A Sure Thing

Since he’d first seen her on the silver screen, Lolita Rose had been the only one for Jake. He’d had girlfriends and married lovers, but it was always her face he imagined – her shapely lips, her satin skin – and tonight he would meet the Goddess and make them both rich.

1927, Los Angeles

Jake felt itchy as he waited in line outside Barney’s Beanery, a popular new West Hollywood eatery. His buttoned-up woollen coat was uncomfortably snug on this mild L.A. evening, but he couldn’t take it off yet.

He checked his pocket watch. “We don’t have time for this.”

“What can we do, boss?” Robbie, 19, had the bug-eyed look of a disciple to 30-year-old finance broker, Jake Rolands.

“Call on the seventh president for assistance.” Jake smiled and pulled out a clutch of ten-dollar notes with Andrew Jackson’s face on them. Then he and Robbie cruised past those in line to the concierge.

“We’re keen to have Booth 34,” Jake whispered. “I hear the pancakes are especially good.”

The man nodded and made the notes disappear. “End of the row.”

“Hey! He pushed in!” a man in line complained.

Suck it, pal!

The pair walked through the busy restaurant, to the back booth where a uniformed attendant lifted the table to reveal a ladder to a lower level. “Enjoy, gents.

With each step down, the volume rose. The hum of voices, laughter punching through like gunshots. Stepping off the ladder, Jake’s eyeballs tingled from cigarette smoke. The pair blinked furiously as they took in the scene, of a  thriving speakeasy, or illegal bar.

People sat at tables, or crowded the spaces in-between as a jazz band, called The Pancakes, played Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust. A moose head on the wall presided over the well-stocked bar.

“Isn’t alcohol illegal?” Robbie asked.

“Selling it. Not drinking it,” said Jake. “Relax. No-one’s gonna drag you off in handcuffs tonight. Not unless you ask really nicely.”

The boy blushed and Jake grinned. Was I ever that innocent?

Jake’s eyes swept left and right over the crowd, catching sight of some famous faces – but not hers.

“There’s Clark Gable.” He pointed across the room.

“Oh, my giddy aunt!” Robbie’s eyes blasted open.

“Two tables over, Bette Davis!”

“THE Bette Davis?”

“Is there another? And didn’t your mama tell you it’s rude to stare?”

Two well-dressed men were already seated at their table – producers of a film they’d invested in, Jake explained, before he sloughed off his coat to reveal black tails, white vest and bow tie beneath.

Robbie whistled. “Looking good, boss!”

“Not so bad yourself.” The boy had borrowed his father’s suit, which was a tad big on him.

Jake ordered a Mint Julep for himself, a Sidecar for Robbie, who eyeballed the bright orange beverage suspiciously.

“What’s in it?” he asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“We’re expecting Miss Rose at any moment,” one of the men said.

Lolita Rose. Hollywood’s leading starlet. With her white-blonde hair, shapely lips and air of innocence, she made even the most rakish men want to run straight to confession.

“So, we’re in film investment now?” Robbie whispered. “I thought we only dealt in stocks and shares.”

“We’re diversifying our portfolios.” Jake extracted a tiny atomiser from his pocket and squirted his throat twice.

“Do our clients know we’re doing that?” Robbie asked. “Do the Italians know?”

The Italians. Did he have to mention them?

“We don’t want to bother them with boring details,” Jake said. “As long as they get a good return, they’ll be happy.”

Robbie swigged his drink and spluttered, the orange liquid bubbling out of his nose, running down his chin. Jake shoved a serviette at him, disgusted.

“But, isn’t the film business risky?” Robbie wiped his face. “I thought the Italians only wanted moderate risk?”

“You’re right,” Jake said. “This is not moderate. It’s no risk at all. It’s what’s known in the business as a sure thing.”

“I didn’t think there was such a thing.”

“Still so much to learn.” He patted Robbie’s cheek patronisingly. “You see, these gentleman are making a film, the like of which has never been seen. It’s a talkie. We’ hear the actors’ voices, rather than reading the titles.”

“A talkie?” said Robbie.

“With Miss Rose in the lead, it’s sure to be the biggest film ever. And our Italian friends will get a very strong return. There might even be some left over for you and I, as a spotters’ bonus.”

Jake hoped it would yield enough funds for more film investments or to allow him to make the move from broker to film financier, where he’d mingle with Lolita, one professional to another.

“But, isn’t that what bucket shops do?” Robbie said. “Invest client money in risky endeavours and skim off the top? That’s what Father says.”

Robbie’s father was one of the brokerage directors. He could never know about this.

“Bucket shop?” Jake shook his head. “I just want the best for my clients. And when I heard of this unique opportunity, I couldn’t pass it up.”

Robbie stroked his chin. “Miss Rose in the lead? Ground-breaking techniques? You’re right! How can it fail?”

The two clinked glasses triumphantly.

“There’s Lolita Rose!” All heads turned to the entry as if connected by string. Photographers’ flash guns turned night to day as they captured her image.

The waiter whispered something to her and pointed Jake’s way. As her eyes locked onto his, the broker struggled to draw in air. Breathe! In, out, in, out.

“She’s even prettier in real life,” Robbie said.

Jake couldn’t speak. The woman was a goddess. Aphrodite in a strappy golden dress, the bodice clinging to her curves, the skirt composed of shimmering strands catching the light and hinting at shapely thighs beneath.

All four gentlemen stood up to meet her. Is this real? Am I dreaming?

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” she said.

Robbie bit his lip, the two producers winced ever-so-slightly.

How could that voice come from those lips? A choir of cranky cats would sound less shrill. Perhaps he’d imagined it? But as she exchanged pleasantries with the producers, Robbie whispered. “She sounds different than what I expected.”

“Yes, she does.”

“Could this be a problem?”

Si. Di certo.