Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Excerpt - Flesh and Bones

From Chapter 1: Loaded Dice:
I was sitting at the end of the bar sipping single-malt Scotch — eighteen-year- old Glenmorangie at nine bucks a shot — when I spotted the tall blond woman with the large green eyes and the small gray gun.

Not that I knew she had a gun. Not that I even saw her at first, even though she was five feet eleven barefoot, and at the moment was wearing black stiletto heels. According to the A-Form later filled out by a bored female cop, the tall blond woman wore three items of clothing that night, and the Charles Jourdan shoes were two of them. The third was a scooped-back, low-cut, black tank minidress. Nothing more. No rings, necklaces . . . or underwear. She did carry a beaded black Versace handbag, which apparently held the gun, until she pulled it out and . . .

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When she walked in, I was twirling a snifter, admiring the golden liquid inside, trying to catch the smoky scent that had the Yuppies all atwitter, and likewise trying to figure out why I wasn’t home drinking beer, eating pizza, and watching ESPN, as is my custom. Life in the no- passing lane.

“Do you sense the reek of the peat?” Rusty MacLean asked me, while twirling his own glass. “Do the pepper and the heather transport you to the Highlands?” At the moment we were five feet above sea level, two blocks from the ocean on South Beach, with palms swaying and a Jamaican steel band playing, so you’ll pardon me if the outdoor club called Paranoia didn’t feel like Inverness or the Isle of Skye. “Can we drink it now, or are you going to keep blowing smoke up my kilt?” I asked.

“Patience, Jake, patience. Did you clear your palette of the Royal Lochnagar?”

“Palette clear, throat dry. Can we drink it now?”

“Did you appreciate the Lochnagar’s muscular, oaky flavor? The hint of sherry?”

“Okee? As in Okefenokee? As in swampy?”

Rusty gave me his exasperated, why-do-I-put-up-with-you look. “Jake, I’m trying to civilize you. I’ve been trying for years.”

Rusty MacLean had been my teammate on the Dolphins about a thousand years ago. He was a flashy wide receiver with curly red hair flapping out of his helmet. A free spirit, the sports writers called him. Undisciplined, the coaches said. Used to drive Shula crazy. Rusty loved to baby himself, nursing small injuries, sitting out Tuesday practices. It is a given in pro football that by midseason everyone is hurt. I’ve played — though not very well — with turf toe, a broken nose, and a separated shoulder, once all at the same time. Rusty, who had far more natural ability, could make a hangnail seem like a compound fracture. Rusty MacLean raised his glass and said something that sounded like “Slanjeh. To your health, old buddy.”

I hoisted my glass. “Fuel in your bagpipes.”

He sipped at his Glenmorangie, while I swilled mine, letting it warm my throat. Damn good, but I wouldn’t admit it. No need to spoil my image as a throwback and relentlessly uncool, unhip, and out of it. I am so far behind the trends that sometimes I’m back in fashion, just like the Art Deco buildings in the very neighborhood where we now sat, drinking and swapping lies. I wore faded jeans, a T-shirt from a Key West oyster bar advising patrons to EAT ‘EM RAW, and a nylon Penn State windbreaker. I thought I was underdressed until I saw a skinny guy in black silk pants, no shirt, and an open leather vest that couldn’t hide his navel ring, or his nipple ring. Rusty wore a black T-shirt under a double- breasted Armani suit, his hair tied back in a ponytail.

He savored his drink, eyes closed, a beatific smile on his face.

“Mmmm,” he purred. “I’ve screwed girls younger than this Scotch.”

“And you’re trying to civilize me?”

Rusty was signaling the bartender, pointing to another bottle of the single-malt stuff. We were going in some sort of ritualized order, from Lowlands to Highlands to islands, and The Glenlivet was next.

“Next Glenlivet,” Rusty had instructed me, “The Glenlivet.”

“I know. Like the Eiffel Tower, The Donald, The Coach.”

“Robust with a long finish,” Rusty said as the bartender poured the liquid gold into fresh snifters. “The marriage of power and finesse.”

A waitress slinked by, offering canapes from a silver tray, smoked salmon curled around cream cheese, caviar on tiny crackers. A long way from the trailer park in Key Largo. I remembered a tavern song my father used to warble after he’d had a few, none of them sips of single-malt Scotch aged in oak casks.

Rye whiskey, rye whiskey,
Rye whiskey, I cry.
If I can’t get rye whiskey,
I surely will die.

Funny thinking about my father at that moment, a knife plunged into his heart, dying on a saloon floor.

I watched her approach the bar, not from some sixth sense that trouble was brewing, though in my experience, tall blondes are trouble indeed. I watched because Rusty MacLean, using the peripheral vision that had always let him know where the safety was lurking, had just gestured in her direction and compared her knees to Dan Marino’s. Unfavorably to Dan’s, I might add.

A few minutes earlier, I had asked him why he’d given up being a sports agent to open SoBeMo, a modeling agency. His answer competed in volume with the Dolby- enhanced nihilistic baritone poetry of Leonard Cohen.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.

“Forty percent,” Rusty said.

Everybody knows the fight was fixed; the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.

My look shot him a question, so he continued. “Twenty percent from the model, another twenty percent from the company booking the shoot. Compare that to four percent for representing some sixth-round, preliterate prima donna from Weber State, and I’ll take the babes every time.”

“We don’t call them babes anymore,” I corrected him, having been dragged into the nineties, just in time for the millennium.

Now, as I followed his gaze, Rusty said, “Here’s another reason. Whose knees would you rather look at it, Dan Marino’s or Chrissy Bernhardt’s?”

If they’d asked similar questions on the Bar exam, I would have passed the first time.

I watched Chrissy Bernhardt walk the walk, hips rotating with that exaggerated roll forward, the arms swinging gracefully so far back she could have been waving at someone behind her. A stroll down the runway in Milan. Her bare shoulders had the rounded, developed look of hundreds of hours in the gym. Her ash-blond hair slid across those shoulders with each stride, and in her black stiletto heels, she was as tall as me, though a hundred pounds lighter.

Twenty feet away now, headed right for us, Chrissy Bernhardt seemed to look at Rusty. He always got the eye contact before I did. I am not a bad-looking man, despite a nose that goes east and west where it should go north and south. I have shaggy, dirty-blond hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders, and a waist that is just beginning to show the effects of numerous four-Grolsch nights. Rusty has a different look, sleek and feral, and women love it. He always seems to send out sonar waves that bounce off attractive women and back to him. This time, though, when he smiled, she didn’t smile back.

Now I saw she was looking past Rusty at the beefy man on the next barstool. About sixty, a pink well-fed face, a nose that seemed too small for the rest of him, and thick arms with a golfer’s tan peeking out from beneath the short- sleeved guayabera. Earlier, the man had twice asked the bartender for the time. Then he had given me a look and grinned. “I know you. Number fifty-eight for the Dolphins, right?”

“Long time ago.”

“I remember a game against the Jets, you made a helluva hit on the kickoff team, recovered the fumble . . .” He smiled again, then continued in a deep, gravel- voiced rumble, “Then went the wrong way. You ran toward the wrong end zone.”

“I got turned around when I made the hit,” I explained, as I have so many times over the years.

“Lucky for you, your own kicker tackled you.”

Yeah. Garo Yepremian couldn’t tackle me if I was drunk and blindfolded. He had, however, fallen on me after I tripped on the twenty-yard-line stripe.

Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.

Now the woman reached into the little beaded black handbag she was carrying. The deep-voiced man next to us seemed to recognize her, too, and a thin smile creased his face. When it disappeared, I glanced back at Chrissy Bernhardt, who now was holding a Beretta 950, a silly little handgun that shoots .22 shorts out of a two-inch barrel. It’s a lousy weapon for killing someone, but it weighs only ten ounces and leaves room for cigarettes and makeup in a tiny handbag.

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