I rolled us down to the chop house, Angel telling me he was going to keep me on as their driver for a couple days: he just liked it. I was flattered he was so relaxed with my driving, and with the vehicle I'd chosen. I wasn't sure what I'd do with my spare time --- buy a chamois and polish the hell out of the Cadillac, I guess --- or maybe they'd get a camera back in my hands, and Rick and I would double-team the stills. Be mighty crowded though.
After we were seated and placed our drink orders, Bekka said, "So, you'll be down here for three months. If you don't mind me asking, what will take that long to accomplish?"
Vinny and Frankie glanced at each other. Angel glared at her, then smiled. "Sicilian girls love to gossip, but I also know they can keep secrets. You're keeping a secret right now.
"It's Rick. It's like everything he touches turns to shit these days, he's a reverse Midas. The whole routine with the car rental is just a minor symptom. Another good example would be the housing: it's like he went through the paper and copied down addresses or whatever. Heck, you explain that one, Lenny."
I said, "The locations were totally random. Sure, Kensington or Mission Hills or Hillcrest would be cool places to live, but for a commute to La Costa every day? Come on. He also had the suburban slums in Mira Mesa listed, which is just great if you like the sound of gunfire at night, but really is a suburban hell, like a modern version of Inglewood. He had some listings for Rancho Bernardo, I guess those would work.... But the next one down was Tierrasanta! What the hell!
"It was such a mess of neighborhoods that I can only offer suspicions as to why he chose them. Like Normal Heights and Kensington. Cool, hip neighborhoods. And.... How long of a commute would you say it would be to the mansion, Bekka?"
"About forty-five minutes."
"So yeah, about thirty-five minutes---- Oww!"
"You okay?" asked Vinny.
"Something rather hard just jammed itself into my shin," I said, grinning at Bekka.
Bekka said, "He and I have different opinions on what constitutes a safe and reasonable freeway speed, especially during rush hour."
"Anyway.... Kensington and Hillcrest are both hip cool neighborhoods, and maybe the combination of the bad commute and the cool neighborhood would keep you from coming to the mansion, like you'd decide to do all your business by fax."
"And what about Mira Mesa?" asked Angel.
"I dunno. Maybe he figured the area would scare you into going back to LA or something. I have no clue. In a way, I feel bad about wasting your time when I should have just brought you to Olivehurst straight off. It has the amenities, the housing structure, and the location. I figured we'd look at the Rancho Bernardo places, see what they're like. But it ended up working out well."
The waitress came and took our orders. Pork ribs all around. The MDMA still had Angel in a talkative mood, and he wanted to prod gently at the subject of Rick. "See, he's fucking up in various ways, and he didn't used to be that way. I swear he's just making up the numbers for his financials every month, they make no sense. We ask him about it, and it's always,'I'm sorry, I got distracted by filming' or 'I've been dealing with personnel conflicts'. Lenny, you're there every day they shoot, are there any conflicts going on?"
I shrugged. "There's a few girls, irregulars, who are kinda catty, but everybody pretty much ignores them. And he hasn't picked up a camera in nearly three months. Small Steve does all the direction and production these days. He's a whiz at it too."
"Wait a minute.... You're telling me Rick is not the one directing?" exclaimed Angel. "He gave me the impression it was him cranking out all that great video...."
"Uummm....," said Bekka helplessly, ".... Well, he still will come out and sorta get Small Steve's back, make sure things are going smoothly. It's been a while since he's done any camera work, but, y'know.... He's been busy...."
"Doing what?" seethed Angel. Frankie and Vinny both looked nervous, as did Bekka, and certainly did I.
"Well.... He'd be on the phone a lot, and it seemed like the fax never shut off.... Sir, I don't know what it was he was doing, he just seemed busy all the time. One assumes he was accomplishing something, with all the activity."
"Lenny, you're driving me up to that fuckin' mansion right now. We'll eat when we come back, this won't take long."
And I said the most dangerous word you can ever say to a mafioso. I said the word "No."
"WHAT!?" Angel bellowed. He had the attention of the entire restaurant.
"Sir, please. You gave some very good advice this afternoon, and I believe it applies now. You talked about how unfair and screwed up it is to kick down on someone, a person who has less of a position of power. You talked about how it solves nothing. The same would apply if you went and hospitalized Rick right now.
"Please Angel, all I'm asking of you is to stay here and eat your dinner. Have another drink. Talk through your conflict, I think it'll help. Later I will drive you up to the mansion if you want. Just talk some first, y'know?"
He made a fist.... And gently thudded me on the chest with it. "All right. I'll have dinner, I'll have a drink and some dessert, and I'll try to use you as a sounding board. Right now that asshole needs a beating, and I'll explain why...."
He was angry at Rick for the same reason Bekka and I were: he was taking the credit for another's hard work, acting like he'd had huge amounts of talent injected via an I.V. tube. Angel and the other two didn't even know who Small Steve was, much less his contributions to Inana.
And more importantly to Angel, it was apparently another in what was a long list of lies Rick had told Angel. He went into no detail here, but it came down to Rick being dishonest for the sheer exercise of it, like a little kid telling you about the pirates he saw walking home from school. Useless lies.
He had a second scotch and soda with dinner, then laid off the booze, for which I was eternally thankful.. He joined me in ordering creme bruleé , and was pleased with it as I was. He was doing much better; in his own words, his self-awareness had returned and he wished to go to the Marriott and check in, not injure Rick. We dropped off Bekka and slid down to the Marriott.
I hijacked a luggage cart and got everyone's stuff onto it, wheeling it to one side while the three of them checked in. They'd managed to get three rooms in a row, which made my life a lot simpler.As we unloaded the cart, I asked Angel what time I should be out front in the morning, and if me wearing a t-shirt would be appropriate. He laughed and said a t-shirt would be fine so long as it didn't have the word "fuck" on it anywhere, and nine a.m. He also tucked a bill in my hand before I left, which I didn't inspect until I was back out in the Cadillac. A hundred. Not a bad thank you at all.
You know that feeling you get when you're sure someone's talking about you?
I had that feeling all the way home.
It scared the shit out of me.
Since the absolute last thing I wanted to happen was to be late, I left home at 7:45 the next morning, pausing briefly at a Kragen to buy a couple large chamois to keep their ride shiny. I was running ahead, so I stopped in University City to top off the tank, arriving at the front of the Marriott with five minutes to spare.
Frankie was out front smoking a cigarette, greeting me like long-lost kin when I pulled up. "You had breakfast?" ha asked me.
"Well, I had an apple and a couple granola bars...."
"Shit, that's not breakfast, that's a snack. (By their appearances, neither Frankie or Vinny missed a meal very often. They weren't fat, just.... well packed. Angel would be the one using the gym the most at Olivehurst.) C'mon in, we just sat down, you can have some real breakfast. Besides, we had some questions we wanted to ask you." Oh boy.
We made for a strange mix: three guys in three-piece suits, and me in a plain black pocketed t-shirt, black denims, and Doc Martens. (I did not cuff my jeans.) I was greeted like a fellow business-dude: glad you made it on time, glad to see you, etc. There was no false vibes to their greeting, either.
We ordered, and the questions were started. What they wanted to know first off was just who this "Little Steve" guy was?
"Small Steve," I corrected, "and he's kind of the guy who really turned around the quality of the video shoots. He's a recovering alcoholic who worked for all three network stations in San Diego at some point or another, and he was the head honcho when it came to shooting live broadcasts and editing them on the fly. Unfortunately, he also insisted on doing all this with a low-level vodka buzz, which his bosses couldn't ignore, no matter how good of a job he did. As a live producer and director, he was top-notch.... But he couldn't leave the flask at home, and he went through all three stations over time.
"The Director, Rick, hired him as a camera monkey, which he hated. He'd gone from commanding fleets of those news vans and making major decisions on the fly to just some dude with a video camera, filming other people fuck. He was bitter as hell, and treated everyone like shit.
"How it wound up --- and keep in mind he's been sober the entire time he's worked for Inana --- was me and Bekka suggesting to Rick that Steve be made a director and live producer, since Rick was always so busy and just phoning it in when it came to being a director. We tried it, and blammo: Rick has more free time, and Small Steve is back to doing the work he loves, which shows in his work and his attitude. Seriously, as a cameraman, performers would flip him off as soon as 'cut' was called. Now he's got his own office, he's happy, people like him.... He made Inana's product top notch almost singlehandedly, in my opinion. He got a fifty dollar raise and his own office, and he couldn't be happier. He even does rough edits on the tapes , to get rid of what he feels are useless bits of business, before the courier service takes them to LA."
Angel asked, "Would you say he deserves a raise?"
"Absolutely. You'd say the video has vastly improved over the last few months, right. That is all Small Steve. He's got a fantastic eye for filming genuinely entertaining adult video. He is brilliant."
Our food had arrived, but had been ignored, as they processed what I'd said. Angel finally dug in, an unspoken signal it was okay to eat.
We finished and got refills on our coffee. Angel asked me, "So what do you see as being a distraction for Rick? Anything at all."
"Pfoo. This is just between us, right?"
They all nodded: this was strictly confidential.
"He could stand to lay off the Ecstasy, for one. I've seen him go through six tablets in a day on occasion. Getting that high with any regularity is going to have an adverse effect on anyone. That, and.... Look, I don't want to get anyone in trouble, especially when they didn't do anything."
"Would this involve his marriage plans to a fluffer named Rita? " asked Vinny.
"You think he's serious?"
"Oh God." I put my face in my hands and chuckled. "On the surface, and by any rational analysis, it's ludicrous, yet he seems genuinely hung up on the poor girl. She's a sweetheart and everybody loves her, but personally the last thing she needs is a guy over twice her age pursuing her with a wedding chapel on his mind. If I might be nosy, what is he faxing back and forth to you guys all day long. Rough drafts of marriage proposals?"
Whoever he's faxing, it's not us. We get a half-dozen calls a week, and two or three faxes. I feel like pulling the answers out of him with a fucking pliers."
"Simpler and safer to just get the phone records from Pac Bell. And those records don't lie. I'm assuming the phones in the mansion are in your name?"
Angel shrugged and said, "We own the place."
"I'd say to get the records for the voice line and fax line in his office. Maybe you'd notice a pattern going back four months or so."
Angel signed and said, "Right now my biggest problem is that I have no cathartic release for the frustration I feel with Rick. I want to hurt the sonofabitch, but I've got this punk rocker who keeps talking me out of it.."
"There's a speed bag --- you know, for boxing --- in the gym at the complex. You could try that, just turn on some loud music on your headphones and beat the shit out of the bag."
Angel frowned at me for several moments, then smiled and said, "It's worth a try. I'm glad I brought a pair of gym shorts with me."
On our drive up to La Costa, I asked how I should occupy my time while they were in conference with Rick. "We'll have Rick, so you'll have a camera," Angel told me. "Treat it like a normal work day until we come and get you. After that, I can't say."
I led them upstairs and down the hall to where a red light was on above a door. Frankie reached for the knob and I blocked him off, making a shushing gesture with my finger. I motioned them back down the hall and said in a low voice, "The red light means they're rolling. When it goes out, it's all right to go in."
And as if on cue, the light blinked out. Naked people of both genders came out, plus Rick. I could hear Small Steve's voice calling, "Six minutes, people! Just one smoke!"
I got Steve's attention and introduced him around to our guests. Angel clapped him on the shoulder while shaking his hand, saying "So you're the genius that started making our video look so good! It's a privilege to meet you, your production skills are top notch.... " and on and on. I'd say Angel was laying it on thick, but Small Steve really did deserve it; it was probably the first time anyone had vocally congratulated him on his work.
"Well.... Thank you, sir, I'm glad to be working here, I'm having a blast."
"Listen, we'd like to talk to you over lunch, would that be all right?"
"We just have this morning shoot, so you can have me all afternoon."
Vinny said, "We've got work this afternoon with Rick, but if we could have you for about ninety minutes, that'd be great."
"How about 1:15 at Triplet's? Is that all right?"
"I'm sure Lenny can find it, and 1:15 is fine with us."
Small Steve scurried off to attend to another detail, so I offered to introduce the three around to other crew: they shook hands with Calm Steve (the other video camera), Mickey (sound), and Jeanette (hair and makeup). They were surprised by the small staff, expecting twice the crew to be on the floor. They were also surprised we only worked with two cameras: that spoke volumes for the editors up in LA, cutting the two tapes together (with Steve's intelligent shots) and making it look like four cameras.
Angel would get a spark in his eyes when something had him upset. I'd seen it yesterday in Rick's office, I'd seen it that night at dinner, and I was seeing it now. "So Steve, you direct and run a camera at the same time?"
"Yes sir. It's a pretty common practice when shooting live remotes for TV news, especially either stations that are stretched thin or are kinda dinky. No staff."
"And yet," purred Angel, "we're not shooting live remotes. We're shooting professional adult films here."
"I'm sorry sir, have I done something wrong?"
Angel closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them and smiled at Steve. "No, not at all, like I said before you're doing a stellar job. I was just expecting you to be directing two cameras, not one and yourself."
Steve said, "Well, like I said, it's no biggie to me. I know we're not the biggest company out there, so allowances must be made."
"Not yet!" exclaimed Angel. With your skills, we'll be going places! But right now, I'm sure you have work to do, and we need to talk with your boss."
"And how," said Vinny after the door was closed.
"Gentlemen, I need to retrieve the camera Rick has," I said, "then I'll be out of your way."
"More of your discretion?" asked Angel.
"Thank you, Lenny."
I stepped in the office door with a smile --- the last he'd see for a while --- and said, "Hey boss, I just need to get that camera you were using. Is the second still in my locker?"
"Yes it is, Lenny. Say, want to stick around and do a rail?"
I caught a glimpse of Angel giving me a slow head-shake, and said, "Love to, but I did a big one before leaving the house, so I'm fine. Besides, they need me upstairs."
"You sure?" he pleaded.
"No, Steve's waiting on me. I'll see you in a bit." I closed the door and high-tailed it into the kitchen to grab my second camera, my vest, and some fresh rolls of film. I couldn't hear yelling at that distance so I took it as a positive sign.
My guess was that my previous guess was wrong. Rick had been ripping them off, somehow, but had either gotten sloppy or had always been sloppy and just counted on them being too busy with the other, larger studios to notice. All I knew for sure was that Rick's office was in an optimal location: no stairs to "fall down."