Two things I can’t stand: fake smoking and saying “fricking” instead of “fucking,” as if you were editing your life to move from HBO to Turner. The first time I saw Carrie Deshane live, she was doing both.
“Seven takes, Gordie. Seven fricking takes, wrestling in my underwear in cold, sloppy mud—and you can’t find twenty seconds for it.”
The schlub she was bitching at just stood there and took it. The cigarette in her left hand looked long enough for a full season of Mad Men, but she just posed with the thing without taking a real hit on it, as if she were doing Pissed Off Debutante in acting class.
The eight-figure insurance bet I cared about was riding on her costar, Kent Trowbridge. Two nights before Trowbridge had played bumper car in his Ferrari with a median and several palm trees in San Gabriel, California. Apparently he was over the legal limit. Really? You think? The press reports also said something about marijuana and cocaine. So I didn’t give Deshane all that much thought.
Proxy Shifcos and I followed our escort across a vast expanse of concrete floor swarming with the kind of people who get invited to a wrap party. We walked past steam tables, bar stations, and attitudes to a small, white elevator. Our escort flashed a key card at a blinking red light on the elegantly rounded door, which opened with a smooth, hydraulic purr. We stepped inside. As soon as the door closed, the hubbub outside disappeared. I mean gone.
Two floors up the door opened on what was either a huge office or a modest conference room. Let’s go with office. Twelve feet in front of me I saw a massive slab the size and height of a Pentagon war-gaming table. With its surface polished to satin- black gloss, it looked like it weighed two tons.
Four people stood around one end of the table. I recognized Mark Korvette from Proxy’s briefing book. She had explained to me on the way in from the airport that Korvette hates chairs at meetings because things slow down when people get comfort- able. He was the managing partner in the partnership that was the controlling member of the limited liability company that owned New Paradigm Studios, Inc. Or something like that. My eyes had glazed over somewhere around the second holding company. Point is, that’s why there weren’t any chairs.
Korvette wore a desert-brown cashmere blazer that cost four- thousand dollars if it cost a cent; a yellow, open-necked dress shirt; and earth-tone slacks. He was shorter than I am, but then most people are. He had almost half-a-foot on Proxy, so I put him at five-eleven or so. Perfect teeth in a face that was a little too fleshy and a little too square, all under casually-combed brown hair.
To his right stood a guy that Proxy could have posted up on under the basket. His wig must have cost twice what Korvette’s blazer did, and I still spotted it for a rug from eight feet away. Nothing particularly wrong with his face. If he’d had any work done, he’d gotten his money’s worth. He figured to be Kent Trowbridge’s agent, which would make him—I mentally rifled the briefing book—Saul Levitt.
A man and a woman on Korvette’s left completed our welcoming committee. Him mid forties, her late thirties. I don’t remember anything else about them except they looked like they wanted to sit down. Proxy strode ahead of me across a rug that four Persians had spent a year on and stuck out her right hand.
“Good evening, Mr. Korvette. I’m Proxeine Shifcos from Trans/Oxana. This is my colleague, Jay Davidovich.”
She got Korvette’s attention. Also Levitt’s. Also the other guy’s. Proxeine Violet Shifcos is a dish. Jet black hair in a sassy helmet cut, alert brown eyes, and that peaches-and-cream complexion that WASPs pass on in their wills. Top of her class at University Lab High School in Dover and magna cum laude BSBA from the University of Delaware. Came to Trans/Oxana in the fall of 2006 to put in her obligatory two years in the real world before going to Wharton or someplace for her MBA. Had her boards taken when the Great Recession hit and she noticed that the insurance industry offered something lacking in more glamorous fields like venture capital start-ups: employment. So, at least for now, she pulls down ninety-eight thou a year working with Trans/Oxana’s cowboys—me, for example.
All in all, she isn’t bad. I’d give you eight to one that she’s never had a taste of tobacco or a whiff of cannabis. And her idea of a mixed drink is a lime twist in designer water. But she can spend a week in Vegas at a sales convention without being a killjoy. Just don’t call her “Foxy Proxy.”
“Good evening, Ms. Shifcos.” Korvette shook her hand. “I think you know Saul. Our other guests are Aaron Epstein and Erin Price of Epstein and Price.”
Popularly known as Aaron & Erin. I hadn’t recognized them, but I knew the names—and not from Proxy’s briefing book. One of the top criminal law boutiques in California. In other words, Oh, shit.
Epstein said something polite while he and Price traded business cards with Proxy. Epstein glanced at her card without completely taking his eyes off me.
“‘Assistant Director/Risk Management/U.S.’” he read from the card. “And what is Mr. Davidovich’s function?”
I was about to say “apparatchik” when Proxy jumped in with, “Loss Prevention Specialist.” That was the title on my business cards, but I didn’t feel like digging one out for a lawyer.
“‘Loss Prevention Specialist.’” Korvette rolled the words on his tongue like a mediocre wine he was thinking of sending back. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got our cocks on the block. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you.’”
He had a point, sort of. We had insured Kent Trowbridge’s Major Performing Artist contract for thirty-six million dollars. In the Trans/Oxana universe, that’s more like a pinkie. But times are hard, and pinkies count.
“How bad is it?” Proxy asked the question.
“You’re on,” Korvette said, nodding at Aaron & Erin. “Pretty damn bad.” This from the shyster, not the shysterette.
“San Gabriel County and LA County might as well be two different countries. Trowbridge is a repeat offender in SGC. Plus, this DUI violated the terms of the probation he got after the first one down there. That pisses judges off.”
“‘DUI?’” I tried to keep the this-is-chickenshit tone out of my voice, but I’m not very good at that. “What about the coke and the grass?”
“We’ll get the coke suppressed because they’ve already screwed up the chain of custody.” Shysterette’s turn. “And he has a prescription for the grass. But the judge will know about both of them, and second offense DUI isn’t ‘boys will be boys’ in San Gabriel County anyway. With a blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit, if Trowbridge is convicted, he could be looking at nine months.”
“Which in SGC,” Epstein said, “does not mean a-day-and-a-half with the rest off for good behavior, like Paris Hilton doing ‘let’s play jail’ in LA.”
Levitt turned paler than Minnesota goyim in January. When Korvette spoke, though, his voice had a no-big-deal shrug to it.
“Simple answer then: keep him from being convicted.”
“Not a slam-dunk.” Epstein shook his head grimly. “Not a layup. Not even a ten-foot jump shot with a good look at the basket. More like a three-pointer with a tall guy’s hand in our face. You’re paying us fifty-thousand bucks to hit it, but sometimes we miss those.”
“Fifty thousand?” Korvette did an eyes-left at Proxy to make sure she was paying attention. “Is that what we’re paying you to handle this case?”
“How about we make it two hundred fifty and you guarantee an acquittal?”
“How about if we leave it at fifty and guarantee you our best shot?”
Give Epstein credit. Korvette had just proposed that we bribe a judge or a prosecutor with Trans/Oxana chipping in. Epstein saved Proxy the trouble of saying no—which was too bad, because I wasn’t sure she would have.
Korvette turned his attention to me. “How much do you know about movies?”
“The Pony Soldiers is the only war movie John Wayne made where he fights non-Hispanic whites. That’s about it.”
“In other words, nothing. So let me explain Prescott Trail to you.”
“That’s the western you’re about to roll out?”
“Retro-western.” Korvette paused for two seconds, daring me to ask him what a ‘retro-western’ was. When I didn’t bite, he went on. “Made the way they made them in the ’forties and ’fifties. Good guys and bad guys without shades of gray, virtuous womenfolk, blazing six-shooters, stampedes, cavalry charges, glorious scenery, and whores with hearts of gold. That gets old farts into the theater.”
“But woven in with all that retro stuff we have a whole different movie going on. Hip jokes, winks and nudges, allusions to rap music and pot and kinky sex. All of that goes right over the fossils’ heads, but the sixteen-to-twenty-fives totally get it and the twenty-six-to-forty-fours pretend to get it because if they don’t that means they’re not hip anymore.”
“An affectionate sendup but not quite a spoof,” Proxy said. “Like True Grit arm-wrestles Blazing Saddles and barely wins.” “That wasn’t the pitch line for Prescott Trail, but it should have been.” Korvette smiled at his own clever line. “In television, eyeballs don’t really count unless they’re under thirty. In movies, a fanny in a seat is a fanny in a seat.”
The fingers on Korvette’s right hand started dancing nimbly on what must have been a control panel flush with the table’s surface. The lights in the room dimmed, and a section in the middle of what I’d thought was a solid granite table top opened up to reveal an enormous flat screen. NEW PARADIGM PROJECT DELTA appeared on it.
As this title slide dissolved we saw Carrie Deshane and Kent Trowbridge at a table in an elegantly wainscoted contemporary room. Her standing, him sitting. Trowbridge in white dinner jacket and black bow tie, with Deshane sporting a Lincoln-green formal gown showing enough rack to qualify for Jersey Shore. She poured wine from a cut glass decanter into a crystal goblet, delicately picked the goblet up, and offered it to Trowbridge. He took it, undressed her with his eyes, sipped wine, then set the goblet down:
CARRIE: “What do you think?”
KENT: “Beauty there is that delights the eye, beauty that exalts the soul, and beauty that excites desire. And I am looking at all three.”
CARRIE: “I meant about the wine.” KENT: “I was talking about the wine.”
“Retro-spy flick.” Proxy made this comment. “I get it.” “Bingo.” Korvette looked at each of us as he killed the tease and brought the lights back up. “After retro-spy flick comes retro-caper flick, retro-flag-waver, retro-noir private eye movie.”
“You’re talking about a franchise.”
“Kentucky Fried Chicken is a franchise. I’m talking about a business model: scalable, repeatable, reliable, durable.”
“Look, Mr. Korvette, I know your time is valuable, so I don’t want to waste it. Trans/Oxana insured fulfillment of Kent Trowbridge’s obligations under an MPA contract. It’s a three-picture deal, so we’re not off the hook just because you’ve got the first film almost ready for distribution. We get it. We’re on the risk.” “You are goddamn right you’re on the risk.” Korvette said this quietly and smoothly instead of screaming it, like a Hollywood exec on Entourage would have. “If that pretty boy pulls a Lindsay Lohan on me before the third film is in the can, you are writing one hell of a big check.”
“It wouldn’t be the first one we’ve ever written.” Proxy smiled sweetly. Korvette’s attitude pivoted on a dime.
“I love meetings where everyone in the room has balls. We understand each other. Good. Bottom line: Kent Trowbidge can’t handle three months of hard time, much less nine. It doesn’t do me a damn bit of good for him to get sprung in time for principal photography on phase two if America has an indelible image of him curled up in a fetal position sobbing and sucking his thumb.”
Proxy didn’t quite sigh. I could tell she wanted to, but she’s a pro.
“That’s why my tall colleague is here,” she said.
“Who are you again?” Korvette asked, turning toward me. “J.M. Davidovich. Call me Jay.”
“What does ‘J’ stand for?” “Jay.”
“‘Davidovich’ is Russian, I’m guessing.”
“Ukrainian. Not the same thing. The Russians made the same mistake for awhile. Nixon was still President when mom and dad hit Connecticut. They were eleven and thirteen.”
“The détente exodus in the early ’seventies? I thought that was all Jews.”
“It was.” Korvette did a double take, so I kept talking. “No sweat, I get that a lot. Blond hair, blue eyes, can’t do compound interest in my head, and I don’t even know Sandy Koufax’s lifetime ERA. Not exactly typecast for Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It’s a scandal to the goyim.” Levitt said this in an exaggerated borscht belt accent. It broke the tension long enough for Korvette to get his swagger back.
“And you think you can nursemaid Trowbridge through an eight-city pre publicity tour while the shysters do their magic?”
“What in the hell is ‘pre publicity’?”
“Buzz-generation,” Levitt explained. “Build excitement and anticipation while they finish post production. Hit some local talk shows, a few sit-downs with scribblers in flyover country, photo-op or two at charity events that TZ will eat up, give fanny-pats to guys who run regional chains. When the movie is released in two months, all Kent and Carrie have to do is show a clip on Leno and Letterman and we’re on top after opening weekend.”
“When does the tour start?” “Monday.”
“Okay.” Proxy exhaled in an only-grown-up-in-the-room sort of way. She’ll do some calculated swearing from time to time, just for shock value, but I’ve never heard a spontaneous cuss word out of her. “Next step is to talk to Mr. Trowbridge.”
Levitt unholstered a palm-sized thing and started touching screens on it.
“I’ll check his schedule. He may have an avail sometime tomorrow.”
“‘Avail’?” I asked Proxy. “Availability.”
“Bullshit.” I meant that to get attention and it did. “He signed a contract, so his availability is now. Get his ass up here.”
Talk about shock. Korvette, shyster, and shysterette all gaped at me like I’d given Superman a wedgie. Korvette had made billions of dollars playing with other people’s money in the currency-arbitrage racket and then used a sliver of it to buy New Paradigm Studios—but Saul Levitt was the most powerful person in the room. In the building, for that matter, and probably in Century City. The others couldn’t believe I didn’t know that.
“What did you say?” Levitt demanded.
“You heard me. Trowbridge made the mess, so he gets to help clean it up. Call him and tell him to take twenty minutes off from banging whatever starlet got the short straw tonight so that he can join the party.”
Purple-faced and pumping himself up like a bantam cock, Levitt whipped every one of his sixty-four inches around Proxy and stalked up to me.
“Now you listen to me, you two-bit thug. Kent Trowbridge is a star. He is Hollywood royalty. He doesn’t—”
“Kent Trowbridge is a star, but Trans/Oxana is an insurance company. When insurance companies decide that stars aren’t bondable, they aren’t stars anymore.”
It would have been interesting to see where Levitt went with that one, but the elevator opened and in came a female version of the escort who had accompanied Proxy and me. She was breathless. When her dove-gray blazer flew open I noticed that she was also something else: armed.
“We have a situation in the parking area,” she panted. “With Mr. Trowbridge.”