Immediately, O'Grady throws a clear contrast at readers. Mike Hayes is a published author. Relatively unknown save for his cult fans on the outskirts of the mainstream, but published. On the other side of the coin there's Allen Davenport, writer of Sundown Beach. With his book launching and primed to be big book business, it's in his honor that a giant cocktail party is being held. Still, Hayes has an interest, he could be the one doing the script for the movie adaptation. He drags his friend Phil Dixon, a struggling director to make some connections and get attached to the picture as well. However, it's clear to see that Hayes is worn out and has no interest in hobnobbing with the self-important types, instead looking for friendship, and love perhaps in the wrong places. It's unclear exactly what direction this Hollywood story might turn from the get-go, but it's hard to imagine things happening like clockwork with characters this independent and free-spirited.
The cocktail party to celebrate publication day of ‘Sundown Beach’ was held early one September evening at the Hilton Hotel.
Mike Hayes talked Dixon into going along.
“It’s like a college degree,” Mike said. “It might never do you any good, but it can’t do much harm, either. Now, I’m still in the running to do a screen treatment of Sundown, so if you’re seen with me, it might help you make one or two contacts. Sometimes all it takes is one. They’re gonna need somebody to direct the damn picture, if it ever gets made into a movie, so why shouldn’t it be you?”
Dixon couldn’t fault that kind of reasoning, so he went along, taking Brenda Harris with him. He told her: “You’re my reward for working after five o’clock.”
They boarded the appropriate elevator in the enormously long lobby. It lifted them two floors. Mike led the way along the mezzanine corridor. He carried only an invitation for himself, but when the men at the door of the cocktail party suite were starting to shake their heads at Dixon and the girl, Mike squinted past them and spotted George Kenyon circulating inside the crowded room;
“George!” he shouted above the din of conversation emanating from the smoky gloom of the suite. “Hey, Kenyon! Over here!”
Kenyon turned to see who was calling him. Recognizing Mike, he came over to shake hands.
“Hello, Mike, glad you could make it.”
“George, we’re in trouble,” Mike confided in him. “I invited Phil Dixon along to this bash, but it seems we need one invitation per person. You got any drag with these gentlemen?”
Kenyon nodded at Dixon.
“Hello, Dix. Why, I’m sure it will be all right if the three of you come in,” he murmured, with an idly inquiring glance at the man in charge of the door.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Kenyon,” the man smiled. His thin bony face smiled, but his eyes were untouched by the smile. He stepped aside to leave room for them to pass.
Dixon held up a fist as he passed the men on the door.
“Right on!” he cried.
One of them grinned mirthlessly.
The rooms in the suite were high-ceilinged, but not high enough to be mistaken for any kind of grand ballroom. Still, they were not low enough nor the rooms small enough for any of it to deserve being called a bed-and-living room suite. These rooms had been especially created to accommodate precisely this type of function: the standup, buffet-style, short-time gathering which is a bit too big to fit into the average apartment but not so large or extensive as to require a two-chandelier ballroom.
Underfoot, deep-pile rugs were just dark enough to take lots of spilled drinks and cigarette ashes without showing it too obviously. The walls had been finished with cushioned satin in a not-too-sensitive yellow pastel shade that had flower-patterns woven into it. Floor-to-ceiling windows with diaphanous drapes hanging on each side gave guests enough of a glimpse of the city’s night lights outside to add to the desired cozy protected effect inside, but the windows themselves were sealed to make certain no filthy street fumes could enter, except through the air-conditioning system.
Gazing around at the packed crowd, Mike Hayes shook his head.
“If China invented the water torture,” he said, “and the French invented silence as an instrument of inflicting pain, I think we can safely assert that the British and the Americans came up with something even worse . . .”
He paused significantly.
Dixon watched him a moment and then told Brenda: “Go ahead. Ask him what the British and Americans invented. If one of us doesn’t, his evening’ll be ruined.”
Brenda grinned, but before she could speak, Mike interrupted her, saying: “You don’t have to ask me. I’ll tell you anyway. They invented togetherness.”
They both stared at him, looked at each other in puzzlement, then back to Mike. He was irritated.
“Don’t you get it? Look at that mob. Packed in like sardines, everyone playing grabass and milking each other down. It’s just those nice, clean, steel prisons they’ve got all over the place. When you get arrested, what happens? Do they treat you like a person, with respect? Hell, no. They pack you into crowded cells until everybody in them feels just like animals . . . and begins to act like animals, too. Look at all these people. Packed in like cattle, worse than cattle . . . and they aren’t even in prison! They don’t have to be here, in the first place.”
“And in the second place?” Brenda asked, amused by Mike’s agitation.
“In the second place,” Mike replied loftily, “I think I see where they hid some drinks in the first place. Stay right where you are. I’ll go snag a couple of martinis for you two charmers.”
“Good idea,” Brenda called after him. “We’ll get the hors d’oeuvres.”
Nodding, Mike worked his way deeper into the mass of chattering people, muttering aloud to himself: “Look at all these clots of human crud!”
A girl in front of him turned and stared at him as he shoved on by. He was startled to suddenly find himself gazing into her eyes. A nineteen-year-old face. A sari-type dress, long and flowing and diaphanous-looking . . . what he could see this close, at least. Hair done in the soulful style: parted in the middle, combed straight down on both sides of her face.
Mike pushed farther along. The girl gave way. His arm brushed slowly across her breasts as he passed. Ummm! nice and soft. Rubbery, almost. Medium-sized. She fell behind, and a bit farther along he found himself stuck fast in the press of humankind.
“ . . . they are all savages,” a voice off to his left was saying. “All people in the Mediterranean littoral are total primitives. They always were. Not a civilized human being in a carload.”
Mike stretched his head forward so he could peer around a nearby skull and see the speaker: a short, stocky, blond-haired man with a bullet head and a thick sturdy neck.
“Look at the record,” Bullet-head went on, speaking up into the faces of people ringed around him. “Spain and her bull worship. Ancient Crete and bull dancing.”
He was ticking them off on his fingers as he recited the list.
“Any Arab country you can name: Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, all of them, races of children, all politically immature. Israel, too. Just another bunch of Arabs, but with thicker skulls. And Italy! Look at Italy! That’s all you have to do, just look at Italy. What contribution has any Italian made to civilized thought or to culture . . . aside from one or two isolated cases like Michel Angelo or DaVinci? You know what they’ve created? The only original creation Italians have come up with? You don’t? Well, I’ll tell you . . .”
A voice was heard to murmur: “Something told me you would.”
Bullet-head ignored it, continuing: “They’ve developed a way to deliver insults in sign language. That’s it! Nothing else. That’s the only thing in their culture that goes on, generation after generation. Sub-consciously they kept their lousy language completely inadequate, incapable of expressing complex thoughts, and they did it for one reason only: so they could satisfy their barbaric Mediterranean need to wave their arms and hands around. That’s all Italians have ever come up with! Now, I’d say a people whose sole contribution to civilization has been a system of saying fuck you or your mother does this, or your sister does that, and saying all of it with sign language with the hands and arms and shoulders . . . well, I’d hardly call that much of a gift to world culture!
“And I won’t even mention all those other Mediterranean primitives, and the ways they’ve always been absolutely lunatic when it comes to sex . . . and I’m not only referring to their balls-obsession lately. Look at the way they have always behaved toward their women. You can always tell when you’re among savages by the way they treat their women! For god’s sake, look at Italian opera! It’s like watching a bunch of crazy people writhing and frothing at the mouth, all because some poor girl beds down with a man without first getting the okay from her goddamned four-balled brother or father or, worst of all, her goddamned husband or lover. How those poor women have managed to put up with those idiot Greeks and Italians and the other Mediterranean Neanderthals down through the centuries is beyond me . . . unless the women are just as stupid as the men.”
His eyes looked thoughtful for a moment.
“There’s always that, of course . . . a discouraging possibility. One always hopes women can somehow manage to be less inferior than their wretched men . . .”
There was a momentary break in the density of the pack of people ahead of Mike. He gained a few feet. The earnest anti-Mediterranean’s voice fell behind. He was still haranguing, but Mike could no longer make out what he was saying.
It took awhile, but at last Mike snared a brace of drinks from a passing waiter’s tray. He started back, going around another way this time, to avoid the mob in the middle of the room.
His maneuver didn’t help much: once more he was reduced to inching his way along, and once again, immediately to his right, there was the blond bullet-head, still yammering away.
“Sure, I know, you’re absolutely correct, it’s built into the Catholic religion. But it was Italians who built it in, since they’re the ones who’ve been mainly in control of it longest. They built in sexual discrimination right from the start . . . in addition to the usual Christian barbarity regarding the Crucifixion. God is a man. Sex is tolerated, but it isn’t really nice. And women . . . not men, only women . . . ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Who but an Italian could work up that sort of framework of thought and prejudice and have the effrontery to insert it into his religion’s basic doctrine. It’s no accident that the two men who really organized the Christian religion were Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, both of whom were pretty strange, in more ways than one, especially about sex. You notice it’s never a man who is happily married who organizes any of these aboriginal religions. It’s always the weirdos.
“And another thing: you know why Northern Europeans really had their Reformation? To get the hell away from those stupid savages down in Italy who made celibacy one of the really big features for the priests of their Church to practise . . . or to endure. You name it, anything to do with sex and an Italian or a Greek or any Mediterranean will always manage to make it seem dirty. Sometimes I think they need to feel they’re doing something vile or they wouldn’t be able to enjoy sex at all. Never occurs to any Mediterranean that maybe to non-Mediterraneans a thing like sex isn’t filthy or ugly or shameful or monstrous or sneaky, but is simply one of the better and more enjoyable gifts of life which ought to be left a lot more alone than it usually is, especially by . . .”
“I know,” Mike chuckled. “Especially by Mediterraneans.”
He plowed on determinedly through the crowd.
Just as he came to the thinner outer fringes of the people, Mike spilled part of one of the drinks. Just ahead was Dixon.
“Here,” Mike said, thrusting one of the martinis into his hand. “Before it all spills. Where’s Brenda?”
Dixon shrugged. “Still trying to find cheese-its, I guess.” He tasted the drink and shuddered. “Ugh! Too much vermouth.”
“It’s free, aint it? Don’t complain. You want to know anything about Mediterraneans?”
‘Ah, come on! I got all the facts. Listen.” With a straight face, Mike went through most of what he’d heard on his two passages across the jam-packed main room. When he couldn’t remember anymore, he stopped.
Dixon stared at him, thought about it for a moment, and then asked: “So what else is new? Where’d you get all that stuff?”
“Some goombah out there,” Mike laughed, jerking a thumb toward the crowd. “If you don’t believe me, go ask him. He’ll tell you. At length.”
“I believe it,” Dixon said. “There’s Steve Manford. And friends.”
Mike followed Dixon’s glance and spotted the publicist across the room.
“Yeah, he’s running this show. I gather he and Cardigan & Howells are one, at least in the ‘Sundown Beach’ deal. Want to go over and say hello? We might get to meet a real live author.”
“Aren’t you a real live author?” Dixon asked with a grin, as he followed Mike over toward where Manford was speaking rapidly to four or five people.
“I said a real author,” Mike explained, “the kind a publisher gives a big cocktail party for, when the book comes out. The closest I ever got to a publication party like this was a fast Orange Julius on Sunset Strip the day my first book was ejected into an unsuspecting world . . . or was it ejaculated? Anyway, that was before they found out I wasn’t about to turn into one of the world’s bigger-selling authors . . . Hello, Steve. Quite a party you got going here. You know Phil Dixon, don’t you?”
Steve Manford turned. His smile widened.
“Hey, there! Sure I know Dix. How are you, both of you? Listen, I want you to meet the man who wrote this blockbuster of ours.”
Steve turned toward a tall good-looking young man, who was, at that moment, smiling down into the face of a pretty, lively-eyed woman wearing a mini-shift that reached only perceptibly to the tops of her thighs.
“Meet Allen Davenport,” the public relations man said. “Allen, this is a fellow writer, you’ve probably read his books, Mike Hayes. And Phil Dixon, one of the best young directors in show business.”
Allen Davenport smiled and shook hands, leaning first toward Mike and then Dixon, shaking hands with each in turn, heartily, not quite pumping their hands. Beside him, the woman was nodding, saying: “Yes, Allen, weren’t you talking about one of Mike’s books only the other day?”
“That’s right, I believe I was.” Davenport smiled at Mike and tilted his head toward the woman, saying: “She’s your real fan, though, Mr. Hayes. Have you met Irene Tower?”
He introduced Mike to Irene without listening, as they both murmured that they knew each other.
Mike winked at Irene and the three of them exchanged pleasantries for a moment, while Dixon more or less looked on.
Steve Manford charged off in someone’s track. A moment later, he returned with a brightly smiling woman firmly in his grip.
“Say, I hate to break in on you beautiful people,” he smiled, “but Allen, you’ve got to meet Jennylee Howells. Better be sure you treat her nice. She just might be the one who gets to review ‘Sundown Beach’ for the Sunday Times.”
“I’m so-o-o glad to finally meet you, Mr. Davenport,” Jennylee smiled. “I’ve been pestering Charlie to arrange an introduction.” Then her eager glance jumped away from Allen’s face to Steve Manford’s. “But, Steve, I don’t think I could review a C & H book. It wouldn’t be ethical. My husband heads up C & H, so it would look kind of . . . family, you know? I wish I did have a prayer of doing a review of your book, Allen. It’s a plum, perhaps the plum of this publishing season.”
She sounded really wistful. However, she brightened quickly and returned her vivid attention to the tall young author.
“Anyway, I hope it sells a million copies.” She squeezed his hand as she said it.
Brenda Harris appeared at Dixon’s side and handed him a tiny hors d’oeuvre.”
“That’s for being good. Imagine if you weren’t good!”
“None for me?” Mike asked.
Brenda laughed at the pout on his face.
“Oh, Mike, I am sorry. Here, take mine. Go ahead. I already had one on the way back. Couldn’t wait, I was so hungry.”
“No, I was just kidding,” Mike assured her. “I’m the opposite: I had too much supper. Really. Hey, there’s my boy, Len Sloan. Scuse me, folks.”
Mike went over to Sloan, who was there with his West Coast man, Harry Brody, all beef, teeth, and cheerful good-fellow smile. They talked about the current market for scripts, movie-wise.
Somewhere in the crowd, Mike’s glance was again caught by the eyes of the mysterious-looking flower-power girl. She studied him until their eyes met, then her glance drifted away. She was ostentatiously uninterested in him.
A possible? Mike wondered.
He watched her disappear into the mob, then dismissed the vagrant thought and returned his attention to what Len and Harry were telling each other.
After awhile Mike drifted away from the two agents, and managed to snag himself an hors d’oeuvre after all.
A large group had gathered around the author of ‘Sundown Beach.’ In the midst of them, he caught glimpses of Dixon and Brenda. Once, a nearby tall stately-looking woman with iron-gray hair tightly marcelled into stiff ridges caught his attention. He stepped nearer to hear her.
“. . . but greed is a national resource,” she was saying. “It should be treated as we treat any other commodity. In a properly controlled . . . or pre-controlled . . . society, the government would simply raise and lower greed-oriented incentives as they’re needed, something like the way they do with oil import quotas, or farm produce, whenever there’s a shortage in the supply, or whenever they want to stabilize prices. Greed is simply a very human desire to shore up beaucoup acorns in this cold and ruthless world. You would simply tell the folk this year that if they end up with anything more than the annual maximum allowable million dollars of individual ownership capital, the amount over a million will be returnable to the government.
“Other years it might be expedient to up the maximum to, oh, say as high as a million and a quarter. In that case, we could each keep the amount over the basic million dollars up to that extra quarter million for the entire following year, until the next cutoff date. Thus, we fortunate few who have that million dollars plus would have that entire second year to spend the over-accrual.
“In that way, you’re using greed constructively. You aren’t trying to fight greed or wipe it out. After all, it is a most human and ordinary emotion, isn’t it? What we want to do is rather to harness greed, to make it work for the good of the generality when it is most needed.
“In times of recession, loose the dogs of ravenous free enterprise, give them that extra incentive to boost their capital ownership slightly above the usual limit of one million dollars, and the whole following year in which to spend it, if they can . . . the over-amount, that is. Then, when the economy settles back closer to normal again . . . if there is anything such as a normal economy . . . why, we’d simply throttle back a bit, rein in the champing horse, balky though it might be after such a period of freedom, pull it back to the million-dollar maximum where everyone belongs. I’d like the maximum amount of wealth anyone owns to be as low as a quarter of a million dollars, and that means including everything: land, clothes, jewels, everything . . . but I’m willing to start with a full million as the maximum until we see how the system works.”
Mike peeked past intervening heads, listening to the woman, grinning a little. He couldn’t quite grasp what she was getting at, but he wasn’t about to ask for details. Someone else would do the asking, he was confident of that. Someone else usually did.
Sure enough, a hesitant voice asked: “But . . . that would be a dictatorship, wouldn’t it, Brand? The government would be telling each of us that we could never own more than a million dollars at any given time beyond the conclusion of each year, or a million and a quarter during times of pre-judged relaxation of the restrictions, or whatever they decide. I don’t like dictatorships, I’m sorry . . .”
The woman called Brand smiled indulgently, looking down her arched nose at whoever had spoken.
“But don’t you see that we already live in a dictatorship? Surely you can’t imagine we are forever becoming involved in these endless wars because we want to be, or because they are necessary? My, what a visionary you must be. No, not at all. The government does what it pleases, but it does do us the courtesy of exerting itself to generate a good deal of propaganda. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to bend us to their way of thinking so they may continue doing whatever they please. I believe the primary purpose of all that chewing up of war material is to rid us of excess productivity. Peacetime use simply doesn’t require replacement of those various pieces of hard goods. The labor force would be idle without wars. Plants would have to shut down and simply sit and wait until people used up their refrigerators and cars and houses. There’s a limit to what built-in obsolescence can accomplish, my dears. So, to keep the present form of primitive unregulated capitalism functioning in its disjointed current fashion . . . disjointed because forty percent of the net return per annum ends up in the bank vaults of only one-tenth of one percent of the populace, the rich among us . . . to keep the wornout creaking old machine functioning as it has been for over four centuries, everyone concerned, including you and I, continue to pretend we don’t live in an actual dictatorship.
“However, we do. Very slowly and invisibly we are turning into a military dictatorship, and it’s particularly ironic that we’re allowing it to happen under the flying flag of preserving things like Democracy and Our Way Of Life. Unlike the usual military coups in other countries, we do it more slowly. We also spend a lot more money doing it slowly, too, by the way: more waste!”
Several people began speaking at once, but the gray-haired woman turned majestically away, still smiling benignly.
Mike waited a moment, realized there wasn’t going to be any more wisdom imparted, and drifted on his way, snatching a martini off a passing waiter’s tray.
A ring of guests had formed around a thin, intense-eyed young man, who was in the process of saying: “ . . . the incredible blather of their spokesemen. Take Buckley . . . constantly shooting out those meticulously worded shafts of disdain, laden so heavily with words like ‘handout’ and phrases like ‘things they aren’t paying for.’ You’ve all heard that sort of thing, right? The implication always being quite unmistakable that we, of course, must be the ones who are paying for all the alleged handouts. The Buckleys of this world are always shilling for the rich and privileged, always under the guise of preserving our values . . . don’t you love words like that? So nice and vague and so gloriously imprecise. Words that can mean nothing, and everything. Oh, and preserving good old energetic free enterprise. That type never realizes that a society and its government is not in existence to protect wealth for the quick and cunning few but to aid all the people to not only defend themselves from those predatory few, but also to lead happier and more enjoyable lives. Not lives grudgingly conceded to be worthwhile merely because their possessors have meekly consented to work like animals for thirty or forty years, but happy lives, lives made happy simply because that’s the way lives ought to be: happy and rich and full of ease and enjoyment and contentment. There really is enough for everyone now . . . and there has been enough for a long time, too . . . notwithstanding the pernicious lies of the Buckley types.”
“The tragedy,” a ringsider quickly said, “is that they make the possession of money the principle measure of a person’s worth. They still thing there’s their sort of people . . . and then there’s all the rest. The implication being that all the rest are a bunch of drunken bums taking handouts and always getting high . . .”
“Exactly, exactly!” the man in the center of the circle of listeners cried, nodding his head excitedly.
“It’s like listening to something literally hundreds of years out of date,” the man on the sidelines went on quickly, as if he feared being interrupted. “The Buckleys of this world will never get it through their heads that probably most of those debauched working-class types they still consider most people to be were probably getting drunk so often just to get away from the intolerable working conditions prevailing in their regions . . .”
“Exactly! You’ve got it exactly!”
The intense-eyed young man’s voice went farther away behind Mike as he ploughed a bit deeper into the crowd. He sipped occasionally at his martini. Across nearby heads, he spotted Dixon and Brenda standing side by side. In front of them, talking rapidly and in turn, were Steve Manford and George Kenyon.
As Mike watched, Chuck Ellert detached himself from a few older people who had gathered in front of Allen Davenport and his shepherdess, Irene Tower, and a blond young man who seemed to be working in tandem with Irene.
Ellert joined the group with Dixon. George Kenyon smiled and made room for Ellert, smoothly. Steve clapped a hearty welcoming hand on Ellert’s shoulder and gave him a brief manly hug, never interrupting whatever he was telling Brenda and Dixon.
Mike grinned, pleased. Hey, hey! Dixon was really making contacts! Or was it the girl they were all flocking around? Mike took another look at Brenda. She was pretty, sure enough. But not that pretty! Face always quiet, composed. A calm girl, good to have around. Never gave anyone a hard time.
Mike wondered if Dixon was serious about her. He headed over toward them, but just then, out of the crowd on his left came the flower-child. A male specimen or two seemed to be with her, but after one glance, Mike just kept his eyes on her. He could hardly help it: she looked directly at him as she slithered by in front of him.
He watched her and her two-man entourage pass. The taller one had a beard, the other a mustache. The one with the mustache gave Mike a leer of a grin as he sloped on by.
A shift of the crowd cut Mike off from the people around Dixon and Brenda.
Beside Mike, a woman murmured: “You can’t hear yourself think in here!”
The man with her smirked. “Most people don’t speak to anyone, just to themselves . . . so they don’t care if anyone hears what they’re saying.”
The woman frowned. “Oh, I don’t think that’s true at all . . .”
They spun slowly away in the press of humanity.
Mike’s glass was empty. He squirmed to his right, trying to escape the fringe of the crowd to where there were fewer people.
A man’s deep voice said with authority: “Listen, believe me, Americans of the propertied class are a breed of cat who spent eight years fighting themselves clear of their British Daddy-O in the Revolutionary War, and then for the next two hundred years they’ve been trying to crawl back inside the womb of Mother England . . .”
Making his way to the edge of the crowd, Mike burst into the clear. He found himself behind the position where Allen Davenport and his two handlers had posted themselves. Irene Tower glanced over her shoulder and saw Mike wiping sweat from his face and catching a full lungful of air.
“Hi, Mike. Too much for you?”
“Just trying to ingest it all,” he said. Joining her, he gazed out at the busily talking mob.
“Ingest what-all?” she laughed. “You mean you can make sense out of all that gabbling?” She shook her head in wonderment. “You know my co-worker Derek Shelton, don’t you? Derek, this is Mike Hayes.”
The handsome blond man shook hands. He was young, only a few years out of the Liberal arts mill of one of the acceptable colleges. “Happy to meet you, Mr. Hayes.”
Grinning wickedly, Irene pointed out: “Derek also liked your last book, didn’t you, Derek?”
The young man’s eyes widened fractionally.
“Oh, that Mike Hayes.”
Mike laughed. “You mean there’s another Mike Hayes floating around somewhere?”
“Keep Mike in mind, Derek,” advised Irene sagely. “On of these days he just might stop writing the kind of book he wants to write and do one people want to read. If that happens, the pair of us might wind up shepherding him around on book-autographing junkets the way we’re doing tonight with Allen.”
“It’ll never happen,” Mike said. “I’m destined to be one of those poimanently misunduhstood geniuses, y’ know what I mean?” He faked an elbow-gouge into Irene’s upper arm, and at the same time his head jerked spasmodically a few times, like a punch-drunk fighter having the twitches.
Irene laughed. Derek smiled uncomprehendingly at both of them, before returning his attention to the fledgling author people were still coming up to and talking to.
Mike watched for awhile.
“Why the tight reef?” he asked Irene in a low voice.
Glancing over at Davenport, she shrugged. “Oh, he gets nervous. Doesn’t know the ropes in this kind of thing.”
“But two watchdogs? Nobody’s that nervous.”
“Well, tell you the truth, Mike, he’s got a thing about acting. We want him to talk about writing ‘Sundown Beach,’ at least for awhile. What he talks about on his own time, I couldn’t give less of a damn about . . . but here . . .”
“I see,” Mike nodded. “Can I get you a little something?”
“Yes, would you? A martini. I’d like that. I’ve earned one, don’t you think?” She curled her hand around one of Mike’s hands and gently scraped her fingernails across his palm. “Maybe I better not, though. There’s still that other thing, later tonight. Are you still married to Jill?”
“Still married. She’s out on the Coast with the kids.”
Irene nodded. “I always liked Jill,” she murmured absently.
Mike repressed an impulse to smirk. I’ll bet you did, he was thinking.
“Where did Jill work? Over at Harper’s, wasn’t it?”
“For awhile. That’s where I met her the first time. She moved around a couple of times before we got together.”
“Don’t we all move around?” Irene laughed. “I’m overdue for a migration myself. The money’s too good in the flack racket, though. Hard tearing yourself away, sometimes.”
“Same with pictures. You get used to it.”
“Scuse me, Mike darling,” she said, darting off. “There’s Gordon Brocker.”
Mike watched her slip in and out among the drifting clumps of people. She spoke to a lanky, brown-haired man, then moved off to greet the woman with the iron-gray hair Mike had noticed earlier, when he had been hunting for drinks. He tried to recall where he had met Gordon Brocker. Somewhere or other, but where? At that art gallery uptown on Madison Avenue? Could be.
Dixon and Brenda emerged from the crowd, still the center of their own smaller nucleus of people. At the moment, they were sharing the spotlight with Allen Davenport. Dixon was talking to the tall handsome author, who nodded and smiled, as he had been doing mechanically all evening.
The rest of the men in the knot were paying attention to Brenda Harris, who seemed to be enjoying herself, occasionally permitting a tiny smile to curve the corners of her mouth upward. Her glance kept turning toward Dixon. Noticing that, Mike grinned. Dix hadn’t lost his touch with the women. He certainly had himself a following of one there.
Good! Maybe it would work out. He’d brought Dixon around, and Brenda seemed able to attract all those wheels, so maybe a couple of connections would rub off on Dix. It was high time he got some kind of break.
Mike went on watching the moving tableau. Dixon seemed friendly and agreeable, even more so than usual . . . although, without even trying, Brenda seemed to do even better. Ellert and Steve Manford and George Kenyon seemed charmed out of their skulls by her.
Mike studied Brenda closely once again, wondering if there might be something about her that was escaping him. He saw nothing outstanding that would explain such devotion on the part of those men.
Mike shrugged. Perhaps she was just one of those girls middle-aged men liked to be around at these big brawl-type parties. Not that you could call Chuck Ellert middle-aged, of course. Certainly not to his face.
Brenda kept her face so still that hardly any life or personality peeped through into the open. You’d think she had a recent face-job done. He knew she hadn’t, but she held her face as if she had, stiffly.
He stopped pondering it, though. Why let it bother him? The fact that those men over there were apparently knocking themselves out trying to impress the girl simply reinforced what Mike had known all along: his tastes were different than most. He’d always moved among people who seemed able to turn themselves up to high over the strangest things, like fads, fashions, girls, plays, movies, books, almost anything you could name, while most of those things didn’t do a thing for Mike. He was used to being aware of the difference. He ought to be, by now. It had been part of him long enough . . . damn near a lifetime!
A nearby flurry of color and motion diverted Mike’s attention. His head turned before a restraining thought which flashed across his mind might have kept it from turning . . . and, sure enough, there was the flower-child again, still gazing pointedly off at nothing. On an impulse, Mike went over to her.
“What do they call you, miss?”
She looked up at him with those opaque eyes women use, early in a relationship, the sort of look which says “I don’t know you, do I? And I also want you to know unmistakably that I’m not in the least trying to get to know you.”
Knowing she wouldn’t answer, Mike ploughed on, his cheeks getting a little warm as he kept shoving words out: “You look like someone I know.”
He became aware of her two hirsute men friends hovering close by, and he glanced at them fleetingly. The bearded one was watching Mike with no expression on his face. The one with the mustache began slouching nearer to the girl.
“My friends call me Willow,” she said.
It was unexpected. Mike had been about to turn away, but he stopped. Her big eyes were peering passively out between the separated wave of hair, which her forehead split exactly in the middle and caused to stream down both sides of her deeply tanned face.
“Pretty name,” he murmured.
Mustache was by her side now, staring at Mike with amusement glinting in his muddy eyes. Mike ignored him and went on speaking, more confident, now that she had said something back to him: “Thought I knew you from somewhere else. Nice party, hmmm?”
He let the last words kind of sift out as he lazily turned away. He didn’t hurry, in case Willow gave him a bit more help than she was giving.
She didn’t, so Mike shoved off. Willow didn’t look as if she was about to turn into anything promising. Too bland. And it didn’t help his routine having her so close-herded by those two hippie chaps she seemed to hold in fee simple.
Mike felt amused as he wended his way around the edge of the crowd once again. Fee simple! A simple fee? Or merely the word simple, in reference to the two hairy chaps? All sorts of variations of word patterns were conjured up by that unexpected phrase he’d thought of. Where had fee simple come from? Where had he gotten the phrase: Must have been reading some English history.
Mike found himself close to Irene Tower again. She grabbed his arm when she saw him.
“Gordon, here’s another of your stable of writers.”
Mike and Gordon Brocker grinned at one another and stared sober-faced at Irene. She looked from one to another and murmured: “Oh-oh! I made a boo-boo?”
“Well, call it a wrongo,” Gordon Brocker smiled. “Never saw this chap before, right, Mr. Hayes?”
“Doesn’t Cardigan & Howells bring out your books, Mike?”
Mike shook his head, grinning, delighted at her discomfiture.
“No such luck!” Gordon murmured politely.
The woman with the ridges of iron-gray hair turned and became a part of their little group.
“Hayes?” she asked, peering from face to face until she stopped at Mike’s. “You aren’t Michael Hayes, by any chance?” She pronounced it chahnce.
“I’m him, right enough. Or is it I’m he?”
Gordon did the introduction: “Lady Arabella Brandon, Mike Hayes.”
“I think I liked one of your books, Mike . . . may I call you Mike?”
“Only if I can call you Lady.”
Everyone smiled. Irene looked a bit anxious.
“Lady Brandon would sound better,” she smiled. “Brandon would sound best of all.”
“Do all your friends call you Brandon?” Mike asked, looking very earnest and wide-eyed.
“Mike!” Irene protested. “Be nice, will you? Lady Brandon’s all right.”
Mike grinned and shrugged. “Okay, I suppose you’re right. It always makes me nervous when someone tells me they like my books. I can never understand why.”
Lady Brandon watched him with gentle understanding eyes.
“Try not to be too proud, Mike Hayes. You’re a good writer, but you’re not quite that good.”
Mike’s upper eyelids rose fractionally. He couldn’t help chuckling.
“Hey, you do have some sense.”
“Sensibilities,” she corrected him. “Never decide a woman is a fool, except about love, of course . . . at least not until she proves conclusively that she is also a fool about other things, too.”
Mike glanced at Gordon Brocker, then at Irene. He turned to look behind him. Facing the three of them once again, he shook his head, saying; “Gee, for a second there I could have sworn I heard an epigram go by.”
Lady Brandon and Gordon laughed. Irene looked relieved.
“He’s spotted your weakness already, Brandon,” Gordon said.
“I’m afraid he has,” the older woman agreed.
“I better be getting back to my laddie-boy,” Irene said hastily. “He looks as if he might be in some trouble over there.”
“Irene, is it true the Sunday Times got Walter J. Vaulkman to review ‘Sundown Beach’?” Lady Brandon asked.
Irene had begun to turn away, but she swivelled her head around and shook it negatively.
“Not sure yet,” she replied. “My spies over at the Times aren’t as good as they once were. I’m still hoping he’ll do the review.”
Then she hurried away.
Lady Brandon watched Irene rejoin Allen Davenport and Derek Shelton. Frowning, she turned to Gordon and Mike, saying: “I simply could not talk to that young man.”
“What young man?” Mike asked, his gaze roving, his eyes trying to spot the love-child again.
“Allen Davenport. I’ve met hundreds of authors, all kinds of writers, down through far too many years now. He’s the first one I’ve ever come across who seems to know absolutely nothing about his own book.”
“Have you read it?”
“Of course. You see, I have connections.” Her head inclined fondly toward Gordon. “Also, after all my years of holding Wednesday afternoons for currently acceptable authors, don't you think I ought to have a few connections?"
“Sure,” Mike agreed, but he looked uncertain.
“Do you mean to say you’re unaware that I’m the chief cook and bottle-washer, the sole owner and proprietress of Lady Brandon’s literary salon?” She gazed unbelievingly at Mike, but there was a twinkle in her kindly eyes.
“Mike is from the Coast,” Gordon interjected. “They aren’t too familiar with our barbarous ways.”
“Our barbarous . . .” Lady Brandon was shocked, in spite of her self-mockery a moment before. She stared at Gordon with almost an irritated expression on her face. Then she laughed. “Oh, Gordon, you’re joshing. I’m afraid you two boys have me off balance . . .”
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Gordon said contritely. He squeezed her hand and kissed the back of it tenderly.
“All right,” she laughed. “You’re forgiven.” To Mike, she said: “And you, sir, may drop up to one of my Wednesdays, if ever you’ve a mind to. Provided, of course, that you intend to stay on this Coast long enough.”
“That sounds interesting,” Mike said politely, adding as an out: “ . . . although, you’re right. I may not be here very long. Some other hack writer might get the job I’ve been angling for.”
“And what job is that, may I ask?”
“My dear,” Lady Brandon said impatiently, “how can I be expected to run a decent literary salon if I don’t pick up little tidbits of gossip from people like yourself? Be reasonable, Mike Hayes.”
He grinned. “I suppose you’re right, Brandon.”
“Well, then . . . what job are you up for? Perhaps Gordon and I can be some help. We wield enormous power, in our helpless fashions . . . don’t we, Gordon?”
Gordon laughed indulgently. “If you say so, my dear.”
“Now then, Mike Hayes, about that job . . .”
“I’m just one of the hordes of screenwriters they’ve been considering for the ‘Sundown Beach’ movie script. So far all it’s amounted to is the usual ‘What are your ideas on story treatment, Mr Hayes?’ . . . that sort of thing. Fishing talk.”
Delighted, Lady Brandon chuckled. “Yes, I see what you mean. That would be Brian Fortescue’s office, would it not, Gordon?”
“I believe it would originate there,” Gordon said carefully.
“No point trying to wield our uncanny powers on Brian, is there?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” Gordon agreed.
Lady Brandon looked at Mike sorrowfully, shrugging. Spreading her hands expressively, she said: “Sorry, Mike Hayes. You’ll simply be forced to nail that screen treatment job on your own merits. But why aren’t you doing another novel?”
“That’s a luxury,” Mike said. “Between novels there turns out to be the bread-making routine. You know, the wife and the usual two-point-five kids out on the Coast.”
“Ah, of course,” she murmured, touching his upper arm sympathetically with the long fingers of her graceful hand. Gazing past Mike, she smiled absently at someone. Her teeth were revealed by the smile: old teeth, and yellow, but they all seemed to be real. Each tooth was separated slightly from its neighbor. No one would have dentures like those made.
While Mike studied her face, the absent smile faded and an expression of alertness mixed with puzzlement succeeded the smile.
“Now that’s strange,” she mused. “For a moment that young lady looked a bit like my niece Tamal . . .”
Turning his head, Mike followed the general direction of her glance. He caught the merest glimpse of Brenda Harris’s startled eyes just before she turned her face quickly away. Some people drifted into the gap in the crowd, closing it so Mike could no longer see Brenda. He could still see the top of Dixon’s wiry blond hair bobbing slightly above the other people near her.
Lady Arabella Brandon shook her head, impatient at herself.
“Impossible!” she growled. “I must be imagining . . .”
“What’s impossible?” Gordon Brocker inquired. He had been looking off in another direction entirely.
“It’s really impossible to be sure what any of these young girls really look like anymore. Either they wear so much makeup that not a muscle in their faces can move, or else they wear their hair in completely outdated styles . . . Auugh-h-h!” She dismissed the subject with disgust.
Some people came up and greeted her. All seemed delighted to see her, saying loudly: “Arabella! . . . Oh, Brandon, you made it! . . . Knew you couldn’t keep away from anything this big, old girl! . . .”
Mike eased off, his eyes roving around in search of the beatnik girl and her two hippie-dippie men friends. Nothing in sight now except business suits and cocktail dresses. Here and there a token black wearing the kind of raiment no white yet had nerve enough to wear. But no nature girl . . .
Mike was drifting through the press of people toward where he had last caught a glimpse of Dixon. He couldn’t find either Dixon or Brenda. Then he saw both of them just about to duck out the door, which was still flanked by the security types.
“Hey, Dix!” Mike yelled.
Dixon didn’t hear him. He disappeared through the door, passing beyond the security men. Brenda heard him, though. She paused, looked back, spotted Mike trying to struggle through the crowd, and waved at him.
Mike thrust his shoulders up high in an inquiring shrug, spread the hand not holding a drink, asking in sign language: “Where are you headed and why the big rush?”
Brenda laughed at the way he was working his face. She pointed at her wrist watch, held an imaginary phone to her ear and mouth, waved once again and was gone out into the corridor after Dixon.
After that, Mike took his time easing through the rest of the thinning crowd. Eventually he got into the clear and went outside in the mezzanine corridor, but he saw neither Dixon nor Brenda.
Shrugging, he went back inside and rejoined the nucleus of public relations people gathered around the fledgling author.
Allen Davenport still stood there, tall and rangy, impossibly handsome, always with some kind of smile pasted on his face, sometimes a tentative grin, sometimes a hearty ear-to-ear smile.
Even the entourage of the author was dispersing. There were not so many of them now. Checking his watch, Mike nodded. Phase two of tonight’s operation would be starting up shortly, a smaller gathering than this massive bash, held in an exclusive East Side bistro.
This cocktail party was for the mob, but the important people like Charlie Howells and some of the out-of-town booksellers and wholesalers wouldn’t be here. They liked a tad more class, as did some big names in the book and movie worlds, who would undoubtedly have been rounded up for tonight’s display of fire-power. Few of those had shown for this affair, but they would be on hand at the next phase of this campaign to put ‘Sundown Beach’ up there on the list with the year’s bestsellers.
It took time to move the colossal machinery of publicity from a dead stop into high speed, so the kickoff parties like tonight’s would want as many bright and shining names available for tomorrow’s newspaper stories and TV spots as could possibly be gathered and made to stand still long enough to be of use.
So Mike decided it was time for him to begin thinking about getting over to Phase Two. He wondered if his long-haired beauty was already over there.