When you're a screenwriter in this town, you take what you can get and you get what you can take. So when Charlie told me about this game some rich guys supposedly played up in the Hills I didn't run screaming like any sane person would've done. I said, "You gotta be kidding me?" but in a way that meant okay, that's interesting, tell me more.
"I know it sounds weird," Charlie said, and it did. But I listened, and I thought about it, and when he got to the part about the money, I felt my eyes bug out in my head.
"A million dollars?" I asked.
"Keep your voice down," Charlie said.
There was hardly anyone there to listen, anyway. The Alibi Room was one of those Culver City dives that never quite goes out of style but never comes back in, either. Red neon shone on the old beer-stained bar and the smell of cigarettes was strong, years after California's smoking ban had gotten some real teeth.
For the last hour or so we'd just been making the usual smalltalk about our lives. I didn't say much about Melissa, about how at two and a half she still wasn't speaking, and barely made eye contact, and cried all the time. Mostly I talked about my new script, which I'd been writing for almost a year now. If I could just get a couple of months to focus on it, I knew it'd be first-rate. But that wouldn't happen unless I left my job, and in that case the credit card companies would be on me so fast I'd have to wrestle my laptop away from them. They were already calling late at night, waking Melissa up, and then me or Lauren would have to hold her until she finally drifted off.
"A million dollars?" I repeated, just because I wanted to hear the words again. The sound of all that money was magic. But what Charlie was telling me, it didn't add up. "It's got to be some kind of an urban legend or something."
"Well, it's not."
"How do you know?"
"I just do," Charlie said, knocking back the rest of his beer. He used to be good for three or four a night whenever we went out, but he'd been cutting back. He said it was because he was putting on pounds, but Charlie was still as whip-thin as ever. He just couldn't afford hefty bar tabs.
"You really think that a bunch of A-list producers and movie stars, the biggest power players in this town, get together once a month to watch some poor shlub play Russian Roulette? Just to amuse them?" I reached for my beer but didn't taste it. "And where'd you hear about this little game? The internet."
Charlie shook his head. "Can't tell you. I swore I'd keep it a secret, all right?"
We sat there, me drinking, Charlie not. When the bartender swung by again Charlie signaled for another, the first time he'd done that in a while.
"I didn't say it was something you should go and do," he said, sounding defensive. "I just, I don't know, I thought you'd get a laugh out of it."
I did laugh, because I thought it would make Charlie feel better, and it seemed to. But I couldn't get what he'd told me out of my head: a million dollars for putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger while a bunch of A-listers watched, like some kind of twisted porn. Of course, there was a single bullet in there, but no one knew which chamber it would end up in, and the odds were five in six you'd just walk away.
"You don't have to believe me if you don't want to," Charlie said. "Besides, you'd probably never get a chance to play anyway. Supposedly there's a long line of people waiting to get on in this."
"Sure, yeah, who wouldn't want to put a loaded gun to their heads? Even for a million dollars, I mean, come on."
"Believe what you want." Charlie got all quiet, his fingers dancing around his beer, and then he said, "Besides, I already called."
"What? Called who?"
"There's a number you call to say you're interested. Like a job application or something." Charlie shrugged. "I left a message last night."
I looked at Charlie in surprise. He turned away sheepishly.
"It's crazy, I know. But my boys are getting bigger, and wanting more stuff, and it seems like the bills just keep coming." He took a long pull of his beer, but he didn't look any more refreshed when he put it down. "Besides, Val's pregnant."
"Congratulations. I mean--"
"I guess if you get picked, the money's yours either way. So I figure it's a win-win. Either I beat the odds and walk away with the cash or … I don't. But my family'll be taken care of one way or the other." He looked to the end of the bar, where a shriveled old man struggled onto a stool. "Maybe they're better off without me, anyway."
"Don't say that."
"It's true, Ben." His eyes were glassy but piercing. "I'm such a grouch these days. Harping on Val for spending too much, screaming at the kids for leaving their toys around. I've become a miserable son of a bitch, just like my old man."
"You're talking nonsense," I told Charlie. "You can't do this."
"Really? Because if they give me the chance, I will."
Charlie left a twenty on the bar, enough for his beer and mine, and walked out the door without looking back.
Charlie and I met at a party when I first got to L.A. To me he seemed like a pro, someone who'd already spent the last two years as a production assistant on reality TV shows. We quickly became drinking buddies and then writing partners. It made a lot of sense. Until then I'd always written alone but I saw the benefit of teaming up. Charlie was an idea machine. I'd come over his apartment after work and we'd brainstorm over beers, and then I'd sit down at the computer and start banging away, Charlie over my shoulder, laughing or shouting another suggestion whenever it came to him.
Eighteen months later we'd cranked out five scripts, and we scored meetings around town with lots of name producers. We even got a handful of options, most for less than five grand, which wouldn't have gone far even if we didn't have to split it two ways. By then Charlie had worked his way up to being a reality show associate producer and I'd found a job in the tape library at a small production company.
Soon--I couldn't say when or how or why--we began to write less than we used to. Maybe it was when Charlie married Tara. They named their first boy Shane, after screenwriter Shane Black, which was funny since Charlie gave up writing about as soon as his son was born. By the time I met Lauren I was writing solo again. She pushed hard to get married but I told her I wanted to wait to tie the knot until I had a big break in my career.
Then she got pregnant.
Even after Melissa was born, I still thought everything would be okay. We had a beautiful baby girl who we loved and despite my day job, I still got up early to write. But my first solo script didn't sell and neither did the next and by the time Melissa was eighteen months old we realized something was wrong with Melissa. The pediatrician had told us it was likely she had some kind of developmental disorder and told us to see a specialist. Lauren was freaking out and I had to admit, I was scared too.
Then fate stepped in.
About a week after my conversation with Charlie in the Alibi Room, my boss came in for a Talk. He told me how valuable I'd been, how the company couldn't get by without me, but production had slowed down--because of the recession, or maybe the end of the TV season, he couldn't seem to decide, but anyway it was only temporary--and he wanted to scale me back to part-time.
I argued that I couldn't get by on less money, but he said that times were tight and we all had to make our sacrifices. That same day I went with Lauren to see the specialist about Melissa. The guy had an office in Beverly Hills and a Harvard diploma and he said he had some cutting-edge therapy that could help our baby girl. Our health insurance-the cheapest you could get-didn't cover any of what he was talking about. Lauren wanted to use him, anyway. We'll put it on the credit cards, she said, which was what she'd been saying about diapers and doctors for months.
I wanted to say screw it. Screw this stupid job, screw these credit cards, I'm going to lock myself in the apartment for two weeks and bang this script out and send it all over town. I'm going to put my chips on myself for a change, and go all in. But I didn't.
What I did was I pick up the phone, real late, like I used to when Charlie and I first started writing together. He answered immediately.
I told him what had been going on. He listened. Charlie was always a good listener.
"That sucks man."
"Yeah, thanks." I kept my voice low, so that I wouldn't wake Lauren or the baby. "It's just … I need something. A favor."
Charlie was a good friend, because he gave me the number even before I had a chance to ask for it, and then he did something even better. He didn't say I told you so, though I heard it in my head anyway.
I knew what to expect when I called. A recording left by a smooth, confident voice, one so familiar you'd be sure you knew who it was, except that when you racked your brain for their name you couldn't think of it. The message said: "Thank you for your interest in our monthly event. Please leave your name and phone number as well as your mother's maiden name so that we may confirm your identity. We can't guarantee a reply, but we promise to fairly consider all serious applicants."
I answered all the questions and hung up. I could see Lauren's reflection in the window as I pushed END. I turned to her but she must've seen something in my face, because she shook her head and backed away without talking.
For the next few days, I couldn't stop thinking about what might come next. But I didn't hear anything back from the people behind that mysterious message and neither did Charlie. When I dialed the number again a few weeks later, it had been disconnected.
Soon I found myself checking my phone eight or ten times a day, always sure that I'd just missed a call, but I hadn't. Melissa was seeing her new therapist and I had to admit, it was making a big difference. She was speaking actual words, more than just nonsense sounds, and she'd even taken to smiling sometimes.
I was glad the baby was getting better but the therapist was even more expensive than I'd imagined. That on top of them cutting back my hours at work had put us in a real bind. I now had a few extra hours in my week but forget about working on my script. Between shuttling Lauren and the baby to doctor's appointments and stressing over our bank account, I was getting less writing done than before. Things had gotten so bad that I was thinking I might pick up some extra money landscaping, which had gotten me through college.
Charlie had a bunch of yard tools that he said I could borrow and that was why I'd gone to his place that day. I was picking through hedge trimmers and clippers when I heard the squeal of tires out on the street.
A yellow Porsche gleamed in the driveway nextdoor. Charlie's neighbor Zach hauled himself out of it.
You were more likely to see old Toyotas than new Porsches in this part of Vista Del Mar. In fact, except for Zach's, there were none. And that was how I knew.
Charlie started to say something to stop me but by the time he got the words out I was already halfway across the driveway.
Zach wasn't a big guy but he'd always been solid-sturdy across the shoulders and with the start of a middle-aged beer gut. Since the last time I'd seen him, however, he'd packed on a lot more weight. His gut spilled over his belt and flab hung down from the sleeves of his T-shirt. Maybe it was just the extra pounds, but he looked sick. His face was too red and his nose looked like it had been broken.
"Hey, Zach," I said, waving the weed whacker I still held in my hands.
I'd only talked to Zach a few times, mostly to say hello or dish about the Dodgers. He gave me a look like he knew who I was but he'd either forgotten my name or he just didn't want to talk. Maybe both.
Charlie had once told me how Zach was a gambling addict. After taking out a home equity line and blowing all the money on horseracing, he'd been fighting off foreclosure for months. But here he was, driving a Porsche.
"Thanks," he said.
"You must've had a good day at the track. Or maybe you got a raise?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes you just get lucky."
"Sure, absolutely. And a game like Russian Roulette, you wouldn't want to be unlucky."
He turned away, his shoulders slumped, his face gaunt. Porsche aside, he didn't look like a man with a million dollars in his bank account. Maybe he'd already blown the money on the ponies or on dog races and was back to scraping together nickels for the mortgage.
"I'd really appreciate it if you'd keep this to yourself," he said. "I only mentioned it to Charlie because--"
"Because you're a good neighbor. Speaking of which, I was just wondering if maybe you could put in a good word with the guys who run this thing. Help us get to the top of the list."
Zach shook his head. "Sorry. I … they make their own decisions, those people." The way he said those people, it was like he hated them or was scared of them. Or both. "Anyway, I hope it works out for you."
"Well, I guess you'll know if it doesn't work out," I said, forcing a laugh. Zach didn't even smile.
"Let me give you some advice, Ben." I was surprised to realize that he did know my name. "If I was you, I'd think good and hard about whether you really want to do this."
Charlie looked at me and then at Zach, but I couldn't tell whether he wanted his neighbor to shut up or keep going.
"How's that?" I asked.
"It's just … there's easier ways to make a buck in this town."
I almost laughed. That last part was word for word what I always told Charlie when we'd see these screenwriter wannabes crowded into trendy coffee shops on Melrose or Third. Why don't they just go to law school or create an internet startup? There's easier ways to make a buck in this town.
"Easy for you to say." I closed the distance between me and Zach, putting a forced smile on my lips. "Now that you've got a million bucks in the bank."
He blew out a hard breath. "The thing is, you end up in a situation like that, you don't know what's going to happen, you don't know what you might do."
Zach lumbered toward his house, stopping for breath when he reached the FOR SALE sign, not looking back even when he got to the front door.
Charlie didn't say anything to me until we reached his garage.
"What'd you go and do that for?" he snapped.
"Now he knows that I told you."
"What's the big deal?" I loaded the weed whacker into my trunk. "Though I have to say, the guy sure seems miserable for someone who just made a million bucks, doesn't he?"
"I guess that whatever happened, I don't know, it freaked him out." Charlie gave me a grim look. "That's why I've been thinking, maybe he's right. Even if they call me … I'm going to pass."
I looked at Charlie in disbelief. "Really? So you're just going to keep on going in your stupid little job, racking up a bit more debt every year, putting off all the things you always said you wanted to do? Give up on any chance of writing again someday? Yeah, sure, I get it. But I'm not going to sit back and let life pass me by, all right? I'm going to reach out and grab it by the balls and see what the hell happens."
He nodded wearily. "I hear you but …."
Something tightened in my chest. Maybe it was the thought of being alone in this crazy scheme. "Let's make a deal. If one of us gets the call, we'll definitely do it, and then we'll split the take. Fifty-fifty."
Charlie didn't say anything at first. Back when we were writing partners, we'd never fought over credit or money. Everything was even steven. He nodded again. Charlie knew a good deal when he heard one.
The call came in late one night when Lauren and I were watching TV. The baby was asleep, one of those rare moments of quiet, and then I felt the buzzing in my pocket. "Who's that?" Lauren asked, as I fished the phone out.
"Work," I said, studying the screen. It said PRIVATE CALLER.
I slipped into the kitchen, pitching my voice low so I wouldn't wake the baby.
"Mr. Glassman?" the woman asked. She had a silky voice, the kind I would've expected from a phone sex operator.
"You've been selected for this month's event, if you're still interested."
"Please be there tomorrow night at seven-thirty. We'll send you the address a short time before the appointed time. Don't be late or you will forfeit your opportunity."
"I'll be there, but at least tell me--"
The woman had already hung up.
"I've got a meeting tomorrow night," I said when I got back to the couch.
Lauren wasn't impressed. "A meeting?"
"With some heavy hitters. I'm serious. It's for a big job. The kind that could make or break my career. If this works …."
"Shh," Lauren said, turning back to the murmur of the TV. "You'll wake the baby."
I clutched the steering wheel in a death grip as my old Jetta lurched into a pothole, talking to Charlie through my headset.
"You're sure about this?" he asked.
"Of course I'm sure. We made a deal. Besides, this'll be five hundred grand for each of us. I can't walk away from that."
"I don't know, I think you should. I think it's a mistake. I think …"
But as I cruised into Laurel Canyon, Charlie's voice grew faint. I hung up.
The Jetta wound through craggy hillsides where small houses grew like tumors, the road curving endlessly, a twist here, a turn there. Finally, I began to lunge up a side road choked with orange trees. Half a mile further the branches swooped away and a majestic house rose in a broad clearing.
It was more castle than house really, with turrets and high stone walls, a place better suited to the English countryside than the Hollywood Hills. About twenty cars rested beside the house--Jaguars, Porsches, fully-loaded SUV's. Two men in red vests waited in the circular driveway, hands out for keys. I felt self-conscious crawling out of the old Jetta, but the valets didn't seem to care.
The high ceilings and skylight gave the entry an open, modern feel but the design was old-fashioned, all burnished teak and colored tile. Through the wide open doorway was a long room furnished with Art Deco sofas and Edward Hopper paintings. Not prints, paintings. I heard a gentle murmur of conversation through the doorway.
A young brown-skinned woman in a black dress greeted me at the door. "You must be Mr. Glassman. We're so glad you made it."
I recognized her silky voice from the phone call, and she had the body to go with it, the dress perfectly tailored for it.
"So how does this work?" I asked.
"Our host for the evening will explain. But first, can I get you something to drink?"
I almost asked for a whiskey or a vodka tonic, something to calm my nerves, but I didn't want to spend what might be my last hour or two watching life through a cloud of booze.
"Club soda would be great," I said.
As she whispered something to a man holding a tray, I studied the hushed crowd in the other room. There was the director who'd swept last year's Oscars, an actor who commanded thirty million dollars a film, and another who made only ten but was hot on the comeback trail. Even the least successful person in there was a hundred times more accomplished than I was.
The woman in the black dress had moved up close, holding a cut-crystal glass. "Your club soda, Mr. Glassman."
I started to thank her when a middle-aged bear of a man in a tuxedo barreled toward me, his big belly reaching me a full second before he did. He was red-faced, his patent leather shoes smacking the floor with each one of his confident strides.
"Mr. Glassman, a pleasure."
"The pleasure's all mine," I said, thinking, How long had I prayed for a meeting with Jonathan Winslow, who could launch a writer's career with a single touch of his cell phone? How many scripts had I e-mailed the assistant to his assistant? And how many times had I been rejected or just ignored?
As if reading my thoughts, he said, "As you know, tonight is a social occasion. If you have a business proposition, please call my office next week. If you live to see next week, of course."
He started to put out his hand again, but when I reached for it, he brought his fingers to his ear and produced a business card, seemingly out of nowhere. I'd forgotten that one of the world's most famous movie producers had started his career as a stage magician.
As I took the card, Winslow put a hand under my arm, guiding me like I was his grandmother. "This way, Mr. Glassman. Let's get some privacy."
He took me down a wide hallway, past an onyx sculpture that looked like a tire frozen in mid-explosion, and into a library. The air was ripe with the scent of old books, their richly colored spines arranged so neatly that it was hard to imagine taking even a single one off the shelves.
"I should say first that this is your last chance to bow out, if you so choose."
"Thanks for the offer. But I'll stay."
If this had been a scene from one of Winslow's movies, this would've been the time to cue the ominous music. His shark smile was eerily familiar. I'd seen it on dozens of magazine and newspaper pages. Usually it was the grin he got after buying some Sundance whiz kid's movie for a hundred grand and watching it gross a hundred mil.
"Let me explain the rules," Winslow said. "I will load a single cartridge into a revolver and then I will spin the cylinder. Then you will be blindfolded and handed the gun. You will place it in your mouth and pull the trigger. And then …." He turned up his hands. "Who can say what happens then?"
There was no way I was going to give this bastard the pleasure of seeing me sweat. But I was sweating, no question about that. Gobs of it ran between my shoulder blades and spread in a greasy puddle along my hairline.
"And if I do happen to be the unlucky son of a bitch who eats a bullet, what then? You just throw me out the back door and leave me to the coyotes?"
Winslow smiled, looking a lot like a coyote himself. "Of course I never like to see any ... accidents. But yes, we've had a few people lose at this game. Perhaps you remember that actress who 'committed suicide' a couple of months ago?"
I nodded. A former B-lister who'd fallen on hard times and had a drug problem. She'd supposedly died of a drug overdose. There hadn't been any mention of some secret Russian Roulette party in the Hills or even a gunshot wound.
"Of course we were discreet," Winslow said, as if reading my mind. "And we have friends in law enforcement who provide assistance in such cases."
My palms were starting to sweat now too and I kept rubbing them on my jeans.
"Any other questions?" he asked.
"The money. When do I get the money."
"You'll get ten thousand in cash tonight. The rest will be sent by check in a timely fashion."
"A check? Are you kidding me?"
"Believe me, Mr. Glassman, a million dollars is nothing to me. I'm good for it."
I nodded. Of course he was right.
"Before I go, I'll need your cell phone," he said.
I gave it to him, reluctantly. That was my last lifeline to the outside world.
"Excuse me for now, but I must attend to my other guests." Winslow flicked over his wrist, showing off his diamond-studded watch. "We'll be ready for you in just under an hour. I'm sure you can entertain yourself until then."
It was only when he left that I realized the room had no windows. Bookshelves covering every square inch of wall, but no glass. I wanted to rip the books down and hurl them across the room, but I just sat in the leather recliner and waited. Finally I stood. The pressure was getting to me. I had no watch and no more cell phone so I had no way of knowing what time it was. I soon became convinced that Winslow was duping me.
This whole game was a scam, it had to be. They'd never put a loaded gun in my hands and allow me to shoot myself. They just wanted to leave me in this room to stew and then they'd let me go home. Maybe give me a few bucks for my troubles. But no, Charlie's neighbor Zach had played and won. He had the new car and the uneasy look in his eyes to prove it.
I pulled down one of the books-the gold lettering on the spine was so faded I had no idea what it was-and read a few pages, enough to realize that it was Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I'd read it in college but I couldn't remember much except that it didn't end well.
When I turned, Winslow was there. He looked chipper and eager, like a little boy the day after Christmas, about to show off his favorite new toy to his friends.
"Come with me."
We went back past the ivory sculpture and down a different hallway into a large atrium. Glass walls on all sides, as though it were meant for plants, but there weren't any. Beyond the windows a thousand tiny lights glittered across the bowl of L.A. Lauren was behind one of those lights, rocking the baby, probably wondering when I would be home. Maybe never, I thought. Figures clustered off to the sides, their huge diamond rings and crystal glasses gleaming, but it was hard to see their faces. The bodyguards, who filled their tuxedos like sausage casings, watched from the corners.
I crossed to the velvet-covered chair where Winslow gestured, resting my wrists on the padded arms. The woman in the black dress handed Winslow an antique carved wooden box, raising the lid. He took out a revolver. It was big and silver and looked just like the kind of thing Clint Eastwood had carried back when some punk had made his day.
"This is a .357 Magnum," he said, closing his hands around the grip. "I have loaded one bullet into it. Just one." He waved it carelessly around the room, then began to aim it at the crowd. "Bang."
Nervous laughter from the spectators. All this pomp and circumstance. It must've reminded Winslow of his days doing magic tricks.
"I know that there may be some skeptics among you that what you are about to see is real. So before we begin, I want you to know that this gun is perfectly functional. A real weapon, not a prop."
He aimed the gun at me. I flinched. What the hell was he doing? This wasn't part of the deal. This wasn't-
He lifted the Magnum then, aiming just over my right shoulder, and fired. The blast echoed in the small room. I could smell gunpowder and
beneath that my own sweat-stink. My armpits were soaked. When I looked behind me, I saw a circular hole with a touch of black around the
edges in the plaster wall. Winslow smiled.
"If anyone would like to inspect the bullet hole, I encourage you to do so."
No one took him up on the offer. Neither did I.
He reached into his pocket and took out a fresh bullet. It reminded me of a dentist holding a pulled tooth in the palm of his hand. "There are six chambers in this weapon, but only one of them will contain a bullet." He flipped out the revolver's cylinder and slid the slug inside, then spun it. "Round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows."
At first, I tried desperately to watch the slow spin of the cylinder, but Winslow turned, blocking my view. There was a faint click as he slapped it shut.
"Now, Mr. Glassman, are you ready?"
I nodded, my throat dry. The woman in the black dress appeared, holding a long strip of cloth, which she wrapped around my eyes. The cloth was cool at first, and the woman's breasts brushed against my back as she worked but I felt no thrill. My whole body was knotted with terror. All of a sudden I could see the things in life I should've done, would've done, wanted to do. I thought of the time I'd wasted, all the ways I'd put myself in this mess.
Someone set the gun in my hands. Winslow, I assumed. It was heavier than I expected in my jelly-like fingers.
"Here you go, Mr. Glassman. You know what to do next."
The barrel was cold against my lips. My hand was shaking so badly I didn't know if I'd be able to squeeze the trigger. I felt pressure inside my bladder and prayed that I could get through this without wetting myself.
I opened my eyes wide but the blindfold was so tight that all I could see was darkness, a faint sense of light above me. My pulse beat so hard I thought a blood vessel might burst, killing me before the bullet even had its chance.
"This is your last opportunity for a change of heart," Winslow said. "I'm not going to force you to do this. Ultimately, it's up to you whether or not to pull the trigger. But I can't give you the money I've promised unless--"
I squeezed my eyes shut and jerked the trigger.
In its way that sound, the faint dry sound of the hammer snapping against the gun, was as loud as a scream. It took me a moment to take in what had happened. Nothing. There was no bullet in that chamber. I felt dizzy and exhilarated. Applause swelled all around me. I did it, I thought, I made it. A tidal wave of relief moved through me. I was okay. No, more than okay, I was alive. And for once I really knew what that meant.
I felt fingers in my hair. The blindfold going slack. The room swimming before me, those faceless bodies hovering across the room.
"Congratulations! How do you feel, Mr. Glassman?"
"Holy shit," I said, turning the gun over in my lap.
A roar of laughter from all around, spontaneous and pure.
Winslow held up a glass. "Let's drink a toast to Mr. Glassman."
In unison, dozens of famous voices: "To Mr. Glassman."
I should've been on top of the world. But no. I just felt the slow burn of anger as I realized something: I was nothing but entertainment to these people. Whether I lived or died, they were here for a good time, eager to yuk it up, have a few drinks, watch some poor bastard blow his brains out. Or in this case, not. Maybe they were disappointed that I'd survived. Wouldn't it be a better show if my brains had ended up on the back wall?
"Thank you very much, Mr. Glassman." Winslow put his hand out to take the gun from me. But I didn't give it to him. Not yet.
These goddamn people. The million dollars I had just risked my life for meant nothing to them. They spent that much on their wives' birthdays or gambled it away at poker games. They hadn't risked anything, because they had nothing to lose. I'd performed for them, like a trained monkey, and humiliated myself in the process.
I whipped the gun around and pointed it at Winslow's head. All the guards reached inside their tight-fitting jackets at once, but Winslow held up a hand to stop them. They didn't move and neither did I.
"Mr. Glassman, please," he said, turning toward me. The diamond-studded watch glinted on his wrist. "Think about what you're doing here. All right?"
"I already have. And it seems to me there's still a bullet in this gun. Right?"
"Of course, your odds aren't as good as mine. Only one in five."
"This isn't funny."
"Believe me, I'm not laughing. Now how much are you willing to pay me not to pull this trigger?"
Murmurs from the crowd. A high-pitched swirl of energy. But I kept my focus on Winslow. Blood started to head south, leaving his face as white as the walls. He reached for the gun but I jabbed it at his head. "How much?"
"Five million dollars," someone said. It was the voice of a movie star who had battled giant bugs, ruthless aliens, and vicious Nazis, but now there was a quiver of fear in his voice. "Now just put that gun down."
"No deal," I said. "Because if you can piss away five million bucks just like that, then it's not enough."
"Please," Winslow said.
"Please?" I laughed. "You of all people should know that word means nothing in this town. Ever since I got here I've been working like crazy, trying to prove myself, and people like you just kept shutting doors in my face. But not tonight."
"If it's a job you want, or a development deal, then ..."
"That's not it, you shit. What I want is payback."
I lowered the gun to Winslow's chest and curled my finger around the trigger. What if the Magnum didn't fire again? Would the others mob me? Or maybe the guards would just shoot me dead.
But I couldn't do it. I wasn't a killer. It was one thing to point the gun at myself and see what happened but not to do it to someone else. I raised the revolver, aiming at the spot in the wall where Winslow had fired his shot, and squeezed the trigger.
A dry click. The gun had landed on another empty chamber.
Without pause, I pulled again.
Click. Click. Click click click.
Each time the sound seemed a little bit louder. And I wondered: was my math off or what? But no, when I fumbled open the chamber, I realized the truth: there was nothing in there, no bullet. Color rose to my face as the sound of Winslow's steady laughter was joined by chuckles all around. Winslow held up the slug he had managed to slip into his palm when he'd first appeared to be loading the gun. Just a little sleight of hand, the former magician resorting to one of his old tricks. The oldest in the book.
"Bravo, Mr. Glassman. Just as I hoped, you've given us a full evening's worth of entertainment."
My face burned with anger. It was all a lie. From the moment I arrived I'd never been in any real danger. They had just brought me there to watch the fear in my eyes, to make me cower before them. I was a total fool and I'd let Winslow play me for one.
"Come along now," he said, starting to put an arm around me. But I elbowed him away. This time the guards were on me in seconds, one of them twisting my elbow so hard I thought it might pop.
"Leave him be," Winslow said, sounding both threatening and amused. "He just needs to cool off."
The guards led me to another room with no windows, but this one was no library. I pounded on the door and shouted but no one came. I was alone in there for what might've been fifteen minutes or maybe two hours. When the door finally opened, Winslow smiling.
"Where's my goddamn money?" I asked, spitting out the words.
He put a cheap briefcase on the floor between us. I gathered it, flipped it open. My cell phone was in there. So were a few bundles of cash.
"That's ten thousand. As I told you, the rest will be paid by check. As a cover, we'll set up a movie deal. Remind me, what was the name of that script you shopped around town last year?"
"Robot Massacre. You've read it?"
He snorted as if to say that was ridiculous. "I read the coverage. Anyway, my company will buy it and we'll pay you accordingly."
"So the movie--"
"Won't get made, almost certainly. But then again, one never knows in this town."
I pulled the briefcase close to me as if afraid Winslow might snatch it away. "I don't get it. What's wrong with you people? Why do you even do this?"
He smiled, but the gesture didn't soften his eyes.
"When you've been in the business as long as I have … well, you know all the tricks. It's hard to find a movie or a television show that's truly exciting anymore."
I waited for him to go on.
"That said, I still have an appetite for human drama." One look at his famous gut suggested that wasn't his only appetite, but I let it go. "So I host the occasional party to get what I otherwise lack. True entertainment."
I said nothing at first, and then: "You knew I would point the gun at you, didn't you?"
"No, that was unexpected. But as in filmmaking, it's all about the casting, Mr. Glassman. You put the right person in the right role and simply hope they don't disappoint." He looked squarely at me. "As you know, we rely on word of mouth to find new participants, so feel free to invite others to our little game. But don't speak a word of what actually happened here tonight. Otherwise-and I do hate to be so cliché--you'll never work in this town again."
One of the guards led me back out to the front entryway. The house was eerily silent, all the guests gone. I felt the way I always did after a big party, emptied out, exhausted. I looked back through the doorway and saw the woman in the black dress, gathering empty glasses. She wouldn't meet my gaze.
My hands were shaking as I drove home. I wanted to call Lauren, just to hear her voice, but I knew I'd have to pull myself together first. I started to call Charlie instead, then had a better idea.
I was at his house inside of half an hour. He answered the bell on the third ring.
"Jesus, you're all right!"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just …"
"Keep your voice down, okay? The kids are still sleeping." Charlie moved back into the house. "Just hold on, let me tell Val everything's fine. I'll be right back. I want to hear all about it."
I sat there. The front step was hard against my butt. I looked over at the house owned by Charlie's neighbor Zach. The FOR SALE sign was gone and so was the Porsche. He'd left, moved away. What kind of show had he put on for Jonathan Winslow and his cronies? What was it that had been haunting him so badly about his performance? Had he chickened out when it came time to "shoot" himself? Or did he turn the gun on Winslow too, and maybe even pull the trigger?
Charlie came back with a couple of beers. I drank half of mine in one swig.
"Tell me what happened," Charlie said.
"Of course you can. It's just me."
I shook my head. It wasn't just my promise to Winslow that kept me from telling him the truth. If I started talking now I might simply break down.
"Well, anyway, it doesn't matter. You made it. And you're loaded. We're loaded."
"So what?" I snapped. "You want me to sing and dance or something?"
"You could at least smile."
I smiled but it felt too stiff, and Charlie rambled on about buying a BMW and taking a trip to Hawaii and moving to a newer, bigger house. Even though I had just earned me and Charlie a million dollar payday, I kept thinking how this was just like trying to break into the movie business. The game was rigged and it always had been.
I finished off my beer and stared up at the sky. In this corner of L.A., with street lights all around, I couldn't see the stars, not even in the dark.
About the Author
Adam Meyer is the author of the novel The Last Domino and the upcoming novel, When She's Gone. A recovering resident of Los Angeles, he now lives and writes on the east coast.