First Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “Think Fast”

By Thom Pharmakis



            As any capable stage magician will tell you, there’s no great trick to pulling rabbits out of hats — the trick is getting the rabbit into the hat. Keep that in mind. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

            The rabbit I was at immediate pains to produce was a sum equal to the expense of three months’ very comfortable residence at l'Hôtel Splendide de Nice. The Splendide was a big, overdressed dowager of a place, contentedly resting her triple chins on the golden sands of the Côte d’Azur. The war was over and, except for the occasional naval mine that bobbed ashore to menace the sea-bathers, largely forgotten.

            That sand I mentioned earlier was not, strictly speaking, a native feature of the local geography. Truckloads of the stuff were laid on at the outset of the season as an amenity for the beachgoers. Over the ensuing months, the sand would sift down until the pebble beach underneath was laid bare, this being the generally accepted cue for resident members of the international smart set to pack up their stylish togs and pursue their pleasures elsewhere.

            It was around the time the beach ran out of sand that I found myself having run through the patience of hotel management, who gave every indication they were preparing to drop the boom on my credit. Whenever he caught sight of me threading my way past the potted palms and costly bric-à-brac that crowded his lobby, Monsieur Couver, le directeur de hôtel, drew his face into an expression suitable to a pastry chef discovering an outbreak of weevils in his flour barrel. His initial glee at having a big American film star bustling about the premises and making rather free with his spending — all on account, mind you — was slowly giving way to the needling suspicion he was being bamboozled.

            Ladies and gentlemen, it was not my intention to bamboozle anyone. No, the simple truth was, I was broke. Skint. On my uppers and down to my last sou. Long experience in these matters had shown me the most reliable means of keeping credulous hotel managers off the scent of — How shall we say? Straightened circumstance? — was to spend and spend lavishly. Thinking he has a big fish on the line, even the most prudent host will be inclined — temporarily, at least — to regard the mounting bill as money in the bank. In the end, it all comes down to a solitary consideration — is the fella good for the dough? So long as greed maintains the upper hand against sound business practice, eviction could be forestalled and my meals digested in peace. Consequently, I had dug in like a tick.

            During the war, the sea was every bit as blue, but the tourists all wore gray and posed their holiday snaps against the novel backdrop of a rusty iron barricade running the length of the Promenade des Anglais — a tribute to German thoroughness of preparation against the unlikely event that Allied plans for the liberation of Europe would be spearheaded with a landing in the Baie des Anges. With the Germans now safely confined behind their own borders and kept from mischief sweeping up the broken crockery of their despicable Reich, their former marching grounds were now trod by posh brigades of holiday-makers in colorful sportswear. In addition to the usual mob of lesser nobility, show-biz folk and persons of either sex whose only advantage lay in what they managed to make of their own good looks, all pitching in to restore the place to its prewar reputation as the domain of bright sun and shady people, there arrived a new thing under the Gallic sun. The crowd was now dotted with the faces of not a few Midwestern Babbitts, all eager to spend the profits of their wartime manufacturing contracts, but none having previously ventured further afield than Dubuque or Duluth or Detroit, all depending on which Midwestern state they happened to hail from. It was the richest sucker season anyone could remember; I couldn’t have found a more congenial spot for fitting right in.

            It was generally assumed my departure from Hollywood came entirely at the prompting of the Red Scare. Oh, yes, there was that editorial in the trades calling me “red as a firecracker,” but it wasn’t the FBI nipping at my heels. All the talk about the ruddiness of my political complexion was mostly gas, but I didn’t discourage the impression. After all, “exile of conscience” sounds so much better than tax delinquent. Hanging over my head was a tax bill the size of a small nation’s balance of trade. With the long arm of the law intent on picking my empty pockets, it seemed like the sensible thing to deposit myself someplace beyond its reach. So there I was, the celebrated actor-director, rusting at anchor in these cordial waters while I waited, Micawber-like, for something to turn up.

            What turned up were a few column inches in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. A certain Hollywood big wig, the item ran, eagerly sought to engage the outsize talent of a certain American film star for his latest project. The American film star being me, I read on with interest. A runaway production was slated to go before the cameras in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios within a month's time. Like the fella in the song who had everything but the girl, our big wig lacked for nothing but his star. Minions had been dispatched. Princely remunerations were hinted at. Well, I thought to myself, this could certainly be counted upon to set tongues wagging.

            As I bellied up to the big reception desk to collect my messages, Monsieur Couver elbowed his way clear of a day-dreaming desk clerk and received me with a flourish of thoroughly reinvigorated obsequiousness. Spotting the folded copy of the Herald Tribune tucked under his arm, I had a good guess at the reasons my credit had come up in the world. I decided it would be fun to press my advantage. I worked my cigar with brio, surrounding myself with pungent smoke like a cloud of indignation. “How now, mine landlord!” I thundered in tones so stentorian, they would have shook the last row of seats at the Old Vic. Couver treated me to his most oleaginous smile and held out a small blue envelope marked Service Télégraphique.

            At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I should confess to having played the reader false. That fortuitous little scrap of newspaper movie gossip had appeared entirely through my own contrivance. The pertinent facts had been disclosed — all in the strictest confidence, mind you — to a trusted member of the journalistic fraternity. It wasn’t as if there were any claims about contracts being signed or moneys exchanged. Besides which, it was my firm conviction that people who believed what they read in the papers got exactly what they deserved.

            I mention this because the contents of the message handed me by Monsieur Couver mirrored in nearly every particular the newsprint confection I had maneuvered under Couver’s own nose. Now, I’m not a believer in kismet or fate or any other kind of hocus-pocus, but you had to admit, the thing was quite a coincidence.

            It was an invitation to lunch. My correspondent was staying near Cap d’Antibes, which is, more or less, just down the road. He represented a group of continental investors wanting to get into the picture business. He hoped I would not mind his having put forth my name. He was prepared to advance whatever monies I required on my say-so. He would send a car. It was signed Victor Kalmus, who was, in addition to a great many other things, an old friend.