“It’s not easy for me to write these words, but I pick up this pen with a heavy heart.” No, too maudlin.
“While these pages are normally filled with the games of giants, of colossal men that you can only dream of meeting, I take the time to consider someone small.” Too…bombastic.
An old man bites the tip of his pen. His hand shakes. An old-fashioned device, pens. All the more appropriate for an old-fashioned man.
“I write about Sidney Falco, though I cannot pretend to like him. A snake, a thief and a liar, he nevertheless commanded the most magnificent victory of all…a victory over me.” The man signs his name and replaces the pen on the inkstand.
A few seconds later, his head strikes the desk with a thud. Disconcerting? Oh yes. But you’re naive if you think this sort of thing is out of the ordinary.
“Mr. Hunsecker?” I call. “J.J.?”
J.J.’s head twists so fast in my direction that I wonder if I’ve caused him whiplash.
“What is it, Tom?” J.J. slumps in his chair. Clearly, he’s expecting someone else.
“Mail. It’s your sister.”
That makes him sit up. After a moment, he rises and moves closer until he hulks over me. Before I can catch my breath, he snatches the letter. Within seconds he tosses it in the trash.
“Don’t cower, Tom,” he snarls. “It makes you look weak.”
It’s 1974. The year may seem irrelevant to you, but it isn’t to me. Lackeys went out in the 50’s, along with knee socks and fallout shelters. But here I am, lackey to one of the most powerful men in New York. Or so he keeps telling me.
“Double scotch. Splash of strychnine.” I’m alone in some dive in midtown. The waitress is about 15 years out of fashion, and so’s the menu.
“C’mon sugar. What you got to be so down about?”
I give her a sidelong glance. Then another. “Now wait a second…you’re that—”
Her face falls. I stop talking. But I know her. As well as anyone who read’s the tabloids knows her.
She looks unhappy, so I make a play of zipping my mouth shut. Roxanne Martingale. A face so beautiful once that she ruined more men than Helen. More newspapermen, at any rate.
“Have a drink, wontcha?”
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m working.”
“What about after?”
She glances at the door to the kitchen, as if she’s afraid. “You work for J.J. Hunsecker?”
“Alright. But not here. 12:30, there.” She tosses a matchbox in my direction.
KITKAT CLUB, it reads.
It’s 12:29, 15 minutes too long to soak in the Kitkat Club’s particular brand of “music”. A faded neon sign hangs off the front window, promising unearthly delights and vile confections of sex and alcohol. Judging by the sign, those days are long gone.
“What are you doing here, Tom?” says a man tapping my shoulder.
I nearly jump out of my skin before J.J. comes into focus, a mess of blond curls crowning a pornographic physique. “Um..I…”
“Um…ah…um….I think you’ve just written the next number one hit, Tom.”
“Why do you keep ending every sentence with my name?”
“Well Tom, it helps me to know what kind of guy I’m dealing with.” J.J. stares at his fingertips. “And it appears that I’m dealing with a guy named Tom.”
“Nothing I can do about that.”
“Actually….” J.J. gives an evil little smile. “There is.”
I barely remember what happens next. J.J takes me by the arm and leads me to his private table, I remember that. I can’t find Roxie for the life of me; I remember that too.
But you’re not interested in what comes later. Let’s just say that I take a pounding from a man much bigger than myself.
I drag myself into work the next day, fighting the urge to wrap an ice-pack in my scarf and swallow a bottle of aspirin.
Even before I make it to my desk, the phone rings. “What is it?”
“Tom? Is that you?”
“Yeah, Ma, it’s me.”
“I’ve been calling for 2 hours. Aren’t you late for work?”
“I was in a…meeting…whaddya want?”
“The lady who answered kept saying you’ve been replaced!”
“The lady who answered the phone said you’ve been replaced!”
Tom winces and rubs his forehead. “I got that, Ma. Replaced by…” Then Tom notices the new stationary on his desk.
“SIDNEY FALCO, PRESS AGENT” reads the headline.
Seconds later, I slam the notebook on J.J.’s desk. “What’s the meaning of this, J.J.?”
J.J. spins in his chair. “These newfangled chairs may not be practical, but they sure are fun.”
“C’mon J.J. I asked you a question.”
“It’s a notebook, Tom. It disappoints me that I have to explain that to you.”
I take a deep breath and fight the urge to spin J.J. and his chair straight out of the window. “The name on the notebook?”
J.J. stops spinning and sits stock straight. “It’s yours, Tom. If you want it.”
“I don’t understand.”
J.J gets up and puts an arm around me. I catch a glimpse of my face in the window, and it looks vaguely like I’ve swallowed a newt. “I like you, Tom. I think you have what it takes to make a name for yourself in this business.”
“Oh sure. It’s just that…your name stinks.”
Changing my name was just the beginning. The rest was like a wonderful fantasy.
By day, he required worship, and by night, he made me pray at his altar. But still, I couldn’t complain. Not then. Not for a long time.
My time flies by in a series of impressions.
J.J’s apartment, 3 sizes too large, even for a man with his ego. The rich amber of the sofa, the one where he always starts by sitting back and spreading his legs. The crack in the bedroom wall, eye-level when I’m on my hands and knees.
“Match me, Sidney.”
J.J. straightens up against the headboard. “Excuse me?”
“They’re bad for you, J.J.” I stroke his face, the way he taught me to.
“Your concern is touching.” J.J smiles, insofar as his facial contortion can be described as a smile. It doesn’t take long for his face to return to its default setting. “Don’t do it again.”
I get up, not sure if I should make like a tree or stick around for a while. A newspaper peeks out from under J.J’s bathrobe.
NEWSPAPER MAGNATE, reads the headline. I poke at the robe with an umbrella to expose more of the paper.
NEWSPAPER MAGNATE J.J HUNSECKER SUBPOENAED IN MURDER OF ROXANNE MARTINGALE!
I don’t bother to read anymore. A tree, that’s me.
I deadbolt my door once I get home. I reach for my emergency liquor, brewed in the finest bathtub in America.
“You saw the letter, didn’t you.”
I barely hear the glass shatter after I drop it. Roxie Martingale, in the flesh.
“Well, aren’t you surprised to see me?”
“Lady, surprise is when your kid sister shows up for Thanksgiving dinner after twenty years of ignoring you.” I take a swig from the bottle. “There’s gotta be a better word for visitations from the dead.”
“Fair enough.” She picks another glass from the cupboard and holds it out. “I guess I owe you an explanation.”
“For standing me up at the Kitkat Club or for running a frame job on the scariest man alive?”
She smiles and turns to the icebox. “For standing you up.” Plink. Plink.
“Listen, Roxie, I don’t know what your game is…”
“It’s Roxanne. And the game is simple. My…backer…needs to see J.J go down.”
“And why do you need me?”
“You’re his right hand man.” She raises an eyebrow. “Unless of course he’s a left hand kind of guy.”
Roxie, I mean Roxanne, tells me the game between shots of vodka and cream pie. Are you interested in the details, or do you wanna skip to the steamy stuff?
Cool it. If this goes pear-shaped, we may need you to pick up the pieces.
“Stay close to J.J. Keep an eye on his every move.”
“No problem,” says I, with a tip of my hat.
I’m only human, you know? Run of the mill, average human, not that crap they sell you in TV ads. I’m no more re-constructed than the Barber of Seville. J.J Hunsecker isn’t just a ride on the road to power; he’s a destination. So I keep my mouth shut, except when he makes me open it.
“Make yourself invaluable to him.”
I do my job with far more enthusiasm than’s necessary. There aren’t too many errand boys who give their employers unlimited stress relief, no questions asked.
“Prick me, Tom.” She carefully unwraps a dirty knife. “Go on. Take your pound of flesh.”
I stare at the knife in my hand. I can’t believe what I’m about to do.
She shakes her head at me. “This is it. All or nothing.”
J.J slams himself into me, so hard that my head hits the wall.
“Cut it out!”
“Excuse me?” J.J turns me around and whacks me in the face. “How dare you tell me what to do,” he growls before leaving the room.
Something’s clearly wrong with him. He never loses control like this. At least not for real.
The evening news languishes on my doorstep.
ROXIE MARTINGALE SECRET IDENTITY OF SUSAN HUNSECKER!, says the newspaper.
I rush inside and lock the door. All I wanna do is vomit. Susie Hunsecker. Disappeared back in the days of the lackeys.
I stumble over to the door, longing for a drink. Killing a friend will do that to a guy. Killing J.J’s sister without knowing it? That’s gotta earn me a bottle at least. “What is it?”
A gun pokes out of the jacket of a burly gent.
“Ya know what? I suspect I’ll do whatever you say.”
So that’s how I ended up in Brooklyn in a basement in a tenement in the darkest side of the hill.
“Was there ever a Roxanne Martingale?”
“Oh yeah. Cigarette girl I knew once. Called herself Rita, in better days.”
“Better days being the alive ones?”
“And who are you? You promised me a name for my story,” I say. “Well, my story’s done.”
The man creaks over to the dresser and lights a cigarette. “That’s a fair point. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone in for fair dealings. 47 years, or so.”
He flashes a million dollar grin, not to me, but to someone far beyond me.
“C’mon, you owe me one.”
He knocks me back out of my chair with a single look. “I don’t owe anyone a damned thing!”
I’ve seen snakes with more humanity in their eyes.
“Fine,” he says, with a deep breath. “The name’s Sidney.” He burns the cigarette out on his left palm. “The rest is…up to me.”
There are no castles in 1979, just shadows. Fortresses are built to contain, not to keep people out.
“Hello J.J.” Sidney steps into the light. “How does it feel to be living in the house of Usher?”
“I thought you were dead.” J.J smiles from his desk, without looking up. “That’ll teach me not to cut corners on the hired help.”
“You know what they say.” Sidney hobbles over to the desk. “You get what you pay for.”
“I assume you’re here to kill me?”
“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, there’s been enough death, don’t you think?” Sidney puts a hand on J.J’s shoulder. J.J visibly tenses.
“It’s been a while since I’ve felt that hand, Sidney.” J.J passes his own hand over Sidney’s trousers, and smiles at what he finds. “Defeating you always was the greatest turn-on.”
“Not this time, J.J.” Sidney moves away. “Susie’s dead.”
J.J’s face turns dark at the mention of her name.
“You’re reaching for the knife in your desk drawer. Don’t worry, you won’t find it.”
J.J stands up. “Susie was stabbed.”
Sidney smiles. “Yup.”
“You used my knife?”
“I noticed that Tom Carmichael didn’t make it to the office this morning.”
“Just a coincidence, I’m sure.”
“Gone swimming in the Hudson?”
“It’s a possibility.”
J.J moves over to Sidney and unbuttons his shirt. “How long do I have?”
“The cops should discover your knife by the morning.”
“You’ve bested me, Sidney.” J.J’s almost completely naked at this point. “Let’s make the night one to remember.”