Right off Hollywood Boulevard is a book shop called “Hollywoodland Books.” Behind the doors is a movie geek’s nirvana with shelf-after-shelf of books about films, biographies of directors and actors, and surveys of cinema culture. Tucked into one corner are wire racks holding ancient movie magazines like Wid’s Daily and Motion Picture Classic, and in the rear there are bulging card tables piled high with stacks of used movie scripts, and a row of cardboard boxes chock-full of 8×10 movie star glossies of everyone from Annette Funicello to Zasu Pitts. I frequented it a lot over the years and always thought it would be a great store to own, so when it came up for sale two years ago, I bought it with my retirement savings. As I’ve always loved books and loved movies, it was, for me, the best of both worlds.
I lived over the store in a quaint apartment where it’s just me and my cat, Anna Mae Wong. Every morning, I get up, make myself some coffee and head downstairs just before nine to open up. The first task of the day is to re-shelve the books left on the tables or put back in the wrong section by customers. I like to keep the store neat and presentable; every volume in its place and looking sharp. I specialize in out of print and rare film books, making them a bit pricier. The shop gets film buffs, memorabilia collectors, and lots of browsers who come in just to look around. There are also the weirdoes I have to watch, like the creepy long-haired guy in the long leather duster thumbing through a box of vintage 1940’s pinups of Lana, Betty, and Rita. I hoped he didn’t drool all over them.
That morning saw a few visitors, but the cash register had yet to tally even a single sale. Business had been slow lately and I was losing money on the place, but I was nowhere close on closing the doors for good. Not yet. Picking my way around patrons perusing the goods, I carried an armful of books to put back on the shelves when I heard the soft chime of the door opening and turned my head to get a glimpse of, I hoped, a paying customer.
The woman that walked into my store looked like she was straight out of 1972: tall, long straight hair the color of sunshine, a cropped orange sweater that showed off her toned belly, a psychedelic miniskirt that called attention to her hips, and thigh-high black leather boots right out of an old biker flick. She wore big round thick -framed sunglasses upon her pert nose and in one neatly-manicured hand carried a purple bag from the Frederick’s of Hollywood store two doors down, although one appraising glance at the way her skirt swished told me she didn’t wear much in the way of underwear. Only in Hollywood, I thought to myself, noticing the glances she was getting from the other patrons roaming the store. I placed a dog-eared biography of silent film director Erich Von Stroheim back on the shelf —taking my eye off her for one second.
I froze when the sharp tip of a stiletto suddenly pressed into my left side between my sixth and seventh rib. She snuck up behind me—the hand holding the knife discreetly out of view. “Hello, sexy,” she whispered into my ear and lowered her glasses to give me a good look at her face.
I cursed my luck and muttered, “Great. You.”
She swung around in front of me, keeping the tip of the knife pressed against me. “I know. ‘Of all the cheap gin joints in the world she has to walk into mine’…Casablanca…ironic, don’t you think?”
I didn’t move a muscle to keep the knife blade from slipping in further and doing real damage. “Thought I’d lost for you for good, Miss Bara. How did you find me?”
Miss Bara shook her head made a tsk-tsk sound. “It wasn’t hard. I mean you bought a film book store. You couldn’t be couldn’t be any more predictable, Marshall.”
“So you’re here to murder me in front of all of these people?”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I’m just here to talk.” She pulled the tip of the switchblade out my side with a yank.
I didn’t flinch. “Forget it. Not interested.”
“Don’t force me to beg for your attention. You know how that usually goes.”
I did know. “Five minutes, ” I told her. “Not a second more.”
I ushered her into the small office behind the front counter and shut the door. It was a cluttered mess of invoices, random stacks of books to be inventoried, and several framed classic movie posters mounted on the walls. Miss Bara took off her sunglasses to glance over the 24×40 original poster for Sunset Boulevard autographed by both Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder, and then turned and said, “Very nice. Quite a place you have here, Marshall…it still is Marshall Neilan, right? Or did you finally get tired of using the names of silent film directors as aliases?”
“Friends call me Mickey.” It wasn’t my real name—I’d lost that a long time ago out of necessity.
“I wouldn’t call you a friend,” I told her, hoping to make our conversation short and sweet.
“Please don’t be like that. She put her arms around my neck and leaned in close. “Believe it or not, I’ve missed you.”
I pulled free of her grasp. “Can we skip past the seduction part? You’ve got about four minutes left before I throw you out of here.”
“You’re not being very nice.”
“That’s not our history.”
“Okay, have it your way. Here’s the deal: Mr. Skouras has an item of interest he’d like you to procure.”
“This is a joke, right? Look around. I own a book shop and keep happily to myself. I have a beard and wear glasses now. I think that all says retired rather convincingly.”
“Thieves like us don’t retire, my sweet. Speedo Jones didn’t.”
I glowered at her. “You shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“Oh, did I hit a nerve, Mr. Unflappable?”
“I said if anyone got killed…” I stopped right there, knowing I wasting my breath explaining my reasons yet again. “I’m retired. That’s it.”
“Stick to that story. A couple of weeks ago, someone broke into a government film archive in Budapest and made off with a very rare complete print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. Now here’s the funny thing, lover: INTERPOL thinks you did it.”
That was not news I wanted to hear. “I suppose I have you to thank for that?”
“I decided you might require motivation to hear me out.”
“You’re wasting your time. I’m done. I’m not doing your employer any favors.”
“God, still stubborn after all these years. Okay, what if I told you in exchange for helping me I’d provide you with something only I know—and which would make you insanely happy.”
“Like I would ever trust you.”
“Why not? Come on. Have I ever gone against my word.
“Macao. Remember? You airlifted off on one of Skouras’ helicopters with that alternate ending to Citizen Kane, leaving me behind on a sinking ship.”
“There was only room for one other person on the helicopter besides the pilot…and I believe I sent you two dozen roses as an apology after I learned you’d survived.”
“Some apology. I’m allergic to roses.”
“Well, the information I have should absolve me of all sins.”
“Okay. I’ll play along. What information exactly?”
She smiled, ran her hand down my arm and said, “Not so fast. Have dinner with me tonight. Eight p.m. at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, and opened the door for her. “Time’s up.”
She sighed. “You could have let me seduce you….had a little fun…”
“Yeah—‘come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly’.”
“Don’t forger,” she said, putting her sunglasses back on. “Eight tonight.”
“If I’m not there, start and finish without me.”
She gave me a little wave as she left the store. I watched her get in a taxi and drive off. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I didn’t know if what she’d said about INTERPOL looking for me was a lie or what other shenanigans she might try, but I had no attention of doing her bidding under any circumstances. Anyone connected to Skouras was bad news and she topped that very short list.
The phone in my pocket suddenly buzzed. I answered it. “Hollywoodland Bookstore.”
“Did you find my parting gift, Marshall?” Miss Bara asked. “You’ve got twenty seconds.” Then she hung up.
Twenty seconds? Parting gift? I glanced around the store. Over by the film biography shelf was the Frederick of Hollywood’s bag she’d left behind. With my heart in my throat, I dashed over and picked up the bag. There was something inside, but it wasn’t lingerie. I pulled it out. Shit.
It was a small block of C-4 plastic explosive wired to a digital Flintstones cartoon watch. The timer was counting down to boom time. Ten…nine..eight…
I had no idea which wire to pull to disarm the bomb—and there was no chance of getting the device out of the store before it blew.
…Four…Three…Two. Best I could do was use my body to shield my customers from the blast.
…One…Zero. I shut my eyes. I was dead.
I opened one eye. Nothing happens when you wire a watch to a block of children’s modeling clay. It took me an extra second to realize it was all a rotten trick.
The phone in my pocket buzzed again. I answered it. My heart was thundering like a freight train.
“Do I have your attention now, Mr. Neilan?” she asked me.
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