by Andy Rausch
This story is a prequel to my novels The Suicide Game and Layla’s Score (and more to follow) featuring the character Orlando Williams.
Orlando Williams made his way into the Hotel Arkadia, walking through the light rain, so light as to be just enough to annoy. As he did, he remembered a song he’d once heard saying that it never rained in Southern California, which was bullshit. The night air was muggier than usual, but Orlando enjoyed it for its rarity. Despite the life he lived and the things he saw, he remained a glass-half-full kind of guy.
As he strode through the lobby of the rundown hotel, he saw a dark-skinned desk clerk and was happy to find he wasn’t the only black man in the place. The Hotel Arkadia was a dingy relic from days gone by, and it looked like it hadn’t been renovated since it was opened in the 1920s. It looked (and smelled) like shit now, but he figured it had probably been nice once, maybe even swanky. As he made his way to the bar, he heard the sounds of his Bruno Maglis clicking against the cracked tile floor.
Once he was inside the bar, he ordered a Diet Coke from a pretty blonde bartender in her twenties, thinking she wore too much make-up. She wasn’t one of those girls who applied the stuff with a paintbrush, but it was still a tad too much. From a distance you couldn’t tell; it was one of those upon closer inspection type things. The bar was mostly empty, a few customers sprinkled about. When the bartender gave him his drink, she flashed a seductive smile to show him she was interested. He smiled, taking it in stride, just as he had a thousand times before when his students had done the same. “The shaved head suits you,” she said. “White guys can’t really pull it off. Why do you think it is that black guys can?”
“I guess it’s a trade off,” he said dryly. “White people get to live in peace outside the ghetto and don’t have to worry about getting killed by cops for running a stop sign. But, we get to look nice with bald heads. Fair trade?”
She blinked, not knowing what to say, so she said nothing. Instead she told him the Diet Coke cost $3.50, which he thought was too much, but he handed her a five without protest, telling her to keep the change.
Orlando turned away from the bar, his eyes scanning the room for a suitable table, landing on one across the room by the wall. He went to it and sat down, sipping the Diet Coke. Some would have found his having a soft drink in a bar humorous, but he didn’t. Orlando’s father had been a drunk, and he’d done all he could to avoid following his example. He drank occasionally, but not often. Looking across the room now, he saw a face he recognized. The man, entering the bar, was an older white man in his mid-seventies. He was gaunt and pale, and had seen better days. He wore a golf cap and had a thin, neatly-kept mustache that might have been in fashion when Burt Reynolds was young. His clothes were average, certainly less stylish than was the norm for LA, and there was no way anyone would have guessed that he’d written a dozen highly-respected books about the mob. He wasn’t as big a success as the big shot movie stars who roamed the city, but his success was undeniable. He wasn’t a household name who’d penned bestsellers for one of the big five publishers, but the work he’d done was exceptional. In the city of angels, the man would be seen as a nobody, a less than, which troubled Orlando, who not only knew who he was, but respected him greatly. Were Orlando to acknowledge that he had personal heroes, Charlie Bly would have been high on the list.
Orlando watched Bly order and pay for his drink. When he saw him sit alone at a table near the bar, Orlando decided to approach him. He stood and walked across the room. Bly saw him approaching when he was still a couple tables away, and watched with curiosity rather than reluctance.
Orlando spoke first. He was carrying his glass, hoping Bly would invite him to sit. Orlando pointed at him casually. “I know you,” he said.
“You do, huh?”
“Tell me then, who am I?” Bly asked, grinning.
“Don’t you know who you are?”
Bly chuckled. “I’m the only one who does.”
“Well, I know who you are. I’ve long enjoyed and admired your work, especially your book on Frank Nitti and the Chicago outfit.”
Bly looked surprised. “You really do know me.”
“I’ve read every book you’ve written.”
“Really?” asked the flattered Bly. “Not many people read every book a nonfiction writer writes. Those big name people like Dan Brown, sure, but not me.”
“Dan Brown sucks,” said Orlando. “You’re a better writer than he is.”
Bly’s grin grew wider. “Tell that to my bank account.”
Orlando nodded towards an empty chair. “Mind if I sit?”
“Oh, please do,” said Bly, sounding genuine.
Orlando sat, setting his drink on the table.
Bly looked at it. “You a tea totaller?”
“I guess so,” said Orlando. “I don’t drink much.”
Bly nodded. “Wise path, my friend. I know a lot of guys who drink too much, it becomes their primary focus.”
Orlando shifted the conversation. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Bly.”
“I appreciate that. I don’t get that much. Not even my kids wanna see me these days. I have to pretty much take them by force and keep them captive to make them see me.”
“That’s too bad,” said Orlando.
Bly shrugged. “That’s kids. You got any?”
“Just one, a girl. Keisha. She’s three.”
“Oh, they’re fun when they’re that age. They get less fun when they become teenagers.”
“So I’ve heard. Luckily I’ve got a little time before I get there. But sometimes I do wonder what she’ll be like when she’s that age.”
“A handful,” said Bly. “They all are, especially girls.”
“She’s a pretty well-behaved kid.”
“That’s good,” Bly said, taking a drink of his Scotch. “So you know me. Now tell me about you.”
Orlando reached across the table, and the old man shook his hand. “My name’s Orlando.”
“Are you familiar with As You Like It? There’s an Orlando in that.”
“You like Shakespeare?” Bly asked, sounding surprised.
“What? You thought I wouldn’t because I’m black?”
The old man looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”
“It’s okay. Yeah, I know Shakespeare.”
Bly grinned. “Let me ask you, am I a better writer than him, too?”
Orlando smiled. “Do you want me to lie to you?”
“I was joking. But I rank somewhere between Dan Brown and William Shakespeare. Hmm. I wouldn’t wanna know where exactly I fit in there. Closer to Brown, I think.”
“I’m closer to him, too,” said Orlando.
Bly’s face brightened. “You’re a writer?”
“I dabble. I write nonfiction, like you.”
Orlando nodded. “I’ve written a couple books.”
Bly was impressed. “Dostoevsky, huh?”
“Yeah, but not for the reason you think. It’s because I don’t know shit about Dostoevsky either, so it’s not a race thing. Frankly I’m surprised when anyone knows about that shit.”
“I teach Russian lit at UCLA,” said Orlando, not mentioning his second job.
Orlando nodded, taking a drink.
“Have you read my newest book?”
“I have,” said Orlando. “Lesser Kings.”
“What did you think?”
“It was very well-written, meticulously researched, as usual. But also very ballsy, writing about present day mobsters. It was truthful in a way I can’t imagine them appreciating. Doesn’t that frighten you?”
Bly spoke, his tone serious. “I’m an old man, Orlando. My days of being scared are behind. I’m seventy-seven, but my body is a hundred. I’m tired, and I’ve lived a hard life.” He looked at him. “You don’t even wanna know. So what I’m saying is, if they were to kill me now, they’d be doing me a favor.”
“You think that could really happen?”
Bly shook his head. “It’s unlikely. Since the RICO act tore the mob apart in the Eighties, the organization is just a shell of what it once was. Now it’s a clusterfuck, just thugs and drugs, a disjointed mess, nobody knowing what they’re doing. They probably couldn’t orchestrate a gas station robbery at this point. They’re pretty worthless now.”
“I was kind of shocked by some of the things you wrote.”
The old man smiled proudly.
“The publisher wasn’t sure about it. But I insisted. I told them it was well-researched, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it legally.”
Orlando pointed at him again. “That’s the key word, isn’t it? Legally.”
“I think the only person who could really be angry about anything I wrote was Angelo Vitelli, the boss here in LA, but he’s one of the weakest of all. The guy has zero power. He couldn’t do anything if he wanted to.”
“You think those guys read this stuff?”
“Honestly, I doubt any of them know how to read. I suspect all those guys read are racing forms and obituaries.”
“Where do you live? Since you’re staying here, I’m assuming you don’t live in LA.”
“The Big Apple. I live on Hudson street, across from a place where Jack Kerouac used to live.”
“That’s cool,” said Orlando. “Two great writers on one block.”
The old man smiled. “I wish I was in his league. But if I’m being honest, I moved there hoping some of Kerouac’s mojo might rub off.”
“It appears it worked.”
“Maybe,” said Bly, rubbing his chin. “I don’t know if I agree with that, but I like hearing it, so feel free to repeat it.”
They both laughed. Orlando asked Bly if he wanted a second drink, to which he said yes. Orlando said the drinks were his treat and he went to the bar and got them. When he returned, he observed, “The part in Lesser Kings where you suggested that Vitelli might have been molested by his dad was kind of shocking. That was the part that stood out. I think if you were gonna have problems, that would be the reason.”
The old man nodded. “I do too, but I feel safe.” This time he put a spin on his previous joke, saying “I don’t think these guys could orchestrate a robbery at Burger King.” He smiled, proud of himself. They both sat in silence for a moment, comfortable, neither feeling the need to speak for the sake of speaking. Finally Bly asked, “What do you do for fun?”
Orlando smiled, sighing as he did. “Teaching.”
“Teaching? Your job is the thing you do for fun?”
“It is,” said Orlando, nodding, not wanting to tell him that teaching was his side job.
They sat for another hour, making chit-chat about their lives and their kids. The old man told Orlando about his three divorces, and Orlando told him about his wife, Maralys. They discussed literature and the obstacles of writing, each of them having a good time.
Finally, after having talked for nearly two hours, Bly said, “As fun as this has been, I need to go to bed. I’m an old man and I need to get up early.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Orlando. “What’s going on?”
“I’m speaking at a symposium tomorrow. You know, I still can’t believe people actually pay to hear me talk. As I know you know, the funny thing about being a nonfiction writer is that people look to you for answers, expecting you to know everything. They don’t realize that writers write about the things they themselves want to know more about.”
“Right,” said Orlando, nodding.
“That feeling of being a fraud never goes away. God knows I’ve tried to shake it, been trying to shake it for almost eighty years, but it’s still there. But tomorrow I’ll get up there and put on a straight face and bullshit those people, convincing them I know all there is to know about the Mafia.”
“I don’t think you’re a fraud at all. You know your stuff, and it shows.”
“Research,” said the old man. “Lots and lots of research.”
They both stood, leaving their drinks on the table.
“You leaving, too?” asked Bly.
“I was only gonna stay for a few minutes, but then I ran into you.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“So am I.”
The two men left the bar and made their way across the lobby to the elevator.
“What floor you on?” asked the man.
“I’m on three.”
Bly’s face brightened. “So am I.”
They boarded the elevator and the doors closed, the elevator coming to life. Orlando said, “What made you wanna write in the first place?”
“I always knew I was gonna be a writer, I just didn’t know what it was gonna be. I thought I was gonna be a novelist, write the next great American novel.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t have the necessary talent.”
The elevator opened and the two men stepped out into the hall. The old man looked to the left and said, “Well, my room is this way.”
“So is mine.”
They started down the narrow hall, Bly leading the way. Bly stopped in front of a door, pulling a key out of his pocket. “This is me,” he said. As he unlocked the door, a thought occurred to him. “If you teach at UCLA, why are you staying here?” He turned to face Orlando, finding himself looking at a silenced .45. He sighed. “You got me,” Bly said. “I really believed you were a professor and an author.”
“I am,” said Orlando. “That was true. I’m both of those things, and also this. I multi-task.”
“I wish I was better at that.” Bly paused for a moment before adding, “I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
Orlando looked at him with sad eyes. Clarlie Bly was the only man Orlando had ever been asked to kill that he’d felt bad about. “I really am a fan,” said Orlando. “You’ve been a huge influence. I’m sorry about all this.”
“Did Angelo Vitelli send you?”
Orlando nodded. “He did.”
“I figured,” said Bly. “I guess I was wrong. I guess he can read after all.”
“He can, but his lips move when he does it,” said Orlando.
Bly chuckled. “Since when does the mob hire black guys?”
“They don’t do it often. I’m only the second one ever.”
“You must be good at what you do.”
“I’m a better hitter than I am a writer.”
Bly smiled, looking tired now. “It was nice meeting you, Orlando. Good luck with the writing.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bly. It was nice meeting you, too.”
Bly closed his eyes, and Orlando squeezed the trigger. The old man’s head shot back before he toppled to the floor, falling into the door. Orlando stuck the .45 back inside his jacket. He looked down at Bly, whose work had meant so much to him, and he whispered, “I’m sorry, Charlie.” He dragged Bly’s body into the room and closed the door. He pulled out his cell phone, hit a button, and raised the phone to his ear. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said. “Send Teddy and his boys to clean up. Room 222 at the Arkadia.”
Later, after Teddy’s crew had come to relieve him, Orlando was walking through the lobby, considering Bly’s death. He felt happy to have met an idol whose work had inspired him, but also sad because he’d had to kill him. As he stepped out into the rain, Orlando thought of the old maxim that a writer should kill his darlings. He smiled, thinking Bly would have appreciated this.