Robert was waiting at Zinnia Hotel, well up in the rather barren hills north of Burbank, that evening in early spring 1937. He was to meet a friend at the Grill, the hotel’s bar and curving dining room, when a foursome had arrived to take a booth. The two men and two women –– a somewhat Rubeneseque matron and a wide-eyed olive-skinned young girl who could scarcely have been sixteen, both of them overdressed for the room –– slid into the bench seats, the women on the inside while the men bookended them on either side.  They seemed an odd group for this nightclub.

During his years in Hollywood, Fitzgerald had seen a great many sights that in any other place would have been striking (if not alarming), but which had proven to be of little interest to the citizens or the constabulary, so he glanced irritably at his wristwatch and then rotated round on the stool and faced the dining room.  He was checking to see if Nigel had arrived unseen and was even now chatting with one of his many new acquaintances.  The man had friends everywhere, just as before.  Though he’d long been barred from the Game, Lord Smythe-Worthington could not stop playing.

“Getcha something else?” the bartender asked him.  Robert shook his head.  If Fitzgerald had been a studious imbiber, he might have ordered another four or five beers, to ensure they were at hand before club began to fill.  The lull tonight, the time between the luncheon crowd and the commencement of the evening’s louder, more frenetic consumption of food and drink, would be shorter as this was Thursday––the traditional “maid’s night off”––and hard-working domestics across the city tended to make the most of their free-evening.  They would be in later, dressed in the finest cheap-clothing they could afford, the lucky ones wearing finer things, cast-offs given to them by (or fliched from) their employers.  Some would even have the faint smell of grease under the heavy perfumes they wore, for those had come directly from the kitchens, changing clothes in the back of taxis with their mates, laughing again like the innocent girls they had been as they rushed toward their brief return to a simpler time.

The exotic young girl in the foursome caught his eye.  She was nearer 15, he decided, based on a certain plumpness of her features, but quite comely.  The teen-ager seemed to not be enjoying her evening, however, keeping her face lowered during most of the conversation that went on around her, even when inquiries were addressed to her.

Some peculiarity of the room’s construction brought their words to him clearly however.  He wondered if it were another planned architectural oddity:  Nigel had told him of one restaurant named after a hat––the Brown Bowler?  Something like that––the interior of which had been designed expressly so that each patron might be seen by everyone else in the room.

“Come now, darling,” one of the men was saying in a soothing way to the matron.  Both those fellows had the current look––slicked back hair, thin carefully groomed mustache, decently tailored suits.  The speaker was a bit taller and thinner than his companion, who, while by no means stocky, was broader of shoulder and features.   “Errol’s a good fellow, he’ll keep an eye on Sophie while I introduce you to a few of my friends.”

“That’s right, Aunt Martha,” the other man agreed with an easy grin, patting the young girl’s knee.  “I’ll look after her like she’s my own daughter.  She’s quite fond of me already.”  At this the young woman did raise her head for a moment, although the smile she offered seemed quite forced.

On hearing the two speak, Fitzgerald thought Actors.  Both men had accents of the Empire, the thinner fellow an upper-class English while his friend’s voice and cadence had been threaded through with hints of laconic Australian, but it was the precisely articulated speech that Americans had grown to expect from the better sort of British characters in the movies.

“I don’t know, David,” Aunt Martha replied fretfully.  It was her voice that caught his attention.  It was almost too broadly English, near-to comic hall in delivery.  Or perhaps it only sounded that way, distorted by whatever whim of the acoustics sent their conversation toward him.  “Is it quite proper?”

“Quite,” David assured her.  “Oh, I dare say, there’s that writer-fellow I wanted you to meet, you recall, darling?”

“The young man who wrote plays, yes, of course.”  At her agreement, David slipped fluidly from his seat and stood waiting while his aunt, which much less grace struggled free of the booth (the older lady had large bosoms which impeded her easy egress).  Once securely upright, she tidied her appearance before saying sternly to the young girl, “Do mind what Mr. Flynn tells you, Sophie.  When I return we’ll order diner.”

“Yes, mother,” came the meek reply.  It was the first time she’d spoken, and her accent carried the tone of other lands which suggested an origin as exotic as her appearance.

A ward?  Robert speculated idly before peering at the door again.  He was weary and his thigh ached at the site of an old wound.  Often that was a sign of impending hard weather, but tonight he put it down to fatigue.  Sod it.  If Nigel needed to speak to him so desperately, His Lordship could drive out to the bungalow where Fitzgerald lived with the Pyles.

Standing, he reached into a pocket and extracted a slightly sweaty bill.  Out of habit, he was continuing to keep his eyes on the door and so observed the man Flynn scoot across the banquet seat to plant himself beside the young girl.

Perhaps the club had grown noisier, for Robert could no longer make out the conversation that was coming from the booth.  No matter, for he witnessed a most disgraceful display.  The actor stroked the exotic child’s hair, playfully tweaked her cheek and then in a show of contrition kissed her on the cheek while at the same time his hands made free to roam beneath the table.  The young woman’s own hands darted down to fend him off, which only emboldened the Australian to kiss her undefended neck, and then the bare skin above her collar bone.  Even as his hands roamed about, Flynn offered an engaging smile and continued, it appeared, to be carrying on an earnest conversation with the girl, who shyly twisted away from his more bold advances.

Where the devil is this girl’s mother? Robert thought.  It looked as if the Australian was ready to ravish the young woman in the dining room and no one in the Ambassador Hotel displayed any concern about the unequal contest taking place in the battlefield of the booth.  Just as Fitzgerald was on the point of walking over to their table, at last the English actor and his aunt appeared at the edge of the booth.

Fitzgerald felt some of the tension drain from him.  With a sigh, he paid for his unconsumed beer and turned to leave.

“What is this?” the matronly woman said loudly enough to be heard by half the dining room.  Flynn, engrossed in his attempted conquest, jerked slightly back from the young woman as the mother railed on “Why, I never!”

He’ll catch hell now, Robert thought.  He’s earned it.  Boredom made him linger for a moment see a tiny bit of justice served to the bounder.

The actor scrambled from the booth, chagrined, either at being caught or being interrupted.  He stood before the older woman, rather naughty schoolboy in appearance.  “I beg your pardon, Aunt Martha, I have no idea what came over me.”

The woman took Sophie by the arm and extracted her from the booth, dabbing at the lass’s well-moistened skin with a cloth, glaring equally at Flynn and the young girl.

“It must have been the cocktails,” David, the other actor, offered helpfully.

Aunt Martha snorted at that explanation and addressed her daughter.  “I thought I raised you better.”

Flynn protested, “It’s my fault entirely––”

“Not another word,” Aunt Martha told him, before continuing to upbraid her daughter.  “In public.  You acted so disgracefully…”

Now the Australian actor moved to stand protectively beside the youngster he had so determinedly been importuning only a moment ago.  “Aunt Martha, it was all my doing––”

The good woman, it seemed would not be denied her moment of righteous outrage, for she plowed on.  David stood at her elbow as she drew nearer to the other two, saying “You allowed this fellow to take liberties with you when you knew”––and here her hand leapt forward and grasped Flynn firmly by the crotch––“I wanted a bit of that meself.”

At the Australian’s look of complete and utter bafflement, both David and Aunt Martha burst into laughter, as did several patrons nearby who had been observing the drama.

“Ah, y’bastard,” Flynn said after a moment, then joined the laughter.

“Happy birthday, old boy,” David told him and then “Aunt Martha” pulled the Australian actor down for a very passionate kiss, making much show of rubbing the not-so-matronly bosoms on him.

Robert might have chuckled himself at witnessing someone playing a very rude jest on a friend, had not the thin English actor waved to the exotic young girl, who had watched the entire proceedings with an uncertain smile on her face.  “Go on, she’s yours.”

“Only for the weekend,” the older woman said in a much more American accent.

At this, something of the impish schoolboy returned to Flynn’s face as he took the young girl’s hand and pulled her to his side.

Standing together, it was clear the actor was at least 20 years older than the exotic teen.  “Well, we must be going,” he announced with a lascivious grin.

“We’ll walk you out, mate,” David replied as the bawdy “aunt” took his arm and the four strolled from the dining room.

Most of the other diners had returned to their meals or drinks.  Robert now regretted giving in to his moment of idle voyeurism for he felt somehow debased for having watched the sordid (and, he sadly suspected, all-too-common) encounter.

The two couples preceded him to the street, and thus Fitzgerald could not help but observe the tiny jerks of the girl’s head, the anxious glances that she gave to Flynn and the increasingly imploring ones directed at the woman Robert now thought of as an “amah.”  In Shanghai, this role was one taken by elderly prostitutes, becoming overseers and enforcers of the commercial activities of the younger women of the night.  The false aunt had none of the girl’s charms, if she ever had, and was parasitically feeding off the teen’s beauty from afar, as it were.

Outside, the evening air was chill, and even here, nearly 20 miles from the coast, Fitzgerald could smell the ocean.  He never tired of the hint of salt and moisture in the air.  It was one of the few attractions of this city.

Robert had parked his own car farther down the lane.   Though it was late and he was knackered, he would draw a hot bath as soon as he got to the bungalow.  It would ease the ache in his thigh, rinse away the sweat from the day, and, he hoped, help him feel less unclean for having borne witness to another’s misfortune.

That was his plan, however, up until the moment Flynn put a strangely dainty hand on the girl’s rump and she squirmed free, saying in distress to the older procuress, “But you said it was only dinner!”

“Mr. Flynn will be very nice.  And Mr. Niven has already paid for your time.”

“We’ll have a grand evening,” the Australian assured the girl.

Rather than answering with words, the teen’s only response was a despairing panting as she glanced from one to the other of her captors.

“You said you wanted to be in the movies,” the amah told her, in a much less friendly tone.  “Mr. Flynn will put you in one of his films.”

“There’s my car,” the actor said reassuringly as what was clearly an expensive, open-top roadster was pulled up by one of the staff.  “Come along, love.”

Sophie, if that was her name, stopped.  Her entire posture was that of a defeated child.

“She does not wish to accompany you.”

All of them, including the teen, glanced round at this.  They beheld Fitzgerald standing alone on the walk behind them.

The amah said haughtily, “None of your business, chief.”

“It’s a private matter,” Niven added in an urbane, Englishman of the movies voice.

Ignoring them, Robert directed his next statement to Flynn.  “This young lady”­­––the older woman snorted when he said that––“no longer enjoys your company.”

The Australian turned to face Robert.  Improbably, at the same time, with some gentleness he eased Sophie to one side. “Something you would care to do about that, mate?”    Almost as improbably, Flynn had a curious half-smile on his face.

Before Fitzgerald could respond, he became aware of two massive figures beside him.  In the dimness just beyond the fairy-land glow of the club’s lights, they could have been upright grizzly bears in overcoats.

“Can we help you with something, sir?” one of huge figures rasped out.  It sounded as if the man’s larynx was half crushed, misshaping the words as they passed.

“Not at all, chaps,” Flynn replied, the broad Australian accent asserting itself.  “My new friend and I, Mister…?”

“Fitzgerald.  Robert Fitzgerald.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald and I are going to take a turn about the parking lot, aren’t we, Robert?”  The actor glanced at Robert, as if waiting for a character in a play who had forgotten his line.

“Yes,” Fitzgerald said.

Clearly feeling that was a reply lacking the requisite theatrical flair, Niven supplied “It’s a lovely night for a stroll.”

One of the two bouncers gave a reproving sigh.  He voice was much clearer, but oddly high-pitched.  “Mr. Flynn, we can take care of this for you.”  The speaker placed special emphasis on the word “care” as if everyone standing before the two giants were mental defectives requiring special attention.

“I wouldn’t hear of it,” the actor said.  He withdrew a few bills from his jacket and gave them to the raspy bouncer.  “Edgar, a cab for the young lady, please.”  To her, he said “Sophie, what a delight it was to meet you.”  Then he gestured toward the dark, distant parking lot.  “After you, Robert.”


It was the strangest fight Fitzgerald had been in.

They did indeed stroll, followed at a distance by one of hulking bouncers.  Flynn chatted amiably about the lovely weather, about sailing, and revealed that he, too, enjoyed the salt tang on the breeze.  Toward the end of the line of cars, the fields of scrub oak began.  One of the attractions of the Zinna Hotel was its relative isolation; about 45 minutes’ drive from the studios and inconvenient wives or husbands or film executives, in the foothills as yet unlined by grids of roadways.

“Is it truly your birthday?” Fitzgerald asked while Flynn removed his own jacket, folded it, and handed it to the bouncer.

“Oh, yes.”

“I regret spoiling your evening.”

“Not at all,” the actor replied.  “Can’t do one, might as well do the other.  Do you want to take off your coat?  Larry will hold it for you.”

Robert considered.  The corduroy workcoat he wore would impede his arms, but he found himself hesitant to drift with reach of the massive arms of the silent Larry.  A glance at the towering man’s face in the dim light revealed nothing.  “Excellent suggestion,” he said after a moment.  Trying to keep both the Australian and the bouncer in view, Fitzgerald proffered his jacket to the behemoth, who took it with the faintest sigh of what sounded like long-suffering disapproval.

Flynn waited while Robert stepped well-clear of Larry’s reach and faced him.  Then, surprising Fitzgerald, the actor raised his fists, assuming a fighting stance right out of the most fevered American fantasy of English gentleman’s contests.

“Marquis of Queensbury?”

The Australian gave a rather boyish grin.  “Why not?  It’s just a friendly fight.”

Damn it.   Fitzgerald almost found himself liking the bounder.  He raised his own hands.  “As you say.”


Flynn was fast and he was younger than Robert by a decade.  Too, Fitzgerald, was hampered by the fact the last hand-to-hand combat he’d been in was over a continent away and nearly 15 years ago.  There was also the fact he had to keep himself from maiming or killing the rogue.  Every scratching, clawing, cursing fight Robert had been in since 1914 had been most seriously concerned with life or death.  And since his time in Shanghai, under the tutelage of Inspector Harburne, he had incorporated savage kicks and joint-breaking strikes into his bin of tools.

Yet the Australian treated this evening’s encounter as sport.   “Not the face, please, Robert,” he had cheerily admonished, and then waded in.

For all of Flynn’s speed, his punches lacked power.  Or so Robert thought until the other man delivered a punishing left hook to the ribs, staggering Fitzgerald.  Breathless, the Englishman reeled back, fetching up against an oak tree, which turned out to be Larry.  The bouncer merely supported Robert’s weight with his massive palms while the Australian waited, bouncing lightly on his toes.  “Are we done?” the actor inquired.

“No,” Robert said, straightening.  Over his shoulder, he said to the bouncer “Thank you.”

They fought for nearly an hour, observed and occasionally chided by Larry.  “Low blow, Mr. Flynn, you’re getting careless.”  Or “Elbows, please, Mr. Fitzgerald.”  Finally, the giant stepped between the weaving, panting combatants.  “Time, fellows.”

Neither man spoke at first.  Both had black eyes, swollen lips, bloody noses––for in spite of their best intentions, an opponent’s head had a way of feinting directly into a punch.  The bouncer offered each man their jacket.  Fitzgerald, winded and perspiring declined, while Flynn accepted before combing his sweaty hair into place with his fingers.

“Can I call a car for you, Mr. Flynn?”  The actor only shook his head, and winced at the pain the action caused him.  “Or you, sir?” came the inquiry to Robert, who waved it away with an arm that felt as heavy as a telephone pole.

The Englishman could barely stand and the Australian was having trouble walking.  Again the weary sigh from the mostly-silent sentinel who had watched their contest.  Larry grasped each of them with a mammoth hand, Fitzgerald by the back of his nominally intact shirt and Flynn by the collar of jacket, and walked them back toward the club.

They trio hardly made a sound on gravel of the lot, for the bouncer was bearing most of their weight while the two fighter’s legs tended to wobble and their feet to skim across the ground, bringing to Fitzgerald’s mind the image of a child dragging two puppies outside by the scruff of the neck.

“What was that?” the bouncer said off to the side.

Flynn’s now entirely Australian accent was heard from behind the moving mass of Larry.  Either the swollen lips or his fatigue had let slip the cultured English accent.  There was a ringing in Robert’s ear, making the question incomprehensible.  Damn it, the actor had clouted him hard.

“It was a draw, I think.  You’re getting slow, Mr. Flynn.”

Slow? Robert thought.  He’d barely been able to see the darting motion of the man’s hands in the shadowed parking lot.  Had it been any darker, the actor would have destroyed him entirely.

Larry leaned both unresisting men against the fender of a Packard sedan, where they could stare dully at the lights of the Zinnia while remaining somewhat unseen in their beaten bloody appearance.

The bouncer considered them, Robert with one elbow over the ribs the actor had pounded with such precision, and Flynn, who kept spitting blood.  “Hospital,” he announced.  “We’ll get a car for Mr. Flynn.  You?’

Fitzgerald had no idea.  Neither he nor the Pyles could afford a stay in hospital.

“Cab,” Larry said decisively, and strode toward the lights.

It left the two men alone.   Robert wanted to let his legs give way and sink to the ground, but that would only mean the giant would have to pull him to his feet again, and Fitzgerald imagined that would provide a new ration of pain, so he leaned more of his weight against the car.

“You did splendidly,” Flynn managed to say, though at about half the speed of his usual manner of speaking.  “You have fought before.”

“Far from here,” Robert allowed, his speech also altered, in his case by the swelling of the muscles that moved his jaw.

“Why the girl?” the actor inquired, painfully half-turning toward Fitzgerald.

“I mugh…might ask you the same thing,” came the carefully enunciated reply.

At that, the Australian smiled impishly, the effect of his charm somewhat altered by the blood on his teeth and the split lip.  He cheerily offered a coarse answer regarding the enthusiasm a very young woman brought to the marital act.


Robert punched him again.


Editor’s note: check out Henry Vogel’s “The Gift,” the winner of the Heroes contest, and Gene Kendall’s “The Problematic Journey of Mr. Scratch,” the winner of the Villains contest, and then cast your vote for who should triumph here.

Photo by shankar s.