The letters were Day-Glo yellow and ten feet high. They took up the entire width of the top floor of the six-story brick building that had been painted glossy black.
Below, five-foot letters spelled out " ... For Men Who Know What They Like."
I parked in front of a Korean ginseng parlor, walked past a triple-X bookstore and into the lobby of the elegant Sleaze Building. A skinny old guy with sunken cheeks and a sallow complexion was listlessly pushing a string mop over the speckled-green linoleum-tile floor, leaving muddy brown streaks as he went. A spiffy dude sporting a pencil-line mustache and wearing something that looked like a zoot suit was leaning against the wall, whistling as he cleaned his fingernails with a six-inch switchblade. In the corner, a sweaty big guy and a smiling little guy were having a friendly discussion as to which would occur first, the big guy paying off what he owed, or his ending up in a green plastic garbage bag. No question, this was one of fashionable East Hollywood's prestige addresses.
I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor. As I stepped out, there was a frosted-glass door bearing the same message as the front of the building. I opened it and went in. The reception area had phony wood paneling and was filled with the usual Scandinavian shit. It could've been a dentist's waiting room.
The wall opposite the entrance was covered with what I first thought was an abstract painting. Then I realized it was one of the close-up gynecological studies that were the main feature of the magazine, only blown up wall size.
The model had a tattoo of a butterfly very high up on her inner thigh. The actual tattoo must have been quite small, but in the enlargement it had a twelve-inch wingspan and resembled one of the giant tree moths of Malaysia.
"You like it?" a voice to the side of me asked.
It was the receptionist. If her goal was to look like a cheap Vegas hooker, she'd succeeded pretty well. She had a tangled mane of thick black hair. Her eyes were so darkly and heavily made up that they looked like the after effects of a broken nose. She was a good twenty pounds overweight, and her maroon sweater had been made for someone much smaller. It was stretched so tautly over her huge breasts that her nipples showed through the gaps in the weave.
"You like it?" she repeated, motioning to the mural.
"Oh, yeah. It's swell."
"That's me. I was 'Slit of the Month' for last June," she said with a cheerful smile.
I looked again at the gigantic picture and nodded. "Nice tattoo," I said.
"You like it? Want to see it?" She stood up and moved around the desk, hoisting her already short skirt to display a pair of thighs that could have come from the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line. She propped herself up on the edge of the desk and gave me just about the same angle of view as that of the photograph.
"Yeah. Real nice," I said.
"Oh, you can't see it from there. Get closer."
I sighed, but held my ground. I asked her to tell Mr. Orlov that I was here.
She looked at me for a minute, then said, "Oh, all right," and hopped off the desk. She went through a door, the outlines of which were cleverly hidden in the dark curls of the mural. The opening itself was just about where you'd expect it to be.
I shook my head, lit up a cigarette, and looked around. There wasn't a hell of a lot to see, just a few more photographs in the same style, though smaller, barely life-size, and three framed documents on the wall behind the receptionist's desk. There was an Award of Merit from Screw magazine for the October issue of SLEAZE, which had registered 94 on the Peter Meter. There was a certificate for "Significant Contributions" from the California League of Indecency. And there was a letter of praise from a Midwestern local of the Teamsters. It's always nice to know that your efforts are appreciated.
Tiny Butterfly came back and told me I could go in. Feeling a little like a character in some nervous preadolescent dirty joke, I went through the door and down a long corridor until I came to the office of N. E. Orlov, editor of SLEAZE. The door was open, and I went into a large, bright corner room with windows on two walls--what might be called, under the circumstances, a womb with a view.
A woman was standing at a light table, examining large-format transparencies with a magnifier. When she looked up I said, "I'm Sam Hunter. I'm looking for Mr. Orlov."
"So am I, pal." She stared levelly at me, a smile forming at the corners of her broad mouth.
"On the other hand," I said, "maybe I'm looking for Ms. Orlov?"
"Got it in one." She came over to me, smiling, and held out her hand. "I'm Natalie Orlov, known professionally as N. E., for fairly obvious reasons."
I took her hand. It was warm and smooth, and her grip was firm, but not trying to make a big deal out of it. In fact, nothing about her seemed to be trying for a big deal. She looked twenty-five, but I figured she was somewhere in her thirties. Her brown hair was cut functionally short and shaggy, her makeup was minimal, and she wore a man's large blue oxford-cloth shirt tucked into baggy chinos. Still, even an apparent lack of effort couldn't disguise the fact that her eyes were a spectacular green, that her mouth was wide, full, and sensual, and that there seemed to be a pretty fine body beneath her loose clothes. She'd never be considered pretty, but I had the feeling that if she wanted to, she could make herself stunningly beautiful with about five minutes' effort.
"Then who's the guy who poses as N. E. Orlov in those picture spreads depicting the SLEAZE lifestyle?" I said.
"Oh, shit! Don't tell me you're a loyal reader?"
I shook my head. "Afraid not. But when your secretary, or whoever, called for an appointment, I looked through some back issues."
"You put out a classy publication, lady. Sure lives up to its name."
"Yeah, doesn't it?" She laughed. "It was going to be called Hot and Juicy, but I said that sounded like a chile relleno burrito. Besides, I've always believed in truth in packaging." She gave me a smile, and I started to think this was a woman who might give me trouble. "Anyway," she said, "the guy in those pictures really is N. E. Orlov."
"My brother, Norman Edward. One of the last refugees from the sixties--you know, brain lightly sauteed in acid, at one with the cosmos. He lives up north in a cabin without electricity or running water. Grows enough sinsemilla to stay happy through the year. If Norman was brighter, he'd grow a little extra and make enough to retire in luxury, but that's not his style. So I bring him down twice a year, clean him up, and pose him with a lot of tits drooping over him. For this I give him enough to keep him in Oreos and tortilla chips, which he says are all that he requires from civilization." She shrugged. "It's an arrangement that suits both of us. He gets what he needs, and I don't have to worry about having my cover blown."
"Yeah. I guess it wouldn't be very good for business if it got out that you were the man behind SLEAZE."
"Exactly. All those men who know what they like might not like it a whole lot if they knew a woman was dishing it up. Probably make 'em a touch nervous. At a minimum, our sincerity would be questioned."
I had to laugh. "And not without reason, I'd say."
She looked at me for a minute before replying. "Let's just say that a degree of cynicism isn't exactly a handicap--as I suspect you already know very well, Mr. Hunter."
She continued to look at me, smiling slightly, and I nodded in acknowledgment. In this town, in this job, cynicism--about my clients, about their motives, about what they wanted me to do, about almost everything--was not exactly a handicap. In fact, I'd found that contempt wasn't necessarily inappropriate either, since a lot of my clients turned out to be pretty contemptible. On the other hand, they probably wouldn't hire me if they weren't, so I suppose it worked out okay for everyone concerned. At least, as long as I didn't give more of a shit about my clients than they gave about me, I usually did all right. And if one of the bastards who hired me tried to get cute, I saw to it that he ended up with a surprised expression on his face. I didn't figure to be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in the near future, but who the fuck wants to go to Sweden anyway. The weather stinks.
I had a feeling, though, that Natalie Orlov wouldn't turn out to be one of the assholes. I saw no reason for contempt, only curiosity. After just a few minutes, I found her to be an impressive--and very unexpected--woman. Obviously tough, shrewd, and smart. I thought she could handle just about anything that came up, and I was wondering what she wanted me to do.
I was about to ask her when a tall thin guy with a mustache like a blond caterpillar hurried in, a large manila envelope in his hand.
"The stuff for Miss September just arrived," he said.
"Well, it's about time. Let's see it."
The guy spread out a couple dozen transparencies on the light table, and Natalie Orlov bent to study them. After quickly going over them, she straightened up. "Christ! What the fuck are they doing? We want slick and slippery. How many goddamn times do I have to say it? Slick and slippery and ready for action. If what's-her-name can't manage to juice herself up, then have Hank use glycerine or Vaseline or something. Christ! Our guys get enough of this dry hole stuff when they roll on top of their wives after about three whole seconds of warm-up. They don't want to see it laid out over a double page. Shit! Look at this!"
As they huddled to discuss labial technicalities, I looked around the office. It was simple, uncluttered, and totally functional, just large pine worktables and gray metal filing cabinets. It was all business, but nothing to indicate what that business was, much like Natalie Orlov herself. And there was none of that bullshit--leather couches, coffee tables, a small bar, a nifty little collection of ancient pottery--that was supposed to turn an office into a living room and impress the hell out of a visitor. The only decorations were a page torn from an old National Geographic and stuck up on the white wall with masking tape--a picture of a large white Victorian wooden building overlooking what appeared to be a South Pacific beach--and a framed certificate behind her metal desk. This one wasn't about the magazine, though, but a diploma from the University of California awarding Natalie Elizabeth Orlov a Ph.D. in medieval lit about six years before. Yeah, a most unexpected woman.
After the guy left with instructions to schedule another photo session, and this time make sure it was glistening, she turned back to me, shaking her head. "Swell job, huh?"
"A lot of guys'd think so."
"A lot of guys are fourteen ... forever. What about you?"
I shook my head. "Maybe I was never fourteen. At least, I never found women in pieces to be all that interesting."
"Hmmm." She looked at me for a bit, speculatively. "I think we might get along."
I looked back into her large, clear green eyes, and felt an odd pressure begin to form at the base of my spine. I shook it off. "Maybe. Now, what can I do for you?"
She gave me a long, hard look, then nodded with a smile. She went around behind her desk, waved for me to sit in the chair in front, and sat down herself. She wrinkled her forehead and fiddled for a while with a blue felt-tip marker. Then she looked up, apparently having decided how to proceed.
"Have you ever heard of a group--or something--called the Sword of Truth?"
"No. What is it?"
She shook her head. "I'm not really sure. Until a month ago, I'd never heard of them. Neither has anyone else I've asked."
"Sounds like one of those fringe religious groups."
"That's what it seems like. They say they're the tenth and last Crusade. Originally, you may know, there were nine Crusades, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Their ostensible purpose was to rescue the holy city of Jerusalem, to recapture it from the Moslem hordes."
"Maybe this bunch has the same idea."
"They do. Or at least that's what they write."
"You're getting letters?" I was beginning to see what this was about. "Go on."
"Yeah. They started arriving about a month ago. Went on and on about redeeming the New Jerusalem from the New Infidels."
"Meaning people like you?"
"That seemed to be the implication. I really didn't pay that much attention to the first couple. There are a lot of cranks around, and a magazine like this is a convenient target for them."
"Then what happened?"
"The messages started to get more explicit. Said we were 'befouling the Holy City,' something like that. And that we must be removed."
"The Holy City? They couldn't mean Hollywood, could they?" I laughed. "Hell, you get rid of the heathens here, it'll be deserted. Look like a neutron bomb hit the place."
She smiled. "I have a feeling they were speaking metaphorically." Then she grew more serious. "I'm just not certain how metaphorical the threats are."
"Do you have any of the letters?"
She opened a drawer, took out a file folder, and handed me some papers. "They're all there except for the first few."
There were seven letter-size sheets, all the same, fairly good-quality ivory stationery. "Sword of Truth" was printed at the top in fancy lettering and dark red ink. The first "T" in Truth was formed out of a drawing of a large sword, pointing down, with a bloody, dripping tip.
The front side of each sheet was covered with a spidery scrawl in brighter red ink. The letters were undated and they weren't addressed to anyone specific, but started off with friendly salutations like "YOU are a vile, Godless creature, a stain of corruption upon the Waters of our Purity, a belching, demon TOAD." The writing continued in the same vein: repetitious, rambling, and near-hysterical. It was the usual fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist masturbatory bullshit, neither original nor interesting. The only real difference among the letters was that they grew progressively more violent. They changed from "You should be excised from the HOLY BODY like a Cancerous Growth" to "You will be smote with Flaming Swords and Thunder." It seemed as if the writer's dementia was feeding upon itself, getting angrier the more it screeched, working up to a fevered, frothing pitch. It was probably nothing but bad-smelling wind. The problem was, you could never be entirely sure what one of these self- righteous assholes was liable to do.
"How were these addressed?" I asked after I'd gone through the lot.
"To N. E. Orlov, Editor of SLEAZE."
"Do you still have any of the envelopes?"
"Just three." She took them out of the folder and handed them to me.
They were ordinary white number 10's, the kind that are sold all over in packets of twenty-five. The writing was the same spidery scrawl that could have come from an old witch of either sex. They all had L.A. postmarks and, not surprisingly, none had a return address.
I pushed everything back to her. "Forget about it. Like you said, there are a lot of cranks around. This is probably just some old bat in an attic in Pasadena, cackling to herself and getting off on this shit. It's like an obscene phone call. By reacting at all, you're doing just what this person wants. I usually don't try to talk myself out of a job, but I don't think there's anything here to bother about."
"That's what I thought. Until two days ago." She took one last envelope out of the folder. "This came to my home."
She handed it across to me. The name on the front was "Natalie Orlov," at an address that I recognized as one of the few nice residential neighborhoods left in Hollywood. The letter inside was the same as the others, though maybe a bit more menacing. It closed by saying, "We know where you are. You cannot escape from your FATE."
I looked up at her and nodded. I could see why she was starting to get upset. It was getting closer, becoming personal.
"You mean someone made the connection between Natalie and N. E. Orlov?" I said.
"That's right. And it's not that easy a connection to make. I've made sure of that--both for business and personal reasons. As far as I know, I've never been identified publicly as N. E. And I'm not listed in the phone book at all."
"So you think someone went to some trouble to track you down?"
"And that indicates a degree of seriousness that wasn't necessarily present before?"
She nodded, looking very serious herself.
"That's one possibility," I said.
"One possibility? What else could it be?"
I shrugged. "It could be someone who already knows you."
She looked at me disbelievingly, then slowly shook her head in denial. That was to be expected. This kind of stuff--anonymous letters, nasty phone calls--was so ugly, no one wanted to believe that the source might be an acquaintance. But it often was. This was a cheap, easy way for someone to get even for a grudge, or to exercise power in the only way he could.
"Anyone you consider an enemy?" I asked. "Or that might consider you one?"
She shook her head.
"Anyone you had a fight with lately? Anyone you cheated or screwed?"
"No, no, no." She sighed and looked straight at me. "I don't pretend that this is the nicest business in the world--and there are a hell of a lot of slimy creeps floating around in it--but I try not to be one. And it is a business. I figure in the long run it's not good for business to screw and cheat people. And even if it were, I wouldn't do it."
She stared at me, eyes flashing, as though expecting a challenge, but I just looked back. "Okay." I had the feeling she was as straight as she sounded, but at this point it didn't matter either way. "But what about some of those slimy creeps?"
"I don't deal with them. Period. I don't deal with pimps or boyfriends or so-called managers. I deal only with the girls that we use. I don't use them if I think that they don't really want to do it, that maybe someone's making them. I pay them good money to spread their legs while a camera looks up their crotch, and I pay the money to them. If they decide to give the money to someone else afterwards--well, I think they're stupid, but I can't do anything about it. And they get paid for one thing only. Nobody gropes them. They don't have to suck or fuck anyone, or do anything except pose. Now some people may think that these are meaningless distinctions--and ultimately they may be right--but they make a difference to me." She paused, as if she was surprised at having made a speech, then shook her head and gave me an ironic smile. "How about that, Mr. Hunter? A principled pornographer."
How about it? I didn't know. Most people are pretty apparent right from the beginning, but I couldn't quite figure Natalie Orlov. Not that I had to; but the more she talked, the more intrigued I got.
"Okay. Nobody pissed off at you that you know about. What about old boyfriends? ... or girlfriends?"
Again she shook her head, and her short hair bounced. "And it's boyfriends, if you're interested," she said with a smile.
I looked at her but didn't smile back. I was interested. Shit. Did I need this? The hell with it. I'd worry about it later.
"Why don't you go to the cops with this?" I said, for some reason still trying to talk myself out of a job.
"The last time I called the police it was three a.m., and someone about seven feet tall wearing a black cape was scratching around my front door like the Curse of the Vampire. It took them forty-five minutes to get to my place, by which time the guy was gone and I'd gone back to sleep. After waking me up, they told me they couldn't find anyone, and acted as if they were pissed at me for not being a mutilated corpse. No, I figure the cops'll get real interested if I get smote with fire and thunder, but not before. Besides, how concerned do you think they'd be about the editor of SLEAZE?"
"Oh, I don't know. A lot of 'em are probably loyal readers."
"Exactly," she said.
I shook my head. "They'll be real disappointed, you know, missing the opportunity to get their hands on your files with all the addresses and phone numbers of your girls. Not to mention the chance to see what's her name's tattoo."
"Claudia? Is she still doing that? I'll have to talk to her again. Christ! What a bimbo!"
We both considered Claudia's bimbosity for a while, then I asked her just exactly what it was she wanted me to do.
"You're probably right that all the threats are bullshit, but I'd like to know for sure. Even though I don't intend to do this forever"--she gestured at her office--"I sure as hell don't want some crazy to excise me from the Holy City . I have a more graceful exit in mind. Nobody needs this kind of grief, and I don't like feeling nervous all the time. But most of all, I don't like shit like this, someone passing judgments on me, intruding into my life. Mr. Hunter, I want you to try and find out who's doing it."
"And if I manage to?"
She looked at me for a long minute. "I've heard you have a way with assholes," she said finally.
I grinned at her. "I guess I've got a new client."
I looked at her wide, full mouth smiling back at me, and felt that pressure return to my lower back. "As long as you pay your bills."
Her eyes widened momentarily, then she opened her mouth and laughed, a sound of genuine amusement. It sounded pretty good.
She got out a current-account checkbook, filled in a check, and handed it across. "Is this enough?"
I looked at it. "To start with." I folded the check and put it in my pocket. Ah--Sam Hunter, Private Eye to SLEAZE. Pretty fucking classy.
I stood up and told Natalie Orlov I'd see what I could do. As I was heading to the door, she called, "Thanks."
I turned. "I haven't done anything yet."
"No. I mean thanks for not making any dumb remarks. A lot of people who come in here make some joke about a 'womb with a view,' something like that."
I tried to keep my face very straight as I looked at her, but I guess I didn't, since she laughed and said, "That's okay. I still think the same thing myself sometimes."
I decided this was a woman I'd have to be very careful with. Much too sharp.
I went out the door, then looked back in. "Just out of curiosity, what would you have said if I'd been the one who called what's her name--Claudia--a bimbo?"
"I'd have given you a lecture, of course. Then thrown you out."
"That's what I thought." I turned to go.
"Oh, Mr. Hunter."
I looked back. "Yeah?"
"A word of advice."
"If Claudia offers to show you her goldfish, give it a miss." She smiled sweetly.
I went down the hall and into the reception area. As I headed to the outer door, Claudia bounced over to me.
"Want to see my goldfish?" she said.
I smiled and hurried on.
What a bimbo.