My eyes were wide open but everything was pitch black. I was flat on my back in some kind of wooden coffin. Pushing on the lid above me didn’t help, there was something heavy on top of it. The air around me smelled of cigarettes, booze, and fresh pine. My head was pounding like a jackhammer gone wild, but a hangover was the least of my worries.
I had been celebrating the night before with dinner and drinks at Musso and Frank. My partner Jerry and I had closed the Ravenswood case, which called for a couple of ribeye steaks and one too many Rob Roys.
After leaving the restaurant and stumbling to our cars, I watched Jerry drive off. I sat in my car, hands on the steering wheel at ten and two, my eyelids heavy with sleep.
What must have been a few hours later, I was awakened by a couple arguing in the alley next to the restaurant. They were having a bad night, it seemed. That’s when I looked in my rearview mirror and saw them.
Two men in freshly pressed suits, dressed for a funeral and making a beeline towards my car. I couldn’t place their faces, the booze made sure of that. One of them opened my driver’s side door and pulled me out by the lapels. Both men were dark silhouettes against the lone street light in the restaurant parking lot.
“Take it easy on the threads, mister,” I said. “Do I know you?”
The ape who yanked me out must have been six foot five, easy. He wasn’t much of a talker.
The other one spoke up. “We bring you a message from Nino Manetti,” he said in a two-packs-a-day rasp. “Leave Cherry Valance alone. Understand?”
My vision was blurred and my hearing muffled. I lost track of which shape was talking to me.
“Cherry who?” It took me every bit of concentration not to sound like I was three sheets to the wind. These goons weren’t buying it.
One of the shapes turned to the other.
“Alright, Junior let’s take Mr. Fante here to the pictures,” he said.
Now I was stuck inside this dark box, my head ringing like a four-alarm fire bell.
I spoke up. “Hello? Anybody out there?” Crickets.
I began rocking my coffin from side to side in an attempt to knock off whatever was blocking my exit. I thwacked my head pretty good but I didn’t care, I wanted out. After an eternity of throwing my weight around, I was able to flip the casket over on its side and break free.
I felt like a worn-out catcher’s mitt as I stood up from the wooden crate. Manetti’s boys had worked me over good last night. My eyes were getting better, I could make out a hint of light in the distance. Around me were faint shapes, they looked like studio lights, scenery, camera equipment.
I was on a soundstage, but it didn’t look like one I’d been to before. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO were all familiar to me, but this place looked low-rent. I figured it was one of the Poverty Row studios on Gower.
Shuffling towards the light ahead, the scenic backdrops and racks of costumes came into focus around me. I was looking for the exit. Soon I’d be home where I could put something on my eye and get some real sleep. Cherry Valance was waiting for me.