July 1, 2014
Instead of plodding on with more installments, here is, finally, the complete story of Hollywood Russell, Stella, and a hotel right out film noir. (Or Scooby Doo, take your pick.) This is the story of an evening Hollywood never forgot for the rest of his life. It’s pretty long but I hope you think it’s worth it.
The beach was windy and cold, but more importantly for Hollywood Russell’s bank account, it was off-season. The beach was part of Brigantine Island, just a short hop from Atlantic City, and if you had a car and a mind to do so, you could drive around the perimeter of the island, see the sights, and be back where you started in about fifteen minutes.
Hollywood had been promising Stella Warren, his current not-a-girlfriend, a trip to Atlantic City for what Stella said had been months. Hollywood was sure he had mentioned it off-hand once, and only once (and while distracted by a case, at that) but a promise was a promise and in a P.I.’s line of work, it was important to keep promises. However, for Hollywood Russell, work always came first, and what he was hoping would come next would be a case where he could somehow put this trip to the capital gaming capitol on his expense account. But all of his recent cases were local and Stella was about ready to walk out on him, hence this off-season escape to the shore.
The Brigantine Hotel had seen better days, and Hollywood suspected that those days were around the 1890’s. It was a very tall building, easily the tallest building on the island, and impossible to miss since the rest of the buildings topped out at two stories. Add the fact that this pocket skyscraper was right on the beach, literally, with no other buildings even close, and you had a hotel that screamed “late night horror movie.”
Sand from the beach had blown all over the parking lot, the front steps, and into the lobby. Water from large waves came all the way up and into the back entrance. While Stella oohed and ahhed over the location, Hollywood wondered what kept the hotel from sinking into the ground.
The vacationing detective got their bags from the trunk while Stella turned up her collar against the wind. “It’s too cold out here!” Hollywood grunted something about wearing more clothes and less makeup and led her through the front door.
There was no one there.
Hollywood Russell had hoped that this trip to Atlantic City would be quiet and uneventful and so far it was all that and less.
The front door opened and the wind blew more sand into the lobby, caking it into the well-worn, and in some places worn out, old carpet. Tracking in even more sand as he entered with Stella, Hollywood tried to remember if the old adage was about a chill wind or an ill wind. Deciding he didn’t care, he dropped their bags and looked around.
The large front desk was empty. Hollywood, whose professional instincts never took a vacation, peeked behind it to make sure no one had offed the bellboy and dropped him back there.
There was no one in the lobby at all, dead or otherwise. It was well furnished with the chairs and drapes of an earlier era. There were framed photographs of some distinguished patrons on one wall, and on another was a large, smudgy mirror. In fact, along with the tables, lamps and old ferns, the lobby had everything up to and including the kitchen sink. It stuck out oddly from the wall with the photographs and Stella was struck by the fact that it had three faucets. One was hot, one was cold, and the middle one, a handy card tacked above the sink on the wall explained, was for seawater.
While Stella tried to turn the knobs, and was disappointed that no salt water came out, Hollywood examined the pictures. Some of the people in them were familiar, many not, and most were no more recent than a few decades past. Hollywood saw one man, an actor, famous for playing Indian roles and pointed him out to Stella. He died back in 1929.
Hollywood walked back to the front desk, knocked three times, and sang out “Call for Phillip Morris!”
Ten or fifteen seconds went by, then a door near the desk, partially obscured by a curtain, opened and a man who looked as if may or may not have just come up from cleaning the basement came out and asked “can I help you?”
Hollywood, who was not at all sure he could, judging by the man’s sooty clothes, said “I hope so. We have reservations. Name’s Russell.”
“His name is Russell. My name is Warren, Miss Stella Warren,” she said, emphasizing the Miss.
The sooty employee riffled through the pages of an old ledger, filling it with grimy fingerprints. “Russell… Russell… hmm… oh, here it is, Russell, party of two, one suite, overnight. Room 108, just down the hall.“ He put a key on the desk and turned the book around to face the detective. “Please sign here, Mr. Russell. Last name, first name…?” He left the unspoken question trail in the air.
Russell took the key, signed the book and looked the man in the eye. “First name is Private, middle name’s Investigator. Most people call me Hollywood, but you can call me a bellhop to carry these bags to our room.”
Startled, the man rushed out from behind the desk. “I’ll do it myself, Mister, er, Detective Russell.” He made a grab for the bags but Hollywood beat him to them. “I’ll carry them myself. You can have this.” Hollywood thrust his handkerchief into the man’s dirty, outstretched hand. “Keep the change.”
Hollywood and Stella walked down the hall, counting rooms until they found 108.
The Brigantine, as it appeared in Hollywood Russell’s era.
On the way to their room, Hollywood reflected that he picked the Brigantine Hotel for its price, not its décor. Stella, on the other hand, was not impressed.
“Really Hollywood. I wish you’d picked someplace more romantic for our vacation. I’ve seen more romantic spots in a Peter Lorre film.”
“I’ve seen more romantic women in them too,” Hollywood shot back. He was only half-paying attention to Stella, a fact that Stella had pointedly mentioned to him more than once. As they walked, Hollywood was noticing that not only did they not pass any other people, vacationers or otherwise, but there were no sounds coming from any of the rooms they passed. No loud conversations, no radios, no kids crying.
108 turned out to be a large corner suite. More like an economy apartment than a hotel room, it had a full working kitchen occupying the same space as the bed, desk, and chairs. Down a short hall was a very tiny bathroom, and shoehorned into the hall was a lumpy sofa and a television set. The TV was not viewable from the bedroom, and the proximity to the bathroom made the sofa a less than appealing option.
While Stella examined the stove- and declared “I am not going to cook for you!”- Hollywood opened drawers, peeked in closets, and gave the rest of the place a short but thorough looksee. Nothing. Except that the bathroom was short on towels, there was a damp stain on the hallway rug below a fresh-looking stain on the ceiling, the remote for the TV didn’t work and the room was generally stale and old.
But the room had a view. It was a stunning view and Hollywood turned to Stella and-
“Look at this, Lothario. The TV don’t work.”
The words dried in the detective’s throat and he let the curtains swing back. Cheap hotel or not, it was looking like he was running up a big bill with Stella, and they hadn’t even been to Atlantic City proper yet.
“Look, let me see that thingamajig.” Hollywood reached out for the television remote controller but Stella shooed him away. “I know how to handle this.” She gave it three quick raps on the back and then two raps on the TV set for good measure. “Watch this.”
And nothing happened.
Hollywood gently but firmly took the remote out of her hand. “Look at this, Mrs. Edison. No electricity. The batteries are missing.”
“That isn’t the only underpowered thing in this room,” Stella muttered, as she walked away to unpack.
While Stella took clothes out of her bag with the determination of a woman who would not, under any circumstances, turn to look back at her companion, Hollywood decided this missing battery caper warranted not just a call to the front desk, but a personal visit.
In truth, although his main motive for the amble was to take a break from Stella, he was starting to feel a little uneasy about this hotel. Not much, not yet, certainly not yet enough to take his gun out of his suitcase.
Leaving 108, the front desk was to Hollywood’s right, so he went left. He passed a door (locked) labeled “game room,” passed two old-fashioned elevator doors, peaked into an alcove labeled “beach” and discovered that it was too dark to see anything more than sand and small puddles leading into the distance. He listened at every guest room, heard nothing, and when he hit a dead end Hollywood turned back and walked to the front desk where, as he expected, there was no one.
Enough was more than enough for Hollywood. He was determined to take a peek behind the curtained door and had just taken a step behind the desk when the door opened and a gorilla in hospital scrubs stepped out and almost walked into him. It was only when the gorilla spoke and asked “what can I do for you?” that Hollywood, whose imagination was starting to get out of line, realized that it was not a gorilla, but a short, hairy man with no real resemblance to an ape of any sort. By now, though, given the general feel of the place, Hollywood was expecting a B-movie plot device and his overactive P.I. brain gave him one.
Hollywood paused. One thing he had not imagined was the scrubs. The man really was dressed in hospital scrubs, no name tag. Hollywood stared at the man and the man stared at him. Finally, Hollywood showed him the remote control, which he had stuck in his pocket when he left the room. The man said that he’d get some batteries and meet Hollywood in his room in a few minutes.
Hollywood, still curious about a couple of things, not the least of which was when he could finally get some sleep, made his way back to the dark alcove labeled “beach.” Peeking inside, he could only see a few feet ahead, but a quick grope along the wall turned up a light switch. With the overhead lamp on, he saw that he was in a long, narrow hallway. The stone floor, like the lobby carpet, was covered in sand and small puddles dotted the ground. Remembering his earlier remarks to Stella about B-movies and Peter Lorre, the corridor resembled nothing less than something you’d find in an old castle or a dungeon. After a right turn, then a left, Hollywood found that the hallway really did lead to the beach, via a pair of glass and iron doors that were, of course, locked. This was the back of the hotel and Hollywood figured that the end of the hallway had to be, coincidentally or not, right below his room.
After a cursory jiggle of the doors, just to satisfy the Detective’s Union Code of Conduct, he went back to his room where, first thing he noticed, Stella had not opened the curtains. “Hey, you really should take a look-“
“Listen, Lover,” Stella said, cutting him off. “I’m getting bored. Is anybody fixing the TV?”
“Yeah, I got the head of RCA himself. He’ll be right over.” There was a knock on the door. “That must be him now. “ Hollywood let in the same man in scrubs and they both went to the TV where the remote again failed to turn it on.
“I know what to do,” the man in scrubs said. “Let’s go to the game room.”
Hollywood followed, wondering what game he was playing.
Turned out the game was billiards. And darts. And what Hollywood took to be whist. The game room looked more like the drawing room of the London branch of The Explorers Club. Overstuffed chairs, large oaken bookcases, cushioned footstools, the aforementioned billiards, darts, and whist, and of course the obligatory stuffed and mounted heads on the wall. He resisted the urge to see if their eyes followed him.
The game room was relocked when they left, Hollywood assumed, because it had what turned out to be the only working remote control in the whole building. And wonder of wonders, it worked on their television set, which was a weight off Stella’s mind, if not her mouth.
As the evening wore on, the night became cold and the atmosphere in the room downright chilly. Stella wanted to ride into Atlantic City for dinner and Hollywood thought that for once she had a good idea. Mother nature, apparently no friend of Hollywood Russell on this night, had other ideas and unleashed a thunderstorm the likes of which neither of them had seen in recent memory, so dinner was some stew at the tiny diner located on the island, just far enough so that Stella could get her wet and have something else to complain about. Eventually they went back to the hotel and Stella went to bed, taking all the pillows with her.
The storm raged. Thunderclouds directly overhead unleashed their fury, and the rolling, almost unending waves of deep bass thunder merged with the higher pitch of the pounding surf, driven by the wind and echoing all through the empty hotel.
The rain had lightened, but although the visibility through Hollywood’s large glass windows had improved, the drops played a staccato tune that filled the dark hotel room with the symphony of chaos.
The halls echoed with thunder and the moan of the wind. The rain kept a steady thrum on the windows. The lightning would randomly wash the room in brilliant white fluorescence.
Hollywood sat in a chair and watched the scene outside in rapt, utter attention, and not without some awe at nature’s majesty.
Stella lay in bed and snored.
As the minutes passed and turned to hours, the storm moved offshore, and Hollywood’s lonely, lovely vigil was rewarded.
Hollywood Russell, although he liked being a private detective, often said that if he could change one thing about the job, it would be to make it more like the movies. Sure, movie detectives usually got beat up and drugged, and they usually worked with guns either pointed at their backs or their fronts, but they usually had a tuxedo on their front and a beautiful girl at their back. And whatever they wanted, from bourbon to a night on the town, went on some client’s expense account. In real life, Hollywood spent his share of cold nights sleeping in his car waiting for a cheating husband to leave a hot sheets motel, or being forced to find lost dogs in order to make his rent for the month.
But tonight, for just one glorious night, he was in a Technicolor movie.
The curtains were spread wide, giving Hollywood a panoramic view of the beach. The storm clouds had moved to sea and the full moon lit up the surf, which was rolling directly to and just below the detective’s gaze. Forks of lightning shot from the sky and struck the water, the thunder now just a low rumble, felt in the bones instead of heard. A storm at sea is an amazing sight, Hollywood thought, as long as you see it from land. A moonlight beach, the lightning turning the waves to rolling glass, the sound of wind, the pounding of the surf, the majesty of the storm and to the right, Atlantic City.
The only thing that could make the vista even more impressive was the light of the hotels and resorts, the glow from the Steel Pier, that neon sea and fluorescent ocean that rivaled any storm. This was Atlantic City in all its gaudy glory, and the forks of lightning were no match. The aura of the great casinos had fought off the thunderclouds and thrown off their cloak of darkness. This was the power of postwar electricity and American braggadocio at its most wasteful but its most impressive. The reds and greens and yellows and sheer platinum whites reflected off the water, casting an eerie, secondary glow that glimmered and melted and coalesced in millions of patterns and colors, all at the whim of the wind-swept waves.
And taking it all in, in the silence of the hotel that seemed to be his and his alone, Hollywood Russell sat, smiled, and dreamed.
At some point he must have gone to bed, because when the door opened he was already reaching under his pillow for his gun.
Stella was still asleep. But there was a stealthy movement near the kitchen area. Something in the darkness.
Hollywood lay there, hand on his gun, eyes nearly but not quite closed, his senses sharp, even after just a few hours’ sleep.
He lay. He waited.
A flash of lightning, the room alit, Hollywood on his feet and by the stove.
And no one was there.
No one was anywhere. The door was locked, chained from the inside. The bathroom was empty, the TV was off. Stella was snoring into her pillow.
“The place finally got to me,” Hollywood said to no one in particular. He turned on the TV, found The Big Sleep on the late show, and quickly fell back into his own big sleep on the couch.
“Hey loverboy, think we can hit the casino now?” Stella was gently rousing Hollywood from his sleep by vigorously knocking on his head.
Hollywood brushed her aside and went to the window.
The day was bright and clear. There were even a few teenagers on the beach despite the seasonal chill. The water was calm and in the morning sun, the casino hotels had their lights turned off, looking for all the world like they were asleep, and for the first time Hollywood heard rustling in the halls as a maid pushed her squeaky cart past their door.
The storm, the waves, the lights, it all seemed to be fading, like it had never been that way at all. Hollywood got dressed, Stella already cozying up to him in anticipation of him bankrolling her blackjack.
They packed and left the room. In the hall, a door a few paces down opened and a couple of young kids raced out, one chasing the other with a space gun. Hollywood, who was sure that his instincts were as much out to lunch as he was on vacation, sighed, pulled his hat low, and went to the front desk, where a spotless man in a red vest took his cash and sold him a postcard from a rack that Hollywood was sure had not been there the night before.
As they walked to the car, Hollywood carrying all the bags, Stella took his arm in hers, nearly throwing the detective off balance.
“Russell baby, you didn’t have to sleep on the couch. I was just teasing last night.”
“Stella, I can overlook a lot of things, especially when I’m looking over a face like yours. But the next time I promise you a vacation,” Hollywood said as he put the bags in the trunk and slammed it shut, “I’m going to take it with less ice and more bourbon.”