When I finished dinner, I did the washing up. Nothing’s grimmer than coming home alone, late at night, to a sink full of crap. My shoes needed polishing, so I polished them, then brushed my teeth and shaved myself twice. I spread out my suits on the bed. They’re the ones I wore bodyguarding, and neither was that good to begin with. The brown one seemed like the better of the two, and I put it on and had a look in the mirror. If the light was low, I figured I could pass for an actor who played pugs instead of a pug. I looked at the gun in the bottom right drawer of my desk, left it there, and went out to the car.
The Centaur was about fifteen miles out of town on Route 5 toward the valley, a big place with a semi-circular drive, like they’ve all got now. I pulled up and gave my keys to the valet. He was a strict-looking young Mexican. He took my keys as if all the guests drove up in dented ’41 Hudsons. My respect for the place went up a notch, or maybe just my respect for him, and I started down a long walkway with a line of torches on either side that made the leaves of the shrubs gleam like metal. The Centaur was gotten up as some sort of chateau. Beneath the cement gewgaws, you could see it was just a big brick shed, but they were nice gewgaws, and I passed two doormen and walked into a foyer with a big statue of a centaur in something that was supposed to be gilt bronze. She was rearing back on her hind legs, getting ready to wing a spear at the bandstand. She looked like she wished somebody would give her a shirt.
I walked around her rump to check my hat and had a look around. It was an enormous place. The carpeting was burgundy. Through the arch to my left I saw a row of blackjack tables and the end of what looked like a row of roulette tables, all of them well attended. Through the arch to my right was a dance floor surrounded by a horseshoe of banquettes, and behind them, a raised mezzanine with round tables and more banquettes. I wasn’t the only guy there in a suit, but a dinner jacket would have been better. At the end of the dance floor sat an orchestra in gold tuxedos, making with the elbows and teeth. In front of them stood a colored girl with a mouth like a cut plum, singing very softly about something that couldn’t be helped.
I went around a corner to the bar, which was of dark wood and ran lengthwise along one wall of the big room. Behind the bar was a long mirror tinted gold, and above the mirror was a long frieze in greenish glass, lit from behind. The frieze showed more girl-centaurs, hopping around with a bunch of satyrs. They didn’t carry spears and looked a lot more fun to know. I ordered a gimlet and toasted them.
"Halliday in here most nights?" I asked the bartender. He was built solid, with a solid, pouchy white face.
"Friend of his?" he said.
"Most nights, yeah. Fact he’s overdue. You say you’re not a friend of his?"
"In case his friends might not like you."
"Always got one, two, even three guys along, and never the same ones. He must purely hate to be alone."
"Guys," I said.
"Okay," he said.
"What would one man need with so many?"
"Beats me. ’Course, if you got three, you can play a game of bridge. How’s that gimlet?"
"Good," I said truthfully. "How’s business?"
"We get ’em," he said. "I don’t get bored. Excuse me," he said, and moved off toward a couple who’d just sat down.
He wasn’t lying about business, and it was a while before he came by again. "How’s that gimlet treating you?" he asked.
"I’m all right," I said. "But I’ll tell you the truth. Sometimes you need a little something to pick you up. You know the feeling?"
"All the time. What can I fix you?"
"It’s like I just don’t have the energy any more. No zip. Sometimes I suspect I need a little something to pep me up."
"Well, that gimlet won’t liven you any. Can I bring you some coffee?"
"I was thinking a little stronger."
"Something in the coffee?"
I looked him in the eye. "I just had the idea," I said, "that I might get something here to fix me up, if I asked nicely. I’d be grateful to the man who pointed the way, too."
"I can make you any kind of drink they make anywhere," he said. "I don’t run a pharmacy."
"You don’t run a charm school, either. You telling me all you got behind the bar’s those bottles? You telling me a man can’t get himself fixed up around here? Oh, now, that was unnecessary."
"What was?" he said. His face had gone very blank.
"The button under the bar. That was unnecessary." I saw two men in dinner jackets strolling toward me from the direction of the dance floor. "Here they come. How do you work it, one buzz for drunks, two for dope fiends?"
He was busy with the cash register and couldn’t hear me.
One of the dinner jackets was a pretty little fellow, a real pocket edition. But I’ve known some pocket editions and I wasn’t giggling. The other was more of a size. Neither was young. The small one said, "Mr. Burri sends you his compliments, sir, and wonders if you might join him at his table."
I’d seen Fausto Burri in the papers. His table was by the dance floor, with a view of the front entrance. He was a narrow man who could have been fifty, though I knew he must have been over seventy, with a dark, heavily creased face, a weak jaw, and a strong nose. He wore a snowy white shirt, a dark red tie figured in dull silver, and a quiet charcoal suit that must have cost more than any car I’ve ever owned. His suit was what my suit wanted to be when it grew up. My suit was kidding itself. "Good evening, Mr. Burri," I said as they walked me up to him. "My name’s Ray Corson. What can I do for you?"
He said, "Please, Mr. Corson, sit, sit."
"Thanks." I sat. At his elbow was a glass full of some clear liquid and a little dish of chalky-looking little cookies. He looked at my empty hands and said, "You don’t have your drink."
"That’s all right," I said.
"Excuse me, please, it’s not. This is not a place, a man comes here for a drink and they don’t let him drink it." He was looking toward the bar, and now he moved his chin fractionally in my direction. He settled back. "That kind of place we don’t run. Tell me, you like our little place?"
"It’s quite an operation, sir."
"Ah. You don’t like my place."
"I’m afraid it’s not the kind of place I’m used to."
"No? Well. I’ll tell you something." He leaned closer. "It’s not my kind of place, either. Ah? That surprises you? It’s true."
"Why not?" I said.
"Look around," he said. "These people."
"They look all right to me."
"Sure, all these highly desirable customers with the money they got. You know what I call them? I call them lowlifes. Their money, they don’t work for it, they just got it. Like a rash. What good’s it do ’em? I don’t know. Here they are every night, the men like fairies and the women naked, just naked. Okay, it’s about time."
A slim brunette with a neck like a gazelle had appeared at my shoulder, wearing about as much cloth of gold as you’d need to keep the chill off a canary. She set a fresh gimlet in front of me as if she were kissing her baby goodnight. Burri watched me taste it and looked pleased when I nodded. It was as good as the first.
"Here they are, every night," he continued. "And they drink, not a nice civilized drink like we’re having together here, but I think you could say they guzzle, and they stuff themselves, and what they put in their mouths I wouldn’t touch with my hand. The food here, I’m sorry to say it, I wouldn’t touch it with my bare hand. They call it French. They got to have the French food, and the booze, and the roulette, and the naked women, and they—" He held a thumbnail under his nose and gave a delicate sniff. "But what can I say?" he said, extending his hands and looking surprised. "Life is difficult. Very painful, and people need to have a good time. And maybe I don’t like their good time or their music, but, I happen to be in that business. Of helping people enjoy themselves. And it’s not such a bad business."
"Now, your business I don’t know. This," he said, holding the thumb beneath his dark nose again, "this interests you?"
"I’m interested in anything that’ll turn a profit and not cause too much fuss."
"That, young man, is a very wholesome and sensible attitude. It is my own attitude. A little profit, and not cause a fuss, but it’s very easy to remember the profit and forget the no fuss. You were causing a little fuss at my bar, anh?"
"I didn’t mean to."
"You wanted to know, will my man there sell you a little something."
"I wanted to know if that kind of thing could be gotten here."
"Ah. Because you’re in that business? You see I’m asking you very politely."
"I do, sir. Right now I’m not in any business at all. I guess you could say I’ve had an offer."
"And this man who’s offering—I’m being very patient. This man is who? In which business?"
"I’d rather not say, sir. He was candid with me, and we may work together, and he deserves a certain amount of discretion."
"You’d rather not say."
"I’m afraid not."
"You’d rather not say."
"I couldn’t persuade you?"
I looked from the little gunman to the big one. "With both your boys working? Yeah. But it would take a while, and you couldn’t do it here."
"Now," he said cozily, "this is nice. Keeping the mouth shut, this is something not everybody understands. Very admirable, if your business is not my business. But. What if your business is my business after all?"
"Then I’m out of that business. That’s why I came here."
"You gotta speak slow for an old man. You came to find out, is it okay."
"This mysterious business."
"With Mr. Halliday."
"I don’t think I mentioned a name."
"That’s very true. I must be making a mistake."
"Isn’t Lance Halliday a partner of yours?"
Burri pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. "I must admit to you now, I never heard him referred to like that before."
"I mean a partner in this club."
"Oh. Yeah, we gave Mr. Halliday a little interest in our undertaking."
"I heard him described as the club’s owner," I said, smiling faintly.
"People talk," Burri said sadly. "You’ve nearly finished your drink. Now, this time I truly hope— Ah. No. Here it comes." The gazelle reappeared at a canter, looking a bit alarmed, and set down another gimlet in front of me. As she was about to leave, Burri lay a brown hand on her bare back. "Young lady," he said.
"Yes Mr. Burri," she said tensely.
"You are taking very nice care of us, young lady."
"Thank you Mr. Burri," she said. He lifted his hand and watched fondly as she walked on taut legs back to the bar with her tray against her hip. The tray covered more of her than the dress did.
"They’re a regular plague, these naked women," I agreed.
Burri and his torpedos all turned to look at me at once.
Then Burri smiled, showing a beautiful set of false teeth. "Mr. Corson. I gotta admit. You seem to have your wits about you, but at the same time you are not what I would call a nervous gentleman." I smiled back and said nothing. "Mr. Grasso," he said, "what do you think of Mr. Corson here?"
"You never can tell," the little gunman said judiciously.
"Big one," offered the big one.
"Mr. Corson, if you weren’t so busy with your mysterious friend, I might even think of something to discuss with a capable young man like yourself."
"Thanks, Mr. Burri. But I should warn you, I’m not Sicilian."
He chuckled. "Sicilian I don’t care so much anymore. I’m not old-fashioned. I’ll do business with any man if he’s a gentleman and can make me a nice proposition. I’ll do business with a nigger. I got a Negro gentleman works for me and he is a fine gentleman. His name is Hubie Howard the bandleader, and I must admit he has my admiration as a businessman. Because here is a man who works with animals, with animals—and yet, there’s never a problem, and things are always very orderly with Mr. Howard, and he gives me my nice music, all right, it’s not nice music, but it’s the kind you got to have and he gives it to me with no fuss. And this interests me very much. Because this colored fellow is solving the identical, exact same problem I got myself every day."
"Of working with animals," I said.
"Animals," he said. "People who got ambition and that’s all they got. People with no discipline, who don’t know to ask, Is this okay. And these are not people you can reside your trust in. They are people you always got to be watching. And you know, nothing so very nice happens to these people in the end."
There must have been some signal I missed, because the big pug was standing and lifting away Burri’s table, and Burri started getting up on his long rickety legs. I stood too, and Burri gave me his hand to shake. It was cool and dry. "Mr. Corson, you strike me as a fine young gentleman, and I’d like you to have a good time tonight at the bar with the compliments of the house. And maybe some evening you’ll come by again and we’ll have another nice talk."
"I’d like that," I said.
"And about our friend," he said. "So you know. Our friend has an okay to do a few little things. But if you are interested in this,"—he displayed his thumb again—"this is not a good business to be in with him."
"But it is a good business to be in with you?"
"Ah ha hah!" he said, waggling a finger at me. "Now I see. Now I see. You want your mouth shut and my mouth open, anh?" Laughing merrily, he turned and swayed off on his long legs, a gunman on either side.
I sipped my drink and watched him go.
Copyright © 2004 by Max Phillips.