ungainly three-point turn, and I could see why it had hit me so hard. The damn thing was a Humvee.

Since I’d essentially made a U-turn, I was facing back uphill, toward DiGaudio’s house. If I’m going to be chased, I’d rather be chased uphill, where I can get some muscle out of the eight-cylinder Detroit behemoth of an engine Louie dropped into my innocent-looking white Toyota. I downshifted and punched the accelerator again, leaving rubber on the street, the tail of the car whipping around as I straightened it up and followed the yellow cones of my headlights back up the hill I’d just come down. A couple of mailboxes whipped past, and then it was a tight crook, almost a hairpin, to the left, and there was nothing to the right except fifty or sixty feet of vertical chaparral, and I found myself grateful that they hadn’t rammed me there, or I’d be waving at coyotes as I plummeted past them, hoping to land in somebody’s swimming pool.

But even over the sound of my engine, I heard the roar of the Humvee, eating the distance between us, and its headlights briefly swung into my mirror and then out again as the road took another turn, right this time, and I ran it as fast as I could without losing the pavement and fishtailing hopelessly through the flimsy guardrail and out into space, hoping that the Humvee’s high center of gravity would slow it down, and then there was a hump in the road and I was briefly airborne and even before my tires hit the asphalt again, I saw the bright lights behind me.

Closing fast.

My three Glocks were neatly boxed up, wrapped in oilcloth and safe from rust, inside the storage lockers I keep in the Valley, Hollywood, and down near the airport. I had an electric screwdriver with me, but it was in the trunk, and it seemed unlikely that I’d be able to locate an outlet even if I managed to get the damn thing out without getting killed.

Tight to the right again, scraping the guardrail this time, fighting the urge to brake, and instead dropping the car into second as the road took a dip down, the Valley glimmering off to my right, and suddenly on the left a little street called Carol Way, and I slammed on the brakes, spun the wheel left, and jammed the accelerator again, a half-formed image assembling itself in my mind even as I passed the yellow diamond-shaped sign that said DEAD END.

Carol Way was steep and narrow, just a series of drop-dead curves and suicide switchbacks that snaked along the side of the hill, a testimonial to the greed of some contractor who wasn’t going to let a virtual cliff-face prevent him from carving out a few view lots. The Humvee wasn’t in my mirror yet, but I could see its lights sweeping the brush as it made the turns behind me, stabbing right and left through the darkness like a giant’s flashlight. They’d slowed a little now, having seen the dead end sign, and figuring that I’d either made a bad turn or planned to back into some driveway and wait with my lights off as they rolled past.

My weapons may have been miles away, but I had one thing they didn’t. I had a burglar’s memory.

I slowed, too, resisting the urge to look at the rear-view. I’d see their lights without looking at the mirror, and I didn’t want to be blinded. But I needed them to be able to see me if this was going to have a chance of working.

And then there they were, accelerating behind me and closing the gap, and I heard a cracking sound and something whistled past my head and punched a spidery hole in my windshield. I would have zigzagged, but Carol Way was too narrow now, so narrow that a car coming down the hill would have to pull to the side to let an oncoming car edge past. So I put my head down and ransacked the lighted curbside sliding past, and there it was, the first Whitley driveway, and I accelerated past it to the second one and cut the wheel right, too fast, slamming against the curb and banging my head on the roof of the car, but I got it under control and powered up the driveway that pointed up the hill at the Southern colonial mansion I’d burglarized about six months ago, looking for the birth records of a little kid who was being claimed as her son by a woman who was as close to pure evil as anyone I ever hope to meet.

And behind me, the Humvee made the turn and slowed, taking the narrow drive at a sane rate of speed, because, after all, where could I go?

Around was where I could go, because the Whitley’s driveway was a big U that ran behind the house, past a gravel parking area smugly populated by a Lamborghini and a Bentley, and then swung left and went right on back down the hill to Carol Way again, and within eight to ten seconds, that’s where I was, tires hitting high C as I pushed the car’s weight downhill, seeing the Humvee’s brake lights in my mirror, still partway up the second driveway, and knowing that there was no way it could get up and over the loop behind the house and back down again in time to catch me before I could turn off and lose myself in the web of streets that crisscross the hills above Ventura.

I thought for a second about pulling in somewhere and waiting for them, then trying to track them to wherever they’d go to report, but then I looked at the bullet hole in the windshield and chose the better part of valor. I went home.

5

A Nice Reduction of Port Wine

I said, “He said, ‘Some asshole shot him before I could.’”

“Lemme get these pronouns straight,” Louie the Lost said. He was doing something mildly disgusting with his tongue to the end of a new cigar. Someday I’m going to videotape it and show it to him, and he’ll never do it again. “He, the first he, the one that’s doing the saying, that’s Vincent DiGaudio, and the him who was shot, that’s the Brit reporter, Derek something –”

“Bigelow.”

“See?” Louie said, lipping the cigar in a way that made my whole face itch. “See how much easier conversation is when you use names? As I understand it, Vincent L. DiGaudio told you that some asshole, we could call him X if we wanted –”

“Let’s not.”

“That some asshole shot Derek Bigelow, ace reporter, before he, Vincent L. DiGaudio, could get around to it.”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

“And you didn’t,” Louie said. He was rummaging his pockets for matches. “And that the cops are going to come looking for him, DiGaudio, because he told a bunch of people that he was planning to kill old Derek.”

“Exactly.”

“He tell you why he wanted to kill him?”

“Ah-ah,” I said. “Pronouns.”

“Why he, DiGaudio,” Louie said, releasing the words into the air in precisely bitten syllables, “wanted to kill him, Derek.”

“No. Said it shouldn’t matter, since he wasn’t the murderer. But that I should work fast because pretty quick somebody’s going to talk to the cops about him, DiGaudio, yakking about wanting to kill – oh, hell, you know who he wanted to kill.”

Louie had given up on his jacket and shirt pockets and was now working on his pants, the unlit cigar sticking out of his mouth like a miniature Louisville Slugger. “Always a good way to work up to offing somebody,” he said. “Tell as many people about it as possible. Buy an ad if you got the budget.”

He started looking around the room, his pony-tail bobbing. Louie was short, wide, and darkly Mediterranean, and if his face had been a house, the living room would have been his forehead, which occupied about half of the front of his head. For a while he’d worn bangs, but he had a natural curl in his hair, and the bangs flipped up at the ends, which made him look like a hitman for the Campfire Girls. Recently he’d grown his hair out and pulled it back with a rubber band in the ever-popular dude-tail so beloved of tiny music executives in pressed jeans. He gave up on the room, probably because he couldn’t stand to look at it any more, and said, “Got a match?”

“Here,” I said.

“You know, my wife, Alice, she’s been working with this broad who teaches people how to get things done,” he said, and took a deep drag, looking cross-eyed at the coal. “Alice, she’s got problems with what she calls completions, meaning everything gets kind of half-done and then it lies around the house until I straighten things up and then Alice gets all crazy because she can’t find stuff. Like she’ll open all the bills and organize them alphabetically or by color or size or how she feels about the store they come from or some other fucking thing, and then she’ll tear a bunch of checks out of our check book and then she’ll go play tennis. And a week later, we’re getting late notices and she’s yelling about how I can’t leave stuff alone, and I’m messing up all her systems.” By now Louie’s head was so wreathed in smoke I could hardly see him. “So she hires this broad, and for 150 bucks an hour, the broad tells her – make sure you’re sitting down, now – to make lists. I coulda done that for free, but it wouldn’t have meant nothing. But, see the problem with lists is that you gotta organize shit in order of importance. Otherwise, you keep adding stuff to the top of the list, and before you know it, your list says stuff like Go to K-Mart for Michael Bolton CD and don’t forget kibble, and you find yourself sitting in your car, listening to Michael Bolton with a trunk full of kibble, and you learn that you can cross off number three on your list, because bang, somebody just capped your journalist.”

I said, “Michael Bolton?”

He took the cigar out of his mouth and regarded the cylinder of ash on the end with the kind of satisfaction God probably felt on the Seventh Day. “Don’t ask. See, the thing is, this kind of lets you off the hook about your rules, don’t it? Because you say no murders, but this guy DiGaudio, the reason he’s pissed off is because he didn’t commit a murder.”

I said, “He gave me money.”

“Yeah?” Louie waved the smoke away. “You in the giving vein?”

“Richard the Third?” I guessed.

“You’re not the only crook who reads, you know. Boy, old Richard, it was a good thing the audience couldn’t talk to the actors, ’cause he told the audience everything.”

“I’ve got twenty-five for you.” I pulled out the bills DiGaudio had given me and divided it in half by eye, then tossed it to Louie, who picked it up and dropped it into his pocket. “Count it.”

“I trust you.”

“I just want to know how much that is. I mean, it looked kind of cool, but suppose I got it wrong? Suppose you only got twenty-one hundred?”

“Make a deal with you,” Louie said, tapping the pocket with the money in it. “You can count it and divide it up again if you were wrong, or I can count it, and we keep whatever we’ve got, no matter how it turns out.”

“You’re on.”

Louie pulled out his share, folded the hundreds around the index finger of his left hand, and flipped through with the thumb and forefinger of his right, so fast I couldn’t follow. When he’d finished, he said, “Okay,” and put the money back in his pocket.

“What do you mean, okay? How’d it come out?”

“I didn’t say I’d tell you,” he said.

“Fine.” I slipped my share of the money into the pocket of my T-shirt. “So here’s the deal, here’s what I need help with. And there’ll be more money, assuming we both survive.”

“Sounds good.” He looked down at the small round table between us and said, “You know these people are really crazy.”

“Which people?”

These people. Marge ‘n Ed. The people who put this place together.” He gripped the table by the circumference rotated it until he’d turned it halfway. Screwed to the edge was a small rectangular brass plate I hadn’t seen before. Engraved on it were the words, For good elves only. “Whaddya suppose they do with the bad ones?” Louie said. “Hang them up in stockings in front of the fireplace and smoke them like hams? Make ’em listen to NPR?”

“What’s wrong with NPR?”

“Oh,” Louie said, screwing up his face, “just spare me all that fucking concern, okay? All that sensitivity. All those guys named Noah.”

“Do you want to hear what I need help with, or would you rather foam at the mouth?”

“Sure,” he said sourly. “But next month, stay someplace better.”

“Okay. First, I need to know everything anybody’s saying about Bigelow’s murder. Anything, I don’t care how stupid it sounds. Second, I need to know about the Hammer robbery.”

“That the judge?”
“Yeah, and his wife.”

“Stinky Tetweiler,” Louie said.

“Why? Why Stinky?”

“Jade. They took a fucking bulldozer full of jade. All sorts of carved jade from various centuries that were renowned for people being really good at carving jade. Stinky’s the place you’d take that kind of stuff.”

Louie the Lost never ceases to amaze me. Since he destroyed his credibility as a getaway driver by getting lost in Compton after a diamond robbery, a bunch of jacked-up white gangsters in a Cadillac with a million in ice in the trunk, and half the black population of LA staring in through the windows, Louie has turned into one of the premier telegraph stations of the LA underworld. If he doesn’t know it, nobody can, and if he can’t find out something, it’s buried deeper than Vladimir Putin’s conscience.

“Is there a third?” he said. “You said first and second. Is there a third?”

“Well, I’d like to know who tried to kill me tonight, and how they knew I’d be up in the hills when the only people who were supposed to know were DiGaudio the cop, DiGaudio the crook, and me.”

“I got a feeling about that,” Louie said, getting up giving a friendly pat to the pocket with the money in it. “My feeling is that you’ll get another look at them next time they try.”

* * *

Louie was out tugging on wires or whatever he does when he’s finding stuff out, and I got into the car and went to a little coffee house on Ventura that had its own computers and would sell you half an hour online to go with your pumpkin-butternut squash latte. Sure enough, there was an e-mail from Rina with a couple of links to the FBI site.

Feeling nice and anonymous on the shop’s computers, I clicked on the links and got a bunch of really ratty looking documents, badly typed and with all sorts of stuff handwritten diagonally in the margins, liberally crossed out with black marker all over the place to protect the innocent and also the guilty who had good lawyers. The memos detailed a series of wire taps involving Eddie “The Moose” Salerno, one of the Philly big guys from the Fifties, and Sammy “The Ferret” Weiss, a lawyer who was clearly not of Italian descent but had been honored with a nickname anyway. What they were talking about was money, naturally, in this case money given to radio stations to play records by Giorgio and also Frankie LaValle, another of DeGaudio’s boys.

Thing is, The Moose was quoted as saying, that Frankie, he can sing a little. So the stations, you know, they’re okay with it. But fuckin Giorgio, they’re getting sued because people are breaking their fingers hitting the buttons to change the station when the fucking record comes on, you know, they’re steering into trees, they’re running over grandmothers.

Weiss had responded, Not in the towns where he’s been on the TV. Where he’s been on the TV, kids call up and ask for the record. Forget radio, Eddie, radio is last year. The TV is where it’s going. We got to keep getting the kid on the radio so we can get him on the TV, and then everything takes care of itself. The girlies look at him, and it’s all good. And we gotta get the contract away from that jerk XXXXXXXXXX.

So break his fingers, The Moose said.

Not my department, Rubin responded. Anyway, XXXXXXXXX has a few other kids who bring it in, too. What we got to do, we got to get him under control before Caponetto and them get hold of him.

Caponetto? Oh, yes. Caponetto. The Philly Mob Wars. I’d forgotten about the Philly Mob Wars. Caponetto had won, if you figured that having Eddie The Moose cut into pieces, sauteed with a nice reduction of port wine sauce, and served as a surprise course to some of his partners in a restaurant counted as a win. And, apparently, DiGaudio’s stable of dreamboys was one of the bones the big dogs had been tussling over. Rina was right, as she usually is: there was no way that XXXXXXXX could have referred to anyone other than DiGaudio.

But all that, good Lord, that was fifty years ago, I thought as I powered off. Both mobs had been vaporized in the aftermath. No way it was connected to any of this.

And I remained comfortable in that certainty right up to the time I pulled to the curb at the Hollywood Boulevard address where Derek Bigelow had been found and discovered that the star on the Walk of Fame sidewalk right in front of the world’s last head shop had one of those old-fashioned record players on it and that it said in brass type, GIORGIO.

And knowing that my luck had just turned very, very bad, I took the money out of my pocket and counted it. I had nineteen hundred dollars, and Louie had walked away with thirty-one hundred.

11 Responses to “LITTLE ELVISES, Chapters 4&5”

  1. Jen Forbus Says:

    How can you help but love Louie with that whole exchange about the pronouns? Brilliant! Loved it!

    The car chase is excellent. It’s one of those action scenes where you start reading faster instinctively because you feel like you’re sitting in the passenger seat, a part of the action yourself. I also loved the line about the electric screw driver. A little funny in the midst of the action, very well placed and completely believable from a witty character like Junior.

    This is so much fun, Tim. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sharai Says:

    I’ll read anything about L.A. But this is actually good. Fast paced and hilarious. I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble Junior can get into with that electric screw driver!!!!!!!!!!!

    Don’t stop now, I’m hooked!

  3. Greg Says:

    Tonight I tuned into the blog, saw the chapter postings for “Little Elvises”, started at the beginning, breezed through the works, and had a great time.
    As advertized, a much lighter touch than the “Poke Rafferty” series which rightly kept the comic element in check.
    This new series is loads of fun because you now have a vehicle where you can really let it fly. Some of the lines are just great: “buried deeper than Vladimir Putin’s heart”. Another of my favorites was the To Do list where you end up “listening to Michael Bolton with a trunkload of kibble.”

    Great start, Tim. Please keep it coming.

  4. Greg Says:

    Oops. Correction. “Buried deeper than Vladimir Putin’s conscience” is Tim’s line that I liked so much.

  5. suzanna Says:

    These two chapters incorporate everything at once that I find really intriguing about Little Elvises.

    Crooks working for crooks, music biz, mobsters, familiar streets of LA.

    Here are some of my favorite parts:

    Description of Louie — dang he’s sleezy. Hair-do gone awry, Dude-tail and pressed jeans, yikes!

    The name…Stinky Tetweiler! Begs the question, How did Stinky get his name? Well, I guess it’s self-explanatory.

    And if there were ever a story element ripe and ready for a scene in Scorsese’s next gangster film it’s definitely Eddie “The Moose” Salerno being turned into dinner as payback. How do you think of stuff like this???????

  6. Dana King Says:

    The idea for a crook who acts as an unlicensed PI for other crooks is inspired. The potential story lines are virtually limitless, as is the cast of available characters. DiGaudio and Louie read like something out of an illicit writing affair between Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.

    You know I read at least sixty books a year, most of them for review, so I pay attention. I’ve read a lot of “funny” crime fiction that has a good premise and bad execution, and some that is well done, but the original idea doesn’t have enough legs to sustain a humorous story. Little Elvises has both. I’m sorry you’re going to stop showing these as you get farther into the book, but I’ll just remind myself it will be more fun to read in lrager chunks, with the entire book in my hand.

    Good stuff.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jen — Thanks for liking Louie. He’s a continuing character in the series, the closest thing Junior has to a friend. And thanks also for the nice words about the car chase. I never know how far to push it with action scenes, but when I finished this one, I thought I’d stayed within bounds.

    Sharai — Thanks. The electric screwdriver figures in a scene two chapters from now, and then, who knows? The way my mind works it could wind up being the most important object in the story.

    Greg — “Lighter” is the key. There’s always so much at stake in the Poke books, and he takes it all with deadly seriousness. The stakes in these books can get high, too, but Junior is generally confident in his wits. Where Poke often acts out of desperation (like me), Junior is more of an assessor; he looks for the spaces in between things, spaces through which no one would figure he could enter or exit — really a burglar’s worldview. And thanks for liking the conjunction of Michael Bolton and kibble. Seemed natural to me, too,

    Hey Suzanna — Stinky Tetweiler’s nickname comes from the fact that his family invented the perfume strip, without which, as Junior says in a later chapter, “Global fragrance sales would be significantly down, and it would be possible to sleep in the same room with a copy of Vanity Fair.” Stinky was born to money but turned to crime because it was his natural vocation. As for Eddie the Moose, a reduction of port wine sauce just seemed right. Moose is a gamy meat.

    Dana — Thanks so much to reacting from a reviewer’s perspective. Would you mind terribly if I cloned you and got the clones jobs at major magazines and websites? I love the simile of an illicit affair between Leonard and Hiassen. If the humor in this book works (and I hope it does), it’s because I hear Junior’s voice so clearly. It literally wakes me up sometimes, and I have to get up and write something down.

  8. Shadoe Stevens Says:

    Nobody else writes lines like, “He took the cigar out of his mouth and regarded the cylinder of ash on the end with the kind of satisfaction God probably felt on the Seventh Day.” I’ve been reading Tim’s work for 30 years and loved everything. He’s brilliant. But this is inspired. He has always been drawn to and excelled at dark, dramatic tales with hideous villain, riveting tension, and conflicted heroes. He really knows how to tell a great story. But for me, this is Tim at the top of his game.

    Very few writers can weave a compelling tale with such wit. Who else could write the whole Stinky Tetweiler story? He has found a new tone that allows him to accommodate “take-me-serious” mystery writing into a landscape of inexhaustible ingenuity, humor and imagination. These are thoroughly believable and engaging contemporary tales brimming with hilarious, laugh-out-loud descriptions, characters, and asides. He seems to be having more fun than ever and I’ve never enjoyed his writing more. I hope he writes a hundred of them.

  9. suzanna Says:

    Even the replies to your fans are funny. I love how much fun you’re having with this, Tim. Thanks for filling me in on Stinky’s name — never would have guessed it related to perfume, and for sharing why a port wine reduction was a good way to deal with Eddie the Moose and his gamy flavor.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Wo!!

    Shadoe, I wish the New York Times liked my work half as much as you do. I especially like the idea that Junior gives me a chance to write funny books about serious topics, because that was exactly what I had in mind. This book gets a lot more serious before it ends, but it’s still (I think) funny.

    Suzanna, it’s the fans who are funny, not I. I’m just trying to keep up. And I’ll send you the chapter with Stinky in it if you’d like. That and the one after it really put almost all the balls in the air, so to speak — although we don’t meet the love interest until the chapter after that.

  11. suzanna Says:

    Oh, Tim, I would love anything you want to send me!

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