The Phantom Wiseguy
Getting shot ain't like the movies.
The way Hollywood does it there’s a bang, then some guy in a bloodless shirt grabs his chest and falls over. Back in Korea, if you were lucky, all you heard was a pop in the distance that told you the enemy had missed.
What I heard on that wretched October night while weaving my eight-year-old Packard through the fog was the crash of my rearview flying off, the smash of my window caving in, and the puck of a dime-sized hole appearing two inches to the right of my reflection in the windscreen.
“Son of a bitch,” said the invisible man in the passenger seat. His voice was like static on the radio. That didn’t bug me as much as the fact that my eyes told me no one was there.
“Take a right. Don’t slow down.”
A staccato rhythm like popcorn announced the bullets peppering my trunk. I gripped the wheel, just waiting for all that lead to blow out my tires or the back of my skull.
Somewhere ahead was U.S. 29 and the Key Bridge over the Potomac. I had it in my head that if I could just get across, like Ichabod Crane, this nightmare would fade like a hangover.
Another poke hole knocked through the windshield. Fault lines spidered outward, the whole pane about to shatter like my mind was going to if one more damn thing made this night any crazier.
That’s right. Speeding through the dark at who knows how many miles per hour, with one headlight and zero visibility, bullets flying around my head, an invisible passenger barking orders, and part of me goes: “Oh look, a metaphor!”
“You missed the turn.”
I didn’t even see the turn, and I goddamn told him.
“Enough of this crap. Cover your ears.”
My throat burned as if I’d been screaming, then thunder erupted from inside the car. For the span of a film shutter, flashes illuminated the space beside me.
I glimpsed a white jacket, white hat, no face. My companion had turned around, his back against the glove compartment, to empty a handgun the size of a phone book at our assailants. Tires squealed behind us and my passenger disappeared.
“Is that it?” I said. “Did you get ‘em?”
“Holy shit, slow down.”
I could barely hear through the ringing.
“What do you mean slow down?”
The biggest tanker truck I’d ever seen filled the beam of my headlight, lunging toward us at sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour. A black glove yanked the steering wheel out of my hands, and I screamed for real as the world whipped around in a blur of pavement and fog.
Okay, let me back up.
That morning I was in my editor’s office at The Washington Street, and he wasn’t buying what I had to sell. George Farnsworth had a paunch that pulled his shirt out of his trousers and a face like a peeled potato, but his rolled-up sleeves showed massive forearms that could break an upstart reporter in half.
“For crying out loud, Allan,” he said, “I asked for a story on the Transportation Commission, not this tabloid crap.”
“Crap?” I leaned across his desk to grab my pages back. “I’ve got evidence of congressional ethics violations. If half of these reports of payouts to Crawthorn are true, it could tip the election next month.”
“One.” Farnsworth rose from his chair and pointed at me. “You don’t have evidence, you have hearsay. That may have been good enough for that L.A. scandal rag you used to hack for, but it won’t cut it in this town. Not unless your name is McCarthy.”
I winced at the mention of my former job, which I’d done my best to put behind me. As far as my fellow reporters knew, all I had on my resume was some freelance work and a tour of duty writing for Stars and Stripes.
“Two,” Farnsworth said, “it won’t do squat to the election. Crawthorn’s a ten-year incumbent, and his opponent is an anti-segregationist on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. You’d have to catch him in flagrante delicto with an underage prostitute to put a dent in his campaign, and you’d need photographs to back it up. Besides, his constituents don’t read our magazine.”
“So what, we’re going to keep this under wraps?” My eyes were on those giant ham hocks he had for fists, but I plowed ahead anyway. “I thought it was our job to let people know the truth.”
“Sweet baby Jesus.” Farnsworth paled like a kid at a horror show. “How… Seriously? Here, sit down.”
He shoved me into a chair, pulled an unlabeled bottle from a shelf, and poured something brown into a short, dirty glass. I thought he was fixing himself a drink, but instead he handed it to me.
“Uh, no thanks,” I said.
“Drink or you’re fired.”
I poured the tumbler down my throat, then gasped as a grenade went off in my head. Once I’d stopped coughing, Farnsworth sat on the edge of his desk and held an issue of the Street to my face. He opened it to the inside back cover, where a model in a two-piece swimsuit leaned against a red convertible.
“You want to know what our job is? Selling cars.” He flipped to another page. “Perfume.” And another. “Toaster ovens. You and me are salesmen for toaster ovens.
“That’s what keeps the lights on. Magazines, newspapers, it’s all to trick people into looking at advertising. News, editorials, that’s a carny act. It’s the mermaid, the bearded lady. It’s what gets Mr. Public to look in our direction so that we can make the sale. But you’ve got to give Mr. Public what he wants, or else he’ll look somewhere else.
“Now at this moment, our readers don’t give two shits about some corrupt Southern congressman, but they do care about whether the trolley lines are going to extend to their shiny new subdivisions. So you’re going to take all these notes on Crawthorn and plant them in the bottom of your filing drawer. Then you’re going to sit your ass down and give me three thousand words on the Transportation Commission’s expansion plans by four o’clock. Agreed?”
I sighed. “Yes, but – ”
“That was rhetorical. Get out.”
I slunk from his office like a whipped schoolboy. Tim Leslie, the magazine’s star photographer, leaned against the wall with an idiot grin.
“I’m in the market for a toaster oven,” he said. “Got any hot tips?”
“Leslie?” roared Farnsworth. “Where are those glamour shots I asked for?”
“Right here, Georgie. See you ‘round, Jones.”
I trudged to the newsroom, where my desk and tedium awaited. Half a dozen other hacks typed on their assignments, but the rest were out chasing stories, attending press conferences, or having their first drinks of the day at the dives that greased the city’s wheels. Here’s a statistic: the District of Columbia has more bars per capita than any other metropolitan area in the country. God Bless America.
A bubblegum pop stopped me short of my typewriter.
“Gave you a chewing out, did he?”
Roxy Brandt ran the office switchboard from a desk twice the size of mine. I knew that underneath it was a stack of journalism textbooks that she’d read when the boss wasn’t looking.
“Christ,” I said, walking over to her. “Did he broadcast it over the intercom?”
Roxy tapped a plug on her board.
“There’s a short in his phone so his receiver never turns off. I can hear everything that goes on in there.”
That gave me pause.
“Does Farnsworth know?”
“Not unless you tell him, cutie.”
Her tone was playful, but her eyes reminded me of a sniper I’d interviewed back in the war. I mimed closing a zipper over my lips.
Roxy was young enough that no one asked why she wasn’t married – the question was still “when.” Her short, red hair framed her cheeks in such a way that made some men want to bundle her off to an amusement park. She’d shot down advances from every bachelor in the office and a few of the married ones too. The scuttlebutt said that a copyboy got too fresh with her and ended up in a choke hold.
I’d never asked her out myself. I was a little afraid to.
“Oh well,” I said. “Back to the salt mine.”
“Say, Jones,” she said between smacks of her gum. “You know anybody named Smithee?”
A chill ran over my scalp. I should have said no. I should have said no. But I didn’t.
“Some guy called and left a number. Didn’t give his name. First he asked for ‘Allan Smithee’ then told me to tell you to call him.”
That’s all I needed – some ghost from out west to crash my new life. There were several people I could think of who called me “Smithee,” but not one that I wanted in a room with the Washington press. On the spot, I formed a plan to track this bozo down and punt him off to greener pastures.
I shuffled toward my chair and asked Roxy to patch me through. The phone rang six times before anyone picked up.
“Hello?” said a voice I didn’t recognize.
“Who’s this?” I said.
“You first, asshole. You called me.”
I heard the clatter and clink of glass in the background, as if the man was in a restaurant or bar.
“This is Allan Jones from The Washington Street.”
“Smithee!” he shouted, then hushed himself at once. When next he spoke, I heard palpable relief. “My god, it’s good to hear you.”
“Who is this?” I asked again.
“Hugo. Hugo Harvey.”
I relaxed. Hugo wasn’t press. He was a lawyer, but in spite of that fact he wasn’t on my list of people to avoid. He didn’t sound like himself, though.
“How’s it going?” I asked. “What are you doing in D.C.?”
“Nothing much. On the lam from angry clients, you know?”
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh sure. Everything’s great.” It was a reflexive answer. I could hear the nerves behind it. “But no, not really. Look, I’ve got some dirt I need off my chest. There’s no one in L.A. I can trust. Hell, there’s no one anywhere I can trust except you.”
“Sounds big. What is it?”
“A story. Bigger than that last piece I gave you. Bigger than anything you’ve written before.”
I sat up, pen in hand. “I’m listening.”
“Not over the phone.”
“Fine, I’ll come to you.” To hell with Farnsworth and his Transportation Commission.
“Not now, I’m still on the move. I’ve got some things to see to first. Can I call you at the magazine around six?”
“Sure,” I said. “Hey Hugo, how’d you know where to find me? I didn’t exactly leave a forwarding address.”
Hugo chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe it. Let’s just say an invisible little bird told me. See you later, Smithee.”
The line clicked. An invisible little bird? What the hell was I supposed to make of that?
Hugo Harvey was a “bluff artist,” a lawyer who specialized in keeping celebrities’ indiscretions out of the paper. He’d made money on the side trading gossip about any movie stars who weren’t on his dance card. Hugo wasn’t the most forthcoming of people, but he’d never been cryptic before.
“So why does he call you Smithee?” yelled Roxy across the newsroom.
“God damn it, that was a private conversation!”
“I didn’t listen much, but a girl can’t help being curious. ‘Specially about Mr. ‘No Past’ Jones.”
I groaned and walked over to her desk. At least that way we could keep our voices down.
“It’s a Hollywood thing,” I said. “If a director doesn’t like what a studio does with his movie and doesn’t even want his name on the thing, he’ll put ‘Directed by Allan Smithee’ in the credits instead.”
Roxy furrowed her brows. “So you’re a movie director?”
“No, but the editor I used to work for would rewrite my stories so far out of shape that I stopped using my byline.”
“And that’s why your resume’s so thin,” she said. “Shame. I was hoping it was something romantic, like if you spent five years in a Turkish prison.”
I looked at her sideways.
“You think Turkish prisons are romantic? No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Still got my eyes open.” She smirked and nodded at my desk. “Better get typing, movie boy. Those toaster ovens won’t sell themselves.”
Hugo didn’t call at 6:00. I waited. I didn’t start to worry until 7:00. My fellow writers had all come back from their press junkets, typed their stories, sent them to the copy editors, and gone home to their favorite bars. Roxy clocked out and let me take her place at the switchboard, with the injunction not to swear at anyone who called after hours. Farnsworth left at 8:00 and nodded at me as he passed through the newsroom. I’d made his deadline, so whatever debt I owed the furtherance of American advertising was in the clear.
At 9:00, the phone rang for the eighth time since Roxy relinquished the board. The first call had been from a sweet old lady in Mt. Pleasant who wanted to complain about the “Commie Chinese” students in her grandson’s classroom. Three calls were hang-ups, one was from an upscale laundry service looking for ad space, and two were wrong numbers for Sonny’s Late Nite Grill. The last caller tried to place an order for a steak even after I explained that he’d dialed a wrong number. When the phone rang again ten seconds later, I expected it to be the same asshole calling for potatoes au gratin.
“Smithee,” said the caller instead.
“Hugo, where are you?”
“Across the river at a bar near Arlington. Happy Jack’s. You know it?”
“No, but I can find it. What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here. And Smithee… You got a gun?”
That shut me up.
“What?” I said at last. “No, I don’t have a gun. Hugo, what the hell’s going on?”
“Get a gun. Bring it. I gotta go.”
The line went dead. It didn’t sound like a hang-up. I dug the phone book out from under Roxy’s desk and thumbed the pages to “Happy Jack’s Beer and Spirits.” I jotted down the address and dialed the number.
“Happy Jack’s,” a woman answered. I hung up and headed for my car. I didn’t own a gun and wasn’t about to stop at a pawn shop in the middle of the night.
Happy Jack’s sat a couple of blocks off of Lee Highway, past the Arlington suburb called Rosslyn. A fog had rolled off the Potomac, framing the streetlights in eerie halos. The bar’s sign was nothing but a blur of neon lights until I came close enough to read through the haze. It looked like there was parking behind the building, but instead I drove to the end of the street, turned so my car was facing the highway, and parked on the edge of the curb. That decision probably saved my life.
I adjusted my hat and buried my hands in my pockets against the cold. Every other business on the street was closed, and it wasn’t clear at night if they would open during the day. It felt awful quiet for a Friday. Where were the joyriding teenagers? Where was the laughter, the jukebox, or the crack of pool balls that should have been coming from the bar?
I heard a noise across the street to my left. A voice from the alley on my right whispered, “Hey buddy, got a light?”
I stopped. No one was there.
“Who the f– ”
A weight slammed me to the ground just as I heard the unmistakable crack of a gun and the instant echo of a ricochet off the wall. I struggled against the weight that pressed me down, but when I looked over my shoulder all I saw was the streetlight.
“What the hell?”
“Shut up.” The voice was no more substantial than the fog. “Down the alley. Keep low. Now.”
I scrambled into the dark. The alley was a maze of refuse. I banged a trash can with my knee and startled a cat. Whoever had the gun took two more shots, and a sliver of brick bounced off my coat. When I reached the empty lot behind the bar, I turned the corner and flattened myself against the wall.
“I’m trying.” And I was talking to myself. “Who are you? Where are you?”
“You came to see a man named Hugo Harvey.”
“Yeah, so?” Half my mind was too busy thinking about the gunman across the street to talk. The other half couldn’t help itself.
“Harvey’s dead. You’re about to be next.”
“If that’s a threat – ”
“It’s a warning, sweetheart, and you’re welcome for saving your life. Now stay still. I’ll check if it’s clear.”
This was nuts. Was this how you started hearing voices in your head? It was five years too late for a Section 8 to do me any good. Then Hugo’s words came back: an “invisible bird” had told him where to find me. He was right. I wouldn’t have believed him.
I glanced around the corner to look back down the alley. There, in the fog below the streetlamp, he appeared. White suit, white hat, black gloves. I didn’t see a face. Scratch that – I didn’t see a head. The hat was floating on air. The figure in white vanished, and a moment later the voice returned.
“Can’t go that way. Head behind the buildings. Hopefully we can circle around.”
“Where are we going?”
“Your car, sweet cheeks.”
Gunfire cut me off. Not a single shot, but a barrage from something that sounded like a machine gun’s older, meaner cousin. The noise tore through the brick and metal of the alley and I ran like hell. I turned into a different alley, three down from the one that was being shredded into confetti, and sprinted low to the cover of my car.
Down the street, gunfire that looked like lightning blasted across the road, tearing holes into Happy Jack’s and the building next door. Keeping my head down, I slowly opened the passenger door and crawled on my belly across to the driver’s seat. When I poked my head up behind the wheel, someone else closed the door behind me. Of course, there was nobody there.
“Go,” he said.
“Through that?!” I said, looking at the barrage.
I revved the engine and floored it.
Stutter-stop images from the minutes that followed: That monster gun taking out my headlight and blowing the stuffing from my seat as it raked the side of my car. Twisting through the fog while looking for the highway. The headlights of another car in pursuit reflected in my mirror. My mirror flying off in a hail of gunfire. My rear window shot out, then pieces of my trunk. My invisible passenger firing back. A tanker truck appearing head-on right in front of me. My passenger grabbing the wheel and spinning us out of control. I screamed and slammed on the brake.
They say your life flashes before your eyes. All I saw was an obituary. Allan “Smithee” Jones, 1930-58. Grease stain on the highway. No family, no funeral. Don’t bother sending flowers.
My Packard shrieked to a halt in the middle of the road. A Cadillac swerved around us and honked. Another car stopped about fifty yards away, its headlights beaming in my eyes. Light filled my car from behind as well. They’d boxed us in.
I heard my invisible friend reload.
“Keep your head down. Drive forward slowly, then floor it when you get past that car.”
“Whatever you say, chief.” My voice cracked like it hadn’t since puberty.
I inched the car forward. A shot banged through the windshield and showered me in glass. If I hadn’t been hunched, that would’ve been my head. I crouched even lower, so I couldn’t even see over the dash. I felt my companion tug on the wheel. Too more shots blew through the air. They were close. One tore through the roof while the other hit the engine. I heard a whistle from the radiator.
“Slowly,” my passenger said. “Now GO.”
I floored the gas and sat up. There was nothing ahead but open highway and just enough light for me to guess where the lanes were.
“They’re still behind us,” I said.
“I know. I’m changing my frame of reference. Don’t stop until you get to D.C., and it might be good to lay low for a while.”
“You’re doing what?”
My passenger turned partly visible. Beneath his jacket was something like a bandolier with a series of dials. He twisted one, and then flew out the back of the car. Not out the window, mind you, but through the car itself, like a ghost passing through walls.
I looked over my shoulder and saw flashes of light inside the car behind me, followed by pops of distant violence. The vehicle swerved and tumbled into a ditch. I faced forward, wary of any more tankers, and rode the pedal all the way back to Washington.