He had ended up in Van Nuys. A crummy studio apartment with a bed in the living room along with everything else. Well, what there was left of his life. The books, DVDs, unsold screenplays (some had come very close to being produced but that’s a long story and everyone in this town had one), deteriorating videos, clothes that were fashionable a decade before, and letters from his father. The other two rooms were a closet, and a bathroom. He used the closet as his workspace where he’d set up a little desk and his temperamental PC. It was the dream room and like his dreams the rooms that housed them were getting smaller. He would sit there sometimes all night writing a new screenplay in the hope that he could write his way out of this downward spiral he found himself on.
He also worked various part time jobs in order to pay the rent and buy some cheap food. He tried to keep busy to take his mind off the cold hard reality of the situation. If he thought too much about it he suffered panic attacks. He was far from home. And alone.
In April of 1997 he had landed in Los Angeles, full of excitement and fuelled by a motivation that he was going to take this town and knock it on its ear.
He’d saved enough money to comfortably get him through a year. Maybe two if he was frugal. Back home in Australia he’d been quite successful. A hit play here, a well received film there; even a few critically acclaimed books.
On paper he seemed to be someone to watch.
There are no damned seasons in L.A so its easy to have years slip by you. And slip by Jonathan Tarney they did. His father gave up on him ever coming home. Then the old man gave up on life. Jonathan couldn’t even afford the airfare to return for the funeral and his mean-spirited sisters hadn’t offered.
Jonathan had started out living in fashionable West Hollywood, then moved to a sleazy part of Westin Boulevard, then to Sherman Oaks, then to his present rat hole in Van Nuys.
He’d been married, briefly, to an actress, but she gave up on his dream, and then him. She’d realized she needed to hitch her wagon to someone more substantial before her assets expired. And then one day she just left.
Jonathan came home to an empty apartment with some promising news but there was no one to share it with. So he bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. He bought one the next day too. He bought so many he never got around to polishing his script for the interested producer and the deal went away. Just like his wife.
His spiral accelerated after that. He couldn’t help thinking that there was a weird, exciting feeling about free falling. The bills piled up and so did the empty bottles and all he could do was sit and look at them through hollow glazed eyes. He now had much in common with his father. They were both dead. Just in different ways.
When he was especially maudlin he’d re-read some of his late father’s letters pleading with him to come home. He wanted to cry but tears didn’t come anymore. Tears belonged to the living. Those that could be hurt.
One day while he was walking down Sepulveda Boulevard to the 99 Cent Store to buy his canned foods for the week, he saw a notice on a strip joint door advertising for a bartender. He pushed on the door and stepped inside the dark cavern of a place and stood there until his eyes adjusted and he could make out a few shadowy figures. One of them, a rotund shadow, said in a gruff voice, “What do you want? We don’t open for a few hours. Come back later.”
“I’m here about the job,” answered Jonathan.
“Oh? You’re a bartender?” said the rotund shadow man who walked into a pool of light.
“Well I’ve had some experience. Years ago. Back home. I was pretty good at it then. Well, so people said.”
“My name is Louis Moretti. I own this place.” He looked Jonathan up and down and smiled. “Yes, yes, you may well be the answer to my prayers.”
“Please to meet you, Mr. Moretti. My name is Jonathan. Jonathan Tarney,” giving a smile he’d usually reserved for producers.
“Hey guys, I like Jonathan already. Unlike you bums this guys has manners. Have a seat, Jonathan. Tell me about yourself. You mentioned home. Where’s that?”
Louis Moretti’s eyes widened. He was impressed. He wasn’t sure he’d ever met an Australian before.
“Well how about that? Did you hear guys? Jonathan here is from Australia. You guys are fearless aren’t you? You know Paul Hogan?”
“No. No I don’t.”
“You know how to make a dirty martini?” Moretti laughed, and so did his shadow men.
“Yes I do.”
“Well what say you make me and the boys some dirty martinis and we’ll talk money.”
By the time Jonathan exited the place two hours later, and after making enough exotic drinks to impress Moretti and his associates, he had a new job. The money was good and he was also promised a small share of what the girls made each night.
Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief, walked past the 99 Cent Store and went into Ralph’s Supermarket instead. A celebration was called for, so he purchased some cans of food that actually had names on them, and some real vegetables as well as some meat. It’d been so long since Jonathan had tasted a steak that he was beside himself with the excitement of a child. Hang the expense, he even grabbed a bottle of red to accompany his meal. He felt rich and tears welled in his eyes at how little it took these days to fill him with such euphoria. How far had he fallen? All the pride and ego had long been trampled out of him and suddenly he felt like the luckiest man in the world. Yes he could still cry. He was still alive. And he was going back to his apartment with a car full of groceries. Just like real people do.
That night he sat on his bed and ate his perfectly cooked steak and assorted vegetables, sipped his budget priced but nice red wine and thought of his ex-wife. He wondered where she was and if she was happy. As happy as he was at this moment. He hoped so. All the anger was gone now and all he remembered was that he had loved her deeply and, for a time, she had loved him. In the end that’s all that mattered isn’t it? He would’ve loved tonight to phone her and wish her well but he didn’t have her number anymore. He was no longer considered a friend.
He turned on the TV to watch something mindless so he wouldn’t have to think.
This town had a habit of shrinking your dreams and your expectations down to size. If you were weak you got broken. If you were a survivor you learned to appreciate any crumb that fell from the table.
Jonathan Tarney became a very popular guy at the Tits! Tits! Tits! strip joint on Sepulveda Boulevard. The customers liked him, so did the working girls and, more importantly, so did Mr. Moretti and his associates.
Jonathan was making good money and had even been able to afford a bigger apartment. This one had two bedrooms and Jonathan converted one into his office where he occasionally attempted to write his great screenplay. The one that would make him a household name. Well, an industry name at least. He wasn’t sure the public really cared about who wrote the latest hit movie. He wasn’t completely convinced that many even realized they were written. What did it matter? Perhaps he just did it out of habit. Or to prove to himself that he was good at it even if no one wanted to give him a break. He smiled at the fantasy that one day, after he was gone, they’d discover his work and regret their stupidity. Then the more sobering thought entered his mind that all his work would be thrown out into the trash along with the other possessions of a man nobody really knew or took seriously.
For some weeks Jonathan had noticed that Mr. Moretti had seemed troubled. Not his usual self. Jonathan was fearful that perhaps his boss had taken a dislike to him or maybe one of his associates had complained about something he’d done. Paranoia haunts the desperate and Jonathan was panicked that his job would be taken away from him and he’d be banished back to the free falling spiral and the anxiety attacks about the next rent payment.
A few nights later, one of Mr. Moretti’s shadow men, Joe Camerilli, came over to Jonathan and asked him to stay back and see Mr. Moretti when he’d finished closing out his bar takings for the night.
“Sure thing,” beamed Jonathan, trying to sound and look upbeat, but Camerilli’s expression didn’t change. It gave nothing away.
At the end of the night, Jonathan nervously made his way to Mr. Moretti’s office. He knocked.
“Come in,” barked Moretti.
Jonathan stepped in and closed the door.
“You wanted to see me, Mr. Moretti?”
“Yes. Yes, Jonathan.”
With that, Moretti got up and walked over to the door and opened it. He peered out, checking that everyone had gone. He then closed the door and returned to his chair behind his big mahogany desk. His face was grim.
“Have I done something wrong, Mr. Moretti?”
“No. No, not at all. I love ya, Jonathan. I feel you’re the son I never had. I really mean that.”
Jonathan was suddenly so relieved he felt light-headed and exhaled his tension.
“But you can help me. I’m relying on you. I have a problem that someone needs to fix and I am willing to pay for it.”
Jonathan waited for him to elaborate but nothing came. Moretti just kept looking at his talented bartender as though trying to read his every thought.
“Of course, Mr. Moretti. You in a way saved my life – or what was left of it – and if I can help you you know I will.”
Moretti smiled. It was his turn to feel relieved.
“I knew I could rely on you, Jonathan. You have an honest face. That’s why I liked you the first time I saw you. Remember?”
Jonathan smiled at the memory. He was feeling relaxed now, and loved.
“I need a man killed.”
Jonathan thought Mr. Moretti was joking so he went ahead and laughed out loud. When Mr. Moretti didn’t laugh, the cold reality set in that he was serious.
“Are you joking?” asked Jonathan, already knowing the answer.
“I don’t joke about a man’s life.”
With that, Mr. Moretti opened his drawer, brought out a revolver, and gently placed it on his desk.
“This is an unmarked gun. It cannot be traced. You have my word on that.”
“But I can’t kill a man! That’s not who I am.”
“You would be surprised what we are capable of, Jonathan, when the situation arises.”
Mr. Moretti got up and started pacing the room as he spoke.
“There is a man. A very bad man. And he is threatening my life, my livelihood, and that of my family. I cannot accept that or wait for him to strike. I must strike first. You understand?”
Jonathan clearly didn’t.
“If I was to tell you all the things this man has done you would hate him as much as I do. He has killed men, women and children. I kid you not. Answer me one thing, Jonathan. If you had’ve had the chance to shoot Hitler would you have done it and saved all those peoples lives?”
“Of course but…”
“Of course you would. This man is not Hitler but this man is evil. He is capable of hurting me, those closest to me and a lot of innocent people. Good people. Maybe even you. He is nuts. There’s no telling what he’ll do or how many people will step into his line of fire.”
“Mr. Moretti – I am not a killer. I make drinks, I write screenplays nobody wants. That’s about it.”
“That’s why you’re perfect. No one knows who you are. No one would ever suspect you. As far as the police are concerned you don’t exist. I had someone do a check on you. You’re clean. You’re not on their radar for anything. I am willing to pay you a hundred thousand dollars. Hear me? You could turn your whole life around on that, Jonathan. You could go to Mexico, buy a big house and live like a king the rest of your life. No more worries, no more pressures, no more hassles. You’d be free and clear.”
“And what if I fucked it up and got caught?”
“There’s no way that’s going to happen. This guy takes the same route home every night. He’s like clockwork. He has a driver we’ve gotten to and we know that on Monday night he will reach the corner of Van Nuys and Vanowen at 8.30pm. The driver will stop at the cross section. When he sees you approach he will slide down onto the front seat giving you clear access to our man. You will be wearing gloves and empty the contents of the gun into him. You will drop the gun down the water drain on that corner and walk away. Not run. Walk. A block east will be a car with no number plates waiting for you. You will be driven to a hotel on Ventura Boulevard where there’ll be a suite waiting for you. No need to report to the front desk as you are already checked in under a false name. Then next morning you walk out of the room, have breakfast at Jerry’s Deli and catch a cab back to your apartment.”
“I can’t take someone’s life. Even if they are evil.”
“I think you can, Jonathan. Think long and hard about how good I have been to you, and what you can do with all that money. Don’t think of yourself as a killer. Think of yourself as a soldier. And this is a battle. And you have the chance to save your father. I’d like to think I’ve been like a father to you. Haven’t I?…Well?”
Jonathan’s head was spinning. Mr. Moretti wisely sent him home to think about it.
Jonathan couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stop pacing, he couldn’t comprehend what had happened and what he’d been asked to do. At 5am he drove to an all night liquor store and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. By 8am it was gone.
Now he was drunk and it was time for the devil to whisper into his ear, “Think about what you could do with a hundred thousand dollars. Go to Mexico, buy a beautiful house, maybe get married again and have someone love you. You deserve it. You have had a hard life. All you have to do to change things is say yes.”
At 9am, still drunk, Jonathan phoned Mr. Moretti and said yes. The wheels were turning now and couldn’t be stopped. Jonathan hung up and had the feeling of free falling again. Only his Maker above knew how this would turn out. His hands trembled as he realized he was placing the biggest bet he’d ever gambled with; his own life. He wasn’t sure if the death penalty still existed in California for murder. He wasn’t even sure if he preferred death to a life behind bars. He frantically tried to get those thoughts out of his head. This had to work. It just had to. He was going to kill a man who didn’t deserve to live. He was doing society a favour. That’s right. Step from the shadows, identify the subject and say goodnight. That’s all he had to do to be free and clear the rest of his life.
Mr. Moretti treated him like a son the rest of the week. Even the shadow associates were friendly to him, smiling and nodding their head with a new found respect. Jonathan liked being treated this way. It had been so long since anyone took him seriously.
He tried to get more information on the man he was to…meet on the corners of Van Nuys and Vanowen but Mr. Moretti and his associates thought that was a bad idea. It was best to know as little as possible about the subject, they assured him. All a hit man ever wants to know is the routine of the person involved and what they look like. The less you know, the less emotionally involved you are. It is just a job. All Jonathan needed to know was this man was evil and had done despicable things.
On the intended night, Jonathan waited in the darkness. He checked his watch. It was 8.25pm. He realized that there was a man approaching who had but five minutes to live. Tonight Jonathan got to be God – it was in his power whether someone lived or died. He wondered how long ago it was ordained that his path would lead him to this spot on this night.
He nervously fiddled with his leather gloves and pulled the gun from his inside coat pocket. He attached the silencer he’d been given and gazed down the street. His heart was beating so fast it was like he was overdosing on amphetamines. Then the headlights of a big black car became visible in the far distance. The driver was good, he was right on time. Everyone was playing their parts in the play to perfection. It felt like it was meant to be.
There was no going back now. He knew too much. If he didn’t go through with it he’d probably pay with his own life. His only option now was to put the bullets into the man in the backseat of the approaching car, or put one in his own brain.
The big black car came to a halt at the corner. Jonathan moved from the darkness and strode towards the vehicle. The driver on cue slid down and sprawled across the front seat. Jonathan was now close enough to see the face of the man in the backseat. He was about sixty-four with silver hair slicked back. He looked confused at the actions of his driver and said something inaudible. He then looked over and saw Jonathan approaching him. It only took him a split second to realize that something bad was about to happen and his last look was of great sadness as he grimaced and awaited his fate. Jonathan emptied his gun into the man, disposed of his weapon and walked away as instructed. It had all gone so smoothly it added to the whole feeling of everything being unreal. As Jonathan walked to the waiting getaway car it sank in that he was a murderer. He couldn’t identify the feelings racing through him. Was it shame? Guilt? Or empowerment? All he knew was there was so much adrenalin pumping through his veins nobody had better get in his way. Not tonight.
He got in the car and his driver sped off. Ten minutes later Jonathan was alone in a hotel suite watching a re-run of “I Love Lucy” and registering nothing. The snappy dialogue couldn’t drag him back from his own conscience.
The next morning it was on all the news programs. They flashed photographs of Albert Esposito across the screen and showed footage of him with his family at his daughter’s wedding. He looked so proud and happy. He gave a speech about the meaning of love that broke Jonathan’s heart and he bowed his head and sobbed. He continued to sob through all the tributes from the community and local politicians who praised their fellow committee member for his efforts to clean up the district and shut down the sleazy strip joints and pornography industry that thrived through corruption of authorities and the sales of illegal drugs.
It was reported that his last words, according to his driver, were for his children, “Tell them I love them.”
This was the evil man? The man who’d been compared to a local Hitler?
Jonathan spent an hour in the shower trying to wash away his guilt. If he’d still had the gun he’d have used it again.
If Jonathan had’ve written the screenplay he may’ve had an ending like this…
It was the perfect crime. He had gotten away with it. He was free and clear and living in a little sleepy village called Ajijic that rests on Lake Chapala in Mexico. He has a large mansion with a guesthouse and a swimming pool. His wife is much younger than him and is a beauty that also possesses a beautiful soul. She genuinely loves him and they are expecting their first child. There is a large photograph of Jonathan’s father in the living room and he seems to be smiling with pride at everything his son has achieved. Life couldn’t be more perfect. At last Jonathan is home. Slow fade to black and the credits roll.
Back in the real world, a man walked into the Van Nuys Police Station at 11.27am and confessed to the murder of Albert Esposito. He told them the whole story and later that day Mr. Louis Moretti was arrested.
The news was broken at 6pm. The anchorperson described Mr. Jonathan Tarney as a failed screenwriter.
(c) Frank Howson