New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from A Choice of Nightmares by Lynn Kostoff

Robert Staples kept trying to explain why he’d thrown Heidi in the alligator pit.

That was difficult enough, but Russell Tills made it even harder by moving around. Half the time Robert was talking to his back or his lurching profile. The neon-blue carpet was deep enough to hold footprints, and Russell’s Italian loafers had left the floor of his office looking like instructions for a complicated dance step.

“You had a headache?”

“Right. You see—”

“Jesus. That’s what I thought you said.” Russell fired up another Vantage and moved away. Robert watched Russell’s image surface in the window across the room. He was a Gentlemen’s Quarterly version of Frankenstein’s monster: a collection of mismatched parts, long arms and legs with tiny feet and hands, a slim waist with wide, bony hips, a large head with small wet eyes, and a mouth with lips thick as thumbs and tiny yellow teeth. Russell, however, knew how to dress and used the pastel slacks and blazer, the blue silk shirt and orange knitted tie, and the Gucci shoes to stitch together a physique that otherwise looked as if it were going to fly apart every time he moved.

“The Herald ran your little incident on the first page. They found out I’m representing you, I know it, and they’re playing with me. I’ve got some enemies there. I mean, Christ, the police find three more bodies in a canal up near Opa-Locka yesterday, and the Herald runs you and the Glades End Mall thing on page one. It’s personal.”

Russell flicked an ash as long as a fingernail into a seashell ashtray and asked, “What, you never heard of aspirin, Rob? They make them extra strength now, capsules or tablets, time-released, easy on the stomach, and what I’m wondering is why this headache. Medical breakthroughs and you don’t take advantage of them. It raises questions in my mind here.”

“It just happened. I’m sorry. It’s not what you think.”

“It better not be. I hope you’re not that stupid.”

Robert knew Russell still didn’t believe him and had chalked up yesterday at Glades End Mall as a cheap publicity stunt, and it was that probably more than the alligators that upset him. Russell Tills couldn’t tolerate the idea of being upstaged. If throwing Heidi in the alligator pit had been his idea, instead of an accident, Robert probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

“The Glades End Mall account was important, Rob. I’d been nursing it since the beginning. In fact, it was me who came up with the idea of the alligator pit. At no point in time did I think it would land me page one of the Herald. I’ve been on the phone with the mall backers, and they’re upset. Four-Star Upset. What could I say? That you’re sorry? The Glades End people don’t understand sorry, Rob.” Russell moved away from the window and left Robert looking at a blue rectangle of South Florida sky.

Russell roamed the office, retracing the pattern of steps he’d left in the carpet, finding each as instinctively as a migratory bird. He held a cigarette in his left hand, the right flying up to test the condition of his new forty-five dollar haircut, its sharp dyed lines shiny, almost more blue than black, under the new wet look he sported.

“I took you on as a favor, you know that, Rob? Martin Broom called me up right after Worldwide Studios went under and asked if I’d represent you. You weren’t exactly a six-figure movie star at the time either. I had my doubts, but I went ahead. I owed Martin. He asked, I said okay, but with doubts.”

Russell circled around the desk and stopped. “I understand debts, Robert, the what and who and how of them, but I’m not sure you do. I continue to have doubts there.”

Russell abruptly gestured behind him, toward the wall and the two photographs that flanked his shoulders.

“Flagler and Fisher understood debts, Rob. Do you understand what I’m saying? They knew and made sure everyone else did too.”

The secretary interrupted with a call for Russell before he could go on with Robert’s history lesson. Not that it was necessary. Robert had seen the photographs before. For some reason he’d never quite understood, Russell maintained three offices in the greater Miami area—the one here on South Collins, another on Brickell, and one on Mimosa in Coconut Grove—but no matter how different the decor or location, Russell had the same photographs of Carl Fisher and Henry Flagler hung in each.

Russell had raised Fisher and Flagler to the level of deities and, depending on his mood or circumstances, assigned himself the role of high priest or holy ghost. Sometimes he claimed his grandfather and father had worked closely with them and at others that he was a blood relative of Fisher or Flagler. No one that Robert knew cared to dispute the claims.

Robert remembered the first time he’d met with Russell Tills in the Coconut Grove office, not long after Worldwide Studios went bankrupt and his marriage was already a memory. At that meeting, Russell claimed his grandfather had been with Flagler when he got the idea of buying bankrupt railroads and laying claims and track from Jacksonville to Key West and then building hotels at each of the major stops. Russell’s father, on the other hand, had supposedly been out in the speedboat with Fisher when he was “inspired” by the development potential of Miami Beach and bought it off a Quaker named Collins, whose most tangible gain from the deal, Robert supposed, was having the oceanfront street below the window of the office named after him.

Russell, true to his heritage or legacy, saw himself not as an agent or manager but in true South Florida fashion as a “creative consultant,” and in true Russell Tills fashion he’d lived up to his billing, extending and bending the definition of both words, creatively consulting his way into publicity, politics, television and film, real estate, business, and banking. Fisher and Flagler would have loved him, all three of them sharing the visionary power of prophets and the ethics of dogs in heat.

Russell had been uncharacteristically quiet since he’d picked up the phone. Robert watched him, studying the face inclining toward the receiver cradled on his shoulder while the hands fumbled for another cigarette and lighter. He had a face that worked on its expressions, whose forehead, eyes, and mouth had put in overtime, a lot of it, so that now they registered not the niceties and nuances of mood but blunt pleasure or displeasure. From where Robert sat, Russell didn’t look any more pleased with the caller’s news than he’d been with Robert’s.

“So you’ve been looking and Swolt is not in Little Haiti. You can’t find him, and he’s not there. That’s wonderful news, Manuel.” Russell’s knuckles were white on the receiver. “Correct me here if necessary. He’s white, right? You two do know who you’re following? Good. So tell me what the fuck you’re doing in Little Haiti because I’m having some serious problems with your methods, why exactly you are where you are and why you keep losing him. It’s not as if the guy’s invisible. How can you and Miguel miss somebody who looks the way Swolt does? What exactly am I paying you for anyway? Castro threw you and Miguel out when, 1980? I figured by now you’d know what you were doing. I didn’t figure you’d be calling me from Little Haiti to tell me something as obvious as the weather.” He paused. “Sure. You’ll get back to me. I can hardly wait to find out where else he isn’t.”

After the phone call, Russell made drinks, two large and hasty gin and tonics with pale lemon slices floating in them. Robert, in a slowly growing panic, downed his too easily. He’d finished it before Russell was even half done with his and had to sit there pretending to sip from it while they picked up from where they’d left off.

Robert began with some serious groveling, trying to convince Russell that he did in fact understand the nature of debts and appreciated what he’d done for him, telling Russell it wasn’t so much the money but the work, the fact that it was different from what they’d discussed in their first meeting. “I guess I was counting on too much, Russell, but I thought by now I’d be doing films again. Doing promotional work for you was supposed to be temporary.” Robert rested the sweating glass against his temple, the ice cubes rattling and sliding across the bottom.

For Robert, the greater part of the last year had been a blur of grand openings and groundbreakings, charities and benefits, endorsements and presentations, any South Florida hustle that required an “appearance.” With a large enough amount of hype and a few stills from Robert’s Worldwide films, Russell could market Robert as a “personality.” The fact that it was doubtful anyone had ever seen Robert’s films, or remembered them if he had, didn’t really matter. Robert knew he functioned as a sort of generic-brand celebrity, fitting a slot on a promoter’s program like some all-purpose green or yellow vegetable on a menu. It wasn’t exactly Robert’s idea of a comeback.

Russell held a lemon slice between two fingers and squeezed. “I’ve been working on some Lauderdale money. A couple of investors, they’ve never done any films, but they’re interested. Nibbles. That’s all at this point. But interested. Tugs on the line.” He studied the trail of juice that had run down his finger and dropped on the desk.

“Now, though, I’m not so sure. And can you blame them, Rob? What, they read the papers, are they going to think? I’ll tell you. They’re thinking about your famous headache. They’re thinking about Russell Tills’s word and you working in one of their films that they’ve backed with some very hard cash, and they’re wondering what if the star there, Mr. Robert Staples, has another headache? What then? They’re thinking something worse than Heidi and alligators next time. And can you blame them?”

Robert wondered if Russell had ever intended to do more for him than he had. He’d heard the line about the Lauderdale money on two previous occasions, and nothing had ever come of it. Right now, he was afraid that Russell’s debt to Worldwide’s executive producer, Martin Broom, could be covered by the small change of his connections and that Russell was thinking of closing the account.

So Robert tried again to explain what happened yesterday, after he’d driven across the state to the Gulf and the chunk of reconstituted swamp near Naples for the Memorial Day grand opening of the Glades End Mall and stood on the platform with the rest of the “personalities”—the lieutenant governor, the high-school essay winner, Miss Tamiami Trail, and the president of the Gulf Coast Golden Agers—in the bone-bending heat with clouds of bugs only slightly less oppressive than the crowd pressing around them. The headache was the closest thing he could come up with for an explanation that would appease Russell. Robert wasn’t sure he knew exactly what had happened out there.

Russell began rattling the ice cubes in his glass before Robert was even halfway through with his explanation. “Do you know what it’s like dealing with the Miami Humane Society, Rob?” Russell leaned forward and held his cigarette like a pointer.

“Russell, my head felt like it was going to cave in or explode. It was horrible.”

“They’re Nazis. I spent almost one and a half hours on the phone this morning with some brown shirt named Jamison. He’s pressing, definitely, on this one.”

“A head full of firecrackers, that’s what it felt like.”

“I don’t have any leverage with the Humane Society. The need never came up before. No ready-made connections there. I’ll find some, sure, but see, I’m having to work at it. Having to spend time that could be used more profitably in other areas. A personal stake is what I’m talking about here.”

Robert let out his breath and shook his head. “I appreciate that, Russell, and I’m sorry, really. It just happened. The damn dog bit me. It had been growling and snapping all through that high-school girl’s essay, and that Tritt woman wasn’t doing anything to stop it, and then when Miss Tamiami Trail stepped up to do her number, it got me on the arm. All those bugs, the heat, the headache, I didn’t think, Russell. I couldn’t think. I reacted, that’s all. Blind reflex.”

Heidi’s landing had been an accident, but Robert had known with a sickening clarity the moment he let go of her that he was going to pay for this one. She growled and bit, he grabbed and threw, and Heidi made a perfect trajectory over Miss Tamiami Trail lip-syncing her way through “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and landed in the alligator pit. Its three occupants had been sluggish if not outright catatonic up to that point in the grand-opening ceremonies, but that changed with Heidi’s appearance. There was a lot of churning, and suddenly it was pureed schnauzer.

Russell crossed the room without Rob noticing and tapped him on the shoulder. “Do you remember what you were doing when we landed on the moon?”


Russell swirled his drink, the ice cubes clicking like dice, and Robert looked at his empty glass.

“I do, Robert. I know exactly what I was doing. Closing a deal with Coconut Frank’s hamburger chain. Promotional saturation from South Carolina to California. The moment Neil Armstrong was giving his ‘small step’ spiel, Coconut Frank’s signing the bottom line, and I’m grossing two hundred thousand just on hamburgers before the year’s out. Believe me, hamburgers and history, there’s a lesson in each.”

With a short nod, Russell indicated for Rob to get up and follow him to the window. He pointed down at Collins Avenue, its midday congestion and confusion. Russell’s office existed in a sort of real-estate purgatory, sharing the worn and battered elegance of hotels like the San Souci, Versailles, and Cadillac, all built during the 1940s and ‘50s, but now besieged by blocks of porno and hock shops, secondhand stores and Cuban cafes, suspended between the condos to the north and the art deco restorations farther south on Collins and Ocean Springs.

Russell leaned forward and tapped the glass instead of Rob this time. “Stop any pedestrian down there. Any of them. Ask him to name the crew on the moon flight. Then ask why Coconut Frank wears an eyepatch. Which one will he know? I lay odds on Frank. Ask and you’ll hear, ‘When I say my hamburgers are a feast for the eye, Mate, believe it.’ That should tell you something, Robert.”

Russell handed Rob a drink and went on. “There’s a moon landing every day.”

Robert felt the beginnings of another headache and nodded for want of any other response. It seemed to irritate Russell. The second drink disappeared as quickly as the first.

Russell grabbed Robert’s arm. “You’re not listening. And you’re not hungry. Not enough by far.”

Robert started to protest, but Russell interrupted. “Hungry men don’t throw old ladies’ dogs into alligator pits. Desperate men do.”

“Shit, Russell, what do you mean? Why do you think I’ve been doing all this bullshit for the last ten months? Glad-handing at all those time-sharing resorts. Signing autographs at the fifth anniversary celebration of Bird World. Emceeing anything from Miss Orange Blossom to Miss Aqua-Lung pageants. Sitting through Jaycee and Chamber of Commerce banquets. Telethons for five different diseases. The Cuban talk shows, for Christ’s sake. The Miami Is Beautiful ads and the television spots. All of it.”

Russell studied the end of his cigarette and waited until Robert had finished. He didn’t look up when he said, “‘All this bullshit.’ An interesting choice of words there. It confirms what I’ve been saying.”

Robert felt the bugs and heat and Heidi all over again. The feeling of something inside becoming unhinged, slipping, starting to loosen and rattle, threatening to break away and fly out of control. More than a headache or simply losing your temper. More complex and terrifying than that. Like meeting a deformed version of yourself in a dream and trying to kill it and all the while it smiles and drools and prods you with fat stiff fingers.

“All it reveals, Russell, is that I want to work. Believe me. In film, though.” Robert tried for conviction, but his voice was wavering like a poorly tuned radio station.

Russell’s wasn’t. “That’s what I gave you.”

“What? Are we talking about the same thing here?”

“Exactly the same thing. Maybe you’re finally learning. It’s not ‘All This Bullshit’ over here, Rob, and ‘Film’ over there. It’s all bullshit. If you’re hungry, you know that. In fact, you love it. You hustle Coconut Frank franchises while we leave our footprints on the moon because you know in the end hamburgers and history are the same.”

Robert told himself to calm down. After all, he’d been in tighter places than this before. Russell was wrong. Robert understood hunger, knew how it grew and what it demanded and the cost of feeding it, and how if you were unlucky, what it fed on was you. He wanted to believe he was still lucky, but when he lowered his head and closed his eyes against the sparks of pain arcing across his temples, all he saw was Heidi frozen at the top of her trajectory, a furry comet stopped in midflight above Miss Tamiami Trail and her PC bathing suit, and himself some fifteen feet away, surrounded by a soft gray nimbus of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, with his arm extended and hand empty, as if he’d just made or asked for an offering.

Florida had been the second chance, a conspiracy of possibility that let him believe he’d find what he wanted as easily as picking up shells from a beach. It was only a matter of time, and time didn’t seem to matter down here. Under the South Florida sun, everything bloomed and dazzled, and you grew new skin.

The nights were different.

Then the projector stopped and the ceiling of his apartment at the Miramar Arms became a blank screen and he lay sweating while the air conditioner raged and he felt as if his life had become enclosed in a giant set of parentheses that each day moved a little closer together.

And Robert felt those parentheses now in Russell’s office, tensed, and tried not to shudder when Russell moved from his desk and stopped behind him, dropping his hand onto Robert’s shoulder. He left it lying there, like something moist and pulpy that had crawled out of the ocean to rest on a warm rock.

“I think we can work something out,” Russell said. “For now, we need to keep you out of the public eye until this thing blows out to sea. In the meantime, I got a couple things you can give me a hand with.”

Robert turned his head slightly and nodded, catching at the corner of his vision the fat gold ring inlaid with a sneeze of rubies on Russell’s third finger.

They could work something out, yes. And right then, with Russell’s hand gripping his shoulder, Robert understood how Heidi must have felt just before he let go.