A tasty silence took hold of the room. Marconi studied the freshly cut pack of cards like a diamond-cutter sizing-up a virgin facet; like a fastball hitter anticipating that spinning orb of horsehide; like a karate black belt preparing to become one with the sweet spot in a soon-to-be-chunks, foot-thick breeze block; like...

Oh hell, like a weekend poker player determined to drive his buddies to distraction.

"Spit it out, ya' bastard," Conlon demanded.

Marconi nodded, smiling his greasiest publicist's smile. I could feel my cholesterol count rise as he picked up the cards. "Okay, here it is: movie titles are wild."

"For this I'm skipping an AA meeting?" Bill Morris said. He took a long slug from his rum and coke. He was kidding. I hope.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean, movie titles are wild?" Elliot asked. "What kind of fershlugginer game is this?"

Elliot was always using Mad Magazine words like "fershlugginer" and "potrezebie." He thought it made him a character. His screenplays suffer from a painfully similar dearth of imagination. I saw Hall wince when he said it. When Hall opened his mouth Marconi raised an eyebrow - Luke is in awe of Hall Emerson; there has to be someone, I suppose - but Hall didn't say a word, just mashed another cheap cigar between his lips.

"How long you been saving this baby up?" I asked.

Marconi winked at me.

"So how does it work?" Elliot pleaded.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, use your brain," Conlon said. "Which movies have playing cards as part of their title?"

Elliot looked stumped. Frankly, you'd expect more from someone who got paid two million dollars for his last script. Okay, maybe not someone who got paid two million dollars by Joel Silver.

"One-Eyed Jacks?" Conlon prompted. Elliot still looked blank.

"Marlon Brando," I added. And no one pays me two million dollars.

"Oh, yeah," Elliot said, nodding.

"King of Hearts," Marconi suggested.

"Whatever happened to Alan Bates?"

"Isn't he dead? Or is it just his career?"

"Same difference."

"Jack of Diamonds," Hall muttered. "Though you'll observe the knave has two eyes."

"Boy, I don't remember that one," I admitted.

"George Hamilton. Zsa Zsa Gabor."

"Ahhh," we all said at once.

"My dad ghosted on the script. Not his proudest moment. He always claimed Zsa Zsa blew him under a commissary table while he ate a chopped liver sandwich. And that was the only payment he ever got."

"Was she any good?" I asked.

"I asked him once. All he'd say was: 'She ain't chopped liver.'"

"Any others?" Elliot asked. He still looked worried.

"Ace in the Hole," Conlon suggested.

"Nope. Got to be the exact card name," Marconi said, starting the deal. "Anyway, the real title's The Big Carnival."

"There must be a Queen of Hearts," I said, trying to remember.

"Of course: but surely that's our Kathy Lee."

"Not anymore. Regis is better off without her."

"There was a Thief of Hearts."

"That's no help."

"Definitely a Three of Hearts," Conlon said, drawing a roomful of blank stares. "Billy Baldwin."

"Remind me: is he the untalented one, or the unbelievably untalented one."

"Daniel's the merely untalented one. Billy's the one who couldn't act dead with his head blown off, a tag tied to his toe, and Jack Kervorkian as the attending physician."

"Don't you guys ever get tired of Baldwin Brother jokes?" Elliot asked.

"Not me," Conlon said.

"Me either," I agreed. "They're eternal: like mother-in-law jokes or travelling salesmen jokes."

"Or any Baldwin Brother movie," Conlon added. "In the far, far future, when only giant roaches and Dick Clark are left to scamper across the radioactive remains of the Earth, there will still be Baldwin Brother jokes."

Marconi and Emerson nodded. Elliot sighed.

"So about this wild card nonsense. Do projects in development count?" Morris asked. Trust an agent to suggest such a thing.

"Yeah," Marconi conceded. Then he held up a finger and flashed his oleaginous grin at Morris. "But not if they're in turnaround." Everyone knew Morris had spent six months trying to get Brad Pitt to commit to a script called Ace of Spades. But after Meet Joe Black Pitt was avoiding death movies like the plague.

"Bastard," Morris grumbled. Serves him right for having that name and working for CAA.

"I don't like this at all," Elliot said, studying his hand. "I'm much better with TV shows."

Maybe yes, maybe no, but he turned out to be the big loser. Which in our friendly little poker circle only left him a c-note down on the night. Chump change to a two million dollar man. Not that it stopped him from grumbling about it as he poked through his alligator skin wallet. I think Elliot Feinstein is the kind of guy who'd pay up in penny rolls if he could. I'd been down on the night, but made up for most of it with five sevens in that last hand. God bless Marlon Brando, though not for his acting. Or his kids.

"Same time next week, gents?" Conlon asked.

"Not me," Marconi said. "I got to go down to Phoenix for some sci-fi thing."

"What are you pushing?"

"I'm stuck with this Schumacher nightmare. I've got to convince two thousand fat, smelly Star Trek geeks that the guy who ruined Batman is now god's gift to science fiction movies. Cyberpunk, yet. Who makes this stuff up?" He glanced accusingly at Elliot.

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"I just told you it's a Joel Schumacher film, didn't I?"

"Right. Sorry," I muttered.

"Marconi cheats anyway. Stupid wild card games. What about the rest of you?" Conlon asked.

"I'm in," Morris said. "The wife looks forward to these games more than I do. If it weren't for our nanny-cam, I might suspect she's having an affair."

"Maybe she's shtupping the nanny."

"That wouldn't be so bad. I like a little girl on girl action."

Hall flicked his ash in an affirmative way and grunted. Elliot whined some more about losing, but said he'd be there. For all his money, I know he hasn't got many other friends. I half-suspect he's the kind of guy who'd attend sci-fi conventions if he didn't write the damn movies.

"How 'bout you, Marty?"

I pulled on my sports coat, straightened the cuffs, neatened my collar. I ran a hand through my Rogaine-assisted hair and struck a Hollywood pose. "Do you really think that a man who stars in a network action drama - not to mention the newly anointed spokesperson for Shmears 'R US, the nation's fastest growing chain of bagel-and-muffin cafes - has nothing better to do with his weekends than fritter them away playing penny-ante card games with the likes of you?"

"Seven thirty?" Conlon asked.

"Sounds good," I said, and made for the door

"And Marty?"

I turned around.

"Only Rupert Murdoch and people who take his money think that Fox is a real network."

"Didn't you just do some doctoring for Warner? That teen horror soap thing?"

"You'll have to be more specific than that," Morris interjected. "You just described Warner's entire schedule."

Conlon turned a sophisticated shade of red that clashed with his walls.

"Pot. Kettle. African-American," I said. "Seven thirty next week."
 

As I walked toward my car, I heard a low rumbling noise and glanced up at the skies. I expected to see a thunder cloud, but you could nearly see stars through the glow of a relatively thin L.A. haze. I could almost imagine how the place looked before Carl Laemmle stole it from the Mexicans.

"Marty," the rumbling articulated and I turned around. Hall Emerson limped up the sidewalk toward me, one massive hand raised in the air. Emerson was a huge man and he walked like John Wayne the morning after prostate surgery. Marconi once told me that Emerson suffered the injury in a motorcycle accident some years before. He often gambolled about with an elaborate walking stick - it had a silver wolf's head for a handle - though the item always struck me as more of a prop or affectation than a medical necessity. Everyone acts in L.A., whether they have a SAG card or not. Indeed, the best performances in town are rarely captured by the cameras; they take place everywhere you look, an entire city as theatre-in-the-round. (And yes, I realize that Shakespeare said it first. Fortunately, he's out of copyright.) Emerson didn't have the cane with him tonight, but the stub of his filthy stogie remained wedged between the fingers of his raised hand in good, Churchillian fashion. I detected the brief flash of an acknowledging smile through his salt-and-pepper beard and moustache when he saw me stop and wait for him to catch up.

Though we'd been playing cards together for a year, I couldn't say that I knew Hall Emerson all that well. I got invited into the weekly poker game by way of Jon Conlon, who I met when he came to do some repair work on my TV series, Burning Bright. Conlon is one of those guys who no one who's not in The Business has ever heard of, but who makes a nice chunk of living by fixing the writing that the big names can't be bothered to do right. Nice enough for a million dollar house in Hancock Park, anyway. Seven figures makes a fellow happy with his anonymity.

Hall, on the other hand, is a more familiar name, if only by association. Not so much for the dozen or so scripts he's had produced, none of which, it must be admitted, is especially memorable. Or even the multitude of TV writing he's committed. Rather, Emerson is Old Hollywood: celluloid runs in his veins. His father, Frank Emerson, was a moderately successful screenwriter in the forties and fifties. Emerson Pere, it must be admitted, was no great shakes of a scribe either, but he hung out with lots of interesting people and ended up with a bigger rep than his work alone might have accorded him. Hall inherited some of his dad's prestige, along with his big schnoz, and even enjoyed a brief period of flavor-of-the-month back in the seventies. He picked up a reputation as a bad boy at the time, though I don't know that he did anything more than get his picture taken with Dennis Hopper or have lunch with Bob Altman. I do know that he'd fallen on tough times of late. But in an age when Dennis Hopper appears in car commercials and Robert Altman directs John Grisham movies, being the fifty year old son of a once-famous screenwriter doesn't count for a whole lot.

And in the land of the golden la-la, fifty is at least twenty five years too old. Especially if you're an actress or a screenwriter.

Hall was breathing hard by the time he caught up to me. But then, he's a big man - in both size and demeanor - and always seems to be breathing hard. It didn't stop him from shoving the cigar between his lips as soon as he stopped and resting a meaty hand on my shoulder. Hall's got some of that Orson Welles' presence, crossed with Hemingway looks by way of Sterling Hayden. There's clearly enough of him for two medium-sized men, and sufficient facial hair to equip an entire writing staff with fashionable Van Dykes. Yet he's not exactly fat. Just big. And imposing.

Casting a shadow somehow smaller than himself, Hall is Hollywood to the bone.

"I wanted to catch a private word with you," he said. He gave my neck a little squeeze with the word "you" and I heard my collar bone creak.

"Sure, Hall, what's up?"

"Got a few minutes? I know a place just around the corner. They never close."

I casually glanced at my watch: 1:30 A.M. We'd been playing poker and drinking beer since nine. I already shouldn't drive, though even at this hour it would take me half-an-hour to cruise back to my place in Hermosa Beach. Not to mention that I had a breakfast meeting to dot the i's on the deal with the bagel-and-muffin mogul and his people in Beverly Hills in less than eight hours.

"Sure," I said.

And such is how long stories begin.
 

"Just around the corner" proved to be a good mile walk. I should have been L.A.-snooty that we didn't take a car, but the night air tasted unusually fresh, sullied only by the rancid poots from Hall's cigar. Other than a few half-hearted exchanges about the game neither of us said much as we strolled up the quiet streets - needless to say we were the only pedestrians about, though the same would likely have been as true at two in the afternoon. We agreed that Elliot was an idiot, entirely undeserving of the vast sums of money thrown at him by even dumber producers, but there was no real venom behind our bitching. Elliot did, after all, have the good grace to leave his money behind at most of the games, however gracelessly he actually lost.

"Fact that the bastard can't bluff's paid my electric bill twice already this year," Hall guffawed.

It occurred to me that someone who can't pay his utilities might be better off not playing poker, but who am I to judge? Been there, done that, post-dated the bouncing check.

The place Hall led me to was one of those nondescript neighborhood bars that, on a cloudy day or a dark night, could pass for an empty storefront. No neon Bud signs or beer promotions dangling in the smoked glass windows, and only the peeling remnants of a stencilled sign above to give the place a name. Steamers or Streamers - I couldn't even tell. It had the look of a serious drinker's bar.

Hall nodded at a big bartender with a bowling ball head and Chia Pet hair. Plugs, I assume; an aspiring actor, no doubt. Every ex-con with a twice-busted nose fancies himself Eddie Bunker these days. The guy practically smiled back at Hall, not so much out of friendliness, I think - Steamers/Streamers was the kind of place where nobody knows your name and you're never glad you came - but because even in the most unlikely of places, people always seem happy to meet Hall. As if he has some secret gland which exudes a "good to see ya" pheremone.

Perhaps he should have been an actor, and not a writer. I know I could do with a little of that eau d'presence.

We ordered a couple of bourbons with Buds back. Frankly, I would have felt gauche ordering anything else in such a place, like those pathetic bastards who order veal cutlet off the tiny "American" menu in Chinese restaurants. When in Beijing and all that.

The only other patrons I could discern through the gloom were a shopworn, middle-aged couple in a booth who looked like they'd wandered in from Days of Wine and Roses, and a semi-toothless old geezer at the far end of the bar who might have been a waxwork prop that came with the place for atmosphere. Except he moved once every minute or so to spill a little bit more amber liquid into his mouth. And shake his head from side to side regretting, it seemed, just about everything it was possible to regret. You might think a man with his own television series would feel disgusted by the sight of such a creature, but once, not that long ago, I readily envisioned myself coming to a not very different end. Who's to say I still won't? I didn't have to ask Hall how it was he knew about a bar like this, because in that same once upon a time I would have known, too. Maybe not Steamers, but another place, interchangeable in look and purpose, twelve blocks the other way. And two dozen more like it, strategically located in any part of town I might happen to be. That's simply the nature of being a sad and lonely fuck in a happy place like The City of Our Lady of the Angels.

And everywhere else, I suppose.

"Been a while?" Hall asked. Before I could question his question, he raised one bushy eyebrow (actually he only had one, straight across) and managed to take in the entire bar with a half-flick of his eye.

"Not so long," I told him. "Not long enough."

"Pretend we're slumming."

"Pretend?"

He let out a raucous belly-laugh that rolled around the room a few times before bouncing back like a boomerang. It was enough to rock Jack Lemmon and Lee Remmick out of their stupor in the corner. They stumbled from the booth, arms around each other's waist, and slipped out the door. Gappy, at the end of the bar, didn't blink.

Hall drained his bourbon and called for another. I was happy to sip mine - though sipping liquor it most certainly was not - and shook the bartender off. He brought two more anyway, took the money out of the cash Hall left on the bar.

"So, what's going on Hall?"

The big man grabbed up another full-to-the brim shot in his fist, raised it toward his lips, then changed his mind at the last moment. He placed it gently on the bar without spilling a drop, picked up his beer and drank that instead.

"The devil on Sunday," Hall said.

"And angels on horseback with gossamer wings."

"Huh?"

"Sorry, I thought we were free associating."

Hall drank his bourbon. Chased it with the rest of the beer.

"It's a movie. The Devil on Sunday."

"Don't know it," I told him. "Should I?"

"John Dall, Ann Savage, Tom Neal. Connie Clare."

I shook my head. "Doesn't sound like a David O'Selznick production."

"Hmmmph. Hardly. Could have made it a dozen times, even in 1950, for what it cost to burn down Atlanta on the back lot. Buzz Day directed it."

"I don't recognise that name, either."

"No reason to. Billy 'Buzz' Day. What a hack. Though he started out as a Max Castle protege."

"Really."

"My old man wrote it. The Devil on Sunday."

"Ahhh," I said. As if I now knew why Hall Emerson was talking about this to me at two in the morning in a seedy bar when I had bagel and muffin money to make in the morning.

"The screenplay, at least. Based on a short story by a hack named Rheems. Crap, really."

"The story?"

"Bad pulp fiction. You can hear the tinkle of ankle bracelets on every musty page. Smell the shoe gum."

"Hell of a thing for a TV shamus to admit, but I don't know what shoe gum smells like. So is the movie any good?"

Hall paused, glanced at me from the corner of his eye, and signalled for more bourbon. He never took that eye off me as the bartender refilled his glass and slipped more cash out of the pile, just offered a weary half-smile.

"Not bad," he said. Then raised his glass and tossed back the shot. "The old man could do a day's work when he was so inclined, and the bottle didn't beckon, especially if it was hardboiled. 'Course, you got to get offered a day's work before you can do one."

Hall started looking toward the bartender again, but I slid my still-full shot glass in front of him, took a sip of beer for sociability's sake as he downed it.

"Things a little slow?"

"Freeze frame more like."

"What's the problem?"

"The problem," Hall said, slapping his hand down on the sticky bar, "is that I'm too fucking old for this town."

"Who isn't?"

"You're making out all right."

"You think that's anything other than dumb luck? If I hadn't stumbled into the Jack Rippen mess, managed to expose the dirty dealings at Celestial Dog, would anyone have taken a second look at me for a job? Two years ago you had to be a trivia master just to know my name. I'd still be skip-tracing and running down subpoenas but for the fickle finger of fate. Hell, I never even wanted to act again, and here I am starring in a network - sorry, Fox - show. You can't figure this town, Hall."

"Yeah, I know. Hell, I'm second generation: it should be genetic. But it still pisses me off."

"You doing anything at all?"

"Doctoring some syndie shit. And I'm 'collaborating' on a few projects. Know what that means?"

I shook my head.

"I do all the writing while some twenty year old takes the meetings, the money and the credit."

"I sympathise, Hall, I genuinely do. But Hollywood's a bitch and that ain't never gonna change. Like you say, I can't complain at the moment, but you know what? I sent in the renewal slip on my PI license just in case. I don't mean for PR reasons, either. So who ever feels secure here?"

He harrumphed what I took to be agreement, looked again toward the bartender, but didn't order another round. Highlights of the day's baseball came up on ESPN and we watched in silence for a while. The Dodgers lost. Quelle surprise.

"I can talk to my producer," I said as the baseball was replaced by MotoCross. Who watches this stuff?

"Heh?"

"About some work on Burning Bright. I think the scripts are pretty well set for the season, but there may be something. You know, there's always room for another story consultant."

"No thanks, Marty. Really. I didn't intend to go off on that tangent and I'm not looking to scrounge work off you. Though I do have a favor to ask."

"Shoot."

"It's The Devil on Sunday. They're remaking it."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. It's an indy project, but there's real money there. Believe me, I checked that out first."

"You're involved?"

"They asked. Kevin Ryan Paul's producing. You know him?"

"Vaguely. Never trust anyone with three first names. Jan Michael Vincent's owed me money for years. He always ducks when I walk into a room. Wasn't Paul the guy who produced the Rat Patrol movie?"

"That's him. Not big on imagination, I admit, but he gets stuff made."

"Huh," I said. Paul, to the extent I knew his work, was a shit-merchant, but then who am I to judge? One critic, after all, described Burning Bright as the Cannon of the nineties. I don't see it, but I started a diet the day I read the review.

"I've got first shot at the script. Paul's got this idea that he can play some publicity off the fact that my dad wrote the original."

"Sounds thin."

"No, Marty: not eating sounds thin. The Devil on Sunday sounds like a paycheck."

"So go for it," I said.

"I am. But I've got a problem. The video version of the original is incomplete. It's on one of those dire labels and they've taken no care with the print. I have Frank's copy of the original script and it runs a good twenty minutes longer than what's on tape. I've also heard that there's at least one scene they shot that the old man didn't write. I've read descriptions of it, so I know it exists, but it's not on the video or in his script. I'd like to see the whole shot version if I can. And any extra footage that might exist."

"You try any of the local archives? I hear U.C.L.A. is pretty good."

"Yeah, they don't have it. I went to the AFI, too, but they're a bunch of prissy snots."

"What about Paul?"

Hall made a face. "He's not that interested. I think he came by the rights cheap and likes the idea of doing something dark. Apparently dark is the new black."

"I'm sorry, I have no idea what that means," I said.

"I don't either, but Paul says it every time we meet. Maybe I am too old for this business."

The bartender was making closing-up movements and a glance at my watch revealed that it was past two-thirty. I stifled a yawn, but Hall waved for one more bourbon. The bartender hesitated - he wanted us out - but it was the kind of place where he'd rather have the extra two bucks. It didn't take Hall long to drink it in any case.

"So what is it I can do for you, Hall?"

"Fox has a hell of a vault and according to Variety, they once distributed Devil. It was part of a library they bought out before Murdoch came along. I made some calls, but I can't seem to get anywhere with their archive people. And I sort of had an incident with a Fox exec a couple of years back. I think I may be persona non grata over there."

"Hmmm. Was this the famous studio chief's wife at the County Museum incident?"

"You heard about it, huh?"

"Hall. Her silicon implant ruptured. Medical students across the country read about it every day. Hell, they dramatised it on ER."

"They work with the same exec and she's his ex now. And it really wasn't my fault."

I laughed out loud, and even Hall had to smile. The bartender removed our glasses and whatever money was still on the bar.

"So you want me to track down a print of The Devil on Sunday if I can."

"Would you mind?"

A pretty small favor, really. A phone call or two at most. "Not a problem, Hall. I'll check into it on Monday."

"The thing is if you could make sure and ask if there's any footage beyond what's in the print. I'm really interested in that lost scene. They may keep stuff like that someplace separate."

"Hey," I said, standing up and straightening my jacket, "Marty Burns is on the case."

He smiled and thanked me, but he didn't exactly look reassured. They never do, even when the cameras roll. A lesser fellow might nurture self-doubt.

We walked back toward our cars in silence. There's nothing quite like L.A. at night: you can almost believe it's a real place. But then you look up and see the Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee. Hall and I shook hands at Conlon's and Hall thanked me again. I watched him drive off in a beat-up yellow Nissan, buzzed open the locks on my Lexus but paused to take a deep swallow of the nearly-fresh night air.

The Devil on Sunday, I thought.

And angels on horseback with gossamer wings.